Michael had never felt rain. He often wondered what it would feel like on his body. Before the barren years people would be caught in the rain all the time. He’d read that people used umbrellas to shelter from it. Not Michael, he would’ve revelled in it. He’d heard of showers. People from the eliteface network had them fitted. Members of Michael’s social network, serfspace, rarely interfaced with people from eliteface but he’d heard that a hot shower felt good. It damn well ought to he thought; it was unthinkable to Michael to spend so much water on a shower. Whenever he had uncontaminated water, he wouldn’t let it run down the drain, he’d drink it. He didn’t mind air washing though, it was what he was used to, but real rain, that must feel amazing. It rained often on the surface of the Earth. Nothing lived there any more though. Nothing could.
He’d settled down in his seat not five minutes and the thought came again, ‘What have I forgotten?’ No, it was planned perfectly, and executed with ease. When this train journey was over he would have jumped two social networks. He’d have all the water he’d ever want. It wasn’t greed but what else was there for him? He had no family, didn’t have many friends, he worked for a faceless organisation, he was destined to remain forever in the lowest social network. Until he met Pierre that is. What a genius. From age six Pierre dreamt of working in a power station and taught himself nuclear physics. A strange dream for a boy and one that could never be realised; you need a degree from a recognised institution to work in a power station and that cost a lot of water, too much for someone in serfspace.
It was chilly in the cabin. Michael fastened the top button of his coat. He furtively felt the cube in his coat pocket. What a genius that Pierre was. It had worked a treat. He wanted to get the cube out now, to marvel at it but that would be stupid. Three hours later and he would be in southern Spain, lost in the hordes of the sin red; those not connected to any social network. There wasn’t much employment. There wasn’t much organised anything but that didn’t matter. He could buy anything he wanted on the black market with the water he had now; a spacious apartment, fine clothes, restaurant meals. He’d heard the lizard soup was sublime in Spain. Michael had never tried lizard before. He smiled. He allowed himself that. It was a perfect plan, perfectly executed. The smile turned to a grin. But a feeling in his stomach, like he’d forgotten something.
Michael reached into his pocket and felt the cube with the back of his hand as he reached for the ticket. The inspector scanned it.
‘Going all the way to Valencia hey?’
Michael nodded, ‘Yes Ms’ Did that sound too formal?
‘Not much luggage?’ she said pointing at Michael's little rucksack.
‘Don’t need it. Some friends are taking care of me for a week’
‘You’ll like it. It’s nice and warm. It’s a bit of a zoo but you’ll enjoy it’
Michael smiled politely. He didn’t want too much small talk now. He must stay focussed. The inspector wandered on through the cabin. It was an impressive train, an impressive tunnel: London to Valencia, 1500km, in three hours! (Few lived south of Valencia now; far too hot; 80°C on land equated to about 55°C under.) The train made one stop in Paris and one in Marseille and then it was Valencia, home of the sin red. Three hours! It used to take as long by air before the barren years. There was no flying now. The acidic atmosphere would strip a plane to scrap metal within an hour. When Vesuvius blew it threw so much sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere the pH level plummeted to 2.5. Millions died during those barren years. If not from the pollution itself, from the effects; lack of drinking water, shortage of food. Then there was the deep freeze.
Michael didn’t know of these things first hand - he was born underground - but he was taught some history in school. His father sent him when he could afford to. Michael’s father was an obedient downtrodden serfspace member; a cashier in a bank. The same job Michael had just enough schooling to apply for when his father expired and that’s just what he did. He’d been working there ten years before he hatched a plan to rip it off. No one would have suspected. Michael was the archetypal model employee. He smiled again. He had done it. He was home free. Michael couldn’t wait to start a new life in Spain. He’d get a nice apartment, go dancing every night, and he meet a lovely Señorita. But he couldn't shake the niggle in his stomach.
The train came to a stop. Paris. More people were getting on now. Paris was a big interconnecting station. There was a big food industry in France. Lot’s of underground farms growing tubers, onions and herbs with artificial light. Some meat was bred. The mole chicken was an invention of Paris, very popular with eliteface members. Real chicken, along with many foods taken for granted before the barren years, needed too much water and daylight to make commercial sense. There were many plants that could be cultivated in low light though. Most of the population was vegetarian by default, a root soup of one kind or another being a “favourite” of many cultures.
When the bank's collapsed, printed money was worthless. Society reverted to a barter system. Produce and equipment was bought and sold on it's potential to sustain human life underground and Paris fared well with it's innovative food technology. The ultimate commodity is , of course, water and before long things simplified to this universal currency. This enabled exchange across borders and allowed commerce to build up again. Today a cubic centimetre of 100% pure water is the monetary unit used by all banks.
An old man sat down in the seat opposite, his dirty tattered clothes the hallmark of a farm worker. He wiped the sweat and soil from his forehead, ‘Bonsoir’ he said.
‘Bonsoir’ said Michael. He thought of the many years this old man must have laboured. A man should have retired by his age, but how could you when stuck the lower social networks? And what of his offspring? Did he have any? If he did, they were destined to stay in the lower networks; you can't earn your way out of it, and how could a man such as this afford their education. Michael wanted to talk to him - ask him about his work, his family, life in Paris – but he had to avoid small talk, he wasn't home free just yet.
Maybe this old man had lived during the barren years. Could he be old enough? He looked it but working underground could age a man. Maybe he was one of the Renaissance men who helped to build the first underground tunnels here in Paris. The governments had ceased functioning when eliteface decided to build downwards. How else could the human race survive? There was nothing left for them on the surface, no way to reverse the effects of the super volcano. Early tunnels spliced together Europe's towns and cities with staggered intersections. This transcontinental had come later and taken many years to build. Maybe this old man had helped in it's construction.
It was a moral dilemma for the Renaissance movement; they needed millions of workers to build cities underground, but you couldn’t begin such a massive undertaking without underpaying. It instantly created a division in the social networks but it may have saved the human race from extinction. But Michael didn't accept his place in the social networks. He felt he was more than he was born to be, and felt no guilt in cheating his inheritance. He wanted to experience the finer things. To know what it was like to splash water on his face, to try splendid wines preserved from the old times. He allowed himself to feel the cube in his pocket once more. He glanced at the old man who had already dozed off in his seat, exhausted from his day’s work.
Pierre had told Michael to be careful, ‘Don’t try to store too much’ he said ‘and don’t upset the cube once it’s full’
‘Shaking it you mean?’ asked Michael.
‘Yes, keep it as still as possible. It’s stable enough, but prolonged movement could excite the water molecules and then-’
‘Yes, you don’t want to even think about the consequences. The cube works by shrinking the distance of hydrogen bonds between water molecules using an anti-graviton force. Water can be compacted to thousandths of its original volume and mass in this way but if something disturbs just one molecule in the cube, a chain reaction could occur and the water would revert to its normal size in an explosive manner.’
Michael didn't understand the science but he respected the principles. The cube was 5cm square. It’s bluey-white hue was inviting and it felt nice in the palm. Pierre had made the controls really simple; one button for suck, one for release. An illumination showed the contents in percentage. It could hold 10,000 litres; a fortune. Michael had managed 60%. He skimmed the pay-ins all week. Water was only useful as a currency if it was 100% pure. Each cashier had a machine the water was poured into that checked for impurities, and, if none were found, released it into the main tank. All Michael had to do was place the cube close to the machine’s mouth and it would suck up water molecules through accelerated evaporation. The cube looked like an executive toy, left on the desk all day long.
‘If you get caught’ said Pierre, ‘I didn’t make the thing okay?’
‘Okay, but it’s foolproof Pierre, I’m not going to get caught. You’re a genius my friend, a genius.’
Only he had got caught. A security guard had been watching the people pay-in their water from CCTV and noticed the cube. Michael had forgotten to look where the cameras were placed this morning, he assumed they hadn’t moved from yesterday. One camera had the cube in shot now and the security guard thought it seemed odd.
‘It’s probably a toy or something but I haven’t seen the cashier play with it all day, it’s just been left there. I thought I’d better mention it to you’ he said to his boss.
‘You were right to’ said the Controller, ‘This is just the sort of anomaly I want to be alerted to’
The Gendarmerie had been informed of the robbery when the takings at the bank were scrutinised. The train started to pull away from the station as the two agents entered Michael’s cabin. One was holding a photograph and looked directly at Michael. He knew the source of the nagging feeling now, he’d made a mistake. What clue had he left? It was too late for that now, he only had a few metres on his pursuers. He had to get off this train. With a burst of adrenalin he leapt from his seat and ran towards the door. He jammed it shut behind him with a fire extinguisher, giving him valuable seconds. He opened the window and reached out for the handle. The door was jammed. No, it was deactivated. The train started to build up speed. He put a protective hand around the cube and thrust his body through the window. He landed awkwardly and scrambled to his feet. He ran as fast as he could through the moistureless dim tunnel. He looked behind, they were in close pursuit. He found a maintenance shaft and heard the stun pellets whistle past him as he clambered up it. It was a steep and narrow metal tube, there were dusty doors along the sides but Michael kept running. It went on and up and they were gaining on him. There was a hatch at the top. He looked behind, they were seconds away. He turned the release wheel.
‘Michael, don’t open the hatch, it leads outside. Come with us. We won’t harm you’
Just lock me up forever, no thanks. He turned the wheel another rotation and could feel the strange air outside. He could escape. He felt a tug on the back of his shirt. Michael was hanging on to the wheel with one hand. He took the cube from his pocket with his free hand and threw it at the agent, ‘Catch. This is what you’re after’
The agent released his grip and caught the cube. Michael pushed the hatch and it folded outwards. He hoisted himself up, got to his feet, and stood on the broken land of the Paris Basin.
Sunlight. He was seeing it for the first time. It was highly filtered by the dense chemical fog overhead but it still pleased his soul. The dank air took his breath away. He shivered. How long could he survive in the open? He started to walk away from the hatch. The agents watched him like meerkats from their burrow, hesitant to leave the safety of the shaft. Michael could see stone buildings in the distance, maybe he could make it that far? The agent fumbled around for handcuffs, and dropped the cube.
Michael heard the clink of metal on metal as the cube bounced against the rungs of the shaft's ladder. Then he heard the boom as water erupted from the hatch, he turned to see his pure water lift high into the Parisian sky and turn to mist.
The sensation wasn’t what Michael expected, it wasn’t like he’d read in the books. The rain slowly stripped the skin from his exposed hands and face. He smiled, they couldn’t recognise him from a photograph now, and then he laughed and his gums hurt. No one had felt rain for a hundred years.