A distant strobe.
Where is everyone? Where have they all gone?
The rotating bezel of her lens fails to conjure Happiness. Panic grips her mind and her thoughts come in ephemeral flashes, mimicking her sporadic breaths. The possible implications are too numerous for her mind to compute into probabilities. She could not even remember how long it had been since last she had surfaced.
Think, damn it.
Her hands tremble as she slides the anachronistic calculator into her coat pocket and slips cautiously out of the maintenance tunnel. Leaning against a grey padded wall, she enshrouds her head in her hood and lifts a scarf across the bridge of her nose. The City in the Sky was never this dark. Not even in its darkest hours, and it was meant to be day. An unpleasant feeling begins to take shape at the back of her mind.
How am I responsible for this?
A rumble grows beneath her feet. The distant strobe comes again. Father! The word flashes red behind her eyes. Emboldened by fear, she crawls out from her hiding place and, using the intermittent strobe as a sonar to inform her movements, she sets forth picking her way stealthily through the suffocating darkness. A soft halo filters through the dense obscurity as she nears her father’s box-shaped house. Here and there, she catches hints of movement coming from inside. Dashing from shadow to shadow she gains a position at the foot of a window. What madness is this?, she wonders at a loss. Counting down from five with controlled breaths, thoroughly mystified as to what her reconnaissance will reveal, she rises furtively to steal a glance. Then, she shrinks back from the window, utter bewilderment painted across her face.
Of any possible outcomes, the one she beheld seemed to her the least imaginable. Inside the house, life followed on unperturbed. Unfazed by whatever calamity had caused the desertion of the City in the Sky.
Check, she thinks.
Cornered, lacking the luxury of options, she bares her teeth and leaps out of hiding, whips around to the front steps and calls out for her father. Her tone remains fairly steady, despite her scrambled insides. A faint rustle of newspaper comes from the kitchen, followed by dragging slippered footsteps as her father steps up from the breakfast table and walks unhurriedly towards the front door.
What is it?, he asks, through the screen door, from all outward appearances, unconcerned.
What is it?, she thinks, awed into silence. A few drops travel from her unblinking eyes.
He studies her curiously for an eternal instant, measuring the situation. Then, at last, his features relax. As though relieved of some terrible burden. She gasps audibly, a hand drawn across her mouth. The swinging door closes behind him. Calmly, he steps forth, sits on the house stairs and sighs. She stays awhile motionless before him, aghast.
All this time…, come her whispered words. All this time… alone?, she breathes anew, her hand sweeping encompassingly at the empty air around them. And you?, she gasps again, her eyes overflowing as they come to rest on him.
In low deep voice came his response.
Now you know my loneliness…
The damp sheets cling heavily to her body as she lurches forth into a new reality. For the breadth of an instant, she holds onto the promise of her dream, disconcerting though it was. Seeking, grasping blindly at the memory as it fades from her mind. Then it dissipates entirely and is gone. What reality is this?, she wonders, casting a distrustful glance about. Discovering herself to be at home, she lays back in bed to catch her breath.
What is there in a dream?, she ponders. What did I seek to capture as it drifted away? Truth perhaps? A prophecy? Or was it the comfort of a resolution? A finality, whatever form it may take? No.
Ever since she had set the gutters free, such vivid dreams assailed her so as to put in question the legitimacy of all other reality she had ever known. The depth of the experience knew no equal. Struggling to delineate the phenomenon, to express it into words, she finds herself returning to a single idea. She knew the comparison incomplete, yet she allowed it to take shape. In dreams she had always travelled her mind much in the same way as she travelled the streets of the Gutters, present yet with a degree of separation. The reality she inhabited while in these vivid dreams, felt wholly different, visceral, its truth more compelling, infused with an overpowering spectrum sensory stimulation she had never known possible.
Real, the words travel her lips tentatively. Yes, she answers a spark igniting in her mind, real. It felt objectively real. In vivid dream reality, she felt alive to the fullest expression of her being. Of her senses. What the dwellers of the Gutters must know, she thought. What she would know if she were to upload directly into the Gutters.
Exactly, she exclaims conclusively. It felt as though she somehow accessed a frequency allowing her to upload into her own mind. The thought is imperfect as it is, yet she derives a brief solace from it. Then she sobers. So then, it remains as it always was. The outcast seeks a home. And in dreams no less.
How predictable, she mutters, exasperated by her own simplicity.
She slips out of bed.
On the hexagonal stage plunged at the heart of an empty auditorium, a sacred dance of motions both minute and sweeping unfolds. Footfalls reverberate, mighty, muffled or not at all, through the honeycomb hall in symmetrical waves. Controlled breaths rush out to syncopate the rhythms of the performance. Ssssst. Haaat. Shhhho. On one of a swarm of uncountable identical seats, hundreds, perhaps thousands, she sits chewing voraciously on yesterday’s ration. A sandwich perhaps? There was no way for her to tell. She found irresistible beauty in the unnecessary grandeur of her inter-lesson sanctuary. A single row of seats ringing the stage would have more than sufficed to hold the entire population of the city in the sky in virtual form. The loneliness she feels here is as unique and comforting as any she has ever known. To be at once one in all and one of all. At once insignificant enough to be overlooked and singled out from the masses. In a game of covert chess, where every piece is a pawn until a move identifies them otherwise, she had managed to remain concealed as a pawn amongst identifiable pawns. Not a queen, but a worker bee, performing the necessary rituals, careful to harvest nectar upon returning from its wanderings. Covertly observing her native world with the alien eye of an outsider.
The sweat, the stumbling, the heavy breathing, her eyes behold the raw truth of the performance as a rumble grows underfoot. Foolish, imperfect, almost embarrassing. Human. It is always better this way, she thinks. Unenhanced.
Unenhanced, she laughs. The fact that normal is described by an opposite is an inescapable irony. Life ‘unenhanced’ is paramount to voyeurism in the City in the Sky. And it is precisely this nakedness, this vulnerability, this humbling, that she finds so profoundly endearing, so magnificent to behold. She revels in precisely the mystery of the enhanced purpose of the spectacle before her. A martial art? A game? A dance? It was all the exquisite same to her. A diamond in the rough. If only there was a way back to this version of humanity.
Less, she whispers. And in her mind, she strips a few layers.
There. Under the mustard sodium vapour street lamp, the performer moves in the semi-darkness. His rags cast black misshapen ravens against a far wall overgrown with graffiti art. A few scattered puddles mirror his dance in black and white across their rippled surface. Tchaikovsky, Hymn of the Cherubim, she whispers, and her earpiece obeys. A blue-white glow is cast upon the figure as the ancient voices wash over her soul like a sickly nectar. Their music at once hopeful and despairing. She imagines herself joining in from the edge of the stage spinning softly as a music box ballerina when suddenly the young man jumps back with a yelp of fear.
Pause simulation, he says, his voice strict and feminine. You can’t be here.
Wha… what?, she manages in her stupor.
The image of the performer fades into that of her engineering professor.
I said, you can’t be here. Your eye patterns indicate distraction, absent-mindedness. There is no use in continuing now, come back for the evening lesson. Resume simulation.
Under a deeply furrowed brow, her silty black eyes clear and she finds herself shut out of the virtual class. She takes a deep breath, her heart still pounding from the multiple reality shift. Where had she been just now? Perplexed, unaccustomed to such a lack of situational awareness, she scrambles to gather her few belongings and leaves the classroom, eyes firmly focused on the ground. The sight of a classroom in simulation, row after row of mindless bodies staring forward into nothingness, had always unnerved her to no end. She shivers slightly. Even Happiness could not mask the horror of such a sight. As she steps out of the classroom, she discreetly dissimulates her reality lenses into a small tin case. Everything around her transfigures into the dull grey-blue padded physical world, except the students who remain irrevocably the same. Walking down the corridor, passing classroom after classroom, she could not help but picture the school building bereft of walls or ceiling. A source code monoculture, she thinks, being fed a specific input to a specific end. The profound alienation she feels is matched only by her deepest desire to belong. In her mind, she knew herself incapable of relinquishing her cursed omniscience for the simplicity of unwavering belief in the illusion, but the intensity of the yearning somehow never faded.
A ways downstreet of the school, meandering through empty neighbourhoods, an outside phenomenon muscles its way into the fray of her conflicting emotions. A hushed group of bystanders gathered in a semi-circle stand hunched over something of seemingly great interest. Even from a distance, the sight fills her with unease. Her aimless stroll slows to an apprehensive saunter. Still unable to observe the subject of their gathering, yet reticent to step any closer, she steps back to seek a greater vantage point. Climbing the physical structure of a virtual tree, she reaches a low rooftop. There, seated on the edge of the building, it becomes suddenly obvious why she had felt such misgivings. At the center of the conspicuous crowd lay nothing at all.
A purely virtual spectacle.
She watches on and retrieves enjoyment from the crowd, following blindly, vicariously the ebb and flow of their expressions, of there exclamations. Giggling when they laugh. Holding her breath when they fall quiet. Away from the Gutters, her happiness had become subdued, reduced to such minute pleasures as the play of her imagination could manifest. Into the emptiness, she summons a shapeshifter, walking stationarily forward before a drifting decor, affecting the mannerisms of the form it assumes. Shifting appearances as it crosses doorways. Hobbling painfully, leaping gracefully, swaggering exaggeratedly, waddling humorously, bouncing to the rumbling of the world. She could feel a meek seedling of happiness struggling germinate through the dense clay of her being, feeding on her meagre joy, her momentarily lapse of weariness, and yet, for all her desire for it to succeed, she could not bring herself to feel anything other than pity for the weakly hopeful thing. Her creative uniqueness held not a single purpose in this world. A lonely sadness envelops her from head to toe smothering her inner world into the desolate place it was meant to be. As her eyes return from their brief inward hiatus, she sees the shapeshifter wither into ash at the foot of the crowd.
Suddenly, as though responding to the dismantling of the shapeshifter, a faint rustle travels the crowd and they step back collectively as though from a pane of shattering glass. Audible disappointment spreads through the air, as the silhouetted figures begin to chatter amongst themselves.
Coincidence, she breathes unconvinced.
Eventually, her itching curiosity wears down the walls of her skepticism, she reaches back and fishes her goggles from her school bag. As Happiness materializes around her, something completely unexpected happens. Rather than catching a glimpse of the virtual spectacle, it is the crowd before her that altogether vanishes from sight. A sudden fear grips her. A dream? She could not be sure. An unnamable feeling, a paranoia of sorts, washes over her, draining her of all her bodily warmth. It was as though the very fabric of all realities had become unreliable, whimsical even, abiding by rules she could not understand.
Or was it her own mind that was failing? For the moment she had to bet against it.
Even though the rules were somehow inverted, she reasoned aloud, if the crowd exists in the physical plane, am I not still vulnerable to them?
Barely has the question left her thoughts, when her overly-active imagination this time plays against her, casting nightmarish images of the invisible crowd looking straight at her from bellow. Running at her. An acute phobia of that which she could not see perfuses her mind, its toxins spreading effortlessly in her state of confusion. She curls against it like a dying spider, her heart pounding uncontrollably.
Then, it all fades to black. To silence. To emptiness. Despite all the chaos and fear, she suddenly finds herself in a familiar place. She opens her eyes to witness the darkness expanding outwards around her and knows herself once again curled into a ball at the center of the abyss into which the Gutters was born. She feels the unmistakable cold dampness of the ground beneath her.
She feels its dispassionate inhospitableness and unexpectedly draws comfort from it. A reassurance that you can fall no further. That there is nowhere to go from here but up.
Enough, she yells aloud, breaking the spell. Mustering all her courage, she twists the bevel and reverts back to the physical world.
Trembling, gasping for breath, she finds the street before her wholly vacant.