The city filled its vast central basin like a reservoir fills its impoundment, chains of linked townhouses lapping at a litter-encrusted shoreline of brown, scabby hills. The hills had been set aside as park a hundred years ago and had slowly strangled into wasteland: neglected, junk-filled, eroded, dangerous. Eruptive urban growth had long since spilled past them and flooded the valleys beyond to bury farmland, swallow rural communities, and engulf remnant woods. This overflow of the urban grid had no final boundary: its horizons were lost in haze, its edges smeared by cancerous growth. The sky was stagnant white, the city gray, and the occasional splashes of architectural color only emphasized the monotony they were painted on. In this dense human colony land was like gold, space currency, and square footage the source of rivalry and aspiration. Houses were bonded like Siamese twins, or stacked like the comb of a hive. Each looked like its neighbor: cramped, clay colored, straining for a scrap of view. Their yards were patios, scabby greenery enclosed in pots. On the worst days, when the light was flat and the wafer of sun melted at its edges like a seltzer tablet, the city was a hard, ugly place.
Yet the beast retained the seductive throb of human life. At night its arterials were ribbons of light and its tiled plain of asphalt and plastic roofs was broken by archipelagos of soaring skyscrapers and corporate pyramids. Malls were emporiums of bright commerce and cafes spilled onto sidewalks. Winking hovercraft darted like fireflies and info-lasers stabbed skyward towards satellites. Corporate names crested buildings like proud cock-combs, crowing with a glow of marketed pride. The beacons intended warmth, like the remembered reassurance of the lamp or tavern sign, but — bloated to football field dimensions — they instead drenched their neighborhoods with commercial glare. The sign war extended to the sky, where searchlights cast logos on nighttime haze, lasers flickered to announce openings or bankruptcies, and blimps drifted with holographic tidings. The city’s signs were a galaxy of rival artificial suns and the pictures they cast were of an idealized, desired, half-remembered and romanticized world: glistening beaches, convivial families, green meadows, detached houses. “In the world of United Corporations,” read one, “everyone can win, all the time.”
In Quadrant 43, between the St. Francis and Reagan Expressways, a 21st Century pyramid rose from its walled enclosure of plasti-marble plazas, boxed gardens and black reflecting pools: a glass and metal pointed office building one hundred stories high. Its colored panels and opaque windows shimmered as they chemically changed mood with the time of day: the smoky blue of morning giving way to noon’s perky silver, mellowing to a burnished copper as the day waned, and finally darkening to a swallowing black. The windows looked out, but no one could see in. Utility tubes popped from the ground and fed the pyramid’s base like placental cords. Inside, Microcore’s headquarters had its own shops, its own restaurants, its own banks, its own hydrogen pumps, and its own kiosks. It was a world within a world.
The chairman sat in her office at the pyramid’s summit like an insect queen. Level and location on each of the one hundred floors below were allocated on the basis of rank. At each floor, supervisors occupied offices on the outer rim in a cordon. Within was a maze of cubicles that penned their subordinates, the partitions low enough to ensure that heads could be observed bowed in work.
This laboring center was a ghostly group. Even dark complexions looked pale from the flush of light that crept out from the edges of the opti-glasses that had replaced computer screens. The workers typed, murmured commands, clicked. The result created a flicker of light that played across their temples like an echo of thought. There was little noise above the hum of Muzak, the beep of terminal signals, and the drone of ventilation. It was unseemly to yell, startling to laugh, and easier to communicate electronically. People had become extensions of the wires they were hooked to.
The chairman rode up and down the inner face of the pyramid in an elevator of smoked glass, hung from an angled track. The privacy enabled her to see the employees of each floor without being seen, the box whispering like a gray ghost. Everyone wondered, of course, what the chairman did when she rode up and down past her thousands of minions. Did she calculate profits, note empty cubicles, play a head-vid, point out a suggested promotion? No one knew. Few below the upper floors had ever seen her. Everyone strove for graduation to those upper floors.
At each level, an electronic ribbon of scenic vistas and encouraging slogans circled the central cubicles, giving a border of color. “Microcore,” read one. “Where win-win is a way of life.”
On Level 31, Cubicle 17, Daniel Dyson ignored the encouragement of the videograms and set his opti-glasses aside. He was preoccupied with a more personal goal: the quest for female attention. Specifically, Daniel had calculated that the walls of what he called the rodent corral — beige cubicle dividers, to match the beige carpet and beige desks and beige terminals and beige walls of Level 31 — were high enough to allow him to secretly prepare, and yet low enough to launch, his latest experiment in physics and flirtation. Mona Pietri, Cubicle 46, was the latest woman of his dreams: dark-haired, doe eyed, and curvaceous as a sine wave. Daniel suspected genetic and surgical supplementation had enhanced what nature had initially bestowed but was willing to embrace this commitment to self-improvement as a sign of inner beauty. God, she was stacked! She, in turn, was utterly oblivious to his existence. Which made her, of course, all the more desirable. Unable to concoct a corporate excuse to work with her, Daniel had decided to send an invitation to share the latest beverage craze (a Mongolian fermented mare’s milk cappuccino, the latest morale booster of the corporate cafeteria) the old-fashioned way: launching it by catapult. Fate and physics would determine the arc of romance.
Daniel had constructed the miniature war machine out of office supplies that had outlasted every promise of office automation in A.D. 2048: pencils for beams, thumbtacks and paper clips to drill and fasten, rubber bands for bracing and to provide torque for the catapult’s lever arm. He attached the helmet of a Star-Trooper action doll to the arm with a combination of chewing gum and Bond-It adhesive. Within the helmet nestled his missile: a raspberry chocolate wrapped in a ribbon of paper. On the paper he had printed:
Will you gongo
Cubicle 17. (Daniel)
Poetry was not one of the skills listed on his corporate performance appraisal. Still, he calculated its attempt was potentially more rewarding — or at least more interesting — than working on the software Meeting-Minder, which was what he was supposed to be doing. A military history major in college (“And what are you going to do with that in a world of no armies?” his father had protested in futility) Daniel had an academic’s understanding of how a catapult was supposed to work. Calculating its trajectory was a matter of trial and error, however, and Daniel figured he had only one chance at launching his bid for amour before supervisors put an end to his experiment. He’d done a few test firings across the width of his desk. Now he wound the torsion rubber band tighter to achieve the calculated distance and sighted toward Ms. Pietri’s pretty head, as remote and alabaster as the moon. “One small step toward sexual chemistry,” he whispered, hoping she liked chocolate.
“Fire!” A few neighboring heads snapped up. No one thought for a moment that a cubicle was in flames. It was just Dyson, who had a reputation for keeping things interesting.
The chocolate shot ceiling-ward, the ribbon of its message unexpectedly unreeling. That tail was enough to spoil his calculations. The projectile went awry and dropped like a meteor into the lair of Harriet Lundeen, the Level 31 floor manager. Its whap was a note of doom. The poem bore his return address.
“If you’re declaring war, Dyson, you’ll lose,” his colleague Sanford predicted from the cubicle next door. “The gorgon has never been beaten.”
Meanwhile, desirable Mona hadn’t even looked up.
Daniel waited a full minute for a reaction, time enough to hope his missile had fallen undetected or that Ms. Lundeen had elected to ignore his misfire for the price of a chocolate. Maybe she was hoping she could meet him for a Mongo, the old bat. He covered his catapult with waste paper in the desk basket.
But no, here she came with the countenance and body of a Wagnerian Valkyrie, lacking only breastplate and horned helmet. The ribbon poem was held out like a piece of decaying meat.
“Is this yours, Mr. Dyson?”
“You looked hungry,” he tried.
“My name is not Mona.”
“That’s true. Actually, I was routing that to Ms. Pietri.”
“I see.” She sighted toward the goddess of Cubicle 47. “And ‘gongo’? What does that mean? Is it lewd, or are you merely witless?”
Dyson smiled with as little sincerity as he could muster. “I’m trying to be creative, Ms. Lundeen. It’s asking if she’ll go with me. I think it makes sense, in the context of the poem. Like Jabberwocky.”
“It’s another poem.”
Lundeen considered whether he was putting her on. “Your literary taste is as bad as your aim,” she finally decided. Then she glanced sourly around his cubicle. “And your discipline.” Every other employee on Level 31 had adhered to the request to maintain a “orderly and respectful desk-top decor” in line with corporate atmospheric guidelines. Dyson’s, however, was a pocket of cluttered individuality: pictures of climbers on Everest and camels in the Sahara, bearded revolutionaries of the 19th and 20th Centuries, two tattered pin-ups discreetly draped with Microcore calendars, a meditatively chewed plastic stegosaurus, several holo-movie figurines, parts from a magic kit, food wrappers, stained cups, and a Cuddle Doll with a noose around its neck.
“I was just straightening up.”
Her stare was not amused. “Cultivate conformity, Mr. Dyson.”
He tried to look solemn. “We all aspire to be like you, Ms. Lundeen.”
She held up the chocolate. “You could do worse.” She put it into her mouth and repeated a habitual warning as she chewed. “If you can’t adapt to Microcore, you may end up in a place even less to your liking.”
It was an empty threat, he knew. Employees were like barnacles: you could hardly pry them loose with a stick of dynamite. “That’s hard to imagine,” he said.
“So is your promotion.” Daniel’s poem fluttered into the waste basket.
Sanford came around the cubicle wall to fish it out. “Will you ‘gongo’?” he read.
Daniel shrugged. “I needed a rhyme.”
His colleague shook his head. “You’re never going to bongo Mona Pietri with lame stuff like gongo, Che.” The nickname was taken from one of Daniel’s revolutionary pictures. “Why don’t you try being normal, instead?”
“Because I’m not,” Daniel replied.
He went for a Mongo by himself. Lights brightened and then dimmed in what was marketed as an “architectural warmth cocoon” as he walked down the pyramid’s corridors, the bubble of light making him feel on stage instead of cozy. A soft female voice activated in the walls as he strode, reminding him of corporate philosophy. “You are your group,” she murmured seductively as he passed the copier room.
“Profit makes possibility,” she reminded near the Telecom pod.
Daniel took the stairs instead of the elevator. “Work for a good retirement,” she whispered as he trotted down the steps.
Her voice followed him to the hallway, the restroom, the cafeteria line.
“Share the enthusiasm.”
“Change is risky.”
“Believe in belonging.”
The voice was as unheard, and omnipresent, as the shadow-Muzak it interrupted. It cajoled, nagged, promised.
The cafeteria chatter was of web celebrities, game scores, designer drugs, faddish restaurants and clone-organ operations. An accountant’s bray of laughter was so obnoxious that Daniel thought the donkey should clone himself a new head. Then he sat alone, sipping his sour drink and imagining improvements to his catapult. “I hear you’re seducing ‘harridan’ Lundeen,” someone called from across the room.
Daniel ignored the comment, stacking sugar tablets into a castle wall. Someday he wanted to defend a real castle.
Sanford came through the line and slid into a seat opposite. “The gorgon won again,” he judged.
“I don’t care what that old biddy thinks.” Dyson sipped his Mongo, wincing at its taste. They said it was an acquired habit.
“It ain’t what she thinks, it’s what she can do. She called maintenance to do some mid-day cleaning.”
“Your waste basket is empty now.”
The catapult! “Shit. I thought she hadn’t noticed it.”
“When are you going to learn, Dyson? Go along to get along.”
“I try to get along. It’s not my fault everyone but me is crazy.” He sipped again. It was possible he was the only real human being on Earth, he’d theorized, and everyone else was a participant in an elaborate hoax to fool him, for unknown but no doubt evil and nefarious reasons. This could explain why everyone else seemed to tolerate a bureaucracy that drove him crazy. “The catapult actually worked rather well, I thought. The problem was the payload.”
Sanford resisted any temptation to congratulate his engineering. “Sanity is the most democratic of definitions, my friend,” his workmate counseled. “The majority gets to decide what’s normal. Odd man out is the one who gets labeled insane.”
Dyson pointed to his brain. “Maybe I’m just ahead of my time. The mark of genius.”
Sanford laughed. “I’ll put that on your urn registry. ‘He was right after all.’ I’m sure it will be a great comfort when you’re dead.”
“Or behind. Maybe I was born two hundred years too late.”
“Judging from your office political skills, I’d say you were born yesterday.”
Daniel’s smile was rueful. “Mona, I’m gonna,” he promised softly.
“You still have a chance. I just saw her in Telecom. No doubt word has gotten around and given you an excuse to talk to her. ‘I built an engine of destruction and crossed the horrible Harriet Lundeen just for you.’ What woman could resist?”
Daniel sighed. “Just about every female I’ve met since third grade.” He stood. “Still, ours is not to wonder why, right old chap?”
“Aye! Ours is but to mate and die!”
“Remember the Alamo!”
“Don’t fire until she rolls her eyes!”
“Into the breach, my friends!”
“Hey. Don’t talk dirty.”
Mona Pietri was struggling with the Telecom console. New features had been added that theoretically doubled its speed and realistically multiplied the ways in which it could possibly malfunction by a factor of five. The snarl of error messages gave Dyson a chance to introduce himself and demonstrate male prowess, though in truth he didn’t know much more about the console than Mona did. Still, he bluffed his way through to a “ready” promise on the view screen by hammering on the machine’s buttons. She granted him a look of approval, giving no hint she knew she’d been the target of romantic bombardment less than an hour before.
“I don’t know why it has to be so complicated,” she pouted. Instantly, he was in love.
“Microcore’s purchasing agents make three times as much money as we do buying this junk and then depend on us to document the need to upgrade it,” he explained. “If we ever mastered our equipment, their usefulness would be over. It’s designed to torment.”
She looked uncertain. “I don’t think the corporation really intends that.”
“Oh, but they do. Microcore is a pyramid built on a program of ever-increasing complication. ‘We make things hard so you can take it easy,’ but of course it never gets easier at all. Microcore snarls, so it can cut its own Gordion knot.”
Maybe he could impress her with trivia. “Gordium was an ancient city. The chariot of its founder was tied to a post by a knot so complex that legend promised it could only be untied by the future conqueror of Asia. Alexander the Great came to the place, considered a moment, and then cut the knot with his sword.”
She nodded hesitantly.
“He fulfilled the prophecy, you see. Just like Microcore fulfills the promise on its box that this software will cut the knot created by its last box. Of course our sword ties a new knot to replace the old to ensure a market for next year’s release. It’s the way of the modern world.”
“It’s your job.”
“Our job. ‘Microcore, where reinventing the need for our existence is a way of life.’” He grinned. “It’s vapid, but it feeds us.”
Mona looked uncomfortable. “I don’t think you should be so negative,” she decided. “I don’t think it helps the group.”
Miscalculation! “I’m not negative. Just honest. Candid.”
“I don’t think you believe in what we’re doing.”
“Look.” He considered what to say. “I’m just trying to analyze our market role clearly and find some humor from poking fun. I don’t really object. I just look for opportunities to show . . . initiative.”
She brightened at that. “Initiate consensus!” she recited approvingly, remembering the corporate slogan. “Plan time for spontaneity! Discipline toward freedom!”
He looked at her with disappointment. “You’ve been listening to the walls, I see.”
She nodded. “I’ve memorized them all. Maybe you should too, Daniel. I think you’d be happier if you better understood why we’re all here.”