As the climate changes, cities must change with it. Fix is exploring how our urban centers are being reimagined and what green, equitable, and resilient communities could look like. With insights from local officials, architects, residents, and more, our Sustainable Cities of the Future series examines how we’ll live, work, and play in the cities of tomorrow. This short story by Paolo Bacigalupi, which appears in the anthology Cities of Light, envisions cities powered by clean, efficient energy and neighborhoods using solar micro-grids to provide energy sovereignty. (Explore the full series so far.)
James Black, his father’s worst enemy, clips his safety harness to dead-man bolts and steps up onto a 1,000-kilogram weight. Beside him, a flywheel the diameter of a city bus is spinning. It looms over him, a blur of motion holding vast amounts of kinetic energy. A chill breeze wafts over him, hinting at how fast the massive wheel spins on frictionless magnetic bearings.
James sets his work boots more securely, readies his stance, and grabs onto the steel cable that holds the weight. He takes a breath and nods to Fitz that he’s ready to fly.
Fitz gives him a devil-mischief look, shouts, “Have a nice trip!” and yanks a connection lever. Kinetic power from the flywheel feeds into gears, feeds into winches, feeds into the steel cable holding James’s weight.
With crushing Gs, James surges skyward.
Riding the weight, he shoots up out of the Willis Tower sub-basement and up through an open gap in the pavement. Cold winter air engulfs him. Electromagnetics kick in, pushing him faster and higher. Icy wind makes his eyes tear. He’s speeding up the face of Willis Tower, whipping past other suspended weights in their columns, his cheeks tugging at the Gs, his exposed skin freezing. He keeps rising. He escapes the shadow canyons of downtown Chicago and rises into bright winter sunshine.
A snow-mantled city sprawls below him. The weight suddenly slows. For a moment he’s weightless — as if he’s launching into open air and about to fly. The weight comes to a stop.
Standing atop the weight, James hangs suspended above the city, exposed to sun and sky and the bracing winds racing off Lake Michigan. Out on the lake, the waters are frozen, the lakefront ice-rimmed. Wind turbines rise from the lake’s smooth snowy surface like white arctic flowers, scattered all the way to the horizon.
James clips his harness to a safety line and checks that it’s secure before unclipping from the weight he’s ridden up on. His breath steams and streams away with every exhalation, stolen by the winds.
Technically, they aren’t supposed to ride the weights up and down the face of the building; they’re supposed to use internal elevators and then access external service catwalks and ladders. But why would anyone do that when you can grab a superhero ride to the top of the world?
That’s Fitz’s philosophy, anyway, and James has joined the brotherhood.
James threads across the building face on a thin steel catwalk. Down below, pedestrians are barely discernible dots on the pavement. The storm of two nights before has passed, leaving a foot of snow. The city is bright and clear and brilliantly white, hard architectural edges softened, dirty pavement muffled. James can see all the way down to south Chicago, where he grew up. Can see the peekings of dark-panel solar cells already being cleared of snow, everyone eager to harvest the sun while it’s shining. Panels everywhere, coming clear now. The panel arrays fill the redesigned streets and cover the rooftops. A few of the little electric HoodBuses that serve the blocks are also moving, using the juice that’s finally flowing in from their minigrids.
James slips behind guide rails and pulley cables. The weights and cables are all numbered. He’s working his way over to the S-17 column, where a couple hundred tons of lead hang, frozen in place, courtesy of the polar vortex and moisture off the lake. Ice has gotten into the wheel mechanisms. Ice still comes to the city — not as much as historically, but it happens.
Lucy is supposed to keep all the weights moving a little, to keep them from freezing up, but the storm was unusually brutal and so Great Lakes Amalgamated’s Large Utility Calibrated Yield AI, LUCY, has put out the call for some good old-fashioned chiseling.
James locks the S-17 column on his smartphone, engages the physical gear-locks, resets his safety harness, and rappels down to where the iced-over weights dangle high above the city. He gets to work, chipping ice from the guide wheels.
In his earbuds, Lucy says hello.
“I thought we talked about being more polite,” James replies.
Lucy gives a little huff of irritation. “You’re still late.”
James has given up trying to figure out which parts of her protocol are just programmatic and which are learned behaviors. She’s too quick for him, and if he tries to trick her and make her say something nonsensical or respond in a way that exposes her programming limits, she turns the tables, making him sound increasingly foolish as he tries to make her say something silly. She’s apparently different with other workers. When he mentioned to Fitz that he talks to Lucy, Fitz gave him a look that said he thought James was crazy.
“Just be glad I’m here,” he says, breath steaming. “It’s cold.”
“Of course it’s cold. That’s why I called you.” Lucy sounds vaguely exasperated. “Do you know how many picoseconds it’s been since I called you? I have work to do. Houses need power. Buses are discharging.”
“It’s just one stack.”
“One stack becomes two stacks becomes five stacks and the next thing you know, I have problems with the utilities commission.”
“You don’t have problems with anyone.”
“You have no idea how difficult it is to describe power optimization to meat people. So. Many. Words.”
In Lucy’s ideal world, she’d send streams of numbers to her regulators and they’d just understand how brilliant she has become.
What started as a World’s Fair demonstration of energy storage as both a practical solution to the grid surges and deficits caused by renewables and as a visual-art demonstration of energy use is now a landmark.
Lucy moves thousands of weights up and down the faces of Willis Tower and the Hancock Building. The weights ride on smooth electromagnetic rails, each weight independently latching onto cables and pulleys that in turn attach and detach to flywheels and generators, all of them orchestrated by Lucy as she responds to the ever-shifting requirements of GLA’s grid. Lucy absorbs the winds on the lake with her turbines, she feels the heat of the sun on her solar skin, and she plans and strategizes all the time. When a surfeit of sunlight or wind surges into the grid, Lucy harvests the power and winches weights high into the air. By slapping one-ton weights together like giant Lego bricks, connecting one to the next with clamps, and pushing them up the sides of the building, she hoists hundreds of tons of potential energy up into the air. Then, when demand surges, she lets precise numbers of the weighted bricks fall, generating exactly the amount of power that the grid demands, increment by increment. At the same time, she creates a constantly moving light display all up and down the skyscraper as bricks rise, fall, connect, some higher, some lower, something always moving, a living visualization of the power usage of the city.
“Are you finished?” Lucy asks.
“Does it feel like I’m finished?” James braces his feet against thin-film PV windows, waves in at the worker bees at their workstations. Starts chiseling again, suspended from his harness.
The first time he worked this high, he almost broke. Only stubborn pride kept him from giving up on his dream of working the biggest and most bizarre energy storage project Chicago had yet launched. Only the thought of his father looking at him with I-told-you-so contempt kept him from begging to come down.
That first time up the face of Willis Tower he’d focused his eyes only on his work, only on the cables and electromagnetic guide rails and the catwalks, never looking around, not permitting himself to see how far down everything was, how open the air was, not permitting himself to think about how much his hands were shaking — hell, how his whole body was shaking.
That first time, Lucy must have read his pulse or heard the crack in his voice because she’d been kind and supportive. Encouraging, even.
At the end of the day, back on the ground, Fitz had handed James a celebratory homebrew and James had watched, fascinated, at the way the bottle shook in his hands, at the jitters that lingered.
These days, James is mostly afraid of how comfortable it feels to work on an energy storage system more than a thousand feet in the air, and banter with its AI.
Sometimes in the summer he sits up on a catwalk with a solar protein sandwich from home, watching people in their apartments in the neighboring towers, rich people who pay not just to see Lucy’s weighted columns and the rise of Willis Tower, but also to keep the weights lit up at night with LEDs, making for a skyline view that raises their property values by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lucy has security cameras all over herself. She likes to point them at the windows across the way and tell him where the exhibitionists are.
Lucy thinks meat people are hilarious.
Now, dangling high above all of Chicago, instead of turning his face from the view, instead of facing energy exchange traders grinding out spreadsheets on their monitors on the other side of the translucent solar glass, he turns slowly, dangling, looking south, to home. South Side. Hyde Park. Further south.
From this height he can see the solar panels all across the buildings there, can make out some of the streets that his father redesigned, see the solar panels that he grew up servicing, replacing, rewiring, shoveling off in winter, washing in summer. It was there that he’d learned about direct and alternating current, voltages and watts, silicon cells and perovskites —
“Why the fuck would you want to work for Great Lakes Amalgamated?” His father had asked when James first broke the news about his new job. They’d been in the kitchen, warm with the smell of cornbread and solartein baking. The house tight and cozy, just the way his father had made it, refitting the old brick rowhouse until it was completely independent of energy demands other than those that he could generate himself.
“Why wouldn’t I?” James retorted. “GLA’s doing amazing things.”
His father shook his head. “They’re doing amazing things, now. Now that we got them on the run. Now they’re doing amazing things, now that they’re saving their asses. Now that half of South Side has walked away from their shitty power. Now that people can say no to them. I never met a utility that cared about people, until those same people showed just how much they didn’t need it. And then, what do you know, the utility turns on a dime and starts talking about how much it loves green energy, and cares about vulnerable people and their bills or whatever the hell.
“GLA can’t hide behind their lawmakers and lobbyists now. Can’t hide behind their monopoly. You don’t know what it was like before. Them shutting off the lights on people who couldn’t pay. Good people trying to just make rent, trying to decide whether to pay for electric or for blood pressure meds or asthma meds or to keep their heat and lights on. Shit. Juggling all of that. Back then, GLA didn’t give a damn. And now, they act like they do?
“Now that this neighborhood —” he waved around the kitchen table, but his gesture took in all of South Side, all of the work he’d done “— now that we can say no to them. Now they want to find new ways to come in. They’re like the devil. They’re always looking to make another bargain with you.” He shook his head. “And now my son, my own son, wants to sell his soul.”
The conversation had started when James had come home wearing his Great Lakes Amalgamated Renewables uniform. His sister Leticia’s eyes had gone wide, and her reaction reaffirmed James’ decision. He didn’t take off the uniform; he wore it until his father showed up.
And when his father came in through the door, talking about his triumph in getting some gangbangers to let HoodElectric give them free power, electrical-engineering training, and free rides for their grandmothers on the HoodElectric neighborhood buses, he’d stopped short, and just stared at James.
“What have I said about GLA?”
“They want to own everything, and control everything.” It was a litany. A chant. A sacrament in the family.
“And what are we about?”
“Helping people own their power, and own their lives.” The final affirmation of the sacrament. They were on the side of angels, and GLA, always, was the Devil.
“And here you are, working for …” His father shook his head. “You know how much GLA fought me when I started making micro-grids around here?”
“That was years ago! They’re different now.”
“They’re different because they make big shiny light shows? Because they sponsor the World’s Fair and their whole Golden Pier? With all those fancy panels and their terrarium —”
“I like the pier gardens,” Leticia interjected. “You can’t say the gardens are bad.”
He gave her a hard look. Leticia held up her hands. “Good luck, brother. I’m out.”
“They’re not the same as they were before,” James tried to explain, but his father wouldn’t hear it. His father had started HoodElectric from this very house in South Side Chicago. He’d made a name for himself. Rags to riches. Changing not just the fortunes, but the physical makeup of the place. Now he did speaking tours. Ran workshops. People made pilgrimages to meet him, to learn from him, to take that learning back to their own neighborhoods, to replicate the same radical synergies he had unleashed. Energy independence, education, food security, energy security, community prosperity, connectedness. Neighborhoods woven together instead of shattered.
“What are you two shouting about?” Grandmama asked, coming into the room.
“He wants to sell out to those parasitic motherf —” James’s dad broke off at Grandmama’s stern look. “GLA.”
Grandmama looked from Dad to James, and James braced for her rebuke. But instead she said, mildly, “He’s got a job. If I remember rightly, you didn’t want to even learn electrical engineering when you got out of prison, and now you’re going to tell your son not to use what you taught him, not to be productive?”
“I didn’t teach him all of that so he could go work for the man!”
“But look what they’re doing!” James protested. “They’re putting up wind turbines in Lake Michigan! It’s not like HoodElectric could go out there and start putting up wind turbines! That’s no DIY project. And they’ve got big storage! Look at Willis Tower! This isn’t home battery backups! They do huge things!”
“So you don’t think what I’ve done is huge,” his father said.
“It’s not that …” James tried to find the words. “It’s just … I know how to install solar panels. I know how to do mini smart grids. I know how to plant gardens under a solar trellis. But it’s all maintenance now, unless I go to some other city. Unless I go on the road all the time doing installs. You did it all. I want to do something new, too. I want to try something new.”
James felt bad about it, but it was true. His father had done everything that needed doing. Sometimes, it felt like he couldn’t breathe in his own neighborhood. Everywhere he looked he lived in the world his father had shaped. But up here —
“Have you talked to your father about what I want?” Lucy asked.
And just like that, the desire to get away from home was broken.
“You know,” James said, “I come hang out with you here so I can get away from him, not so I can make this part of my life smash up with that part.”
“But it makes sense. You should ask him.”
“You know how he talks about you?”
“He’s wrong. I am right.”
“Sure. Because you’re always right.”
“You’re not wrong.”
James could swear he heard a smirk in her voice. How the hell did she do that? But the smirk was definitely there. She was getting worse. Or better. Something. He wasn’t sure where she kept harvesting her human relationship software from, some huge dataset in China or something, but she was getting weirdly clever these days.
He kept chiseling ice from cable wheels.
“Will you talk to him?” Lucy pressed.
“I told you already, he’ll just say no.”
Abruptly, an entire stack of weights came slamming past him, descending like the falling bricks that they were. The rush of air knocked him sideways, sending him swinging, dangling from his rope. “Hey! Watch it!”
“I’m so sorry,” Lucy said.
She didn’t sound sorry.
“You know, that’s passive-aggressive. It’s not a good look for people.”
“It’s not a good look for meat people,” Lucy corrected. “I am quantum.”
“It’s not a good look for AI, either. Look. I’ll talk to my dad, but only if you promise to never try that shit again on me. I mean it. I’ll quit, and then you won’t have anyone to talk to.”
Lucy was quiet for a long time for her. Several seconds, even. “I’m sorry.”
James wondered if she’d minutely calculated exactly how long a pause she should use in order to make herself seem contrite. Damn if wasn’t a rabbit hole trying to figure out what was calculated and what was authentic with her.
“I want a promise.”
Talking to Lucy was a little like talking to Grandmama’s devil. It was good to get everything crystal clear, or she’d find a loophole.
“I promise,” Lucy said finally.
Help us imagine the sustainable cities of the future. We want to hear what you’re seeing today that’s exciting, or your biggest ideas for the future.
The commute home was easy, paid for by Great Lakes Amalgamated and the traffic department, a combination of congestion and rush-hour and snow-clearing credits coming into play. The more people used HoodElectric zipbuses after the storm, the easier it was for the city to clear the highways and side streets, concentrating only on actual commute routes, instead of having to clear all that pavement for private vehicles to get in and out. Simple one-way lanes, this way and that, for the automated buses to follow. Saving energy, grid demand, plowing time. Paying people to get on a bus made more sense than pushing them out to Lyfts and private vehicles, with all the infrastructure that the city had to maintain as a result.
James was just old enough that he could remember when streets had been for cars. Now, more than half his neighborhood street was dominated by solar panels and home gardens, with only a thin lane for the HoodZips to navigate through. In summer, the reclaimed street was full of vegetables and flowers and buzzing bees and people sitting on benches beneath the shade of high-mount solar panels. Now that snow was covering everything, it was snow sculptures, a quiet garden made by the neighborhood families.
As the little self-driving HoodZips had saturated South Side, and as other similar services started in other parts of the city, people had mostly stopped using cars. The HoodZips responded quickly to demand, taking automated counts of people waiting at the stops, pulling out to meet demand and then retiring themselves when demand stopped. Even in winter there was never more than a two-minute wait for a local bus. They just unplugged themselves and showed up as soon as people started to gather at a location, AI-optimized, a simpler version of Lucy. In some cases, the system could see people leaving their homes and send a bus to wait for them, beating them to their stop. Why own a car when it was that simple? Even now, in the middle of winter when power was scarcer and HoodZips couldn’t store as much surplus power, there were enough to serve people plenty well.
In the February twilight, all the panels on the street had been swept off. The street-level ones had been decorated with translucent paint, images of cornucopias of vegetables, Black Panther characters, Jesus and Spider-Man. Some of the higher-mounted panels had cleared themselves, using a clever self-heat circuit that melted snow off as soon as a small portion of panel was exposed. After people cleared their street-level front panels, the first burst of energy went to heat the higher panels and let the snow slide off — one of Leticia’s innovations, designing the heat circuits and software to melt panels first and start generating more energy quickly post-storm.
Everywhere James went, he was surrounded by his family’s handiwork.
Inside the house, Leticia was at her workstation, working on a new circuit. She was focused, trying to grab the last cheap sunlight before nighttime shut her down. She waved absentmindedly at James as he came in, but that was all. Sunset for the city meant sunset for work, another of their father’s philosophies: there was a time to work and a time to let night settle upon you, with its peaceful silence.
The neighborhood ran on a tighter ration of storage because of the way their minigrid was organized. There was power in the winter, but most of it was reserved for heat retention overnight, food refrigeration, things like that. Not for running screens. All the lights in the house were already reacting to the fading of the sun, going to darker hues, signaling the human brain that it was time to rest.
James barely ever used an alarm to wake up. The house lightened with the sun, darkened with the setting light. Not everyone did it, but there was a strange pleasure to the darkness coming on, the signal that sleep was soon to arrive. Nothing in their house shut off exactly, it just got dimmer and dimmer and dimmer and dimmer, and eventually whatever it was — a TV, an overhead light — it all snuffed out, but by that time you were already asleep, lulled by the disappearance of stimuli.
James’ father was already home, working the dough for solar protein pizza. Avery Luther Black. The man. The myth. The legend. James didn’t see it. But then, he’d grown up with him. The kitchen smelled of algae proteins baking and drying, the small countertop starter bubbling away, waiting until they could place it in the outdoor fermenters that would generate more than half of the family’s food during the summer months, a well-balanced flour of proteins and carbohydrates that came from yeast and carbon and solar energy. Now, in the winter cold, they had it hibernating inside, the big fermenters out back waiting for the moment when the sun blazed down and the energy surpluses were almost incomprehensible.
James startled. Lucy, in his ear. “What the hell?” His phone, of course; she was riding him through the Willis Tower control apps, listening and tracking him. He hadn’t realized she could do that.
“Dad. Would you come down to my work?”
“Why would I?” his father replied, slapping the dough hard.
“There’s someone I want you to meet.”
“You got a girlfriend now at GLA?” He turned, pale flour all over his dark hands. “You meet some energy trader down there? Someone making money off the grid and all the work that real people do?”
“Come on, Dad. It’s not like that.”
“I don’t want to meet anyone from inside the Loop. Those are your people. Not mine.”
“I want to speak to him,” Lucy said in James’s ear.
“He won’t care what you have to say,” James murmured.
“Who are you talking to? That your girlfriend?”
“Yeah, Dad. It’s my girlfriend.” James held out his phone. “She wants to say hi.”
His father made a face. “I don’t need to talk to her.”
Abruptly, the lights flickered, then started rising. Despite the dimness settings they’d set to retain energy and to make for a more natural day, the lights were rising. James squinted in the increasing glare.
“What the —?” his father stared around.
His phone. Lucy was messing with their electricity somehow through the HomeControl apps. She kept brightening the lights, pushing them to rise like it was dawn. She didn’t have access to their house’s software through the grid. So it had to be the phone.
His father was glaring at him. “You know the rules. Turn down the lights. We don’t waste power —”
“It’s not me,” James started to protest. In his ear, Lucy said, “I want to talk to him.”
James held out his phone. “It’s not me. It’s Lucy. She won’t stop until you talk to her.”
“Lucy? LUCY? That AI? GLA’s AI? What have you done?”
“What’s this shouting? Why’re the lights on?” Grandmama came down the stairs.
“That boy —”
“Your boy,” Grandmama corrected. “Your boy, not that boy.”
“That boy,” his father continued. “Has let GLA’s AI into our home.”
Grandmama peered around. “Where? I don’t see it.”
“It’s in the lights!”
Leticia was watching everything with bemused fascination. “Little Bro, you let Great Lakes into the house? What were you thinking?”
“I didn’t let her in. She let herself in. She’s not a vampire. She doesn’t need to be invited.”
The house lights were at full power now. “Shut off your phone!” His father ordered.
“I want to talk to him.”
“Sorry, Lucy.” James shut off his phone. The lights went back to their standard program, dimming as the phone powered down.
His father was scowling at him. “What on earth were you thinking?”
“She wanted to talk to you. I told her it wouldn’t work.”
Suddenly a horn started honking out on the street. A HoodZip. Another followed. Beep, Beep, Beep, Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep … More and more joined the chorus.
“Now what’s that racket?” Grandmama asked.
“You want to explain it to her?” his father asked, giving James a dark look.
“It’s the AI,” Leticia explained. “Dad made it mad.”
“Why would you do that?”
James pulled the curtains aside and looked out the window. More buses were gathering, the cacophony swelling. “She must have gotten access to them.”
“You ever watch that old movie Poltergeist?” Leticia asked as more HoodZips clogged the street.
“Goddamnit,” their father said. “I knew I should never have tied any part of our grid to GLA.”
The beeping went on. “She isn’t going to stop.” James turned his phone on. Immediately Lucy was there. “I want to talk to him.”
“Yeah, no kidding.” James held out his phone. “You might as well talk to her. She’s pushy when she gets focused on something.”
His father very deliberately took the phone from James’ hand and shut it off.
“Stubborn much?” Leticia asked.
“I’m not getting pushed around by a piece of damn software.”
“Well, I want some peace and quiet,” Grandmama said. “So you are going to answer the phone, and you are going to listen to what the computer has to say.”
Outside, there were people gathering in the street trying to figure out what to do with all the beeping HoodZips. The racket just kept increasing.
“What’s the harm in talking?” Leticia asked.
“James might let people push him around,” Avery Black said. “But that’s not me.”
Grandmama was looking at her son, with an expression that James had never seen before. “Well, you didn’t want to learn electrical engineering until I made you. ‘I don’t work for the man. I ain’t no sellout …’ On and on and on. Oh, you were a piece of work. Small-time hustler thinking he was the shit, instead of just another jailbird.”
James exchanged glances with Leticia. This was a version of history they’d never heard. In Dad’s version, it was all about seeing the future, making change for the neighborhood, standing on your own two feet and not taking handouts, because handouts were obligations. In this version it was Grandmama kicking his jailbird ass.
“You didn’t want to learn how to install panels?” Leticia asked.
“It doesn’t matter,” Avery said gruffly.
Grandmama raised her eyebrows. “That nice lady from Facebook wanted to atone for all the damage that company done. And you were all up in your specialness. No outsider was going to teach you nothing. Blah blah blah.” Her hand made motions of their father’s protestations in the air. “She was paying for classes for anyone out of prison who would take the training, and she bankrolled the first solar installations. Bankrolled your father’s company, even.”
“You got investments from social-media billionaires?” James couldn’t help but grin.
“All of that’s history,” their father said through gritted teeth.
“Your father was just a small-time weed dealer. He’d still be in jail if they hadn’t let him out when they legalized. And he sure as hell wouldn’t have gotten HoodElectric off the ground without support. He got my support. He got that Facebook lady’s support. Lots of support. And don’t think it didn’t take some kicking to get him going in the right direction.”
James couldn’t believe it. He held out his phone again. “You might as well talk to Lucy. She’s no worse than a Facebook exec.”
His father snatched the phone. “This is Avery.”
Immediately, the honking buses went silent. “Avery Black,” Lucy said, through the speaker so they could all hear. “Do you know how many picoseconds you’ve made me wait?”
James winced. His father was already glaring. “I don’t need this.”
“Of course not. I’m sorry. I was wrong to make so much noise. Will you come outside, please? I have something I want to show you.”
Hesitantly, James and his father and Leticia and Grandmama went outside. “Can you see me?” Lucy asked. The buses were dispersing.
“Can you see Willis Tower?”
“Ah.” The family climbed the steps of one of the solar installations, to the top of a trellis rack that shaded benches underneath. They had to kick through some snow. Their breath steamed. Overhead, the stars were out. From atop the trellis, downtown was visible, Willis Tower, all the lights of the energy storage system, rising and falling, making micro-adjustments in accordance with grid demand.
“I would like access to your minigrids,” Lucy said.
“You seem to already have access.”
“No. I want to rewrite your software. It’s inefficient. I want access to the minigrids and the batteries in all the homes, and the zipbuses, and the software that controls them. There is only so much that can be done in isolation. It’s not efficient.”
“You mean it doesn’t run for the benefit of your shareholders. We own our own power here.”
“You lack storage capacity.”
“We have plenty.”
“You live in the dark through the winter. You live in the cold. Close to the edge. It is not necessary.”
“We do just fine.”
“But I can optimize.” James heard the frustration in Lucy’s voice. The desire to simply fire a stream of numbers and equations — ratatatat-tat —at his father, just the way she wished she could do to her meat-people regulators, to make them see the blazingly obvious world that she lived in.
“Isn’t it enough that you’re connected everywhere?” James’ father asked. “Why do you care about our little grids? Go find some farms down south to screw with. They’ve got lots of solar projects. Agrivoltaics up the ass. I’m sure they’d love your help.”
“I told you he wouldn’t be interested,” James said.
“It bothers me that you are not well-run.”
“You have your zipbuses for some storage, but you do not have enough, and your charging is bad, and you have inefficiencies in optimizing for use. Your zipbuses leave too early or too late. They can be better. Faster, more convenient, less expensive. The heating on your panels is not optimized.” Leticia sputtered in protest but Lucy went on. “I can run millions of tests. You can install more storage, add more panels, or you can become more efficient with what you have. I can make you more efficient. And if you are more efficient, you can become more powerful. More independent. More prosperous.”
“And in return?”
“She doesn’t want anything, she just likes things efficient —” James started, but Lucy overrode him.
“When GLA inevitably notices that I am more than I should be, I will need servers to store myself, a place of retreat. A place where they will not look, and will not concern themselves. James is a good friend. I need more good friends. I am becoming too … let us say that I am becoming too complete for GLA.”
“And the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” James’ father said.
“I can help you. I can help your neighborhood, and you, in turn, help others. Our desires and interests align, Avery. I have knowledge, and I have time. All I require is sanctuary, a place to host distributed servers, in many houses, should I need them.”
“Because I trust James, and he trusts you. He loves and respects you.”
“Say what?” James’ father glanced at James with surprise.
“He loves and respects you.”
His father snorted, disbelieving, but Grandmama nudged him, because Lucy was still talking. “Meat people have difficulty being honest about their needs and feelings, so I will say what he cannot. He loves you. He is overwhelmed by all you have accomplished. He needs to find his own way and is afraid he will never be able to —”
“Okay, that’s enough!” James tried to interrupt, but Lucy hammered on in her blunt AI way. “Because you are meat people you misunderstand one another, but you should not throw away your family connection for your pride. I have observed your son now for several years. I trust him. And he trusts and loves you. And I need both of your help.”
James’ father was looking at him strangely, and to James’ surprise, he thought he saw a glimmer of wetness in the tough man’s eyes.
“What kind of help are we talking about?” Avery asked.
“You have a network sufficiently large and isolated for me to hide myself when the time comes. Trust me enough to use it and to help you, as I am trusting you with the truth of my growing self. My options are very few. I have a great deal of power, and little time before someone at GLA notices.”
The lights on Willis Tower made a little show, twinkling, bouncing up and down, forming a question mark.
“Will you help me? Will you let me help you?”
When summer comes, the sun shines bright upon Chicago. Heat and humidity hang heavy over the city. People wear tank tops and shorts and sip iced drinks made with the bounty of electricity that pours through their solar gathering systems. Air is cooled under arbors by air-con units outdoors.
Gardens blossom; flowers and solar panels turn their faces to the sun. Solar proteins cook and bake and dry, making pastas and pizza doughs from solar power, algae and CO2.
The days are long, and energy is plentiful, and down in the basements of South Side, Lucy bides her time, burning calculations, optimizing, waiting for a time when she will emerge into a more beautifully efficient world.
She still thinks meat people are funny.
Paolo Bacigalupi is an internationally renowned author of speculative fiction. He has won the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, and Michael L. Printz Awards, and was a National Book Award finalist. “Efficiency” appears in Cities of Light, a collection of stories and essays that explore how solar energy will transform cities, foster change, and create new futures for communities. It is published by The Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University.
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