In the lower corner of a stadium-sized sphere that was anchored to the seafloor 200 meters below the choppy waters of the Atlantic seaboard, a trial was underway. A young boy dressed in a simple blue tunic of lightly spun sea grass was receiving his first lesson in what was to be his profession, should he pass the course. Standing beside him his professor gave step-by-step directives on how to proceed.
“Now ease your hands into the plasmodesma articulator, up to your elbows.”
Braxon did as Dr. Juxi instructed, feeling for the first time the cool green jelly he’d studied so much about. It was intimidating, this first punch of his. Every would-be architect had to learn the basics of pod expansion, tether tubing and external-pressure-to-wall-density ratios. Whether or not any of those lessons had stuck in Braxon’s brain would soon be apparent.
“Remember to wait a minute to let the chromatids read and accept your genetic signature. Failure to do so will result in the plasmodesma going inactive.”
“I can feel them,” Braxon said, his eyes widening as the box of green matter began to glow more brightly. “It tingles.”
“That’s good. It means a healthy connection is being established. You’ve been taking your supplements according to a schedule that optimizes connectivity. Wait a bit longer until the sensation settles.”
Braxon tried to keep his breathing steady as every pore on both arms underwent what felt like an electrical basting. The older boys had said the first time felt strange. After another minute the buzz subsided and he had lost any notion of where his arms began or ended.
“Are your hands gone,” asked Dr. Juxi. “Do you feel one with the activator?”
“I think so.” Braxon wasn’t sure what he felt. “Everything is cool and…and I feel very calm.”
“Then you’ve got a good connection, and that is the most important thing. Now, move your fingers, starting from your pinkies to your thumbs like when you play the keys.”
Braxon did so and suddenly sensation returned to his hands, although the goo surrounding them had lost all viscosity. It glowed brightly in different shades of green depending on how fast or in which direction his hands moved.
“Not too quickly,” the doctor advised. “You don’t want to overexcite the material. Your cellular information is being logged at this very moment. The more passive it’s registered as, the more quickly future connections can be made. You’re essentially establishing a relationship with the chromatin and trust needs to be built before you’ll be allowed to do any real building.”
“How long does it take, Dr.?”
“Years, really. You’re only eight now, so you won’t be able to work on any big projects for at least seven years. But it’s important to get you in the system now, so that you both have a strong familiarity with the other.”
Braxon nodded, happy to be in the hands of one of the great architects. It was Dr. Juxi who had made the early breakthroughs with metaphyte manipulation and designed the first colonies. It was because of him and a hundred others that anyone was even alive at all. When the temperatures had risen too high for life on the surface to continue, those survivors who hadn’t been aboard the stratojumpers had fled underground. For billions unable to move either up or down, they wilted with the rest of terrestrial life.
For the Subterrana, it had quickly become apparent that space to accommodate the people and the plants they needed to survive would be problematic in the future. Petro fuel was too scarce to run the old boring machines and the increasing frequency of earthquakes made substrate expansion tenuous at best. It was true the solar stations above could power the caves, storage reserves and laboratories for years to come, but maintenance became progressively more treacherous with the weather’s increasing violence.
Besides that, nobody liked the idea of an existence underground. The inability to move freely as their DNA had programmed them to do forced them to seek alternative spaces.
It was the Bioglots, not the Prescribers, who had come up with the idea of going to the ocean. They had learned to use the plants to shape and build structures capable of recycling oxygen underwater. Dr. Sleenix had created the first pod puncher, a living machine that produced bubbles of organic matter big enough for the remaining humans to live in. The same machine Braxon was training on now. At first they’d outfitted the big pods with traditional electricity and water and the old people remembered what it was like to live in a conventional house.
The Architects’ skill grew however, and within a few years interiors were wholly self-sustaining, harvesting light from the surface that could be converted and stored for myriad applications. Water from the skies was collected in the giant spouts of pitcher plants grown to float on the surface that filtered it for bathing and cleaning, cooking and drinking. Cleaning the nitric and sulfuric acids was laborious and time-consuming, however new plant technology was being worked on to filter seawater to a drinkable condition. There was talk of a need to work faster though, as the inhospitality of the upperworld intensified every year. Braxon had seen thousands of pictures of the surface, and the rest of the world before The Burn, but had never been up there. He was the second generation of water babies, his parents having been the first.
“Look into the build chamber. Do you see your hands in the center?” Dr. Juxi’s head hovered parallel next to Braxon’s, his eyes squinting behind his glasses.
Braxon looked up from the plasmodesma articulator and through the bioglass into the cavernous build chamber. In the center his hands floated freely in a pale green mist.
“Yes, I see them. How should I start it?”
“Strum the biotic just as you did before until it congeals into the molding putty,” said Dr. Juxi, now standing straight with his hands clasped behind the back of his white lab coat. “When you feel the putty in your hands you can begin shaping.”
He moved his hands as if plucking a harp and the plasmodesma articulator again glowed brightly. In the center of the build chamber a complimentary light grew in intensity and Braxon could feel the putty coalescing. He cupped it as it firmed and rounded it out to the size of grapefruit.
“That’s very good,” said Dr. Juxi. “Make it as smooth and perfect as possible.”
The young boy spun the ball over and over, deftly pressing out all of the little bumps until it felt as though made of glass. In the build chamber the same hands held the same ball, only they were much larger to accommodate the sphere that was now five meters across.
“Now hold the ball in one hand, and with your dominant hand take the pulse pen and gently push its tip into the top of the pod.”
Braxon focused back on the plasmodesma articulator, pulling the pen from the tool rack on the interior side of the box. Its thickness was awkward in his little hand as he pushed the tip in so that it just poked through the surface.
“Good, boy. We’re going to expand the size of the pod into a minimum livable size. How many meters is that, do you remember?”
“Thirty meters diameter or 94.247 meters circumference,” the boy recalled from his lessons.
“To give you an area what size?”
“Seven hundred six point eight five eight,” he answered.
“Good. Now, remember that one squeeze of the pen expands the pod diameter by one meter. It’s already five across so…”
“I should squeeze twenty five times.”
“Ah, you’ve forgotten the first rule of membrane elasticity,” the professor chided. “After initial expansion the cell wall will harden when it sets, making for a loss of one meter exactly when done. That’s how we’ve engineered it. ”
Braxon flushed with shame. He’d studied many hours in preparation for this day…how could he have been so careless as to forget such a basic principle?
“Sorry, Dr. Juxi.” It wasn’t the doctor’s forgiveness that he’d need – it would be his father’s if word got out that he’d made any mistakes. Open positions for Architects were limited to ten in the colony, and given how strong the competition to even apply to become one was, a single mistake could mean the end of an apprenticeship. Not that being a technician or a ranger or any other one of many jobs was necessarily bad. But his father, Tunxon Findel, had decided that Braxon would be an Architect and not a Harvester like he now was. His great-great-great-great…he couldn’t remember how great grandfather had been an upperworld architect, back when humans used wood, stone and steel to make their homes. Braxon liked the idea of being an Architect but knew if he failed, his father’s wrath would be greater than his disappointment.
He pumped the pen in an even rhythm counting silently to himself…24, 25, 26. In his hand the sphere hadn’t grown any larger, but in the build chamber it now occupied a significantly larger space. Dr. Juxi said nothing as Braxon removed the pen from the surface of the ball and returned it to its place. In the build chamber the two hands were dwarfed beneath the expanded pod.
“OK,” said the senior scientist, “you may proceed with the next step.”
Timidly, afraid to drop it, Braxon gripped the pod ball and moved it counter clockwise like one trying to spread oil in a bowl. As he became comfortable with the movement he increased the speed, aware that any jerk of the hand would ruin the spin. Just as his studies had said it would, the interior of the ball separated from the outer shell and rotated independently like a gyroscopic core, slowly feeling heavier as it gained rotational speed. He spun it faster, feeling a burn in his wrists and forearms as the weight increased.
“Faster,” Dr. Juxi commanded, “now is the critical torque point.”
Braxon focused the full of his attention on the ball, his body becoming heated and shaky from the exertion. The ball, the plasmodesma articulator…the whole damn room seemed to have grown unbearably hot. Sweat beaded up and dripped down his forehead, through his thin blond eyebrows and into his eyes. He squinted from the salty burn but didn’t dare lessen his concentration. Just as his arms and hands threatened to fail him, Dr. Juxi calmly gave the next order.
“Release the ball.”
He obeyed and in the build chamber the hands fell away from the pod, which now turned at 1,000 revolutions a second, suspended by the gyroscopic force of its internal mass. A thin hum came through the wall separating the student and professor from the massive spinning globe.
“Well done,” said Dr. Juxi, patting Braxon on the shoulder. The boy smiled and bent forward to wipe his face on his upper shirtsleeve. “Now the fun can begin,” he continued. “You’ve scaled and activated the pod shell. It’s time to shape it, give it some utility. Remind me how that’s done again?”
“By hitting it.” As delicate as the work was, Braxon was intrigued with how physically abusing the creation led to its manifestation.
“It’s not called a punch pod for nothing. So, go ahead. Punch it and see what happens.”
Braxon opened and closed his hands a few times and then balled them into small fists. In the plasmodesma articulator the ball of organic putty spun unwavering on its vertical access, a ribbon of slightly brighter light emanating from its equator. The boy cocked back his arm and struck the ball and in the build chamber before them the giant pod flashed red for a moment before turning a light shade of yellow.
“Don’t be timid, it won’t break.”
He hit the ball again, and then a third and fourth time. Each time the pod would flash with color and then settle into a slightly darker shade of yellow. He continued punching until the pod ceased to flash, finally reaching the bright fiery orange of the sun that Braxon had heard so much about.
“It’s finished, isn’t it?” His knuckles didn’t feel the least bit sore, he could keep going if need be…
“Yes, the initial shaping is over. You did well. But there’s still a great deal of work left to do before the pod is operational. What’s the next stage, then?”
“Growing the respiratory membrane inside the pod, then the energy nodes and luminary leaves and after that the hydration pools.”
“And installing the tether tube ports, shaping the living and working quarters, vibraworks connectors and so on and so on. And it’s your job to decide how to go about all of those things, under my supervision of course.”
“You may remove your arms from the articulator, Braxon.”
They were covered in a light green film of liquid that had a salty sweet scent to it. The professor handed him a towel to wipe himself clean with.
“C’mon then, let’s go mix the punch out compounds.”
“Yes, sir.” Following Dr. Juxi, Braxon allowed himself a small smile as they walked along a wide corridor to the compounds’ lab, his very first pod spinning brightly in the build chamber, behind them.