A World Tottering
“Marie, you’ll never guess who I just had a chat with,” Dan began to say as he sauntered out into the open. He was adjusting and ironing out his sleeves which had suffered a wrinkle through time spent on his excursion, as he looked up to see he was speaking to the empty air. “Marie! Marie! Oh, where is that girl. Marie!” Dan didn’t get a response.
He walked a little ways toward where he remembered she had sat and watched him enter the cave. Though it was nighttime, he could see very well indeed, even better than what he remembered he could just an hour or so before. “Well, Marie did say I’d be able to see better, didn’t she. This must be what she meant,” and thought nothing more on it. And looked for evidence of Marie’s departure, whether she went back down the mountain path or elsewhere, but couldn’t find any evidence.
Dan decided the best thing was to go down the mountain and see if she was waiting for him there. “Probably got bored just sitting there on the rocky ground. Wanted to stretch her legs probably,” Dan said, musing to himself as he himself started down the path. As he did so, turning toward the desert floor and vista beyond, Dan stood still, spellbound by the sight. Below, just beyond the foothills of the mountain range lay sprawling out a vast and intricate network of city lights, reflected by low-lying clouds or plumes of factory fog.
“Where am I!” Dan shouted out in amazement. “What in the world, where in the world is this!” Granted the ordeal Dan had just undergone was wondrous strange, nothing prepared him for what the consequences of that ordeal had been. Had he paid attention during science class, he would have known that there are consequences to stepping into wormholes.
He continued down the mountainside, bewildered and perplexed by the city lights and commotion which now became increasingly more audible. The sounds of the familiar railcars, and fast moving lights were seen, though now they seemed to Dan to move even faster than before, twice as fast. He could hear the low rumbling sounds of factory machinery working away in the night, throbbing and thudding. As he descended lower down the mountain he even now saw people, or what he thought were people, walking all about this way and that. As he made it into the foot hills and then desert floor itself, though, he noticed that these were not people at all but robotic bodies resembling people.
“What is this?” he said? A whole robotic population busily at work on night shift as a cleaning corps. Hundreds of robotic forms moved this way and that and, on closer inspection, were picking up debris and wiping, washing, and scrubbing down pavements, walls, and building windows. The outskirts of Metro City, if it was Metro City, had somehow grown out sprawled all over the desert floor in the space of an hour. “Impossible!” Dan uttered to himself. “Completely impossible.” What was, was possible, though, and Dan was faced with the fact of being in a strange new city without anyone to turn to.
As he made his way down the sidewalk, he was met head-on every so often by cleaning-bots––as they were later known to him––which were very polite and courteous.
“Good night, sir. Good night,” one said in high-pitched, chirpy tones. Another, “Pardon, please. Pardon,” as it wizzed in front of him and swept a spot of shattered glass bottle before he stepped on it, and wizzed away just as fast. Dan was walking down the side of the street dazed and dazzled by the city commotion and lights. The only thing stranger than all the activity was that it wasn’t human. No one living could be seen as far down the street as Dan’s eyes could see, which was a considerable distance, the street being flat and illuminated as it was.
Dan kept walking without knowing exactly where he was going, when he felt a tingling in his left hand and looked down at it. The index finger was glowing at the tip! He tried to rub it away thinking it some inflammation or something, but the glow was not of blood flow but light. There was a device stuck just under the surface of his finger flesh.
“What in the world! How did that get there!”
“I put it there, Danny,” said a feeble and brittle voice right beside him at an open door of a store front. “Quick, now, get in here before you get questioned for being out past curfew,” and motioned for Dan to come inside. Dan just stood there staring at the stranger in the doorway. An aged woman of about eighty-five, hunched over with a care-worn face and snow-white hair.
“Who are you and how do you know my name?” questioned Dan worriedly. “I have never seen you before in my life!”
“You always were a slow one, eh jellyfish!” said the strange, old woman, with a light in her eye unmistakably familiar and friendly. “Seriously, though, get in now before the police-bots roll down on their rounds,” and motioned again more urgently to enter, which Dan was helpless to disobey.
Inside the store the room was very much more darkly lit than the outside. The glass storefront window did not let light of the city in. The only source of light which the room had was softly glowing lamps underneath intricately embroidered shades placed down along a long countertop that ran three-fourths the distance of the store’s space. By the sight of the counter and display shelving, Dan thought the place must have been an antiques boutique of some kind.
The strange woman had walked to the back of the store as Dan entered, and was returning thence by way of a silvery smooth walking stick and something in her hand.
“Here,” she said taking hold of his hand, “this will only sting a second,” then took the device she held in one hand and Dan’s hand in the other and brought the two together slowly, but not touching. To Dan’s displeasure to say the least and surprise the glowing light in his finger tip slowly emerged from his skin as a glowing needle-thin rod about a quarter-inch long, and finally shot out and stuck to the device the old woman held.
“That’ll do ya, now,” and set the device and bloody dropped needle on the counter.
“What was that!” shouted Dan, holding his hand in his mouth.
“That was a beacon I placed in your finger some sixty years ago,” she said, matter-of-factly.
“What are you talking about. I said I never met you in my life,” Dan said incredulous.
“Oh, Danny. Do sit, sit,” and motioning him to have a seat in the chair nearby, she sat herself in an adjacent chair.
“No, thank you, ma’am. I’d rather you get on with it and tell me who you are, what that was in my finger, and how you know my name!” Dan said, standing firm and noticeably flushed. “And now before I’m out of here!”
“And where will you go, I wonder? Things have changed since last you walked these city streets, my boy,” and chuckled to herself, and sipped something from a cup at her elbow. “Have changed a lot.”
“Well, for starters you can at least tell me what is this city!” Dan said and sat down across from her, noticing the old lady would disclose nothing of what she knew until she was darn good and ready.
“You see, my dear Danny boy, you are in Metro City, but not the Metro City you knew,” the woman said, and just then two what Dan presumed to be police-bots with red and blue lights and sirens flashing were seen and heard wizzing by down the avenue.
“Another break-in, I guess,” she added in a dull, bored tone, as if this were a routine sight. “That’s why I carry this,” and she raised what Dan thought was her cane. “This’l teach them ruffians a thing or two,” and shook it a little as she said it and then leaned it back against her chair and took another sip of tea. “Oh, where are my manners? Would you like some tea, then?” and without waiting for a response she spontaneously arose as fast as geriatric can, she waddled toward the backroom.
Dan didn’t try to stop her but took the time alone to look about the room again. Clippings of newspapers were strewn about the walls in decorative frames signaling their supposed importance. Dan looked at one such just above the tea table he sat at. The clipping was of a faded picture of a class portrait, and below it ran the caption: class of 4508, from bottom left…and listed names off of the persons in the photo. To Dan’s amazement, he recognized all of them.
“Wait a second, class of 4508! That’s my graduating class!” Dan said aloud.
“Would have been, dear Danny boy, but you didn’t graduate,” said the woman coming back in with a cup of hot something.
“Didn’t, but will the end of this year!” Dan retorted.
“And what year do you think this is, anyway?” the woman asked, with a knowing look in her eye.
“Why it’s 4508, of course,” he said, not really believing what he was saying.
“No, Danny, it’s not. It’s the year 4568. You’ve been away for sometime. I’d say welcome back home, but you and I both know this place ain’t home,” she said with a sagacious and knowing tone. “I’ve not been idle, though. Still recruiting, still keeping a low profile. This antiques shop was just the thing. Thought of it about twenty years ago or so. Before then, when I could get around better––you remember how well, Danny––I was in an out of other people’s places conducting operations. Now I do everything from here, and have such a network I don’t have to be far from my tea now,” the old woman continued. Dan at this point was thinking he must have fallen in with a lunatic who happened to think he was her grandson or something. Perhaps she called every young man she came across ‘Danny Boy’. He quite forgot the needle-thin device in his finger though.
“Well, ma’am, that sounds all very well and good and delightful I’m sure,” he said as he slowly arose from his seat without trying his tea. “But I’m afraid I really ought to be going now, how late it is and all. Goodbye now, and don’t bother showing me out, I know the way,” and was heading for the door when the old woman arose smartly––if not a little feebly––from her seat and tea, and shot out:
“Cadet Daniel Goodman, you are the biggest nitwit in the world! Sit down and have a cup of tea with your old friend Marie!”
“I don’t believe it!” replied Dan, turning around.
“Well, believe it, young man!” Marie said, taking another sip of her tea. “Sit down. Have some tea.” Dan did as commanded, and after a few moments trying his tea and trying to pretend he hadn’t just undergone the most bewildering ordeal one could think of, and trying not to explode with nervousness, he finally broke the long silence of the shop.
“How old are you, again?” Dan asked.
“A lady never reveals, Danny boy, never,” she said, and emptied the contents of her cup, got up, and headed back to the back room. After a moment, however, she poked her head out and said, “You coming, slowpoke?”
Dan arose quickly and met Marie in the back-room. At first sight, all was normal. There was what was expected to be seen, a few shelves with odds and ends of antiques, a book here, an electric lamp there, even a can opener. There was the kitchenette and coffee-tea sink, and kettle and stove. The room was no more than ten by eight feet.
“What are we doing in here? It’s a little stuffy and crowded, don’t you think?” Dan asked, standing at the entryway, watching Marie waddle past the shelves and countertop toward the extreme end of the little closet of a room.
Marie didn’t appear to hear him, for she was doing something toward the empty wall at the end of the room, with her back to Dan.
“If you’re crowded, my dear, perhaps you might step into here,” and with that a mechanical sliding sound, and the wall disappeared into the roof of the backroom, and beyond the wall Dan could see a winding stairway leading down into a vast cavern-sized basement, with fifty-foot ceiling from the floor. Dan’s jaw, as was becoming habit as of late, dropped. “Plenty of space within,” she said over her shoulder, and motioned Dan to follow.
As Dan entered the space, his eyes were met with glowing monitors, keyboards, and circuitry of multicolored wires feeding in and out of ports in what appeared to be a command center of operations Marie had alluded to.
“This is where I keep my eyes on those who keep their eyes on us,” she said, rather proud of the impressive sight of sophistication and technology.
“Wow. What is all this? I mean, what do you do with it all?” Dan asked walking down the winding stairway after Marie, and coming onto the main deck of the command center.
“The Dome has become more intense these past decades. Distortion of history, programed civil disorder and unrest, and the engineered stupefaction of the populations not being enough, the Dome, headed up by those in Central City, have intensified their presence and influence over the world through the Neighborhood Watch program, as they call it,” Marie said, sitting her self in a plush black leather computer chair at the helm of the command center.
“Neighborhood Watch program?” Dan asked.
“I call it, Seek and Destroy program. Because that is all they are about. Seeking out resistance, and destroying it,” Marie said.
“What do you mean?” Dan asked.
“After sowing the seeds of truth these past several decades, an uprising of truth-seekers started asking questions. Many started to band together, and meet in secret to study and learn the old ways and beliefs. This went on for some years undetected. But recently, the Dome–-or should I say, the Cube––has focused their efforts and energies to try and eradicate the resistance to their plan to destroy everything, and in the name of the ONE, blessed be HE forever,” Marie said, noticeably drained from the discourse, and relaxed more and more in the chair.
“‘Cube’, the ‘ONE’? I’m afraid I don’t understand, Marie,” Dan said.
“Not everything can be explained by words, Dan,” Marie said in sober tones. “Some things you must see to understand and believe.”
“I see. So what exactly do you do here, then, again?” Dan asked, rolling a seat up next to hers from an adjoining computer station.
“This Neighborhood Watch program enlists members of the Academy––the one you used to attend––as spies in the anti-viceroy’s secret police force. The ‘secret’ part is where I come in. I try to figure out, through my own spying and researching, who are the members of this task force, and to report on my findings to my network of resistance fighters,” she said, trailing off on the last few words, as if nodding to sleep.
“How exciting! Where exactly do I come in to all this though? I mean, not a few hours ago we were trying to escape these Dome officials. Now you own an antique shop that doubles as a counter-intelligence command center in an oversized basement. Do I have to stay here with you in this basement for the rest of my life?” Dan asked, but to no avail, for the elderly woman Marie had nodded herself to a perfect sleep. Dan did what any decent young man would do, and fetched a blanket from the backroom up the stairway, and wrapping it snug about her chin, he too turned in and slept the day’s extraordinary adventures off in a computer chair next to his old friend.
Dan awoke to the tea kettle whistling from above in the backroom. He looked around, Marie was gone, the blanket was on him, and sunlight was pouring in from above. The ceiling was all skylight: a great dome of glass letting in daylight down below. Marie was presently seen carrying a tray of something down the winding stair, rather unsteadily. Dan got up and lent a hand.
“It is about time you arose and smelled the coffee, Danny,” she said, with a soft maternal smile.
“I guess I was pretty tired,” he said, and Marie sat him down to a well-prepared breakfast. Eggs and buttered toast, strips of crispy bacon, a fruit cup, orange juice, milk and coffee, a whole pot of it, with sugar and cream.
“How delightful, Marie! I’m famished,” Dan said, quite thankful.
“I thought you would be. Growing boys always are,” Marie replied warmly. “Now eat up and when you’ve had your breakfast, just holler, and I’ll close shop for a bit and come down here so we can continue our gab about the end of the world,” and returned upstairs.
After a pleasant and satisfactory meal, Dan pushed his roller chair away from the makeshift breakfast table at the computer station, and slowly sipped his coffee, wheeling around the floor of the massive room. All around him there were stations with screens and mechanical ticking, beeping and suchlike sights and sounds one would expect to hear at a NASA flight command center, not the basement of an antique shop. Dan noticed, though, for the first time a narrow metal door that led out of the command center. He got up from his chair and walked over to it, the material of which appeared to be like nothing Dan had ever seen. It was metallic black, but not metal by touch, but warm and almost soft. Dan noticed also, upon closer inspection, the very same rune-like script or drawing patterns that had been on what Marie called the Guides, all carved or formed into this door.
“What is this,” Dan asked aloud in amazement and interest.
“That, my dear young man,” said Marie walking down the stairs, “is the door to the armory.” Dan looked back at her in excited wonderment.
“Really? You keep weapons here?” he asked.
“You can’t fight a war without weapons, kiddo,” she replied, and now walked up to where he was standing in front of the door. “You remember how I said you’d be able to see like me after your little adventure, don’t you,” she asked, looking at him intently.
“Yes, you said I’d be able to read the Guides in the dark,” he replied.
“Right. Try now. Try to read them. Try to see them for what they really are, and see if you can make out their meaning,” she said. Dan looked back at the door to the armory. From the top down were parallel columns and within each were units of lines, some curved, some angular, which when viewed individually formed pictures in Dan’s mind or on the door, he couldn’t distinguish. Slowly, as he looked intently upon the strange characters, thoughts or images began to form, and Dan could understand quite clearly what they meant. To his mind’s ear, this is what he heard: “One who would wield great power ought to have greater mercy.” Dan was thoughtful for several moments before saying anything.
“I don’t think I’m ready to go in there just yet?” Dan asked, his demeanor changed now from giddiness to gravity.
“Yes, you are now,” Marie said, then spoke in a commanding though feeble voice, “Aperfor!” and then the door opened just like the door to the command center, and she motioned for Dan to enter.
Marie walked in to the armory just behind Dan and sat herself in a roller chair off in the corner. Dan was pacing up and down the rows of shelving in the room. Shelf upon shelf six feet high, from floor to top full of various metallic shapes and sizes.
“What are all these things?” Dan asked, in awe by the sight of all the hardware.
“These are our tools, Daniel. Tools of war,” Marie responded gravely, and appeared to Dan to be very tired.
“Are you needing a nap, Marie?”
“I need more than a nap, Dan, but first I will tell you a little about what you are gawking at.” Dan intently listened, pulling a chair up next to her in the corner.
“These weapons are ancient, Dan. But don’t let that fool you. They aren’t fragile like me. They were forged in the days when men and the world were first plunged into blood, smoke and ruin, before the cleansing of the earth with water by the Lights. The Lights forged these weapons for your father and kindred, to defend themselves and do combat against those seduced by the fallen ones, with the hopes that at least some could be saved if the opposition were overcome long enough.”
“You mean, like a search and rescue ops, or something?” Dan asked, interrupting Marie.
“Yes, Dan, something like that. Anyway, these weapons were stored aboard your father’s vessel at the time of his departure from earth, and have remained there for all these years.”
“Uh, I think it’s time for that nap, Marie,” Dan said. Marie just looked at him coldly.
“Alright, alright. So if you’re not nodding off, what do you mean by ‘remained there’ when they are right here?” Dan asked.
“It means, Danny, that you are on your father’s ship now. You always had jellyfish for brains.” Dan shot up, then his knees wobbled beneath him, then sat back down.
“My father’s ship? This is his ship? I thought it was a basement!” Dan said incredulous.
“No, Dan, you’re on board your father’s ship. The basement’s the bridge, which I have made into my intelligence command center for the time being. The vessel is large, enough for life support, food, supplies and everything else for over ten thousand men. Hundreds of such vessels the Lights built in the time of the Cleansing, but alas, only one was needed. I’m afraid only one will be needed this time, too.” Marie said faintly.
“This time? What are you talking about?” Dan asked.
“You will understand in time. Now I think I will have that nap you spoke of. I want you to go upstairs and mind the store while I get a little shut eye,” Marie said, and closed her eyes soon after.
After an afternoon of customers trickling in and out, seeking odds and ends of bygone years, one a microscope, another a computer laptop, a third a video game player, Dan was happy to close shop and return downstairs to the exciting world of weapons, spaceships, and flights into and out of danger.
“Marie? Marie! Marie?!” Dan shouted, having returned back to the armory, but Marie had left her place from the chair and was nowhere to be seen. “Now where did she go?” and wandered back into the control room area.
Taking a seat at one of the computer stations, Dan looked around and waited for Marie to return. The space now made a little more sense since Dan learned of what it was: a bridge for some vast vessel. “That might explain the sky-light windows,” Dan said aloud looking up, his back thrown back against the headrest of his chair. He thought he might try to find Marie. Knowing that she didn’t leave from the upstairs, he knew she must be on the ship somewhere. “‘Ten thousand men’!” Dan thought, “Why this ship must be bigger than the Cube Academy!”
Looking about he noticed that doors where stationed all around in a large circle, the armory but one among many. He got up and walked to another adjacent the armory, about fifteen feet along the arc. The door bore the same script as the other, though with different characters. Dan found that he was able to decipher what it said after only a moment of study, “Seek rest while ye may,” and Dan instinctively thought this was the door.
“It must be a sleeping quarters deck, I’ll bet,” Dan said. “Now, how to open this door?” Dan thought to himself. “How did Marie do it? A word. What was it?” Dan stood there in front of the door and tried to recall what Marie had said. Then it came to him. He spoke in a commanding voice, “Aperfor!” and the door shot up and revealed a great length of dimly lit corridor, and stepped inside with the door closing behind him with a loud thud and a thousand echoes ringing down and up the corridor into his ears.
The immense length of the corridor made Dan stagger, such that he had to walk slowly and with effort and assistance from leaning against the bulkheads as he went on into the dark, the path illuminated by little theater-styled lights in the floor. As he made his way, he wondered to himself what he was looking for, for Marie, of course, but was there more? An adventure perhaps? Or was he looking for answers to questions he had hardly half-guessed? Dan didn’t know the answers to these riddles in the dark, but he was determined to push through the dark and enigmas and find whatever he was looking for.
And so he did, for a solid ten minutes. Dan stumbled through the dark, noticing on each side open doors into compartments with furnishings for sleeping and living. Bunks protruding from bulkheads, tables attached to floors, and swivel chairs arranged around, fixed to the floor as well. Dan saw all these by means of yet more little floor lights flaming out their inconsequential blue fire onto the things of the living quarters. He must have passed past a hundred such compartments, through the corridor as straight as a railway, when he heard it. A low, indistinguishable sound of voices muffled by distance. “Men’s voices!” Dan thought with terror, for so far as Marie indicated, there were not any others than he and Marie in the vessel.
Dan had the presence of mind to evade observation, and so imminent capture and perhaps even torture and death, by leaving the lengthy corridor, and hiding himself in one of the innumerable living quarters compartments. As he did so, he could hear not only men’s voices but the familiar sound of military boots, distinguished by their heavy footfalls and steel toes clunking along the corridor’s hollow floor. Dan’s heart began to keep time with the cadence of the search party’s marching, faster and faster, until he thought it would burst out his chest, and he would die there on the floor in his father’s spaceship.
As the men’s approach grew louder, Dan could start to make out the sounds of the voices. One, more deep than the others, shot out in broken tones, “Not here. Next!” Another, less deep and more strained, “Not here, either!” The first, “Keep looking! He’s in here!” Dan began to shake. Not so much because he was terrified, though he was, but rather because he was so mad at himself for not grabbing a weapon from the armory when he had the opportunity. Now he and Marie would be captured. “Wait, Marie!” he thought, “Surely she could handle them,” then a sick feeling came over him and he remembered Marie’s elderly state. He was remembering her as she was, young, beautiful and strong like a lioness. Now she was slouched by time and an aching, old body. “She’s probably captured or dead by now,” thought Dan, in despair.
The voices grew louder still, and Dan now took cover beneath one of the bulkhead bunks, which provided a foot and a half of space between the bottom and the floor into which he could hide undetected, he hoped. Dan tried to calm his breathing, but this task grew increasingly more difficult, as his head began to throb with an unaccountable pain. Just about his forehead and upper region of his cranium, a dull, heavy pain emanated, which ran its course more and more and terminated in his jaw bones. He could start to taste the flavor of iron and moisture in his mouth. All the while Dan was undergoing this most strange change of bodily phenomena, he could hear the deep voiced man’s approach now, but a compartment or two away.
“They’ll look in and see I’m not here, and move on,” he thought, giving himself courage. The pain and flavor grew more distinct, and Dan could even feel moisture at his mouth, which he tried to wipe away, but felt nothing. “Further up, almost there!” came the deep voice, now but a few feet away outside in the corridor. Another, the shrill voice, even more shrill shouted, “He’s here! Here!” and a multitude of sensations bombarded Dan at once. First, the pain in his head and jaw increased with such intensity he moaned out loud, quite unable to silence himself. The dark compartment he had been hiding in brightened with a blinding blast of light, which made him blink uncontrollably. The tight space he had been stowed away under vanished and a spacious and brilliant cloudless blue sky lay overhead. The voices remained, though less deep and high than a moment before, but sounded more natural, commonplace voices. Through his blinking, a bewildering picture was forming. A squad of men in Dome Academy uniforms was approaching. Dan lay still on the solid earth with a rock at his head, covered in sun-baked blood, his face caked with the same. His lips cracked from the heat, bled into his mouth, and the pain of his jaw was raw and intense. Coming to completely, he could see soldiers carrying along somebody in white, which contrasted against their black uniforms. With a faint, broken voice, Dan spoke, a feeble arm outstretched, “Marie!” and passed out again from exhaustion and pain.