Thursday, July 20, 2017

Citadel World: The URANUS Code

by Kir Lukovkin

release - September 17, 2017


The runner to the right fell down and Rick barely managed to move out of the way. The thick tip of a cracking whip flashed before his eyes, scratching his cheek. Rick did not stop. The man that fell was sure to die and had to be forgotten like last night’s dreams. An ivy would drag him into its lair and calmly digest him, as if he was a huge, sleeping fly.
Rick and the five other young men continued the Spring Run. Ten had been there at the start. Ten challengers, but only the strongest and most experienced would win in the end. The others would be lucky to complete the Circle alive.

They had entered the Blind Zone only a minute ago—a part of the corridor which was not illuminated with daylight lamps or emergency lighting. A zone of total darkness. Rick put on his ultraviolet filter goggles. He did it in the nick of time—an ancient and desiccated skeleton covered in rags appeared right under his feet. Its teeth shone in a baleful rictus grin. A huge centipede was writhing in one of its eye sockets. Rick easily vaulted over the obstacle.
The Run continued. Its name was an ancestral tradition, from the times when it really was race through the corridors, trying to get the best time. It was an old form of entertainment, born when people could walk around any of the corridors free from danger. However, those times were long gone.
The challengers moved at a brisk pace. Everyone had the right to complete the route in any way they wanted, at any speed. The Run had but one primary rule—stopping was forbidden. The challengers kept close to each other for now, as the danger all around them was too great. However, the real competition was about to start when the Blind Zone would end and when they would manage to overcome the Gallery.
Rick deliberately let his opponents overtake him to save his breath. Going at a medium pace, he greedily took in the Expanse around him. He would never have got to see what was hidden by the thick protective barriers of the sector in his everyday life. The Commune only took up about a quarter of the habitable world.
The tall, thin runner on the left crashed into some sort of springy substance with full force. It was as if the air itself had turned into a transparent jelly that stretched out and pushed the man back. The youth let out a piercing scream—his hands and feet got entangled in dully glittering silver strands. Rick said a mental farewell to his former compatriot. He did not feel sorry for the man at all, but understood the full extent of the terror that he was feeling now. When the sound of steps recedes, he will be left to hang in that trap all alone, many-legged monsters descending from the depths of the ventilation shafts, looking so vile they would make even the bravest faint.
Only five runners remained.
The first had fallen into a gaping chasm while trying to avoid the carrion eaters at the very start.
Another decided to take a shortcut through one of the disused tunnels. A fool.
The third could not take it and turned back. A coward. The Commune will make him pay for this.
The fourth was dragged off by a poison ivy right in front of Rick.
And now the fifth was gone...
Rick could have been any one of them.
They continued the Spring Run. It was almost the end of the Blind Zone. Bone-chilling wind blew at them from somewhere above, carrying the cloying smell of decomposition to their nostrils. No one wanted to imagine the source of this thick and vile odor. Rick was starting to find it hard to breathe, his heartbeat heavy in his chest, his legs feeling as heavy as if he was wearing lead-lined boots... Ah, of course! Another unfortunate fell down to the floor behind him.
Shaky from the effects of the sleep gas, Rick held his breath and ran as fast as he could to pass the dangerous zone.
And then, there was light.
The four runners sprung out of the Blind Zone into the pale light of ceiling lamps. Rick could not control himself and stumbled. For an instant, his mind lost its mastery over his body. Rick prayed to all the gods of the Expanse to protect him from some beast grabbing him from above or below. He fell to one knee and watched the three leading runners disappear around a corner, the sound of their steps echoing off the grilled flooring.
Every second counted. This was not just because the distance between the runners was becoming greater. Well, that was not the only reason. The things which surrounded a man from the Commune beyond the walls of the sector were far more terrifying. The denizens of the hostile Expanse outside. Rick heard a noise right by his ear, which sounded like the fluttering of a moth’s wings and then a quiet hissing redolent of a distant sigh. It was as if the sound was stealing towards him, crawling up to gently touch the skin of his neck, to caress him and then...
The elders said that this was the way that awareness was put to sleep.
'Machine God, preserve me!' Rick muttered and launched himself into action.
Rick's heart hammered in his chest. He was overcome by primordial terror, the feeling a mouse has when it is pierced by the sting of a she-spider that lives in the ventilation shafts beyond the habitable sector. Not daring to look back, he ran with the last of his strength, hoping to get away, to hide and escape from the mortal danger. The corridor gradually turned to the right, following the Great Circle of Life. The back of the last of the three runners appeared ahead. Rick caught a second wind. But it was too early to celebrate yet.
The Gallery would begin soon.
That is what the denizens of the Commune called the part of Expanse where what was visible was not limited by the walls and ceilings that people were used to. The corridor suddenly came to an end, with the path seeming to continue into an empty void. Of course, this was a false impression—the runners had actually arrived in a vast enclosure which did have walls and a ceiling, but they were at such an unbelievable height and distance that they could be barely seen far off in the distance. It seemed like some incomprehensible and merciless force was about to grab the runners from the narrow path and drag you into the eternal primordial darkness.
As soon as Rick jumped out of the corridor into the Gallery, some ancient instinct forced him to fall to his knee and grab the edge of the walkway stretching out ahead.  Rick looked at the shape of the Gallery surrounding him with a mixture of fear and awe. A gust of wind blew into his face and all went dark before his eyes because it seemed that he was falling downwards. But no, he was still holding on to the edge, trying to get used to this new position.
Now Rick understood what the greatest challenge of the Spring Run was.
He had heard of it many times, but no words could compare to that which was before him now. The world turned upside down—it was as if Rick entered a gigantic hall, with an endless expanse of floor and the ceiling for a sky, climbing up a stalk like a cockroach. But this impression was deceptive. The two endless flat surfaces were only walls that extended upwards and downwards. Rick tried to make himself understand this, but the image constantly shifted into something opposite in his head. He stared at the view before him for a long while, unable to tear himself away from the geometric perfection of the sheer and smooth walls.
The three opponents ahead of him also slowed down. One of them fell to his knees just like Rick, unable to handle his vertigo and fear of heights, another managed to keep to his feet but could not move and the third stubbornly pushed on, his head bowed as if he was walking into a strong headwind.
Rick seemed to hear the ghostly breathing and whispering again, so close that it raised the hair at the back of his neck. Overcoming his fear, he crawled forward on his hands and knees. He did not care about finishing first. All he wanted was to go through the Great Circle of Expanse, complete the Spring Run and advance to the next level of his life.
The walkway stretched out over the bottomless chasm that seemed to go down to the netherworld itself. They said that if a man was to fall off, they would fall without end until they would be driven insane. The definition of hell.
Rick closed his eyes, feeling nauseous.
It was best not to look down. He made himself look ahead, confidently closing the in on his opponent. The other two had already reached the end of the Gallery. When Rick reached the runner who was still stuck on the beam, the man exclaimed,
Rick kept going. He knew what the result of talking to the man would be. Last year, one of the runners decided help another and they both went on a date with eternity. A hand grabbed Rick by the ankle. He tried to pull away but the grip was firm.
“Let me go!”
“No! Get me out of here! Please! We won’t tell anyone!”
Rick became angry. He kicked out and hit something soft. He heard a scream of pain and surprise, but his foot was still trapped.
Even though the walkway through the Gallery had handrails, the other runner lost his footing and stumbled to teeter close to the edge. If this went on for longer, he would drag Rick down with him. The eyes of the runner were full of terror. Rick gathered his strength, straightened himself out and punched his opponent in the jaw with full force. He fell as if struck by lightning, crying and muttering profanities. Rick hurried on ahead, followed by the man's plaintive curses. Because of the encounter or perhaps as a result of his own staying power Rick no longer felt the same fear of the void surrounding him and managed to get up off his knees, stooping and moving forward in a crouch. He never let go of the handrails even for a second, even though he had the feeling that nothing would happen to him if he did. Once he had almost reached the entrance to the corridor on the opposite side, Rick stopped for a moment to look back and remember the Gallery and the Expanse surrounding it.
It was absolutely stunning!
Rick dove into the mouth of the corridor.
Next came the final stretch of the route, which was called the Pipe. The Pipe had to be run through at top speed without ever looking around. Those who did otherwise would die. This was the talk of those who loved to spread rumors. Rick was clever enough not to take such talk too seriously, but also sensible enough not to ignore the rumors entirely. Following a quick break before the final push, he started to run. Rick heard the distant sound of voices ahead—the Commune was welcoming the winner.
The surface of the Pipe was springy under his feet. A strong wind blew in Rick’s face, instantly drying the sweat upon his brow. The Pipe was divided by rings into sections over the whole segment of the track that was leading home. Rick ran, watching the steel rings approach and disappear behind him. Someone said that you could not look to the sides. So he would look up. Nothing special. Normal lights. And what happens if you look under your feet? A grilled floor, with a cavity full of a network of complicated wires, emergency boxes and lights, a pale face and the partitions between the segments underneath.
A face?
Rick came to a complete halt. The cold dagger of terror pierced his heart. He had to keep running! Home was close, but the Expanse was treacherous and full of traps! Rick glanced over his shoulder. The Pipe was silent, with no sound coming from ahead or from behind. He would not have hesitated to keep running, even if would be the face of a dead man or the maw of a monstrous beast like a night crawler. But he saw a living person down below.
Rick slowly returned to the previous section of the Pipe and looked down again. A young woman was lying under the grilled floor in an unnatural pose. When she saw him, she opened her mouth as if to scream, but kept silent. She desperately jerked around but she could not escape. Her arm was stuck between the power distribution boxes. Without quite understanding why he was doing it, Rick jumped off the walkways, crawled under the supports and came face to face with the girl.
There was no Commune sigil on her neck.
An outsider!
The Warden had spoken about the barbaric tribes living outside the sector. However, she looked too smart for a barbarian—a gray, body-hugging suit, white skin, copper colored hair, a well-proportioned face without any abnormalities and thoughtful eyes which were full of pain. Rick stretched out towards her hand, which was stuck in a clamp up to the elbow. The girl recoiled, covering her face with her free hand. Something glinted in her ear, but there was no time to see what it was.
Rick felt her delicate wrist and found that the bone was intact. Only the spring of a single clamp had to be forced apart to free the barbarian girl. He braced his leg against the wall and pulled the clamp towards himself, to release it a little. The barbarian immediately pulled her hand out and darted behind a supporting strut, backing away towards the wall. There were doors all along the walls of the Pipe.
“Thank you.”
The mystery girl disappeared behind a door before he could reply. Rick looked at the closed door, cursing himself for his indecisiveness. He snapped out of his reverie, feeling a pair of eyes upon him. He turned around and saw the runner that almost fell off the walkway in the Gallery. His name was Yeshua, or something like that. Before the start of the Run he boasted louder than all that he would complete the route. The runner glanced at Rick down below and then ran along the Pipe towards home. Rick climbed back onto the walkway and followed him.
Rick finished the Spring Run last.
Four runners had finished this time.


Everyone feared and respected Warden Croesus. They were afraid of his cunning and cruelty. They respected him for knowing how to read. An ugly scar slashed downwards, cutting diagonally across the face of the leader of the Commune from his forehead to his chin. It was said that this was a mark from the Machine God which Croesus earned when he was still a young and fiery warrior, back in the times when the Commune made war against the barbarians beyond the barrier.
Back in those good and bountiful days.
Now a respected patriarch, Croesus stood on a platform, holding on to the railing and looking down upon the people of the Commune. Rick stood there too, together with the other youths who had completed the Spring Run. The trials went on for exactly one month. Thirty days of trials, which included the Stand Above the Chasm, the Walk Upon the Walls, the Pit Fight and the Hunt for Carrion Eaters as well as the Spring Run. All of this was called the Spring Dance, a thirty day dance of life and death. Those who survived reached the next level. Those who died became a sacrifice to the Machine God.
The Spring Dance had finished the day before. The sacrifice was great this year. Nearly a third of the young people that reached the age of twenty had died, disappeared into the chasm or went missing in the labyrinths of Expanse.
Croesus did not hide his satisfaction.
“People of the Commune!” he called to the crowd, “The Machine God is pleased with us!”
Whispers. The upturned faces looked like wax masks, with pieces of glass replacing the eyes in their sockets.
“The God has heard our prayers and accepted our offerings! At last, he has been merciful to us, the pious people of the Omicron Commune! Winter is over. The hoarfrost on the condensers has thinned by a finger’s breadth! This means that the cold is retreating!”
The crowd voiced its excitement.
“The Great Circle of Life turns! All hail!”
Croesus raised his fist in a victory salute. The crowd happily replied. But Rick saw that this was the joy of starving men—even though their mouths were smiling, their faces bore the harsh mark of hunger and loss. The Commune suffered from the frosts for many a year, while the food supplies dwindled and the rations kept being cut. Even though there was a farm and there were regular expeditions beyond the barrier, there was never enough food to feed the people.
“And now, let us greet those that passed the trials,” Croesus pointed at the group of young people that stood apart from the main body of the crowd, “These young men and women have successfully reached a new level in their lives!”
The gathering started to applaud and shout their approval.
“This new generation has proven that it is worthy of taking its place in the society of the Omicron Commune. Each one of them will have their own task that will benefit the Commune. They will work at the factory, at the farm and in the corridors of the sector as your equals. They are now our brothers and sisters.”
The crowd voiced their approval again.
“As always, I would like to pay special attention to those who were courageous enough to brave the Spring Run and who ran through the Great Circle of Life. Here come the brave!”
Croesus stepped back, gesturing for Rick and the others to come closer to the railing and hear the applause, which was genuine, happy and boisterous as there was always someone’s father or mother, brother or sister, grandfather or uncle in the crowd, all of whom had prayed to the Machine God for their relatives to return alive. Of course, not all of the prayers were heard, but this was God’s will and no mortal could oppose it. Even though he could not see her, Rick knew that his little sister Aurora was standing somewhere here too.
“These young men and women have shown themselves to be true warriors,” continued Croesus, “which means that they are worthy of carrying out the most honorable and responsible of task—defending the peace of the Commune and protecting it from outside foes and saboteurs. I am honored to present the new warriors of the Patrol to you! Gus, the winner of the run, is appointed as the senior on this level!”
The happiness of those present knew no bounds. Rick trembled with joy. He had worked towards this moment for twenty years and it had finally come. The faces of the people seemed to meld together and everything around him seemed to descend into a fog. Rick felt so dizzy that he had to grab the railing. He did it! He would be re-homed on a higher floor, into a larger, warmer and brighter room and with a bigger ration, which meant that…
Someone roughly shoved him in the ribs. Rick turned around. It was Yeshua.
“Let the Warden pass!” he growled.
Croesus stepped forward once again. The crowd went quiet. After waiting for the noise to subside, the Warden began to speak, this time with a note of steel in his voice.
“Our great Commune has now existed for a thousand years, since the creation of Expanse by the Machine God. We are the chosen people, the truly righteous. But the great God always sends us trials to test our resilience and the belief of the people of Omicron in the order of things. Our ancestors were attacked by hordes of monsters from the Expanse outside, people suffered hardship and hunger and died from terrible diseases, but they stood firm in the face of these terrible trials, proving their greatness! If it wasn’t for their strength, we would not be here today! Hardship makes a man stronger, and the harder it is the stronger we become.”
Croesus paused. The crowd listened on in absolute silence.
“Our trials are not yet over. This is a good sign. The God wants proof of our loyalty. He wants to be sure that our strength has not left us. We withstood the piercing cold with honor. A new harvest will be ready soon and we won’t have to conserve food. But our troubles are not over! The Omicron Commune faces a new danger!”
Croesus passed his gaze over the crowd and Rick was shocked to see an animalistic pleasure in his eyes which bordered on madness.
“The day before yesterday, the northern Patrol apprehended three infiltrators from outside Expanse! These foul barbarians wanted to find out everything about us so they could attack the Commune. Their army is out there, outside, and it is ready to break in here to rob, burn and kill!”
The crowd gasped.
“They shall kill the men, they will take the women as slaves and do such things to the children and the elders that I cannot bear to utter them! But we will be ready. We have interrogated these vermin and discovered the plans of the enemy. They will not catch us unawares! This will never happen! The Omicron Commune will withstand any outside threat. We want peace, but we are prepared for war. We released one of the spies so that he would warn his leaders that they must not enter our territory. The second one killed himself before we could save him. Now, I present the third one for your judgement, People of the Commune. Here he is!”
Croesus made a sign and a convoy accompanying a bound captive marched into the middle of the square. The captive was a man with a pronounced limp who was supported under his elbows. His head hung down powerlessly to his chest. The prisoner was taken into the circle that spread among the crowd in complete silence. The guards stepped back. Almost immediately, he fell to his knees.
The crowd greedily looked over the outsider. Rick also had a look and was surprised that the man was dressed in a rather filthy silvery suit, but Rick was still sure that he had seen a suit of that kind somewhere!
“Here he is!” exclaimed Croesus, “Your enemy!”
The crowd started get noisy. They were pointing their fingers at the prisoner. The people looked at him with hatred, as if he was dangerous predator.
“Hey, you!” shouted Croesus. “Why did you come here? Answer me!”
One of the guards poked the man with an electric baton, making him moan. Croesus repeated his question, but the prisoner could only mumble incoherently. His face was a battered ruin and his eyes darted like the eyes of a caged animal. He tried to make a dash for it, but immediately stumbled and fell onto his back. The crowd recoiled. The women screamed.
“They can’t even speak! They growl like animals!”
One man stepped out of the crowd and spat in the face of the prisoner. Another bounded up to kick him in the gut.
“Enough!” Croesus exclaimed. “Let’s not act like these animals. People of the Commune, brothers and sisters, hear me! I am giving this barbarian for you to judge, and I ask you, what should I do with him? I will do what you say. But I won’t hide the fact that this beast seriously wounded one of our patrolmen. So, then, let me hear your verdict!”
The crowd stayed quiet. People were fidgeting, the human sea was getting rough, the waves were rising and hungry eyes looked at the body huddled in the middle of the square with absolute hatred. And then, someone shouted,
“Death to the barbarians!”
Another voice joined in from the other end of the square. Like an echo, the shout started to reflect off the walls and multiply to engulf all of those present. The crowd soon began chanting,
“Death to the barbarians! Death! Death!”
Croesus silenced everyone with a movement of his hand.
“Have I understood the sentence correctly?”
“Yes!” a thousand voices replied.
“In the name of the Omicron Commune! As Chief Judge and instrument of the will of the people, I sentence you to death, barbarian.”
The prisoner barely lifted his head into the light, croaking weakly.
“We shall be merciful, and rid you of your pathetic life without undue suffering.”
The crowd made approving noises.
“Let the sentence be carried out!”
Two guards approached the condemned man. One forcefully wrenched him to his feet, while the other took out his baton and switched the weapon to maximum power. The prisoner shuddered, spat out a bloody gob of phlegm and shouted, before the deadly lightning strike could turn his brain to mush,
“No! You must turn off the gen…”
An instant later, he was dead. Croesus addressed those present:
“Brothers and sisters! Considering the situation we are in, I ask for your permission to continue to do justice in the name of the Commune as I see fit, lawfully and fairly.”
The people voiced their approval. The crowd began to slowly dissipate. Impressed and dazed, Rick stepped to the side without looking and bumped into someone. He looked up and saw that it was Croesus himself. Their eyes met.
The leader of the Commune clasped Rick’s hand and then departed, flanked by his guards.
Rick turned towards the square where the execution happened. They were already tearing the clothing off the body of the barbarian. In half an hour it will be missing, dragged off by the denizens of the lower levels. The ones whose rations were particularly poor.


“You’re back!” Aurora exclaimed when Rick stepped into the room.
He patted his sister’s curly head, noticing how she was now almost at a height with his chest, while she had only recently just reached his waist. She was growing.
There was someone else in the room. Rick immediately felt the presence of someone who was not part of the family. It turned out to be old Kyoto.
“Hello, Rick,” he heard from a dark corner.
“I helped Aurora clear up a here a little,” Kyoto smiled, leaning in towards the light and showing off his strong and even teeth. Something that could not be said about his wrinkled face—nothing can be done about age.
“Thanks, but to what do I owe this pleasure?” Rick warily asked.
He had got really tired over the last week. He had to go on patrol every day. The tension never left him even when he slept.
“Let’s have some lunch!” Aurora said.
“Good idea,” everyone agreed.
Rick never hurried when he ate, so that he could better digest his ration. Especially since it was bigger now—a piece of meat had been added to the potatoes, bread and beans. Meat! While his restless sister was looking for the spoon she dropped under the table, he secretly put a little piece on her plate. Kyoto nodded approvingly. Rick pushed his own plate away and took a gulp of homebrew, made of the fermented barley that did not grow on the farm properly and which would have been thrown away or filched by someone like Rick. He looked at the clock on the wall and asked,
“So it’s not your shift today?”
“Nope,” Kyoto was putting bread in his mouth piece by piece.
Rick nodded.
“Congratulations, Rick. A new and important stage in your life has come.”
“Yes, thanks. Everyone says that.”
“You’re probably tired of hearing it.”
“You always get to the root of things, as they say.”
“You’re an educated boy. You have a great future.”
“Let’s get closer to business.”
Rick disliked long conversations.
He wanted to clean his new uniform before he went to sleep—a dark blue suit made of thick fabric that he was issued when he moved upwards. The uniform was beautiful. The hieroglyphic sigil of the Commune was on its chest, symbolizing the Circle of Life, an O. Omicron. He would now wear this uniform for the next ten years until he reached thirty years of age to again go through the trials mandated by the Committee and decide his fate. The same as all the people in the sector. As it was, so it shall be.
“Yes, you’re right,” Kyoto stroked Aurora’s curls, “Go and play, little one.”
Aurora stuck her tongue out at the old man and disappeared. Everyone in the Commune treated the aged with a certain degree of contempt, as the circle of their life was definitely coming to its end.
“That execution…” the old man began.
“Was necessary.”
“Yes. But…” Kyoto hesitated.
Rick started to gather the dishes from the table. He put everything into the sink and sat in Aurora’s seat.
“What do you want to say? Speak directly.”
“All right. What Croesus said about the army of barbarians and infiltrators is a lie. Now you can give me to the Patrol. It’s your direct responsibility.”
“I’ll have time for that later.”
Kyoto swallowed. He did not look his best, like everyone else from the lower levels. The old man stank. Down below they saved on everything, from lighting to water. The ice cold logic of survival—the aged have one foot in the grave already, so why spend resources on them? Even though travel through the whole sector was allowed, the Patrol carefully monitored that each generation lived on their own level.
“All right. Do you know how old I am?”
“I don’t understand what you’re getting at.”
“Answer the damn question.”
Really, how old was he? Rick thought about that for the first time. Kyoto was an old man when Rick was born and his mother was still alive and working on the farm. He remained an old man when Aurora appeared and Rick became a man, without any change from those times. An old man is an old man, what’s the difference?
“I don’t know.”
“Well, that’s the thing. I’m seventy five full years of age, and I have spent a third of my life below, digging around in the pipes. I was sent down before you were born and before your mother was taken as a slave from the neighboring sector.”
“Did you think that she was born and lived all her life here? No, my friend. She was a slave, like many other women that were taken here when the local girls were struck by mass infertility. The great Commune must live.”
“You’re lying!”
Kyoto smiled sadly.
“But how… That’s impossible… Beyond the barrier…”
“…there are wild tribes of barbarians. The outside Expanse is full of monsters and no normal person could last a day there. Yes, that’s what the Committee says.”
“So? Are you saying this isn’t true?”
Kyoto looked at Rick, sizing him up.
“Do you understand that this is heresy?”
“That doesn’t matter now, son. We started with my age, so let’s keep going in that order.”
“What’s the point of me listening to this nonsense?” Rick snorted. “You have completely lost your minds down below.”
“That could be,” Kyoto nodded, “but then, why did you stay in the square when that barbarian was executed?”
Rick did not reply. The old man continued:
“I have been watching you for a long time. You are much more intelligent than your peers, Rick. This gives us a chance. I would never have started this conversation if I wasn’t sure of success. This is why I am asking you to listen to me first and then do as you see fit. Deal?”
“All right,” Rick grimly replied.
Kyoto breathed a sigh of relief.
“Well then. We, the people of the Commune, were created in the depths of Expanse by the great Machine God, who gave us intelligence and allowed us to settle the Omicron sector. Expanse is endless and it spreads all around us, upwards and downwards, to the left and to the right.”
Kyoto repeated the words from the Machine Treatise that are taught to every child from birth. He spoke of the way that the first generations of humans had lived in a golden age when they wanted for nothing—they had plentiful supplies of delicious food, their homes were warm and they never knew sickness or warfare, so they lived long and happy lives. However, the silver age then came to replace the golden age, and that was when man became mortal and the seeds of discord were sown. After that came the iron age, when lifespans decreased. And finally came the dark age after the iron, one in which the people of the Commune still live right now, a grim time of cold, hardship and struggling for survival.
“Why are you telling me all this?” Rick could not restrain himself, “Every child is taught this at the beginning of the Circle of Life.”
“Be patient!” Kyoto cut him short, “We have almost got to the point. Throughout our history, our Commune has always been headed by a Warden, a man who could speak to the Machine God through the priests.”
“That’s right.”
“The Warden leads the Committee, the members of which are those that are close to him. Each of them controls their own level of the sector. Only the members of the Committee can read the secret signs and glyphs left by the Machine God as guidance for the people. It is forbidden for anyone else.”
“Such is the law.”
“Yes. Only the Warden and his priests are allowed to enter the holy sanctum of Technology and speak to the great God.”
“That’s right.”
“But what if I told you that I also know how to read these signs?”
“I don’t believe you,” Rick laughed.
“Of course you don’t believe me. That’s why I’m going to show you something.”
Rick looked at Kyoto warily.
“Don’t be afraid,” said the old man, “it’s just a drawing.”
He took a piece of paper from his inside pocket which had been folded many times over, so old and shabby that there were visible holes worn through the folds. Kyoto carefully laid it out on the table. The edge of the paper looked like it had been unevenly chewed on one side, as if a rat had tried to eat it, so only part of the picture was visible. Rick stared at the interlocking lines covered with tiny glyphs and signs.
“What is this?”
“Our sector.”
They both bent down over the picture, trying to make out the details. The light of the lamp grew dimmer, which meant that evening was approaching. The lighting would be switched off soon. Rick lit the ghostlight by cranking the handle of the generator. They kept looking at the picture, until Rick finally whispered:
“I don’t understand anything.”
“I couldn’t for many years either,” the old man admitted, “until I started to understand the glyphs.”
“Where did you get this?”
“It was part of the spoils of the great war with the barbarians which was won by the Commune thirty years ago. I was a Committee member back then.”
Rick stared at Kyoto, who smiled again and cackled drily.
“I was the advisor of the Warden of that time. I was senior at the highest level. Croesus was just a snot-nosed kid back then, there was enough food for every level and there were no problems with light or heating. The Commune went to war against a tribe of barbarians that lived near the Gallery. This all happened because the daughter of the chief of food production ran away to join a young man there. The Commune went on a campaign and won the war, gaining plenty of supplies, weapons and valuables, including packs of bound paper with glyphs and drawings. The Warden ordered for them to be burnt. There were many drawings in these packages, very many, and all of them looked like this one, as well as tables of glyphs and other signs which are called numbers. The Warden personally supervised their destruction, saying that the papers bore the mark of evil and that these were foul satanic spells that were an offence against god and a heresy. And that’s when I committed a crime.”
“You hid one page,” Rick guessed.
“Yes. And you know why? Look,” the old man pointed at a familiar glyph at the very edge of the torn side.
“The Circle of Life!” exclaimed Rick.
“The Omicron symbol.”
When Rick looked at the drawing something suddenly changed in his perception of it and familiar shapes started to appear in the network of lines. He cranked the generator on the fading lamp and leaned closer to the drawing. A long minute passed.
“Here,” he pointed his finger and drew a line from the left to the right, “this looks like the main thoroughfare.”
“That’s exactly what it is.”
“Here is the Edge of the World… That means that the Chorda, the spine of Expanse must be there.”
“Good thinking,” Kyoto said approvingly.
“That means that this is a map,” Rick continued, unconsciously lowering his voice to a whisper. “But everything is drawn here as if the sector only had one level. But it has fifty. This is a view from above.”
They looked at one another.
“It took me several years to understand that,” said Kyoto. “And it only took you a few minutes. You see? I knew that you had abilities.”
Flattered, Rick kept looking at the ancient world map which had been taken from the depths of Expanse, which was far better made than the drawings of the priests, and many questions started to occur to him in his head.
“It must be taken to Croesus,” he muttered uncertainly, “maybe he will be able to make sense of it?”
“You know yourself what would happen then.”
Yes, he knew. Croesus will get agitated, take the map away, interrogate Rick and apprehend Kyoto. No one was even permitted to look at the glyphs of the Machine God without special permission, let alone hold any writings in their hands. This was a serious crime, bordering on heresy for which the lightest punishment was exile beyond the barrier.
Kyoto looked at the clock.
“We don’t have much time and we might not get a second chance. Croesus already suspects something. The patrols on the levels have become more frequent. It’s time I went. Take another look at this map and remember it well.”
“But it is so detailed…”
“Memorize it,” hissed Kyoto, and kept hurriedly whispering while Rick was intently examining the map. “I studied this map for hours after work instead of sleeping, remembering every symbol and every turning. This is why I can draw an exact copy in case it was destroyed. I thought about it, trying to understand what is on the paper and correlate it with what the Wardens told us throughout our lives. You do know how they become Wardens, don’t you?”
“Following the fifth life trial, the old Warden chooses a successor and leaves the Commune.”
“Yes. The new Warden gives an oath of fealty to god in the temple of Technology. All my life, I carefully listened to the speeches of the Wardens and the sermons of the priests. And I saw that they were lying. I thought about their words and observed the world around me. For instance, they insist that there is no air beyond Expanse and that we are surrounded by the darkness of primordial chaos, with the only things protecting our world from destruction being the external barrier of the Expanse and the internal barrier of the sector. The Expanse is shaped like a donut, and we are in the middle, while monsters and barbarians live around us, beyond the barrier. There is nothing beyond the external borders of Expanse. There’s nothing above or below either.”
“What does that mean?”
“You know that I live on the lowest level, among the sick and the very old. I have been suffering from insomnia for the last few years. As I lie there at night in the darkness I hear strange sounds. They sound like a distant rumble. And once I heard… voices. Shouting. A man was shouting. I put my ear to the floor as tight as I could and kept listening and listening. No one believes old men, and I would have been laughed at had I come to the Warden with this.”
“You kept silent and waited.”
“I thought this time would never come. Now, pay attention to these symbols and arrows at the edges of the drawing.”
Rick obediently took a closer look. The number 14 was written on the paper where the arrow pointed forwards as well as two strange and unfamiliar symbols of some sort. Where the arrow pointed backwards, the number 16 could be made out as well as two other different symbols.
“What does this mean?”
“I don’t know for sure. But I think that this indicates other habitable worlds. Can you imagine it? What if there is someone out there beyond the edges of Expanse as well?”
Rick forgot to crank up the generator on the lamp and the room fell into darkness. When he got the light to work again, the map was no longer on the table.
“I will walk with you,” he said, “or the Patrol might bother you.”
They walked through the axial corridor of the level, holding their clothing tight against the cold. It became even colder at night, which is why no one went outside without need. The level was almost asleep. Occasionally, the residents moved between the rooms. Rick and Kyoto walked silently, warming their hands with their breaths. A Patrol marched by and Rick nodded at those he knew, continuing to descend to the children’s level where Aurora lived using the central stairs.
“You don’t have to accompany me any further,” said Kyoto when they approached the stairway.
There was an uncomfortable pause. Rick wanted to finish with this strange meeting as soon as possible, but something attracted him to the old man.
“Do you still keep the talisman?”
Rick touched something on his chest.
“It is always with me.”
“Take good care of it.”
Kyoto descended a pair of steps.
“By the way, do you remember the way that barbarian shouted before the execution? I know what he wanted to say.”
Rick pretended that he was not interested.
“You must turn on the gen-er-at-or,” Kyoto smiled. “Good night.”
Rick walked along the corridor to Aurora’s room and made sure that everything was all right. The light still dimly flickered here, an indulgence of childhood. The girl was lying on the bed and she opened her eyes.
“You’re not asleep? Go to sleep, right now.”
“Tell me a fairytale!” she demanded.
Rick sighed, sitting down on the edge of the bed.
“The one about Rob the Seeker again?”
“Yes!” Aurora scrunched up her face with pleasure, pulling the edge of the blanket over her nose.
“All right. Once upon a time, a man called Rob lived in the Commune. Then one day, children started to go missing from the Commune…”
For the hundredth time, Rick told his little sister of the adventures of the amazing Rob, who was brave enough to go into Expanse, wander around the Labyrinth, find all the missing children and defeat the monsters. Of course, he also walked along the edge of the chasm. He managed all this because he thought of tying one end of a ball of string to himself and the other to the entrance of the Labyrinth. This was a tale told to him by his mother and Rick had no idea where she had got it from. Rick also did not know who his father was or who Aurora’s father was. All that was left to him was the talisman that his father asked to be given to his son before Expanse swallowed him up forever. After making sure that his sister was fast asleep, Rick closed her room and returned home. He lay there in the dark and thought about Kyoto’s words, feeling his father’s talisman under his clothing—a cross-shaped piece of extremely hard black material.
If insomnia was infectious, he had definitely caught the disease.

release - September 17, 2017

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