As I race through total darkness I find myself trying to estimate my speed.
The sensation of movement roughly correlates to a similar velocity as that of the old above-ground trains, back before they all got shut down or blown up by the BOLO.
It didn’t take many bombings to empty the trains and cause rail traffic to grind to a halt. The trains had continued to run their normal schedules for a few weeks, but no one dared ride— even the homeless stopped sleeping in them. Once the trains were empty I had assumed the bombings would stop, but instead they increased.
The attacks had always been formally attributed to BOLO gangs, but we the people now suspected the bombings were planned by ruthless corporate overliners intent on controlling the movement of we wastelanders. If people can be limited to traveling no further than they can easily walk, it suddenly becomes much easier to regulate their behavior. It’s also a useful tactic— when you want to keep the lower social classes from realizing they are deliberately being taking advantage of— to focus most of their anger laterally. I remember that tactic being employed by corporate strategists as far back as the early 2000’s, even before. Keep those below you fighting among themselves, keep separate departments from properly communicating with each other, inspire lower level workers to hate middle management, and give middle management the ability to blame all problems on the workers. Just do that, and no one will ever bother to consider how much money is really being made, and why no one but the top executives ever see any of it. Throughout Wasteland’s various regions, the same pattern has been encouraged to emerge: everyone sticks to their own neighborhood, insistently believing that everyone else in the bordering neighborhoods must be unfairly rich and somehow responsible for everybody’s collective problems. The strategy is brutally simple; it functions in work environments ranging from very small to very large, and Wasteland is the world’s largest.
My thoughts are suddenly interrupted when I realize I’m going much faster than I earlier imagined. Extremely fast. I’m glad for the straps. There are very sharp corners on this track, at a much greater frequency than I would have expected. It’s clear these tunnels don’t simply mirror the paths of the old subway system. I whip around corners so sharp and long and steep they seem to be spiraling back on themselves, their centrifugal force nauseating in the near-total darkness. It suddenly dawns on me that I don’t know how this thing is going to stop. It’s clearly not running on gravity, so there must be some kind of motor powering the sled from underneath. So it must have controls.
My hands search gingerly through the darkness but find nothing except the flat metal and wood of the smooth sled surface and the buckles where my straps attach to the sled itself. Maybe this is how Wooter disposes of top dwellers who know too much about the Moley’s system… but no, that can’t be it. In all honesty, my deal with him is probably more lucrative for him than for me.
Unbidden and unwanted, panic tightens its grip. I start to kick and thrash against my restraints, which I instantly realize is beyond ridiculous. What would happen, even if I could get off the sled at this speed? I’d be ground up into burger by the track and whatever bits of old metal and broken pieces of wood comprise the walls of this tunnel. I can’t see them, but I’ve no reason to believe those imagined walls are comprised of more savory stuff than those of the ramshackle entrance tunnel. I choke back an oppressive dread (and a strange sensation that the floor is independently crawling beneath the sled track) as I speed onward. At the last instant before I completely lose my cool and start shrieking, my foot nudges a small lever near the sled’s rearmost edge. I hesitantly depress it a few inches with the toe of my shoe, and in response the sled begins to drastically slow. Why didn’t Wooster explain the details of controlling the sled to me? An interesting question. Was it his version of a joke? Or some weird Moley intelligence test, through the passing of which I earn the prestigious honor of not being scraped off a jagged tunnel wall?
I press the foot lever all the way down, slowing the sled until I’m moving at a comparative crawl, equivalent to walking speed. Okay, so, apparently the default speed for the sled is “breakneck” and the only way not to lose control is to stay awake and alert, with your foot on the pedal, driving this thing with the brake. A few seconds later I begin to make out faint highlights reflecting off the rails.
If you’ve never been deep underground with no light before, your reintroduction to light from total darkness happens in three stages: first is the aforementioned highlights; then comes a moment or two when you feel you can actually see your surroundings except everything is sort of flat and amber colored; then finally there’s actually enough light for you to realize that everything you perceived during the previous two stages was completely wrong. It went exactly like that. By the second stage, I could see the tunnel had flat gray walls comprised of scrap wood and junk metal, floored by what appeared to be smooth round stones, like a cobblestone street. As light adds definition and color to my perception, the first thing I notice is the source: up ahead, a single, large, ancient halogen bulb. I can think of no reason why it should be there; but there it was none the less. Was there once an intersection here, with a tunnel maintenance lamp fixture no one ever bothered to remove?
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the existence of the bulb when its light finally sheds enough illumination for me to realize my previous “crawling” sensation wasn’t unfounded. The cobblestone floor is moving.
Rats are something every New Yorker must face at one point or another. Even in areas where all seemed perfectly pristine, armies of vermin have always lurked in the shadows beneath and below. So it makes sense that as New New York slowly slid into the chaos, the one group of mammals best positioned to benefit as a species would be the rat population. There are literally millions of them. Right now I’m wishing this sled was slightly higher off the ground, but the crawling river of scuttling life below seems to go about its business completely unfazed by the rattling undercarriage of the sled rolling along inches above its shiny back.
I close my eyes tight and slip my foot off the brake. I hope there will be some way to tell when I’m nearing the end of this line, because I’m not slowing down again for anything, not if I can help it. As I speed away from the light its illumination fades back down through the other two stages in turn, in reverse order, but now much faster due to my increased speed. Within moments I’m once again in pitch darkness, hurtling through the darkness as fast as I can.
Just me and the rats.