This is the twenty-first installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator discovers that the differences between the Lakeland Republic and his own country include a sharp variance in vulnerability to sudden political and economic shocks...
The briefing finally wound up a little before one o’clock, and Stuart Macallan invited all of us to lunch in one of the formal dining rooms downstairs. I gathered that the ambassadors were having lunch with Meeker in the president’s private dining room one floor up, but the meal was nothing to complain about: sandwiches on croissants, French onion soup, pear slices, Brie, and choice of beverages. You could tell something about each of the diplomats by watching the latter—the ones who downed strong coffee to deal with too little sleep, the ones who tipped back a local beer to be social, and the ones who got something stronger than beer to keep from having to think about just how bad this mess could get.
I sat with Hank Barker from the Missouri Republic delegation, and a couple of other people from the trade end of things—Jonathan Two Hawks, also from Missouri, Vera McTavish from East Canada, and one of the familiar faces in the room, Lashonda Marvell from the Free City of Chicago—I’d taken part in rough-draft negotiations on a trade-in-services agreement with Chicago six years back, and she’d been on the other side of that. Two Hawks and McTavish were coffee drinkers, Marvell and I ordered beer, and Barker got bourbon straight, downed it, and then ordered another.
They were all interested in access to the Erie Canal, of course. It had never really occurred to me how big a resource that was. People in the Atlantic Republic government treat it as a relic, but with the Mississippi closed to ship traffic by a shooting war, it had suddenly become the one way around the potential bottleneck of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. While I wasn’t an official envoy, they all knew perfectly well that Montrose’s landslide election win meant that the current embassy staff might not have the same clout in Philadelphia they once did, and they wanted to make nice with the new team.
I was perfectly willing to play that game, for that matter. Transit fees on international shipments down the Erie Canal would bring in hard currency at a time when we could really use that, and if the whole business was handled right, it would leave the other nations involved owing the Atlantic Republic favors that could be called in later on. So, between bites of sandwich, I sketched out the kind of terms we’d want—I modeled them shamelessly on the draft agreement I’d worked out with the Lakeland Republic, of course—and they tossed back questions and counteroffers. It was a good lively discussion, the fun part of trade negotiations, and I think we really made some progress toward a set of agreements that would be win-win for everybody.
The official Atlantic Republic delegation sat pretty much by themselves over on the other side of the room, and gave me flat unreadable looks now and then. They knew perfectly well what I was doing, and what the people from the other delegations were doing. They were all Barfield’s people, most of them would be out of a job in January, and since I wasn’t here in an official capacity, I hadn’t bothered them and they’d returned the favor. Still, that was before this morning. Once the lunch broke up and people started heading out, I shook hands with everyone at my table, made sure they had my contact info back in Philadelphia, and headed over to the handful of Atlantic people still sitting at theirs.
One of them was a guy I knew from back when I was in business, and I went up to him and shook his hand. “Hi, Frank.”
“Hi, Peter,” he said. “Hell of a situation.”
“I won’t argue.”
He eyed my clothes, and said, “Gone native, I see.”
I laughed. “When in Rome. I got tired of people looking at me like a two-headed calf.”
“Whatever floats your boat,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
“What’s official policy on sending a message to the President-elect via diplomatic links?”
He gave me a bleak look. “‘All reasonable accommodation,’” he quoted. “You guys pounded us fair and square, and it’s your baby now.” With a sudden edged smile: “Frankly, now that this new thing’s blown up, I’m glad I’ll be out the door in two months.”
“I bet,” I said. We talked about the details, and the upshot was that the two of us took a taxi to the Atlantic embassy six blocks away on Lakeland’s Embassy Row. From the outside, it was a nice stone building of typical Lakeland design, like the other embassies, and the Atlantic flag, navy-white-navy with a gold anchor in the middle and a gold star in the upper left, whipped back and forth in a raw wind. Go through the door and everything’s brushed aluminum and black plastic, with the kind of abstract art on the walls that looks like an overenthusiastic dog gobbled an artist’s paint tubes and then threw up. I’d spent most of my adult life in settings like that, and gotten used to thinking of them as modern, cutting-edge, and so on. For the first time it really sank in just how incredibly ugly it all was.
Still, I followed Frank to the communications center down in the basement, got handed over to the comm manager and shown to a desk with a veescreen terminal. For the first time since I’d crossed the border, I had the once-familiar sensation of an image field projected into my visual cortex, and was surprised by how intrusive it felt. Still, I had work to do. I typed out something to Meg Amberger, the transition team’s trade-policy person, letting her know about the potential shipping agreements with Missouri, East Canada, and Chicago, and asked her to tell the boss that the negotiations with Lakeland had gone well—I figured she could use the good news. I added four words that I knew Meg wouldn’t understand, but would pass on anyway, and then hit the SEND button. A moment later that was on its way; I thanked the manager and left the comm center.
Frank was waiting for me outside the door. “Normally I’d invite you to come around and check your veemail here, but we’re down to essential traffic only.”
It took me a moment to realize what he was saying. “Satellite trouble?”
“Yeah. One more thing on top of everything else we’re having to deal with.”
I eyed him, considered the options. “Can I buy you a drink?”
He paused, then nodded. “Sure.”
He knew exactly what I was asking, of course. We went outside again, and he waved down a taxi and gave the driver an address I recognized, over on the other end of downtown. All the bars and restaurants close to Embassy Row are wired for sound by somebody or other. If you’re embassy staff or intelligence, you know where your people have mikes, so you can take contacts there when you want something recorded, and you usually know where at least some of the other countries have mikes, so you can feed them true or false information as the situation requires. If you want to talk off the record, though, you go somewhere well away from Embassy Row, and never the same place twice, so it’s harder for anybody else’s spooks to try to listen in.
So we rolled through the streets of Toledo behind the amiable clop-clop-clop of the horse, Frank looking glum and uncomfortable in his bioplastic suit, me being glad that old-fashioned wool suiting keeps out the chill. Neither of us said much of anything until we got out of the taxi. We were in front of the Harbor Club, the place where I’d listened to Sam Capoferro and his Frogtown Five and talked to Fred Vanich. It was open and surprisingly busy for three in the afternoon, but we had no trouble getting a table over to one side, across from the piano Sam had played. A spry old lady with silver hair and dark brown skin sat there now, playing Chopin with an ease that showed she’d had her fingers on a keyboard since she was six or so.
The waiter came over as soon as we were settled. I ordered a martini, and Frank gave me a sidelong look and ordered a double shot of vodka, straight. The bartender didn’t waste any time, either.
“So,” I said, once the drinks arrived. “Satellite trouble, and everything else.”
“You know we lease satellite services from a Chinese firm, right?” Fred took a slug of his drink “We’re supposed to have four high-speed channels. Right now we’ve got one, and it’s high speed only if you give that phrase a really broad definition. Rumor has it that at least two embassies have no realtime comm links home at all, though nobody’s admitting it, and it won’t many more fender benders in orbit before our provider calls force majeure and we’re shut out completely. Everybody’s trying to figure out some way to get satellite service back, but it’s going to be a while.”
“A long while,” I said. “How did embassies phone home before there were satellites?”
It seemed like an obvious question, but Frank looked at me as though I’d sprouted a spare head. “I have no idea,” he said. “Who cares? Anyway, our provider’s trying to see if there’s a way to get armored satellites out to the Moon’s Lagrange points or something, but that may be years out.
“But that’s just one more mess on top of the others. You know the Philly stock market’s down hard.”
“Along with everyone else’s,” I said.
“Worse.” He gestured with his drink, which was getting toward half empty. “We had a lot more foreign investment than anybody realized—it was all through shell corporations, you know the drill—and when telecom stocks started dragging the market down, you had the usual flight to safety. The Department of Finance stepped in, of course, and propped things up with hard currency loans, but they’ve only got so much on hand and the World Bank isn’t handing over any more. So even before this damn war broke out, we were looking at a major economic crisis—and now this. I honestly don’t know how we’re going to make it.”
“We’ve had economic crises before,” I said.
“It’s different this time. Finance is running in circles like a bunch of robot tanks with a defective program, and everybody else is trying to get as much money out of the markets as they can without making too much noise, and when the hard currency runs short the bottom’s going to drop right out. I hope your boss has something up her sleeve, or we’re going to be in for it.”
I motioned for him to go on, and he said, “And now the war. This stays off the record.” I nodded, and he went on. “Our NIS people here talked with their opposite numbers back home.” NIS was National Intelligence Service, our spook shop in Philadelphia. “They’ve got sources down south. Word is that along with the drilling platforms, at least eighteen Confederate production platforms got blown to scrap, and fourteen of them were running stripper well farms.”
“Meaning that there’s not enough output to pay for replacing the platforms once the fighting’s over. A lot of the Gulf oil industry works legacy fields, right? If the situation’s similar on the Texas side, and that’s the current best guess, a big fraction of Gulf oil production is g, o, n, e, gone, for good. That means another price spike, and maybe worse.” He gave me an uneasy look; I gestured for him to continue, and he said, “Actual shortages. As in ‘No, we don’t have any at all’ shortages. How do you deal with something like that?”
“There’ve been oil shortages before,” I reminded him. “How did people deal with those?”
“I don’t have the least idea,” he said. “That was then, this is now. But the people back in Philly are just aghast. They’re trying to game possible responses and coming up blank. I don’t know if there’s any option that will work at all.” He finished his drink, waved down a waiter and ordered a refill.
I nodded and said something to keep him talking, and for the next two hours or so got an increasingly detailed account of just how screwed the Atlantic Republic was going to be without viable satellite services, economic stability, or a reliable source of petroleum—we used less of that latter than most of the other North American republics, and a lot less than anybody thought of using back before the Second Civil War, but it was still something we couldn’t give up without landing in a world of hurt. All the while, though, I was trying to fit my head around the way he’d blown off my questions.
The penny didn’t drop until I got him onto a taxi—he was pretty wobbly by then, so I paid his fare and told the driver where to take him—and stood there on the sidewalk watching the back of the thing pull away. Two weeks ago, I realized, I’d have done exactly the same thing. That was then, this is now, it’s different this time, that’s history, we need to be thinking ahead of the times, not behind them: how many times had I mouthed those same catchphrases?
I’d meant to flag down another cab, but turned and started walking instead taking the distant pale shape of the unfinished Capitol dome as my guide. Around me, Toledo went about its business as though this was just another day. The sky had cleared off, the wind was brisk but not too raw, and people were out on the sidewalks, shopping or heading for swing shift jobs or just taking in some fresh air. The crisis that had the Atlantic Republic tottering was just another piece of news to them. It was interesting news; a paperboy came trotting along the street shouting “Extra! Latest news on the war down south!” and found plety of customers. Still, they didn’t have to care. It wasn’t something that was going to throw them out of work and shred the fabric of their daily lives. And the reason was—
The reason was that they had stopped saying “It’s different this time,” and treated the past as a resource rather than an irrelevance.
I kept walking. Everything I saw around me—the horsedrawn cabs, the streetcars, the comfortable and attractive brick buildings, the clothing on the people—had been quarried out of the past and refitted for use in the present, because they worked better than the alternatives. The insight that had come crashing into my thoughts in the middle of Parsifal returned: for us, for people in the North American republics and elsewhere in the industrial world, the period of exploration was over, the period of performance had arrived, and we had plenty of data about what worked and what didn’t, if only we chose to use it.
A streetcar went by, packed with workers on their way home from the day shift; the conductor’s bell went ding-di-ding ding, the way conductors’ bells went on those same streets a hundred and fifty years before. I knew perfectly well why nobody in Philadelphia had considered putting streetcars back on the streets of the Atlantic Republic’s cities, to do a job they did better, and for much less money, than the shiny high-tech modern equivalents. I’d been in the middle of the groupthink that made progress look like the only option even when progress was half a century into negative returns. Everyone I knew was well aware that “newer” had stopped meaning “better” a long time ago, that every upgrade meant more problems and fewer benefits, that the latest must-have technologies did less and cost more than the last round, but nobody seemed to be able to draw the obvious conclusion.
I shook my head and kept walking, while those ideas circled in my head.
It must have been most of an hour later when I realized I’d overshot my hotel by a good six blocks. The Capitol dome was something like a dozen blocks behind me, and I’d strayed into an upscale neighborhood of row houses with little shops at the street corners. I turned around, headed back toward the dome. By the time I got there, it must have been past five o’clock, and people were trickling out of the Capitol entrance, heading toward the street and the line of cabs that waited there for fares. I recognized one of them at a glance; fortunately, she saw me and turned up the sidewalk to meet me.
“Hello, Melanie,” I said.
That got a tired smile. “Hello, Peter. Hell of a day.”
“I won’t argue.” I considered the options. “Up for dinner?”
I gestured to one of the cabs; she smiled again, and the cabby bounded down from his seat and opened the door for us.
In other fiction-related news, I'm pleased to announce that Founders House, the publishing firm of the After Oil anthologies, is launching a new magazine of science fiction and fantasy, titled Mythic. They're soliciting stories for the first issue right now. Publisher Shaun Kilgore is looking for science fiction and fantasy that moves past the stereotypes of the genre -- science fiction that isn't all about spaceships and rayguns, and fantasy that isn't infested with dragons and elves -- and he's indicated to me that submissions of deindustrial SF will be welcome. Check out the website here.