The sun had fled the sky hours ago, and with it, Xanadu’s winged children. Before it dipped beneath Bombay’s horizon, a thousand kilometers to the east, Lenore Myles had taken one last dive from the central tower. She trusted her reflexes and balance less than the central computer that kept her and a dozen others dancing on the thermals.
One long, perfect arc followed another, swooping out to the breakwaters, a kilometer distant from Xanadu’s core. Sensors at the edge of her hang-glider’s batwing read winds and temperatures, coordinated their data with weather satellites sensitive enough to detect a gust of warm breath. Slowly she began the return journey, high above the ring of orchards and gardens, the beaches and ponds, the flowered parks of the floating island called Xanadu.
The roofed, tiered hexagons extending from the central tower were each about two hundred meters in diameter. Eight concentric rings, rising toward the center, afforded four million square meters of potential landing room. She had sufficient lift to make it to a little park, four rings out from the central tower.
A pair of late picnickers applauded delightedly.
Even encumbered by artificial wings, Lenore managed to bow. The couple, an Asian woman and a man with a British sergeant-major’s mustache, were all smiles. “UC Berkeley?” the woman asked.
“Los Angeles,” Lenore replied. She shrugged out of the wings and gazed out over the rooftops, down toward the parklands below. Her fellow students were beginning to cluster down there. With the setting of the sun, festivities would begin. She glanced at her watch: just time to take a shower, change, and get down there for the party.
She triggered her rented hang-glider’s pickup beacon and waved good-bye to the couple, who had returned to their cheese and wine. Probably waiting for moonrise, she mused. Tropical breezes, perfect weather…
A night for romance, and adventure. She felt loose and tingly all over. Adventure’s promise had been kept, and the aftertaste was delicious.
* * *
Stars and a crescent moon silvered a restless ocean. At the rim of Xanadu’s southwest lagoon, eight hundred of the UCLA science department’s most recent graduates sipped champagne or sparkling fruit juice. Just beyond the breakwater, impossible human shapes walked upon black and silver waves and offered the Council’s greeting.
“Welcome to Xanadu,” a titanic blond woman roared. “Your minds and hearts are the hope of the world. Today your path of intellectual achievement has reached a crossroads.” Her words echoed among Xanadu’s towers. “Albert Einstein said, ‘We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality.’ Contrast this with the words of French philosopher Michel Foucault: “The work of an intellectual is not to mold the political will of others…’”
Lenore debarked from one of the little robot carts and found a waiter with a tray of champagne glasses. The reception was jumping by now, covering one of the promenades between the outer breakwater and the containment ponds, vast arcs of water extending beyond the central ring of floating hexagons. Here parks and playgrounds swarmed with parents and children. A little farther out, fruit trees provided a lilt of citrus on the night breeze.
She searched the crowd as she sipped, looking for a particular friendly face. She barely noticed the special effects show, although many of the other graduates gawked. Through some optical trick, the titanic blonde seemed to make intimate eye contact with each individual. “Who shall lead us to the future, if not the pride of our universities? And what tool will blaze your way, if not intellect? We salute you: your hearts, which brim with courage and commitment, your bodies, so strong and filled with the promise of youth, and most especially your minds, which this day have fulfilled your academic potential. Welcome to Xanadu!”
“Welcome to Xanadu!” the other titans chorused, and the looped greeting began again.
Lenore’s not-so-distant ancestors would have dropped to their knees at such a display. Her reactions were a grudging admiration for the technology and a mild resentment of the Council’s sheer power and ego.
The twelve most powerful people on Earth.…
Her mood brightened as she spotted a short, rounded shape, her roommate and best friend, Tooley Wells. She nudged Tooley from behind and whispered, “What do you think? Do they really look like that?”
Tooley turned, hoisted her glass in greeting, and arched a dark eyebrow. “Some do, some don’t. And I never trust a man prettier than me.” Tooley was six and a half feet of energy compressed into a five-foot chocolate container. For three years she had been Lenore’s roommate and closest confidante. “Joe Blaze is fiction, of course. The blond goddess…Shannon, is it? She was that age when she married Halifax ten years ago.”
“Then the image came right off the Playboy Channel,”
“With clothes added. Halifax looks ugly enough, but that Medusa coiffure is a program. But look at the tattooed lady over at the end…”
The woman to the right looked Bengali or Sri Lankan, with dark skin but Mediterranean features, a hefty shape even discounting her five-story height. She would be Diva, representing Asian labor interests. A traditional red tilik mark upon her forehead watched them like an unblinking third eye. Her hands and lips were laced with spiderwebs.
“One of the scandal nets.” Tooley wrestled with a memory. “One of those one-name shows with an exclamation point. Vince! Or something like that. Anyway, Vince! said that Diva was the real thing, but the tattoos are only half finished. The rest are overlaid with a paint program. He had pictures.”
“Those came out of a computer too.”
These twelve Councilors controlled the most powerful corporations and unions in the world, with greater power than most geopolitical governments, save only three: China, the United States, and Greater Germany. In a world too dangerous for any sane person to desire celebrity, anonymity was a greater wealth than gold. There was good money in crafting virtual images to carry one’s presence on the Network or in virtual business meetings or public speeches.
Synthetic images were protected and regulated like brand names or company logos. (Lenore remembered her Greek. Logos: a principle that stands as an intermediate between divinity and mortality.) Whoever the real rulers of the Council might be, these twelve were the only faces known to the general public.
Lenore wondered which were here present.
“—The world is ever growing and changing,” spake Joe Blaze, Energy’s international logo. Joe was a darkly tanned blond with a six-pack belly and a blazing smile, impossibly handsome in a late-twentieth-century Malibu fashion. Lenore agreed with Tooley: She wasn’t entirely certain she would enjoy meeting such a man. Rather perversely, she fantasized that Joe’s flesh-and-blood counterpart was a dissipated sixty-year-old with liver spots and a sagging gut.
“The primary interest of the Council is the prevention of future wars, a hideous waste of human and natural resources…”
Joe Blaze made her feel downright homely, not an easy thing to do. Lenore Myles was a bit over five and a half feet tall, with brown hair and eyes and perfect skin to match. Her cheekbones were high and lovely enough to earn her occasional income modeling. Artists liked her faintly challenging smile and the touch of Asia in her northern European features.
Lenore Myles watched as her fellow graduates dispersed, arms entwined with spouses or lovers. For them, the evening promised romance and easy camaraderie. At another time she might have felt regret, or loneliness, or isolation. Tonight she bubbled with self-confidence.
An hour’s assisted gliding and a second glass of champagne were helping her to slough off four years of brutal discipline. Tonight was a celebration. The Master’s thesis had been accepted, her grades had come down at an overall 3.89, and two dozen job offers were already in the chute. She had thumbed a two-year contract with an Augmentation Technology firm in Washington State but might return to school afterward to begin her Ph.D. work. Her future was unfolding like a flower, and there wasn’t a thorn in sight.
“Tooley? You told me once that any man can be seduced.”
“It’s the way their brains are wired. Who you got in mind?”
“You know Dwayne and Marley?”
Dwayne and Marley, the grads now moving toward them, had lectured Lenore on the airbus. Enough of that. She squeezed Tooley’s hand and retreated from the Promenade. The towering Councilor images and their voices faded, and she moved into a shadowed, oddly peaceful darkness.
Graduates had full access to Xanadu’s public areas, and couples wandered off along the curving seacrete walkways, toward the breakwater orchards, back toward the towers rising from the central hexagons. Stars clustered above her like swarms of frozen fireflies.
From somewhere came a laugh, musical even at a distance.
At the western edge of the lagoon, a silver-gray streak rose and smacked flatly against the surface of a containment pond. A man crouched by the concrete lip, until this moment hidden in shadow. The dolphin danced and pranced for him. Was he talking to the animal? A trainer?
He stood, uncoiling like a human spring. It was the kind of balanced, practiced motion that her grandfather used to have, without, of course, the accompanying arthritis. Dancer? Yoga teacher?
His right hand fluttered. As the party lights behind her changed, the dolphin became a dark blue streak. It arced through the air again, slipping back into the water with barely a splash. She had the distinct impression that the man knew she stood behind him but wasn’t turning yet, almost as if…Hmm? As if prolonging a moment.
Now he stood, now he turned. Her breathing quickened.
He was only an inch taller than she was, with very black hair and a boyish face that might have seen thirty summers. Closer, his eyes were older than that. They showed no wrinkles, but instinct told her that they had witnessed the world for more than his apparent years.
He wore denim pants and a black open-collar shirt, a loose brown coat with four black buttons on each sleeve. It hung comfortably on him, although she doubted he spent much time or effort selecting his clothes. He was Japanese, she guessed, or Chinese, with a golden tan, a muted severity, an Amerindian attitude.
Then he smiled, and the entire effect was softened. “Hi.” He extended his hand somewhat shyly. “My name is Chaz Kato.” His voice was like warm honey.
Her hand shook a little as their palms touched. His fingers were warm, strong and moist with the ocean mist.
“Do you live here?” she asked. The next thought hit her fast: Kato? Kato Foundation. The simple “KF” initial at the top of her monthly expense check…? Her expression must have betrayed her sudden insight, because Chaz was instantly amused.
“Yes,” he said. “That Kato was my grandfather.”
She could only mouth the word Wow. She had to talk fast, for fear of tripping over her words. “I…I guess I need to—” She laughed at herself. “I mean that I want to thank you for all of the help. I never would have finished my education if K. F. hadn’t supplied the grants.”
Chaz held up his palms in supplication. “No false modesty, please. Never doubt that someone would have recognized your talents. Ah.” He paused, pointing. “A celebrity in our midst.”
Three men and one extremely attractive woman approached along the seacrete path. One lectured nonstop, holding his audience rapt.
“Gregory Phillipe Hernandez. Biology department,” Lenore breathed.
Hernandez was the biology department’s most popular instructor, a prodigy whose Master’s thesis had been marked classified by the Council before it could hit the library shelves. Many had heard that story, and nobody seemed to know its subject matter.
Hernandez nodded to Chaz in polite acknowledgment, his eyes brushed Lenore, but he never broke stride or conversational thread. When they had passed, Lenore asked: “Do you know those people?”
Chaz wrinkled his brow. Damn, he was cute. “Hernandez, of course. I recognize Summers—the blackest black man. He supervises one of the food production facilities. And, ah, I think I’ve seen the woman. She’s something to do with upgrading the generators. I haven’t lived here that long.”
She laughed ruefully. “Then I’m surprised you recognize them, considering the size of this place.”
“We’re pretty insular.”
“Still. I mean, this is my first floating island. It’s hard to get used to the scale.”
His smile was buoyant. “We do a lot here. Six million tons of fish meal, thirty gigawatts of electricity, and a billion dollars in minerals every year.” He suddenly seemed even younger than his (at least!) thirty years.
“What do you do here?”
“Carry on Granddad’s research.”
“He worked here?” Wait—
“Oh, no, he never saw this place. And I’ve only been here fifteen years as a junior whatever. I took up Granddad’s work when—”
“Metaphors and augmentation?”
“Pretty much.” His face suddenly seemed to glow. “Would you like a tour?”
“I’d love to.” She slipped her arm through his, amused by her own daring. Mmmm. It was going to be one of those evenings, was it? How delicious to watch it evolve.
Copyright © 2000 by Larry Niven and Steve Barnes