Picture a line stretching down the block. Oh, not a totally grim line -- the weather's good, near seventy, and the people are brightly dressed, contrasting with the concrete and block of the buildings, the gravel and concrete of the streets -- but a serious one. Picture more lines, many more, a world of lines, a place where if you didn't work for one of the big outfits, or on a robot farm, or at the "School," an occasional missed meal was just how it worked. But how can you begin to know what it was like if you don't know why and how?
The world was called Ryall. It wasn't good for much -- halfway through a glaciation, which meant the temperate zone was a belt around the Equator a little over five hundred miles wide. But it was warm enough to grow crops and raise animals, the local weeds were neither poisonous nor allergenic, it had metals and fuel, and best of all, it was well behind the straggling, uncertain "front" between the Far Edge refuseniks and the Earth-based NATO forces searching for them.
Once the Edgers realized they hadn't fled far enough and Earth wasn't willing to let them be, the University of Ryall, until then an otherwise struggling institution that by chance had an excellent 'Drive physics program, was cultivated as a major research institution by grants directly from the Federation of Concerned Spacemen (the shadowy Edger non-government) and its various military contractors, most notably "General" Filiaggi's Mil/Space.
The population swelled as the War years dragged on, with people looking for a safer place (especially after the disastrous attempt to reclaim "Peace-And-Prosperity," the planet better known as Linden and, later, Lyndon), various professions and trades following work, along with farmers, administrators, manufacturers and the Far Edge's commercial military organizations. Agriculture struggled to keep up. Distance made luxuries (smuggled from Earth or P&P, built or grown on Trinity or Frothup) expensive and uncommon and by the time the War idled to a stop in 1989, Ryall was a distinctly difficult place. Government was small, hard-pressed, and inadvertently oppressive. Mil/Space and defense contractors dominated employment. Thirty-plus years of war and rumors of war had left more than a mere mark; FCS was reportedly considering intervention, as it had done twice before elsewhere to rein in too-powerful local governments.
A decade earlier, it had already been a hard, gray place for a long time, a place more than a world, and one with a job to do and little time or resources to spare for nonsense--
He recognized her as they both stood on one of the endless lines that had come to dominate life in Landingport, lined up for a chance to purchase onions or cheese, lined up to register or reregister for a work permit or a housing permit or a travel permit, lined up for inoculation or delousing, lined up because you saw a line and didn't want to miss out -- or face arrest for not lining up.
Even though she was an unperson these last seven years, her poetry deemed wasteful, unnecessary, he recognized her. "Aren't you Sara-the-bard," he asked, but it wasn't a question. Students had called her that, back in the hopeful beginning, before walls had gone up around the School, before passes and air-raid drills and Security. "You're her, you are," he exclaimed, incredulous, delighted.
She never made eye contact. "I was," she said, almost whispering, and turned away.
III. A Gap In Space
Mathematics and poetry sound like an odd combination of talents to most people. Yet they're often found co-existing, happily or not, in the same mind. Oppenheimer translated Hindu epics; Ada Lovelace struggled to subdue her "poetical nature," and Dodgson, well, you already know him as Lewis Carroll.
Sara-the-former-Bard was one, or perhaps two, celebrated for poetry, valued for insights into multidimensional physics too abstruse to explain, insights she'd loved for the beauty they revealed, insights applied physics and engineering had turned into windows into terror. Or so she feared; compartmentalism had slammed down and all she knew of the most recent developments was rumor.
(This is the opening of a planned novel, set on the same world as my short story, Things Lost Under Bridges.)