The dead man was a surprise.
She had been coming to this pier with her rod and reel for as long as anyone could remember. At dawn, like clockwork, when the first light hits the water, rope across one sun-browned shoulder, bucket dangling from the other.
First she would put the bucket down and check the cages, collapsing them with deft hands and hauling the little fish ashore. Then she would take the little boat out, a little beyond the marker buoys, bait her line with the smallest fish from the cages, and wait. People around here knew her, knew her routine, knew to stay out of her way. A nod, a wave of the hand, that was all she ever gave and all she ever asked for.
The dead man had the advantage of not having to follow social convention. He was drifting a little bit past the cages, arms outstretched as if to embrace the sun. His skin was pale and his grey beard was matted. She circled him once, twice, and then, with a frustrated sound, pulled him to the pier, to where a crowd had gathered.
“Dead,” she croaked at the man bringing out medical instruments. “You can put that shit away.”
The medical man looked disappointed, but put his EMT kit-bag aside and helped her heave the dead man up the plastic steps.
It was not the first corpse they had seen. He looked so ordinary, the dead man. Brown pants. A coat, not a fancy one, but a hard-wearing one, probably plant leather. In the chest pocket, neatly folded in a plastic bag, was a note.
To whomsoever it may concern,
If you are reading this, I am dead. My name is of no use to you. I am old and I am tired. My commune is small and these last few years have been hard. I see no reason to make it harder by making them watch me get older and weaker by the year. Give my body back to the sea. Know that I did my part, did it with joy, but now my time is done. I chose this end.
“Shame,” said the medical man. He was young and shook. The crowd murmured, trying to put a name to the dead face.
“Saul,” said someone gruffly. “His name was Saul. Commune C-13, or C-14, back Milderland way.”
“You’ll tell em?” she said. “Come help me.”
They tied stones around his feet, laid him back in her little boat. She rowed it a little way out, past the marker buoys, and with the medical man’s help she rolled him into the ocean, just like he had wanted.
She kept the coat.
On the way back home, with the bucket now heavy with fish, she kept thinking about the dead man. It wasn’t the first suicide she had fished out of the water, would likely not be the last. Maybe it was the interruption to her routine.
Maybe it was his words.
I am old and I am tired.
The seaside road took her past the piers, past Market Hill, where other fishers had their wares on display; lines of cleaned, gutted fish, sparkling in the sun. There was a contingent from the Mass Farm M82 Collective; she traded some fish for olives, beans, tomatoes, coffee.
“I can always count on you. Told the lads you’re as punctual as a clock,” said the man behind the stall, a brisk type wearing overalls and a shock of greying hair. He grinned and cupped her hands in his. His were adorned with rings; plastic and coral, seashells. They tinkled. “Go with joy.”
“Go with joy,” she repeated, as she always did, and trudged away. Through Market Hill, over the rise, to the sleepy two acres of her commune, with their coconuts and their little grove of rubber trees and the rice field she was trying to keep alive. And behind it, the rest of the Assembly; a sea of communes, farms, workshops, some small, some reaching into the sky, ever greener as the eye went inward; and in the distance, the huge, vine-wreathed towers of the Mass Farms.
She pushed the little gate open, trudged in, still thinking about the dead man. Kubrick came bounding out, grinning ear to ear. Always happy, that kid. Twenty years old and a musician. Vandana came with him, taking the bucket from her, already cutting, portioning, assigning. Sholeh and Crayon were close behind, one with a coconut tucked under an arm. It looked like they had been playing catch. DeLilo and Duck, setting up a new barn, looked up and went back to hammering and sawing.
She gave Vanda the bucket and her fishing gear, feeling very tired. And a little naked without her tools.
“Madah,” said Vandana. “Are you alright?”
“Dead man in the sea,” she said.
Vandana laid a hand on her shoulder. Concerned, but also distracted by Sholeh and Crayon. “You should get some rest,” she said. “Enjoy the garden a bit, Madah. Kubrick has a new piece - Sholeh! Sholeh! Don’t play with the hooks!”
Madah went out into the garden. Sat on the little bench Kubrick had set up near the rubber trees, massaging her hands, looking out at the Assembly. They were on a little hill here, and more of the city stretched out before her eyes, a forest of green communes, a hive of work; people like Vandana organizing, planning, pointing people in the right directions, people like Kubrick drawing, sculpting, writing, people in the Mass Farms toiling over their harvest, people like Madah doing everything else that needed to be done in a commune.
Whatever made people happy, whatever kept them fed.
And her? Was she happy? She flexed her hand, studying the brown skin, cracked with decades of salt and harsh weather. In the evening the plants would have to be watered, the grid repaired. And the next day would be the same. And the next day. She ran her hands through her hair, closer to the dead man’s grey than Vandana’s black.
I did my part, did it with joy, but now my time is done.
“I’m leaving,” she said that evening.
The dinner-table conversation stopped immediately. “Leaving where?” said Vandana.
Madah shrugged. She had thought about it a little.
“Libria, maybe,” she said. “Covenant after. See the world a bit.”
“Why? Why now?”
Madah shrugged again.
“But Madah, you’re-” began Kubrick. You’re old, he wanted to say. But she had that look in her eyes. The same look she had when Sholeh broke his collarbone five years ago and she took him and walked into the night, twenty miles to the nearest Mass Farm, and sat up with the doctors there, insisting that the kid would make it. The look she had had when the storms came ten years ago. This wizened brown woman climbed up onto the one roof left standing, squinted at the sky, and got right back to rebuilding.
“Libria is dangerous,” he settled for saying.
Madah shrugged. “I’ll deal with it. You deal with keeping the kids fed,” she looked at Vandana. “Don’t. Save your energy to teach the kids how to fish and haggle. You’ll need it.”
Vandana shut her mouth. They ate in an unusual silence that night. Duck found her outside, sitting on the porch. Duck was a tall man, wiry, strong, and scarred. Ragged weals ran across his face and arms. He spoke rarely, if ever.
“I came from Libria,” said Duck. “Everyone should see it once. But don’t stay too long, or the city will never let you leave. Not without a price.”
It was the most he had ever said to her since he had first joined their commune, after the storms. She looked at his hands, scarred and hacked, and nodded.
The next morning Vandana came to her, at dawn, with a little bag carefully wrapped, and the best tools the commune had on hand; hammers, rope, knives. Duck came with her.
“If you’re going,” she said. “At least take this. You’ll need something to earn your way in Libria.”
Madah cast an eye over the tools. She picked the second-best, wrapped the best back up carefully, gave them back to Vandana. Duck gave her a little pouch. It jingled. She looked inside: white, triangular coins.
“Tiburon,” said Duck. “Money.”
“Why now?” said Vandana. “Why? Everything is going so well!”
Madah wanted to explain. About the dead man. About the sadness in her heart as she thought of his words. About how she never wanted to die like that. About how she had gone down to fish at the pier, every single day, ever since she was old enough to haul a net, like clockwork, and how even a clock could wear down. I am old and I am tired, she wanted to say. But words were never her strong suit. She settled for a hug.
“I’ll be back,” she said, not knowing whether it was the truth or a lie.
If someone had told her, when she was young, that she would spend forty years in the same place, working her ass off in the hot sun, she would have laughed at them. Young Madah was a maverick. She loved nothing more than travel, feared nothing more than stillness, routine.
But then the Sundering happened. Cities became abandoned deserts; airports sank beneath the waves; even the ships stopped coming, for there were no more captains willing to risk the voyages. Except for the endless refugees, hard bitten, roaming the world, going from one disaster to another. Her world, once full of airports and hotels continents apart, became smaller. Smaller still when the telephone networks went down. Her father had pulled every string he could to get her a berth on Witness.
“It sounds crazy, I know,” he said, a grim, balding man. “But it might be the only thing left standing.”
She remembered the building they stood in. Plush, rich, a wine-dark interior, everything cracked and broken ever so slightly. And out the window, the sea. It had already drowned lesser buildings.
“There are satellites up there,” said her father. “But most of it’s going to go to governments. Militaries. Us. Nobody’s going to waste bandwidth on nonessentials.”
“You’re not coming?”
“I’ll come on the next boat,” He held a hand out. “Good luck.”
And that was how she ended up on Witness, the floating megacity; how she ended up scrabbling and shouting in the frenzied launch, the storm and the waves and the wind that lashed at them. Watching the city of towers crumble and recede into the sea. And with it, her father. There was no next boat.
“There’s no justice, kid,” said the man who robbed her, the very next morning. “There’s just us.”
She had taken Young Madah, packed her away in her mind, buried her. There was no room on Witness for a travel blogger with pretty hotels on her mind. Maybe someday, but not now. The Madah that emerged was a survivor. She learned to cook; to fight; to build. Her father had named her Madah, after a character in a book he loved, a child ripped out of a village by Vikings, who did whatever he had to do to survive. So it was with Madah.
Under J.C. Denton’s mad rule she ran with the street gangs. At first there was work for her, as the child of a former UN officer; there was enough nepotism, even in this new world, for her to bandy her way through. But it chafed, pushing paper around, writing endless reports that nobody ever read. Instead she dived into strange seas to pilfer what they could from the cities beneath the seas. Fought with the old names: Papa Hood, the Rami brothers, even Anagram Vho, back when they were just one more anarchist with a dream.
When the Assembly came about, she was twenty-five, maybe thirty. Still young enough to fight, fast enough to be feared, old enough to be cautious. It was Anagram who came to her with the idea.
“Everyone gets their fair share,” they had said. “A piece of land to work on, other people to share it with, and we do what’s right by doing it. No committees. No more politicians.”
“No more Denton?”
“No more Denton.”
Anagram had looked her up and down. “Because right now it’s the hippies and the champagne socialists all clapping for the idea,” they had said. “They’ll be gone the moment they realize a new society is hard work. Anyone can talk and quote dead men. I need people who know how to work. Who’ll adapt. Who’ll do what has to be done.”
So she had, these past twenty years. She watched the Assembly grow from idea to reality, from standing guard for Vho in meeting, to seeing the roads laid down, the communes sprouting up like grass. An anarchist-communitarian city-state, a living, breathing, Distrikt in Witness. A dream, a paradox, a set of compromises, a reality.
And she did what she had to do. When the agricultural crisis hit, she had been one of the first to work in the Mass Farms. When anyone needed a hand with a road, or an electricity microgrid, or had a bit of digging to do, she was there, solid and tireless, brown hands scarred in the sun. When the storms came she was the first to pick up and rebuild.
True, the Assembly gave back. DeLilo and Duck found her early on. From where, she never asked, but they always had her back. No more fighting, no more running from Denton’s police, no more threats to her turf. Instead she had the farm. Her little pocket of peace in the universe. People came to nod and smile at the woman on the farm, the one who had hands like iron, who could always be counted on. They looked up to her. Listened to her advice, kept out of her way, and when the harvest came, they helped.
And then Vandana came to their little farm, dragging Kubrick with her, and then they had the kids, and . . .
But twenty years is a long time, even for a dream.
Know that I did my part, did it with joy, but now my time is done, said the dead man in her head. And so Madah hefted her kit-bag, put the Assembly to her back, and took the train to Libria.
Libria had changed. The last time she had seen it, it had been a mess: a little one-horse town in the shadow of the covenant, dotted with forts, the Wall running right through. They had just come out of the battle with Denton’s army folk. People had a look she knew from her days on the streets. That jumpiness, that hardness in their eyes, the quick negotiation of space, even when they talked to each other. You stand over there, buddy, I’ll stand over here, and let’s not get too close.
Now Libria gleamed. It sparkled. A forest of towers, rivalling anything she had ever left behind. In the dark blue light of the station there were crowds of people dressed every which way; leathers, furs, plastics, things more exotic she had no name for. It felt more like a nightclub than infrastructure. Madah made for the reception desk, a thing that stood out only because of its lack of display. Everywhere else, people were selling something; transport, masks, clothes, mementos, weapons? . . . she looked back. Yes, weapons with I <3 Libria stickers on them.
“Need a map,” she said to the woman at the reception. “Not electronic.”
She blinked at Madah, and Madah saw that her eyes were gold rings, huge and lustrous. “Need to pay,” the woman said. “Everyone pays in Libria.”
She looked surprised when Madah counted out the white money chips. Madah took the thing given to her - a needlessly expensive-looking thing that woman had called ‘a collector’s item’ - and took herself outside.
A rich haze of light met her eyes, even in the middle of the night; here purple, there gold, here blue, there red, an infinite symphony of color and activity. Transit bikes roared past on broad streets, gleaming under the neon. Overhead, things that looked distantly related to helicopters darted across the skies.
Libria. Peak private interests. Almost no government, unless you count the Night Watchmen, but the Watchmen existed to prevent any one player from getting too big for their boots. Everything below their scrutiny was fair game.
She had forgotten how fast it all was. The markets, the deals, the haggling, the endless ways people tried to make one more buck before they fell asleep. The relentless buzzing of commerce of every possible variety happening around her. Anything could be bought, anything sold, and anything you wanted could be yours, provided you could pay the price. If anything was given for free it was certainly not to a stranger like herself.
In the Assembly, she would have been gently shepherded by now into the nearest commune that could take her in, given a hot meal, a change of clothes, a shower. Here, Duck’s stash of money dwindled, and dwindled, and dwindled. Transport. A hotel, one of the cheaper ones, looking over a great big apartment building where people lived, stacked up on each other into the sky, and somehow liked it. She could hear music up there, laughter, and around it, the sound of thousands working, endlessly working to pay for a roof over their heads. The infinite hamster cage, Anagram Vho had called it.
At least here, on the pavement, people still did that familiar dance. That quick negotiation of space. A man with a metal face doffed a strange-looking hat at her and a woman with electric hair ducked away, almost blurring with speed. Two feet away, ma’am, if you please. Madah pulled out the map. At least some things never changed.
“Well, well, well, if it isn’t Mad Madah,” said the man genially. He was slim, his grey hair and grey suit spoke of nothing but the finest tailoring. One hand, emerging from a spotless white cuff, was a dark metal, curiously fine and blocky at the same time; the other, knotted with thick blue veins, was resting on a cane with a silver dog’s head for a handle.
The office they were in was small, spare, and, most importantly, it was deep underneath the city. On the surface was a building with the Voxel Dog’s branding proudly on display, and high in the sky was what was supposed to be Slim’s office. The real one was a long way away, encased in enough metal to stop a bunker-buster.
Madah reached across the desk, took the bottle of water, drank. “Good to see you too, Slim.”
“Last time I saw you,” said Slim. “You were riding off into the sunset with Anagram Vho, high on the anarchism thing. Assembly this! Assembly that! A new society where everyone had an equal chance! What the hell happened?”
“We did it,” she said. “Can’t complain, honestly. I have a farm. Little commune. Nice people.”
“Most mornings I fish,” she said, reaching out for one of his cigarettes. “Sometimes I read.”
“Bloody hell. Madah, fishing? Reading? And you’re happy?”
She shrugged. “And what happened to you? Last time I saw you, you were running off here. Government being a tyranny and all that. You were pretty excited. You wanted to build an empire out here.”
Slim stood up and walked over to the window. Or rather, the wall-screen, which showed a feed from what the windows in the fake Voxel Dogs HQ was showing. Sunset over Libria. The simulated sunlight cut into his face, showing the furrows around his eyes.
“I was,” he said softly. “I did. I took the Voxel Dogs from nothing into what we are today. We hit the right moment in Libria, got some good people, took a few well-timed risks. We do private security for most of the big corps now. There’s a stadium named after us, you know that? We even have a venture capital and R&D arm. Lots of bioscience stuff. You know, if you’d joined me back then, you’d be rich.”
“Crime does pay.”
“It does,” said Slim. “And here I am, locked in a box under the sea, watching a sunset on a screen. Everything has a price, including my own head and the loyalty of my people here.”
The guards in the room shifted. Perhaps nervousness.
“Almost all the old faces are gone,” said Slim. “You remember Black Alice? Retired in Hygge. Or writing a book, apparently. Zhou moved to Avantgrid, built a cabin way out wherever, doesn’t even want to talk to us now. Cottica -”
“Cottica got famous, I hear.”
“Cottica got famous.”
“You ever get tired, Slim?”
He shrugged. “All the time,” he said. “But you know what? I’ve built something here. I’ve survived shit most people wouldn’t even imagine. I’m old, but I’m not dead yet. The life has its ups and downs, but I’ve picked the hill I want to die on. My hill. My choice. That’s the beauty of Witness, isn’t it? We get to choose.”
“It can’t last forever, you know.”
“This.” She didn’t mean to harangue him, but a lot of Anagram Vho had rubbed off on her over the years. “This endless … taking. The hoarding. The competition. Someday everything’s going to run out, and you’re going to be left with a fat bag of cash and nothing to buy with it.”
“Maybe. Until then, however, I’m going to have one hell of a time. You can prattle on about the evils of capitalism, but I like it from where I stand.”
She thought of the man in the water and shuddered. “What happens when you get old?”
“The game,” he said, “is to get rich before you get old. I’m old. You’re old, ish. I’m rich. This is not a problem I have to think about anymore.” He stretched his arms wide, as if to embrace the artificial sun. “I could be bound in a nutshell, and still count myself king of infinite space,” he said, grinning. “Maybe you just picked the wrong place, Madah. Not too late to change. You let me know if you want in again?”
He was still grinning as she left, twirling the cane in his good hand, a king in his undersea chamber.
Perhaps the Assembly had made her soft. But Madah found herself on her temporary balcony at night, looking out at the skyscrapers and the endless cubes of people stacked up on top of each other, bathed in the dark neon, and thought of that old man, floating in the ocean. I am old and I am tired. There was nothing in Libria that could have saved him. Or her.
The train took her away from Libria. She wrapped the dead man’s coat around her and slept.
Three days later, she found herself hurrying through a hall. A great many of powerful and important people - or, she supposed, people who thought themselves powerful and important, which was not the same thing at all - frowned at her passing, and in some cases even made noises of polite indignation, flapping like crows. Madah didn’t particularly care.
“Keep up, dear!” sang Black Alice in front of her, carving a wedge right through the crows.
Black Alice. There was a name. Madah remembered a gangly woman, frothing at the mouth, facing down six of Denton’s special police in a dark alley. The one one of their little gang that Anagram Vho was afraid of, maybe even a little envious of. Black Alice was . . . ruthless was one word. Vicious was another. Black Alice set her mind on something, that thing happened, one way or the other.
Or rather: Alicia Beaumont, Secretary-General of the Hygge Council for Whatever-the-hell-it was. Madah had long since lost track of the revolving circle of Committees, Councils, and Commissions that Alice was on. She had traded the combat jacket for svelte robes over a business suit, and the long-knife had been replaced by a gaggle of assistants fluttering about her like a flock of loud, colorful birds. Likewise she had lost track of the endless faces that wanted a chat, talk, meeting, discussion, conference -
Up ahead, Alice was holding a door open for her. A damn expensive-looking door, too, in this expensive-looking hall.
“Come on!” she said, gesturing impatiently, and Madah slid into a seat beside her and looked about in confusion. What seemed like a hundred people were sitting in the pit below them, ring after ring of seats, terminating in a small stage in the center. They were all talking; to each other, at each other, over each other. The noise was incredible.
“We’re supposed to decide where the new Central Park goes,” said Alice conspiratorially, cutting over the twittering of the assistants. “Huge fuss, of course. It’s worth millions, even more in influence. Dr. Kapoor over there, he’s the biggest voice on Parks and Recreation. If he has his way, the Park goes smack center, right where this hall is now. All of this becomes common ground. Kim Seo-Jun over there, Foreign Affairs, wants the park along the State Machine Ecole grounds. Her argument is that it’s a giant act of diplomacy, inviting students from all over Witness. Treat them well, and that buys us goodwill. Hector Wood, number three, wants the whole project scrapped and the money spent on upgrading some of the public housing projects down South. And of course each of them have their own alliances to make and preserve. Sonya Rhao has a handle on the Treasury, and they’re trying to figure out the cheapest choice. I think Kapoor is backing down because he doesn’t want to waste too much political capital.”
Madah stared at the confusion. “But they’re all arguing.”
“Of course they are!” laughed Black Alice. “Politics is the art of the possible. And I have my own stake in this. A park, yes, but I want shopfronts in there. A few good turns here makes the Internal Revenue Commission easier to handle next Thursday-”
“Back home,” said Madah, feeling a little bit out of place and a little bit like an idiot. “Folks want a park, you just . . . ask around. Get a bunch of folk together. Find a patch of ground someone’s willing to give up. Make a park.”
“Oh, well, that’s in the Assembly,” Alice said dismissively. “We can’t all be like you people, can we, just doing whatever comes into our heads. In Hygge we have a process. Here we have a government. Now watch . . .”
It was a while before Madaha managed to extract herself. She struck out blindly, pushing through the crowds of endless legislators and policymakers, heading vaguely in the direction of the great marble steps. It became easier to breathe when the wind hit her face again. She sat down on the steps, basking in the evening light, glad to be out of that bloodless melee.
“Assembly, right?” said a voice. “First time?”
Madah opened her eyes. A man was looking down at her, smiling. He had white hair and robes like Alice’s, only considerably more ornate.
“I recognize the clothes,” he said, putting down an expensive-looking bag and sitting on the steps next to her, nodding away at the young men who seemed eager to get his attention. “My sister was with your Assembly. For a while, at least.”
“You’re one of them?”
“If by them you mean a policymaker, yes, guilty as charged,” he said. The setting sun caught his white hair and turned it blood-red. “Although if you’ve just run out from there I dare say you’ve seen enough of policymaking.”
“It seems like chaos.”
“I dare say it does. Still, what is chaos to the fly is perfectly normal to the spider. Politics! The word comes from the Old World, you know. A language called Greek. Polis. Means city. Affairs of the city, mediated on, argued, all interests balanced, a workable compromise reached. Provision for all. The Great Welfare State. The dream.”
They looked out together at the teeming flood of people storming in and out of the Hall of Policy, and then out to the plaza in which it stood. “It’s messy,” he said. “It’s imperfect. Still, it’s the best system we have, although no doubt you Assembly people think different. The wheels take a lot moving, but when they move . . . ah. Free education. Free healthcare. Free homes for everyone. All we dreamed about, when I was a child.”
“Do you enjoy it? For so long? Don’t you get tired?”
He thought about that one a bit. “I suppose, as I get older, I find everything a little more tiring,” he said at last. “There certainly was a time when, as a young man, I dreamed about moving out to Libria, or even the Assembly, trying my luck there. Doing things, you know, not just arguing for years about every change. But I’m proud of what we have here. Proud to be a part of it.”
She thought about it a bit, trying to get a handle on his age without asking him. “What happens when you get old?”
He laughed. “What happens? We have free housing, free healthcare, a pension. I dare say I might take some time to catch up on my reading. What happens on your side of the pond? What do you do?”
She shrugged. “Fish, mostly. Keep the farm running. Provide. Whatever needs doing.”
“And when you can no longer do those things?”
“Your commune takes care of you,” she said. “If you have one, that is.”
“And they like you enough, and have enough to go around, I suppose.”
“I guess. Most people manage.”
“Not good enough,” he said. “You can’t just rely on goodwill for these things. Policy, ma’am, is the great framework of civilization. The difference between ordered results and savage hope.”
“A fancy cage of fancy words,” she said.
“Touche. That, too.” He stood up, wincing slightly, and held out a hand. “I’ve picked my hill,” he said. “It seems to me like you might want to pick yours.”
She shook his hand, and he nodded. And then he was gone, just one more person among many, and she was left standing on the steps, looking out at the dying sun.
She left before Black Alice found her. It was easier to find the train station than listen to the endless prattle about politics. Easier to fold herself into a seat and watch the world go by that to see the light in Alice’s eyes as she talked about petty men making petty decisions.
the train picked up speed, hurtling through Hygge, past it. It was not sadness she felt, but a lightness in her limbs. She thought of the dead man, for the last time. I am old and I am tired. And she wished that she could have taken him with her, instead of just his coat. Shown him Libria, Hygge . . . all of Witness. The grass is always greener somewhere else. Until you go over to see for yourself. Maybe that was the curse of it all, the allure. Maybe that was what kept Slim and Alice going the way they did.
She got down at the old familiar station, by the sea. Walked the old familiar road, all the way, clutching the dead man’s coat around her. Nodded to those that smiled at her. Felt the world slow down. Felt the panic die away. Felt the madness of money and politics ebb, and flow, and subside, like the sea. Looked through the farms and saw people, happy people, talking, working, idling . . . living.
On their own terms, and no-one else’s.
“Told the lads you’d be back,” said the man behind the stall, handing her a bag of things, unasked: coffee, beans, all her favorites. He grinned and cupped her hands in his.
“I picked my hill,” she said. She took off the dead man’s coat, slung it over her shoulder, and began the long walk back home.