A man rides a hover sled to the red line

As my sled races along the clattering track I intermittently pass through new underground zones, locations with enough light by which to see as I cross through them. I don’t repeat the mistake of slowing down— no need to reduce speed to know these landings are 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 repeat 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.

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 fueled by an accompanying 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 must be obvious. He’s tall and angular, his perfectly-tailored clothing enhancing a physique as meticulously sculpted as his haircut— the kind of physique only pure narcissism could produce. I can’t stop myself from swallowing compulsively at the sight of the water glass, and I seem to 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?”

“Forty-five minutes,” 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 according to 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 remunerated,” 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.