The first thing I remember about the Flood was the night I met Peter Kelly.
It was in the holding tank in the Crypt up in East Harlem. It was mid-January and after midnight, but when I got his call, I had to go. It was one of those things lawyers have to do, even when they work for the richest man in Manhattan. So I dragged myself down to the garage, warmed up the Roadster, and tooled up the East River Drive to bail him out..
The Crypt was a big pile of concrete and razor wire they plopped down in the middle of forty or fifty blocks of city that was wiped out in the gang wars. That was a long time ago, though, and now it was mainly a holding tank for drunks, hookers, and kids out after curfew.
Peter was under eighteen, which was what got him a curfew charge, but he looked more like forty when I first saw him. He'd shaved his forehead back a few inches, to imitate male pattern baldness. It was something the boys his age were doing that year. And he still had the nerve to make a remark about the way I looked.
"Does Grampa Charlie pay you extra to dress like the guest of honor at a wake?"
I shook my head at his rudeness, then matched him: "No, he pays me extra to come out in the middle of the night to pull ungrateful little imps like you out of the lockup. Dressing like this just makes it easier to get the job done. So be nice, I'm doing you a favor."
"Sorry," he said, slumping down on the plastic bench as if he almost meant it.
"And you're a great one to talk. You look like something that got left in a dumpster. And how come you want to look bald before your time? It won't be that long before you start missing what hair you've got left."
"Do you like this coat?" he asked with sudden enthusiasm. "It's a genuine artifact. It was designed just for the homelies back in the '90s. A bunch of textile students in Philadelphia went out and interviewed the guys sleeping on the street next door and made this from their suggestions. Look -- it's got big pockets to carry all your stuff, it's rugged and warm, you can tuck your feet into the flaps at night, and it's a nice dull color, like urban camouflage, so you can blend into the environment."
"And yet, you still managed to get yourself popped," I said. "Curfew violation and trespassing. This is what, the fourth time? Fifth?"
"Sixth," he said sheepishly. "But it's not my fault. We were trapped. The subway flooded."
"That's what the police report said. You got stuck in some room under Times Square?"
"It wasn't exactly Times Square. We were a lot further downtown. You ever been down under? There's a whole world down there -- rooms and tunnels and caves. Prime homely turf. Back in the 20th, they made little towns down there. Shacks and shanties and condos with electricity and TV and everything."
"I see. And that all helps you re-create the original experience?"
"You got it, uncle."
"What is it with you kids? I can understand the funny haircuts. Kids always have to wear funny haircuts so they don't look like their parents. But how come you have to run around down in some dirty, rat-infested basement to have fun? Why don't you join a chain gang and watch the kids in California go skin-diving? Or just go out and cop a beer on the roof?"
"You wouldn't understand," the kid said. "It's like being contrary, you know? You don't really understand it until you do it, and then you know how it feels and you don't have to explain."
"Sort of like being a Catholic?"
He laughed. "I wouldn't know, but it might be like that."
"That I can understand. Sometimes you just have to do crazy things. But almost getting yourself drowned in a subway tunnel is too crazy. You'll get your Grampa Charlie worried."
"Ah, he's not worried about anything since he had the stroke. And my folks could care less, or else I would have called them instead of you. Anyway, that's the part I still can't figure out."
"How come that tunnel flooded? It never did that before. It didn't even look wet when we first found it. And it wasn't just that tunnel. They said the lines to Brooklyn were shut down. The story is that there was a big storm off the coast and it was high tide, but I don't buy it."
"Because we checked it out on the city maps on the cablenet and that part of down under just isn't that far down."
I couldn't give him an answer then, and I just shrugged. But a few days later, it would make perfect sense to me. I paid his ticket and escorted him out the door.
"Can I give you a lift?" I asked when we got out into the sharp night air.
"Sure. You're heading downtown? Could you drop me off in midtown. Say Central Park South."
"Why? If you want to panhandle, Times Square is better."
"No, I just want to take a walk in the park and clear my head. Don't worry, my homely coat will keep me warm."
We rode downtown in my big lawyer-mobile -- a '45 Brickyard Roadster about ten feet wide with a steel body and an eight-cylinder engine.
"Nice car," Kelly said.
"Thanks," I replied, indulging in a moment of selfish pride. After my wife left me, that car was my biggest joy. You don't know what it's like to ride through the streets of Manhattan in a car like that.
We turned onto Fifth Avenue and cruised downtown past the dark, empty blocks north of the park.
"People think they know the city if they take cabs and subways, but they don't," I said, taking advantage of my captive audience. "Until you've taken the scale of the place by hand and foot and found how each neighborhood blends into the next, you don't."
"This must have cost you a lot," he said.
"It's worth every penny. There's nothing in the world that can compare with the sense of authority you get from rolling past block after block of the city like this, with the crisp mid-winter air, the lights sparkling all around you, the biggest guy in the biggest car on the biggest streets in the biggest city on earth."
"Yeah, but you know what?" the kid replied. "In a couple of days, you could lose it all. You just never know."
The way he it said left an awful chill in the middle of my back, like he was right and I knew it. Like he knew that every time I got a new toy like the car, I was always a little disappointed that having things wasn't as satisfying as getting them.
And as it turned out, he was right. A couple of days later, that thrill was gone and I never could get it back.
I slept late the next morning and worked at home.
I had the kind of home where you could do that. It was a ten-room suite in the old Stock Exchange, down on Wall Street, the one with the big stone columns in front. Besides the bedrooms and kitchen and living room, it had a fully equipped office with a law library, a conference room with the full electronic outfit, and a wet bar the size of Halloran's next to City Hall.
That morning, I was working on the income taxes for Quasar Econometrics. The Feds got rid of the national income tax before I was born, but New York State and New York City continued their best efforts to share the wealth. And even though they were simpler than the crazy days of the 20th, they were still a pain. I had to review everything because Quasar was one of Charlie Longstreet's babies. Everyone knows him for creating Vermilion, the first computerized investment syndicate, but what made those syndicates work was the supercomputers that plotted their investments. And Quasar was Charlie's.
So I took special care going over it to make sure things were right. The real experts on tax law are the accountants, of course, and they'd done everything right. But Charlie didn't need to spend his time making sure -- that's what he paid me for. I guess when you get past 90, you're allowed to slack off.
I knocked off after a couple of hours to make my regular Wednesday lunch date. This week, it was at an Indonesian restaurant over in Battery Park City that had a great rijstaffel. I called a cab -- you can never find a place to park during the day downtown -- and met the rest of the group at the door.
"Hey, Johnny, how many billion did you guys steal from us today?" Gus Karmanos asked when I walked up. Gus was head attorney for Chartreuse, second only to Vermilion in assets. With Gus were Anne Pritchett, a partner with Goodman, Smith, Thompson, and Black, and one of the firm's associates, a fresh-looking kid in a suit that still crinkled when he walked. We were about to go in when Anne pointed out a man at the door.
"That's Rennie D'Amour," she said. "He's clerking for Judge Santos over on the federal bench. He used to work for us before he moved over there. We should ask him to eat with us."
I shrugged. I wondered if maybe she wanted someone else at the table as young as her pet associate, since Rennie was clearly only a couple years out of law school. So we invited him along, changed our reservation to a larger party, filled our plates at the rijstaffel, which is kind of a buffet with combinations of Dutch and East Asian cooking, and discussed the premier of "My Three Sons" up at the Regency Theater. When we were done and the coffee was served, I asked Rennie D'Amour the inevitable question.
"So Mr. D'Amour, why did you decide to clerk for a federal judge? Is this some kind of work-avoidance scheme?"
D'Amour laughed nervously, but didn't seem to relish the joke. "Actually you'd be surprised. It's really very challenging. When they stripped the federal courts of jurisdiction of all the so-called trivial issues back at the turn of the century, only the most important cases were left for them to decide. In fact, you might want to tune in to the federal monitor this afternoon," he said. "There's a really interesting one coming up."
"An interesting federal case?" Gus asked. "I thought they outlawed those when they started impeaching activist judges."
"Well, the state court didn't want to handle it," Rennie said. "They couldn't agree on jurisdiction. And by rights, it is a federal case."
"What kind of case?" I asked.
"Proprietary information," Rennie said. "Plaintiff is the federal government. Defendant is a small research company, Amundsen Projects of New York City. Plaintiff wants access to defendant's databanks. Defendant says they have to wait until cleared by corporate management up the line -- and the defendant's owners are delaying release."
"What's their reason?"
"Public interest, of course. It's a strange argument to make, I know, like something out of the 20th century. But it's not unprecedented."
Anne grinned, looking feral and predatory, like she'd just caught the scent of something warm, furry, and slow. "Who's the corporate higher up?" she asked.
"Chartreuse On-Line Investments," he said.
"Woops," Gus spouted, setting his coffee down so fast that it spilled onto the table. "I probably shouldn't be sitting here much longer. This has conflict of interest written all over it. You'll have to excuse me. Johnny, give me a call later and you can tell me what everyone said."
He was up and heading for the door so fast you'd think he'd heard an ambulance go by, but he didn't miss anything. D'Amour had exhausted his store of unprivileged information and the conversation quickly moved on to internal politics at Goodman, Smith, Thompson, and Black.
I was rescued from a near occasion of boredom by the waiter.
"Sir, the gentleman at table in the corner would like to speak with you."
I looked where he was pointing and saw that the "gentleman" was the restaurant's crash dummy, one of those VR mannequins that were a lot more popular ten years earlier. I threaded my way through the tables and set myself down in the dummy's field of view. This was a good one, with two fully articulated arms and hands and a fairly lifelike plastic face. It didn't have much expression, but whoever was at the other end could do more than see and hear all that went on at the table, he could also pick up a drink and gesture and even flirt with his date.
I had a feeling who was at the other end of this crash dummy, and I was right. It was my boss, Charlie Longstreet.
"Hi, Johnny," he said. "I hope I didn't interrupt your meal."
"No, sir," I replied. "We were already finished."
"Good. Now what can you tell me about a federal case that's supposed to open this afternoon? Some kind of motion to disclose proprietary information?"
"U.S. versus Amundsen Projects, a small research company owned by Chartreuse. The government wants them to release information in the public interest. Amundsen says they have to wait until Chartreuse approves it. Chartreuse is taking its own sweet time with the approval."
"Boy, I love it when I get my money's worth," Charlie said. "How do you do it?"
"You just have to have contacts in all the right places," I said. I wasn't about to tell him the real story if my life depended on it.
"I guess so," he said. "Anyway, I want you to sit in on it. There's something big going on here. I can smell it. Call me back as soon as you get out and we'll figure out what to do from there."
"Yes, sir," I said.
"And tell Anne Pritchett that if I were thirty years younger, I'd be there in person just so I could sit across the table from the most beautiful lawyer in Manhattan."
"If I told her that, she wouldn't believe me for a minute. I'm afraid it's an occupational hazard of attorneys -- everyone thinks you're lying. And besides, if word got out that you were dining with Anne Pritchett, your family would start to wonder about your stroke."
"I guess we wouldn't want that, would we? It's just that this charade keeps me from visiting some of my favorite places. At least in the flesh."
"When we get a minute, I'll tell you stories."
Foley Square was one of Manhattan's little surprises. Most people don't realize how close things are downtown. They don't know that police headquarters is a block over from City Hall, and the courthouses are another block uptown. You just head towards the municipal building -- that's the really high one with the huge free-standing colonnade in front and the big arch in the middle -- and then turn left. Down the hill you'll find a wide open space with not one, but two massive courthouses standing side by side, stony-faced, lined with steps and columns, topped by classical capitals: the state court, slightly more ornate, on the left, and what used to be the federal court on the right. The state took over that one before I was born, but the Feds still used space in the back.
Despite the video monitors, courts are still pretty resistant to modern technology. Judges like to do things up close and personal, face-to-face. None of this virtual courtroom stuff they've been predicting since I was a kid. Maybe they want to be able to order the bailiff to lock someone up if they don't like his attitude. It's hard to do that over the screen.
It means a lot of running around for lawyers, who would rather phone it in, but it maintained a certain sense of solemnity and seriousness. So when Judge Santos convened the District Court, I paid my due respects and showed up in person, finding an empty bench in the back to fill up. I smiled at Rennie D'Amour when I caught his eye, but he kept a serious face. The poor kid was probably working twelve hours a day and didn't have much to smile about.
Santos didn't let things get much beyond "All rise, the honorable Judge Herbert P. Santospresidingallthosewithbiznizmizsupbefore the court." He began by questioning Fernand Kachoubian, chief operating officer of Amundsen Projects.
"Mr. Kachoubian, can you tell me why you don't want to release the information the government is asking you to?"
"Yes, your honor. I've been told not to by the owners of Amundsen Projects."
"And what would happen if I told you right now to tell me what you won't tell the government?"
Kachoubian swallowed hard and turned pale. "If I did, I'd probably be fired, your honor."
"Your honor, if I may point out -- " the Amundsen lawyer started to say.
"No, counselor, you may not point out," Judge Santos said. "Fired, Mr. Kachoubian? That would be awful, wouldn't it? Much worse than what I'm going to do to you."
"Mr. Kachoubian, I'm going to find you in contempt. You never should have come here today pretending you are free to carry out my orders. I don't want to deal with people who can get fired, I want to deal with the people who do the firing. You can spend the night in jail and come back here tomorrow with whoever owns Amundsen Projects and let them explain to me why they shouldn't do the same."
"But your honor..." Kachoubian stammered.
"Case recessed until tomorrow at 2 p.m.," Santos said as he stood up. Everyone followed suit, and the bailiff said, "All rise," and the judge was out of the room. So was I. A few minutes later, I was on the phone to Charlie Longstreet.
"Well ain't this a barrel of laughs," he said. "Poor Chartreuse has got a federal judge on their backs. You know what we should do, Johnny?"
I was afraid to guess, though I had an idea in mind.
"We should buy that sucker away from them."
That turned out to be easier said than done. I found out real fast that Amundsen was not a public corporation, but a wholly-owned subsidiary of Chartreuse. And that meant we had no leverage over it.
We couldn't buy up the stock under third-party arrangements and then transfer ownership to Vermilion, which was the usual way of doing such things. We couldn't do much more than call up Gus Karmanos and ask him if he wanted to sell, because the company couldn't change hands unless Chartreuse agreed to it.
Charlie took the news calmly.
"Johnny, you're thinking too small," he said, leaving me to wonder how much bigger he was thinking. "There's more than one way to make an omelet. If we can't buy Amundsen, then we have to aim higher."
"Higher? You're not really suggesting that we try to stage a hostile takeover of Chartreuse, are you?"
"I'm not? I sure thought I was. You've got all night."
I cringed. "Be realistic, boss. We may be twice their size in assets, but that doesn't mean we can pull off something like this. Certainly not overnight."
"It's never been done before."
"Until now. Look into it and see if it can be done. Then let me know."
So I went home, and poured myself a drink. And after a few minutes, when I finally could relax, I called Quasar Econometrics. Charlie had started the company with a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of personal computers linked into a homemade supercomputer and a dozen smart kids who'd dropped out of Princeton. Now they all wore suits more expensive than mine, and Quasar had real supercomputers linked into a homemade megacomputer. And that megacomputer was what made the whole thing possible.
I told them what the problem was, and they linked me up to the artificial intelligence interface. "Mirror, mirror, on the wall," the bodiless face murmured as it swam into being on my wallscreen. "Your wish is our command."
The face wore a turban with a jewel in it, some idea of Charlie's that had to do with his baby boomer childhood. "I want to buy Chartreuse On-Line Investments by tomorrow morning," I said.
"Any limitations on risk to Vermilion?"
"Let's bargain the risk as we go along," I said.
"My kind of operator," the face said with a smile.
We ran through decisions trees for a while, with the face asking me a series of questions to set the limits on its simulation. Then we started the bargaining. At zero risk, there was no chance of buying our chief rival before the end of the year. We couldn't even get it into January without a thirty-two percent chance of losing our shorts.
Each time we brought the time frame down, the AI reran all its projections, working through all the moves that we could make and all the countermoves that Chartreuse could make, like one of those horrible chess engines that used to chew up players left and right in the tournaments.
"Stop messing around and bring this thing up to the real deadline," I said after a while.
"Give me a jiffy," the face said. A moment later, it spun once around and announced: "A forty percent chance of losing all your assets if you try to do it by noon. Forty-five percent by eleven o'clock. Fifty percent by ten."
I sighed, then called Charlie.
"You know how I made my fortune, don't you?" he asked. Of course I knew. He bought the winning ticket in one of those huge lotteries back at the turn of the century. "The odds then were a lot worse than fifty-fifty. Go for it."
"Charlie, do you know something you're not telling me about Amundsen Projects? It seems like an awfully small prize to risk everything for."
"I always know something I'm not telling you," he said. "It's usually for your own good."
"I'm not so sure about that," I said as he broke off the connection.
"Go Vermilion, make a billion."
That was the slogan that built our empire. Every day, more than thirty million people all over the world did business with us, instantly, from anywhere on the planet, over the cablenet, by satellite, even by telephone and paper mail. They paid their bills with us, invested with us, gambled with us, consulted us about the likely future of the stocks, bonds, and the economy, and generally treated us like partners in their financial lives. It was a tremendous responsibility. And a tremendous power.
The computer investment syndicates like Vermilion and Chartreuse and a dozen or so smaller competitors were a combination of several 20th century institutions -- stock brokers, mutual funds, insurance companies, health maintenance organizations, credit unions, and banks. They were the culmination of a number of trends -- the democratization of the stock market, the rise of the personal computer, and the deregulation of finance in the global economy of the 21st.
That was where I came into the picture. One by one, barriers to swift and integrated computer delivery of financial and other services had fallen. I argued the case against letting the New York State Securities Commission regulate us. It wasn't hard to do. I just pointed out that all the other obstacles were already gone, and there was no point in keeping the last one up when there were so many ways around it.
I guess Charlie was impressed, because that's when he made me his personal attorney -- and chief gopher.
It was a marvel to see these big combines in action. That night, I got to see plenty. Nothing like it had ever happened before. We started the operation at six o'clock. In some ways it resembled a leveraged buyout. That's when you borrow against the company you're going to purchase to buy their stock. But Chartreuse didn't have stockholders so much as it had subscribers, so we had to lure them away with more than just a few dollars. We had to offer them all the things they were getting from Chartreuse and more. And we had to make it part of a conversion offer that gave us their membership in Chartreuse in return for a new membership in Vermilion.
If the offer were for a fixed sum, it wouldn't make much of a splash. People could calculate the advantage, wait us out, see if we upped the ante. With a noon deadline, we didn't dare take that chance. So we gave them an offer that was more than generous, more than magnanimous, more than rational. We gave them an offer that was truly insane. Ten times as much money as the subscriptions were worth.
And then we put a time limit on it. As the night went on, the offer would go down. The Quasar megacomputer kept a running tally of where we stood, determined the size of the remaining market that we needed to attract, and set the price accordingly. The idea was to bring over the smallest players first, keeping the aggregate cost for them low. Those with bigger shares in Chartreuse would move more slowly, waiting until later in the evening, when their subscriptions would be worth less proportionately, but would still bring in a sizable bonus. When the really big players, the institutional investors, made their move in the morning, they'd be working with a small, but healthy margin of profit for themselves.
We started with a general release of the offer. That meant gigabytes upon gigabytes of spam pumped into the cablenet. And personal phone pages to every Chartreuse subscriber we could identify. And press releases to the news networks. By seven o'clock, there wasn't a soul on the planet with spare change in his pocket who hadn't heard of our offer.
I could almost imagine the word spreading, sweeping over the nightclubs in Paris and London, over dinners in Manhattan restaurants, splashing from Chicago to Denver to L.A., catching Tokyo as it was rising, stirring Beijing and Bombay from a sound sleep, rousing the Arabs and the Africans from their beds.
Then I realized I didn't have to imagine it. When I was a teenager, I was quite a chain-ganger. We didn't have any specialized software then, just a wall screen and a few terabytes of RAM. We still split the screen, split it again, and again, until we had dozens of kids all linked to one leader -- the one with the full virtual audio-video rig who actually did things while the rest of us watched.
Well that night I used the latest chainer app to link to all the places where people were talking about the Vermilion offer. Park Avenue coffee shops full of retirees dressed in black, Chicago's commodity exchange, L.A. lounges and exercise shops, geishas in Tokyo, mah jong parlors in Beijing, teahouses in Dhahran. Everyone was talking about it. Everyone wondered if they should get in on it. They debated the risks -- if it failed, everyone who bought in with us could end up broke. And they speculated on the benefits -- if they just moved fast enough, they could make a killing overnight.
And I watched and heard it all. Hundreds of people, thousands of voices, a whole world enthralled by a feat of financial acrobatics, a whole world caught in a great web of money and obligations and speculation. I was amazed. For the first time in my life, I had a sense of the immense scope and range of the power that Vermilion maintained.
I stayed up all night, watching as Quasar's face in the mirror kept track of our progress. We had a nervous couple of hours between two and four -- the U.S. and Europe were fast asleep and the big numbers of earlier on dwindled quickly. But things picked up with the sunrise.
In the end, I was caught by surprise. Just before eight, as the sun came spilling in through the living room windows, Quasar's AI announced the results.
"Sir, we have been successful. We know have a controlling interest in Chartreuse On-Line Investments."
"So early? I thought we were shooting for noon."
"Yes, sir, but we overestimated their ability to fight back. They did none of the things we anticipated. They didn't even issue a press release. They just sat there and took it."
I let out a yell, then stood a while in the window, soaking up the sunshine, looking out at the people filling the sidewalks below as they faced a brand new day in a brand new world.
I'd done it. I'd pulled off the biggest takeover in history in record time.
And to this day, I don't think more than a handful of people know that it was all to get our hands on a nondescript scientific research company no one had ever heard of before.
The first time I met Charlie Longstreet, it was in his room at the Keith Richards Life Extension Institute up near the Rockefeller Mansion in Duchess County. I walked in and found a small man with a long white ponytail making soft moaning sounds. I panicked and was about to call for a nurse when he opened his eyes, appeared startled, then pulled off his headphones.
"I'm sorry. That must have sounded awful," he said. "It's been a long time since I could really sing along with the Stones."
"You know, the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger. Keith Richards. Jeez, they must have banned them before you were born."
He hadn't changed much since that day. His hair was still white, long in the back and tied in a ponytail. His skin was thin and almost transparent, mottled with liver spots and moles. His face was a network of wrinkles, mostly from smiling too much.
I was exhausted. Instead of sleeping, I'd taken a shower, downed two cups of coffee, and driven the Roadster up the Major Deegan and beyond to meet the boss. He wouldn't tell me what it was about, only that he'd seen what Chartreuse was trying to keep secret and he knew why it was so easy to buy them out.
"We've really screwed the pooch this time," he said.
"And what did we do wrong?" I asked. "And who do you mean by we?"
"I mean all of us," he said. I relaxed. I thought he was talking about something I did during the night. "The human race. Every last one of us."
"And what did we do?"
"We screwed up the planet real good this time. And there's no way we're going to fix it. Johnnie, the ice caps are melting."
In my fatigued state, I wondered if I were having an odd dream. My mind was blank and my emotions empty from lack of sleep. So the meaning of his statement didn't really sink in.
"As in?" I asked.
"As in the ice caps are melting and the sea level is rising and it's too late to do anything about it."
"The ice caps? Both of them?"
"Antarctica, to be specific. That's what Amundsen and Chartreuse were keeping secret. You know, before you were born people were afraid of global warming. The prophets of doom said it would melt the ice caps and ruin the ecology. That was before we got Virginia orange juice and palm trees in Atlantic City and cotton in Iowa and the powers that be made a virtue out of negligence."
"Antarctica? How much ice is there down there?"
"How much? That's the question. According to the reports, the scientists used to be afraid that West Antarctica was the threat. They figured if that slipped into the sea, the oceans would rise ten or twenty feet. But what's happening is something entirely different. We're losing the East Antarctica ice sheet. The whole thing is slipping off the continent."
"I see," I said calmly, the fatigue deadening the impact of the most dreadful news the planet had ever heard. "So how fast is this happening? Continents are big things, aren't they? It should take an awful long time."
"They're not big enough," Charlie said. "Amundsen says the glaciers are surging. They say it happened before, back between ice ages. They've tracked the gravel from melting ice bergs across the ocean floor."
"All right. How long is this going to take and how bad is it going to get? What's the bottom line, Charlie?"
"They say the sea level could go up fifteen feet by this time next year. And another fifteen feet next year if it keeps up the pace. It could go on for years, they say."
"Years? How many?"
"Ten? Twenty? Thirty? Who knows? They say that after thirty-five years, all the ice down there will be in the drink, so I guess that's the outer limit."
"Thirty-five years? Good lord, Charlie, that's over five hundred feet," I was still struggling to appreciate the gravity of the situation. "How far inland do we have to go to get away from the flood?"
"The Poconos," Charlie said. "The Catskills. Everything else will be gone."
"The Catskills? Thirty-five years?"
"Don't look so glum, Johnny. We've got time. You'll be able to take care of things. You know what I mean, don't you?"
"Take care of things?"
"Yes, Johnny. Take care of things. This is going to shake the world up and fast. I've spent my life building up Vermilion and all the rest. You've got to take care of it. Protect my investments. Make sure that Vermilion makes it through this. Johnny, I'm counting on you to save my fortune."
The surrealism of the day was not over.
Before I could sleep, I had to make an appearance in court before Judge Santos. The ride back down into the city was tough. With the autopilot on, I had trouble staying awake. Every time the road dipped down an incline, I'd have visions of driving into the water, vivid enough to be real or a dream. It kept my adrenaline flowing, though, and kept me awake all the way to Manhattan.
Seeing the expression on the face of Gus Karmanos when I stood up to represent the new owners of Amundsen Projects made the trip worth it. He sputtered and fumed at being ordered down here by his new employer, then reddened at the sight of me.
"Your honor, I would like to settle this whole thing right now," I said. "I represent the Vermilion Investment Syndicate, and since eight o'clock this morning we are the new owners of Chartreuse On-Line Investments. That makes us the new owners of Amundsen Projects. Prior to entering the courtroom this afternoon, I ordered the company to comply with any and all requests from the U.S. government to release information that it deems to be in the public interest."
"Counselor, you've made my day," the judge said. "Case dismissed."
"Is this what you did it for?" Gus asked.
I said nothing, but he took that as assent.
"But why? You swallowed your biggest rival, spent millions, maybe billions, just to get your hands on this little two-bit science shop? It doesn't make sense."
"We were worried about buying beachfront property," I said with a smile.
He sputtered and stammered some more, but had nothing to say. And I realized that he hadn't been told about the iceaps, or he would have known why we did it.
I finally got home and went to bed, sleeping through the evening and into the night. The next morning, as the calls backed up on my service, the truth began to set in, cold and overwhelming, like the rising sea itself..
The first message was from my wife. She never called anymore, so I knew it was serious. "I know I'm a very demanding woman," she said. "But I'm sorry to make so many demands on you. Just tell me one thing. Is this for real? Because if it is, I want a new house. Up in the hills, above the water. Call me right away, sweetheart."
I made a mental note to do just that, then I threw it away. It was marriages like ours that made legalizing divorce again sound like a good idea.
The next call was from my mother. "Johnny, I'm so worried. Your father says we're going to have to move out of the city. Where would we go? Long Island isn't going to be safe, they say. And there isn't even going to be a Florida anymore. What are we going to do about our retirement property?"
I didn't know what to tell her. I felt helpless.
And that moment of helplessness drove home for the first time just how bad the news was. I struck me that a disaster that takes years to unfold consists of just those little problems that hit us where we least expect it and become major personal crises. It was like being told you were dying of some incurable disease, but it would take a decade or more to happen. It undermined every dream, every hope, every expectation.
There were many more calls from reporters, vendors, salesmen, entrepreneurs, and Vermilion First-Class members looking for advice, information, or a deal. I referred all those to Vermilion staff. I wasn't up to dealing with any of them yet.
And there was a message from Charlie's great-grandson, Peter Kelly.
"I said you could just lose it all. Was I right or what?"
The thing that surprised me when the word got out was the lack of panic.
I suspect a lot of things were behind that. For one thing, we'd long since grown too self-involved to recognize a natural disaster of any proportions that didn't affect us personally. You could see them on the screen whenever you wanted to -- fires in L.A., plagues in Africa, famines in Asia, rivers overflowing their banks in the Midwest -- but none of them really mattered. And we'd long since become accustomed to the effects of global warming. This was just one more in a long series, like big hurricanes, summer floods, and tornados in New England. It was a little bit extreme, but in the same line. We would adjust.
And people were very good at rationalizing the story away. "Whadda those scientists know, anyway?" they said. "You can't melt that much ice, it would take too much heat. And glaciers don't move that fast. It'll take hundreds of years before the ocean rises."
But I lacked the luxury of ignorance. I'd read the reports. The ice wasn't melting, it was just slipping off. That took a lot less heat. And glaciers did too move that fast. More than ten feet per hour. I could just imagine it -- ten feet per hour is two inches per minute. Barely enough to see. Keep it up for ten years and you move 165 miles. It's almost as bad as compound interest.
At first, there were no immediate signs that anything was happening.
The South Atlantic was filling up with icebergs. That was what drew everyone's attention to Amundsen Projects in the first place. After the Feds were downsized to a shoestring, they bailed out of scientific research, including Antarctica. Amundsen was a contract research firm that kept an eye on the frozen continent by satellite and remote sensor. They'd picked up the signs of something unusual back in October. Just a steady increase in the temperature, up maybe five degrees above normal. But far too many days out of the year normal temperatures down there were in the balmy twenties .
Too much ice in the ocean was a problem for oil tankers and fishing fleets, however, and not for New Yorkers worried about not enough ice in their drinks.
With the normal tides in New York Harbor running about six feet up and down, it would be a while before low tide was up where high tide should be. And until then, flooding would be incidental and inconvenient, not catastrophic.
It wasn't until March that Holland Tunnel first flooded. And that was when a late winter storm pushed too much water up the Hudson at high tide. They put the yellow barriers around the roads and waited for the water to go down. It did -- for a while. Either way, it didn't bother me. I hardly ever drove over to Jersey.
Battery Park wasn't fun to visit anymore. The sidewalks were always getting covered with the worst that the Hudson had to offer at high tide, and in the spring the grass didn't grow and the flowers didn't bloom.
The Holland flooded again in April. The barriers went up again, but when they stayed up for a week, people just accepted that they wouldn't be coming down. The subways downtown quit about the same time. That was more of a shock, but the Transit Authority just added buses to Broadway and shuttled people south from Greenwich Village.
Bellevue Hospital had some problems when the water filled its basements. The city called out the whole Public Works Department one day to start putting sandbags around the place to keep out the East River. The difference between Bellevue and the Holland Tunnel was that there were a lot of people in Bellevue who wouldn't survive the move to a new hospital. And the water wasn't that high yet.
I didn't take the flooding seriously until they closed down the East River Drive. It was such a beautiful stretch of road, winding along the riverbank, under the foundations of big buildings like the United Nations, with a view of Queens across the water. It used to carry me right up Manhattan to anyplace else I wanted to be -- Cape Cod, New Hampshire, the Adirondacks, the Catskills. But it dipped too low near Bellevue and that was all it took. I had to stick to the city streets whenever I wanted to go for a drive, and it just wasn't the same. Especially with everyone else who had to find alternate routes jamming the pavement along with you.
In May, I ran into Simon Mendelsohn in the deli downstairs at the Exchange, complaining about the water. "I just came back from Miami Beach," he said. "What a disaster. The hotel lobby was a stinking, soggy mess. I'm never going back there again."
He sounded so serious that I had to laugh. I don't think he quite realized that he no longer had that option.
In June, the whole of downtown was invaded. The National Guard, the Army and the Marines, helicopters, hovercraft, and dozens of armored trucks. They descended without warning, swooping in from every direction, convoys rumbling down Broadway in the dead of night.
They rolled to a stop in front of the Federal Reserve Bank a few blocks from my apartment and started loading up the gold. It took them all week. For a few days, it was almost fun watching the normal routine of downtown Manhattan try to work itself around the armed guards, the patrols, and the closed streets. Then they were gone.
With typical New Yorker stubbornness, we picked up where we'd left off and carried on as if they'd never been here. That was the way we treated it all. We made adjustments, curtailed activities, noted the streets that were no longer passable, and found detours around the problems. Denial was always one of our deep-seated traits.
But we weren't ignoring the looming deluge completely. People like me were busier than hell.
Chartreuse had given us a head start on the task that lay before us. The reason they'd been so easy to buy up was that they had overextended themselves trying to prepare for the rising tide. They'd bought everything they could imagine to take advantage of what was coming: fleets of moving vans and heavy equipment; real estate in the high country and the interior; warehouse construction firms; building contractors; anything that might be needed to move anything moveable away from the low ground and to replace anything that wasn't.
Vermilion had deeper pockets than Chartreuse ever did -- especially after we cleaned their pockets out, stripped the company of anything useful to pay the price of the takeover, then set it free to rebuild on its own. So we just followed their original battle plan, only with a longer reach and bigger appetite.
Then one day in June, Charlie Longstreet sent me out to Princeton.
I mumbled some choice curses that I'd learned from my Italian uncles at the Holland Tunnel, then headed the long way around New York Harbor to cross the Verrazano bridge. It was half an hour before I could set the destination, lock in cruise control and radar watch, and relax. I let the city blocks roll past, then the Watchung Mountains -- really just a ridge of low hills -- then the countryside. I would have enjoyed it more if I didn't keep picturing it as the bottom of a new sea.
It wasn't the university we were interested in, but a private research firm a few miles west of town. I could still see the ivy-covered halls in the distance, though, as I cruised down Route 1, and a flood of old memories rushed back -- studying for finals in the dorm, dinner at the eating club, my first real dates after all those chaperoned years at St. Mark's in Manhattan.
Harry Wan had a round face, thick black hair, and Asian eyes, but he was an all-American hard-sell salesman trying to attract capital for his product, rattling off figures and facts faster than I could keep track.
"We've had the best engineers in the country working on this problem for six months," he said.
"Five," I said, correcting him. He didn't notice.
"And we've covered every possibility. These aren't just designed, they're engineered. And we stand behind every unit."
It was probably a good place to stand, since he was selling dikes. Not just any kind of dike, but the permanent kind. The kind the Dutch used to hold back the sea for centuries -- though now even they were losing hope. Each unit was massive, twenty feet wide at the base, six feet wide in cross-section, thirty feet high, and in pieces from thirty to one hundred feet in length.
"We've had consultants from Amsterdam and Eindhoven working with us, proofing our design. And we've been conducting field trials down in Cape May to show just how reliable these things are."
"I'm sure you have," I said. His eager engineer persona kept struggling with his annoying salesman persona to see which would rule. In the process, I grew slightly uneasy about his company's grand design concept.
"And these are all modular. We install them on the spot, to your specifications. Piece by piece. You can cordon off a block, or a dozen blocks, or a whole business district."
"I see. How about the island of Manhattan?"
The steam seemed to run out Harry Wan all at once as the scale of the project hit him in the forehead. The engineer was calculating perimeters and modules, while the salesman was working out marginal return on investment. The two were likely to get into trouble if I didn't intervene.
"And do you have any idea who could pay for it?"
That pretty much put his lights out. I had pulled his imagination out of the virtual world of design computers and business models and into reality. He had that distant stare that was becoming more and more common these days, as the depth of world's predicament become obvious.
"I guess we're talking billions," Harry said. "A hundred-foot module is a million list, and even with discounts we couldn't go much below half that. That means fifty of them per mile times twelve, twenty-four, thirty or forty miles around Manhattan, once you conform to the topography and the street grid. So forty times fifty is a couple thousand. And that makes your billion right there."
"And what do you do when the water keeps rising?"
"You need to double up the base to put the next course on. So two billion in two years, four billion in four, eight billion in six..." He ticked off numbers silently on his fingers. "...thirty-two billion in ten years ... you'd hit a trillion megabucks in twenty years."
"An exponential increase in costs from a city that's losing assets, employers, employees, and real estate," I said. "Sounds like a tough sell."
"Yes, it is," Harry said. "We were looking at a smaller scale operation, to tell the truth."
"You mean like downtown Princeton?"
"That and the university," he said.
I chuckled, but unfairly. Poor Harry Wan. He had a good idea, but still had trouble comprehending the scope of the problem. If the ocean did not stop rising, there was little any of us could do to hold back the water.
I left him my private number and promised I would discuss his dikes with the other movers and shakers in the city, then I got back into the Roadster and cruised back home.
But as the New York skyline came into sight, it occurred to me that Wan's project wasn't as desperate as it seemed at first. It was near sunset by the time I came across Staten Island and lights of Manhattan burned softly gold. By the time I was across Brooklyn, the full scale of their mass hit me. These were mountains of glass and steel and cable and electricity, in their own way every bit as strong as the sea. And they rose against the sea like a barricade, ten, twenty, thirty, forty stories high.
"Let the waters rise," I said aloud. "We'll still be here. We may get our feet wet, but our heads are still up there in the clouds."
A week later, I was in Cambridge. Not back at Harvard, but down by the river at M.I.T. Boston was a mess. My traffic-guard warned me that the turnpike was closed at Newton and sent me the long way around on Route 2 into Harvard Square from the northwest. Commonwealth Ave was lined with sand bags down to the Charles and the whole M.I.T. campus was surrounded by dikes and pumps and fire hoses. I heard on the radio that Back Bay was a mess, with the Fens filling up and spilling over everything at high tide.
At least the engineers were an improvement over poor Harry Wan in Princeton.
"We're not sure what the best application for this is," said Alec McClintock, the grad student who was assigned as business liaison. "From what I understand of it, it's barely technology, almost more like gardening or zoology. But the engineering team says they've done so much to the genes that it's more like writing computer code."
What they had was something that used to be coral, but was now something quite different. It attached itself to structures and covered the surface, producing a substance with the texture and look of coral. But inside were channels and pumps, tiny capillaries connecting to larger and larger tributaries, until they flowed into larger pipes that ended in standard fittings along the top.
"You coat the outside of a building or wall, and it grows, pulling dissolved minerals out of the water. The pumps keep one side dry while the other is holding back the water. The seal is perfect, or nearly so. The pumping efficiency is high. Your building supplies are free. And the whole thing is self-contained."
"If it's that great, why aren't you using it here?"
"We are, on some of the buildings," McClintock said. "But the campus is pretty much in a hopeless position. We were ten feet above mean sea level when the waters started to rise -- thirteen feet at the benchmark over there. We don't think we'll have time to anchor the coral properly before the place is awash. Even though we might be able to keep our heads above water, so to speak."
He smiled with an odd eagerness. For the first time, I noticed how young he was, a first-year grad student. His eyes looked old beyond his years, though, even if he didn't shave the top of his head. "You know the ice is going to stop surging long before it runs out, don't you?" he asked abruptly, without prompting.
"Wait, wait, wait," I said quickly. "What's that?"
"I said the glaciers will stop surging and the ocean will stop rising long before the ice runs out down in Antarctica. We've done simulations for a couple of months now. For the moment, the ice has got a lot of inertia. And all kinds of strange things are going on where it meets the bedrock. But after they've run a hundred miles or so, they're going to run out of steam. We figure anywhere from a quarter to a third of the ice cap is going to go. That means sea level won't rise more than one or two hundred feet."
"Only two hundred? I guess we're saved."
"Seriously," he said, "it makes a difference. Five hundred feet means everything back to the Berkshires is at risk. Two hundred means half of New England, big parts of the Eastern Seaboard, some important parts of Western Europe, and much of the southeastern U.S. are all going to stay dry. It's the difference between a tragedy and a catastrophe."
I shook my head, then tried to put it all in perspective. Here was a kid who was optimistic that we would only lose Boston and New York, but not Massachusetts and the Mid-Atlantic states. How quickly we had adjusted to the prospect of loss. I had to laugh.
Poor McClintock didn't understand, and that made it even funnier. Before I could stop, I was laughing so hard that I was out of breath and turning red. And I couldn't even explain it to him.
It was a long ride back to New York and after dark when I got there, a late spring thunderstorm was blowing out of Jersey as I rolled down the Major Deegan. The barricade of lights and buildings was reassuring once again, even if it amounted to nothing more than bravado.
Then I started thinking. Two hundred feet was about twenty stories. Less for the buildings on higher ground, like up in Midtown. There were a lot of buildings bigger than that in Manhattan. An awful lot.
And Cambridge Coral looked awfully cheap compared to the trillion-megabuck dikes out in New Jersey.
When Charlie Longstreet first suggested that we fake his incompetence, I tried my best to talk him out of it.
He said he was tired of his family bothering him for money, for favors, for advice, for help, for everything. "They've done it all their lives," he said. "They did it before I got rich. They'll keep doing it long after I'm dead. I just want them to leave me alone."
But that wasn't really the problem. It was his children. They wanted to create an expert program, an artificial intelligence, based on him. They would have spent weeks, maybe months, interviewing and interrogating him, analyzing what he said, then posing endless problems for him to solve until they had the algorithms to mimic his thought processes.
"The only problem is that I don't have any thought processes. I do what makes sense and I don't do what doesn't make sense. There's no special skill or ability to this other than having the money in the first place. And all that means is being patient enough or lucky enough. Someone once told me that all you need to make a fortune is a thousand bucks you can afford to lose and big, brass balls -- so you don't chicken out when that thousand has grown to a hundred thousand, because you could afford to lose it in the first place. And I started off with the buck I spent on a lottery ticket."
So he worked on me and worked on me.
I explained to him that the code of ethics does not allow a lawyer to participate in his client's lies. He told me to ignore it. I told him I couldn't. He told me to do it so we didn't have to lie -- not officially, in any case. So I came up with a trust for all his assets, including his share of Vermilion and all his personal holdings. That kept it out of the hands of his family as long as he was alive and when he died, much of it would pass to a foundation. Once the papers were signed, he checked himself into the Keith Richards Life Extension Center and had his doctors invite everyone up to see him.
Apparently doctors aren't bound by the same code of ethics that lawyers are. Or else they can be just as clever as we are in bending the truth. "We're doing all we can for him, but I don't think it will change his condition. All you can do now is hope."
Meanwhile he laid there silently, impervious to his family's questions and complaints, their prodding and probing, and their whining and cajoling. He told me later that it took a whole bottle of volazepam to get through the ordeal. When they left, they were sure he'd suffered irreversible brain damage from a stroke. And I was formally in charge of the Longstreet Trust.
It was nice up there at Keith Richards. He had his own private residence on the grounds, away from the rest of the facility. It was sometimes mistaken for the main building because it was so big. Anything to keep up the pretense.
"So what do you think?" he asked, when I saw him after returning from Boston. "Is that dike a waste of money?"
"I wouldn't buy it," I said. "It's a cash-eating monster. The cost doubles every two years. Try folding a piece of paper in half. You won't get much past the sixth or seventh fold. That's what it'll be like."
"Too bad. The Mayor wants one. He's been hot for it ever since the water chased him out of Gracey Mansion. Just around Downtown. Maybe Midtown too, if it works. That's his way of dealing with the cost."
"I suppose it makes sense to concentrate on your most expensive real estate," I said. "But I don't think it's financially feasible. Your costs are going to increase exponentially while your tax base decreases the same way. The last couple of property owners in the city are going to have to come up with trillion megabucks they need to keep the dike up."
"And you've got a better idea?"
"What if I do?" I asked.
"You'd better tell me what it is. We're running out of time. Things haven't really started to fall apart yet, but they will."
"Tell me about it," I said wearily. When I wasn't running around the countryside admiring feats of civil engineering, I was trying desperately to plug leaks in the financial dikes that kept Vermilion safe. The economy was under tremendous pressure -- the worst since the Crash, when the on-line investment syndicates had proved the bulwark against a long-lasting depression. The loss of valuable real estate undermined the whole structure of world finance. Behind most credit -- really big credit, the kind that kept the world running -- when you dug deep enough, you'd find real estate. Japan had always been wrapped up that way. The U.S. practically invented credit and real estate was always central to it. And the reason was that it remained constant and unalienable. You couldn't steal it. It never went away. Until now.
So the credit markets were in a blind stinking panic. Fifty years ago, the Feds would have stepped in, yanked up interest rates, thrown the economy into reverse, and used a recession to shake out the nervous and the unprepared. But the Crash had changed all that. Vermilion and its cohorts owned the banks -- and the insurance companies that used to own the banks -- and the real estate that built the insurance companies. We were trying our hardest to keep credit available, because it was the only way anyone could afford to take the drastic steps that would be necessary to escape the rising sea.
Thus far, we weren't managing well.
"Everyone thinks it's going to stop," I said in frustration. "They think it's just a warm summer at the South Pole and now that winter's back, the ice will stop and it'll all be over."
"How much time do we have before it starts to unravel?" Charlie asked, sinking back into his chair and looking suddenly frail.
"A few months. Maybe until the end of the year."
"And what's your great idea?"
I told him. He didn't like it at first, but I could see it grow on him as he thought about it. By the time I left, he was starting to get excited about it. I envied him.
On July 1st, the City Council approved the mayor's proposal to build dikes around downtown and midtown. To pay for it, they slapped a special levy on real estate. If we hadn't been ready for it, we might have been shocked, but in the end if fit right into our plans.
In August, Amundsen Projects launched a bold and risky mid-winter expedition to Antarctica. They sent three icebreakers down through the berg-filled waters of the South Atlantic, explored the surging ice, placed sensors and took core samples, made measurements and kept records. When I wanted to, I saw everything that came in before it was made public. I was notified when they made the report that gave everyone a few weeks of false hope at the end of the summer. The ice had slowed down. The glaciers were no longer racing along at ten feet per hour. They had dropped to only seven or eight.
Far too many otherwise sensible adults took that as a sign that the crisis had ended. The dikes still went up, block by block, shutting off the ends of one street after another. And the water continued to rise.
By the end of the summer, it had crept up to the plaza around the World Trade Center. It was seeping along Wall Street towards the Exchange, curling around the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, leaving brown high-water marks on Water Street, closing the South Street Seaport and the piers with all their old ships.
The dikes kept pace. They blotted out the view of the ocean all along the battery. They worked their way up the east side and the west. Another node sprouted up near the Holland Tunnel to shield the low ground between Soho and TriBeCa. The maps I saw showed that this was the most vulnerable part of lower Manhattan, twenty or thirty blocks that would go under by the end of the year if we did nothing to protect it.
Some people wanted to keep the dike going on up past Greenwich Village, others argued for drawing a line across the island at Houston or Canal. The engineers made arrangements so both plans could be pursued if necessary -- though delay meant the loss of valuable real estate that could never be recovered.
Meanwhile, underground, they were sealing up subway tunnels, the PATH tunnels, the Holland, and all the storm drains and sewers with Cambridge Coral. It wasn't quite what the boys at M.I.T. had planned, but it was doing a good job. It seated into the surrounding structure strongly and grew quickly. I went down into the Chambers Street station and got a good look at it during an inspection tour one day in October.
By fall it was getting to be a pain to drive around. Broadway was always jammed with buses and taxis, and the overflow onto the other uptown avenues was getting just as bad. And with the water coming closer and closer, I decided it was time to move to higher ground. I grabbed a large suite of rooms at the Longstreet Tower up on Fifth Avenue near the Park -- the old Trump Tower. It was a smaller place than I'd had in the Exchange, but I didn't entertain in town as much any more.
I was too busy. Both Charlie Longstreet and Vermilion owned a lot of real estate in Manhattan. Together they formed the largest single property holder in the city and even though their holdings were just a tiny fraction of the property on the island, they still owned some of the biggest and best spots. But not all of them, by any means.
Of course, it was all losing value as quickly as sea level was rising. We tried to unload as much of it as possible. In the short run, there was still money to be made on some of it, and we offered prices that couldn't be beat. In the long run, you could do a lot more with the money than you could with the property.
And what I was doing with it ran counter to everything the market was doing. That was what made it so much fun -- and so easy.
First, I bought the Woolworth Building, a marvelous antique built by the man who invented interactive purchasing -- minus the electronics. From 1913 to 1930 it was the world's tallest building, with an intricate, self-washing terra cotta facade, sitting on Broadway across the park from City Hall.
Then I picked up the Metropolitan Life Tower, the one with the big clock in it up at Union Square. A week later, I signed the papers on the Flatiron Building across the stereet. This was a real prize -- the first skyscraper in New York City, the triangular building that looks like the bow of a ship steaming up Broadway for midtown.
If anyone had known I was collecting buildings, the prices would have gone up rapidly. But I kept it a secret, using some of Charlie's private reserves, some of Vermilion's cash flow, and a lot of hard bargaining.
The only alternative was investing in real estate outside the city. The Catskills and the Poconos were the hot spots that first year. The market was quick to shift from the sinking real estate of the old cities and the newer suburbs out to the untouched highlands on the fringe of development. Of course, it was all a speculative market, with the attendant risk. No one knew for sure where the new centers of commerce and transportation were going to be. It was much too soon for that. And that meant a volatile financial climate. In between picking up architectural relics, I was kept hopping, putting out one fire after another.
By the end of the year, the first course of the dike around downtown was up. But things were starting to get scary. Large parts of southern Jersey were going under for the last time. Florida was in trouble. Overseas, the picture was even worse. Half of Bengladesh was wiped out in one bad storm, and the other half was starving to death as the survivors descended on them. Those kinds of things couldn't help but shock the system and make it harder and harder to keep order.
And the mood in Manhattan changed in January. The ice started to speed back up.
After the first anniversary of the original announcement, the truth began to sink in. The sea wasn't going to stop rising.
The things people had been holding in for twelve months were starting to get out. Murders increased. Violence broke out almost at random, nothing like the 20th with its riots and gangs, but in a much more insidious, personal form -- people hauling off and shooting strangers on the bus, old men throwing firebombs onto passing cars, mothers drowning their babies in the river. Business took on a more frantic edge as people found time starting to run out. And the demand for moving vans and rental trucks far, far outstripped the supply, with fifteen people already shot and three dead from arguments over them.
And then the kids started showing up.
They'd appear without warning, fill up a sidewalk in front of building, or take over a park, or fill up a bus on Broadway, or some other silly thing. They were always peaceful and polite. But they'd all show up at once, gathering from all over, then dispersing after a few minutes -- never more than an hour -- and returning to wherever they came from.
The reports were that it was part of some kind of cablenet game. But it didn't make sense to me. Of course, neither did shaving your head to pretend you were going bald.
Those of us who were in downtown Manhattan on May 13, 2047, know just what we were doing at 11:45 a.m. I was walking through Foley Square.
I'd just left the Woolworth Building. We were making improvements on the basic design -- putting power units in the upper floors, sealing up subsurface access, trying as much as possible to make it independent of outside services. I took just a short walk up Broadway to City Hall, and then across the block to the Municipal Building -- another of downtown's behemoth's rising up thirty stories from the grand arch at its center.
I was on my way to Chinatown to grab some lunch. It's just a short walk uptown -- something you don't notice if you ride around in subways or taxis all the time. The shortcut is past the courthouses in Foley Square.
I was in front of the Federal Court House when I felt the rumbling beneath my feet. It was like a subway, only they weren't running in this part of the city anymore. And it didn't rise and fall as it passed -- it just kept getting stronger.
I remember that it was a bright, sunny day, with a cool wind off the Hudson. Pigeons filled the sidewalk, then rose up throughout the square everywhere all at once. Traffic was light, a pack of cabs jostling together at the corner of Center Street trying to get a recharge, a few police cruisers double-parked across the street, a lot of big lawyer-mobiles rolling by on their way to a garage. A woman in red came down the steps from the federal court, met a man in black who escorted her to the street on one arm. A trio of old men with white hair emerged from the New York Courthouse -- probably judges. A cop standing next to one of the cruisers pulled his head out of the window and started talking into his wrist, looking towards the west.
A great sigh of air issued from the sewers and storm drains all around us. The air carried the wet, corrupt smell of decaying leaves, sewage, and earth -- that slimy smell that coats the back of your throat and lingers with you.
Then I heard it.
It started as a loud hiss, like a steam line had busted under the street. But the hiss kept getting louder, until it turned deeper and more powerful. I didn't like the sound and hurried my pace.
I was almost across the square when I saw the brown-and-green shape loom in the distance. It filled an intersection, blotted out a storefront, swept aside a phone booth, overturned a cabbie, pushed down a row of newsstands, and grew taller and taller and wider and wider.
Then another appeared a block farther south. It climbed and grew as it pressed in on the square.
The echoes of a third tumbled down from the Municipal Building.
A frothy head of spray, foam, trash, and debris topped the rushing floods. The water spilled in from every direction now. And I just stood there for a long heartbeat, watching it come.
The dike. The wonderful Princeton Shield. It must have come down, I thought. "Great piece of analysis, counselor," I said aloud. The water was still halfway across the square when my nerves kicked in, sending me into a breathless rush past the courthouse, then right and up the hill.
I tried to remember what I could of the topography of the city in this neighborhood. Foley Square was down in a hole. Everyone knew that. It was the point of a lot of black humor that had been circulating for more than a year now. And Chinatown was uphill -- but a few more blocks away. Was there anyplace in between that might be safe? Was there anyplace around that was lower and a potential trap for the unlucky? Did I have enough time that it made a difference?
I looked back, afraid that it was a mistake, but unable to turn away from the disaster. The streams of water had merged, forming one great curling wave, which rose higher as it climbed towards the courthouses. The surf climbed the street, tipping the police cars like toys, rolling them along.
The waves reached their peak as they crossed the curb. Then they fell onto the stone steps, first on the federal side, then on the state, shattering themselves into sparkling lather. The woman in red and her escort were gone. The cops were all gone. The cabbies were still there, forming a bulkhead against the waves as the flood came swirling around the corner and headed towards me.
I broke into a dead run, swallowing great pieces of sidewalk with every stride. I was behind the courthouse, moving along the narrow end of Columbus Park. The street ran uphill, and I was ready to follow it.
But then I saw a young woman, Chinese with shining black hair under a blue kerchief, and a little boy, with matching hair and blue pants. His little legs were pumping furiously, but he wasn't getting anywhere. And they were down the street to the left, at a low point on the block.
I tried to ignore that fact and was beside them in an instant. I grabbed the boy with one arm and picked him up into the air. I hooked the other arm around the woman's elbow and almost lifted her from the sidewalk as well.
We moved with impossible slowness as the water crashed across the basketball court and through the chain link fence. Some part of my analytical mind continued to work and offered the observation that the wide city blocks of Manhattan made a colossal sieve for the waters of the Hudson that were now rushing across the island. And that meant that it would be hard to predict how fast each street would fill or from what direction.
The street pitched upwards, giving me hope, but slowing us even more. I wanted to moan, but held back to avoid frightening the child, who remained silently astonished by the experience.
The roar of the flood filled the street now. I wasn't sure if the water was all around us or just the noise. The smell of riverbottom and gasoline was thick in the air, fish and petrochemicals.
Up the street at the far end of the park I could see the big pavilion. Every other time I'd walked up here there were a dozen or so Chinese women sitting around the picnic tables in front of it, playing some card game -- bridge, poker, something I never identified, something that had probably been going on there for a hundred years or more. The women were all gone now, but playing cards blew across the yard, flickering white and blue, white and red, as they tumbled over and over.
Then the water was all around us, cold and invading in my shoes and pockets, alive and devouring around my legs. It lifted us up. The woman screamed. The boy wailed. I moaned. It was brown and oily and thick with paper and cardboard and wrappers and cigarette butts and dead rats and squirrels and all the garbage of the street.
We pushed on, the water waist-high, then chest-high.
Then it broke over and around us, pulling me under, tugging at the boy and the woman, turning us all upside down. I held my breath and shut my eyes as I went under. Maybe I was afraid to see myself drown, or maybe I was afraid of what I might get in them if I left them open. I refused to let go of my two temporary charges -- and they now clung to me for fear of death.
We turned and turned until I no longer knew which way was up. The world was all yellow light and the clatter of immediate yet distant noise that transformed submarine sound into something else. The temptation to open my mouth and inhale a great gush of filthy water was overwhelming. My chest ached, my ears buzzed, my vision darkened, then filled with bright white light, and the sounds all went away. I knew I was drowning, but no life passed before my eyes.
For a moment, though, I felt a serenity that I had never known before, pouring over everything like oil, like the flood itself, erasing the foundation of suffering and washing everything clean. As a Catholic, I knew what this meant -- the pure grace of God. But as a lawyer and a creature of the 21st century, I never really believed that for a minute. It was certainly something else, because I knew it couldn't be that.
Then my head broke through the surface of the water into the air. I gasped and choked and coughed and drew in another breath -- as did the Chinese boy on my left and the woman on the right.
I felt the ground beneath my feet. I planted my legs hard against the pavement and offered stumbling resistance to the wave. Finally the water let us down. We pulled free, stepping high, splashing hard. Then we were away from it.
My pants were heavy and stuck to the skin, my shoes squished like old sponges, and the breath came in and out of me sounded like a broken accordion. We pulled ourselves up the street, away from the still surging waters as they rushed on towards another block, another park.
I could still smell fish. Then I realized we had reached the edge of Chinatown, with a whole block of open air seafood markets lining the way to Canal Street. And we were alive.
The city lost 1,510 citizens that morning, but that wasn't all.
It also lost hope.
The mood was different after the dike broke. No one talked about fixing it. No one talked about extending it uptown. No one talked about much of anything to do with the flood or the rising tide or anything but work, home, life, and the cablenet.
I felt like something had broken inside me. That moment when I came close to drowning had left me transformed. Nothing that was important before seemed to matter any more. For a lapsed Catholic, I was feeling an awful like a true born-again Baptist. Now I understood why they put their people under water like that. It was like nothing I'd ever experienced before. Things that I'd once considered vitally important were now inconsequential.
I even lost interest in collecting buildings.
I'd already picked up all the ones I really wanted -- the Equitable was the last of my prizes. I had acquired almost every piece of prime property below Canal Street with the exception of the World Trade Center -- and that was too big a power in itself for me to grab it without making a big public scene and revealing what I was up to. I mean, they even had their own dikes.
But the thrill of collecting them was long gone. For months I had been pursuing them, working deals left and right, all under cover and through third- and fourth-party go-betweens. Then suddenly I was fed up with it. I knew I was using the activity to hide from something.
And every once in a while, I caught a glimpse of what that was.
It would hit me without warning, bubbling up like some bad marinara sauce or the first hints of angina. Then the hot flashes would start. And I'd start to wonder what I'd done that was so wrong that I felt like this.
It wasn't a lot of fun. And the worst of it was that it didn't come with a label to help me figure out where it came from. I figured it had something to do with the flood, but that was just a thought. It did nothing to quench the emptiness that opened inside me every time it hit.
Sometimes it was so bad that I thought about going to a priest for confession. But the very absurdity of such a thought was usually enough to break the spell.
Without the Princeton Shield, the water had settled along its natural shoreline. City Hall commanded a small island that started down at the Exchange and ended up in Tribeca, where waves lapped against cast iron buildings a century and a half old. The Trade Center's dike kept it dry for the moment, but Foley Square was a channel separating the south island from the rest of Manhattan. Chinatown was still high and dry, and you could still get onto the Brooklyn Bridge at low tide. The Lower East Side was a shallow sound under the Williamsburg Bridge. And farther uptown, the waves lapped at the Washington Square Arch on the west side and Grammercy Park on the east. Half of SoHo was gone. And the waters were at the door of Little Italy.
When I was a kid, growing up around the corner from Mulberry Street and the big welcome sign, I thought Little Italy was a part of Big Italy, separate and independent of New York City and the rest of America. I remember telling that to a cop when he caught me stealing tomatoes off a box at the market.
"You can't arrest me, you're from New York and this is Little Italy." Once he stopped laughing, he brought me home, where I got a lecture on law and political geography from my father.
Watching him move out of the apartment where he'd lived his entire adult life broke my heart. He and Mama were heading upstate. Her family had found a place in one of the new neighborhoods upstate in Binghamton (above the maximum high water mark calculated by Amundsen Projects) and some nice real estate agent (acting on the orders of some big shot in New York City) made them an offer they couldn't turn down. Everyone was going up together. Somehow they'd found moving vans and movers despite the demand (another favor from the big shot) and had packed their stuff away for the long ride up the Thruway.
I hugged them both, waited on the sidewalk as they climbed into the truck and drove off, then strolled on down a couple of blocks to the water's edge. This street used to be my playground. Now a line of blue-and-white police sawhorses blocked the road, with flashing amber emergency lights chained to the lampposts. Little waves, pushed by a gentle breeze, rolled in and lapped at the curb. Sea gulls waddled along the pavement, making rude noises at the pigeons.
Part of my life had ended. Everything up until now was over. Soon the waters would swallow up my past. Then my present. And eventually my future. At first, I wondered if I'd gone under the floodwaters in Foley Square as a Catholic and come out as a Baptist, the way I felt reborn afterwards. But it didn't take long to realize that nothing was going to appear to take the place of my old life. Watching my parents move out was the last piece to that picture.
I turned away from the little asphalt beach and went back uptown.
The next year, the third year of the flood, really did us in.
Over the course of the winter, the water closed in on lower Manhattan from every direction. I discovered that Broadway ran along the spiny backbone of the island, the high ground from Times Square south. By Halloween it was the last thing standing below 35th Street -- along with the Flatiron Building, Union Square, and Cooper Union. The World Trade Center and Bellevue continued to hold out behind their dikes -- all that was left of the Princeton Shield -- but they were both half a mile from the nearest dry land.
The U.N. building got its feet wet every time the tide came in. Waves broke against the walls of Madison Square Garden, and the Port Authority Bus Terminal had to close its lobby at last. And shallow tendrils of tidewater were reaching towards Times Square and Central Park, enveloping Midtown in their clammy embrace.
I was pretty much out of the real estate business. Since I'd figured out the tricky parts long ago, I hired some people and showed them how to do it. And in any case, the buildings were all being set up as independent, self-managing units, with ownership hidden deep, deep behind layers and layers of legal papers. There was no special expertise to planting Cambridge Coral in a basement and letting it grow, so I wasn't needed for that.
Instead, I wandered around the city, walking the streets at all hours of the day and night, in the steamy August night, in the sharp sunlight of September, in the aromatic afternoons of October. There was no pattern to my wandering. I just wanted to see the hidden corners of the place once more, listen to the pattern of echoes and street sounds, smell the secret scents, and surround myself with the concrete and stone and steel and the boundless diversity of humanity that made New York city real before it was all gone.
I watched the last families clear out of Chinatown as the brown water surged with the tide. I saw the Indonesians packing it in over in the Tribeca. When they evacuated Greenwich Village, I spent a week in Washington Square Park watching aging Bohemians filling trucks with a hundred years worth of paintings, sculptures, mobiles, and etchings. I joined in the last round at many an Irish bar on Third Avenue as the yellow police line moved uptown. And I spent Halloween in Central Park, waiting for the witching hour.
Kids were everywhere. They were all playing that cablenet game, Walkabout. They called it that after the police threatened to arrest them for loitering. "We're just walking about," they'd say as they all took off when the time was up. Every few minutes, another crowd would appear in another part of the park. It would swell, spill over sidewalks and curbs, abruptly turn loud and excited and bursting with energy, and then evaporate in just a few minutes.
I managed to avoid them. The trick was learning to see them coming. It always started with three or four people standing in one spot grinning at one another, but not saying a word.
But some things are impossible to avoid.
"Hey partner, warm night, even for October, isn't it?"
I bristled even before I turned to see who spoke to me. Vermilion called its subscribers "partners." It was meant to be an attractive image to sell shares, but inside the company, it took on a more derisive meaning, something akin to "pigeons" or "marks." No one who worked for Vermilion used the term unless they meant it that way. When I saw who it was, though, I relaxed. Peter Kelly, Charlie's wayward great-grandson, smiled and tipped his hat.
"Yes it is," I said, looking him over as we walked past the big bronze statue of Alice in Wonderland. He still shaved his head to make an early widow's peak, but he was noticeably older than when I'd seen him last, old enough not to worry about curfew violations anymore.
"How goes the chase?" he asked.
"The hunt for profits, the great race to win the prize, the chase," he said.
"I'm sitting it out right at the moment," I said. "It's lost some of its appeal."
"Getting harder to squeeze a megabuck out of the market, is it?"
"It's getting harder to find a market that isn't about to collapse."
"So I've heard," he said. "So I've heard. Say, tell me -- did Amundsen Projects ever find out what caused it? The Big Melt, I mean."
"What caused it? Global warming, of course. They're still arguing over how so much heat got so far south so fast, but that's all there was to it. Once it got warm enough, things started to slide."
"And global warming, how come no one ever stopped it?"
I stopped in my tracks. "Come on, what kind of question is that?"
"A legitimate one. You're a smart guy. Your education is top line. So tell me why you think no one ever did anything to stop global warming."
"Who was supposed to?" I asked. "The government tried, back in the 20th, but that was before we cut it down to size. Big corporations might have, if they hadn't been knocked to pieces during the Crash. Vermilion and its sisters were the only ones around big enough to do it afterwards, but that's not our business."
"'Not our business.' That's an interesting way of putting it."
"Well it's not. Our business is to provide a service to our members. Not to dictate social policy."
"Even if it means letting the ice caps melt?"
I sighed. "There are a great many services that are within the power of Vermilion to deliver. Saving the world from itself is not one of them."
"Of course not," Peter said. "It's just an interesting moral dilemma. Though I don't suppose everyone would see it that way. How about you? Do you think morality has any place in business?"
"That's a leading question and if I were in court I'd object."
"Then let me rephrase it. What is the relationship between morality and business and what do you think it should be?"
"In business, you don't talk about morality, you talk about the law. What counts is whether you obey it or not. Whether it's moral or not is a question for courts and politicians. Vermilion offers a service. Other businesses manufacture products. Once we make sure everything's legal, we're pretty much finished with any questions of morality."
"You are, aren't you? And there's no question about higher moral duty, is there?"
"A higher moral duty? The catch there is easy to spot. Whose morality do we use? Yours or mine. What if yours is just a clever argument in favor of your own interests? Or mine? No, once you bring morality into it, you just open a box full of mischief."
"I suppose so," Peter said. "It's funny. That's what Grampa Charlie told me you'd say. He said my grandfather would claim there is no morality. And my father would say morality is about not letting your friends and family down. He said you'd claim it's whatever the law allows."
"You talked to your Grampa Charlie recently?" I asked, suddenly abuzz with surprise. For a brief moment, I saw years of careful work keeping Charlie's secret all washed away.
"Last week. He sends his regards. And he said to tell you that I'm very good at keeping secrets, so you shouldn't worry about me."
I tried to relax my pounding heart. The best thing to do, I decided was take the initiative. "And what about you?" I asked. "What do you think about morality and business?"
Peter smiled, then tipped his head back and forth as he seemed to weigh his answer. "I don't know if I could tell you that without offending you," he said. "Grampa Charlie said I should tell you to ask him sometime. We see it from pretty much the same angle."
"I'm not sure I like that," I said.
"I'm sorry," he replied. "But I'm afraid you wouldn't like the alternatives any better. Not tonight. Maybe later. In the meantime, I have someplace I have to be in a couple of minutes. It's not far, if you'd care to join me."
"What is it?"
"Just a Walkabout. It's scheduled for midnight at the park entrance. We're almost there now -- and it's on the way home for you anyway, isn't it?"
I admitted as much, but not gladly. The last thing I wanted to do was take part in a Walkabout.
But a few minutes later, we were there, along with a row of horse-drawn carriages that ran down Central Park South, across the street from the big hotels -- we owned three or four of them. A couple of young men with artificial bald spots came out of the park and joined us without saying a thing. Then a girl in a blue dress and her companion, a man my age in a grey suit, crossed the street from the Majestic House and took their places beside us.
I refused to grin, but I kept silent, not knowing the etiquette. More and more people arrived. Within ten minutes, we were surrounded by dozens of strangers, then maybe a hundred or more. When the crowd had spilled into the street, and cabbies had slowed to a halt to avoid hitting us, and the horses had grown nervous at the sheer size of the group, a chorus of voices called out: "Time!"
It was as if the lights had come on at a surprise party. Suddenly everyone began to laugh and talk and shout and swap stories and introductions. The noise was astonishing in its intensity, as if keeping it bottled up gave it an extra push.
I smiled at the genuine openness of the participants and their readiness to share intimacies with people they didn't know. But I kept apart from them, not quite there voluntarily. Peter seemed to appreciate that.
"Don't let them make you uncomfortable. They're just ordinary folks," he said. "But it is a tremendous demonstration of power, don't you think?"
"Power?" A light went on my head somewhere, though I wasn't sure at the moment what it was illuminating. Certainly a much wiser and more complex Peter Kelly than I had suspected until that moment. But I was sure there was more than just that.
"You'll see a much better demonstration a week from Tuesday," he said.
"A week from Tuesday?"
"Election Day," he said with a smile. "Or did you forget?"
Ordinarily, I would probably have forgotten to vote. It was just a municipal election. I didn't like the mayor personally, but I had no particular interest in keeping him in or booting him out. These were no longer ordinary times, however, so I went down to the polling station on the corner.
They used to talk about computerizing elections, but the talk never got anywhere. At first, no one wanted to encourage people to vote that much -- it made elections harder to control. After the Crash, governments couldn't afford the cost of the equipment. So we still had to walk on down to the local polling station and stand in line to cast our ballots. Personally, I thought it was worth the trouble to reinforce a sense of the public nature of voting, but I was in a minority.
I went down in the late afternoon and didn't have to wait long to take care of business. The ballot offered a momentary amusement. In addition to his honor the incumbent, there were half a dozen candidates from parties I'd never heard of -- including a Joe Sturdley from the Silly Party and a Bill X. Carlson from the Anarchy Party.
I decided to stick around after I was finished, though, and stopped for a hot dog and a soda from a street cart. I didn't have to wait much before a small knot of people formed. I recognized their silly grins. Before long, there were twenty or thirty of them, not a large group by Walkabout standards. Then someone called time.
But instead of breaking their self-imposed silence in a round of socializing, the group turned around and went inside. I tried to avoid choking on the last bit of my lunch and rushed after them. I wanted to see what they were doing. When I saw, I was surprised -- and a little frightened.
They were voting.
That must have been why the group was so small -- registered voters only.
That night, when the polls closed, the mayor was history. Someone named Randolph Sweet had won the election. According to the biolink, he was a social worker with a degree from Yale, he was married but childless, he lived on the upper East Side -- and he was 22. That nearly floored me. The city of New York had elected a kid as its new mayor.
The City Council was the same story. Everyone who had been there in the morning was swept out of office by the end of the night. And every one of the newcomers was under 25.
Nationally it was the same story. Local and municipal elections all over the country showed the same results. Fresh young kids with no experience, no record, no previous public profile, and no evident campaign organization had won every single election in every town, city, and state in the country.
My back buzzed with nervous energy as the magnitude of the event sunk in. What in the world was Peter Kelly involved in? And what were they up to?
Before anyone could find out, we got hit by the Little Crash.
It was late November, a week before Thanksgiving. On Monday the banks started going under. They were all on shaky ground and had been for months. They depended on revenue from loans paid back, and with the water rising and more real estate going under every day, the loan payments had started to dry up -- especially now that we'd reached the forty-foot level. But no one expected them to collapse all on the same day.
In retrospect, they should have. They were all linked together in one majestic network, and as soon as one went down, the others started to wobble out of control, spiraling in on themselves in a sudden outflow of capital.
On Tuesday, the insurance companies went under. They owned the banks, for one thing. And their claims had risen along with the seas. No one was buying new insurance, no could afford the premiums they were charging, and their investments no longer offset their losses. And like the banks, they were chained together in huge networks.
On Wednesday, the stock markets closed. The run from losses in banking and insurance was certain to bring the entire world financial system crashing down as investors tried to sell before their investments lost their value. The few big corporations left standing by the Crash went under before they could shut down the outlinks.
And on Thursday, the on-line syndicates faced their moment of doom. They couldn't close their doors -- they had none. They couldn't stop people from bailing out -- they were creatures of the old Internet, wild, anarchic conglomerations of anonymous computer and credit accounts. Like the Internet, they were designed to be without barriers, free to flex and fly on the winds of the moment. At this moment, the winds were blowing everything out the door.
We were braced for it. We lost a lot of virtual money, but we kept all our tangible assets -- the property in the Poconos and the Catskills, the still-secure Midwestern holdings (including a good chunk of Chicago real estate), the service sector. But without banks, insurance, and stock markets, we couldn't do a heck of a lot.
So on Friday, everything just stopped. Buses quit running as the city found its accounts empty and no way to buy diesel fuel. The few subways that were still in operation stopped as the power went off in huge parts of the city. Employers declared a holiday, leaving people free to worry about what would happen next. Traffic ground to a halt without signal lights. People pulled over and left their cars on the curbside, which only contributed to the gridlock.
The only thing still working was the cablenet -- though without power most wallscreens were off-line.
By suppertime, it was crackling with all kinds of rumors, paranoid theories, political screeds, and wild ravings. I chained my way across a lot of scary sites (the Longstreet Tower had its own fuel cells to provide power) and was growing more and more concerned when I got an e-mail message from Peter Kelly.
"Walkabout in Central Park at six o'clock sharp. Everyone in New York is invited."
I got there late. The evening was warm for early November -- almost shirtsleeve weather -- with a low deck of clouds picking up the lights from the city. I could hear the noise as I stepped out of the Longstreet Tower's high glass-walled lobby and onto Fifth Avenue.
It sounded like everyone who was invited showed up. The sidewalks were full of stragglers, working their way uptown towards the park. They spilled out onto the road, ignoring the traffic and confusing the small brains of the cabbies.
When I got to the Grand Army Plaza at the southeast corner of the park, I found out why the noise was so loud. They'd seeded the park with soundies. They were everywhere, little orange balloons drifting on the breeze. The flat ones that had landed and deposited their speakers looked like dead butterflies. Someone was giving a speech -- her voice was everywhere -- but the sound of the crowd was being carried on more than just the wind.
I couldn't understand exactly what the woman was saying. I didn't stay put long enough. Besides being illegal, the problem with soundies is that they aren't that good. I suppose I could have grabbed one and stuck it on my shoulder, but I wasn't really interested in what she had to say.
I kept on moving, working my way around the edges of the throngs of people who filled the streets and walkways of the park. I knew some of the shortcuts and managed to get past the chokepoints where the mass of people had brought all movement to a halt.
Eventually I got up to the Great Lawn, where the speakers were invisible, surrounded by a colossal crowd. But you down in here, the soundies were dense enough that you couldn't help but hear every word.
Mayor-elect Randolph Sweet was already talking when I arrived. It was the first time I'd ever heard him talk. He wasn't a powerful speaker, but this crowd, young and excited, seemed to love him.
"I'm still astonished that you put me where I am today," he said sheepishly. "I just hope I don't let you down." He went on like that for a long time, trying hard to make sure that everyone knew how humble he was and how much he wanted them to like him.
Then he started getting tough.
"We didn't create the mess we're in today, but we're going to have to clean it up," he said. "And I don't think we can wait until January to get started. Do you?"
The thunderous response was thrilling to hear and feel, even if I wasn't joining in.
"Well I don't want to. Do you?"
Another wave of thunder rolled over the lawn.
"I don't think we should have to. So tonight I'm calling on the mayor and the council to step down, resign, stand aside and let the newly elected officials take their places. There's no time for delay and no time to waste. Let's act now, before the water's in the basement. Who's with me?"
The crowd had no well-crafted response to that question, but the roar of affirmation was just as loud. I decided I'd had enough. This was not reassuring to me at all. These kids weren't just playing politics, they were playing at revolution.
It took a long time to get home, bucking the people still flowing into the park and uptown. And when I got there, I found a message from Peter Kelly.
"Think of this as a courtesy call," he said when I called him back.
"Courtesy has nothing to do with what you and your friends are up to," I said. "I have to admit that what you've done so far is impressive. But there's more to running things than getting a bunch of strangers to meet on a street corner and act silly."
"We do have a plan," he said.
"A plan? That's good to know."
"And you're involved. That's the courtesy. I just wanted to warn you."
"That was considerate of you. Warn me of what, exactly?"
"We have the cities. That's a given. Come Monday morning, the mayor and the council are going to get out of City Hall so fast it'll make your head spin. They don't want to take the blame for what's happened. But the cities aren't enough. So on Tuesday morning they're going to come knocking on your door. They need Vermilion and the other on-lines in order to get things done. You're all they have left. That and a lot of strangers who meet on street corners and act silly."
"You know it won't stop at that, don't you?"
"At asking for help. They're going to want control. Control over Vermilion and all the rest. And that means an end to our freedom. These things don't stop once you get them started."
"You're probably right about that," he said. "But it's too late now. The water's in the basement."
"The mayor was only the first to go. Sooner or later, they'll be coming after me."
"I'm afraid you're right. I guess that's why I called. To let you know. To be sure you knew."
"In that case, thank you for the courtesy. And good night."
It took them a long time, but eventually they came for me.
Not until after they'd run me ragged trying to help them dig themselves out of the Little Crash.
It wasn't like the Big One. That had been a lot more fun, from what I understand. The system to protect the banks had worked so well that everything ground to a halt. Instead of writing off bad debt -- one of the positive functions of a depression -- the Feds struggled to rescue it. Within a year, the federal government had been reduced to bankrupt irrelevancy, and Wall Street and the bankers were looking for help from anyone else in a place to give it. We were more than happy to give it to them.
This time around, the other side -- the kids -- didn't want to need us, and we didn't want to help them. But neither of us had a choice.
So once again we pumped life back into the banks, this time bypassing the insurance companies. We had to find slack somewhere. And they were the dead weight on the system. All those losses couldn't be made good. Trying to would only bring everyone else down. So we let them fold, each and every one.
Then the utilities came back on line. Followed by the markets, though not without a few quick shutdowns as things overheated.
Vermilion managed to survive the experience for the first few months, celebrating the new year and the spring, lamenting the springtide as it wiped out more and more of the city.
I moved out of the Longstreet Tower in January. There wasn't any water in the basement, but they had started slapping Cambridge Coral all over the ground floor, making it too difficult to get in and out of the place. My new apartment was in the Dakota, overlooking Central Park. It was just a few blocks down from Museum of Natural History -- or what had once been the Museum of Natural History. Now it was just a shell. Vermilion trucks had moved the entire collection to its new home in the Catskills.
I expected them to come for me sooner, but they were getting ready for the next election -- the federal elections for Congress and the White House. It wasn't going to be as easy the second time around. For one thing, the Feds were fighting back already.
In April they tried to put a stop to the Walkabouts, but the local police wouldn't co-operate. They worked for the cities and the kids had the cities -- 300 of them, large and small, all across the country. So they sent out the FBI, trying to hunt down the organizers by tracking them through the cablenet. They claimed the Walkabouts violated the New Computer Indecency Act, but they never explained how. They arrested a few kids who fell into their traps, but there were too many people scheduling Walkabouts without any coordination from a central organization. In the end, they never even prosecuted the ones they'd nabbed.
In May, the sea found its way into Grand Central Station -- her trains silent for more than a year already -- and surrounded the Empire State Building.
By June it had swamped Times Square and was inching its way towards Rockefeller Center. The lobby of the Plaza Hotel on Central Park South was soaked with brine and worse at high tide on Independence Day. Farther uptown the high-water mark had reached Columbia University and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Everyone knew it was going to be a long, sweltering summer, made worse by the waters filling the streets of Midtown, growing steamy from the midday sun, and turning the remaining dry blocks of Manhattan a miserable swamp.
In July, they arrested me.
The charge was profiteering.
They didn't call it that exactly. It was a city ordinance passed by the Kiddy Kouncil -- as the over-30s called them -- that talked about continuing to receive income from a source deemed by the courts to constitute an unfair business practice and anything else that gave them an excuse to lock me up. The terms of the ordinance were broad enough that they could arrest anyone who'd ever had an account with Vermilion or Chartreuse or the whole crayola box of on-line syndicates. But they only used it against the top of the food chain, and that was me.
The case went before one of the new city courts they'd created over the summer to handle their new laws -- like the one that banned internal combustion engines from the city limits. I sent my Brickyard Roadster into storage up in Connecticut when they did that.
The trial was mercifully brief. The judge was Rennie D'Amour, the young federal clerk from the original Amundsen Projects case. He was a few years older than the folks who'd seized political power in New York City, but young enough that he could pass himself off as one of them. An older, wiser, one of them, worthy of being a judge. He still looked overworked.
I was guilty, of course. They'd written the law to get around the ex post facto rule, but it was aimed at the on-lines and the guys who called the shots for them. Everything we'd done to prepare for the flood was considered profiteering -- and it was.
We'd made a lot of money buying up the assets that would be needed to handle the impact of the rising sea. We thought we were doing the right thing, mobilizing resources for a crisis. But the kids didn't agree. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone...
"Mr. Russo, is there anything you can say in your favor to mitigate these charges?" D'Amour asked when they were nearly finished with me. "Any extraordinary accomplishment to further the public good without profit to yourself or your employer?"
I realized as I stood there that I was stuck in a moment of sudden truth. My neck was on the block and I had it in my power to save it. All I had to was betray a man who trusted me with everything he owned, with his deepest secrets -- or some of them, anyway.
It seemed so easy in contemplation, but so impossible in execution. I could no more do that than I could betray my own father. I had spent many years cultivating the image of the cold, calculating attorney, the kind of man who wouldn't hesitate to sell out his friends, his family, and his soul for the right price. But I guess it was just an act. Because when it came down to it, I couldn't reveal what I had done -- no matter how much suffering it would spare me.
So I remained silent. And Rennie D'Amour found me guilty and sentenced me to ten years behind bars.
The first months were the hardest. The jails had gone under long ago -- the Tombs downtown, the Crypt on the low Harlem plain -- so they stashed us in the only big, solid buildings they had.
I spent the time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It was a strange kind of limbo. We slept on pallets on marble floors and awoke each morning to elaborate carved stonework high overhead and blank walls where pictures had once hung. They never turned on the heat, and the winter left the place miserably cold. We spent each day in tedious, unrelieved boredom. It was interrupted only by the arrival of a new lot of inmates -- mostly lawyers, bankers, executives, city officials.
We had nothing else to do but talk, and we talked a lot. Mostly about what we'd done to get arrested. Everyone felt ill-used. No one felt remorse. But we sat around on hard wooden benches droning on and on about all we had been and all we had done. We were like ghosts in the afterlife, recounting our deeds on earth. The classical stone columns and marble muses and angels that decorated the chambers completed the scene.
I had a lot of nightmares -- church dreams, with devils and pitchforks and angels and Bibles. I grew up believing in a physical Hell, where devils shoveled hot tar into your mouth for all eternity to punish you for your sins. I was ten or more before I realized it was all a big lie, but I don't know if I ever got over it emotionally. The nightmares were full of that stuff.
And the guilt attacks were worse than ever. Being locked up all the time didn't help. Now they went on and on, sometimes for hours. At least now I could put a name to my sins. But I wished I could return to the days when the guilt had no author instead of moments of deadly precise understanding of all I had done and left undone.
In the beginning, most of the inmates were like me, decision-makers in the big institutions. The kids were being systematic and comprehensive in eliminating the people who could stop them from gaining control of the on-lines. Gus Karmonos showed up a month after I got there. He was still with Chartreuse, or rather the shell of Chartreuse that we let loose on the streets, when they pinched him.
"I don't understand, Johnny," he said. "I didn't do anything wrong. I may have stretched the law here and there, but I never went over the line. I never had to. I always thought it would save me in the end. I played by the rules. This shouldn't have happened."
"I know, Gus. That's what makes us political prisoners. It's not what we did, it's who we are. And it's what the kids want -- which is the power we used to have. You don't have to do anything wrong to get in trouble that way."
"I still don't get it, Johnny. We were just playing by the rules, doing what was expected of us. If you can lose everything because you did what was expected of you, then nothing makes sense anymore. Nothing."
"Yeah Gus, but those things all changed. They've all washed away now."
"Nothing makes sense," he said,
After Labor Day, another group started showing up. It consisted mostly of older men and women, many of them retired. They were the ones who'd had a chance to change things and didn't. They were the ones the kids blamed for melting the ice caps.
They were nervous and scared. From what we heard, their trials weren't like ours. They had an element of ritual humiliation and threats from the judge and the prosecutors of more serious punishment down the road, after the elections consolidated their power. They kept to themselves and never discussed their pasts with the rest of us. They'd learned not to in the years since the flood began.
Then one day an old man with snowy white hair and a face like a dried-up potato broke the silence. He was talking loudly in the corner where those people congregated. And when one of his companions tried to restrain him with a touch, he threw off the man's arm and stood up abruptly.
"I won't be silent any longer," he said loudly. "You are all outrageous. Why won't you admit it? Why won't you accept the blame? We did it. We all did it. You thought that once the Boomers were all safely put away in their retirement homes that you could just trash the planet. You told lies about how responsible you were being all the while you were plundering the rain forests and fouling the oceans and corrupting the skies. And you knew it was wrong. You knew and you never moved a hand to stop it. I'm sick of you all. Just sick."
His friends finally calmed him and withdrew to their corner.
"Crazy old man," said one fellow on our side of the room. I recognized him a lobbyist who used to work for Vermilion. We'd fired him when we found out he was lying about his expense account and he went on to work for the tobacco industry. "They ought to lock him up."
Everyone laughed when he caught himself and realized what he'd said. Everyone but me.
"He's right, you know," I said. "We did it."
"We screwed the planet. We melted the ice caps."
The lobbyist shook his head and made a disgusted face.
"And no one wants to admit it," I added, trying to force him to face the truth. I don't know why I did it. Maybe I was just tired of listening to everyone make excuses for themselves. Like the old man.
"We've been talking about this for months. Everyone agrees we were negligent. There are enough lawyers in here to recognize the elements of the crime, just ask them. We knew the potential consequences of our actions and we ignored them."
"We were just giving the people what they wanted," the lobbyist said. "Nothing more, nothing less. It's what the market wanted."
"But everyone in this room knows that's a lie," I said. "We all know exactly what we did and when we did it. When it came time to decide how things were done, we decided what was best for us. And then we went out and sold the idea to the public so they'd think it was a good idea. I know because I was better at it than anyone.
"And don't tell me we were just giving people what the market wanted. We were the market. Those kids know that, and that's why we're here. For all their faults, they're at least innocent on the big count, you know. Maybe that's why they're getting away with as much as they are."
"Aw come one, everyone knows it was too late to stop the warming back at the turn of the century," the lobbyist said. "If you want to blame someone, blame the boomers. If they hadn't stopped nuclear power back in the 20th, then we could have stopped global warming in its tracks. They're the reason we burned all the coal and gas and oil, not us."
A chorus of agreement rose behind me and I suddenly felt outnumbered.
I wanted to go on, but I how could I argue with logic like that. And the idea of being locked up with a room full of men who were hostile towards me personally was not at all appealing. Things could indeed get worse than they already were.
So I shut up and let the argument die. No one cared what I believed. Or so I thought at the time.
That night they took away the old man who had spoken out. He never returned, and no one could tell us who he had been before he was arrested. No one could tell us what had happened to him.
A few days later, I was woken in the middle of the night by someone shining a flashlight in my eyes. For the next few minutes, I thought my time had come as well.
It was one of the guards -- a kid, the only kind they let near the political prisoners. He led me out of the hall where we were kept and down a flight of broad stairs. We stopped on the landing and he reached into his pocket. I panicked, afraid that I was going to get it right there, but all he pulled out was a cell phone. He punched in a long number and handed it to me.
"Hello, Johnnie," said Charlie Longstreet. "How do you like being in jail?"
"It's not as bad as law school," I said.
"Sorry about this, John. I wish there was something I could do to help you."
"If there were, I'd have asked you to do it," I said. "I'm not that humble."
"I'll keep working on it," he said. "So-o-o, how do you like my kids?"
"Your kids? Have you got something to do with them?"
"Just a little," he said. "I'm just hedging my bets. They looked like they needed a little help."
"Charlie, exactly what kind of help have you been giving them?"
"A little money now and then, just to keep things going. And a little advice. Well, a lot of advice. I haven't had this much fun since I was a kid. Power to the people, smash the state."# "You were in the Navy back then, weren't you?"
"Yeah, and I missed out on a lot of the excitement. Now I'm trying to make up for it. Just wait until the election. We've been busy. The oldtimers like you and me don't have chance. You should see the polling we've done."
"I thought polls were still illegal."
"So? Ours show that the kids are going to win everything. And do you know why? Because everyone thinks they're right. Even oldtimers like us think we should turn things over to them. They've given up on themselves. Doesn't help that they're all a bunch of damned sheep."
"And what's going to happen if the kids win?"
"They can't do a worse job than the people who are there now," he said.
"I'm not so sure about that," I countered. "I've talked to Peter Kelly. He's got a lot of you in him, but he's still a kid. They all are. Do you really think they're going to pull this off without crashing when the time comes to make the hard decisions?"
"They were smart enough to lock you up, weren't they? That one was their idea, not mine. They can be ruthless when they have to be -- and the times call for that."
"But can they be wise when they have to be? It takes more than a silly haircut for that."
"That's why I'm staying involved, Johhnie. I've got more than enough wisdom for all of them."
I just shook my head and said nothing.
In November, the kids won the election. Now they had the Congress and the White House, the legislatures and the governor's mansions. And now that they had the big power, they were making big changes. In February, they moved us.
We boarded buses one morning, headed crosstown through the park, worked our way to the west side, and pulled up at the water's edge. We filed off the buses and out a long boardwalk that stretched for two or three blocks. A ferry boat was waiting for us -- one of those hydrogen-electric boats that the Indians built up in Connecticut to haul gamblers to their casinos.
I got a seat by the window. That was the last I saw of Manhattan for a long time, as the boat cruised out into a frighteningly broad Hudson River and headed north on the incoming flood tide, row upon row of silent buildings rising out of the water behind us.
They took us to Albany, then put us on buses. We rode all night long and ended up in what used to be Fort Drumm, almost to the Canadian border. We spent a few weeks there while they sorted us out.
If the Met was some kind of limbo, then the next phase of our imprisonment turned out to be purgatory. One by one, we went before a young man or woman to have our sins evaluated and our fates decided.
The old-timers were sent off to some remote part of the camp. We heard stories about it later. Nothing was done to them there, but nothing was done for them. They were housed and fed while they completed their terms, kept up in old army barracks, with no work, no books, no computer outlets, nothing. All they had to pass the time was themselves and one another -- and the knowledge that their grandchildren had condemned them for their sins.
The rest of us were divided into two groups.
Those who were unrepentant, who still bellowed about the injustice of their situation, who denied any responsiblity for the world's precarious position and any role in putting it there, were sent to the farm. The farm was not the preferred assignment. The work was dreary and dull and didn't require much thought. Its only reward was that you got tired enough during the day to fall asleep quickly at night.
The others were shipped out, dispersed across the state, and sent to do other jobs. Interesting jobs that involved useful work. The kids weren't mean and they weren't dumb. They knew that they had a lot of talented people locked up. And they didn't want to let all of it go to waste.
The talk was that they knew just who they had and what we'd been saying since we were locked up. That was how some of us got the good billets and others ended up on the farm, people said.
I drew a building contractor's assignment in Tupper Lake, a little town in the middle of the Adirondacks.
In the next year I learned more about lumber, power tools, and construction methods than I ever imagined I could. I discovered that green was a more intense color than I'd ever imagined and that it came in more shades than I could ever count. I was astounded by the realization that water rises from the earth and spills down in brooks and streams and rivers into the sea in a torrent that never stops, day or night.
In the year after that, I got to be very good at the job. There was something about working with your hands and solid, substantial materials that I'd never guessed I could enjoy when I lived down on Wall Street.
I barely noticed the third year passing. My life had become simple, ordered, and routine. At night we were locked up inside a housing compound in some small town in the Adirondacks with one traffic light and one phone booth.
It seemed pointless to me, since there was nothing to run away to in a place that remote. One member of our team did escape and spent a year living in the wilderness in a lean-to. He was caught when a work crew stumbled on his camp while he was out trapping his supper.
We weren't allowed access to the cablenet, so we got little news from the world outside. The water kept rising, we were told, but no one gave us much in the way of details. The local residents kept their distance from us. And so did the stream of immigrants pouring into the region from refugee camps further downstate.
That was our main job, of course, building housing for the people displaced by the rising tide. Houses upon houses, single-family stand-alones, duplexes, apartments. And retail and commercial space. Trees went down, lumber rolled in, frames went up, then exteriors, interiors, and the finishing touches, and we moved on to the next site. It was very satisfying. You could see what you'd done, see its value, and take pride in your work. In every way it was different from the world I'd left behind, where I manipulated numbers and words and where the consequences of what I did were experienced by other people far away.
After four years passed, I had, in many ways, become a completely different person, both inside and out. I was much more at peace with myself, and I was much healthier and fit. While I'd lost my freedom, I'd regained some measure of happiness.
In the fifth year of my imprisonment, the eighth year of the flood, Peter Kelly came to me. He told me Charlie Longstreet was dead.
"The funeral was extravagant," he said. He looked much older than I remembered him. Nature had played its cruel trick on him, leaving him bald to the back of his head, but he also bore the signs of stress and responsibility. He even sounded weary.
"Lots of us kids were there. He was one of our heros. We put him in a private plot overlooking the Hudson -- high on a hill, in case the water gets too deep."
"I thought his generation had been selected as the scapegoats," I said. I didn't feel very charitable towards him, considering his role in getting me where I was.
"No, that was the generation after his. The boomers are still like gods to us. Probably because most of them died before the flood."
"Rather convenient of them to do that."
"Lucky, is all," Peter said. "Luckier than you or me, anyway."
"I appreciate your coming all the way up here to bring me the news," I said. I didn't believe he was doing it out of courtesy, of course. I was just tired of waiting for him to get to the point.
"I had another reason," he admitted.
"We want to know what you did with his money."
I laughed. "I thought you took it all when you got your hands on Vermilion."
"So did we. But after Charlie died and we saw the will, we learned different. You were his lawyer. You must know what happened to his fortune. It was pretty big -- everyone knows that. But there was nothing left when he went under. What did you do with it?"
I was silent a long time, long enough to make Peter nervous. "Why should I tell you?"# "We're prepared to commute your sentence. You could walk out of here a free man tonight."
I shook my head. "You kids really don't understand anyone but yourselves, do you?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know where prisons came from? They used to punish people who committed crimes by maiming them or torturing them. Then they decided that you could improve their characters by locking them up. The Quakers came up with the name penitentiary -- a place where you could be penitent, where you could reflect on your sins and rise above them. It was a great idea, but it only worked for people who were capable of being penitent in the first place. And that didn't include most of your common criminals."
"So what's your point?"
"You kids made the mistake of locking up a lot of people who could repent. Present company included. What do you think I've been doing here for the past five years? What makes you think I'm willing to trade it for freedom when that means betraying the trust of a man who did nothing but good to me?"
Peter's face seemed to sag.
I could tell that this wasn't what he expected. Not at all.
"Sorry Peter, but Catholics wrote the book on sin and penance. Do you want to hear my confession? Bless me father, for I have sinned. I did not love my wife. I neglected my mother and father. I was one of the most powerful men in the world before the flood came, but I used that power for frivolous and selfish ends. I drove around in a gasoline-sucking monstrosity. I worked to keep the price of gasoline low so I could do it. I ignored the consequences of my own small actions and the greater actions of Vermilion. I was indifferent to a calamity that was decades in the making. I worked to convince the public that they were the beneficiaries of my own selfishness. And I enjoyed it, every minute of it.
"Maybe that was the biggest sin of all. So all I'm doing now is serving out my penance. Say three Hail Marys and spend ten years locked up in the woods. There's nothing you can do to change that. And nothing I can do either."
"I'm sorry," he said. "I thought I was dealing with a different man. I made a mistake."
"It's not your fault. The world is not what it was. Everything has changed, and we've all changed with it. I've found a new life. So have you. Maybe once, long ago, I might have taken up your offer. But I'd like to think I would have given you the same answer I'm giving you now."
He sighed, then rose to leave. "I think you would have," he said. "Otherwise I don't think Charlie would have let you work for him."
"Just one question then, for my own curiosity."
"I won't promise you an answer."
"Fair enough. Just tell me if the money went to a good purpose. You didn't just piss it down the stream, did you?"
I shook my head in disappoinment. "You really have to learn to become a better judge of people," I said. "Do you really think your great-grandfather would have let me do that?"
"I'm sorry," he said again. "I shouldn't even have asked."
And with that, he was gone.
Three more years passed. I moved from physical labor to management, planning the work, ordering the materials, arranging the schedules. It was still satisfying, but it wasn't the same. The time moved more quickly, though, and my boss, Martin Crossinger, the man who owned the company, came to trust me more than anyone else at the work, giving me more and more responsibility.
And little by little, the guilt went away. It wasn't that I came to terms with it, or negotiated some release with God, or anything as clear or formal or religious as any of that. I figured I was just paying off my debt, and every day the balance was a little lower.
Then, in the spring, the news came.
Antarctica had run out of ice, and the sea had stopped rising. The world was spared.
But God was it ever a different world.
Since the beginning, more than ten years ago, the sea had risen 148 feet and several inches. Nations had vanished. Governments had fallen. A way of life had ended. With the flooding of seaports, the global economy had become a distant memory. Chicago was the center of life and culture for America. The people of the coastal littorals had migrated to the interior, dispersing to hundreds of new hamlets like the ones I'd helped build. Evn the pace of life had changed, slackening from the high pitch of the days before the flood.
And now the ragged edge of fear that we'd lived with for so many years had come to an end. The constantly rising sea no longer threatened to pour over all that humanity had built.
The euphoria was like nothing I'd ever seen.
Our celebration lasted for several days. They left the gates unlocked at our compound, though no one wandered off. They were all too intoxicated, naturally or with the help of various substances. And even when it all wore off, the world still seemed fresh and new.
A few days later a rainbow appeared at our work site and half a dozen big strong men on my crew broke down and cried. I was one of them.
Another year passed, however, before my day of freedom arrived.
I didn't expect it. They moved it up on me by a few months. Time off for good behavior, someone said, although I knew that wasn't done anymore. Truth in sentencing had survived the revolution.
I was just called in to the compound where a young woman -- no doubt a kid back when they took over but now past thirty -- read the release and handed me the paper. Martin was there, torn between joy that I was finally free and sorrow that he was losing a trusted assistant.
I was in shock, more or less. I didn't know what to say. I didn't know how to feel. I knew it would wear off, but I didn't know when.
The woman left. I gathered up my belongings, what there were of them. I didn't know what to do. Martin offered to put me up at his house until I figured out where I was going to go, but I never got the chance.
A black car rolled into the compound, silent as a ghost with its electric motors, and pulled up before my cottage. Two young men got out, came inside, and asked if I was John Russo. I was too stunned to think of a reason to lie, so I admitted my identity.
"Could you come with us, please?" one of them asked.
"Do I have a choice?" I asked back. I wondered if this was some plot by the kids to get rid of their political prisoners once and for all.
"Utterly, sir," the other one said. "We'd be very disappointed if you didn't come with us. I'm afraid we can't explain anything more than that -- those are our instructions. But we were told to make sure you knew this was entirely voluntary."
I eyed them both suspiciously. Somehow they didn't look like the kids who'd taken over and locked me up -- they were younger than that. "I guess I haven't got anything else to do for the next few days," I said at last. "Or the next few years, come to think of it."
We rode for several hours through the dark Adirondack forest and a rain storm that obscured everything behind blurred windows, until we ended up in a cramped neighborhood on some newly built waterfront. We switched from the car to a boat, rushing through the downpour and getting drenched in the process. I sat in the cabin, soaking wet, cold and uncomfortable, for another couple of hours.
The rain had turned into a foggy drizzle by the time the ride ended, at a fresh dock that emerged from the mist and the gathering shadows as evening started to settle in.
We walked down the long wooden platform, then stepped onto the muddy riverbank. We'd come ashore in some kind of park, with overgrown lawns beneath high trees. My escorts led me through the mist, up a hill to a large building of warm, red brick.
It looked like a church or a monastery, with high walls and a tower on one corner. We entered through a courtyard full of carefully maintained gardens, passed through a long chapel with our footsteps echoing loudly, and walked by ancient tapestries of unicorns, knights, and hunters. Several chapels opened off the main hall, but we continued past them and left through a smaller doorway.
We crossed the park, followed a path through the wet trees, and trudged through the woods for several minutes. Then the path broke out into a tidy courtyard where thick hedges and a wooden fence glistened from the fresh shower.
We entered an ancient farm house with stone walls and plank floors and a big porch with white railings. I could see where it had been repaired and rebuilt and where the original work remained and was impressed with the amount of craft that had gone into it. I could also see that the building had been moved. The signs were subtle, but clear -- and they had tried hard to cover up some of the larger cracks. I'd seen enough of that sort of thing over the past few years to recognize it.
One of the two young men escorted me upstairs to a small bedroom.
"You'll find dry clothes in the closet, sir," he said. "Something should fit you in there."
"Thanks," I said.
I stripped off my damp clothes, found a fresh shirt and pants, and put my work boots back on. When my escort returned, he led me back downstairs and out onto a wide front porch with a low roof. He offered me a seat at a heavy wooden table and pulled out his telephone.
The fog had lifted and the sky was low with swiftly racing clouds. The house blocked the breeze, but you could hear it riffling through the trees all around us. We were on a hillside, with an open view to the water in the distance.
My escort was suddenly attentive to his phone. He waited a moment, then said: "He's here."
Then he handed the phone to me.
"Hey, Johnny! What's happening, babe?"
It was the voice of Charlie Longstreet.
I was stunned. I was angry. I was not surprised.
"How do I know it's you and not some cheap AI?" I asked.
"Because no AI would know how you lost your virginity," he said. "How have you been, old pal?"
"In stir, old pal. Did you forget?"
"Beats being dead," he said.
"I heard about that. I have to tell you, Charlie, that I'm really pissed about that. For a few years now I've believed it was true. That's a lot of grief to cause an old pal."
"All I can say is I'm sorry, Johnnie," the voice said. I still wasn't convinced, but I wasn't reluctant to play along. "It had to be done that way. And it wasn't exactly a lie."
"In what way?"
"Well, they had a body to bury that any coroner in the world would identify as mine."
"Are you trying to tell me that they kept your brain alive?"
"I knew you were a sharp kid when I hired you," he said. "The institute has got me on ice, so to speak. But they let me control the chemistry. Right now, I'm doing just fine on a couple of dry martinis -- they program in a memory of the taste, you know. It's one of the indulgences I allow myself after dinner. When I first went over, they gave me a month of free drugs just to see what I'd do. I went wild right up until the end. Then I quit a day early just to show them I was in charge."
"Very interesting, Charlie. I'm glad you've been occupying your time productively while I've been upstate."
"Geeze, Johnnie, I told you I was sorry once already. I know what happened to you. I know why it happened. You've got to excuse my kids -- they're hard to keep in line sometimes."
"Just an expression," he said. "You know who I mean."
I certainly did, but somehow I knew he meant more. And that he meant to let it slip out -- martinis or not.
"So why did you arrange this little meeting, Charlie? Where am I and what's going on?"
"Where are you? Don't you know? Can't you see?"
"I'm at the butt end of a long trip in a miserable storm in a farmhouse on an island in the middle of nowhere. No one has told me anything, and all I can see is rain clouds. Excuse me, things are clearing up, and I can see some buildings off in the distance."
"Look at the buildings, Johnnie. Any of them look familiar to you?"
"What? Charlie, this is an awfully strange game to be playing on someone who's been locked up for -- "
Then I recognized the skyline in the distance. The Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, and the whole crowd of midtown skyscrapers loomed halfway to the horizon -- and farther off the twin spires of the World Trade Center. And then a wave of vertigo swept over me as I saw how high the sea was that surrounded them.
But most spectacular of all were the lights. Here and there among the tombstone-like towers were castles of light, the life inside them twinkling in the distance, their reflections dancing on the waves.
"Charlie, you son of a bitch. Why did you do this to me?"
I was on Manhattan -- or what was left of it. Inwood Heights, to be specific. This porch had to be part of the Dyckman House, an old Dutch farmhouse left over from the 1600s. And we'd come ashore at the Cloisters, an art museum, not a monastery.
"I thought I was doing you a favor," he said. "I brought you home. Back to New York."
"I liked it up there. It's quiet. And peaceful."
"But I wanted to show you what happened. I wanted you to see what you did."
"What do you mean, what I did?"
"Johnnie, those are your buildings. Your whole collection. You saved them all. Every one them with their lights on is one of yours. Except for the World Trade Center, of course."
"Mine?" I squinted at the horizon, trying to pick out details. It was useless.
"And they're all running just like you set them up. Each building is an independent little unit, accumulating equity and value as time goes by. And now they're ready to start moving out, reclaiming the buildings around them. Just like you planned."
"Like I planned? Charlie, my only plan was to put your money into something that wasn't going to wash away. What happened after that was none of my concern?"
"Johnnie, you're too modest. In any case, it really doesn't matter. Now they need you again. Someone has to help them out. My kids are bright, but they've got no experience at some things."
"Help them out? What are you talking about?"
"We'll talk about it more tomorrow, after you've had a chance to go downtown," he said. "There's an airfoil down at the docks for you. You'll get a kick out of it. It goes real fast."
"Charlie, I haven't agreed to anything. I'm really not interested in any of this."
"And with all your new background in construction trades? Think this through, Johnnie. It's the opportunity of a lifetime."
"I don't want to, Charlie. I don't want to do this."
"Look, Johnnie. This is your redemption, I'm offering you. That's what it's all about, you know. Sin and redemption. You sinned, you paid your penance, now be redeemed."
I was floored. He had hit the button that worked.
And he was right.
"Okay, Charlie. Whatever you say. I surrender."