Prose Header

The Man With a City in His Head

by Maxwell Jameson


A Utopian civilization begins to awaken to its past when a strange old man begins describing a city in his head.

I could hear the river of sound from the other side of the tree-line. I walked across the patchwork lawn and across the parking lot that had once been the field where the Takers’ Army had assembled all those years ago. I squinted beneath the abrasive light of street lamps. I walked around the clump of trees until I saw Our City’s bright evening sky.

Light was everywhere. The tall buildings glowed purple, blue, yellow, green and red, highlighted by the moving beacon lights of Watchers sailing in all directions.

But they all demurred to the Floating Center.

It sat like a massive squat diamond. Buildings shot out from the top, all lit bright white — headquarters for Our City’s most important companies, universities, libraries and museums — and cresting at the center, at the tall, sleek monolith built of white marble shot with pink and yellow highlights. Our City’s Council Chambers. I’d been on several tours of it, but had never seen the inner chambers, except on holo-ports and pictures in the Complete History. No Citizens had. We had to have faith.

But today I looked where I normally never did: at the bottom half of the Floating Center. Their vibrations could be heard and felt throughout Our City. One of the greatest obstacles to living in the Floating Center was learning to adjust to their constant roar, to being partially deafened, buffered by the natural sounds of the world.

Nevertheless very few people ever took the time to look at the massive engines of the Floating Center. Myself included. There were eight of them, placed evenly around the Center’s midsection. They all roared at once like a choir of dragons, spewing flame down onto the Inner Districts, into the dark, black pit that had been slowly dug into the ground just below the Floating Center. All Our City’s human labor and ingenuity glowed bright white at the center and yellow on the fringes, charring the ground and then dissolving into the air.

Spotlights from the ground shot up into the massive gun turrets that fringed the Center’s very bottom. They had not been fired in battle since the day of the Takers’ Invasion, but they were tested twice a year to demonstrate their continued potency. And the rest of the time they stay there, under the spotlights. Ready.

Most of the time, I ignored these sounds and these sights. But now I picked them out. I realized they were always there, throughout every Citizen’s life, always present but willfully ignored.

I stared at the Floating Center until I could track its back-and-forth sway over the bright skyline. These days, I told myself, how comforted I was by its presence. How secure. But I also remembered how I used to see it, before joining the Takers. Feeling stared at. Monitored. Frightened that a massive pair of eyes hidden behind the veil of the Floating Center would see the parts of me that didn’t believe in it as much as any Citizen should.

Just then, a Watcher buzzed over me and flew directly towards the Floating Center. I followed its yellow, white and red beacon lights as they got smaller and smaller and then vanished into the Center. I knew it had entered a bay door that led to Our City’s Central Intelligence Ministry where their databanks would be debriefed and analyzed. It had most likely noted my position, noted that I was watching the Floating Center, and this datum would be analyzed and cross-referenced with my datafile — a Citizen with previous Taker allegiances — who owns and operates the establishment John the Leader now uses as his base of operations — photographed watching the Floating Center from nearby the old Takers’ City Hall. Judged and categorized based upon information that had nothing to do with my innermost feelings or yearnings. They knew nothing of the night I was buried, or what was really happening at my establishment. They knew only what they could see from outside, through the scrim of their own prejudice.

And I looked down on the ground below, faintly illuminated by the light from the engines. It was entirely unlit. You weren’t supposed to notice it. If you did, you saw a scorched, barren hole into which Our City’s waste was deposited. Around the borders, you could see the beginnings of the wasted, dirty streets that covered the Inner Districts, stretching over four times the area of the Floating Center.

Despite the poverty, Sharing was strong, and the Citizens were kept in line. We in the Outer Districts believed they lacked willpower, a sense of individuality. That they were weak. And that we were different.

But that day I’d seen the vast majority of the Outer Districts’ Citizens easily swayed by Sharing. Because until today they’d never faced it up close. And sure enough, most of them had learned they were not as strong as they believed.

Only the Takers, never allowed to Share, forced to accept the meager input of a vampirized world, had been unmoved. Only they were what they believed they were. No wonder they were so flat and detached: the nourishment of authentic connection had been sucked out of the natural world and jammed into cables then shot out on encrypted frequencies, forever excluding them.

Little did they realize how lucky they were.

I turned around and walked back towards the Center.

I was halfway through the double doors when I heard the crash. Metal chairs falling over each other. Frantic voices crying out.

The little man burst out of the office, tripping over his feet, helping himself up and tearing one of the doors open.

It was dark. The light at the front was gone.

The little man turned on the lights.

What I saw only confirmed the dark, creaking fears.

The chairs near the foot of the floor were in a jagged pile, legs sticking in all directions.

There was a struggle involving several people at the front.

Two bodies lay spread on the ground: the first on the stage, the other atop the chairs.

Over the chairs lay James the Taker, a knife sticking out of his side, a pool of blood flowing slowly onto the floor.

Just behind him — the source of the struggle — being held down by Aaron and several others, both Takers and Citizens, trembling, covered in the blood of two men, was Adam.

He trembled. He quaked. His face was scared and hopeless, covered in tears and sweat.

No one spoke but he. “No... no... no...” he muttered raggedly.

The little man turned and ran out the door and into the office, to call the authorities he’d spent a lifetime setting himself against.

I stared at James’ body. I felt numb. I walked past him, up to the stage.

Level to my eyes, lying in a pool of his own blood, covered in brutal stab wounds, looking more small and frail than he ever had, his faced still creased with pain and confusion, lay the man with a city in his head.

I burst and collapsed. I sobbed. I could see the Citizens turn to me, could feel my mind pulling them, could feel the sorrow at the loss of what one never had the chance to truly know radiate out from me and across the Outer Districts.

It was the second and last time I ever Shared.

Several years later, the event came back to me, though I suppose it never left.

The Crisis Center had been difficult this week. The Floating Center’s new offensive against the Leadership Party’s stronghold had Shared waves of violence and domination to which many male Citizens succumbed.

Frederick the Writer had turned out to be a more formidable opponent than anyone imagined. The Outer Districts were engulfed by a Separatist Movement. And the unseen victims of this climate of aggression needed a place to go.

After the authorities closed my establishment I started a new one, with a very different objective. I helped these women — and some men — put themselves back together. Once they allowed their Sharing hardware to be disabled, it was usually easy, but that was a hard bridge for them to cross.

Leaving work one day, I remembered the Old Man. I remembered the joyous Sharing from his days in my establishment. I wanted it back.

So I went to a bookstore and found the receiver for the newest edition of the Complete History. I’d thrown mine out years before.

I found it mostly unchanged. Stephen the Historian’s name had been removed when he went underground, but most of the content was still his.

I typed in “John the Leader.”

Most of it was the same as it had been before the old man’s appearance at my establishment. The extended version had been redacted just after his death.

But there was a small addition:

John briefly returned to prominence years later, rallying a small but rabid group of followers at the fringes of Our City’s culture, including many known Takers. However, he failed to gain credibility and was publicly denounced by the majority of Our City’s elite class, including Marcus the Statesman, whose eloquent address to John’s followers is seen as the turning of the tide in Our City’s favor. Soon after Marcus’ address, John was violently murdered by the son of prominent Takers, soon before the second Takers’ Invasion plunged Our City into war.

I put the receiver down and closed my eyes.

I thought of those glorious buildings hemmed in by trees. I thought of that fresh, clean air.

That would have to do.

Copyright © 2011 by Maxwell Jameson

To Challenge 447...

Home Page