He smelled the rank odors of oil and aging garbage as he laid facedown in the dark. His ear was pressed against the floor, and he no longer heard the constant hum of the tunnels exhaust systems, which meant he was no longer in Level F3. The ground turbulence and rumble of an automobile engine suggested he was in a primitive form of travel.
His natural instinct was to panic, but he did not have the luxury of being himself, so he moved to induction. His body failed to respond as he struggled to roll on to his back; he was restricted by the neuron-isolation restraints. He saw the all-black suits and distinguishable black hair of the drivers; he knew who his captors were. What he did not know was his location or where he was headed.
"Where is Mitchell?"
Through the walls of his cage he heard horns, locust and muffled Spanglish, noises of men, animals and machines that only lived in memories and photos below F2.
"Is he awake?" a voice rumbled.
"For his sake, I hope not," another voice replied. "It looks like his eyes are open."
The vehicle slowed to a crawl. The ground beneath him smoothed, and light began to show through the seals of the transport. He heard a rhythmic pacing outside. He lay motionless as he listened, to determine his location. He heard a gradual introduction of military cadence, the vacuum of large doors opening and closing, and new voices.
"Up top?" a voice rang out.
"A transition zone."
"You guys need a' escort?"
"Not on this one. It's just a burn-and-turn."
The quick exchange ended in laughter as the sounds were again muted and they began to drive.
"Up top! I'm definitely in F1. We're going to the surface."
"A PS-IV," she said to garner his attention.
She approached him from behind as he was setting station point +775+2L. James turned to find a petite woman with a muscular frame on the other side of his red-tinted safety shield. Through his face shield, she appeared pale, with a reddish blond mane, beautiful as any woman engineered by the BODY. She was the spitting image of James' wife. Her gray uniform was trimmed in white and drew his eyes to her every curve. Her hair laid over her left shoulder and covered the top of her F3 citizenship badge.
"Victoria," James said to himself. He stared at her as he lifted his shield, bringing her into true color.
"What is a PS-IV?" she asked, breaking his trance.
"Um … a Polusexploro Specialist IV," he replied as he walked away from the EEL Station. "It's a fancy title for a F4 surveyor."
"What is your toy over there?" she asked, looking around James toward the EEL. "You don't see those every day."
"That ol' thing? That is an EEL. I'm sorry—it's an Elevation Exploration Laser, or EEL for short. And, no, you don't see those every day. I designed that one myself. It has a few special features."
James reserved the right to answer that question by responding only in silence.
"So you are a surveyor, like a construction-worker surveyor? Are you building the new TF3 system?" she asked.
"Yes. I am actually more of a pioneer and less of a builder. You know about the TF3?"
"Who doesn't?" she said as she pointed to the digital posting and tunnel construction that surrounded them.
James felt both nervous and silly trying to carry on a conversation with a beautiful woman. His social skills were not what afforded him citizenship in F4.
"You don't look like a construction worker."
"Well, how does a construction worker look?"
"Good point. They are always in those dreaded tunneling machines, so I guess I don't know how they look. From the journals and History Hall, they appear dirty, old and uninviting."
"Are you calling me inviting?" he asked, trying to turn the conversation with his charm.
James was too transparent, so she turned and walked away. As she approached a gentleman coming from the opposite direction, she became a bronzed blonde with rounder curves, still 5 feet 5 inches tall.
James turned and continued his work. James was in charge of survey layout for WG8, an F4 construction contractor hired by the BODY to develop the new F3 tunnel transit system. James was a structural engineer before the transition. His specialty was vertical construction and the reduction in load variables.
James developed the EEL instrument housing and integrated programming. Descended from the 4D laser survey and irradiance trace, the EEL combined those technologies to allow the resulting X-ray optics to create real-time images through the inner layers of the subsurface up to the old Earth surface. James also kept to himself that the EEL could model any Earth surface-level structures still remaining and any natural resources.
"James, are we done here?" Mitchell yelled over the two-way radio system.
"Yes. Meet me at the zeppelin."
James arrived first. He began to think back to the way things used to be. The present was a mixture of technological advancements that were once only exotic reading in comic books and antiquated systems that were the result of the loss of satellites and signal infrastructure. James and Mitchell had been friends on the surface in their youth, but, after the transition below, they had only recently reconnected. James is the reason Mitchell was at WG8.
"Man, did you forget about me?" Mitchell asked as he rifled through his bags in the back.
"Last I heard from you, you were talking to some woman. I thought we were working here?"
"You heard me talking to her?"
"Yeah. I guess you hit the button on the two-way or something. Who was she?"
"Don't know. She approached me, asked me a few questions, then she ran off."
"What!" James shot back.
"James! Have you seen you? This is F3—women don't approach you. Was she a BODY Baby?"
"A what? No. Why can't she just be a woman interested in a man?"
"James, look around. Women aren't just approaching men here. She was a BODY Baby, and she probably wanted something."
"Maybe she was interested in me."
"Was she a redhead?"
Mitchell knew how to bring James back to reality. James lost Victoria, a beautiful redhead, years ago in the transition.
"Let's go. I'm hungry—plus, you need to bathe."
The craft pulled off under James' command. They merged into tunnel traffic with only one thought on their minds.
The WG8 offices were scattered, with exposed wall studs, custom-cut stones and scaffolding climbing the walls. Individual offices had not yet taken shape. The offices of the ownership down to the receptionist were concentrated in a common area.
It was early the next day when James stood bent over his workstation with his elbows locked. Chairs were a luxury at WG8: If you had time to sit, you had time to work. James was uploading data into his workstation. The alcohol credits he and Mitchell had earned proved to be a hurdle for completing his work last night. As the real-time 4D image was generating, time began to stand still.
"No way," James said aloud to himself.
The model showed black subsurface voids. This meant only one thing.
"Are you kidding me?" he murmured in disbelief.
"WATER!" James screamed out loud just as Mitchell rounded the corner into the office.
The BODY had been preaching and forcing the idea that subsurface water had been burned away between the old surface and F4. All the water was at F5 level and below. The economy and tax structure was based on exploring, pumping and selling water from F5 and below.
"What are you yelling about this early?" Mitchell whispered.
"You look awful," James said, looking up at Mitchell.
"Too many alcohol credits. What are you yelling about?"
James had known Mitchell for years, so he had no reservations in sharing with him his findings.
"Water! The EEL found water in the survey yesterday."
"You found water?"
Mitchell rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands to get a clear vision of the display. He saw the huge black voids. "You son of a bitch, you found water."
"Mitch, you know what this means?"
This discovery meant citizenship into F5 and a seat in the BODY Development Division.
James looked up at Mitchell, expecting an embrace of celebration. Mitchell rose up, scanning the office for a heavy object, and chose a large award carved out of marble. In one motion, Mitchell grabbed the award and struck James in the back of the head, knocking him unconscious.
The safest time to go to the surface was at night. The vehicle jerked as it was shifted into park. A warm rush of dust took over the vehicle as the front doors opened and James' two captors exited. James heard …
Marvin Michaels is an assistant project manager for Walsh Construction, where he has spent eight of his 14 years in the construction industry. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma's Civil Engineering Pre-Architecture program, Michaels also served as a graduate researcher for the National Science Foundation. In addition to his construction background, he is an accomplished comedy writer and performer, having received the NBC Universal Talent Development Award for comedy performance. He lives in Chicago with his wife and his never-ending home-renovation projects.
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