By Nate McIntyre
Jarvis rubbed the sleep out of his eyes with one hand and rolled over to smack the alarm clock quiet with the other. His wife, Tiana, mumbled grumpily at him as he got out of bed and headed to the closet.
“How many times have I asked you to stop doing that?”
“Says the one who hasn’t been getting up early for the past week. Does it always have to be so loud?”
“It’s a family heirloom and an antique for the hundredth time. The kids will hate you if you break it, and so will I.”
He groggily threw his shirt on, then leaned over Tiana’s side of the bed to kiss her on the cheek. “How can you hate me when I’m going off at the crack of dawn to serve our community?”
She snorted derisively and rolled away from him. “Don’t pretend you wouldn’t hate yourself too if it did break. Or that you don’t like serving every time you’re drafted.”
Jarvis sat down on the corner of the bed just past her feet and bent forward to put his boots on. “What can I say? I’m a patriot.”
“You’re ridiculous is what you are,” she said, mocking him for the outdated term from the Carbon Age. “But I hope you have a good day, dear.”
He threw on a ratty, light blue wool tie, a gift from one of the neighbors back when he was drafted to the Council the first time over a decade ago. Now he wore it whenever he was drafted to service because Tiana was right — he did like it. Maybe not the early hours, which disrupted his sleep schedule, but serving when called was important. And it would be a break from the extra night shifts he’d been working for the Electrician’s Co-Op in support of the Institute.
Jarvis looked at the infernal clock again to check the time. He really would hate himself a little if it broke. It had survived four generations in Tiana’s family since The Fall and was still in good working order, thanks to the care of her relatives and a good bit of luck. Plus, he and the kids enjoyed playing with its old radio, and even occasionally picked something up on it from Emeralda, up in Cascadia, or a random traveler here and there.
The wizened old clock said he still had time to make coffee before leaving. He went to the kitchen and did so, using some of their house’s battery charge to power a hot plate and heat the water for the pour-over. Despite the famous fog which still lingered in this northern part of the former state of California, it was going to be another especially hot, sunny day. No storms, earthly or solar, on the tracking systems painstakingly salvaged or rebuilt from scratch by a loose network of city-states and independent communities in the North American West since The Fall. The batteries would have plenty of time to recharge from this indulgence.
Jarvis left some fresh coffee on the counter for Tiana. He grabbed his backpack and the draft slip that had come in the mail from the Council. Every year, a hundred citizens were randomly drafted from the city-state of Gildwater to serve a two-year term on the Council, its representative ruling body. These hundred overlapped with the hundred drafted the year before and replaced the hundred drafted two years prior to form a continuously renewed stream of democratic rule. This system allowed for some continuity of purpose without granting many opportunities for toxic factions to form. Corrupting external influences of the type that crippled so many Carbon Age governments also didn’t have much time to tip the scales their way by gaining control of seemingly irremovable members. Thankfully, nobody today really had the excess time and resources required to create and sustain them anyway. There were still problems, of course, but for this city-state of roughly 50,000 and the other communities like it, it worked well enough, given the circumstances.
He headed out the door and walked downhill toward the trolley station. The old city of San Francisco beckoned across the bay next to the aging wonder of a bridge that gave the newer city-state of Gildwater its name. This district of Gildwater was a mix of salvaged pre-Fall buildings made of concrete, steel, and composites surrounded by post-Fall structures made of wood, stone, brick, and adobe. Intermingled with a modest but thriving arid coastal forest, they contrasted sharply with the abandoned Anthropocene metropolis in the distance. A reminder of what was lost and what had changed. A reminder that this was a new time, a time for humanity to fix the mistakes of its past and reach a new accord with the Earth. If they succeeded, hopefully, they’d be able to do something about their angry sun, too.
The sun, the greater mystery of humanity’s present stalemate with extinction, was on Jarvis’s mind during his walk, like it frequently was. The Earth’s problem was well understood, long before it became a crisis, in fact, back in that so-called Information Age. Only then humanity hadn’t acted fast enough. They took in all that information they had about what was coming and collectively did next to nothing until it was almost too late. A symptom of hubris and vanity they’d hopefully left behind.
Then, a few years after the Earth started making its wrath felt in undeniable ways, the sun joined in and gave them both an extra jolt. The first massive solar storms sparked widespread awe by painting dazzling auroras across the sky, stretching from the poles to the equator. Pictures and videos (where they could still be stored and played) existed in schools, books, and museums across the city-states and other known communities that constituted civilization today.
Those images were so recognizable because only a few pre-Fall cameras survived the mass extinction of the world’s electronics triggered by the sun’s surprise mammoth bursts of electromagnetic radiation. Hardened government and scientific facilities, some lucky satellites, and those on the night side of the globe did ok through the first solar storm. But then the second came, and the third. Scientists barely had time to turn their surviving instruments, and attention toward the sun before those were largely wiped out, too, leaving them to wonder, along with the rest of humanity over the last century, what had caused their star’s sudden anger. The theories ranged from the scientific to the occult and everywhere in between as humanity adapted to a hybrid pre-industrial existence. So did the actions people took as a result.
Yes, the sun would be the first order of business if Jarvis could influence the agenda at the Council today. In the week leading up to this first day of the Council’s new term, he’d been getting up early to study the issues left open since the last Council term and those submitted in the interim. As usual, many couldn’t be addressed solely by the Civil Service, Gildwater’s half-drafted, half-volunteer daily administrative body. This was the beginning of Jarvis’s second term as a member of the Council, having served once before several years ago. He felt that, combined with his total record of public service and life experience at age 40, gave him a good shot at being selected chair for the First Session, the temporary and closest position Gildwater had to a single ruler and thus having final say over the flow of its agenda.
Many pressing local issues had a strong case to take precedence — that was the Council’s primary purpose. But the stories coming from Cascadia about strange magnetic anomalies discovered in the Olympic Mountains and the analysis he’d been reading from Dr. Ashanti Bernal at the Gildwater Institute possibly connecting them to the solar storms called out for attention in Jarvis’s mind. Many other citizens felt the same if the recent buzz at the markets and taverns was any indication. This was a matter for all the city-states to consider together, perhaps even one that could justify approving The League, a proposed formal alliance between some of the coastal city-states that had been debated by the Council before.
Jarvis checked his tablet as he neared the trolley station. This tablet was part of the official set kept safe in a Faraday chamber by the Civil Service for use by their staff and members of the Council. Dr. Bernal had received his invitation to the First Session and said she would be there that morning. Everything looked good for the initial part of his plan for the day.
At the station, a small crowd gathered in the shade of the eucalyptus trees and solar panels that formed a loose canopy over this district of Gildwater. The brightening morning was already hot. He joined the crowd and continued browsing the Council files on the tablet until he heard a familiar voice.
“Good morning, Jarvis.”
It was his and Tiana’s friend Julian, who belonged to the Tavern, Inn, and Restaurant Guild like Tiana.
“Julian! How are you doing, buddy? We haven’t seen you since the winter solstice festival.” Jarvis put the tablet back in his backpack and embraced his friend in the already-hot air.
“I’m good. On my way to the Council session, as I’m guessing you are too by the nice getup you’re wearing,” Julian said, ribbing Jarvis for his uncharacteristically polished attire.
Jarvis chuckled and smoothed his tattered tie. “The tie gave it away, huh? Guess I should put on the rest of the uniform now that I’ve been identified.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the Council pin that had been issued along with the tablet. It was made of nickel and bore the crest of Gildwater: an image of the old bridge spanning the Golden Gate in front of the setting sun casting its shimmering reflection on the water below.
After placing what amounted to his ID on his left breast, he continued his conversation. “So, what’s bringing you to Council today? It’s a long journey for you. Do you just want to watch your Council at work?” he joked.
Julian lived with his husband Deron, a farmer, in one of the agricultural communes a few miles into the countryside from Gildwater. There were only one or two bio-fueled buses a day out there, and the only other options to get into town were horse, bike, or a very long walk unless one had a rare working motor vehicle of their own.
“Guild business, but not ours directly. We’ve decided to back the agricultural communes opposing the new airship port proposal. The guild nominated me since I’ve got ties to both communities. Now that I know you’re serving this term, maybe you’d be open to hearing us out?” Julian said with a grin.
And so, the business and haggling had started before I even checked in, Jarvis thought to himself. Such was the nature of self-government.
Jarvis had read the summary. The airship port was an important issue for Gildwater and would probably make the agenda on the very first day, if not shortly thereafter. The past decade or so of what had been dubbed Recontact with the surviving communities of Asia and the Pacific Islands had been a welcome boon to the economy, culture, and knowledge of western North America. But the increased airship and sailing traffic had started to overwhelm the limited infrastructure in the western city-states. The Merchants and Shopkeepers Guild and a coalition of sky captains who frequented Gildwater in their airships proposed a larger, safer port well inland where the winds were easier to handle than the current port they used next to the harbor. The agricultural communes were opposed to giving up already-scarce arable land and worried about the impact of new traffic to and from the port disrupting their existing fields and communities. Jarvis assumed Julian and Tiana’s guild backed the communes because they worked with them more than almost any other guild or co-op to earn their livings.
It was the type of problem that was as old as civilization and one the Carbon Age frequently handled incorrectly. Jarvis and the Gildwater Council had to do better.
“Tell me more,” Jarvis said as the bio-fueled, aluminum-skinned tram pulled into the station. He and Julian joined the huddle around the front door to board.
The two friends chatted on the ride into town and relaxed in their seats as the tram trundled along. The menagerie of bicycles, horses, and animal-drawn carts, and the odd bus or truck added to the din of voices and life that signified humanity’s post-Fall culture: productive and busy, yet slower and simpler. More focused on living together than outdoing one another.
The tram dropped them at the city center station just across from the Council Hall. They parted ways, and Jarvis made his way into the building, nodding to the Gilded Guards (the public safety, emergency, and self-defense force) who stood on either side of the member entrance with swords in their sheaths and gold shields at the ready bearing the same crest that was on his pin. A large gold vertical banner bearing the same Gildwater crest waved lazily in the breeze overhead as he passed through the entrance.
In the meeting rooms and hallways behind the main Council Chamber, the new councilors like Jarvis mingled with those returning for the second year of their terms. The buzz of conversation ebbed and flowed. Greetings were exchanged, introductions made, and the early informal exchange of proposals and views picked up the pace. Members of the civil service darted about seeing to the councilors’ needs and trying to keep things on schedule. The mood was light, and a bit chaotic, but everyone took it seriously. The last few generations of their families had all been through hell and worse since The Fall, and only in the last generation or two had some semblance of stable civilization been restored in fortunate places like Gildwater.
There was no guarantee it would last, they all knew. No natural law or higher power would spare them from retreading the same path to ruin as their Carbon Age ancestors. Society was an obligation — theirs alone and one that they must fulfill.
After checking in with one of the clerks and enjoying a few minutes of conversation and light breakfast, Jarvis followed the rest of the councilors into the Council Chamber for the opening ceremonies. He saw Dr. Bernal in the audience close to where Julian sat and waved to her.
Nominations began for the chair and other senior positions for the First Session. Jarvis was one of nearly a dozen to raise his hand for chair and receive enough votes of support from others who knew them to advance to candidate statements. There, he felt his only real competition was from a woman about his age named Leah DeOrso, a member of the Sailors Guild and somewhat of a heroine in Gildwater for her exploits during Recontact and her record of volunteer service in the Gilded Guards. She would be an excellent choice, Jarvis knew, but he wanted to win so Dr. Bernal’s presentation would be prioritized. And he didn’t want Tiana to tease him if he lost.
Leah spoke before him during the candidate speeches and did well. His nerves tensed when his turn came, but he maintained an outward expression of confidence. He focused on his record as a citizen and servant of Gildwater. Besides his prior term on the Council many years ago, he’d served two terms in the Gildwater Civil Service, once by general draft and once by volunteering through the Electricians’ Co-Op, through which he typically made his living. And he’d volunteered for a brief period in the Gilded Guards as a younger man, which ended when he took an arrow to the knee during a skirmish with raiders from the Dustlands beyond the Sierra Nevada. He was, as he’d joked to Tiana earlier, a patriot in a sense — a citizen who believed in this new community they’d all built in Gildwater based on egalitarianism and ecological balance.
Jarvis sat down and sighed in relief as the last speaker began. Afterward, the candidates were ushered out of the Chamber, and a half-hour of debate took place among the rest of the Council. Members of the audience shouted their opinions one way or the other if they had any strong feelings about a candidate. The definition of “regular order” had changed quite a bit from the Carbon Age.
When Jarvis and the other candidates re-entered, he was stunned to hear he’d been elected chair. Leah had been elected deputy chair. They nodded to each other and shook hands, then Jarvis rose to address the room at the podium.
“Thank you, friends, comrades, and fellow citizens of Gildwater. It’s an honor to serve as chair of your Council. Now, let’s open the First Session, and let’s never forget that we’re here to do the business of the people and of the Earth.”
A smattering of applause rose from the public, and the councilors seated around him as one of the civil servants rang the salvaged church bell stationed on the hall’s roof to signal the Council was open for public business.
On a projector screen at the side of the chamber, a list of proposals, briefings, and issues submitted to the Council appeared. There were over two dozen. Those in the audience with an interest in them began shouting for priority, while others with new items to add left their seats and began forming a haphazard line at the petitioners’ desk where two civil servants and Leah now sat.
Jarvis laughed at the beautiful unruliness of the people’s business as he spoke into the microphone. Why wait for his announcement when they knew the drill?
“If there are any new matters to address not listed on the wall, please form a line and submit them to the clerks and the deputy chair at the petitioner’s desk.”
Dr. Bernal got up from her seat and moved toward the desk as well, stopping beside the line at the short barricade in case Jarvis succeeded in getting her selected first for the agenda.
“As chair, I would like to propose that Professor Bernal from the Institute be first on the agenda. She brings important findings regarding the sun’s instability and potentially related reports of magnetic anomalies from Cascadia. Her analysis may hold the first clues to solving the other great environmental crisis we face. If there are others who ….”
He trailed off as a group of sky captains wearing their flying vests and flashy caps shouted, “No, the port first! Our lives are at risk, and it’s critical to Recontact!”
Julian and some reps from the agricultural communes shouted their opinion on the matter. Others joined in to dismiss both groups and vouch for their own issues. The guards behind the clerks’ desks shouted for order in vain.
Jarvis stepped back from the podium and took it all in with a small grin. Every Council session started like this, and it was beautiful, at least compared to the alternatives. The citizens and petitioners shouting before him and the other councilors were the people, and they’d all stood in their shoes before. They were there to present their issues, the things they needed addressed to secure their lives and livelihoods. In the governments of the Carbon Age, even the ostensible democracies, this was rare. Decisions were made by a few relatively invincible leaders in faraway capitals who spoke almost exclusively to the paid representatives of those who could afford them. It was so steeped in protocol and obsessed with order and tradition, yet ultimately failed miserably at its most basic functions, as the stories from The Fall and those elders still around from The Aftermath attested.
The scene before him now was chaotic and inefficient in many ways, perhaps even foolish if one really stepped back to consider it. After all, the Earth was still undergoing deep changes all around them, making survival a daily struggle with further destruction possible at almost any moment. Not to mention the sun and its silent, mysterious rage always lurking in the sky now. How could this disorder be tolerated among what remained of human civilization?
Mother Earth and Father Sun, punishing their petty children for spoiling what was given to them, Jarvis thought to himself, reflecting on a common train of thought among his fellow citizens. But this scene and the system it was a part of were real and just — what the old system had ceased to be long before it fell.
Leah had joined the guards in pressing for calm and, thanks to her fierceness and reputation, had succeeded in quieting a few people close to the petitioners’ table. She turned and approached Jarvis at the podium, placing a hand on his shoulder as she leaned in to speak to him over the dying din of the crowd.
“We should address the airship port first. There are too many concerned about it, and it will drown out everything else until we deal with it.”
She was right, he knew. He looked at Dr. Bernal, still standing near the front of the crowd, hoping to be called first to address the Council. She nodded in understanding at the look of apology on his face.
The world had changed, he thought. The people’s business must always take precedence.
“Ok,” he said, then turned back to his tablet to change his proposed agenda and project it onto the public screen.
Nothing happened when he tried to save the file. Then an error message appeared before the screen went dark.
“Um, sorry folks,” he spoke with uncertainty into the mic. “It looks like this damn thing stopped working on me.” He held up the malfunctioning tablet for effect. “So, unfortunately, I can’t display some agenda changes the deputy chair and I just discussed, but ….”
Then the lights died along with the projector, and the sound of his voice through the speakers stopped. The noise from the crowd picked back up, joined by a confused hubbub from the councilors seated behind Jarvis.
“What the hell? There weren’t supposed to be any solar storms today,” Leah said.
“I don’t know. All I did was try to save the agenda and get ready to share it!”
A civil servant rushed into the room from the working chambers and made a beeline to the podium.
“Councilors,” he said to Leah and Jarvis, “I’m sorry to say there’s been a glitch on the community network servers. The power distribution system has been affected too.”
“How much has been affected?” Leah asked.
“Everything on the city center grid or the public network, it seems.”
“What? How did this happen?”
“There was an interruption in service last night on the Wire …” he started, referring to the undersea cable that Gildwater and Emeralda had laid off the coast several years ago, placed deep and with enough Faraday-shielded repeaters to survive the strongest solar storms seen yet. It served, effectively, as the first true reincarnation of the Internet, at least that anyone in this part of the world knew of. The descendants of some key programs from the Carbon Age were chiefly maintained by the technology unions and the Digital Vault in Emeralda.
“And …” Jarvis prompted the nervous civil servant.
“And, because of the interruption, a major update to the operating systems on our network failed to download from Emeralda,” he explained. “They all started catching up in the background without us noticing and have started rebooting to finish patching.” The civil servant’s eyes darted nervously back and forth between Jarvis and Leah, waiting to be blamed for the foul-up on behalf of the rest of his comrades in the service.
Jarvis disarmed the tension with a laugh. “Some things change, and some things stay the same. How long will it take for everything to finish updating so we can get back to business?”
“We’re not sure, but with everything going down at once instead of managed in batches overnight like usual, it could be a few hours.”
“Of course,” Leah said with a sigh.
“Well, we’ll improvise,” Jarvis said, and together they worked up a quick plan.
A few minutes later, they were all headed over to the outdoor amphitheater run by the Arts and Entertainment Co-Op. It would be hot, but at least still mostly shaded by Gildwater’s urban forest. More importantly, it had enough seating, and the acoustics were good for public speaking without microphones. Given the delay, they would be lucky to even start the agenda before noon, and the airship port would probably eat up the rest of the day and continue well into the next.
That was fine, Jarvis thought. The important thing was that they continued no matter what. The people’s business, like the human story on Earth at large, must go on. It was the main lesson their ancestors had passed down to them: after The Fall, get back up.