Jamal found a quiet spot on the side of the mountain and rummaged through his backpack. He was having lunch early, but it wasn’t like there was anyone keeping tabs on his time card. Jamal had worked at Freddie’s once, with people telling you when you could eat, leave, shit, all with the droning of crappy music on the radio.
“Speaking of the radio,” Jamal muttered, pulling out the wooden box nestled on the top of his backpack. Jamal had sprung for the deluxe version with the lifetime warranty. The damn thing was made out of wood and gold scrollwork that would outlast him, and soaked in a sanantite bath until the heavy radio would mend minor dings on its own. Jamal was planning on giving it to his son.
In just a year and a half, they’d come so far.
Garth had compared it to the eighteen hundreds, when scientists were changing the world left and right, when electricity came into it’s own. Movies, radio, medicine. Somebody had already figured out radio.
Jamal flipped the switch to turn the speakers on, then dialed in his favorite station before returning to his backpack and retrieving one of Jess’s tuna sandwiches. Jamal turned back and looked out over the bowl as the sound of Disturbed made the local wildlife flee the area. Jamal took a bite of his sandwich, admiring his sheer altitude.
Jamal was working as an engineer for the mountain raising project. His job was to head out to areas earmarked by the survey team and raise or lower the mountain to the determined elevation.
Other people were feeling the pinch of privatization, but not Jamal. He worked for the State. As the population of L.A. exploded the government had been forced to move from shares to a more nuanced economy, and that had caught a few people off guard. They were getting through it though, since anybody with two legs or two hands could find work. Even semi-competent Disc jockeys.
The music ended as he was working through the second half of his sandwich, and an advertisement came on the air.
Dr. Daniels all-purpose clinic invites you to come down for a check-up. There’s no reason to suffer through the aches and pains of old age in silent dignity. Kick that shit to the curb. Minor arthritis cured for as low as a hundred credits. Full body streamlining for just a thousand credits. Cancer? Gone. Ulcers? Gone.
You don’t have to be sick to swing by. We offer enhancement for any major organ for just two hundred credits. Never be short of breath again with a lung adjustment! Lift like the scwartznegger! Have the body you’ve always dreamed of! It’s a new era, why not have a new you!? Skin color, fifty credits, height, five hundred credits, facial structure, one hundred credits, Body sculpting for as low as three hundred credits!
You one of those sick furry fucks? We’ve got nonhuman packages starting as low as two thousand credits. Think people will stare and laugh? Think again! There’s so many goddamn aliens out there, You’d be a drop in the bucket.
Dr. Daniels. Be who you wanna be!
Jamal shook his head and chuckled, turning off the radio and packing up his lunch. Just two years ago, he would have never heard an ad like that on the radio.
Just two years ago, he was a hair’s breadth from dropping his life to run away from the mounting pressure of adulthood. The strangest thing was, he had more responsibility than he’d ever had before, and yet somehow he felt…freer.
If this had been two years ago, and he’d knocked Jess up, who knows what might have happened? He might have followed his dad’s example and flown the coop. As much as he hated the bastard, it was the only example for how to deal with his problems that he’d ever had.
But now? Now there was nowhere to run to that wasn’t a lawless wasteland, he had a decent job, a pension plan, and only worked a five hour day. His kids were taken care of, and he was happy. No reason to run.
“Alright,” Jamal said, picking up his survey tools and a pad of paper, calculating the current elevation of area E 27.
“Looks like we need to raise about three hundred feet.” Jamal muttered, looking at the notepad in his hand. That was gonna be a two week job.
Jamal unboxed his most valuable piece of equipment, a squat cylinder with a pepper grinder handle on the top. It was about half the size of a fifty-five gallon drum and heavy. The only reason Jamal could carry it into the mountains was that everyone was superhuman nowadays. The old standards for strength no longer applied.
Jamal set it down with its screw tip plunged into the earth, made sure his other equipment was nowhere near where a tree might fall, then started turning the handle.
Inside the machine, a series of gears changed his slow turn into high speed rotation, spinning Aether Crystals past carved slices of Mythic Cores at speeds too fast for the eye. Jamal didn’t know how it worked, but he knew that it worked.
The earth began to rumble and buck as though it were an earthquake, making the trees around the clearing sway. This was the most dangerous part of the job. Lots of moving mass, plenty of energy being thrown around for someone to get hurt with. Jamal kept spinning the handle, keeping his head on a swivel for any natural or unnatural disaster that might visit him. Rockslides, fallen trees and sudden cracks in the ground were the two most common ways people got hurt doing this.
Jamal was out of range of a rockslide and in the middle of a clearing, so he only needed to worry about losing the priceless piece of terraforming equipment down a hole in the ground. Talk about a design flaw.
Well, that wasn’t the only thing he needed to worry about. There were also wild monsters to contend with. The natural predators that spawned with the dungeons took generations to spread across the globe.
Except for goblins.
The sneaky little fuckers bred like rabbits, and a tribe could wander as far as fifty miles in a single day. They redefined the term ‘invasive species.’
No matter how high your endurance got, A well placed blow to the back of the head could knock someone out of commission long enough to get eaten.
In another sixty to a hundred years or so, bigger predators would move in and establish a balance with the goblins, making them less common.
And making bigger, nastier things more common, Jamal thought with a sigh as he watched the ground for signs of opening up.
“There’s one thing we can’t tolerate, it’s large predators near human settlements. Don’t worry about it. Your kids are gonna do like we did before, and scour them from the face of the Earth. If there’s one thing we humans good at, it’s systematic genocide.”
Garth was a weird bastard, but he seemed optimistic.
After half an hour of spinning, Jamal took a break to wipe the sweat from his forehead. He didn’t have anything to base it on, but he felt like he’d raised this section of the mountain four feet or so. He’d be able to get a better read on it when he headed back down and saw where the ground had cracked and heaved.
Where does the extra ground come from, anyway? Jamal thought to himself. Were they literally pulling magma up toward the surface, or injecting concrete down into the mountain to plump them up like silicone injections.
That was above his paygrade, but Jamal hoped they weren’t creating volcanos all the way around the city beneath them.
That just seemed stupid.
A rumbling sound grabbed his attention, coming from the south. It wasn’t Jamal, and it wasn’t another engineer shaping the mountains either, the sound was wrong. To the south stood Garth’s tower, a hulking tree at least five hundred feet tall, dwarfing the subtropical plants around it.
Jamal’s vision caught movement as a streamlined pine tree fifty feet tall shot up into the sky, trailing fire and a line of smoke behind it.
“What the hell?” Jamal said quietly, craning his neck to watch the tree-rocket’s progress as it disappeared into the blue sky. Garth had mentioned satellite technology before, but Jamal hadn’t been expecting to see a fucking tree soaring into the sky to deliver the package.
Jamal was gawking like a kid when the stone flung by the goblin caught him in the eye.
Jamal’s Endurance and the fact that the stone spent most of its force fracturing his orbital were the only things that saved him from instant death.
The world darkened and sound faded away as Jamal fell to the ground, twitching. Through the uncontrolled spasms, and the mind-shattering pain, Jamal barely heard the victorious screeching of goblins bursting from the bushes.
Jamal faintly realized that the next thing that happened would determine whether he lived or died. They were going to rush out and club him on the head until he stopped moving, and then eat him.
He needed to cover his head right now.
Jamal moaned and mustered every nerve in his body to drag his arms over his head an instant before a heavy impact slammed against his forearms, again and again. Jamal felt a pressure on his chest as his boiled leather vest stopped a stab aimed at his heart.
Jamal’s life flashed before his eyes, the absentee father, the poor mother without a spare second to spend on her son who’d gotten in trouble at school again.
Then the life that could have been flickered through his mind. Jess, their home. Children. The amazing sex…
Fuck that dying shit! Jamal thought, gritting his teeth and opening his eyes. the smashed eyeball registered nothing but pain, but the other saw little green feet standing above him.
He couldn’t lie around and wait for one of them to stab him in the neck. Keeping one hand above his head and neck, Jamal tore his sword out of its sheath and caught one of the little bastards in the foot.
The goblin fell to the ground with a howl, while the rest of them jumped backward, hissing in disappointment at a hunt gone sour.
“Come on, you little fuckers, let’s see what you got,” Jamal said, climbing to his feet as fast as he could. Whatever you do, don’t fall down. He felt the blood from his socket weeping down his cheek like tears.
Marianne Edwards, thirty-seven year member of the U.S. corps of engineers and manager of the city’s new corps, was organizing reports and building a mental map of the mountain progress, and how it could be integrated into the city’s infrastructure, when the door of her office slammed open, scattering her concentration. Her vision turned red.
Someone was gonna get her foot up their ass.
“What do you think you’re- AAH!” Marianne screamed and flew back in her seat, sending analog papers scattering up into the air.
Directly in front of her was the dripping, disembodied head of a Goblin, jaw hanging slack, exposing its sharp teeth and long, swollen tongue.
Holding the head up for her benefit was Jamal Hernandez, baring his teeth in a snarl and wearing a blood-soaked rag over his eye.
“This! This is what we have to deal with out there!” Jamal said, slamming the head down on her desk, covering her documents in spatters of blood. “Not fucking delays in traffic or mainframe crashes. No, we get things that think humans taste like chicken!”
“Now listen up, desk bitch. I talked to the rest of the engineers, and not a single one of us is going back out there until we get a partner to watch our backs.” He held up his thumb and forefinger. “I was this close to getting eaten today, and thankfully I was able to scare them away, but guess what did happen?”
He peeled off the bloody bandage. “I lost a fucking eye!”
Marianne leaned back in the chair. Jamal was usually a sweet tempered boy. A bit of a sassback, but never malicious. She had never seen him this angry, and it made the angry retort wither on her tongue.
“So don’t expect any more work on that mountain until we’re not being fed to the wildlife, and I swear to god,” He drew his sword and leveled it at Marianne, “If the government doesn’t pay for a new eye I’m gonna do something we both regret.”
Marianne’s heart slammed in her chest as she eyed the sword pointed at her.
It was the first time in her long life anyone had drawn a sword on her. Go figure. The boy had made his point though, it wasn’t the safe country it had used to be, a blind spot in her thinking.
“I’ll make some calls.” She tried to say it with confidence, but it came out as a whisper.
Garth was reworking the design of his satellite when he got the call from the treasurer. Pretty soon they’d be a spacefaring nation again. Fuck the apocalypse. Humans bounce back.
“Seems like the engineers want bigger groups and health insurance.” The woman, Henrietta Evans, spoke into his ear through the magical phone.
“How much are we making from exports?” Garth asked.
“In short, an obscene amount.” She said.
“Make it happen, then. As a matter of fact, Get with Paul and expand the corps of engineers and military if we’ve got the money for it. Big stick and all.”
“Yes sir.” Henrietta said, hanging up.