Commonwealth: A Novel of Utopia, part 1, chapter 2
[Author’s Note: This is the seventh installment of my new novel, Commonwealth. Read the previous part here. If you like what you see and want to read the next part today, it’s already up on Patreon. You can sign up for as little as $1/month. —Adam]
“You don’t need to worry about me,” Will Anton said. “I can look after myself.”
“Good. Go do that.”
She started to close the door on him, but he blocked it with a hand.
“Wait! I came to see you. We need to talk.”
“No. We don’t.”
“Please, give me five minutes. I’m here to help you.”
Grudgingly, Rae decided that this was the quickest way to get rid of him.
If I hear him out and say no, he’ll stop pestering me.
“Fine,” she said, pointedly not inviting him in. “But five minutes is all you get. It’s late and I want to sleep. What do you want?”
He looked bemused.
“I thought you knew. Haven’t you seen my e-mails?”
“No, I haven’t,” she said innocently. “Maybe they got caught in my spam filter.”
“And my letters.”
“Must have gotten lost in the mail.”
(She had thrown them out unread.)
“And my phone calls.”
“Probably had my phone off.”
(She had blocked his number.)
“You’re a hard person to get in touch with,” he said, grinning despite himself.
“Yes, well, I’m very busy these days.”
“Look, let’s cut to the chase. I know you’re avoiding me. I just don’t know why. Most people would be flattered to get this kind of personal attention from a billionaire.”
“I’m not most people. I’m Rae Robinson.”
“And don’t I know it,” he said, with another irrepressible grin. “You’re one of a kind. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I want you back with me.”
“Is that what this is about? You want to get back together?” she said, her anger rising. “The answer is no. No today, no tomorrow, no forever. I won’t be a kept woman. Not for your money, not for anyone else’s.”
“That’s not what I’m after,” he protested.
“Sure it isn’t.”
“No, I mean it. I’m offering you a job.”
“Yeah, right, if I sleep with the boss,” she said with a scowl. “It’s inappropriate, Will.”
“Why?” he said with a smirk. “It’s not like there’s sexual-harassment laws anymore.”
When he saw her scowl darken, he held up a hand placatingly. “Sorry. That was a bad joke. I apologize. Look, I meant it about the job. We can keep things strictly professional. You may find this hard to believe, but I’m over it too. What happened between us is water under the bridge. It’s your skills I need. Do you know how hard it is to find good materials engineers?”
“You want to hire me? That’s worse than if you just wanted to sleep with me! You make weapons that help the people in power kill other people. I won’t have anything to do with that.”
“Anton Aerospace is a huge company!” he said. “We make all kinds of different products. The defense contracts are just one division. “
She gave him a flat look.
“Okay, it’s true they’re most of our revenue,” he conceded. “But there are lots of other areas you could work on. We make nonlethal chemical sprays for self-defense. There’s so much crime, and people who can’t pay the police companies’ subscription fees need to protect themselves.”
“Those same chemical sprays are used by the police companies to break up peaceful protests and torture people demanding their rights.”
“What about our smart polymers? When they’re market-ready, they’ll let us build low-income housing as easily as blowing up a balloon!”
“Big promises. Right now, the only thing those polymers are used for is making police truncheons that say ‘Anton Aerospace’ on the side.”
“We make jet planes,” he said, getting flustered. “Civilian aircraft!”
“That only the super-rich can afford to fly on! That’s no better. Look, Will, my work with the railroad matters. It matters in ways that mean more than money. You don’t understand that. You never did.”
She was trying to anger him, but he only looked saddened.
“You’re an idealist, Rae. You always were. But you’re living in a fantasy world. Don’t you see that the subways are on borrowed time? Before long, they’ll be privatized or scrapped like the bridges. I don’t want to see you go down with them. I still care about you, believe it or not.
“Look, will you at least consider it? If you take the job, you’ll be paid well. More than you could dream of making in that sewer. You’ll have a big apartment with real windows, steak dinners every night, a company car. Or you can donate your paycheck to any charity you please, if it eases your conscience. Believe me, you’ll be able to give away a lot.”
“You can’t bribe me!” she said in outrage. “Why should I be the one to give to charity when you could do so much more? You want to do something that would really impress me? Shut down your weapons company and give the money away!”
“The world doesn’t work like that, Rae. Even if I shut down Anton Aerospace, the demand wouldn’t go away. If I didn’t fulfill it, someone else would. It’s better that it be me so I can do some good with the money. Don’t you know what the Anton Foundation does? How we help those poor people in the Pacific Northwest?”
“You can’t buy forgiveness from me!” she snapped, aware that her temper was slipping off the leash. “Even if you dribble out little crumbs of good with one hand, you’re making the world worse with the other. Do you remember the Brooklyn Bridge Massacre? Whose guns did that? Whose weapons put down the 59th Street Riots? Who made the smart bombs that were dropped on the Oakland Commune and the Golden Gate Bridge? Whose tanks were sent into Columbus and Austin and Minneapolis to break the general strikes? Whose machine guns and electric fences keep poor people penned up in the reclamation zones?”
“Look, we just make things. It’s not our fault if the people who buy them misuse—”
She said it louder than she intended, realizing her door was open to the hallway.
Will sighed in frustration.
“Where did things go wrong between us, Rae?”
“You wouldn’t talk about anything with me anymore. You were so distant, so closed off. Then we broke up, you sold out, and I didn’t. End of story.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“That’s what people say when it really is that simple.”
He held out a card.
Reluctantly, she took it. It was matte black and seemed more solid than something made of paper should be. One side read, “Will Anton, CEO, Anton Aerospace” with an address in the Billionaires’ Row neighborhood of Park Avenue. On the other was a stylized red logo that looked like a rose.
“That’s my personal address,” he said. “When you get tired of living like this, come see me.”
“Message delivered,” she said flatly. “Now get out.”
Rae closed the door, and for a moment, she felt smug. It was a sense of justice served, a righteous satisfaction at having said the things she’d wanted to say to Will Anton for years.
But that feeling evaporated almost immediately, leaving behind a vague sadness. The two of them had only dated for two years, but they had been two happy years. She missed that time. But the man she had loved no longer existed.
Maybe he never did.
She allowed herself to picture the life he was offering. With an Anton Aerospace salary, she wouldn’t have to live in Manhattan. She could buy a quiet house in the countryside, away from the city’s smog and noise and filth. She could have a garden, with flowers and fruit trees. It was a powerfully appealing vision.
And all it would cost me is my soul. I’d have to leave Zoe and Michael to fend for themselves. I’d have to watch the subways fall to pieces and the world get even worse than it already is. And I’d know I could have done something about it if I hadn’t chosen to think only of myself. Prisoner’s dilemma, right?
She looked at the clock. It was late, but Will Anton’s visit had upset her all over again. She needed to calm down before she could sleep.
Not the internet tonight. Something passive. Undemanding.
Rae got comfortable on her futon, pulled a sheet over herself and flipped on the television, which she rarely did.
Her TV package came with 2,048 channels, but most of them were home-shopping networks, gossip about which celebrities were sleeping with which other celebrities, houses no one could afford, food, pornography, or food pornography. She wasn’t capable of shutting her brain off long enough to enjoy those. But there were a few channels left that occasionally showed science or history.
She surfed until she came across one that aired documentaries. At the moment, it was showing “Greatest Historical Disasters: The Great Pacific Northwest Earthquake.”
History. Safe enough.
She had tuned in near the beginning. The screen showed images of everyday life in clean, pleasant cities on the mouth of a sparkling blue ocean: people relaxing in parks, eating in cafes, going to work.
The chyron showed names: Seattle. Portland. Vancouver. Places she had never known except in books, places that had ceased to exist the year she was born.
“Although the Pacific Northwest lies along the seismically active Ring of Fire,” an ominous voiceover said, “the millions of people who lived there had never witnessed an earthquake or an active volcano. Most had grown used to a peaceful existence. Little did they know that there was a reason for the long calm.”
The screen showed computer graphics, a cutaway view of the Earth’s crust. Beneath the thick green line labeled “Continental Plate,” a blue sheet labeled “Oceanic Plate” was being dragged downwards, bending as it was pulled into the planet’s molten interior. Red arrows flowed upward at the point of contact.
“The Cascadia Subduction Zone, one of the most powerful fault systems on the planet, had been quiet since the 1700s. Now we know that stress was building up over those long centuries. On a cold, foggy morning one January 7, the stress reached a critical point and was catastrophically released. There was a rupture along the entire length of the fault. A magnitude 9.0 earthquake.”
Rae had been a few days old.
“There was no warning,” the narrator went on relentlessly. “A tsunami alarm system had been installed, but it had been shut down by federal budget cuts. Building codes were in place but rarely enforced, and in any case, had been weakened by the legislature to spur economic activity. The region was defenseless against what was coming.
“All along the edge of the continent, the land dropped ten feet in a matter of seconds. Buildings were sheared from their foundations. Bridges buckled, highway overpasses collapsed, pipelines were severed. From northern California to the southern Canadian coast, cities and towns suffered severe damage. Countless thousands were crushed or buried by falling debris, but the true death toll may never be known.”
The TV showed images of devastation, eyewitness footage that had gotten out in the chaotic days after the disaster: twisted mounds of concrete and rebar, roads rippled and fractured, houses collapsed into rubble. Cars and trucks were overturned, or crushed beneath fallen trees. Water jetted from shattered hydrants. Sparks flurried from downed utility poles. A severed pipeline spurted flame, seeming to thrash in agony like a dying snake.
“The shaking of the earthquake caused soil liquefaction. Of the buildings that had survived the initial shock, many more collapsed and fell.”
A shaky candid video showed a line of high-rise towers trembling and wavering, then tumbling like dominoes. Faint screams of horror and disbelief from onlookers could be heard as a massive cloud of dust and debris billowed out.
“Finally, the tsunami came. A 700-mile-long, five-story-high wall of water, displaced by the movement of the sea floor. Carrying cars, fishing boats, uprooted trees, twisted girders, broken glass, roofing tiles, and jagged chunks of brick and concrete like pebbles in a tumbler, the doomsday wave scoured the land clean. Nothing in its path could withstand it.”
More CGI, showing a wave of blue rolling inland over the contours of the coast.
“The widespread damage to roads and bridges meant there was no chance of getting help to the survivors, except by airdrop,” the narration continued dispassionately. “There were sporadic attempts to treat the injured and fight the fires ignited by ruptured gas lines, but it was clear from what little communication was possible that civil order had broken down in the disaster zone.
“Hunger and thirst soon set in, and among the survivors, it was every man for himself. The reports that straggled out told of fighting within the first few days. As winter arrived and the situation became increasingly desperate, the region sank further into violence and chaos.”
Despite the grim subject material, the droning narration was having the hoped-for effect, helping Rae calm the galloping pace of her mind. It was old history to her, and a story she had heard many times.
As slow, mournful music played over another image of devastation, she yawned. She settled into her spot on the futon, feeling her eyes getting heavy.
“After a month of inaction, the government called in the army, hoping to reassert its authority and restore order. But as the first troops arrived, armed resistance from the now-anarchic region only intensified. This would later lead to the declaration of martial law and the passing of the Branden Amendment…”
The documentary played on in her darkened apartment, but Rae had fallen asleep. The TV’s blue light flickered on her face as she slumbered.
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