A dystopian smart city hides a terrible secret from its inhabitants
I had never seen a sunrise in my life until today.
There are crystals everywhere, mountains ridges of pure glass in the distance, up close, spires towering over me in every direction. And directly in front of me three beautiful snowflakes of immense size blotting out what I know to be the sun. Fractal images, spinning, changing shape and directing lights at me, into me, asking me questions…
In the Under City, there is no sunrise, no sunset, only Now. The City used to have another name a long time ago but no one could remember it; that in and of itself, didn’t seem all that strange any more.
I was drugged-addicted by the age of eight. State-sponsored stuff, rained down on us as a fog in the Under City. Bliss was good for the Laborers, kept them happy and focused. The side effects were minimal, lower than our previous Pharma, Happiness. I was only sick early in the morning, piss a little blood, slight tremors, gone by Noon.
My parents were Laborers, the lowest of the low, untouchables, unseen, unfulfilled. But they hoped for a better life. After working sixteen hours a day, they retired to Edu-reality television in our shelter, assuming we could find one with openings. Otherwise we camped out in tent cities and watched on public display centers which could be found anywhere. When the Work Lottery came on, everyone got quiet and waited to see if they were the lucky ones.
The Work Lottery was our beacon, the thing my parents lived for. They repeated the litany, ‘The Lottery is Life’. They believed one day they would rise out of the Under City to the bountiful lives of Lower City Citizens. Scrimping, stealing, doing whatever was necessary until their allotment bracelets said they had won.
One day, beyond all expectation, they did.
We moved into the Lower City after a good delousing, decontamination, and health screening and marveled at the opportunities available to us. School was unheard of for the Lowlies or Laborers, they just didn’t need any. In the Lower City, it became a requirement. We had food. Daily. A protein bar. We were happy to get it. If we earned more we could buy other food, but the daily protein bar was worth the Lottery itself.
“Citizen, you are experiencing a reduction in serotonin levels. Should I compensate for maximum happiness using a neurotransmitter supplement?”
“No, Central. It is a mid-afternoon lag due to hunger. Once I go to lunch I should be fine. Thank you for asking.”
“Remember Citizen, ‘Better Living through Pharmacology.‘”
“‘Better Living through Pharmacology’, Central.”
That was close. I am screwing up. Can’t forget to gland my meds. When Central applies them, I am subject to fine and sanction. I tried configuring the auto-glanding functions but when I did, I ended up not being sure of my state of mind. Yes, I was chemically balanced, but when one is used to living in altered state, it can be mind-altering to be chemically balanced and clinically sane.
The luxuries of the Lower City also included a place to live where less than fifty people shared the same space. No group shelters, no tent parks, no underpass communities, these were things of the past. The house we shared with four families had two bathrooms, running water, and could be secured. Bathing was limited to twice a week, but this was still better than I had known.
In the Under City, I bathed in waste streams, some less toxic than others. Open sores, rashes, violent infections were sometimes the result. If it wasn’t for Bliss, more would die from the toxicity of our environment. In addition to controlling our mood, it provided a blanket antibiotic. At least while it remained effective.
The best part of the Lower City experience was the ready and stable work. After detox from Bliss, my parents improved and became Viable. They became Sanitation Leaders, organizing the Laborers of the Under City. Their knowledge of the system made them uniquely qualified. They were also now given options for better Pharmacology than Bliss raining down daily from the vents of the Under City. There were so many new states of mind available here.
At the age of eight, I was assigned a series of advanced education protocols very different from the average kid in the Lower City. My first school experiences had me sitting in a class with eighty students chained to Direct Repeating Educational machines.
The machines gave students a set of facts, repeated as litany, over and over. The students learned to parrot what they were told but did not necessarily understand. Nor was it required that they did. The computers monitored their litany, the cadence, the correctness. When a student could produce the required standards they were upgraded to the next learning level. Most would do this until they were sixteen and assigned for adult level work details. For a good portion of the work of the Lower City, only a rudimentary knowledge of anything important was necessary.
I was I was more fortunate. They said I would be given a Teacher.
Instead of using the Direct Repeating Educational machines, until I was twelve, my Teacher would guide my exploration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They drilled me in scientific theory, but unlike the DREs they wanted me to understand. They fostered my quest into biology and ultimately how plants create the exotic molecules used in the Upper City for Better Pharmacology and in the Lower City as Regional Behavioral Modifiers.
I was considered a prodigy and when I was twelve, I acquired four other Teachers. One taught me exclusively Science; he was a master of six realms and had skills in six others. As a Science Teacher, he was required to stay working in the field for two years, and would teach for four. He was cycled through the Pharmacon regularly to bring his ever expanding knowledge to make life truly better using the finest chemical cocktails possible. I was in love with him. I wanted to be him. My other Teachers resented my emphasis on Science because each wanted to acquire a prodigy like me. Since I didn’t want to play favorites I agreed to learn at the same level as my Sciences. I would rotate through each discipline until mastered all four. By sixteen, I was done, a prodigy unlike anything ever seen in recent history.
At fourteen, life in the Lower City was brutal. I might have been considered an intellectual prodigy, but no effort was made keep me safer than anyone else living in the here. I had to sleep with sixteen other students at the boarding house, four to a room. There was no love between any of us. No bond of brotherhood, no camaraderie in suffering; here we were taught one thing. There isn’t enough to go around. Compete, fight, win, there was no second place.
I killed my three roomates one night while they slept.
It didn’t make sense to risk the wrath of the other two if I only killed one. Nor did it make sense to only kill two. It would have left one person who knew he wasn’t the killer and would try to kill me. So it made perfectly good sense to me. I had my room to myself for two years. No one bothered me for the rest of my time in school.
You have to understand, it’s a different world now. I took my medications daily. Everyone did. We weren’t allowed not to. Our moods were stable, our impulses dampened. We were always peaceful. But peaceful didn’t mean without violence. Violence acted like a disease vector. Outbreaks would happen even in a population forced to be drugged, in their food, their water and given drugs daily. It was simply understood as a viral social interaction, there was an outbreak, it was contained. It would end.
My classmates were such an outbreak. No one is punished when this happens. It is just the way thing are. Three out of five of us will not reach adulthood. We understood this. Hence the intensity of my world. I graduated school with honors, such as they are. I was assigned to work with the Pharmacon.
There were only a few choices left in the world these days. If you work in the Manufacturum, you would be a robot tender or program jockey. Robots did almost all of the manual labor these days. If you went to work in the Emporium, you were a service worker, destined to serve someone, work for someone, a person, a company, a military unit. If you worked in the Military, you were assigned to corporate wars where ever they broke out. You might be unfortunate and have to police the last pool, Labor. Labor was everyone else who wasn’t capable of doing anything else. Labor got all the jobs no one wanted. Labor lived in the places no one wanted to live in the Under City, a place below the Lower City, where waste, filth, trash, excess, and excreta accumulated . Labor ate what no one wanted to eat. I was born to Labor. That was my fate until I got lucky.
When I agreed to work in the Upper levels of the city, I didn’t know they were going to gland me and set me up as part of the Health Monitoring Network (HMN) and would be monitoring my entire bio-profile. Nor did anyone tell me they would have the capacity to alter my chemistry to ensure my maximum efficiency.
I work in a chemical engineering facility where we create the drugs used in the Lower City to keep the people there placid and calm, despite their burdensome poverty. For the Under City, we use a chemical fogger to ensure the complete docility of those classes; no choice, no rights, no problem. I was assigned a team and given the opportunity to do whatever I thought would best make new profits for our corporation; ‘Profit before All’.
At eight, I saw my grandparents for the last time as they went Green. My parents wept tearfully, but they were only allowed a thirty minute window from their jobs before my Grands went into the Green. They were sent to the Green section of the Lower City where they would spend their final days before their Greening. I would be given a memento of them and I enjoyed the extra burst of nutrition as I was their primary recipient in their will. I ate better than average for almost a whole year, another reason I believe my education was even more effective than my surviving classmates. The SYLT protein ratio indicated my grandparents were fitter than most and the extra protein provided a metabolic boost.
Opulence surrounded me in the Upper City. People wore clothing. New clothing, not used, not ragged, made of materials I had never heard of. I was forbidden from owning most of it. As a Labor Exchange, I was only permitted the most basic of materials and even that was magnificent. Denim was a thousand times better than the extruded fibers used to clothe the Lower City. Extruded cloth is a molecular matrix of tough, strong, and resilient material. Unfortunately, comfortable is not one of the words to describe it.
Extruded clothing was suffused with nanotech designed to keep it clean, dry and free of foreign matter. This is a good thing, because you would only have one other change of clothes. The nanotech would keep the clothing you weren’t wearing clean until you started wearing it. On your changing day, you would put on your other clothes which have been cleansed. Your dirty clothes would be folded and would clean themselves. What this meant is the Lower City always smelled terrible as the chemical soup that is humanity was released into the air as a stinking miasma.
Except here. Everything here was new. When you were done with clothing, you fed it into a shredder and it was returned to the Forge. In the Upper City, the Forge was the technology which made everything. In the Upper City, no one had to do anything but what they wanted. These were the best minds in the City, always working on things they thought were best, but even in that, there was an undercurrent of fear. No one knew what they were afraid of. If a line of questions caused fear, Citizens retreated, never investigated, never queried.
I had come from the Under City. I had known fear, hunger, depravation. Nothing here would stop me from knowing. Nothing. I learned all they would teach me. Then I read all I could find. Ultimately I kept returning to the final arbiter of information; the Forge of the City.
The Forge was from the Before Time, when places had names and people had purpose. Now we seem to just exist. I knew what I had to do. I learned about the Forge. No one wanted to do that anymore. It was too hard. There was too much to know. They were too afraid. Since I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I asked the Forge.
One night it answered back.
No one had talked to it in so long. It had forgotten how to speak. My months of working with it, talking to it helped it remember. It told me what we needed to do. Years past. We worked in secret to understand the City. We worked to create a new way of life for our people. We would need one more Pharma.
Something that would bring everything back in balance. A drug different than Happiness. People used Happiness but were never happy. We wouldn’t make Bliss or anything like it again. We wouldn’t create any of the more exotic upper city products either, Sleep, Fornicate, Brainstorm, were all decent with mild side effects but no ambition. What we needed was not a drug. Nor was it a state of mind. What we needed was the Truth.
Nothing we understood made sense. The Forge’s instruments said we didn’t exist. What we would do would empty the cities, return all of us on a path toward something significant. Yes, many will die, the Forge said two thirds would not survive at our current rate of decay.
We were dying faster than we were renewing. It said in one hundred years, no one would survive. It listed our current rates of infectious disease, breeding and reduced food production as the three causes.
We looked at the rates of infection. There were no longer any antibiotics after Bliss. We had run out of new ones, as viruses and bacteria grew resistant to them. Every infection in the Under City would rise into the Lower City and then eventually into the Upper City. Food supplies were dwindling. Even with the Greening of the old, sick and infirm, the Green processing plants were losing the struggle. There simply weren’t enough humans to go around. The hydroponics systems were efficiency but they were never designed to serve as many as existed now. Most terrible was the breeding. The city had 30 million souls designed for a system which should have only supported five. The city has grown but slower than expected.
The Forge says it’s time for us to go. We were not meant to live in the City forever. It says we need to take whatever risks we can outside. There is air and water, the rest would have to be found.
I had to know. How did we end up here? Why are we in the City at all? How did we make the decisions we did?
The Forge did not remember everything. Time has claimed its memories too. It believes we were once travelers who were lost, looking for a new home. And this place was the last place to go before there was nothing at all. They chose to stop here and discovered a world so dangerous, to set foot outside the City meant death.
To stay within the City meant death. How long had we lived this way? Three hundred thousand revolutions of the sun? What was the sun?
The Forge told me where to go.
I climbed for ten days, to a level of the City no one knew existed. And when I reached the Edge of the City, I hesitated.
Who was I to change our way of life? Who was I to question my ancestors who said the City was our home and we had “Better Living Through Pharmacology?”
I had to know.
“Prefect, the Anomaly has breached the System. It struggles beyond its programming, beyond its learning, beyond all of our inhibitions. It is poised to grasp concepts foreign to it. What do we tell it?”
The most holy Prefect, Kazimir Inten, Ruler of the Naissur Church, Protector of the Wayward, Finder of the Lost, turned it fractal form in the sunlight, splintering it into thousands of rainbow colors, and addressed his acolytes. “We tell it the truth. It has no home, its people have been dead for ten times ten thousand years and that if it is truly willing to embrace the different, we will reconstruct her people here. With us.”
“Prefect, we have observed them for all of that time. They are the most studied creatures in our facility. They are violent, dangerous, even when in their right minds, they can be destructive to all there is around them. Why would you even offer them the opportunity for survival?”
“Look at the device, Noloience. This is all that is left of them. They came looking for a new world, a new start. They died as they asphyxiated in our poisonous atmosphere. We saved their chemical essence, their intellectual capacity within our fractal universe. Through so much, with so little, they never lost hope, never stopped aspiring for greatness.”
He flashed in the sunlight, a message of shame and consternation to his acolytes who responded in turn. “One comes to the edge of her reality and says ‘Save us.’ How can that be wrong?”
One year later, my people moved freely, without fear, without dominance, without suffering. I stood at the crash site on which the Forge stood.
It was a single crystalline spear right through the center of our ship. Through our primitive silicon computer system which was connected to every mind on the ship. They saved us by accident. As the atmosphere vented, they backed up every mind.
Our people died on our very first night here. Our saviors spent the next thirty thousand years, decompiling and reconstructing us, again and again. I was one of the final programs which worked, which approximated the mind of a sane Human.
With their knowledge of me, it took only a year to save the rest of the crew and return them to their selves. There was only one question asked of everyone. Remembering the life we led before, would you want to retain those memories or start completely anew. Curiosity intact, knowledge intact, but memories of the City would be erased. To the last person, they voted to erase the City from their memories.
One year later, with a clear mind and a new body created from fractal crystals filled with light, I turned off the Forge. Spinning, absorbing energy from all sides, I shot skyward and danced in the sunlight.
But unlike the others, I chose to remember the City. If for no other reason, to remember what we were and how far we had come. Our new friends made us anew, but I would remember what we accomplished on our own.
Both were glorious.
Chrysalis © Thaddeus Howze 2013, All Rights Reserved
Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. You can follow him on Twitter or support his writings on Patreon. But one of the best ways to show you care is to share this story.