New York City as a wasteland
By the time we were 15 years into the 21st century, New York City had become the most expensive place to live in the country. It was $3000 dollars for a 700-square-foot rat nest in Brooklyn— just the kind of bragging point that gets a generation of never-faced-any-real-adversity, not-rich-but-rich-enough would-be artists and musicians to move to the city. It’s something they can brag about to the kids they graduated with over the internet, a kind of gentle “Yeah, you should probably stay in Kansas, I don’t really think you could make it here.” What they never say is that they pretty much weren’t making it here either. No one was really making it on their own… there were trust fund kids whose parents were supplying them with enough money to cover the essentials so they could spend the cash they made bartending on booze and amphetamines. There were art school graduates, living as “artists,” which mostly consisted of working as a barista or at some kind of artisanal pickle cannery while living with seven other people in a sort of sardine-can commune, talking a lot about art, but spending most of their time binge-watching TV shows on $3000 dollar computers. There were foreigners, living in similar conditions (but with a lot more actual work involved), lacking even the opportunity to give up on the city if they failed. All the poor were like that; and because they had no means of fleeing outward into the suburbs and country, they packed into the gaps in the city, trying to squeeze out enough money to live with three generations of family in apartments barely large enough to house three people. Heads down, working. We all knew at some point it would have to shift. Something would have to change. But no one would have expected the collapse of New York.

If you had asked people at the time to guess what would be the downfall of the city, they probably would have said something like “terrorism” or “global warming.” Reality— as it often does— brought about the end less “like a lightning strike” and more “like a slow moving mudslide.” First there was the presidential election. It appeared to be what most people had come to expect from elections, polarizing. In reality it was two candidates with very little difference between them apart from a few ideological policy points and their accompanying platitudes. At the same moment, the country was running headlong into another fiscal nightmare and a seeming governmental impasse over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling. By this time everyone had grown fairly accustomed to such narrowly-avoided disasters, but this one came at a time when political rhetoric had reached a fever pitch. Candidates and pundits preached like Southern Baptists about who was to blame. The Right claimed the Left was borrowing money from our children’s future (which was true); the Left claimed that the Right was holding the country hostage simply for the purpose of banging their drum (which was also true). It was a feeling we had all experienced, though never to that degree.

Then someone assassinated Rupert Murdoch. It was something no one had ever considered possible, though looking back, I’m not sure why. Throughout history powerful people have been targeted for assassination when they are in control, at the height of their power, and seemingly untouchable. As you may well guess, the country exploded. There were peaceful protests of course, but the riots were better for ratings; and as humans always tend to fall back on the “eye for an eye” rule of vigilante justice, an equal response was orchestrated in the attempted assassination of Warren Buffet. Tit for Tat, like we do. Meanwhile, the country went flying over the fiscal cliff and finally defaulted on its debt. What happened next might seem surreal to some, but you must understand how the average American reacts to the sudden onset of 200% inflation. Suddenly everyone was poor, and worse, the government couldn’t borrow any money to help. It was desperate, and people were scared.

Sometimes a preposterous idea posed at the perfect confluence of disasters, when given the right amount of push from the proper media and political channels, can shift from preposterous to feasible; it may in fact even start to seem like a good idea. Several weeks after his attempted assassination, Mr. Buffet announced a proposal: Berkshire Hathaway would combine with Newscorp to form the largest megacorporation the world had ever seen. Obviously there were quite a few antitrust laws to prohibit them from merging, so in exchange for clearance to do so, the newly-formed BHN corp would agree to pay off America’s national debt. All of it. At first it seemed insane, but the Right eventually saw it as “the free market solving a government-created problem,”  and the Left saw it as “the rich finally paying for the disaster they had created.” Murdoch had been involved in politics before and had the trust of the American people. BHN only required one other thing— annexation. They would get NYC to themselves as a sovereign nation.  I’ll explain the details of this later, but let’s just say that most of Wall Street were heartily in favor of being free from U.S. Government oversight. An idea this big must obviously be put to a popular vote, and it passed by a greater margin than projected. It even passed in New York. So, on the condition that BHN continue to operate on the American dollar, they became their own sovereign nation. The Nation of New York City, technically: “Berkshire Hathaway News Corporation presents New York City.”

Ten years later, no one calls it that anymore. This is far from the glowing free market Meritocracy we were originally promised. It’s not quite an apocalypse either, since any apocalypse must theoretically come to some sort of end, when the fires burn out and the souls are sorted. This is worse: the disaster that never ends. This is Wasteland.

A thin gray morning dawns across the mighty metropolis, and I rise to face the day within the confines of my little cube.

It’s a space on the second floor of what was once a deli in Midtown near the Roosevelt Hotel. A lot of office space on the upper floors of commercial buildings got converted to extra living spaces in the initial influx immediately following annexation. For decades before the split happened, venture capitalists and forward-thinking types had been speculating how perfect the world could be if only they were allowed to invent a brand-new-society from scratch. That theory surmised that if you just let the genius CEOs of some big tech company set the whole thing up, it would flourish the same way as Silicon Valley. There was a lot of wild speculation in those days about a barge Google had launched in the San Francisco Bay— people believed it might be the early stages of a floating city, a new style of ocean-borne “aqua-state,” intended to function beyond the reach of government oversight and out-of-control taxation.

In the end, it just turned out to be yet more data storage… but it planted the idea of a capitalist meritocracy utopia in the minds of a lot of people. I remember watching a documentary about it: the new wave of would-be social engineers posited that most of society’s ills were endemic and too deeply entrenched to repair, but if given a clean-enough slate the smartest people would be able to devise a new system where all individuals would invariably rise according to nothing other than their own merit. To truly understand the sentiment, though, you need to know what people were like, right before annexation: postmodernism had introduced and ultimately popularized the idea that everyone could have their own “individual” truth. That idea was originally supposed to bring about an age of heightened understanding and acceptance… except we-the-people hadn’t exactly gotten over our modernistic predisposition for believing we were already right about everything, and the internet— particularly the social aspect of it— allowed people to discover and ally with others who felt exactly the same way as they did about any given topic. We grew very good at the “distillation of cohesive ideas” part of postmodernism, except we glossed over the whole “entertain the validity of other people’s ideas” part of it. We’d actually gone the other way. Postmodernism (or at least the bastardized version of it we’d all come to practice) had fragmented us even further. All arguments were no longer about analyzing and measuring facts, they were about the sanctity of people’s subjective interpretation of the facts, and the media wasn’t helping. They were profiting from it.

Eventually a conciliatory centrist view of communication and compromise gained some popularity, but not before any such “middle-of-the-road” thinking had formally been labeled cowardly and even radical by the Balkinized extremists.  Political candidates who dared mention compromise or were willing to consider an alternate perspective were dismissed as insane. The gaps between popular perspectives continued to grow ever wider, but amidst the increasing polarization there arose a tiny culture of defiant centrists. “Annexation” was the perfect rallying cry for people like that. People like me, honestly. I lived in the city before it fractured from the mainland, but when it happened, I welcomed it.

This morning though, in my white polycarbonate-walled 10′ x 10′ living space, I’m not so much in love with the whole idea anymore. I suppose I shouldn’t say 10′ x 10′ since we all finally went metric (because that system is supposedly so much easier to use), but I just can’t get accustomed to it. Honestly— it’s not fair to call the walls “white” either. They are the dingy yellow-white that plastic takes on when left unpainted and exposed to sunlight for a few years. The color of computer cases from the early 1990’s. That’s something you learn as you get older: the sun wears everything out. I concede that its probably less than fair to complain about my space. 10′ x 10′ is the standard size living space in the wasteland, but at least mine faces the window to the street. It was the luck of the draw. There are 16 other habitats on my floor, none of which have a window. I wonder if their plastic is the same yellowish shade as mine? At 6 feet tall, I find the space confining, though I’ve heard they’re reconfiguring some downtown habitats to be 9′ x 9′ (or 2.74 meters, rather).

That’s the problem with this place, though: everyone is still stuck in the old-world-mindset while pretending to possess all these shiny-new-world ideals. If we were REALLY going to switch to metric, why not just make it an even 3 meters? Nope. We’ll devise the idea in feet, and then expend additional effort to convert it over to meters after the fact, all to conserve effort because metric is somehow easier. Wasteland logic. What’s even scarier to me is that people are still moving here. They need MORE housing here. I wish I could pretend I didn’t know who the new arrivals were, but I know exactly. It’s the exact same type of people who have been moving here since the very beginning. Because if you can sell someone an ideology or the idea of a lifestyle, it doesn’t matter what the actual particulars of your product happen to be. All you need do is convince people that they want to be the type of person that buys what you’re selling. Apple did it brilliantly, famously creating the most effective model for such targeted social group marketing ever devised, so almost immediately after the annexation BHN reached out to Silicon Valley for help marketing NYC as a product.

First they had to offer relocation money and a way out of NYC for all who wanted to remain citizens of the territorial United States… that exodus freed up a lot of city real estate. The largest tech companies bought out most of the less-desirable parts of Brooklyn and Queens. These days, all but a few of the old neighborhoods there are ghost towns, their houses converted to data-storage-centers or render farms full of humming server racks, empty streets lined with gutted brownstones, cables running in and out of every opening. The buildings look like they’re on life support, although in truth they’re probably better-maintained than they were when there were people living in them.

brownstone on life support

The last of the old homestead rent controls were abolished, so it wasn’t hard to get people to abandon their shabby apartments across the bridges. BHN was offering newly-refurbished 10′ x 10’s in Manhattan for much less than the old dumps people were living in, with the option of expanding into additional 10′ x 10’s per family member, up to a maximum of 40′ x 40′. That may not seem like a lot, but many of the lower-income families were already living in less space than that, if you factor the personal space ratio according to the number of people with whom they shared a dwelling. That was another stroke of genius: automatic citizenship for anyone who could prove they had permanent residence in one of the boroughs and was willing to take a government job.That was one-half of the strategy— it created a public works employee-network of fiercely loyal workers. Wasteland was a haven, a way for them to stop living in constant fear. The other half of the strategy was to reach out to the disenfranchised young self-starter subculture. It was a clarion call to everyone who felt oppressed by a system that seemed not to care about them anyway:“Come to New York, no one here will stand in your way!” Wannabe tech geniuses, impatient entrepreneurs, and libertarians flooded the bridges and tunnels to embrace citizenship in a brave new country, one that claimed to care little about such impediments as regulations or tax money.
Of course, we soon learned our new country cared even less about our roads, sanitation, and housing maintenance.

It’s Tuesday morning. That means the water in our building is available for use.

Ever since the mainland raised the price of water from its Catskills reservoirs, most NYC public hydro is desalinated ocean water. It’s supposedly free for any citizen of New York, but— like pretty much everything governments offer for “free”— the delivery system is spotty at best. We technically have unlimited water usage on Tuesdays, Thursdays and during the weekend. When it works. Other (more expensive) sections of the city are on the more luxurious Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule, but since you’re still allowed a minimal ration to drink and cook with on restricted days, I figured I could cut back to two showers a week. The showers aren’t very fun anyway: a 10 x 10 habitat doesn’t include an individual bathroom, so multiple units share a common bathroom area— suitably equipped, but hardly private. It’s surprisingly clean, though.

I remember during my college days the mere thought of a communal bathroom seemed disgusting; when I was a kid and my family would go camping, I always found the state park bathrooms dank and mildewed, the kind of place you’d wisely shower in your flip flops without touching the walls. But not here. I suspect the reason these modern facilities are kept so clean is the mutually-assured gross-out-factor: if you expect the other users to keep things clean, you have to pitch in and do your part lest you find yourself the target of a generous helping of public scorn, and that could make life difficult. A few years ago on this floor one of the other tenants began to make a habit of plugging the drains and letting the sinks overrun, flooding the floor below. Maybe it was some kind of silent protest against being told when one could and could not use the water; there’s always someone who thinks rebellion is funny as long as it’s achieved at someone else’s expense.

A lot of privileged types immigrate to NYC expecting life here to be some kind of Bohemian wonderland, but most flee back to the mainland with their tails between their legs once they figure out their wealthy relatives and upper crust parentage don’t gain them much here in the wasteland. Not below the red line, anyway. That’s what happened to the sink vandal, once everyone figured out who was doing it. There was never any direct confrontation, or course; Security was anonymously contacted with details of his vandalism and he was forcibly evicted from the island, to be sent back to whatever fully-functioning mainland town he came from. There you go, Mr. Protester, back you go to the great outside where there are no water restrictions, and where you can shower as long as you like. Go complain about something out there to someone who cares.Problem solved.

I need to be ship shape today: I’ve got a lead on a job downtown, near the Brooklyn Bridge. That would be great… I haven’t had a regular job in a while and bartering for everything gets exhausting after a while. Some people do pretty well at straight barter, but not me. For as long as I remember I’ve always undervalued any work I did, which invariably led to me making some really terrible deals. Example— at the moment I have a deal where I spend one hour a day mopping and cleaning the communal men’s bathroom area in exchange for toilet paper and soap. That’s a lot of work for such scant reward, albeit toilet paper is most definitely a necessity; you don’t realize how important it is until you suddenly don’t have any.

Getting this downtown job would mean that I could buy my own soap again. I long for the days of full sized bars of soap and the luxurious lather of shampoo. Right now I’m stuck with the little hotel-style soap slivers that Dave (our habitat supervisor) always has in abundance. Taking care of the bathrooms, keeping the floors swept, window cleaning, and general troubleshooting are all supposed to be his job. He actually gets paid for it, but he was lucky enough to land a habitat full of mostly-unemployed barterers, so as long as he keeps importing surplus toiletries and other such sundries from the mainland, he essentially doesn’t have to do much of anything except trade soap for surrogate labor.

I guess he made the system work for him. He certainly hasn’t invented anything wonderful or solved some deep-rooted problem with the awesome insight born of his fresh new communal futuristic perspective, like we’re all supposed to do in the New New York… but he has made a way for himself in which he isn’t forced to mindlessly toil for the means to exist, and underneath all the fake altruism, I suspect that’s what most of us wanted in the first place.

I can’t fault him for it. It’s a smart way to work the system: land a job, then leverage yourself with barter so you don’t have to do the job anymore. First I need to get the job.

After a quick shower and shave, I hit the street with purpose (which is better than acrimony andcynicism which is how I normally hit the street). Who knows? If I get this job, someday I may actually hit the street with optimism… for once.

If there’s one thing here still reminiscent of the pre-annex city it’s the corporate food places. Most of the privately-owned eateries are gone. Profit margins were pretty thin for restaurant owners even before annexation, what with crazy labor costs, supply fluctuations, and a ridiculous overhead— plus a tax code that seemed intentionally-aimed at squeezing small independent business owners out of existence. But when they had to start paying tariff on food and ingredients “imported” into the city it became unsustainable. There’s enough Starbucks and McDonald’s to go around, though. Most people with corporate jobs work at one of those places. There is a wider range of jobs supporting those venues than there used to be. They now employ full time security teams to deter vandals and bounce squatters, and there are also full-time cleaning and structural maintenance crews. The wasteland of today is so filthy it makes mid-1970’s NYC look clean in comparison, garbage strikes and all. So… if a corporation wants to keep its establishments on brand(and by “on brand” I mean “not looking like a dumpster ransacked by feral cats”) you have to employ people to constantly sweep, mop, sanitize, and erase graffiti.

a jack booted guard stands in front of mcdonald's

I refuse to eat at those places. The food is cheap and you can certainly (if greasily) live off it… but eating there tastes to me like a betrayal of the original intentions of New New York. We’re supposed to be creating a new world here, not squabbling over table scraps from the companies that drove us from the old one. So I get most of my food from a little place called Swap.  It’s one of the only independent restaurants left—  they have a great thing going, since they own their own building, one tall enough to get natural sunlight on its roof. That’s necessary because the street level is heavily-shaded almost all day long, even on the sunniest days. There’s a popular joke, the punchline of which is “No sunshine below the redline,” but it’s almost true. The builders keep adding to the height of the skyscrapers and extending the network of topside walkways and magnetic rails installed above the red line level.

But Swap has managed to create a small farm that grows in the sun at the top of the heap. As you can imagine, the menu is pretty limited… but they have enough space up there to raise chickens for eggs and meat, and they grow tomatoes, lettuce, and potatoes. Rumor has it they’re working on leasing the rooftop of the next building over to start growing wheat. There was a time when I was so naive I actually took something as wonderful as a loaf of bread, made from real, unbleached, non-enriched, non-processed ingredients, for granted. Something like that— once so simple, and so commonplace— is considered a delicacy by most people now. But Swap is working to change that, to bring it back for everyone, and as simple and as unassuming as it sounds, I could happily waste a whole afternoon just daydreaming about the possibility.

The whole Swap master plan is the brainchild of the owner/proprietor, Jess. Jess is beautiful. She accepts voluntary manual labor as payment for food (of course you have to do the work up front—she’s an angel, NOT a saint). But she gladly gives you full credit for the hours you work, and you can cash it in whenever you need something. There are a lot of barterers who get their food there, including me. And every single one of them is in love with her.

Including me.

Chapter 2 – Jess

I walk into Swap like any other day— and like any other day, Jess is not out in the front dining area where you might expect to find a well spoken, trim, doe-eyed restaurant entrepreneur.  You’d think a person who had done what practically no one else was able to do— create an independent, self-sustaining eatery that served good, simple, wholesome food you could eat with a clear conscience— would want to cast off the fetters of kitchen service occasionally and luxuriate amidst the trappings of her success, spartan though they may be. The front eating area of Swap is anything but ostentatious: decorated only sparsely, the walls are cool white, peppered with occasional small etchings and lithographs in black metal frames, and the furniture is what is commonly referred to as Danish Modern. Jess’s family came from Scandinavia and she’s in love with that style. When deciding where and how to splurge, she picked furniture others might consider heavy or imposing… yet there’s something about its simplicity and clean lines that lend the entire place a sense of calm tranquility. She maintains that general feeling as a theme throughout the whole restaurant, both in how the dining area is arranged, and in her management of the less elegant (but equally clean and serene) kitchen and farming areas.

Today she dutifully mans the sinks, washing dishes. Judging from the emptying dining room and the stacks of dishes flanking her slender frame, the morning breakfast rush must just have ended. Knots of people bustle through the kitchen and clog the stairs, so it must be a good day for wandering barterers; potentially tragic for me, since I’m one of the few barterers who comes here every day. Even though I don’t have a real job I try to keep a regular work schedule. Most of my bartering brethren, meanwhile, work only when they’re hungry, and then just long enough to pay for the food they need to not be hungry anymore. I take a different tack, trying to bank enough credit and good will with Jess to buy food for awhile, just in case. I flatter myself by thinking it ingratiates her to me. I suppose if I really wanted to make her like me, the best thing to do would be to get a job and start paying for what I eat, not in barter work and goodwill, but in much-needed cash. Although considering how many other scruffy would-be artist/writer/philosopher losers are in here today, I’m sure to stand out about as much as the atrium-white paint on the walls.

As I approach she turns and smiles at me. I would honestly work here just for that.

Jess leaning against a sink stacked with dishes

“And just where, exactly, have you been?” she says, with her usual air of playful condescension. I usually show up at least 15 minutes early—it helps to arrive before your shift since the jobs get handed out like orders at a deli: you come in, take a number, and she reads off various tasks that need to be done. When your number comes up, that’s your job. The best jobs are on top— watering, milking, feeding, etc. They get progressively worse the further you go down. Sometimes there are more people than there is work, but Jess  does what she can to make sure everyone has something to do, tasking the last stragglers with busy work like sweeping the sidewalks, then sending them off with a hard-boiled egg and a cup of coffee. Everybody knows she takes a loss when she does that. Just another reason we all love her.

“I’m really sorry,” I tell her. “I’ve got an interview for a job today, across town. I really only have time to eat.” I don’t say it, but I’ve already missed the work rush, so it doesn’t matter anyway. All the barter work has already been claimed.

She laughs heartily, feigning hurt feelings. It’s almost insufferably cute. “Okay, I guess we’ll just have to rustle you up something to eat. But first you need to come upstairs.” She wipes her soapy hands on a wall towel then pats them dry on her skirt, turning from the sink and dishes. “I have something to show you,” she says.

I follow her (as fast as I’m able) up all 12 flights of stairs to the roof, my legs burning with the effort. The building has an elevator but Jess insists on using the stairs because she claims it keeps her in shape. Honestly, though, one look at her and it’s clear she has one of those figures that’s just genetically predisposed to looking good. The roof bustles with the usual activity: rows of people work their way through the gardens, pruning, weeding, and watering. Several workers milk the goats, while others tend the chickens. There’s a small butcher shed in the farthest corner of the roof (messy work, probably the worst job you can pull), but it only operates 3 days a week and today is not one of those days. We near the edge of the building, where I notice a ladder I’ve never seen before. Jess holds her hand out for me to take it. I stare at it for a second, unsure what’s next… I feel simultaneously hot and cold, my calves ache, and I feel a sudden flash of paranoia that I’ll starting sweating away the benefits of my recent shower. I must look like an idiot.

Jess’s merry voice breaks the silence: “Are you going to help me onto the ladder like a gentleman, or are you just going to stand there like an idiot?” — suspicion confirmed. We scramble down the 12 foot ladder onto the adjoining roof where a small band of people is working on what I must assume will be her new wheat field. A team of people are laying down a layer of rubber roofing strata; in the corner I see people cutting and connecting lengths of piping for the irrigation system; below our feet I hear a work crew, laying in a network of extra roof joists to support the added weight of seed and soil.

“How are you paying for all this?” I ask.

Jess grins proudly. “I actually got an grant from BHNC! I applied for it a few years back and it finally came through. They said promoting real ‘wasteland level entrepreneurs’ was part of their new marketing strategy.” She turns and touches my arm… her fingertips feel electric against my sun-warmed skin. “I need your help,” she says. “You’re generally pretty handy, and you seem to know a lot about everything. I need you to help me figure out how to turn all the wheat I’m about to grow into flour.”

I’ve been waiting years for a chance like this. Of course she may be overestimating my abilities a bit, but I’m not about to let her know that. I also don’t really know how I’ll be able to carve enough time out of my schedule to do the research, gather all the materials— plenty of wood, hand tools,and a giant round stone, I guess. Where am I going to get one of those..?

These are all questions for later. Of course I enthusiastically agree, we go back downstairs, and I grab a quick omelette while she finishes the dishes. She wishes me luck on the interview and suddenly I’m out the door and headed downtown.

Chapter 3 – Downtown

I suppose it’s not technically accurate to blithely say “I’m off downtown” in the same casual way people formerly used that phrase. There was a time when I could walk a few blocks to a subway station, pay what I grumblingly considered “way too much money for a single ride,” board the train, and get off relatively close to where I needed to be. Easy.

Today, things are quite different. Obviously the trains haven’t worked in years, and most of the stations are packed full (in some cases almost to street level) with junk and refuse. Once the Unified Public Police Force was dissolved, the tunnels became just another abandoned space available for dumping junk like old furniture, soiled mattresses, etc. Of course… there should be some kind of authoritative force to prevent people from doing that, but there had been a big social movement in the early days to disenfranchise and formally dissolve the police. The media had already spent years painting law enforcement as little more than a vicious pack of jack-booted thugs, so it didn’t take much to convince people that any such armed force in their midst was not just superfluous, it was a legitimate threat to the public well-being. But who would keep the peace in the absence of public police authority? The answer seemed obvious… private security. In Wasteland everything is privatized.

Except as it turned out, a major problem with those shiny new private security forces was they turned out to be more ruthlessly violent and repressive than the public cops had ever been, plus they would only actually invest time and effort to “keep the peace” in areas of their direct employ. No one was paying them extra to keep garbage out of the subway stations; so, obviously, they didn’t. When no one is being paid to pay attention to such things, such situations have a natural tendency to go to pot rather quickly… so it didn’t take long before the deserted rail stations were impassably packed with detritus.

In this particular instance, however— and as tends to be the case in any horrible situation— there was an opportunistic group ready to take advantage of it. And, as is often the case, it was people whose situation was already horrible. Since the advent of the subway system there had always been people who lived in the tunnels. Called many different things— homeless, bums, mole people— they’re really just poor people with a modicum of rugged ingenuity and a higher tolerance for vitamin D deficiency. Most people find these tunnel dwellers frightening when they catch a rare glimpse of them, though the mole people are seldom seen above ground these days.

As a barterer, however, I myself try to actively maintain a friendly working relationship with all the non-violent subcultures in Wasteland as potential clients… even those below. I have a contact among the mole people, a man named Wooter. The mole people have balkanized the underground into separate tunnel “regions” and he’s essentially chief of the region below my neighborhood. They don’t have much in the way of material products for trade, but what they dohave is handy transportation. For the lucky elite who live in the high buildings there are plenty of kinetic walkways and hover barges to ferry you back and forth, but down here under the line there isn’t much available that’s any faster than walking. The surface roads are nearly impassable due to the complete lack of maintenance, which leaves mostly just the sidewalks. Back in the early days there were rickshaws, but we underliners seldom earn the kind of money required to pay someone else to pedal us around. Occasionally you’ll see a rare mounted traveler on horseback, but I’ve never been able to figure out where they stable the animals or how they keep them fed. The heaviest freight usually gets moved around on carts drawn by oxen or the like, but the majority of us just walk.

As you can imagine the average experience of the city to a typical citizen of Wasteland is rather restricted. A person can only walk so far, one of the reasons people have such trouble finding employment. In my case, though, I’ve acquired the useful ability to ride the mole holes; in return for the privilege I procure various items for them from up top. I’m constantly amazed at how many people refuse to work with the moleys; it can be a pretty good deal, if you play your cards right. For example, I recently made a bargain with Wooter allowing me full use of the tunnel every day if needed. The mole holes are small passageways dug through the debris that packs the old subway tubes. They aren’t any kind of comfortable and they smell like death, but they can get you from midtown to the seaport in about an hour, if you can stand the claustrophobic space for that long.

I arrive at the appropriate access grate, retrieve the magnetized passkey from its hiding place stuck to the underside of a nearby dumpster, unlock and lift the grate, then climb down inside the tunnel as the grate latches back in place behind me. The room at the bottom of the ladder is pitch black and so tight I can feel it pressing in all around me. It’s designed this way to deter curious outsiders from penetrating into the actual tunnel itself. I worm my way down to my hands and knees and feel around in the dark, seeking the rails. Finding them, I use them to guide me forward, helping me locate the cart. I lay down on the cart and knock on the left rail, my knuckles producing a dull thump against the ancient steel; it echoes down the track into the dark beyond. I feel the answer of two quick raps in response on the right rail, and the cart slowly starts to move. After an initial few disorienting moments of moving through darkness, the tunnel suddenly flickers then floods with warm orange light revealing the full length of the entry passage and the adjacent opening to Wooter’s chamber. The access to the main room is made of old pallets, buttressed with scrap steel. I know it’s deliberately constructed to look shabbily tossed together, another layer of deceptive protection to ward off anyone who might make it past the first chamber and down the tunnel. Wooter is waiting for me in the opening. He’s tall, so the opening of the chamber forces him to crouch as he helps me off of the sled.

a man leaning against a wall waiting for a miner's cart

“Guten Tag, always good to see you again,” he says, the words playfully ironic. Wooter’s parents were German and Kenyan, and he was born blind. As one might imagine, he maintains a certain self-deprecating sense of humor about his circumstances. “Step inside my office and we’ll get you on your way downtown.”

He nods and gestures for me to follow. Together we crawl the short distance into a small chamber about 6’ feet square, with a low ceiling— 5’ tall at the most. It’s a mess of old newspapers, empty bottles, and assorted trash. The walls are adorned with clippings from various newspapers and magazines, mostly stories from those willfully subversive publications that dare point out all the numerous ways NewNYC is failing or falling apart. A few old subway maps have been scrawled over with red and black permanent marker, indicating access points to the new mole tunnels and how to find them amidst the filth-packed infrastructure of the old subways. The whole place is dimly lit by a single bulb hanging from the ceiling; it’s powered by a car battery visible in the corner. Next to the battery I see what appears to be some journeyman’s abandoned attempt to rig a makeshift solar panel; the sad remains of the failed attempt lie discarded in the corner like a cast-off toy that proved less fun than its packaging suggested. The room looks exactly how a surface-dweller might expect a mole person’s home to look. Beyond an exit out the other end of the squalid chamber is another set of tracks, with another sled perched at the mouth of still another, far more steeply-sloped tunnel. It’s garishly marked with a sloppily painted blue circle, containing the painted number 1. On the nearby wall map it’s obvious exactly where “Blue 1″ goes.

All of this, I know, is a masterful facade.

Wooter produces a gleaming key from inside his coat pocket. He inserts it into a nearly-invisible crevice in a shadowed corner of the room, and turns it. The clean click of a well-oiled lock is audible; suddenly a small metal circle smoothly flips open, hinging up from the floor on silent springs.

Wooter, like any decent self-respecting mole person, doesn’t hesitate for a second— he shimmies down the hole head-first, his legs trailing behind like the fins of a dart. He’s so tall that as his torso vanishes down the hole, his legs still practically brush the ceiling before disappearing. I, on the other hand, must pause to steel my courage before following him. Even after all this time, the Mole Holes still freak me out a bit. The major mole stations are always capillaries: you can only ever get through them by diving through face first and even then, you MUST be facing the proper direction. They drop you 5 feet straight down then immediately bend 90 degrees. If you know which way to enter a particular mole hole, you can dive-roll through the portal and roll sharply to the side so your knees flex the right way: that propels you into the horizontal bend of the hole. If you’re facing the wrong way you bottom out, in too deep to shimmy back up… you’d have to be a contortionist to bend backward and still make the turn. The mole people find it hilarious when Wastelanders get caught in their entrances, and won’t hesitate to leave such intruders trapped there for hours to teach them a lesson.

Once down, I speed crawl through the 12 foot horizontal bridging tunnel and tumble ungracefully through the access hole into Wooter’s actual home. It’s an enormous room, immaculately kept and expertly decorated in a style which strikes me as distinctly German. Crossing the room we pass piece after piece of beautifully-designed furniture, intricately upholstered in shades of white, grey, and black. The furnishings radiate inviting comfort without sacrificing elegance of form. Large paintings hang on every wall, lending to the chamber the semblance of a late 20th-century Chelsea gallery. The farthest wall is covered mostly with subway tile— a doorway there beckons us onward. As we approach, the wide swathes of colored tiles come into the sharper focus, readily identifiable as the mosaics that once adorned the walls of the Natural History Museum’s subway station.

“That must have been a major project, getting those installed here,” I say. I don’t ask him why he wanted them, even though he’s blind… I assume he has his reasons.

Wooter half turns and nods. “You have no idea. The biggest problem wasn’t the deconstruction and reconstruction. It was clearing the junk out of that dump so we could get the tools in to strip the tile off the walls. It always drove me crazy— there were treasures down there but nobody got to enjoy them. I had to do a deal with the Bolos to get enough labor to do it, and find someplace to dump all that crap when we pulled it up from underground.”

I was impressed. Doing a deal with the Bolos is always a risky business. Of all the groups in Wasteland, they are the sole group with whom I refuse to work. Some call them religious zealots, others call them terrorists. In point of fact they’re an extreme militant right wing of the Mormon faith. They moved here in droves after the split, lured by promises of looser regulations on marital practice and little oversight on moral legality in general. New NYC offered them a place to practice polygamy freely and openly. As often happens to fundamentalist organizations throughout history (including every major religion), after existing a couple of hundred years and amassing sufficient economic power and political influence… they ultimately became violent. The Bolos are responsible for (or at least widely blamed for)  most terrorist attacks in the Wasteland. It’s gotten so bad that the remaining authorities have even considered outlawing the characteristic bolo ties worn by Bolo adherents.

“So… you’re going to need to take this trip once a day for the foreseeable future, right?” Wooter asks.

“Yes. Provided my interview today goes well,” I say.

He ushers me through a huge double door, into the vast underground mole town over which he rules. No one really keeps track of it, but it’s safe to say this is the largest mole town in the city. It was formerly the subway platforms under Grand Central Station. The historic building once known as Grand Central, with its vaulted frescoes, has been— like most other famous buildings in the city not tall enough to reach the red line— structurally heightened to reach the 10th story red line level. This incredibly-expensive engineering feat was hastily done when things really started going to pot below the line. Now most of the great iconic buildings like the Guggenheim and The Flat Iron building sit atop giant steel and concrete cubes, raised far above the offensive old city street level, away from the trash and graffiti.

Deep beneath one such cube Wooter and I now walk past stockpiles of grain, hoards of hand tools, mechanical work bays where techs work on the mole hole tunnel sleds, and cordoned bunks of people sleeping before their next shift. It’s all spartan, but clean. The only real sign of urban decay is the graffiti covering every wall, but that predates the arrival of the mole people and their underculture. As always I’m surprised by the lack of audible chatter down here since there are so many people constantly milling about, but the Moleys tend to be a taciturn bunch. That characteristic is probably a hold-over from the early days when it was illegal to sleep in the tunnels. It also takes an introverted, somewhat solitary personality type to forsake sunlight and live underground in the dark. Here, in the bones of what were once Sbarro pizza shops and news stands selling gum and US Weekly, one can actually find the kind of anonymous solitude often craved by those who have lived a life of chaos.

an underground mole people city

“Look there, my friend. Your chariot awaits,” Wooter says. Near the mouth of the transit tunnel two mole people are prepping an especially speedy-looking sled— the kind with foot rests and a strap to hold me on. “I’ve sent word that you’re clear to use any tunnel you want,” he tells me. He hands me a map, far more detailed and sophisticated than the one marked with the blue number 1 posted near the mouth of the tunnel above.

Wooter shakes my hand as I mount the sled. “You’re going to want to spend some time learning that map,” he warns. “Until you’ve got it memorized, just tell anyone down below that you’re a friend of mine and they’ll get you where you need to go. Just remember: never take the blue tunnels, they start out slow, but usually take a fast plunge with a short, sudden stop against a brick wall. We use them to keep the overground folk scared of coming down here.”

I suddenly realize in that moment— as the mole men show me how to work the sled controls— that no matter where you are, no matter how bad you have it, there is always someone somewhere who still resents you and sees you as “privileged.” Seconds later, the sled lurches forward and smoothly starts to speed ahead into the waiting darkness.

As I race down the tunnel 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.

a man rides down a track covered with rats

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 literallymillions 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.

Chapter 4 – The Interview

As my sled raced along the clattering track I intermittently passed through new underground zones, locations with enough light by which to see as I crossed through them. I didn’t repeat the mistake of slowing down— no need to reduce speed to know these landings were populated by the same tunnel-dwelling denizens that occupied the first. I’m just going to have to trust Wooter, is the mantra I silently repeated in my head.  He said this thing will come to a stop on its own at the appropriate time.

At the appropriate time, it does. After what I’d estimate to be about 30 minutes on the sled, I feel myself begin to slow. How do they do that? I have no idea… but the brakes seem to function automatically. Could there be some kind of GPS locator attached to the sled? It wouldn’t be the first time today I’d encountered some apparently crudely-constructed item or object that actually turned out to harbor quite a bit of rather sophisticated technology. Why should this moto-sled be any different? Hiding the sophistication of their inventions had proven to be one of the Mole People’s best defenses. Now the sled was rolling into another well-lit, spacious station crawling with crowds of Moley’s, busily carrying out the business of underground travel. Someone unstraps me from the sled and helps me to my feet, after which I am quickly shuffled through the converted subway station and shown the way out and up to the street. I assume every route on Wooter’s map has a similar waystation at the start and stop points of every line.

Once back on street level it’s about a 10 minute walk to the South Street Seaport, my destination. On the southernmost tip of Manhattan most of the very old historic buildings have been raised above the red line. The seaport area has an especially-large concentration of these, which makes it look like a graveyard compared to the high-end shopping district it once was. I presume many of those stores still exist; but unless you have a security pass to get above the highline there’s no real way to get to them. The security that separates New New York and Wasteland is one of the few systems in this city that functions perfectly, and even if I had an overline pass, there’s no way I could afford to shop there. There was a time when I was more ambitious and aspired to the overliner lifestyle, but I soon realized it would take all I had just to eke out any sort of a living at all. Sometimes I almost wonder if some faceless antagonist from over-the-line is literally assigned to me, specifically, tasked with devising frustrating situations to hold me back, and whose job it is to place financial obstacles in my way to ensure the greater glory of the eternal status quo. I think that sad admission— that there is a glass ceiling purposely imposed from above to reduce competition at the top— is the greatest contributor to Wasteland’s steady downward spiral. This place was supposed to be a libertarian wonderland, a place where ambition and intelligence were the most valuable commodity… but all the megacorps (despite their vehement claims not to be) are founded on the purest, greediest capitalist ideals. Pure capitalism eventually solidifies into plutocratic oligarchy; but then, I suppose most forms of government end up that way.

I dig through my pocket for the crumpled piece of paper with my destination address. I find it funny that we, once such unappreciative technical giants, have now been involuntarily banished back to an analog epoch where important business contacts and addresses are scrawled with cheap pens on overused scraps of precious paper. Once upon a time my phone would have stored that information, reminded me when I needed it, and mechanically directed me, step by step, to the very address itself. No surprise, really— history has proven that everything ebbs and flows— I don’t know why we all assumed that would never happen with technology.

The flat, grey, concrete block juts upward for ten full stories before turning into anything resembling a building. In that aspect it looks exactly like all the other tall buildings around it, except there’s a hover platform evident at its base. That gives me pause: I’ve never actually seen one up this close. The nearest proximity most underliners ever get to any hover technology is the red line beacons tethered to the outside of the high buildings, demarking where the red line is located. Not that we would actually need such beacons. Red line security checkpoints are, without argument, the most efficient system in the city. Officially the redline is “a safety measure” to keep everyone in the city “safe.” As a personal side-note: anytime you want to get away with oppressing people tell them you’re doing it “for their safety.” Back in the old NYC days, blocking off low-income people and openly relegating them to designated areas would have been met with outrage, but, hey, we’re all one big happy family of libertarians in here now. And because of that we all foster the secret belief that, in spite of everything our common sense and gut instincts tell us, maybe someday we’ll make enough (or be powerful enough) to rise above the line.

Maybe today that will be me.

As I approach the hover platform I notice a small hand size bio scanner. I assume— for no other reason than this is the address I have been given— that I’m supposed put my hand on it. I do so, and the scanner surface flashes green. Stepping onto the platform I brace myself against the sudden upward lurch and feel the platform slowly start to rise. It’s at this point that I realize just maybe, THIS time, my proverbial ship has actually come in. If I land this job I’ll be working directly for an overliner, someone who can obviously afford at least one hover platform. He or she must be seriously rich. Hopefully it won’t be some kind of criminal. That thought strikes me at the same moment I realize that, despite its existence above my head for almost a decade, I’ve never actually seen the red line up close. I’ve heard plenty of stories from people who’ve tried to get over it (and who were immediately caught and deported back to the wasteland). Their lives always, predictably, fell apart afterward. Most of us down below are smart enough, or acrimonious enough, to just leave it alone without ever really thinking about it. I suspect that, at some point, every underliner gives up on the idea of ever really getting over the red line… but here I am, slowly approaching it atop this gently-rising hover pad.

A man rides a hover sled to the red line

My ascent ends, and I step off the little hexagon pad onto the ledgewalk at the top base of the giant concrete block. There’s a safety rail all around, absent only at the opening where my platform meets the walkway. Judging from the yellow striped paint, this is where visitors step on and off of this building.

I’m dazzled at the sight of what exists atop the massive concrete footer, where I see a world not unlike the one I knew decades ago. New York, no graffiti, no ruined pavement, no rats. It’s beautiful.I drink it all in for a second. The buildings are so clean; even the glass on all the windows above the line has been recently cleaned, presumably by some automated maintenance system. There are small drones flitting here and there, out and about on local tasks, some carrying packages. I see a few people leisurely crossing from one building to another on narrow elevated walkways, not sparing a glance between the massive concrete footers to the underline streets of my home far below. This is all extremely fascinating; but I can’t let it distract me from my purpose here. A door directly in front of the platform landing zone lights up with the words “Enter Here,” accompanied by a buzz and soft clank as an electromagnet disengages, swinging the door open. I step inside into a shadowy chamber that looks like one of those cavernous former-industrial-spaces-converted-into-a-retail-space-intended-to-look-like-an-industrial-space, except now it’s mostly empty except near the far end of the room. Through the affected gloom I can just make out a heavy black desk and a large bank of computer screens, silhouetted against a gigantic window that spans the full length of the room. A man rises from the desk and beckons me toward him. This, I assume, is my new boss.

A long uncomfortable silence follows as I walk as swiftly as possible across the voluminous space, growing more self-conscious with each step. It occurs to me that the set up of the room may even be purposely intended to inflict just such discomfort on visitors; the fact that my host pointedly doesn’t walk forward to greet me suggests I may be right. Almost a full minute passes as I hastily cross the room, the only sounds those of my now-hurried footsteps. By the time I near the desk, a light sheen of perspiration clammily adheres the clothing to my body and I struggle to suppress my quickness of breath from the unexpected exertion.

I would have expected him to offer his hand for me to shake it, but instead he reaches for a glass of what appears to be ice water on his desk. The desk itself is a huge block of wood, ebony by the look of it, seemingly carved from a single piece—perhaps the core trunk of an ancient tree, bespeaking great mass and weight. Besides the water glass, nothing else adorns the desk except a glass-encased mechanical clock, its intricate brass mechanism visibly ticking each second away. These items— the massive desk and the delicate antique clock— combined, give off the unmistakable air of expense and perhaps a fondness for control.

The man before me takes a long drink of water before setting the glass back down, empty. He doesn’t offer me any, though I surmise my thirst after the exertions of my trip downtown was obvious. He’s tall, with a physique as meticulously sculpted as his haircut. A physique only pure narcissism can produce. I think I catch the merest glimmer of sadistic amusement in his eyes before he veils them, a wide smile appearing as if by magic across his hard features.

“Right on time,” he remarks, referring to my punctuality. “You made good time getting here from across town. How long did it take?”

“Half an hour,” I reply. “As I said in my application, I have a way to get around the island, so the commute shouldn’t be any trouble.”

“Excellent.” He looks me up and down, openly judging me, measuring me by the quality and cleanliness of my clothes and no doubt rating my physical health based on my age and body type. “I have to cut this short. I have another meeting two blocks over in a quarter of an hour, so let’s get down to business. I’m a strategic social engineer for BHN, and I’m presently seeking a part-time associate to assist me on a temporary side project. It’s important that the new hire be an underliner, because the project involves bridging the commercial gap between topside and the underline for the benefit of all involved. You’d be my personal courier, delivering data packets for me all over the city. Interested?”

“What does it pay?” I ask, a bit too eagerly.

He looks at me for a long moment, as if studying my face. “You’ll be amply renumerated,” he says curtly. “Far more than you’d earn doing barter deals in some brownstone food commune, anyway. Play your cards right and who knows how far you can climb? What do you say—will you join my project?”

I nod, noticing how his hands seem to relax almost imperceptibly when I do so. “I think we can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement,” I say, trying to conceal the broad smile that threatens to spread across my face at the thought of such an incredible opportunity. “The applications were numbered,” I venture. “If I’m to work for you, I assume you might be interested in knowing my name.”

He looks genuinely bemused by the thought. “Ah, yes. Of course. All in good time.” He turns and makes his way toward a side door. “I presume you can show yourself out. Welcome to the team.”

With that he is suddenly gone, leaving me alone in the massive space with the echo of his footsteps, mentally gnawing on my reservations.

Almost overwhelmed by excitement at landing the gig (and feeling slightly hypnotized by my new boss’s eerie charisma), I turn back to cross the empty room, my footsteps echoing sharply in the cavernous space. I am approaching the door through which I entered, when abruptly another door swings open to my right. The door’s surface is the same texture and color as the walls surrounding it, explaining why I didn’t notice its existence until now. A very slender woman in a very sharp suit steps through it, locking her eyes with mine as she walks toward me. I admit there’s a certain involuntary reverence we Wastelanders have for the dwellers above; I’ve often wondered whether it was instilled in us through some innocuous program of subliminal suggestion from up top, or if it’s just a natural human response to slavishly defer to anyone cleaner and better-dressed than we are. In the moment, as she approaches me, I must grudgingly admit it feels completely natural to consider her my superior in every way. When she gets close enough to speak I find myself involuntarily averting my eyes from her gaze, staring down at my shoes.

a slender woman in red heals walks through a door

“This is for you,” she says, handing me a small device similar to the smartphones that were so ubiquitous just a few years before. “It’s fully charged, so the battery should last a few days before you’ll need to recharge it again. Make sure you keep it turned on, at full volume, at all times. He doesn’t like unanswered messages.”

“Do you have a charger for it?” I ask. She raises one of her perfectly manicured eyebrows and tilts her ever-so-impish chin slightly— gestures so perfectly practiced they must be the product of a graduate course in being condescending. She makes a rotating motion with her left finger, prompting me to turn the device over. Looking at the back of the device I see a hard black Dura-kevlar casing with a tiny circle in the bottom center. Upon closer inspection I see it’s actually a very small solar cell.

“Twenty minutes in direct sunlight will do the trick,” she says.

I’m suddenly struck by the fact that that none of this seems wondrous to her. My experience is different; this is a pretty big leap in technology since I last dealt with a device like this… but I suppose if you’d told me in the early 2000’s that everyone would be carrying a personal smartphone ten years later I wouldn’t have believed you. Change doesn’t have to be glacially slow to go unappreciated, it only needs to happen gradually enough, and in small enough steps, that no one is too surprised when it comes. I can tell by her expression that she finds my naivete less than amusing.

“You’ll get your assignments and communicate with us via the device for the most part,” she says. “Occasionally he might need you to run down here and pick something up, or drop something off, but for the most part you can just check in when you start a task and check back out when you finish.” So saying, she turns back toward the door from which she emerged. “No need to show up here every day,” she advises me, and the door swishes shut behind her, leaving me alone again.

That’s just fine with me: I don’t like it here. This whole place is steeped in an overwhelming gray gloom, despite all the windows and glass. And the vented air carries the faint acrid smell of ground metal and synthetic oil. I get out of there and make my way back below the line to street level. 

I fumble a bit with the device as I navigate the cluttered sidewalks back to the mole tunnel, but I’m soon scrolling through the machine’s options. I’m surprised by how quickly it comes back: I haven’t used something like this in almost a decade, but most of its functions are basically the same as I remember. This device has obviously been set up for a single purpose: it unlocks via facial ID, and the whole screen is just a list of messages with a reply button after each one. At the bottom of the screen are icons for a phone, a calendar, and a map. The first message just seems to be a general boilerplate “Welcome to the team” form letter, and says “do not reply” right in the subject. The second one says “First assignment – pick up at the Met.” I open and read it. Pretty straightforward, although I don’t relish going to the Met. It’s become a very strange place since the annexation.

It takes me an hour to get back to my neighborhood. I stop by Swap to squeeze a few hours of work in— that earns me dinner tonight, and breakfast tomorrow morning. Wanting to get an early jump on my task for tomorrow, I’m already planning to eat and run. I was hoping to see Jess, but they tell me she’s at a business meeting and will be out for the rest of the day. I’d like to know what the meeting is about, but I know Jess’s business is really none of my business. Like everyone else who frequents this place, I’d love for it to be my personal business, but I don’t see any way that’s ever going to happen. I remind myself to carve a little time out to help solve her wheat problem. I don’t know the first thing about wheat. I think you need some kind of stone? Something like that. That’s a problem for later. 

When I arrive back at my building I spend the requisite hour cleaning and doing other chores for the privilege of hot water and soap. While finishing up it suddenly dawns on me that soon I’ll have money, actual money. This might be the last time I have to do this; from now on I might have even have actual free time. In this society everyone is theoretically “free” to do whatever they want, except too late we learned that in this society you need free time to plan all those businesses, projects, and inventions that will make us the big successes we all wanted to be… except it takes all the time we have just to get by. This thought hangs in my mind late into the night, making it hard for me to sleep. That’s a bit of a problem, since I want to rest up for my big day tomorrow.

Eventually I fall asleep from sheer exhaustion. I dream of Jess, and a massive, crumbling football stadium planted with a golden field of rippling wheat.


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