2419 A.D., 49 years since Parallax
“One day, this chalk outline will circle this city.”
– Cedric Bixler-Zavala
I was walking past the main gate of the Crafter’s District when her silken, metallic voice came over the intercom.
“Attention citizens: curfew begins in one hour. Please make your way to your residences. Any citizens found outside during curfew are in direct violation of the City’s laws. Thank you for your cooperation.”
I fucking hate her voice. The Recons are dead serious about enforcing the curfew, so, adjusting the bag I carried on my back, I picked up my pace.
The gray sky bore down on me, more than it usually did. Perhaps the Field Marshall’s reminiscence about the sun affected me more than I thought. I’ve never seen the sun, but old-timers like the Field Marshall grew up in an era before the City. What a different time that must’ve been, before the City, before the Rings, before this shit-storm of a life…
The Outer Ring didn’t so much prosper but rather…fester, unlike the rest of the City. Who am I kidding? It’s a shit hole. Sure, there are a few locations, like the Crafter’s District or the AgriCenter, that do well for themselves, but they’re exceptions to the rule. The small complex I live in is just one of many buildings that have fallen into disrepair. I always strode past the glimmering white walls of the Inner Ring when I was a kid, but now, I can pass through them. I know I don’t belong, though. If it isn’t the Recons reminding me of that fact, it’s the Inners.
I walked past an emaciated beggar, sitting outside of a small, metal abode one could barely consider to be a shack. We can’t all get by on rations. I put a couple of astrals into the small box he was holding out.
“First bless you.” He coughed wheezily, holding out his box, hoping other passers-by would be as generous. They, of course, ignored him. But that wasn’t as bad as how the Recons treated him. A couple of them walked past him, like he was a piece of trash. When he reached out to touch them, one of the Recons turned around and smashed him in the face with the butt of his rifle. The beggar screamed in pain as he grabbed his face, blood gushing from between his fingers.
“Get off the street, or next time, we’ll run you in for vagrancy,” the Recon said, pointing his finger at the beggar, before walking away with his comrade. The few bystanders still around were staring at the Recon in shock. “Go about your business, citizens,” he commanded, and the crowd dispersed.
I stepped forward to intervene, to yell at the guard or to assist the man who was now doubled-over in agony on the steel ground, but something yanked at the back of my neck. I turned away and continued along my path.
How did it get this bad?
I approached the towering white gate to the Inner Ring. Clad in his heavy black armor, the Recon at the gate, of course, asked for my identification. They don’t want Outers entering the Inner Ring without reason. I handed him the plastic card with my information.
“State your business.” Can’t imagine he was this gruff to everyone.
“Delivering weapons to the Children of Synthesis.”
He gave me an exhausted, aggravated look through his semi-transparent visor. He obviously wasn’t in any mood to deal with my shit, nor was I in any mood to get my ass beat by Recons. Again.
“I’ve got business with the Archon,” I stated plainly this time. He continued to look at me with that same expression. “Seriously.”
After a short pause, he turned to the other Recon at the post. “Get a confirmation.” Turning back to me, he said, “I find out you’re causing any trouble…”
“Yeah, yeah,” I replied, “heard it all before.”
I’m sure he was about to pull out a baton and give me a thrashing, but his companion called out, “He’s clear.”
The Recon stepped to the side. “Get your business done quick.”
I walked past him, making sure to scuff his boot as I continued by. I should’ve expected the harsh smack from his weapon in the center of my back, but the pain still caught me by surprise. I knew this was a fight not worth having, so I ignored it as best I could.
The gleaming white buildings in the Inner Ring were instantly different in appearance from the fragmented and beaten-down hovels in the other districts. I never felt as though I belonged here, not like my father did. Mom never told me what exactly he used to do for a living. “He was a government contractor,” was the most I could get out of her. She didn’t like talking about dad. Thinking of them, I jogged past advertisements of water purifiers and travel simulators, the seductive perks of being rich. Most of the citizens in the Outer Ring were lucky if the meager amount of astrals they could scrape up could get them a second water ration. I tried to ignore the flashing lights of the city as I made my way to the Skywatch.
I was, again, stopped by the Recons at the barricade to the Skywatch.
“Oh, come on guys,” I said, exasperated, “You know who I am. I’ve been through this gate, what, fifty fucking times now?”
“Standard procedure, Mr. Vaas.” The same bullshit they gave me every time. I think they just got a sick pleasure out of holding me up. I was eventually waved on through. Guess they were getting bored. I slowly began my long trek up the hill, to the white tower which rose above the City.
“What’s up, Aeranas?”
The vaulting white ceiling and the soft blue glow of the Archon’s office always made me feel protected. No matter what happened in the City, I felt weirdly safe in the Skywatch. Maybe it’s because the people here at least pretended to give a damn about us.
“I’ve told you before, Jacob, please address me with a modicum of respect.”
I sighed, “Greetings, Lord Archon.” He gave me this job. I owe him that much.
Archon Bartoq Aeranas stood in front of the window. He turned to face me after I had properly greeted him, his green cloak fluttering behind him. Stress was something that could be seen on the face of everyone in the City, but it was always extremely apparent on his. It weighed heavily on him. He wasn’t old, but the wrinkles that lined his face and the gray in his black hair made him seem much older than he was. The toils of leading the City probably took at least ten years off of his life. “Thank you for humoring me. Now, do you have the Field Marshall’s report?”
“Right here.” Walking over to him, my boots echoing on the smooth metal floor, I handed him a tablet, which I had removed from my pack. He pressed its screen, staring at it for a long moment in silence. “Well, if there’s nothing else, I should be getting home.”
“Hold on for a moment,” he said, putting the tablet down on his desk.
“Sir, curfew’s going to be in effect soon.”
“I told you to wait a moment. This will not take long.” He gestured to the white chairs in front of his desk.
I shrugged. No denying the Archon, I suppose. I sat down in front of his cold metal bureau, as he sat across from me, fingers interlocked, examining me with his gray eyes, gray like the sunless sky.
“Do you know why I gave you this job?” He finally asked.
“Because you owed my father a favor?”
“Yes, but I had another reason in mind. It’s because I trust you.” Oh great, one of these talks. “But your friends…them, I do not trust.”
“The group you hang around with. To be plain, they’re miscreants. I don’t want to see you falling into their behavior.”
I gave him an annoyed look. “How do you know who I spend time with? Have you been following me?”
I knew what that implied.
“I’m concerned for your safety, Jacob. I know what your ‘friends’ do after curfew. I don’t want you being hurt, or worse: caught up in their activities.” He stood up, fingers dragging lightly across the surface of his desk. He was being unusually harsh. What did he know? “If I find you engaging in any illegal behavior with them, I will punish you, regardless of your affiliation with me. Do you understand?”
I hesitated. “Perfectly.”
He smiled wearily. I’m sure he knew I was lying. “Good. Now, get on home. You don’t want to be out after curfew.”
“Attention citizens: curfew is now in effect. Any citizens found outside of their residences during this time will be incarcerated by the Special Tasks and Reconnaissance Force. Curfew will be lifted in twelve hours. Thank you for your compliance.”
Shutting the door behind me, my sister sprinted out from some alcove in our apartment to greet me.
Elena hugged me around my legs with that immense strength four-year olds seem to have. I patted her on the head. No matter how shitty I felt, she always could cheer me up.
“I was worried you weren’t going to make it back.”
“What, and leave you all alone? Never.”
“Want to see the picture that I made?”
I smiled. “Do I ever.”
She ran back deep into the apartment, most likely to our bedroom. I could hear her feet echoing off the stone floor in the distance. She’s sweet. Sheltering her like this isn’t good, but what am I supposed to do? Knowing what the City was like when I was her age screwed me up permanently, got me mixed up in some bad business. What would it do to her, now that things are worse?
I walked over to the busted holo-screen in the corner of the room. Damn thing hasn’t shown a clear image in years. Only static now, but Elena was probably trying to watch some kid’s show before curfew started. I shut it off. No point in keeping it on during curfew.
She came back from wherever-she-was and thrust a scrap of paper towards me. I took it from her hands, inspecting the four figures she had drew. There she was, messy blonde hair and wide grin, standing between myself, decked out in full Skywatch outfit, and our mother, with her gleaming gold hair and reserved stance. The man on my other side, though, I didn’t recognize. I couldn’t recall anyone in my family who had long brown hair and wore a Recon uniform.
“Who’s this?” I pointed at the unknown man.
“What do you mean? It’s dad?” She giggled.
I took a closer look at the man in the drawing whom she claimed to be our father. She was born a few months before he died, way too young to remember him. Hell, I don’t remember him looking like that.
“Oh yeah, I see it now.” Might as well play along. I handed it back to her. “It’s a great drawing, sis.”
She took it from my grasp, but pouted as she did so. “Don’t lie to me. It’s not that good. You couldn’t even tell dad.”
“Oh no, I just forgot that he had hair like that.” I ruffled her hair. “It really is good, Lena-Baina. I promise.”
She shook her head, trying to get my hand off of her, and looked back up at me. “Thanks, Jake.” I couldn’t tell if she actually meant it or was just placating me.
I yawned. “Hey, I’m really tired. I’m going to go to sleep early. Could you play out here for now?”
“Okay.” She walked over to a stuffed elephant in the corner of the room, conversing with it. I think she loves Trunks more than she loves me sometimes.
I walked to the end of the apartment, but opened the door across from my bedroom instead. I wanted to check on her. She was lying in almost complete darkness, only illuminated by the green glow of the heart monitor by her bedside. Her sheets were strewn in a messy pile around her. It’s been a long time since mom left that bed. Her bright blonde hair was now dull and sickly, her once-full cheeks now gaunt, her smile non-existent. Her chest rose and fell slowly. Every time she exhaled, an almost-silent wheeze came from her open mouth. I reached into my pack and pulled out a small, glass bottle filled with blue pills, which I placed on the counter by her bed. We weren’t supposed to get a refill on our medicine ration until the end of the month, but the Archon pulled a few strings for us. I slowly and silently shut the door as I exited her room and entered my own.
It was cramped, having to share a room with Elena, but I found a way to make it work. Maneuvering around the various toys and pens littered on the floor, I removed my bag, placing it beside my bed as I flopped onto it’s nearly solid surface. I repositioned myself on the uncomfortable mattress, facing away from the opaque window. There wasn’t much else one could do after curfew, apart from sleep. And I needed the rest.
The faint knocking at my door woke me up. I turned to see my sister in her bed, still fast asleep, before checking my watch. Midnight. On time as usual. Dex was always a man of his word. I hopped out of bed, tip-toeing to the front door of our complex.
As I opened the door, Dexter’s mousy face greeted me. He may have been a few years older than me, but he was still scrawny. Good thing he was quick, though, or the Recon’s would’ve gotten to him a lot sooner. Still, being out this late, even dressed in dark clothing and with a vast knowledge of the Recon’s patrol patterns, was dangerous.
“Good to see you, mate.” Dex and I couldn’t meet up as often as I would like. My work got in the way, but our evening excursions always brought us together again. “Ready to go?”
I nervously shifted my weight as I looked at the ground. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to go tonight.”
“Jake, what are you talking about?”
“I think the Archon’s following me. He knows what we’re doing.”
Dex swore to himself as he walked past me into the living room. I closed the door quickly, turning to see him sitting down on the rough couch in the middle of the room.
“What does he know?”
“He was mentioning that he knows about what we do after curfew.” I leaned against the wall.
“But he couldn’t prove anything.”
“Dex, he’s the Archon. He doesn’t have to prove anything.”
He scratched the back of his head feverishly. Anything that went off the plan made him nervous. “We gotta deliver the Nether. You know Callax.”
I sighed. “Yeah, I do.”
“He’s already pissed about some dorks who got caught going off plan. Recons got to them, seized a few cases. We gotta stick to the plan. That’s all there is to it.”
“But the Archon…”
“Fuck the Archon, man.” He stood up and paced around the room, turning every few steps to prevent walking into the walls. “Callax knows what he’s doing. As long as we stick to the plan, we can avoid the Recons, make the deal, and be back before curfew lifts.”
That didn’t really comfort me. “You sure?”
He looked me straight in the eye and gave me his most consolatory smile, a weak grin that resembled a nervous admittance of dishonesty rather than encouragement. “We’ve listened to Callax this far and things have worked out for us. We don’t have a choice, Jake. We trade the Nether, get the ration cards, and get out. Callax’s happy, the clients are happy, we’re happy.”
“Speak for yourself.” None of this made me happy.
“I know, man, I know. But Callax’s depending on us.”
I straightened up from the wall, shrugging at Dex. “Yeah, I guess he is.”
He grinned and strode towards the door. Putting my boots on, I joined him as we exited from my home and sprinted through the darkness. Sometimes, I think we know the patrol routes better than the Recons do. At least, I hope we do.