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“We shine brighter than ever. We shine today, we shine tomorrow, we shine forever!”
The president’s words boom confidently across my wall-to-wall screens. Every person in the metro must be tuned in to this address. Every metro in Bab-el must be buzzing with his words.
“We, as a race, have provided light. We, as a nation, illuminate the endless abyss! If the fathers of electric light could see us now, they would burst with pride! And these 700 years later, we as a people have overthrown cruel darkness singlehandedly!”
Cheers erupt from the pods surrounding mine. Our building has little by way of sound dampening, but I boast (rightly) that it is the brightest tower in the entire metro, and we always have our lights on. Perhaps we are the brightest of any metro. It stretches up to the heights of the dome, brushing against the metal network of underpinnings that keeps our metro safe.
“Our civilization has progressed in leaps and bounds, and by the end of this year, all inter-metro delivery will be rendered obsolete. Every metro will be entirely self-sufficient! The greenhouse project has come a long way.”
He’s talking about the farms. Our agri-buildings are the finest in the world. But as of yet, sometimes the growth compartments have defects and don’t yield the correct amount of produce.Our agri-buildings have sometimes produced too much food for the citizens of our metro, and sometimes not enough. Luckily, all metros have had this dilemma, so if isn’t very hard to find a metro with the excess food we lack. Food used to be carted in from non-metro compounds. I can’t imagine what those must be like. They keep animals out there still, in the darkness, and large agricultural compounds with electric light. That’s why we’ve still got some cargo-men. They truck food in along lighted corridors—outside the metros. Evidently, the government will fix all the compartments, and then we won’t need cargo-men anymore. The president continues.
“I wish to put to rest the rumors of black-outs amongst metros. These foolish claims are entirely unfounded, clearly a hoax made up by those who are ungrateful for the jobs Bab-el has so graciously offered them. Somehow,”his voice grows more ominous, “the vicious rumors have traveled from metro to metro.As I have said before, we shine today, we shine tomorrow, we shine forever!”President Puraido signs off. The screen does not go black—it never goes black here.
“Blackouts? I haven’t heard that term in a long time.”A pair of men next to me at the café counter are chatting over coffee.One is tall and blonde, the other sporting a black, short cut.“The last time there was a power deficiency was over a hundred years ago, according to even the oldest citizens.”
“And how could a rumor spread between metros?”The other, the blonde, lowers his voice to a hush. “Have you seen what’s outside?”
“No, and neither have you, or anyone in this café. The only citizens who ever step outside their birth-metro are cargo-men, so he’s got to be talking about them.”
“They are a strange bunch. All those stories.” Blondie takes a swig of his coffee and sets it down.
“Sick of hearing the stories. I was at The Blitz last night, and one of those hooligans was drinking next to me. He had a beard, even.” The black-haired man begins gesticulating to demonstrate the full scope of the cargo-man’s facial hair. The other nodded gravely.
“Pigs. They never even shave,” he stroked his smooth chin in contemplation.
“Right. Well he was telling everyone how he had to drive this stretch of road without street lights. Imagine, the street lights were out. He was saying the unlit stretch went for miles, and he ‘couldn’t reckon why,’”the black-haired man leans closer and lowers his voice. I have been watching them, and he shoots me a look of poison. I snap my attention to the cup of coffee in front of me that’s gone cold. I am still listening. “Said that about halfway through, he started seeing lights in the sky.” The black man is barely speaking above a stage whisper. It is difficult to hear him in the crowded café.
“In the sky?”the one with blonde hair exclaims. His words are greeted by a solemn nod—I have looked up at them again, observing from the corner of my eye. “That’s nonsense. Bab-el created light.Before that was darkness, nothing to see anywhere.”
“I know. I think they go crazy, having to drive all night long. And alone, too. All they probably do is think. Think themselves into oblivion.” I am still struck by the claim of lights in the sky. Lights up there? Metros are closed off from the outside world, so nobody can actually see the sky from in here. But everyone knows what it is, because otherwise what could close in the outside? What could contain whatever’s out there?
The men continue.
“Who could have put them there? The lights, I mean. And why were the track lights out?”Blondie asks.
“It’s all a lie, stupid.” the black-haired one has become angry. “All the delusion of some stranger. Listen, if we keep talking about this, they’ll all think we’re weirdos.” Both are silent now. I can’t help but think that if the cargo-man’s story is true, maybe there are black outs. Besides, the tracks get the least amounts of electricity sometimes, since trans-cars have headlights. I’ve got to talk to him.
I’ve been sitting at The Blitz for an hour. Outside, the Metro lights have morphed blue from their daytime yellow. That’s how we tell whether it’s night or day. It’s nine o’clock, almost curfew. No citizens are allowed outside of their pods after ten thirty, since the Metro needs to be sanitized for the next day. No sign of a bearded cargo-man so far, unless he’s shaved. He could’ve even shipped out sometime tonight. Cargo-men only drive nights, so their produce shipments make it to Metros in time for the next day.
“Have a drink, sir?” I haven’t ordered anything yet besides a ginger ale. I was never fond of alcohol. I don’t even know what kind of c***tail to order.
“I suppose I’ll have whatever you feel like making.” he nods as I place some coins on the glass counter. He turns and mixes something colorless with more colorless liquid, sticks a lime in it, and slides it my way. “Thanks.”I take a swig and try not to wince as it burns my throat. It is an ugly feeling. Having taken one sip, I don’t feel obligated to drink any more for a good while. I begin to scan the crowds again, watching people dance to sharp electronic tunes. The glass doors flash under the colored light as a bedraggled-looking man with a brown beard and a thick, stained shirt walks in. He already looks drunk. The man comes to the counter and orders a whiskey, sitting next to me. After downing his portion, he takes one look at me and laughs.
“That’s a kiddie c***tail around here. Have a real drink.” He slaps the counter and the bartender wordlessly slides us each a glass of the amber liquid.
“No thanks,” I am reluctant to be rude, but I don’t care to taste a ‘real drink.’ He shakes his head. “I can pay for it, I just…I don’t usually drink.”
“More for me, I guess.”He had already downed his second drink.
“Excuse me, are you a cargo-man?” He at least acts like the sort of ruffian the black-haired man was describing today.
“Who wants to know?”he replies. “If you’re gonna pin those rumors on me, you can blow it out your ear.”
“No, no, not at all…I guess I just wanted to ask what it’s like…you know, outside.” My voice falters. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. He takes another gulp and looks me straight in the eyes.
“It’s dark unless you’re drivin’ a trans-car.” His expression does not change for a few moments, and I’m afraid that’s all I’m going to know. And then he bursts out laughing. I am able to chuckle politely. “Guess you don’t go for that kind of humor. Of course you’ve never seen the outside, you’re a Metro-slicker.” I hide my bafflement at such a term. I’ve never heard it before. He continues. “I bet you wouldn’t believe the story I have to tell, boy. I bet you’ll laugh. Told one of you businessmen last night the story, and he jus’ threw back his head and laughed. But I’ll tell you anyways.” He stops talking, as though waiting for me to object or walk away. I stay. The lights flicker slightly.
“Gettin’ close to curfew, and I’ve got a drive to Metro 75 tonight. I’ll make it quick.” He decided. “Night before last, I was drivin’ down the trans-ways when the road lights gave out. The lights was out for several miles, close as I can reckon, and I had to switch on the emergency headlights or steer myself into nothingness. It gets dead black out there. Sometimes you can see shadows jus’ outside the light’s reach, too. Anyways, the lights were out for miles, and my headlights were dim ‘cause I hadn’t thought to recharge the batteries in awhile. And—wouldn’t you believe it—after a couple of minutes of driving I could see tiny lights, far above. Farther above than any person has gone, to be sure.” Over the course of his story,his voice had become more quiet. Now he looks at me again, searching my face. “You believe it. I can tell.”
“I think I do.”
“You’re the first Metro-slicker I’ve told this to who hasn’t laughed me outta the bar.” he replies. The lights dip low again, then regain their brightness.“As far as rumors about black-outs go, I don’t think the Metros have any. I think the government is shuttin’ down the trans-ways early.”He is whispering now. “That means the greenhouse projects are far ahead of where they’ve been tellin’ us. Or, if they aren’t doin’ it on purpose, it means trouble for the Metro Grid. I’ve had to run food to the plant one time. That’s the place all Bab-el’s light comes from. That’s the place all the world’s light comes from. Because there’s nothing else besides Bab-el.” Part of me is suspicious that he’s really gone crazy. After all, why would the government shut the trans-ways down while there are still citizens on them? Because the cargo-men know more than regular Metro citizens, a small part of me says. I ignore it and decide it best just to nod.
“It’s almost curfew.”I state. “Thank you, but I had best be getting back to my pod, and you to your trans-car.”
“Remember what I said.”
“I will.”We nod at one another, I leave more coins on the counter to cover my whiskey, and walk away. I trod through the shiny plastic streets to my compound—the Tower, we like to call it, watching other occasional late-nighters pass. The metro lights dip low for a few seconds when I’m halfway there, but they brighten back to life and I continue an otherwise uneventful journey homeward.
It’s been a week. After work yesterday, the lights went out for forty-five minutes.
After work today, I decided to walk past the transport depot and see if the cargo-man I talked to had returned, and might be hanging around somewhere. He could tell me if other metros had experienced power failures too. The president hasn’t even addressed these occurrences yet, maybe because if he were to say that they hadn’ t been happening, people would know he’s lying. And what else would he say?
I amble towards the concrete-walled compound, shaped vaguely like the bricks on some of the older metro buildings. There is no sign of anyone outside. The face of the building is as bare as the sidewalks, except for a new-looking poster hanging up. The colors are still vibrant and the paper has not wrinkled yet. It reads “Help Wanted: Inquire Within.” Disappointed, I realize I have stopped moving in order to read the sign. I automatically continue walking, on the way to work, and then—more instinctively than intentionally—I turn on my heel and walk into the transport depot. The doorbell chimes electronically as the opening shuts behind me.
“Hello, there.” the receptionist puts on a rehearsed smile. Her blonde hair is gathered into a neat ponytail and she wears a grey blazer over a white blouse. She is remarkably well-dressed and composed to administrate the lives of so many scruffy men.
“I’m here about the job.” I begin. Her eyes flash for a moment, then she speaks.
"Right, the opening. One of our men…quit.” Before I have the chance to ask on what grounds, she continues. “You don’t really need any references for this job. Training is brief, and as long as you have the competence to control your motor skills, I think you’ll make the cut.” She pauses a moment to scribble something on one of her three notepads. “You don’t exactly look like a jobless bum. What makes you want to work at a place like this? I mean, with the way things are going, there won’t be cargo-men for much longer. This is a very temporary position.” She stops talking, and we are both silent for a moment.
“I’ll take it.” The words make the decision for me. Honestly, I didn’t answer her questions because I honestly couldn’t answer them for myself. She simply nods.
“If you want the job, you have to start today. You’ve got two hours to quit whatever corporate job you appear to be working at.” After she’s done talking, she returns to her notepads. The conversation has ended. After a short walk to the building, I have arrived. Mr. Johann is at the door to confront me at my office.
“You’re late.” he says.
“I quit,” I reply. Without another word between the two of us, as though all conflict has been resolved within that one exchange, I walk away. My chest feels less heavy, and not until this moment have I realized how much I really hated my job.
Back at the depot, I am met in the lobby by a tall, blonde cargo-man who introduces himself as Clyde. He leads me to another room with a mock-up of the trans-cars the cargo-men drive. “This is where you’ll learn how to pilot a vehicle. It’s really all you have to know.” he says.
After a day of learning the various pedals and buttons involved in driving, Clyde deems me prepared to copilot a truck with him. However, upon my settling into the secondary seat, I realize that co-piloting is really only watcing. “At the start they trained cargo-men for about a week, just to make sure they were cut out for the job. But seeing as how we’ll all probably be out of jobs in a month, you’ve got to fill old Harry’s spot quickly”
“What happened to him?”
“Nobody knows, actually. Marlene—the lady up front—won’t tell us. But after he left a week ago for Metro 84, he didn’t report back.” The silence in the cab becomes unnerving for a moment. After buckling into the seats, Clyde turns a peg behind the wheel to start the trans-car and its engine rumbles within the mostly-empty garage. As he taxis around the concrete floor, he exits through a door labeled “M-26” and we are suddenly travelling down a tunnel of lampposts.
We continue in silence for about five minutes, and the posts dip low and then return to their former brightness. “----,” mutters Clyde. “At least I charged my emergency battery.” The lights dip once more, and remain dim this time. After a few more minutes, they blacken completely. Clyde is forced to stop the massive trans-car until he can turn the lights back on, and he gropes along the top of the ceiling for the rarely-used interior lights. The button is pushed with a click, the truck illuminates for a second, and then the light dies.
“Those are really old.” Clyde remarks. As our eyes adjust to the darkness, I am filled with the urge to get out of the trans-car. The air turns stifling, and blackest black clouds the edges of my vision. Without an explanation, I force the heavy door open and jump out onto the ground—ground that maybe no-one has tread on before—and ignore Clyde’s exclamation of surprise. I look back at the Metro, which should still be lit, except everything is dark.
Without any reason in particular, I look up. A shrinking feeling eats into me as tiny pinpoints of light come into view above the inky horizon. The realization nearly brings me to my knees:
We are not the creators of light.