Paradise Gardens by Susan I. Weinstein - Read Online
Paradise Gardens
0% of Paradise Gardens completed

About

Summary

Weinstein’s PARADISE GARDENS is an Orwellian speculative fiction set in a near future world, where the Federal government has dissolved amid ecological breakdown. In the 2250s, Nate Greenfield, real estate visionary, with the help of P.R. maven Madge Chilton, sells corporate business on his “eden underground.”  PARADISE GARDENS becomes the home of the United Business Estates (U.B.E). Left behind are the Unconnected, people outside corporate protection. Capitalism has devolved into the corporate feudalism of the U.B.E., where employees are conceived as Superior or Average to fit the needs of business.

Suspended between the settings of 2250s on the Earth's surface in NYC and 3011s underground, chapters alternate with a revolving cast of characters. Fates are determined by the Psychologicians, who manage the civilization’s data base. Yet, when model employee Janet McCarthy finds herself caught in a web of alternate identities, only her lover Michael can attempt to cut her loose. At stake, is the reset of the planet. In this cautionary near-future, Sinclair Lewis’ classic It Can’t Happen Here, has already happened. It is a vision at once strange and familiar. The recognition it brings is a dark pleasure.
 

Published: Pelekinesis on
ISBN: 9781938349515
List price: $9.95
Availability for Paradise Gardens
With a 30 day free trial you can read online for free
  1. This book can be read on up to 6 mobile devices.

Reviews

Book Preview

Paradise Gardens - Susan I. Weinstein

You've reached the end of this preview. Sign up to read more!
Page 1 of 1

—S.W.

Chapter 1

Year 3011, Underground, the United Business Estates

First Came Superstition

Janet McCarthy wasn’t proud of her compulsion to cross-reference her life with the horoscopes in women’s magazines but she no longer hid it. Her boundaries were within sanity. Horoscopes in monthly magazines were one thing, tabloid Jean Dixon blurbs quite another. Just a human need for entertainment, she told herself, a diversion from her tough responsibilities as claims adjustor at Rudimental Life, the chief underwriter for the United Business Estates. Horoscopes gave handy archetypes, a way to understand your life within a time period. Comforting outcomes that were not entirely in her hands.

Janet’s business decisions often set precedents for policies of the Estates, because she could be clear-cut about claims that were ambiguous. She was unusually skillful at reconciling facts within the limitations of policies, except for the Robinson case. She couldn’t figure out why. The facts were similar to many claims that crossed her desk. It was the particulars that were disturbing: the man’s appearance, the date of the accident, the sequence of events. And this nagging feeling of familiarity with a complete stranger.

A little discipline, she admonished herself, switching on her computer terminal for another look.

Robinson appeared a hard-working man in his 40s with light-colored chamois gloves hooked into his belt. He wore a tentative smile and thinning hair pushed back for the camera. He looked solid, except for the chance accident that brought him to her attention.

Seven years ago Robinson had been injured on his job at a cement factory in South Bend, Indiana. He’d been mixing ceramic components but the substance used as a catalyst had been substituted for a binder used in larger quantities. Robinson had been in the way of the explosion; a single error, a lone victim, no witnesses—too convenient? Coworkers had corroborated his wife’s story about increasing lapses of memory following the accident. A month afterward he disappeared. She was petitioning the United Business Estates for widow status to receive the benefits of Rudimental Life’s insurance policy for Average employees. Injury on the job leading to death was a legitimate claim for payment. And the result of Robinson’s injury—his possible brain damage—was relevant, though unproven. But all too often in the U.B.E. the consequences of such damage, alleged amnesia or another disorder, meant disappearance not death.

Janet should have informed Robinson’s wife that if her husband had been killed on the job there would be no question of her eligibility. She didn’t have the heart for that, especially when the facts contradicted her hunch that Robinson was alive. (Abandoned wives were sad parentheses in any report.). Janet brought Robinson’s image into closer focus. She noticed two dots, which she guessed weren’t dust. Magnification confirmed what she suspected—a tiny scar resting above the eyebrow and one on the side of the wrist. The first was half-moon shaped, the second a vertical line. Neither was listed in his file under the heading, BODY MARKINGS. Yet both were significant indications that his personal plastics work, surgery required for employment, had lagged behind the accident.

It was probably one in a series that had marred his body, yet allowed him the floating status prized by members of the Unconnected. Seizing false identities, these illegals damaged operations within the Estates, before disappearing with an untraceable condition. They cheated the U.B.E by subverting labor pools and increasing the tithe burden on the public. Janet just knew Robinson was alive and wouldn’t mind nailing him, if it weren’t for his wife. Why should she suffer for her husband’s treachery? And why did Janet care?

SORRY, DESERTION ISN’T CONSIDERED THE EQUIVALENT OF DEATH, Janet typed. The sentence dismayed her. She knew the claim was false, the tip of a small but growing threat to the U.B.E. Robinson’s wife was probably involved. So why did was she letting them off with a simple denial of benefits, instead of investigation?

There was the odd coincidence that the date of the accident, seven years ago last spring, was also the date of her first peak experience as an employee of Rudimental; the first day she felt connected to her job in the significant way desired by the U.B.E. There were the scars she could have described without magnification and the peculiar sense of déjà vu she felt about Robinson’s whole appearance; as though he were a good friend masquerading in some clever costume. It was incomprehensible that she felt sentimental about him. Janet’s psychologician might have an explanation though she would resist that call. Autonomy might be a regressive instinct but she stubbornly retained it; deep as DNA and beyond reprogramming.

A cheery female voice chirped Rudimental’s lunchtime theme. She would finalize the Robinson case after her break. Janet put her screen to sleep and opened her refrigerator drawer. She removed a tuna on rye, along with her horoscope chart and an envelope of raw copy from her life and popular magazines. She bit into the sandwich mechanically, thinking she couldn’t help her attraction to astrology, a fact her new boyfriend, Michael, seemed unable to accept. When did you start reading horoscopes and why? he asked repeatedly. It violates the rationalism so vital for your occupation.

Her superstition had become an issue in their relationship. She had to find a reason that would satisfy him. It wasn’t easy. How could an aristocrat understand her needs? Michael had declared his loyalty to the U.B.E. in the usual rituals but he was unhindered by the will of an estate. He chose his occupation, while she was merely a professional dreaming of a future without continual overtime.

Janet laid out blocks of copy. The stars had ancient descriptions of personalities like hers. Why couldn’t Michael be more tolerant? After all—she almost blushed—he was unorthodox about more dangerous compulsions. Why pick on her horoscope?

You live like an Indian staring at the moon, he said, when she first confided her secret. You’re too passive, just letting things happen. Wake up, Janet! How can you call an escape a system for living? Janet was sorry she had revealed herself. She liked his muscular legs, which looked more than cosmetic. She liked his genuinely crooked teeth and the way he smiled not trying to hide them. She didn’t want Michael to think she was flakey. New York men were touchy. You took your chances.

She had decided to sleep with Michael on their third date, in harmony with his forecast for romance. They had turned up Bleeker Street on the way to his apartment. If he proved too weird, she could always leave. But things would probably be okay. Michael came with fine references from their mutual friend in the records department. Even so, walking on his arm that first night, Janet felt paranoid. In front of a parrot store, she noticed a girl with waist-length blonde hair looking fixedly at a pair of million dollar love-birds. The girl’s pure profile was interrupted by a growth of beard. She turned and displayed the stub of an arm. The freak was wearing a gingham dress over a lace-trimmed petticoat.

Michael was unmoved. Freaks were not all that uncommon. Even average people were no longer displaying an expected surface appearance but some hidden opposite. Ambiguity was no longer just an intriguing aspect of personality. Janet wished she knew Michael better; wished she knew the safe precincts—taboos negotiated warily by competent family psychologicians. Michael did not fit the ordinary personality profiles.

I think I’ll call it a night, she said half-way up Bleeker Street.

You have no reason to be chicken, Michael said, I’m a decent human being.

Please explain.

Michael kissed Janet on the lips, insistent on emotional connection. His intensity shocked her, hinting at the forbidden forms of sex. Sleeping with someone was one thing, direct contact quite another.

I’m Caucasian, Michael said, I’m educated and I make money. I live on Earth in a functional, if not extravagant place. I like women, you in particular, and want to sleep with you. My tastes are not quite missionary but neither are yours, I imagine.

Michael ran his hand lightly up her side, ribs to armpit, careful not to wander to her breast—not without the right equipment. Janet was relieved. He could be trusted to keep within the legal boundaries for safe sex.

I travel. Tonight, tomorrow, next week I’ll be around. After that, I can’t say, he said, seeming genuinely rueful.

Janet surprised herself by kissing him hard on the mouth, implying all the risks he had allayed. I find it difficult to accept the implications of my feelings, she said. If you’re not around much, it’s all right.

Old habits die hard, Janet thought in retrospect, knowing why she had disregarded the sexual bans. Her past may have been reconstructed but her emotional orientation remained primitive. She hated the stultifying price of conformity in the U.B.E. So in a moment of illegal intimacy, she had confessed her horoscope compulsion placing her professional integrity at Michael’s mercy—a man she barely knew!

How had this happened? She was a marital floater, who had remained uncommitted for years! Human resources had erroneously sent men attracted by the maternal, compassionate aspects of her personality profile. Most applicants wanted less emotional, more aggressive—she didn’t know what these men wanted. She did know she wanted Michael. Why did she have to decipher her life from the oblique advice in women’s magazines?

Janet knew commercial slants. Bizarre was silver-spoon oriented for the chic businesswoman socialite. Glimmer focused on lateral career and apartment moves for the young working woman. Myself focused on physical development and emotional swings of middle-level careerists, while Copula combined sexual and redecorating know-how. Janet weeded out romantic hooks, marketing ploys and her own wishful thinking, when she interpreted her horoscope. She was left with Spruce up your appearance, Pay attention to family matters, Attend to household chores, and Humor a loved one’s demands.

Janet hoped for coherent direction for her life. GOD DOES NOT PLAY WITH DICE, the motto over the portals of Rudimental Life, offered little inspiration. If there were patterns for existence, only Einstein could read them, she once told her psychologician. She was seated cross-legged on a pillow, her eyes closed in meditation, when she confessed that she wanted to believe in the U.B.E.

In a gentle voice he had asked, When did you develop a need for inner conviction?

I don’t know there was a specific time.

Past emotional content is key to your devotion to Rudimental Life. I know it was traumatic when… he led her with a compassionate voice.

She opened her eyes onto his white robed figure. His shiny head was bowed. Mesmerizingly, he intoned oom. The sound transported her back to the witness stand, when she testified. Her family was humiliated by the spectacle. The benches were full.

What was she saying? Her mouth was open, her face ashen with emotion but she couldn’t make out the content. Public testimony followed the consolidation of the corporations under the U.B.E. How could such a charged memory be so indistinct? She let herself drift further on the psychologician’s chanting. A focus came. She had run away from an estate and been apprehended. With incredible despair, Janet recalled words of sad inevitability:

Information does not make us free. Enlightenment did not bring about economic fulfillment. We are happiest when our work is fulfilling. I have lost my previous expectations for life and will handle my assignments with grace. I discard my existential ambiguity and grant my psychologician the burden of spiritual uncertainty. Never again will I run away from responsibility.

After a nebulous interval, she returned to the stand, swore her support and regained her family’s slot at Rudimental Life. She told her psychologician about a distant feeling of despair, something incommunicable to Michael. He would simply point out that if she liked her job, she would have fewer doubts to lose in planetary movements.

Most of her colleagues were happy, opting for mobility through internal or lateral moves. They broadened their skill bases and passed options to their offspring. The strategy was not only rational but fulfilled the spiritual aspiration for self-improvement cherished by all professionals, except Janet. She had more confidence in her cryptic method of divination.

CUT YOUR HAIR. CALL MOM ON HER BIRTHDAY. TAKE CLOTHES TO THE CLEANERS. BE PATIENT WITH MICHAEL’S QUESTIONS. Janet copied these actions onto white labels. The last was infuriating. How dare he probe her family background, former lovers, apartment history, occupational base, and even her financial destiny?

Who did he think he was to question her life? He had no need of fantasy. An ancestral stockpile of uranium was the foundation of his independence. His family was an individual subsidiary estate. What could he know of the pain that went with a muted personality? She only dared to do this work manually, under her computer’s slumbering eye.

Janet positioned her labels onto her chart of the cosmos, remembering the trauma of her first surgery. She had donned youth, the official employment mask, and dutifully schooled herself in optimism. Plastic had given her a new face but her soul was anachronistic. When rebellion crept into the Estates in fashionable compulsions, was she willing to embrace the first superstition that came along?

Michael had too much freedom to believe in fashion. She would have less to explain, if he was old enough to put himself in her shoes! It was hard to tell. She was in her 50s and looked 25. Michael, who looked 40, might be 20. Most people couldn’t afford to match their faces with their psyches until retirement. Professional aberration or not, Janet would have to ask Michael’s age. Then she would know how to answer his query.

Before pasting the labels onto the chart, Janet scanned for discrepancies between her actions and cosmic progressions. Tonight the process stimulated a bizarre link between her horoscope and the Robinson case. CUT YOUR HAIR brought to mind a vision of Robinson’s thinning hair.

How could phrases trigger fragments of a memory she didn’t possess? Was she simply imagining the case history in an unusual, if frighteningly vivid way? She was overexcited about Michael. Was she projecting personal anxiety onto her professional identity? She must resolve their conflict tonight!

No confrontation was worth this insanity. CALL YOUR MOM ON HER BIRTHDAY evoked a discussion, in which Robinson said it was time for him to disappear. TAKE CLOTHES TO THE CLEANERS ticked off visions of chamois gloves and work clothes. Janet pasted the labels onto her chart, focusing on Michael’s reality. He wouldn’t use her confession about horoscopes to his economic advantage. He didn’t have to with his own estate. Objects had been plentiful for so many generations he actually believed a man’s life should merit something greater than himself.

Dealing antiques allowed him to combine an exciting quest with the merits of history. Michael was definitely noble, not a man you met through human resources referrals. Janet didn’t want to alienate him but NO APOLOGIES, not for her horoscope or any professional maladjustment!.Why was she so worried about Michael? Had the Robinson case unnerved her? It was not an unusual claim, except for her sense not just that it was fake, but that it held some personal importance.

FORGET IT! Janet propped her finished chart against her terminal. Her course of action was clear. She and Michael would be naked, their bodies encircled. She would relate her reasons for doing horoscopes. He could laugh at her idiocy, if he liked. It wouldn’t matter. In that cozy locus, she’d intuit his true feelings.

Chapter 2

Year 2250, The Earth’s Surface

The Selling of Paradise Gardens

Madge reached the peeling brown and gold enameled elevator doors and hit the Up button.

If Madge Chilton wasn’t sure she was alive, it was clear she wasn’t dead. The problem was a matter of personal style and professional necessity. Being pleasant and agreeable was the stock and trade of public relations. Who cared about the emotional burn-out after decades of calculated pleasantness—her real personality mourned like a memory? Eject self-pity, she thought, crossing the eerily deserted lobby of the crumbling New York Sheraton. You can’t afford it. Wasn’t it her reputation for equanimity that helped her win Paradise Gardens?

Madge reached the peeling brown and gold enameled elevator doors and hit the Up button. Where was Security at 9:30 Sunday morning? The conference was at ten. Greenfield was expecting her to deliver his guests in good condition. No easy teleconference for this job, the content was too sensitive. Why they needed outside PR and Greenfield had chosen her when he could have had anyone. Cracker-jack, he said. Big agency quality yet small enough for the personal touch. Small is right, she thought, examining herself in a mirror beyond re-silvering. She pressed the elevator button and took a last professional look.

Only 5’3" but she could inspire confidence. Madge’s dark brown pageboy bobbed around her jaw line in a precise curve. Her neat die-cut features were also precise, a theme echoed throughout her thin body encased in a vintage Chanel-like suit. And the look needed little maintenance. She made a small adjustment to her pageboy wig with scarcely a thought for the once rare, now not all that uncommon allergy that led to hair loss. Otherwise, she was amazingly intact for thirty-five, especially for those working in non-corporate environments in the late 2250’s.

The elevator banged to a sharp halt a foot below the floor line. So much for the twentieth century, she thought, climbing down onto a powdery gray carpet. No longevity to synthetics, she tsk-ed. Madge pressed Empire Room, hoping the elevator could find it. Madge checked her purse for her elevator kit, the pocket acetylene torch and nylon cord for impromptu hikes between floors. She also found her contract with the Sheraton, which spelled out their obligation to supply security, digital display listing the meeting, easel signs, projector and screen for power point, pitchers of drinkable water. They also were to receive a box of physical press kits for corporate honchos and Human Resources.

Behind the softly thudding door of The Empire Room, Madge saw folding tables, her box of kits, a few empty pitchers. Well the security and signs were a bust and once again, she’d have to hunt for AV equipment. With the collapse of digital media in the late 2030’s, revival projectors and screens were at a premium. The sudden series of sun flares that collapsed the grid were called the hand of God by vigilantes, who destroyed skeletons of systems that remained.

Technology became invisible, private and rudimentary in an unconnected world. With scarce access to materials and suppliers, cities had emergency systems for every day and husbanded energy within guarded compounds. She had paid the Sheraton to insure the risk.

Madge wheezed, spotting dust-laden drapes and, poking out behind them, a projection panel. Her throat tightened. An inhaler was in her purse.

Quick puffs took her over dubious rugs to the ladies room. She sat on the floor, sprayed into her mouth and breathed. Eyes closed, she willed the relaxation mechanism to take over her body. Once again she reviewed her pitch. Imagine Paradise Gardens. If you can’t leave the City, go underground! Discover a business situation where you’re completely the boss, on your own estate. No outside interference at all!

Her throat was open, she was breathing easier now, the pitch ran smoothly through her brain.

An initial investment and monthly fee are a small outlay for a uniquely stable environment. What you leave behind: Madge paused to spray more medicine. Now came the visuals. New York City at rush hour. Close-up on boarded-up subway toll booths and sealed Metro-card swipers. A long line of employees give a transit policeman corporate tokens. He deposits them in a locked box guarded by another transit employee. Tension, as each passenger is allowed through the gate. Another close shot of the policeman’s rifle. Close to the barrel, a ragged derelict raves about putting Public back into transportation. The policeman looks at him indulgently, relaxing a microsecond. The derelict blows up the station and takes the box. Close on the derelict’s arm sans rags. Revealed are undisguised tattoos, ritual scars distinguishing a gang-man.

Then recognizable images with impact, Madge thought. People blanked–out, transit blow–ups, a gang takeover of the subway, a carpool abduction. Though corporate Human resources departments encouraged the use of helmets, a means of processing such trauma, the effect was not complete. Subliminally, many people knew what was going on. And the higher echelons, the corporate planners and strategists Nate Greenfield had invited, probably didn’t use the device. The reminder would be powerful.

Madge got up from the floor. She felt well and confident about her pitch for PARADISE GARDENS. As long as the equipment works, her last affirmation, before exiting the bathroom to return to the lobby and meet Nate. She found lobby lights and behind the reception desk some old cardboard. From her purse, she took a cherished old-stock felt-tip and lettered Empire Room, when she realized someone was behind her, Nate creepily smiling away. His sense of humor, she thought with irritation. Someday, maybe never, she would tell him he smiled like an ecstasy cultist.

New York’s an open sewer, he greeted her.

See Paradise Gardens, she responded, Eden underground, an environmental throwback to a time that never was.

Funny, said Nate. Anyone would be convinced. There seems to be a personnel issue?

And missing equipment, I want to take a look around. Madge threw the manual lock behind the reception desk and waited. No siren or flashing lights. She might have been a nihilist for all they cared. Nate was smiling but with a shade of concern.

Security is good here despite what you might think, he said.

Is that a fact?

I would not have signed otherwise. I gave workshops here.

Madge taped the sign to the front of the reception desk.

They are still rated the best in New York, said Nate.

There are clever honchos who moved their headquarters to Montana thinking the air was still pure.

The desire to live. We resuscitated it in Empowerment seminars. Pivotal work, you must know The Enlightenment Group?

Madge handed him her marker and cardboard. We need another sign, she said, instead of her belief that empowerment was an insidious ideology; It appealed to retro New-Age techies. Madge had never been crazy about retro anything. Then she saw the light.

Beyond the front desk was a small fluorescent-lit corridor. An inner office, behind a Plexiglas divider, held a beige-looking woman staring at an ancient P.C. Madge knocked on the divider. The woman’s eyes stayed on the screen. Her hands reached for what Madge hoped was not a weapon, perhaps a security button?

No signs in the lobby, Madge said.

Maintenance is not here on weekends. I’m back office not hospitality, the woman stated indifferently.

We contracted for items for our conference in the Empire Room, 10 AM?

Our clients bring their own staff, said the woman. Isn’t that what you are?

You have fifteen minutes to supply the items specified or I invoke the stop-payment clause. Madge held up a corporate payment card threateningly.

The woman laid a revolver on her computer table. Bored, she recited, The second half payment is due before the client leaves. You can guess the enforcement capability of our security staff?

Do you have any? Madge challenged.

I’ll get your contract, said the woman.

Paradise Gardens, said Madge, taking it out of her purse. The woman flickered vague recognition.

I will publicize your non-delivery of services to all existing media outlets. The Sheraton could close. No corporate protection, you’re on the street.

With clear resentment, the woman accessed the contract. She revolved to face Madge. We got one man and he’s at lunch. I can get you cardboard…

I found that, said Madge with real menace. Where’s our digital display?

People risk coming here, you think they won’t find the Empire Room?

Madge turned her back in answer. A monitor would record a shot. Would the woman risk it? The voice that called was conciliatory. When the electronic display broke, it was too hard to get fixed. We have movable type for the lobby sign but not all the letters. If you keep it simple…

Someone will meet me at the front desk now?

I’ll page maintenance. He’ll come when he can.

Madge walked. I’ll pay when he does.

The woman regretfully chimed, Don’t know why they promise you things.

Idiocy, Madge said to Nate waiting at reception.

You do better encouraging the best than threatening the worst.

Spare me the platitude?

Motivating people is about sensitivity. My work shows you can change lives by changing thoughts.

I am among the unenlightened, said Madge.

I was a graduate student in psychology when I first took empowerment training. I gained enough confidence to change course and become an urban planner. I listened and heard an inner voice. For me, helping people meant planning better places for them to work. I believe there’s a social destiny embodied in every building. Office buildings should respond to more than a corporation’s image or physical needs.

If the trouble was all within, why are things so bad on the outside, Madge thought but only nodded; glad when a purposeful man approached the reception desk. Are you looking for Paradise Gardens? she inquired brightly.

Exactly, said the man.

I’m Madge Chilton, this is Nate…

Michael! Nate interjected. You are the first to arrive. Michael Thorpe is a solo entrepreneur.

Lone wolf in this group, said Michael.

Many of us started that way. Madge is my PR person and a complete joy to work with.

Can she say that about you? asked Michael, with a wink to Madge. Nate does pontificate. I can’t believe I’m voluntarily subjecting myself, except he’s got a track record for being prescient.

Charming, Madge observed and handsome but I’ve never heard of the guy. She must have written pieces on or for every major player and organization, even connected entrepreneurs. This guy was below the radar.

We’ll go up, said Nate, ushering Michael toward the elevators. Madge has to see a man about a sign.

Madge watched them enter the elevator, wondering about the strange connection, as a largely built well-suited executive with a flushed face was upon her. Paradise Gardens, do you know where it is?

Empire Room, Nate’s there.

He extended his hand. Jack Hagley, EMI Corporation.

Madge, she said, briefly taking it. Side elevator.

She pointed her finger in the right direction thinking, EMI, a significant player. Hagley has a tailor on salary somewhere. Perhaps Nate had met him while pushing Empowerment? The program was big bucks in the inspiration business during the first downsizings in the 20th century. An HR darling, Counseling was more cost-effective than retraining employees or retooling factories. When the individual felt entirely responsible for his fate, a dead-end life was obviously a failure of motivation. No longer did employees blame their companies or the government. They blamed themselves. And, if they blamed their stars, astrological counselors abounded. The beginning of our end of the end, she thought. So many corporations went under, dinosaurs sinking into the swamp. Nate’s invitees were the survivors.

A man in shabby Sheraton shirt and overalls appeared with a tray of type.

We used to have a display… he began apologetically.

The type fits the directory?

Sure but it’s time-consuming to make words.

A very hands-on proposition, Madge agreed, soon realizing he was unable to spell with the available letters. She arranged the type on his trays, thinking of Scrabble. On this job she was certainly earning her fee.

At last, she was on her way back to the Empire Room with a group of executives, lightly pitching Paradise Gardens. The men needed little convincing. They knew the world would not be a better place to live, at least in their lifetimes. Even she was becoming convinced, wondering if Nate could get her a job. Then she got hold of herself. As long as I can pay my co-op’s security fee.

Outside the Empire Room, Nate signed in the new guests.

What about the power point? Madge whispered.

Functional, Nate grimaced. Wait five minutes for stragglers.

Madge compared the sign-in sheets to her RSVP list. Here were familiar names of CEOs. All men, in fact, all white men with the exception of two Asians and one Hispanic. Where were the women who once assumed themselves equivalent to such men? Self-employed, if fortunate enough to be connected to a corporate entity; how else could a single mom raise kids and still eat?

Late 21st century was the last time moms, who were welfare recipients, stayed home with their kids. before sterility became the means to a government check. Now there were no checks; not even heating fuel for those Unconnected to any corporate entity. Some were desperate enough to burn their homes around them. Nate better have ordered my limo, Madge thought with a jolt of paranoia. She didn’t feel like picking her way through the Midtown bonfires. Her co-op was a safe haven but she had to get there. Not yet.

Softly, Madge let herself into the darkened Empire Room. On the wall panel was an overhead view of a suburban shopping center. It zoomed down inside to a surgery center and its crowded emergency room. People tightly held paper slips. An anxious woman clung to hers. Repeatedly, she asked what number had been called, as she comforted a sick child. Suddenly, that image cut to a miraculously pristine Fifth Avenue; completely empty.

Where are the people? asked a resonant voice Madge recognized as Michael Thorpe’s. On the business estates of Paradise Gardens, Nate answered. At lunch hour you’ll see inspired employees walking this avenue. Behind him was an artist’s rendering of immaculately attractive people cheerfully strolling on Fifth Avenue.

Sequence three was a simulation of Central Park underground. The way our founding fathers intended it, Nate intoned, a luscious panorama of hedges, trees and lawns. The air is so clear you can make out shapes of individual trees. Close-up was a pond transparent to the bottom with sparkling clean water. Our architects have created a dream come true. Paradise lost is regained, but commitment is crucial. Major construction will be complete in ten years. You may think we’re rushing but the surface will not be able to support life even in our reduced state.

Nate turned on the lights and motioned Madge to the lectern. Employees prefer one fixed payroll deduction for housing over the rollercoaster speculation of market and interest rates, she began pragmatically. Ownership of an equivalent unit in Paradise Gardens is a desirable swap. Paradise Gardens is a living situation you control but you must make commitment a priority.

Am I communicating, she wondered, staring into expressionless faces. Only Thorpe looked something and that was hostility. She expected also skepticism, which came from a young Asian man. Perhaps Indonesian or Japanese, she guessed. "Isn’t an underground