Three hundred and thirty-six hours ago, Ghostface wakes at 5:45 AM, fifteen minutes before the alarm. Thinks about turning over. The noise from the city is too loud.
Gets out of bed. Pulls aside the single blackout curtain, squints at the gray smear of dawn over buildings.
Pees, yellow. Brushes his teeth. Makes a single cup of coffee in the kitchen of the pre-fab studio apartment, brings it to the open laptop on his desk. Puts on black can headphones, still playing music from the night before, listens to bass instead of six lanes of traffic, naked toes curled over desk chair.
He has left his terminal on the cinderblock nightstand, has forgotten to turn off the alarm. He hears it through the headphones, rises. Leaves the coffee on the desk, unfolds the terminal, cancels the alarm. He doesn’t want to shower, not today, not when he’s so awake.
He dresses. Black leather shirt, black jeans. Feet slip into worn black boots, single chrome zipper. The floor vibrates when the 6:08 tram passes.
The computer chimes. Ghostface sits, scuffs booted feet across wood-substitute, reads. Twelve posts, discussion of old-century Japanese electric-town subculture. Flexes his feet, feels the leather give. Types a quick response, grabs a puck of hard, black plastic, stands.
He takes the 6:32 tram. Caffeine, or not enough of it, makes his head throb. Light spools grey-silver through clouds, reflects off the silken ribbon of the elevator. Thirty thousand miles above the city, a tree grows.
“That ribbon is the future,” his father told him fifteen years ago.
It is 8:04 when Spacepope slides up next to him and offers him coffee. He has been waiting since seven, but Spacepope is only four minutes late and doesn’t apologize. Ghostface takes the coffee, drinks. The puck is shoved into the pocket of the leather shirt. He removes it, hands it to Spacepope.
“Thanks,” is all that Spacepope says. He leaves Ghostface alone, with both coffees, staring at the ribbon that pierces the clouds.
The terminal chimes. Kate knows he rises early. Asks if she’ll see him when she gets off work in the evening. Yes, he says. Don’t be late, she says. He smiles. Tardiness does not exist in the Ghostface-universe, is an unforgivable failure. He has no more deliveries, no more customers requesting tight packets of predatory software. He wonders how to kill the time.
The climber ascends the ribbon at 8:30. Ghostface watches the sun glint off the glass of the bullet-shaped canopy and the duller metal of the interchangeable cargo cylinder that follows it. It moves slowly, conserving energy. In seven days it will deliver food and materials to the scientists clamped to the ball of rock and ice at the other end of the tether, nurturing the twining leaves and branches of the tree that grows around it. Seven days later, it will return the surface, resupply, and immediately depart again. He watches it until it reaches the clouds and disappears.
He has his third coffee at 9:15. Buys it from a street vendor closer to the elevator, in whose bent aluminum chairs he has chosen to sit instead of returning to the studio apartment. He has only recently moved in, and nothing about the small cube of pre-fabricated metal and concrete suggests a home. He suspects that nothing ever will. He does not intend to live there for long; it is a way-station in a series of way-stations, a casual blip of necessity in a life spent looking ahead, always, to the next thing.
The building is one of many pre-fab constructions that have taken over the center of the LA-sprawl - rampant, cancerous - since the earthquake. The owners of the apartment building ask no questions about his employment or his income. The schedule he keeps is no stranger than that of his nameless, faceless neighbors, whose identities are reduced to anonymous bangs associated with various times of day.
Ghostface stares at the ribbon until 10:24. He stands on the upper level of a twisting new growth that has metastasized atop a hillock of concrete, carbon and steel within the last six months. From here, the base of the ribbon is exactly three-point-five miles away from him.
“That ribbon is our best hope,” his father told him fifteen years ago. That was when construction had just begun, when the tower and the ribbon-elevator that grew from it, self-construction possibilities now fully operational, still hovered in the exquisite neitherwhere between dream and quotidian, still waited for the sister ribbon to grow down from the station and the comet that now waited beyond the gray dome of the sky.
The terminal chimes. Spacepope runs the short program, a botnet unfurls. Accounts are updated. Somewhere in a buried low-level slum, ten years of debt are erased. An encrypted thank-you is sent. The usual suggestion of future deals. Ghostface does not respond.
Drops the cold coffee into a trash chute. Shoves hands in pockets.
“That ribbon is a thousand years of dreams,” his father told him fifteen years ago, before he left for work. And then the world had shook, and the tower and the city had crumbled, and Ghostface’s father had not returned.
Ten years post-quake, the ribbon blinked out of hazy concept into undeniable existence. Ghostface watched it grow as he grew, both of them nurtured by thousands of lines of code and thousands of years of human stubbornness. Ghostface moved from pre-fab to pre-fab, all within sight of the tower that supported it. He remembers the first climber to ascend the shimmering band of grey-silver; an ugly thing, plain and cylindrical, its stunted metal body and the unappealing necessities of economics unable to dull its beauty.
Ghostface returns to the studio apartment. When the climber disappears, the ribbon collapses into metaphor: a grey-silver promise that pierces the clouds. Thirty thousand miles above him, a leaf unfurls. Ghostface feels it bloom, deep in the pit of his being. He knows it is there, growing. He has built it in dreams, and sailed it in dreams, far beyond the gray-dark ball of a once-azure world.
Three hundred hours ago, Ghostface is seated at the desk in the pre-fab cube. He follows the progress of the tree-sphere through news updates and forum leaks. Another year of construction, maybe two. And then the seed, germinated, will be cast into the void, towards the promise of a new world and a new future for humanity. It will arrive at an icy moon of Jupiter, and it will continue to grow. Twenty years later, maybe fifty, it will welcome the the next generation of humanity.
The tree is Ghostface’s sole obsession. He remembers his father drawing plans on scraps of paper, telling him that a few more years were all that was needed. He grew up believing that humanity owed the tree to itself, to the planet; he has not stopped believing. The ribbon and the tree; final memorials to his father, impersonal and distant and built of thought and carbon. Ghostface’s dreams have left the earth far behind, have gone to dwell beneath the engineered leaves that feed off of captured rock and ice and gases, have abandoned the cancer, have recognized it as terminal.
His wrist chimes. Spacepope suggests a meeting. A new client, corporate. Promises of deep pockets. Machine-speak. Ghostface is uninterested. He prefers small jobs, small people, people that pad his pockets and support his hobbies without ethical or personal impact. Spacepope is insistent.
Ghostface checks his forum subscriptions, follows the progress of electric-town conversation. The blackout curtain is pulled back, the half-dark spills through the single, wide window. He was in Japan once, twenty years ago, just after the unification. His father, showing him through tunnels lit by towers of neon, introducing him to new scientists, new engineers, new countrymen. Politics, driven by necessity, driven by the growing filth of overpopulation, driven by dwindling resources and rising sea levels. Politics, in pursuit of the future.
Two hundred and ninety-six hours ago, Ghostface is in a well-lit office perched high above the beating heart of the sprawl. He is inside the ring where the tower lives, inside the anointed sector where humans look up and see the sky instead of rising layers of pavement. He is only a mile from it now, inside a gleaming high-rise dedicated to the future. He sees the ribbon through the window, rising, rising.
A bearded man with glasses is smiling at him, making noises of encouragement. He wears a suit, the way people once did. The way that some still do.
“There is nothing to worry about,” says the man with glasses. “Our engineers have the process completely under control. All we need is a delay - a tiny delay - to give us the chance to sell our product.”
“What’s wrong with the climbers we have?” Ghostface wants to know.
“They’re inefficient,” the man says. “Ours are lighter, faster, better. They can hold more. Resources are limited - but we’ve got no chance to convince the operators of that unless they’ve got reason to doubt what they have. We’re dealing with overwhelming corruption - you’d be doing humanity a service.”
“We’ve never had an accident. Never. You want me to make one?”
“Not an accident. A delay. Just a blip. Enough to make the operators think that maybe it’s worth looking into a back-up, just in case.”
Ghostface doesn’t respond.
“I believe your father was instrumental in the design and initial construction of the elevator,” the man says. “I can see how you might be of two minds.”
His father. Brilliant and principled, engineer and physicist and father, foremost, of the ribbon.
“Find someone else,” Ghostface says. Stands. Leaves. Ducks into an alleyway after two blocks, squats. Exhales.
He sees Kate that evening. She asks him what’s bothering him. He seems quiet - distracted. He smiles, tells her not to worry, but that he can’t spend the night. She nods. They finish their quiet dinner; late, close to where Kate works. She cooks for a living, does not want to eat in the same restaurant. Her own pre-fab cube is nearby, much more personal, much more permanent.
Ghostface walks through one of the last remnants of Old-City park system; a relic of dwindling green from before the New Modernization. The cancer’s explosive population and the water it demands will not suffer it much longer - plans have been proposed; the relentless pursuit of jobs and the diktat of squealing mouths have always trumped attempts to limit human growth. The true land of the free.
One crumbling lane of pedestrian overpass. Below him ten thousand cycles and auto-liners and personal-transport vehicles, an endless cacophony of out-of-date tech; proof of the impossibility of modernization. The land of the free. Never the land of the streamlined. Never the land of the optimized.
The ribbon rises above the morass. Somewhere, at the end of the tether, leaf after leaf unfurls, twenty miles of spherical canopy blooming in the purity of vacuum. His dream. His father’s dream.
Returns to pre-fab cube. Sits at desk. Stares at traffic.
Two hundred and eighty-four hours ago, Ghostface is bloodshot eyes and chiming terminal. Spacepope has sent him a request for a second meeting. More money. A better offer. Spacepope won’t say more.
The man with glasses smiles the same smile. He nods at Ghostface as though they are old friends. Ghostface recognizes this. It sets him on edge.
“A job,” he says.
“Think of this as a field review. You’ve always wanted to work on the elevator. We can give you that.”
Wonders how they know this, wonders who these people really are. How they found his name, why they want him.
“Can’t one of your engineers work on it?”
“Deniability, plausible and demonstrable. Contracting with a third party makes the most sense.”
Hates that his pulse has risen. Hates this man with glasses.
“Of course, we’d remove any lingering legal issues. You’d be a new man. You could work on the tree, even. For us. Once we have the contract.”
Holds his breath. Feels a lump in his throat.
“You could be one of the men who saves the species.” The man with glasses knows that he has won. Knows that Ghostface cannot say no to this, cannot rebuff the dream of a life worth something more than pre-fab cubes and hard pucks of black plastic.
He asks for a day to think.
Two hundred and seventy-two hours ago, Ghostface is staring at the ceiling.
“You sure there’s nothing you want to talk about?”
Kate smiles her gentle smile. It is how they met, a random meeting of eyes over the bar in the restaurant where she works, the trading of awkward grins, a suggestion of an after-work drink. Now he can trace the outline of her back in his mind, feels his pulse calm when the corners of her eyes crinkle.
Smiles back at her. Shakes his head.
“Really, it’s nothing. Just work.”
She asked once what he does for a living. He told her. She doesn’t understand, not really, in part because she does not want to. She lives within the system, prefers not to struggle. Prefers optimism to lonely anger, prefers the meager pleasures of the present to the concerns of the future.
Ghostface is too much like his father to be content. Disaffection has not brought him success but several records of petty software crime, has denied him the life he thought he would live. Has denied him a place at the base of the ribbon, and worse - has denied him the shears, linguistic and metaphorical instead of steel, that coddle and shape the Tree.
Kate does not understand the specifics of software manipulation, does not care to. She does understand Ghostface’s restlessness, even if she does not share it. Ghostface has not often struggled with the ethical ramifications of his code-adjustments. He does not accept work that will hurt people. He cannot explain to Kate the details of this latest offer. That would not be wise. He is better at covering his tracks than he was as a youth; part of this is willful detachment from the rest of the species.
Kate knows this. And so she smiles and her eyes crinkle, and she tries not to wonder.
Two hundred and sixty hours ago, Ghostface is staring at the golden screen of his terminal. He has opened a new statement, a tentative and (he tells himself) purely theoretical olive-branch to the tight and efficient lines of code that are the brain of the climber. He knows that the current models are not inefficient. Knows that the man with glasses knows this, knows that the man with glasses knows he knows. Knows that this is a game of lies that he is not used to.
He is performing a thought experiment, nothing more.
Sitting on the desk next to the terminal is another lump of hard, black plastic. It is a personal drive, on which he keeps a collection of .gif files; relics from his youth, when he witnessed the birth of a generational cryptolanguage. Memetic, endless, infinitely atemporal in that the relevance of an individual animated glyph never lasted more than a week or two. Even now, every conversation in every microcommunity of which Ghostface is a member is conducted in meme-speak, endless references and sub-references to the in-jokes of an entire species of user. It is not code, not quite, but it is exclusionary, given added importance by the East Country’s split, by the shared trauma of people who were once strangers.
It is a useless thing to keep, and completely out of keeping. But after the quake, after the widespread server failure, Ghostface and his compatriots lost faith in the cloud. It is not much as far as a physical keepsakes are concerned, but it is something.
The blackout curtain is open. The ribbon is illuminated across a sea of moving lights. Ghostface stares, thinks of junks bobbing across Japan’s inner sea. Rolls the screen of the computer into itself, so that the only light comes through the large window. Removes black headphones, listens to the cancer throb.
Two hundred hours ago, Kate is beginning her shift. She has tied a stained scrap of fabric across her forehead to keep her hair and sweat back, is staring into a pot of boiling water. Her only coworker is an ancient Japanese man, one of many transplants who came to this side of the ocean after the formation of the republic; maybe to see, maybe to escape. Kate does not know how long he has been in L.A.; in the cancer, as Ghostface calls it.
The old man greets her in the Sino-American patois that is not the official language of the Republic but should be. She responds in kind, accepts two plastic cases of dried noodles. The man has been making noodles since long before he arrived in what Kate still thinks of as California. He is not quite a father to her, but she has been working here for a long time, cooking noodles, and is thankful for the job and for the dependability of the ancient Japanese man. Earthquakes mean little to him.
Ghostface has met him three or four times; she was surprised to hear him speaking fluent Japanese on the day the day their smiles first crossed over the kitchen bar and he - shyly, she knows - asked her to get a drink with him. She smiles to herself, remembering, and her eyes crinkle. Ghostface is good with software, good at navigating the dark spaces of the connected world of magic and wires that lives next to and throughout the world they inhabit - he is not so good at people.
The noodle bar will open in four minutes, but the first customer will not arrive for another hour. And then there will be a steady stream until eleven PM, when they will close their doors for the evening and Ghostface will be waiting for her outside.
One hundred and sixty hours ago, Ghostface is not thinking of Spacepope as a friend. He is, like many scattered pieces of Ghostface’s life, an uncomfortable reminder of past mistakes and current consequences. But Spacepope has always found him work of the sort that Ghostface is willing to perform.
He sits next to Spacepope in front of the same outdoor coffee vendor. They watch the hum of transportation in silence. There is no purpose to their meeting; Ghostface cannot precisely recall who suggested it, but here they are.
“You worry too much,” Spacepope sighs.
Ghostface rubs the side of his nose with his little finger. Kate once told him that he thinks so much that he forgets to speak, that he lets their conversations die because he is too busy playing them out in his head. He thinks of it as a function of his code-fluency; without the ability to delete and cut and paste he prefers to take his time.
“Think about the money, man. Think about the job. This is gonna make you.”
“I don’t like being lied to,” Ghostface says. “There’s no reason to have me do it, and there’s no guarantee they’ll get a contract, or that the Tower Authority will even consider abandoning the current climbers.”
“All they’re looking for is a chance. You know how it is, now. The quake spooked the entire country, and with a pair of projects as ambitious as the Elevator and the Seed-Sphere, the Authority’s a damn conservative bunch. Government contracts that big just aren’t up for grabs anymore - and even getting a shot at one’s worth a little bit of rule-bending.”
Ghostface wonders what his father would say. He doesn’t know, cannot imagine the response of this particular looming ghost. He pats his pocket, hands Spacepope a lump of hard, black plastic.
“What’s this?” Spacepope asks him, eyeing the plastic, suspicious.
“Gifs,” says Ghostface.
“Gifs. Thanks for the coffee.”
Towers rise around him as he walks; the spinal columns of already-dead concrete leviathans. He pictures the claustrophobia of Tokyo, wonders why the City of Angels has continued to seethe upwards when its sister-city has condensed, lower and lower, in the face of the same trauma. Perhaps it is all in the name.
One hundred and sixty hours ago, Kate is lifting her head from a pot of boiling water and smiling at Ghostface. He lets the plastic partition swing shut behind him, takes a seat at the bar. The ancient Japanese man nods to him. Ghostface nods back. Says nothing. Sits with fingers clasped together atop the narrow wooden slab.
She sees the effort it takes him to smile. Sees the taught skin at his knuckles, dark bags under his eyes. She is used to seeing him tired. She has been watching customers for many years, and she recognizes Ghostface’s weariness. The unsure tilt of his mouth is not something she recognizes.
She passes him a bowl of noodles. Steam rises over his face; behind it she sees the smile fall.
That night, when they lie in her bed and their breath is not coming quite so hard, she thinks about asking what it is that bothers him. He has his arms behind his head, is staring at the ceiling. For a moment she is angry.
One hundred hours ago, Ghostface is closing the statement that has been open on the golden screen of the terminal for days. He has refused to look at it, has refused to delete it. And yet it has grown there, organic, almost unbidden; glowing in the darkness, bright and traitorous and full of potential.
Eighty-eight hours ago, Ghostface realizes that it is morning. He looks up from the golden screen, hands poised over tri-lingual keyboards. He sweeps the pages of code, dream-like. He knows there are no errors. Wishes there were.
Thirty-six hours ago, Ghostface is slamming the door of the anonymous pre-fab studio apartment. He is breathing heavily. He has not responded to Kate’s messages. He feels sick. When he keys the lock code shut, his hands shake. He will spend the rest of the next day in his studio apartment, seated in the single chair at the desk next to the window that overlooks six overlapping levels. traffic. He will emerge only when he realizes that there is nothing to eat, that he is suddenly hungry. He will leave his combi-store meal unfinished, set his alarm for six A.M., and stare at his ceiling, half-dark with the buzzing of neon despite the blackout curtain, until he wakes up fifteen minutes before it sounds.
Twenty-four hours ago, Ghostface is handing a black puck of plastic to the man with glasses. He smiles at Ghostface. His teeth are very white. He is thanking Ghostface, he is shaking Ghostface’s hand, he is making promises and his smile never fades. Ghostface leaves. Ghostface is sick in an alleyway.
Twelve hours ago, Ghostface is walking into Kate’s noodle shop. She watches him sit and smiles. He smiles back, knuckles white atop the bar. Ghostface nods at the old Japanese man, stares into his noodles.
“I’ll take you out,” he says, when Kate walks past. “Tomorrow. Somewhere new. Somewhere to celebrate.” She presses him, just a little. He seems resigned, “I have some news,” is all that he will say. She leaves her hand on his shoulder as she walks past him, feels the tight knot of his shoulder. Doesn’t know if she should smile.
Four hours ago, Ghostface is sitting in the aluminum chair of the coffee vendor close to the ribbon. He is there to watch the final slow descent of the climber, still lost somewhere above the clouds.
Spacepope sits down next to him. Ghostface looks over, notices the tight set of Spacepope’s shoulders.
One hour ago, Kate is getting out of bed. She stretches, rolls over, enjoys the sensation of lengthening muscles and curling toes. She sends Ghostface a message. She tells him not to be late. She smiles as she does so, and her eyes crinkle. She wonders what he has to tell her.
Ten Minutes Ago, Ghostface is realizing that he has made a mistake, one tiny mistake in ten thousand lines of code. An un-finished statement, perhaps. Or the engineers have underestimated the weight of the climber. Or a million other half-chances, forever lost to the dark. He will never know.
Ghostface is watching when the climber falls, hits with the force of a cruise-liner at terminal velocity. Its hull, built for the rigors of intra-orbital travel, has not degraded. It screams down the collapsing ribbon, thumps into the tower, a bullet of dull-gray steel and reflective glass, and it is several nauseating seconds before he hears the sound of impact.
The city does not notice. Autoliners do not stop their pre-programmed routes, the people inside of them do not alter their day-to-day routines. They do not see the tower crumble.
They do not see it swing towards the earth at terminal velocity, silver-gray carbon arms stretching across oceans and continents, turning to dust in the heat of the atmosphere. They do not see as, thirty thousand miles above them, the tree, the hope, the nurtured husk of rock and ice, is flung into oblivion. Ghostface watches as the remnants his father’s dream, his father’s grave, his father’s memorial, crash into layers of traffic and concrete and re-built city.
Spacepope stands. His mouth is a black line. Ghostface cannot look at him. Ghostface cannot look at the climber. Ghostface stares at concrete. The other patrons of the coffee vendor are pointing. Some are scared. Some are already running, thinking to prepare for another quake. Ghostface knows that this disaster is not natural.
The terminal chimes. He does not register it.
There is a short coughing noise. Ghostface thinks it is Spacepope until he realizes something has hit him in the ribs. Ghostface hears the coughing noise again. Ghostface looks down at two holes in his black leather shirt, already leaking thick red. Ghostface looks at Spacepope. Ghostface watches Spacepope watch him, Spacepope shrugs. Ghostface falls.
Ghostface watches red spread across concrete.
The terminal chimes. Kate is waiting.
He is late.