By Jason Gibbs
“Why are you so dissatisfied Jacob? We live in a perfect world.”
“I know, I know, and yet…”
They’d had this argument so many times, Jacob just didn’t know how to explain. In this utopia he felt like an ingrate, or worse, a serpent, looking for the apple of truth which would ruin it all. At first he’d tried to explain his unease to Zelia, but she’d just stared at him in incomprehension. Then she’d accused him of becoming too wrapped up in his old books. Orwell and Huxley had made him question his world.
“Anyway, there’s something I need to tell you Jacob.”
“I’m having a baby with Ruthius.”
“What? But, I didn’t think you knew him or…”
“We’re friends on a different plane, and well, he and I have become close and he proposed and I said yes. That doesn’t mean we can’t still be friends on this plane, or whatever. But it does mean that we won’t ..”
“Be having a baby. Or a future.”
In his heart he’d known this was coming. She’d been spending more and more time on other planes. But Ruthius, that was a kick in the guts. He’d been looking forward to turning a hundred and being allowed to have a baby, but now, that was gone.
“Jacob, are you going to be ok?”
“Yeah, sure, fine. Look I need some time. I’ll ping you.”
He cut the connection and the space around him reconfigured to his personal homespace. He just floated, wondering what he could have done, and also why he felt such a sense of relief. A crazy plan had been building in the hidden parts of his brain, and it now took centre stage.
“Jacob Alliere 237634298?”
“It says on your application that you’ve been studying engineering for six months.”
He had to think a little, but he knew the question was designed to knock him off guard. Many planes ran at slightly different speeds, so six months could feel like four, or ten.
“Real and experienced, I was on a normal plane. It was a retro plane, which is why I can also speak like you. Actually I’d spent several years in retro planes, which is how I found your… advert. Text. I thought it was a quest or something.”
The man looked sceptical, but continued, “After this interview you’ll be run through several more tests, but so far you seem to have what it takes. Why do you want to be an Engineer?”
This was the real test. How could he answer? With the nearest to the truth he could manage.
“I feel something is wrong, in the planes. Or I’m wrong for the planes. It’s like I’m always out of tune. But it all seems so ethereal, irrelevant even. You, the Engineers, are the only group who ever do anything Real.”
“What about the researchers?”
“They’re just playing a different type of game on a different set of planes, but it isn’t Real.”
The man leaned back in his chair, rocking a little, a movement which seemed odd to Jacob who’d spent his whole life in a world where gravity did what he wanted, and which was always smoothly under control.
For a while the man just stared, and Jacob could think of nothing else to say. Then the man rubbed his chin.
“You’re the seventy-eighth applicant we’ve had this century. The first seventy-seven were more than eighty years ago, and we rejected all but five. You’ll find out more about them when you go through. I’ll be honest, the main reason I’m passing you is that we need new blood, but I don’t think you’ll last. You sure about the full term? I can give you the probationary two year option.”
“But then I’ll be in a mechanical won’t I?”
The man nodded.
“In that case I’ll go with the twenty year option, that way I know I’ll succeed.”
“Maybe. See you on the other side.”
The man winked out, somewhat rudely, Jacob thought, and he was led through several more exercises. His pod informed him that it was being asked to provide detailed medical information, and he gave his assent. Usually it was only required for procreation, but he wasn’t going to be worrying about that, or Zelia, for a long while.
The video finished and the light came up. The group stared at each other across the table.
“Are you sure he’s going to help?” said the first.
“He’s our best shot. We just don’t know how to communicate with them anymore, you heard, he thought our advert was a quest, we’re archaic to them,” answered the man at the top of the table who was known as Control.
“What about Felis?”
“It’s been three years since she last called. We’ve lost her, just like the previous ones. It’s a different world in there. Or worlds. Enticing. Intoxicating.” He shook his head sadly.
“Well Control, we’re running out of time. If this doesn’t work then we’ll have to discuss the Euthanasia protocols.”
The first time the protocols had been mentioned there had been gasps of shock, this time they all just nodded and avoided each other’s eyes.
“I know. I’ll rush him through as quickly as possible, but he has to bond. He has to want to stay with us.”
“He’s ready, everyone visited him in the first two weeks. He’s had every bug we’ve got. His pod and nanites handled most of them, there were a couple which looked a bit worrying, but we got him through,” the doctor looked strained, she wasn’t happy about this. She’d held them off for a week to give the boy, man, a chance, but they needed to get things going. Opening the pod each time one of their community had come to visit had been a chore, much worse was watching his vitals waver as he developed immunities she’d been born with.
“Thanks Doctor, can you bring him out of sedation, gently, and we’ll get him into training with Sasha. We’ll need you when, if, we bring him out of his pod.”
The Doctor’s eyes widened a bit, but she nodded and went back to her patient.
“How long do I have to stay in this place?”
“Until you learn how to move without trying to control gravity. In the Real gravity pulls one way, down, and there’s nothing you can do about it. If we let you straight out you’d fall over and hurt yourself.”
For three weeks Jacob had been living in this hell hole. It was a set of tunnels weaving through machinery, and it was hot, and he just couldn’t get comfortable. He’d always been able to have gravity changed around him so he’d be held perfectly, now he stumbled, cracking his head against walls, and grazing his shins. That was another thing.
“Can you at least allow my system to damp the pain?”
“We are. You’re at around 50% at the moment. As an Engineer, in the Real, you’ll need to be able to cope with normal pains, and you won’t have your pod to molly-coddle you.”
He could hear a slight sneer in her voice, he felt it was always there. It was clear she felt nothing but contempt for him. She wanted him to fail. Well, he’d made his decision, and he was going all the way.
“When will it go to 100%?”
“When you stop complaining.”
“How long did it take the last few applicants?”
A pause. Perhaps she didn’t know? Or it wasn’t a pleasant answer?
A man’s voice interceded, “Generally they took four to five months to reach the stage you are, and then another few months to complete. You are doing well. Continue.”
So there was someone who wanted him to succeed, and he was apparently doing well. His time in the rougher planes, where war was simulated, was paying off.
“I will, but why is she so hostile?”
Silence and then the woman’s voice, “Get back to the task, we have five more after this.”
He ducked down and started crawling along yet another path between whirring machinery. He’d spent the last weeks learning how to fix these machines. He kept bumping his head, scratching his arms and knocking his shins, but he was slowly getting better.
“Remind me again why we can’t use machines for this?”
There was a grumpy sigh in his ear, “We can, but we also need to do it ourselves. Machines tend not to cope with new or slightly different situations, when they happen, an Engineer has to be sent in. And before you ask the next question, yes we do send in remotes sometimes, but we’ve found that being physically on site makes all the difference. I’ve told you this before, and I’m not going to tell you again.”
He’d been surprised she’d answered at all, maybe the man’s interruption had helped. He got his head down, and followed the tasks he’d been set.
“Well congratulations on passing the tests and being born into our world. Welcome to hell,” said Sasha. He’d only found out her name the day before, and he’d hoped it meant she was mellowing. It didn’t seem so.
It wasn’t what he expected. Despite all the training he still tried to stop the gravity which pressed him into the bed. It felt like he was working twice as hard to breathe, and to top it all he was greeted with sarcasm.
“Ah… yeah… hello.”
“Hmm, shouldn’t you be adjusted?”
“Yes, but… it’s… the shock. Give me a moment or two.”
“OK, but we have work to do.”
Jacob nodded, took a breath and stood. It took all his willpower not to fall straight back down, but he managed to stay up. He nodded again and she turned and stalked off. Clearly she still hadn’t forgiven him for whatever it was he’d done. Or not done.
He couldn’t believe it, but for the first time in his life he actually walked.
The next few weeks were hard. He was working in the Real. The Real! But he didn’t get a real chance to properly appreciate it. At the end of every day he was so exhausted he fell into bed, and was asleep before his head hit the pillow. He met a few other people in passing, but they were mostly taciturn. He still didn’t know exactly how many Engineers there were and Sasha still didn’t say much.
One night as they finished she said, “Right, you’ve passed. Tomorrow you have a break, and then we start real work.”
“What have we been doing?”
“Simulations, damned expensive ones. Good thing we did too otherwise you might have lost a leg.”
He ducked his head abashed. He’d not noticed the steel door closing, and Sasha had dived to save him. He had wondered how she’d been able to stop such a heavy door.
He had so many!
“Lots. What do we do? Who decides the jobs? Why me?”
She shook her head.
“We supervise the machines, and occasionally fix things they can’t. Control decides the jobs. Control will tell you. You’re meeting him tomorrow.”
“Great. Was he the one who intervened in my virtual training?”
She frowned and nodded.
She was gone. As she walked away he wondered if they’d ever be friends.
He was summoned to see Control by a small message bot which travelled the corridors on wheels at high speed, often bouncing off walls or the occasional person.
“Jacob, welcome to the Real, and welcome to the Engineers.”
The man who greeted him was old. Jacob was shocked. No one in the planes would be old. Oh they might pretend sometimes, but it was rare. The man had wrinkles, and grey hair and was a little stooped.
“Ah thank you.”
“I am Control. Voted for, and with another decade to run on my term.”
“Nice to meet you. Um.”
“I know, you have questions. Can I show you in the Virtual?”
“I didn’t think…”
“Oh, not a plane. I’ll show you.”
The man waved him over to two couches, and indicated he should sit down. Once he had, the man gave him some headphones and a pair of bulky glasses. When he put them on he could see a very poor resolution virtual world and hear a slight hiss. Seconds later the old man appeared next to him, looking a little blocky.
“Not what you’re used to, but all we need.”
“Why don’t you use a plane?”
“We have tried, but we find it becomes addictive, and we lose good Engineers.”
“Let me show you what we do.”
Suddenly they were floating above the ground. Only he could still feel the couch. This really wasn’t like the planes. Below them was a surface covered in shiny panels.
“This is part of the planet above us. Those panels are solar collectors. At this point more than seventy percent of the surface of the Earth is covered in them.”
The back of his mind tickled, he did know this, but he’d forgotten.
“We used to only put the panels on the land, but some centuries ago we found a way to platform across the oceans. Now the only places not covered are the poles, partly due to low solar absorption, and partly for more technical weather control reasons, and the nature reserves. We are next to a nature reserve here, and on your next rest day you’ll be taken out for a tour.”
“I can go outside?”
“Yes, but not for long, your skin will not be ready for it and we wouldn’t want you to get burnt. But we do want you to meet the animals.”
“So why do we need all the solar panels?”
“We need the power, to keep the planes going. Each panel supports, roughly, one person. Their dietary requirements, warmth and everything else, including medical. We have some other power sources, but the complexity and risk have made them unreliable. Solar is best. The energy allows us to create food, clean water and everything else.”
“But that means, well many millions of people are in the planes.”
“Approximately thirty billion, and growing, though slowly.”
“Wow. So we have to keep all of that going?”
“Oh no, the robots do the vast majority, we just deal with glitches and strangenesses.”
“How many Engineers are there?”
“Twenty thousand or so, scattered across the globe in half a dozen different settlements, all of them on the edge of a nature reserve.”
Jacob tried to work out how many panels each Engineer was responsible for, but the sheer size of it overwhelmed him.
“And you want me to help with this?”
“At the moment, I’d just like you to become a proper Engineer. Learn what we do, meet the others and understand the Real. I’d like you to go out and visit the animals as well. Once you’ve settled we can talk more about what else you can do.”
“You were the one who interrupted my simulations.”
“So what did happen to the others who joined from the planes?”
“They went back. Not a single one completed their stint. We had to let them back.”
“It’s that bad.”
“It’s that different. As you already know. You will start to feel the weight of it soon. If you need to talk I’m always here.”
Jacob turned to leave and then turned back and asked, “So all the Engineers…”
“Were born in the Real. They’ve never experienced the planes. It’s been that way for several generations. Some from every generation elect to join the planes, we don’t stop them. They never come back.”
Jacob left thinking that the answers hadn’t helped him much.
“Why are you looking so happy?”
“Morning to you too Sasha. I am happy because I spent yesterday outside. With the animals.”
“No, it was amazing. I can’t explain how amazing they were. In the planes we have simulations of animals, but, they just aren’t the same.”
“I even learned to ride.”
She looked at him in surprise.
“Well I started, I can’t do much more than walk a horse round, but it was astonishing.”
Her expression softened for a moment, but then she shouldered her gear and nodded at him. It was the longest non-work conversation they’d ever had.
Over the weeks he met other members of the team. One of them, Tomi, was particularly friendly and they were soon swapping jokes and stories. Tomi showed him where the bars were, and introduced him to alcohol. The first few times it didn’t work out so well, but after a while he became used to it, and began to look forward to going for a drink after work.
“How was Sasha today?”
“Grumpy. As usual. I don’t get her problem with me, it’s like it’s personal.”
“You still haven’t figured it out?”
“Well, you know Perri?”
“Yeah I guess I’ve met Perri a couple of times.”
“Well, Sasha and Perri were going to be work partners, and Sasha was hoping they would also pair up.”
Jacob looked confused.
“What do you mean pair up?”
“You know, like get together. Marry, that sort of thing.”
“So why do I prevent that?”
“Well, it’s kind of assumed that work partners will pair up. It’s been that way for a while, which is why Control takes such an interest in new pairings. Clearly you’re the one for Sasha!”
Tomi laughed at his look. Jacob had truly never considered it.
“Well Jacob? Don’t you find her attractive?”
“Um, well not really.”
Jacob was uncomfortable with the questions, but Tomi carried on.
“Oh. Are you, uh, you know, interested more in men? Were you a woman in the virtual world?”
Jacob said nothing, just looked away and shuffled on his seat. Tomi realised something was up.
“Sorry Jacob, I didn’t mean to pry, I was only…”
“No, don’t worry Tomi it’s fine. It’s just that where I come from it’s very rude to ask those questions. At least until an approach has been made.”
Jacob sighed. “I guess I should explain. On the planes we meet each other and we may, or may not, have an obvious gender. Some people, possibly many, operate as different genders on different planes.”
“What, you mean be a man on one plane and a woman on another?”
“Yes, as a simplistic example.”
“It’s quite fun actually.”
Tomi stared at him.
“Look Tomi, that was normal. The planes are only limited by imagination, and some people have great imaginations. I could go on about all the combinations, but I was trying to explain. Generally we try to partner with someone we like, and then we can discuss the virtual physical side. That’s the approach.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Crudely, if you find the right person and want them to look different they can. Say you prefer girls and the person you meet is a boy, you could ask them to change. Depending on how deep the relationship is it can be fine. They might change totally in that plane, or they might just allow you to see them as a girl and everyone else sees them as a boy. Or they might suggest that you only meet in a different plane where they happen to be a girl.”
It was clearly blowing Tomi’s mind.
“But one thing we almost never ask is what a person’s real gender is, even in a deep relationship. It’s kind of taboo. Often the only people who know are their parents.”
“But surely people will see you naked as you grow up. I mean, it’s impossible to hide it.”
Jacob blushed a little.
“Well, it has become usual for children to appear be genderless. And have no genitalia at all.”
Tomi just stared at him for a few seconds and then said, “But how do they, um, go to the toilet?”
“It’s all handled in the machine, behind the scenes, so they never know. Until I did my orientation training I’d never consciously had to go to the toilet.”
Tomi looked at him, and laughing said, “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Then he carried on laughing. Jacob smiled too, though he wasn’t seeing the joke. He waved over another couple of drinks, and managed to steer Tomi to more mundane topics.
“Jacob stop what you’re doing.”
He’d been replacing a power unit and thinking about his next day off. He was going to go outside of course, but should he go riding again, or hang out with the goats? Desmon had offered to take him on a mini safari. Off in a daze he hadn’t clocked the flashing red light on their communicators.
Her outstretched hand silenced him. She was listening to the radio. She nodded and then clicked it off.
“This way, now. There’s trouble. Peretina is caught in a breach.”
With that she started running. He began to follow. While he’d learned how to run they hadn’t done it much and he felt very awkward. The service tunnel wasn’t the smallest he’d been in, but he still had to duck and dodge to avoid decapitation or losing a limb. Sasha was soon well ahead of him.
He heard a wail. It must be Sasha, he raced ahead again, narrowly avoiding concussing himself, and rounded a corner to see her banging on a steel door.
He tried to gather his breath to ask her what was wrong when she threw herself at him and started sobbing. He just held her, and then saw the tell-tales on the door. It was showing water pressure and an electric surge. If Peretina was behind the door, then she was in big trouble.
Sasha gathered herself, remembered it was him and backed away, turning around to stare at the door.
“Can we open it another way?”
“How long will she survive? How long have we got?”
She turned to him in disbelief.
“But she can’t be… I mean. Surely we have time…”
She just continued to stare at him, and the truth of what she’d said hit him. It was like the whole world rocked around him. Suddenly he was overtaken by blackness.
“I didn’t think he knew Peretina?”
“Why did he react like that then?”
“We’ll have to ask. I think he’s coming round.”
Jacob opened his eyes to see Tomi, Sasha and a doctor, not the one he knew, looking down at him.
“Jacob, I’m Doctor Fisal. How are you feeling?”
“Um, ok. Tired. My shoulder hurts a little.”
“You bruised it as you fell. The good news is that you’re ok, the computer has cleared you.”
There was a brief pause, then the doctor said, “She’s dead Jacob, she died instantaneously. She was working on a water pressure system and something failed, engulfing her in water and shorting the local electrics. She would not have felt much pain, or awareness of her situation.”
“But. She’ll come back?”
The doctor shook his head sadly.
“No. She’s gone.”
Jacob stared at him again, and then slumped back. He wouldn’t respond again and the doctor gently shuffled the others out.
“So why did it affect him so badly Doctor?”
“Sasha, it’s taken me a while, and it’s only a theory, but I don’t think he’s ever know anyone die.”
“In the planes they live for a very long time. They each live in a hermetically sealed pod. The machines have pretty much eliminated disease. People don’t interact physically any more so diseases can’t be passed, and the nano medicine deals with the vast majority of internal problems. They don’t do anything in the physical world, so accidents, or deliberate acts of violence just aren’t possible. The only real possibility is something genetic, and even there I think the majority are screened out when the babies are produced – they’re all in vitro as you know.”
Sasha stared, and he continued,
“From what I’ve picked up, it seems that as people age they move from one group of planes to another. The new groups might be mostly contained of planes which run a little slower, or aren’t as exciting. When they move from a group they don’t drop off, but they fade away. They still contact people occasionally, but they’ve moved to a different life. Jacob last spoke to his parents about forty years ago.”
“They realised what an idiot he is?”
The Doctor frowned, “No, not at all, they just moved to another group. They’ve faded out of his life, though he thinks they’re still alive. If he had been closer to them he might have followed them to a new group.”
“There must be something, some external threat.”
“Like Peretina? Sometimes things happen. Meteorites we don’t catch, or a blow out like with Peretina, but they’re not always fatal and they’re very rare, and among the billions it’s not a surprise that Jacob wouldn’t know someone who’d died that way. Even if he did, he might just think they’d moved and not told him.”
“So he didn’t care about her.”
“No. Not in a personal way, but he cares that she’s gone. It’s touched him at his core. Changed him. Made him grow up perhaps.”
She snorted and shook her head.
“You have to get him to answer the question Control. Enough with this bonding. Playing with animals is not solving our problem.”
“I want to give him more time to get over Peretina’s death,” Control frowned at Benson, who was currently second Control.
“He didn’t know her.”
“Yes, but her death has shocked him. I worry that, well, that it has set him back. If we ask him to help and he doesn’t commit, or care, he’ll just go back to the planes. What do we do then?”
“If we had time I would agree with you, but you know where we are. We have no time. We have to discuss the protocols. Even if we slow the planes we have no more than ten years before the planes will literally be out of power, and none of us know what will happen then. We could lose millions. Billions.”
“I know. I know. I’ll get him in. Let’s see if he will help.” Control looked drained. The worry and responsibility was weighing heavily on him.
Jacob walked into the room and slumped into the chair. He didn’t even seem to notice the others in the room.
“Jacob, I’ve asked you here because we need your help,” began Control.
“What with?” Jacob answered, with a slightly detached air. Control looked at him worriedly. Tomi and Sasha exchanged a look, this is what they’d been dealing with for the last few weeks.
“We have a problem. We’re going to run out of energy for the planes. Soon, in a few years, if the population continues to grow, even as slowly as it is. At which point we have a number of hard options.”
“Such as?” Was that a spark of interest in Jacob’s eyes.
“We could sacrifice the animals.”
“No!” There was steel certainty in that no.
“I agree, and it wouldn’t help much, maybe give us another three years’ growth. If we slow all the planes we can buy another ten, maybe fifteen, years, but then we’ll have nothing.”
“What else have you considered?”
“Euthanasia and stopping childbirth for a period of time,” said Benson, a little gruffly.
Jacob looked shocked.
“What else can we do? Not that they’ll really solve the problem.” Benson challenged.
Jacob had been thinking, and he felt stupid asking, but it seemed obvious to him. They must have already discounted it for some reason.
“Why don’t we gather more energy?”
“I’ve already explained. We’re getting the most we can from solar, and we’ve had to limit the geothermal and nuclear options. We can’t get any more,” answered Control.
“We could get more solar… if we put out some sails above the Earth. Or maybe mirrors to focus energy onto collection spots.”
Control brightened and said, “So you know how we could do that?”
“Well then what good is it suggesting them? We need practical suggestions of what we can do!” the strain Control had been under was starting to show.
Jacob didn’t really notice, he was finally coming out of the fug he’d been in, he continued, “But we could ask one, or more, of the research planes. They’ll work it out, and we can just make it happen.”
This was the nub of the problem.
“I’ve asked. And asked. And pleaded, begged. Dozens of times. I’ve tried everything. Either they aren’t interested, or they come up with ridiculous suggestions.”
“I quite liked the perpetual motion engine,” interjected Tomi.
Control quelled his amusement with a look and turned back to Jacob.
“We’ve sent people in, they don’t come back. So you see, they can’t help. We’re Engineers, but we haven’t been able to come up with a solution. We need their help, and yet…”
Jacob thought about it, and then said, “Perhaps you’ve been approaching it the wrong way. They probably view it as an abstract, and not particularly complex, problem.”
“So how would you approach it?”
He started to describe how he’d get them involved using words like network dominance, disintermediated interest groups and quite a number of words which none of the others had ever heard of. He was in full flow when he looked up and realised he’d lost his audience.
“Um, let me see if I can explain in Real language. I think perhaps we should propose it as a sort of competition, maybe post it to one of the space mechanics planes and let the other planes hear of it, then they’ll want in. As long as we specify the starting conditions to be as if they are in the Real, and we may have to emphasise that, then hopefully they’ll give us some great ideas. I’m sure one will work.”
“What would the prize be, we can’t offer them anything they want.”
“Kudos. Perhaps say it’s the first of a decennial competition, and we could name it after Peretina.”
He stopped a second, thinking about the accident, then continued, “Then it has Real history as well. Also to have something built in the Real? That might be just unusual and odd enough to encourage even more to apply, and the more we get the better. I think they’d go for it.”
“I don’t know. But we’re desperate, let’s do it.”
And the Peretina Fal Yurlins Award was born. Jacob worked tirelessly to set it up, staying in the Real, but using all his connections on the planes. When it was officially announced the scientist planes went crazy. At first they thought the Engineers were restricting it to just the space mechanics plane, as soon as it was made clear that it was an open competition all sorts of crazy ideas flooded in.
“You were right Control,” Benson said, and there was no rancour in his admission.
“I was lucky. We all were.”
“It is my great pleasure to award the second Peretina Fal Yurlins Award from the physical manifestation of the first award.”
Control did sound pleased as his image was projected into the Planes, and the virtual award flashed into life.
While the speeches were going on, Tomi nudged Jacob, “Look down there.”
Jacob looked, though he’d been looking down all day. They could see miles of the planet below. The solar panels winking at them and the shadow from the beanstalk slowly swinging across.
“I can’t believe we’re on a giant plant.”
“And it’s still growing. I can’t wait to see the sails.”
The stalk climber continued up the giant beanstalk, taking them up smoothly despite its many legs and the roughness of the beanstalk.
A while later, after the ceremony had completed, Jacob nudged Tomi back. The climber was slowing as they neared the end, where the stalk was still green and growing. On each side huge silvery sheets spread out, like giant petals.
“The solar sails stupid.”
“I never believed they’d happen,” said Jacob.
Control leant over, “Without you Jacob, they never would have. The world of the planes had become too self-indulgent to save itself. No, that’s unfair. We’d just lost the ability to communicate with them. With your help, and this latest effort we’ve not only bought ourselves many more decades of gentle growth, but a new way of communicating. Of making friends.”
Jacob ducked his head, slightly embarrassed, and the looked at Sasha who was at the other window looking at. She turned to him and smiled slightly.
He smiled back, and said, “Or starting to…”