“Slaves, slaves, slaves!”
The voice echoed in my head, pounding with each cadence of the word.
“Slaves,” it repeated, over and over until I thought I would lose my mind. Until eventually, I did.
My name was…I can’t remember now. I know I had I name. Know I had a home, a daughter, a wife. That changed. I joined the Elite Squadron, moved up in the ranks until they sent me on the assignment codenamed Dreamworld.
These are some of the last coherent thoughts I have. I want…no…I need to tell my story. This cautionary tale is for anyone reading this. What lesson can you learn from it? That’s for you to decide.
“Slaves, slaves, slaves…” it’s how the story starts. It’s also how it ends.
A piercing light blinded me as the portal sucked me through. The rush of air filled my ears. The scent of the ship’s interior, undertones of metal and old grease, faded as the wormhole pulled me through.
When I landed, the jolt sent pain radiating through me. Blindness and deafness left me paralyzed. Was I dead?
The light lingered, until it too, was gone. Darkness shrouded everything.
The next memory was of the platform.
My vision returned, and pixelated lights revealed the scene as my tactical vision scope kicked in, painting the picture of…of what?
The scene was nearly too much for me to process. Nausea roiled, threatening to turn my stomach contents into splatter all over the cobblestone ground.
I remember a few details, really. And this will be how this record goes. I apologize to my readers, but these memories come as bursts of images.
The first image I saw was of the bodies, little more than animated corpses, lying at the platform’s edge.
They were the ones never bought, the thought came to me, as if someone were whispering in my ear.
They were naked, malnourished to the point of being skeleton’s covered in leathery skin. Their eyes were vacant, yet pleading, as they looked up at me. One of these beings managed to climb up the platform and scrape filthy fingers over my shoe. Its fingertips were stubs of bloody flesh. It only had the energy for that one motion, and then it fell again, landing with a sickening thud on the pavement.
What caused them to be there? Where was I? This Dreamworld, so misnamed as to be absurd. These were my thoughts, but at the same time I encountered the retches clawing at the edge of the platform, I was also aware of the Others. I have no better word but to call them this. I never heard their names, nor would I have wanted to hear it.
They floated at the edges of my vision. Never appearing as solid figures, yet I knew they were there as if I saw them in the flesh. The details of their appearances were truly too terrifying to record. If I think too long on it, I will succumb to insanity, so I thought of them only as phantoms in black cloaks, faceless, yet I knew their purpose as truly as I knew my own name.
They were Power Over All.
They controlled this world, this Dreamworld, wherever it was.
“Sold,” a voice shouted. Someone held up my hand. A man smiled, white teeth flashed from a tattooed face.
“What does that mean?” I asked. “I’m sold.”
“It’s good news, that’s what it means.” He clapped my shoulder. “You’re going inside.”
I glanced behind me, at an impossibly tall wall, one so high, I had trouble seeing the top. A single doorway barred the entry, and it was this one word, sold, this was the only key to letting me in.
I was ushered between other bodies off the platform.
Men with axes wandered, their heads covered with black cloths, and I couldn’t understand their purpose. Not then, anyway.
We were led through the gateway and into a city of sorts, though unlike anything I’d encountered before.
Levels of the city floated one above the other.
The man with the dark face led us down a street and ushered us into a building.
“You see our beautiful city here,” the man said, pointing at the expanse of walkways winding like corkscrews to the center, where light gleamed from a glass ceiling. People walked around the paths, smiling and laughing, but all with vacant gazes, not so different from the retches clinging to the platform.
We entered a shop of sorts. The low ceiling, narrow aisles, and dim lighting reminded me of the caves I’d toured in Afghanistan. Blankets hung in tatters over the walls, as if trying to hide some dark and grotesque secret behind them.
The air smelled thickly of incense, a too-sweet odor that made my eyes instantly brim with tears.
As I blinked back the tears, my gaze snagged on two women waiting in line. One of them pushed a stroller. In the bundle of blankets lay a newborn baby, one so new, an umbilical stump protruded from its tiny belly.
Others waited in line as well, but as the women’s turn came, they walked to a counter, where a man stood.
He was a heavyset man with a friendly smile, though something about him set my teeth on edge.
He didn’t speak as he handed the women a vial. It struck me odd that the women hadn’t asked for it, nor had they exchanged any money.
The women took the vial and pushed the stroller aside. They stood smiling proudly as they tipped the vial’s contents into a bottle. After screwing the nipple into place, they shoved the bottle into the baby’s mouth.
It took a few tries, but the baby finally latched and instinctively suckled.
One of the women looked up at me with a proud smile on her face, and I wasn’t sure why my stomach turned so violently, and the only thought I had was to escape.
Another memory came from inside a type of restaurant on a mid-tier. (There were twelve tiers of the city, as I’d learned by that point.) A man and his son sat at a table, although there weren’t any families, so to speak, so seeing a man and his son was a rarity, and seeing actual food was just as much a rarity.
And it’s what made me stop and stare.
They sat eating bowls heaped with ice cream. Colorful candy and whipped cream crowned the frozen delicacy. They sat and chatted happily, although avoided looking at me. Then I noticed the vials. They each tipped a little of the liquid onto their dessert, and their smiles widened even more, and their eyes became glossy and distant. Soon the conversation ended, and the ice cream was left to melt. Forgotten.
“They’re all on drugs here, is that the point?” You must be asking.
Well. Yes and no. The drugs I had learned were freely given, and everyone was highly addicted. In fact, I doubted a soul in the city wasn’t addicted. Except me. Which made me wonder why I hadn’t been approached yet about taking the drug for myself.
That was to change, of course.
I had made it to the highest tier of the city. It was regarded as the most desirable, and anyone could come and go as they chose, no matter what tier they had been on before. I sat in a hall made of glass, with long rows of tables, and sunlight streaming inside—but through the glass, of course.
A group of teenage girls sat at a table. Their clothing was showy. Sequins sparkled around the glass room. Jewels shone from earrings and necklaces.
They spoke in hushed voices.
One of the girls glanced at me, and her narrow-eyed gaze disturbed me almost as much as the starved retches at the platform. It was so distrustful, so full of malice, that I feared she would become violent.
Instead, she only turned away and continued speaking with the other girls, as if I didn’t exist.
I had come to learn, you see, that there were no class differences in the city. There were no distinctions of race, of gender, of social status. All were equal. The city needed no governance, no laws. No one committed crimes. They never needed to. All choices were made by the drug. All were innocent.
The time finally came. I didn’t know how long I spent in the city before my orders arrived. I had held my ground, and though a few casual offers had been made, I’d refused the drug.
“No way to get you out of that place except to take out the generator running the city,” the order came. “There are twelve tiers beneath just as there above. There’s a giant machine giving power to the city. You’ll have to destroy each arm of the machine individually. Don’t miss one, or the others will regenerate.”
“Understood,” I answered, and made my way to the city’s sewers.
To the city below.
It was a different world, this underground city. Those who had become too addicted came here. They lay vacantly in the tunnels, eyes so glossed over they looked like cloudy beads of glass. Shattered vials lay in heaps around them. I only saw a few of them wake, and when they did, they riffled through the collection of vials just long enough to drink, then they lay down once again.
I descended deeper into the underground, where only a few souls dared to haunt, until I traveled so far, the tunnels became abandoned, and that’s when I noticed the sound.
It must’ve been there always, a background white noise that was always playing in tune with the rhythm of the city. It was a constant, incessant clank, whir, draw—clank, whir, draw—repeated over, time and time again, spanning as long as eternity itself.
Finding the first of the arms was easy enough. It was a long appendage that spanned the length of the room, and it had a letter written on it. I wish I could remember the letter. I severed it like plucking a leg from a spider. The green ooze was almost a release, as if I’d put an end to a long and miserable life.
The next I found inside similar chambers. All had letters written on them, and if I would’ve thought on it at the time, I would have remembered the letters, so that later I could’ve remembered them, and possibly linked them together to form a word.
Perhaps that was the only way to destroy the machine—to learn its name. But of course, those are the thoughts I have now, looking back, when things seem so readily obvious.
When I approached the final arm of the machine, my time had come. I had finally caught the attention of the Others.
I stood with a machete in one hand and a gun in the other. Green ooze splattered my shirt and pants. Facing the machine, I realized the final arm was unlike the rest. This was the heart of the behemoth. I’d found the core of the city, the beating essence contained in this one giant machine that rose three stories above me.
The single arm rotated from gears at the center of the machine, and it was this arm that had been pushing all the others in motion.
If I take out the machine, the city falls, was my thought. And I escape.
I approached on a corkscrew pathway leading to the clanking gears. The sound was loud enough to deafen me, but still I came at it with weapons in hand.
Raising my machete, I prepared to sever the arm from the machine when the Others screamed out unison.
I hadn’t seen them, but I knew they were there, all around me, surrounding me. They caught my arm.
The machete fell and hit the ground with a hollow thud on the metal walkway.
My next memory was of being taken.
Several men grabbed my arms. Another pried my mouth open and forced the liquid inside.
I fought, of course.
With every ounce of my being, I fought it.
But even I knew it was a useless fight.
I should’ve learned its name, was my last thought before the calm took me. I knew I should’ve learned its name.
The drug changed everything.
You see, when I saw people lying in the tunnels in their own feces, feeding on the flesh of rats, it may have bene reality, but not for them.
No. All they had to do was take one sip of the liquid, and they were transported to the top tier, all fears and pain abandoned, no hunger or thirst. Every fantasy fulfilled. They were not lying destitute in the street, but with every ounce of their being, their reality was one of total bliss.
I can’t say how long I must’ve lived there addicted to that drug. But at some point, I realized this city was the only place on the planet where humans lived.
We had done too much harm to the planet, the others explained. We had polluted it, killed the animals, and nearly destroyed our own atmosphere. So, we walled ourselves into one city.
Questions surfaced during lucid moments. One was, how do you control the population?
Most didn’t have answers. But I found one who knew.
He took me to the top tier. Tier thirteen. Which I didn’t knew existed until then. It was little more than a roof overlooking the entire world.
Out there, I saw them. The bodies. Billions upon billions. So many dead it made me curl into a ball and weep bitter, angry, useless tears.
“Slaves, slaves, slaves!”
The voice echoes in my head, pounding with each cadence of the word.
“Slaves,” it repeats.
I no longer understand the meaning of the word.
I know I had I name. Know I had a home, a daughter, a wife. Sometimes my thoughts are lucid, and I can remember such things. And I know—I feel in my soul, in the core of my very being—that those were the most important things that can possibly be. But here, they will never exist.
“Slaves, slaves, slaves…” it’s how the story ends.