The City



Hey Sammy:

You know the old cliché, “If you’re getting this message, it means I’m dead,”? Well, little bro’, this time, it’s true.

Now, before you waste a tear mourning me, I’m begging you to consider something far more important than having one less brother and cop on the Elite Security Squad. I swear to you, I’m not nuts and everything in this message is absolutely true. I know that, as a Second Ministry City official, you’ll feel obligated to report me. But before you do, I hope you’ll listen to your big brother one last time. What you do with this report, I’ll leave to your good conscience, but people deserve to know.  So here goes.

Last week, after almost five years on the ESS, I wasn’t surprised to be mustered out in the middle of the night. I figured Squad One had turned up another drug lab or something. But what did shock the shit out of me was who gave me my assignment. It was none other than City Security Senior Commander Rightwood, the third most powerful man in City Administration. I mean, Captain Frig’n RIGHTWOOD himself!!

Anyway, he swore me to absolute secrecy. I wasn’t even supposed to contact you. He promised to inform you of my mission himself. (My guess is he hasn’t.) Then, he told me that, not only was I going undercover, but I was going to Break Outside. I couldn’t believe it. I figured it was some kind of loyalty test, so I immediately refused. Everybody knows that nobody who has ever been crazy enough to try to Break could possibly live out here! All our lives, we’ve been taught that The War destroyed everything outside The City’s protection and now, virtually everything in the rest of the countryside is either dead or deadly. Remember how the Learners drilled into us how, if our Administration hadn’t protected us, if they hadn’t sealed us all in, and if our corporate scientists hadn’t developed the miraculous systems that keep us alive, humankind would have perished more than a century ago? It’s what we’ve ALWAYS known, right?

Well, Sammy, I now know that it’s all bullshit!

Right now, I’m not wearing any protection gear, not even my Vision Mask and yet, I’m in the countryside, breathing the air. In fact, I’m sitting under a real, living TREE. An oak, I think. And that’s just the start. I’m looking up at the sun and I can feel its warmth on my bare skin. The SUN! I thought the sky Sims were beautiful; well, they’ve got nothing on the blue I’m looking at now. Yesterday, I put my feet into a stream so clear I could hardly see the water. From here, I can see fields of hay, corn and some kind of golden flowers running for miles. Just like in the Sims, they move with the wind. I know it sounds crazy, but I feel like I’m looking at happiness.

Sammy, I can’t tell you how badly I hope you’ll be sitting out here just like this someday, because this is how I want to think about you.

Sorry, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Okay. Everybody knows that The Factories ringing The City create virtually everything we need – food, water, medicine, our clothing, all of our technology, everything. Maybe you’ve visited them in your duties. I haven’t, but I’ve heard that they are amazing places. So Commander Rightwood tells me something insane – that our whole factory system is being threatened. (I told you it sounded insane!)

He said that intelligence has determined that there was a large group of “terrorists” outside The City and that they were plotting an attack to destroy our factories. I asked him how terrorists could possibly live out there and how they could possibly penetrate The City’s Security barriers? It seemed unimaginable. He said I just had to trust him and The Administration and that I had my orders.

My mission was to stop these crazy “Countrysiders,” who were just jealous of everything that they had left behind and the Good Citizens of The City still had. Of course, I believed him.

He handed me a device the size of my fist and a Comm unit, which is what I’m using to message you now. All I had to do was to have the device with me and signal him when I found the group. He would look after the rest. I was pretty sure that the device he’d given me was some sort of thermal-shock or even nuclear device, but I didn’t ask any more questions. Sammy, you’ll know how scared I was, but you’ll also know that, whatever I had expected to find out here didn’t matter, because I was prepared to die defending The City and our people.

Anyway, Rightwood ordered me to exchange my uniform for the strangest costume, which he said would help me blend in with the Countrysiders. It was in several colored pieces of cloth that hardly conformed to my skin and nothing matched anything else. Very impractical. I felt silly putting it on.

He finished his briefing, wished me good luck and reminded me that eleven million people were depending on me. I assured him I wouldn’t fail. I pulled on my self-contained Safety Suit, climbed into a Personal Transport Unit and sat back while it executed its instructions. The trip to the Barrier took forever as it kept stopping at the electronic security checks but, eventually, my unit stopped and ordered me to disembark. It was as if I had stepped into a prehistoric, smoke-filled cave. Even the rocky floor bubbled under my boots like I was standing in acid or something. My sensors registered toxicity at nine-hundred and forty-seven, a level that you know would melt the flesh off an exposed human almost instantly. I had no idea where this waste was coming from, but I really believed that everything I’d learned about the complete devastation I was about to encounter outside The City was absolutely real.

Inside the helmet of my Safety Suit, I couldn’t hear anything or see more than a few inches in front of my face the smoke was so thick, but my Sensors were preprogrammed to show me the way. Even though my suit was impervious, I could tell that the outside air –if you could call it that – was blowing from behind me. As I walked, I felt the wind getting steadily stronger until I seemed to be in a huge wind tunnel. At one point, I had to drop to my knees and crawl to keep from being blown over.

Finally, as I started to make out a faint light ahead of me, there was a whistling sound so loud I could hear it through my helmet. By then, the wind was powerful enough that I expected to be picked up and thrown against the wall at any moment. I’d considered turning back, but doubted I could have beaten the headwind. Then, when I was sure I was about to die, the whistling stopped, the wind dropped sharply and I walked into a strange half-light. I still had trouble making out shapes, but as I resumed walking, the wind dropped even more and the light became steadily brighter. By then, I’d travelled more than six miles from the drop-off point. I was well outside The City and yet, I was still alive. I checked and my sensors indicated toxicity at forty-three. After I’d walked another two miles, the level was down to six. I couldn’t believe it. Even in our home, it’s usually between twenty and thirty. I hesitated, but finally decided to remove my helmet. You can imagine how fast my heart was racing when I deactivated my suit. I held my breath for as long as I could before taking a gulp of air. I can’t properly describe that first breath except to tell you it was the cleanest, sweetest-tasting air I’ve ever inhaled. It was another long moment before I began to take in my surroundings. As incredible as what I saw was, the smell cut right to my soul. The perfume of real trees, of wildflowers and grass. And then I looked up and saw the sky. THE SKY!

I can’t explain it, but I started laughing hysterically, which is what I was doing when I realized I was no longer alone. There were at least fifty people surrounding me. Men, women and even a few children, they were all dressed in the same odd clothing that I wore. Except for their dishevelled appearance, I thought they looked just like anyone from The City. But then, I began to notice that many of them had deep purple rashes on their faces and arms, and their eyes were dark and sunken. No one spoke.

Although their posture wasn’t aggressive, most of them carried some kind of truly primitive weapon. Knives, or rocks, even sharpened sticks. Still, I remember thinking that, if these were the terrorists I’d been warned about, I could hardly believe that they represented any threat at all to The City. Even so, I had the odd impression that they had been expecting me even though I saw no signs of any sensing equipment they might have used to track my approach.

They studied me, as I did them, still without speaking. A few rapidly signalled each other with their fingers and I noticed several smiles as if they shared a joke at my expense.

Finally, one big man with broad shoulders and a full dark beard that would have prevented him from ever wearing a Mask, stepped forward. He stared at me with penetrating eyes, but still said nothing. I decided he wanted me to speak first. I told him my name and was about to give him my cover story, about how I wanted to join them, when he held up his hand for silence. Several men and a woman rushed forward and grabbed me. I immediately detected a strange, repugnant odor coming off them, a smell like rotting grist-fruit. Before I could react, they had my arms pinned behind my back and began confiscating my protective suit and the rest of my gear, including the devices Rightwood had given me. Even though I’d been completely overpowered, I didn’t really feel my life was in danger.

Without a word, they let me go and led me along a rough stone and mud pathway that wound past a natural stream, and then up a steep hill leading through a densely-wooded area. I couldn’t help staring at everything in front of me. Again, the sight of the blue sky and actual living plants and trees, all of it felt both unreal and more real than anything I had ever experienced in my life.

Without Sensors, I could only guess how far we had travelled, but I believe it was about two more miles before we reached a clearing at the top of the hill. There, perhaps one hundred more people had gathered in front of dozens of crude-looking wooden structures that I assumed were homes. Although many of the people looked suspiciously at me, I saw more curiosity in their faces than fear or anger. Most of them carried the same dark skin blemishes as I’d already seen.

The big bearded man led me into a large building at the center of their gathering place. Inside, lit by tiny burning sticks, about twenty people sat silently around a large, wooden table. I immediately assumed that these must be this community’s governing body, its Administration. I saw no screens, sensors or anything electronic. The bearded man nudged me closer to the table. As nobody spoke, I decided that I would make another attempt at delivering my cover story. Again though, before I could begin, a woman with long, white hair stood and silenced me with a raised finger. Then, she turned and started to walk toward a large, curtained opening at the far end of the room. I followed her until she stopped and two men pulled the curtains aside.

Since I had been so preoccupied with my “captors” and my new surroundings since I’d cleared The City’s outer barrier, I hadn’t bothered even once to look behind me. Now, I froze at the sight filling the opening before me. There was The City, my home, as I had never seen or imagined it. Rather than a brilliant display of life, light and ingenuity, I stared at what most appeared to be the horrible silhouette of a huge stygian mountain. Like angry fireworks, it seemed to spew noxious-looking fumes high into the air in every direction. That was when I remembered the wind that had followed me underground and realized what should have been blatantly obvious – that the deadly smoke I’d encountered as I’d left the confines of The City wasn’t pollution from outside its boundaries; it was The City’s effluent disgorging into the Countryside!

Dumbfounded, I turned to the woman, who watched me in continued silence. She studied my face for the longest time. Finally, she nodded towards the awful mountain that was my home. Then, ever so slowly, she pulled open her top to reveal her sagging breasts and skin. Hardly a piece of her flesh was free of angry purple welts or boils. Then, in unison, the others stepped forward and showed me the same. They all wore terrible, running lesions that made it seem their bodies were rotting from the inside out.

“What happened?” I asked quietly, knowing full well the answer.

She smiled wanly, opened her mouth and squeezed out the faintest rasp of sound. Then, her eyes shifted back to the black mountain.

Sammy, I made up my mind right then and there. I went back to the bearded man and asked for my things back, including my communicator and Rightwood’s device. I didn’t trust that the Commander would wait for my signal and I had to get the weapon as far away from these poor wretches as I could. He glanced at the woman but returned everything without apparent question. Then, another woman stepped forward and handed me a sack filled with water and rations. I pointed west, away from The City, and the white-haired woman nodded again.

That was three days ago. I’ve been walking ever since and I’m on the other side of a mountain range. I’m too exhausted to go any further, so this is where I must make my stand.

Sammy, you may have guessed what’s next. Right after I send you this message, I’m going to signal Rightwood. If I’m right about this device, I’ll be gone in seconds. I can only pray that the Countrysiders I’ve met are safe – as safe as they can be.

Like I said, what you do with my story is up to you. I just wish I could have done more.

I love you, little brother. Live well.