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Construction Science Fiction: The Divine Man

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Rain streamed past the slim oval window as a storm brewed over Shanghai. Snippets of news coverage labeled it the worst ever to hit the city. Alan Zhang saw that his plane was approaching the thicket of skyscrapers in the Pudong district, swathed in smog and heavy storm clouds. The Yangtze River, usually clogged with cargo ships and ferries, was empty. The closer the plane got, the uneasier Alan felt. The place looked dead, a ghost town.

This nightmare of a trip started when he received a cryptic message from Father early that morning. He had just finished a marathon run of his lecture on construction engineering at his old university when he listened to a voice mail on his cell. "Come to Shanghai immediately. Our lives depend upon this." That was it. Alan hadn't been able to contact Father since. Frantically, he had checked out of his hotel in San Francisco, calling his assistant to tell her to cancel the rest of his appointments. Whatever made Father scared made him absolutely terrified.

Alan looked around the plane now. He was the only passenger on his flight. The plane was dipping its nose toward the runway when Alan saw through the fog that the airport was empty, as well. Just a pale glimmer came from air traffic control and flashing red lights dotting either side of the runway. What had happened here? He knew a storm was about to hit, but this was insanity. It was like dropping in on a post-apocalyptic city. The plane touched down with a sharp drop, the lights on board flickering for a moment.

Alan took out his cell phone and watched its screen load. No service. The plane halted. He looked out of the window to see the terminal was just a vague shape at the edge of his vision.

No service, no traffic whatsoever. It couldn't be. Not now. Not at this crucial stage. Those years of work. If this was what Alan feared, the city was at risk for billions of dollars in damage.

Last year, on October 6, 2058, Shanghai unveiled its grand technological leap forward in the form of "Phoebe," developed by Alan and a team of engineers. This network essentially ran everything: Power, communication, transportation, traffic control—its hand was in every critical system, and it was built to be unbreakable. If it failed now, his career, his money, dignity—gone. It would all be over. The seat-belt signs dinged. Alan got up, his legs numb from the long flight. The plane's exit ramp began to unfurl from the back, revealing the rain-slick runway. Alan saw a black SUV was waiting. The driver leaned out of the window, taking one last drag of a cigarette before flicking it away.

Once Alan was in the car, the driver sped away, leaving the plane in its own ring of light, surrounded on all sides by thickening fog.

They had just left the deserted landing strip when Alan saw all the evidence he needed for his failure to be certain. It was the highway—stretching far into the hazy distance were empty cars. "Driver," he said, leaning forward. "What happened here?"

"I don't know," he said. "One moment, everything's normal, or as normal as things get around here, and then," he smacked the steering wheel, "chaos. Trains don't run, power's off and cars stopped working—everyone panicked. You just wait an hour though, maybe two, and it'll get a whole lot worse. There's a storm coming. Biggest one in a hundred years, I heard."

"Where are we headed now?" Alan asked.

"Zhenzhu," the driver answered. "Not sure why. If it was up to me, I'd be taking this car as far away from this city as I could get it."

So they were heading to Zhenzhu: the Pearl. Phoebe's first major project utilizing a fully automated crew of machines controlled through its 3D mapping software. It was supposed to revolutionize the industry through its maximum efficiency. How fitting, Alan thought, for his career to end where it started.

They had entered downtown Shanghai. Alan began to see figures weaving between cars, half obscured. They were piaobó, drifters. Many were farmers taken from their rural hometowns and thrust into cities for a larger workforce. They may as well have been ghosts for all anyone cared. They even looked like ghosts now, gray and bent. "How many of these people are here?" he asked the driver.

"Thousands," he replied.

The car stopped. They had arrived. "Listen," Alan said. "I need you to round these people up, try to find a higher elevation. I'll try to help, but, well, there's only so much I can do." He didn't wait for an answer, popping the car door open and running for the lobby of Zhenzhu. He knew exactly where to find Father.

The basement was dim. Row upon row of desks cluttered with computers led to a wide bank of monitors. Pale-blue images showed an eerie view of Shanghai's streets. Alan could already see sewers overflowing and the banks of the Yangtze swell. Father watched this display like a priest at his altar serving mass to an empty church. "They are calling it a freak of nature." Father turned toward him. "An unalterable twist of fate. You know what I call it? Virtual espionage so precise, so deadly, it will not only cost me this," he said, raising his arms to encompass all of Shanghai, "but the lives of thousands. Can you imagine? We have given ourselves the power of gods, but we remain so unfailingly human. Animals that have exchanged the bow and arrow for tools that exist outside of our physical perception." Father turned back to the monitors, his body only a blue-tinged silhouette. "Beautiful."

Alan hands were clammy. His mind refused to believe this was happening, that he could have been watching a sunrise over San Francisco Bay that morning and then watch Father go mad amid the destruction of Shanghai. It just refused to compute. "Father, I need the master unlock." It was the last resort, the back door into the system that was designed for emergencies. If Alan could detect the virus injected into the network by the hackers, he could possibly salvage some of the services operating under Phoebe.

"It is to your left, but … what is there left to save?"

Alan found it, a slim touch-screen tablet, on a desk lodged under a scattering of files and spreadsheets. He logged on and began running software to track down the source. "Those people out there, they have nowhere to go," he said, watching a screen that showed a group of ragged men and women sheltering under the eaves of a bus stop. "If I don't do something, they're done."

"Them," Father said, flicking a hand back at the monitors showing growing numbers of piaobó. "I believe the expression is two birds, one stone." He began walking toward Alan. "It was not hard drawing them here … a whisper of help planted here, there," he released his balled-up hand with a wave, like a magician conducting a trick, "and they are like flies drawn to light. Creatures who know it is all an illusion, yet accept it, for what else do they have in the darkness? What do they find there, really?" He shook his head. "If I am to fall with this city, I will cleanse it of the filth in the process, remove the useless waste that clings to the soul of a great nation." Every word was like a direct blow, hammering in a buried hate that Alan had only seen glimpses of before. This was the mentality that built an empire spanning dozens of countries, a construction corporation that was the future, the culmination of years of work. Would this be Alan's legacy? A man that would sacrifice thousands of lives for a footnote in the history books?

His scan completed, the code he had plugged in wiped the system of the virus. "You were always such a smart boy," Father said. "Don't let me down now. Let them go."

A moment. That was all it took. Alan tapped the screen.

A deep shudder rippled through the building. "What have you done?" Father snapped, grabbing the tablet from Alan. A multitude of red dots sprang around the perimeter of Zhenzhu. Father looked up in confusion.

"These people were left to die as outcasts. But they have not been abandoned by everyone, not yet," Alan said. Another shudder, and the bank of screens at the far end of the room spluttered for a moment before going blank. "Phoebe's last mission will be to construct a dam. I hope you don't mind if I use this building?"

Father stood there, his arms limp, his face flinching at this last betrayal.

"Why?" he said. Then, darkness.

 

MCFADDEN

Conor McFadden is pursuing a degree in journalism at Loyola University Chicago. His interest in writing began at an early age and draws influence from authors Stephen King and David Mitchell. He served as an editor at Fordham Preparatory School's literary magazine Labyrinth, in which some of his work was published. McFadden also has published work in the Loyola Phoenix. His interest in the construction industry and its impact on the world was piqued when he served as an intern at Turner Construction Co. during summer 2013.

To see all of the stories in ENR's Imagining Construction's Future science fiction collection, click here.

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