The Two Cities
Hanu had been looking forward to dreaming as of late, but he had a strange dream that night. He was wearing a maroon robe while standing in line for his meds when Akesh showed up and said he’d be in trouble for being out of dress code. Then he struggled as Akesh tried to pull the robe off, and then Ellie came out of the nurse’s station talking about the escape plan to the Underground. As Hanu tried to hush Ellie a scout walked up and asked if he could scan them. Hanu tried to run for it, but the scout opened his mouth and sounded an alarm.
He awoke with a start, but he could still hear the siren. He looked around the room, disoriented. He didn’t remember where he was, and someone was pulling him onto the floor.
“Come on, Hanu! People are in here,” Ester yelled at him. He jumped off of the floor. He could see through the glass that a couple of masked people in black were moving around downstairs, and another was rummaging in a room across the way.
“The documents!” he screamed over the siren, and he threw the door open. He could see that Ellie was tied up on the ground downstairs and one of them was grabbing her by the hair. Ester grabbed Hanu by the arm and pulled him down the stairs.
“Vanessa’s taking care of the documents, Hanu. We need to move,” she said.
Hanu stumbled to the bottom of the stairs. Vanessa was banging on the glass of the data room door, and Paula was tied up near the escape tunnel. One of the intruders was doubled over on the ground now, and Sadie was wresting away from another, who had grabbed her from behind.
It wasn’t real to Hanu. He just watched as Vanessa was screaming something over the noise. Ester was punching the blinking button in the box, and he was just standing there. He could tell that the women had been struggling. Junk was scattered about on the floor- papers, boxes and the knife from yesterday. Now Ellie was yelling something. He looked at her lips, trying to read what she was saying.
“Kill me! Hurry up!” she yelled, gesturing to the knife with her wide blue eyes.
He walked over to where the knife was. Destroy the data, take the tunnel, and if they’re caught, we have to kill them.
He couldn’t kill anyone though, not even to save thousands of people. But things weren’t looking too good, and he had to help somehow. He moved without thinking, running over to where Ellie was. He jumped on top of the masked figure and thrust his elbow into his face on impact. They both fell down, nearly sliding into the water.
Ester ran to untie Ellie and Sadie was now sitting on top of the intruder she had been struggling with, punching relentlessly. Then the alarm abruptly stopped and the intruders raised their hands in surrender.
“That’s enough,” Paula said, unraveling the rope from around her legs. Sadie, whose arm was still raised, was the first to speak.
“Somebody better explain something to me real quick. Are we being raided or not?” She was breathing hard.
“We’re not,” Paula said, walking over to help the intruders off of the floor. The one who had been rummaging around in the rooms came to the bottom of the stairs, taking his mask off. His face was mostly hair, forming a wooly cloud around his chin and head, and he wore an assortment of bags and colorful stones on beaded rope around his neck.
“It was a test,” Ester guessed.
Sadie stood up, sweeping her hair out of her face.
“Yes, it was a test,” Paul said. “And a poorly designed one, I might add.” She helped the intruder to remove his mask, reveling that it was, in fact, a woman. She had long orange hair and kind eyes. Her soft face was beginning to swell on one side.
The others removed their masks as well, and Ellie crossed the room to help the man who had just served as Sadie’s punching bag.
“These people are ferries to the Underground. They will be taking you there tomorrow. They often help me to test the migrants who come through here,” she explained. But Hanu cut her off.
“Test us for what, exactly?” He was angry to have been subjected to such a cruel trick.
“First, an artificial human would have done everything correctly when executing my plan. We were captured, and the orders were to kill us in that case. Congratulations, none of you are artificial. Second, I wanted to see that you would try your best to protect the Underground, and I wanted to make sure you weren’t the type of people who would blindly follow directions- that you would carry out the task, but still maintain a sense of moral integrity. I’ll admit, I thought our intruders could take a few hits from a couple of girls and a prepubescent dandelion if all went as planned, but I didn’t expect this one-” and she pointed to Sadie. “-to be such a loose cannon.”
“I thought we were in danger! You can’t fault me for that,” Sadie defended. Then Ellie, who looked like she would explode from trying to stay quiet this whole time, cut in.
“Well actually, Sadie, that was perfectly acceptable, you know…you decided you’d rather try to disable the enemy rather than offing us…thank you for that, by the way…but I guess I’m trying to say that…”
“Thank you Ellie, that was eloquently said,” Pula said, cutting back in. “You followed your moral and rational compasses, albeit you have deadlier fists than I’ve seen in a while. We can’t just let any old psychopath who would kill without batting an eye into the Underground.”
But Vanessa was furious. “We could have murdered you!” she said, stomping her foot and crossing her arms. Tears were welling up in her eyes. “And that stupid button wasn’t working and I was two seconds away from breaking that glass and throwing all the data into the water!”
“But you didn’t, so stuff it,” Paula retorted. “That’s not a data room anyway, it’s a storage closet.”
Then Ellie was giggling nervously again. “I’m so sorry for tricking you guys! That was so hard to do with a straight face! You did an excellent job, though, really…Please forgive us,” she said. “I’ve got to introduce our friends, Paula, if you don’t mind.”
Hanu winced at the man he had just elbowed in the face. He was feeling quite guilty as he watched blood trickle out of his nose.
“Everyone, this is Reginald and Anderson, from the City of Fire,” she said, dramatically gesturing toward the man at the stairs and the man who was Sadie’s last victim.
“Hi, just call me Reggie,” said the man at the stairs.
The other man, Anderson, who was now holding a cold compress to his face, waved with his free hand.
“And you can call me Andy. No need to be so formal, Ellie,” he said.
Andy’s prominent, round eyes gave him the appearance of someone who was very knowing. His head, in contrast to Reggie’s, had very little hair and he wore fingerless gloves on his hands.
“And these two are John and Moira, from the Underground,” she said, pointing to each of them in turn. The man spoke first.
“Hey, everyone. I’m obviously John,” he laughed good-naturedly, despite the fact that he’d just been dealt a pretty good blow to the face. The man was on the shorter side, and he had a long brown beard that made him look sagely.
“I’m Moira. Nice to meet you all,” the woman said, waving timidly.
Hanu had been so terrified. He was relieved that it was just a drill, but the anxiety that he amassed just had to be released somehow. He laughed out loud.
“I’m so sorry I hit you,” he said louder than he meant to. John waved the apology away, walking over to shake Hanu’s hand.
“I’m not,” Sadie said stubbornly as she side-eyed Andy. “Serves you right for tricking us. Plus, you need to learn to take a punch,” she smiled wryly.
“Woah, woah, woah,” Andy said, raising both a finger and his eyebrows. “I was allowing you to hit me because it was a test. But if you want a round two we can go for real. Paula will be the ref, won’t you Paula?”
Andy was wearing the same competitive smile as Sadie now, and Paula was scoffing at the two. But before they could get going, Hanu interrupted.
“So are there two Underground cities?”
“Goodness, no,” Moira said. “Globally, there have to be dozens, but on this continent there’s the main city and then there are other smaller cities that serve as outposts. People there sort of specialize in different functions, but they all work together to protect the Underground.
“We’ve got plenty of time to talk about the Underground later,” Paula cut in. “Can we please clean up so that we can have some semblance of order here. Reginald, I don’t know what you were doing up there, but you better not had damaged any of my furniture.”
Later on that night Hanu joined Vanessa and Moira at the table downstairs. Vanessa was laying across two chairs, gazing across the water at the pyramid. Paula was beeping messages through her box under the stairs and Reggie was setting up a fire pit.
“You don’t mind me building the fire this close to the water, do you, Paula?” he asked.
“Please do, Reginald. I haven’t forgotten how you almost took down the entire cave last month,” she said over her shoulder.
Reggie threw his head back in a booming cackle. “It was just a little bonfire, to lighten the mood,” he said.
Hanu thought that this is what having a family must be like. It had been so long since he was home, and it was just him and his mother for the most part. He never knew the feeling of aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings. Well, beside Kait, but all she could do was chew on things. He never had anyone to exchange jokes with, and he didn’t know how to produce witty comebacks. Maybe he’d learn if he went to the City of Fire with Reggie and Andy.
Moira picked up her guitar and started strumming as they watched Reggie build the fire.
“So how long have you guys been doing this? You know, taking people to the Underground?” Hanu asked.
“Me and Andy have been going at this for maybe four years now,” Reggie said as he stacked bricks in a circle. “John’s been doing it for about twenty years, and Moira- she’s pretty new.”
And the music stopped for a moment.
“Seven months,” she said, and started playing again.
“We only take this trip once a month though. Other teams rotate in as well,” Reggie continued.
“So you guys come from two different cities. Are we going to be going to separate places then?” Hanu asked.
“Well, representatives usually come from the City of Fire to check out the new people. That way everyone’s on the same page. We keep track of our citizens, but nowhere near like what’s going on with the Council up there,” she explained.
“Sometimes we take people back to the City of Fire with us, though,” Reggie said, fitting a rack onto the bricks now.
“Well what do people in the City of Fire do? And how do you decide who goes to the City of Fire and who goes to the Underground?” Hanu asked.
“Well the people who go to the Underground just want to live in peace, basically,” Moira explained. “And it is peaceful. It’s so different and free, Hanu. Some people want nothing more to do with life on the surface, so they leave everything behind and they’re okay with it. One day the Ancients will have to leave, and we wait patiently until they do.”
Hanu thought about everything he’d left behind. His mother, Kait, Akesh, Jeremiah, Titanya and the others at the Flush.
Vanessa suddenly laughed. “That’s what I want to do, leave it all behind,” she said. Hanu didn’t realize she was listening.
Then Reggie cut in. “Other people can’t just do that,” he said as he lit the fire in the pit. “They can’t just stand by and let these bastards have their way with our planet and our people. The ones who end up coming with us just have a fire in them. They do something about it. They can’t help but fight the system.”
“Which they do by acting as defense for the people in the Underground,” Paula cut in, sitting down at the table now. “The people in the City of Fire are responsible for the delicious lemon drink that Toni provided you, and for disabling control systems of the Ancients so that others like you can escape their clutches. They also gather useful information and data. They help when and how they can to bring the control system down faster.”
Moira was strumming a little softer now. “Ultimately the decision is yours. I’d think that a couple of kids like you can live a happy life in the Underground, though. Well, Sadie might choose the City of Fire. Her right hook would be dead useful, too,” she said, laughing. Reggie laughed, too, as he threw the vegetables on the pit.
“So they were taking you guys in for override, huh?” she asked.
“Yeah, apparently so. The escorts told us that we were going in so the Ancients could help us, though. He said they wanted to do some research of some sort. But we figured it out when the scout told us we’d be getting an Easement Request,” Hanu explained.
“Well that’s usually what they do,” Reggie said with gritted teeth. “They keep you alive just enough so that their geneticists can use your blood and cells, then when they’re done with their experiments who knows what they do to you.”
“Wow, that sounds like a doozy,” Sadie said, coming down the stairs now.
“They must’ve felt real threatened after it started raining. They couldn’t even wait until the Bowl to take you guys in!” Moira said.
“Well I’m sure the Council didn’t want their fun spoiled by having to off a couple of kids during half time,” Sadie said, smirking.
“Well that’s when they kill the most people,” Moira said. “It’s sickening. When the whole world is out celebrating they use the distraction. Ever notice Council invites all these special people into the District of Operations during the Bowl? Then there’s always a reason to detain one group or another. You never hear anything else about it afterward.”
“But the people they detain are dangerous,” Hanu said.
“And just how do you know that?” Reggie asked, looking at Hanu with a raised brow.
“Well, everyone knows it. It’s people like the Dissenters that they take. The Dissenters are dangerous- they kill people,” he said.
“Hey, you hear that, Andy? The Dissenters kill people!” Reggie shouted up the stairs.
“And you know that because the TV told you, right?” he continued, looking back at Hanu.
“Well, yeah,” Hanu said, feeling a little silly now. He knew where this was going now, and he was grateful for Paula speaking up for him.
“Give the kid a break, Reginald,” she said.
“Oh, I’m just having some fun, I’m sorry,” he said. “And just so you know, they would label anyone as a threat to public safety to justify killing them, you included. There is no such group as the Dissenters.”
“He’s right,” Moira added darkly. “And then they’re taking in those fourteen kids from the Flush this year. I bet you anything they’ll say the kids rioted and that they had no choice but to detain them.”
“Are they going to kill them?” he asked a little more forcefully than he intended. Moira stopped playing the guitar, slowly shaking her head.
“I’m so sorry. You have friends there, don’t you? I should have been more sensitive,” she was saying, but Hanu didn’t hear her. His thoughts were going again. The Council was eliminating everyone who was a threat to the system. Akesh would be going to the District, and he was the biggest threat Hanu could think of. None of the medicines they gave him worked. He was immune. He wondered if they would use his DNA to figure out how to stop other kids in the future from building an immunity.
“So do they always kill them?” he asked again, a little calmer this time.
Moira looked at the others nervously. She wasn’t sure how much more she should say. But she didn’t have to say anything else because Paula answered the question for her.
“Yes. That is the design of the plan. The Council does not care about the Bowl, or the special guests they have invited in to watch it. They only care about ensnaring their latest victims. This is a truth that you have to understand, and it won’t even be the ugliest truth you’ll hear in your days. I’m sorry, kiddos. I hope you don’t have friends in that parade.”
Vanessa looked pained, and Sadie quietly fumed.
“Seriously?” Hanu asked. He was no longer himself. His hands were hot and shaking, and it was getting harder to breathe. He stood up. “You guys knew about this all along, and you were just going to let it happen?
“There isn’t much we can do, Hanu,” Vanessa said quietly.
“What do you mean? We can warn them! We can help them escape! We can make the Convoy blow up like last time!” Hanu stood up, looking around wildly now. He knew that what he was saying couldn’t be done so easily, but he felt that it could be done.
“We’re so powerful and all of that and we can’t even help our friends? We didn’t ask to be different. We didn’t ask to go to the Flush. Why do we have to suffer like this?” he went on.
“Hanu, shut your mouth!” Sadie said, quelling his outburst. “You think it’s easy for them? To see everything for what it is and not have enough power to stop it? I’m sure that if they could, they would do something about it. But they have to be smart, Hanu. They have to protect the Underground.”
Hanu threw himself back into his seat, seething. He would have figured Sadie would be the one to agree with him on this one.
“Trust me, Hanu. If we could save every last person up there, we would,” Reggie said. “I’ve had friends die at the hands of the Council, too.”
Sadie was right. They couldn’t risk their safety, and the safety of the Underground for a couple of people. But he hadn’t gone to the Underground and he didn’t know all of those people. He knew Akesh, and Akesh was a good person. Hanu got up and went to his room.
“I’m going to bed,” he said over his shoulder.