BEN'S JOURNEY / PART II
The sun rose over Apollo like any other city; the difference was you could leave the windows open and not wake up with a stuffy nose. With every industry and daily activity powered by non-polluting sources, the aroma of flower blossoms didn’t have to work so hard to waft into the hotel room. There were still a few old gasoline powered cars roaming the streets but most people chose to use the travel pods. For those who wanted the most freedom getting around, newer all-electric cars with automatic driving capabilities (that enabled them to also use the elevated guideways) quickly made more sense than hanging on to outdated internal combustion models.
Today’s experience would begin in the city’s iconic central skyscraper a little less than half a mile from the hotel. Mom decreed that everyone would walk; she had been on a health kick lately. “You don’t get many beautiful days like this where we live,” she said. That didn’t stop Dad from groaning about the walk. Mom just smiled and started walking--his newly developed pudginess squashed all of her sympathy.
Occupying the half-mile “hike” as Dad sarcastically called it was the Grand Boulevard, the city’s equivalent of a main street. It was one of the first areas built so that even the earliest residents (and of course tourists) had an activity center. Shops, cafes, theaters, galleries, and the like made up the first levels of the buildings that lined the Boulevard. Lofts, offices, and workshops filled in the middle levels. Apartments rounded out the top. Each grouping of levels was set back from the previous one. Roofs of the shops and galleries formed walking trails and meditation spaces for the offices above. In turn, gardens and patios for the apartments were built on top of the offices. With the use of human-scaled facades and prodigious landscaping at each level, what were actually behemoth structures presented the appearance of a hillside village. Even the elevated guideways seemed to melt away; they ran right through the middle of the buildings. Large windows and atriums around the guideways helped orient passengers to both their indoor and outdoor surroundings.
MASSIVE, YET HUMAN-SCALE / A cross-section of one of the buildings within the Urban Core. The center of these buildings can house factories, parking facilities, utilities, and/or vertical farms (shown here).
There was so much to do on the Boulevard that would have to wait for later. The family was on a beeline for the center of the city. It wasn’t hard to find one’s way--the central skyscraper towered over every other building. A sign signaled their arrival:
“Welcome to the Nexus, the very heart of Apollo and a focal point for all its residents and visitors.
Work here. Play here. Celebrate here.
This space, like all others, is for the benefit of the community.
Always cherish and respect it, but never shy from improving it.
-The Founding Council of Apollo, October 1st, 2024”
The Nexus was a circular area about a quarter mile in diameter filled with undulating hills covered in a myriad of plant life and a collection of open spaces designed for gatherings of all kinds. It was in many ways a botanical garden built right in the middle of the most densely populated part of the city. So much beauty competed for attention. Most tourists gazed upwards at the skyscraper, but Dad instead looked down--obviously interested in something very different. Before Mom could object, Dad took off for the sunken portion of the gardens. They ran the risk of being late for their ride, but Mom knew there was no stopping Dad from going where he was going: the City Congress.
Government in Apollo was designed to be as open and transparent as possible. Every law, policy, and bill was clearly written and widely available for review by the public. Polling was frequent and easy to participate in. Voting was thought of as every resident’s duty. Each neighborhood district (whose boundaries ensured there was an equal number of people residing in each) elected two representatives that would work together in Congress during the week and hold informal neighborhood gatherings on weekends where they’d explain and advocate current initiatives to anyone who was interested. Every mechanism of the system was meant to encourage maximum participation. Representatives could only serve for one year at a time; the turnover meant a good deal of the neighborhood would eventually gain government experience. Great emphasis was placed on representatives sharing their experiences in the legislative process to ensure “institutional memory” was not lost.
Those not currently in office could still attend sessions of Congress in person. The sunken gardens of the Nexus blended into the an open air amphitheater where Congress was held when the weather was good--and it was good most of the year. Representatives sat in the inner circles and residents were always invited to sit on the outer rim. Real-time polling devices built into the seats meant representatives could instantly gauge public reaction to whatever was being discussed. Sessions could get quite lively when “big” laws were under debate since the public portion of the amphitheater had seating for thousands. At the center was the mayor’s podium. That’s where Dad was standing. Congress wasn’t in session that day and since there was no other event scheduled (occasionally the space could be used for concerts and other kinds of stage performances), Dad got to play out his activist/statesman fantasies for a few minutes. “Just imagine kids. No injustice. Just the power of law formed by the collective wisdom of the people--not egotistical jerks and wealthy donors. This is so cool!” he exclaimed in a burst of giddiness. This is so boring.
Dad was so caught up in legislative glory that he was unaware of the skyscraper hovering over his head. A mere ten feet above the mayor’s podium was the base of the Rocket--the official name of the iconic skyscraper that Ben had just learned from another plaque. Engineers had devised a way to build a structure that appeared to never actually touch the ground. Massive arches joined about a third of the way up the skyscraper to help support everything above them. An assembly of artfully placed tension cables met at the base to keep the base of the central spire approximately ten feet off the ground. The architect wanted to communicate through his design the power of individual thought to inspire collective accomplishment. Whoever stood below the base was the "spark" of an idea, and with the support of a community working together, that spark could grow into an illuminating flame for all.
INTERDEPENDENCE / One of the central tenets of Apollo's economy and culture is the idea that you work to support your fellow residents with the assurance that others are working to support you.
Being an engineer, Mom couldn’t help but marvel at the sight of over two thousand feet and countless tons of glass and steel suspended above her. But engineers also appreciated the importance of schedules. Sometimes there was only one way to break her husband from his trances: she gave him a soft simple kiss on the lips and looked straight in his eyes, not saying a single word. His gaze slowly moved from the vastness of the amphitheater to only her. He was now putty in her hands. “C’mon kids,” he said. “We’ve got a city to build.” They walked out of the sunken garden and onto the slender bridges that led to the first floor of the tower. A super-fast elevator carried them aloft. It went by quickly, but they saw how the curving organic forms of the exterior translated through the interior. The Rocket was a fully functional city in it of itself. Apartments and offices mixed with shops and gardens. 100% of the tower’s energy was generated with solar cells and wind turbines built into its exterior skin. To soften the look of so much man-made material, gardens also covered over 30% of the skin. Water was stored in some places between window plates, refracting light both inside and outside in almost magical ways. Few skyscrapers in the world captured the imagination the way the Rocket did.
The elevator brought the family to the main lobby, located roughly a third of the way up the tower and at its widest section. It was also where all the guideways in the city met up; the arches did double duty as structural support for the tower as well as for the thousands of vehicles that traveled to and from it. Once again, designers decided to fill the public lobby space with plant life. Nothing ever felt cold or impersonal. A man in a very snappy uniform deduced Mom and Dad were tourists. “You must be here for the big ride,” he said, “Come with me and I’ll get you all set up.” He led the family to the check-in spot for “Home Is Where The Heart Is,” the famous mega-ride and centerpiece of any vacation at Apollo. Mom didn’t have to give a name or anything; the check-in system sensed the proximity of the family’s comms and brought a ride vehicle into the loading zone. It was a pretty unassuming vehicle: four seats in a row atop a narrow platform riding on tiny wheels. “Just place your comms in the armrest slots and they will become one of your methods to interact with the show or stop the vehicle if necessary. This whole experience can last twenty minutes or an entire day--whatever you wish. You’ll start with a little trip through history and then you’ll be on your way to the really fun stuff. And I know you kids know this, but I’ve got to say it for the sake of your mischievous parents: please keep your arms, feet, hands, and legs in the vehicle at all times. And for the comfort of those around you, no eating, drinking, or smoking while onboard. Got that Mom and Dad? So without further ado, go forth and build the future!”
The vehicle moved off into a room in complete darkness. A light began to flicker in the distance. The family could see that they had traveled into a cave. An animatronic group of cavemen appeared around the corner. “Our first homes were not built with our own hands,” said a deep-voiced narrator over the vehicle’s speakers. “But they provided shelter from outside danger just the same.” One of the cavemen was talking unintelligibly to the group while pointing to a crude painting of a large animal on the wall. Suddenly a roar came from the cave’s entrance. The vehicle moved towards it and out into a raging blizzard. Natalie wondered how long they’d be outside; she had a low tolerance for the cold. Through the smoke and fake snow appeared a giant wooly mammoth. The cavemen surrounded it on all sides. Although it was a show, there was a convincing sense of danger in the air. The lead hunter reached for his spear and just as he lunged it towards the mammoth, a blast of smoke obscured the family’s view. All they heard was a roar of agony as the vehicle retreated back into the cave. Mammoth fur now warmed the leader’s children and its meat filled their stomachs. “After a dangerous journey, even the simplest homes were a welcome haven.”
Darkness fell again. When the lights came back up, the family found themselves on the Great Plains. The illusion was so complete it was easy to forget they never left the confines of a skyscraper. Mom did notice something was missing that was normally expected on a ride: a track. The vehicles’ wheels allowed it to move on its own in any direction at any time. Further up a dry brush-lined path was a Lakota village. The vehicle passed by a few tipis in different stages of construction. Narration continued, “The first man-made homes were constructed from whatever the earth could provide. From the start, they reflected our values, history, and sum of knowledge.” As the vehicle moved up to a finished tipi, its outer coverings parted to reveal a family surrounding a mother and her newborn child. “With limited resources to build more, every milestone of life took place under one roof--from birth to death.” The word “death” was punctuated by the distant sound of gunfire, causing everybody to nearly jump out of their seats.
Passing a line of trees, the prairie gave way to the hills of Virginia. This was the time of the Civil War. The advance of a Confederate battalion threatened a stately country home with bullets and cannonballs. Everyone living there, from grandparents to young children, were firing rifles out the windows in hopes that the Union Army would come soon. “In times when all seemed lost, we fought to protect our homes and all that was precious inside them.” Ben actually started to worry about the family in the besieged house even though he knew they were glorified robots. He let out a sigh of relief when Union troops appeared from behind a ridge. The simulated sound of cannonballs whizzed by.
The vehicle proceeded around to the back of the house and then inside where the scene changed to one right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The idyllic image of a large happy family sharing Thanksgiving dinner always resonated strongly with Dad. “Eventually, some civilizations progressed into times of relative peace and great bounty. Homes filled with food, possessions, and love seemed to be a dream within reach for all. Unfortunately, it remains a dream unfulfilled for many.”
Booming thunder announced the beginning of the next scene. Now the family found itself on a dilapidated city street filled with trash. Sheets of rain drenched everything but the vehicle. A melting cardboard box sat on the curb; inside was a young girl wearing little more than old rags. Her father ran through the rain with a loaf of bread and brought it to the box. The vehicle moved so close in that it almost seemed like Mom, Dad, Natalie, and Ben were sharing the box too. The father looked to his daughter nearly in tears, “Sorry this isn’t much of a dinner...sorry this isn’t much of a home.” She stopped eating the soggy bread, put her hand on his and said, “Daddy, as long as I’m with you, we can make anywhere a home.” Ben’s father never thought a ride could make him cry.
The narration resumed, “Today we have the power to ensure the dream of a good home is attainable for even the least fortunate. It is true that home is wherever the heart is, but no one should live in squalor. Some of those that have fallen on hard times are coming to Apollo seeking a fresh start.” The vehicle began descending along one of the Rocket’s supporting arches, offering a spectacular view of the city. “Please join us in building a new home for them.”
Soon the family arrived at a sprawling collection of workshops adjacent to the northern section of the Nexus. Just about everything related to homes was built there: roofs, walls, lights, furniture, refrigerators, etc. Most structures in Apollo were built modularly. All the major components of a house were completed in the workshops, packaged, transported, and then assembled with other components out in the neighborhoods. Workers employed the latest fabrication technologies where necessary, but they primarily focused on hand crafting goods with care and attention to detail. A surplus was intentionally created for most items so that they could be sold outside the city. Products from Apollo were known internationally for their unique style and durability. Export profits further supplemented expansion of the city and after build-out were planned to fund continual infrastructure and amenity improvements. While the narrator rattled off more facts, the vehicle made a quick pass-through of the different workshops--ending in yet another dark room lit by a single candle flame.
A older man could be seen tinkering by the light, “Oh hi there. My name is Harry and I’m a craftsman here. Boy, do I have something neat to show you.” The vehicle stopped and the seatbelts unlocked. “Pardon the low light. Don’t be afraid to step off the vehicle--there’s not much to trip on in here.” Ben walked closer to see that Harry was making some kind of lantern. “What’s your name young man?” He sheepishly replied, “Ben, sir.” Ben was still a pretty shy boy. “Well Ben-sir, would you please hold this candle for me? I have one last piece of glass to place on this lantern.” When he was five, some hot candle wax burned his hand and left a scar. Ben never wanted to go near a candle again but he still replied, “Yes sir.” Harry chuckled. “Aw son, no need to keep calling me sir. I may have once been in the Army, but I’ve been playing with these little lamps for over thirty years now. Leave the ‘sirs’ for your Dad. Okay, the last piece is in. Now for the neat part. Place the candle down on the center of the table and watch what happens when I put the lantern over it.” How could this be all that interesting--it’s just a lantern! All skepticism disappeared when Harry put the lantern down. Hundreds of beams of multi-colored light shot out from all angles. Wherever beams struck other lanterns along the workshops’ walls, more beams were created. Ben thought he was in the middle of a thousand rainbows.
This portion of the ride turned into a walking tour. After Harry’s workshop, the family went on to multiple others; each time learning about and participating in the creation of another product. They watched as Natalie helped operate a loom that wove intricate rugs. Mom couldn’t get enough of the glass-blowing workshop. Dad was oddly fascinated by the process of building toilets. At the foundry, a silversmith handed Ben a key, saying, “You’re gonna need this. Make sure not to lose it.” The last workshop they visited was much more hands-off since there were cranes lifting heavy objects all around. Whole walls complete with wallpaper and electrical outlets were being loaded onto trucks for delivery to building sites throughout the city. One of those sites was the family’s next destination.
A craftsman escorted the family back to their vehicle--which had taken on a new appearance. It was now enclosed in a body shell that made it look like a truncated version of a travel pod. It turned out the ride vehicles in Apollo were just as modular as its houses. The windshield opened like a clamshell to allow everyone back inside. With a press of a button they sped out of the workshop and onto one of the elevated guideways. They went through a part of downtown that was still very much under construction. Cranes delivered steel beams high overhead; the part of the guideway that they were on would eventually be enclosed by structures like those on the Grand Boulevard. Attached to the cranes were objects that looked exactly like what the family was riding in. Ben could see kids riding in them too. On the other side of the construction site, equipment with ride vehicles attached were installing new sections of guideway. Mom was amazed how the infrastructure used for the rides also became the backbone of the city’s transportation system. "Tourism at work." It was merely a preview of things to come.
The vehicle’s windshield became a giant heads-up display with all sorts of graphics and video superimposed on the sights outside. A new narrator gave a fun overview of the process (or “building adventure” in ride parlance) the family was about to be a part of. They were going to travel to a few neighborhoods each in different stages of completion. Their goal was to help assemble houses starting with site preparation, followed by framing and roofing, and eventually final fit and finish, culminating in a move-in celebration for a few lucky families.
Through an emotional introduction video, everyone got acquainted with who they were going to build for. Anna and her daughter Claire had recently run into trouble through no fault of their own. They were once a happy middle-class family; a paragon of the American Dream. Claire’s father was a Navy Seabee working on disaster relief projects in Bangladesh. Sea level rise ravaged the country on a scale never seen before. A rare poisonous spider bit him one evening while he was working to restore power to a refugee camp. He quickly slipped into a coma and passed away the next morning. Without him, it became more and more difficult for Anna to support herself and Claire. They eventually lost their house and were forced to move into a dilapidated apartment in Los Angeles. Anna’s talents as a writer didn’t translate into a steady income. A year ago, the founding council of Apollo held an international writer’s competition, as they did for hundreds of other professions. Winners were awarded a modest monetary prize and the option to buy one of the city’s first homes should they desire. Thousands of aspiring and well established authors submitted work; Anna’s was the winner by a unanimous vote. Between the award money and the fact that the cost of housing in the city was partially subsidized by tourism revenue, Anna could purchase a small house for the fraction of the cost of their lousy place in LA.
And Ben was going to make sure that house would be finished tonight.