Another City

I've just found this short sci-fi piece on my portable hard drive that I wrote a few years back. I kind of like it, even though it's a bit long and pretty dark. Then again, it is something to post. So here you go.

“Another City"

We built the machines to sustain our quality of living, and in this respect they apparently have exceeded our expectations. The city has never shut down. At night it glitters with simmering lights that sway to and fro across the curved surfaces of our skyscrapers.

Sometimes, at night, others come out of their huts, or cabins, or whatever they like to call the places they live, and they go out to the fields where they can stand and look at the city. Just off the horizon it glows like an artificial sky, one which long ago swallowed our own stars with it’s polluting light.

I’ve heard that our community was the closest one to the city. This was a notion I learned of in both the forms of complaints and bragging. The ones that complain usually just move away to one of the communities further inland. It’s a load of bull anyway. You could walk for two miles towards the lights without getting so much as a rash on your body.

Every once and a while someone gets stupid and tries to test it. They think that since they were able to stand near an old toaster that they were able to form immunity to it. Sometimes I’m able to save them, pull their bodies out from the city’s radius. Sometimes I’m not.

My job requires me to wear a lead fitted suit. It’s heavy and makes me sweat fountains, but it’s better than the heavy stuff I have to wear for reconnaissance missions. That one has an oxygen line. It was actually a suit once used for deep-sea missions, but we discovered it works pretty well in shielding us.

Tonight I’m wearing the heavy stuff.

Apparently a guy has been screaming about how his wife went missing. The story is she ran after a kid who started booking it towards the city limits.

Neither one of them had been seen since.

You might imagine a story like this is pretty rare, but disappearances are a common occurrence, especially when kids are involved.

Even when I was little, we used to play games like chicken out in no-man’s land. Whoever could stand closest to the city the longest would win. And yes, obviously kids got hurt. Sometimes they’d pass-out, or form rashes, or god forbid have their throats close up. We’d get the engineer and then he’d suit up and make his way out to fetch the kid.

We throw stones to mark where the bodies fall.

Each year we paint the stones a different color. I believe we started with red, and then we went through the entire color wheel until we came back again.

The stones have never gotten any closer.

So now, if you look closely, we have this sparse multi-colored rock garden around the city.

The kid that ran through it apparently didn’t stop. He just kept going until he was no longer visible. The woman too.

If you ran fast enough I have always assumed you could get pretty far. It would be suicide, but you could get far.

The metallic suit is far heavier than you can imagine. It’s meant to be used underwater, so the designers apparently didn’t care about the practicality of everyday use. During the day it literally cooks me alive, so I thank God that even though this happened, at least it happened at night.

My heavy boots sink into the dirt as I walk. Patches of wheat tangle themselves in the metallic joints.

We used to have external lights to the suit that I could operate from the inside, but changing the batteries was a dangerous process. It scared the community, and frankly, being so close to them scared me. The city itself is enough anyway to illuminate the plain of grassy land separating us from it.

They say they used to carry telephones in their pockets, and then hold them up to their heads as they talked. The thought of it makes my body itch and by breath begin to quicken. It would be an quick death, but not an instant one. I’m amazed at the way our lives used to be constructed. Just like the city, once teeming with life, it is now empty.

Before I know it I’ve already hit the ring of colored rocks, or “deadline.” I stop walking for a moment, mostly because I’m tired, but also to check for any signs of movement. Any further than this and they would have to be crawling.

There’s no one in sight.

I keep going.

Community members are always saying that they see people in the city, or that someone is watching them from the towers. I have to explain to them that it’s just parts of the city that have remained operational, or the machines moving to repair something. It’s spectacular how untarnished the city has remained. There’s not a speck of biology on it’s surface. Not a single weed or cracked window. It’s self-sustaining. I say it everyday, the city will outlive all of us.

Three miles out and I run into the fence. It was our last half-assed effort of protecting the community. It has barbed wire and circles the perimeter of the city itself.

But it’s useless if it gets a hole, or some animal digs a tunnel underneath it.
The hole I’m looking at now is what you would imagine the fence to look like had it been picked up by a pair of hands and been torn in half like a piece of paper. The wind comes sweeping down the valley and without anyone to keep a constant eye on it, the fence can easily dismantle itself. Repairing it will be a pain.

I step over it’s metal remains and my boots sink back into the waist deep grass. After a few yards I can feel the hard cement buried not so far below the dirt, and the familiar buzzing sensation begins to make it’s way into my stomach.

The light is intense and unnatural. It twitches with an incandescent white glow that blinds my eyes, still shielded behind lead and the thick glass globe. It’s nothing like the sun, nothing at all like what we’re used to seeing so close.

A couple more yards and the grass is completely gone. All that’s left is cold metal plating, shimmering with a buffed smooth surface. Looking down, I see a distorted version of myself looking back at me from behind a metal monster, and I momentarily hope I won’t scare the kid. If he’s still alive.

We’re told not to go this far. We’ve tested the suit, but the testing has only been theoretical. And the science is as sophisticated as a game of chicken.

I stand still and try to listen for any unusual sounds; the unfortunate realization is that all the sounds are unusual. There’s an intense buzzing from high above, and a hollow clanging sound from deep inside the city, as though a man was banging from the inside of a tin can.

I can’t shake the feeling.

Everything is sparkling clean. The streets are vacant, yet well maintained. From above me the buildings reflect a thousand stars generated by electric veins. Their glow is reflected in streaks across the glass holes in my helmet.

My suit is heavier, and I just now notice my panting breaths.

I’ve gone too far. No one could make it this far. No man or child would dare it. Even if they did, they’d be long dead by now.

I want to move, but my boots are heavy, and I have this feeling deep down inside of me that something is about to happen, as though the whole city will start to collapse upon me at any second.

But the buildings are tall, and refuse to even sway.

I look down and I notice something strange.

There are stains on the floor. I kneel down to touch it and rub it against my lead gloves. They don’t belong to dirt or grime, or any mechanized machine. It’s blood, I realize.

It’s a trail.

My tether and oxygen line won’t go any further than this, so I cut them loose. I have to move fast now.

There are doors ahead of me that enter into one of the structures. They appear as those they should slide open, but someone before me had taken the liberty to smash their way straight through them.

I move cautiously. The inside of the structure is bright, fluorescent. I would relate it to an image of heaven. There is a faint sound of resounding music, somehow emanating from the walls. It is as though there is a man playing the piano within the very room. But the room is empty. All I see is an endless fountain in front of another door.

This door is metal and it has no handles or levers to open it.

I press my gloves against it and knock, but there is no reply. All I hear is a dull empty thud.

Feeling my way around the shell, I find two holes with two glass triangles in each.
The one pointing towards the sky has a smudge in the shape of a bloody finger on it.
I press it, and somehow the metal doors open.

I step into the cage and am met by another puzzle. This one too has an answer in the form of a bloody finger smudge on the highest button.

I press it, and I am launched upwards.

The city is taken away from me. It sinks far below me into a haze of light. My breath escapes me. I can see forever out into the darkness. Miles away, minuscule lights shine from the campfires and candlelit houses which are now reduced to stars just below the skyline.

The journey ends, and the doors open once again to the roof.

Suddenly, I’m surrounded in brightness. There is light all around me as everything becomes illuminated. I’m not sure if it’s just the electricity beginning to ebb it’s way through the suit, if I’ve just gotten tired, or if it’s both.

I’m going insane. Or I’m dying. It’s one of the two, because what I’m seeing is impossible.

There are people all around me. But in some distant way they’re not real. They shine light.

They must be angels, because they make a sound together. It’s a loud humming, on a pitch distinctly inhuman.

In the middle of them lies one of the people I have been searching for. The woman’s blue dress, now tainted by the blood from her open sores and blisters, flutters in the wind.

“She is gone.” They tell me. “She has left us her gift, but here is nothing inside of it.”

I bend down to touch her hand, but the thick plating of my gloves leaves nothing for me to be noted or discovered. I simply have to take the beings word for what it is.

“She has departed from us like the others.” I hear a single voice say, and I discover that this voice comes from a being much smaller than the others. It is the being a size and shape of a child. “Where has she gone?”

From within my suit I hear the rattle of my own voice say, “She’s dead.”

“What is this dead?”

“She isn’t alive.” I say.

“We want this gift.” The others chime. “This gift of not being alive.”

“I can’t stay here for long.” I say. “I have to go.”

“Why is that?”

“The city. It’s poisonous to us. The electricity.”

“Can you stay here and teach us?”

My breath hangs limply in my lungs and I want to leave, but the suit is heavy and my legs won’t lift me from the woman’s body. “I can’t. I have to go.”

“But we have been here for so long.” They tell me. “We have been waiting for this gift of the dead. We must have it. We must know what it means to no longer be alive.”

“I can’t.” I say. “I can’t teach you that.”

The boy approaches me and lays his hand against my domed helmet, and I can now clearly see that it is not the hand of a human but a hand built as a part of the city. A metal hand. And as the metal hand presses against the glass I can hear it crack and shatter.

“We have been alive so long. You have taught us to be alive for so long. You have built us to be this way.” He tells me. “Certainly you can teach us to be free.”

And I tell him, “You were never meant to be free.”

My helmet shatters and I breath in the electric light. I feel it boil in my veins.

“Aren’t you glad for what you have?” I ask. “The city will outlive us all.”

I hear no reply. I simply see them above me as I finally collapse. I watch them look down and look to the child and ask “Where is he going?”

The child is silent and then says, “Maybe to another city.”

No comments: