A woman with raven locks flowed round one cozy corner of the room. She was humming. A slightly doughy man reclined on an armchair near the door, shoes half-removed. Daniel had started to take them off, but become uncertain of himself halfway through.
Not that he wasn’t comfortable hanging about this lavender carpet in his socks. Or shoes. Daniel was at his most comfortable in Sauna’s apartment. Certainly he must be. He came here as often as he could. Sauna had a way of making him feel like more than a face in the crowd outside. There was just something about people like her—about all people who lived in flying apartment buildings. They were interested, they were interesting. They did things.
Maybe it was the way no one had their phone out when they were together. Or the way they never talked about celebrities. Or maybe it was the little things that showed she was thinking of him. Even now, Daniel’s hands were being warmed by a mug of hot tea. Daniel didn’t drink tea, but it smelled so exotic. He could actually see the ingredients growing in a countertop garden across the room.
People like Sauna were a special breed, that was for sure. And Sauna was the most special of the lot. Daniel’s opinion was biased, of course; it was only natural. He didn’t get nervous to the point of distraction whenever he talked to her. Most of the time. He was a bit fidgety tonight. He might even say that he was worn down. Or—desperate, like a stripped screw hanging on by a single thread.
Sauna finished tending the plants and flopped into a hammock. She giggled as if her day had been a private joke. Her smile was smart and pretty all at the same time, with a little curlicue dimpling the tip.
“What’s so funny?” Daniel launched into the silence.
She turned his way. “Oh, it’s nothing.”
“Come on. Share the joke.”
“Well—do you know anything about the New City Theory?”
Daniel’s grin sublimated as he registered the question. “Ah, of course. What songs do they play again?”
Sauna grinned as though Daniel had told an amusingly bad joke. It was lovely. At the slightest movement, her curls tumbled like seafoam, tucking away the corners of her lips.
“It’s nothing as sophisticated as it sounds. Just a bunch of academic hooligans who think Sacramento should be called New Sacramento, and Buffalo should be called New Buffalo. So on.”
She lay back, spreading herself over her cushion like a warm snow angel. “It makes for some interesting sophistry. How we’ve changed the major cities more in ten years than we have in the past hundred. They claim that pretty soon all buildings will move constantly from place to place, and that the coherent city will cease to exist. I think they even brought up the Ship of Theseus at one point.”
Daniel nodded, mentally tracing the outline of her elbow. “So what problem do you have with the Ship Thesis?”
She released a tiny groan. “I suppose I should be proud of anyone who knows their Greek philosophy. But there’s no reason to have such a thing against aerial buildings. It all just reeks of postmodernism, and don’t you think we’re supposed to be over that by now?”
At least he could listen to Sauna talk. That was a privilege. She never used Daniel’s full name, and that was yet another nice touch.
Sauna got up to splash some water on the windowsill planter which hung out her window. It was the only windowsill planter Daniel had ever seen, and it was almost as fascinating as she was. She bent over the sill to bury her face in a row of flowers—blue and yellow—and smile into the petals. The air which blew in from outside smelled of eggs thrown in acid, as it always did. Daniel’s nose wrinkled. But even from his chair he heard Sauna inhale as if it were a salty breeze off the Pacific coast.
“A splash of color, that’s all we need,” he heard her murmur.
Daniel’s chest constricted. He held his breath to avoid making any embarrassing sounds. It was such a simple, little thing; most people probably wouldn’t have noticed it was special. But Daniel noticed.
“I think so, too!” he exclaimed in a loud whisper.
Sauna glanced over her shoulder, as a sun glanced over mountains, and giggled.
That giggle sent a tongue of flame up the underside of Daniel’s heart. Thus emboldened, he reached into the bag near his footrest. Now was the time to do it, while she was looking at her plants and not at him. He might not get another chance.
He had to be a bit sneaky to make it perfect. Daniel took something out of his bag and got up as silently he knew how, making sure that he was standing behind her when she finally turned around.
Sauna threw both hands up to her cheeks.
“They’re called orchids,” he said proudly, pushing the bouquet across the space between them. “But of course you knew that.”
Hesitantly, her fingers brushed the stems. They came into contact with Daniels’ fingers for just an instant before he let go, forcing her to tighten her grip on the plants.
“You are so incredibly beautiful,” he said with his hands folded.
Daniel felt so much lighter the moment he said it. There was something old in those words, almost like a magical incantation. He wasn’t silly enough to expect them to do anything magical, but he couldn’t help the feeling that his saying them was somehow important.
“And you’re smart, and—and—nice—and—amazing in I can’t…” Daniel choked off helplessly. “Look at me. I can’t even find words for it.”
She hadn’t moved, which gave Daniel time to tackle another breath. “Every time I see you, I’m a little bit better off. And then—I think the world’s a little better, too, you know?”
Her mouth hung barely open.
Daniel’s fingers cinched a little tighter than before. “You don’t have to say anything. Please don’t say anything. I know I shouldn’t be doing this but I—wanted you to know. So bad. And that’s all. I love you so much, Sauna, that no matter how you feel about me you’ve still made my life better. And if someday, far away from here, you ever feel lonely—that might be impossible for you, but just in case you do, I had to tell you—if you ever feel that way just think of me and remember that I said I love you, and let it make you happy. That’s all I want.”
Sauna had backed off a couple steps. Now she stood with one hand braced against the furniture behind her. “I’m—sorry.”
“Why?” Daniel’s grin broke, but he put it back together. “This is a happy thing. I swear it is.”
“You can’t just walk into someone’s—Daniel. I’m getting married in a week.”
What a girl. She hadn’t even raised her voice. “Congratulations.” His tried to gulp some moisture back into his mouth. “Who’s the lucky one?”
Her blush was torture to look at. “Actually, I’m…coming out of the bank.”
Daniel copied her blush. “Ah.” He bit his lip. “Saved up?”
She wasn’t even looking at him now so much as the floor. “They’re having a special,” she told the floor. “But I’ve been thinking about it for a while now.”
Daniel was fighting inside to execute his plan—his script—down to the last detail. He had to finish without deviating into anything desperate. She deserved so much better than that adolescent nonsense.
“Well!” he said loudly, pumping out a smile by heroic force of will. “That’s nice!”
He then proceeded to lose his composure. Daniel seized her shoulders, his entire face crumpling into a tender singularity. “No, Sauna, no,” he moaned. “Not you! You’re the best there is. They should be paying you! You can—”
He held an imaginary globe in his hands and spouted gibberish for several seconds, struggling to articulate the grandeur he alone understood. “You could be with anyone!” he finally burst. “You’re going to make someone the happiest man in the world. And I want you to have…”
“Daniel! Knock it off!” she snapped.
Daniel silenced as if slapped across the room.
He stood facing her for a while, searching for something in her eyes that he might take away with him. Then he set, yet one more time, to the task of rebuilding his smile for her sake. He broke into a feverish sort of laugh. “Well—I’ve got that out of the way. So what’s new?”
She frowned, a shape which didn’t become her at all.
Daniel carefully placed himself back onto a chair. “Let’s rewind to before I screwed everything up, shall we?”
Another uncomfortable silence, during which they did not do that.
“It’s okay. I swear I don’t want anything to change. What I want, more than anything in the world, is to talk like friends the way we always do.”
“A-actually…” Sauna didn’t sit. She put the orchids on the hammock with the care of a coroner. “Maybe you should go home now.”
Daniel squirmed, resisting the command, then jumped up all at once to obey. He threw his shoes back on without worrying about the laces. “O-okay.” He turned around, then made it into a full rotation and faced her again. “Hey. We should get dinner next week. You really liked that sushi place.”
Sauna squirmed in turn, though her squirm was much more graceful, like a waterfall. “Maybe not. I’ll, um—I expect to be rather busy…”
Daniel waved all sorts of vague gestures at once. “Of course, of course. That makes perfect sense. Perfectly. It’ll be perfect, I mean. So. Some other time. Give me a call.”
Daniel gathered his empty bag and stood around by the door. He hoped, not so secretly, that Sauna might say something more.
But eventually he who spoke first. “If that’s what you want,” he said rapidly. “I love you.” By the time he had finished that sentence, he had fled into the hall.
But he reappeared to poke his head in the door. “I love you,” he said once more, and disappeared.
And popped up again. “Love you.”
The door was shut.
The heat of the moment drained slowly from Daniel face and from the rest of his body. When the fever had boiled off, he was left cold on the stairwell, wondering how he could have been so idiotic.
He descended the stairs feeling like the greatest moron in history. Had he gone back to the start of this moment, he very likely would have done the same thing again, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t an idiot. He’d known what he was doing the first time. There were rules. The kind of rules which were never written down, and thus the most strictly enforced. And he had very willfully broken one, expecting by some magic, or some unwarranted grace from a beautiful girl, to get away with it.
People like him weren’t supposed to talk that way. Sauna was one of those rare people who was pleasing just to be around, while he looked like a man who’d been constructed out of Play-Doh and tinker toys. His hair—the ghostly blonde, bolt-upright wisps that passed for hair—well! It would be a shock if he wasn’t bald by age forty.
And that was without mentioning that he couldn’t do anything interesting. Sauna was like a world onto herself: a mysterious, verdant continent filled with words like ‘orchid’ that sounded as though they came from another planet. Daniel’s apartment was almost unchanged from the day he’d rented it.
People of his kind, who really only belonged on the ground, weren’t supposed to fall in love. Maybe with each other, under certain permissible circumstances. But other than that, they were not allowed to feel lonely. No one wanted to hear about that. It made everyone more comfortable if they were ready with a joke, and never expressed interest in the world of whispered promises.
In some ways, he was glad to have done it. It probably would have been worse wondering what might have been. Now Daniel knew exactly where he stood. Sauna had been the last and oldest tether, and now she was cut.
Daniel took the shaftless elevator down to Earth from the underside of Sauna’s apartment complex. He walked on foot back to his own. His home was stuck inside a monolith of grim faux-stone—a rectangular prism, to be precise.
He took a shower, had a candy bar and lie down. A moment later he got up and had another one. He’d made sure to stock up before embarking on tonight’s little scheme.
At about ten o’clock, he sat up sharply, ran some fingers through his hair, and slipped his shoes back on. If he was going out again he’d have to clean the microwave, brush his teeth, and eat dinner. So he did all those things. Just before leaving he threw on an LED jacket that flashed six thousand different colors every ten minutes. It was perfect for helping him blend into the crowd when he went out at this hour.
The sun had just set, accentuating constellations of electric lights. This was evening, the hour any good city started to come alive. Most of this city had been carrying on tolerably well indoors, and it saw no reason to leave the safety of its air conditioning, thank you very much. But there were so many people, so many people everywhere, that Daniel could have been fooled into thinking otherwise.
Daniel liked the way skywalks looked from above. From the observation deck of Sauna’s building, they were a cat’s cradle woven through the skyline. Some were painted in bright colors. But actually being on the walks wasn’t nearly as much fun, especially near ten o’clock.
The railings were chain-link and went all the way over the top to form a closed tunnel, so it was pretty impossible to fall from these things. But Daniel still didn’t like the heights. He didn’t like being jostled by people who didn’t notice him, and he didn’t like the smell of being outside, which no one else seemed to notice anymore.
Generally he walked with his nose pointed up in the air, so as to avoid catching anyone’s eyes by accident. There were always at least a few hovering buildings to look at. A couple of them were even on the move now, ponderously sliding across the skyline in between lanes of flying cars. That was always interesting to watch.
California had recently fallen in the domino-chain of states authorizing an increased number of structures at low altitudes, so the sky above Sacramento was getting rather crowded. Some days you could barely see the sky. But at least the view wasn’t wasted. The underside of a floating building was the perfect place to put advertisements.
On the belly of what might have been a restaurant was a billboard which particularly drew Daniel’s eye tonight. It showed a perfect man holding—a rose, Daniel thought, and winced in pain—between his teeth. True to Sauna’s word, there was a remarkable discount being held by a major contracting agency for professional husbands. It was a good deal. That was good for her.
Briefly Daniel fantasized about trading places with the man on the sign. What it must be like! If he was hired to be someone’s husband, he would do it better than anyone else. No matter who they were, nothing would be more important in his life than making that person happy. He would wake up every morning by reminding himself that she was the most important thing, and he would do something small and special for her every single day. Her successes would be his successes. He would never make her cry. Such a thing would be abhorrent to him. It would be a good life; Daniel would be famous for nothing, but he would do one really good thing, and do it really well.
He startled back to the walk when he was nearly trampled by someone’s hologram pet dragon. Didn’t he have it all planned out! Maybe he should put out a résumé for that as his next job. Yeah, right.
Daniel did not find 2056 much to his liking.
He stepped onto the fiftieth-floor tram, which was the only track which ran around the entire city, and got off at Dawn Tower. Actually, he missed his stop the first time, and had to ride the whole circuit again. But he tried not to make a fuss about that. It was his own fault.
The lobby of Dawn Tower was huge. Daniel almost felt under-dressed; there was a real crimson carpet underfoot. An energetic auto-information assistant behind the front desk gave him instructions to the top. After informing it tersely that he already knew the way, Daniel got onto an elevator with ten other people and slumped against the side.
The ride was pleasant enough; the elevator was spacious, and it didn’t play music by anyone Daniel took a personal disliking to. A polite auto-waiter was serving grape juice in little paper cups. It was tasty stuff, too, not just the kind he could make at home. The glass afforded a perfect view of the electric light show being exhibited on the walls of the modern art museum several blocks away. Much like Sauna’s face, it hurt to look at, so he did.
A few weeks ago, he had been an engineer. He’d been a person who worked hard to make something of himself. The pieces of his world had fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, and he never had to think about them. Life wasn’t spectacular, perhaps. But he would have said that he was happy if anyone had asked. Unwritten rules didn’t haunt him. He spent most of his time thinking about how to get an interesting job and where to do his Master’s.
All of that had been wiped away one month ago, not long after the time of day when people brushed their teeth, and just before breakfast. A brilliant new computational algorithm—in fact, the greatest breakthrough since the room-temperature superconductor—had rendered Daniel’s discipline obsolete. A computer the size of a small briefcase could now do the same job under any conditions, in a quarter of the time and a fraction of the cost. With, by the by, no mistakes, guaranteed.
The entire department had gathered together like the family they never were until that day—all his classmates had drunk one last farewell under the venerable college roof. Then they went their separate ways. Most of them would have to drop out of the ranks of the working elite. They would fall back on their hobbies, and, as the head of the department had put it, ‘focus on what really matters in life’.
It sounded good at the time. Daniel’s world had been suddenly thrown wide open. For the first time in his life, there was no one telling him what destiny to pick. So why didn’t he focus more on what really mattered? Sauna had always said that he spent too much time thinking about numbers. It was time to change that.
It changed. But not for the better. Daniel woke up with a bit of a hangover and a total loss for what to do. The rest of the month was a plummeting spiral of discovering that ‘what really mattered’ didn’t amount to as much as he’d thought.
Like falling through bubble-wrap into a void. He’d been so sure his life was full of things, but now he couldn’t name what he’d thought those things had been. By the time Daniel reached the top of Dawn Tower, he couldn’t for the life of him remember which discipline of engineering he’d been studying for the past five years.
Dawn Tower (formerly known as Dawn Polytechnical Institute) was a glass knife of an old-fashioned skyscraper, named, or so the joke went, for the way its reflective surface blinded the drivers of Interstate 80 on sunny mornings. On gloomy days, it whittled in the clouds. It had been the tallest tower in the world for a short time, until overtaken by Beijing; as such, the rooftop made an excellent observation deck, and the elevator’s top exit was surrounded by a solid ring of expensive concession stands and souvenirs.
Daniel tried to stay out of the crowd. It wasn’t hard. No one wanted to bother him. The children had been taught better than to make eye contact with a stranger. He could sit on a plaster rock by the koi pond and hug his jacket around his chest, looking down at the hover-buildings which held at lower altitudes. Sauna’s place was near here.
There was a single automated host here on the rooftop. It was dressed a bit like a celebrity Daniel knew. He ignored it at first, since he’d already taken juice from a similar machine on the elevator, and asked directions of another one at the lobby on the hundredth floor. Then there was one on the tram, and one in his apartment lobby…a dozen or so tonight. And Daniel didn’t feel very charitable towards artificial intelligence at the moment.
But he needed a way to pass time. He’d thought that with the state he was in, it would be easy to sit in one place for four hours, but as it turned out he could still get bored. So after spending some time alone, he approached the machine for a conversation. It talked with him while pacing the perimeter of the observation deck, and Daniel was forced to admit that it was a lot of fun. The automatic knew all sorts of things. They wound up having a delightful conversation about integrated circuits. Daniel would have kept it up for hours, in fact, but there was a long line waiting, and they looked none too pleased when Daniel took a second lap around the roof. So after that he sheepishly retreated to the pond.
Eventually the crowd thinned out. The automatic hospitality robot went wherever it went to recharge, and the city’s revelers took their reveling indoors. At about two in the morning, the automatic vendors finally deactivated, and the lights in all those concession stands went out. This rooftop was so high above the rest of the city that when they dimmed, everything was plunged into darkness.
Daniel crept to his feet. He took a few steps, cautious of the sound of his knees cracking if he moved too quickly. So far as he could tell, the only person still up here was a custodian on the other side of the roof. And they were separated by all the stands around the elevator. Daniel would have rather waited for him to leave, but he wasn’t sure he would get that chance. This might be the best moment he was going to get. At least no one was looking at him.
It was the perfect spot. The railing here was only waist high—as good as nothing at all. Daniel approached carefully, wary of tripping over discarded soda cups, and gripped the bars with both hands to peer over the edge of Dawn Tower.
He had a smooth drop to work with. On one side of the tower, the roof curved, and anything hitting the glass would just sort of slide down. But here it was straight down, sharp as a knife. Spotlights illuminated long streaks of the tower; he tried to position himself away from those areas. He didn’t want anyone to see him fall. He imagined that would be very traumatic for some people. If the ground cars on Interstate 80 could see this far, someone might even crash. And Daniel didn’t want to make himself a nuisance with his last act in the world.
But even with all that, there was only so much thought which could go into picking the right spot. All too soon Daniel had to admit that he stalling; the only thing left to do was jump.
He steeled himself; that’s what he had come for. He backed, right against the concession stands, to get the largest possible running start. His heart began racing, faster than ever, and he wasn’t quite sure he wasn’t having a heart attack. But that would work too.
He just—needed a minute to prepare himself, that was all.
As he was taking a deep breath, telling himself that it would be his last, he heard a metal bucket scrape off to his left. Daniel jumped like a sparrow.
“If you’re gonna’ do it, could you get a move on?” crackled a voice. “I have to lock up before I can leave.”
Daniel cried out. He couldn’t say what he had expected—if he’d secretly hoped for someone to talk him out of it, or what—but this was more fuel to shove him forward, push his head down to go on like a bull charging death. Daniel subsumed it in the impulse to jump. He wouldn’t have to listen to this voice in just a minute.
He might have screamed when he rushed the edge, legs hammering tight against the ground in an abortive attempt to sprint. He almost closed his eyes, but he needed to see the railing, so that he could grab it in one hand, leap up with both feet. His balance was flying forward. Daniel didn’t want to do this halfway and meet a messy end; it had been his nightmare for the past four hours. So once he was tipping forward, he pushed off with both feet.
And then—space. Rocketing emptiness. The sound of a thousand million anti-gravity engines lifting the motels towards heaven.
Oh, my God.
Daniel looked down the mouth of more than two hundred stories, now a terrible, yawning abyss.
I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.
Daniel felt a terrible gravity. He had an overwhelming sense of his own weight, even though, falling, he felt technically weightless. In the same way that he only thought of his best answers right after turning in a test, he thought of many new things he might have tried to do with his life. He closed his eyes. This was being sad, not what he’d felt before.
A moment later, he broke his nose.
This hurt, but it was not what he expected. Where was the endless plummet? He didn’t seem to be moving. His nose was the only part of his body to break; it seemed to have been smashed a bit by whatever invisible force was holding him up.
It was also bleeding profusely. Some of the blood trickled over a smudge left in midair by his face and breath. Daniel pressed at it with his finger and wiped some of the fog off a curve of transparent plastic.
He’d run into the invisible wall at full speed. In fact, he was still at the height of the roof. Daniel tried to get up, but he slipped, and, with a comically loud squeak, slid back down. In fact, he skidded rather neatly through the railing, so that when he came to a stop he was lying on the rooftop.
He lay there for a while eyes wide open. Daniel could only try to catch some part of his breath which wouldn’t come back. At length, he heard a squelch of dirty water.
The person standing over him looked for all the world like a janitor. He was wringing out his mop. After a moment, the man glanced up from under a cap settled low on his face. “You wanna’ try again, or can we go home now?”
Daniel cringed. This was the most private thing he had ever done, and here was this horrible interloper, who shouldn’t be there, mocking him. He couldn’t live through that. His anguish became a sort of battle cry as he charged the fence again, this time, truly not holding back. He jumped out as far as could, intending to soar right over the plastic barrier.
He succeeded only in flying into the dome a little faster than before. In Daniel’s defense, it went much higher than he’d thought. He might have successfully damaged himself by sheer virtue of a blow to his head, had he not seen the tiniest telltale glint of plastic and twisted aside at the last moment. His ribs absorbed the shock.
And he slid down again, squeaking in protest. And he lie on the roof, shaking.
The janitor had his hands in his pockets, observing Daniel’s tangled state. He leaned up against a darkened Starbucks with a steaming cup of coffee produced from some mysterious place. “Maybe you should call it a night. I don’t want to hafta’ call nobody.”
“Shut up! Shut up!” Daniel tore off his LED jacket. “I just have to utilize centrifugal force.”
The entire rooftop was collared in a transparent bowl; it must have been self-cleaning plastic, because Daniel couldn’t see any hint of the top edge. But he made a very athletic effort to run up the barrier by coming at it diagonally, like a penny trying to roll its way out of a donation bowl. He looked very impressive until his feet slipped out from under him, and sent him careening back at an alarming rate.
This time he didn’t slide right through the rail. His back came down against a pole and his head shot up after it, banging against the hollow metal. Even after the echoes faded, he remained there, just past the roof, apparently sitting on empty space on the wrong side of the rail. The plastic bunched his legs up awkwardly against his chest.
While he sat there, nursing his pain with both hands on the back of his neck, someone leaned up next to him.
His head was throbbing. Daniel crawled through the fence and collapsed in a pile at the janitor’s feet. He couldn’t make out more than a little of the man’s face. It was too deeply hidden by the cap. The entire human being was just a half-shadow in the play between city lights.
He couldn’t even be real. Daniel hadn’t seen a human janitor anywhere since kindergarten. When he looked around, even—yes, there it was, an ordinary cleaning disc scurrying around the rooftop. Daniel dropped a speck of tissue paper from his pocket, and it was whisked away in seconds. There had never been any mess up here for that antique mop kit to take care of. Where had the guy even gotten that thing?
“Points for effort,” the janitor rumbled. “Most folks give up a lot faster.”
The man’s lips curled forward, catching the headlights from a minivan that flew by. “Naw. You’re the only one to ever think of jumping from up here.”
Daniel’s head hung.
“Why do you think they put these fancy dishes up?” The janitor contorted his face into a grimace or a lurid grin. “I don’t mind them dishes myself. Wasn’t much fun seeing folks fall all that way. I know a guy who has to clean that up.”
That had to be a lie, too. Humans didn’t clean anything. There hadn’t been such a thing as a cleaning staff since he was a little boy.
“Dishes?” Daniel moaned. He clenched his eyes shut. “Why?”
The janitor sniffed, turning away a few degrees. “Way I see it, you can trace it all back to the death of baseball. That’s when this country started going south.”
Daniel thought about getting up to fight the janitor, but he didn’t have the strength. Instead he succeeding in getting upright on his knees. “Aren’t you supposed to be understanding?” he mumbled. “Tell me I can do it and stuff?”
“Ain’t my job to keep you alive. War on Suicide isn’t paying me nothing.”
Daniel gathered up his coat and hugged it to his chest.
The janitor rolled up his cap to squeeze between his hands, like he was wringing grey water out of a mop. “Look, I don’t know. I just mop floors. I’m not the suicide prevention hotline.”
He leaned away from Daniel, who was working on the delicate task of standing up. “You, eh… don’t want me to call them, do you?”
What Daniel wanted was to get out of here, and the elevator was now the easiest way down. He felt more than a little ashamed, but mostly confused. Why was he up here? Why was he so weak?
It was too much to think about at once. Daniel hadn’t even started on the mystery of the impossible janitor. He needed to escape. And if he couldn’t find oblivion one way, he could find it in another.
Daniel executed no more plans that night. Seeking his burrow, he fumbled back to his own apartment, and found his way into bed without turning on the lights. Tucked into the corner between the mattress and the wall, he fell fast asleep.