January 13, 2012

Something I'm working on right now...


Changes were happening again as Nigel walked home from the tube platform after work. That morning on his way in, he had stopped at Arlo’s Café for a tea and a muffin—the same thing he’d done every day, six days a week, for the last dozen years. And every single day, there would be Max, behind the counter. But this morning, Max wasn’t there. Nigel had asked the girl who was behind the counter: “Where’s Max?”

“Off,” she had said. Good for him, was Nigel’s thought as he’d left the café.

At work that day, Nigel had been expecting a quarterly performance review. He had been expecting a quarterly performance review by the Head of the Faculty of Nanomechanics. What he got was a nod and a handshake from the veep of Initiatives for Human Resource Development. “Where is Professor Davies?” Nigel had wanted to know.

“Off,” was the reply. Nigel didn’t think any more about it.

Now, as he stepped from the lift into the hall, Nigel saw a neighbour trying to squeeze through her doorway with an armload of boxes, and he rushed over to lend a hand. “Are you off, then?” Nigel asked, and helped lower boxes into an already half-full trolley that was waiting by the door. “Oh yes,” the neighbour said. “George took the call this morning.”

“Good for you,” said Nigel, and walked on down the hall.

At least one thing hadn’t changed today. Dinner was waiting for Nigel when he walked through the door. And there was Cathy, with a wave and a smile as she rushed about putting the finishing touches on their meal.

Cathy was a saint. Nigel had to schlep to the other end of the city and back every day to make half the money that Cathy made working from home. Nigel often thought, were it not for him, Cathy would have had her life on track years ago. But she would never hear of it. She loved him dearly, and Nigel had never fully understood why. He had spent so much time focusing on the task at hand over the last twelve years, that he was never around long enough to see it was exactly that dedication to their future together—putting himself through the ringer like that every day, knowing that tomorrow she could decide to cut her losses and leave—which made her love him.

Not that she could have expressed herself so well. Cathy was an otherwise uncomplicated woman, who happened to be radically adept at astrophysics. She had a contract with the city’s mining consortium, doing a job that was so important now because there was almost no one left who could do it anymore. She spent her days pouring over observations from the colossal Farmer Array—located in heliocentric orbit just above the plane of the asteroid belt—mapping the trajectories of hundreds of thousands of tiny worldlets, correlating those with the orbital schedule of the city’s mining platform, and writing code to upload to the platform. She would flag those candidates that were of desired size and composition for retrieval and excavation by the unmanned station’s small fleet of autonomous mining droids. The reason the whole process was not simply automated, and why Cathy’s job was so important, was because it was always a race against the platforms of other cities to get to the choicest rocks: the most valuable resources. Cathy saw it as a kind of cat-and-mouse game; she enjoyed the pressure of always trying to keep one step ahead of whoever was closest this pass around. It was why she was so good at her job; a fact that often kept Nigel up at night during weeks like these.

The arrangement was at the same time socially enlightened and primitively Darwinian. The Farmer Array was a joint project of the Cities of the World—one of very few such projects to exist. Every city had its own mining platform somewhere out in the Belt, and every city had access to data gathered by the Farmer Array. Beyond that, it was every city for itself, and the old frontier axiom of being the first to stake your claim became the new space race. Those cities fortunate enough to have an actual person able to perform the required calculations were afforded the advantage of carefully planning—sometimes years in advance—a claim on an especially coveted piece of raw material, sometimes within mere days of it hurtling into the range of another platform. Perhaps if there were still more of the better minds at hand, more cities would still be enjoying the benefits of this kind of expertise. As it was, those cities which had to get by with a fully automated mining system were saddled with a one-eyed behemoth that would throw itself without prejudice at any conglomeration of dust that happened by. And since collecting enough raw material to initiate a return trip could take years, timing was very important.

It was all the excitement Cathy needed to keep satisfied.

Dinner was excellent, which it always was, and the food was real, which it usually was. Nigel barely said two words (“looks good”) as he dropped to the floor and got to work revealing the bottom of his plate. No changes here. Real food was the only luxury most people allowed themselves anymore. If nothing else, it was important to afford good health.

Nigel was slowing down, and reaching for more vegetables when it occurred to him to say to Cathy, “Professor Davies is off.”

“Oh really? What about your review?”

“Rescheduled, I suppose.” Then Nigel told Cathy about Max, and the neighbours. “It's odd, isn't it?” he prodded. “So many people that we know? That’s never happened before.”

“You’ll see convergence in any random system if you look long enough,” Cathy said in that not-even-thinking-about-it way that she had. “Besides, it’s inevitable that the process should accelerate over time; certainly in this neighbourhood. Everyone around here is pretty much the same median age and income.”

It was true. The affordability of this place lent itself to couples that enjoyed the slightly above-average earnings of technical professionals. It was also true that many of these professional couples would gladly sacrifice such relatively glamorous surroundings for something a little more Spartan; anything to increase their savings ratio. But not everyone could be a technical professional, and everyone had to live somewhere. There was simply not enough space to go around, and the roll for cheaper accommodations was in no danger of becoming shorter any time soon. ...

©2011 C. Robertson

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