The City



Hey Sammy:

You know the old cliché, “If you’re reading 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 I’m writing here is absolutely true. I realize 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.  I trust you’ll follow your conscience here, 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. The shock of it was who gave me my assignment – 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 and he promised he would inform you of my mission himself. (My guess is he hasn’t.) 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 there! I mean, we know that The War destroyed everything outside The City’s protection and that virtually everything in the Outerworld is either dead or deadly.  We believed everything the Learners drilled into us, that if our Administration hadn’t saved us, if they hadn’t sealed everyone in, and if our Trusted 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 a huge lie! How do I know? It’s because, as I write this. I’m in the Outerword, looking back at The City, and I’m not wearing any protection gear, not even my Vision Mask, and I’m breathing the air. It’s unimaginable. 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, but they’ve got nothing on the blue I’m seeing now. From here, I can see fields of long grass, corn and some kind of golden flowers running for miles. Just like in the Sims, they move with the wind. Yesterday, I walked barefooted in a stream so clear it was like looking through glass. 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 see this someday, because this is what’s real – not what we’ve been brainwashed to believe.

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. So Commander Rightwood tells me something insane – that a group of “terrorists,” who were living in the Outerword, was threatening to destroy our whole factory system. (I told you it sounded insane!)

I asked him how they could possibly live out here and how they could penetrate The City’s Security barriers. It made no sense. He told me that these people were mutants and that I just had to trust him and The Administration. My mission was to stop these crazy Outerworlders, who were jealous of everything that they had left behind and of the Good Citizens of The City. Of course, I believed him.

He gave me a metal 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 keep the device with me and signal him when I found the group. He would look after the rest. I was pretty sure that he’d given me some sort of thermal-shock or even a 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 Outerworlders. 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! That’s 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 but my own breathing or see more than a few inches in front of my face the smoke was so thick, but they had programmed my Sensors to guide me. Even though my suit was virtually impervious, I could feel the outside air – if you could call it that – 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 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. I stood and walked slowly 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, my sensors told me I’d travelled more than six miles from the drop-off point. I was well outside The City. 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 unit, 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 I took 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. Then, I started 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. Nature. When I stared up, instead of an infinite projection, I saw the sky. The real 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 type of costume that I wore. Except for their dirty and dishevelled appearances, 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. A knife, or rock, even a sharpened stick. 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. I also had the odd impression that, even though I saw no signs of any Sensing Units they might have used to track my approach, they were expecting me.

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 they apparently 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 these penetrating blue 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 of the other 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 still didn’t feel my life was in danger.

Without a word, they let me go and signalled for me to follow them. They 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 around 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 wore 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 still 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 frame 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, toxic-looking mountain. Like angry fireworks, it spewed 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 Outerword!

Dumbfounded, I turned to the woman, who studied me in continued silence for the longest time. Finally, she nodded towards the awful complex 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, but knowing full well the answer.

She smiled wanly, opened her mouth and squeezed out the faintest rasp of sound. “You know,” she said. 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 before he returned everything. Then, another woman stepped forward and handed me a sack filled with fresh 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 Outerworlders 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.