The desert wind picked up as the weak sun’s rays hit the side of the mesa. The dozen women sat at the edge of the rim, chanting into the wasteland which spread out below them. They looked as old as the mesa. In fact, they were barely into their sixties. When the chanting ceased, an old man climbed out of the low composite metal shed behind them and crossed the cool sands to join the line of women.
He sat quietly for a moment and spoke with an uncertain voice. “They say the Rhizome has completed its task. They say a new world awaits us.”
The women looked at one another, disturbed. “What news is this? How can we have a new world? Were not the arks a failure? How could the arks have traveled to a new world with such oceans of space to cross?”
“I know not how so quickly a new world beckons us. The message is an invitation. Shall we leave this place and go to a new world, or stay and perish?”
He did was not looking at the women, but out to the barren valley where it had not rained in over a century. The trees has died of thirst, the few insects had eaten what leaves remained, and even the dead, white trees had long since been burned for fuel. The climbing sun was already whipping up vortexes of dust in the distance.
The oldest woman spoke, her voice a cracking whisper from the recesses of her woven shroud.
“Three days ago, we found a band of men traveling with composite panels. They had been mummified by the sun and fell as they walked. We followed their trail back to a the ruins of a village. The people who had lived there had been killed, and their bones were scattered around the corroded remains of the communal heatplate. The marauders had cracked the bones of the young to suck out the marrow. “
“We cannot go. We have made our peace with the Creator, and we, like the rest of life, shall die here. We have had our time.”
Kerwin sat on the concrete floor of the small meeting room and goggled in a mixture of fascination and horror at DC. “Do you realize what you are proposing?”
DC shifted uncomfortably. “Of course I do. I never said this was a great idea or a comfortable idea. Really, it’s only palatable when you consider the alternative. But listen to me: a few days ago, amid the horror and revulsion, I felt a hope that I have not felt since I could read. Do you not now feel this hope as well?”
The two men sat in silence for awhile. Finally Kerwin spoke:
“Yes, I feel it too.”
“Good. There is a lot of work to do. I will need your help in the committees. I think they will come around. Really, there is no other choice. But cheer up, we have no idea if this thing will work until the moment we turn it on. If our souls are lucky, we may all die yet.”
Feril hummed happily as she adjusted her mask. She swayed with the rhythm and lifted her feet in time. Even here in the communal bathrooms, she could hear the cacophony from the streets. Samba bands, street performers, chamber musicians. The cracks and booms from the fireworks was indistinguishable from gunfire. Grinning madly, Feril attempted to look at herself in the mirror with a critical eye. Apart from the elaborate feathered carnival mask, she wore only paint and sequins. Her eyes, like her paint job, was red and black with the drugs she had injected into herself an hour before she started painting.
Behind the noise from the street, her arual implants were whispering a loop from a broadcast which had gone out on the Rhizome data networks yesterday: The Rhizome, the last lifeline which held together the shattered ecology supporting human life, was fraying and facing imminent collapse. Feril struck a seductive pose for the mirror and then ran out the door, leaving it open behind her.
Rio was rocked by the throes of a final bacchanal. Feril dove in the riot of flesh and drugs and sensuality to the pounding beat of 10,000 samba drums. She swam with the crowds, most of them as denuded as she, dancing, screaming, fucking, up and down the streets, to the bonfires which burned on every beach and mountaintop. The statue of Christ overlooking the city was overfilled with worshippers. A ring of men in white protected the base of the mountain from the revelers, beating back, often fatally, those who tried to break the line.
After three days of unending partying, an emaciated and fried Feril joined a riotous and massive conga line, which swelled into the tens of thousands as it danced out of the city and up into the hills. The pace of the music quickened, the pounding of feet on the rock matched the beat, and laughing, screaming, embracing, the river of people cascaded over the edge to the embrace of the rocky beach and ocean far below.
A yellow dot appeared at the base of the water recycling unit and by flicking her eyes to it, the yellow dot expanded into a yellow alert circle with a short message in her retinal viewer. Blueberry north is 5 minutes late estimated time of arrival now 0819. Zara sighed, blinked the message away, and stared at the perpetually overcast skies of Jaipur through her 5th floor window. She was going to be late for her meeting.
She sat down on the bed which also served as her chair in the gray concrete and steel apartment. She lifted her slim, brown legs to better admire her sandals. They were the latest models of composite spun steel fabric and vat-grown cork. She'd seen shoes made of leather once, in a museum, back from the days when the farms could keep the limited animal stocks alive. The museum had explained that before these leather shoes, people used to wear shoes almost exclusively made of various hydrocarbons. Unthinkable.
The streets outside were full of pedestrians and heavily armed security. Everyone wore a buisnesslike mask of urban indifference, but there was an undeniable air of barely contained panic. The barbarians at the gates were not nearly as pressing a threat as the barbarians behind the other masks.
China had already disintegrated. When the emergency stockpiles of rice reached critical levels, the nation had exploded as various military commanders seized power and marched on the local silos. The rice had quickly disappeared, and militias of starving farmers fought in horrific, desperate battles with militias swelled from the urbanites fleeing the cities like a sinking ship. Meanwhile, those who could not flee the cities, died. Beijing, Shenzen, Guangzhou, Shanghai became rat infested necropolises, and those who survived did so by stacking the dead in industrial freezers and refrigerators for the months ahead. Those who managed to swim to escape from Hong Kong, rumors said, did not speak of what they left behind.
Zara rode Blueberry to the Rhizome center and a lot of people got off and followed her into the massive complex. The Rhizome had been a response to the Three Crisis, three related perfect storms of war, ecological collapse, and drought. Many had thought it was the tolling of the Malthusian bell. Now, well beyond the brink, people finally understood what the shattering end of civilization would mean.
On the eve of total collapse, governments consolidated and coalesced. Sweeping new powers were granted to any agency which could forestall the apocalypse. Disparate and formerly adversarial groups of developers, scientists, engineers, and officials turned to the digital networks and expanded it to encompass and account for the entire planet. Water systems, energy systems, the flow of vital elements such as nitrogen and phosphorous and carbon, cultural attitudes and social networks. The ultimate hybridization of the biosphere which revolved around the activities and needs of mankind, a network without a center, the Rhizome.
"The data from Kashmir is solid, although we have had some problems with tampering in Uttar Pradesh." Zara was speaking to a small group of engineers and a few administrators in a small, but clean concrete room not dissimilar from her apartment. Her retinal implants filled in ghosts of the engineers who had logged in early. The latecomers populated a long list at which hovered near the ceiling. In the middle of her, and everyone else's view, floated a single word: Nitrogen.
While Zara went into more technical detail about localized nitrogen cycles, Suki, one of the ghost attendees, a transfer a phosphorus storage group in China, called up the background information Zara had assembled for the presentation. Apparently the were using similar riparian and atmospheric sensors to monitor nitrogen flows, and a network of soil sensors.
Suki's attention returned to the meeting as Zara sent everyone a hologram of the tampering. Suki was immediately standing on a rocky plain. There was a bit of lichen on the rocks, it looked like, and a few sickly looking trees. Mountains loomed in the distance. In front of her, a metal square with a small communications nub marked the location of the buried sensor. A man strode into the view. He was filthy, wrapped in a coarse woven garment of some kind, possibly hemp or linen. With a heavy stick, he wordlessly attacked the sensor, digging at the edges, until he wrenched the stake-like probe from the earth and walked out of view. He wore two human skulls with rope threaded through the eye sockets at his side.
“Unfortunately,” Zara concluded, “it looks like we have lost the majority of central Asia.”
“Which story would you like, my love?” mama asked Kiki. Illuminated by the dim light of the glowboard, Kiki lay back in her hammock and looked precociously thoughtful. The cool ocean breeze ruffled through the curtains and up through the passive cooling ventilation system in the concrete vertical neighborhood. Mama bit into an apple and waited for a reply. Her gaze fell on the grove below the window, which provided much of fresh fruit for her neighborhood. She did love apple season.
“I know! The apple story!” Kiki looked expectantly towards mama.
“Face, show me the text of the apple tree.” Mama waited as pigmented molecules in her right eye grouped and dispersed with faint flickers of moduled electricity, changing the corneal display from 19:35hrs 7 10 1974 to the single word: The Apple Tree.
It was hardly necessary. This was Kiki’s favorite story and mama nearly had it memorized at this point. Mama began to read as the words scrolled across the face of her eyeball:
Once upon a time
there was a big apple tree filled with caterpillars.
For a long time, the caterpillars were happy, eating the apples, and crawling around the tree.
Then, some of the caterpillars got greedy.
The greedy caterpillars started eating the leaves of the tree, and they burrowed into the trunk of the tree, looking for the sweet sap they loved.
“Mama, why were those caterpillars so greedy?” Kiki asked. .
“Well my love, maybe they didn’t care about the tree,” (small gasp from Kiki), “or maybe they didn’t know how greedy they were being. Maybe they didn’t even know they were making the tree sick.”
The tree got sick and weak from the burrowing caterpillars, because without leaves, the tree could not eat and make many apples.
“What do trees eat?”
“Yes, my love, exactly like houses.”
Without apples to eat, many of the other caterpillars started eating leaves too. This made the tree even more sick and it could not make even make a single apple.
With nothing to eat, the caterpillars started to die.
“Yes, my love, it’s a very sad story. Now hush.”
Because the greedy caterpillars had eaten more than the other caterpillars, they were able to live longer than the ones who had not eaten the leaves or the heart of the tree. They tried to eat fewer leaves and they stopped burrowing into the tree. But it was too late. The tree was dying. The greedy caterpillars were sad about what they did and they felt bad. We shall all die now, they said.
Then, the wise old bee, who had crossed the meadow heard them talking.
The old bee landed among the caterpillars and said, I have a secret to tell you. Although you are all dying, you have a bit of magic left in you. If let me, I will change you so you will be able to find a new life in a new place.
He whispered the secret words in their ears and they all fell fast asleep in their sleeping bags. While they slept, they were changed by the magic of the earth, and they became elegant flying butterflies.
When they woke up, they said let us go find a new life! So the butterflies flew away to the next apple tree, which was still full of apples.
This apple tree was also home to some caterpillars who were busily creeping around, eating the apples. As the butterflies landed, they heard some of the caterpillars say “let us eat the leaves and the sap of this tree!” The butterflies got so mad at the caterpillars that they made all the caterpillars leave the tree so the butterflies could keep it safe and protected. From then on, the butterflies lived happily ever after, eating just the apples they needed.
Kiki was silent for a moment.
“Mama, what happened to the caterpillars in the other tree?” Kiki asked.
“Well, they had to leave. They would have made that tree die too, and then everyone would have been in trouble.”
“Sleep well my little caterpillar”
“But not a greedy caterpillar!”
“Well I should hope not!”
Mama left the tiny room and the proximity sensor dimmed the glowboard so Kiki could sleep. In the spartan living room, Mama sat down in her favorite wooden rocking chair and scanned the day’s news: Tigers had eaten some hikers in Singapore. A wind turbine passenger ship had run into engine trouble in the Atlantic, and it was going to take a week to sail out to rescue the passengers. The local section warned her to keep an eye on the pomegranate trees as they should be reaching peak ripeness, and below the usual updates on the local micro-ecosystems there was a review of a cafe which had opened a few levels above hers. Mama blinked off the newsfeed and headed for the showers.
She murmured a hello to her neighbor as she peeled off her clothes and stepped into the tiled room. She turned on the faucet and allowed herself to be soaked by the warm spray of two cycle water. You weren’t supposed to drink it, but it was clean enough for washing. One cycle was only good for edible crop irrigation, and three cycle was only for hand washing, cooking, and drinking. She automatically shut off the water after a minute and began to lather with the lye soap. She was thinking about her mother.
Her mother had also told her the Apple Tree story. But she also told her different stories. She had been a pioneer, one of the billions of refugees who had arrived here from a dying world. Stories filled with horror and sadness. A dying and tortured planet. Cannibals and savages. The collapse of the Rhizome (unthinkable!). Colonists who perished in the madness of deep space. Dispair.
And then, the Ladder, a gateway to a paradise. The wonderful early days of exploring Eden. The importance of meditation and discipline. The holiness of water, the sanctity of all life. Her mother had told her about the first time she ate an apple, and even then, at the age of 84, the tears of emotion had trickled down her wrinkled cheeks.
The first year of the colony had been rough. The natives who had survived had to be hunted down, but the engineers had done their work well. The Seven Brides had found many more than seven brothers, and the aerial dispersal units reported back a 99.7 percent efficacy. The 0.3 percent of the survivors didn’t survive long. The real bitch had been the reconditioning. The empathy training. The guided meditations. The socratic sessions. In some cases, brainwashing. But those were limited cases. The colonists embraced the new religion with their new life. The cities were already being reconfigured, reworked. This time, they were going to do it right.
Arden unlocked the side door of the train station in downtown Chicago and lethargically traded his hat for his broom. Something strange was in the air. The usually cacophonous streets filled with vendors and horses had been oddly muted. His jangling streetcar had been roomier than usual- he’d even been able to find a seat for once. It was good, too since he felt like he might have been coming down with something. He’d paid a boy on the corner for an apple, and the little snot nosed kid looked a little more haggard than usual. Opening the janitor’s door to the main terminal floor, he sneezed in the dusty, sunlit arrivals halls.
“Hey! Yous kids! You can’t sleep here! Come on now, move on!” The ragamuffins sleeping slumped against the newspaper wall weren’t moving. He poked one with his broom, and the boy fell over like a doll. His head hit the marble floor with a dull thud. The hairs raised on Ardens the back of his feverish neck as he realized that none of them were sleeping. He straightened up in shock, and his eyes settled on a full-spread announcement by some fellow named Henry Ford.