Meryl entered the work zone with an unusual sense of trepidation. Perhaps it was her nerves at the idea of finally topping out the building today or just the reality that a 248-floor structure seemed wholly unnatural. She knew it was a mammoth building—the first to be called a "starscraper"—but it was her reality, and she was the one calling the shots. Walking toward the pre-op village, she felt her stomach bolt and twist. Fool, she thought as she took slower breaths to ease her edge.

Meryl extended her arm under the proximity scanner by security, and her Zion thread glowed orange. With a short chirp of the system, the gate rose, and Meryl walked inside the village compound. Her thread had shifted over the years to just under her wrist—a small reminder of just how long she had managed this project. Any more construction delays and she would need a replacement. Perhaps, she thought, that wouldn't be such a bad thing. The newer Zion 4 threads are much thinner and have ridges that attach onto body-mass sinew. Some of the latest recruits have the new threads, which are less evident on the skin and seem to emit a stronger orange glow.

ENR Construction Science Fiction ContestThe pre-op village was a flurry of activity. People were either getting grub at the food bar or huddled in circles around the holographic geo-cached tablet-aided design, or HG-TAD. Glimmers of bright bluish-green sparkled from between the huddled bodies showing glimpses of the top-floor design. Meryl was glad everyone was taking time for their toolbox talks about the work; however, her mind strayed to HSPA—health, safety and public account. Where is the safety session? she thought. A dull ache resurfaced in her gut as she scanned the village compound for Jerry Silverman. There was no sign of Jerry. He was the lieutenant governor's nephew and usually hard to miss in the village crowd, being popular, handsomely tall and boastful. The cadre of followers who surrounded him served as his locator.

One of the junior welders, Paco, walked by Meryl with his empty breakfast tray. She grabbed his arm and uttered, "Where's Jerry?" Not expecting the sudden clasp from the boss, Paco stood stunned for a moment, unnerved. He soon recovered, glanced around the compound, and easily identified Jerry. Paco said, "He's by the developer in Area B. See?" Paco pointed at a hunched man with a brown jacket. Meryl smirked and thought how she could have missed him. Meryl lightened her grip on the welder, managed a smile and unapologetically thanked him. She grabbed her stomach, gave a bit of pressure to her abdomen and headed for Jerry Silverman.

All around, workers were starting to suit up for the day's historic workload. Their suits were durable alloy-lycine blended material, grayish white and airtight. One worker was configuring his temperature control, while another of his suit displays indicated 65% anthropic compression and 22.1% humidity. Once the worker corrected his temperature setting, he coded in his thrust affinity rate, and his flat panel thrusters, which locked onto his back, glowed a dazzling blue. He nodded to an onlooking older man, apparently from the project controls team, who held his wrist up to his spectacles. The device on his wrist chirped and displayed the new rates set by the worker. The older man nodded back in confirmation and approval. The worker helmeted and walked to the exit line for security scanning and transport to the worksite.

Meryl reached Jerry in rapid pace. Jerry straightened and stood, smiling. "Hey, Merry, ready for today?" he said.

"Uh, yeah. Yes, I am." Her voice was unconvincing and mildly wavering, unusual for her. "Have you given the safety brief yet?"

"Yes. I did it at 7 this morning. Everyone was there." He paused pensively and continued, "Although I'm surprised you weren't there." He gave her a prying look. He had been upset that she missed the safety meeting for what would be perhaps one of the pivotal days in the project to date.

"Ah, yes, sorry about that. I was still working on my speech this morning—you know, for when we top out later."

"You ready for the governor and all that press? You'll be quite the attraction."

"To be honest, not really. I'll get it done, but I'd rather be a spectator. I just want everything to go OK today—last month's incident spooked me."

Jerry sighed with annoyance and disbelief that she was bringing up the injury again. "Merry, it was a fluke. The guy was careless and got his suit clamped, that's all. We've had a clean safety record up till then."

"I know, but … "

"Don't make one guy's carelessness destroy what we have accomplished here. OK? Plus, he's fine—home from the hospital." He paused thoughtfully and looked at Meryl with a piercing glance. "They gave him one of those humafibranoid arms, just like what Carson has." He paused for that info to sink in and added, "He's better than new—can lift twice the weight with that arm now."

Meryl was still processing this information. "Carson? That iron-core guy?"

Jerry grinned and nodded. Meryl eased and said, "Oh, I didn't know that. Well, that's good then."

"So, are you ready to top out this sucker? Stay positive, Merry. And don't forget to smile for the cameras!" He always knew the right thing to say to calm Meryl down. She nodded and suited up.

Transport to the site involved a twin-engine air-induction shuttle that could get 60 workers to the building's top in roughly 35 seconds. The air pressurizer inside the shuttle and the gyrometric stabilizer made the quick ride up seamless and comfortable. The quiet hum of the engines became a steady sound at the jobsite, like white noise at an office building. The shuttle went up and down like a strict vertical lift, held in place by its control system. This jobsite's shuttle was a 14-rank sustainable, nuclear-core transport. ISS-LEED classified shuttles up to a 16 sustainable-use-rank vehicle, which had twin nuclear cores and was a zero-negative system, adding atmospheric nutrients back into the environment. In keeping with the project's zero-impact footprint, this 14-rank, outrageously expensive shuttle was chosen for use. Throughout the nearly 36 months of continuous use at the jobsite, it had never failed. That is, it had never failed until today.

Jerry was briefing Meryl on the day's protocol as she began pressure-testing her work suit. It was the same old routine, floor after floor, regardless of whether it was the 15th, 150th or the cloud-level top floor. She knew the drill. Her hands moved nimbly over the suit controls as she set her suit temperature and pressure-compression ratio. Jerry was running through the safety checklist when they heard the first blast. The boom rattled the whole village compound. Meryl was tossed into a shelf of PPE tanks, causing them to crash to the floor. Jerry grabbed hold of a post. Others were tossed around, with multiple crashes of noise from things falling down.

"What was that?" Jerry murmured. He quickly slapped his wrist controller and screamed, "Belkin, status!" No response. "Belkin, stat—"

"We've had an explosion, sir," said Chris Belkin, Jerry's site situation manager. He added, "I think it was the transport." His voice wavered as his footfalls were heard on the transponder.

Meryl got up from the collapsed shelf. Oh my God, she thought.

Jerry spoke again: "I'm coming now. Secure the area. No access, understood? No access for anyone."

Meryl demanded, "Who was on it?" Her face was taut and pale as she started suiting up. Jerry was already reading his staff vitals on the controller. Then he saw Paco Rivera's and Ellen St. Clair's vitals. Low oxygen. High levels of endorphin. Twenty-to-80 ratio on symbostic levels. Odd, he thought.

Jerry spoke to Meryl. "Suit up and grab me an eco-shot." She obliged and grabbed two eco-shots, a singular propulsion pack that links to their alloy-lycine suits. They'll use these packs to get to the jobsite.

Jerry mumbled another message into his controller, then noticed the two packs. "No, you don't Meryl—we need you at base."

Meryl shook her head authoritatively and responded, "Sorry, I'm coming." She saw Jerry's dismissive glare and added, "Remember, I'm calling the shots here."

Jerry smirked at her stubbornness. Belkin broke in on the controller, "Sir, four are on the transport, and two are severely injured. Chesler. Rivera. St. Clair. Johanssen. Rivera and St. Clair are injured. Johanssen has administered first-aid services already. No cause known yet."

Jerry and Meryl suited up and ran outside the village compound. Their eco-shots were ignited, hummed, glowed their pale-blue emission and carried the two up the side of the building.



Stephen R. Galati is manager of national proposals with TRC Environmental Corp. He is the author of "Geographic Information Systems Demystified" and has numerous publications to his credit concerning environmental consulting, proposal writing, grant management and public-private funding.

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