The concrete canyon was eerily quiet but for an ever-present hiss of gritty breeze. Flat, characterless vertical wall rose on either side, cast in shadow for the first hundred feet, despite open sky above. Watery midday sun lit the almost endless gray, traveling up the right-side canyon wall, which turned to glass starting about two hundred feet up. The opposite wall rose only about two hundred feet and was unadorned. Over this wall, hiding the canyon from the new West Coast and a rising Pacific Ocean beyond, the sun peered through the constant gray, hazy sky.
At the base of the buildings on the right side, a canal was cut into the floor. It was filled with a brown/green liquid, sluggish, with an unbroken surface. Fluid stirred there infrequently. When it did, it appeared as if some creature slid through the mire, hidden from view underneath the opaque surface. The squared canal sides were covered in a brown paste, some sort of clinging growth, shining like an oil slick. Periodically, from this brown growth, plant life had sprung up within the canyon, sparse and tough. This was no hopeful flowering road side weed or a field sprung pansy. These growths gave the word “weed” a vicious, territorial feel. These were plants not to be picked, not to be touched. The weeds held a confusing scent bouquet of decay and pheromonal aggression. Best not to wander too close. A prudent pedestrian stayed opposite that side of the canyon, as far from the noisome fluids as possible, wary of even moving within reach of the antagonistic growths.
Furtive, rubber-soled footsteps stirred into the hissing sounds of the wind. A prudent man slunk through deep shadow, sticking close to the base of the wall opposite the canal. Despite the constant breeze, the air was heavy and warm. The man's simple worn clothing was damp with sweat. As he passed briefly in and out of shadow, his lean, unshaven face cast him in his mid-30s. His skin was ruddy from repeated exposure to the elements and made rough, like the canyon’s pock-marked walls, from wind-blown grit. His focus, as he walked, was divided between his feet, stepping carefully over and around fallen pieces of wall and other rubble, and sky, with an anxious, darting eye. He was constantly vigilant to an unseen danger; not nervous, only attentive. Periodically, his right hand would snap to his right temple where his fingers repeatedly touched something under his skin.
The canyon stretched unbroken in front of him as far as his eyes could see, slowly bending left in the distance. The wall made up of buildings on his right was regularly broken by cross canyons, following even deeper canals; these were sea-water sluices, channeling a rising ocean to the West under the buildings and out, away from the City and into the East. Down a side canal, in the middle distance, water poured, disappearing as it dropped under the outer wall of the City, making an un-proportionally small gurgle as it disappeared. These canals held the key to the City’s electricity, its waste management, and its name: Los Àngeles Ahogados, The City of drowned Angels.
He was alone on the canal level of the City and would have been surprised if he had encountered anyone else. His uneven steps sounded alone in breaking up the rush of background wind. Walking was too pedestrian for the People of Means, the PoM, the Elevated, as they were known in the City where all the Angels had drowned. Foot traffic was a sign of the lack of privilege and elevation. Pedestrian could mean common, as in unadorned, unheightened, dull. Or, worse, it could mean rebellious, a sign of traitorousness. Walking was therefore an action that inspired suspicion. To be ordinary, unelevated, was to be a rebel. The lack of will to rise was a crime.
And thus, to be a “have not” was to be a “deserve not”, or even worse, a coveter.
Proud City-sons and City-daughters, having become parents in the heights of their society, warned their children never to trust a have-not.
Stepping carefully over a fallen piece of wall, the man wondered, for the umpteenth time, Where do I fit in? He really didn’t. He was not a City-Son, nor did he serve on the Family's rolls as either servant or wage earner. Strictly speaking, he had no official elevation status at all. He was a true anomaly. Not rich, not poor. He had no public place in the system of castes, cascading down from the top floors to the canyon bottom. And he avoided any private or underground status in the system as well, even though he literally lived underground. He was a remainder in the City's equation, a variable left over in the perfect machinery of upward mobility.
And even though his number was not yet up, even though he was not personally considered by those that calculated the society's math, his number was known, though his name was not. Lone son of Parents who had been accepted from outside, from the poisoned Centerlands in the East, he did not know truly why he was in the City, nor what his lineage prefigured.
He remembered only two things: first, that he had come into the City with his Mother and Father, but not why they had been let in. He wondered why anyone was ever let into the sterilized City from the unclean wastelands outside; and second, he knew that shortly after he had arrived, his parents had died. His Father had fallen from a great height and his Mother had suffered some disease, carried in from beyond City boundaries. So he had been told.
Somehow, he remained alone, family-less, elevation-less, unlooked for and, yet, not unaccounted for. The City knew he was there, just not where and just not who.
He was named Felix, though fortune ignored the legacy of his Latin namesake.
As Felix walked northward, a perpetual breeze moved with him, from the warm southern reaches to the cold northern stretches of the City. Fetid smells wafted off
strange weeds, riding the ever-present dust in the air. The City was structured as a huge convection facilitator, moving air from south to North and up in to a cold sky, back south and down, in a great wheel. In this way, smog and dust were cleared from the City air. Not so the smell of the canals. This, it seemed, could not be moved, unwilling, perhaps, to give up its claim to odoriferous supremacy.
Above the constant dry hiss of the breeze, Felix heard low level humming from transportation shuttles on floors 10 and higher, and hidden machinery in the ground, reminding him to take care for where he walked, keeping in shadow, remaining out of sight, keeping to himself.
And yet, he was never wholly alone. For one, there were satellites, the City Positioning System (CPS), ever-watching eyes in the Sky. Shadows alone, no matter how deep and how dark, could not truly shield him from their penetrating gaze, only from the paranoia that he was being watched by them, despite his precautions. But Felix had hidden himself from the system of eyes, moving almost invisibly under the gaze of the City in his own, manufactured shadow. He itched absently at a small lump under the skin of his right temple, habitually checking to make sure that the mechanism was still activated. He called it the locationer, and he had designed it himself. It disrupted the CPS signal and masked any radiative signature emitted from his cranial implants. It allowed him to move within a sort of blank zone on radar, or digital video, rendering him effectively invisible to the City's autonomous surveillance. He could not keep the device active for too long, however, because it had the unfortunate side effect of causing migraines. And it itched.
He was also never truly alone with the constant stream of data from his brain implants. While he visually monitored his environment, he surreptitiously monitored the City as well. Signals from satellites showed up in his visual field as clusters of distant, glowing blobs, thanks to the hardware in his head. Felix could choose to access a variety of signals at any time. He could read whatever data they contained and could even usurp the energy or signal waves themselves. But access to the signals put him at immediate risk of being located. His implanted computing mechanics would show up as unauthorized hardware to the CPS, and he would be tagged for intercept and processing by the City Military. For this reason, most of Felix' implants were turned off and he ignored the satellite feeds.
As he moved, he also heard periodic snatches of the daily reminders broadcast echoing in the canyon:
“Remember the three ‘R’s: repurpose, recondition, recycle. What City’s purpose are you serving today? What’s the condition of your service? Do you need reconditioning?”
The sweet feminine voice delivering the reminders was as cloying as the death-smells from the plant growths by the canals. A candy coating over a depth of decay. The bitter threat from the City was hardly masked by this woman’s voice.
What’s my purpose today? Felix asked himself. To escape the City's purpose!
The “Three ‘R’s: Repurpose, Recondition, Recycle. Or, more accurately: forced labor, brainwashing, and death.
If you did not quietly live out your undistinguished, un-elevated existence, follow the rules, a rung in the ladder, and all that crap, you might be handed a new purpose by the City. A repurpose. You might be forced to work for the City’s Military, in fact, rehabilitating and maintaining the structures. If caught, you'd be forced to maintain the City’s perimeter walls, either fighting off the Centerlands or repairing outer walls, or machinery underneath the City. In either case, a repurpose usually meant, if not outright death, then an ever-increasing likelihood of injury and death.
Or, you might be reconditioned. Maybe they’d get into your head and poke around, rearrange your priorities. Maybe they’d sign you up to volunteer for further testing. Maybe you’d not go back home. Maybe you’d “serve the greater good”, or “give your body to science.” Many were snatched away for reconditioning, only to return, altered. Sometimes zombies returned, mindlessly carrying out a task or a meaningless repetition of daily activities. Sometimes the reconditioned returned somehow dimmed. As if the fuel line for their soul had been punctured. They lived on borrowed time until they sputtered to a stop for good.
Or you might just be plain recycled. No one seemed to know where the recycling took place or where the bodies ended up. The recycled never came back to tell, of course. It was rumored that they were liquefied in some City tower of great height. Regular speculation always spiraled to grizzly fantasy: they’re making food out of the bodies for rations; they’re fertilizing some sort of plant growth; they’re powering some machine with the bio-fuel, “Soylent green is . . .”.
Someone knew. But Felix did not. City-purposes were nefarious.
Everywhere Felix looked in the City was the sign of the gate. A simple picture of a white gate, in various sizes, often enormous, always etched or burned into the very concrete of the building walls. Its meaning to Felix was plain: the City System, the Group, was the gateway and the gatekeeper to everything. Knowledge, health, life itself, perhaps.
Felix looked to his right as he continued walking, crossing by a side canyon. He could hear a distant gurgling from where the sluice ran under the Eastern wall and out of the City. The constant fluctuations of ocean tides powered hydro electric generators underneath the City, and larger channels funneled waste water out and served to protect the City from the rising ocean. The City enjoyed unending energy while, to the East, its poisoned waters pooled at the edges of almost unending green and brown land beyond.
On the corner of a building marking the left side of a sluice was another sign- this one small and spray-painted- a symbol, faded after years of constant erosion: a stick figure walking. Felix had heard that once upon a time there were diamond-shaped, metal signs on posts standing at regular intervals on broad, wall-less avenues, each showing the stick figures walking. This was before the city was The City. Before the walls. Before the sickness to the East.
He imagined that these signs were once a notice that pedestrians had a protected right to walk. That there were no gates and no keepers to close them. He imagined canyons once filled with people who walked. A noisy, echoing rabble, jostling and bumping, rubbing literal and mental elbows, filling the air with a strong odor of humanity. It would have been a warm odor, he thought, a joy filled rabble. And though his imaginings were warm in his head, a real crowd of people would have filled him with utter terror. Practicing years of solitude, hiding from demarcation by the City, avoiding all places and people that might connect him to the City, Felix new only solitude and fear of anything but. And yet, he was human and he longed for connection he felt he could not have.
The spray-painted pedestrian on the corner of the building was not for nostalgia’s sake. It did not signal the humanity that Felix longed for and yet feared. It was a tag. A mark. A rebellious repudiation of City rules and the rule of The City. It was the sign of the Troglodyte Anarchist, an anti-City group that once stood united, ironically, not against technology itself, but against all regulation, restriction, control and usurpation of the bridled perpetuation of technology. It was, at some point now past, a unique and sole island of independence in a city of hostility. It did not last. It had no real foundation. And as any Cityson knows, a building built on shifting sands . . . The foundation of the TA was made of bored, over-privileged, over-elevated, City-Effing-Sons; whose rebellion was either immature, misguided, underinformed or undermotivated. Motivations and alliances shifted, and the foundation crumbled.
Felix had known some of the members of this soft rebellion, but had trusted only a very few. He did not know whether any still existed. Now it seemed virtually no one was left.
Felix was not a principled rebel. It was not a principle he rebelled against, it was the City. He avoided assimilation into the City-System. Without a guiding group, with others, someone or some ones who envisioned a world without the City, he did not know what else to do. He abided in secretive rebellion to no clear ideological end, beyond survival.
The mark on the building corner had meaning for Felix outside of its status as a gang tag, though not of a symbolic nature. For Felix, the spray painted pedestrian symbol was a landmark. It marked one building among the otherwise identical buildings of a hidden entrance to one structure in specific: the Body building.
Body was one of a handful of buildings with an entrance at canyon-level. These canyon level entrances were kept strictly secret. City code prohibited first level entrance-ways under the upward mobility proscription.
Most buildings had entrances only as low as level ten, to coincide with the maglev bus transportation; some not even that low. In a few cases, enormous buildings were known only to be accessible from the highest floor; a sort of reverse skyscraper. All access to any service or building was predicated upon the entrant’s status. No status, or too little, no entrance. High status, high entrance.
Felix began to count steps from when he first noticed the spray painted pedestrian sign. He passed by another building, another side sluice canal. Forty-seven, forty-eight, forty-nine . . . He passed by a building with rubble piled at its base, spilling into the canal. Plainclothes workers, Wall Maintenance, could be seen high above, hanging from laser-lines, removing sections of the facade and dropping them below. They were too high up to see Felix, though he could easily see them silhouetted against the pale sky. He pressed himself into the wall, a little further into the shadow, out of an abundance of caution. Such workers would neither care if they saw him, nor be able to focus on anything but the task the City had assigned them. Nonetheless, he could never be too careful.
Eighty-two, eighty-three, eighty-four . . . past another painted pedestrian mark, this one on the left-hand wall. He noticed that this one was obscured by scrub marks, but not removed altogether. As if great, though ineffectual effort had gone into scrubbing it from the wall. He wondered why, if it was so important to remove it, they hadn't just removed a chunk of the wall itself. City-purpose.
Ninety, ninety-one, ninety-two, ninety-three . . . All at once Felix perceived a new hum. Unlike the periodic Mag Lev bus transports, or machinery beneath the ground, this hum came from somewhere just behind him and above. It was much more refined, more precise and subtle. Instantly, Felix recognized the sound. He stopped walking altogether and turned slowly, careful to remain in shadow, careful to be as silent as possible. Visual overlay from his implants blipped, confirmed his fears, warning him of a City drone in bright red colors, hovering at a fixed point above and behind him, trying to track him. He noted that the warning had come after he had already heard the drone and wondered why his implants had not noted the drone earlier. Some function needed to be tweaked within the locationer, he guessed. He hoped the City had not grown wise to him. He wondered if the City had grown in autonomy.
The drone hovered about 40 yards above and behind Felix. It had not locked onto his exact position, but it seemed to be centered generally on his whereabouts. It did not truly know he was there, but it suspected, in as much as a mechanical drone could be said to have a suspicion. Otherwise, it had no reason to hover and scan where it floated. It was roughly the size and shape of a basketball. It was made of some plastic/metal polymer blend, light and strong. The bottom hemisphere of its orb rotated back and forth, scanning visual and non-visual wavelengths of energy. Felix did not move. At this point, the drone was close enough to locate him by sound alone, the dampening effects of the locationer notwithstanding.
The drone’s scan field slid over Felix without pausing. The locationer hummed away in Felix’ head, jamming wavelengths of light emanating and/or rebounding off of him, disrupting radio and datalogical signals that might ping from his cranial implants and filtering his body heat, his biological odors and any sound he made, rebroadcasting all the data as aural and digital background noise. Yet the drone did not move on. This one was suspiciously attentive to Felix' location. Someone or something had tipped it off.
It was a standoff. Felix could not move, knowing that his movement, however slight, and any noise he made, however quiet, might allow the drone to locate him or to decipher his pattern among the broadcast noise. He knew also that a minute but deadly laser was mounted in the middle of the sphere. He had seen it in action, a visual he wished he could forget. At twenty feet, the laser could cut a person to ribbons. No blood though: that was almost the most unsettling aspect. It cauterized as it sliced. Making for easy clean up. At forty yards, the laser would burn him wherever it pointed. Even if it couldn’t or didn’t kill him, if it located him it would alert The City. More drones, or perhaps the Military itself, would arrive and take him. He would likely be killed on the spot. Perhaps they wouldn't even collect his body for recycling. Then again, once they knew what he had in his head, they might want to take him apart and find out how he ticked.
Felix had no choice. He had to access the CPS Network and hack the drone to disable it. To do this, he needed to turn on a part of his implants that would immediately signal his position. This part, the external signal transfer and transmit module, or E.S.T2M., better known as stem or stemware, allowed Felix to transmit and intercept a variety of digital and other signals from and to implanted computing devices in his brain. It also acted as an intermediary between the digital world and the meat computer in his head. But by turning on his stemware, Felix effectively drew a digital target on his own head. This was the catch.
The CPS worked via satellite interface, coordinating all City-wide systems. Given the large number, and the high activity level of CPS satellites, Felix knew the system would find and identify him quickly once his stemware was activated. Hundreds, maybe thousands of satellites actively pinged the City, querying system purposes, identities, etc. Any one satellite that pinged his stemware would receive a blast of meaningless data; subterfuge to delay the CPS, a last line of defense created by Felix. The satellite would then have to send the meaningless data on for analysis to the Hub before taking any further action, marking the location of the stemware and labeling its signal as questionable. This would at least buy Felix a few seconds. But it would lead, nonetheless, irrevocably to his capture and, inevitably to his death, without some intervening action.
The analysis of the meaningless data would not produce any identification, but the City’s system would easily identify it as unauthorized and, using location data, it would quickly send drones, the military and/or the so-called kill-code.
All of this frenetic activity would take a mere few seconds. The relay of signals to and from satellites, Felix’ stemware and the City system, would occupy a fraction of a second. For instance, it would take the CPS roughly 1/79th of a second to query the system for satellite and drone location data and another 1/158th of a second to send the kill code to the drone nearby and/or to send more drones to his location. All told, after receiving and analyzing his data blast, identifying his stemware as unauthorized, querying and receiving location data and sending the kill code, the City could have him located and killed in maybe 4 seconds. He had no choice. And he had so little time.
With a long near-silent exhale and a simple thought, Felix turned on the stemware. Immediately the air around him lit up through his visual feed with colorized signal and code streams. Other strings of data, a myriad of colors and textures, lit up the entire sky.
Finding the drone code was easy. He recognized it immediately as a kind of thin, gray twine of data. Like an ethereal ribbon, arrow straight, bouncing from the sky to the drone over his head and back out again. Striping the sky, similar gray strings crosshatched the City. There were even a few drones relatively close by. To the North was an ever-present, enormous digital glow, emanating from some part The City, morphing through color after color in a pulsing array. It was curious in a deep and penetrating way that both fascinated and greatly disturbed Felix. He had seen it before and it had always exerted some pull on him. But it was stronger now. In fact, it was stronger every time Felix beheld it. And it frightened him. It felt like it saw him.
With an exertion will, Felix pushed back at the coalescing colors, mentally looking away from it.
The string of code from and to the drone above his head had changed color from a light gray to a smoky pink, indicating a rising alarm/query state. Felix mentally dove into the now gray-pink signal string and followed it down into the drone itself. 3 seconds left.
Query: positioning anomaly, the drone was broadcasting, over and over. Enough of these unanswered queries and the CPS would allocate further drone resources to investigate.
He quickly cut off the query broadcast from the drone. The lack of signal for a few short seconds would remain within the acceptable guidelines for from/to drone/satellite signal loss. But only just those few seconds. He cut off the satellite signal to the drone. 2 seconds left. This dropped the drone into immediate signal seeking mode (sending out random pings looking for linkup with the satellites). This allowed Felix to send the drone a new signal from his stemware, this one spoofed as a CPS command line:
Answer query: anomaly: redefine anomaly specs: await software update . . .
The drone returned to a non-seeking status above Felix' head, waiting for an update signal which would never come. Felix shut off his stem. 1 second to spare.
The drone remained in static status, and would remain so, hovering in its present location for approximately 30 seconds. The CPS would send it no update, and the drone would broadcast a software fault and return for maintenance. By the time the drone was scanned and reinitialized, and if a very clever technician analyzed the drone diagnosis, it might be found that the drone had been tampered with. By that time, Felix would be long gone.
The drone shot off into the sky above Felix and banked to the North, toward the Military buildings and the pulsing glow.
Felix let out a long, held breath and stretched his neck to both sides, hunching his shoulders. He began to walk again.
Not long now.