A DRAGON IN EMPYRE: JOEL TAGERT

Rooftop Garden by Ali Hoff

A DRAGON IN EMPYRE
By Joel Tagert
Art by Ali Hoff
Published Issue 079, July 2020

Senator Streety looked uncomfortable on the way up in the shuttle, crunching his eyes closed and wrapping his arms around his stomach. Phaera leaned over in her seat. “Can we get you anything, maybe an anti-nausea med?”

He shook his large, dark, white-fringed head, expression pained. “I’m fine, thank you.”

A text from her friend Jevan, who was watching them from a few seats away, appeared on her watch: Agoraphobia. Seen it before with these dirtheads. He’s probably never seen the sky. 

Good to know, she wrote back. But don’t call them that. 

What do you prefer? Muckers? Cave dwellers?

Stygopolists, she replied. Or call them what they call themselves.

What’s that?

Americans.

“Would you like me to make the walls opaque?” she asked the senator, gesturing at the transparent sides of the shuttle. Most of the aeropolists preferred transparency during the day; it gave you a better view, after all. 

Streety opened his eyes and chuckled. “I’m too obvious. That would be great. Though honestly it’s the floor that mostly bothers me.”

“Ah, right.” She sent a request to the pilot, who opaqued the floor. “We’re almost in sight of Empyre, though. Look, there it is now.”

Above them the great sky city slowly grew in size, hanging suspended like an enormous jellyfish of steel and glass glittering in the dawn. Shuttles and skysuited aeropolists flitted about like gnats. The underground city of Spring, she knew, was even larger in population – nearly two million and growing to Empyre’s static one – but it was nothing to look at on the surface (almost literally). Empyre, on the other hand, was a shining jewel in the heavens. 

Streety, she saw, had forgotten his nausea. He was leaning forward and eyeballing the aeropolist like an otter looking hungrily at an oyster.

The first event on the agenda was a “casual” breakfast with Empyre’s official diplomatic team, eaten in an open atrium adjoining the Capitol. The air under the city’s dome was, as always, a pleasant seventy-four degrees, and fragrant from the flowering plants on the vines braiding through the pergola. Streety walked to his seat with gravity in his uniform, but he kept glancing up through the green leaves.

Directly opposite him at the table was Empyre’s Senator Colvin, in a light floral blouse and powder-blue silk scarf. She was probably even older than Streety, but she didn’t look it, her face unlined, hair auburn to the roots. Only the slight artificiality of her features, and the care and slowness of her movements, gave the lie to the rejuve treatments. 

The server asked if they would like coffee or orange juice; Streety looked bemused and asked for both. When it arrived, he sipped at the hot coffee and frowned. “Not what you’re used to?” ventured Colvin. 

“Definitely different. Of course, the joe we drink isn’t really coffee. Not sure if I’ve ever had real coffee.” He tried the orange juice and his expression changed. He took another sip, closing his eyes. “What did you call this?”

“Fresh-squeezed orange juice.”

“Incredible.”

Phaera wasn’t sure how the upcoming talks would go, but the breakfast at least was a great success. While Streety presumably would fight wholeheartedly for Spring’s interests, he had no qualms about making the most of his meals here, marking each dish as it arrived, noting differences and similarities to food he was used to. It was the fruit that most impressed him: grapes and raspberries, mangoes and papayas. Finally he set his fork down. “If only I could share this with my people back home.”

“We’ll send a fruit box back with you. Phaera, can you arrange it?” 

The young aeropolist nodded, having her AI set a reminder. “You could probably grow many of these plants in Spring,” she added. “We could give you cuttings.”

“Our food systems are built for efficiency, not luxury,” rumbled Streety. “If we devoted greenhouses to growing fruit, how many might go malnourished?” He paused, looking uncharacteristically whimsical. “Still, we should look into it.”

After breakfast came the first of the official conferences, held in the Capitol building proper, in a well-lit board room with views of a cascading waterway outside. Phaera was technically Streety’s civilian liaison during his visit (a position granted despite her youth due to her long sojourn among the stygopolists), but she was not invited to the talks, as they were to discuss classified material. She rejoined the group only after lunch, during an official tour of of the city.

Most of the three-hour tour was spent topside, amid the lush orchards, gardens and parks of Empyre’s upper deck. Fully enclosed within a hardened glass dome three kilometers in diameter and one kilometer high – itself a feat of pre-Fall engineering – topside was a marvel, at once an integrated ecosystem, an important agricultural resource, and a vital public space. There was much to see, and Streety absorbed it stolidly.

Still, Phaera detected an easing of his demeanor when they finally descended an escalator to deck two. Here they walked through the Mall, and paused to watch a flyball game in progress at Olympic Arena. When they again approached a viewing area on the perimeter, with floor-to-ceiling windows, Streety balked. “There are sixty decks, correct? I’d prefer not to spend all my time on the first two.”

Some among his escort exchanged glances, but the official guide, a tall, willowy woman named Epsie, took it in stride. “Let’s head to level 12. We can show you some of our food production and agricultural facilities, which I’m sure you’ll find interesting.”

An elevator whisked them downward in seconds. Streety did seem more engaged with the hydroponics and food vats, asking intelligent questions. Here he seemed more on equal footing; while Empyre’s grew far more varied items, Spring’s were more efficient and innovative. There was some real possibility of technological exchange. Still, after an hour, he paused Epsie in her patter. “What about waste?”

“I’m sorry?”

“What about waste? Sewage treatment, recycling, industrial reprocessing?”

“You want to see our sewage treatment facilities?” she said incredulously.

“Yes,” he replied firmly. “Look, I know you’re not going to show me your engine rooms or your weapons or most of your factories. But we’re two million humans in a very confined space. What happens with our waste has real implications, and I’d like to get some sense of this city outside of pretty spectacles.” 

Phaera spied some quickly subdued grins at this, and some moments passed while Epsie consulted; Phaera caught a few of the messages herself, arguing to allow it. Why not? “Certainly, it’s no problem,” Epsie said finally. “Follow me.”

The party (there were eight altogether, including the three aides Streety had brought with him), stepped into an elevator already occupied by several citizens going about their day. The elevator paused again on deck 30, and five workers piled in. These were engine crew, dressed in gray coveralls, with grease under their fingernails. The elevator was nearly full, but on deck 50 it paused again. 

The doors opened and half a dozen more workers stood there, these in the dark blue uniforms of the sanitation crew. As they entered, two of them cheerfully greeted one of the engine workers by name, moving to give their friend a hug. This resulted in some shuffling and reorganizing of those standing in the ten-by-ten compartment, with much loud conversation. Phaera couldn’t see beyond those immediately around, and the workers who had boarded all seemed above average size. The sole security agent from Empyre, a hulking agent named Pryor, gave one protesting “Hey!” as he lunged for the door, and was met with a hard shove by those in blue as the doors closed. The elevator continued downward – but Senator Streety was no longer on it. 

The resulting furor lasted twenty-two minutes. Pryor quickly discovered that the cameras and other sensors on 56 had been disabled (a common occurrence on the lower decks, whose residents resented the unceasing surveillance). Security teams were dispatched, but there were countless hiding spaces. They were looking for some personal item of the senator’s to key to a sniffer drone (hairbrush: didn’t have one; clothes: clean, except what he was wearing), when Streety called Phaera on a borrowed phone to say he was waiting by the elevators on level 58, where they’d been heading.

When the doors opened, he gave a fox’s satisfied smile. “Sorry about that. I got off to make more room for everyone and the doors closed behind me. Ended up taking the stairs down.”

It was clearly nonsense, but there was not much anyone could do about it at this point. “Please try to stay with the party from now on, Senator,” sniffed Epsie.

The senator and his entourage returned to their guest quarters in late afternoon to rest before an official dinner (every meal was to be official or at least semi-official, it seemed). The apartments were luxurious, situated topdeck with an enclosed courtyard and pool for their use, ringed with coconut palms and papaya trees. As liaison, Phaera had been given an adjoining room, and having taken note of the pool that morning, had arranged to meet Jevan there. 

They were just setting their towels on the deck chairs, Jevan taking off his shirt, when Streety appeared. He had taken off his uniform jacket and tie and was sipping a bottled beer with an air of satisfaction. He waved his beer at the pool. “I meant to ask about this. What is it, a cistern? You’d think you’d want to cover it. Or is this water for washing?”

“Have you never –” Jevan began before Phaera kicked him. 

“It’s a pool,” she said. “It’s for swimming.”

The senator looked blank. “Like this,” she said, and dove into the water, rising into the sunlight to the sound of Streety’s hearty laughter.

“Well, I never,” he laughed. “Never, never.”

“Never what?” Jevan asked, clearly having forgotten Phaera’s blow. “Never been swimming?”

“I’ve heard of swimming. Never seen it.”

“But why not?”

The senator chuckled and sat down on a deck chair. “You’re astonished at my ignorance, and I’m astonished at yours. Every drop of potable water we have goes to drinking or farming. We never have enough.”

“But there are still lakes. Oceans.”

“Spring’s a long way from the ocean, as you may have noticed. And every lake and river near us is poisoned, with radioactivity, chemicals or both. You might wade through a river if you had to, but you wouldn’t be happy about it. And here you are literally rolling in fresh, clean water.” 

“Why don’t you try it?” Phaera suggested. “I’m sure we could get you a suit.”

“No, I’ll keep my dignity, thank you. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll dip my feet in.” He took off his shoes and socks, revealing his large feet and frankly unsightly toenails, rolled up his pant legs and sat at the pool’s edge. “Ahhh. That is nice.”

“Where did you disappear to this afternoon?” Phaera asked, curious and seeing him relaxed.

“Oh, nowhere too nefarious. Some of your lower-deck citizens wanted a short meeting, and I thought, since we had so much in common, that it was worth agreeing to.”

“There are representatives from the lower decks included in the negotiations.”

“And who chose those representatives? There are plenty of Empyre’s citizens who see clearly that they have more in common with us than you top-deckers. Families jammed eight and ten to an apartment, kids who’ve grown up indoors. Maybe you’re better at keeping them distracted, but they know full well that their options are limited. Empyre’s pretty enough to look at when you’re sitting on the top of the heap, but from below it looks just like a boot.” He nodded at a statue in the corner. “Why do you think they chose this statue for our guest quarters?”

“It’s Cadmus,” Jevan said, to Phaera’s surprise. “Founder of Thebes. He’s killing a dragon, though it looks like a snake. It’s on our official seals.”

“It’s a message, just the same. Empyre is the great warrior, and the snake is everyone who lives underground. So slither away, or you’ll get the sword.”

“I’m not so sure,” Phaera said. “Look at it. He’s not killing the snake. It’s like it’s speaking to him.”

Streety squinted at the marble again in the pink light. “And is he listening, I wonder?”

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