We were back on the "freeway" again, retracing our course to the elevator complex. I noticed that the traffic had thinned out quite a bit. Orii responded to the thought. "When we came this way before, it was during what you'd call a 'shift change'. You mentally compared it to rush hour in your cities. The analogy is accurate. Most of the carts were private vehicles carrying their passengers to or from their work. Those on the roadways now are primarily involved in work-related travel."
Lin-Erri took the ball. "On Earth there are many cases where only one partner in a marriage works and the other remains at home. This is unknown here. All adults are at this base because of their contributions to our efforts. We were specific in requiring this of married couples. Children are tended at centers provided for the purpose. School-age children are of course involved in that pursuit during the working hours of their parents.
"As with work, there are shifts for schools, so that there is no conflict in scheduling. Also, married people are always placed on the same work schedule. Single people are usually assigned the shift of their choice, but because there's no defined day-night routine here, there's little reason for shift preference other than to be with close associates."
We turned off the road at the elevator corridor, and a few moments later were aboard a car headed for Level 12. I was utterly unprepared for what met my sight when the door slid open. There was no lobby here. A sign informed me that this was "Residential Level One"
Orii said, "there are three levels devoted to residential and commercial use, levels 12, 13 and 14. Since there are 25 levels in all, these are centralized for minimum travel time to any level. Each of the three corresponds to one of the three work periods, and all activity on that level is coordinated to accommodate those who work that shift. Retail businesses are open 'after hours', the lighting is controlled to provide a suitable night period, and so on. This is the level for the shift that went off duty a short while ago."
We drove out into the "streets" and as we made our way through the mini-city that surrounded us, I drank in the awesomeness of this facility. Lin-Erri narrated as we travelled. "Indeed, what we're in now is a small city. The level is a single chamber of approximately circular configuration, 4.4 miles in diameter. The roof is a parabolic dome supported only by the central shaft that houses the elevators. At its peak it's 950 feet high, and the edges are 650 feet up. This is one reason that the base is two miles deep."
I looked up and was taken thoroughly aback. Lin-Erri responded immediately to my thoughts. "The 'sky' you see is a projected one, based on the same concept as the one in the CommSec lobby. The projectors are located radially around the central shaft. They provide the day-night cycle complete with sun and moon rises and sets. Each projector is a triple unit, with two acting as backups to prevent a sudden blackout of a section of sky. When the mind accepts the illusion of a real sky, that's an unsettling interruption."
I looked very closely, but there were no discernible seams, discontinuities, overlaps or shape distortions in the images. Clouds drifted across the entire "sky" in a smooth, continuous motion. Orii pointed out, "the images are precisely matched by computers controlling the projectors, and the lenses that recorded the actual scene were ground to exactly cancel the distortion that results as the distance from the projectors increases. The projected light level is also varied to maintain a uniform level of skylight."
It was so typical of the Korendians' meticulous attention to detail, and their passion for caring for the needs of their people, that I chastised myself for being surprised. I then turned my attention to ground level.
Every accoutrement of a small city was available. In the park area surrounding the shaft, many children were at play or leisure. Some strolled along engaged in conversation or simply admiring the dazzling array of flowers blooming in abundance along the walkways. Some sat on benches or on the grass beneath the trees (primarily varieties of maple and birch, but with others types including evergreens scattered about at random). Small bushes, some flowering, formed hedges or isolated patterns.
At one edge of the park, a group of children were playing a rough-and-tumble game of chase and tag (apparently a standard childhood diversion). They stopped long enough to wave to us as we passed, in response to seeing many of their elders saluting as we went by. It would have been easy in this peaceful setting to forget reality, but reminders abounded. Uniforms were common, and street signs bore distinctly military legends.
"Unfortunately," said Kalen, noting my sobering thoughts, "this is as it must be for the indefinite future. Our people try to live as normally as conditions permit, but they're all aware of the real world and they're highly disciplined. They accept the somewhat regimented lifestyle in stride and still enjoy life to its fullest."
As we left the park and headed outward along one of the eight wide, shrubbery-edged avenues that radiated like spokes of a wheel from the shaft, an observation that I made abruptly came up from the subconscious. "I didn't see animals. No dogs, cats, birds, bugs, nothing at all."
And then another buried thought registered, one that had been gnawing at my inner mind since I watched a little boy toss a ball to his father in the park. "What's the gravity here?"
" 'Zackly," Orii said. "When you go back home, you'll be back in your Earth body feeling as though you never left it. Actually, there must be a bit of a flaw in the programming for this one, or you'd never have thought to ask that question. That needs to be looked into." He was silent for a moment, no doubt communicating by implant to the portal section, then returned to us. "It should be rectified before you're ready to leave."
Out of curiosity I asked, "how much different is this body from mine on Earth?"
"That's a good point," I said as another question came up. "Just how did you excavate these chambers and where's all the dirt? You're dealing in cubic miles here."
"The basic removal of material," Kalen replied, "required two years, because none of the original bases were re-used. It was done by mining machines that pulverize rock by intense, highly directional shock impulses. The residue was at first used to fill the old bases, then disposed of in natural caverns, and we finally spread it around the surface on the far side of the moon.
"Once the rooms were cut to size, they were fused to a depth of up to 15 feet by thermal projectors, forming a smooth, extremely strong shell. From there we built the inner structures. Completion took about a month short of four years for Plato and Copernicus combined, the only two bases now in use here. Copernicus is strictly military. This one's a combined operation under military jurisdiction."
We slowed for a street junction, then turned right onto a ramp that went below the roadway, emerging onto the cross street. It was to all appearances a typical tree-lined small city Main Street, complete with shops, restaurants, benches, and the rest of the trappings. People were everywhere, walking, riding pedalled three-wheel vehicles or scooting about in electric carts of various colors and several designs.
"Those are privately-owned carts," Lin-Erri told me in response to my unspoken question. "Each person is permitted a personal vehicle, although familes sometimes prefer a single multi-seater if the adults work in the same level. They're able to travel up to a thousand miles between refuelings, and use hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells, which of course provides pollutionless power and usable water as a byproduct."
We continued along this avenue for about a mile. I was amazed at the great variety of building designs. They were very modern, but not at all alien-looking... or was that observation just part of my conditioning? Lin-Erri became serious as she apparently monitored my musings. "There's definitely a flaw in the psych programming. Maybe there's a factor in the Terran psychophysical profile that I've missed or forgotten in the conversion matrix equations. This disturbs me." Her primary occupation as a psychologist was coming through.
Now I was worried. If this body was flawed in these small respects, what of larger, less innocuous defects? After a moment of deep thought, Kalen-Li ventured an opinion. "It occurs to me that our construction of this particular body for Bob relied on information from Darrin Sen's portal computers, and that historically this doesn't always precisely capture the brain's neuronic flow patterns.
"During that finite time the scan requires, there may have been enough variation to introduce an aberration, and our own computers, in trying to either define it or compensate for it, created an imperfectly programmed brain. Remember, there was no seven-gen implant to query, and there always was a sweep-time margin for deviation inherent in the old systems."
"I agree," Lin-Erri said after thinking about his suggestion. "From now on the implant will prevent a recurrence. The question is, why didn't I realize that myself?"
We now approached a rather large, multi-story building with what seemed to be playgrounds off to the sides, where about a hundred little ones were engaged in childish pursuits under the watchful eye of several adults. At designated pickup points on the street, parents were fetching their offspring for the trip home.
"This is one of twenty school buildings located around the city," Kalen informed me. "They also include the pre-school care centers we mentioned earlier. We've discussed education in the past, but we thought that you might like to stop in for a moment and look around." With three of my own in school, the prospect piqued my interest.
We turned off the roadway into a parking recess, deboarded and walked toward the main entrance. A woman who looked for all the world like the universal school principal met us at the door, although our visit was unannounced. "Good afternoon," she said pleasantly. Kalen introduced me and we went inside. There wasn't a doubt in my mind that we were interfering with her after-school activities, but she was more than willing to push them aside to accommodate us. Remarkable people!
One thing immediately noticeable was the absence of the traditional school look that burns itself indelibly into the memory of every Earthling that's been there. The color schemes of the hallways were bright and cheerful, with indirect lighting coming from recesses at the top of the walls. There were no lockers or coatracks, due no doubt to the lack of adverse climate.
Several young children seated on padded benches along the walls greeted us with broad smiles as we walked by, then returned to their discussions or games. One quartet of older students, engrossed with the readouts on their laptop computers, had apparently reached an impasse on some problem.
As we passed them, one looked up and recognized Orii-Val, and with a voice filled with respect, requested his help. The group seemed in reverence of him as he joined them, and they listened to him with unwavering attention as he studied their screens and pointed out where the difficulty had arisen.
When he was finished, they offered him profuse thanks and returned to their work with excitement at having been tutored, however briefly, by Orii-Val himself. When he rejoined us, I said with as much awe in my voice as I could muster, "Astra would have been so PROUD of you!"
"Feh," he said, "I lucked out. It was one of the programs I wrote for the courses on polydimensional math. They were just using one of the subroutines in the wrong place. A simple fix."
Apparently, the expression was new to them. Their laughter rippled up and down the hallways, causing curious looks from students and teachers in the immediate area. At last Lin-Erri composed herself enough to comment, "I believe, my dear Earthman, that you may well have just composed the quintessential epitaph."
"My pleasure entirely," I said. "I only regret that Astra isn't here to add her wisdom to this conversation."
"Astra says you're a hunk," I pointed out. Kalen and Lin-Erri looked at him, wide-eyed with amazement. "Oh, REALLY!" they said as one.
"Well, now, this IS a revelation," Lin-Erri said in hushed tones. Kalen-Li nodded appreciatively. Orii folded his arms and stared at me with a corner-of-the-eye look suggesting a daddy delivering an unspoken comeuppance to his naughty little boy.
"Robert, there ARE some things that are best left unsaid," he informed me with feigned sternness.
"So, malimani," Lin-Erri taunted, "shall we continue this outing?"
I turned to the "principal", who had been content to simply be silent and enjoy the banter and repartee from her visitors. I asked her, "Doesn't the absence of sound isolation lead to interference between classes?"
I looked into one of the rooms, noting immediately the absence of the usual accoutrements. No blackboards, no pull-down maps and charts, none of the expected classroom fixtures. There were comfortable desk-chair combinations, each desk having a recess that would accept one of the computers that the students in the hall were using. The teacher's station was equipped with terminals, a communications console, and controls for the visiscreens that occupied the side partitions.
The principal, whose name I never did learn, explained, "the visiscreens are the link between the teacher and the students. Information can be entered on them from the main terminal, which is duplicated on the students' computers, and the children can in turn access them under teacher control to respond to the displayed material.
"The computers are a small part of the daily routine, but they're an integral part of our educational system. Their main purpose is to take away the drudgery and inefficiency of using writing materials and traditional textbooks. In our schools the emphasis is always on group discussion with all students fully participating. We try to bring out and enhance a student's individual initiative, and to challenge every one of them to the limits of their abilities.
"We place great stress on giving the students the incentive to perform to their peaks, and the environment we provide is calculated to both stimulate that performance and to minimize the aspects that detract from concentration.
"The students' computers can be linked at any time with both school and base libraries, from anywhere in the residential levels. They have immediate access to the equivalent of seven million volumes, even during class time, and they're urged to do it whenever they find the need to research a subject. If something useful is located, it can be transferred to the main screen to be shared by all. In fact, the only things not available to the students are school records and tomorrow's test questions."
"What sort of subjects do you teach here," I asked, seeing no hint of the topics covered in each room.
We finished the tour then, and I looked back at what our schools can be if our administrations ever realize the absolute importance of education in the progress of the world, and decide to provide the time, effort and support that our children deserve. The kids are our world's hope and its future. We short-change them in our schools at our own peril.
We left the class area through a side door and found ourselves in a short corridor leading back to the main hallway. Most of the students had left for the day, but the four teenaged youths who had availed themselves of Orii's expertise were closing up their computer cases. They stopped him long enough to thank him again for his time and to say that his help had cleared up all their difficulties. He in turn thanked them for the opportunity to be of service. We left the building then and returned to our cart.
Once underway again, Kalen asked if I'd like to visit his home, which was on that level. My eagerness must have radiated my answer, because he turned to Orii-Val and said officiously, "To the mansion, Jeeves."
"Very good, sir," Orii replied in a thoroughly proper tone. As we approached the intersection with one of the eight main radial avenues, I noted again how it arched over our street. We turned onto an exit ramp on the right, went under the avenue and merged with the flow of traffic heading outward toward the residential areas on the perimeter.
Kalen explained, "For smooth traffic flow and for safety reasons, none of the intersections with the eight main roads is direct. They're all done by ramps in the manner of the cloverleaf systems used on your highways. In fact, it was our study of them that led us to adopt the technique here. Right turn ramps are on the surface, and left turns go under the intersecting roadway, emerging as an entry ramp on its right. For convention, the first exit ramp is always for a left turn and the second is for the right."
As he finished speaking, an obvious question came to mind. "Assuming that there are presently about 48,000 people in this base, and assuming that about 80% of them are working adults employed elsewhere in the base, divided evenly between shifts and levels, that means almost 13,000 commuters leave this level and return every working day.
"If we allow for car pooling, as we call it on Earth, and married couples riding together, that still leaves probably four to five thousand vehicles coming and going. Obviously the elevators we came down in are entirely inadequate for that much traffic. So, where does it go?"
Kalen-Li took the question. "We're using the elevators for their primary purpose, official business and visitors. If you'll look at the far end of this roadway, you'll see that there's a large opening in the wall. The road doesn't end there, but continues outward into a complex network of tunnels outside the perimeter that connect these three levels with each other and with the other 22 levels.
"Most of those going to the working levels branch off and terminate at what you thought of as parking lots, about 450 of them in all, some holding perhaps two dozen carts and others capable of handling a thousand or more. Other tunnels emerge as entry or exit ramps from the perimeter corridors, or intersect with internal passageways within the levels. To avoid conflicts, all tunnels are one-way, with paralleled tubes for two-way traffic."
I sat back in my seat and marvelled over the enormous feat of engineering and construction that went into building this fabulous facility, and wondered why we pitiful Earthlings are often so adept at designing confusion into things that ought to be simple. It could be that our whole history has been founded on disorder and chaos. We've been too busy thinking up new and more efficient ways of doing dirt to each other to bother developing ordered minds and cultures.
In any case, having ridden on this splendidly effective road system, I look back on my few days of surviving Boston rush-hour traffic and I cringe reflexively.
© 2008 Robert P. Renaud -- all rights reserved