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. Evacuation? Power outage? Extradition? 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 form at the back of her mind.
Am I responsible for this?
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 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 for answers. She rises furtively to steal a glance, thoroughly mystified as to what her reconnaissance will reveal. Then, just as gradually, she shrinks back from the window, prey to utter bewilderment.
Of any possible outcomes, this 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.
I am 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 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 incredulously, 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 lazily 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 reality… 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 so as to put in question the legitimacy of all other reality she had known had assailed her. The depth of the experience had no equal. Whereas she could travel the streets of the Gutters, as an outward projection of her mind, the connection to this new vivid dream reality was more intimate, felt to her rather as a direct upload into her mind. Yet, if it were so, where then did they drift off to? No, it isn’t that they drift off, she thinks, rather that she loses access to the frequency necessary to inhabit them. So then, it remained as it always was. The outcast seeks a home.
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. 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 inescapably 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 in 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? Puzzled, unaccustomed to such a lack of mental clarity, 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. Walking down the corridor, passing classroom after classroom of such a sight, she could not help but imagine the school building without walls or ceiling. A source code monoculture, 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 omniscience for the simplicity of unwavering belief, but the intensity of the desire never faded.