The Continent hungers to be realized. Each day adds a new increment to the frontier,” I said, “and behind that expansion is the flux of towns darkening into cities to be threaded along newly spun highways. We will put up the mountains. We will lay out the prairie. We will cut rivers to join the lakes.” This year’s externs had arrived, and I gave them my orientation talk.
Seated about the displaybank before me, they flipped through intro folders. Clean frames of pure color, these were an electric, metal blue—the color of the company. We were just a bank when they had selected the color, back before the opportunity came to erect the Continent. I informed the externs that a more ambitious development has never been planned: all-new country, elevated and secured from downstairs, with a growing complement of landforms, clean waters, ecologies, wilderness. From what I’ve always understood, too, the Continent is still in the earliest phases of its construction. Two, maybe three, lifetimes may go by before substantial completion can be declared. But the Continent is too far along now and too valuable to be abandoned.
Faces above the displaybank followed me around the room.
“We are alive at a crucial moment in the course of this project,” I continued. “It’s a voyage of generations. Our company has leveraged itself many times over to carry the design even this far.” Mine was a message they had heard their whole lives. If not at home, then on the wireless; if not discussed in classrooms, then rumored in dormitories. They must understand that our work at the Activities Estimate, their work now, contributes significantly toward the Continent’s fulfillment, one day at a time. But who at age twenty will readily consider the scale of time required to complete our project?
Twelve came fresh from the regional academy. The thirteenth was older, retraining after a tour in the field. He was maybe Vivian’s age, so not quite old at all. He wore his hair wilderness length and had shaped a blond beard to reach from his smile to the open collar of a dark plaid shirt. They listened in earnest. Solid authority is celebrated up here. Often our externs are the children of subscribers who took out financing to move here, so they’re required to work for the company in some capacity, like civil service. Some are new employees of the company who officially reside downstairs. You don’t hear stories about pioneer grandparents who came up when the parts that are supposed to be Michigan and Illinois opened. The beautiful youth who grow up on the Continent, if they work for the company at all, become soil technicians or aquarists and rise to regional VP commissioners or principal scientists. Our own young men and women will sit at displaybanks like this one and wield vast sums of data to reconcile the Continent to its investors and the world.
“The work we do offers the only measure by which the Continent can be evaluated,” I said, cueing Joost. “Without our work, the company gropes blindly.” The Activities Estimate rose across the displaybank. Before each extern, case documents served up like a meal. I backed away as Joost and Erin Vesey came forward to take over from me. Eight weeks out of the year we had externs in the bureau, and it fell on Joost to coordinate them. He assigned their portfolios. The externs dealt only with the smaller, better towns, some still in their first generation. Less than six-thousand, seven-thousand subscribers. These consisted of new buildings with hot water and good, efficient equipment. A few even had historical downtowns. Modest but novel entrepreneurs flourished. Retail was lively with small local businesses and one or two major international brands from downstairs. Entertainment came in different formats. Meaning happy people. Meaning no incidents. Easy work for externs. Of course the happiness of these towns was no less essential to the sustainability of the Continent.
“Good luck to each of you.” And I meant it.
Joost read off towns to which the externs were to tune. The man from the field was named Everett, and his assignment was a place called Venusberg, way down south where they were jacking up mountains into place. The start of Tennessee or thereabouts, I think. I watched him enter the name into his displaytop. Artificial light warmed his full blond beard. It looked like not so long ago his nose had broken.
Successful externs work quickly to grasp the Activities Estimate and all its tools. They correspond with commissioners and field observers to learn how things are on the ground. They study how towns are administered, how they are structured, what they contribute locally and Continentally. Some settlements are so small, so remote, they are universes unto themselves. As Joost introduces new tools or new ways of approaching scenarios, complex techniques become more applicable. Ethics are introduced in the context of Continental policies. Most externs can cite Dymond and Balboa. They know A Horizontal Babel by Ober and the latest Monica Helix arguments, the ones about designing indigenous communities for the frontier. Something usually happens to ruin an extern’s assumptions. A house fire kills a mother and a daughter. The collapse of a flyway pancakes a team of construction workers. Even rarer, a small incursion from downstairs. Terrorists strike at symbolic targets from time to time. Smugglers move contraband up and downstairs, feeding the parallel black markets. Joost allows externs emotional and mental space to adapt. Some cannot. Which externs are capable of continuing to work within the Activities Estimate is quickly evident.
During our weekly meetings together, Joost discussed the externs with me. Two were exceptional this year, he thought. One had an executable autobiography written in Buffalo. When Joost asked why he had chosen Buffalo, Nathaniel said that it was because among the languages permissible for publishing within the Activities Estimate, Buffalo was the best for detailing abstract emotions. The Activities Estimate tends to attract inward people.
“Take a look at this one, too,” said Joost. “Everett came from Environmental Integrity. He was stationed on the frontier four years, patrolling the part we’re calling Wisconsin.”
“The broken nose?”
“Older than the others, yeah.”
Joost allows externs emotional and mental space to adapt. Some cannot.
Everett had been pushing a lot of the figures for new construction at Venusberg. The town was way out there, but it burgeoned. A steady stream of new subscribers. There wasn’t much to his submittals. Our assets on the ground were still limited. To get a town going for us took some time, and Venusberg was relatively young.
“Everett started a little behind everyone else and he’s fallen further back, I think. There might be a little reluctance on his part because of the transfer.”
I said, “There’s a known problem mixing former frontierspeople into design and ops. It’s too hard to go behind the curtain. How did he transfer to us?”
“That’s just it. The transfer issued directly from Trevor Rus.”
“Shit,” I said. “Then there are no questions to ask, Joost.”
Trevor Rus was everywhere. He interfaced with the whole company, from the janitors to the town commissioners, all the way up to the Directors and their Board. He was the face of the company, a presence so ubiquitous as to require neither name nor mark. Not even a tiny logo stamped microscopically on the leaves of our trees. Internally, he played the reckoning angel. He came once for Darcey, my company wife, and she had to go. I wondered if Everett had also traveled on the special service sandwiched inside the Continent, a rail-like system that’s more bullet than train. It moved company assets and resources as quickly as the Activities Estimate moved our eyes and ears. The Continent remains a wilderness for subscribers with the company whisking its people invisibly beneath the horizon.
“Everett stays. Can Nathaniel tutor him?”
As he stood up, I reminded Joost that Trevor Rus can’t know any better. He only knows what’s necessary for the Continent.
On Friday nights, I rode the shuttle to the port of entry. Wearing subscriber clothing, as many people from the Pyramids do on the weekends, I gave my name and password at the stiles. If I knew how to code in Buffalo I would describe the moment of seeing Vivian there across the lot, leaning against the silver light post in her flats, her patterned black leggings, her great gray coat with leather hooks and wooden buttons. She wore the black sunglasses then in fashion with subscribers because of the UV at this elevation. The sun reached her through the parking lot. Red-blond hair curled in a nebula behind Vivian. A rule of ours: no kissing in public. We shook hands, we spoke formally, at least near the port of entry.
Vivian and I were never official for four reasons. One was Darcey. Our request to be reunited was still pending, after years. Neither of us had ever canceled it, so far as I knew. I had not. Two, Vivian was a subscriber, a graduate student at the company’s regional academy. As a bureau chief, I really had no business dating a subscriber who paid good money for her quality of life. To her I should have been as thin as air. I should have been appreciated out of sight, like plumbing. But Vivian handled species migration to the Continent, work that brought her into contact with a lot of design and ops people, even the Activities Estimate. Three, she had a thing for company contacts, and I knew a few of them. That’s how we met. And four, the delicate little light we shared now felt unusually larger and more magnificent than it should have, as if a younger and brighter universe hid within our daily lives. Downstairs, the Continent is continuously advertised. One famous video is all pewter-and-white film, a collection of scenes with a lot of people presumably traveling up to the Continent. A man boards an elevator. A woman in high heels steps onto a helicopter. A tiny expensive jet takes off. It was like all that with Vivian and me.
Enclosed in her car we caressed, my hand on her cheek, Vivian’s lips at my ear.
When Darcey was transferred, her whole economic development team was redeployed to the other end of the Continent. Who was she without her work? she had asked. I had the option to give up my bureau, but who was I without the Activities Estimate? “I’ve been so short with you these past weeks,” Darcey said in the company car that took us from our place in the Pyramids to a distant corner of the campus. At the edge of the woods, a long hillside rose up from the forest. One side had a flat glass façade.
Grasses all around had gone to seed. I pushed a cart of her luggage into the lobby of the station where agents took it. For security reasons, I could not continue with her beyond this checkpoint, the agents said. At the lip of a staircase that fanned down to the special service system, surrounded by the rest of her economic development team, Darcey turned to hold a hand up toward me. I only signaled back.
Everything happens for the best on the Continent, we believed together.
Joost coordinated weekly presentations for the externs in a dining room off the canteen. They ate at solid terrazzo tables under a polished ceiling element. The day I ate with all of them, this ceiling loomed its fractal geometry above presentations by Erin Vesey, our lead programmer, and Matthew Vowell, legal counsel in the bureau. The ceiling appeared to listen in on our lunch. Externs Sophie, Boyce, Li, and Darwin sat with me. Everett joined too. I remembered Paul Reiss aloud. Jesus. I told them all what it was like when Paul led the bureau, when I was just an analyst. I have tried to keep some of his traditions, but it has been years and years. I said, “It’s probably not interesting for you to hear about the past. When you’re young, you don’t really see how life keeps hurtling you along. There is no place to rest.”
At the next table over, Joost was between Nathaniel and Erin Vesey, laughing about the macaroni salad sprinkled with tiny colored dicings. I overheard Erin say, “It will be another ten years before the food is entirely figured out.”
After the lunch we traveled the long way back to the bureau, across the skybridge, along the windows, not on the moving walkway. With Sophie and Darwin and Everett, I brought up the group’s rear, all talking about the north. Joost stopped them along the windows midway across so everyone could have a look at the grounds. Some distance out, men were working from a white boom lift. Where the browned-out meadow met the treeline, at the beginning of the forest that cloaks the Pyramids campus, they were inspecting trees. One was a surgeon with a chainsaw extended into the canopy of an alder. The subtracted branch fell in silence and bounced as if the ground were a mattress. Joost told them how expensive this particular forest is. From right to left, traveling across the glass in front, came and went the reflections of figures on the moving walkway.
Sophie said to us, “There are trees now that allow you to select pretty much what form you want ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road.”
Everett shook his head at the idea of destiny trees.
As the group started off over the second half of the skybridge, I saw Joost let everyone file by. Finding myself beside Everett, I asked, “Did they ever work on the trees where you were?”
“It was live and let live,” he said. “It’s one of the older parts of the Continent, and now it’s a preserve.”
“But they’re all real trees, you said? No designer trees?”
“We have the real trees up north. Old ones so dense you can climb them and walk from tree to tree, as easily as you go between the buildings here with the skybridges linking everything. I know they have been up there for a long time. My own specialization is the watercourses and lake-like bodies feeding the trees.”
The delicate little light we shared now felt unusually larger and more magnificent than it should have, as if a younger and brighter universe hid within our daily lives.
Then Joost was with us. We walked well behind the group.
“Those lakes are pretty realistic,” Joost said. “Aren’t they, Everett?”
“They are real. There are real fauna too. Birds, reptiles, fish, mammals, insects, real everything, down to the bacteria and algae.”
I said if it were so real, I would have to move up there myself.
“You can’t. That’s just it. The land is a preserve. That’s how this happened,” Everett said, touching his broken nose. “A group of surveyors came. They were lost, I think, and their site specs were all wrong. I confronted them, physically. Which was wrong. They worked for the company. Which was why they moved me here, I think, as a temporary punishment.”
“Sometimes the Continent asks you to sacrifice,” I said. “As the Continent holds us up, we are called on to hold it up.”
He and I followed Joost around the terminus of the skybridge where escalators carried our colleagues off into the upper floors. Flush against the window-wall hung the mezzanine, a floor between floors, home to our bureau. The externs marched up the cantilevered stairs as if boarding a vessel. I watched Everett return to his dark displaytop. Before him wrinkled colors and shapes and words that made up Venusberg.
What happened was beyond prediction. Early in the morning, Everett’s voice punctured the bureau. “No,” he shouted from his seat at the displaybank. “This can’t be happening.”
I came out to see all heads raised, work chandeliered indeterminately, mid-thought on the displaybanks. People in the mezzanine were looking up toward us. No one ever shouted in our bureau. Everett scrolled forward and back through his overnights.
In Venusberg, the overnights read, a seven-year-old boy, Joey B., had come into the Venusberg Care Clinic with an illness resembling advanced influenza. His condition was critical. The two doctors in town, a Donald Schuykhill and a Frances Deveroux, had agreed on the diagnosis. They signaled to the regional VP their desire to transport the boy to a city with a larger medical facility via special service. Everett captured part of Deveroux’s audio from the displaytop, “We have a clinic here with only fifteen beds. This town is three-thousand eight-hundred and twenty-seven souls.” The company rejected their request.
Erin Vesey went around the bureau, putting people back to their work.
“I don’t see what the trouble here is, Everett,” Joost said, his voice steady. “Just code it a “medical alert.” The next category tier was epidemic.
Deveroux appealed the decision. Everett and I read the VP’s rejection, which came with a reference to the Subscriber’s Agreement subsection on “at-risk” communities on the frontier. Like so many of these new settlements and towns, Venusberg was remotely placed. Small town life set in the robust wilderness appeals to the top subscriber market. Because of its remoteness, highways were still some distance on provisional roadways. They had no airfield. No hospital. The company would not break the realism of the Continent. No concession for Joey B.
Everett asked to code the correspondence between the town and the company, but Joost raised a hand. “No, all that stays out. This will run its course.”
I touched Joost at the elbow to let him know that I would lead, but before I could start up, Everett said, “We were on our own up north. I don’t think anyone ever expected help from the company. But this is for a boy, and it’s the doctors asking.”
“There’s a lot of reluctance to use the special service, you know,” I stated.
Everett’s fingers coaxed his beard. He said, “I traveled on the special service, when I transferred cross-Continent. They moved me for my own good, I heard.”
A second patient, the boy’s aunt, appeared the morning of the second day. We caught the exchanges flurrying between the town commissioner, the regional VP, and a few offices even above that. Outrage manifested in Venusberg. More patients came into the Care Clinic. Satellite photography late in the second afternoon picked up large piles of debris spelling out the name JOEY with an incomplete delineation of HELP. “Oh no,” Everett said, sorting these. The two or three people he had on the ground began worrying. Anxiety spiked. While Schuykhill worked with the influenza victims, Deveroux began agitating. She made noise. “Where do we live?” read one sign she held up to the street cameras. “Why won’t you help us?” read another. She raised flags. She kicked up dust. Her organized following took off just in time for Joey B. to die in the Venusberg Care Clinic.
Everett coded diligently, trying to order Venusberg for the Activities Estimate. “What can we do for them?” he asked.
“The Activities Estimate only sees, hears the Continent. We cannot do.”
“How can I enter that the company is just not responding? How can we represent the trauma people are experiencing? I’ve experimented with different code and tags.”
Joost frowned. “Please don’t try that. Venusberg could adversely affect the company’s pricing any way we code it. But novel interpretations sure might make things worse.”
Everett suffered, I could tell. He would not go home.
Sixth and seventh patients entered the clinic on the third day. Schuykhill diagnosed himself with the influenza. This was the end. The town commissioner disappeared. The administration began to decompose. Families fled out onto the prairie. Then Deveroux’s protestors raided and burned the Continental Bank branch. This at last brought out the company troopers—via the special service—to read everyone the Subscriber’s Agreement. He watched troopers from satellite, from a few surveillance points. Anonymous riot helmets, translucent shields stood in dusk light. Quarantine was imposed.
“Goddamnit,” Everett said, hands on his head. “We broke the rules anyway. But instead of breaking them earlier to save Joey, they sent in police to shut Venusberg down.”
“That’s how the Continent goes sometimes.”
I walked Everett to the edge of the mezzanine near the window-wall. I leaned against the rail with my back to the sun. We stood close to the glass, where it was possible to look up the slope of the entire building, floor after floor of design and ops studios, all working on the construction of the Continent.
“I hope, Everett, someday very soon if not right away, you’ll find yourself working as an analyst. Maybe you’ll have your own listening post.” I imagined a facility surrounded by prairie grass, collecting from new towns along the frontier. “That’s why you’re here at the Pyramids.”
“I’m here because I have to be, if I want to stay upstairs. I had to come.”
If you’re not a subscriber to the Continent, there is always the hazard of deportation—downstairs—even for established company members like me, like Darcey. I said I always worried about being let go.
Everett said, “They moved me to the Pyramids, but they won’t move a sick subscriber, a kid?”
“They moved my wife away too,” I explained. “We’re pieces of the Continent, its instruments.”
Passion softened Everett’s big eyes.
“Look, this is a romantic period. Growth depends on the romantic power of the Continent. Do you remember Monica Helix in Design Principles for Truth in Wilderness?” It had been a long time since Environmental Integrity classes, maybe too long for her theories of a protected transit infrastructure supporting a super-landform.
“I’d like you to succeed here, Everett.”
When you’re young, you don’t really see how life keeps hurtling you along. There is no place to rest.
We returned to the displaytop, brought up the case materials. We did the entire case through four o’clock that day. Deveroux surrendered herself. The commissioner ordered everyone to shelter in place for the duration of the quarantine. The company was interviewing and evaluating residents, worried about a subscriber revolt. No further deaths came. I coded a vigil underway with all the suffixes and tags I knew to communicate unity and well-wishing.
The case saved, locked, and dissolved into the displaytop before Everett. I put my palm against the warm sculpture of his back. It was almost evening now, so I suggested he take the rest of the day for himself. Maybe tomorrow too.
“Who will monitor Venusberg?”
“The logs will have everything for you in the morning.”
Everett put on his coat. He straightened his cobalt tie.
We walked down from the Mezzanine and across the lobby to the little plaza outside the Pyramids where shuttles run to the port of entry and transit hub that goes to the housing blocks of the pop-up charter city we called Soon City.
“On cases like this, we often work in teams to preempt misinterpretations,” I said. “It’s not easy to stay objective on your own.”
Everett looked at me from the corner of his eye. In profile, the bridge of his nose bent drastically. The shuttle’s electric motor whirred. Then we were moving, the two of us alone in the enamel white and air-conditioned chamber.
“Why not record events in the Activities Estimate just as they come in?” he wanted to know.
“I like information a lot. Probably the way you like a well-planned lake up north.”
“So why warp it?”
The shuttle crawled counterclockwise around the plaza. The sky previewed evening.
“What’s helpful for you? I think of it as a wall or a building going up, not unlike everything here at Soon City. Each day gathers another layer of information about the Continent.”
Everett soured. “Then what lives in the building? What does the wall protect?”
“OK, take for granted that it’s a parallel realm of infinite data. We could keep on building it forever with richer levels of realism. Like the Continent itself, right? The two are inseparable, almost, except that the Activities Estimate is the clean copy. If everything is known to be going smoothly here, continued growth is assured. Value escalates.”
Everett made no acknowledgement. The shuttle entered the dense forest that wraps the Pyramids campus from outside view. I think the existence of the Pyramids nearby is widely known throughout Soon City, but it remains at some distance, shelled in these woods. The Continent has many such built-in illusions. Now we were speeding up over the barren and unplanted moor, pulled toward our destination rather than propelled. I braced one elbow against the upholstered wall. I said, “Think about the investors and subscribers. Think of the waiting list full of people hoping for a place like Venusberg.”
Everett only stared into the moving distance.
When the shuttle arrived at the transit hub, near the port of entry, Everett stood to get off. As he did, I moved to tell him to take tomorrow too, if he needed it. Through the open doors, Everett said: “Can you help me transfer back north?”
The shuttle turned around empty.
The weekend before I was to file Everett’s request, which would invite some risk for me, Vivian took me away to wash out my head. One of her contacts somehow had placed a little cabin out near an unfinished part of the Continent, and she got it for two nights. Vivian said it wasn’t the frontier proper, but the landscape was that TBD unplanted moor you get a lot of around here. She even drove us out in a sports car she had borrowed from a downstairs friend who kept one place below, another above. From the highway spilled a thin unnamed roadway that wove over the topography. Rain fell all day Saturday, so we stayed in bed. But the Sunday that followed started with a hot, orange sun. Mist crept up from the lawn a while, hiding the unfinished ground, the missing earth where it was possible to plunge into the Continent, possibly falling the whole way through.
I had never driven so far from the Pyramids.
“There’s no one around for miles,” Vivian said, touching her temples. “You can actually perceive it.”
“Originally, Dymond and Balboa had strict rules,” I said, crinkling the map’s digital pages. It zoned this area “Completion Pending.” This wasn’t how the Continent should be seen, and it put me on edge. “There should be barricades,” I said.
Vivian found one of the gaps in the lawn and set one of the cabin’s folding chairs down beside it, like it was a swimming hole. Approaching the gap on my hands and knees, I studied how the landscape made an uneven skin over the structure. Workers would return to make adjustments. They would need to solder somewhere, to align different pieces. Then they would earth it up and meadow over the hole. The Continent would advance.
Seated beside me, Vivian tied back her bright hair. She dropped her ankles into the gap but drew them right out again. “It’s freezing!”
I squatted in the mist.
“This reminds me of four-dimensional dioramas,” she said from the chair. “My students made them this semester for Advanced Ersatz Ecologies. Have I told you about them?”
Another rule held that from time to time, Vivian and I deliberately put each other aside for a few weeks at a time. This made days like Saturday great, but we would forget where we were with each other, what had been said. My hand on the small of her back, for example, Vivian had restated a thought from childhood, that the two dimples there symbolized womanhood. She had said so twice, maybe three times. What else did Vivian forget?
“The dioramas contain an entire day with at least three hotpoints to fly through, all at different hours during the day. I can’t even get over some of the scenes.” Vivian described a capybara trapped in a river, bobbing endlessly up and down, fixed there as if in some underworld torment. And then there was a taiga forest where a storm snowed so apocalyptically it should have smothered the entire biome. The fingers of her right hand had worked into the sod while she spoke. She peeled a hunk of it up and held it in the palm of her hand. Vivian was taken, however, by a diorama about a California-like desert. Tarantulas and lizards lived beneath a series of highway billboards that ran all night long. “You would have thought it was a desperate place, but no. Organisms were thriving by the artificial daylight.”
Vivian extended her arm out over the gap and turned her hand. The sod disappeared into the Continent.
I wondered aloud, “If we were in a diorama for a day, where should it be?”
“Easy,” Vivian said. “A tropical island.” She spoke as if she were already there, her chin up in the air, her eyes closed. The sun lit her throat.
I said that sounded so nice.
“I guess the Continent itself is a kind of island in the air.”
“A beach is what makes the kind of island you’re talking about,” I said.
My diorama, I thought, was Everett’s north. Vivian would pull herself up onto boulders along the shore and shout to me across a cold lake. We would strip naked. We would chase each other between real trees, feet kicking up fir needles as we leapt. We would become expert inventors of fire. There would appear a wilderness camp with timbers arranged around the fire as benches. Children would line the timbers, staring into the fire. They would believe every word of stories about Pyramids and escalators and listening to the acts of strangers miles and miles away. And out in the dark at the edge of the forest, like a ring around our planet, would come Darcey. But I did not discuss.
We had the day. Then she and I packed the sports car at about three o’clock in the afternoon. Big clouds buried the sun. We departed for home in a chalky light. It wasn’t more than a few minutes before we came to the missing piece of road—a portion of land that had been squarely there on Friday. Neither of us spoke. She backed up while on foot I guided the car wide of the gap and onto the road once more. What if it had been raining? What if it had been dark?
“The frontier is a dangerous place,” Vivian said at last.
“I thought this wasn’t technically the frontier.”
Rains did come as we reached Soon City. Vivian parked way out in the lot, where we kissed beneath a dim, mercurial windshield. I told Vivian let’s break the rules. My right hand came up her inner thigh. I would come to her place in Soon City for the night. “There are hard limits,” she whispered. “We have boundaries.” Minutes later I watched from within the port of entry as the sports car dissolved into the rain.
First thing, I had to scramble analysts Tom Huizinga and Catherine Uhle over this terrible highway crash outside Galesville. We have a model that can slow an accident the way molecules at low temperatures decelerate; events crystallize into injury and death and destruction of property. Upcoming places such as this Galesville are regional, stitched to other places by roadways and shuttle routes, hoping for a critical mass of economics, of population. There are no guarantees. The second nature we inhabit on the Continent established vast physical distances, as experienced by people of centuries past, in contrast to the sprawl and knotted highways accrued over time downstairs. This Galesville accident happened inside a mattress of fog on a lonely road between towns. Almost no telling what happened, but Tom and Catherine started working it.
Echoes of voices carried to the mezzanine. I made it to the top of the steps when Trevor Rus appeared at their foot. He was calling me by name, rushing up, shaking my hand. Daylight through the walls of the Pyramid caught in his blue irises. “Gorgeous day upstairs,” said Trevor Rus, joking cheerfully. “Such a view. A-E bureaus often have the best views, don’t they?”
I had yet to complete and file Everett’s request to transfer. After the weekend with Vivian, I had simply forgotten.
Trevor Rus said, “Your bureau has a place called Venusberg in-scope, right? The company observed the trouble thereabouts.”
“Cases like Venusberg come up on the frontier from time to time,” I explained
“Venusberg received a great deal of attention in your submittals, perhaps even too much. Then that all collapsed.”
I saw Erin Vesey raise her left hand in front of her eye, pinching the air with finger and thumb to capture the scene. Our whole bureau looked on.
Trevor Rus pitched his head, a gesture saying let’s talk out there, in the lobby.
You would have thought it was a desperate place, but no. Organisms were thriving by the artificial daylight.
Joost and I joined Trevor Rus across a low hexagonal table of glass and aluminum off to the side of the lobby. We sat in a wedge of amber light. Never had I dreamed of such a conversation. But surely Darcey’s transfer must have begun this way, a friendly communication between company and employee. I couldn’t say. I started out describing Everett on Venusberg. The three days of the influenza medical alert when he would not get up from the displaybank, when he would not go home.
At this Trevor Rus huddled forward, coach-like, elbows on knees. A young, fit-looking edition, he was a warm and alert Trevor Rus with none of the coldness described in complaints I’ve heard.
“Where is Everett now? Up there?”
Joost said, “I have him auditing the other externs now. Taking notes. I took over Venusberg myself.”
“A sad story pre-quarantine. That’s the frontier for you. What’s happening there today?”
Right now, I had no idea. Neither did Joost.
“There are followers downstairs and within the company. There’s interest in the influenza. There’s interest in the doctors, Deveroux and Schuykhill. We’d like to see Venusberg back on the Activities Estimate ASAP.”
“I need to get an analyst working it,” Joost explained. “The hiatus started when Everett wouldn’t code the situation correctly. Then he wouldn’t code at all.”
I said, “Without knowing your original parameters for his re-training, I can’t be certain, but it’s our feeling that Everett’s externship really went off track.”
“Across criteria,” Joost added.
Trevor Rus suggested we get Everett. Joost climbed back upstairs. Cheer quickly darkened out of Trevor Rus.
“Sir,” I said. “I apologize about bringing this up now. I feel very responsible. Everett asked me to prepare a transfer request last week after the incident. I agreed, but here you are today.”
“Good,” he said, hand on the glass table between us. “That’s the plan.”
“He belongs back north.”
Trevor Rus blinked hard. “The area where Everett was stationed has been discontinued.”
I repeated the word.
“Your nose looks healed, Everett,” said Trevor Rus. Recognition coursed over the frontiersman’s face, a brilliance. He sat between me and Joost at the six-sided table. He held a pen and a small spiral notebook at the ready.
“Trevor Rus is here to discuss your externship in the Activities Estimate,” I said. “First I want to tell you, though, that I haven’t had a chance yet to do your transfer request. I let you down. I’m sorry.”
Everett’s eyes searched the three of us for a key to what was happening.
Trevor Rus very sensitively explained that the company approved the transfer request unseen. Again, brilliance. But he continued: Everett would go via special service tonight—to a hydrology outpost at the edge of Oklahoma, where he would assist and support on an aquifer under construction. Trevor Rus said, “It’s really cutting-edge stuff.”
The north of my diorama, the pristine lakes, fir trees.
Everett said, fearlessly, “I guess I had hoped that the transfer request would identify my previous station up north. I’d like to head back there.”
Trevor Rus was peremptory.
“You know, Everett, the Continent makes changes,” he said. “We’re thinking far ahead. Value has been identified in sharing the preserve where you worked with the good people downstairs, opening it to a new class of subscribers, like weekenders, tourists.”
Everett weighed into the sofa. His notebook closed.
“Let me show you,” Trevor Rus said. He unfolded a piece of digital paper from his coat pocket. Searching with a finger through the contents, he played a video for us. A cylindrical glass elevator rose through shadowy orange air, through the superstructure of the Continent to open in a misty forest. A girl and her father exit into sunlight and mist. “In the past we prioritized horizontal expansion of the Continent,” Trevor Rus said. “That’s changing. Verticality is in vogue. The preserve will be the garden terrace of a ladder city.” The girl’s expression replayed in the paper.
“You must have known,” said Trevor Rus. “You must have known that you weren’t patrolling the land to preserve for its own sake.”
This was Everett’s exit interview.
Because I felt more and more responsible for him than ever, that night I rode with Everett off to the edge of campus to the special service. Joost stayed behind. The shuttle buoyed the two of us alone, rolling through rush hour in the opposite direction of the analysts and engineers wanting the port of entry and Soon City. Everett’s face with its broken nose looked down. Twin heavy-duty suitcases angled under his arms. The shuttle slipped into the woods, over a stream, and uphill to the crest of meadow that concealed the arching glass of the special service station’s entrance. I had wanted to see the station again but never allowed myself to make the trip.
Everett said he apologized, said he had let us down with his unwillingness to figure out the Activities Estimate. It was all so different from what he had known.
“Joost and I only want to protect you from yourself,” I said.
That semi-ellipse of glass facade parted to accept us. The capsule of lobby beyond was freezing cold. Sentinel agents in the lobby now steered me through security with him, even without the travel visa he had from Trevor Rus. He was an extern in my custody. I stood at the staircase where I had last seen Darcey. We descended into the Continent’s special service, which was only a thin, illuminated isle of concrete suspended into darkness like a pier into the sea. “The Oklahoma,” Everett told the platform engineer who scanned his travel visa.
“We’ll bring it up,” said the engineer. “Just wait.”
You must have known that you weren’t patrolling the land to preserve for its own sake.
Everett did not know what would happen to him in hydrology.
“You’ll find your way to contribute, I know it.”
“Another move,” he said. “I’ll shave my beard. I’ll cut my hair.”
“To be safe, Everett,” I said. “You don’t have to accept the Continent. You just have to not stick out so badly.”
Everett asked me if I could go to Trevor Rus again for him, get him back north. He said he’d work there, even after the changes. “They wouldn’t trust you,” I told him. “Not with your record. What if hydrology’s really your mission?”
Out of the dark below us began some strange light. The rails of the special service lit everywhere around us, like burners on an old stovetop. The surface whorled continuously in a way that reminded me of fingerprints, running as far into the dark as I could see, an artificial horizon. Everett’s face shone in the orange light, his fractal nose lit. Shadows reached from our feet then withered. It was twilight inside the Continent.
“OK, standby,” said the platform engineer.
The vehicle that came for Everett wasn’t much larger than the shuttle from the Pyramids, but without wheels, without a front or a back. And it spun silently toward us, rotating until it clicked against the pier. A single door opened to the empty car. It came exclusively for Everett.
“Is it difficult traveling like this?”
Everett shrugged. “You feel it much more than you think you would.”
Before he left, I had something for Everett, an old-time gift that came to me from Paul Reiss. It was a 30x loupe in a slate leatherette sleeve. Paul kept magnifiers around his desk to use for studying images, transcript texts. There were printers then. I had selected this from a few other things I thought might work for Everett. Shyly, he accepted the loupe, loaded it into the pocket of his dark plaid shirt.
“OK,” he said with a smile, bags over both arms like wings. “I’ll use it.”
Everett boarded the special service. The engineer told the door to close, and the vehicle floated free from the pier. He had barely the chance to wave before the car rotated from view. I saw that it was not the vehicle that moved inside the special service, but this volume of space positioned the cars from place to place inside the Continent. Everett appeared to fall away from me, like Vivian’s sod, flashing from sight.
I had been the bureau chief at the Pyramids for seven years, yet Darcey and I were still cleft, apart but together, for this greater good of the Continent. I had thought long about our one-page request for re-union, so feeble compared to the vast, invaluable Continent, the last new place on Earth. Now I saw that the special service folded space, collapsed distances. Via special service, by its impossible speeds, could Darcey and I really have been more than minutes apart? A few hours at most? And Darcey would have known after her transfer. The rails dimmed from orange to pink. The horizon went dark.
I shouted to the platform engineer: “As the Continent holds us up, we are called on to hold it up.”
Above ground again, I had no way home but on foot through stirring trees.
Scott Geiger’s fiction has received the Pushcart Prize and a 2012 New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Artist Fellowship for Fiction. He edited Man-Made Lands, a special edition of the literary journal, Ninth Letter, featuring architectural and landscape proposals alongside prose and graphic fictions to explore how storytelling can inform city-making.