“Masks on,” came the voice through the radio. Garan and his second, Jobe, put on their light filter masks and resumed their positions on the deck of the massive structure. Sunlight had come filtering through the omnipresent smog, heating up the dust and exhaust below, and as happened every morning at about this time, it had risen to their level and was now at toxic concentrations.
From a distance, they were invisible, just another aggregation of detail on the face of the massive structure. Stretching a third of a mile into the air, the giant cube concrete, steel and glass occupied seventy square blocks in the city. Its base was made of reinforced concrete, with entrances only for delivery trucks. Inside, rows of apartments were divided by tiered gardens, all sealed within a greenhouse, generating the air that the colony needed. It was environmentally-friendly, self-sufficient and armed to the teeth against outsiders.
As the sun rose, it illuminated the waves of clutter on the low hills and valleys stretching outward — seemingly infinitely — from the cube. These were the favelas, or free economic zone, which were built by their residents and ruled by nothing. Somewhere in this mess, people grew food, slaughtered animals, made products and waged constant warfare on themselves. Jobe and Garan were wary because today was a lottery day, which meant that the residents would be restive.
In contrast, those in the cube did not play the lottery; they did not need to. These were the people who worked in the office jobs at the firms who made the products which were absorbed by the favelas. Batteries, tires, engines, guns, medicine and entertainment devices flowed out of factories far away and arrived at the stores in a separate security garrison at the other edge of the city. The citizens flowed in, walking with the shuffling gait and nod of people who were barely mentally there, to buy whatever they could put on credit. The people in the cube were of a class better than citizen, namely “employee,” which meant that they had the right to live in the cubes and could purchase products from the delivery network which brought them right to their doors. Most never left the cube at all, although the wealthiest would jet to some of the private islands that still remained out there in the perpetually gray, overcast, smog-encased globe which humanity called home.
In the cubes, the air was always cool and fresh, full of oxygen from the many plantings and the ten stories above that were an organic farm. Here everything was precious: each floor was named after an animal, some of which were not extinct, and recycling bins were everywhere. Their food was fair trade because it was produced by robots, carbon-neutral and consisted mostly of plants which never naturally grew here, from quinoa to acai berries and Icelandic kale. On every floor, the exercise rooms were crammed with thin and fit people working out on the machines, and most employees spent a fair amount of their free time in volunteer activities like making smocks for the infants of the citizens. Colorful murals adorned every wall, and each person was unique in that they had some activity that no other person engaged in, like collecting vintage Soviet radios or making artisanal wooden forks. To its inhabitants, this place was paradise.
For a twenty-first century person, the cube would seem like an aggregate of whatever had been popular in the past twenty decades. The digital libraries were full of books of Ideas like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. If you asked them, these people were the most progressive ever, against racism, sexism, homophobia or discrimination of any kind. They recognized only the hierarchy of money, and were proud of the fact that they had risen above the favelas, even if most of them had never been there. Inside the cube, these slender people resembled twenty-first century South Americans: slightly Eurasian, dark of hair and eye, with the slightly curved noses and curly hair of those who had absorbed something from the African continent as well despite their relatively pale skin. Out there in the favelas, people had higher amounts of Asian and African blood, but were short and squat, and tended to be not very bright. This was acknowledged with a wink and a smile within the cube. The employees considered themselves to be winners, and everyone else to effectively be a loser, and because this was not based in race or privilege, it was considered not only fair but a judgment greater than that of God, although no one would admit to such an anachronistic belief.
Every employee had a number, such as 001-090-1691, which was Garan’s number. This meant he was from the first row, floor 90, unit #1691. The units were spacious, with each having a view of a garden through which sunlight filtered from the greenhouses above, consisting of five rooms and a central area to which many had added pools or gardens of their own. Their food came from the restaurants staggered among the floors or the stores at the ground level: Amazon, Costco, Walmart and Target. There were even artisanal stores and smaller boutiques where people bought more advanced products, but everyone ended up at the discount stores at some point, because why pay more? Only suckers and losers paid full price for objects which originated in the same vertical farms and assembly lines. There were hospitals, schools, and pubs, but no jails. There was only one penalty here, which was to be ejected into the favelas, and for that reason, they had zero crime of any type. People were careful not to leave their belongings in the halls or to engage in any behavior which inconvenienced or offended anyone. Conversation centered around topics discussed in the big magazines or on the video feeds, but never ventured beyond that. Raising the idea of God, heritage, or even personal achievement was not forbidden, but might give rise to citizens filing complaints from their portable nodes, and if enough of those accumulated, the person who occasioned them would face a committee who had the power to vote for exile. It was always good to be friends with people who were rumored to be on those committees.
Out on the sixteenth-floor balcony, beneath giant vents which blasted heat from the cooling system into the already searing atmosphere, Garan adjusted the site on his APW-25. To a twenty-first century person, it resembled a small-scale anti-tank missile, a long tube with a digitally-enhanced sight.
“Dukhs on quadrant seven, four of them, coming in fast,” crackled through the radio. Jobe and Garan zoomed in with their scopes and as they expected, saw a group of four nehis — this was their term for favela-dwellers — coming down one of the jagged avenues between the cramped and chaotic tenements. Garan could see the rifles in their hands. Several dozen times a day, the cube came under assault by one of the perpetually-changing groups of dissidents who wanted “change” of some kind, even though in Garan’s view, the cubes were the best possible outcome for this world.
“Got ’em, esse,” Garan radioed back. He locked the tracking laser onto the group, painting them in an invisible cone of light which the missile would follow, striking in the center. Then he depressed the trigger, steeling himself for the bang! and whoosh! as the missile flew toward its target. He struggled to keep the tracking laser on target through the cloud of smoke and watched as the fire of the rocket engine, small amidst the towering ruins of the tenements, followed his signal toward the group. As they passed a doorway, a woman came out, squat and dumpy like a thumb, holding a baby which would grow up to be the same. Garan did not change the course of his missile. The only goal was to protect the cube.
Impact came just as the dukhs (their term for anonymous assailants) raised the first of their rifles. The warheads produced a “dome of death,” about ten meters of destruction in any direction, as they fragmented and then those fragments detonated, shredding anything within that range. This happened abruptly before the dukhs recognized they were under attack, which was what usually happened. The missiles raced toward their targets at seven hundred miles an hour, and so struck silently and invisibly from their cover of smog. The street lit up with the blast, which sounded like a pop from nearly a mile away, and the dukhs disintegrated. The now headless-woman dropped the baby into a street littered with fragments of metal and human animal, and a bolus of internal organs blasted through the door, no doubt covering the inhabitants within as they screamed. The baby squirmed twice in its dirty blanket, then lay still, probably a casualty of the shrapnel produced by the fragmentation of the warhead cover. Garan shrugged. It really had no life to look forward to, anyway, outside of the cube.
Smoke obscured the street. It was too far away for the men on the cube to hear, and they were already looking toward the next threat, which was a group to the north who were going to be the second attack. There were often bouts of attacks during the week when things were particularly bad in the heap of cobbled-together concrete tenements, and so the dozen men who were stationed outside the building maintained constant radio traffic as they scanned the hundred avenues converging on the cube. Jobe motioned to Garan, pointing two fingers toward one of the streets — these changed direction and location when a block of ghetto fell over on itself, as happened regularly — where another group were advancing. They wore black, which implied a religious group, and kept their hands behind their backs. Through his scope Garan could see the barrel of a rifle behind one, so he tagged the video and sent it to their commander inside. Then he deliberately relaxed his muscles and focused all of his attention on the group while waiting for approval from command.
Jobe identified another group a street over and was tracking them. They communicated by radio so they did not have to take their eyes from their scopes. Garan liked this job, and hoped someday to advance to be a commander, so he could sit in the nice air conditioning and take a higher salary for looking at video camera feeds and approving counter-strikes. As as result, he took his task very seriously. As he watched, one of the figures in black broke away and ran into the tenement. “One broke away,” he said to Jobe, then returning to tracking the group. They had paused, as if waiting for a signal, which made the pit of his stomach contract. This meant that several groups would attack at once. A few months ago, they had gotten close enough to batter their way into the underground delivery area with rocket-propelled grenades. The cube, named Byūt for an ancient God in someone else’s culture, was separated from the ghetto tenement by only a scant hundred yards of planted esplanade, road and parking spillway, which was why people like Garan and Jobe were hired to ensure that they did not close the distance. The nehis — this was their generic term for people living in the favelas — usually attacked in groups, at which point they became dukhs, or targets. The term, similar to the ancient usage “bogey,” meant “ghost,” and this was the way that Garan and his comrades kept their emotions at bay as they blasted dukhs into paste using their guided rockets.
This knowledge weighed heavily on Garan as he concentrated. The sun was always hot, the noise and smells of the street always disturbing, and inevitably something would itch. Today it was a spot on his left buttock. His deceptive mind summoned up a host of possible notions in response to any stimulus, and did so here as well, filling his head with options such as the possibility of a clogged pore, ingrown hair, insect bite or even fatal cancer. He did not flinch. Through his radio, he heard Jobe add groups down two more streets, and then after a pause, add, “That guy from the first group showed up with the second, and I think he’s bringing them RPGs.” This naturally made Garan wary; the rocket propelled grenade or RPG was one of the few things that could destroy walls, doors and the cameras on which they relied. If one of those defenses went down, more attackers would surge in and he would not be able to vaporize enough of them to repel the attack. He tracked his scope to the second street where he saw one of the dukhs from the first attack group had indeed joined the second group, and appeared to be offering them a backpack.
“Uh, we got weapons in street two,” Garan muttered into the radio. “Request permission.” He zoomed in and saw the backpack was rather full, and some kind of negotiation was going on. As he watched, a tall man came running from the shadows of the tenement. Garan squinted. There was something anomalous about this person, from his slender height to his stride. He moved confidently with a manic intensity that the slower-thinking nehis rarely managed. This man handed something small to the man with the backpack. The latter took the new object aside and flipped through it. He was counting cash, Garan realized, at the same moment he registered the removal of rockets from the backpack. He flagged that segment of the video and sent it to command with a few finger gestures.
“We have three groups forming now, ready to attack the second quadrant, and they’ve received new weapons from this guy. Request permission to fire,” Jobe said. Still no word from command.
Garan tensed. Was someone in the bathroom, or just playing politics? If they gave permission now, they took a risk of accidentally wiping out a few innocent nehis along with the dukhs, but to wait too long meant that the bad guys might get the first shot. He turned his focus back to the first group, which he thought were most likely to attack. When the scope focused, he saw the weapons merchant with a new backpack, and the tall man again handing over what looked like cash. Jobe reported the same on several other streets. “We have bad guys unpacking new RPGs on four streets,” Jobe said. “Command, please give us permission.” Both men were now furiously flagging and logging video.
They had standing orders to eliminate any group approaching with weapons. The grey area occurred where groups without visible weapons, before an attack had officially begun, were observed. The cubes sold a lot of product to the favelas, and an unclean kill could cause a backlash in which the entire tenement attacked, at which point the cubes would have to summon the mercenaries they kept on retainer. That in itself was a problem because not only was it expensive, but it also created disturbance for the workflow in the cubes, where most people worked from home or in large workspaces on the upper floors, which could impede the flow of business. That was ultra-taboo.
Jobe slapped the side of his launcher. “Ti amo, bellissima,” he said as he caressed it. Garan saw that he was nervous, and threw in the usual light-hearted banter they indulged in to avoid stressing out.
“She’s beautiful. Best in the world,” he said.
Jobe shrugged. “Maybe someday someone will invent something better. But for now, I am trusting her, and I love her with all my heart. Nie moge Å¼yÄ‡ bez ciebie, NajdroÅ¼sza.”
Garan grinned, and turned back to his scope. There was movement on the street.
“Command, we need an answer, over,” Jobe begged onto the radio. No response. They turned back to their scopes. Garan was alternating between the first and second groups, and on one of these passes, he caught a flash of movement. “We’re under fire,” he said into the radio, seconds before a rocket detonated against the building. Since his weapon was fixed on the second group, Garan squeezed the trigger and then focused the scope so that he could guide the missile in toward the second group, who were now pulling rockets out of the backpack while the tall man watched nearby. Something garbled came over the radio but he did not have time to ask for clarification as he nosed the rocket down into the group and enveloped them in the warm orange glow of a two-stage explosion. He swung the weapon back toward the first group, who Jobe had partially destroyed, and focused on the weapon-seller, who was shuffling with an injured leg as he went toward a pile of junk to hide. The second missile kicked free, and Garan guided it to ground level so that it skimmed the ground and then veered left into the heap toward which the weapons merchant was heading. The bloom of fire was bigger than expected, and he realized that he had hit the heap where the man was stashing his weapons, along with what looked like illegal gasoline as well. Flames filled the narrow street and people began to flee the carbonizing tenement. He had only seconds to look, because he had loosed a third missile toward the group, half of whom were wounded, steering it into the hard concrete between them and watching as a satisfying upward blast scattered bits of meat and organs over both sides of the street.
“Command, please repeat, over,” he said into the radio. The line crackled and then the voice of his commander came on: “Belay the last order. We are under attack. Weapons free, I repeat, weapons free.”
Jobe and Garan wasted no time targeting the other groups converging on the cube. Jorge loosed two rockets in rapid succession and guided them into a large group assembling weapons far down one of the streets, sweeping his laser from left to right so that the rockets bracketed the group five seconds apart. Airborne meat and shrapnel from secondary explosions bathed the street, causing a number of nehis to fall clutching limbs or midsections. Collateral damage was part of the job. As Garan targeted another group, machine gun fire stitched across the concrete surface below them, and Jobe dropped a rocket down its path, then used his scope to find the group in black which was firing. Another dome of death lit the dismal scene below, and bodies dropped lifeless, one raising its hands as if praying, which Garan had come to recognize as a symptom of a fatal head wound. He fired toward the group he had seen, but not before an RPG slammed into the loading bay, lighting it from within and blasting bits of something out into the street. He realized that this was probably one of their loaders who had been caught in a confined space by the blast and liquefied. Swearing, he racked in another missile and loosed it toward a group who were flanking them through another avenue, guiding it with a sure hand to right in front of where the men were raising their weapons. Eight vanished into giblets or fell, but two began dragging themselves away, legs full of shrapnel. His next missile enwrapped them in flame, and then all was silence. For now, the attack was over.
Back in the locker room, Garan rested his forehead against the cold steel of the compartment that contained his only personal belongings. What a day… he had fired a dozen rockets and splashed many bad guys, and the attack had been driven back, but not without more than a handful of rocket-propelled grenades hitting the cube. He felt as if he had done all that he could — and where the heck was his commander when they were requesting permission to fire? — but that the situation had gotten out of control. Jobe slapped him on the shoulder, gave a smile, and said, “See you tomorrow.” That raised his spirits more than anything else, and so he went toward his cubicle, perhaps not the biggest or most elaborate model, but a decent box where he was comfortable in the hours between working or working out in order to keep his sexual appeal and business appearance high.
Along the way, he passed one of the hall murals, which had David Sterling, the founder of this particular cube, speaking from his office years ago. His firm — Kolowitz, Ionnadis, O’Malley and DiPietro — was responsible for securing the funding and permits to build this giant cubicle farm during the years when governments were defaulting, continents were possessed by warfare, and global order was disintegrating. KIOD had taken on outrageous loans, but by building the cubicles, guaranteed themselves a source of funding for the perpetual future, which enabled the cubes to continue operating. In the video, Sterling was describing the benefits of “statistical government,” which relied not on who citizens were but the mathematics of the likelihood of any given action they would take; in this way, it did not address individual cases, but behaviors, and provided for them with a community insurance fund that subtracted money from each person to provide for the future number of anticipated incidents. “And that way, statistical government guarantees a good life for all, by eliminating risk,” Sterling said in the muted colors of antique video. “See what good happens when Socialism and Capitalism join forces? We have removed risk, doubt and suffering, and left only a life of the most exceptional functionality,” he said, gesturing toward a long-destroyed city. Garan had seen the video a thousand times. He would often watch it after a rough day to remind himself why he went out there. Other than for the paycheck, of course.
His cubicle was dark because the lights automatically shut off to save power and reduce carbon. He waved them on, took a quick shower and collapsed on the sofa, then fired up the video wall, letting exhaustion drain from himself as he drank an Ethical Beer — these were low-alcohol and contained mood-regulating chemicals to prevent violence — and looked over the news report. He was glad that second shift had taken over. Smoke clouds drifted around the cube, and he thought he could hear the occasional blast of rockets, which meant that instead of being driven back, the nehis had advanced enough that others were joining the attack. He activated his personal node, knowing that if the attack worsened, he would be called out to fight, and then without intending it, drifted into sleep.
Garan found himself in the land of dreams, which like most educated people he regarded as the product of random firing of the synapses on par with superstitions and other religions, where he wandered among rooms from his past. These were all within the same cube in which he now lived, in different apartments, starting with his parents and grandparents, then a string of girlfriends and school friends, in each one marveling at how the person had made the space unique with furniture, gardens, video on the walls, and even the psychic stims that instilled a feeling of goodness and mercy in anyone who stood within their orbit. As often happens in dreams, these rooms were connected, so he found himself drifting from the kitchen of his grandfather, who like most men in this society dated his grandmother for a half-decade in order to have and raise children, into the living room of his first girlfriend, who revealed to him one night that he was only her forty-fifth sexual experience and her thirty-sixth with a man. For a reason he could not fathom, this unnerved him, and at first he thought it was the machine-like counting, but he could say nothing because to be offensive in that way would be a voteable offense. As he walked through the rooms, ticking off time through place, he finally realized that what bothered him was not the number, but that like the rooms, it was an elaborate attempt to cover up the same-ness of it all. He was to her a time, not a place, and since all places were generic, even that would have no lasting hold on her. There was nothing to compare with how he viewed himself, which was — if he got right down to it and spoke what burbled up out of him like a hot spring on a distant mountain — an eternal being or being-ness. And so he drifted through these rooms, with nothing permanent except himself, and as the rooms changed he suddenly began to perceive that only the decorations were changing, which meant that by converse, he was standing still in a universal room as decorations flew through it, marking time without place. With each change in the decorations, there was a thunderous drum, and yet it was empty to him. He woke in a sweat.
Someone pounded on the door. This by itself was anomalous because most visitors announced themselves, and to knock was considered rude. As the pounding continued, he heard other pounding outside, which sounded to him like the landing of rockets. He waved over the console to open the door. Three men in uniforms that he recognized from his defense class stood there. “You’re to report to the committee,” said one quietly. Garan looked between them, and understood immediately. He put on his uniform and joined them, then moved to lock his door. One of the men simply raised a hand and stopped him; instead, he used his portable node, and re-assigned the cubicle to the authorities, since Garan was now in custody and had indeterminate status as an employee.
“Hey buddy,” Jobe spoke out of the darkened room when Garan was deposited there, silently, by the three men.
Garan nodded and swallowed. “What are we in for?”
“No one’s saying. Yet.” And to punctuate that, another explosion radiated from outside. They were on a lower level, closer to the action. Men and women in uniform, carrying AGP-25s, rushed past, their shadows sliding across the glass panel in the door. A dull boom radiated from outside. Garan and Jobe exchanged worried glances. But as time passed, and silence descended, they relaxed and to their horror, found that boredom had replaced concern. In whispered conversation, they went over the events of the past day. As far as either of them could tell, they had followed the rules and if anything, more people should have listened to them and cut this attack off before it could gain momentum and others from the tenements — mostly lounging around in poverty with nothing exciting to do — joined in and made it an actual threat. But other than command hesitating to give them permission to fire, there had been no unusual events. They were baffled, mainly because while the rules were simple in the cube, often the interpretation was complex. For example, the cube had a list of basic commitments to which every employee pledged:
These were in fact printed on a metal sheet affixed to the wall of the room in which they were now confined, which seemed to be a conference room in which certain items had been stored. He had read them before, and reflected on how fair-minded they were, but then began to notice a circularity. It was as if the text were some kind of exotic poem which tried to return to the same places in a different context, and make them new places, when in fact that meant their meaning had simply altered itself. He thought of what Jobe had said. Maybe this was good, but it was only the best until someone invented something better. He wondered if that would occur. Jobe lay down on the floor. Garan rooted through one box and found cleaning supplies, so began cleaning the table. Jobe laughed.
“It’s something to do,” Garan said. As he finished saying this something shuddered through the building. They looked at each other, perplexed. Were events this far out of hand? But then silence returned, and Garan, having finished cleaning the table, wiped down the chairs and then sat in one. He scanned the room once more, seeing again the same walls. It occurred to him that this room was roughly the size of his living room at what was once his home, and that if the decor and furniture were swapped, he would be doing roughly what he normally did at this time. He lapsed into a doze, and only awoke when Jobe shook him as the door opened. Three new people in uniform stood there. They pointed to Jobe, and he was led out of the room. Alone, Garan attempted to breathe evenly, dispelling his concern at whatever was going on, both for him and for the cube.
Hours later the door opened again. Five figures stood there. “You are charged with the killing of another employee,” said one simply, and they led him away. They told him that there were no charges against Jobe, and took him into another room where he recognized the tell-tale signs of a committee: a conference table, projection wall, portable nodes in front of chairs. And then the committee came in. They wore formal clothing and serious expressions. With equal parts terror and absurdity coursing through his mind, Garan struggled to contain his facial expression. The eldest sat at the head of the table, and one of the uniforms motioned for Garan to sit at the opposite end. At this point, his mind could barely handle the transition between three spaces: out on the shooting ledge, in his living room, and now here, facing a committee which could exile him.
“This is the video feed from your weapon,” said the elder, and on the projection wall, Garan saw his scope zoom focus to the group unloading rockets from the backpack. Nearby was a tall, slender man, who Garan now remembered as being anomalous. He saw the heat distortion of the image as the rocket launched, then the dark wisps of its exhaust, and finally the flare of its engine as it descended and impacted before the group. The video went to slow motion and faded out as the explosion consumed the figures standing there. Garan had to admit certain satisfaction with his targeting, but this dissipated as he looked at the stern eyes of the committee.
“The tall man to the left was an employee of this cube,” said one of the other committee members, simply. “Do you have anything to say?”
Garan cleared his throat. “It was a good kill. My partner and I observed that this group was receiving new rocket propelled grenades, like the kind I hear exploding against our walls outside, in exchange for money brought by the tall man. At the time of the shoot, they were preparing to use these rockets. We had no indication that this man was an employee, nor did we receive any word from command, but since they were in the process of arming their weapons for use, according to our code of combat conduct, my action to target and destroy them was not only legitimate but mandated.”
The silence took them all by surprise. They were accustomed to having activity going on around them, both as a background and as an agenda, to react to. Without it, the room took on a sparseness, as if all identifying objects had been removed, and they were adrift in time and place, unsure of how to orient themselves.
The elder spoke again. “This employee was enjoying his right to self-expression, and was unjustly terminated for it. No one of us knows any better than any others, so it was not your place to reprimand his behavior.”
Garan felt the giddiness return. “He was aiding the people who are attacking this cube at the very moment. He gave them money for weapons. We all saw this on the video, or at least you would if you rewound a few minutes before. Whether or not he was expressing himself, he had become a threat to the cube, and I acted to prevent that thread from manifesting.”
The other committee member spoke up. “Here we must decide on our highest values. On one hand, this employee was entitled to freedom. On the other, the group must be protected.” At this point, Garan was led from the room.
As he walked behind the uniforms leading him back to the conference room, he briefly considered escape. His mind rejected this after only a moment, since there was nowhere to go. Out in the favelas, he would be torn apart. His cubicle was locked. There were no places he could hide, and no way he could eat, live or wander. Garan watched his spirits dissolve within him. There was no way out. As his mind wandered, he noticed the woman ahead of him and how well she wore her uniform. She had medium-brown eyes, a rarity among the dark-haired and dark-eyed employees. Slender, with hints of musculature, she had a graceful neck that he admired, and a pleasant face. As if she felt the eyes on the back of her neck, she dropped back and spoke quickly to him.
“I hear you were our top shooter for this quarter,” she said.
Garan nodded, then slipped into the personality he wore like a new suit when he sought out women in the pubs, and said, “I had nowhere to go but up.” Self-deprecation always made the other party believe she was in power, and this affirmed Garan’s power, because he both dodged the voteable complaint of being prideful, and also, by aggressively asserting this humility, made it indefinably clear that he believed in no such humility for himself. Girls also liked that, he recalled, as he gave her his best smile. But one of the other uniforms made a guttural sound, and she caught up, leaving him with his thoughts.
During his time, Garan had experienced more than his share of girlfriends. Since casual sex was considered a health risk, people formed relationships for up to years at a time, coming together for sexual pleasure, companionship and raising children, but none of them lasted. Someone who stayed with another person for too long was perceived as powerless, so none of them stayed. The need for power was greater than the need for place. The names and faces of the girls changed, but never the feeling afterward. There was always an emptiness, like a room that needed to be filled, or a silence which needed driving away. But there were always more women, and he found himself choosing them by their job titles, enjoying the feeling of speaking their importance to others, as if they were attainments or targets he found on his scope. But then they left, never acrimoniously as that could create voteable complaints, just changing what they wanted, much like they might hang a new picture on the wall. And so his last resistance crumbled, because even if he got out of this jam he was in, this girl would be about as satisfying as the last few, whose names even he found hard to recall.
Inside the room, the woman whose neck had attracted him paused at the doorway, then pressed a generic node into his hand and pointed to a wall. He nodded his thanks, and a decent interval after the door closed and the shadows on the glass disappeared, he fired up the video and watched the news report, which occurred on a channel that otherwise played music designed to condition the mind into a place of peace and contentment, with announcements fading in with the voice of a child. On the background of a scene of people playing a complex sport involving a flying disc in a vertical maze, a video feed appeared with blurred chiaroscuro edges. It showed the feed from video cameras outside, which was a scene of battle interrupted by shrouds of smoke which drifted across the lens, creating the impression of scenes from a dream. Garan sucked in his breath. The nehis had taken over the road and were at the base of the cube. Rockets flew, blinding a camera and blasting jagged wounds into the surface of the concrete. He saw the cube was firing back as well, but with so many targets, he knew the shooters were paralyzed by too many choices. For them, the scenery had all flowed together and become the same, and so they were firing by rote, instead of choosing the strategic places that were important to the revolutionaries. Garan wanted to be up there on his ledge with his trusty weapon, but also felt himself withdrawing from it for the first time, perhaps because he had no idea if he had a future in this cube. Loyalties needed to be two-way, he remembered from one of his military history classes. As he mused on this, he saw the crowd part like an elaborate dance, allowing trucks through which then charged the front of the building. Two were firing the high-explosive RPGs he had seen sold on the street, severely damaging the loading door, but another simply charged ahead through the confused rocket fire from defenders and collided with the door. The video feed went orange and the sound cut out just as Garan felt a violent throb pass through the building.
The door opened suddenly. A uniform was standing beside the ashen elder. “We are under attack. Your services are needed,” the other said, and the uniform handed him his weapon and an amply supply of rockets, which he shouldered with difficulty under the weight.
“Quadrant six,” said the other. Garan nodded. This would put him right over the door that had been destroyed, eight stories up. He oriented himself toward the elevator that would take him there, and in doing so went past the committee room. He heard snatches of voices: “– when an employee invites the citizens in –” stated a pained voice, answered by a rumble of others, then “what about my rights to self-expression without citizens –” which then faded out as well. Garan had no time to puzzle over these, because as he rounded the corridor, a rocket slammed into one of the inside walls. He choked on smoke and ran to the edge of the massive courtyard that contained the garden and a public gathering space. In it, he saw a mixture of citizens and employees rallying behind a red and blue flag. Trails of rockets mingled as fire rose from the edges of this group. Garan raised his weapon, then realized he would be firing on employees. He triggered his radio and said simply, “We have intruders on the main patio. They are apparently working with some employees. Please advise.”
Static murmured through the headphones, then a voice cut in that he recognized as the elder. “Do not target employees. They have a right to self-expression. That is the basis of the rule of the cube. Citizens may be targeted.”
Garan clicked the mike again. “Respectfully, what about the citizens who are opening fire on us? They are standing with the employees. There is no way to separate targets.”
The voice, tired, came over the line with a heavy echo. “We cannot violate our most important policy, which is that every individual is sovereign. The tenth rule states this well.”
He slammed his fist into the concrete wall, which being of the nature of concrete, was unyielding and merely bruised the outer edge of his hand. “I submit to the committee that if we do not violate some policies, there will not be a cube for long. The terrorists are coming in greater numbers now.”
Another voice came on the line, that of the younger committee member to whom he had spoken before. She said simply, “They were invited in. Seek targets among those who are outside.”
Garan abandoned the courtyard and rode the elevator to the hall to the eighth-floor platform. There he took position and began scanning. While the others fired wildly, Garan looked at the human topography of the dukhs below. Some were clearly more active, commanding if not firing back, and he began to focus on these. He zoomed his scope on a small group that appeared to be distributing weapons, then guided in his flared missile and watched as the detonation blossomed into several others, the damaged weapons spraying shrapnel among the group. The black-suited enemy withdrew for a moment, and he heard cheers over the radio as for the first time, the attackers gave ground. Next he loosed a round toward a group with scopes of their own, obviously scanning the walls for defenders, and breathed with relief as the dome of fire enclosed and digested them. He loaded and fired mechanically, hitting the nodes in the layout of attackers before him, paring down those that were most active. A gratifying number of secondary explosions followed this activity. He saw that the line of attackers was steadily withdrawing, but to his horror, he also saw a tall slender man motioning in the attackers near the ragged hole where the loading dock had once been. Three of the shorter, rounder figures dressed in black were hurrying toward it. On instinct, Garan launched a rocket, but as the laser guided it in, he jogged his hand to make the rocket execute a wide arc, delaying it by a half second so that it impacted just as the group, carrying heavy packs, were within paces of the door. The orange doom swelled around them, and as bits of flesh rained down after the blast, the first of their packages detonated. The figure in the doorway seemed to melt in slow motion, disintegrating as the shockwave hit. “Friendly fire,” muttered Garan.
His fellow team members on the upper level, their number cut in half by enemy missiles, took his lead and began to target groups that were instrumental to the action of the enemy as a team. Soon the crowd was milling about, firing randomly, and this disorder caused the line to retreat further to more cheers over the radio. An animal spirit infused the rigid discipline of these thoroughly enlightened soldiers. More missiles rained down, and the ability of his team to intuit nodal points in the attacking surge was improving, because Garan saw more panicked attackers fleeing, and a rippling of explosions as munitions were triggered by the blasts. The fire raking the cube, both machine gun and missile, fell off as his team guided in warhead after warhead. He switched his perspective to the street-level camera and saw a vast stampede of people dressed in black among whom explosions flared, scattering bits of human being onto the others, many of whom screamed and ran. The back of the onslaught had been broken and now, it was a chance for targets of opportunity, and many of the cube gunners who had lost friends took advantage for a wave of punishment that cut the ranks of the attackers further. Garan increased the chaos by winging his missiles into the clots of enemy gathered at the bases of the tenements, igniting material inside and adding to the smoke and confusion while sending panicked people fleeing the burning favelas. One missile blasted the contents of a tank of gasoline into a first floor level of shops, creating a blaze whose temperatures cracked the fragile concrete, sending the facade of the building cascading down onto the heads of the attackers, with the survivors fleeing in terror.
More importantly, a battle war raging on the radio. Panicked voices had been replaced by calm professional ones, but these had been displaced by a feral and atavistic bloodlust and rage. Garan considered suggesting moderation to conserve ammunition, but then recalled the vast stores that existed in storerooms on every floor, and so shrugged. Then an idea struck, and he clicked the radio.
“KILL! DESTROY! WIN!” he howled, and seconds later a renewed barrage descended to victimize the fleeing figures in black, who dissipated in the searing concussions. Garan leapt up from his position, and raced back inside the cube, bringing his weapon to bear on the figures below. Employees and citizens were still united there, but looked less confident, which they began to rectify by chanting slogans. Garan scanned quickly with his scope, looking for the most elusive target of all. Finally, he found what he sought: an open space behind the crowd. He tracked in his missile and was rewarded with an explosion in which no one died, but which illuminated the crowd from within with a yellow-orange flaring. Panic struck them, and they ran for cover, rushing into the arms of uniforms who, emboldened by the panic, were descending with predatory eyes.
As the smoke wafted through halls scattered with papers, discarded ammunition, used bandages and broken equipment, Garan made his way back to the committee room. Two uniforms at the door moved to stop him, then backed away from this exhaust-blackened man and his determined eyes.
“There have to be some changes,” he said to the elder, who rose to stop him, but felt a firm hand on his arm. The lesser members of the committee seemed divided into two groups, one with the old, and another with the new, or perhaps the ancient. The younger woman who had spoken to him on the radio vacillated, and he stared her down.
“If we are going to fight together,” said Garan, “we need to be defending something other than rules.”
An inversion of history occurred that day. As most know in their gut, where dread forms when all hope is lost, history is like a grinding wheel. Humans build objects of gleaming gold and shining silver, and then history grinds them down into a uniform surface, and eventually all that is left is bronze and then clay. History goes only one direction, which like entropy is toward too many options, at which point all of those options become about the same, the human spirit is broken, and people accept and rationalize the decay as strength. For history to go another direction, people must recall something from the time before, back when we were unselfconscious and moved like animals among the forest leaves, formed purely of intent connected to a sense that this whole experience of existence had some root in a gradual movement from the disordered to the ordered, an organic growth like trees reaching toward the light above, rising to excel. This animal spirit moved in Garan as he and the committee argued late into the night.
Ten years later, the inversion had become normalcy. The cubicle stood above an empty plane where tenements once stood but now were erased by violence and bulldozers. Its employees faced a new standard. Where in the past they were expected to avoid violating rules, now they were expected to uphold principles. As once they had been in fear of falling below a minimum, they now were scared of being too far from the maximum. For the first time in history, the cube had windows on its outside, and people looked not inward but out on a world to conquer.