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Fiction

The Streets of Babel

The Streets of Babel

The city surrounded him while he slept. He had been fleeing it for four days. Long before its walls became visible, it was a grayish smudge on the horizon, beneath which the air shimmered in silent testimony of its radiant heat. It was one of about ten living cities he knew of and he had avoided it for as long as he could, staying out of their usual migratory paths, contenting himself with the company of the small tribes who had also managed to keep out of the reach of the cities, living on roots and the small animals that fell to his bow. For years he had managed to go months at a time without even laying eyes on any of the cities, and had even managed to pretend to himself that they didn’t exist, that it was possible to live indefinitely without ever finding himself a resident of one.

When he saw the smudge in the distance, he just changed course and headed in the opposite direction, figuring that it hadn’t sensed him. But then it followed, extending its pseudopods of brick and steel and pavement into the grass in its path, pulling itself out of the ruined landscape it left behind, its shifting skyline gradually becoming sharper and more visible as it literally gained ground, in a determined pursuit that no barefoot man, no matter how tireless or swift of foot, could possibly evade. After one day, he knew that it was after him; after two days, he knew that he was doomed to capture; after three, he gave up all stops for rest or sustenance; after four, he breathed in ragged gasps, in terror of the hungry sounds that grew louder, ever louder, just behind him.

When he finally collapsed, his only hope was the forlorn one that it might decide that it did not want him after all. But as he slept, a pair of brick walls rose from the dirt on either side of him, forming an alley, and at the end of the alley the grass withered to make room for the sidewalk, and just beyond the sidewalk there came a street, and soon buildings, and finally, as the sun rose, people, fleeing whatever the city concocted to drive them wherever it wanted them to go; entire multitudes of them, already trapped and imprisoned and terrified and enslaved to its whims.

The sleep the city provided him was not enough to counter his exhaustion. He did not hear the brick wall rise behind him, turning his alley into a blind one, and he did not register when that wall began to slide forward, nor even when it was pressing against his back.

When it began to shove him across the filthy, somehow already garbage-strewn concrete, he mumbled and muttered and attempted to hold on to unconsciousness a little while longer, but then it picked up speed and he felt the heat of that abrasive ground against his skin.

He scrambled to his feet, saw with fresh dismay that the worst had finally happened, that the city had him, and for a moment or two just stood before the advancing surface with the paralysis of all those faced with the knowledge that they no longer belong to themselves. Then the wall jerked forward, striking him in the face in what amounted to a stern reminder that he was not in charge. His nose bled. He backed up, looked around for his bow, saw that it had been half swallowed up by the wall, considered trying to retrieve it anyway and then gave up, heading for the alley’s mouth, which started sealing up even as he approached.

The city had no intention of crushing him between the wall advancing on him from behind and the one that was forming, brick by brick, ahead of him. Before he even had a chance to fear that fate, the wall to his left began to rise, granting the building on that side an extra two stories and not incidentally providing him with a door that rose from the ground with it. Dented and grimy and shining a yellow light through its upper panel of fogged glass, it swung open at the lightest touch, revealing a set of narrow stairs leading upward. He had just enough time to duck into the opening before the alleyway was swallowed up behind him. He climbed the stairs just ahead of the advancing wall that ate up every riser at the instant he no longer needed it, and reached a dim hallway to nowhere with one more door at the midway point.

This he went through, to find a cramped little apartment with ugly wallpaper and a flickering lamp and a sooty window looking out at the city. Upon investigating the view, he found out that he was much higher up than he should have been after climbing only one flight, but the floor was still ascending, and as it achieved an altitude higher than that of the surrounding buildings he was able to look out upon the cityscape and confirm that he was now fully encircled, the grid of its streets extending for miles before the advancing membrane that was the city, claiming more territory for itself. He could just barely make out grasslands in the far distance, but they were clearly lost to him. No man could head for the outskirts of a city in the face of all the opposition the city would place in his path and hope to exit unless it wanted him to go; not even if he ran like the wind.

Then a gleaming glass skyscraper erupted upward and erased his view, providing him instead with a mirror reflection of the building in which he was now imprisoned, a dull gray monstrosity with gargoyles and cornices and, there, his own naked and blurry form, standing at one window looking out: a man in a box that was just like all the other boxes around it, which were themselves contained in a building that was a stack of boxes. He was not the only one looking out, he saw; there were similarly forlorn figures in the windows above and below his, though it was possible to look past them to the patterned walls of the chambers in which they were trapped and see that those walls had advanced more cruelly than his own, effectively pinning them against the glass. He took from this the lesson that the city could always punish him for not hurrying in whatever direction it wished to hustle him. It could make of him even more confined a prisoner than he was now.

He looked down at the streets and saw hundreds of people, heading in all directions, their clothing differing from those that surrounded him in only the slightest details. Most were hurrying, and looked like they were used to hurrying, the sidewalks nipping at their heels with little bulging ripples that pursued them and drove them forward, on whatever errands the city found fitting for them. There were collisions: one rebounding against another, others colliding head-on, trying to avoid a direct confrontation whenever possible, except in those cases where, clearly, the city wanted them to fight. One man hesitated for some reason known only to him and the pavement reared up on all sides of him, forming an egg-shaped protrusion that sat undisturbed for a moment before it sank down into the earth, taking that unfortunate pedestrian into the depths. Whether he’d just been devoured or was simply being shuffled to some other location at the city’s behest was impossible to say. Either way, nobody around him had the time to notice. They had their own errands, their own destinations, whether known to them or not.

His window tilted sideways, becoming a parallelogram that blinked like an eye and was gone. The wallpaper bubbled, lost its pattern, and became tile. A drain opened up in the floor, between his bare feet. Hot water showered down on him. He found soap in a dish that wasn’t there before, was gifted with the knowledge of its purpose, and lathered up, turning his face toward the spray. It tasted bad. It was water and it was hot but it had a nasty, rusty quality, as if the city was now sick in some way, and the sickness was carried by the very pipes. He still took pleasure in cleaning himself. He was a man who had avoided the company of other men for much of his life, a man who for months out of the year slathered himself with grease to protect himself from the insects that at some times covered the grasslands in swarms like black clouds, a man who only rarely had cause to consider his own stench, but the city would not allow him to persist in such unsanitary habits and had now afflicted him with the awareness that here he was expected to do better. So he washed, and the water puddling at his feet turned first black, then brown, then clear, before the water stopped without any input from him. He felt disappointed. It had been pleasurable.

He left the shower, instantly dry, and the room shifted again, becoming a closet with many identical hanging outfits. After some trial and error, he figured out how to put on the white shirt and the gray slacks, but the city grew impatient with his dawdling and a red tie burst from a hanging rack of identical ties and wrapped itself around his neck, like a constricting snake. Further firm guidance provided him with shoes, a jacket, and a brimmed hat, which adjusted itself for size before the apartment constricted and forced him back into the hallway, which itself constricted and forced him down the stairs to the street.

By the time he had joined the flow of humanity his neighborhood did not look the same as it had when he’d viewed it from the window. The buildings had become squatter, the avenues narrower. The gleaming glass towers had become smaller buildings with storefronts, each identified with lettering in a language he was disturbed to discover he could read. One place provided clothing of a sort somewhat different than the outfit he wore, another produced music, a third intoxicating beverages, and a fourth hot food, which it occurred to him that he wanted; but when he hesitated at the enticing scent that came from that one open doorway, the pavement at his feet pricked him with fangs of stone and he was driven onward, forced to ignore the stabbing pains in his feet.

He picked up the pace and saw that he was approaching a corpse lying half in and half out of the gutter, the upper half of his head flattened as if from the impact of some falling object, but there was no object and the source of the unfortunate’s wound remained mysterious. Every impulse in his own body argued that he should slow down, kneel before this victim of the city’s arbitrary pace, and show the respect that such a tragedy deserved, but the little ripple guiding him onward would not have it, and so he found himself stepping over the body, ignoring it, leaving it behind for someone else to deal with. Everybody around him did the same thing. He wanted to ask them whether it was always like this, but he was not given enough time for such a conversation; he was just driven on, down that street and left onto another and then right onto still another, the pace picking up, the sense of urgency growing.

After hours of this, which amounted to nothing more than walking in circles as far as he could see, he was directed toward one of the storefronts and into a room lined with shelves on which sat dusty glass jars bearing liquids of varying colors, which might have been balms or beverages or any other damned thing, not that it mattered, because he was no more than four steps into the room before the walls swallowed the containers and the shelves became bare. The room darkened but for a wedge of light leading to a brightly lit hallway in the back, and he headed that way, hoping at least for some point to the long day of racing around like a fool, but the hallway turned out to be almost the length of a city block itself, and he had enough time to despair of any such conclusion before he emerged into a room where many different men and women sat typing at workstations.

No sooner did he rest his weight on the unoccupied chair than cubicle walls sprung up, and up, and up, four of them, rising to the tiled ceiling and thus shutting him in with nothing to do but respond to the machine’s demands of him. It was a minor math problem. He was not a man who had ever had any real use for numbers, had indeed been so primitive that he’d never had any need to understand any more than he could count on his fingers on toes, but now survival dictated that he cooperate. So he did the problem, using the keys on the device before him to make the same numbers appear on the glowing screen he’d been provided, complete with answer. Another problem appeared. He solved that one, and the one that came after that, and the one that came after that, hundreds, it seemed, in rapid succession, all pointless, all coming faster the better he became at answering them.

Only gradually did he become aware that his hands were now shackled together and to the table surface and that he grew unpleasantly warm when he attempted to take a break for himself. Only a little while after that he found that he needed to relieve himself and had no means of satisfying that need without disgrace. He could only hold it in and continue what he was doing until the city decided that it could afford him the privilege.

By the time the walls lowered around his workstation, his cramps were horrific. He fled ahead of the city’s prodding and found the same room that everybody else was fleeing for, where by heroic effort he managed to deny his pressing need until those in front of him were done. An empty space opened up for him. He sat and did what he had to do, feeling a vast nostalgia for the free life he had lived up until a few days ago. He wanted to linger. But he was presented with the knowledge that he had to go back to his little cubicle and return to inputting his numbers, so he got up, washed his hands as per the city’s wishes, and went back to multiple hours trapped in an activity he found nonsensical and without merit, wondering if there would ever come a time when he could eat, when he could sleep, when he could scratch his ass without interference.

The answer, it turned out only when he had worked to a time that he could only think of as eventually, was “yes.” The glowing screen receded into his cubicle wall and he prepared himself to be released, but it seemed that the city did not want to him to exit on his own two feet, not at all. It would take care of moving him. His desk remained in place, but his chair descended through what seemed like an endless vertical shaft, while he pounded at the walls. Then the chair tilted forward and deposited him into a chute, which he slid down at dizzying speed until he found himself on the sidewalk again, driven forward, ever forward, through mobs of terrified others.

He had returned his thoughts to whether the city ever had any intention of feeding him when the pavement nipping at his heels steered him to his left into a storefront, which turned out to be a place for the distribution of food. The lights were down lower than made sense. The little tables were all covered with tablecloths. There were people seated at the tables, two at each, all jittery. There were women with men, men with men, women with women, and one table where a single woman sat, her eyes little circles in which smaller circles bounded about, as if searching for a means of escape. He was prodded to the other side of that table. A chair popped out of the floor, jabbing at his thighs and demanding his occupancy. He collapsed into it with an audible whuff, whereupon a strap whipped across his midsection, buckling him in.

The city spoke to him. “This is your wife.”

This was the strangest thing of all, because while such pairings were not unknown in the tribes that roamed the grasslands, it was normally expected that mates were provided at least a little basic familiarity with one another before any formal connection was declared. But the city didn’t have time to waste on such folderol. It needed him paired with her, just as it needed all these other people paired with the other strangers sitting across from them, and it was not willing to brook argument.

So he offered a little crooked half-smile as apology and she offered the same, though there was more resignation in her expression than he would have liked. She uttered a number of words in a language he didn’t know, that to him sounded like she’d stuffed her mouth with pebbles and was gagging on them. He spoke to her in his own tongue, a businesslike dialect of few words and no appreciable poetry that had always gotten right to the business of whether anybody in the immediate vicinity knew how to make fire and where all the tastiest grubs were. She grimaced at the sounds coming out of his mouth. Whatever she said next remained a mystery to him, but was clearly not very nice. Whatever calculus she used to define the attractiveness of males, he clearly did not add up to very much. This was also a familiar situation to him, unfortunately. The sad thing was that by his own matching calculus she really wasn’t all that bad, her specific allotment of facial features combining to convey what would have been an inviting impression, if she wasn’t so scared and despairing and pissed off. But her hair was ridiculous. It was all combed and shiny.

A pair of swinging doors slammed open in the rear of the chamber and a parade of men and women in identical outfits burst in at the hurried pace of antelope being driven off the edge of a cliff. They were all carrying trays of food, which they dropped off at every table in the room before the floor ushered them all back out of an exit that sealed behind them. The meals appeared to be cooked meat, covered with some kind of sauce. There were also vessels filled with water. His wife, ravenous, grabbed the slab of meat with both hands, jamming it into her mouth as if experience had taught her that taking any more time with it risked its removal before she’d had enough. He followed her example, digging into his own course, and discovering within his very first few bites that whatever the city did in order to prepare food also robbed it of everything that made food pleasurable. It was like chewing on sand, and he almost choked on it before sternly advising himself that if he wanted to live he should take what was offered.

He ate four bites and he gulped a taste or two of the water before a bell rang and the chairs belonging to every diner all swiveled on their axes and slid forward on invisible tracks, forming a train that proceeded single-file through a fresh opening in the wall, where they chugged along for a while until the couples began to peel off into side passages. The ride was bumpy and the resulting motion sickness almost made him lose his meal, before the chairs tipped forward and ejected him and his wife onto a bed large enough for the two of them.

If they were meant to mate now, the city needed a little refresher course in what put human beings in the mood, because his wife still wanted nothing to do with him. She recoiled and hissed at the sight of him, retreating as far as she could without leaving the mattress, not that she could because it was precisely the same size as the surrounding chamber and there was no place for her to go except back up the chute, which closed too quickly for her to do such a thing. He did not pursue her. He was still too dazed from his first city to exercise any carnal urges, and indeed wanted nothing more than to pass out and sleep for however long the city would permit unconsciousness.

But sleep was still not on the agenda, it seemed: not with the rectangular screen descending from the ceiling and positioning itself where he and his wife had no option other than looking at it. The first projected images were of people, doing things around the city; people of extraordinary health and charisma, rushing about at the same pace he had been rushed through his day, except out of what in their case appeared to be personal volition. They had purpose and they had urgency and they emoted the importance of it at all with an insistence that rendered their activities strangely compelling, even though he understood none of it. It was not just that it all occurred in a language he did not speak, but that everything they did made no sense to him. At one point, they sat around a round table and had some kind of frenetic argument. At another point, they simulated orgasm while eating semi-liquid glop out of cups. At a third point, they were replaced by other people who rolled their eyes and shoved food in each other’s faces, while unseen other people guffawed with delight. He turned toward his wife in search of an explanation and was dumbfounded to see that she was not just fascinated by these occurrences but hypnotized by them, the light from the screen playing across her face and the dried food around her lips.

Maybe that was the whole point. Maybe this was the city’s last attempt at communication with him. Maybe if he could wring forth some understanding of what it showed him now, he could finally understand what the city wanted from him, and how he could persuade it to treat him with more mercy. So he turned his attention back to the projected people, who were now being depicted running from a great conflagration.

This lasted for hours, while his clothing and the woman’s gradually evaporated and returned them to a state of nakedness. The activities on screen never stopped. Some random good-looking people ran about doing incomprehensible things, only to be replaced by some other random good-looking people doing other incomprehensible things, and none of it seemed to make any sense, and there did not seem to be any way to stop the images from coming. It was only after soft feminine snores began to rise from the other side of the mattress that he understood that the city intended the images as some form of narcotic, and this appalled him, because they were having the opposite effect, keeping him awake despite his state of total exhaustion. Maybe it was something he would get used to.

As an experiment, he tried closing his eyes, but the wall grew a needle and jabbed him awake. Sleep, it seemed, was permitted for his wife but not for him. He groaned in dismay, hurled a few choice curses that would sear the ears from anybody who understood the language, by trial and error found an altitude for his eyelids that he could be permitted to maintain without further punishment, and in that way dozed until gradually becoming aware that the lighting had changed. He woke and found a wall had descended and sliced the room in half, separating if not permanently divorcing him from his wife. The screen was now showing more sexual images, ones that happened to appeal to his preferences as a man of the grasslands; there was darkness, there was a fire, there was a woman covered with a pleasing sheen of grease to repel blood-drinking insects, there was a familiar and welcoming look in her eyes, and there she was, kneeling on hands and knees so that he, the observer implied by the image, could rut with her. He was erect at once, with an intensity he hadn’t known since he was young and first discovered that the part of his body he used for urination could also do this wonderful thing.

He was about to use his hand to achieve release when he discovered that the city took care of even this. A tube had extended from the wall, claimed his penis in a grip as tight as he could possibly desire, and fortunately no tighter, and begun to pump away. He almost succumbed to panic, because where he came from, things grabbing him there without permission were nothing to take pleasure in, but before he could offer much rebellion, it clarified that it knew exactly what it was doing, and was as skilled at the task as it needed to be. It was also efficient, not allowing him to soften, much as the circumstances suggested just that. In a matter of minutes, he released and it did too, retreating into the wall with a total lack of concern for his dignity. Nor was dignity fast in returning. For five full seconds, he was deluged with warm water, then with hot air. He was dried in seconds. Then the images on the screen stopped and the wall separating him from his wife rose back into the ceiling. Something was off about the timing of all these actions, though, because just before the intervening wall completed its retreat into the ceiling, he was able to catch a glimpse of something, some unknown thing, disappearing into the wall on his wife’s side of the bed. But if he had been tired before, he was now even more so, too much to consider anything that had happened. He closed his eyes and was this time permitted sleep.

His wife was gone by the next morning, when his mattress tipped to roll him out of bed. Once again, the city coordinated his bathing and dressing. He was a little slower at obeying its commands than he’d been yesterday, because by now he was really getting sick of this shit, and this time, when one of the city’s limbs prodded him in the small of the back, he whirled around and slapped it away, something that only resulted in it slapping him harder. He knew a curse-phrase from childhood, one that translated as a helpful suggestion that its target enjoy sexual relations with itself, and he shouted it now, not caring that this could not possibly help. A long object emerged from the wall and jabbed him once, causing a pain that impossibly involved not just the point of impact but seemingly every nerve in his body. He bit his tongue. It jabbed him again and this time he retreated, onto a platform that had come into being just that moment and which carried him downward and to the street.

The angry pavement drove him via a different route—and it had to be a different route, because the streets had a completely different layout than the one they’d possessed when last he traveled them—to a room very much like the one where he’d been enslaved the day before, and this led to many more hours of jabbing at his keyboard in response to prompts that gave him time to despair about whether his life would now always be like this, being driven from place to place in order to pursue these tasks that meant nothing to him. Why would anybody build a city if this was what they were like?

The force of that thought built up inside him until he was ready to explode, only to be forestalled when one of his fellow slaves beat him to it: a pale young woman a few cubicles over, who started shrieking in yet another unknown language, words that probably translated as a plea to be either freed or put out of her misery. The cries went on for almost a full minute before the ceiling came down like a hammer and erased her with a wet splat. There were some gasps and cries of dismay from around the room, but within a very few seconds alarms went off, and everybody returned to their assigned tasks lest the same end come for them.

An eternity later, the reprieve arrived, and he was transported through a series of tubes and conveyer belts to the street, a brightly-lit place that no longer seemed to be a route to a definable destination but a means of keeping him in motion for however long the city wanted to delay his delivery to somewhere he might have been permitted to rest. It gave him food, something greasy and coagulated that made him gag on its way down, and a beverage, something intoxicating that left him reeling and unable to focus, but beyond that it permitted no refuge, not in the places where people were made to dance to drumbeats so loud that their ears bled, and not in the dark and cramped crawlspaces that he was forced to visit, where emaciated figures lay staring at the darkness with fogged eyes, while tubes pumped colorful fluids into their arms.

He got what rest he could aboard a crowded vehicle that circled those streets in jerks, finding what path it could through landmarks that changed with lightning speed, making any thought of a defined route ridiculous. He felt compassion for the man at the front of the vehicle, who gave the impression of being seated but could have been an amputee as the lower half of him was firmly imbedded in the machinery. It was clear that this man was supposed to be controlling it somehow, but it was just as obviously controlling him, as his wrists were shackled to the wheel he held and its sudden movements tugged his arms along, prompting a series of pained grunts. There was no way any man could have directed a vehicle through the constantly changing madness, but it was nevertheless work that was demanded of him, and so the captive driver sat, his eyes desperately fixed on the road ahead.

In the morning, he was directed back to work, and spent another day in drudgery there, and from there was sent back out into the city streets, and from there to an apartment not quite his old one but similar to it in its utter lack of character, there to spend another night watching the images on the screen.

He realized that the city never stored anybody in the same place twice, that it instead found whatever was convenient to its own needs, which made sense given that its constant shifting meant the destruction and reconstruction of all old places once they were no longer of use. But it also meant that no place was ever familiar, and that no place was ever home. It meant that he was unable to form friendships or alliances with anyone he met, never feel himself any more than a part of the machine, never know anything but the constant disorientation and exhaustion. No wonder the faces he saw on his fellow cogs in the machine were always teetering on the edge of madness! No wonder half of them mumbled to themselves, or, given a few seconds of freedom, tore at their own flesh! No wonder that the simple problems he daily faced at his workstation constantly grew more and more difficult for him, why even the constant prodding of metal fingers could not stop the time it took him to perform his simple tasks from elongating, until the day he was unable to contribute at all, and that day the floor beneath him opened up and he slid down a chute that eventually deposited him in a filthy alley very much like the one from his first day here.

On that day, he found himself serving the city in yet another capacity: as abject example. For clothing, he was provided rags that appeared to have marinated in the stench of unwashed human being; for food, he was provided whatever garbage the mechanisms of the city deposited on the curb beside him; for activity, he was provided substances of various sorts that kept him stinking and unthinking. This was actually preferable to doing something more obviously useful, because it slowed his thoughts down to a mere trickle and allowed for self-awareness only when his next dose of oblivion drew near. Oh, occasionally he became aware that he’d soiled himself again, or that somebody dressed almost as shabbily as himself was being directed by prods from the surrounding architecture to steal his shoes, but for the most part he lay wherever he was placed, heavy-lidded, staring up at the day or night sky, muttering incomprehensibly whenever the fresher and more respectable citizens of the city were driven to step over him or to recoil at the sight of him.

Even lying in his stupor, he knew exactly what was going through their heads when they encountered him: that he was there as warning, as a vivid illustration of what could happen to anybody who didn’t serve the city’s needs. He smiled up at them and said, in various levels of sobriety, that this honestly wasn’t too bad, compared to doing the problems in the cubicles. But his language was not their language and they heard what he said only as unintelligible muttering, which was also the point.

This, too, lasted for months.

And then one day a metallic arm extruded itself from the wall, formed a noose that circled him by the neck, and yanked him upward. Standing, steadied until he could manage the balance on his own, he was then directed through an opening that was first a shadowed alleyway like the one where he’d lived for so long and then, the further he walked, more and more a respectable corridor with white walls and bright lights. He was forced into another room where his rags were torn from his body by more metal arms and then into a shower stall where the accumulated filth of months was washed away. After a few more clarifying substances were pumped into his veins, unwanted sanity returned, and he wanted to scream at the city for giving him a gift of such little use. But, as always, his protests were useless, and he endured being groomed, dressed, and propelled back into the corridor, where another trudge of what felt like multiple miles awaited.

What he eventually encountered was a long rectangular glass window breaking up the monotony of the wall to his right, and as he drew closer, the sight on the other side of that window: a vast room filled with dozens of cribs in which dozens of tiny newborn infants lay sleeping or squirming or bawling their lungs out, while various metallic servitors tended to them.

For the second time, the city spoke to him. “These are your children.”

For the first time in months, he thought of the woman he had known for one day, and he stared through the clear glass at all the babies who he had fathered and who would now be raised by the city to fulfill their places there. They would spend their whole lives being controlled at every moment, never knowing free will at any moment, never getting to experience the satisfactions of a full life. He began to pound on the glass, not having a plan, knowing only that this could not be allowed. His first blow inflicted spidery cracks on the glass, and his second made those cracks worse, but then the window slid to his right, and he found himself pounding on the solid wall where none of his blows could do any damage.

The city spoke again. “Your services are no longer required.” He turned his head and saw the window sealing up as it receded up the corridor, and he began to run, even as it picked up speed and began to recede faster than he could possibly follow, as desperately as he ran, as much as he punished legs grown weak from months of near-inactivity by forcing them to propel him on what he already knew to be a futile chase.

He was running for less than a minute before he felt a fresh and almost forgotten sensation against the soles of his feet: grass. He had not noticed when his shoes evaporated off his feet nor when the floor retreated in a semicircle where he stood, and now that he did, he understood that the city had gotten what it wanted from him and now desired nothing more to do with him. From his perspective, it was packing up, folding itself away, the walls sliding shut and releasing more and more of the landscape it had usurped, now a few arm’s-lengths from him and now a distance farther than he could run in a sprint, the walls churning and mixing and pulling away and abandoning. The white corridor was buried now, separated from him by little bits and pieces he recognized as roadway or dining room or mattress or workplace, by windows and brickface and alley and moving figures on screens, all fleeing him, as if he were an infection that it needed to escape as soon as possible.

The city-free hole he occupied grew in diameter no matter how hard he tried to catch up with the churning maelstrom of grinding gears and building parts, until a gap opened up behind him, revealing bare earth. The neighborhoods to his left and right rushed past him with a speed he could not begin to match, until they were just elements of that ever-changing, amorphous wall of activity now heading into the far distance faster than any man could run.

In minutes, it was just an undifferentiated gray blob in the distance, only recognizable as a city by the spires that rose and fell with every heartbeat; not long after that, it was gone, driven by an urgency that must have made sense to itself but not to him or to anyone unlucky enough to be desired as a permanent citizen.

He ran until his lungs failed him, and then he walked, until he encountered the one thing other than himself that the city had left in its wake: his spear.

He picked it up. It weighed the same. The city had even repaired its sole defect, a chip that had formed when it had once struck ribs instead of soft flesh. That was, he decided, a considerate gesture, even if one not worth everything he had been through.

Of what had happened to him in all that time, he understood almost nothing.

Of what would happen now to his “wife” and to his children, he understood even less, and it was with the practicality of a solitary man of the grasslands that he shook his head and wrote them off as tragedies that he could not help, that if he wanted to survive from now on, he would now have to work on forgetting.

But now that the beast responsible for consuming so many months of his life was but a dot in the distance, he could only sum up the experience in one crystal epiphany, that he’d return to many times in the days to come.

He was not made for life in a big city.

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Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to SPY magazine in 1987. His 26 books to date include four Spider-Man novels, 3 novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and 6 middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. The final installment in the series, Gustav Gloom And The Castle of Fear (Grosset and Dunlap) came out in 2016. Adam’s darker short fiction for grownups is highlighted by his most recent collection, Her Husband’s Hands And Other Stories (Prime Books). Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). He lives in Florida with his wife Judi and either three or four cats, depending on what day you’re counting and whether Gilbert’s escaped this week.