A Kinder, Safer Future
|It left James with a tinge of guilt, to see the brilliant pink and white yarrow blooming by the public walkways while the days were still lengthening. The climate of many nations had worsened in recent years, but Canada had reaped benefits which would continue for decades, and it was still pumping oil, even if little of it was burned any longer. Perhaps the influx of wealth would reverse when the temperatures came down, but for now, there was nothing to do but enjoy the sun and air. After the briefest hesitations, he veered rightward toward the long stairs. The Bots had just finished the new Skybridge to the harbor, and James was itching to try it out. With modern medicine, even knees as old as his could afford the trip, and so he stepped from his apartment into the high and windy overworld that spanned the skyscrapers.
James loved his afternoon walks. Despite the millions in the city below, it was quiet. Most of the citizens were living other lives, fighting aliens, re-imagining old wars, competing in virtual sports, or living out the kinds of sex lives that weren't even legal in person. While energy use had gotten expensive (practical fusion was still just around the corner), computing had gotten dirt cheap. Only a few hours of sunlight could keep the virtual Babylon running from dusk until dawn. With the basic living credits from the government and the robots having made so many jobs obsolete, most people had little better to do aside from tend their living space. But some, like James, preferred to walk the daylight. He had even unplugged for the occasion - it felt good to be unreachable, a kind of meditation shared with the city itself, like a memory of the old days.
One foot followed another up the winding brick ramp to the new Skybridge, and a balmy breeze caressed his face. While the Builders were done, Gardeners efficiently churned dirt and planted new flowers. Within hours, they would be done and on to the next project. They were fascinating to watch, swift and inerrant, bold displays of municipal wealth. Balconies overflowed with planters and creeping vines, breaking up the clean lines of glass and silicon skyscraper walls, but those were mostly hand-tended. Robots could do it, but that wasn't the fashion. The economy had been completely upturned since he was young, with formerly cheap things like water, energy, and metals having grown expensive. Yet living space was free, and food staples extremely cheap. Still, outside of basics like starches and factory-grown meat, most people grew their own. Basic Stipends didn't tend to cover long-distance transportation or refrigeration. That last was just as well: refrigerated food was terrible for the gut, and people were healthier without it.
James nodded his head in a neighborly way as he approached a young couple holding hands. And they were pushing a baby carriage! That was a sight! Not too many of those out these days and he almost bent down to coo over the infant. In fact, he would have if politeness had not forbidden it. Both youngsters smiled exuberantly at his interest. That was nice, though he nearly shook his head as he saw the necklace the young woman wore, bright gold against her ebony skin. It was a cross, and that explained a lot. Christians were mostly against spending their lives in the Web and were more likely than most to be out in the daylight doing things - and having children. The Christians still around were pretty benign, though. The government had stamped out most of the socially regressive religious sects many years ago: a nasty business that had been.
James offered a final smile before turning his eyes to the Skybridge itself. The new walkway to the Harbor was a marvel of concrete and glass, with smooth aluminum struts and railings. It was spacious, with multiple walking lanes. Like its neighbors, it was carefully laid so that it could be easily plowed of snow even when the glass ceilings weren't in place, sending it into the great sluices below that melted and purified it into drinking water. Clean water was one of the few resources scarce enough to justify the great energy involved. This bridge went clear from his own apartment building to the landing that overlooked the harbor. He would easily be there by sunset, and the glow on the rippling water was a pleasure that never grew old. Until then, he contented himself with the shine off the solar panels and the many bursts of colors from the balcony gardens below. Once the Gardeners finished, there would be matching strips of flowers and brush to either side on the bridge, as well.
In one of the bridges blow, James grinned to notice a group of City Acolytes weeding the beds with those flowers. While robots would have done it better, the Acolytes took pride and joy in the task. They outdid themselves year after year in beautifying and maintaining the city, sometimes adding fanciful murals or planning musical performances in the evenings. There would be a harp performance in Cohen Square this very evening, and they were always active in the street cafes.
That was when James saw the Luddite. That was the common name for them: Luddites. It didn't quite fit, because they were actually for more kinds of certain technologies. They wanted nuclear power, especially fusion, which they claimed the government kept from the people. They thought that humans would be better off if they were forced to work, and wanted a diaspora from the dense cities into farms and suburbs. Some were actually concerned about population loss - as if humans hadn't nearly destroyed the planet with their consumption. They wanted space explored and even human beings on rockets again as if there were somewhere else fit for humans to go. He had even heard, years ago, rumors of some with even more regressive social ideas. Not that most Luddites believed in half of that - most were just bored teenagers making trouble.
This fellow had a can of spray paint and was well on the way to finishing his own profane depiction of a rocket bursting through the atmosphere, though he glanced over his shoulder every several seconds. As well he might.
"What is it you think you're doing, young man?" James asked indignantly.
"Shit," the artist replied and began to hastily move down the walkway toward the harbor, stuffing the can into his jacket.
"Well?" James called after.
The artist turned back long enough for James to notice his wide eyes as he replied. "Shut up, old man! The camera's on loop, but they can hear you!"
"Well, why shouldn't they hear me? What 'they' do you mean?"
"Shit, shit, shit," the Luddite continued, and began to run. Unfortunately for him, there was a Guardian at the bridge station, not fifty yards out.
"Halt, Citizen!" the Guardian replied, and spread its metal arms to block the path.
The artist slumped, shoulders collapsing as he placed his head in his hands. "What do you want, officer?"
The robot spoke in a soothing voice. "You are under arrest for illegal artwork. Please come with me so we can sort this out."
"I have a permit for painting," the artist replied, though there was no confidence in his voice.
"There is no permit for agitation propaganda. Come with me," the robot replied steadily. Guardians always spoke to citizens during an arrest. It helped to keep the suspects calm, and the robots were patient.
"The ban on rocket artwork doesn't take effect until tomorrow," the artist replied desperately.
"Acts of rebellion are illegal every day, and your intentions are clear. Don't worry, Joachin. You will be much happier once you have some purpose in your life."
"No. Hell, no. I never meant - " the artist started, his eyes widening.
"I was just tired of - " he continued, hands raised defensively, as his face paled.
"Please, come with me," the Guardian repeated.
"You've got no right! Who the hell do you think you are?" Joachin protested.
"Your new Gods", James whispered below his breath, and for a second, the Guardian's eyes swiveled toward him.
Then it firmly grasped the youngster. "Would you like to walk or be carried?"
"I - I will walk," Joachin replied shakily, and was taken away as James watched, stock still, with a lump in his throat.
"You will be happy in white," the Guardian promised. Its red eye swiveled briefly to the back of its head, fixing on James for a long moment, as if in warning. Then it passed into the distance, the former Luddite trudging at its side.
The sunset was utterly spectacular when James reached the harbor, pinks and yellows making a mosaic above the rippling water that mirrored them. Strikingly beautiful, safe and serene. James wished he felt the same.