A short science-fiction story about my solution to Global Warming. I sent it to Larry Niven, author of 'Ringworld' and the the 'Gil Hamilton' series, amongst many others, and he liked it, so I'm sharing Chapter One here.
Chapter One. The Second Unit
“Now everyone pay attention!” boomed the director’s megaphone. “I’m only going to say this once!”
Our group stopped chatting right away and turned to listen to First Director Stephens. Other groups carried on chatting at first, but ours didn’t, because we’re not important enough to finish a conversation after being told to be quiet. We’re just the Second Unit. We just fill in the scenes which aren’t important enough for the First Unit. There’s always time for the Second Unit to redo a scene. Our time is expendable. That’s not to say we don’t have a necessary role in the holo. All big holos need a Second Unit, or they aren’t big holos.
We’re just not important.
The holo has a huge budget and eager consumers, so the holo is important. The holostars have their expensive plastiskin implants, so the holostars are important. The holocams have their 3D recording holodisks, so the holocams are important. But we’re not important. We’re just the Second Unit.
Slowly, after a while, the more important people finished their conversations. Eventually the entire holocrew was impatiently silent, watching the director. The director lowered his megaphone gratefully.
“Thank you. First I’m going to remind you why we’re all here. Project Archimedes has started! This is the largest engineering project ever undertaken!” The director was already breathless after such a big statement. He paused to take in a slow, big breath.
Co-producer Marcus, standing by First Director Stephens, jumped in. “We’re going to move the moon!” He exclaimed, to fill the pause. But he had made a mistake, because it just made the pause longer.
Move the moon!
Yes, in a few days, we were actually going to move the moon. What an incredible event that was going to be. Many had thought totally impossible at first, and some still thought it impossibly dangerous. But as global warming accelerated, there was no alternative. The only way left to cool the Earth was to change its orbit.
And how can the planet’s orbit change? The Gods had given us the perfect tool for that, a huge moon, totally useless otherwise, and we were about to blow it up. The scientists had been planning it in secret for decades, as had the psychologists, identifying ways to introduce the idea to the general public without causing mass panic. Finally, the secrets were over. The planning was over. The gargantuan engineering was over. And in our holostudios, hundreds of new scripts about Moon-Move had been tested, put in order, and one chosen for our crew--because Project Archimedes was about to swing into its most dangerous phase. Finally, after all the years of preparation, we were about to blow up the moon.
“You all know this, but I’m just going to go over it one more time,” said the Director, now he had his breath back. “I’m going to say it once, then you all have work to do.” He clicked his palmtop. A holo of the solar system sprang up behind him. The perspective zoomed in on the orbiting Earth and moon. “The effort of the scientists and engineers in planning this was immense. We all owe it to them to make the best effort possible, in whatever way we can. We may only be holo-artists, and not scientists, but we all have a part to play in this, perhaps the greatest drama ever known to humankind.”
Stephens smiled, and the holo animation started moving. The holo rendered a series of huge explosions across the surface of the moon, explosions so enormous, they could even be seen on the relatively tiny portable holosphere at the soundstage’s rear. The moon cracked and split, all the way to its core.
“There is goes! The first part of the moon is away! And so its gravity will shift, and the Earth will change orbit and move away from the sun, at a carefully planned trajectory that will cool the deserts and restore the icecaps. But we all know what that means too.”
The holo moved focus to the Earth’s surface. The outlines of the continents were changing shape. It was all perfectly visible. Clouds had gone a long time ago. After the clouds started disappearing, the scientists started firing rockets into the moon, to kick moondust into orbit, which diffused sunrays to cool the earth. But the moondust rockets stopped when Project Archimedes had been announced. All that was left overhead was a burning hot sun and the continual haze of a decaying atmosphere. True, the giant heat exchangers at the North and South poles were still working to cool the Earth, keeping the atmosphere breathable too. But they had done all they could, and the heat had become too much even for them. All that was left to save the planet was the long secret moon-move project…Project Archimedes.
“Give me a lever long enough and I could move the moon,” Marcus chipped in again.
“That’s what Archimedes said. And now we are going to move the moon! We really are!”
The director glanced at the producer without looking annoyed. “It’s just so amazing, we never tire of hearing it,” he said. “Yes, Project Archimedes will move the moon, and therefore, also, this planet. But that’s not all. What of the resulting changes in gravitational pull and the new torque forces on the Earth’s surface? The scientists have done their best to predict it. But we don’t know if their predictions are totally accurate. We don’t want the public to be frightened, so the possible errors are minimized to them. But we have to acknowledge it, as we are responsible for the media they see. And the fact is, this city could be flattened or underwater soon. We don’t talk much of it, but it’s true. So the entire West Coast of America is being evacuated, as you know. Most believe it is just a moonstorm precaution. But we may be the last people ever to see this city at all.”
Stephens paused for a moment, this time not breathless at all. “Do any of you know the evacuation is almost complete? That we are the very last people left in this city?”
A shocked pause followed from all. We all looked at each other, surprised.
“That’s right. It’s been kept very, very secret. We’re the only people left in all of San Angeles Diego. All the rest have gone. And we’re still here because there is one last crucial job to do: to record the way things were, one last time, just before Moon-Move starts, so that all the people who are waiting to return can remember, and feel the way things were, especially if Project Archimedes destroys the city itself.”
His voice had fallen to a murmur, but we all could hear every single word. There wasn’t a single sound. No one was fidgeting. No one was looking abstractly into the distance. Even the actors and actresses couldn’t hide their surprise behind their plastiskin jowls. The plastiskin was meant to shape itself just as the holostars wanted, but it had to be a conscious decision, and even the holostars had not expected this.
“So I told you, I was only going to tell you this once. And now you know why.” The director looked down at the ground. “Get to it, people. You all know what you’ve got to do.”
Marcus stood. It really was his cue now. “Unit managers, hand out the production envelopes. We have until midnight, then the jetcopters will be picking us up. Get to it!”
The unit managers were moving down the rows, handing out the envelopes, almost in a trance. The director had always made us work like this, handing out the storyboards just before the shoot. We never knew what the assignment would be until then.
The crews were standing up now, small spurts of conversation starting again. John Near, the Second Unit manager, fixed our group with a stare. Then he beckoned with his hand, indicating we should listen closely to him alone. “Now I know what you think,” he said, looking less at every one and more directly at me. “We’re just the Second Unit. We don’t matter. We’re just here to fill in the pieces which aren’t important enough for the First Unit. But today…that’s not entirely true, is it Adam? We are important today, aren’t we?”
“I guess we are important too,” I admitted. “At least, this once. Is it really true we are the only people left in San Angeles Diego?”
“Right you are, Adam. And that means business! I want you and Rhanda to split off from the rest today. Go to City Hall right now. Take my autopod. You can read the storyboards on the way. Get to it!”
Rhanda and me stood slowly, trying to appear composed, but we were both still rather in shock as she climbed into the autopod. We had worked together a long time. As on many similar occasions before, Rhanda sat first. Then I handed the heavy holocam to her, and she held the precious machine in her lap. With the holocam in her arms, she glanced up at me. Feeling her steel-blue eyes upon me again helped shake me back into the reality of the moment.
“Think it’s too heavy for me again?” She said.
“I always worry it’s too heavy for you,” I replied with a little smile.
“Never!” She tossed her short black hair back in her ritual of defiance. I couldn’t stop a chuckle as I climbed into the driver’s side seat.
The autopod doors closed. ”City Hall!” I commanded, then turned off the voice recognition circuits. The pod started to glide out of the Studios, down a short slope to the 101 podway.
“So what did you think of that presentation?” I asked.
“I think Marcus should keep his mouth shut,” Rhanda said, “especially when he’s with Stephens. It just makes him look stupid.”
“Hmm. I think you’re too hard on him,” I said. “He’s just trying to help Stephens set the stage.”
She didn’t reply immediately. “You don’t need to be so nice to everybody, you know,” she said finally.
The podcar moved out of the New Universal scrapes onto the main podway. The glass darkened automatically as we moved out of the scrape’s shadow into stark sunlight.
There was no traffic on 101. We were the only pod there. Despite the darkened glass, the podway still looked stark.
“I’ve never seen it like this before,” Rhanda said.
“I don’t know if anyone ever has,” I mused, trying not to show my real reaction. It was for some reason very disconcerting, to be in the only podcar on 101. Normally it bustled with so many thousands of autopods, continuously jostling in and out of the lanes. But it was empty. Except for us.
We looked up over the concrete skirts, at the scrapes. Only the executives could afford windows in San Angeles Diego, and all of their windows were dark. The executives were all gone. If the executives were all gone, there really could be no one else in the city.
“We actually are the only people here!” Rhanda said. “I still hardly believe it! What kind of stunt is this!”
“Well, you know how it is in the Studio,” I sighed. “Since they built the New Universal scrapes, we hardly go anywhere else at all. The directors don’t want any story leaks about the new holos, so they restrict our vidcalls and contact with the rest of the world. So there’s no way we could have found out unless they wanted.”
The pod was moving down the hill now, towards the City Hall complexes. On the left was the line of scrapes built last century, one by each of the Fortune 50 companies. Each tall, squat scrape had been skinned in bright corporate logo colors originally, but since Project Archimedes had started, they had not been repainted, and the sun had slowly bleached them. Through the darkened podcar glass, the scrapes looked like giant granite blocks, decorated only with dark windows and A/C vents, and with all their lights off, they looked more like cliffs than buildings.
On the right, there was still the old Hollywood sign on the hillside. It had been raised many years ago to make room for more agrifarms, but the giant letters still cast their bright lights over San Angeles Diego. Since the Hollywood sign was raised, it could be seen from the 101 podway too. “My parents told me they remember when the Hollywood sign was on wild land, and there were no agrifarms under them,” I reminisced.
“Oh, Adam.” Rhanda touched my arm. She never had touched my softly like that, before. “Do you think the sign will survive the Moon-Move?”
I couldn’t reply. Normally I was always joking. Normally I was telling the others not to worry, that we’re just the Second Unit, and it doesn’t matter if things go wrong. But now there couldn’t be another chance. We only had until midnight, and I couldn’t joke about the Hollywood sign. If Moon-Move was to break anything in San Angeles Diego, it would be that old sign.
There were still no other pods on the podway.
“Oh, Adam!” Rhanda said, starting to sound almost tearful. She was a few years younger than me, and I couldn’t imagine what it felt like for her—a lot worse than for me, after all, because at least I had been to Brazil as an intern a few years ago, while Rhanda was still at college. Rhanda had never been out to see the naked sun over empty plains. She had always been surrounded by people. At least I had walked on the vast dried riverbeds of the Amazon, with nothing but an occasional stump of the old rainforests. At least I had seen similar such desolation, but even for me, the empty city was even more disturbing than the Brazilian wasteland.
“It’s horrible!” Rhanda said. “We’re the last ones? How could they do this to us? What did we do to deserve this? She looked down where Sunset Boulevard used to bustle. “It’s like being in a giant morgue. I can’t stand it!”
I tried to calm her distress. “We have a job to do, that’s all,” I said as reassuringly as I could. I pressed my thumb on the production envelope. Its contents fell into my lap: a few pages, with line drawings and some holo angles. It was reassuring amidst the emptiness, seeing Stephens’s storyboarding.
“Oh, Frak the storyboard!” Rhanda exclaimed with an unusual burst of anger, knocking the paper from my hand. As I glanced at her with slight annoyance, her anger dissolved almost instantly into a distress I had never seen before. She twisted sideways, burying her head into the nook of my arm.
“I can’t even look! An empty city! You’re always saying, no worries, we’re just the Second Unit.” She was crying now. “We were just the Second Unit. Now it’s just the two of us.”
“Hey, hey,” I said, putting my hand on her head. Over her head I could see only an empty podway stretched out in front of us, a concrete continuum, unbroken in line all the way to the horizon. On its sides, there were no pods skirting in and out the junctions, no people on the streets, and not even any gardeners on the rooftops. Still I felt disconcerted by the emptiness. It was just the two of us, alone in a ghost city, 400 miles long.
I tried to think of other ways to calm her. “Really it’s no different than any other time,” I said, “except….I have no idea how you manage to rest your head on me like that with a holocam in your lap. You really are very dexterous!”
Rhanda looked up.”Whaa---at?” She said, smiling a little through moist eyes, holding back tears she wouldn’t normally reveal. She twisted her head again to look up at me, and we both smiled. “But I’m not strong like you,” she said.
“It’s ok. We just take the pictures and go back.” She still looked nervous, but less than before. She rested her head on me again. I stroked her hair gently. Suddenly she was shaking a little, as if racked with a totally unfamiliar fear. Then her eyes crunched up, and she was almost at the point of sobbing like a little child. She buried her head deeper into me. The heaving breath subsided in her gradually. I held her head closer to me.
“We don’t need to,” she whispered after a while. Then suddenly she sat up. “We don’t need to!” She said, louder. She had conquered the unfamiliar sensation of fear, but the tone revealed some kind of overconfident zeal, verging on irrational rebellion. “There’s no one else here. No one at all. There’s nothing to be frightened of. We don’t need to do exactly what they tell us anymore. We could do anything. There’s no one watching. You know we’re quicker than we tell them. We could go anywhere. We could do anything. Anything at all. And we could still be back in time for the jetcopters.” She twisted again to put a slender arm around my thick neck, looking at me over her shoulder. I could never twist my head that far. “Adam, let’s go do something!’ She exclaimed, a little of her normal, playful defiance returning.
The pod was close to the turnoff for the halls now. There was no need for the usual juggle while we changed lanes, because there were no other pods. But our pod still jostled a little anyway, as if there were.
“What?” I asked, procrastinating.
“Anything! Soon we’ll be evacuated like everyone else. What do you want to do?”
“You’re crazy!” I reprimanded softly, with a smile.
“What’s so crazy about it, Adam? We could go to the fanciest hotels and see all the things they decided not to take with them, perhaps even the rooms we could never have afforded. We could go to the most expensive stores and see the merchandise they decided not to keep. Perhaps we could even find some for ourselves!”
“Rhanda, you know that’s illegal.”
“So what? The controllers and police are all gone. We’re the only ones here!”
The pod was starting to slow now, as we approached City Hall Parks. The old lines of palm trees hardly moved. There was no wind. Soon, perhaps, the storms from the moon-move would rip them all up and throw them into the sky. But the moonstorms were still a few days away, according to the Archimedes plans. As we coasted onto the boulevard, the palm trees weren’t moving at all. Everything was stationary, bleached by sun, like an empty outdoor holoset, ready for the actors to arrive.
“Oh come on, Adam.” Rhanda was crooning a little, her cheeks still moist with tears. “There must be something you want to do.” She put her head on my near shoulder again, now clasping my other with her free hand. It was electrifying, feeling her touch me like that in the middle of a mall podway in broad daylight, with no other pods anywhere to be seen. We had only ever worked together, and always with the rest of the crew. But there had always been some magnetism between us, and with the sudden, unexpected emptiness of the city, both our emotions were unchecked, and feelings coursed through us in ways never permitted in our time at work before.
“Anything? Is there anything you want to do?” She insisted, without sounding pleading at all. Instead it sounded like more of a challenge. “After all we’re not just robots. We have a life too. We should take advantage of what chances we have to do something totally different. Who would know? Who would care? And the Gods know, we don’t have that kind of chance very often.”
I scratched my head. “I need to think about it. You’re more imaginative than me. I can’t think of things like that spontaneously, like you. It’s just the way I am. That’s why I’m just a holocam man. You’re the one who works out the imaginative angles and sets the shots. I just put the cam where you tell me.”
“That’s true. You always do. You always do what I tell you, like no one else.” She sat up straight in her seat again. “Here, you hold the cam.” She started to shift the heavy machine out of her lap into mine. “I need to think about this too.”
We were in the center of New Palm Avenue now. On each side were some of the recent giant malls, normally filled with the chatter of thousands, but now silent. On their lower tiers, thick plexiglass windows protected displays of attractive merchandise, some of which had not changed for many years. In some windows, old clothes dummies stood in strange postures, but without the expensive clothes they normally wore. Some of the robotic ones were still moving with their strange artificial grace, as the solar cells continued to pump their actuators with electrical potential. The old robotic motions, programmed to entice the passing crowds, were at once both ridiculous in the street’s emptiness and enthralling in their persistence. I swallowed slowly, still trying to keep my composure, and still trying to focus on the job, and the scenery, rather than Rhanda’s close proximity. Yet she seemed so near to me, nearer than my own clothes, and her warmth licked around me like flames, melting an ancient ice that had kept my inner desires frozen for the past few years.
Rhanda was looking out the window too now. “I never actually told you…” She swallowed too, then started again more quickly “I never actually told you how much I admire you. You’re always such a rock. You never panic. You never get upset. You always reassure me. Oh sure, you may just be the holocam man, and you may not be glamorous like the holostars and all their jewels, but you’re totally reliable. I’ve always felt safe with you. I don’t feel safe with the others. They just leer at me as if they are imagining me naked. You never look at me like that, Adam. That’s why I like you so much.”
I swallowed again, keeping my eyes on the malls. “I like you too,” I managed to say. “Um. Now I’m looking to see if there is anything we could do together.” Despite the emptiness, the pod still moved at a little over pedestrian speed in the mallways, just as if they were full of people crossing from one side of the mall to the other. The pod had not been programmed to drive in empty spaces. It expected to be surrounded by the throngs at all times. As we reached the corner of the fashion mall, the old children’s mall slowly rose into view, still packed with merchandise. Since the population laws restricted the number of allowed children, that mall had always been too full of toys. There were too many toys and not enough children to enjoy them. So, many of the toys had been left in the mall windows.
On the nearest corner, there was a beautiful staged room for a baby, with the most perfect crib anyone could imagine, and around it, all the android teddy bears and assistant machine servants anyone could ever desire. We both caught each other looking at the crib. I blushed.
“The holocrew all look at me in ways they don’t deserve. They don’t deserve it, but you do. Sometimes,” Rhanda added slowly, “sometimes I wish you would look at me like that. Haven’t you ever wanted to touch me? I mean, really touch me?”
“Rhanda,” I said slowly, “umm, I guess I have, I mean I guess I do…of course…” The children’s mall had almost passed by, and the pod turned on the last block to City Hall. I looked straight into her steel blue eyes. She was coiled against the door now, like a loaded spring ready to burst out. Her eyes dropped from holding my gaze to fasten on my lips. She bit her upper lip, slowly, and then moved her tongue between lip and teeth. “But Rhanda,” I finally managed to heave out in one breath, quickly, “I respect you too much to let myself think of you that way.”
“That’s what I love about you the most,” she whispered. The pod was entering the City Hall’s foyer now. “I think I must have loved you for that more than anyone else I’ve ever known. Do you know how hard it is for me to hold myself back sometimes, to hold myself back—from you? I don’t want to hold myself back any more. I really don’t. Please don’t make me hold myself back any more.” She pulled her chin and knees to her chest, wrapped her arms around herself, and coiled into a ball. “Will you do as I want this time too?” She whispered. “Please don’t make me hold myself back any more.”
I turned towards her, but I couldn’t reach her. The holocam was just too large, and I was never as nimble as Rhanda.
The pod suddenly jerked to a stop, jarring both our shoulders against the front windowscreen. The pneumatics on the pod doors opened them automatically, more slowly than I had remembered. She looked up at me, then over my shoulder, and suddenly she looked confused, eyes widening slightly. I twisted back in the seat and looked behind me, to find out what she had seen.
Almost immediately after the pod doors opened, there had been someone standing behind me: a tall, heavily built stranger, dressed in some vaguely familiar uniform. He looked down without speaking for a moment. I searched for some words. “Do you have a reason to meet us here, sir?” I asked finally, trying to sound casual. I looked up at his lapel badges and trying to read the insignia. “We didn’t expect anyone. We were told we were the last ones in the city.”
“And so you were. I can take that out your way, thank you.” He reached down and pulled the holocam from my lap, his strong arms hardly even bulging with the effort.
“Hey!” Rhanda yelled. “You can’t take that!”
But I looked down, because I had seen his lapel badges.
“Actually I can,” said the studio patroller, smiling reassuringly. “I’m David Near, John Near’s brother. I work as an officer for the studio, but you’ve never seen me before. John and I’ve worked together like this a number of times before, though, it’s nothing that unusual. And there’ll be a jetcopter for you here, in a few minutes.” He looked over his shoulder, back up the mallway. “Hmmph. I didn’t think you’d be here so soon, and I lost some money in the pool on that, because a lot of us thought you were going to take off, but I came here to catch you just in case, anyway, and here you are, just in time to catch.”
“Catch what? Are you arresting us or something?” Rhanda asked.
“What do you mean? We didn’t do anything wrong,” I asked at the same time.
David Near looked down with a kind smile. “Oh no, I’m here to reward you,” he replied. “You’re both being promoted. You are stars! Believe it or not, you are going to be great stars! And thanks for the holos.” Reaching into the holocam he’d pulled from me, he opened a hidden compartment. Out popped a holodisk, not the one on which I would have recorded, but another.
Putting it into an inner pocket, he continued. “We didn’t send you out to film anything here, you see. We sent you here so we could film you. According to the psychologists, the most interesting thing to people, after the evacuation, won’t be the holostars, or pictures of an empty city. They say people are going to want to know about the last people, the very last real people, to see the world as it really was, before the moonstorms. And the holocam you had, it’s a special unit I rigged for you, while you were asleep last night. It’s been recording you, both of you, ever since you left the studios. That’s what wanted, not City Hall images at all.”
Neither of us said anything. We just looked at him, dumbfounded. I was wondering if I should feel insulted, or exploited, or humiliated; and Rhanda must feel even worse. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at her. I just stared down into my lap. I felt more than anything like an admonished child, told off for doing something that was never done wrong, while feeling too stupid and frightened to say anything at all.
David Near sighed, placing a hand on my shoulder in gentle consolation. “It’s OK. It really is OK. If you ask me, you’re one of the nicest couples I’ve ever met. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.” He reached deftly into another hidden control cavity on the holocam and clicked an invisible button. “There, it’s off now, it’s not even broadcasting either. This ain’t the first time I had to do this, and I got to say, you’re one great couple. I’m sure you’re both going to be famous holostars, hey, you’ll be the last couple in the San Angeles Diego anyone could ever see! People will watch your holos for centuries. You’re going to be rich, both of you. You and your children are going to be very, very rich.” He walked around to Rhanda’s pod door. In the distance, the sound of a single turbojet seared nearer. “Look, the jetcopter’s almost here. Would you like to go do anything before it arrives?” David Near winked conspiratorially. “I could easily tell them you ran off and I couldn’t catch you in time. It’s absolutely no problem, we have until midnight after all, and there’s some nice hotels and other places, right next door.”
He offered a hand to help Rhanda out the autopod, with a kind of humility I had never seen anyone else ever show her. He smiled again to both of us with a soft respect, adding as she took his hand, “and the Gods know, we don’t have that kind of chance very often. Right?”
- Ernest L. Meyer (copyright 2010)