You’ve heard of bottled cities, no doubt—society writ miniscule and delicate beyond reason: toothpick spired towns, streets no thicker than thread, pin-prick faces of the citizenry peering from office windows smaller than sequins. Hustle, politics, fervor, struggle, capitulation, wrapped in a crystal firmament might reclaim the land, stoppered at the top to keep reality both in and out. Those microscopic lives, striking glass at the edge of things, believed themselves gigantic, their dilemmas universal.
Our research suggested that Daltharee had many multi-storied buildings carved right into its hillsides. Surrounding the city there was a forest with lakes and streams. And all of it was contained within a dome, like a dinner beneath the lid of a serving dish. When the inhabitants of Daltharee looked up, they were prepared to not see the heavens. They knew that the light above, their Day, was generated by a machine, which they oiled and cared for. The stars that shone every sixteen hours when Day left darkness behind were simple bulbs regularly changed by a man in a hot air balloon.
They were convinced that the domed city floated upon an iceberg, which it actually did. There was one door in the wall of the dome at the end of a certain path through the forest. When opened, it led out onto the ice. The surface of the iceberg extended the margin of one of their miles all around the enclosure. Blinding snows fell, winds constantly roared in a perpetual blizzard. Their belief was that Daltharee drifted upon the oceans of an otherwise frozen world. They prayed for the end of eternal winter, so they might reclaim the continents.
And all of this: Their delusions, the city, the dome, the iceberg, the two quarts of water it floated upon, were contained within an old gallon glass milk bottle, plugged at the top with a tattered handkerchief and painted dark blue. When I put my ear to the glass, I heard, like the ocean in a seashell, fierce gales blowing.
Daltharee was not the product of a shrinking ray as many of these pint-size metropolises are. And please, there was no magic involved. In fact, once past the early stages of its birth, it was more organically grown than shaped by artifice. Often, in the origin stories of these diminutive places, there’s a deranged scientist lurking in the wings. Here too we have the notorious Mando Paige, the inventor of sub-microscopic differentiated cell division and growth. What I’m referring to was Paige’s technique for producing super-miniature human cells. From the instant of their atomic origin, these parcels of life were beset by enzymatic reaction and electric stunting the way tree roots are tortured over time to create a bonsai. Paige shaped human life in the form of tiny individuals. They landscaped and built the city, laid roads, and lurched in a sleep-walking stupor induced by their creator.
Once the city in the dome was completed, Paige introduced more of the crumb-sized citizenry through the door that opened onto the iceberg. Just before closing that door, he set off a device that played an A-flat for approximately ten seconds, a pre-ordained spur to consciousness, which brought them all awake to their lives in Daltharee. Seeding the water in the gallon bottle with crystal ions, he soon after introduced a chemical mixture that formed a slick, unmelting ice-like platform beneath the floating dome. He then introduced into the atmosphere fenathol nitrate, silver iodite, and anamidian betheldine, to initiate the frigid wind and falling snow. When all was well within the dome, when the iceberg had sufficiently grown, when winter ruled, he plugged the gallon bottle with an old handkerchief. That closed system of winter, with just the slightest amount of air allowed in through the cloth, was sustainable forever, feeding wind to snow and snow to cold to claustrophobia and back again in an infinite loop. The Dalthareens made up the story about a frozen world to satisfy the unknown. Paige manufactured three more of these cities, each wholly different from the others, before laws were passed about the imprisonment of humanity, no matter how minute or unaware. He was eventually, himself, imprisoned for his crimes.
We searched for a method to study life inside the dome but were afraid to disturb its delicate nature, unsure whether simply removing the handkerchief would upset a brittle balance between inner and outer universes. It was suggested that a very long, exceedingly thin probe that had the ability to twist and turn by computational command could be shimmied in between the edge of the bottle opening and the cloth of the handkerchief. This probe, like the ones physicians used in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to read the hieroglyphics of the bowel, would be fitted out with both a camera and a microphone. The device was adequate for those cities that didn’t have the extra added boundary of a dome, but even in them, how incongruous, a giant metal snake just out of the blue, slithering through one’s reality. The inhabitants of these enclosed worlds were exceedingly small but not stupid.
In the end, it was my invention that won the day—a voice-activated transmitter the size of two atoms was introduced into the bottle. We had to wait for it to work its way from the blizzard atmosphere, through the dome’s air filtration system, and into the city. Then we had to wait for it to come in contact with a voice. At any point a thousand things could have gone wrong, but one day, six months later, who knows how many years that would be in Dalthareen time, the machine transmitted and my receiver picked up conversations from the domed city. Here’s an early one we managed to record that had some interesting elements:
“I’m not doing that now. Please, give me some room . . .” she said.
There is a long pause filled with the faint sound of a utensil clinking a plate.
“I was out in the forest the other day,” he said.
“Why?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” he told her.
“What do you do out there?” she asked.
“I’m in this club,” he said. “We got together to try to find the door in the wall of the dome.”
“How did that go?” she asked.
“We knew it was there and we found it,” he said. “Just like in the old stories . . .”
“You can’t believe it,” he said.
“Did you go out in it?”
“Yes, and when I stepped back into the dome, I could feel a piece of the storm stuck inside me.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she said.
“I don’t know.”
“How did it get inside you?” she asked.
“Through my ears,” he said.
“Does it hurt?”
“I was different when I came back in.”
“No, more something else.”
“Can you say?”
“I’ve had dreams.”
“So what,” she said. “I had a dream the other night that I was out on the Grand Conciliation Balcony, dressed for the odd jibbery, when all of a sudden a little twisher rumbles up and whispers to me the words—‘Elemental Potency.’ What do you think it means? I can’t get the phrase out of my head.”
“It’s nonsense,” he said.
“Why aren’t your dreams nonsense?”
“They are,” he said. “The other night I had this dream about a theory. I can’t remember if I saw it in the pages of a dream magazine or someone spoke it or it just jumped into my sleeping head. I’ve never dreamt about a theory before. Have you?”
“No,” she said.
“It was about living in the dome. The theory was that since the dome is closed, things that happen in the dome only affect other things in the dome. Because the size of Daltharee is, as we believe, so miniscule compared to the rest of the larger world, the repercussions of the acts you engage in in the dome will have a higher possibility of intersecting each other. If you think of something you do throughout the day as an act, each act begins a chain reaction of mitigating energy in all directions. The will of your own energy, dispersed through myriad acts within only a morning will beam, refract, and reflect off the beams of others’ acts and the walls of the closed system, barreling into each other and causing sparks at those locations where your essence meets itself. In those instances, at those specific locations, your will is greater than the will of the dome. What I was then told was that a person could learn a way to act at a given hour—a quick series of six moves—that send out so many ultimately crisscrossing intentions of will that it creates a power mesh capable in its transformative strength of bending reality to whim.”
“You’re crazy,” she said.
There is a slight pause here, the sound of wind blowing in the trees.
“Hey, what ever happened to your Aunt?” he asked.
“They got it out of her.”
“Amazing,” he said. “Close call . . .”
“She always seemed fine, too,” she said. “But swallowing a knitting needle? That’s not right.”
“She doesn’t even knit, does she?”
“No,” she said.
“Good thing she didn’t have to pass it,” he said. “Think about the intersecting beams of will resulting from that act.”
She laughed. “I heard the last pigeon died yesterday.”
“They found it in the park, on the lawn amidst the Moth trees.”
“In all honesty, I did that,” he said. “You know, not directly, but just by the acts I went through yesterday morning. I got out of bed, had breakfast, got dressed, you know . . . like that. I was certain that by mid-day that bird would be dead.”
“Why’d you kill it?” she asked.
There’s a pause in the conversation here filled up by the sound of machinery in the distance just beneath that of the wind in the trees.
“Having felt what I felt outside the dome, I considered it a mercy,” he said.
“Interesting . . .” she said. “I’ve gotta get going. It looks like rain.”
“Will you call me?” he asked.
“Eventually, of course,” she said.
“I know,” he said. “I know.”
Funny thing about Paige, he found religion in the latter years of his life. After serving out his sentence, he renounced his crackpot Science and retreated to a one-room apartment in an old boarding house on the edge of the great desert. He courted an elderly woman there, a Mrs. Trucy. I thought he’d been long gone when we finally contacted him. After a solid fifteen years of recording conversations, it became evident that the domed city was failing—the economy, the natural habitat, were both in disarray. A strange illness had sprung up amid the population, an unrelenting, fatal insomnia that took a dozen of them to Death each week. Nine months without a single wink of sleep. The conversations we recorded then were full of anguish and hallucination.
Basically, we asked Paige what he might do to save his own created world. He came to work for us and studied the problem full time. He was old then, wrinkles and flyaway hair in strange, ever-shifting formations atop his scalp, eye glasses with one ear loop. Every time he’d make a mistake on a calculation or a technique, he’d swallow a thumbtack. When I asked if the practice helped him concentrate, he told me, “No.”
Eventually, on a Saturday morning when no one was at the lab but himself and an uninterested security guard, he broke into the vault that held the shrinking ray. He started the device up, aimed it at the glass milk bottle containing Daltharee, and then sat on top of the bottle, wearing a parachute. The ray discharged, shrinking him. He fell in among the gigantic folds of the handkerchief. Apparently he managed to work his way down past the end of the material and leap into the blizzard, out over the dome of the city. No one was there to see him slowly descend, dangerously buffeted by the insane winds. No one noticed him slip through the door in the dome.
Conversations came back to us eventually containing his name. Apparently he’d told them the true nature of the dome and the bottle it resided inside of. And then after some more time passed, there came word that he was creating another domed city inside a gallon milk bottle from the city of Daltharee. Where would it end, we wondered, but it was not a thought we enjoyed pursuing as it ran in a loop, recrossing itself, reiterating its original energy in ever diminishing reproductions of ourselves. Perhaps it was the thought of it that made my assistant accidentally drop the milk bottle one afternoon. It exploded into a million dark blue shards, dirt and dome and tiny trees spread across the floor. We considered studying its remains, but instead, with a shiver, I swept it into a pile and then into the furnace.
A year later, Mrs. Trucy came looking for Mando. She insisted upon knowing what had become of him. We told her that the law did not require us to tell her, and then she pulled a marriage certificate out of her purse. I was there with the Research General at the time, and I saw him go pale as a ghost upon seeing that paper. He told her Mando had died in an experiment of his own devising. The wrinkles of her gray face torqued to a twist and sitting beneath her pure silver hair, her head looked like a metal screw. Three tears squeezed out from the corners of her eyes. If Mando died performing an experiment, we could not be held responsible. We would, though, have to produce the body for her as proof that he’d perished. The Research General told her we were conducting a complete investigation of the tragedy and would contact her in six weeks with the results and the physical proof—in other words, Mando’s corpse.
My having shoveled Daltharee into the trash without searching for survivors or mounting even a cursory rescue effort was cause for imprisonment. My superior, the Research General, having had my callous act take place on his watch, was also liable. After three nerve-wracking days, I conceived of a way for us to save ourselves. In fact, it was so simple it astounded me that neither one of us, scientific minds though we be, didn’t leap to the concept earlier. Using Mando’s own process for creating diminutive humanity, we took his DNA from our genetic files, put it through a chemical bath to begin the growth process, and then tortured the cells into tininess. We had to use radical enzymes to speed the process up given we only had six weeks. By the end of week five we had a living, breathing Mando Paige, trapped under a drinking glass in our office. He was dressed in a little orange jump suit, wore black boots, and was in the prime of his youth. We studied his attempts to escape his prison with a jeweler’s loop inserted into each eye. We thought we could rely on the air simply running out in the glass and him suffocating.
Days passed and Paige hung on. Each day I’d spy on his meager existence and wondered what he must be thinking. When the time came and he wasn’t dead, I killed him with a cigarette. I brought the glass to the very edge of the table, bent a plastic drinking straw that I shoved the longer end of up into the glass and then caught it fairly tightly against the table edge. As for the part that stuck out, I lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply and then blew the smoke up into the glass. I gave him five lungfuls. The oxygen displacement was too much, of course.
Mrs. Trucy accepted our story and the magnified view of her lover’s diminutive body. We told her how he bravely took the shrinking ray for the sake of Science. She remarked that he looked younger than when he was full sized and alive, and the Research General told her, “As you shrink, wrinkles have a tendency to evaporate.” We went to the funeral out in the desert near her home. It was a blazingly hot day. She’d had his remains placed into a thimble with some tape across the top, and this she buried in the red sand.
Later, as the sun set, the Research General and I ate dinner at a ramshackle restaurant along a dusty road right outside of Mateos. He had the pig knuckle with sauerkraut and I had the chicken croquettes with orange gravy that tasted brown.
“I’m so relieved that asshole’s finally dead,” whispered the Research General.
“There’s dead and there’s dead,” I told him.
“Let’s not make this complicated,” he said. “I know he’s out there in some smaller version of reality, he could be filling all available space with smaller and smaller reproductions of himself, choking the ass of the universe with pages and pages of Mando Paige. I don’t give a fuck as long as he’s not here.”
“He is here,” I said, and then they brought the martinis and the conversation evaporated into reminiscence.
That night as I stood out beneath the desert sky having a smoke, I had a sense that the cumulative beams generated by the repercussions of my actions over time, harboring my inherent will, had reached some far flung boundary and were about to turn back on me. In my uncomfortable bed at the Hacienda Motel, I tossed and turned, drifting in and out of sleep. It was then that I had a vision of the shrinking ray, its sparkling blue emission bouncing off a mirror set at an angle. The beam then travels a short distance to another mirror with which it collides and reflects. The second mirror is positioned so that it sends the ray back at its own original source. The beam strikes and mixes with itself only a few inches past the nozzle of the machine’s barrel. And then I see it in my mind—when a shrinking ray is trained upon itself, its diminutive-making properties are cancelled twice and as it is a fact that when two negatives are multiplied they make a positive, this process makes things bigger. As soon as the concept was upon me, I was filled with excitement and couldn’t wait to get back to the lab the next day to work out the math and realize an experiment.
It was fifteen years later, the Research General had long been fired, when Mando Paige stepped out of the spot where the shrinking ray’s beam crossed itself. He was blue and yellow and red and his hair was curly. I stood within feet of him and he smiled at me. I, of course, couldn’t let him go—not due to any law but my own urge to finish the job I’d started at the outset. As he stepped back toward the ray, I turned it off, and he was trapped, for the moment, in our moment. I called for my assistants to surround him, and I sent one to my office for the revolver I kept in my bottom drawer. He told me that one speck of his saliva contained four million Daltharees. “When I fart,” he said, “I set forth Armadas.” I shot him and the four assistants and then automatically acid washed the lab to destroy the Dalthareen plague and evidence of murder. No one suspected a thing. I found a few cities sprouting beneath my fingernails last week. There were already rows of domes growing behind my ears. My blood no doubt is the manufacture of cities, flowing silver through my veins. Crowds behind my eyes, commerce in my joints. Each idea I have is a domed city that grows and opens like a flower. I want to tell you about cities and cities and cities named Daltharee.
© 2008 by Jeffrey Ford.
Originally published in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy,
edited by Ellen Datlow.
Reprinted by permission of the author.