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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lombard

The Lights

Let me tell you about the city.

At first, it’s a dot of fire on the horizon. Then you get closer, and you see buildings jutting up like jagged teeth on a broken comb. Each brooding monolith studies you with a thousand square and shining eyes, and boasts a crown that hurls a spear of light into the sky. Get too close, and the glare eats the darkness. You can’t see the stars. It’s just you, the road, the city and the lights.

Of course, it’s not easy to enter the city. The barricade around the city is higher than our church’s steeple, and the enormous iron gates are watched by restless guards.

I was prepared. Brother Saul lived in the city before he took refuge in our community. He knows the city’s slippery ways, and drilled me for months on its lingo and manners. We captured one of their supply trucks, halted by our spike traps. And we had someone on the inside, one of the few who cultivate our faith in that barren concrete purgatory.

As I neared the city in the truck, I chanted a prayer, and hung one of their ever-shining lights on my neck. I know that shocks you, and I hope you are never forced to mar your body with one. As much as it sickened me, I had no choice if I was to enter the city and achieve my goal.

I stopped the truck at the gate, and told the guards I brought a shipment from one of the factories. They asked to inspect my cargo, so I got out and opened the back of the truck for them. The trailer was packed with bulky spools of wire. It had taken years to collect enough for this mission, but the scavenging was worth it to have supplies the guards would not dare turn away - tungsten wire, for the filaments in light bulbs.

One of the guards asked me if I had seen any raiders. As planned, I told him that I had a close call with a party babbling like maniacs, but scared them off with a flash grenade. I showed the guards the gouges in the side of the truck from raider hooks, leaving out that our militia made them when we seized the truck. I told the guards how glad I was to be safe at home, once more in the city’s protection. I repeated their oath, taught to me by Brother Saul. It is best if you never learn that corrupt vow.

After that, they opened the gate, and I was inside the city.

The outskirts were filthy, speckled with grime and trash. I saw children playing in the muck, kicking tins and squealing profanities. Even these urchins had lights, fixed in sturdy chest harnesses they could not remove. Where we toil long days on mushroom farms to feed ourselves, the city pampers idleness and neglect.

As I drove closer to the heart of the city, streets became cleaner, and shops and people bragged of ostentatious prosperity. I saw blasphemous fashions for the lights. Most people wore them from a cord around their neck, but some had one clipped on their belt or shirt. Many of the lights were in colours like blue or green, and a few people displayed more than one. I even saw a woman in a shameful black dress with a chain of twinkling coloured lights threaded through her hair.

The park was easy to find, if you can call grass and trees wilting in clammy air a park. Still, it was large enough to get lost in, and that was why our contact had chosen it for this liaison.

Brother Saul had warned me about the distorted monuments in this park, sculptures of light that told the history of the city, or the lies that pass for history when you’re severed from grace. Some of them were almost beautiful, in their way. One of them showed The Fracture, swirling red lights projected on a flowing waterfall cascading into an obsidian rock garden. I saw that day of wonder firsthand when I was young, and judged this a fair record of that glorious event. The truth, however distorted, endures even here.

As arranged I met our contact at the Monument to Electricity, a flashing spherical projection of metal towers, thunderbolts, and wild-eyed old men. Our contact was a small woman with twitchy ebullience mastered by wary reserve. I knew her from a red handbag, selected for identification. From her eyes, she was enthusiastic for our faith, but had not glimpsed our truth firsthand.

She hammered me with furtive questions about the world outside the city - the safety of the hidden villages, the bounty of the harvests, the joy of the festivals. I gave her terse answers, cautious of being overheard by the city’s disguised police. I asked if she had what we required. She gave me a folder with photographs of documents from her place of work, the city’s records department.

In return, I gave her a small drawstring pouch. She seized it with eagerness, and took the tiniest of peeks inside, before pushing it deep into her handbag.

We parted without farewell, and I returned to the truck. I opened the folder on my lap, and studied the photographs. They confirmed what we suspected - the city was reproducing, constructing a new enclave under a giant dome, with plans to connect a network of cities by underground tunnels. Perhaps when this was done, the city people would abandon the surface to its righteous inheritors. In my heart, I knew coexistence would not satisfy the city’s hunger for control.

For now, I was more concerned with the personnel record of a city employee, including their address and identification photograph. This was something we had asked for, and the reason I had volunteered for this dangerous mission into the beast’s belly. Yes, this was my brother. He was a man now, but I could see our parents in his face, and he had a scar on his chin from an unlucky slip when we played in a creek bed as children. We knew him as Elijah, but he had taken another name in the city. Instead of an honest life protecting and feeding his people, here he was a number-spinning cog in a blasphemous tyranny.

In the first years after The Fracture, the city’s soldiers would hunt for children. If they captured them and judged them young enough to brainwash, the soldiers would deliver them to the city. When we were caught, I was released, deemed too old to convert. Elijah was taken.

Later, the city gave up trying to control the freelands, but too many of our families are scarred by absent children. My mother never forgot Elijah, and as she lay dying made me promise to rescue him, so he could once again dwell in grace.

After only a few hours in the city, I felt cold and groggy. Brother Saul warned me this would happen, that in the city I would be outside the eyes of the divine. I fought my nausea, and reminded myself that I was here to save my brother, and keep my vow to my mother.

The city was never dark, but the streets had emptied as people finished work. I drove to the building where my brother lived. Fortunately, the building was in a courtyard, away from the street and empty of loiterers. On the metal box at the entrance, I pressed the numbers for his room. Hearing an electronic crackle, I told the microphone I had a delivery for him to sign.

I stood next to the truck, and pulled my cap down so he wouldn’t be able to see my face. He emerged in a dressing gown. Even now, the gown had a light clipped on.

When he stepped away from the threshold, I removed my hat and greeted him as brother. He was delighted, shocked and fearful. I clasped the light hanging from my neck, and recited their oath. My brother began to weep, and embraced me.

I told him I had escaped the raiders, and come to find him. I told him that I now understood what had happened to the world, and needed to help fight it. I told him that our mother was still alive, and I had a plan to rescue her. He invited me up to his room to talk more.

The moment he turned around, I put a cloth over his mouth. He slumped, knocked out by fumes from the chemical in the rag. I pulled him into the back of the truck, and hid his body in an empty crate behind the spools of wire.

Now it was time to leave. I needed to be out of the city soon, before anyone realised my brother was missing, and before I was overwhelmed by the city’s grotesque, cloying illumination.

I drove to another gate, different to the one I entered. Fighting my increasing nausea, I told the guards that I had a delivery for one of the factories.

They began to open the gate, and then a man yelled for them to stop. It was one of the guards from the checkpoint I entered through, who had inspected my truck. Perhaps someone had been sick at this gate, and he was transferred here to fill a security gap.

He came up to the cab, and asked me why I was leaving so soon. I was now struggling against crushing fatigue, and could only take in every other word. I could see that he was suspicious, and about to order a search of the truck.

That made me think of my brother, and I found the will for one final heroic effort. I grabbed the folder of photos from the seat next to me, and opened it a fraction to the guard, just enough for him to see the outline of the dome. I whispered that the cargo was for our new home, and that nobody could know of it yet, in case our enemies discovered our plans - and we knew some of them had infiltrated the city, even the guards.

I could see that he had wondered if rumours of a new refuge were true, and would not dare do anything to jeopardise that hope. He waved me on. The guards opened the gates, and I left the city.

I drove for an hour, making sure I was clear of the city, rejuvenated to be under the stars once more. I stopped the truck in a field. I ripped off the light on my neck, and crushed it beneath my boot. I took my brother out of the truck, stripped off his light and laid him down on the grass. I sat beside him, waiting for him to awaken.

Finally, he stirred. At the sight of the clear black sky, with its shimmering blanket of red stars, he began to scream. But then the peace flowed into him, as it flows into all of us under the watch of those powerful and terrible Gods.

I lay next to him in the field, and we looked up at the stars together, two brothers united in obedient wonder.

One day the final light bulb will shatter, just like our sun all those years ago.

Then there will only be the peaceful darkness, and the eternal brilliance of our guiding stars - the lights.

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