“…As an aside, I would like to point out that, had research into tunneling molecular reconfiguration not been halted in the early 2000’s, many of the designs planned for the first arcocities would have been feasible by about the 2050s, and the influences I’ve described that shaped our malls today would have been very different. But that’s a discussion for another report… thank goodness.”
There was polite laughter throughout the auditorium. Decio Pine’s report had been one of the better and more fascinating of the many reports given to the assembly in the past few days, but it had been more than long enough for most of the students there. Decio looked quickly over to his instructor, who was also smiling at his closing comment, said a quiet “Thank you,” and left the podium.
Professor Donald Dwyer, a wiry man with an impressively high forehead and sparse sandy hair, stood up and approached the podium as Decio stepped down from it. As he passed Decio, he whispered, “Don’t go far.” He continued up to the podium, and turned to the assembled students. “On that note, we’ll close for today. Ms. Pontillo, you’re first up tomorrow.” He had to raise his voice a bit to get the last sentence out, as the students pushed out of their seats and headed for the exits.
The Professor exited the podium and found Decio waiting at the foot of the stairs. “Decio… excellent report, son, excellent.”
“Thanks,” Decio nodded.
“I was a bit surprised that you approached the structural analysis assignment as a history report,” Dwyer noted, and they began walking leisurely back towards the Professor’s office. “But you pulled it off better than most. You handled that impromptu debate with Saunders about your analysis base pretty well, too. Do you still think San Dali is the best choice for your analysis base?”
Decio nodded again. “My data supports that conclusion, and even though Aspen is more typical of Arcotecture designs, it was built much later in the period, when most of the experimentation was over with.”
“Mm-hmm. You might want to check the cells on Aspen more closely. I think you’ll find that its final designs were based on detailed studies drafted much earlier than you think. If you check those other documents, you’ll discover dates from the previous century. That design was originally created for a site about five hundred miles north of Aspen’s site, and fully eighty years earlier.”
Decio, who had up to now maintained his composure during his instructor’s examination, visibly sagged at the shoulders when he heard this. “You’re kidding,” he managed to say.”
“No, it’s true,” Dwyer said. “Of course, it’s not referenced in Aspen’s cells… don’t ask me why… but that’s why you obviously didn’t find it. The cells fall under the jurisdiction of the region where the original plan was drafted, but they’ve buried it under an old ‘City renovations’ heading, and it just doesn’t seem to cross-reference into most cell searches. So, actually, Saunders may have been right. Although he doesn’t have this information either.” Dwyer saw the apologetic look on his student’s face, and smiled. “Relax, I wouldn’t have expected you to dig that info up, or I’d’ve had to have you nominated for Sainthood. Just another obscure piece of history for you. Tell you what: Call me after seven tonight, and I’ll send you the connection.”
“Thanks. I’ll look it over, and consider re-presenting my conclusions.”
“Very good. See you tomorrow.” Dwyer gave Decio a friendly nod and turned left down the corridor to his office. Decio, finished with his public classes for the day, continued on in the direction of the auditorium’s recording room, where his report should have been ready to pick up.
A few other students saw him on the concourse, and said good things about the report he’d given. He thanked them, and when he reached the recording room, he was given a chip of his report for his personal cells. The report was already downloaded into Midland’s city cells, for anyone else to access, but it was traditional to give the student a copy on chip, coded and locked to prohibit tampering with or changing the original cell. From the recording room, Decio arranged to have copies of the cell downloaded to his list of friends and relatives who were interested in his schoolwork, from an address list in his sec. Then he pocketed the chip, left the recording room, and headed for the lifts to the residential levels.
In a few minutes, he reached the apartment he shared with three others, another student, and a young couple from Brasilica. The apartment was simply furnished, but he and his roommates were all fairly neat, and the apartment was clean and tidy.
The exception was one corner of the apartment, a makeshift studio where the couple worked on their art. Marta and Izchlan were sculptors, combining the woodworking skill of one and the painting abilities of the other to create wonderful abstracts, busts and statuettes. Decio liked their work (fortunate, since he had to look at it every day), and he expected that someday they would become very popular and successful at their vocation. At the moment, however, they were just getting started, having only recently discovered each other’s talents after discovering their mutual attraction.
Decio admired their dedication to their art, and of trying to add to their standard wage with it. Decio himself hadn’t decided yet whether he wanted to work steadily, or simply live off the standard and take occasional jobs for extra credits. After all, it was so much easier to live off the credit standard, the minimum credit level given to everyone in Midland to pay for all necessities, with a small amount left over for extra items. He had always done odd jobs when he desired something the standard didn’t cover and, being young, had a hard time imagining he’d have to work much harder for the things he’d want in the future. He also couldn’t imagine liking any job enough to want to do it three days each week, half the day, for any amount of time. Still, he knew many people found vocations they enjoyed enough to do every day, and he had to admit that there was an outside chance it might someday happen to him, too.
Andrei, his other roommate, came into the living room. “Hey, Decio! How did the report go?”
“Went great,” Decio said. “Dwyer loved it. He sprung a surprise on me, though: Told me about some data I could have used on my report, after I was finished!”
“Oh, that’s cruel,” Andrei smirked. “He didn’t do it in front of the class, did he?”
“Oh, well, that was pretty nice of him. He must have liked it.” Andrei padded on bare feet into the kitchen, where he opened the cooler and pulled a pitcher of green liquid out into the light. “You gonna give me a copy?”
“I already sent you one,” Decio replied. He followed Andrei into the kitchen and pulled a glass from a cupboard, held it out and waited as Andrei filled his own glass, then filled Decio’s. “Where’s Izzy and Marta?”
“They went out a couple of hours ago, I don’t know where.” Andrei shrugged as he drank from the glass. Andrei was also taking classes, but the others already had him pegged as a “standard” guy. Not that that was a bad thing to be, for there was enough standard credit to go around, and many people in Midland didn’t work. But Andrei seemed to like standard living so much, no one could figure out why he took so many classes, spending by far more hours studying than he would in any job. Decio suspected that, if Andrei ever stopped taking classes, the resultant boredom would force him into finding work within a month.
Once armed with a drink, Decio went into his room and tapped the wall sec with an elbow. “Any messages?” The sec then proceeded to present half a dozen messages to him, mostly relatives thanking and praising him for the forwarded cell of his report.
One cell was from a young woman, about his age, and Decio brightened visibly when he saw her on the screen. She was very pretty, with a sweet smile and eyes almost hidden behind thick lashes. “Hi, Decio. Thanks for the cell of your report. I’ve gotta go to a studio, but I’ll watch it later and call you. ‘Bye-bye.” She was the last message, and Decio allowed a smile to spread over his face. He thought Allyne was the most wonderful girl he knew, and he took great pleasure in making her happy. He thought briefly about Izchlan and Marta, and a familiar warm feeling began to spread throughout his body. But mostly just below the waist.
“Decio, you’ve got a call.”
“Yeah?” Decio put down his gym bag, having just walked in the door. Marta was standing in front of the sec screen in the living room, alternately looking at the screen and him, and giving him a funny look. From the entry, Decio couldn’t see who was on the screen, so he continued into the room to get a better angle.
It was a woman in a peacekeeper’s uniform. That explained Marta’s funny looks, but Decio was pretty sure he hadn’t done anything to get in trouble. The woman smiled when he walked into view, which reinforced his feeling of safety.
“Hi, Decio, I’m San Kepolis. Remember me? I share the flat with your Aunt Felicia.”
That’s why she looked familiar, Decio thought. He remembered seeing her the last time he visited Aunt Felicia. Tall, well-built, sort of outgoing-type. “Oh, yeah… how are you?”
“I’m fine, thanks. How are you?”
“Good, I’m fine. Uh, what can I do for you?”
“Actually,” San replied, “I thought I might do something for you.”
Decio paused, his mouth opening slightly. He didn’t have a clue what this woman wanted with him, and tiny alarm bells were going off in his head. He glanced over at Marta, who had politely stepped away from the screen, but was still loitering within earshot. “Listen,” he said to the screen, “I’m going to take this in my room, okay? Transfer to Decio’s room.” He smiled at San before she disappeared from the screen, then snatched up his gym bag and jogged into his room.
He dropped the bag on the bed and said, “Open the call.” The smaller screen on his wall lit up. San was looking down at something in front of her, and looked up when she was reconnected. “Hi,” Decio said again. “So, you said you wanted to do something for me?”
“Yes,” San said. “You see, when I came home from duty today, Felicia was telling me all about your report. She let me read the copy you sent her. Very well put-together.”
“Thanks,” Decio said.
“Well, it just so happens that a few days ago, an archeological team working on the east coast discovered some old records vaults. I happened to see the cells, and I noticed some references to the Fraternity of Civil Engineers in some of the records they dug up. I thought you might be interested.”
“Wow,” Decio mused. He’d read about the FCE in his classes, usually only as a title attached to someone’s name. “Yeah. What did they find?”
“Hold on… I was digging up the cells when I called you…” San’s eyes ducked down for a few seconds, then came back up. “There. I’ll transfer it to you. There are some private organizational files, some personnel files… but what I thought you’d really like to see, is this.”
Decio saw her do something on her end of the connection, and an image of a paper document appeared on one side of his screen. The title read, “FCE code, Official Characters.” Below that was a date, “09/08/03.” That was followed by three double-columns of characters, a standard AN character on the left, and a cryptic symbol next to each on the right. Decio had to move closer to the screen and squint a bit, to make out the detail on the paper.
Then he took a step back. “Hey… that looks like the FCE fraternity code!” Decio slapped a hand to the top of his head. “It’s the breakdown of the code! That’s great!”
“I thought you’d recognize that,” San said, smiling. “I understand the code was never passed down after the 2000’s.”
“That’s right!” Decio exulted. “They were supposed to be very protective about the code. This is great!”
“Yeah, I got that impression.”
“Oh, yeah, I did say that before, didn’t I? Listen, thanks a lot, San! Let me know if I can do anything for you, anything at all!”
“I’ll see if Felicia has any chores that need doing around here,” San smiled. “Just kidding. See you later.”
“Bye.” The connection to San went blank, but the paper and other cells were waiting. Decio quickly saved the cells and document into his cells, then reached for the com control. “I gotta tell Dwyer about this!”
Decio found Professor Dwyer in his office the next morning. He was examining his desk sec, making a few notes along the side of the screen, and looked up when Decio came in. “Ah, come in! I was just looking over the document you sent me. You were right: This is the authentic FCE Fraternity Code.”
Decio tossed a triumphant fist out, grinning ear to ear. “Isn’t it great?”
“Yes, it’s a wonderful find,” Dwyer said, head bobbing up and down as he looked over the code. “I know of a few messages that have been found in the past, that were never translated. They should prove very interesting. You know, those messages weren’t meant for anyone but other members of the fraternity to read. No one really knows what kind of messages they passed to one another. It’s almost like recovering an old building’s dedication. Or it’s tombstone, depending on how you look at it.”
Decio nodded, considering this last fact. It was a bit like grave robbing, if you considered those private messages to be sacred, which he imagined the fraternity did. But, he mused, there wasn’t likely to be anything intimate about such messages… and the writers, and readers, were all long since dead, so there was no one to complain about being compromised.
“You know,” Decio finally said, “it’s just a shame so few of the old buildings of that era are still standing. Think about all the messages that’ve been destroyed since then, in reclaiming materials for the malls.”
Dwyer nodded solemnly, then after a moment, lifted his head and looked at Decio. “Take a look at this.” He started working over his sec, as Decio came around to his side of the desk. In a moment, the Professor had a plan of Midland, represented in three dimensions, floating on the screen before them. It was much like the floor plan that visitors and residents used to get around, but it had much more structural detail attached to it. As Dwyer manipulated the viewing controls, the image seemed to rush up at them. The view moved inward, and downward, closing in on the lower levels of the mall where the physical plants and manufacturing levels resided. “I know you’ve seen this plan a hundred times.”
“At least,” Decio agreed.
Dwyer nodded, manipulated the image further, and stopped it. A single column was in the center of the image, squat between two machines of unknown purpose. Above it, a floor was cut away, and above that, apparently, another machine almost directly above the column.
“This is pretty typical of the columns in the machine levels,” Dwyer told Decio. “Because many of the lower levels are only a dozen meters high or so, columns could be put in that were designed to handle the lesser loads and spread the forces over a larger area. That meant the columns down there didn’t have to be made out of the same high-load materials in the upper parts of the mall.”
Decio nodded. “That’s why the columns are often mismatched. Some were reformed out of existing materials, instead of being newly fabricated.”
“Right. If you query the sec about these columns, though, you still get a single set of specs for them all. One average set of specifications. In point of fact, as far as I know, there is no record of the exact composition of each column. And we know that most of the columns were made from existing materials reclaimed from the cities, jacketed over with a binding casing of smithcrete.”
Decio was beginning to see where he was going with his private lecture. “Do you really think…?”
“It might be possible,” Dwyer stated, “that intact pre-arcotecture structural members could be inside the columns in our mall’s lower levels.”
“You’re kidding.” San took a sip of tea, and shook her head slowly. Next to her, Felicia sat regarding her nephew Decio, her face changing from pride to incredulous wonder every few seconds. Felicia hadn’t seen anything of Decio in two weeks since the report, so she had invited him over for lunch. After lunch, they had moved into the living room, where the subject of the fraternity code came up.
Decio sat across from them, looking at his sec pad in San’s free hand. An image of one of the columns in the lower levels was there, along with a column of short notes. The notes were materials breakdowns, and they clearly showed evidence of ancient steel columns inside the smithcrete.
Decio leaned forward to change the display on the pad. “We borrowed a PRT from the Physical Plant Manager last week, and used it on some of the columns. See that?” On the pad’s screen was a ghosted image, sharing the same outer dimensions as the columns, but with signs of various layers of materials within. “See this line? And this one? The PRT confirms those as steel girders, in the old ‘I-beam’ shape!”
“That’s incredible!” Felicia whispered, looking at the pad along with San. “I had no idea we used old materials in our mall like that. I hope it’s safe.”
“Oh, it’s plenty safe,” Decio said quickly. “Those beams were checked and sealed to prevent deterioration before they were placed in the columns. And there’s other materials in there besides the steel, reinforcing it further. Then the whole thing’s wrapped in cable netting and sealed in smithcrete. They’re safe.”
“Well, that’s good,” Felicia said.
“It’s good for the columns,” Decio admitted. “It’s lousy for me, though.”
“Because all that stuff around the old steel means I can’t get a clear reading from it,” Decio explained. “If there are any old markings on them, they’re hidden behind all that other stuff.”
Decio shrugged. “And I was starting to hope I could apply this to my thesis. But I can’t really go anywhere with it now, if I can’t see the columns.”
San sipped at her tea, and her eyes drifted up over Decio’s head. Then she refocused on him. “You know, there might still be a way to continue with this.”
Decio looked up, doubtfully. “What?”
“Go to the City Council, and ask them to authorize you to open some columns.” Decio gave San a look of helpless confusion, and San added, “I know, it doesn’t sound likely. You’ll have to explain to them the social and historical significance of your research, and convince them it’s a worthwhile endeavor. You’ll also have to show them evidence that cracking open select columns will not significantly weaken the surrounding ceiling, and can be repaired without problems. But from what I’ve seen of your expertise in civil engineering, not to mention your presentation skills, I think you could pull it off.”
“Wow… I don’t know…”
“Well, it’s something to try,” San said. “Personally, I’d love to see it.”
Decio brightened a bit. “Yeah?”
“You bet. In fact, please let me know if I can do anything to help, as a peacekeeper or otherwise. You can use my name as reference for the audience with the council, at the very least.”
“Well…” Decio’s voice trailed off, as he considered his options. Finally, he shrugged. “I suppose I could at least write up the proposal. Even if I was turned down, I’d still get some good credit from that.”
“That’s my nephew,” Felicia beamed.
Professor Dwyer turned out to be all for the proposal, and gave Decio the nod to make it a class project. Decio immediately set to work, researching the construction data on Midland to determine the number of columns in the lower levels he would have the option of breaking open without risking ceiling collapse.
He was amazed when his sec gave him a figure of several hundred columns! Apparently the strength specifications for the columns and ceiling itself were more than adequate to handle the loss of single columns, and in areas where explosions or similar catastrophes were a risk, groups of them. Decio immediately considered the idea that he’d bitten off more than he could chew, and imagined himself examining columns until he was old and gray. If only he could narrow down the number of columns with possible codes etched into them… but he already knew PRT scans couldn’t even tell him that.
Still, he knew that his proposal would not cause the collapse of Midland. So he wasn’t shut down yet.
Next he moved on to how much of the column would have to be torn away, to expose enough of the steel underneath to be scanned by PRTs or examined visually. Unfortunately, the data reinforced his belief that the entire column would have to be stripped away. Although PRTs were capable of bounce-scanning around the inside of a hollow column, there wasn’t enough space between the steel beams and their cable netting to allow that. And the smithcrete would need to be torn completely away to unwrap the netting. Although the beam itself could be left in place and bolted to its supports, nothing of the rest of the column would be left. So each column to be examined would have to be completely rebuilt.
That was going to be tough to sell to the Council, who were going to weigh the nebulous value of mostly non-sequitur historical knowledge against the real costs of rebuilding columns. He’d have to find a way to put a lot of drama into his presentation, or they’d laugh him out of the room. Of course, he was supposed to be good at that sort of thing, at least, according to his instructors. Well, he’d have to see.
“Peacekeeper station. Deputy San Kepolis.”
“Deputy Kepolis, my name is Ahmed Klein. I’m calling from the office of the City Council. We’ve had a request from a Mr. Decio Pine to address the Council, and he gave us your name as a personal reference.”
“Yes, I know Mr. Pine well. He’s the nephew of one of my roommates.”
“Ah… and how long have you known him?”
“About… eight years.”
“I see. He has given us a subject for his address: ‘The Exploration of Midland’s Historical Resources.’ Does this sound to you like a subject he knows something about?”
“Oh, yes. In fact, he’s taking professional level classes devoted to it, here in Midland. Classes that he’s doing very well in, I can add.”
“Oh? Are you his instructor?”
“No; I’m the roommate of a proud aunt. I have seen his grades, though, Mr. Klein. He’s an excellent student and an intelligent young man.”
“Can you give us any further details on this subject he’s presenting to the Council?”
“Well, I could, but I’d hate to spoil the surprise.”
“Will you be granting him the audience?”
“Well… based on the information we have, I don’t see why not.”
“Good. I don’t think the Council will be disappointed.”
San and Professor Dwyer were on hand the day the Council agreed to hear Decio’s proposal. They both reached the antechamber outside the council hall at the same time, and were not surprised to find Decio already there, even though they were half an hour early for his audience. Decio was sitting in a chair, head down toward the sec pad in his hand, his eyes half-shut as he went over some part of his presentation in his head. He finally looked up when he heard the two sets of footfalls approaching him, and smiled.
“Decio,” Professor Dwyer called when they were within polite conversational distance. “About ready for your audience?”
“Yeah, I think so,” Decio replied, standing up. “I’ve found the angle to work on, and I think my argument is pretty persuasive.”
“What is your angle?” San asked.
“The Purge Flare of 2064.”
Decio didn’t need to go into further detail for San or Dwyer’s benefit; both knew about the famous Purge Flare. 2063-4 proved to be banner years for solar flares, those infamous geysers of plasma that, among other things, played havoc with the atmosphere of the entire Solar System when they erupted. Many flares in the past had seriously disrupted communications systems, both through the ether and through wire systems, and caused many organizations to take steps to protect their transmission equipment from damage or data loss.
But no one could have predicted the massive solar flare in 2064. If it had been pointed in the right direction (or the wrong one, depending on your point of view), it would have touched the planet Mercury, and according to scientists, could have even possibly caused the tiny planet’s breakup and the creation of another ring of asteroids in the system. This, however, turned out to be of little concern compared to what it did manage to do. The charged plasma reached across the void, first silencing all air-based transmission systems, and not releasing them for almost a week. Then, the charge made itself felt on the surface of the Earth. No one could have predicted the sheer power of the flare’s charge, which swept across the planet like a giant degaussing field. And it proved deadly to every form of magnetic storage on the planet, except those shielded by a sizeable portion of the Earth’s crust.
The worst part of the disaster was the realization that, had it happened fifty or a hundred years ago, it would have been nothing serious. After all, in the 20th century most valuable data was still being stored on paper, a fairly non-volatile medium. Unfortunately for the 21st century, the use of all that paper was causing a serious space shortage for storing all that data, and the only areas that had the available space were the forests that were being stripped to provide the paper. So, for the sake of the environment, a push was eventually made to give up the paper storage standard and switch to electronic data systems. Before long, both old and new data was being placed on electronic media, and the space-consuming paper copies were being recycled.
Although optical data storage had been discovered years ago, it had never become a worldwide standard. Most of the world’s records and information were still being stored on magnetic disks, cards and strips. Most of the world’s old literature had been transferred to electromagnetic storage, and a precious little of it was stored optically. Most of the underdeveloped countries of the world were still using archaic storage mediums, even tape reels. This was the vast electromagnetic system that the flare washed over.
In a day, forty percent of the world’s data was gone. By the end of the next day, the remainder had been seriously damaged, to the point that not a single unshielded bit of data was not either hopelessly corrupted, or completely wiped. It took years to gather, sort through and combine copies of old files to recover the original data. In many cases, the files were never 100% recovered. Many of the world’s original recordings of music were lost, along with entire libraries of literature. Most obscure literary works vanished without a trace, leaving only the most popular versions of manuscripts that had been transferred to the CD-ROM storage format. And governments, corporations, organizations all over the world found themselves without a written guideline to follow, a law to legally enforce, a list to check, or a history to recall.
Needless to say, as the year 2064 went down in history as “the year of the Purge Flare,” the year 2065 would go down in history as “the year everything started over.” Governments rewrote laws from the ground-up. Sweeping reforms were passed in the face of urgency, changes that were held up previously by years of filibustering and red tape. Organizations changed old charters, many of which were long overdue for radical changes anyway. And in the void left behind by so much lost art, new artists appeared to revive old music forms, literature styles, even broadcast art, and attempt to plug some of those holes.
New storage methods were created, relying more on optical technology and the optronic “cell.” Data sharing systems were also rebuilt, creating vast shared networks of data that were virtually impossible to completely lose and easy to find or recover, and the world finally reached the goal of being a single data resource it had aspired to a century before.
But, to this day, the world remained very aware of the millennia of history that was lost that year, never to be recovered.
San and Professor Dwyer nodded their agreement with Decio’s plan, and he smiled at their knowing looks. “I think it’ll work. You never know what pearls of wisdom might come up out of the past. Even on a steel column.”
Across the antechamber, a side door opened and a man walked into the room. San, seeing him over Decio’s shoulder, recognized him as Ahmed Klein, the gentleman who had called her about Decio’s reference. Decio, noticing San’s gaze past him, turned to see Mr. Klein approaching. Klein smiled at the three, and turned his full attention to Decio.
“Good morning, Mr. Pine. Are you ready for your audience?”
“Yes, sir, I’m ready,” Decio responded quickly.
“Good. The Council is a bit ahead of schedule this morning, so they’ll be ready to hear you in just a few minutes. If you’d like, you can go in now and get yourself ready. I assume you have a presentation prepared?”
“Yes,” Decio nodded, holding up his sec pad. “I just need a few seconds to set up.” Dwyer smiled to himself. He knew Decio’s skill at preparing well-organized media presentations, and was sure this would be one of his better ones.
“Fine,” Klein said. “If you will all follow me?” He led the trio through the large main door to the Council chamber.
Inside the chamber, the Council was discussing the scale of a proposal to rebuild the level 73 park into another rock garden. Rock gardens were undergoing another one of their regular popularity renaissances, and they had been springing up all over Midland in various sizes. Most of the Council seemed to be of the opinion that one more rock garden was getting excessive, but there were enough dissenters to make the discussion interesting.
Klein led San and Dwyer to a row of seats where they could watch the audience, along with others who were already there watching the Council. Then he took Decio over to a podium facing the Council table, and showed him the podium’s controls. It wasn’t much different than the podiums he used in college, and he soon began setting up his sec pad for broadcast over the chamber system.
By about the time Decio was ready, the Council settled their decision (approved in an abbreviated form, 9-3), and began to quiet down. One of them turned to the podium, where Decio waited patiently. The Councilman glanced down at the sec in front of him, looked back up at Decio, and nodded.
“Mr. Pine. Welcome to the Midland Council.”
“Thank you, Mr. Tsien.” Decio had taken the time to familiarize himself with all the Councilmembers’ names, since he’d had no idea who would be their spokesperson.
“You may proceed, if you’re ready.” All the Councilmembers looked patiently to him, and waited. Decio glanced down to his sec and tapped an icon. On the wall behind him, an image of a great 20th century city appeared, projected by his sec. There were moving vehicles, people walking everywhere, bright blue skies, pigeons flitting by, a veritable sea of movement. It was clearly taken from a recording of the day, as evidenced by the recognizable grain of old film stock. Old as the scene clearly was, it evoked an immediate response from the Councilmembers, some of whom sighed at the tableau as if wishing to be there personally. There was always that emotional attachment to the past with older people, Decio knew, and he hoped to play to that attachment.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Saint Louis city,” Decio began. “It stood, not far from here, for three centuries. It was a city like all cities in old Namerica, full of people, living their lives, doing their jobs, raising their children, and looking forward to another day. We have precious few records of those times today. This image is one of the few surviving pieces of film footage of the era, and we value it as a piece of our history… one of the few windows on the past that haven’t been covered over with too much dust to see through.
“I’ve just discovered that there are many other windows, some perhaps as clear as this one, all over Midland. Windows to the past, waiting to be opened, and looked through. Windows to human culture, to our ancestors’ lives, waiting to give up their secrets. And we’re all standing on them.”
Across the chamber, San and Dwyer exchanged smiles. This was going to be good.
Even with the noise dampeners working on the pneumatic hammers, bringing their otherwise deafening concussions down to soft puffs across the vast machinery room space, each pulse caused by impact of metal on smithcrete bounced against Decio’s chest like staccato hoofbeats. He was well back, too, behind a crowd barrier with about half the Council, San Kepolis, and Professor Dwyer. The two men with the hammers leaned into them, as the hammers chipped away at the sides of a column next to a long assembly-line construct. The construct was so long that they could not see either end from their vantage point, and what it might be manufacturing, none of the observers would have been able to guess. It didn’t seem to be particularly disturbed by the commotion next to it, and just kept humming to itself as it did its job. The comparative silence of the room was occasionally broken by the crack of smithcrete, followed by its impact on the ground, and the constant sifting of dust around them.
Decio strained to look through the dusty air, past the ragged edges of smithcrete, to see the columns inside. Here and there, he caught sight of a wrap of cable, but nothing beneath. He tried not to look too anxious, but his project had come down to being hinged on this one column. Well, actually three, but this was the first one they had started to dismantle. The Council had been swayed by his argument to rediscover their hidden past, but they were none too keen on taking apart hundreds of support columns below their very feet. After a day of deliberation (and hours of consultation with other sources, who finally assured them that the proposal was not hazardous), they agreed to open three columns, and look for the writings that Decio himself could not be sure were there. If any were found, they said, they would allow a continuation of the project, starting with those columns selected by the machine level Foreman to be due for fault examination. If not, Decio would have to be content with theory unless he could find a less invasive way to examine the columns.
So they stood, as the first of the three columns were torn apart, waiting to see signs of history. San, standing just beside Decio, saw his nervousness, and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Relax. You’ve got two more columns to check, if this one doesn’t show anything. No point in being nervous now. Save it for number three.”
Decio looked around at her, and she smiled mischievously. He smiled back, and his shoulders loosened noticeably.
The last of the smithcrete outer casing finally came away. The hammer men stepped back, and a woman with a set of cutters as long as her forearm stepped up. Starting at the bottom, she began cutting the cable sheathing, a dozen at a time. The cables snapped loose and piled on the ground around the column, clanging about like bells. Many of the observers put their fingers in their ears.
Then the cutter was through, and she stepped away. There, in the center of the pile of rubble and cable, stood four thick steel columns. Each was an “I” beam, each as tall as the other, but it was plain that the beams were not from the same original structure. One was visibly larger than the others, thicker, with much wider flanges: This one was in the center. Two others were apparently identical, and were placed on opposite sides of the large beam. And a fourth, longer in the body with thinner flanges, was placed at the far corner of the large beam, becoming the third point of a triangle created by the two identical beams. Each beam looked slick, the result of the rust-arresting coating. One of the identical beams had a large piece taken out of the end of a flange, large enough to pass a man through, but it was shaped like a stubby “V.” It was unclear to the observers what the hole might have been intended for.
A woman had been standing about midway between the observers and the column, watching the dismantling work closely. Once the workers were through, she turned to the observers. After a moment, when it seemed they were hesitant to move, she walked over to them.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” she said to them. “We’ve got the beams exposed. Go look ‘em over.” The group began to step around the barriers and approach the beams, Decio in front. One Councilmember paused long enough to pass their thanks to the Foreman, who nodded her appreciation and followed them over.
Once Decio reached the column, he reached into a pouch around his waist and removed a small, handheld PRT. He tapped at its controls, then began circling the columns, using the PRT to sweep over their surfaces. He made a complete revolution around the columns, never stopping until he was all the way around. He looked at San and Dwyer, and shook his head.
“A bit closer,” Dwyer suggested. “Reduce your surface tolerances.” Decio nodded, tapped some more at the PRT, and started around the columns again. San, who had heard Dwyer’s suggestions, brought her left arm up. A PRT was built into the Peacekeeper’s uniform sleeve, tied into the uniform’s sec. She set her PRT, removed the remote sensor, and began circling the column herself, in the opposite direction of Decio. They met on the opposite side, and Decio looked up in surprise when he noticed her. San flashed him a smile, and turned back to her PRT. Decio smiled back, and moved in even closer.
About a minute later, Decio called out, “I think I found something.” He was kneeling close to the base of the large column, where he had managed to wedge his arm between the smaller ones. San halted her search pattern to come around beside him, and Dwyer and the Councilmembers crowded closer. Decio pulled his arm out into the light and examined the PRT screen closely. Then he adjusted it again and stuck his arm back between the columns. He strained to see where his arm was pointed in the tight space, and San tried to guide him from just above him. Finally he removed his arm again, examined the screen, then showed it to San. The two of them looked at each other and grinned, and Decio looked up to face the Council. “Got one.”
Decio stood, and brought the PRT over to the group. Dwyer turned it for everyone to see, and examined the image on the screen. There was a line of characters, a bit faint against the background of the column, but distinct enough to be recognizable. The characters seemed to be similar to ancient Greek letters, but there were numerous symbols that were completely alien to any recognizable Greek, Arabic, or Asian characters. “Yes. He’s found the Fraternity code.”
The group began making approving noises at once, each trying to get a better look at the image on the screen. One of the Councilmembers, craning his neck to see, asked, “Do you know what it says?”
“Hold on,” Decio said. “I’ve got a link to the translation code. I should be able to translate it right now.” Removing his sec pad from the pouch, he began working over the control screen. After a few moments of that, he held the PRT close to the pad and transmitted the PRT image to the pad. Then he tapped an icon, put the PRT away, and waited. The group went silent as Decio stared down at his working sec, hoping to get a response from the translation link.
There was a beep from his sec, and a single sentence was displayed. Decio looked it over, smiled, and read from the screen: “‘My first building, but not my last.’ signed, Evan.”
Dwyer smiled widely. “Quite a prophetic statement, eh?” He turned and looked at the Council, expectantly.
The irony was not lost on the Council. One of them looked at Dwyer, and shrugged amiably. “Very well. You have our permission to examine one hundred columns on this level. We’ll look forward to your findings, young man. Congratulations.”
“Thank you, sir,” Decio replied, suddenly the center of a round of applause and shoulder-clapping. Slowly the group diffused, some of them moving closer to examine the markings on the exposed steel, others giving their personal congratulations to Decio, before they moved away to attend to other business. Finally, only Decio, Dwyer, San, and the Foreman were left, and the Foreman was already busy organizing her workers to rebuild the column, as soon as they had Decio’s okay to do so.
San waited until Decio and Dwyer were finished discussing the markings, before she came up to Decio. “Great work, Decio. I’ve got to get back to the station now. But I expect you’ll be spending a lot of time down here over the next few weeks.”
Decio smiled wryly and scanned the vast machine level around them. “Yeah, I may pitch a tent.”
“Well, I’ll try to stop by from time to time, to see how it’s going. See you later.”
“‘Bye.” He watched her leave, lingering on his aunt’s roommate maybe a little longer than he should have… then remembered that he had a new job to do, and an interesting one, at that.
By the end of that week, Decio reflected that even interesting jobs can be a monumental pain. At least, that’s how this one had turned out. With all the bending and stretching around the tightly packed steel beams, sometimes in very tight spaces, his back had been strained almost to the limit in three days. It was slightly mortifying, too; he thought he was in great shape. But the type of movement he’d been doing in the last few days was unlike anything he’d done since crawling around in playground mazes as a kid. All of this came to him as he slowly straightened up from the base of another column, groaning under his breath, and bending backward and sideways to get the kink out of his back.
“Hard at work, eh?” San’s voice called out from behind him, and Decio immediately tried to adopt a more relaxed posture when he turned in her direction. San had a long coil of rope around her shoulder, a small block-and-tackle connected to one end, and heavy gloves over her hands. She smiled and looked him up and down when he reached him, making him only slightly self-conscious about his dusty appearance.
“I just came in from outside,” San explained. “Thought I’d stop by and see how you were doing. You sure look like you’re getting a workout.”
“Yeah,” Decio nodded. “It’s a lot more work crawling around this stuff than I thought it’d be.”
“You know, if you’re getting a sore back from all this, it would be a good idea to see a therapist about it. They can give you a set of exercises that will make your back feel better. Maybe something for the pain, too.”
“I’m not that sore yet,” Decio replied bravely, though he suspected it was already too late to pretend he wasn’t hurting. “But you’re right, I should probably see someone.” He already felt much more at-ease around San than he had a few days before. Although he wasn’t usually attracted to women who were much older (not to mention almost a head taller) than he was, San’s interest and obvious attractiveness had been distracting Decio more and more each day.
In fact, he had been actually considering broaching the traditionally unbroachable subject with her, just before providence intervened in the form of Marla Blake. Marla was taking classes at Midland… in fact, Decio was sure he had seen her around, although he didn’t share any classes with her… but they had never met until a few days ago, when she approached him from out of the proverbial blue.
She had a very pretty smile, and she hit Decio with it as soon as she spoke to him. She had told him she’d heard about the project he was working on, and proceeded to complement him on his efforts and ask to see how he was doing. Much of which went right by Decio, who was still reeling from her smile, and had to all but shake himself to recover. They had since spent quite a bit of time together, Marla even coming down to be with him while he poked around the columns one afternoon. In a matter of days her attentions had managed to swing Decio’s heart away from the puppy-love infatuation it had been toying with, and not too secretly, Decio was happy to be out of that awkward situation.
“Did you find something here?” San looked past him to the beams. “How many columns is this, then?”
“Uh…” Decio pulled up his sec pad and tapped at it a moment. “Forty-four. Including this one. So far, I’ve found markings in only sixteen percent of the columns… seven of them. But I’ve found more than one set of markings in some of them, since most columns have four to six beams, and I’ve catalogued thirty-six individual phrases.”
“Uh-huh. A few of them are only partially legible. Three are so worn away that I can only make out that they’re there… I can’t get a clear reading at all. I think those might have been purposely erased, from the looks of them.”
“Do you really think they were intentionally removed?”
Decio held up his pad for San to see. “Look… the PRT picked up traces of high corrosives on those areas, and only where the writing was. So it looks like they were intentionally removed. I guess we’ll never know why.”
“Have you translated the ones you’ve found?” San asked.
“Some of them. I’ve got to do more detailed study of some of the more illegible ones. But here are the ones I’ve gotten, so far.”
Decio held the pad and moved beside San, so they could read them together, and began to scroll down the list. The first phrase was fairly harmless:
Hope this lasts forever. –Steve H
The next one, however, was not so innocent:
My contribution to the Blight
Two of the phrases had quotes around them. The first was clearly from a poem or song:
“The greatest thing you can ever learn,
is to love and be loved in return.”
but the next one could have come from any source of media, for all they could tell:
“Livin’ just enough for the city.” –Morris
A few were dedications, mostly to parents or spouses, their intent clear enough. One, however, was a bit more obscure than most:
For Carlo: He believed in me. –Dennis
This made San and Decio exchange glances. Was Carlo a mentor? A relative? A lover? Only Dennis and, hopefully, Carlo, would know the answer to that now.
Then there was a phrase that sobered them both:
The blame is not mine, for I tried to stop them.
The shame is mine, for I failed to stop them. –Neil
San looked up at the nearest stand of beams, as if they could offer more of an explanation, and Decio’s thoughts probably mirrored her own. Who was Neil? Did his lament refer to the building the beam had come from, possibly some dangerous building code violation? Or was it about something else entirely—a crime, a confrontation, a selfish act or a cruel decision? Or was it about something that “Neil” really had no power over, but felt compelled to vent his frustrations about anyway? Decio was suddenly glad the phrase was as nonspecific as it was. Given the unlimited statute of limitations connected to manslaughter cases, he fervently hoped no confessions of a deadly nature would reveal themselves here.
The last phrase he’d translated was interesting:
Ecotopia Now! –Black Apache
Decio was sure he’d never heard of a place, a movement or a person called “Ecotopia,” and Midland’s records only held a reference to a work of fiction from the 20th century. If it was the same reference, Decio thought, it might make interesting reading. If the book still existed.
Once at the bottom of the list, Decio looked up at San. “What do you think?”
“Wonderful,” San replied, her voice pitched low as if she felt the presence of the spirits of these dead writers around her. “It’s incredible. And you’ve only just started.”
“Ugh… don’t remind me,” Decio said, rubbing his lower back with one hand.
San laughed at that. “Well, don’t worry… you’ll be through before you know it. And just think: Someday, people will be reading about you.” She patted him on the shoulder. “Well, I’ve got to get going. See you later.”
“You bet. See you.” Decio paused, watching San as she walked away. Just to give my back a few seconds more, before I get back to work. “Yeah, right,” he said aloud, once he knew she was out of earshot.
Seventy-three. That had been the grand total of messages found in one hundred columns in Midland’s machine levels. Seventy-three messages in one hundred columns was a much higher figure than anyone dared expect, much less Decio. There was already talk in the Council about continuing the project until every column in the machine levels had been opened and examined. Decio had been offered an official position (albeit a temporary one), a salary, and a staff to supervise! It was more than he could have ever hoped for.
He was still very excited about the offer, after spending most of the day telling his friends and family about it. Marla, whom he had been actively dating for the past ten days (and nine hours), had been there when he received the offer, and she left little doubt how thrilled she was for him. All this, and a girl, too! He was practically humming with excitement.
Marla had gone back to her apartment to change. To keep his mind off of what she might be changing into, Decio sat in front of his sec pad, looking over the last of the messages he’d translated. He scrolled through some of them quickly, some slowly, depending on his level of concentration at the moment. An endless variety of phrases scrolled by him, some very notable:
Times are a’changin.
Born to Build. –Kimberly
Someday the rape will stop.
Stop me before I overconstruct again. –Steid
There wasn’t nearly enough humor in these, Decio mused.
“Metropolis… will be the last.” –Arameschi
Someday one of these will truly be mine. –Greg
“Keep your head to the sky.” –White
“We thank the good Mother for providing us with the means for shelter.”
Decio recognized that last one as part of the Omniterranist’s prayer. Maybe more than any other phrase here, this one was truly timeless.
At one point during his scrolling, he became vaguely aware that he had just missed something. He had been thinking of Marla again. He returned his concentration to the pad, and began scrolling back upwards to find what he’d passed. He finally reached a single line, not notable in itself:
Someday my children will see the things I built in my pride…
and they will laugh at me.
Then he realized what had caught his attention: It had been signed, “Pine.”
An ancestor? Decio smiled at the thought that he had possibly discovered his own special link to history. As if his mind’s eye was attached to an elastic string stretching through time, he allowed it to snap back through the past. He imagined the beam just before being encased in its smithcrete prison; being salvaged from an old building in some unnamed, unoccupied city; resting in its position, adding its support to the original structure as it was designed to do; and being just put into place, still exposed to the elements, when a lone man, perhaps feeling melancholic, perhaps simply in an odd sense of humor, removed an etching tool from his pocket and touched it to the face of the beam.
He allowed his mind’s eye to rush back to the present. He imagined the man starting a family, which continued on through the generations, living, learning, struggling, as all families do. He imagined one of them coming to Midland, starting her own family… his grandmother, who had told him she’d been the first of the family to come to Midland.
Suddenly he saw his link to his family, like a web of connections running backward, ending with him. For the first time, Decio could see the greater whole that he was part of, feel the ties to family long departed, family in his life, family yet to come. He thought of Marla. And back to the man who had left this message to his descendants.
Looking back down to his pad, he ran his fingers across the last line. He didn’t laugh.