Two very different lifestyles are juxtaposed in today's Concept Art Writing Prompt: a glittering city filled with skyscrapers sitting above an apparently less technologically advanced village. What sort of stories take place at the intersection of these two cultures?
This piece is titled "Worth enough?" and was created by Radoslav Zilinsky, who goes by radoxist on deviantART (via reddit). If you'd like to see more detailed crops of this image for inspiration, Zilinksy has quite a few in his deviantART gallery. If this stirs a story in your heart, get to typing and post your story in the comments.
Rimalda drew up to the fire as the children pulled strips of meat from the roasting boar and passed around bowls of mashed yucca. It was a warm evening, but lately she'd been feeling a chill in her bones, the dull ache she had come to dread. Still, she didn't mind watching the children as the younger folk enjoyed a few minutes of peace in their private tents. Soon autumn would force them all into the cabins, and the intimacy of pairs would be gone until spring.
She glanced up to see a ship sailing overhead, its smooth white contours gleaming in the sunset. The city people rarely left Andosha, and she briefly wondered what was going on above.
As she stared, Rimalda felt a forehead pressed against her cheek. Without looking down, she drew her hand to the child's head and ruffled her dirty hair. The girl pulled back. "Honored granny," she said.
Rimalda licked her thumb and wiped a bit of yucca from the girl's lips. "Hello little Cici."
Cici tilted her head up to watch the ship zoom into the distance. "What is that?" she asked, pointing.
"You know what that is." Rimalda leaned over and rubbed the girl's shoulders. "Come on."
Cici's lips fought against the unfamiliar word. "A ma-sheen?"
Rimalda beamed. "A machine, yes. That kind is called a ship. It's filled with people."
An awed sound escaped from Cici's throat. "I want to fly in a ship," she said.
Rimalda swatted her nose with a single finger. "You would?" she asked. "You'd have to live way up there in the white city."
Cici jutted out a lip. "Maybe I'd like to live there."
"No you wouldn't!" called out Hawk from behind her. "They never touch faces and they have big monsters that eat their waste and nobody ever walks anywhere!"
"Monsters?" asked Cici.
Rimalda shifted around to face the children. They were all lived up now, like a miniature audience, watching her as they ate their meat and mash. She laid a hand on Cici's shoulder. "Now, now, you're just scaring her. We should be honest about what's up there in the city."
"They do touch face then?" Cici asked her.
Rimalda smiled. "Well, no. They don't. The city people are afraid of germs."
"Like on spoiled meat?"
Rimalda nodded an pointed to Cici's scabby knees. "Or dirt in your cuts. There are germs everywhere, but most of them don't hurt you because you live down here. Up in the city, they don't have many germs, so it's worse when you get them."
"Tell us about the monsters!" shouted Hawk.
Rimalda gave Cici a light tap on the back, sending her skipping toward the other children. Rimalda dragged her seat toward the semi circle that had formed around the fire. "Surely you're all tired of that story." It had been 20 years since she had been invited inside the city walls.
Hawk turned to Cici, raising his hands over her in curly claws. "You bring them your bones and rotting foods and they mash it and smash it and gobble it down." Cici squealed in mock terror.
"Are they dangerous?" asked Melana.
Rimalda thought about it for a moment. "I don't think so. They're just machines. They don't have real brains like an animal does. And everything in the city is meant to be safe. When I was there, a little boy fell onto the tracks in front of the train—" she saw Cici's screwed up face, "that's like a caravan, but a machine. And the train new to stop, all by itself."
"So nobody gets hurt in the city?" Cici asked.
"People still fall down." She reached out and poked Cici in the belly. "They still scrape their knees. But I suppose it's as safe as any place can be."
Cici looked over her shoulder. The tooth-shaped tower at the city's edge cast its long shadow over the village. "I want to go up there," she said. "I don't want to ever feel hurt or sick again."
"No you wouldn't." Hawk jammed a finger into bowl and flicked yucca mash at Cici. "You wouldn't get to touch faces or run in the grass or catch field rats or dig out yucca roots. You wouldn't get to sleep with everybody in the big cabin in the winter. You wouldn't get to make your own clothes and you'd have to wear whatever they," he pointed up at the tower, "told you to wear." He paused. "Honored granny," he said slowly. "What's wrong?"
Rimalda hadn't realized she'd been laughing. She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and smiled. "It's just that the city people think that we're the unlucky ones."
After 40 years, the flour sacks weren't getting any lighter. Brian wearily pushed himself back upright and headed back into the millhouse. /Aaaand again./ Select a sack. Balance it on its end. Turn around and crouch. Grasp one corner and /puuuush/ with the legs. Lurch forward and outside to the handcart.
Brian wiped a forearm across his brow. 27 down, 3 to go. And then he'd just have to pull the cart to the bakery across the river, and start unloading. He paused as a movement caught his eye. Conor, the the baker's kid, running across the bridge. /Uuuuh. What's he want this time./ And he was looking agitated.
"Brian! Brian! Brianbrianbrianbrian..."
/Poo. This is going to be a doozy./ Last week he dropped a sack on his foot. Couple of days before that, he had a nosebleed. /A nosebleed! Why'd I have to know about his nosebleed?/ Brian loved the kid like he was one of his own - all of whom were now all grown up and had moved out years ago - but he was still young enough to be oh so very exciteable at times.
"What is it Brian? What is it? What?"
"That Brian! What is it? What is iiiiit?" Finger pointing, straight past.
Brian turned leisurely. Looked at the windmill that was his home and workplace. He returned equally slowly to face Conor once more, a wearing a bemused expression.
"That, Conor, is my mill."
"Noooo! Thaaaat! Behiiiind!"
"Conor, please slow down and speak in coherent sentences. Behind the mill is the sea."
"Gaaah! Brian, please look! In the sea!"
Brian sighed heavily. The little guy wasn't going to give up until he looked. He kicked his weary legs into gear and ambled off around the side of the mill, the boy tugging excitedly on his arm.
Suddenly Brian pulled up short. He looked up. And up. And up. He put an arm out to steady himself against the wall.
"Huh. Ain't that a thing."
"What is it Brian? Where did it come from?"
"Buggered if I know little man. Buggered if I know..."
"Taisha?" The tremor in little Mikael's voice alerted me immediately to the situation. When I turned, my small charge was standing in the doorway to the laundry, his hands cupped and held in front of him.
"You're not supposed to be in here, my darling," I said, dropping a pair of his pyjamas and raising my hands to herd him out of the servant's rooms. It was then I saw the little golden fish lying in his damp hands, glassy eyes staring up at me. "Oh dear," I said, without thinking.
Fat tears dripped down Mikael's cheeks. "Sol's sick," he hiccuped.
I crouched down beside him, the tiles rough on my bare knees. Although it would be frowned upon, I placed my hand on Mikael's shoulder, my roughened fingers catching on the silk of his shirt. "Come back to your room, let's see if we can make him better," I said, cupping my other hand below his so he could spill the tiny body into my palm. Together, we returned to the upper floors of his House, where the sunlight streamed in through the glass and the floors were carpeted with soft, lush, green fabrics in foolish imitation of a forest floor. In Mikael's room, we approached the the glass globe that had been Sol's home, beside the window, where Sol had looked out over the edge of the city because - as Mikael firmly believed - Sol liked to see the pond he had come from.
While Mikael tried not to sob, I held my hand under the water and watched as the tiny golden fish turned belly upwards.
"He's sick," Mikael repeated, a shaking little sob escaping him. I faced the boy, wondering how I could explain this to him, protect him from his father's disdain and mother's disinterest. I wondered how long it would take me to procure another little sliver of sunshine in this city of silver and glass.
My understanding of death had come long before Mikael's, outside of the city where a breeze would blow and the grass under your feet was real. So I repeated the words I had heard at his age. "He was old, my darling. And when people and animals are old, they . . ." But the words would have to be different for Mikael, wouldn't they? "Sometimes," I amended, "they die. They . . . sleep . . . for a long time."
Mikael was confused, as he ought to be. His own father was long overdue for that particular sleep. I beckoned him closer, placed my arm around his tiny shoulders, feeling the warmth of the child through the fabric that cost more than I had, when I was not much older than Mikael himself. Mikael looked up at me with round eyes. "Will he wake?"
"No," I whispered.
"Maybe . . . if I ask father?"
My silence was answer enough. I once more lifted Sol from the water and took Mikael by the hand. "Let's send him back to his people," I said, forcing cheer into my voice. Mikael followed me to the bathroom, confused and even alarmed when I placed Sol in the toilet. "You see the drains leading into the lake from your window, don't you?" I asked him. "Sol's family will be waiting for him in the lake. Like mine will wait for me one day in the villages."
"Will you go to sleep?" Mikael asked, his fingers tightening on my hand.
I regarded him for a long time before I nodded. "One day, yes. I will go to sleep for a long time. I will die. But you won't, my darling. Have no fear."
"I want to pull the lever," Mikael announced. "I want to send Sol back to his family."
I rocked back on my heels as Mikael solemnly tugged on the flush, sending his companion to an ignoble end in a recycling plant. Almost before I knew what I was doing, I sang the songs I'd heard as a child, songs of mourning, according the fish the dignity of my ancestors. When I had done, the boy who was not going to die wrapped his arms around my neck and pressed a sticky kiss against my cheek.
Raymond, who had finished his chores early that day and had time to play tag in the square with his friends, only gradually came to notice the stranger.
The stranger sat in the shade of the cliff that stood over the square, drinking beer and watching the villagers going about their work. He caught Raymond's eye for two reasons: his clothing and the fact that he was an adult who wasn't busy at something. It was clear to Ray the stranger must be a visitor from the metropolis across the river.
Raymond was tired of chasing his friend Mgeni, who was it and the fastest boy in their gang, so he decided to time himself out from tag and go over to talk to this strangely dressed man. His father had warned him against talking to strangers, but Ray felt safe, for there plenty of grownups working around the square who knew him well.
The man was dressed all in black, but it was unlike any cloth Ray had ever seen. It was completely black, there was no reflection, texture or highlights at all. It was like staring into shadows in the noon Sun, light just sank without trace into the visitor's clothing. It was like he was wearing perfectly dark shadow.
The man's face was ordinary enough, dark brown and beardless. He raised his glass to Ray as the boy approached him.
"Excuse me, where do you get a suit like that?" asked Ray. It seemed like the perfect way to start a conversation.
"Well, I suppose I could have had it made for me in Nairobi," the man pointed to the drains of the city across the river, "But no, I came from down from orbit wearing it."
"Orbit? You're not from Nairobe?"
"No, I came here by the Maazin Elevator. I am a census taker."
Ray knew of the Maazin space elevator, but had never seen it up close, to him it was only the thinnest white stripe in the sky to the north. His father, Jean, told him once that that were now many space elevators near many equatorial cities on the Earth. Maazin was one of the oldest, built during Kenya's boom years in the teens.
"What's a census taker?"
"Someone who counts people and figures out how and where they live."
"Sounds very dull."
The man chuckled, "It's not. You can learn many things just by counting people."
The man thought a moment, "Well, and this has only just started, that everyone is leaving the Earth."
"My father says people should never leave the Earth. It's our home." Ray thought of how his father and grandmother came to Kenya from France many years ago to join the Purist Commune.
"That's not surprising as I look around this little town of yours. It's not a shanty. It's a political statement. But it's a very ambivalent one considering that Olduvai Gorge is just 250 kilometers southwest from here."
Ray decided to shelve the meaning of the clearly grownup word, "ambivalent," and instead asked, "What? What does Olduvai have to do with my town?"
"Nothing directly. It's just that Olduvai is where people got their start millions of years ago." The man gestured with his beer glass to Nairobi's walls and spires, then swept around to all the huts and houses in the commune square,
"Every human made thing you see around us is due to the fact that many of us, in those ancient times, were restless tinkerers and explorers. We left the gorge millions of years ago to make all this. Many of us are tinkerers and explorers still, not content to just stay in a place others call home."
Ray didn't really know what to think about that so, he changed the subject, "My name is Raymond, what's yours?"
"Akili Micheka. Pleased to met you, Raymond."
"You don't seem very busy for a guy who counts people, Mr. Micheka."
Akili laughed loudly at that. "Appearances can be deceiving. Especially to a boy forbidden from network connections."
Mgeni began to shout at Raymond to rejoin the game of tag, "Sorry, I have to go. But tell me one more thing. What's it like in space?"
"You see how Nairobi looks so different from your commune? Think of all the wealth and work it took to build all that metal, glass and concrete. Now try to think of something that makes Nairobi look as small and old fashioned as your village. That's what it's like. That's why everyone is leaving. Oh, and there is no gravity and no air. Everything floats around without making a sound."
Akili took another pull on his beer, "It's been nice talking with you, Raymond. Enjoy your game."
It was time for services, time for services! time for services!, the announcement ran throughout the city, as if anyone needed to be told. Stores were shut, children were home from school and parents from work, and everyone was eagerly taking extra long baths and extra short meals and dressing in their best clothes, because it was time for services, everyone's favorite day.
Everyone except Frennel Torip, who sat on her bed staring at the bright yellow tunic she wore once a year. She hated services, hated holding strangers' clammy hands, hated listening to the same story, hated having to go at all. Luckily it was only once a year. The city had shed almost all their barbaric nature of their forbears, Frennell thought, but religion, somehow, held stubbornly on.
"What are you doing?" Her mother's unmistakable telepathic nudge jarred Frennell out of her reverie. The nudge wasn't words as you or I understand them, but the direction and movement the thoughts produced on Frennell's consciousness had the identical effect.
She treasured her mother's mind-presence. It was comfort and love, yet more than both together. When the children at school tormented her for her quiet nature, calling her a talker, sometimes even a mashie, Frennell's mother knew just where to nestle in the girl's mind, crowding out the children's taunts, while gently encouraging her to be more generous with her thoughts. "A pretty mind-presence only goes so far," she'd tell Frennell. And sensing her mother's worry, she'd try at school, really try. When her father would come in from work during those first few difficult years, he would reach out to stroke Frennell's mind with his own hapless concern, which she appreciated despite its rough edges. But her mother had the touch, and with her Frennell felt safe and right.
But now her mother stood in the doorway of Frennell's room with an exasperated glare. "Put on your service clothes right now! This family isn't going to be late again this year."
Dressing in the second-floor bedroom, Frennell's father overheard his wife's reproach and snuck Frennell a telepathic grin and said, "Don't worry, kid, when it's over we'll play a game of ringball. I might even let you win again."
The joke was delicious – she was turning into an accomplished ringball player, and regularly beating her old man at the game.
"Let me?!" she screeched with a laugh that almost turned into a talking laugh, and instantly her levity was replaced by deadly fear. But she knew better than most how to hide even unexpected strong emotions from others. That intensity of dread would certainly have gotten both her parents' attention. Mash take me, she thought, that was a close one. What's wrong with me? Maybe they're right.
"I swear you two, if you don't stop fooling around and put your clothes on, I'm going to services by myself!"
An empty threat, of course. Services weren't optional. As she buttoned her tunic, Frennell pondered how important the ritual was to her mother. To her surprise, she felt a disappointment in her for that, like discovering a crack in a vast, clear windowpane. But like her moment of dread before, Frennell kept this unsettling feeling to herself.
The family was finally ready to go, and they went together into the street to walk to the Gather.
The day of services was a day of community and togetherness. Everyone was required to meet at the Gather, and by a slow accretion of custom, this meant that neighbor walked with neighbor, eschewing vehicles and other conveniences. It was the one day a year that the city completely stopped.
The Gather was an oddly naked expanse in the middle of the otherwise bustling city. Sometimes it was used for sporting events, sometimes for holidays. But its main use, the one everyone associated with it, was for the yearly services.
At one end of the Gather a tall platform had been erected for the Convener stood. He was too far away to see clearly, but the Gather was designed to be small enough allow unimpeded telepathy among everyone who could fit inside it. Which meant of course that the city was not permitted to grow larger than the amount of people who could fit into the Gather.
Frennell recognized this year's Convener on the platform – Garrum Pols had won the drawing. As doctor to practically half the city's families, including her own, Garrum had cultivated a kindly mind-presence coupled with an openness of thought that made his patients half-believe they'd gone to medical school and could heal themselves if they had to.
But Garrum was not an outgoing man, so he must have sensed the bemused thoughts of his patients as they imagined him leading services on the Convener's stand. Luckily, as the news reports explained especially pointedly this year, every Convener prepared for services by going through several weeks of special training with previous Conveners.
Although Garrum was too far away for Frennell to make out his features, she felt his familiar mind-presence reaching out to everyone assembled with uncharacteristic enthusiasm and cheerfulness. Conveners had to be energetic, so that was probably a particularly difficult part of his training, Frennell thought to herself with a smile.
"Welcome, welcome all to services," Garrum kept announcing with a deep telepathic bellow as families continued to filter into the vast space, once empty, now bubbling with activity.
By the time the sun was perfectly overhead, every last soul in the city was standing in the Gather. Knowing what would come next, they quieted on their own as Garrum began the annual services.
"We gather today to give thanks for the blessings that have come to pass, to remember that which came before, and to renew our spirit through the taking of the Vow." Garrum's words felt heavy in everyone's mind, but their solemnity somehow elevated the audience as well.
"We give thanks for peace and plenty," responded the entire population of the city, and waves of unguarded emotion washed over the crowd, feeling of relief and contentment and security and gratitude.
Garrum waited for the moment to pass and continued. "And it was in the Time of Speech that peace and plenty deserted the people. Their mouths were filled with lies and their minds filled with fear. They built things of great beauty, but by the most terrible means. They dwelled together, but lived alone.
"So in their solitude they created the Mash, life without soul, whom they sought to enslave. But in the Time of Speech, this life, even life without soul, was man's most beautiful creation, and therefore the most terrible, and man's slaves soon came to be his masters."
The crowd's minds shuddered with the thought of the terrible Mash. No one knew exactly what they were or what they looked like, but they were the most terrible thing anyone could think of.
"Let us now remember the terrible beauty of our fathers, the seed and fruit of his enslavement, and look on it without fear or desire."
This was the part Frennell hated. Everyone in the crowd joined hands. Two lines of people snaked up to either side of the Convener's platform so he too could join the circle. Everyone – every single person in the city – was connected.
After having her right hand crushed for twenty minutes by old Mrs. Amerit last time, this year Frennell made sure to stand in between her parents, and gladly took their hands. Her father glanced down at her and winked. Ringball at the picnic!
Slowly at first, then in an inexorable rush, the images of strange, tall, gleaming structures took shape just beyond the city. Where sheep grazed on grassy knobs, where trees bunched and the river ran, there stood now the image of man's lost beauty, projected by the assembled minds, dwarfing the city's huts and dirt roads with hard glass and proud metal trying to reach the sky, forgetting the sand and rocks from which they came, and to which they would one day return.
Nobody knew where the image came from. By now it was in the collective memory, the teachers said, though they thought it was carried by the first civilized settlers who'd destroyed the Mash and brought about the Time of Mind.
Frennell's mother was looking at the image with tears in her eyes, moved by the tragic folly of it all. Frennell turned away. She didn't want to see her mother like this.
Instead, she looked at the city with awe, the towering spires, the metal flashing in the sun. What must it have been like to live in such a place, she wondered. Where you could share only what you meant to share by speech, without the constant intrusions of other people's minds, and without accidentally letting a stray thought go public.
Frennell noticed metallic things flying over the city. Were those the Mash? Or were they devices that let people actually fly?
Garrum was at the part of the story that described the old city's gaping pipes of waste that fouled the land and water, but Frennell wasn't paying attention. Her mind was in a jumble about life in the old city, wondering if it had been as bad as the story said.
Besides, she thought, isn't everything beautiful created from some sort of sacrifice? Her own city, with all its peace and prosperity, was so frightened of anyone being alone with their thoughts, for fear that they'd create something as awful as the Mash, that telepathy was the only legal method of communication – not speech, not even writing.
And before she could help herself, she thought of herself flying and laughed out loud. A bright, joyful, fulsome laugh. With her *voice*.
The entire crowd turned around at the sound of this blasphemy. It was bad enough to use speech any other day. To do so at services… well, no one had ever done that before.
The city soon knew who had done this, and the telepathic ripples ran through the crowd. Frennell's mother looked at her in terror. Her father just looked confused. Garrum himself looked like he didn't know what to do. Evidently his training didn't prepare him for this.
Frennell felt the thoughts of some of her classmates bump into her consciousness. "Talker!" "Mashie!" Outrageously, someone even called her a jineer, but she couldn't tell who.
"Let us now, uh… the Vow," Garrum faltered.
"She wants to fly!" yelled someone, who'd sensed Frennell's unguarded thought.
"She lusts for the Mash!" said someone else.
"On the holiest day!"
The screaming came from everywhere. The service had dissolved into chaos. The image of the gleaming old city suddenly vanished.
Frennell's mother started yelling back, "She's just a child! You should be ashamed of yourselves! We'll punish her when we get home, believe me!" There was a panic in her mind-presence that Frennell had never sensed before.
Frennell realized that there would be no game of ringball with her father after services. She glanced at him and wished she hadn't: he was staring at the ground, ashamed and broken.
"Jineer! She's a jineer!"
The crowd broke hands, and parted, leaving a circle around Frennell and her parents.
It was all so overwhelming, Frennell closed her eyes and when she did, she closed her mind as well. She didn't know how. For the first time in her life, she could sense no other minds at all besides hers.
She spent what seemed like hours in the quiet blackness, and when she opened her eyes again, she was shocked to realize that she was floating high above the ground, and everyone was looking at her. She was flying.
She slowly let in everyone's thoughts. There was horror , hatred.
"She's a jineer and child of jineers!"
Technery was a capital crime in the city, but the last jineer had been returned to the land centuries ago.
Neverthless, someone in the crowd – probably all of them – must have demanded a trial. She saw a group of uniformed enforcers rush around her parents, who were looking up at her in disbelief. They didn't even see the enforcers. Her father was pale. A tear ran down her mother's face. Their presences were a roiling mixture of fear, shame, bewilderment, and sadness.
Justice was swift in the city, and Frennell knew she didn't have much time. But she couldn't descend. She was horrified to realize that she wanted to stay in the air for as long as she could. Maybe forever. And this was more important than anything, even her parents. She wished they could understand, but they just stood there.
"Fly with me," she called to them with her mind, but she could tell that they didn't hear.
"Come down, child," Garrum boomed across the Gather, "and we'll talk about this."
There was a flash, and where her parents had been standing a moment ago were two dark and smoldering patches. The trial was over and the people of the city had, with their minds, returned them to the land. Frennell, still in her bright yellow tunic, stared at the patches. For a moment she was numb, and she thought she might not ever feel anything again. And she started to laugh, and laugh, and laugh.
"Frennell Torip, come down!" Garrum bellowed.
But she just kept laughing, exulting, despairing, and beautiful.
I started, then realized I could go on forever, so I had to stop at a point.
"Look my friend, there really is no other option for you." The city official told me, "You have been indicted on charges of anarchy and sowing dissent, the only way for you now is out."
But I didn't want out, I wanted to stay inside the city, I don't want to be out there with the real anarchists and rebels.
"But all I ever did was write a paper on free will, I never did anything destructive towards the city!"
The city official smiled, not unkindly.
"To a scholar like you, it might seem like nothing." He took a look at my file, "After all, you are a psychology student. But the paper you wrote shows some serious problems about your ideas... of course we will never allow it to be published, but there remains the question of whether or not you might be a member of an anarchist cell..."
"I'm not!" I exclaim. But the officer silenced me with a wave of his hand.
"We cannot risk it, even if you aren't one of them you might become one given time. So it's off across the river for you." He closed my file and leaned back on his chair, as if the matter was over.
Two guards escorted me from the government building and out into the hustle of the megacity, the place where the people live and breath the recycled and uncontaminated air generated by one of the many oxygen plants throughout the city. There are people walking along the streets, walking dogs, talking on their mobile phones, eating, talking, laughing, the city has an all around peaceful atmosphere and it is the same anywhere else. There are no ghettos in the city, no prisons, no places where any individual might feel unequal or unhappy. In short, Utopia.
The price, of course, is the abandonment of free will. Up to ninety eight percent of the city composes of citizens who have been conditioned to think the way the City wants them to think, and giving them only one illusion of free will, the choice between brands of products.
I am, thankfully, not one of the ninety eight percent. Or at least I do not think I am. I am a scholar, one of the two percent who are born without any conditioning; allowed to think what we want to think and study whatever we want to study provided we stay loyal to the city. We are the future Professors, Scientists, Officials, and CEOs. Of course some of us would think differently from time to time...which usually ends with banishment.
I was escorted through the city in an electric automobile, the car stopped at a small building next to the wall that led to the outside world. The guards took me into the building where they erased the identification chip embedded into the back of my neck, before placing me in an airlock...
The first thing I noticed was the air...it had a musty, wet smell; a very earthy smell which I could not throughly describe. Then as I walked out, a mass of green, brown and soft blues met my eyes, a rather lush plain with small hills, rocks, and sparse trees. A small idyllic village sat beside the river, thatched houses and windmills here and there, and a large patch of farm next to it. Purple flags were planted on top of houses and stuck into the ground near them, but from this distance I couldn't see what symbol they bore.
I realized I was staring at everything in awe. Having never really experienced the outside world other than the botanical gardens in the city, I never knew what true nature felt like. To me now, it suddenly felt like home.
A long stair case led down to the river where a small boat waited for me. A man wearing a rough cloth garment greeted me.
"Hey friend, come over and get in this boat."
I hesitated a little, anarchists tend to be a little fanatical from what I heard. But this man seemed friendly enough. I walked over and he helped me into his little row boat.
The man was about thirty, tall and bald, and had a dash of purple dye streaked across his left eye.
"We were told that someone would come by today, so I came over to pick you up." He told me as we pushed off the river bank, carefully avoiding the water falls from the large pipes pumping purified waste out of the city into the river.
"My name is Kyrn," He said, "What's yours?"
I told him my name, all the while marveling at my surroundings.
A few other row boats were out on the river, the people in them throwing nets into the river and hauling them back up, bringing with them the fish stuck in the nets.
The journey lasted for only a few minutes, and as we came to the shore the man jumped out of the boat and tied it to a post. A few children playing in the water looked up from their games to look at me, a few washerwomen smiled, and a few men working on boats waved.
"Come with me," Kyrn gestured me to follow him. Together we climbed up a small dirt path, past a circle of people around a fire and into a large thatched building. An old woman was sitting on the ground inside with a scroll of paper which she was reading, Kyrn knocked lightly on the door and the woman looked up, putting the scroll aside.
Kip remembered when it had first appeared, terrifying everyone. One moment there was nothing across the river, and then, there it was. Now it was just a fact of life that people had come to an uneasy peace with. It was studiously ignored, and it in turn ignored them.
Kip had never ignored it, couldn't ignore it. He watched it from across the river, drew pictures of it and dreamed of the kind of life people must lead there. Certainly better than his rotten existence.
His father of course had wanted him to stop daydreaming and dawdling and get on with his chores. That didn't matter anymore. His father was gone, taken by illness. There was nothing to keep him from reaching his dream. He was tired of the dirt and the misery. He was tired of the gossip and the stares.
He launched his little raft into the river and paddled. Halfway across he turned back and looked at the smoggy spires and cold steel of his old home. Then he faced forward and paddled harder towards his new life in the village.
The City Slumbers
The city speaks to me, each night, as the rich smell of wood smoke and the eternal thunder of cascading water embrace me, guiding me to my dreams. It takes a conscious will of effort to notice it standing forever above our heads – the Forbidden City, stretching silver fingers high, as though man in his hubris had tried to reach out and grasp the heavens. The city calls to me as I wake, long shadows flung like teeth across our village in the light of dawn, it calls to me each night as we light our fires, golden-tongued flames thrown-up as shields to guard against its presence.
The others look away, their eyes never straying above the rock-wall, never curious about the treasures held long-forgotten. They look away, whether subconsciously or by some Herculean effort, curious only about the harvest, or how full the water tower is, or whether the windmill keeps turning. They cast their lines into still waters, never following the quicksilver flicker of the line, never watching the joyous, freefalling flight of hawks as they plunder our fishery. I want answers. I want to know. I ask myself daily questions, single words held silently from my tongue as Jonah mentions the birthing of new lambs, as Ezra talks of building new bridges of stone. "Who were they?" I want to ask. "What happened?"
"Why do we live here in the shadows?"
They found me out. Father Levi heard my muted questions escaping in the cool of night, my mind betrayed me to these uncurious, uninterested cowards. My love brought me flowers and honey cakes, when what I need is a blade. I'll fashion one from the spoon they have given me.
The city is calling. Soon I will go to her, wearing their blood as a talisman.
My city is calling me.
"Fate and Fortune, when did they build that?"
Blythe followed the direction of Martel's outraged finger to it's
destination. She suppressed a sigh, placed a calming hand on Martel's
arm, and drew him away from the balcony.
"The Society built that six months ago. It's approved. And it has a
name. Fal Derol, I believe..."
"Does the Society have any idea what's coming out of those sewer
pipes?" Martel hissed.
"Water and nutrients, dear" said Blythe. "Far more potable than what
we take in. The trout they pull out of that pond are monstrous."
"The air is just barely breathable and the rain will almost not bleach
your skin white...wait. What? Monsterous? How do *you* know?"
Blythe held up her wrist. A small rod and reel appeared and began to
slowly spin above it. Below were the words "FAL DEROL ANGLER'S CLUB:
FISHING LICENSE". "I don't even want to tell you what this cost me"
she said, guiltily.
Martel's mouth opened and closed several times. Blythe thought he
looked very much like a landed trout, but decided to to share that
Finally, he said: "Are they delicious?"
Blythe tiptoed up to his hear and answered "Oh yes." Martel wandered
back to the balcony and looked down again.
"I can get a one fish visitor's license, and I have an extra rod."
Martel closed his eyes hard. Through gritted teeth he said: "I
suppose I'll have to go 'in character'?"
"Darling, that's what the Society does. And you'll look adorable as
Martel took another long look at Fal Derol. He could almost smell the
"I'm hungry," he finally said. "Let's go."
"You can't go in there," Aron whispered. His head was lowered, looking at the culvert suspiciously out of the corner of his eye. Mac huffed and kicked an empty box.
"I have to."
"Cause." Mac turned to Aron. "I just do."
Aron shrugged and turned his back to the trickling water falling from the lip of the metal pipe. "Whatever. I don't see why you have to go in there to get whatever it is. I mean, it ain't great but we got just about everything you need out here."
"Pride. That's what I'm going in to get. I lost it when I got spit out of that pipe half dead and ruined. 'Sides, there's some things you just can't get down here no matter what Maundy Stu says."
Mac straightened up and fixed the elastic band holding her hair back. Aron had heard steel in her voice and was surprised to see a wet track through the dirt on her cheek. They were quiet for a while. Mac stared at the pipe and Aron picked through the piles of trash and debris all around her. When the noise from his childish picking finally irked her enough, Mac made up her mind.
Aron froze in his tracks. "You sure?"
"What you want. It's not in the pipe is it?"
"No. On the other end."
"And you're ok dyin' for it?"
"Then you go get your damn pride and when you die gettin' it you'll be just like my dad and everone else who ever went chasin' anything down that pipe."
"Then that's what it'll have to be."
They stood silently for a moment more, Aron choking back his pleas and Mac desperately ignoring them and the truth she felt digging at her resolve. When the moment finally broke, building as it had in the waiting, Mac stepped forward towards the pipe. From behind her Aron begged, almost to himself:
Mac hesitated. "S'ok." She never turned to him. "I'll see you soon."
Aron sobbed, unable to hold it anymore. Sniffling, he choked out "Until then."
"Until then," she said. Then Mac smiled, through her own tears, and stepped forward towards the pipe.
"Do they even know we're here?" the girl asked.
Father Timothy chuckled. "Most do, I think, though they don't understand why we live out here instead of up in the city."
"Have you ever been there?"
Timothy craned his neck to look up at the gleaming metropolis that dwarfed their tiny village. "I was born there. Maybe one day we'll ride up into the hills, and I'll point out what building I lived in."
"Daddy says everyone in the city is smug and stupid and a bad word," she added.
"Not everyone," he explained, "just some."
"I made a mistake..." The old man coughed up what little remained of his life and struggled to reach out to the youngster who had devoted her life in tending his sickness and she simply placed his hand in hers and looked at him with sympathy.
"In what way have you made a mistake Pater." Katare kissed his hand and focused her attention on him. What mistake could you possibly make who led us to this place before the City of the Gods?
"Do you know my full name child?" Katare looked at the old man who had been Clan Patriarch all her life. She only knew his name was Pater.
"Pater." He smiled at the name and Katare smiled at his response. After a moment of rest he shook his head.
"That is merely part of my status with the Clan. Dwei-Pater is the full word but that is not my name." Dwei-Pater. Katare contemplated the full name of the old man before her. It had to have been his name. it was the only thing he had ever been known as.
"I don't understand Pater." Katare shook her head and reveled in the sensation of blissful ignorance. he put a hand up and brushed his rough hand across her forehead.
"Put your hand over your forehead and look toward the City of the Gods." Katare seemed confused by the idea but she turned to look with her hand across her forehead.
There was no City. The discovery was distressing.
"I don't understand." Katare turned back to the old man to find he had passed, his crooked lips parted oddly and his were closed as if he had felt pain.
Katare climbed to her feet and turned to look at the far side of the river and walked toward the bank of the river that had separated her Village from the City. The city had been there. She had seen it all her life, even the others of the Clan had seen it. And now? Nothing.
"I don't understand. What does it mean?" The hands of her mother enveloped her.
"What does what mean Katare?" Katare pointed across the river at where the city had been.
"The City has gone." How could her mother not see the obvious? The City of the Gods had been there all her life.
"What's a City?" What's a City? How could her own mother not know what a City is?
How could her mother not see or remember the City?
"A City is like a hundred villages and each is a very big village with hundred Clans living there." It was the only description Katare could grasp herself. Liya shook her head at the alien concept though the feeling of being surrounded and suffocated came to her. Bad. The word described everything she felt as her daughter spoke. The Slap came from nowhere but it was filled with fear and hate and rage and loss. Liya had lost her daughter to that which was Bad.
Liya dragged her daughter toward the River and pushed her into the water, the child flailing against her mother's strength.
"You are not my daughter." The words seemed to scream across the Village drawing everyone's attention. Liya pushed the thing that was not her duaghter down into the water and held her under until she stopped struggling. Liya let go of the body. allowed it to simply drift down river.
Katare wanted to let go. she desperately wanted to let go, but now here body revolted against her choice and she coughed and breathed - struggling for air. She spewed river water from her lungs and tried to climb up the mud of the bank. She collapsed in the reeds and closed her eyes and did not open them until it was night and frogs made their evening calls.
Katare didn't understand anything that had happened. What had she done that was so wrong? The City had gone and her mother had hit her and tried to drown her in the river. The River. Which side of the River was she on? She watched the flow of the water. She was now on the opposite side of the River. She didn't know how to swim. She couldn't go home but she knew how to make one. She needed shelter and a fire and food.
Food. Frogs would do for now but first. Her hands dug into the clay of the river bank and collected clumps of it. and she threw it on the dry grass until she had made a huge clay bowl. Katare raised the edges of it and added more until it was enclosed with a clay smoke stack with a reasonable hole in top. Straw and wood all went in the hole as fuel. Frogs. A quick blow and they were dead so she skewered them on twigs and placed them over the smoker. And the fire. Stones were a little harder to find down here but she had beads made from them sewn to her clothes.
The Frogs cooked - or rather burned but she didn't really care now. She was the only one who remembered the City of the Gods. That had to have meaning.
We sought the chaos of nature beyond the Wall of Teeth…
The immense skyline of the city was clean, ordered, and the pinnacle of technological, economical, biological, and political advancement.
They in the city lived life by a code governed by written rules, and they did not move outside of the boundaries, because the solutions were meant to be undesirable.
Every bit of life in the city was controlled, calculated, corrected, data cataloged, and managed. Breaking a rule there did not happen, not just because people did not wish to, but because the penalties are death or exile. In reality, breaking a rule had a single, one time consequence, which had not been reversed since the city's founding.
Most of us, who broke a rule, chose exile and we could not be happier.
Our minds never evolved to accept such rigidly defined order as was common to life in the city, so those of us who reject it, lived beyond the wall of teeth in the village of the unbound.
We did not return, because we knew they would execute us if we returned.
We lived close by the city, because much of their waste was still useful to us.
They did not interfere with us, because they could not intimidate us, nor force us to follow their rules, nor force us to acquiesce to their unnatural and arbitrarily defined codes of conduct. Their rules had no rules for those of us beyond the wall of teeth, but many rules for staying within the wall of teeth.
Those of us, who were now in the village of the unbound, had chosen an ideal option, one that was beyond their ability to cope.
We chose to live without their control, without their leadership, without their technology, without their economy; and for us, it worked…
We lived a simpler life, with families, a bit of chaos, and a great deal of irreverence.
We sang, we laughed, we smiled, and there were no cognates against any of it…
We had our rough times, and we suffered for our freedom, but our bodies evolved to endure these things.
There came a time when some of us were preparing to wander farther inland. There was land we can inhabit without interacting with those from the wall of teeth.
The mutated animals from the time of sundering, and the less human crawlers await us in the beyond. But, we still felt a need to move on.
We were ready, and it was time to finally reject the urban ways for a new life, a life that was advanced in the ways of communing with the chaos of nature.