Crate and the Administrator rode the elevator up in perfect silence from the fiftieth floor underground.
Through the filmy line of glass on the elevator housing, they watched the thirty-odd levels of subway, three levels of highway, dozen levels of skyway, and the flyway pass before them in a grimy, descending spiral.
Wheeled coffins, he thought.
The inner city throughways served as a modern day caste system, Crate supposed, because the freeway told more about who you were and where you were in life than the digitized mind of the International Banking Machine and its miles and miles of synthesized statements. And that’s what they looked like now, Crate thought as the cars descended past his eyes, like little rows and columns of angry black numbers on grungy-gray statistical paper, innumerable lines of stats just waiting for the accountant’s pen to come along and x them out of existence. Living, breathing spreadsheets, he thought.
Most people lived in their cars anyway, poor mute bastards. Their only hope of escape was that lone stop sign at the end of the road, their only voice the long slow grind of an exhaust muffler. Only the poorest and most pitiable souls drove in the twelve levels of the Underground. It was an oily grave, a greasy graveyard, a sewer-like nightmare in an endless web of subterranean highways criss-crossing the country at critical cites. To be stalled there was literally to be caught dead in traffic in this underground, multi-lane jungle, lightless and hopeless. Yet it was the cheapest fare in town since all roads became tollers in the late twenty-first century.
The poorest citizens started at the very bottom of the system, fifty stories underground in their pre-made graves, and you moved up the highways system as you moved up the pay scale—if ever. But even if you hit the lottery and moved up to the multi-story surface roads, this meant hardly as much light and scarcely more air to breathe.
New York was a skyweb of girders and asphalt, a sewer with lights. L.A. was just a parking lot with palm trees.
There were rarely any collisions any more, traffic moved too slowly and in computer-controlled lines for that, but every day someone turned blue, his tongue darted in and out of his throat like a big purple knot, and he asphyxiated between the glistening black walls, flopping over dead in his seat between Missouri and Ohio. VacuSeal compartments were notorious for failure.
But the cars never stopped moving.
In 2030 the National Traffic Bureau thought they had found a solution to the over-trafficking problem. “Let’s build huge skyscrapers just for cars,” someone had said without blinking and it became national policy the next day. That’s what happens when you live in a world where dreams too easily become reality, and where there’s no respectable distance between conception and birth.
Multi-level skyways grew tall above the surface level highways, and they were christened with bloody bottles of pink champagne in the fists of fat little industrialist’s wives, challenging the austerity of the buildings around them. Suddenly a building’s first floor might became its second, third, and fourth, and so on. Negative numbers began showing up on elevator touch pads, much to the delight of the executives in their soft gray suits who could puff on big cigars and push back in their leather seats forever driving in sunlight. Story by story the skyways rose, level by level until they had fifty new arteries of asphalt gleaming above the original, and everybody was happy… for a while.
Skyways were full in a decade, bumper to bumper, fender to grinding fender, temper to tempered steel. And that’s when the flying car was invented and the flyway ordinance was passed mid-century. Commercial air traffic became privatized and individualized. Flying cars became mandatory for the elite, in their never-ending quest to rise above it all, with their fenders and noses up in the air, their little sniffs of disdain becoming clouds of exhaust in a sky consumed by fossil fuels and soot ash, a sky which had turned angry red and then brown as the third artificial o-zone layer began to fail, prompting scientists all over their world to rush back to their chemlabs and pump out a new and improved version of older and better system.
The Administrator said nothing about all this in their mile-high rise to the top of the New World Trade Center, but registered it all through pair of greasy, second-hand spectacles and a look of satisfaction he probably bought on a street corner below. His was the store-bought face of someone who could afford to “Rise Above it All” as the screenboards blasted night and day on the sides of buildings five hundred stories below.
He had never ridden in the stinking subways or the potholed highways in all the years of his short existence. His father was probably some upper-lever manager in The Company, Crate thought.
Promotion by birthright.
The Admin or clerk, whatever he was, lifted one manicured nail to his lip, his only clean one, and scratched it thoughtfully. Crate noticed the sooty crescents of an office grunge outlining the nails of his other hand.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he said immensely pleased with himself. No one quoted the classics anymore; in fact, no one even knew who the classics were. Books were beyond affording. “I suppose you would like to tear all this down? All this we’ve worked for so many years?” He gestured to the city as if it was his own.
Crate said nothing but stared grimly ahead out the window. A worker UPC mark stained his left cheek, and his fingers found it, itchingly.
The elevator lifted upward into the cast-iron underbelly of a seedy rain cloud, and all became silver and white outside the window. Crate felt a moment of anxiety, seeing nothing but still feeling himself moving along. He had never had this sensation before, but it felt somehow familiar.
It grew brighter outside, suddenly from above, and through one tiny window burst a stream of silver sunshine and a glint of blue—yes actually blue—sky. Crate moved toward it instinctively, magnetized by the suddenness of its appearance from out of the perpetual grayness below. The silent elevator rose above the cloud line and into the cobalt blue sky, revealing a sight he had often heard about but never actually seen—the sun. He couldn’t help but move to the small rectangle of glass and press his fingers up close against it warming the palm of his hand.
The clerk rolled his eyes and smiled to himself while snuffing out a cigarette on the back of his hand. “You’ve never seen the sun, have you?” he sniffed, rolling back his sleeves and reaching up to touch the sides of his spectacles, which instantly changed from opaque to dark maroon shutting out the light. “You get used to it after a while.”
Crate breathed in heavy, measured breaths, feeling the sunshine on his face for the first time ever. It ran through his fingers like a stream of warm water. He could feel its weight in his hands. It felt good against the years of callousness and scars in his palm. He raised his hands to his lips, as if to drink, and felt the warmth deposited there by something so simple, so basic, so necessary as the sun.
There were taller buildings on other worlds, but Crate didn’t know this, couldn’t have imagined it anyway. The clerk had seen them, been in many of them, so he couldn’t help but smile a little as the elevator rose quietly towards the top of the mile-high sunscraper—still the tallest building on Earth.
Even in this considerable gravity, it was quite an accomplishment.
And somewhere near the top of this cold, steel building waited the still-shaded penthouse of the CEO of all of these United States of America, Inc.