by Abba Bruno
Rachel suddenly finds herself lost in a garish, immense, unknown city
|It was all cities and no city. I was sitting on a park bench beside a river. The river is a good kilometer wide and probably deep enough for a container ship to navigate, provided it was piloted carefully enough and it didn’t have to turn around. Except that there is no water. It is just a huge dry riverbed. Then why do I smell the water and hear the waves splashing on the riverbank?
What I could see of the city across the river was impressively huge: if Frank Lloyd Wright and Antonio Gaudi collaborated on building an entire city and both allowed their particular creative geniuses full expression, surely this would be the result: Impossibly large, impossibly intricate, impossibly weird structures soared hundreds of meters into the air as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. Indeed some of them reached heights that would have humbled the Burj Khalifa. As if that were not weird enough, some of the buildings sported spires, arches and domes of such size, shape and intricacy that they did not just defy Gravity, they gave Gravity advice involving sex and travel. The whole city, at least that part of it I could see, seemed to hum, pulsate and breathe like some impossibly immense organism, or collection of organisms.
It was a bright, clear, cloudless, starless, sunless sky. The sky is sunless? How is it that I can see anything at all then? The buildings themselves glowed and shimmered but not with a natural light. They glowed like that fortress that Gollum led Frodo and Sam past as they started to ascend the staircase to Cirith Ungol. What was it called? I cannot remember. I cannot remember anything. I cannot even remember my own name anymore.
The sheer level of detail in these structures was mindboggling. Even 50 floors up, I could see details as intricate as any boxwood miniature. Wait a minute. I can make out details as minute as the head of a pin 50 floors up a building that is over a kilometer away with the unaided eye? Looking down, I shook my head. I did not understand. I just knew that it was in equal parts garish, frightening and, oddly enough, beautiful.
Getting up off the park bench, I looked around. I appeared to be in some sort of forested parkland. I could hear the rustling of leaves and the chirping of birds and insects, except that there were no leaves, birds or insects. I could smell all the lovely earthy smells of turf, aspen, fir, lavender, and countless other trees and flowers but I appear to be the only living thing for hundreds of meters in any direction. Not only that, the ground appeared parched and cracked, as if it had not rained here in decades if not centuries. The trees stood tall and strong but the branches split and branched themselves into ever smaller branches until they ended in impossibly sharp points. The undergrowth and shrubbery was like it. Instead of flexible branches, leaves and flowers, everything was like the trees: incandescent black and ending in ridiculously sharp points that were only an atom or so wide. Wait a minute. How is it that I can resolve detail that fine without an electron microscope?
How did I get here and where exactly was “here” anyway? The last thing I remember was lying in my bedroom at home in a nice normal-looking city. Where the hell am I? Hell? Or has recreational-drug-free me somehow managed to ingest enough LSD to incapacitate a Blue Whale?
I touched one of these points with my Right Index Finger. It was on a shrub next to the park bench. That was a big mistake; a very big mistake. Did I mention that it was a very big mistake? As soon as my finger touched the point, it penetrated my skin as if it were not even there in the first place. Intense pain filled my senses. I yanked my arm back but it was too late. An intense wave of pain slowly rolled up my finger and radiated out to the rest of my hand. I howled as successive waves of pain started to radiate up my arm, slowly dissipating as they travelled up my forearm. I howled and screamed during the couple minutes it took for this to take place except that no sounds came from my mouth. My level of abject terror was increasing by the minute.
I noticed thousands of apparently human figures across the river, walking along some sort of path or road, all in a jumble. They appeared to be dressed in some sort of long black tunic tied together at the waist, but it was their heads that alarmed me. They had no hair or ears or faces. Since I could apparently resolve the head of a pin fifty floors up a building over a kilometer away, it did not alarm me that I could identify human figures almost as far away. The human capacity to adapt can be a terrifying thing sometimes. Then I looked down and noticed that I too was wearing the same outfit. Did I also not have a face? Is that why I could scream without making a sound?
I had to get across to the city. Maybe then I could find out where exactly I am. I spied a couple kilometers to my right a suspension bridge that could only be Gaudi’s contribution. The ends soared and tapered to a point, and I wondered what plant or mineral structure provided its inspiration. The cabling looked like it had been spun by some gargantuan spider. It seemed oddly graceful, just like everything else, in spite of the menace the vegetation represented.
Slowly and carefully I threaded my way through the undergrowth, keenly aware that I must not touch any of the points. I decided that I had best stay fairly close to the riverbank, or the darkness emanating from the vegetation would block out the garishness emanating from the city across the river and thus I would not be able to see where I was going. What did I just say? And I said that as if it was the most logical thing in the world to say. This was making my head spin if I stopped to think about it.
I best not stop to think about it. I best continue on to the footbridge. I picked my way carefully through the vegetation, making sure I kept close to the riverbank and kept the bridge in sight. It took, I would guess, a couple hours to reach the bridge but reach it I did. Once I did so, I found myself on a straight path. I started up the bridge. The deck seemed furry, like a giant shag carpet, but there were definite bones or ribs underneath, that had other smaller ribs joined to them. After a long climb, I reached the top of the arc. Looking back, I saw that the park extended back a couple kilometers and the city continued on beyond that. The buildings were not as tall, and there were some houses that must have been some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s contributions. Beyond that I saw that there were some other clumps of taller buildings. None seemed to rival the intricate immensity of the downtown core. Were those clumps the centers of other cities or did this city make Brobdingnag seem like Lilliput? Would its population rival that of Trantor or even Coruscant? Looking up and down the river, I saw that there were several other bridges, all teeming with pedestrian traffic. Only this bridge had no traffic except for me.
I then saw that there was someone else making its way up the arc from downtown. I waved and said “hi” repeatedly but it made no indication of noticing me. I shambled over to it, grabbed it by the shoulders, tried to shake it while angrily saying “say hi to me!” But it passed right through me as if I was not even there, or maybe I passed right through it. When we passed through each other, there was a sensation of deep, utter cold. Whisky Tango Hotel is going on here? In this vast city of hundreds of millions or maybe billions of people, am I the only inhabitant? That should have frightened me, but it didn’t; not after resolving the head of a pin a quarter of the way up a building over a kilometer away.
The fur-carpeted suspension footbridge was utterly smooth and easy to traverse, for all the bone structure I could detect underneath. Its flesh seemed to grip my shoes, giving me perfect traction. What did I just say?
Awestruck and frightened, I continued my descent of the footbridge. After several silent minutes, I reached street level. Immense buildings towered over me. The street was crowded with pedestrian traffic. There were no vehicles, not even bicycles. How did people get to work on time? Was there a subway system? Did they teleport to work and these hundreds of thousands of faceless people are just out for a stroll? My head hurt. Although I could smell the smells and hear the sounds of nature all around me, the city and its people made no noise, except for a low, continuously oscillating hum that was low in volume but powerful enough that it could easily be the thrumming of an engine puissant enough to tow UY Scuti out of its orbit. Why am I so terrified?
I crossed over to the other side of the street and walked in the opposite direction that I had walked in order to get to the footbridge. I had no idea in what direction I was heading. I stopped for a moment and rested a hand on one of the buildings. It seemed impenetrable: unimaginably dense and strong. Looking up, I wondered how many hundreds of floors it had; how many tens of thousands of people lived and worked here.
That was a mistake. One of the people passed through me again, this time from behind. Once again I was momentarily paralyzed by a feeling of utter cold, as if the person had liquid nitrogen for blood.
I started walking again, careful to match the pace of people walking in the same direction as me and also to avoid anyone walking directly towards me. But I soon noticed something even more peculiar. I noticed a couple people had bumped into each other and they did not pass through each other. This really made me wonder: am I the only living inhabitant in a city of billions if not trillions of ghosts, or am I the ghost? I shook my head and kept walking.
The street I was on continued to parallel the river. I crossed one of the side streets that intersected with the street I was on. Looking down it as I walked, I saw hundreds more of the weird Gaudi-esque skyscrapers rising for blocks. Just how big is this city? I am running out of superlative forms of synonyms for “big.”
The first skyscraper on the next block appeared to have some alcoves set into the first couple floors and it had a large archway like the entryway for the AT&T building in New York City. I decided to head for the entryway if only to see what it was like on the inside. No one was in the entryway but I did see some mirrors along part of the façade. I was dying to know what I looked like.
I instantly regretted seeing my reflection. Screaming as my knees buckled, I knelt on the floor and pounded the surface with my fists. No wonder I made no sound when I screamed. I was clothed as all the others were and there was a large fleshly protrusion where my head and neck should have been. I also had no face.
“Who am I? Where am I? What am I,” I screamed at the mirror. I then noticed that the door to the skyscraper was opening. Above the door in Uncial script was “Stairway to Heaven.” A terrifying but oddly beautiful creature appeared in the doorway. If you combined the height of Robert Wadlow, the sheer size of Andre the Giant, and the muscularity of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian into one creature, added horse hooves for feet, perfectly proportioned hands, Vulcan ears, no visible body hair, the face and overall proportions of Michelangelo’s David, dressed him in a black full length tunic tied together with a white belt around his midsection, give him the whitest, purest, clearest skin imaginable, you would have my creature. He could probably bench press a fully loaded railroad boxcar with one hand tied behind his behemoth back without breaking a sweat! But he also radiated more love and compassion than anyone I have ever met times ten.
“Welcome to my establishment. I have been waiting for your arrival.”
“How long have you been waiting?”
“Since the dawn of time,” it replied. Why did I believe him? “Please come in,” it said, beckoning me with a friendly smile and a sweep of one of its arms. I stood, unsure of whether I should follow him inside. “Do not be afraid,” it said.
“How long have I been here?”
“All your life.”
That puzzled me. “It only seems like I have been here for a few hours. I don’t understand.”
“Everything will be clear in time,” it said.
“Who and what are you?”
“I am Samkiel; I am the Purifier of Souls.” Was that supposed to make me not afraid? My level of abject terror just increased by a few orders of magnitude.
“Am I dead?”
“Not yet; but you soon will be.”
“Where am I?”
“You are inside what you call your mind, and previous generations called their heart.” Then the immensely powerful and unimaginably vast engine is simply my heart and lungs. The city is simply me. The reason why it is so garish is because I am on the point of death. As if reading my mind, he smiled and said “you are correct.”
“Is that why I have been here all my life? I am inside my mind and my mind is inside me?” Samkiel nodded.
“Can I go back,” I said in the pleading voice of a small child whose parents have caught her doing something they’ve only told her not to do 50 times.
“There is no ‘back’,” he said simply. “It is time for you to choose. You may remain here if you like. If, on the other hand, you wish to be purified, you must come inside. I will not force you to enter. I will respect your choice, but choose you must. Not choosing is itself a choice.”
I hesitated for a moment, unsure of myself. Then I looked at the Uncial script and knew for sure. “Sir, I wish to be purified. I know I have done a lot of things wrong and the thought of needing purification terrifies me so badly that if I had a bladder I would pee myself!”
Breaking into a huge grin, he giggled softly and said, “indeed you would. Please come inside, my dear Rachel.”
His giggle and grin was unsettling. “You know my name,” I said, uncertainly.
“Certainly I do. I know everyone’s name. It is part of my job, you might say. I know the names of all The Ineffable wishes to save, and there are none He does not wish to save.” I nodded. Dropping to one knee, he extended his arms and hands so that his palms faced me and his fingers were outstretched towards me. Gazing into his loving eyes, I grasped the pinkies and ring fingers of his hands with my hands as best I could and let him lead me into his establishment. I felt oddly at peace with this creature, even though I was very vulnerable. Nevertheless I felt at peace.