"Welcome to Safe City. How did you get in?"
"It's a long story."
"We don't meet many outsiders, so why don't you tell it."
"I came from The Blue Hills in Sector 5."
It's been weeks since anybody spoke to me. I'm locked in this prison day and night. They said it was protocol, just a precaution, but the whispering walls tell me this isn't protocol, it's something else. They think I'm dangerous, infected, like the others. The truth is there aren't any others, but they haven't given me a chance to tell them what happened. They are waiting for me to change into one of the things they fear I am. I wonder which one they think I'll become? How much longer can I keep disappointing them? I fear they're going to claim that I'm something I'm not any day now to prove how safe their city is. I wonder if there were any others like me, innocents that had to be disposed of to feed the lies they keep.
"Is it bread this time, I do love bread?"
My meals arrive at the same time each day, they're not elaborate, but enough to keep me fed and not complaining. My prison reminds me of a diner in the dry desserts of Sundown. I used to go there with friends and order orange sherbet. Basil would use his special straw that he said made the fizzy drinks bubblier. I remember the last day I saw Basil and what he said to me.
"You have to leave, it's happening here."
"What's happening," I screamed back at my best friend.
"Death, worse than death, get out."
"Come with me!" I pulled on his arm, and he disappeared in that moment.
I'll never forget the look on his face; he didn't know what took him, or where he was being teleported to. I wish it took me too; I wish I was with him now. Death did come after that and I barely escaped. It came in the night; I heard the screams, I still heard them when all the people were gone. The wind carried the screams and lashed at my heels as I ran across the sand. I ran until I couldn't run anymore; then I started to vanish. First my fingers glistened and then light surrounded me, then I was gone. When I became whole again, I thought I would find Basil, but I was on an unmanned carrier. It picked up my life signs and teleported me up to it. That's how I ended up here.
"Safe City," the computer voice on the carrier announced and then I started to glisten again. This time is was standing, so it looked like I just walked up to the gates of the city from another dimension. If I had looked up maybe the guards on patrol would have looked up too. But they didn't and they had already come up with their own story about where I came from. That's when I slipped past them. They busied themselves with a perimeter force field so no one else would walk out of the other dimension and show up at the gates. I only saw a small part of the city before they caught up with me. It seemed like a paradise at the edge of Sector 8, until they started to treat me like an outsider.
The sun is setting early today. The natural light that comes into the diner is fading. I stop spinning on the stool I always sit on and tuck myself away in a booth. I pull the blanket with the words 'Compliments of Safe City,' stitched into it over me and wait. Then I realize it's not the sun that is fading, but something that is blocking out the sunlight. I get up and cloak myself with the complimentary blanket and run to the window. It looks like a supply ship; I wonder what it is bringing and if there is anyone on it. I watch the guards leave their posts and I pull on the door. Of course it's locked. They wouldn't be that stupid.
The doors open and they begin stacking the barrels against the wall. They ignore me and keep talking to each other.
"This one is heavy; help me push it back behind the counter."
"Is this the last one?"
"Yes until the day after tomorrow."
"Let's leave these and open them when the rest of the shipment arrives."
"Alright then, let's grab a drink at the pit."
They leave and I try to imagine what's in the barrels to pass the time. It only takes my curiosity seven minutes to force me into action. I look behind the counter for something to pry the tops off. The draws are full of utensils, so I grab a butter knife and choose the one closest to me to open. It won't budge, so I tap on it and listen to see if sound is reverberating on the inside. I hear something that tells me there is enough air in there so I should be able to lift the top off by prying it. I try again. This time the butter knife forces the lid up and I think I see hair and back away from the barrel. My curiosity turns to fear and I step away and clutch the butter knife to my chest. The barrel groans. And I race for the doors and pull on them frantically.
"Help, let me out!"
Another groan answers my plea.
"Help," I scream louder, but no one is coming to help me.
"Claire," the barrel said my name.
I must be imagining it. I cover my ears and drop the butter knife; the sound echoes in another dimension. I see it on the floor, and question myself whether or not I should go and pick it up. My body is immobilized by fear. The barrel is now rocking back and forth. My mouth is gaped open and I can't shut it. The barrel comes crashing down and I see hair again, but this time I also see the face it's attached to. The fear turns back into curiosity and I run to help my friend.
"Basil, how did you get in there?"
"It wasn't easy," he says as he pops out of it like a birthday present.
"More like impossible."
"I thought I told you once that impossible can always be tricked or altered."
"So you altered the barrel somehow or yourself." I add without a need for an explanation.
I hug him; I'm so happy he's here I'm not going to dwell on how he got into the barrel in the first place.
"Shall we go?"
"Yes of course, but what are we going to do?"
"Since we can't order French fries, we'll look for someplace else to eat."
He must have known I was in the old diner, so now he is just being his usual self. But his usual self was teleported away the night something came and left its victims screaming.
"Before we go, I have to know; where did you go?"
"I'm sorry I didn't take you with me, if it was up to me I would have, but, well you'll find out soon enough."
"Basil, something happened that night. Something came and."
"I know what it was and I'm glad you got away, now let me concentrate on the locked door."
He reaches into the barrel and pulls out some sort of weapon or tool. He scans the lock and it clicks open. He pulls the door open just enough to stick his head out.
"Okay, let's go."
I follow him out and the sunlight is so bright I have to cover my eyes with my hand. He grabs my arm and pulls me. I keep my eyes covered until he whispers something that sends a chill down my spine.
"Vampire Dust," he scrunches his nose while he says it.
"What did you say?"
"Vampire Dust, that's what came that night and that's why you heard screams."
Vampire Dust doesn't kill you it infects you like a plague. It changes its victims into something else, less organic beings that feed on others, bat zombies. I look at him waiting for him to tell me if I should find my fear again.
"They aren't coming here. The ship I was on exterminated all, probably all, of the bat zombies the dust created that night. If one got away it won't be much of a threat and if it's on its way here, it might get a good meal at the gate, but that meal will certainly be its last."
I think about the guards that I walked away from and try to imagine a bat zombie flying past them. I think it would have a pretty good chance of getting into Safe City. Basil stops to look at me like he knows what I'm thinking.
"Well maybe it would get in, but its preference for human flesh would stand out a bit in a crowd, don't you think?"
"What about us?" I ask as the crowd around us seems to be noticing us.
"Right, then," he says as he grabs my waist and spins me around.
Suddenly we seem to be blending in with our surroundings. We stop at a food cart in this vast city that is in constant motion. The food cart vendor offers us a sample of beef on a stick. It's not real beef, he explains but it tastes just like it. He claims he's tasted buffalo from Sector 9 and this imitation meat is the closest there is on the planet.
"Why not just trade with Sector 9 nomads to acquire real beef?" Basil asks the vendor.
"They are thieves; they charge seven portions per pound."
"And how much is your imitation delicacy?"
"Thirty-seven pence, per serving, a fair price for it too."
"Yes, but it doesn't taste very good."
"You silly lot, you won't find a better meal, go on now."
We walk away, because we don't have any money anyway. The streets are alive with decorations like some massive celebration is happening. But in Safe City the people are always celebrating, so we just get lost in the sea of colors.
We walk along the blue sidewalk that marks the edges of the street; the buildings are illustrious and grand even to outsiders. The whole city mimics a forgotten world. It's like a living library of the past. Naturally when so many cultures come together each one is represented individually and then like petals on a flower they blossom into something unique. Safe City is beautiful. The other sectors are vast and arid. Here cultivation is prevalent. My parents had a large garden they raised crops from and shared with all the people of Sector 5. When their work called them away, the people would look after the crops and always leave a basket with enough for my whole family to eat on the kitchen table. After a few years the basket only held a week's worth of grain and vegetables for me. I would process the grain and eat the same meals until I was bored with them. That's when I met Basil; I started frequenting Sundown. It was so barren, but that's where the diner was. Everything they served was synthesized, but it was somewhere to go and only twenty miles from home.
A crowd is gathered near the entrance to a stadium.
"The match is about to begin," someone shouts as they run past us.
A woman in a blue jumpsuit bumps into Basil and he stumbles backward into me and knocks me to the ground.
"Please accept my apology," the woman says. Her short blonde hair frames her face and her brown skin is spotted. She's wearing blue lipstick that matches her jumpsuit. She seems to stand out more than anyone else in the crowd. Basil holds his hand out to help me up from the ground.
The woman has walked off and I get up without Basil's help.
"Shall we go to the match then, and see what all the fuss is about?"
"That seems like a good idea, only it might delay us leaving, but no need to worry we do intend to leave, so I suppose a few minutes will be fine."
When we enter the stadium it looks as if we've left civilization behind. The arena is a dessert and the players are wearing earth tones to match the motif. If it weren't for the seats facing the arena, I would seek the vibrant colors adorned by the crowd. Suddenly I hear a sound that demands all of my attention. Then the playing field is electrically charged with laser beams that target the ground. Simultaneous emissions from both sides of the arena are being absorbed by the ground in the center of the field. When the flashing stops the crowd is still, so are the players. A loud moan causes the entire stadium to tremble. I grab hold of Basil's arm to steady myself. The other onlookers do the same to their companions. The players move toward the center of the field and I notice there are goal posts suspended at both ends of the arena.
"The ground is moving," I whisper to Basil.
"No, something in the ground is moving," he says without looking away from what is happening.
The players approach the movement. One player pulls on something that looks like a large hose; it's wider than him. I notice his uniform is marked with a symbol that looks like a sun and the other team is marked with a dagger symbol. Dust is coming up and screens are dropping in front of the stands. The players all pull down their leather banded goggles to cover their eyes. The screens seem to filter out the dust and I can see two mounds emerging and both teams are climbing on their mound.
"Sand Octopi," Basil says and the mounds send out a call to each other.
My parents warned me about the dangers of Sand Octopi when I was little. They told me outrunning them was nearly impossible but the probability of running into one was not likely because they lie dormant underground for centuries and are rarely disturbed by the light footed. Why would someone make a game out of waking them?
Their pink eyes scan the arena and find each other. The one on the right lashes out first and strikes the other with a tentacle.
"Both males," Basil observes loudly. "That accounts for all the activity."
"And the danger and why it's a game to them," I add.
The octopi moans escalate into sand filled roars and the first team scores when one of its players rides a tentacle across the arena close enough to pass a leather ball through the opposing team's goal post. The player who scored jumped too high off the sand octopus's tentacle and miss calculated his landing after he scored. His foot slipped and he fell at least ten feet down onto the arena floor. The opposing team's octopus spots him and rages after him, swatting at him with a force that would flatten him. But he rolls out of the way and climbs back on to his octopus receiving cheers from the crowd and congratulations from his team mates. This type of activity goes on until the sun team is ahead of the dagger team by three points. The crowd has lost interest and is beginning to fan out of the stadium. I'm immobilized with curiosity about what happens to the Sand Octopi after the match.
A partition in the arena opens and two yaks are pushed through.
"It will look a bit strange if we are the only two people here," Basil whispers as he urges me to get up.
He's right, and now that the yaks are grunting frantically I want to leave. As we exit the stadium I don't bother turning around; silence tells me that the two yaks are being consumed and soon the Sand Octopi with their bellies full will slumber again.
Betting wages are being paid outside the stadium.
"Ten portions paid," the man wearing a clear green visor says as he pays Basil.
"I didn't know you placed a bet."
"Well I did and now we have money," he says to me unconvincingly.
"Can I interest you in a Peri Crystal watch?" The man shouts after us.
"No thanks," Basil shouts back and the man looks annoyed.
"You're missing out then."
"Better buy a watch from him, or it might become a problem."
We walk back towards the man and I notice his grin is as wide as his visor.
The restaurant overlooks the plaza and the stadium is quiet and distant from here. The woman with the long dark hair who took our order has already returned with our drinks.
"For you sir," she uncorks a bottle of fizzy water and places it in front of Basil.
"Wonderfully refreshing," he says as he holds it up to his nose.
"And here is your cucumber slushy."
I nod as I press the glass to my lips and take a sip. Basil takes out his scanning device when the waitress walks away and scans his new watch.
"Of course it's fake, but I thought, oh never mind what I thought."
` "How do you know it's fake, well aside from the man looking completely criminal when he sold it to you, how can you tell?"
"You see I've scanned it and detected that the crystal is glass not a real Peri Crystal. Besides if it was real the time on the watch would spin out of control because a Peri Crystal would reverse the polarity of the watch and the readings would become unstable. Time would keep spinning round and round."
"Then why would anyone use it on a watch?"
"They wouldn't, that's why I wasn't interested, but then that man kept on about it so I thought it was best to give him what he wanted."
"Some of his money back."
"I hope that's all he wanted."
The conversation dulls and silence consumes us. I suddenly feel like Safe City is the most dangerous place in all the sectors. Basil's scanning tool hums and the spell is broken. We eat and then leave.
The sky is darkening, but it remains luminescent. The air is cleaner, there aren't as many dust particles floating around in it at night. The streets are quiet and we have to find somewhere to blend in.
"Welcome to the Gardens of Galactic Greenery and Ficuses; a shrubbery park, greenest of all the sectors," the sign states as we walk past.
"I don't think we could blend in with a bunch of shrubbery."
"We don't have to blend in, we can hide in here," I grab his arm and pull him along.
"So that's the plan then? Find a ficus and ask it to keep us safe until morning?"
"Do you have a better plan?"
"Not, yet," he replies as he scans the park.
"Let's go then," I say as I find something tall in the distance and head towards it.
The tree is massive in height and as wide as one of the sand octopi, its branches curve like tentacles but are frozen in my view. Basil and I trust that this giant of the shrubbery world will guard us through the night like we are precious stones in an ancient crown worn by an ancient king. We count the starts for a while, and envy their view of other worlds. I fall asleep to the humming sound of Basil scanning the grass with his device.
"Wake up now!"
I'm shivering because he startled me, but I'm sticky with sweat. We are running but my legs don't realize it yet. We reach the gate; it's locked shut. Basil isn't talking to me he's fumbling with his jacket pocket. He takes out his scanning tool and it lights up when he pushes a button. He points it at the gate and the lock yields.
"This way," he pushes me through.
I hear a cracking sound and turn back to look. The mighty tree is falling to its death. I couldn't see anything when Basil woke me with a start, but now that my eyes are alive again; I watch the felled tree being swallowed by the ground.
When we get to the city center venders are opening their stands and prepping for the day ahead. The sight of the tree being eaten by the ground flashes in my mind like a dream, then my own hunger is summoned with the wafting aroma of fried eggs.
"The coordinates are set, and we are leaving."
"Leaving?" I ask.
"Yes, it's time to go, and by the look of things it's almost too late."
The scent of breakfast fades like a memory and I look around at the awakening city. Fear envelops me like a baby's blanket and I recognize its familiarity.
"What about everyone else?"
"They aren't for me to save, but we can try to spread the word, but we have to leave now whether or not they choose to listen."
"What will it be?" The man at the fried egg cart greets us in an exuberant voice.
"The safety of the city has been compromised and before you fry another egg, you should pack up and leave," Basil tells the vendor.
"You must have had too much street ale last night, and if you think I'm going to leave this city, you are sorely mistaken."
"It's your mistake, and what exactly is street ale? Oh never mind, I've done all I can to help you, here's a copper, although it won't help you when the ground begins to quake."
The vendor takes the copper and turns the knob on his flat stove and the flame dies out.
"He's going to leave," I say to Basil, relieved.
"Yes, but he doesn't seem like the type that's going to warn others. We won't have enough time to tell everyone."
"Sky writer," I say as if I'm speaking to the air around me.
"Brilliant, but we don't have much time!"
We run to the nearest shop, the sign above the door reads, "Messages from above now available in a variety of colors," and "Home of the high top sneakers at unbeatable prices!"
When we walk in a delicate buzzer announces us and a woman springs up from behind the counter. Basil looks over the counter top and seems disappointed when he doesn't discover anything out of the ordinary behind it. The woman looks familiar; she's the woman who bumped into Basil outside the arena. Her hair is orange instead of blue now, but her face is unchanged. She comes out from behind the counter and looks at us for a moment then tells us she has just the right high tops for us. Basil fumbles with his left shoe for a second and then I yell out.
"We don't want shoes, we need a message written!"
"You also need shoes," the woman more than suggests by glaring at the shoes we are wearing.
"All right then, a message and two pairs of shoes," Basil concedes to the woman.
"This pair is for you and this is yours," She hands us two shoes boxes and as we sit on her leather sofa and take off our, according to her, "outdated, last century, foot attire."
"What is the message," she asks when she is satisfied that we are going to love our new shoes.
"Safe City, is no longer safe, please seek to leave, and leave quickly."
"I would be ruined for agreeing to this," she confronts Basil.
"Your shoe business won't matter at all in a few hours."
He stares at her for a few moments, which is long enough to convince her to believe him. His honest face delivers the right amount of seriousness when it's warranted.
We run as fast as we can in our new high top sneakers. When we are almost to the arena the words, "Safe City is," loom above us. We pass the arena and stand on the landing, and the message is complete, "no longer safe!" The ground rumbles but doesn't crack Basil starts to vanish as a spectrum of lights encircle us. This time I vanish too.
I'm standing alone when I reappear. Basil is at a console in the middle of the room.
"Where are we?"
"Safe," he answers without looking at me and continues his maniacal tapping on screens and plugging in coordinates.
I walk over to him and look at the view of Safe City below us. It's quiet on the screen and terror is beginning to seep in. People are slowly boarding the transport ships like they are taking a day trip to the mountains of sector 4; their luggage is light and they are greeting each other and making pleasantries. I look away and take in the room I'm standing in. The console is the only thing of interest here. The rest of the room is like a prison. The walls are blank and the floor is cold and hard.
"Here we go then," Basil says as he pulls the lever on the console and the room gives off a jolt. I almost fall, but the room steadies itself and me. The cold wall parts and opens a passage into a long hallway. The brightness warms the small room for a second until we stand in the way of it. I hear familiar voices as we walk into the hallway. The familiarity is distant, but the sounds are growing nearer. I see them and suddenly I realize how distant they've become to me. Like a dream, I almost forgot they were real, and here they are, like time hasn't passed like it did and they never abandoned me.
"Why did we teleport onto a ship my mom and dad are on?" That question has been roiling me for three hours now. They seem to know Basil more than me, why is that? I need answers and my mouth is ready to ask the questions that smacked me in the face the moment I saw them.
I run to them, and right through them. I turn around because somehow they are behind me.
"Mom, Dad," I scream at their images.
They just look at me, like they pity me. I feel someone touching my shoulder.
"What is this?" I ask him like he's cruel.
"This is all that is left of them, I'm so sorry," he says with such compassion that my anger dissolves and leaves. But now I feel empty and more alone than ever. Knowing my parents were out there somewhere was the thing I counted on, a future, my future. These ghost images of my dead parents floating around on this ship must mean that there is nothing else out there, nowhere to run to. I question the only person that is on the ship with me, the only one with any answers.
"A very long time ago, centuries, perhaps eons ago, Vikings, invaders on ships set out to conquer new land."
"Basil, what are you talking about?"
"I'm making a point, honestly, just listen."
"They were headed for a country called Greenland; it was called Greenland for obvious reasons. It was lush with greenery, and life."
"Does this story have any relevance to anything?"
"Patience, it's a virtue, do you have any of those?"
"Right now I don't have anything at all, not even my parents."
"Okay, I can see your faith is slipping, so I'll make a long story short, Greenland had a sister country called Iceland, for obvious reasons."
"Covered in ice?"
"Yes or not exactly, now I can't recall the story, but the point I'm trying to make is that the names were switched to confuse the invaders who may or may have not been the Vikings, in fact I don’t remember who told me this story in the first place. It might have been a funny looking fellow with a horned hat and his beard was braided. He kept raising his drink and shouting something about Odin, maybe this Odin was his brother? I think Odin came into the pub when I was leaving, he had the same look as this guy."
"So is the story about the guy or the two countries?"
"Neither, I'm just trying to point out that a name is simply a name and doesn't define things like we think it does."
I look at him and we both end his ramblings by saying the same thing at the same time.
"Exactly," he jumps up.
"It wasn't safe, I get it."
"Do you really understand?"
"No, but what does it matter?"
"Don’t you see?"
He is starting to work his brain into overdrive, I can tell. Before he begins another story or not story I get up and start to walk away. My parents are gone; places aren't safe because they claim to be.
"Time is in flux," he shouts after me.
I turn around and see his grin growing off the sides of his face; his eyes are as wide as snowballs. I think of this made up Iceland and I still see Basil's smiling face in a world of ice.
"Time is in flux," I repeat back to him, like a parrot.
Iceland disappears and an ocean reveals itself with land in sight. Basil waits for me to come back from my reverie and then grabs both of my arms like I'm the only thing keeping him grounded.
"Let's go somewhere," he says.
"Where shall we go?" I ask
"The question is when!"
"Now, are we going somewhere now?" I ask uncertain.
"When would you like to travel to, we can travel to the future, and see if there is anything out there that is worth seeing, or if all the Sand Octopi have woken up or we can travel back to when we used to sip orange fizzy drinks."
I just stand there while a hopeless future abandons me and remember the past, a past worth revisiting. The thought is so powerful that it makes me believe the future is worth something, even if all but one of the stars burn out.
"Let's go," I say with a start and we run to the room with the console in it.
The doors slide open and Basil taps on the screens like a madman again only this time he opens the value to a container connected at the base of the console.
"This is what makes time travel possible," he says as he turns the knob one last time.
"If you say so," I reply.
He pulls the lever and I feel the safest I have ever felt. I'm going to see my parents again; I'm going to do so many things until we run out of time.
Basil's face is aglow from the screens.
"Claire," he says. "You do realize we can out run time!"