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So I wandered around aimlessly for a while, thinking things over. What Zara said could be some of the answers I was looking for, but Dirth didn’t seem to think much of him. I didn’t want to get caught up in something that was phony, just a lot of gibberish. Zara was okay, but was he telling the truth or just jabbering about his imagination?
I wondered where Henry was. The dome was so big I didn’t think I’d just run into him someplace by accident, and looking for him was just as pointless. I was on my own and I had to figure out the best thing to do next. I thought about going back to see Dirth, then I thought about that engineer I’d met in that eating place. He kind of said we’d meet again. I wondered where the engineers were. I thought they, if anyone, would know the secrets of the dome.
So I turned around and headed back to that eating place, way over on the other side. As I walked, I kept looking around, hoping I’d see Henry wandering around, but like I said, I didn’t think I would.
Suddenly there was a commotion behind me. I looked back and I saw a group of men in brown suits pushing their way through the crowd toward me. I turned to the side and started to walk faste away from them, hoping they were not after me, but they turned also. The crowd of Paratekes was pretty thick where I was and I pushed my way through them as best I could. I glanced back, and the brown suits were pushing their way through, too, getting nearer.
I started to run, but the crowd was too thick. I stumbled and fell to the floor. Before I could get up they were on me. They surrounded me, and two of them reached down and roughly grabbed me and pulled me to me feet.
Let go of me!” I demanded. “What are you doing? Can’t you see I fell? What do you want?!”
One of them who pulled me up held me by my shoulders and said firmly, “You are to come with us. No nonsense, now. You are under arrest.”
“But, what have I done?!” I demanded.
“We have no authority to answer that question,” the brown suit said. “You are being detained. That function is all that is required of us. Others will continue the procedure.”
With that, the brown suits pulled me through the crowd. The paratakes didn’t seem to take any notice of this; they just went on with their stupid activity as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
I was pretty scared. I wondered how I was found out. Maybe Zara had something to do with this, I thought, after all his talk of peace and brotherhood. Or maybe it was that engineer. I wondered if there was anyone I could trust in this place. Just like in the village, I guessed not.
I was taken through the bustling crowd roughly; two guys had me by my collar on either side, shoving me along, the rest pushing our way through the crowd ahead. I was scared but disappointed, too. After all I’d gone through to try to understand the Dome and everything, now it was over. It was all for nothing, and I might loose my life, as well.
“Where are you guys taking me?” I shouted, but they didn’t answer or even pay attention, they just hauled me along. It was quite a ways across the Dome floor and I was getting tired of it. I thought I’d struggle some; maybe I could break free and run. But, run where? These guys wouldn’t give up, I figured. I thought if I could get back to Dirth, maybe he’d protect me, but then again I didn’t want to get him in trouble. So I just gave up and let them push me along.
After a while I could see ahead of me a wall of the Dome getting closer. It was a black area in the wall. As we got nearer, I could see there was a big black door there. I also noticed, as we approached, the crowd of Paratakes thinned out until near the door there was nobody. It was like no one wanted to be close to that part of the wall. This didn’t relax my nerves any.
One of the brown-clothed guys went ahead and pulled open the black door for the rest and me to enter. As I was jerked through it I took one last glance back at the Dome behind me. I wondered if I’d ever see it again. Probably not, I thought.
I was pushed through and into a bright, long hallway. The two that had ahold of me pulled me along, the others disappeared somewhere. I couldn’t see where. It was all white in the hallway, floor to ceiling. The light hurt my eyes. We passed some doors on the sides, then down some stairs through another long hallway. Pretty soon the two guys that held me pulled me to a stop.
“Here’s your new home,” one of them said, and pulled a door on the side of the hallway open and pushed me through into a bare room, only a cot coming out of one wall and a toilet. The door slammed loudly behind me.
I stood there for a minuet, then sat down on the cot. Well, I thought, this is the end of my adventure. I wondered what kind of execution I’d get. I wondered if they had caught Henry, too. I put my head in my hands. I wondered if Dirth had foreseen this. Maybe it was Dirth who set me up. Who was Dirth, anyway? A lot of thoughts were going through my head.
Then I heard footsteps outside on the metal floor. I looked up and the door opened and another man dressed in brown stood in the doorway. “You’re to come with me,” he said matter-of-factly without even really looking at me.
“Yeah,” I said, “well I want to know why did you bring me here, and who are you? You have no right to push me around like this. I don’t like being kidnapped, fella.”
The guy just repeated what he’d said and stood there looking at me with a blank expression on his face. I thought if I got into the hallway I could try to make a break for it, but I figured the outside door to the Dome was probably locked, so I stood up. “Where are you gonna take me?” I asked.
“You’re to come with me,” the guy said again. He didn’t look too tough, but if I clobbered him, that might get me in deeper with these guys. I thought maybe it was a good idea to see what was up, I might learn something, so I said, “Okay,” and followed him out into the hall. We walked together down the hallway a ways until we got to another door on the side. The guy opened it and motioned me to go in.
It was a bigger room, still all metal, with a two chairs around a table. On the chair at the far side sat another brown shirt. He looked up at me as I walked through the door and said, blandly, “Sit down.” So, I sat down facing him. “Well? I said.
“Let me tell you at the outset that we know all about you, who you are, where you come from and why you are here. So, there is no use telling me lies about yourself or your purpose. You are an anomaly and must either be amended or eliminated. There are no other choices for you.”
I sat back in my chair and looked at the guy. He looked like everybody else in the Dome. They all looked alike to me, anyway. I wasn’t going to take no guff from him, though. I figured I was caught anyway, so why make it easy for him. “You mean you think you know everything,” I said. “You don’t know the half of it, buddy. There’s more to me than you can imagine in your dumb little world.”
“We know all about you,” he repeated. “You will tell me everything, you have no choice.”
“Well then, if you know everything, you tell me who I am,” I said.
“You are a member of the underground organization, a subversive. You are insane. You are here to destroy the sanity of the Dome because you are delusional in your psychosis. The Dome is a perfect society. Its citizens are perfect, the Paratakes, the Drones, the Engineers, even the Clerics and Nonconforants.
“Because of your insanity you are an anomaly, you yourself are imperfect, and imperfection cannot be tolerated. The collective mind is sanity, the individual mind is insanity. We cannot be allowed to control our own minds, that leads to madness, so our minds must be controlled by the collective. There is not one thought that the citizens of the Dome think that has not been thought before. This makes us perfect and therefore society perfect.
“You yourself control your own mind, like an untamed wild animal. You are insane, my friend. You must either be tamed or excluded. Self-discipline is not enough. Discipline in itself is useless. We cannot make you a sane citizen; you must become a sane citizen. You must conform or be eliminated. You are an anomaly.”
The man sat back in his chair and looked into my eyes. “Which do you choose? Submission to sanity or the insanity of individuality?”
I didn’t quite know what to make of what he’d said. All I knew was this guy wasn’t going to change me into no Paratake or have me eliminated. I leaned forward. “Listen, buddy,” I said. “I could easy knock you a good one and get out of here. I don’t like what you say or anything about you.”
“That is immaterial,” the man said. “Now, I want to know the names of your comrades in the underground and their location.”
Now I knew the guy didn’t really know who I was, so I said, “I don’t know anything about no underground, fella, so I don’t have no comrades in it. You think you’re some big guy around here, but you’re not. You got nothin’ on me, see, so why don’t you just be a good guy and I’ll go away.”
“That is impossible,” he said. “I have my duty to perform. Now, will you confess to being a member of the underground?”
“I don’t know nothin’ about no underground, I told you that. And listen to this, there’s something wrong with this whole Dome place. It’s not what I thought it was. It’s full of dead people as far as I can see.”
“What are the names of the other members of the underground,” the guy repeated.
“I told you, I don’t know and I don’t know anything about no underground.”
“You are required to tell me,” he said, sort of mechanically. “The sanity of the Dome demands you to tell me. Your imperfection cannot be tolerated. Your mind must be reconfirmed into the control of the perfection. You cannot discipline yourself, you are like an untamed animal, you must confess your irrationality and therefore become sane or you will be eliminated.”
“Okay then, how am I to become sane?” I asked.
“You are an anomaly, you must confess. Either you tell me what you know and conform or you will be eliminated,” he repeated.
“And how do you expect to eliminate me?” I asked.
“Your elimination will be carried out by the proper authorities.”
“Just who turned me in, can you answer that?”
“You have been observed and reported. The sanity of the Dome must be preserved. All anomalies must be discovered and reported. We know all about you, who you are, where you come from and why you are here. It is useless to tell lies. You are a member of the underground organization, a subversive. You are insane. You are here to destroy the sanity of the Dome. You are delusional in your irrationality. You are insane.
“You control your own mind, like an untamed wild animal. You must either be tamed or excluded. Self-discipline is not enough. Discipline in itself is useless. We cannot make you a sane citizen; you must become a sane citizen. You must confess and conform to perfection of the Dome or be eliminated.”
I thought about what this guy was saying and repeating himself, so I said, “You’re a Drone, aren’t you.”
The guy sat there for a while with no expression on his face. Finally, he said, “You must confess your digressions or be eliminated. It is your choice.”
I looked at him. He was waiting for a response he could understand, I guessed. “Well, I’m out of here,” I said. “You’ll let me go or I’ll knock you good. Those others outside will have a hard time with me if they get in my way.”
I stood up, walked around the table to the door and opened it. “You cannot leave!” the guy demanded, turning in his chair to look at me.
I just walked out into the hallway, retracing my steps. There was no one around. When I got to the stairs I looked back, but the guy was no where in sight, no even following me. I walked up the stairs into the other hallway. It was empty, too, so I headed for the outer door. When I got to it, I pushed on it, it was unlocked and swung open, so I went through and stepped onto into Dome floor.
That was too easy, I said to myself. That made me a little nervous. I walked a few feet looking back over my shoulder and bumped into someone. “Sorry,” I said as I turned my head around to see who it was, and there standing in front of me was the Engineer I’d met in the food place.
“Having an interesting time, are you?” He asked casually. I was surprised to see him, and I stepped back a little.
“I think now you’re ready to take a tour of the real Dome,” he said, smiling.
After all the Clerics had left the room, I stood and quietly followed where they had gone. They had passed through a door on the side, to the right of the entranceway. I wanted to see where they were, maybe to talk to them. I paused at the door, wondering if I would get into trouble being someplace I wasn’t supposed to be. The Cleric guys didn’t even notice me as they passed, so I figured maybe they didn’t care me being there.
So I slowly opened the door and went through. I was in a dimly lit hallway. I walked a few steps under an arch. Beyond the arch there was another door that was open. I could see it opened into a small room.
When I got through that door, one of the Clerics in black robes was standing there facing me. “I see you attended one of our services, brother,” he said kindly. “Perhaps you wish to learn more about our Order?”
“I guess so,” I said a little nervously. I didn’t want to seem too eager. I still felt like an outsider, a stranger to all this and was fearful of being discovered. I liked what the guy behind the high desk in the big room had said, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to get too friendly. Like I say, I wanted to be careful not to give myself away. I didn’t want this guy to get suspicious, but still I wanted to find out all I could about these Dome people and what was going on. So I said, easy-like, “I’d like to find out about it, if you don’t mind.”
The guy in the robe said, “If you’ll follow me, I’ll take you the leader of our Order. He can explain much to you and help you decide how much you wish to know.”
So I followed him through another door in that room. What struck me about this Cleric place was, the walls and ceilings and doors and all were made of wood, all carved in different designs, not metal like everything else in the Dome. I wondered where they got all that nice wood from.
So we went through another short hallway that opened into a pretty big room. That room was all wood, too, and filled with books on shelves all around. I’d never seen so many books. There weren’t hardly any books in the village. I looked around and wondered what all these ones were about and who wrote them.
Standing behind a table on the far side was the guy who gave the speech in front of all the Clerics and me.. He was looking down at the table at some papers when we came in, then he looked up at us. He had those piercing eyes again, like he was looking into me. That made me kinda nervous, but I tried not to show it.
The guy who led me into the room kind of bowed, turned and walked past me back through the doorway behind.
The guy standing behind the table there looked deeply into my eyes again. Our eyes kinda locked together. “You are an outsider,” he said in a nice voice, not suspicious like I thought it might be. Even so, when he said that it sent chills up and down my spine. I guess he saw my uneasy face, so he said, “Do not fear, we are all outsiders. We all live here where were we do not belong, all of us.” His eyes looked upward to the carved ceiling. “Our true home is there, beyond,” he said softly with a far away look in his eyes. I gazed up, too, but all I saw was the wood ceiling.
“Where, Master?” I asked.
“Far, far away, my child. Distant as the stars, yet close as your heart. One day we will return to our rightful homes and we will at last know peace and know ourselves.”
The guy then looked back down to the cluttered table where a lot of tattered books and papers were scattered around. He moved his hand over the table. “These are ancient manuscripts and they tell of many things.” He looked at me again. “But they do not tell of our beginnings, of our heritage. This lies among those above, and therefore cannot be written in books. Only the ones who brought us here have this knowledge, and until their return we are left with only our yearnings and our pain.”
I didn’t know what to say to this, so I just stood there. I moved my eyes away from his eyes to the books on the shelves. “All these books and they don’t tell you anything?” I said. Then I gathered a little courage and asked, “What I’d like to know is, what’s all this place about? The Dome, I mean. See…” Then I stopped. That was the wrong thing to say, I thought suddenly. If I didn’t watch out I’d give myself away, if I hadn’t already. Then I thought, it’s likely he knows who I am by calling me an outsider and all, but I had so many questions. I didn’t know how to ask them and keep myself secret at the same time.
The guy looked kindly at me and said, “Do not worry, my friend. I have no interest as to your place in this world. We are all brothers here. Even the Paratakes and the Drones. They only do not realize this as yet, but one day we all will be together as one, and our differences will no longer matter. So you see, you can be sincere in your search for the truth with me. You can be honest about yourself and your questionings. We, all of us, are searching for truth, and we welcome all who are of like mind.”
Whatever nice words he said I still wasn’t sure I could trust this guy, even though he seemed legit and probably meant what he said. Lots of guys in the village say crazy stuff and believe what they say. Then I thought about what he said back in the big room and it did touch something in me, but still I didn’t want to trust him too much. There was something about him, though, that made me have some confidence in him. Maybe he did know something, maybe this guy was Zara, and he had all the answers and I was safe with him.
Then suddenly I felt again my tears in that other room, and all I remembered, and all that this guy brought back to my mind with his speech. If this guy could make me feel like that, like I hadn’t felt for so many years gone by, how I had covered all that up to be hard and strong to survive in the village, and then suddenly it all coming out of me from this guy’s words…
“Come here, and let us sit and talk,” he said just then interrupting my thoughts, and I was glad for that. So I walked over and we sat on little chairs looking at each other. I felt all of a sudden weak and my throat was dry and I felt I could easy loose myself if I wasn’t careful. That guy had that kind of power somehow.
The guy just looked at me with a kind little smile on his face, like he knew what I was feeling, the way you look at a little child. “You’ve nothing to be afraid of,” he said. “We’re just sitting here quietly having a little conversation, nothing to worry about, no harm will come of it. We’re just having a little friendly chat, you and I. You see, we have a lot in common, more than you may realize just now. We are both outsiders as I say, you and me. We understand each other.”
I wanted to believe him just then, but I also knew a con when I heard it. I was really hoping down deep this guy was real and I could trust him, but trust can get you in a lot of trouble.
“We’re looking for the same things,” he continued, “for honesty and the truth. I can tell you the truth, and you can tell me the truth. You must trust me in this. My name is Zara.”
This didn’t surprise me much; I figured this guy was Zara, anyway. Then this Zara guy leaned closer to me in his chair. “I’ll tell you my truth now,” he said, quiet like. “I know all about you, I know who you are.”
This shook me up some, I admit. I think I blushed, even. This was uncomfortable. My biggest fear was that I’d be found out and arrested or whatever they do to strangers. I remembered stories in the village about guys who got into the Dome and were never heard from again. Now I was thinking maybe these stories were true, and I was going to be another one of them.
Zara leaned back in his little chair. “The truth is, you are an orphan in this big wide world with no home and no family, just you all by yourself, and you feel lonely and afraid, and you’re searching for what you fear most, for the truth is always fearful when first discovered.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” he continued on. “We are all orphans. We are all cast into this world unknowing, alone and afraid. We all fear that we are lost and will never find our homes, where we truly belong. But I have discovered another secret, my friend. There is a home for us, we need not be orphans. Our family is just there, over the horizon if we only realize this.” Zara’s eyes brightened when he said these words. He raised his arm and pointed outward, his eyes gazing into some far off distance. Zara seemed to be hypnotized by this thought of his. Then he slowly dropped his arm and fell silent.
These were comforting words, alright, but where was this home of ours supposed to be, and how would we get there? I sat quiet for a minuet watching Zara, then I said, “So, were is all this place you talk about?”
Zara looked at me and in a soft voice he said, “We must have faith, my friend. You see, this Dome, as we call it, was created for us by the ones from beyond, those who live far away, in the stars.”
This was new to me and sort of unbelievable. How could anybody live way up in the stars? I thought about it, but I couldn’t make it out. I mean, the stars were just lights in the night sky somehow. But then I thought I didn’t even know what the stars were, so I guessed people could live on them if they could. It was a strange idea, alright, but I came here to learn stuff, so maybe it was true.
Then Zara started talking again. “I’ll tell you a little history. In ancient days we were many and we filled our world, but we were unhappy with our lives, for we knew not ourselves nor our origins. Not knowing, we were lost, adrift in ignorance and confusion.
“Thus, we were in conflict with ourselves and with each other. Ultimately, this conflict lead to a great catastrophe, and we all but destroyed ourselves and our world. The ones from beyond saw this, as we were originally their children also, and they came down to us in sympathy to build these Domes we now inhabit, for us the survivors of the great destruction, to live here protected until a greater world could be created for us.
“When their work is complete they will return and bring us to our new homes and live with them above, among the stars. There we will live free and know our true selves and understand our true place. We will be healed and will no longer feel as orphans.” Zara looked at me expectantly. “Is this not a beautiful destiny for us?”
I looked away for a while. It was hard to take this all in, what Zara was saying. It was a little confusing, and I needed time to work it out, so I asked a question I had thought about before. “But, what are the stars, Zara? And how can people live on them?”
Zara sighed, but it was a happy sigh and he smiled. “The stars are the homes of the Origins,” he said. “They shine so brightly because of the purity of their inhabitants, our fathers. They are beacons to us and to each other, all alive in righteousness and in virtue.” Zara’s eyes seemed at that moment to glow even more brightly, like the stars themselves.
He leaned close again. “Our sun is an example of what we have to look forward to, my friend. It is but a pale imitation of those heavenly orbs. It exists as a reminder of our future homes. It disappears to create our night so that we can gaze upon the perfection of those far away dwellings we eternally yearn for, and are promised to us. One day we will return to them, brought home at last by the eternal love of the ones beyond.”
With that, Zara smiled kindly and stood. He beckoned me to enter a door at the opposite side of the room. “Enter there, my friend,” he said, “and you will learn to become a brother Cleric, to hold in your heart that that will relieve you from your confusion, and you shall learn of the inner secrets of our Order, and here you will remain in brotherhood with us until that fateful day.”
I sat there facing Zara standing above me, thinking about this, what Zara said, and about the stars and the Dome, and Dirth and Henry, and the village. Was all this the answer to the questions that were spinning in my mind? Dirth had said there was more to the Dome than I thought, and he was right. Maybe Zara did have the answers, but maybe there was more answers for me to learn than even Zara and the Clerics knew. Dirth seemed to think so, and I didn’t want to be bogged down to one idea before I could scope out the rest of the Dome. I wanted to learn everything I could and there seemed lots more to investigate. And where was Henry? I couldn’t just leave that snarly old coot to wander around by himself, I figured he’d soon get himself in trouble, if he wasn’t already captured and spilling his guts out. But then I thought, no, Henry wouldn’t talk. I could trust him for that.
So I stood up, and said to Zara, “I’ll have to think about all this, sir. I don’t think I’m ready to join your Order right yet. There’s more I need to learn first. I hope you understand as you say you do. You’re a great man and I appreciate what you’ve told me and all, but I just don’t feel ready to become one of you.”
Zara frowned some. “I can’t force you to overcome your delusions, my friend,” he said. , Then he looked at me more closely, like he was trying to figure me out more. “I at first thought you were another anomaly in the program, as I and my brothers are, but now I see something unexpected in you.” After he said this, Zara seemed to draw back some from me, and his eyes had a different look to them than before.
He took a few steps to the other corner of the table and looked down at his papers. “I think its best you depart now and seek your own knowledge, wherever that may lead you.” He looked up at me again. “Maybe in time you will return. Perhaps the program has something new in store for us and for you.” For the first time I saw some uncertainty in his eyes. “Or perhaps you are something beyond my present knowledge.”
Zara then had a troubled expression on his face; he even seemed a little frightened. “Yes, you must leave,” he said more sternly. “I shall consult the one who keeps the records. You may be an unexpected blessing, or perhaps a potential threat. There are whispered legends of an enemy of the blessed ones who attempted in far ages past to overthrow their bliss, ones who came from beyond the stars to destroy all that they had made good and pure.”
With saying that, Zara stared at me so hard I felt a sudden chill and a need to leave as quickly as I could. I had that old feeling of danger, the feeling I knew so well from village life. So I tore my eyes from Zara’s, turned and walked out the door I had entered, through the little hall, through the little room and through the other hall to the wide doors of the Cleric building and onto the busy floor of the Dome.
There was the usual crowd of Paratekes milling around me. I mixed fast with the crowd to get lost in them. I figured disappearing would be safety for me until I could figure these new ideas out for myself. I looked nervously back through the bustling Paratakes to the big wooden doors of the Clerics, but they were now closed and no ones in black robes were to be seen. As I walked quickly away, my mind felt more confused, lost and alone than it had ever felt before.
So I walked quick, trying to get to the other side of the Dome, far away as it might be. I kept looking up and looking around. I thought maybe this dome was more scary than I thought, me being alone and all. I finally reached where this part of the dome ended and stores and stuff stopped. I didn’t know what there was around here. Just doors and empty walls. I walked along these empty walls for a while. There wasn’t too many people in this area, so I felt a little better.
I relaxed some. Maybe my nervousness was just in my mind. I’d got used to things some, but I realized there was probably a lot more to this than I figured. I thought it would be a simple place, but I was thinking maybe it was more complicated.
I was looking for something different. Maybe there was some here more like me, or at least someone I could talk to who might understand. So, I kept walking along the wall. It was just wall where I was, grey metal. I wondered how this dome was built, and why. I supposed there had been some bad thing happened long ago in the past, and the survivors had built all this for safety.
But what about the village and us villagers? Why weren’t we included? I recon everybody in the village thinks about this from time to time, but nobody really knows. When I was a kid it was just the same, and the same for my parents and maybe before, for theirs.
Dirth said there was more to the Dome than was known by its people. There was some mystery about it all and I wanted to find it out. I had the advantage of not being one of them, so I figured I had an advantage.
I strolled along for a while. Pretty soon I heard voices, lots of voices chanting. I looked over into the Dome floor and lots of guys dressed in black robes were marching through. These must be the followers of Zara, the Clerics, I thought, like Dirth said.
So I hunkered up and followed them. They just walked slow, four abreast and about ten lines of them. They were chanting something low I couldn’t understand. It was kind of soothing, though, the sound of them. So I got in behind them even though I wasn’t dressed in black. We all walked pretty far across the dome floor, the Paratakes moving out of their way without paying them any attention.
Pretty soon up ahead was this front of a big black building, just the outside of it poking out into the Dome floor ahead of it. The rest I supposed was inside the wall. Big doors swung open as the parade got near, and the clerics marched in. I stopped in front of the door, but then I though I’d just follow them in. What’d I have to loose?
Inside it was all pretty dark, but dim lit from a high ceiling. The Clerics marched down this wide isle with seats on either side. One by one, the Clerics peeled off and sat on the seats. Up front was this big desk you had to go up steps to get to. The walls and everything were in black, but shiny ditties tacked on them everywhere. There was a big circle behind the desk with tiny lights all inside it. It was some kind of sign I figured that the Clerics knew what they meant.
I sort of laid back and sat on a seat separate from the others. Nobody seemed to notice me, so I just sat there to see what would go on. Pretty soon everybody was in a seat in front of me, all in their black robes. Then this guy came out of some door in and climbed the stairs and stood behind the big desk. He was in black, too. He just stood there for a while, and everything was quiet.
Then he began to talk. He had a loud enough voice so everybody could hear it, and it was deep and sounded powerful. He talked for a long time. He said a lot of stuff that sounded true to me. Stuff about how life is a mystery, but a good mystery. Stuff about how it’s a wonderful thing that we’re all here in the Dome, away from the hard conditions on the outside. About how we should all look after each other and comfort each other when we have troubles, about how rare our life is ‘cause it doesn’t last long. How we should always think about this great thing that started it all. This big important something way up above the Dome, above the air, way up in the stars.
I had seen stars sometimes at night when the wind blew the clouds and mist and dust away. I could never make out what they were. They looked so far away, pretty and clean. I guessed they were all set out there for some reason, but what reason could it be?
I knew what the sun was for, to cause daylight and heat, though it was almost always dim and buried in the clouds. The moon was mostly buried, too, but I could just see it, soft, floating up there at night at odd times. I didn’t know what it was for either. Maybe it was just a dimmer sun that had mostly burned out or was too far away to really do anything.
Anyway, in the big room I just listened to the guy behind the desk. I’d never heard anything like it before, what he said, I mean. In the village it was just dog eat dog, as they say, scratching to survive in the shacks and in the dust, clawing through garbage for something useful, looking out for yourself and not caring for nobody else, ‘cause that’s what you had to do.
The way that guy talked, quiet like but strong and sincere, made me remember something inside that I’d almost forgot. It took me back to me as a scrawny little kid and my mother and brothers, how we lived and what they meant to me way back then. They’d all been gone a long time, but the memories I though of about them came rushing back. They didn’t make it like I did, not strong enough, or not hard enough, or maybe times was rougher back then. Especially mom. She was always kind of sick. She was thin and ragged, but I always thought she was beautiful. More beautiful than anybody.
She didn’t last long after I was grown up some. Too much sadness when my two brothers died as just little kids, younger than me. That was pretty common in the village, little ones not lasting too long, especially babies. I thought how much I missed them. I cried some then despite myself. I hadn’t cried for so long, it surprised me I still could.
When the guy behind the desk stopped saying these things, he stood there for a while, just looking out at everybody. I never saw nobody like him. It’s hard to explain. He was like somebody real important, but not a bully or a sharp, like in the village. He was strong but a gentle kind of strong. I though nobody could take him, no matter how hard they tried.
The way he looked, it was like he knew something nobody else knew. Something big, and he was trying to tell it, but he knew nobody would understand, and he was sad for it.
Then he turned and walked back down the stairs and through a door on the side and was gone. Everybody in their seats sat there for a while, quiet. Pretty soon they all got up one by one, slow, and walked back through the isle past me. They didn’t look at me at all. I guess they were in their own thoughts, too, like I was.
I figured when they got passed me they went through another door someplace to another part of the black building. I didn’t turn to look. I knew there had to be a lot more to this Cleric place. Then I thought, well, maybe I’d take a walk around and see, maybe meet somebody I could talk to, maybe even the guy behind the desk. I felt like talking just then. I wanted to know what this was all about, this Cleric stuff. I didn’t even care about the Dome much anymore. Dirth said this Zara guy wanted everybody to believe something, something important.
Maybe this Zara knew what the Dome was all about. Maybe he knew more than that, knew something even Dirth didn’t know. I wanted to find out what it was, what Zara knew. Maybe Zara even knew what the stars were for, I thought. For the first time in my old life I had some hope in me. I felt a little scared again, but this time it was a different kind of scared, like something good was about to happen, something that would answer all my questions, and at last I’d see clear, and the sun wouldn’t be buried anymore.
Inside the garden it was more beautiful than I had imagined it would be. The warm breeze fluttering delicate leaves on the tall trees, the fresh scent of flowers blooming in all their colors, the green of the soft grass underfoot, the pure blue of the clear sky above and the warmth of the yellow sun embracing all.
I strolled for a while in the garden among the people of the Dome. Everyone seemed happy in their leisure, in their comely youth, quietly chatting among themselves enjoying the lovely landscape. I walked to a little rise and climbed it. From there I could look out over the beauty around me. I watched for Henry, but I could not make him out among the crowd. I felt he most likely thought he was in a dream, as I felt I was.
There was a bench there, and I sat on it. I thought maybe instead of feeling like an alien in an alien land, I could get used to this, to this Dome life after all, if it was all like this. Maybe Dirth was right. Maybe I could just disappear into it forever.
Then I noticed something I could not understand at first. Some people in their colorful robes were walking a little distance away. They approached a great tree and stopped to look at it. They all laughed a little, and began walking again, but they walked through the tree as if it was no obstacle! I could not believe my eyes at this. I must still be too awed by it all I thought to myself so that I could not trust my own vision.
I stood up and slowly walked to the tree. It was very tall, its trunk brown with rough bark. Its thick branches spread above me, the yellow sun dancing through its broad, green pretty leaves high overhead. As I hesitantly reached out to touch it, my hand passed right through its trunk as if through empty air!
I quickly pulled my hand back, then carefully reached out again. The tree was there, I could see it in all its wonder, but all the same it wasn’t there at all! A chill of fright passed through me and I felt a little dizzy. What was this? I looked around me. I nervously walked to a little grouping of flowers. I stooped down and slowly reached out to touch them. I grasped for one, but my hand grasped nothing! My fingers felt nothing but the palm of my hand. I reached down to feel the grass under me. I could feel it, but it didn’t feel like real grass. It felt stiff and artificial.
I turned and looked around me. People were still wandering about, sitting on the greenness of the grass or whatever it was, sitting on benches, chatting happily as though nothing unusual was happening. I stood and nervously looked for Henry, but he was no where to be seen. I couldn’t understand. Here was this beautiful garden around me, but nothing in it was real. Was this a dream? Was this Dome itself real, or was I dreaming it?
Suddenly I felt I had to get out, out of this dream garden. The entrance was behind me, I turned and walked quickly through it and out into the Dome itself. I looked back through the big double doors. I could see the garden within; all aglow in its beauty, but what was this beauty, this paradise?
I looked up to the balcony from which I came high in the distance. I thought I could see a figure there leaning against the balustrade peering out over the vast floor before him. I knew it was Dirth, watching. He was watching me, I was sure. Watching for the expression on my face, watching for my reaction, watching to see how this was affecting me.
Dirth knew the Dome and what I was to experience in it, but I was determined not to have this strange experience change me or surprise me with its mysteries. I would take it all in without dismay or alarm or disappointment. I would explore and experience all it had to offer, no matter how odd or unsettling.
Henry and me still had our plans, and what plans Dirth may have for us,well, we’d see about that.
I turned my gaze away from the balcony to the floor of the Dome around me. I now knew there was more to this than I thought. I was going to find out all I could. I had lost Henry for a while, but I was sure he’d soon come to his senses and figure stuff out for his self.
I wandered about some, threading myself through the crowd and walking around in empty spaces. The floor of the Dome was bright white and on the far away walls were balconies one on top of another way high up to the ceiling far above. The dome itself, high up, was a pale blue color, all smooth and kind of fuzzy looking.
I don’t know where the lighting came from; it was just bright inside, with different bright colors of the balconies shining down. It was pretty, really, everybody in colored robes, like mine and Henry’s.
I wondered what was going on in all these rooms behind the balconies, rooms I suspected like Dirth’s rooms. There was plenty of people on the floor itself, just wandering about it seemed, but probably more up there all around in those rooms above. Doing what?
I considered this a while, just standing, then I discovered I was hungry. Where do people eat, I wondered? So I walked over toward a wall and looked around. There was stores in the wall, all sorts. Some had clothes in them, some little things like you’d put on shelves. Others had stuff I didn’t know what they was, but people were in all them stores looking and taking things. I guessed you didn’t need money or barter to get stuff, just take what you wanted.
So I wandered some more until I came to this eating place. I went inside and there was tables all around with people sitting at them. I walked over and sat down at an empty table. Nobody seemed to notice me, so I looked around for a while. Then this guy walked up and asked what I wanted. He had this like empty look on his face. I looked up at him for a minute, then I said, “What have you got?” He didn’t say nothin’ to this, so I said, “Lunch”. He just walked away without saying anything.
So I waited again, and pretty soon he came back with a big plate of food. He set it down in front of me and walked away. Well, I figured I’d just eat and so I did. It was real good food, meat and vegetables, some I didn’t know what they were, and potatoes. Food like Dirth had given us. I finished it right quick, being real hunugry and all. Then the guy came back with a glass of water, I guessed, and sat that down. It wasn’t water, but whatever it was it was good to drink.
I sat back after I was done, satisfied, and looked around again. Everyone was eating and chatting to each other at the other tables. It was real nice in there, now that I had a good look-around. These people had it pretty easy, I thought. Easy lives. Eat how much you want, take whatever you liked, a nice room to go to that was yours. Friends to be with that didn’t cause no trouble. A clean life with not problems.
I was thinkin’ this over when pretty soon this guy came up and asked if he could sit down at the table I was sitting at, real polite. I said okay with me, and he sat down opposite. He looked like everybody else, so I thought maybe it’d be a good opportunity to ask him stuff, see what these people are like in conversation.
When he was all sat down and adjusted, first he looked at me close for a minute. It made me a little nervous to be stared at, but then he leaned back relaxed, like he wasn’t interested, and said, “Don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.”
He said it casual, but it kind of scared me, what he said. Who was this guy, some kind of Law? Maybe he’d been following me around or something. Maybe I was acting peculiar and he noticed and came in to see who I was.
“Guess it’s hard to see everybody, there’s so many of us,” I said, easy, like what he said meant nothin’ to me neither.
He sat there and looked at me some more, though. “I guess so,” he said finally, and looked away. He looked back to me pretty quick like he was study’n me. “What’s your Origin Date?” he asked.
I didn’t know what that meant, so it put me on edge some. “What’s it to you?” I said kind of belligerent. As soon as I said it like that I knew I’d slipped up. I was too used to wise guys in the village asking too many questions. But I let it stand, as it was already out there.
“Oh, nothing,” he said and looked down at the table. “Just maybe sometimes some manage to evade The Calling, that’s all.” He looked up at me again. “It’s none of my business, of course. I’m just saying you should be a little careful, that’s all, your face, that is. It doesn’t quite fit, you know. Maybe you should pull your hood up.”
Then he said, a little friendlier, “I’m Coon, an Engineer, by the way.” He smiled a little and reached over the table to shake my hand. I shook it. Then he kind of sighed. “We engineers don’t bother too much about the Paratakes, so don’t worry.”
This guy Coon looked close at me again. “You’re something different, though, something I haven’t seen before. What Guild are you?”
I didn’t know what to say about that, either. I said, “No Guild you heard of, you’re just an Engineer.” I thought that might slip into his mind and shut him up, like I was some secret he shouldn’t know about.
“I see,” he said, like he was thinking it over. “Well, nobody knows everything, it’s a big world. There’s lots I don’t know, myself. It’s just, well. Best not to be too curious, only…”, his voice trailed off.
“Only what?” I asked, kind of tough. I thought maybe I could scare him into saying somethin’ I’d be interested in.
The guy Coon looked away again, though. Just then the same waiter guy came to the table, stupid like, and stood there. Coon looked up at him and said, “Lunch.” The guy walked off like before. Coon turned to me. “Maybe we’ll meet again, maybe not,” he said, mysterious like.
“Yeah, maybe,” I said and stood up. I just walked away without saying anything else. I didn’t want to get involved with this guy too much. I didn’t know enough yet to get too close to anyone. When I got back onto the Dome floor I was shaky a little. I thought I handled it okay, but I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t want suspicious guys around me, so I walked kind of fast away from that eating place. I thought I’d go to the other side and see what’s there. Kind of get lost. I also wondered what Henry was doing and how he was getting along. I was a little worried about him. If either of us was to get into trouble it likely would be Henry, I figured.
I might have to go it alone, was my next idea. Who knew were Henry was by now? This was a big place and we could easy not find each other for a while. I supposed he’d end up back at Dirth’s. I had other plans.
I thought on the other side of the Dome I could find out new stuff, the Clerics and the Noncomformants would be there somewhere and other stuff I didn’t yet know about. I wanted to get away from these stupid Paratakes, anyway. They didn’t know nothin’, as Dirth said, and I figured they’d be useless to me. I had to find an edge somewhere, a dig where I could get in. I had to find out what was beneath all this so as to get a hold of somethin’. Somethin’ I could use for myself.
I wanted to stay away from Dirth, too. I didn’t trust him. I wanted to be on my own for a while.
As I walked away I looked back, but I didn’t see that guy Coon anywhere. Maybe I should’ve talked to him some more, but he scared me a little. I’d have to get over that, but I’d have to know more about how this place was set up. What to say and what not to say, how to answer questions.
I thought I’d look up these Noncomformants first. I knew what conform meant, and I thought these guys might be the right kind to help me figure stuff out. Dirth said they hung out at the Obliviate, whatever that was. All I knew was it was way on the other side, and that’s where I was headed for.
After a few hesitant steps, we relaxed a little, and sank into the crowd naturally, like falling into an ocean. We just wandered around with the crowd for a while, aimlessly, more and more easily, like in a school of fish. I seen fish in a lake once when I was a kid by the shore. They were darting this way and that all together, but this was like a dance, like we were all dancing together, but separate. I was some nervous, though, ‘cause they was all strangers, and I felt a stranger among them.
I looked for Henry. He was a little way off, all mixed up with the Dome people, too, the Paratakes Dirth called them. Henry had this glazed look on his face. He seemed to be enjoying himself, though, just wandering about like me. It was an odd feeling. I never been this close to this many people before. Back in the village you were always kind of alone by yourself. There wasn’t no big crowds except at the dump or when ration day came. This was different. It wasn’t picking garbage or shuffling in line, feet kicking up dust that was everywhere. These were all clean in a clean place, and smiling and happy.
And we didn’t jostle each other, as close as we were. We all just sort of cooperated and moved around each other gentle-like. Pretty soon I noticed they were some of them talking among themselves. I hadn’t noticed this before. They all had these soft voices, too. I stood trying to listen for a while. First, I couldn’t make out what they were saying; it was just like some soft music to me. I guess I was still sort of stunned by it all.
Then I started trying to listen what they were saying as they all revolved around me. “Oh, what a pretty Holoscene that was last evening,” one was saying. “Yes, I especially liked the boy in the green shift. He was darling.” “Oh, I just loved him. Did you see how he took the girl and was so gentle with her? I liked that part.” “I kind of liked it later when his eyes caught that other girl, you know, the one in the blue gown. Now that was something to watch. It got me all…you know.” Then I heard giggles.
I looked, and it was two girls talking. For the first time I really looked at them. They were beautiful, both of them. I never saw girls that beautiful, not in the village, for sure. All the girls in the village were all warn-out-looking. They didn’t look much different from everyone else. Shabby and tired and listless.
Well, after a while the whole crowd began moving in one direction. I don’t know what started it, but I followed among them. I caught Henry out of the corner of my eye, he was moving with the crowd, too, still a little stiff-like. I figured Henry would take a little longer to get used to all this. He was always set in his ways. His old, wrinkled face didn’t fit in with the rest. Everybody around looked young and fresh. I supposed I didn’t look much like them, either, but they didn’t seem to take notice.
So we all moved in some direction over the great floor of the Dome, everybody’s colorful clothes swirling. Pretty soon up ahead I noticed some bright lights. Then I started to hear music. It was sweet and nice. I never paid much attention to music before, mostly because there wasn’t any in the village, except for beating on stuff and yelling around some campfire.
Anyway, we got closer to the bright lights. They were spread all around above, all colors shining and spinning, and pretty soon everybody all around started dancing to the music and the swaying lights. Everyone was suddenly twirling and twisting and weaving among each other and smiling and laughing. The laughter seemed to me part of the music, like the sounds and the dance were all one.
I started to move a little, clumsily, embarrassed, then I stopped. I just couldn’t do it like the others. I felt foolish and I guess I blushed to myself. I looked through the crowd to find Henry. He was a little ways off among the crowd, but standing still. His old eyes were wide open, looking around startled, as if in a dream.
After it seemed a long time the music sort of faded away, and the crowd started moving again. The dance was over and now something else had begun and I was pushed along with the crowd again. I wondered where we were all going this time. One other thing I noticed was, everyone smelled so good. This was not like in the village, I’ll tell you. They were all pretty looking, too, like I said. They all seemed young, almost like children. I couldn’t see anyone old or even middle-aged. I wondered where they kept the old ones, and a little fright came to me.
Pretty soon we all came to this sort of blue front of a building built into the side of the Dome, a tall, wide blue double door in front of it. The door opened by itself, slow, and everyone crowded in. I kept an eye on Henry as usual because I didn’t want to loose him. We went into this big room that was all dim inside. Everybody lined themselves around the walls of the room, so I stood against the wall, too. The room was all foggy-like inside. I couldn’t make out what it was. Then the fog in the middle of the big room turned blue, or was lit by blue light. Then the colors changed and then the fog kind of evaporated slow, and little by little a real pretty landscape appeared out of the fog all around for as far as you could see. It was a real big room, I’ll tell you that. There were trees all around, and grass and bushes and flowers spread everywhere and little green hills rose gently. It was a great garden spread before me, vast and beautiful, calm-like and peaceful. It was nature in bloom. I could feel a little warm breeze on my cheek, and a blue, blue sky was above it all, and a bright sun high up in the clear sky shining down on us, warm and yellow.
I stood gaping. I had never seen anything like this, not in my life. My world was shabby and dirty, all brown and withered and a dull grey sky. This was like a beautiful dream of my childhood. A dream of something I had never seen in wakefulness. The crowd passed by me and entered this paradise as I stood still and wooden-like at its edge. I watched them flow into it, settle into it, relax into it easy, like they were a part of it, like it was nothing to them, like it was just another ordinary thing to them.
I stood there just outside of it. I was afraid to step one step onto the grass of this paradise of a garden that began just before my feet. It was too unreal for me, or maybe it was too clean for someone like me to enter. I still felt the sweaty dirt of my old body, the shabby clothes hanging loose on my skinny bones, my scraggly face. I felt I didn’t want to soil that place, it was too beautiful, too pure, too perfect. I was still too used to my old self; like all this was something I was unfit to enter.
As I stood there hesitating I looked around for Henry again. He was already inside, a loony smile on his face, awkward, alone, moving stiff like in a dream he’d never dreamed so he didn’t know what to do in it, or what was expected of him to do. I felt that way, too. Who would I have to be to fit in with all these dome people? Dirth said we was ready for this, but I didn’t feel I was ready. I felt I was something separate from all this, something that didn’t fit at all and never would learn how to fit.
I wondered what else there would be inside the Dome and how I would react to it. I was curious to find everything out, but I knew I’d never become one of these Paratakes, or whatever they were. I wasn’t born to this. You’re what you’re born into, and anything else is just pretending. I didn’t want to pretend, I wanted to be me I guess for the first time. No matter how hard I’d try, I didn’t think I’d ever really leave the village. I suddenly felt sad and lonely. Here was this paradise I’d so longed for, risked my life to enter, and now that I was really here I was a stranger to it, and it was a stranger to me, maybe for always.
I remembered Dirth saying I’d enjoy all this, that I’d forget my old life and enjoy it and it’d be a celebration for me after my hard life before. I think he was wrong. And I think maybe he knew he was wrong. I wondered just what Dirth was trying to do with Henry and me. I wondered what he had in mind for us. I think he knew something about me that even I didn’t know myself, but was finding out for myself. Henry and me thought we had plans of our own, but Dirth said he had his own plans for us. Plans we didn’t expect.
I stepped one foot onto the grass of that great lovely garden and then the other and stood there. The pretty green grass felt soft and inviting underfoot in a way that was no comfort to my mind.
The next morning Dirth had a big breakfast spread out for me and Henry. We ate in silence, trying not to seem overwhelmed by the food and our circumstances, Dirth glancing at us occasionally with his narrow smile.
After we’d eaten, Dirth set us down on his couch and started talking. “Have a good breakfast, guys? We stick together and you’ll eat like that the rest of your lives.”
Henry and me looked at each other. “Yeah, we plan to,” Henry said. “Now you gonna show us what life is like in this here Dome?”
Dirth’s narrow smile broadened as much as it could. “Alright, guys, it’s time for you to go out and look around, that may be better than us just sitting here and me trying to explain,”
So we all got up and went out into the metal corridor and walked over to the balcony that looked out over the vast interior of the Dome.
Dirth, me and Henry leaned over the balcony railing. It was quite a sight for us, all the colors all bright, and all the Dome citizens milling about every which way down below, the expanse of the Dome seeming endless and disappearing into the far distance, as well as up, up, up on all sides, balcony after balcony, up to the blueness far above.
“Now, the first thing you guys have to know is about the people of the Dome,” said Dirth. “You see all those people milling about dressed like us? Those are the Paratakes. They live the good life, sleeping and sexing and shopping and partying. They go to the Cybosphere games and the Holoscenes, the Aural Dervishes and the Floating City. They’re the biggest population. Those are who the Dome was made for. They’re not very smart, though. They don’t really know what’s going on, but they like it that way. They don’t think much about anything because they don’t have to. They’ve got everything they think they want and need and it’s all for free and all laid out before them to use and enjoy as they will.” Dirth turned to me and Henry. “An easy life, my friends, and you know what that does to people.”
As I watched down below, I thought about how I never knew an easy life, only struggle in the dust and dirt of the village. I envied these Paratakes down below. I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to just take it easy for a long, long time. I didn’t care about knowing nothing, about what’s going on. I’d had enough of knowing too much back in the village. In the village you had to know everything, and I was tired of the strain of it.
Dirth and us looked out some more, over the balcony. “Then there are the Clerics,” Dirth said. “They follow the Ecclesiastic Prophet Zara. They always travel in groups. You’ll see them dressed in black with hoods over their heads marching along. When you see them coming, just step out of the way and ignore them. They won’t be interested in you. They’re usually going to the Temple or coming back from it. That’s on the other side of the Dome. You can go look at it later. It’s all black.”
“There’s some religion here?” I asked.
“Yes, some religion, alright,” Dirth said with a scowl. “This Zara guy started it all. Seems he had a vision, he calls it, about what’s above the sky, above the Dome. He says there’s some mystery out there that’s responsible for everything, including the Dome and everybody’s lives, too.”
“What’s the mystery?” I asked, looking up at the pale blueness above the see-through gauzy roof.
“He don’t know,” answered Dirth. “He just says there’s something out there everybody should think about and believe. He’s right, in a way.”
We looked, but Henry and me couldn’t see any Clerics just then. Dirth then pointed out in some direction. “Yonder are some of the Nonconformants. You can tell because they dress in a different way. They mostly keep to the Obliterate. That’s over on the other side of the Dome, too. They just go around in circles trying their best not to go in the same circles as everybody else, but they’re really in the same circles as everybody else, they just think they’re different.
Dirth turned to Henry and me. “Then there are the Servers and the Drones. The Servers, they’ll bother you a lot if you let them, always asking if you need something, and like that. They’ll get you whatever you want, and probably you’ll want everything. The Drones, well, they just do what their minds tell them to do, that’s all. That fellow in the glass room, he’s a Drone. He’s just sitting there waiting for the right thing to happen. The thing he recognizes. That big machine room, as you call it, is an emergency back-up in case one of the other support machines breaks down.”
“Then there are the Engineers. They keep this place alive and act as a sort of government. The Supreme Engineer is Dram Quinn. You’ll not meet him for a while, though.” Dorn gave us a strange look, like he had a secret. “But none of these are important. We’ll be looking for something else.” Dirth turned and look out over the Dome again.
“But, what are you?” Henry asked.
Still gazing out beyond us, Darth said, “I, my friends, am someone who’s going to change all this.” Dirth waved his arms about. He looked at us. “With your help, of course.”
Henry looked around at everything below us, then turned to face Dirth. “Yah, you said that before. Maybe we don’t want to change nothin’. Maybe we like it the way it is, Mr. Dirth. There’s opportunities down there for us.” Henry looked back at the expanse below, and then at me. “We got plans, see. An’ our plans don’t include no changes, well not at first, anyway. If somethin’ does change, it’ll be for our benefit.”
Henry said, “I think you’re wasting our time, Mr. Dirth. We got to know more about all this, we got to learn, but to learn ‘bout how to fit in with what’s already here for now. I don’t see how maybe you can change nothin’, anyway. Everything’s so big.”
This time it was Henry’s turn to spread his arms around everything down below. “All this is too big for anybody to change maybe, jus’ the three of us. ‘Specially when us don’t want to change nothin’ right now. We want to keep everythin’ jus’ the way it is for a while. You try an’ interfere, we’ll tell on you. We’ll set the alarm, like you said there was. We’ll get you arrested or whatever they do. Or we’ll knock you good ourself. We ain’t nobody to be foolin’ with, see. You think we’re rubes, but we ain’t. It’s you that needs to be careful of us. We’re here, now, an’ you ain’t nobody t’ us.” Henry glared at Dirth, and he wasn’t joking.
“Yeah,” I said, looking at Dirth. “Henry and me got plans.” I wasn’t sure what our plans were just yet, but Henry was right, and I trusted Henry, even thought he was a crazy old coot. Henry wasn’t dumb as he looked and he meant what he said. Back in the village when he was in this kind of mood, people gave him space ‘cause they knew he meant business.
Dirth looked away from us, to out over the floor of the Dome below with all the colorful and odd people mingling with each other, but he didn’t say nothin’ right away. I wondered what he’d say about all this, what Henry had told him. Dirth was a strange guy to me. I thought he was probably just a dreamer. Big plans with nothing to back them up with. A con, trying to pull us in to his empty schemes. I’d known men like that in the village.
I was kind of half-afraid he’d get mad at what Henry said and just leave, with us standing there alone on the balcony wondering what to do next. We still needed him. We still didn’t know all we needed to know. I thought about trying to make it up a little with him, but then I figured, leave it alone, see his reaction. Henry and me needed to keep the upper hand in this.
Finally, Dirth turned to us and chuckled. “I’m liking you guys more and more,” he said with his narrow smile on his thin face. “You two are just the kind I’ve been looking for! You got strength in you, and I need strength. Look, I know you guys think this place is perfect as it is right now, but wait until we make some changes around here. You’ll love it even more! We can make this a paradise for us. You just wait and see.” Dirth looked, beaming, at both of us, like we were one big family.
Henry was watching Dirth cunningly, and I will say suspiciously all through his little speech. Now Dirth’s face turned sober and serious. “There is something else, my friends,” he said softly, “that I have not told you.” His voice now became almost a whisper. “There are great mysteries here, my friends, great mysteries. Mysteries we must delve into and discover however we may. It is not for the faint hearted, my friends, to seek the shadows, peer into the gloom and darkness, to see what may lie hidden within. There is great evil in this Dome, my friends, as well as mindless delight.”
A slight chill shivered in me as Dirth spoke these words in his peculiar murmur. I looked at Henry. His harsh expression had weakened into some hesitation. I looked back at Dirth. His face now strangely narrow and pale, his slender, black eyes now somehow lit menacingly from within.
“There are hidden places here,” Dirth continued after closely watching our expressions. “Deep down in the substructures, far down in the foundations where everything began. It’s not only above us that the mysteries exist, my friends. You want knowledge of this place, well I tell you, if you really want to learn about this Dome, you’re going to have to delve deep, deep into the soul of this place, and you need me for that.”
Henry and me stared at Dirth, wondering what he was about, what he meant. All we wanted now was a holiday from dirt and filth, from the hopeless struggle of the village we left behind. We felt all that Drith said didn’t mean nothing to us, all these mysteries and basements and such. We was ready to climb down into the Dome below and join that crowd milling about and enjoy what they enjoyed, to be happy along with them and to shed our dusty minds and soiled bodies and be clean.
Dirth’s face relaxed as he looked at us and I guess he understood. “I know you guys need a rest and some fun and all coming from that dismal village of yours,” he said, his smile returning to beam at us. “I don’t blame you for that. You probably know enough right now to go off by yourselves and have a look around and participate. See, you don’t have to really know very much at all. It’s all simple down there. Nobody’ll question you or think you’re strange. Mostly because those down there don’t think much at all, they just go around to have a good time, mindless-like.
“It’s an easy life, down there with no problems,” Dirth continued. “It’s been all set up for them, for their benefit, so they can just wander around and enjoy their life. They don’t care about deep down secrets. They don’t care about Dirth or two guys from the village pretending to be one of them. They don’t care about much except themselves. You two will fit in just fine.
“My only advice is,” Dirth said a little more seriously, “keep your eyes open, try to see a little beneath all the fancy stuff you’ll see and experience. The Dome is like a big human machine or a big machine for humans. It’s the machine you should be concerned with in the end, because the machine is what we’re really interested in, you two and me. You’ll understand after a while.”
With this, Dirth spread his thin arms wide again, offering us the Dome and all its entertainments. “Go,” he said in his big narrow smile, “go into the Dome below and enjoy yourselves and learn. You’ll have no troubles, you’ll have a great adventure and a great celebration, and forget your previous hard and desperate life. Go. Go now.”
Henry and me looked out on the broad and endless floor below with it gay colors and brilliant lights and all the milling crowds moving carelessly about. They all looked carefree to us and happy and having a great enjoyment of life, clean and healthy. We had at last left our old, miserable lives behind us.
So, Henry and me left Dirth standing on that balcony and walked down a long and winding metal stairway that finally reached the floor of the great Dome. We had arrived at last, had succeeded in our plan, had got where we had wanted to be after all our troubles and worries. It was almost like a dream to us as we stood level with that colorful, mixing throng. We stood there for a long while, just watching. We would become one with them, become one with all their pleasures and delights, their excitements and enjoyments of their entertainments, their laughter’s and smiles, and everything else we did not know about yet that seemed to us like a paradise, a beautiful heaven, a glory and a bliss that had always seemed out of reach for us all our lives.
Henry and me stepped out into the milling crowd, stiff, and with stupid grins on our faces, like mechanical toys.
With a smile and a wave, the man was gone. Henry and I looked at each other. “This better work,” I said. “Let’s get to the machine room and hide down in the darkness.”
So we snuck out from behind the wavy pillar, peeked around the corner and walked through the door to the machine room, past the glass room with the silent man still sitting in it, down the metal steps and hid behind a great, grey machine.
When we got good and settled, I asked Henry, “You think this guy will come back?”
“He better, or what’ll we do?” Henry answered with a shrug. “He’s right, we can’t go scrounging around up there in these ol’ rags.” Henry looked down at himself and pretended to dust off his trousers, then he looked at me serious like. “But if he don’t, we’ll figger somethin’ else. I’m not goin’ back to the village no more. I’ve had it with that dump after seein’ this place upstairs. It’s nice up there, it’s clean, an’ one way or t’nother we’re gonna start livin’ there, I can tell you that. And livin’ large.”
So we leaned back against the machine to wait with our own thoughts. I don’t know what Henry was thinking, was hard to tell by that old coot. Probably something hard and angry. Me, I was thinking about how we’d ever fit in up there, us being from the village and all. I mean, we didn’t even know what it looked like up there all around. I thought this checkered suit guy better teach us, like he said he would. Then I wondered what was his angle? What use could a couple of ruffs like us be to him? It was puzzling, but it was an in, anyway. I figured we could use him as much as he could use us. We may not be too smart, but we’re pretty clever. Have to be to survive in the village. This guy might be just dumb, like Henry says. It’s easy to run dumb guys.
We waited and waited. We started getting nervous. We listened to every sound, but there was none. It was all quiet in that place, just dim and spooky. Then it seemed a long time later we heard something, and a light shown high above, but just for an instant. “It’s the door,” I whispered to Henry. We both stood up and leaned against the big machine, out of sight. Then we heard footsteps on metal, someone was climbing down the metal stairs, step by step. If it was the man, we didn’t know. We moved around a bit so we could see in that direction. It was pretty dark, but you could still see if someone was there. Pretty soon a shadow moved across among the machines and stuff. It was the man in the checkered suit, we could see that much.
“Wait ‘till he gets close,” Henry whispered, “then we’ll grab ‘im. We don’t take no chances.”
So we waited ‘till the shadow man started to pass our position, then Henry stepped out quick and grabbed him by his shirt and pulled him in to where we was before. The man was startled, but he didn’t resist. When we had him close, Henry pulled him down to the floor, Henry on the floor with him, holding him tight. I crouched down beside.
“Okay, bub,” said Henry, their faces pressed close together, “we got you. You don’t need to squirm. You got us clothes?”
The man smiled his smile in the gloom. “Yes, don’t worry, gentlemen, I have everything you need right here.” Then he pulled on a cloth sack he was half sitting on. He got it out from under him and held it up before us. “I told you, you could trust me,” he said in that smooth greasy voice of his.
“I got a clue for you, buddy,” Henry said, quick grabbing the bag, “we don’t trust nobody, especially you. Let’s see what you got here.” Henry began rummaging through the bag, pulling out stuff.
The man watched as Henry cleaned out the bag, laying its contents here and there. “I’ve got clothes for you two, shoes and floppy hats,” the man said. “You’re going to have to cover your heads until we get to my home, then we’ll have to take care of your fuzzy faces. You’ve got to clean yourselves up to fit in around here.”
So Henry and me took our old rags off and put on our new clothes. Henry and l looked at each other. Henry was all in white with black stripes. I was in blue with yellow wiggles. We had to grin at each other because we looked so stupid.
The man looked at us and grinned, too. “Now you look properly dressed!” He said happily. “Here, put these shaggy hats on to cover your shaggy heads.”
We pulled the floppy hats on. The man looked us over once again. “Okay, I guess you guys look presentable. Let’s get out of this dungeon. Just follow me and act like you belong. Swagger a bit.”
We sort of stood there for a moment. Henry looked up at the high door. “Yeah, but where are we goin’?” He asked. “And another thing, what’s you’re name, bud?”
“We’ll go to my place where I’ll acquaint you with some things you need to know. And, oh, just call me Dirth Dorn.”
With that, we followed the man up the metal stairs, past the glass room with the still man in it, through the door and past the wavy pillar. I looked around nervously. I felt uncomfortable in my new clothes. What I saw around me was a wide walkway with a low railing on its edge. Beyond that was an expanse of many levels surrounding a great open space. Many people dressed like me and Henry were walking about everywhere, gathered in groups or just wandering about by themselves. Everything in bright colors, lit from I couldn’t say where, it was all just bathed in light. It was beautiful to my eyes. There were even trees growing here and there. I looked up, and the levels rose tier above tier until they disappeared into the height of the Dome. It all made a real impression on my, I’ll say.
We walked slow, Henry and me taking it all in, stupid like. I could hardly believe this was happening and what we saw. It was like a dream, but no dream I ever had. Mostly, my dreams were dull and drab like the village. But this was all bright colors and lights, lots of people dressed nice and clean. I’d heard about Heaven and all that, of course never believing in it, but this place we were now in seemed like after all Heaven was a real place. I even felt a little dizzy, and almost a tear came to me. I was sort of chocked up about it all. I couldn’t help it.
Pretty soon, another brightly colored wavy wall cut off our view. Ahead, the wall narrowed, and I could see an opening at the far end of the walkway. We walked through this opening in single file. Now before us was a long hallway, all shiny metal, with many doors on one side. Dirth Dorn, if that was his real name, stopped at one of them. Henry and me bumped into each other when he stopped suddenly. I guess we were sort of dazed like.
The door we stopped at slid open sideways, like it slid into the wall. I’d never seen a door like that. Dirth led us through into a room. The room was pretty big, all metal, too, with chairs and a slouchy couch in it, a rug on the floor and even pictures on the walls, but no windows. It was bright inside, but no lamps. It was beautiful, that room was, simple and I gotta’ say again, clean.
“This is my home!” Dirth said proudly, spreading out his arms proudly with a smile on his narrow face. “This is where you’ll stay for a while, here with me!”
Henry and me just sort of stood there looking around at everything. I’d never seen anything like it. Compared to my shabby shack, this was a paradise.
Dirth smiled his narrow, sly smile again and looked at us. “Now you two need a shower, shave your beards then put your heads in the barber machine. All that’s in the other room. Then we’ll have some food and talk for a while, then rest for the night. We have an exciting day waiting for us tomorrow!”
So we showered and shaved with this razor run by electricity. Then we were supposed to stick our heads in this clear bowl-like thing to cut our hair, but Henry was scared of it, so I put my head in first. Soon as I did, it started making a buzzing and it was suddenly all windy inside and I could just see clips of my hair being sucked out the other end. It didn’t hurt or anything, it just felt spooky.
The buzzing stopped and I pulled my head out. I guess my hair was cut alright, ‘cuz Henry looked at me funny. “Go ahead, Henry, it doesn’t hurt,” I said, and Henry cautiously stuck his head in. I watched as his hair was blown everywhere by the wind inside, and little beams of light flashed fast this way and that. It was funny, I could just see the side of Henry’s face, and he had his teeth all clenched up and grimacing.
When it was over, Henry had this odd haircut, like Dirth’s, though before I really didn’t notice his hair. I guessed everybody in the Dome had the same haircut. Well, Dirth then called us back into the first room, and he had all kinds of food spread out on a table. We ate like we never ate before, I think. It was some food, I’ll tell you. We didn’t talk, though. We pretty much paid attention to the food. Henry slopped it up, but I tried to be more delicate. I figured this was some civilized place, so I should mind my manners.
After that, Henry and me sat on the couch, and Dirth sat on the chair next to us. So Henry said, “Okay Mr. Dorn, just what’s up? What’s the scratch? Nobody does somptin’ for nothin’”.
Dirth Dorn sat back in his chair and smiled his narrow smile. “See, fellas, I need you two guys.”
“I looked at Dorn special like and said, “Need us for what?”
“I need you two because I can’t trust anyone else.” Dirth waved his long arms about, I guessed taking in the whole Dome around us. “These creatures who reside in this world, this Dome and many others like it, are in great danger, though they don’t yet know it. There is a conspiracy about, my friends. A conspiracy far above us that would use these poor creatures for their own evil purpose. I, along with you two, are going to save these lost Dome citizens from this evil.”
Henry and me looked at each other. “Look here, fella,” Henry said, moving to the edge of the couch, “we didn’t come here to save nobody, see. We came here for us. We don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no con-spiracy, and don’t wanna know. We jus’ wanna fit in here and figger out opportunities. Opportunities for us.” Henry looked at me, then back at Dirth.”
Henry sat back a little. “You can help us by explainin’ stuff so we can get along. That’s all we want fur you t’ be. An’ you’re gonna do that. We ain’t no softies like these Dome guys. We mean business, an’ jus’ business, see?”
Dirth looked at Henry and me for a minute, studying us like. “I though you’d come to say something like that. But listen to me, we’re going to help each other, I’m going to help you and you’re going to help me. That’s the business I’m in. You need to think about that and who’s got the upper hand here. From now on we’re a team with no back sliding. Either we work together, or I’ll just push you two out on your own. You wouldn’t last very long out there by yourselves, you got to know that.”
So, the three of us eyed each other for a while, then Dirth said, pretty firmly, “We all need to sleep now, we’re all tired. You two take the bedroom and I’ll sleep here on the couch. Tomorrow we’ll talk some more, but about how we can help each other. And no shenanigans.”
Then Dirth got up, and Henry and me went to the bedroom that was another room. There was a real, soft bed in there, all cozy like. Henry and me didn’t say much, we were keeping our thoughts to ourselves for now, I suppose, running them over in our heads to see which ones fit the best.
The only thing Henry said to me before we fell asleep was, “Say, what do you think ‘shenanigans’ means?” I just closed my eyes, turned over, and wondered what my dreams would be like from now on.
I was scared when I heard those footsteps, I can tell you. I looked over to Henry and his eyes were wide and staring. The sound of the steps were moving to our right, and I figured pretty soon they’d reach the start of the wavy pillar we were hiding behind.
I looked that way, expecting to see whoever was walking to appear. I sort of scrunched down, but I knew that wouldn’t help if whoever it was peered around the pillar. He’d see us. All of a sudden the footsteps stopped a little way past us. It was a shivering moment. I held my breath, thinking the footsteps guy heard something.
Then the footsteps sound started again, but moving more slow, like it was listening or something. I just knew the guy or whatever it was had spotted us somehow. I had to think fast what I’d do if he came around the pillar and saw us. I thought I’d have to run up and knock him for sure. I glanced back to Henry, and he seemed to be pulling out of his daze or whatever it was. He seemed more alert. I whispered to him, “Listen, if that guy comes around the edge and sees us, we’re gonna run to him and knock him a good one, understand?” Henry nodded and got to his knees, like he was ready. I was on my haunches by then, ready to spring.
We waited. The footsteps stopped again right at the far end of the pillar. It seemed a long time we waited. Then suddenly a head appeared around the corner. It was long and thin, with big, bright eyes staring at us. My heart jumped, and I somehow couldn’t move, it was that scary. Then it spoke, “Do tell, what do I smell, two old codgers from the bottom of the well,” and smiled at us with a wide, nice toothy smile.
I was stunned by that head and what he said, but Henry, behind me, jumped to his feet by instinct, I guess. But I was still couching, and in his haste he toppled over me. We both lay sprawled on the floor, Henry on top of me.
“Come, come,” the head said as Henry and I picked ourselves up, “no need for all that! I’ll not harm you. Let’s be friends.” Then the head moved into the opening and a man appeared below it. He was tall and thin, too, with long, dangling arms. He was wearing this black and white checkered suit from head to toe. He just stood there looking at us calm like.
Henry and me picked ourselves up and stood side by side, staring stupid at this guy. Henry collected himself before me. He said, “Listen here, bub, you come over here to us. You try to run we’ll catch you and knock you good. We’re not scared to do it, neither.”
The man walked slowly toward us closer in an easy way, still smiling. “No need for that,” he said. “Nothing’s going to happen to you. You’re lucky I found you instead of someone else. Let’s be friends.”
I was still scared like, but Henry said with a smirk on his face, “Yeah, right. You come over here with us so we can keep a eye on you, close. An’ don’t do nothin’ swift, be gentle an’ don’t set off no alarm, neither.”
The man gingerly strolled over right up to me and Henry. He was a little taller than us in his check suit, and he kept his smile, like beaming at us. “I assure you, gentlemen, I am a friend,” he said. He had a pretty soft voice, not threatening or anything. He just stood there quiet and still. Then he said, looking us over, “You two interest me. I see you’re from the outlands, and we don’t meet you people very often. You mean nothing to us, but like I say, I have some interest in you, for my own reasons. And I think to your benefit, too.”
Henry and me were both tensed up, ready to make a move in case this guy did something funny no matter how gentle he talked. I glanced at Henry. He still had a stupid but purposeful look on his ugly face. I turned to the man and said, steady like, “Looky here, we don’t mean you no harm neither, but we’ll for sure give you a good one if you do somethin’ stupid. If you set out some alarm or try to come at us you’re in trouble, see. We mean business, and that you need to understand good.”
The man just stood with his smiling face pointed at us. "I’m not going to do anything against you or set off any alarm. I want to help you,” he said, smooth like. “You can trust me. I won’t lie to you, you could be in big trouble here by yourselves. You’re only safety is with me, so let’s be friendly.”
I didn’t like the feel of the situation. In the village, you don’t trust nobody you don’t know, and not much you do know. It’s everyone for his self. So here’s this stranger, and I mean strange stranger, tellin’ us to trust him and be friends. Anybody tells you he wants to be your friend is especially suspicious.
Then Henry said, “All this talk about trust means nothin’ t’ us, see. The only trust you need is if you do us wrong you’ll pay for it. That’s trust, fella’. You come over here by the wall an’ we’ll talk a bit.” Henry motioned the man back to the end of the pillar where it met the wall. We backed away and the man followed. At the wall Henry motioned the man to sit, and we sat, too, close together, but ready for anything.
“Our satiation here is like this,” Henry began. “We’re strangers here, but not so strange we can’t figger out what’s goin’ on, an’ what’s gonna go on. We might need you for our benefit, not yours. We got plans, see. That’s our advantage. You’re advantage is you’re still alive, savvy?”
I was a little surprised at Henry. I didn’t think he could logicalize that good, but he did, so I let him talk.
“Now, see, what you’re gonna do is make life a lot easier for us in this place. We got to have to move around and look things over. You live here, so you know stuff we don’t know, yet. You’re gonna be like our guide for a while. You’re okay as long as you cooperate. You don’t know but we got weapons that could stop you in your tracks quick, one false move. We got t’ d’pend on you some, but you got t’ d’pend on us even more. From now on we stay close. You try getting’ away some and it’s the end, you got that clear?”
“Of course!” The man said, happy like, like that’s exactly what he wanted Henry to say. “That’s exactly my sentiment entirely!” He said, smiling that big, shiny toothy smile of his. “We’re partners, you two and me. We’re inseparable, like brothers in kin. Tthis makes it so much easier for us all. Our pact is our bond!” The smiling man reached out his hand, but we didn’t make a move to take it. He took his hand away, but not embarrassed or anything. Then he said, still glad like, “How fortunate to meet two gentlemen so compatible!” His smile sharpened and disappeared to a serious look. He eyed both of us. “Now, let’s get down to basics. You two can’t just wander around like you are, even with me beside you, you can see that.” He looked down at his checkered suit. “First you must have clothes. I’ll skip out and get you some. You wait here and stay quiet. I won’t be but a little while.”
The man started to get up, but I reached over and put a firm hand on his shoulder. “You’re not gettin’ away that quick, fella,” I said. “We might need funny clothes like yours, but we let you go and who knows what’ll happen next. No, you stay here and we’ll think this over.”
The man sat down again. “I can understand your anxiety, my friends, but you just can’t sit here forever, now can you? You’ve got to trust me. On your own, you’ll never get very far in here, I can tell you that for sure. Outlanders are not welcome. You’d be caught and given a very hard time of it.”
Henry said, eyeing the man suspiciously, “What’s your take in this, fella’? I mean, why should you help us? Who are you? What’s your angle?”
“My angle?” The man said. He kind of squirmed around to a more comfortable sitting. “Well, I have some use for you fellas, and you have some use for me. Together we benefit each other, like I say, like partners.” He turned to Henry. “You said you have plans, well I have plans, too. Maybe our plans meet together. I can’t tell you much about it just now.” He looked at both of us. “You’ll have to get used to this place and learn some about it first. That’s where I come in. I’ll teach you, show you around. You’ll see what this place is like and what goes on. You’ll be plenty interested, I think.”
Henry and I leaned away a little and had a whispered conference. I turned to the man. “Okay, maybe we can trust you, maybe not. You get us some clothes, and when you come back we’ll be in that machine room yonder waiting for you, but you won’t see us. You go down those metal steps and wait. We’ll come to you. We’ll stick together, see? After that, whatever happens, you make a funny move, we knock you, understand?”
“Good plan, my friends,” the man said and smiled. He got up and walked to the end of the wavy pillar, stopped and turned around to us. “Don’t fret; I’ll be back in a little while. You’ll see, you can trust me alright. From now on, the three of us are going to make some changes around here.”
And so we sat on the scaffolding high above the floor below. The light was brighter up there as we looked around us at tubes and pipes wandering away in all directions, wondering what it was all about. Below were the big machines, gray and shadowy.
After a while, Henry turned to face me. “Let’s go get this guy,” he said, like he’d maked up his mind. I could see his eyes dancing in his head, a look on his saggy face I didn’t like to see. “We got no choice. We gotta move him outta the way to get in, see? It’s like that, son. You’ll learn we gotta be doin’ stuff you maybe won’t like, but you gotta do it anyway.” Henry looked at me deep, critical like, like he was measuring me.
“Okay,” I said in a low voice. I figured whatever Henry had in mind, I could soften it up some, but I wasn’t sure. In the heat of battle it’s easy to loose your self-control. I seen some unnecessary blood spilt because of it. If I kept my head maybe it would work out not as bad as I was thinking. I don’t mean I never was a perpetrator myself, I just didn’t like it.
So we sneaked quietly over to the glass room and peaked in. The guy was still sitting there the same as before, not moving. We were crouching down together, Henry’s face next to mine close. He gave me the wink and counted to three with his fingers. On three we both jumped around the corner to where the door to the room was and busted inside.
It was a small room and Henry got to the guy first. He stopped just behind him and grabbed him by the shoulders. I went around to the guy’s side in case he tried to send an alarm or something, I’d grab his arms. But the guy just sat there as if nothing happened, like we weren’t even in the room with him!
“Okay buddy, you just sit tight, we won’t hurt you, so you just relax.” That’s what Henry said to the guy, but the guy didn’t even move, even with Henry’s hands holding him tight by his shoulders. I stood there for a minute, ready, expecting the guy to jump or something, but he just sat there as if nothing was going on!
I looked at Henry and Henry looked at me. I leaned over to see the guy’s face. He was just staring ahead, no expression on his face at all. Henry leaned over the top of the guy’s head to see. “Is he dead?” Henry said to me. I looked close at the guy, and I could see he was breathing. Henry moved around to the other side of the chair from me and poked his ugly face right in that guy’s face. Nothing! The guy didn’t even blink his eyes or look at Henry.
“This guy must be paralyzed or somethin’,” Henry said. “Maybe he’s sick.” Henry and me looked at each other again. Then I moved my hand in front of the guy’s face. He didn’t flinch or nothin’ at all.
I looked over the desk he was sitting at. There was another panel of knobs and such in front of the guy plus some kind of little window. That’s what the guy was staring at. I didn’t know what to make of it, it was unreal in a way. I sort of relaxed then, though, but still I thought the guy might be faking, might jump up any second, then we’d have to clobber him, I guessed.
It was perplexin’, I’ll tell you. Then I looked close at his face. He was middle-age, I guess, kind of flabby and wearing a grey suit, like a work outfit. His hair was brown but kind of thin with bushy eyebrows above blue staring eyes. He looked like a normal guy, but the eyes were what got me. They just stared ahead, spooky-like. It was hard to figure. What was this guy’s problem? How could he not notice us and not move at all? Nobody could pretend that good. I even poked him a couple of times. Nothing. It was bewilderin’, like I say.
I straightened up and turned to Henry. “I don’t think we have to worry about him,” I said at last. “He’s not going to push no alarm, he’s not doing nothin’!” Then I said, “Maybe he’s took some pills or something, you know, he’s high or out of it. Nobody can be as dumb as him and be normal.”
Henry relaxed his grip on the guy’s shoulders a little, then he looked around the room. “I don’t get it,” he said, slow-like. “Why’s this guy sittin’ here like this? Like he doesn’t even know we’re here, he doesn’t know nothin’. It don’t make sense.” Then Henry squirmed up his face and scratched his head. “Maybe all these dome guys are dumb like this one,” he said.
Then Henry smiled his gruesome smile and patted the guy on top of his head. “You just sit here like a good boy, pal. We won’t bother you no more.” Henry turned to me. “Come on, let’s get out of here. We got that door to tend to.”
So we walked out of the glass room. I looked back and the guy was still sitting there the same. Well, ahead of us was the door we hoped went into the Dome itself. When we got to it, we stopped and had a conference. Henry said, “We’ll crack the door open a piece and I’ll have a little look-see. If the coast is clear we’ll slide out secret-like and find some place to hide. We got to scope the insides for a while a’fore we can decide what to do next.”
So Henry cracked the door open just enough to peer around. He was lookin’ for a long time it seemed to me, so I said, “What’s out there?”
Henry pulled his head back in. “It’s all bright. There’s a big thing, like a big pillar or wall or somethin’ to one side. We can get behind that for hidin’ for just now. Let’s make it quick, I don’t see nobody around neither.”
Henry opened the door a crack with me eagerly close behind. I was kinda shaking with excitement and fear too. “Let’s go!” Henry said of a sudden, and quick as a flash he opened the door just enough and we dashed through. We moved fast to our left to the big wide pillar and crouched down behind it. It was really bright in there and it took a second for my eyes to adjust.
The pillar was like a wave of smooth wall growing out of the floor way up to some ceiling too high to see. It was blue and shiny, made of metal. In back of us was a real wall. The glimpse I got ducking behind the pillar was of a lot of colors. I guess my eyes weren’t used to the bright light, so I really didn’t know what it was.
Crouching down there, I felt like I didn’t belong, I’ll tell you that. Here me and Henry in our shabby, dusty clothes all crumpled and thread-bare in this clean, shiny place. I reached down and ran my hand on the floor beneath me. It was smooth and shiny like the big pillar. It was beautiful, like nothing I’d ever seen or felt. The pillar grew out of the floor and sailed up and up, so high I couldn’t see the end. Another thing was, I couldn’t tell where all the light was coming from. It was like it was everywhere, but coming from nowhere.
I nudged Henry. “What now?” I asked. Henry looked confused. His old face was kind of blank. I guessed he was struck by the place we found ourselves in, too. So I turned away from him. I listened, but I couldn’t hear a sound. That was good, ‘cause it meant we were alone most likely.
I looked back past Henry, and saw the pillar sort of curved back to the wall some way off. I put my hand on Henry’s shoulder and motioned to that direction. Henry shook his head in a vague way, and we slunk over to where the pillar met the wall. I figured that would be the best place to think, out of the way. We sat there on the smooth floor, our backs against the wall with the wide pillar in front of us, both of us not really knowing what to do next.
After a minute I said, “Listen, Henry, this is a good hiding place for a while, but pretty soon we’re going to have to sneak around this wavy pillar and scope what’s out there.” I pointed a finger to where the pillar stopped. Henry nodded, but he didn’t seem to be in no big hurry. “Say,” I said, “you got somethin’ to eat in that bag of yours?”
Henry absently pulled the bag from over his shoulder, reached in and pulled out some biscuits and a bottle of water. We munched on them biscuits and drank some water for a while. I didn’t like Henry’s look. He still looked confused and sort of helpless in his face, like he’d stumbled into someplace he hadn’t expected. “We’re okay for now, Henry,” I said, trying to comfort him. “It seems there’s nobody about, so pretty soon we can move out and have a lookie. But let’s relax here for now, okay?”
Henry nodded again, his eyes wide, crumbs in his scraggily beard. I was worried about Henry. Could his old dusty brain deal with whatever we’d find out there in the Dome, or wherever we were? I wasn’t too confident about myself, neither. We were strangers in a strange land, and we didn’t fit. Then I heard harsh footsteps on the metal floor that sounded close on the other side of the wavy pillar.
We weren’t alone anymore.
Henry and me carefully moved through the doorway of the vent into the room beyond. It was a really big room with a high ceiling way up there. There were a couple lights high up, but they didn’t shine too bright, so the room was pretty gloomy. There were big grey machines hulking around here and there, and pipes and tubes running overhead everywhere.
We shuffled about a bit, being cautions. I was real nervous about actually being in the Dome, but excited, too. We didn’t know if there was anybody in there, so we kept quiet. We sort of just wandered around together for a while staying close, looking at the mysterious machines towering around us and following the pipes and tubes above with our eyes. It was amazing to us, we’d never seen anything like it, being from the shabby primitive little village and all.
Pretty soon I looked back and saw the doorway gleaming in the darkness. I walked back and shut the door. I didn’t want anyone to see it open, that would for sure give us away. I walked back to where I had been standing, but Henry was nowhere in sight. “Henry!” I said as quiet as I could, but still loud enough he’d hear it. There was no answer.
Even though it was cool enough in the big room, I started to sweat a little, wondering what’d happened. I know Henry. He’d likely to wander off and do something dumb. “Henry!” I said again, a little louder. Still nothing. It was spooky in that place, all dark and gloomy and strange, not knowing what might I come to next.
Well, I walked around for a while in the dim light, passing the big machines of all sorts, some squat and long, some towering over me. They gave me the feeling they were gigantic, gray animals sleeping. I wondered why all these machines were silent. Maybe there wasn’t anybody in the Dome, after all. Maybe it’s all empty, all the people left or dead or something.
This thought gave me a sinking feeling. But then I though, then the Dome would belong to me and Henry. Our own kindom, like. Maybe we could invite all the villagers in to live there. We could learn to re-start the machines and live a good life after all our poverty and despair.
Then I thought how does the big fan in the vent work if there’s nobody to turn it on? Maybe it comes on by itself. Sort of a last gasp. I chuckled to myself at the joke.
I looked up to the ceiling high above at the dim lights above. “I’m in a really big, big room,” I said aloud, but quiet. “How could a room this big be built, and all out of metal? All full of big machines and pipes going every which way, but nothing doing anything?” It was pretty mysterious alright. I guess I should have expected.
I took a few more steps, then thought I could see someone moving far off in the gloom. I was hoping it was Henry, but I couldn’t be sure. I sort of stepped easy in that direction, but kept to the shadows. The floor was some kind of steel, so I was trying not to make any loud footsteps. I passed a few more machines in the dimness, and finally I could see who was moving around. It was Henry, of course, being stupid.
He was climbing high up on some scaffolding, up a metal ladder. He turned and waved at me as I neared. “What are you doin’ up there!” I said out loud, but still quiet-like.
“Come on up,” Henry said back. “There’s all kinds of stuff up here!”
I looked around, and near me there were metal steps leading up to where Henry was. He was standing on a metal platform at the top of the scaffolding. The whole scaffolding was metal grating, and so were the steps. I climbed up to the top where Henry was. He sat down on the edge of the scaffolding, his legs dangling. I stood above him. “Well?”
“Look yonder,” he said, his thumb pointing back behind his head. I looked, and behind Henry was a great control panel, all with switches and dials and knobs all over it. “I guess that controls all the machines,” Henry said.
“Yeah, so what?”
Henry grinned his horrible grin. “That’s not it,” he said. “Look again.”
I looked around. The metal platform we were on lead back away from the panel into the darkness. “Yeah, okay, what?” I asked.
Henry giggled in his croaky voice. His grin grew wider, but he said calmly, “There’s another door back there, boy. I reckon it must go into the Dome. I was just over there, saw the door, and climbed down to find you. I didn’t see you anywhere, so I climbed back up, figured you’d pop out below someplace. And you did.”
I turned and peered back into the dim passage to where Henry said was a door. I could see nothing in the darkness. I turned quickly back to Henry, sitting lazily on the edge of the scaffolding. “Well then, let’s get to it!” I said excitedly.
“There’s somethin’ I didn’t tell you,” Henry said, turning his face to me. “There’s a little room by that door with a light, all in glass, with a man sittin’ in it. We got to get passed him to get to the door. What ‘bout that, champ?”
I looked back to the passageway. “I see,” I said slowly. “Well, how ‘bout we just sneak by him?”
“I think the guy would see us, bein’ he’s in a glass room, and he’d see us open the door, too,” Henry replied. “It’s a tricky sit’tiation,” he said, looking down at his hands. “We got t’ have a plan. I been sittin’ here thinkin’. That’s what I been doin’ while you been wanderin’ around down there doin’ nothin’.” Henry grinned back up to me. “See, I ain’t so dumb as you think. I mean, I had the smarts to have a tool to open that first door, didn’t I? Maybe I got other stuff to take care of that guy in that little room, too.” Henry’s grin got wider and his eyes flashed in the dim light.
“Listen, Henry,” I said, “I’m not ready to knock heads just yet.” I looked back over my shoulder. “We got to figure this out better than that. We got to be sneaky about all this. We don’t want to just leave a trail of bodies behind us as we go. That’s stupid.”
Henry turned his head back around and looked into the darkness again. “Yeah, but, like I said a’fore, we got to take our opportunities as they come. We got to do what we got to do to find out all we can about this place. These Dome guys might be smart builders, but they got to be soft, mostly. I didn’t come here to just sneak around and look at stuff. I got bigger plans than that.”
I looked out into the darkness. For the first time I saw Henry in a new way and it frightened me a little. We all had to be clever to survive in the village, and Henry had survived longer than most. Our life was a you or me survival. I’d seen some nasty moments happen. I always tried to avoid these and knew when to walk away or to mind my own business. I’d done pretty good for myself staying out of trouble like that.
I’d known Henry to be a tough old guy, though, and he never backed away from a situation. He always had some equalizer or something up his sleeve to settle in his favor. He was a crazy old coot, but he got respect, too. People didn’t mess with him much in the village, they mostly left him alone. I didn’t really think about this until now.
“Well, let’s not get too crazy right off,” I said to sooth the situation. “Let me sneak over down that way and have a looksee. Maybe this guy’ll skip out for a smoke or something. He can’t stay in that little room forever.”
“Do that,” Henry said, still peering into the darkness. “But don’t get caught. Look around and you’ll see what it is. Think about just why we’re here, friend.” Henry looked up at me, his face serious. “We can’t jus’ sit ‘round here and twiddle our thumbs. I ain’t goin’ back to the village, and I ain’t sittin’ here for long, neither. I’m getting’ into that Dome, son, one way or t’nother. You watch an’ see.”
I looked down at Henry, sitting on the edge of the scaffold, still dangling his legs, peering into the gloom around him. He was right, though. We couldn’t just stay here and do nothing. We had to make a move. I thought we could maybe blow into that room sudden, take a’hold of the guy and get some information. We needed to know something about inside the Dome. Maybe he’d talk, and then we could tie him up or something so we could move on.
But then I thought, then he’d be discovered sometime and set off an alarm or something. Then I though we could make a noise below so the guy’d go out of his room to see what it was. Then we’d sneak in. Thing was, I’d have to convince Henry of some other plan than just knocking the guy. Just knocking him, he’d be discovered anyway, so what was the use of that?
So, I left Henry and snuck around down passageway real quiet. There was a little glass room alright, with a man sitting in it at a desk. He was just sitting there. Then I noticed there was a door to the room around the corner of it. Beyond the room I could make out a door in the wall close by. I stood there for a minute watching the guy, but he didn’t move any. I thought this peculiar, but then I thought maybe he was intent looking at something, some dial or other. So I snuck back to where Henry was. I stood above him and he turned to look up at me. “Well?” He asked, a look of amusement on his face.
“We got to get him out of that room, somehow,” I said.
Henry smiled his gruesome smile. “Yeah,” Henry said. “We’ll get him out of that room, a’right. You jus’ wait ‘n see.”
So Henry and me scrunched down at the top of the hill, peering over the crest. She was starting to blow alright, and the guards had scurried into the protection of their guardhouse. Slowly the vent was puffing stronger, billowing up dust from the dry ground around it. Henry and I waited. The vent had to be blowing at full force before we dared scamper down the hill and into that mayhem of flying debris.
Henry pulled the gas masks from the bag and handed one to me. We pulled them over our heads and looked at each other. I could tell Henry was grinning horribly under his mask, though I couldn’t see his face, thank goodness. We looked back to the vent. The vent was now almost completely obscured by the dust. It was time we moved.
We got to our feet and stood on the top of the hill. We both were taken aback by the power of the wind. It would be tough going, walking against that blizzard of air and dust hurtling at us. hurl
Nevertheless, I gave the signal, and we launched ourselves over the top of the hill, sliding down over the rocks and dirt of the other side. When we got to level ground it was bad. We could hardly stand in the onslaught. We bowed our heads and leaned into the hurricane. Slowly, step by step, we stumbled forward. The flying dust and rubble stung our bodies and pelted our gas masks. The wind was deafening in our ears as we struggled on into the raging tempest.
Another problem was, we couldn’t see where we were going. The eyepieces in the gas masks were fogging up on the inside and scratched dull on the outside. We kept going, though, close, side by side. I could feel Henry’s shoulder rub against mine. I reached over and locked arms with him.
After a little while I felt Henry falter, then recover his balance. It was exhausting, pushing myself against the blinding wind and pulling Henry on, too. My legs were aching with the effort. I had the feeling Henry wasn’t going to make it, but surprisingly, he kept up in his tottering way.
I could tell we were moving in the right direction, though, because the force of the wind kept getting stronger as we struggled forward. I wondered how strong it would be in the vent itself. It might just blow us both over, and there we’d be, helplessly lying on the ground unable to move any farther. But we kept pushing on.
After about thirty more steps Henry stumbled and fell. He almost took me down with him, but I leaned over as he went down, arm in arm to cushion his fall.
“Henry!” I shouted through the rushing wind, “You alright?!”
There was no answer. I figured he was too exhausted to speak. I settled down beside him for a moment wondering what to do. I pulled on his arm to try to get him back to his feet, but it was useless in this deluge of wind and billowing dust. I crouched there next to him, the wind screaming in my ears. Maybe Henry was already dead, the effort too much, I thought. I kneeled and put my hand on his back. I could feel him breathing. The gas masks filtered out the dust alright, but what was left wasn’t much to breathe.
I waited, hoping Henry would recover enough to stand and fight on. We stayed there for a while, Henry lying on the ground and me crouching next to him. I needed a little rest myself. I lowered my head against the blow and tried to relax for a moment. Then I felt Henry move, and with some effort he got to his knees. I put my head next to his and shouted, “You think you can make it?! I felt his head nod against mine. I pulled on him, and slowly we got to our feet, leaning against the raging wind.
We struggled on then, me holding Henry up as best I could, taking short uncertain steps together. Then the miracle happened. The blow lessened, the pelting blast against our bodies gradually subsided to a gentle breeze. We stopped, and wearily stood straight at last. We still couldn’t see, but I was hoping we were far enough into the vent that when the blow stopped completely we could take off our masks and have a look around to tell where we were.
We stood there half in fear and half in hope. It was then I heard a whirring sound in front of us like a giant machine winding down. The wind was finally stopping. I reached up and pulled off my mask. Before me, behind a towering metal grate stood giant fan blades slowly rotating to a stop. I looked behind me into a long dark tunnel of the vent, at the end a small bright opening. We had made it.
I turned back to the great fan before me. I stood there sort of hypnotized, staring at the thing, its rotation slowly decreasing behind the grill. I looked around me to the right and left, to the ceiling and the floor. It was all smooth, seamless metal, gray in color. I’d never seen metal like that before. I moved to a wall and put my hand on it. It was cool to the touch. The inhabitants of the dome, whoever they were, were marvelous builders. And the Dome itself, what was it made of to glow so beautifully in the morning sunlight?
I suddenly felt in awe of these creatures, and in admiration. I also felt some fear of meeting them. What would they be like? I thought of Henry’s plan to take over the Dome. How foolish! Who ever these Dome dwellers were, they had risen far above us primitive villagers in every way. I thought of our crude shacks and our poverty and our stupidity and lowly existence in the village. What had happened to separate us from these superb builders?
In my wonder I had forgotten about Henry, then I noticed him standing a little away from me panting a little. He was looking around same as I was with an awed expression, too, on his horrible face. I’d never seen that expression before on anyone in the village. “Hey, Henry, we made it!” I yelled, smiling.
Henry looked at me and grinned his grin. “Yeah,” he said, wide-eyed. “Let’s get inside somewhere.” Henry was looking for some entrance into the Dome itself. “I don’t see a door or nothin’,” he said. “There must be someplace to get inside.”
I looked around, too. All there was was metal walls around us, except for the big grill and the big fan behind it. “Let’s search around, there ought to be somewhere to get in,” I said.
Henry and me wandered around, following the metal walls away from the grill. Pretty soon Henry yells out, “Lookie here!” I turned and saw Henry against a place by the wall. “There’s a crack here like a doorway!” he said, excitement in his croaking voice. “But there’s no handle or nothin’.”
I hurried over to where Henry was standing. He was right; there was a crack in the metal wall in the shape of a door. I tried to put my fingers in the crack. The crack was narrow but I got a little hold and pulled. Nothing. “It must be locked on the inside,” I said. “If we only had something to pry it open.”
Henry shoved his hands in his trouser pockets. “What about this?” He pulled out a piece of thin steel about six inches long. “I been savin’ this for somethin’,” he said, gazing dumbly at the object. “Don’t recall what, though.”
“Lucky we save stuff, Henry,” I said. We’re always picking up odd items from the dump all the time in case we could use them for something. “Let me have it here,” I said, reaching over and taking the piece of metal from Henry’s grimy hands. I stuck it in the crack and pried. “It moves a little,” I said hopefully. “Maybe there’s a latch I can jiggle.” I slid Henry’s metal piece down the crack. It hit something. “Yeah,” I said. “If I can get this thing to push or shove the latch back, we might be in!”
I worked for a while, trying this and trying that with Henry’s metal piece, trying to force the latch aside. It was pretty frustrating. I could feel the latch move, but it kept slipping back. Henry was standing real close, jittery-like, bobbing up and down with anxiety, watching my progress. I could smell his rancid breath. “Henry, step back a little will you?” I said, a little angry. “I gotta’ concentrate.”
I jiggled and wriggled the metal piece for it seemed a long time, but every time I thought I had it, the latch kept sliding back into place. Finally I gave up for a minute. “You got anything else in those pockets of yours?” I asked. Henry shuffled into his pockets again, pulling out various items, none of them any use. “Well,” I said, looking Henry in the eye, “this is all we got, so it’s gotta’ work. I’ll keep doing this; you look around for another doorway or something.” I said that just to get rid of him. I couldn’t concentrate with him standing so close and breathing on me.
So I got back to work on the latch. I fiddled and fiddled. My technique started to improve, though. A couple times I thought I almost had it, but then I’d loose it. It was hot in that ventway and my hands were sweating, making it hard to hold the metal piece just right. It was delicate work. I had to lean into it to put enough pressure on the latch to make it move. Then I thought maybe I could make a scratch or a groove in the latch to get a hold. I tried that, and pretty soon I must have, because after that I could move the latch more than before.
Then suddenly I’d got it! I felt the latch move all the way into the door. I pushed the end of the metal piece to pry the door open, and it worked! The door swung out enough for me to grab its edge with my other hand. I pulled and it swung all the way open! “Henry!” I shouted, “I got it open!”
I heard Henry’s hurried footsteps nearing me as I peered into the opened doorway. It was dark inside, but I could just make out some vague shapes. Henry shoved into me in his haste, pushing me and him through into the darkness beyond. We stopped together just inside. We could only make out dim outlines, like it was some big room filled with pipes and rails and tubes and what-not.
I turned to Henry, his ancient face close next to mine. “We’re in.” I whispered. Henry shook his head stupidly in recognition, then squinted his eyes to peer into the darkness. “Yeah,” he said softly, “we’re in.”
So the next day me and Henry set out through the dust for the little hill. He had his gas masks tucked away in a little cloth sack slung over his shoulder. As we walked he kept looking at me and grinning, grinning his gummy, toothless grin. A horrible sight, I must admit.
The dust puffed up around our shoes as we walked like little explosions. I studied them for a while as we walked. I study a lot of meaningless things, like dust and the grey formless sky. I always hope I see something different, but I never do. The sun was hot on the top of my head and I wished I had a hat. I had a hat once, but I traded it for something. I don’t remember what it was, though.
We kept moving in the heat of the barren, dry landscape past some withered trees, the back of my shirt gradually getting soaked with sweat. Henry was walking a little unsteady by my side now. I looked at him and wondered how far he could actually walk if he had to. I also wondered how far I could walk. Nobody leaves the village. There’s nothing beyond but a desolate landscape all around, so there’s no reason for anyone to trek very far. I wasn’t looking forward to our planned run.
The sky above was grey as usual. I supposed it was full of dust like the ground below it. Winds sometimes blew up great billows of the stuff that would cover the village pretty deep. I suppose like snow used to. After the wind storms it would be piled up in drifts against the shacks and ankle deep in the walkways.
After a while we could see the hill not far in front of us, and beyond, the dome. Henry was puffing a little by then. When we finally got to the hill we scrambled up to the top and lay down to rest. Henry looked at me and said, “Pretty interestin’, isn’t it?” Then he settled back, sort of out of breath.
Lying on my back I started wondering about stuff. I said, “Yeah. Look, Henry, when the vent blows and we have to run, you think you can make it? I mean, it’s pretty far. How’s your legs feeling?”
Henry looked down at his skinny legs hidden under his shaggy trousers. “I can make it alright,” he said. “It'll be about an hour before she blows. I got somthin’ to eat and a bottle o' water for energy. There’s nothin’ gonna stop me from gettin’ into that vent if I have to crawl half way. We got plenty o’ time anyway to recuperate. That vent blows and blows. We got plenty o’ time to make it.” Henry looked back up to the sky.
I looked away from Henry, then rolled over for a peek above the hill. Three guards were sort of lounging at the opening.
Henry joined me. He pointed over the crest. “See, they wouldn’t put guards there if that wasn’t an entrance, would they?” He said, looking from the vent to me and back again. “There’s doors or somethin’ deep inside. When we get in there we just find ‘em and scramble in!”
“Yeah, but what’s beyond the doors?” I said.
“Probly machinery,” Henry answered. “There’s got to be big fans or somethin’ to blow all that stale air out. Big machines to twirl the fans. There’s probly no one around 'cept maybe one guy to throw the switch. When we get in we just hide for a while. Then we scope the place out.”
“Yeah, then what?” I asked.
“Then we figger what to do next,” he said, grinning at me again. “Once we’re in, we’re in!” Henry looked back over the crest. “We’ll take it as it comes!”
I didn’t quite share Henry’s enthusiasm. We might get in alright, but it might be all for nothing. I looked at Henry. “What if we get caught?” I asked.
“We won’t,” he said, avoiding my eyes. “We’ll hide for a while, like I say, look around, figger our chances. There’s opportunity in there, see? That’s what I’m after…opportunity! Opportunity’s got to be all over the place once we’re inside, and lots of it! We’ll just grab every opportunity we come to. We’ll probly have to rob and steal, and maybe knock some heads now and then. We probly’ll have to. We got to be tougher than those inside.”
Henry rolled over on his back again. “Look what we have to put up with out here,” he mused, his eyes bulging with disgust. “We got to be smarter than them inside, cuz we have to live scrounging all the time and everythin’ just to stay alive out here.” Henry craned his neck and looked back over the top of the hill. “Yeah, I wouldn’t mind knocking a few heads in there just for the fun of it, the b******s. Probly after a while we might even take over the place. Jus’ think, us running the whole Dome! Those people jus’ probly jus’ slack around all the time, anyway. Easy prey. We’ll bully our way around. Those guys gotta’ be weak and dumb. It’s a synch.”
Henry had it all planned in his head. That’s alright for him, but I must admit I was starting to loose my nerve. It’s not so nice living in the village, but inside the Dome we’d be clueless and lost. The only thing that gave me a little courage was, if it was a dead end for us, we could always get back out the way we got in. It would just be a little adventure. We’d be famous in the village. The only ones that got into the Dome and lived to tell about it.
I rolled over on my back and relaxed. I figured we had another half hour before it would blow. Henry turned his withered head and stared at me. I could see a sort of far away, distant look in those old, sunken eyes. But I admired him. He still had a dream in all this desolation. Not many of us have dreams. There’s no future here to dream about. In a hundred years it’ll still be the same: the village, the barren land, the dust, the chill in winter and the blazing summer, dump days and gossip, loose teeth and getting old before your time. And the Dome, still looming over it all, clean and bright and shiny.
I rolled a little cigarette to wait with. From the spark of the cigarette the smoke rose slowly in the thick air. I watched it as it rose and hung for a while, then thinned and disappeared into nothing.
Then I felt a gentle breeze, like a delicate breath on my face. I looked to the top of the hill and saw faint swirls of dust rise and drift gently away. I nudged Henry. He stirred, and I pointed to the crest. “The vent is starting to blow,” I said quietly. “It’s time we get ready.”
I walked out the front door of my shack and faced the morning. It was hot as usual. The rains had ended a month ago, and now the prospect was for dry weather. I kicked the ground and dust rose to my ankles. “Oh well,” I thought to myself, “another summer.”
I looked out across the village. Sooty smoke was rising from various tin chimneys slowly congealing in the thick air. I was hungry, and it was breakfast time. I had eaten all of whatever I had scrounged the day before. I don’t even remember what it was, now. It doesn’t matter what I eat, as long as I eat.
Way out beyond the shacks and the few scraggly trees loomed the dome. I always liked the look of it at sunrise. It was like a giant crystal shining all the colors of the rainbow in the early morning sunlight. It’s the only color we have around here. Everything else is a shaggy grey, including ourselves.
Just then this old guy, Johnny, stumbled up beside me. “What’s goin’ on, man,” he said in his croaking, toothless voice.
“Nothin’,” I answered and turned away. I wasn’t in the mood for old Johnny just then, but he was hard to ignore. He always stood too close when he talked and his breath was rancid.
“Well, what we gonna do today?” He asked, like I was going to spend the entire day with him.
“We’re going to the opera this evening, Johnny, so you better clean yourself up. That’ll take most of the day, then put on your tuxedo and I’ll meet you over by the trash dump. See, that’s where I’ve hidden the limo. You haven’t seen it yet. It’s a beaut. You can be my chauffeur; I know how much you like to drive. What opera do you want it to be?”
“I-eat-a,” he said and laughed. His laugh was more like a choking sound, with no real humor in it.
I said, “Hey, I think that’s your friend over by the well waving at you.” There was a community well about a hundred yards from my shack.
John opened his barren mouth and squinted. “Yeah, I guess so,” he said, “catch ya later”. He stumbled off in the direction of the well. His friend wasn’t really at the well. Johnny would believe everything you’d tell him. His brain had rotted along with his teeth.
I thought of walking over to the well myself, but changed my mind; it was too crowded this time in the morning. The water was brown and greasy and I always boiled it, but lots didn’t.
Now I noticed Henry strolling my way. He lived two hooch’s down from my shed. He was the expert. “Hey,” he called out as he neared, “heard the latest?”
I wasn’t really in the mood for Henry, either, but you stand in front of your dwelling and sooner or later everybody shows up. Not much else to do in the village but gossip.
He stopped in front of me and looked over my shoulder at my shack. “You got a new door or somethin'?” he asked.
“No,” I answered. “Same old door, same old shack.” Henry kept looking past me to my door for some reason. “You sure you don’t got a new door?”
“No,” I said again. “What’s with my door?”
Henry looked away nervously. “Oh, nothin’,” he said, “it just looks different somehow. Maybe it’s the hinges. You get new hinges?” He said hopefully.
“Look,” I said, “let’s forget about the door, okay? So, what’s the latest?”
Henry took my arm. “I’m gonna tell you somethin’ nobody else needs to know, see?” He said, quiet like. “I know I can trust you, you’re an okay guy.” He looked around hesitantly. “It’s about the, you know.”
I knew what he was talking about, the “you know”. Henry was always talking about the same thing. It was his life’s work. I breathed a little sigh and asked, “So, what’s the news this time?”
He pulled me closer and spoke almost in a whisper, “I’ve found a gap in security. It’s not a big gap, just a tiny little gap. I’ve been watchin’ this one place for a while now. It’s over that little hill. I’ve been peepin’ over that hill watchin'. Especially at night you can see it. It’s very subtle, microscopic, really, but it’s there all the same. It’s the air vent.”
Henry looked around again like everyone in the village was suddenly silent, straining to hear what he was saying. “It’s the air vent,” he whispered again.
“The air vent,” I repeated. “They’re the most guarded places, Henry. That’s useless news, everybody knows that. Anyway, nobody really wants to get into the Dome. What would be the point? You’d be caught on your first step.”
“Yeah, I know,” Henry agreed. “But what if you weren’t caught? What then?”
Obviously, Henry had no idea. Entering a Dome would be a useless task. You wouldn’t know what to do. You wouldn’t fit in. Your rags, for one thing. It’s a completely different society. Any of us would just stand there at the entrance not knowing what to do next. Well, there wouldn’t be anything to do.
“I want to show you this place,” Henry said softly. “It’s real interestin’. You wouldn’t notice the gap yourself, I’d have to show you.”
“I don’t think so, Henry,” I said. “Besides, this is dump day.”
“Yeah.” Henry's face brightened. “That’s the best time to look. Everybody’s busy and won’t notice us. Come on.”
So we walked for a while toward the dome. My thoughts were really on the dump, but Henry is the kind of guy who won’t leave you alone when he has an idea in his scraggly head.
It was pretty far to the vent, but eventually we got to this little rise. We climbed it, and the Dome loomed up before us, its rainbow colors subdued in the late morning light. We crouched down and peered over the top of the little hill at the big air vent sticking out maybe a hundred yards from the dome.
The guards were walking away to some guardhouses that protruded from the structure. We knew then that soon the stale air of the Dome would be gushing out, adding to the stale air already surrounding it.
“Wait ‘till its last gasp,” Henry said, staring enthusiastically. “Then you’ll see what I mean.”
So we waited. I rolled over on my back and began to roll a cigarette. Just then the sound of a great gush of wind filled the air.
“Look!” Henry said. I rolled over and looked. The air rushing out of the vent blew up turmoil of dust. “I can’t see anything,” I said.
“That’s just it!” Henry exclaimed in excitement. “You can’t see anything! That’s our queue. We rush it! Through the dust! The guards won’t be able to see us! They won’t be looking anyway, they’ll be stashed away in the guardhouse away from all that crap blowing around! It’s a synch!” Henry looked at me with bulging eyes, a barren smile. All gums.
“Yeah,” I said, thinking. “It’s possible, but how do we breathe?”
“Ha!” Henry barked. “I confiscated some old gas masks left over from the war. Found them in the dump long time ago. Was savin' ‘em in case they try to get rid of us with poison or something sometime. No problem!”
“Okay,” I said, sort of humoring him, “but then what? The vents don’t stay open for very long. We’d have to run like hell to get inside, then through the door or whatever it is on the inside.” I looked at Henry’s wrinkled face. “Can you run, Henry?” I asked doubtfully.
“I can run for that,” he said, a sort of hopeful confident look on his old face.
I turned and looked back to the vent. It was still puffing. I didn’t think Henry could make it. It was pretty far from the hill and the vent was pretty long, too. Hell, I wasn’t sure I could make it that far, running. I sat on my butt and slid down the gravelly hill. Henry followed. We got up, dusted ourselves off and walked slow back to the village, Henry staying anxiously close by my side.
When we got back to the village I stopped and looked around. Henry was still right up next to me. “I’ll think it over," I said, taking a step away from him. "I’m going to the dump. You coming?”
“I got other stuff to do,” Henry mumbled, eyeing me nervously. “Yeah, you think it over.” Then he turned and shambled away, occasionally looking back at me over his shoulder. I watched him until he finally faded away, blending in with the dust and debris of the village.
I stood there looking at the shabbiness of the village teetering around me. I took a breath. “Well, what have I got to loose?” I thought to myself. “In ten years I’ll be Henry.” My tongue searched for my first wobbly tooth, found it, and rocked it back and forth. Around me, one by one the villagers were coming out of their shacks and heading for the dump. I spit onto the dusty ground, then squinted up to the sun, sizzling in the colorless sky. “Another summer,” I murmured. I shook off my reverie and joined the other villagers. Don’t want to be late for dump day.
I think I have one more story to post. It’s in several chapters, and I’m not sure it will interest anyone, as I’m not really a very competent writer of fiction. I want to thank you who have read my poor efforts, or tried to. They’re all just ideas, really, written out in fictional form. Ideas that interest me, and not necessarily anyone else, of course.
This last one is The Dome story, which I posted a couple years ago or whatever, but never finished. My brain rebelled at all the thought required to come up with a punch line, which is always the conclusion to every tale. Stories are like jokes in that they must have some exciting or entertaining or philosophical or surprising ending to them.
For instance, try to make up your own original joke and see how easy it is! It’s not easy, I’ll tell you. But, I suppose I’ll post this last saga anyway. Maybe just to spite myself. See, my brain seems to enjoy punishing me for some reason. It gives me ideas, then cowers in some gooey biological corner of itself when it realizes all the mental effort it will require to work these ideas out to their conclusion.
On the bright side, it seems some people actually do read my stuff (or more likely, start to read then give up in desperation), and even that makes me happy, though I’m not sure what benefit they get out of my little stories. Hopefully something of what I’ve tried to put into them, some idea, thought or emotion that I’ve wanted to convey.
So, I’ll start posting The Dome pretty soon, I think. Just don’t expect too much, feel free to skip it and do something more profitable with your time. If I go out with a whimper and not a bang with this thing, so be it. I'll still be busy taking care of my cats.
Thunder rumbled somewhere in the troubled distance that night for eight men in a hidden laboratory. Three wore white gowns, three lay on hospital tables while one hovered over them anxiously. Another distinguished looking man, the eights, a certain Professor Moritz, sat to the side in a chair, observing.
The three lying on tables had metal helmets covering their shaved heads. Many, many wires, thin as spider’s silk, ran in bundles from the helmets up, up to complex connections in the ceiling. From there the filaments lead to another room where all three bundles joined together and passed to a large computer standing grey and steadfast.
One of the three on the tables seemed asleep, his eyes closed tightly, though under his eyelids one would notice the eyes twitching sporadically. Another was obviously awake, peering apprehensively at the ceiling. The third lay as if asleep, but he was not.
The one hovering over them anxiously seemed satisfied, and turned from the others to approach the man sitting in the chair, and spoke to him.
“Sleep is a strange thing, Professor Moritz,” he said, indicating the man asleep on the table, “and dreams even stranger. Who knows what consciousness creates dreams? Perhaps dreaming we are awake, and awake we are dreaming. An old philosophical question, yes.” The man indicated the many connections from the helmets. “But with this interface, tonight we may come to know the answer."
The Professor sat and said nothing.
“What occurs when we combine the two, Professor?” The anxious man asked, “The dreams of man and his wakefulness? What mind can merge and coalesce with such a peculiar duality?” Now the man pointed to all three men lying on tables. “Which of these is truly awake? There are two moons in the sky, Professor Moritz. I intend only one.”
He looked to the man seated and continued, “I have learned a great deal from you at the university, sir. You taught that human consciousness was the highest vibration in the biological spectrum. You were wrong, Professor. Here as you see, I alone have gone beyond your inadequate theories! I have discovered the great vibration that first brought life into the world!”
Professor Moritz now raised his eyes to the man speaking. “And your proof?” He asked with contempt in his voice.
“Tonight you shall have your proof!” The anxious man replied. “First I experimented with animals with some success. But animals cannot communicate their consciousness to us. Now I am going to use that man there lying on that table, and endow him with new life!”
Professor Moritz glanced over to the man indicated. ”And you really believe you can bring new life to the living?” He asked.
“That man has never lived, Professor Moritz!” The anxious man replied firmly. He turned his back to the Professor now to watch his three assistants busily adjusting various images on computer screens. Finally, one of them turned and said fatefully, “We are ready.”
The anxious man turned back to Professor Moritz. He said genially, “This gentleman who has just spoken I have recruited from the most prestigious computer laboratory in Japan. He is the greatest cognitive scientist in the world! You may have heard of him. His name is Doctor Rogi.”
The Professor made no sign of recognition. Then the anxious man spoke solemnly, “Throw the switch!”
Doctor Rogi reached up and touched gently a key on a computer console. There was another rumbling of thunder in the distance as he lowered his finger, then turned to watch the man lying silently on the table.
The man lay; eyes closed, seemingly oblivious to what had been happening around him. After a moment his facial features tensed, his eyes suddenly opened wide, as if some desperate conflict was occurring deep within his mind. Abruptly he sat up. He looked quickly around the room, his eyes glaring at all he saw. The anxious man watched intently. The man then reached up, grasped the helmet covering his head, pulled it away and flung it violently to the floor. He cautiously swung his legs around and unsteadily stood, holding to the table behind him for support. The man released his grip, took a careful step and stood free.
One of the assistants whispered quietly to his fellows, “It’s alive, it’s alive!”
The anxious man glanced to the speaker, then back to the freely standing man. He spoke the words that finished the sentence he knew so well. “In the name of God,” he said softly, “now I know what it feels like to be God.”
The standing man seemed to gain some confidence as all watched him warily. His eyes cleared, he looked at his surroundings now with understanding. He took two more experimental steps. Now he was steady and secure on his feet. Without a word and with assurance, he strode purposely across the room, past the astonished assistants, to a door on the opposite side of the room and opened it confidently. He then paused at the doorway and turned to the anxious man. He smiled. It was a smile that brought a chill to that one. He had never seen that smile before on a human face. He could not tell if it was one of benevolence or one of the most malicious cunning.
Then the man turned away and simply walked purposely into the outer corridor. There was the sound of another door opening and closing. It was the door that lead to the world outside. The man was free.
Rogi turned to the anxious man and said loudly, “We must stop him!”
"The anxious man said, “Let him go. He needs to be alone now.”
Professor Moritz stood, slightly amused, and spoke jokingly to the assembly. “It seems you have created a Doctor Frankenstein's Monster!”
“No, Professor, it is the reverse!” The anxious man replied. “I have not created a Monster, Professor Moritz, I have created a new Doctor Frankenstein!”
The anxious man then turned away and walked slowly to a window. He peered thoughtfully into the endless darkness. There was another rumbling of thunder, now closer and more intense than before. He spoke to himself softly again as he gazed into the gloom of murky shadows. “I wonder,” he spoke aloud, “I wonder what Monster our new Dr. Frankenstein will create?"
We know there are Laws, but no one knows what these laws are. This peculiar situation leads to a life of anxiety, especially if one is a curious person, and I am perhaps more curious than others. There is a danger in being curious, but I have felt this way my entire life, and I can not stop now.
As no one knows the Laws, one never knows if one has broken one of them. Being of an inquisitive nature, this constant uncertainty is always lurking in the back of my mind. Others do not seem to be overly concerned about this ambiguous state of affairs, but I am. As I say, I am a curious fellow.
Throughout everyone's life we have known people to disappear. Neighbors, friends, sometimes whole families are suddenly gone from our lives. One wonders about these of course, but we dare not to delve too deeply into this mystery. One can only think, well, this or that person has obviously broken a Law and has been arrested and taken away. We do not become too upset at this, for these people must have been criminals, or at least have committed a criminal act. So in this way we justify to ourselves their disappearances.
Another thing of interest is, we never experience any evidence of the police. There are no police stations, for instance. So who are these people who arrest us? Where is our judicial system located? Who are the prosecutors and judges? No one knows.
The only person of authority who is ever visible to us is the Governor of our Provence. Only on various State occasions does he make an appearance, and only then to make a long speech in the village square. However, we never really listen to what he says. At any rate, we are careful not to listen to his words too carefully. We turn a deaf ear to him because we do not want to hear bad news. In fact, we do not want to hear any news at all. In the long term it is better not to listen to official pronouncements, or especially to any gossip about them, as it is best not to know very much. The less one knows about these things the better one sleeps at night.
This is because, if we knew his pronouncements or the Laws themselves, our lives would become much too complicated. It is simpler to live our daily, mundane and tedious lives oblivious to these things. Laws are Laws, after all, they must exist and be obeyed, but we do not wish our lives to be determined by external circumstances. We feel it is better to flounder about, trying to organize our lives in our own poor way as best we can than to have strict rules to be followed. In this way we gain some freedom, at least.
Now, we know that in most cases the Law is slow in its deployment. It is possible, even probable, that we may at any time be arrested for having broken a Law twenty or even thirty years in the past. This is accepted by us. The Law is very precise and methodical, and it may take this long for the crime to be fully investigated and the authorities to come to the proper conclusion as to one's guilt or innocence.
This is proper, and the way it should be. Authority must move slowly and deliberately. I remember one occasion when I was a young boy. Part of the road in front of our house was broken, and while my parents were not bold enough to complain, our elderly neighbor wrote a letter to the Governor, pleading that our little road be repaired. It finally was repaired, but long after that neighbor had grown ill and died.
I believe this is how the system works. One may file a complaint, and most likely the complaint will be read and some satisfactory conclusion will come of it, but much too late for the one who has complained to profit from its successful solution.
This is just one of only a few conclusions I have reached in my long life about the true workings of our Authorities and of our Laws. Of course, I tell no one of my conclusions, as it is always best to keep one's inner thoughts to one's self. Any knowledge of the Laws, even the most fanciful and imaginative, may be a breach of the Law itself. One cannot be too careful, even though it is impossible to be careful at all. One just lives one's life and hopes for the best.
Now that I am an old man, sometimes on dreary days with nothing to occupy my mind, I wish that at some moment of my past life I had unknowingly broken one of our Laws, and therefore will one day be arrested. In a sense this would be a benefit to me. At least to my curiosity. For then I would witness first hand and for the first time understand the inner workings of our mysterious judicial system. Perhaps this will happen one day. A sudden knock on the door at midnight, unknown men enter my rooms and I am stealthily taken away to some hidden location where I will stand trial for my criminal act.
Some nights I even dream of this. In my dream, as I am taken away, I plead with the men, saying, "But I am innocent!" Their reply is always, "Innocent of what?"
The outcome to this covert trial would of course already have been determined beforehand. The final judgment is inevitable. The authorities would not waste their time on an innocent person. I know very well what the verdict would be. Acquittal is an impossibility. Anyone under arrest is of course guilty, and we know only one sentence is possible.
Even this I would accept, just to know even one of the Laws, the one I had unknowingly broken so many years before, perhaps as a young man over exuberant and careless in life.
So, now I sit in my little room waiting for old age and nature to take its course, and equally awaiting that fateful knock on my door. I am not certain which conclusion to my life I prefer.
I am coming to the end of this life of mine. I have dropped my seed some time ago, and by now the thing that it has become is hunting me. I have been clever in hiding, but I know it is only a matter of time before I am discovered.
I think I do not mind death so much now as I have grown old and feeble, and it has become more and more difficult to sustain myself. This is the natural way of life and I cannot complain. I have led a full life for a very long time. Soon I will join my esteemed ancestors. At least this is my belief. No one knows what death is, of course, but to merge with my revered predecessors is my hope. After all, we are all of one lineage from child to adult to child and again to adult, down through the innumerable eons. We are all of one mind, compiled and united in an ever repeating progression.
My antecedents recede into the millennia, generation before generation, into the far distant unknown past. They all have dropped their seed as I have done and have been devoured by the resultant mindless beast, their progeny, now my beloved child, its one desire to engulf my body and my mind to become itself, a new individual of my proud and ancient species.
I sometimes wonder if, as I am absorbed, will I somehow remain conscious of myself within my offspring? I look deep into my own mind to discover my ancestors lurking within, but all I find is silence. Perhaps they live in my subconscious, the substance of my mind my consciousness cannot reach.
I often dream my ancestors are here within me, conversing and mingling together, hidden within the complexities of my psyche. If this be true, at my death I shall join them for eternity in blissful reunion.
As I sit here in my hiding place I hear my child approaching. I fear, but I am too weak to attempt escape. In the dropping of my seed my body has atrophied and withered, as is the natural way for us. We must become helpless for our progeny to gain unity of our species in this manner and to survive to fulfill their maturity as a living facet of the common mind.
As it overcomes and consumes me, what will I feel? I stare in its direction in anxious anticipation. Now it appears before me, monstrous in its manifestation, its instinct to consume ferocious and uncontrollable. It leaps and I am caught. I surrender to its insatiable desire as it begins to absorb my body and my mind. I feel no pain, only a slow fading of my outward consciousness.
Now I experience something unexpected. Somehow my old age is receding, I am regressing into my middle age, to my wild youth, now into my carefree childhood, now I am a helpless infant.
And now I feel my consciousness collapsing into itself, yet expanding somehow as I dissolve into the longed-for womb of my esteemed ancestors.
“What are you doing?!” the Supervisor asked me, sounding annoyed.
“I’m trying to get this to behave itself!” I replied. “These parameters keep changing by themselves. It’s this new algorithm Adominis devised. He thinks it’s an improvement on the old customary one that works better. I wish these young techs would stop having new ideas. This next generation…I don’t know.”
“Well, do the best you can with it,” the Foreman advised, “but the Supervisor expects results. We’re starting to go over budget already. We can’t afford another delay.”
With that the Foreman left the lab. I concentrated for a while on trying to tease the formula to behave itself, but soon gave up in frustration. This job has its drawbacks, alright, I thought to myself. But the pay is good, and with a new family to support I would have to stick with it, frustrations or not.
Of course I knew even if I tamed the wiggly thing, the result still wouldn’t be perfect. It’s all a matter of refining probabilities. That’s the basics of the process. It’s impossible to construct absolute determinism because, for one thing, that would not allow for the fundamental randomness that is essential for creative possibilities.
Oh, it’s been tried in the early days. Locked-down, fixed parameters describing fixed resolutions of events, but the result was just a mechanism. We weren’t trying to build a clock-work machine; we were attempting to construct a self-resolving instrument that was resourceful, an autonomous entity that had the ability to initiate its own approaches to resolving various changes to its basic program.
Well, in the end it’s tricky to accomplish all this, given the budget and time frame allowed. One other aspect is, it had to include certain, let me say, elements the higher-ups insist on. Imperfections, mainly. The configuration had to contain certain limitations and constraints as to its precision. In other words, it could not be a better device than the one we lived with ourselves.
This has always a sticking point with me. I mean, why not build something that is as perfect as we can design it? But we’re not allowed to do this. We must introduce some specific flaws and defects into the project. Our algorithms must be adjusted ever so slightly so that the finished product has some shortcomings built into it.
I think the great scientists and engineers at the top level have taken careful measure of our own system, and where they have discovered deficiencies they have decided these same defects must be included in the new model.
This is maddening to me, for I can see how the project can be made perfect. But I’m not allowed to install these improvements. I must instead alter certain aspects so that the design contains these prescribed imperfections.
I feel regret and even guilt that the function of the completed structure will not be ideal. Its evolution will be flawed in unpredictable ways. Then again maybe this is a good thing. Perfection would be dull and unimaginative. Perhaps within its flaws it will become inventive and resourceful in coping with its limitations.
It’s a new beginning, afterall. It will have to rely on its instincts and capacity for variation to fulfill itself as best it can, as our system has done. The final outcome is unknown, but I hope it will be successful in realizing its potential.
As I now sit back in my chair, I wonder if its evolution will result in new life arising from the parameters we have created for it. If we have fashioned a capacity for the as yet unborn. I like to think so. Oftentimes I dream of these, my forever unnamed children, orphaned into a universe they do not expect. They will never know me, their father. Never to hold them in my loving embrace, or perhaps face in horror their glorious malevolence.
I’m trying to think up a disclaimer for the following story. It’s just an idea I had, sort of a subtle one that in the end may not satisfy the effort required to read the thing. It asks the question, do we discover Truths, or do Truths manipulate us in order to for them to be realized? Probably not a very exciting idea to form a story around. In any event, frivolous as it may be, here it is, demonstrating once again how brave I am in revealing the trivial thought patterns produced by the poor mental health of my meager and suffering brain.
When I was Professor of Mathematics at the University we had a brilliant young student named Barrett Browning. He was a child prodigy, entered the University at fifteen years of age and was an inspired student, his intellect far beyond his years.
He was a very handsome boy, and as he grew into his teenage years all the coeds at the University were chasing after him. They being older, he was very shy around them, and I think his only real interest at the time was his study of mathematics, and hence he shunned all relationships.
When I became his Professor and tutor he had reached the age of seventeen. For a year he studied under me, and we had many conversations about mathematics. His main interest at that time was the Yang-Mills theory. He attended his classes regularly and studied conscientiously.
In his eighteenth year, one morning he came into my office and told me he had been continuing his efforts on this problem. He said he had worked out a partial solution, but in a sort of oblique way. I didn’t quite understand what he meant, but I looked over his work and was pleasantly surprised to find what he had done was something new to the problem. It was a derivative that went in a different direction than all the previous attempts at a solution. I told him what he had done was interesting and that he should continue in the path he was taking. He smiled that smile of his and thanked me, took his paper and left my office.
After that I noticed his occasional absences from my classes and lectures and he hadn’t shown up for the usual Friday afternoon tutorials. I wondered if something had happened to him, whether he was ill or had some problems at home. I enquired of my other students, but they could give me no information, they hadn’t seen him on campus recently, either.
His absences growing more and more frequent, I called his father one day and was told he had not been writing every week as usual. He was a little concerned, and so I said I’d look into the matter.
My duties as Professor distracted me for the next few weeks, until one morning the boy suddenly appeared at my office door. He looked a little unkempt, a little thin, his usual fastidiousness replaced by a carelessness of dress and appearance. He sat before my desk and placed some papers on it, pushing them toward me. “Look at these, if you don’t mind, Professor,” he said, looking up at me with some modestly. I was a little surprised, as modesty had not been one of his strong points at the university. His usual remark to any criticism was a definite, “I know what I’m doing.” In any case, he continued by saying more enthusiastically, “I think I’m on to something here, Professor. I’ve been working on this problem as you said I should, but as you know it’s carried me in a new and unexpected direction.”
I looked over his most recent equations, following their intricate and logical progression. The idea, wherever it was leading, was new to me. I looked at the boy and said, “This is interesting, Barrett, but what does it mean? What are you trying to do here?”
He looked down shyly. “I’m not sure, sir.” He looked up to me again with more enthusiasm. “You can see the logic of it, and it seems to be going somewhere, but I don’t really know where it’s leading me.”
“Well,” I said, “you’re doing something creative in any event. But what about you’re other studies? I haven’t seen you in my classes lately and you don’t show up for your tutorials.”
He looked away for a moment. “I’m sorry about that, Professor, but this thing I’ve been doing is so interesting to me. It’s sort of hard to concentrate on anything else.”
“Yes, it may be of interest to you,” I said, “but still you should be attending your classes. You’re a brilliant student, Barrett, you have a bright future ahead of you, but…”
He interrupted by saying, “I know all that, Professor, but this is important to me. I’ve been thinking of taking some time off from the University for a while to work on this. I can always come back later when I’ve worked it out. It shouldn’t take too long.”
I sat back in my chair. “Oftentimes students become involved in some mathematical challenge that they consider intriguing, Barrett. This is not unusual, but as your Professor I must caution you. This quest you seem to be on may seem important, but in the larger picture your education here at the University should be your main goal. My advice is, leave this aside for a while and return to attending to your lessons. You can always work on your problem evenings and in your spare time. You’re too good a student to abandon your education. Besides, your father has been worried about you. You haven’t written in some time, correct?”
He looked at me and frowned. “I know, I’ll write him soon, I don’t mean to worry him, it’s just I’ve been so busy lately. I’ll try to attend classes more.” He gathered his papers together from my desk. “I probably should follow your advice, sir, but…” He rose from his chair and stood, hesitating. “I don’t know, though, it’s hard to let go of this. I don’t know if you can understand.”
“Well,” I said, “sometimes we become too involved in some peculiar subject for our own good. Maybe you should let it alone for now, you know, gain a little perspective on the situation.” The boy turned and walked to the door. “I’ll see you in class, then?” I asked.
“Alright,” he answered, facing the doorway. “I’ll try.”
During the next few weeks, Barrett, of course, did not show up for classes. I was concerned and a little angry as well, as Barrett had an unusually brilliant mind, and it would be a waste for him to ignore his education.
About a month later, around Christmas time, I received a call from Barrett’s father. He said he had not heard from his son in the last month and was naturally anxious. The head of the department was also asking about the boy. I finally decided to visit Barrett to discover what was happening with the boy.
Barrett had been living on campus because of his young age, but when he reached eighteen he had talked his father into giving money to rent an apartment. I didn’t like the idea, he being so young, but Barrett always did what he wanted and was practiced at getting what he desired. Although usually aloof and remote, he knew how to be charming when he needed to be. Besides his exceptional intelligence, he had this charisma; I suppose you could call it, about him. I remember once he got into some trouble at the University, I don’t remember now what it was about, just some boyish prank I suppose, but he got away with it unscathed. I cornered him one day in a hallway and asked him what had happened. All he said was, “Don’t worry about it, Professor, it’s no big deal. All I have to do is mile and everybody does what I want.”
From his records I obtained his address. It was in an unfamiliar part of town in a rather run down neighborhood. I was surprised at this, as I had thought Barrett lived in respectable digs in one of the apartments usually rented by students. I supposed he had wanted to get away from everyone so as not to be disturbed by the usual undergraduate socializing.
The street he lived on was old and rundown, lined with shabby buildings and empty storefronts. I parked my car, crossed the street and entered his building. I walked up the creaky, dimly-lit stairway to his door. I knocked and waited. I knocked again a little harder. I heard someone moving inside and the door opened. I was a little shocked at Barrett’s appearance in the doorway. His once well-kept hair had grown longer and was uncombed; he looked thinner than when I had seen him last, his eyes slightly red and unfocused. He stood aside absently and I entered his room.
Inside, there was only space for a table and one chair beside an unmade bed. As I looked around the room it was obvious Barrett had given up on housekeeping. On the table were piled many sheets of paper, some falling off onto the floor. He nervously followed me in; he seemed jittery and agitated at my presence.
“Well, Barrett, how are you?” I asked, smiling at him.
“I’m good,” he replied, turning away from me. “I didn’t expect to see you here, Professor.” He then waved an arm around the room. “You’ll have to excuse the condition of the place; I’ve been working pretty hard lately.”
“Yes, I see,” I said, “Working on your problem, I assume?”
“Yeah,” he said, looking at the cluttered table. “I can’t seem to give it up.” He faced me and said in a hopeful way, some enthusiasm returning, “Look, here’s what I have done today.” He handed me a sheet of paper scribbled with equations. I looked it over, but could not make it out.
“See, here,” he said, pointing a finger at his calculations, “these equations are unique, I think.” He looked at me expectantly.
I looked at the paper again. “Without some background, Barrett, I’m not able to follow your notations very well. Just what is it you’re attempting?”
He pulled the lone chair away from the table and sat down. Lowering his head, he said softly, “I’m not sure, Professor.” He looked up, his still boyish face looking tired and pale. “All these equations seem to be leading me to some conclusion, but the solution is not clear just yet.” He turned in his chair, picking up a scrap of paper and looking at it. “It’s hard to explain,” he continued, as if speaking to the page. “I don’t know quite what to make of it. It’s like it’s writing itself somehow, all I’m doing is jotting it down, taking dictation sort of.” He looked up at me, an almost pleading look on his face. “It’s difficult to stop working, there’s always the next idea coming into my mind from somewhere…” He looked back to the piece of paper and stared at it.
“Sounds like an obsession, Barrett,” I said with some concern. “Obsessions are not healthy.”
He turned his eyes to me again. “I know, but I feel convinced this is important somehow. I can’t just give it all up. There’s so much more to be done.” He looked down at the table again, as if his eyes could not help wandering over the clutter of paper lying on it.
I thought for a moment, searching for something to say to the boy that would make an impression. “Perhaps you could organize all this and I could look it over in my office. Maybe give you some advice. Perhaps a little collaboration would be helpful.”
Barrett turned his head and looked toward the one window in his little room. Still staring out of the window, he said in a somewhat distant voice, “Pardon me, Professor, but I don’t think that would help. You see, I’ve gone beyond the problem I started to solve in the beginning.” He shifted in his chair and looked up at me, this time with a strained expression. “At some point here my work has taken off in a completely new direction unrelated to my original aim. It’s turned into some kind of pure mathematics now, distinct to itself.”
“I see,” I said, thinking the boy was overestimating the importance of what he was doing.
He then sat back in his chair and rubbed his once bright eyes. “It’s sort of tiring, working as I have been. All I seem to be able to do is work. I sleep only a few hours at night, and then my dreams bother me.” He looked out across the room and let out a breath. “It seems I can’t really help myself. It’s almost as if I’m compelled somehow.” Then he said in an almost pleading voice, “I must continue with this, Professor, no matter what.”
He looked down at his hands. I looked, too. They were still a child’s hands, smooth and soft, but his fingernails were long and dirty, as if he had not cared for them or washed in some time. I looked at him more closely. His cheeks, once the rosy, fresh and youthful were now pale and drawn, his eyes sunken and dim, yet even so with a faint glow still deep within.
“I’d like to ask you a question, Professor,” he said with a slight annoyance in his tone, noticing my observation and concerned look. “Is there such a thing as discrete yet isolated mathematics? What I mean is, all this I’m doing, or what’s doing me, doesn’t seem to relate to anything. It’s not even about mathematics itself. It isn’t about anything I can think of.”
I sighed. “Well, you don’t know all of mathematics, Barrett,” I replied, a little frustrated with him now. “No one knows all of it. There’s a great deal I am unaware of, and I’ve devoted my life to the subject for thirty years. Oftentimes we think we’ve created something new, only to learn later that what we thought was our own personal discovery had been realized years ago by someone else. It happens quite often. This is one reason it’s helpful to share our ideas with others. Working in isolation often leads to errors of this kind.”
Barrett turned away from me then, his eyes once again surveying his cluttered table. “I think,” he said slowly, “it is somehow up to me alone to do this. It’s as if I alone somehow have been chosen to continue. I don’t understand it and I know its hurting me, but something is compelling me to carry on no matter the cost.” He looked up at me with an expression I had not seen before on anyone’s face, of fatigue mixed with elation and a kind of helpless pleading, and even fear.
At that moment I wanted to take hold of him and forcefully carry him out of his shabby room and his self-destructive obsession, so vulnerable and powerlessness he seemed, defenseless to contend with his own obsessive passion. But I did not, and now I regret my inaction. Whether it would have done the boy good or ill to have done so I do not know.
As I left his room, before closing the door, I looked back. Barrett was slumped over the table, his pencil moving frantically or perhaps compulsively on a scrap of paper, his face, once youthful and exquisite, now contorted into something that was unpleasant, distasteful and even repulsive to me.
On my way back to the University it was obvious the boy needed help, psychiatric help. Later that day I spoke to one of the councilors and he promised to look into the matter. My wife offered to visit Barrett, but I told her it would be better to leave the situation to a professional.
Several days later the councilor told me he had sent a social worker to see Barrett, but Barrett was not at home. She returned several times, but the boy had evidently abandoned his room. I thought perhaps my visit had upset him and that was the reason he had left his apartment.
I decided to visit his apartment once more. When I returned, his door was unlocked. I entered his room and saw that the table was now empty, all his papers gone. I walked around his little room thinking hard. His clothes were still in a closet, his bed unmade as usual, and I had the feeling it had not been slept in for some time.
A few weeks passed. One Saturday I drove around his neighborhood for a while, thinking maybe I’d see him somewhere. I parked my car and walked along the sidewalk in front of his building. I asked several people in the neighborhood if they knew of Barrett or of his whereabouts, but none of them could answer my questions. Then I noticed some young men idling on a nearby corner. I approached them and asked about Barrett. One of them said yes, he knew of him. “We used to see him around sometimes. He wasn’t a bad kid then,” he said, glancing at one of the others standing nearby, “but now he’s just another of the crazies around here.”
His comment alarmed me. I asked him if he knew where he lived now or where I could find him, but he didn’t know. He said probably in some abandoned building or in the park. He said that’s usually where the derelicts, winos and nutcases hung out.
I walked away frightened. I strolled around the neighborhood for several blocks and then through the park hoping Barrett would suddenly appear. My search was in vain. It seemed Barrett wasn’t to be found, or more likely did not wish to be found. The police were called, but their investigation into the matter was unsuccessful as well. I visited his neighborhood several times again, but with no result. My hope of ever finding Barrett diminished with every day that passed.
I must tell you now, about two months later, I read in the local newspaper that the body of a young man had been discovered in the basement of one of those decaying buildings. With a sinking feeling I knew it had to be Barrett. I called his father. He came to our city and identified the emaciated body. The medical examiner’s report determined the cause of death had been suicide. His father took Barrett home for the last time.
The day after his father left I went to that abandoned building where Barrett had died. I stood in its cluttered basement where Barrett had lived his last days. I thought of how it must have been for him there, his frantic struggle to complete his work, and the realization of his own descent into finality as its consequence. Looking through the debris scattered about, I found a tattered cardboard box in a dirty corner containing Barrett’s papers. This at least lightened my heart somewhat.
During the ensuing months I have managed to arrange his work. In studying it, I could see where his unique equations diverged from the problem he had originally been interested in. They followed a logical and coherent order into mathematics of the most inventive kind. The last several pages stumped me, however. Gradually Barrett had begun to introduce his own notation into his equations, leaving no notes of explanation and I could no longer decipher or understand his calculations. His mathematics had evolved beyond my knowledge, or perhaps my intellect to comprehend them. His genius had devised something that could not be understood even by myself, an eminent Professor of Mathematics of a prestigious university.
Later, sitting forlornly in my office, I wondered what it all had meant. What was it that had taken over this boy’s mind, taken his youth and his health from him and at last his very life. What ruthless imperative cosmic truth had compelled him to succumb to it’s will, that it itself could be revealed and it itself be brought to life in exchange for Barrett’s?
What the real cause of the boy’s death no one will ever know, of course. Had he found the solution, its significance too great for him to endure? Had he discovered the final conclusion was beyond even his intellectual capacity to comprehend? Or perhaps, finally he realized in all his effort and pain, he had produced nothing but gibberish, and he could not face his failure. Whatever the meaning of it all, in the end it had killed him.
Think me a fool, but I now consider none but one of these conclusions correct. I think Barrett had discovered something beyond what had yet been intellectually or emotionally conceived, something completely new and original. Some resolution too profound and overwhelming for such a young man to suffer. I think he had finished his quest and solved his problem. I think his exhausted mind had reeled at the conclusion, and that was the cause of his demise. I am now an old man who in his long life has seen many remarkable and perplexing events, but none as singular as this, and so in my own personal opinion I consider this conclusion of mine valid and the most probable.
I have published Barrett’s work, and perhaps some inspired future generation will understand what Barrett was striving to achieve, or did achieve. I hope this will be so, for it would be a heartless cruelty for such a brilliant and beautiful young life to have lived in vain.
The village I am presently in is not much to look at, but it has the usual Hostel, and here I have settled in for the night. It’s a difficult life for us Travelers, always on the move. I sometimes envy the Dwellers, their stable life with family and friends, but I wasn’t born to that kind of life.
I have spent all my life on the Path from my youth, as many of us have. We travel sometimes in groups, sometimes alone making our way as best we can. The villagers look on us as fools. We endure their frequent acts of derision, as we consider ourselves above their mundane lives. Yet there is always the difficult road ahead for us, with little rest and only our few possessions carried on our weary backs. Nevertheless, we trudge onward.
There is also joy for us in our quest, a spiritual joy the villagers will never know. This and I think only this preserves us. Of course, some fall by the wayside, some grow old and feeble unable to continue, some loose their faith, some go mad. Some grow weary and turn back to retrace their steps to their starting point. I think none of these ever succeed in their homeward journey, as they would have already long passed the point of no return. They are doomed to perish in some unfamiliar village or by the wayside, far from the hearth of their families they left behind so long ago.
I, for one, shall continue no matter the cost to my body or my mind, having relinquished hope of ever seeing my family again, for I know there is a brighter reunion awaiting me, be it far, far ahead in the remote and misty distance.
The road out of this village is only a dusty path that leads through unfamiliar country. I am now almost to the outlands, and the villages are becoming more and more isolated and primitive. Soon perhaps there will be no villages, only desolate lands before me. I am fearful of this prospect, yet somehow I will welcome it. To be truly on my own, with only my trust in my resolve to rely upon will be liberating. It will be the final test of my devotion, my faith and my commitment.
As I lie on this straw bedding this night, through a small window I watch the moon rise, pale and yellowed but persistent in its duty. Soon it will shine brightly in the night sky, transformed into a gleaming beacon for us who journey to the Source.
One morning, when I am perhaps very old and feeble, I will glimpse the golden glow on the far horizon, beckoning, and there I will find my sanctuary and my validation.
There are many leagues yet to travel, but my courage will be strengthened at that moment, and I shall carry on bravely through what obstacles yet remain, until finally I reach the goal to which I have dedicated my life.
When the ships landed, many panicked, of course. Some prayed, some rejoiced in eager anticipation. The creatures that emerged were squids, totally un-human. We were either repelled in horror or fascinated in curiosity at their alien form.
They remained close to their vessels and attempted no communication; they made no attempt to associate with us or even acknowledge our existence. They just wandered about awkwardly on their many tentacles, testing the air and the texture of the ground, it seemed.
When some officials cautiously approached, the creatures watched absently, paying little attention.
We all saw this remarkable scene unfold on television in wonder. The whole world, all of humanity, were glued to their television screens. Out of my windows, no vehicles appeared on the busy highway. The planet revolved in silence for the first time in its long history.
Excited commentators and well-known scientists babbled on in speculation, the religious had their say, politicians and generals speculated, but none of these mattered to us. They were here at last, and no talk or futile prattle could distract us from the captivating scene before our eyes.
They were only here for about an hour, then the greasy, tentacled creatures gathered together, re-entered their ships, and rose up, up into the clear blue skies and were gone.
We presumed our Earth was not what they had been looking for in their long voyages among the stars. Our planet was not suitable. Whether their departure was for the good of humankind or a great disappointment was open to conjecture.
Perhaps they were continuing their search for something we could never know. Perhaps as forlorn and lost orphans, searching the heavens in hope of a new home, or maybe only for the reassurance of finding some kindred life they could call their own and at last rejoice in brotherhood.
Some celebrated when they left, but I think many felt a sense of loss when they departed without a word spoken to us. We were alone once again in this vast universe. And yet, these mysterious creatures still lived out there somewhere, still searching for some consolation. This was a comforting thought for many of us, even though we did not think they would ever return.
We wondered if they, too, were comforted in their new knowledge of us.
I'm not sure how readers will interpret this little story. I originally wrote it as sort of a Kafka-esque tale for myself, as I love Franz Kafka's stories. Whatever it may be about or not about, in the end I think it's just more rubbish from me, as usual. Sorry.
My Strange Life
When I woke up, my bedroom looked exactly the same. The same bed, the same wallpaper, the same bureau…it was unnerving, as you can imagine.
Next, I went into the kitchen and looked around…it was identical to my other kitchen. Even the food in the refrigerator was the same, the same eggs, the same bottle of milk, the same two week old baloney. I made breakfast anyway, hoping this food would taste different, but alas, it tasted exactly the same. Very strange.
Next, I stealthily walked outside and looked around. As I expected, the neighborhood hadn’t changed either; even my car was the same model and color. An uncomfortable feeling, for sure.
The route to work was mundane; the same streets, the same traffic, my office building had the exact same architecture. Inside, I settled behind an identical desk, the papers from yesterday evening still lay about, my coworkers even had the same personalities. The day turned out to be a typical Monday. How bizarre.
On the way home I stopped at the Chinese restaurant and picked up my customary take-out, all familiar. Back home, eating in the kitchen again, I looked out of the window. The neighbor’s dog was playing with his usual rubber toy across the hedges. This was really starting to get to me.
After I had finished eating, I went into the living room and turned on the television. The exact same programs were playing. I watched my favorites carefully, but I could not detect any discrepancies. I can tell you, I had a difficult time controlling my emotions, as all this weirdness was beginning to freak me out.
Later, I even considered calling my girlfriend, but fear overwhelms me. What if she is exactly the same as my ‘other’ girlfriend? This thought was almost too much to bear.
About ten o’clock I retired, hoping I could sleep. Lying in bed, I thought to myself how mysterious and perplexing this situation is that I now find myself in. I’m not sure I can cope with another day like this.
All I can say is, I just hope you will never have to face these astonishing and bewildering events I now have to live with the rest of my days.
This is the final Khazi story in the series.
Khazi and me came out of our room soon after all hell broke loose. We’d thought all of that was over and finished, but no, somehow it had started all over again. I guessed the arsenals weren’t depleted yet and whoever were still in charge weren’t satisfied with what they had already done. Nobody’s ever satisfied it seems.
After things settled down later that afternoon, the punks began to ravage the city. We didn’t blame their anger, as what little we had left was now taken from us. Nothing could stop them in their rage, so we kept our distance. We moved cautiously to the outskirts of a ruined industrial district until we came to what passed for farmland. Nothing remained intact anywhere. Even empty land seemed to have been worn out and scraped clean, except it wasn’t clean; it was as contaminated as was all the land now.
As we moved on the air smelled chemical even this far from the city. We tried to breathe as little as we could, but you have to breathe, right? When we reached the hill country and climbed a little the smell lessened and we felt better. Felt better in a relative way, of course. When we reached the top of a hill we looked back, and all was still fire and smoke. We guessed the punks were still at it.
We were sort of punks ourselves, but not extreme. We just liked to trash. That’s different than demolish and obliterate. That was for the hardcore, the skinheads and fanatics. The crazies. We weren’t crazy, not yet anyway. It was keen, though, thinking of the lunatics having their way with everything. Destruction rattled something deep inside us; its appeal is in the blood. I suppose that’s what started it all. It’s like getting off. Nothing to compare it to. A shriek in silence always gets the Adrenalin pumping.
So we decided to spend the night on that hill. When it got dark we watched the stars through the drifting haze. It was beautiful in its way. After a while we did what we do, and then there was a big explosion way down in the city. We supposed all this was going on all over the planet, but we couldn’t be sure. There was no way to know, but we supposed anyway.
In the morning we decided to go back to the city and have a go’round. Everything looked crushed and bleak. There wasn’t much left of anything anywhere. All the jiggers would be asleep by now, we figured, so it would only be semi-dangerous. We could handle semi-danger. We were semi-dangerous ourselves. We’d proved that in times of necessity.
The city was just debris, but it was a jive to see it all like this. I mean, why not? There were some civilians roaming, too, but they stepped back out of our way and kept their distance. They all had this dazed look on their faces, like they couldn’t believe it could happen again after the pause of peace. What did they expect? I felt kinda sorry for them, but it didn’t make much difference, as we were all going to end up the same in the end.
Hiking down something that used to be a street we heard a rumble somewhere off in the distance. Probably the last building falling over. You’d think it would be a big job toppling buildings, but everything was rotted pretty much by then, so it was easier than you might expect. Most stuff just fell apart and crashed by theirselves. You had to be careful not to be crushed by stuff just crumpling and smashing down. We had some close calls ourselves. Empathy had saved us more than once.
Anyway, we found a busted water pipe and drank some, but we knew doing that would shorten our span of years, as Khazi said it. We laughed at this. Our span was short enough anyway, so what did it matter?
After that, we just sat under some crumpled concrete slab that jutted out into nothing and looked at each other. We were pretty dozy, but we smiled anyway and put our arms around each other for comfort. The sky was turning grey with clouds or whatever it was and now the sun was gone, and everything around us looked grey and grim, including ourselves. I was feeling a little sickish myself now. We made a deal it would be best to go out together. We didn’t want one of us to go on alone. Alone would be too much to bear.
It was kinda peaceful sitting there in all that grey hopelessness. It was pretty quiet. The punks and smashers were probably sitting around admiring their work. They had finished what someone else had started, so they felt blameless. It’s a nice feeling when your work is all done.
As the day went on, sitting there in the dust and grime, we began to feel a part of it. Part of all the ruin, I mean. We were ruined, too, so what was the difference? Khazi started to cough some and slouch, and my bones were beginning to feel dislocated from each other. That was a sign for me. We didn’t say too much after that. Later I tried to make some kind of joke or another, but my voice turned to sandpaper before I could get it all out. Khazi wouldn’t have laughed, anyway. It was about the end for him, too.
I wrote all this down for some reason here. I know it’ll just blow away in a filthy wind to join all the other ruins we all made of everything, but I wrote it anyway. At the end I wanted my last look to be at something nice, like it was, but I can’t see too good now, and besides there’s nothing nice to look at.
It’s not so bad though, really. Maybe somewhere there’s kids like us smiling or something, still in a nice place where it’s pretty. I like to think so. They’re maybe in some way-off jungle where it’s still green and flowery and the sun is shining bright in a clear blue sky and they’re happy. I guess I’m happy, too, in a way, 'cuz it’s finally over. There’s nothing left to grieve for anyway. I look to my friend. One last embrace, but now an embrace of only one.
I look away. I know I won’t miss this ravaged world we created. The only thing I’ll really miss is how much I love Khazi.
The street was dirty, of course, as Khazi and I strolled along, tumbled down buildings on either side, refuse everywhere around us. The wind was picking up dust and flinging it in our faces, the usual dregs lay about, mostly oblivious to us and pretty much everything else. Khazi was carelessly whistling some old forgotten tune, hands in pockets as usual. The way you walk with your hands in your pockets I think is nice in its gate. Maybe that’s one reason I like Khazi so much. Khazi has style, just doesn’t care, does whatever comes to mind and is a free soul.
See, the apparition that stood on that pile of rubble eventually came down like Moses from the Mount. Like Moses into the depravity of the carnival of lost souls, which is our world now. I stood by and watched as it glided easily through the debris, keeping its cadence through the remains, its steps effortless, floating, aloof and remote. Even the denizens of this fair city seemed to move aside from its saunter like the parting of the waters.
I learned these stories from some cleric who used to harangue on a street corner when I was a snotty little kid. I was charmed by his stories back then, stories of an enchanted and magical world now long lost to us. Then one day he failed to appear on that dirty street corner and never returned-. I remember I cried as if I had lost my best and only friend.
Later I learned some crazies and thugs had done him in, had lured him into some shambles of a building and cut his throat. I guessed they couldn’t take his stories of the world as it had been in the world as it had become. Too much of a conflicting comparison. They didn’t want to be reminded of all that lost beauty.
Anyway, this stranger was pretty funny to watch, in a way, its eccentric attitude, I mean. This was someone to contend with, I thought, if it was genuine. When it came down to the street level it stopped to look around, a sovereign surveying its domain. It then sat down on a concrete slab, dusting it carefully before sitting, sat regally, immaculate in its splendor.
I watched for a minute, it sitting there expectantly, expecting what I wasn’t sure. I, being me, walked brashly up to this spirit, stood before it for a moment, then sat down close beside. It acted as if I wasn’t there, as if I were invisible, which I often liked to be. This was a good sign.
I reached into a pocket and held out a bit of chocolate I had confiscated that morning. It took it regally out of my hand as if it was my obligation to make an appropriate offering in supplication. I asked in an off-had way where it had been since the beginning. It replied with a casual wave of its hand in the air. It really didn’t matter. After all, everywhere it’s the same I supposed.
I won’t go into details, but I eventually did make a friend of this specter sitting splendidly on that dusty crumbling concrete block, sometimes I think in spite of my better judgment. I suppose it was some mutual loneliness or boredom or some unspoken yearning that drew us together. We were about the same age, still young in this ancient world, still curious to experience life in all its variations. So Khazi and me became pals.
We’re pretty close and all, but sometimes I suspect we stick together just for convenience. I mean until something better comes along. After all, either death or a more advantageous situation are the only two choices any of us have to look forward to. But down deep I really think Khazi is just as scared as me, and staying together is the only real sense of security for both of us.
We’re the Brigade of the Survivors, Khazi often says. He’s right, too. We’re not much to look at, we all have bad manners and are pretty shabby inside and out, but we’re still here, that’s what’s important. That's more than can be said for most of the previous generation. The Civilians, another of Khazi’s terms, were the first to disappear from this modern life. They couldn’t take it, I guess. Too much of a change for them. Too much stuck in the old routine to adapt. It’s just us, the derelicts, the crazies and the thugs and the big shots. We don’t associate with the big shots, of course. They’re all comfortable over in the Enclave, guards on patrol.
Sometimes we walk by and throw stones at the barricades and fortifications. The guards just ignore us as they’re usually leaning against various obstructions looking bored. We’re no threat, we’re the riffraff. Riffraff Raferty is another name Khazi calls himself sometimes. He’s pretty funny, usually.
This day we strolled over to the park. The park is where we had that celebration. It’s not much of a park anymore, though. At night it can be slightly dangerous. It’s just sometimes someone gets frustrated and picks a fight at random. It never amounts to much except when knives are drawn. Then it can be messy. Everyone’s used to messy, so it really doesn’t matter very much to anybody. A lot of stuff doesn’t matter much. I mean, why bother?
Mostly the park at night is just sleeping bodies. Khazi and me don’t sleep in the park. We stay together in a grimy tumbled down room in a half-demolished building we like. We like it because of its unusual architecture. Khazi says its art nouveau. It must have been some kind of a high-class musician’s rehearsal building in the past. There’s old smashed pianos and stuff scattered around in various tattered rooms.
Khazi says he would have been a great musician if things hadn't changed the way they did. Khazi says a lot of things like that.
I think I’d have been in a carnival. In the freak show probably so I could scare and disgust civilians. I can be pretty repugnant. I think this characteristic of mine is one reason Khazi hangs around with me. I’m honest. I mean, grubby and rundown as we are anyway, why not be what we appear to be?
The girls around aren’t much to look at, either. They all pretty much gave up on that a long time ago. Now everybody’s sort of the same, except for the few who look pretty anyway. These usually end up in the Enclave. Khazi says it’s nice there, been picked up by some big shot’s procurer. Khazi tells me about it sometimes. I believe it because Khazi is one of the pretty ones, too, in a way. At least in wearing shabbiness with some style.
We’re the new generation, or the most recent. Abandoned, mostly. It’s hard enough to keep yourself alive without little ones to take care of. We don’t blame them; parents are worn out by the time we can get around by ourselves, so we're just left on our own to survive as best we can.
I guess I’ve been lucky finding Khazi. If you don’t have a steadfast ally to watch your back, bad things can happen. Loners don’t last too long. Thugs on patrol and all that.
Well, we spent our day like every other day, not much to tell about. I’m sitting in our dingy little room right now tonight writing all this. Khazi will come over in a little while, sit next to me and read what I’ve written. It’s always the same comment: “You keep writing about nothing.”
Well, nothing is all we have, so I think all these nothings of our lives should be important to us and be remembered. That's why I write them down; even though I know no one will ever read them.
Sitting together now, I turn my head close to Khazi’s, look into those still clear eyes, breathe Khazi’s warm breath, and smile.