The short hour after work finished was Max’s favourite time of day. That went without saying for most people, but words could not describe how much Max loved his job. No, something truly special happened when his workstation shut itself down at five-thirty.
He always ran one finger along the smooth plastiglass-chrome alloy surface. It had not started as a ritual, yet it became one over time. In the beginning it was just a test to see that everything was switched off and staying off, none of the processors running too hot.
“Do you miss it when you’re not here?” Rachel asked.
That was a given for Max. He remembered being a child, he had forgotten exactly how old, and sleeping over in a storage room so that he could be at school before anyone else.
The school had been sub-level, he realised, back in the old days. It had been a dank, gloomy place excavated from the basement ruins of an ancient, ramshackle housing project. He had been terrified that night. He had wet himself.
He didn’t want her to know that.
“That’s alright, something similar happened when I was a kid. It happens to everyone.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
That was hardly fair, but Max didn’t want to press the point. It would take too much time and this was his hour.
He went to the elevator and rode it up to ground-level. That was special in itself. For the vast majority of people, their lives were spent between sub-level and highrise. They only ever saw ground-level as ribbons of rapid traffic hedged in by sheer walls of concrete-nanosteel. But Max knew a place.
His feet carried him along a narrow service walkway, cars rushing past in a roar of sound. Smooth midnight-grey walls rose on his left and a short drop fell away to the road on his right. After a few minutes he arrived at the park.
“Are you serious? You’re not taking another elevator up to a greenspace? It’s a real-life park?”
Max’s pleasure was soured by a sense of jealousy and guilt. Jealous that another person would be going into his secret, sacred place. Guilty that he felt that way.
“No, I understand. It’s your peaceful place and you don’t want me intruding.” she said, so sincere and genuine. He could feel some attachment growing inside his mind, a bridge between himself and that formless voice. Was Rachel his friend? He would like to think so. “I’ll try to keep quiet and let you enjoy it.”
Her voice had broken slightly. It was as if Max had reached out through the implant and touched her, brushed her hand with his. They had both become real to each other. She was more than just a visitor. It was a perpendicular friendship. Max liked that idea.
The park was an accident, which explained how it had survived while the rest of the city grew into itself like a concrete and micro-glaze fungus. Three broad avenues intersected in a Y-shape at the heart of New York’s perpendicularity boom.
Because of how the buildings’ arms reached out to each other overhead, there was no way for anything to be built in a tiny triangular patch of grass at the centre of the intersection.
“I hope you don’t get killed!”
He had been thinking the same thing, but that was just how it went. To get out among the waist-high grass, gnarled and rusted fence, and thick brambles Max would have to cross traffic. Nobody ever tried to cross traffic who didn’t have a deep longing to cut their life short. It was a constant, screaming torrent of chrome whipping past in a horrifying blur, but there was a way through.
It would be about five-thirty-nine. Almost time to go.
An empty void of silence suddenly swallowed up the chasm between the high skyscrapers. Max always found it eerie, no matter how many times he visited ground-level. The cars had stopped, caught in a twist of fate that hung by a fine thread to that coincidence which had allowed the small patch of grass to survive. Every day, at five-forty in the afternoon, traffic at that intersection stopped. If it didn’t, due to some glitch in highway planning, transport across New York would grind to a juddering halt.
Max vaulted over the railing and landed on the soft, springy road surface. He made up for his lack of agility with pure muscle memory, repeating the actions he had taken a hundred times before, and sprinted out towards the bright splash of green that was his island of colour in a sea of charcoal grey.
And there she was, waiting on the other side. She waved to him.