This is Chapter Two of the planned novel entitled Metroplex Manila. The Prologue and Chapter One can be found here.
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By Michael A.R. Co
His name was Mr. Wang, Mr. Ingmar Wang. His handler gave him the name, saying it was easier for non-Chinese to pronounce and remember instead of the more phonetically accurate Wang Ying Men’r. His visa also listed him as a Regional Sales Executive of “River Lakes Enterprising Entertainments, Ltd.” (which also sounded better in the original Mandarin).
As he looked out the eastern window of the Trans-Pacific Shuttle, he thought he spotted the legendary storm towers of the Jubilee Energy Corporation. He knew this was impossible, and what he saw was merely a trick of light. The first rays of the day struck the frost that accumulated in his window, obscuring his view of the cloudless horizon.
He was one of half-a-dozen business class passengers aboard the supersonic flight. The others were a group of loud Australians, which had boarded at a stopover in Metro Sydney, and one chubby Chilean national, which Ingmar ignored throughout the entire trip since they departed Metro Santiago. Before the Aussies arrived, the Chilean had given him his digital business card: he claimed he was a talent scout for a Brazilian modeling agency. He thought that Ingmar had a look that could sell well in the Empire. He was also a bit touchy; when they shook hands, the Chilean held it longer than usual.
“You look familiar,” said the Chilean.
“I’m Chinese,” said Ingmar. “We all look familiar.”
“You have a nice face,” the Chilean said. “A handsome face. You can be a model. We will pay you well.”
Ingmar politely declined but the Chilean wouldn’t take no for an answer. With a nerve pinch on the elbow, Ingmar “convinced” the Chilean to return to his seat, and the chubby man now sat quietly a few rows in front of Ingmar. The pain in his arm would go away after a few hours.
When the four Australians arrived, they took the entire left row. Even though it was a small shuttle, there was still a first class cabin, consisting of only two seats, which they were wastefully empty on this flight. First class was exclusively reserved for citizens and residents of Metroplex Manila.
Ingmar’s handler booked the flight for him well in advance. If he wanted to return to Metro Beijing safely, he was told to humble himself and “eat bitter,” an old Chinese expression that implied lots of hard work. Indeed, it took a lot of work to ignore the Australians.
Over the centuries, Australian speech had deteriorated into an unrecognizable drawl that, in any group larger than three, would sound no different from drunken yodeling farm animals. Even with his trained ear, all Ingmar could understand was they were going to attend a special six-month program to learn remedial English in Metroplex Manila’s Korean Colony. The rest their conversation was squealing gibberish.
“Good morning everyone,” came the voice of the pilot, who spoke in a more understandable Hispanic accent. “This is your captain speaking. We will be arriving at the South-East Metroplex Manila Flipside Terminal in half-an-hour. Air speed is Mach 1.2, weather is clear, and if you look to your right, you might see the storm towers of the Jubilee Energy Corporation.” After a pause, the captain chuckled. “I’m just kidding, guys. This is a commercial flight and we wouldn’t want to get shot down.”
Some of the Aussies cussed, but it sounded like a cough. They returned to their side of the shuttle, leaving Ingmar alone again in peace.
“However,” continued the captain, “if you look to your left, you should be able to see the southern border of Metroplex Manila. It should look like a long thin raincloud about an inch above the sea.”
The Aussies hogged their respective windows. The chubby Chilean didn’t have a chance to catch even a glimpse. Ingmar stayed in his seat and closed his eyes. He had seen it many times.
The Metroplex Archipelagic Empire ruled the Pacific Rim. Its capital, Metroplex Manila — which its citizens simply referred to as “The Metroplex” — floated three kilometers above sea level like a second horizon. The main platform covered Taiwan in the north, stretching all the way to Sabah in the south; smaller platforms hovered above the Spratleys in the west and Guam in the east.
The Chinese Communo-Capitalist Party tried to investigate the secret to this so-called “hovurban” technology. The official propaganda from Beijing was that the Metroplex was set up by the alien Anasazi when they returned to Earth many generations ago, destroying the United States of America and appointing the Navajo nation as clandestine stewards, promising to return again after a thousand years. This was the simplest explanation and the public accepted it. For this reason, China had allied itself with the AZTEC Confederacy in South America and had funded the maintenance of a large Sino-AZTEC military base in the Panama Canal.
There was one problem. Ingmar knew, just as all Party members knew, that the Anasazi had absolutely nothing to do with the construction of Metroplex Manila; that the Beijing government just needed an excuse to build more military bases; and that the real reason why the Metroplex itself stays afloat continues to be both a mystery and a threat to twenty-five billion Chinese.
China was ninety-five percent urbanized; and although many of her skyscrapers have exceeded a thousand meters, she needed more room. If the government could just break the monopoly of hovurban tech, it would literally open up the skies above the Middle Kingdom to human habitation.
The meeting in Metro Santiago didn’t go as planned. The AZTEC representatives wouldn’t commit. So Ingmar’s handlers had to try Plan B, which might as well have been called Plan Z because it’s their last chance to bring Metroplex Manila to the ground. Even with today’s advances in health care, humans don’t live longer than two hundred and fifty years.
He wasn’t too fond of Upsiders or Flipsiders, but he liked Metroplex Manila. For starters, the air was cleaner and the water tasted like water. The women had their quirks: Upsiders tend be darker, and Flipsiders were fairer skinned from the lack of direct sunlight. Both types were fun in bed.
A naked Flipsider stewardess approached him and whispered, “The secret of the Metroplex is quite simple, Ingmar. It floats because of the–“
An air pocket jerked Ingmar awake. He had been dreaming. Worse, his dreams were always political, which made him sad. Even when they were mildly erotic, the way this had been, they would always have a political theme. The intense indoctrination into the pseudo-dialectics of communo-capitalism had rewired his brain to accept two contradictory ideas with gusto and his subconscious mind was punishing him. Thankfully, he had trained himself to sleep only four hours a day. Dreams were rare. And he hardly remembered them except that they were always political.
Ingmar checked his watch. His nap had lasted twenty-five minutes. He’ll sleep for another three hours en route to China after he’s done with this layover.
More turbulence as the shuttle made a wide arc. He could see the Metroplex from his window now.
The seatbelt sign was on. The shuttle was about to dock.
The anti-gravity systems kicked in, putting passengers in neutral zero-g. He thought he heard one of the Australians puking … it turned out one of the guys was just saying his friend’s name in that horrible accent of his.
From his vantage point, Ingmar could see Upside with its green checkerboard gardens, open parks and plazas, church steeples and temples, man-made lakes, and the sprawling estates of the Metroplex leisure class. He even caught a quick look at the Emperor’s Palace in the far distance before the shuttle twisted itself around.
The Metroplex horizon flipped 180 degrees in his window. He resisted the urge to vomit.
Suddenly, the shadow world of Flipside came into view. It was as if someone had taken a well-maintained patch of Bermuda grass and flipped it over to expose the roots, dirt, and worms beneath. While Upside was roomy and green, Flipside was dense and metallic. Ingmar had been visiting Flipside for years, but even he had to admit his envy when entering the underbelly of the Metroplex. With the help of artificial gravity, all the buildings in Flipside were upside-down. The amount of energy needed to sustain this level of reverse pull cannot be generated by storm capture alone. There must be a different energy source.
This gravity, however, was inconsistent. While Upsiders enjoyed normal Earth gravity, Flipsiders, on average, experienced 0.9 Earth gravity (0.7 to 0.8 in some areas). It gave newcomers to Flipside a light-headed feeling and gave native born Flipsiders an additional inch or two in average height. It also gave rise to the proverb, “When in Flipside, tuck in your shirts … and don’t wear skirts.”
More confusing was that Upsiders had, in their view, a logical system of indicating spatial references when visiting Flipside. To put it simply, “up” or “down” depended on where the Flipside platform was. A Flipsider traveling “flipside down” meant he was upside-down to the rest of the world, while “flipside up” meant he was right side up. The method took some getting used to but with practice was intuitive and easy to learn. If Ingmar looked “flipside up” then that meant Flipside was overhead and Downside was at his feet. Conservatives took it a step further and simply said “upside down” which was technically correct in any case.
Unfortunately, ordinary Flipsiders hated these phrases. For them, the situation is much simpler: “flipside up” is “down” and “flipside down” is “up.” They consider their perspective as the correct perspective, and while they may not be as rich and powerful as their Upside brethren, they outnumber them nine to one. This inconsistent phraseology confused visitors most of all and became especially problematic when taking the notorious cheap-knee urban shuttles. The experience was like having to constantly clarify if the speaker meant “my right?” and “your left?” or in this case “your up?” or “my up?” (or the inevitable “up yours”).
It certainly didn’t help that street names changed constantly, enough to give even savvy tourists a migraine.
Some of Flipside’s buildings were over a kilometer tall (from Ingmar’s current point of view, they stretched “flipside down”). A few buildings connected directly to Downside, disappearing into the mysterious cloud covered islands below the main Metroplex platform. These buildings were called the “Stilts” that seemed to support the Metroplex like the columns of an elevated freeway or the bamboo stands of a native nipa hut.
He remembered the naked stewardess in his dream. She was probably going to tell him that the Stilts were directly responsible for keeping the Metroplex in the air.
Ingmar shook his head. The physics didn’t make sense. And neither did directions. He recalled the nursery rhyme that all Metroplex children knew by heart:
In Upside up is up,
In Upside down is down.
In Flipside down is up,
In Flipside up is down.
But Downside knows what’s up,
And Downside sees the flip:
If Ups are brown and Flips are clowns,
Then Down is ground all ’round.
Ingmar wasn’t a Metroplex native, but he recited the poem like a mantra to quiet his mind and remind him that things weren’t always what they seemed in Flipside.
The shuttle aligned itself to one of the docking bays at the edge of the Flipside platform. A long line of other shuttles floated around them. It was as if they had approached a toll gate, and the guys in front didn’t have money to pay.
The captain addressed the passengers and crew. “We have just been advised that new security procedures have been implemented for all non-resident passengers. Australians will need to undergo decontamination in Quarantine Station 13; just follow the arrows on your left. For all passengers from South America, please stay on the right; shuttle terminal staff will assist you. In the meantime, we will need to hold our position until we are cleared for docking. You may choose to purchase some refreshments while waiting. Our crew will bring them out shortly. I suggest you try the ube cola for only 5,000 pisos.”
The Australians gave out a collective gasp along with more livestock sounds. The Chilean looked worried. Ingmar was visibly annoyed. 5,000 bucks for a can of soda?
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An hour later, and after two cold cans of ube cola, Ingmar got a silent call on his wrist phone.
He checked the recipient’s number, and ended the call without picking up. Then he sent an encrypted text message to his handler.
“Tell her to wait,” he wrote. “Flight delayed. Will this be a problem?”
The reply came in a minute later. It took another full minute to decrypt.
“K,” was all it said.
Ingmar was pissed.
He texted: “Ok to what? Did you tell her? Or will this be a problem? Be specific.”
It took another five minutes before the reply arrived.
Ingmar decrypted the message.
It was blank.
Ingmar didn’t want to risk sending out another encrypted message so he accepted his fate. He wondered if his handler was an Upsider or a Flipsider; he deduced that he or she was probably an Upsider based on the use of Hashtagalog, sheer laziness, and utter lack of respect.
The Australians were getting sweaty. This isn’t going to help you during decontamination, Ingmar thought.
Finally, the captain spoke: “Thank you for your patience. We apologize for the delay. We will be docking in ten minutes. Please return to your seat. Flight attendants will be collecting your trash. However, we also noted that there was an unauthorized use of a mobile phone by a business class passenger. You have been flagged for further questioning. Please follow the arrows on the left to Quarantine Station 13. You know who you are.”
Ingmar remained calm. He adjusted his business robes, and stretched his arms. He surrendered the empty ube cola cans to the stewardess and realized that she wasn’t the girl in his dream.
He waited until all the other business class passengers left the shuttle before stepping out into the arrival tube. Ingmar then followed the arrows on the right. No one tried to stop him.
The encryption protocol on his wrist phone was untraceable. There was no way they would claim that he had sent out a message.
Ingmar had configured his phone to appear to use another South American number registered with a Brazilian modeling agency.
The chubby Chilean was being escorted along with the Australians for decontamination. When the Chilean tried to physically protest, airport security personnel zapped him into submission.
Then he frowned.
Then he grimaced.
He, too, had been zapped. As he fell to the floor, he could hear his own words echoing in the deepening dark:
If Ups are brown and Flips are clowns,
Then Down is ground all ’round.