From: Terry Wakowski
To: Sarah Foster
Date: 21 November, 2064
Re: New assignment
Sarah, can you please come to the office today? I need to talk
to you about a new project and it requires a face-to-face.
Let me know.
Sarah pondered the email. Flying to the city would throw off her schedule for the whole day, but it was never wise to say no to Terry. Normally he just emailed her about new writing assignments and she couldn’t imagine what would inspire an in-person meeting. Terry usually avoided them like the plague.
Sarah went to the bathroom, stripped off her T-shirt and shorts, took a quick shower, washed her hair, and got changed into some fresh clothes. In November in Brisbane it was warm, so she selected a blue summer dress with white spots, to pair with her favorite blue Chuck Taylors, short white socks, and bright blue eyes. She brushed her long, dark hair while looking in the mirror, then grabbed a cold Granny Smith from the refrigerator.
“Ben, can you call me an Uber, please? Destination CBD.”
“Of course, Sarah,” replied the AI. “Estimated arrival time is three minutes.”
With a gesture, the sliding glass door of her apartment opened onto a small balcony overlooking a broad green park. She stepped onto the balcony and took a few deep breaths, munching on the apple, enjoying the spring breeze. The city had changed so much from when she was a girl, growing up during the most intense period of climate change. It wasn’t all that safe to breathe the air outside back then, laden as it was with smoke and chemicals. But now, everything was clean and beautiful. Humanity had bounced back from the trials and tribulations of the 2030s and 2040s stronger than ever. Brisbane had changed a lot since she was a little girl. Many families had moved inland to the new settlements, but Sarah’s family had elected to stay and rebuild the city. And now look at it!
From the twelfth floor, the large park appeared as a blanket of light and dark green dotted with patches of bright color from wattles, eucalypts, bottle brush, and countless other large Australian trees. The jacaranda trees were in full blossom at this time of year, unmistakable as islands of bright purple. The park was dedicated to wildlife, like most parks now, and home to an impressive range of native species: kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, possums, wombats, and numerous other marsupials; brightly colored lorikeets, pink galahs, black and white cockatoos; and many frog and lizard species. Wildlife corridors connected the park with other parks to the east and north, in a vast green network that enabled the animals to move across the city almost entirely unimpeded.
The drone car arrived and hovered at the edge of her balcony, its rotors beating the air and blowing Sarah’s hair around. She held her hair back with one hand, opened a gate in the balcony railing with the other, and stepped into the waiting car. The door slid shut, almost completely shutting off the noise from the rotors. The car banked away from the balcony as it ascended to the regulation altitude.
“Good morning, Sarah,” said the car’s AI. “Thank you for choosing Uber. I understand you wish to travel to the Brisbane Central Business District. Would you like to go to your work location, your favorite cafe, or somewhere else?”
“Work, please,” said Sarah. She peered out of the window for a while, looking at the small houses below, and the cyclists moving slowly along the tan, paved paths that weaved among the trees.
There were hardly any roads left, now. The Council kept tearing them up and replacing them with bike paths, parks, and community gardens. All the bitumen and road base went for recycling, to get the metals out. Sarah thought back to the devastation of just 20 years ago. Countless buildings across the city — indeed, the world — had been destroyed by flooding, fires, storms, earthquakes, and tsunamis. In Brisbane, the Council had abandoned sentiment and ruthlessly cleaned up and recycled almost all of it. Every lump of concrete and steel, every stick of charred wood, every shattered roof tile, every crumpled car, every shard of smashed window glass, every plastic bag, every abandoned computer, every old washing machine. All of it had been carted off to the recycling factories and decomposed into its component atoms. And they built a new city.
The drone flew north, over the luxurious waterfront suburbs of Sunnybank and Tarragindi; and then, the river.
When Sarah was a child the Brisbane River was just a few hundred meters wide near the old CBD. Now it spanned kilometers, an enormous, glittering blue fractal of crystal clear water stretching hundreds of kilometers long, interspersed with innumerable islands, peninsulas, and tendrils of land where people had once lived, but for the most part, had now been repurposed as nature parks for water birds and mangroves. Brisbane’s iconic bridges were no more; no longer usable, these, too, had been recycled. Plenty of tunnels beneath the river, though. Less than half of the new city was above ground.
There were thousands of every kind of water vessel and recreational activity as far as Sarah could see in either direction: sailboats, luxury yachts, windsurfers, kayaks, rowboats, speedboats, jet skis, and minisubs. The Brisbane River had become one of the world’s great waterparks, as well as home to a staggering variety of native birds and fish. Once muddy brown from dredging and utterly toxic due to the tonnes of industrial chemicals that had leached into it during the floods, the river had been thoroughly cleaned by the huge filtration machines that also provided the city with fresh drinking water.
The ice caps of Antarctica and Greenland had completely melted during the first half of the 21st century, producing an overall rise in sea level of eighty meters, and thus worldwide flooding in coastal areas. As 30 million cubic kilometers of ice melted into the world’s oceans, the weight on continental plates in the polar zones decreased substantially, causing them to rise; while the weight on plates in tropical and temperate zones increased, causing them to sink. As these plates scraped against each other, earthquakes were produced of unprecedented magnitude. Most of the quakes occurred under the ocean, producing tsunamis that destroyed many coastal settlements. Fortunately, the towns and cities most affected by tsunamis were also those most affected by flooding, and in many cases had already been evacuated or abandoned, at least partially.
Climate change had precipitated the largest global mass migration in human history, as millions of people migrated inland, uphill, and away from the unspeakably hot conditions at the equator. With the ice caps fully melted, and humanity finally cured, through pain, of its addictions to fossil fuels and animal agriculture, the planet began to gradually settle into a new equilibrium. Perhaps the greatest blessing in history was that climate change had not substantially affected the new StarLink global satellite-based internet. Energy and food production were global priorities, and online communities shared ideas, designs, resources, and technologies, rapidly developing thousands of high-tech farms and global food distribution programs.
Then had come the machines. So many machines. Robots were created to build farms, plant trees, turn polar and equatorial deserts into fertile land, and clean up the countless tons of debris that littered the world. The engineers who designed, built, and programmed the machines were as gods, the saviors of humanity.
Total recovery would take years. Brisbane was a success story that other cities looked to as an example of what might be, but in many parts of the world — south Asia, central Africa, much of the Americas — the damage was severe, and reconstruction efforts were hampered by heat, dust, and storms. It would take time.
The car began descending into the new CBD, located in Spring Hill. The glittering towers, some of them hundreds of meters tall, drew gradually closer. The Uber smoothly weaved through the streams of other passenger drones cruising between the buildings, before parking alongside a ledge on the 57th floor of the Australian Metals Company building. The company she freelanced for, World Media Productions, leased the entire floor.
The drone’s door slid open. “Have a pleasant day, Sarah,” said the car in a friendly tone.
“Sure. Thanks,” said Sarah. She stepped out of the vehicle onto the broad ledge. A glass door in the wall of the building slid aside automatically, and Sarah entered the building.
Inside, the air was cool, crisp, with an aroma of fresh pine needles. The large open space was a chaos of standing desks, colorful couches and bean bags, and long wooden tables. In one corner, there was a photographic studio; in another, an art space. The walls were lined with colorful posters, mostly showing past magazine covers, awards, and signed photographs of famous artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and politicians. A beverage dispenser stood against one wall. There were perhaps fifteen staff writers and content creators in the office today, taking up various positions around the workspace. Most were working in AR or VR, making gestures in the air in front of them with expressions of focused concentration, as they dictated text and manipulated graphics and video with their hands and minds.
Sarah knew this handful of people was just a small fraction of World Media Productions’ true resources, which included tens of thousands of freelance journalists and content creators, just like her, around the globe. WMP was a hub of news and entertainment. The latest news about almost anything of interest on the entire planet flowed into WMP’s office in Brisbane, New London, and Tokyo, in the form of ad-hoc reports and amateur video streamed from handheld or head-mounted cameras and corneal implants, and flowed out again, often within minutes, as curated, edited, polished, entertaining, and informative news reports, feeding into millions of brains worldwide within milliseconds. Staff writers were, in fact, mostly content reviewers, since AIs did most of the work of filtering incoming content for quality and interest, and editing it into something that humans would appreciate, benefit from, and pay for.
A message notification popped up in Sarah’s AR, and she mentally tapped it. It was from Terry: “Hey Sarah. Glad you’re here. I’m in my office.” She weaved through the workspace, making a beeline for Terry’s office, which was down a short corridor that led to several meeting rooms, a secure conference room, a recreation room, a bathroom, and a kitchen. A green door slid aside as she approached.
Terry Wakowski, a short, white-haired man in a pink and white collared shirt, rose to meet her. He stood behind a large, black, carbon-fiber desk. The entire wall of the office opposite the door was one enormous screen, displaying hundreds of video feeds with all the latest news items from around the world. He made a gesture as he walked around the desk, and the display changed to display an underwater scene, as if the screen was a window looking out onto a vibrant coral reef, active with hundreds of colorful fish. A grey nurse shark swam lazily past.
“Hi, Sarah. Thanks for coming in. Grab a seat.” Now in front of the desk, he leaned back on the edge of it, crossing his feet. The floor of the office was covered in a clean, synthetic carpet, dark blue, flecked with orange, yellow, and pink.
There were four office chairs arranged in front of Terry’s desk and Sarah selected the nearest and made herself comfortable. “It’s ok, Terry. Good to get out of the house, to be honest. Good to see you, too. What’s up?”
“This series on new city building projects has gone rather well,” said the white-haired journalist. “We especially appreciated your work on Singapore 2. First class reporting. Really.”
“Thanks, Terry. I enjoyed doing it.” The series had lasted for a year, and they’d documented 12 of the latest city development projects around the world. Some were entirely greenfield; in other cases, the new city was built on the ruins of the old. They’d produced episodes for New London, Singapore 2, Cairo, New York, Mumbai, Shanghai, The San Frangeles Conurbation, Medellín, Amsterdam, Jakarta, Nairobi, and Brisbane. For each city, they produced a three-hour documentary, with hours of bonus video content, documentation, and, in some case, detailed architectural drawings, master plans, and even VR models and simulations. All had been made available online for people to explore and learn from. They’d looked at urban planning, architecture, transportation systems, resource management, waste management, ergonomics, smart city concepts, underground development, and more. Sarah had been the lead journalist and presenter for Singapore 2, a unique project to construct a new capital city for Earth, where the Unified Earth headquarters would be located. Most of the original city had been submerged, but the Singaporean engineers built a new one below, above, and around the old city. Singapore 2 spread across the surface of the ocean as well as the ocean floor, and down into the rock below it. It had continued to grow beyond the borders of the original island, out into Singapore Strait.
He was nodding. “The shows have been wildly successful. Unexpectedly so. But it’s clear why: with Earth’s population now beginning to recover, humanity is currently building new cities at a faster rate than ever, so there’s enormous interest in how to do it right.”
“Great!” said Sarah, nodding. “So, we’ll continue the series? Twelve more cities?”
Terry nodded. “Quite possibly. At least, I’ve decided we should do at least one more.”
“Which one? I hear the new developments around Mexico City are pretty amazing. They’ve built huge extensions to the city inside the surrounding mountains. Also, apparently Neo Tokyo is going to blow people’s minds! Let me do that one. You know I love Asia.”
Terry shook his head and grinned. He made a gesture, and the enormous wall screen changed to an orange-brown landscape of rocks, dust, and dunes streaked with black sand. Thin streams of dust peeled away from the peaks of the dunes, lifted by the wind. At one end of the image was a large transparent dome, with an incongruous island of greenery within. In the background, standing on its tail, was the unmistakable image of a SpaceX Starship. He stood and turned towards the wallscreen, folded his arms, and regarded it quietly.
“Wait, is that Mars?” said Sarah. “You’re going to make a documentary about Arcadia?”
Terry nodded, smiling at her. “You got it. It’s a big project. Much bigger than San Frangeles. It will take months to complete. It takes three months just to get there, and we estimate several more months will be needed after that to fully explore the city and get all the raw footage. We probably only have the budget to do this once, so we’re going to find out as much as we can. This will be a much more comprehensive analysis of a new city development than any of these Terran cities we’ve studied. By the time this project is done, we’ll have at least three times as much content about Arcadia as we published for any of the Terran cities. We’ll help you edit and organize it, of course.”
“Wait, what… You want me to go to Mars?”
“You’re the best I’ve got, Sarah. Besides, no-one else wants to go. Everyone else has things that keep them here, like partners, kids, friends, hobbies, social groups, sports, and so on.”
Sarah laughed. “Right, so, what you mean is, I’m the best you’ve got left after you asked everyone else.”
Terry smiled. “Sarah, it’s good money. Really good, and a great opportunity. You’ll only be on Mars for about a year and a half, plus about half a year in space, of course. You’ll probably only need to do a few months of actual work once you get there, and the rest of the time will be yours to do as you wish. All expenses paid. Two years pay, and you won’t need to spend anything all that time. Not many reporters get an opportunity like this even once in their lives. And if you pull this off, you’ll be able to write your own ticket.”
She shook her head. “There’s no way I’m going to Mars.”
“What about my life here?”
“What life? I mean, what about it?”
“What about Misha?!”
“Give your cat to a friend. Adopt it out. I’ll take care of it if I have to.”
“What about my Scrabble club!”
“Don’t you play online?”
“They have internet on Mars, Sarah, and it’s quite good. The lag from Earth is just a few minutes. You’ll still be able to play games online, chat with friends, get all the latest news and so on.”
“But… I like Brisbane,” said Sarah.
“You’ll like Arcadia,” said Terry. “It will be an adventure! And it’s only two years. Brisbane will be here when you get back.”
Sarah mused for a moment, looking at the huge wall screen. It was just like looking through a window onto the Martian landscape. Almost as if she was there. She stood and walked a little closer to the screen. A pressurized rover, like a large van with huge knobby tires, rolled over the nearest dune. Was this even real? It looked like something from a movie.
“It looks super boring.”
Terry laughed. “Take a book! Honestly, Sarah, it’s really not boring at all. They provide everything you can think of to make people feel relaxed. Not only on Mars but in the spaceship, too. Mental health is taken very seriously. Arcadia is more like a cruise ship than a city. Plenty to do. Games, activities, live music, social events, lots of good food. Plenty of eligible bachelors, too, I hear. Engineers, mostly, who went out there for work and stayed. Young, well-paid engineers.”
“Maybe it would be alright,” said Sarah.
“I’ve already discussed it with Patricia Gladmore, the current City Administrator. You’ll be given access to every part of the city. Anything you want to know. Also, they’ll assign you a great apartment to stay in. Close to the tram, nice restaurants, a gym, everything you need.”
Sarah turned towards the CEO of World Media Productions. “Terry… I’m not sure what to say. I’m honored that you would consider me for this amazing project, but I also need to think about it. When would I have to leave?”
Terry smiled. “Actually, the next flight to Mars is in about a week.”
“What? These spaceships depart every two years and you tell me one week before?”
Terry shrugged and folded his arms. “It’s just how the timing worked out. So, by all means, think about it, but try to let me soon, ok? As in, tomorrow would be good. I’ve reserved you a seat just in case.”
“Okay, Terry. Fine! I’ll sleep on it, and tell you in the morning.”