City Under the Stars – Gardner Dozois, Michael Swanwick

IT WAS HIG H SUMMER in Orange, in York, in the Human Domain of Earth. There was commerce in the town, crops in the field, beasts in the byre, bandits in the roads, thants and chimeras in the hills, and God in His Heaven—which was fifteen miles away, due east. From where Hanson worked—on an open platform extending out from the side of the giant State Factory of Orange and nestling right up against the bare, rocky face of Industry Hill—it was possible to look east, out across the teeming squalor of Orange, and see the Wall of the City of God marching north-south across the horizon, making the horizon really: a radiant line drawn across the misty blue of distance, pink as a baby’s thigh, pink as dawn. And to know that it stretched, in all its celestial arrogance, more than two hundred miles to the north, and more than three hundred miles to the south, unbroken, cutting three-quarters of the Human Domain off from the sea—the City of God, perfect and inviolable, with a completeness that was too much for man. That was what Hanson must face every day when he came to work and stood in the sun and in his human sweat with his little shovel. That terrible, alien beauty, indifferent to mortality, forever at his back, a head’s turn away, as he worked, as he grew old. And knowing that God and all the angels were in there, pure and incomprehensible as fire, maybe watching him right now, looking down over the Edge of the Wall and into the finite world: a huge watery eye, tall as the sky. But no one ever thought much about God on shift, not for long. The sun was too hot in summer, the wind too bitter in winter, the work killing in any season, blighting and shriveling a man, draining him dry. There was too much sickness, not enough food, little medicine, little comfort, and only brief bitter joys. It soon became evident that God didn’t care about man, that He paid no more attention to the misery swarming beneath the Wall of His City than man pays to the activities of beetles, that He had no more compassion for humanity’s messy agonies than man had for the suffering and tribulations of mayflies. There were two State Temples of Purified Catholicism visible in the sweep below, and even the encircled cross that marked a kachina shrine, a kiva, but none of them were very well attended. In spite of its proximity to the Wall of the City of God—or perhaps because of it—Orange was not a devoutly religious town. Hanson leaned into his shovel and watched the blade disappear into the coal. The pile sloped up and back, toward the lips of the gullet, through which new lumps of coal would rattle slowly down onto the top of the heap every few seconds, obliging the shift to keep up a steady tempo of work to avoid being swamped.

On heavy days they would have to shovel like fiends to keep up, dumping the coal down chutes into hoppers on the lower transport level of the factory. But no matter how much they sweated, the coal remained undiminished, replenished constantly from the top as fast as they could clear it away from the bottom: a glossy black mountain crawling sluggishly with the unending inching motion of the coal. Hanson had even stopped hating it, regarding it now as a condition to be endured, something too big, impersonal, and constant to rail against, impersonal as a thunderstorm. His mother had told him an ancient tale once—a few months before she’d died in one of the food riots that were an aftermath of the Campaign Against the South— about women with brooms trying to sweep the sea free of salt. He often thought about the tale while on shift, and unlimbered the flinty thing that had served him for a smile the past few years, since his wife, Becky, had died coughing blood in the White Winter four seasons back. It seemed that everyone he had ever known and loved had died, one by one over the falling years, leaving him here in the barren center of nothing, living on and on, alone. He had never wanted it that way. He’d never asked for that. Taking a step backward, Hanson scooped up a shovelful of coal, pivoted smoothly, and tossed it over the curb and into the chute, turning back for another shovelful without bothering to watch the first fall. After years on the job, he could send a steady stream of coal anywhere he wanted it, with pinpoint accuracy, almost without looking.

He placed his foot on the blade, dug it back into the pile, and stopped. Normally he would work like this for hours without stopping, steady as a mechanical thing, his motions flowing into an unbroken cycle. But today—today he could not keep his mind on his job, today he was like a child, distracted by anything, everything, the wind, the sky, the light glinting from his shovel blade. He leaned on the shovel, buried up to the handle in the pile, and watched the gullet spit up some more coal. Somewhere up there, miles deep into the slope, miles beneath Industry Hill, maybe even halfway to Pitt, one of the last surviving Utopian autominers was burrowing and wallowing like a steel whale through a deep vein of coal, exploring the secret roots of the world. No—it was blind, and ate its way past wonders it could never see, so maybe tapeworm would be a better analogy than whale: a robotic, reactor-powered tapeworm that gnawed through Earth’s bowels with adamantine teeth, insatiably tracing the tightening convolutions of the intestines, passing the ore through its indestructible body and voiding it back along the endless tail of the conveyor field to the mouth of the gullet. Where it dribbled onto the pile and tumbled slowly down the grade so that Hanson or one of his shift-mates could scoop it up with a shovel and dump it into a hopper. Hanson had wondered once or twice at the Factory, at Orange, at the State of York—at the incongruity of a society that must use unbelievably sophisticated machines and primitive hand-labor as integral parts of the same industrial process. Horses pulled the loaded ore-hoppers across Orange to the Docks, where a monster Utopian transport waited to carry it on the long journey to the ancient blast furnaces in Pitt, then skirting the Wall to the pockets of industry in the Chesapeake country, and then to the South. Horses and transports, autominers and shovels.

The Utopian machines were used where they could be used, to do the magic work no army of ordinary men could do. Where they couldn’t be used, where there were no machines anymore to be used for that, then the gap was filled in with handlabor, with sweat and broken backs and sudden heart attacks. There were plenty of people after all. And most of those people found nothing odd in the arrangement. Hanson had once worked with the Utopian autominers, years ago, before factory politics and the enmity of Oristano the foreman had started him on the long road down to the Pit, and when he had first arrived at the Pit, at the rock bottom of his career with nowhere to go except death, he had remarked to old Relk in a mixture of bitterness and grim humor that it was too bad they couldn’t scrape up a Goddamned Utopian machine to do the Goddamn shoveling. Relk had merely gaped blankly at him, unable to understand—Hanson might as well have spoken in a foreign language. Work was work; magic was magic; and that was that. Relk could see no incongruities, no connections between the two. He’d sniffed disapprovingly at Hanson and told him he wouldn’t last long in the Pit. But Hanson had worked like a hill demon his first few months in the Pit, and had finally replaced the old shift-leader, Ricciardi, after Ricciardi had died of a heart attack on the job.

But that didn’t cut any ice with Relk, “that didn’t make no never mind” with him, as he would have said. No one lasted in the Pit as long as Relk, in the end. Others were transient; Relk was a permanent fixture. Relk was staring at him now, his leather face wrinkling facilely into deep-worn lines of displeasure, so that he looked like a shriveled, thousand-year-old monkey with a bellyache. Hanson realized that he had been hesitating for a couple of minutes, leaning on his shovel and watching the gullet. He cursed himself wearily. As shift-leader, Hanson had the responsibility of pacing the work, setting the tempo and rhythm. He couldn’t allow himself the luxury of daydreams—at least he wasn’t supposed to. Angrily he scooped up another shovelful of coal, dumped it, came back for another. He forced himself back into the rhythm, concentrating on the movement of his body.

Relk snorted sourly and began shoveling again. Relk had never thought much of Hanson as a shift-leader. Hanson wasn’t dedicated enough. Old Relk had worked the Pit for more than thirty-five years—his skin burned black, his skinny, knotted, cordwood body indestructible—and he’d seen at least ten shift-leaders come and go. None of them had been dedicated enough. Relk was dedicated—so dedicated his intelligence had long ago sunk down to the subhuman, which was why he’d never been chosen for shift-leader. He was totally absorbed by his job. He was his job, so much so that he no longer had any separate existence or identity. In many ways, then, he was the ideal citizen of Orange. He made Hanson’s flesh crawl.

Hanson glanced surreptitiously down the line to see if anyone else had noticed his lapse. Gossard, next down beyond Relk, seemed oblivious to the world, grimly absorbed in his task. He was a little slower in the shoveling than the others—his motions faltered occasionally, the big blade wobbled every so often in his hands. His pale, globular body glistened slickly with sweat. The Pit was hard on Gossard. He was a good man, a friend, and a conscientious worker, but he was absurdly fat—the sickly, flabby fat of a glandular imbalance; few men got enough to eat in Orange to become fat in the traditional manner—and his weight told cruelly on him, especially in the summer. But he was trapped; he wasn’t a fast enough worker to merit advancement out of the Pit, and the blacklist would deny him employment elsewhere if he should quit his job. It was hard enough to live on State salary; people without jobs often didn’t live at all. If Gossard wanted his family to survive, he had to work here. It would kill him someday.

The coal dust bothered him too, and he coughed constantly, great wracking coughs that set his fat to quivering like lard poured into a tub. Hanson wondered sometimes if the dust or a stroke would get Gossard first. Beyond Gossard were the two workers with unpronounceable names who didn’t speak Mercan very well: one burly, bland, and butter-colored; the other as dead-black as the coal, amazingly slight for Pit work, all whipcord muscle and jittery nervous energy—the track marks were vivid up and down his arms and legs, and some days his eyes were nothing but whites swimming with ruptured blood vessels, but as long as he did his work, nobody would complain until the day he finally collapsed. They were openly queer, sitting with sweaty arms wrapped around each other’s necks during breaks and joking in their rapid, incomprehensible dialect, singing and fondling each other in the washroom, grinning obscenely at the other men. Nobody cared about that either, and some people openly envied them: women had been scarce in Orange for a number of years now. Hanson had privately named them Tic and Tac. Tic was now working with insane speed, but spastically, spilling coal, doing a jittery skipping dance dangerously close to the curb with every stroke, unable to remain still even for a second. Tac was slyly screwing off as usual, his face crafty as a cat’s, but Hanson didn’t feel like calling him on it so soon after his own dereliction. He used his return swing for an excuse to glance to his left, where he had been wanting to look from the first, made hesitant by guilt and apprehension. They had put the New Man there this morning, just to Hanson’s left, ostensibly so that Hanson could keep an eye on him.

Hanson knew better. Hanson and Oristano the foreman had been deadly enemies for almost a decade and they understood each other with that special intense intimacy reserved for feuders and lovers. And Oristano’s obscene shark grin this morning, as he introduced the New Man, had told the whole story. Oristano knew Hanson’s pride, knew how it had been slowly battered down over the years until being the fastest, hardest worker in the Pit was the last thing Hanson had left to be proud of, knew how Hanson clung to that brag with the desperation of a drowning man. And that it was no longer true. The New Man was working with the dazzling, rock-steady rhythm he had displayed all morning, calm, fluid, and unrestrained, not even breathing hard. He was a huge bull of a man, a coffee-colored giant with kinky, flaming red hair. He was a solid barrel of muscle, carrying not an ounce of fat, and he was young. He was very young. Hanson had been a factory legend in his own time, but he was almost twenty years older than the New Man, and each day of those years sat like lead on his arms and legs, like a bar of iron across his shoulders.

Hanson knew that he couldn’t beat the New Man, not now, not after half a lifetime of killing labor—the New Man was young, magnificently fresh, fed by a hundred biological springs that had dried up in Hanson long ago. He just couldn’t keep up with him. That was bitter; that was very hard. Maybe he never would have been able to match this monster, even in his prime. That was unendurable. The New Man had seen him daydreaming, like a toothless old fool, just when he would have been establishing his status over the younger man, when he should have been proving that he was still the hardest-working slug in the Pit. He had shamed himself before the New Man, he had disgraced his reputation at the very moment that he needed it the most. He was too old, his brain was going, he couldn’t think anymore. Somebody should shoot him if he was getting that senile, roll him in a ditch, cover him up before he started to rot out in the open air. And the New Man was easily matching Hanson’s quickest pace, with the unthinking grace and sureness of the young.

In fact, it was obvious that he could go much faster if he wanted to but that he was restraining himself, he was deliberately holding himself back to Hanson’s slower tempo. The New Man was being polite. And Hanson stopped thinking, except with his body. Hanson began working faster, without volition—faster and faster, like a mechanical toy speeding up to a blur, wound too tight, out of control. The New Man matched him easily, stroke for stroke. Gossard faltered, dropped out. Tic and Tac kept up a little longer and then stopped, panting, watching in awe. Old Relk continued to work at his own personal speed, ignoring everybody, shaking his head at the decadence of the world. The New Man had finally moved ahead of Hanson, opening up all the way. Hanson couldn’t keep up.

Already he had fallen three or four strokes behind— To Hanson, it was as if the sun had melted and poured down over him in a cascade of scalding molten gold—he breathed it stabbingly into his lungs, it stripped the flesh from his bones, it broiled the marrow in the sockets, it piled up mountainously on his shoulders and crushed him with the weight of the sky. Slowly his legs buckled under the mass of the sky-mountain. He was talking to Becky now, and they were walking together through a high open meadow where the grass and trees were made all of ice, and flowers sprinkled like searfrost. But he couldn’t keep up with her because the mountain was too heavy and he couldn’t put it down. He tried to run after her, but the mountain crushed him like a giant’s thumb and the icy ground softened to mud under his feet, and he sank into it under the mountain, floundering, sinking deeper and deeper. No matter what he had to stop. He did. The shovel saved Hanson from actually falling. He leaned against it, legs rubbery, knees flexed, breath rasping in his throat. Oristano’s face swam under his eyelids.

It superimposed itself over the coal-mountain, the two things merging into an inhuman, undefeatable entity—a god of black malignancy. He opened his eyes. Slowly, his vision cleared. Planes of bloody shadow resolved into the New Man, who was staring at him with a worried, embarrassed expression. He caught Hanson’s eye and smiled hesitantly—he didn’t want to rub Hanson’s face in his victory. He was still being very polite. Gossard caught the tension in the air and went doggedly back to work, not wanting to watch Hanson’s final humiliation. Tac made an obscure, fatalistic gesture with his fingertips; Tic stroked his shoulder, pursed wet lips—they started shoveling again. Relk looked around with an air of sly, senile vindication, made a muffled hunh sound, and turned away, muttering something about dedication to the coal pile as he dug his blade into it. Hanson drew himself up.

His arms and back throbbed as if they had been beaten with clubs and there was no strength in his legs; he wobbled in spite of his best efforts to brace himself. The New Man pretended not to notice. Hanson ran his tongue around his lips, tasted blood, swallowed it. Defeat slumped his spine, burned his brain to ash. He waited for some ashen thought to filter down through his new ash brain, but no thought came— it was as barren as the Moon. Sternly, he took control of his face and forced himself to smile back at the New Man. It wasn’t really his fault; he was a good boy. Blame himself instead. Blame Oristano. Blame Time.

The New Man relaxed, visibly relieved—his smile broadened into a grin from which with all the best will in the world, it was impossible for him to keep a trace of satisfied triumph. This is his hour, Hanson thought, let him enjoy it. He was being good about it anyway, out of respect for Hanson’s reputation. How very strange that was. When had living admiration become respect for a legend? How could the line have slipped up on him and past without his notice? Had he been that blind? Wasn’t he still the same man he’d always been, below the old bones? The New Man fished in his pocket and came up with a narc. He scratched the stick on his hip; the narc flared and then guttered to an orange ember-glow at its tip. A wisp of smoke curled up around his massive forearm like the ghost of a snake. The New Man offered the narc to Hanson: a friendly monster, smiling and huge, sweat runneling his broad face. Hanson hesitated, studying the sweaty giant, and then took the narc. He put the horntipped end of the resin stick in his mouth and sipped deeply, holding a smoldering pine forest in his lungs.

The New Man produced another narc. They stood smoking together while the sun baked them dry of sweat. Coal rustled unheeded around their feet. “Hot sumbitch, a’n’t it?” the New Man said. “Ai,” Hanson said, trying not to sound too much like a dead man. Prodding himself: “A’ways is, this time of year. Freeze your ass off in winter though. A’ways one or the other, up here. You a’n’t never going to be comfortable.” “Ai.

” The New Man was staring out across the sweep of Orange: seas of hunched, dirty roofs, narrow alleys, smoke-belching chimneys, here and there the broken skeleton of a ruined Utopian building towering above the squalor, picked clean, naked and pathetic. “Can see a hell of a ways, though, up here,” the New Man said enthusiastically. “Most all of the city I’ll bet, near about.”

.

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