Sub-level ten didn’t mean all that much. It did what it said on the tin, ten levels below ground. In Max’s opinion, the susto builds were a great leap forward in urban living. But every revolution needed a spark that set it off. The susto builds’ spark had been short and brutal.
It began way back in the past when the skyline was dominated by towers almost exclusively owned by companies, used as offices. Something had to give, so they started digging out a honeycomb warren of tunnels beneath the city. It was a solid plan that might have held water, but the authorities made one of the worst mistakes in the history of governance.
They put the people underground. The glass cubicle at which Max worked would have once been surrounded by four aluminium-plasterboard walls. A family had slept there, squinting in the artificial light and living miles from the nearest window.
There were mass uprisings, squalor and corruption. People died in those holes, huddled together at the mercy of landlords who were little better than the human traffickers of centuries past. In the end it was the businesses that went sub-level. People got to look at clean air again, even if they were separated from it by an inch of microglaze.
That was how Max came to be standing at his workstation deep in the bedrock of New York, looking down to avoid the glare of the lumi-tubes. One day, he told himself, he would get that promotion. He would go ST, super-terra, and have a director’s office under one of the hightown streets. Cars would screech past over his ceiling window and, if he stood on tiptoes on top of his desk, he might touch the micro-glaze and imagine he could feel the chill of the true air outside.
For now, he put his head down and worked. Max was doing what he did best, what nobody else did quite like him, and it sent a small thrill of pleasure up his spine. For the first time in his life someone was there to appreciate it. He had a visitor who could see exactly what his mind was doing and fully comprehend just how extraordinary it was.
“You’re pretty full of yourself right now, aren’t you?”
“Wouldn’t you be?” he asked, smirking with immodest pride.
His brain was working in three different directions at once as he raced against the computer system built into his workstation. That went hand-in-hand with being part of a justified workforce. Every action he took or decision he made had to be justified against a series of questions. Can a machine do it faster? Can a machine do it better? Does the machine need you?
Max was killing the software that day. In his imagination, he was a machine. He was a device programmed to achieve excellence and nothing else.
“I saw that! You just pictured yourself as a robot.” Rachel said, chuckling to herself. “What does the human excellence machine need machine-gun arms for?”
Hot blood surged to Max’s cheeks and he cringed with embarrassment. He had been daydreaming like a little boy. If there had ever been a chance for them to be more than visitor and host, that had probably killed it.
What did he just think? Why had he thought of that? It was the one thing he had tried hardest to keep firmly outside his mind.
“You’re still thinking about that? I thought I’d put you off with how I behaved in the elevator.”
“What? No, you didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Are you kidding me?” she asked, and he could hear the sincere tone of regret. “I was totally out of line. Who am I to barge into your head and then criticize what your subconscious is doing? I shouldn’t have… I can’t believe what I’m about to say. I shouldn’t have stormed off.”
He could feel it coming. It was a tug at his gut and a twitch of a smile at the corner of his mouth. If he knew one thing, it was that some things were better left unsaid. But where did all the wrong things go when they were not spoken? They bounced around in the mind before being put down or set free.
The thought popped into his head and stood out like a flashing lumi-tube sign.
‘How was that shower?’ he wondered.
It was the way he said it, or thought it. There was the image again, making his heart race. He heard an exasperated, pitying intake of breath in his ear.
“I can’t believe you think that’s what I look like. It’s not even a real person. All I’m seeing is… parts of a person glued together like some Frankenstein’s love monster. Sorry, I’m being critical again. I guess it’s all about perception.”
“I bet you think I’ve got a one-track mind.” he said, injecting a little extra dejection into his voice to really sell it.
Then he thought about whether it would work, make her forgive him, and he could have kicked himself.
“The thing is, I don’t.” Rachel replied, and for a moment he was too shocked to think anything. “I’ve been eavesdropping on your mind for hours as it’s jumped from designing a new multi-platform information delivery system to streamlining your workstation’s performance to setting up your own susto build newsletter. I’d call it anything but one-track.”
“Thanks.” and he meant it.
“But something’s going on here, Max. The way you keep thinking about me in that way. I don’t think it’s a ‘guy thing’ and I don’t believe you’re some sort of creep. Can you explain it to me?”
“Well, I suppose it’s like this. I’ve got you in my head. You’re constantly there and so there’s stuff I’m desperate not to think about. You see the problem?”
“You try not to think about something and your mind does the opposite?”
“I think that’s it.”
Was that right? He had only meant to come up with some made-up excuse that sounded plausible. Now it was out there, Max thought it could be the truth.
“Thanks for your dishonest honesty.”
He could tell she was smiling and he grinned back.