Far beneath New York City, in an office named K, Dr. Dereck Furlong (1904-1948) slept in total darkness. He was curled up under a blanket on the floor. He had recently been spending more and more of his shifts sleeping. There was no way for someone to check up on him. He may as well have been an astronaut.
Dr. Furlong was an engineer. He worked in the grand and nearly secret New York Pneumatic Tube System. Started in 1947, the NYPTS was an experimental pneumatic capsule pipeline run by the National Science Foundation for the American military. Furlong’s job was to monitor the system and dislodge capsules if they became stuck. The NYPTS was barely operational and there were often problems.
Including the doctor and his blanket, the dark office contained a pad of paper, ten sharp pencils, three red needles bouncing inside three new meters, three dials, a red emergency light, a speaker, a toilet, a sink, an icebox, an out tube, and an in tube. As well as driving the pipelines, someone had decided the scientists should also communicate by vacuum.
Sending and receiving social capsules was commonplace and even unofficially encouraged. The five hour shifts under flouresence watching needles bounce were hard for most to take. The rush and pop of a container bearing a joke or chess move was desperately welcome.
Dr. Furlong didn’t mind the five hours, but he hated the lights. The doctor was supposed to monitor and record the fluctuations the needles reported, but he had chosen to sleep instead. He loved K's subterreanen darkness.
Back in 1948, in the halcyon days of the National Science Foundation, when a memexing Bush still roamed the lawns, the government had been building many strange and secret machines. Inspired by the ingenuity of the Czech's Portrubni Posta, The New York Pneumatic Transit System was to be a precursor of a national system capable of moving troops and freight relatively quickly. In the mid 19th century an unsuccessful venture called the Beach Pneumatic Transit Company built what would be the first section of the next generation NYPTS. The BPTC was privately funded and failed. The NYPTS was funded by the American taxpayer, so it had a much better chance of success. However, like all freight pneumatics, the NYPTS was doomed.
It was an exciting project though, and Furlong should have been happy to work on it. The time Furlong spent “outside” in K was negligible compared to the scope of the science that he was being exposed to above ground. Furlong just couldn't appreciate it.
Something was wrong with his brain, and he was unhappy all the time. He tried exercise, meditation, and drinking but nothing alleviated the nagging dissatisfaction. He had become sick of managing his depression and had recently given up. All the compressed gas and interconnecting pipe in the world couldn’t thrill him.
A capsule clanged onto the floor. It had just been bumped out of the holding bay by a second capsule. It made a lot of noise as it bounced around. The unhappy Dr. Furlong, eyes still firmly closed, rose, leaned his back against the wall, flipped on the light switch, slid his back down the wall, sat on the floor, and fumbled for the message.
Furlong no longer received messages from the other scientists. An etiquette had grown among the community of scientists who worked under ground. Not responding to a social capsule was seen as rude, and even a little cruel. Since Furlong had stopped responding, he had been blackballed by his peers. So the doctor wasn’t surprised after he opened his eyes and saw official instructions to go to U4, get into the pipeline and see why the pressure readings had gone all wonky. “Fuck”, he said.
The open elevator lurched down through the rock, and past black cables and blue sanitation piping. Furlong realized he hadn't checked the second message. He considered returning to K, but he was nearly at U4.
In the NYPTS the U rooms were where you accessed the pipelines. The U rooms were larger than monitoring rooms like K, and instead of having just one door they had four. Including the elevator doors and a set of rails, U4 had a door to access the pipeline and two emergency doors. One door led to a bunker in case there was a malfunction in the environment. The other led to a staircase. The staircase was a relic of the system’s construction, and linked all the U rooms together.
Dereck entered the U room and proceeded into the inactive pipeline. The lines were five and a half feet in diameter and uncomfortable to walk through. Dereck had to crouch and crook his neck while he walked, at the same time he had to try not to trip over the tracks. The lines were not kept lit, so Dr. Furlong also had to flip light switches on as he made his way.
The first message had read, “Dr. Furlong: Please proceed to U4. We are getting incorrect readings. Possible break in the monitoring lines. Investigate and report back.” The second, unread, message had actually been from another scientist; it read, “Dereck I am worried about you. Are you okay?” It was another message that Dereck would never return.
The tragedy began with a little puff of air, a hiccup. When the air hit Dereck, he turned and stared wide eyed into the darkness. Once the initial shock had passed he turned and ran, hunched, towards the access door. Another, much larger hiccup knocked him over when he was only three yards from the door. He banged his head as he fell. Once the second blast passed, the air was still again. Dr. Furlong, half frantic, scrambled to his feet and rushed through the access door. Once on the other side, his breathing deep and his head throbbing from the fall, he scribbled a note and sent it up to the control room. It was barely legible; it read, “Something is wrong with Section 3. Two small bursts of pressure when I was inside the line. Returning to K. –Furlong.”
By the time he had returned to K, the red light was on and the speaker was playing a recorded message alerting everyone of a system wide evacuation. Dr. Furlong had also received a third capsule. He read this message; it read, “ATTENTION: System staff to evacuate. Please leave all your belongings and wait at the elevator doors.” After a couple minutes the silence was broken by the sound of capsules whooshing past K and on towards the control room. Everyone wanted to know what the hell was going on.
Derrick Furlong wanted to know as well; he wrote “What is the status on the elevator? What levels have been evacuated? – F.” After receiving no response, he wrote, “I want a status on the situation immediately. What is K’s wait time?” After receiving no response, he wrote, “Fuck you, what is going on?"
Minutes after he wrote this, a reply came down the tube; it said, “ATTENTION: All staff. The evacuation is proceeding smoothly. Please be patient.”
Then Furlong heard the heavy foomp and felt sick. He had never been so scared. He turned off the lights, laid on the floor, and tried to breathe deeply. He was about to die. Dr. Furlong would not have been the only terrified one in the NYPTS.
Thirty-one other pairs of ears heard the same catastrophic containment failure that Derrick's ears had heard.
It was going to be a fast process.
After the safety doors had given way, a tube imploded causing a concussion that broke the next set of safety doors. Each implosion breaking the next pipe down the line, reducing them to steel shrouds to be sucked up by the harmonic generation of electrostatic ion cyclotron square waves that were now stepping methodically forward, each lumbersome step emitting a tympanic echo that raced like a freight train through the cavernous arteries of the NYPTS, a sucking bubble spreading like an octopus through the crags of an ocean floor, and everyone inside the system could only wait to pop.
It would be a brief wait. Aluminum sealed messages clanged onto the floor and whooshed through the south wall to other offices, but Furlong did not bother to check or send any. What was the point?
Every pore on his body was measuring the pressure changes, following the heavy foomps that where getting louder and louder, his heart was pounding, he felt nauseous, and tears streamed through his clenched eyes and warmly ran down the side of his face. He couldn’t stop swallowing. He swallowed and swallowed, his stomach in convulsions while he blubbered silently on the floor.
And Furlong's body was suddenly pulled against elevator doors that just snapped away and he flew into the elevator shaft and hovered for a brief moment before being