A dystopian science fiction story by Lynna Merrill
This short story was originally published as a series of 14 blog posts. Below is the full text of the story.
Nightfall. This is how the Free People of the World call the drift of twilight through the air and steam, after the sun has rubbed its eyes red and floated beyond the Factory chimneys. Huddled in their coats, chins tightly tucked into their collars, they hurry to the little lights of their little homes, never looking up. Never seeing.
To me, night has never fallen since the day I saw my first heretic purging. Today, at the Holiday of Freedom, five years have passed since the time I was a twelve-year old girl who thought she knew the line between good and evil.
Night has risen for me ever since.
It is rising now as I write, translucent shadows floating in the wind outside my window. They are ascending, just like they did then, right after the purger had swallowed the heretic. Five years have lapsed, but little details are still sharp in my mind—the crack of pebbles pulverized beneath the purger’s heavy wheels, the scent of fresh steam, the flash of spikes on the Factory gate as the purger coasts through it.
I was just a girl, but the restiveness that occupies the space supposedly reserved for my soul had already started forming. Then, for the first time it gripped my chest and sucked in the tears I did not dare shed, pulsing inside both my body and mind with a force that almost made me lose control and ask my father a treacherous question.
In any of the Free Cities of the World, asking questions at a heretic purging is as good as announcing that you are a heretic yourself, and my father well knew it. I can still taste the sweat as his palm pressed against my mouth before I could even shape the word why. I can still see his worry-twisted face, and then the strange, fleeting smile on the face of neighbor Herminia.
Why is it wrong to tell your own stories?
This is what I wanted to ask then, for a story was the reason the heretic boy was condemned, a story of a World that was different. I did not understand the People’s reasoning then, but now, telling my own story, my question has changed.
Is our Free World right or wrong? Do right and wrong exist anywhere but in my mind and my restiveness? What is the best choice for me, Darryl, and all of us?
But I am going ahead of myself, jumping my story straight to the big questions. Then again, perhaps that is how it should be, for the story is meant to help me look both inside myself and out, to the Factory and trees and sky, to find the answers.
Still, I had better start with an introduction. My name is Elysia Winterheart, and I am a heretic. I now know more of the World than most People ever will, but five years ago I, like everyone else, was taught that Freedom dwelt in ignorance.
Outside, darkness has spiraled up the chimneys’ ends, their shapes blurred to almost look like pathways to the sky, like slim, white stairs to the stars and inky vastness. Often, I daydream that I climb. Up and away until the Free World is no larger than my palm, until all I see is the brightness of the stars and all I feel is that I have found my own place.
Will I ever find my own place, or will I be forced to create it?
That night long ago, after the purging, most adults went out to a pub to celebrate that their own souls were intact, and to praise their Freedom and the Factory. The Factory is what defines our Free City Number 8. Every Free City of the World has a task, and ours is producing the flying autos that bring each City’s production to the others, so that all hard-working People with souls have food, clothes, and entertainment. So that no one ever suffers a need. Perhaps it is because of the flying autos that our City is infamous for heretics, for whereas other Cities are firmly grounded, ours lives precariously close to the sky.
No People with souls fly in the autos. Darryl says that once, long ago, People’s ancestors did, for the autos had no Magic to lead them. He says that autos could not even use Magic to fly, so the ancestors burned something they dug from deep inside the World—something that raised the autos up but maimed the World and made it dirty. The ancestors flew even when they did not transport goods, and when they did transport, they demanded money. Maiming the World to fly goods I can understand, even though it pains me. But money, I understand not. Why would People demand anything in exchange for giving goods, when the World can and has always been able to produce plenty for everyone? Why give value to something that has no value of its own, then ravage both human and non-human life in its name, so that the few that possess most hoard even more and never share?
Darryl says that factories were dirty, too, that in those days black poison exited the chimneys together with today’s fluffy fresh steam, sickening people, plants, and animals. I wonder if a hidden memory of old, black Factories is the reason People still fear the night, for darkness carries no threat but what People give to it.
But again, my story jumps ahead. I did not know Darryl well five years ago, and I still wonder if the bleak past World he described is real or yet another treachery.
Neighbor Herminia took me home with her that night.
“I am old,” she told my mother. “I tire easily of celebrations. Enjoy, and you can come for Elysia in the morning.”
Later, I would learn that it was not age that tired her but People’s foolishness, but that night I just walked with my hand in hers, staring at the stone path and my feet, almost trembling. Old Herminia was an aloof woman with neither husband nor child, and it was strange she had offered to care for me.
“Interesting thing, stone,” she murmured when we had gone half the way and there was no one else nearby. “So interesting the stone on our paths is that everyone is always watching it. Did you know that stone came from the mountains?”
I did not, of course. I did not know what mountains were, either, and her words were bizarre, but somehow they resonated with me.
“I don’t think that anyone is looking at the stone, Mistress Herminia,” I found myself uttering. “They just don’t want to look up and see the autos. I don’t think that they really see the stone, itself.”
Strange words for a twelve-year-old, and at the time I was surprised with myself, but Herminia was not. She laughed, the sound like a toy bell tinkle.
“Oh, Ely, but you do see. Look again, child. Look and let yourself follow.”
Her words were quiet now, barely a whisper. Follow? Follow what? She had asked me to look at the path, an action that was like a second nature to all, but from her it sounded different. So I looked. My eyes caressed the smooth surface as her fingers squeezed mine, and for a moment there was nothing, and then what was in place of my soul erupted. I could see the tiny orange veins that criss-crossed the stone, I could feel the specks of dust that glittered in the starlight. There were millions of miniature pieces in both the stone and me, and they intermingled, danced, and then flew away—pieces that urged me to follow and visit something large, made of stone, earth, grass, and treelife.
For the first time in my life, I truly saw the World. For the first time in my life, I knew fear. Dazzled, I huddled in my coat, but the miniature pieces would not go away, so I tried to run—but could not, for Herminia’s surprisingly steady hand held me.
“Run now, and the others will sense you and purge you in no time. Face it, and you can learn to live fully. She who runs from herself runs into an abyss, she who fights herself always loses.”
I knew not what an abyss was, and no one fights, wins, or loses in the Free World. Still, deep down inside me a storm raged, and something stronger than fear made me jerk my head up and stare at the night sky. Even today, I cannot fully know what I felt. The miniature specks were not restricted to me, stone, and mountain. They resonated within the sky, stars, and whole World, and they cut through my veins with both pain and fulfillment.
Amongst this all, the Factory loomed. Somehow its solid shape broke the pattern of flow—immense, demanding, threatening.
Magic is a product of collective effort in the Free World, and it is only possible in the closed, safe environment of Factories. Or so we are taught. That night, my soulless restiveness told me that the Factory hid something from me, and that whatever I was taught, the Factory had no right to take away my right to ask questions.
Or my right to create my own place. For a time I stood silent and still, my eyes boldly cast up towards the sky, embracing both the brightness of the stars and the glow of darkness. Darkness is insidious, People say, for each night it glides from above, clasping the world in an opaque prison. But that night, I felt the darkness coming from me, rising, spreading to create a space where I could breathe, protecting me and my newfound consciousness.
“Can autos reach the stars?” I asked after Herminia had quietly lead me to her home, and once again she laughed with her voice of toy bells.
“No, my child. I am afraid they cannot.”
“Then I will make one that can, and I will fly with it.”
She was impressed then, that the very first moment I saw the World, I wanted to create something. She said that all heretics yearned for exploring and seeing even more of the World, but the want to devise your own pieces of it was special.
There were times when I thought the lack of a soul was to blame. That when you are taught you do not have what others possess by default, you seek something of your own to replace it. There were times when I thought this was wrong. And there are times I still think I know nothing.
In the years that followed, Herminia taught me to read words and showed me how to write my own symbols. Every night when darkness rose I crept out of my bed, sidling to her house to learn what truly mattered. Reading and writing are lost arts in the Free World. No one needs them but heretics who hide forbidden ancient books and secretly tell their own stories. There, in Herminia’s little candlelit room, I read those books and learned about nature, mountain, and sea, and I learned that the World was round and there were People on the other side.
I learned many things. Knowledge, Herminia said, was to be preserved, for they did not have the right to destroy it. Who they were, I did not yet know, and destruction was a word whose meaning I only knew because of Herminia’s library.
At daytime, I still went to school, learning how to one day contribute my body and supposed soul to hard work that would benefit the Free World. I learned how to service heavy steam machines, which would have produced hundreds of identical parts, were they assigned to the Factory and not student training. It was useful knowledge, but still not enough. No one would tell me how the parts from different machines would combine, for I was not supposed to know what was not to be my job. Still, I asked questions, as many as I dared with the constant threat of being caught and purged, and what I learned was important. Individual People who combined parts did not know how to combine other parts than the ones they were assigned. In Free City 8, where everyone knew his or her job well, no one knew how to make a whole auto.
It felt wrong, and my peers, who never asked questions and knew little of the World, felt even wronger. More and more often, I found myself spending time with the machines, wondering what made water turn into steam, and if no one knew how to make them in their City. They were good machines. Next to their massive bodies I felt protected and small, and their constant rumble was soothing at those times when my increasing heretic knowledge threatened to break out and drown me. The machines needed me, and I needed them. I ran to them when my soul-possessing peers gathered to talk about little things that did not interest me at all, and I talked to them when I felt so alone that the restiveness inside me seemed bigger than the whole World.
The machines were the reason I let the Factory live.
Outside, under the veil of darkness and glittering stars, even now it is watching me. It looks calm, almost friendly, chimneys puffing clouds of fragrant steam, and I find that I almost do not hate it.
The word hatred I learned from a book. The feeling, I knew that morning two days ago when I woke up to learn they had purged Herminia.
For another two days before that I had been in bed, drowsy with what I had thought was a bad cold. “It is not true,” I could only whisper when my father brought the news, “I do not believe it.”
My father rose then, and strangely, for the first time in my life I realized he was a big, imposing man. Perhaps it was because this time his shoulders did not hunch, or because his eyes glowed with a ferocity I had only seen in Herminia’s old eyes and the mirror.
“So it is high time that you started believing in what you are told!” he bellowed with a force that made the windows rattle. Free World People do not bellow unless they are drunk, but never had I seen my father more sober.
“It could have been you,” he whispered, after what seemed like an eternity had passed and still I had not shed a tear. “They could have taken you together with that accursed crone. Why do you always have to ask and doubt? Why can’t you just get used to the good life that’s been prepared for us? Did you really think I wouldn’t notice what you’ve become? What the hell are you searching for, Elysia? What more do you need? All you can find is the World, and those who do not fit in with the World, fit against it.”
Somehow I pulled myself out of the bed, my body moving on its own accord when my numb mind refused to control it.
“Tell me, dad, how do you know about being against the World, when only books ever mention conflict? You use the word hell, but do you know what it means? Because I do.”
Then I ran. My beloved Herminia had once told me not to run, that for all those who ran an abyss waited. But, throughout her long life, my Herminia had mistaken the location of the abyss. We lived in it.
My bare feet felt the stone paths of Free City 8 when I dashed outside without shoes or a coat, the wind tugging my unbound hair and my bedclothes. I felt the wind. I felt the City and its bright specks of buildings, shadows, and trees. I felt the World as light and darkness lashed at my face, and I felt myself as my restiveness burst and overtook me.
I swung my hand, and for a second the wind blew the other way. I jumped over a rock, and I stayed in the air for a second longer. The specks of the World danced madly around my head, and, like five years before, I saw the World and felt the specks flow like water.
Then I saw the Factory and knew I could destroy it.
It was only two days ago, but if feels as if ages have passed. I am no longer the same person who marched straight through the spiked gate, thinking she suddenly had the answers to all questions. My story now occupies most of the paper Darryl could find, but still I do not even have the questions for all answers.
I say paper, but it is an obsolete word, for what I write on is not made of plantlife. It is made with Magic, from materials that only Magic can transform. It is made with the Magic that Factories take from non-heretics.
Two days ago, I stood before the Factory’s heavy walls, my own Magic fierce and feeding on hatred. It was too early in the day. There was no one else nearby, and I stood alone, waiting. I do not know what I waited for. I was convinced I had the power to destroy, and that no one could ever stop me. Still, I waited while darkness was slowly fading around, and I was still there when the first sun rays flashed upon the spiked gate.
For five years I had wanted the right to choose for myself. Now I had it, together with life’s most difficult moment. I stood there, opposite feelings fighting for the place supposedly reserved my soul, until I thought they would tear me in two parts.
The flash of sunlight on the gate had brought back that day five years before—the purger, the unasked question, the heretic boy, Herminia, pain and anger. The flash of sunlight on the gate had also brought the thought of steam machines—my friends the machines as they rumbled in their dens, metal flashing on their sleek bodies as I cleaned them.
I could not destroy the Factory without destroying its machines. I could not right a wrong without doing something even wronger. So-called good heroes often fought and won in Herminia’s books, but could you fight without a piece of you becoming evil in the process? Could you really win, if you always lost a little? I did not aim to be hero but to make a better World. And a better World would have my machines alive, as well as flying autos.
Darryl says the Free World is better on the other side. But I wonder.
He was waiting behind me when I turned to walk away, a young man with vaguely familiar features. The specks of the World swirled around him in a controlled wind I could almost feel, and his eyes were even sharper than Herminia’s.
“I am impressed. At some point most heretics feel the urge to destroy, but not all stop of their own volition, Elysia.”
He stood between me and the gate, so I turned and raced in the other direction. He did not chase, but then he must have known this way only led deeper into the dominion of the Factory. I knew, too. People’s only way out of the Factory is by the spiked gate. But she who makes her own choices must tread her own paths. Before the man knew what I would do, I jumped into the flying auto.
I had aimed to reach the Factory hangar. Years ago my risky questions had uncovered its location. But this sleek, silvery contraption was waiting not far from where I had stood, as if daring me. A student who does not yet work in the Factory sees autos only in the air as they land or take off, a close and yet so distant dream of riding the wind that kisses the skylight. No one had ever told me what the autos’ Magic was. Still, if I wanted to live, I had to fly this one. The man leaped towards me just as I focused my own Magic and the auto jerked and jumped. I saw the horror on his face a second before my head collided with a window. The auto bolted ahead as my strength drained away, and I vaguely wondered why all my eyes saw was gray, blurring shadows.
It was because I was flying straight into a wall. I should have been more careful with my wishes. The wind that kisses the sunlight is the same wind that sometimes collides with the Factory buildings.
“Fly up!” I screamed, and the auto jolted in response, flying faster but not higher, while my heart staggered in its rhythm. I was such a fool. Why was I here at all, why had I not made my destruction attempt from outside the Factory? Because I had wanted to know what the Factory was. I had wanted to brush the white chimneys and gray air with my Magic. I had wanted to merge my own specks with its specks and those of the World, to see if it was right that they should exist together.
Specks. Merge. It was all I could think of moments later as the wall loomed too close. Then the auto shook, and someone grabbed my hand, breaking my concentration, preventing me from giving my last strength to the auto.
“A person cannot do this alone!” a voice snapped in my ear, and suddenly my body felt the sharp-eyed man’s wind of Magic. “Now, concentrate.”
Perhaps this is why I trusted him later. It is only an unwise heretic who trusts a stranger in this World. But when for a moment someone’s specks have entwined with yours, when your beings have pulsed in a single rhythm, when your bodies have clung to each other in an auto shooting up a second before you would have crashed into a wall—he is no longer a stranger.
We were silent as the auto glided with the wind, the sun-bathed roofs of the City small and bright like those of toy houses. Red and yellow, blue and green, I had never seen so many colors in one place.
The roofs were painted so that one could never see the colors from the mostly gray ground. Even if one dared to raise her head, sometimes.
The auto quivered as I shook, clenching my fists in an unfamiliar gesture. The damn World was lying to me, had been lying all along! The City was meant to be watched from above, while the above was forbidden to us who lived in the City. Cities were cages, like the ones in the books, where they kept miserable animals.
Cages controlled by the Factories and People like the man next to me.
I stood straight, spread my arms, and felt the wind and let it wipe my tears. He stood, too, as if he wanted to make sure I would not fall, but his eyes were hard and his features unreadable.
“Why?” I whispered, my voice rough and dry. “Why did you do this to me?”
“I suppose you are not asking why I saved your life,” he said softly, and for a moment I was lost for words, and then the words spilled from my mouth all at once, like a long awaited rain torrent.
“I am asking this, too, among many other things!” I shouted at his infuriating calmness. “I am asking why you have the right to do anything with my life! Why you and the likes of you crushed my father and took my friend away! Why you made me live down there while what I had wanted all my life was to fly! I should have destroyed your damn Factory! Perhaps I can still find a way to do it and let the machines live! It is always trying to crush my self consciousness, I can feel it! You have no right to do this to People! You have no right!”
“Ah, but the Factory itself is harmless.”
I could sense mixed feelings behind his piercing eyes. He was confident, and he was both angry and kind, and there was something else, far behind. Something older.
“It is unusual for two to combine their essences together, even for a short time,” he said before I had a chance to wonder how I sensed him. “You start seeing things you are not supposed to see. We will have to learn to deal with it, Elysia. I can also feel you. Now come with me.”
As if I had any other choice at the moment. Well, I had, there is always another choice. I could throw myself out of the auto and hope I would learn to fly before I hit the ground. There is always another choice, only you may not like it better than the one you are presently making.
“Who are you?” I asked, but he did not answer. Silently, he made the auto land on the roof of the Factory’s kindergarten and led me down the stairs to the attic. There were two doors. One led to a regular storage room for roof repair materials, but the other room was furnished and had a selection of clothes and shoes. The man waited outside while I donned a regular outfit, then made me wear the coat of a kindergarten examiner, taking another one for himself.
I asked no more questions, my face carefully blank when we walked to a small playground and he told the teacher to leave us.
“But, sir, these two were examined last week,” she said with a slightly nervous smile at the man and then a wider smile at her four-year-old charges. “Is there anything wrong? They are both good and smart boys.”
“Nothing is wrong, I examined them myself. I only need to make one last test.”
Little children are examined for the quality of both their brains and their souls every year in the month before the Holiday of Freedom. The man beckoned at one of the boys and pointed at an anthill. There were many ants, scurrying back and forth, some carrying grains larger than themselves. Did the busy, happy-looking ants know there was another World above their own? Did they care?
“Tread on the anthill, Whitby,” the man said, and the confusion on the boy’s round, innocent face must have mirrored my own.
“Sowi, siw? I do not undewstand.”
“I said tread on the anthill, Whitby. If you do it it, you get a prize. If you do not, you fail the exam.”
“What the hell—“ I started, but the man suddenly put his hand on my mouth, his other hand restricting my movements. Both boys stared at us, Whitby’s face twisted in torment I had never, ever seen in one so young.
“But thewe are anties, siw. They will not be awive if I twead on them, siw.”
There are two main rules you learn at the beginning of your life and continue to follow until the day it ends. You always obey your superiors and you never consciously hurt another life.
I watched the poor, torn little boy break down and cry. I also watched the not-at-all-innocent, calculating look in the other little boy’s eyes. The man watched him, too.
“Riddic, tread on the anthill. I want to see the ants squashed. You fail if you do not do it, you earn a prize if you do.”
I thrust my elbow back to the man’s stomach just as the Riddic boy yelled, “Squash the ants, sir!” and dashed towards them. A second later, I was between the ants and the abnormal, evil little creature, slapping his face with all my strength. He tumbled next to Whitby, and the man sprayed both with something that made them asleep. I tried to hit the man next, but he swung to evade the blow easily. Before that day, I had only known about hitting others from Herminia’s books, but all I wanted at that moment was to hit the evil man and boy. I jumped at him again, and I felt him slap me, then felt his arms around my shoulders while the playground swirled around my head.
“I do not want to hurt you, so do not make me,” he whispered in my ear. “Now what right exactly did you have to hit and stop Riddic?”
I blinked at the bitter smile that suddenly twisted his features.
“Tell me, Elysia. For it is the same right to do this to People you earlier told me I and the likes of me did not have. Well, People would all be like Riddic if we did not do this to them, Elysia. How would you like such a twisted, violent World?”
Suddenly I knew this smile. I had seen its non-bitter version five years before, when an older boy had told a group of younger children a new story. I had seen these sharp eyes glowing with anger and almost no fear when their owner had been forced into the purger.
“Darryl.” I said. “Darryl, I have been thinking about you for five years. You owe me an explanation about the World.”
He laughed. “Herminia said you were a bright one. She is fine, before you have asked, in the City where many of the likes of me abide. Or should I say the likes of you. You know that heretics have no souls, I am sure. What you do not know is that People only have souls because heretics make sure that they do.”
Then he told me, and it took the whole day, until the sun had swam away and shadows had risen outside the window of the room he had set for me. He told me that once People were all like Riddic, that deep down inside even the nice ones carried an urge to destroy. For five years I had been proud to be a heretic, thinking heretics were all inquisitive, creative, and misunderstood. It is only a part of the truth. Whitby does not have the urge to destroy, neither do my bland fellow students or my mother. Darryl, Herminia, Riddic, my father and I do.
Exploration, creation, and destruction are all parts of Magic, and Magic is all these and more. Once, People’s ancestors were all born with some of it, but for centuries Magic was not truly known. It was often denied, ridiculed, or prosecuted, but it was always there—when the ancestors learned to fly with dirty autos, when they wrote books or painted pictures, when they reached new continents, caused earthquakes, or waged wars. But People are weak, and so were the ancestors, and Magic, it has its own ways. Destruction often overcame inquisitiveness and creation, and thus at the last war the World would have ended in ruins—but for someone who discovered that Magic could be chained.
Normal People have souls instead of Magic in the Free World, but the Magic they would have had is put to good use. It makes water turn to steam in the Factories, it guides and fuels the flying autos, it creates food so that we do not eat animals or plants. Without Magic’s destruction, People live happily and in Peace in the Free World. Without Magic’s inquisitiveness and creation, they never search or make something new.
It is heretics who make the new things—those rare few who throughout centuries have been born with Magic stronger that that of the rest. Those who have always made the greatest impact, whose Magic even souls cannot chain and exploit. In the Free World, there are rules that heretics be caught and purged, and People always obey. What People do not know is that the rules themselves are imposed by heretics. Those purged ones more creative than destructive are taken to Free City 0 and taught how to rule, maintain, and continue the vision of the Free World.
Darryl says I am the first heretic ever to doubt if she wants to go to Free City 0.
I stand up and open the window, fluffs of steam drifting between my fingers, caressing my face. I can now learn all about the Factory or flying autos I have ever wanted. My rebellion towards the World but resistance to the want for destruction has raised me to the privileged class of those with the right to make a choice.
Only, I feel something is missing. They gave me the right to choose only because I made the choice they wanted me to make. Darryl was there to make sure I would not destroy the Factory. I was there to stop Riddic from destroying the ants. Yes, I feel these were the right choices. But what if one day my choices differ from those the heretics in Free City 0 deem to be right? I said the Free World of normal People was to me like a cage for unfortunate animals. Am I offered Freedom, or just a bigger cage now?
Darryl wants me to go, and I want to go with him. I like talking to him. I want to fly with him, although even for heretics flying an auto with your own Magic, without fueling it with Factory-refined Magic, is not usually done. Defying not usually done is the second reason I want to do it. The first is I want to do it with him.
I want to see Herminia, too, and I do not want to leave my father. One day I will come back for him, even if he has not yet rebelled by himself.
I will go to Free City 0, but I will always watch out for the walls of a cage. And I will take the auto parts I have secretly been trying to combine for five years. Even heretics have not yet reached the stars.