CITIES OF GLASS – Roger Collins

We see the world by force of habit. Learning to see it differently is our greatest challenge.
— Fitima Anueche

Chapter One

Our plane dropped below the rainclouds, and a steel-gray sky replaced the impenetrable mist that was now visible only above us. Below, the rain-dappled sea rose quickly, roiling blue, green, and gray, and I squeezed the armrest, bracing myself against the sensation of free-fall.
The speakers hummed, barely audible.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” our flight attendant announced, “we’ve been cleared to land and will begin our final descent. Your seat harness will be fastened shortly, so please make any final preparations you require at this time.”
Her faint West Indian accent couldn’t have been more soothing, and I loosened my grip on the armrest. The sweet scent of tea-tree oil diffused a calming aroma throughout the cabin.
We swooped downward toward Piarco Jetport as though on a magic carpet. The capital’s skyscrapers, visible through the transparent fuselage, twinkled like crushed glass in the burnt-orange sky.
“On behalf of United Caribbean Airlines and our entire crew,” our stewardess continued, “I’d like to thank you for joining us on this trip. We are looking forward to seeing you on board again in the near future. Please enjoy your stay in Trinidad and Tobago.”
I’d scanned my fellow passengers before departing from LaGuardia, wondering who were tourists, who were natives, and who, like me, were a little of both. Returning home after a long absence had always filled me with an uneasy mix of emotions: the excitement of a tourist and the self-assurance of a native.
The jetport’s concourse hummed with scores of scooters, cars, and bubble-cabs whisking travelers to their homes or hotels, like blood cells carrying nutrients to vital organs. “Commerce, the lifeblood of our nation,” as Mother would say. I wondered what she would say about her daughter quitting her job, about her daughter returning home unemployed. At thirty-three, I found my dependence on her support maddening, a reliance on a crutch I couldn’t wait to be free of. And then I thought of her eagerly awaiting my arrival, and I cringed at my analogy.
I hopped onto a conveyor, which took me to the cabstand on the outskirts of the terminal where actual drivers waited for arriving passengers. The robotics of the Northern sphere had yet to replace the human labor of the developing South, and there was something quaint and romantic about hiring a carbon-based chauffeur.
“The Plaza Hotel, please,” I told my driver, an East Indian woman watching a football match on the cab’s monitor.
“Business or pleasure, ma’am?” she asked, guiding the cab toward the automated highway.
“Both,” I said. Please, please, I thought—don’t ask me to elaborate. I didn’t want to spend my ride describing the job-hunting that awaited me.
“Well, welcome to Trinidad!”
I sighed with relief as we transferred onto the new St. Ann Extension and glided past patches of brilliant wildflowers and manicured gardens, their leaves and petals vibrant in the darkening twilight. Roadside merchants were closing down their food wagons, and the scent of curry and ginger still lingered in the air, making my mouth water.
“Who’s king of calypso this year?” I asked.
She told me, and then added the name of his band, and the queen of calypso too. “I can play the road march winner,” she offered. The screen on the backseat glowed for a moment.
“No, thanks,” I said. “Just curious. I’d rather look outside.”
She shifted our cab to manual-drive on St. Ann’s and steered through several blocks of opaque buildings—brick, wood, and stone structures—a portion of town that would have been called “Old” in the North, like “Old Manhattan” and “Old Detroit,” but was too common in Port-of-Spain for a quaint moniker.
Then we turned a corner and the Plaza Hotel loomed ahead of us, a giant glass tower, two-score stories tall, radiating light and life from within. It had been six years since I’d seen it in person, and then it had been only the skeleton of what it would become. Seeing it now, the newest construction downtown, shining on its surroundings like a colossal lantern, a shiver of pride passed through me. It looked like a magnificent shrine, a sign of my homeland’s bright and prosperous future. As if in affirmation, our cab jerked onto roadway automation and delivered me to the hotel’s dazzling entrance.
When I reached the registration desk, I glanced up at the camera to be identified. The clerk, a young brown-skinned man, walked over and scanned the readout above the desk.
“Good evening, Ma’am Anueche,” he said, returning to me.
I nodded.
“Welcome home.”
I smiled at my second welcome within the hour.
Unlike my cab driver’s, the clerk’s came with a glimpse of my abridged bio. “Your bags have been delivered to your room,” he said. “One night’s stay, I see. Please let us know if we can assist you in your travels tomorrow.”
On my way to the lift, I passed the lobby, intrigued by the large crowd gathered there and the thrum of their conversations, punctuated by laughter and clinking glasses. If I wasn’t too tired, perhaps I’d return, mostly to look and listen—to see and be seen—since I doubted that I’d know anyone.
I arrived outside my third floor room, had my retina scanned, and entered. Four strides forward or sideways defined my living quarters, but the furnishings were immaculate, comfortable, and well beyond the budget of an unemployed scientist. The suitcase and knapsack on the bed fit just as easily under it, and I needed only room enough to accommodate a few toiletries and traveling clothes. Plus, the small size of the room prompted me to leave it and explore the lobby below.
On street level, the hum of the spacious reception area drew me like a magnet—the laughter, the banter, the ambient jazz were all so compelling I found myself meandering among the guests, soaking up their good cheer. These were mostly the beautiful people who traveled the world; finding themselves in Port-of-Spain that evening, they spoke of other locales—Havana, Miami, London—of local and far-flung friends and relatives. Their fashionable dress accessorized the lobby’s décor, their outfits of see-through silk, chiffon, and translucent leather complementing the glint of glass all around us. I glanced at myself, a ghost-like reflection on an interior wall, and felt more than a little under-dressed in my coarse, cotton travel-wear.
My passage through the lobby brought me to the entrance of a tapas restaurant. The clock above the door read 9:30—too late to eat and too early for bed. I stepped outside onto the portico, squinting under the glow of the arc lamps. A Flying-Eye descended from the scaffolding and hovered above me—watching, recording—before returning to its perch. I looked past it at the black sky, now clear of clouds and speckled with starlight, and decided to head east and window-shop along the boulevard.
I felt less conspicuous outside the hotel; my opaque attire was more forgivable on the street. The air was fresh, the night breeze gentle, and the lamp-posts’ fixed-focus cameras blinked their obligatory attention to everyone’s comings and goings.
It took several blocks for the hotels, banks, and office buildings to give way to the boutiques and storefronts I was eager to browse: Chantilly Chateau, Crystal Bliss Gemstones, Sea Aster Skin Bar. Following them came more modest shops: Ali’s Roti and Roxy’s Pizza and Ricardo’s Bake and Shark—a montage of displays that conjured memories from my youth and long dormant nostalgia. As I continued, the signage appeared darker, more difficult to read, as the lamp-posts became fewer and farther apart. And the fixed-focus cameras were no longer blinking.
I stood still as a thin layer of sweat chilled my forehead. It had been several years—six—since I’d felt this unease, this sense of being alone, having no one watching over me, being completely invisible. I glanced at the stores and houses around me, at their impenetrable walls, and felt suddenly lost, disoriented, as though I’d been misplaced.
I turned to backtrack toward downtown. My footsteps echoed as though amplified, the sound sapping the strength in my legs, as though I were walking uphill. But the glow of the business district ahead of me grew brighter and my breathing easier. I thought of Mother’s crazy saying, her reprimand when I had wandered too far from home as a child: “Tie-goat don’t see what loose-goat see.” I’d always wondered if her warnings and overprotection had contributed to driving me away from home as an adult. It was a theory, anyway—a theory without a test.
Then, in the distance, I heard another’s footsteps, asynchronous with my own—a longer stride, a heavier step. A man’s, I guessed. Walking in my direction, catching up to me as I stood, waiting.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Company. Safety.
The other’s footsteps slowed and then stopped. For too long, I thought. When they started again they sounded softer, as though the person were walking on tiptoes. The apparent caution surprised me. For one odd moment, I thought he might be afraid of me.
I was about to call out reassurance when a man’s silhouette emerged out of the dim lamplight, stepping slowly, watchfully it seemed, toward a brick house on the opposite side of the street. He reached into a jacket pocket and pulled something out. Instinctively I glanced up at the naked lamppost; only its globe illuminated the scene. But I hadn’t yet reached the capital’s zone of surveillance.
The man walked to the brick wall and began moving his arm as though he were writing. I watched, transfixed, like a child watching someone light a fuse to fireworks—eager and anxious at once. He stepped back, then turned to me as if to show off his handiwork: ONLY THE GUILTY HAVE REASON TO FEAR.
My gaze shifted between the man and the words he’d written. It was a phrase I recalled from history classes: one of those iconic quotes that every schoolchild studies. The phrase had been a rallying cry during the birth of the Age of Transparency. Supporters of transparency explained that innocent citizens had no reason to fear universal surveillance. The guilty, however—the terrorists, embezzlers, rapists, insider traders, nuclear cheats—they were the ones who had reason to oppose close scrutiny. That battle had been fought and won decades before I was born. Why would this man commit a criminal act to advocate a truism that contradicted his own behavior?
He stared at me, motionless, as though giving me time to recognize the phrase and wonder at his intention. Then he turned back to the wall, wrote some more, and finally showed me his revision. NOT ONLY THE GUILTY HAVE REASON TO FEAR.
The revision turned his original statement into a word-puzzle I couldn’t solve. Who else would have reason to fear Transparency other than the guilty?
He took a step forward and gestured to his face, with a childish innocence seemingly designed to reassure me. In the dim light of the lamp-post I could see that his face wasn’t the flesh I’d first assumed but was covered in white latex—a mask that nonetheless could not disguise, revealing as it did the bone structure beneath it, sufficient for any face-recognition program to identify him. If there had been a camera nearby.
A sick, sinking feeling filled my gut, and I stumbled away and began to run toward the lights downtown. I wasn’t sure what I was running from. I wasn’t sure what I’d just witnessed. It felt like an assault. But was it hateful? rebellious? simply fantastic? The answer didn’t matter, of course. The man—his act—was something to run from, as fast and as far as I could manage.

Chapter Two

The next morning I awoke in the half-light of dawn, eager to start the day. There was no return message from the authorities who had taken my statement on the incident of the previous night, and that was fine with me. I’d done my duty; now they would do theirs. I had other duties to attend to. Besides, I wanted to distance myself from that offense as soon as possible.
I checked my suitcase and knapsack, packed mostly with the gear I’d need for the interior: hiking boots, micromesh jumpsuits, raingear, a safety helmet I couldn’t imagine any use for. I ran a hand over the clothing and told myself that the rainforest might be lovely, dark, and deep, but the protective armor it required was utterly vulgar in its opacity.
The room’s glass interior wall began to glow, surprising me as it glazed pearly white—an incoming transmission. It took only a moment to recognize the brown face of the older man who resolved into view. “Welcome home, Fitima,” he said.
“My third welcome since I arrived,” I answered, greeting Lloyd, my pollster, the man who’d been surveying my opinions since I was old enough to have any.
“The third time’s the charm,” he said, smiling. “Speaking of which, is this a good time?”
I glanced at the time stamp below his image. “I booked a cab. I’m heading to Mother’s camp.”
“I assumed so. Do you have time to talk?”
“A few minutes,” I said, propping myself on the edge of the bed.
“Well, first off, your flight. Departure, arrival, transfer. Separately or together.”
“Together: ten out of ten. One awful surprise—which I’d just as soon forget.”
“We have our obligations, though, don’t we? So please, do tell.”
I gave Lloyd the description of the incident that I’d given the authorities, swallowing my disgust, feeling satisfied at having fulfilled my responsibility to appraise the experience. I objected only to not being able to assign it a negative number.
“Thank you,” Lloyd said. “I know revisiting that bit of nastiness wasn’t pleasant.” He stroked his chin, assessing my expression. “A few more questions?”
I nodded.
“I see you haven’t had any contact with your colleagues since you—”
“Former colleagues,” I interrupted.
“Correct. You’ve had no contact with any of them since you left.”
“Since I quit. No, I haven’t.”
“Do you feel the same way about quitting?”
“It’s only been two weeks since you asked that. Do you think I’d change my mind in two weeks? Of course I still feel the same way. I wish I hadn’t had to do it, but I’m fine with it. Under the circumstances.”
“Okay, okay,” Lloyd said. “You know I have to ask. Stability of attitude and all that. We have to sample your attitude over time.”
“Well, my attitude hasn’t changed. I’m fine with quitting.”
“And, by fine, you mean what exactly?”
“Eight point four. Same as last time.”
“I’m sorry, Fitima. I know the topic is still raw.”
“The wound, you mean.” I stood and buckled my knapsack, then glanced back at him. “I haven’t told Mother yet. About the job.”
“I’m not surprised,” Lloyd said. “You’re an old-fashioned girl. I’m guessing you want to tell her in the flesh.”
Yes, Lloyd did know me, but after all, that was his job. He’d had his finger on the pulse of my opinions for as long as I could remember.
“I think we should stop here,” Lloyd said.
“I’m threatening reliability, aren’t I?”
“That’s not the point. You deserve a chance to get settled.”
“Thank you.”
“I’ll be in touch,” he said. “Tell your mother I said hello.”
She would appreciate that. She’d always been fond of Lloyd. Some parents requested—and usually received—permission to change their child’s pollster, but Mother did more than approve of Lloyd; she actually liked him. Of course, she had more interaction with my pollster than I had with hers, so I could only hope, for her sake, she held her own in such high regard.
I ate a quick breakfast at the hotel and waited outside for my ride inland. A bubble-cab rolled up to the entrance and the driver stepped out, leaving a passenger seated in the rear. I’d booked a private cab, so I didn’t pay them much attention.
“Ma’am Anueche?” the driver said, surprising me.
I nodded.
“I’m your driver.”
I glanced again at his passenger, who didn’t appear to be leaving. “I reserved a private cab.”
Now the driver too looked at his passenger. “Sir?” he called out.
The rear window rolled down, and the face of a young man filled the frame. “Your mother sent me,” he said matter-of-factly.
I stood speechless for a moment. This was the price of dependency, I thought. I hadn’t paid that price for half a dozen years, but it was now coming back to me.
“Of course,” I said, not to either man in particular. To the heavens, perhaps. “I reserve a private cab, and Mother sends an escort.”
The passenger shrugged, and the driver took my knapsack and suitcase. I slid into the backseat.
“Nelson Woon-Sam,” my escort said, nodding politely.
“Pleased to meet you.” And I might have been pleased if I had met him at Mother’s camp, but I’d been looking forward to a quiet, introspective drive there.
The cab rolled down the ramp and onto the automated roadway.
“May I call you Fitima?”
“Why, yes,” I said.
Several silent minutes passed while I regained my composure, readjusted my expectations. “What’s your role with the project?” I asked at last.
“Civil engineer.”
That surprised me. His calloused, sunbaked hands and mud-spattered jumpsuit made him appear more like a laborer than a technician. I looked at him more closely. Nelson Woon-Sam—African-Chinese, I assumed, even if his eyes were more striking for their grayish tint than their almond shape. A handsome man.
I nodded toward the driver. “A couple round trips for our cabbie, eh?”
“Hey, it’s a federal project. Besides, you wouldn’t have wanted me to pick you up in one of our excavation vehicles.”
“How long have you been with the project?” I asked.
“From the beginning. Six months.”
“And how’s it going? The project, I mean.”
“Well. Very well.”
“How close to completion?” I pressed.
“Close.”
“Let me guess: very close.”
He smiled at me. “Exactly.”
“Well, I hate to be pushy, but could you be more specific?”
His smile smoothed into a serious expression. “I don’t mean to be difficult, but your mother said that she wanted to fill you in. Insisted,” he added.
I understood that operative word. “Okay.”
“I’m sorry, but—”
“No, really. It’s fine.”
I turned and looked out the window, more disappointed than angry. Reconciled.
Outside, the palm trees on the hillside edged closer to the road as we continued, eventually darkening the roadway in their shadows. I caught a glimpse of Nelson’s reflection on the window; he was watching me, and I found myself enjoying the attention. Then the road broke into a pasture, and his image faded with the sunlight.
“How’d you like the States?” he asked.
“Great place to make a living,” I said, spying a lone white egret strutting in the field.
“Especially for a mathematician,” he said.
I turned and glanced at him, wondering if he’d learned this from Mother or if he’d looked me up in the Repository.
“Will you be staying long?” he asked. “I mean at the compound?”
“It’s hard to say.” I shrugged, realizing we’d exchanged roles: he was now the eager questioner and I the reluctant responder.
“Well, you’d better come up with an answer. That’s the second question your mother will ask—after how are you.”
Now I smiled. “You’re right. The problem is I’ve got a hundred possible answers.”
The cab stopped to allow a shepherd boy to lead three scrawny Brahman cattle across the road, and I realized that we’d long since left the automated highway.
“What’s it like at the site?” I asked, as the sound of cowbells clanged beyond the cab’s closed window.
“The locals say everything living there is armed with thorns, claws, or venom.”
“Locals? In the forest?”
The cab jerked forward, moving into a tract of rolling hills.
“Poachers,” Nelson said. “They come to steal fledgling macaws from their nests. I think that thorns-claws-venom business is what they tell newcomers to scare them off. Of course, that didn’t work with us. We cleared them out.”
Our cab continued south along the coastal highway, passing intermittently past palm groves and stretches of seacoast on our left. When I was a child, Mother had told me that if you flew due East, you’d hit Africa’s west coast—the slave coast, she called it—and then had me look it up in the Repository.
We took a sharp right onto a road that cut through a dark mangrove wood—the beginning of the rainforest.
“Vehicular guidance,” Nelson said, pointing at the newly laid road, an amalgam of dirt, clay, and quartz.
“Out here?”
“We’re bringing tourists to the forest,” he said. “Commerce, the lifeblood of our nation.”
I smiled inside, recognizing Mother’s maxim. Then I glanced up at the treetops, catching glints of glass and steel. “Cameras too.”
“Out here, yes. Further in, no.”
“Further in, like Mother’s compound?”
“Correct. We’ve got cameras inside the trailers, of course. Standard issue. But none around the campsite as yet. We’ve laid the infrastructure, though. Surveillance will be up and running soon.”
Very soon, I thought.
“For the tourists,” he continued. “They’d expect nothing less.”
Along the way he pointed out the progress they’d made: the visitors’ centers, the viewing platforms mounted high in the canopy, the zip lines and eco-trails, the footbridges and transportation hubs. His pride in these accomplishments was unmistakable.
I wished I could feel as upbeat about their work. I had taken great exception to Mother’s move from her office into the forest. She was an architectural planner, after all, not a field hand. But I couldn’t blame her superiors—she’d volunteered for the assignment. As usual, our argument over this change in workplace hadn’t lasted very long. We just added the difference of opinion to our list of Let’s agree to disagree.
Our cab continued through stretches of dry grassland, marsh, and inky ponds, accompanied by the shrieks of parrots and howler monkeys and the oscillating hum of countless cicadas. In the distance the hiss of laser-saws grew louder, along with the crack and rustle of falling trees. A faint smell of ozone and burnt wood seeped inside the cab. Then, quite suddenly, we emerged from a tree-lined tunnel into the sunlight, a grassy clearing ringed with bright yellow construction trailers and mud-crusted excavation vehicles.
“Welcome to the end of the road,” Nelson said.

Author’s Statement

In a future Age of Transparency, Fitima, an Afro-Caribbean astrophysicist, confronts a mysterious rising tide of anarchy. While eluding catastrophe for herself and her loved ones, she eventually discovers the source of social chaos and must then decide whether or not to destroy that source. Her plan to use a black hole to send a warning back in time threatens to unravel both the present time and the future of humankind.
Although the novel is rooted in science fiction, I was eager to explore the very human challenge expressed by Fitima at the very beginning of the story: “We see the world by force of habit. Learning to see it differently is our greatest challenge.” I chose to set the novel in an Age of Transparency not so much to foreshadow our current trajectory toward increasing surveillance but to examine the limits of human perception, regardless of historical era or technological advancement. “Every way of seeing is also a way of not seeing.” As an academic clinical psychologist, I’ve found this truism to be an ongoing test for myself and my students. It is the most important issue I hope to raise for my readers.
I am an African American professor emeritus and received my university’s award for Excellence in Teaching. Since my retirement, creative writing has been my passion. I’ve always wanted to write a science fiction novel with characters I could relate to personally. Cities of Glass became that novel.

 

Roger Collins is a professor emeritus of Education at the University of Cincinnati, where he received the Cohen Excellence Award for his teaching. In addition to his academic publications, his short stories have appeared in Obsidian III, The Pegasus Review, Words of Wisdom, Writers Post Journal, The Xavier Review, and Wood Coin Magazine of Art and Literature. His one-minute, ten-minute, one-act, and two-act stage plays have been produced in Cincinnati and Dayton, OH, and in Brooklyn, NY.

Embark, Issue 10, October 2019