“The sun doesn’t rise anymore.”
“What? No. It rises.” A brown chip bag and an empty can blow in the wind, pirouetting next to the car. “Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.” Keila brushes a strand of her short, purplish-red hair behind her ear.
It’s eerie, being driven through an empty city. No other cars are on the five-lane highway. The skyscrapers are jam-packed with people. But nobody goes out on the streets anymore.
The altitude and the smoke mean that the city is always covered in a haze. A thick haze, one that sears lungs, stings eyes, reeks of something very much like burnt rubber.
Better than burning up on the ground, though. Almost everything down there has burnt, temperatures stay above one hundred twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Barely anyone in the city has been back on the ground since they moved up. Only the Las Altas Pillar Maintenance and Protective Taskforce. Nobody else is allowed.
“Do you remember what it looked like?”
“What?” Keila’s eyes flicker to Luc.
“The sun.” Luc puts his head back, looks through the glass roof. His eyes are tired, his face older than it should be. “Sometimes, I don’t think I can. Even in pictures, it’s different. I miss it.”
“You don’t have to romanticize everything.” Keila looks up. The haze is always yellow in the morning.
“I don’t,” Luc says. “I don’t do that. What do you mean?” He reaches for her hand; she pulls it away.
“You think about things as better than they are.”
Three minutes until The Edge, AiNsley’s too-perfect voice says.
“What?” Luc’s brows collide. “But. You talk about Las Altas like it’s good,” he says. “You know it’s not. You have to know it’s not. You’re more of a romantic than me.”
“Stop.” Keila rolls her eyes. “It’s not a bad city. They’re not wrong. You have to be grateful you only work down there.” She flinches and points downward. “You wouldn’t want to live there.”
The trash flits along outside. A robotic arm with a net springs from a trash can, captures the trash, pulls it in. A trail of smoke floats up to join the hazy mass above.
“You are a romantic, more than me,” Luc says. “You’re just misguided.”
Keila sighs. He can’t be right. He isn’t.
Outside, shuttered businesses along all of State Street. Miranda’s Cloths and Fabrics; Tropical Totes; Poltophagie; Good Scones. Paint peeling: red-and-green, blue, beige, orange. Doors taped into rectangles or boarded up. Closed written in cursive on the front glass, painted over the canopies, or not written at all.
“We’re getting a new batch of mortars down at The Pillars,” Luc says.
“They won’t say.” Luc itches his chin. “Defense, I think. It’s just in case. But you can’t know anything for sure anymore. Wish we knew who to trust.”
“I trust the government.”
“Keila, I know. You’ve told me. I don’t think they’re worthy of it, your trust or mine. Especially after the Civil War.”
Right. The Civil War. Some people are so desperate for power. The government made it clear, over and over again, that they did nothing wrong. Crystal clear.
You’ve arrived at The Edge.
There are three cars ahead of Keila and Luc. Suza’s spiky hair—bleached at the roots, reddish-brown at the top—bobs in and out of the checkpoint, her weathered, nose-ringed face chatting away. She has one earbud in; she always has an earbud in.
The wall, covered in obscene anti-state graffiti, rises on both sides of the checkpoint. Two tall, skinny, hooded teenagers stand at it, crudely writing with a can of red spray paint. Get us fucking off of here.
“Hey, you guys,” Suza says. “How’re you holding up?”
Keila, startled, looks up. She forces a polite smile. “Good, thanks.”
“Good, hon.” Suza smiles uncomfortably. Darts her eyes around, ducks her head into the car. Her expression shifts; more urgent, pertinent. “I found something I want you to listen to. I was listening to a, uh, a podcast, earlier.”
“Well, it’s not exactly, quite,” Suza pauses, rubs her chin, looks around. “Well. This is a nice vehicle. Self-driving? It can fly?”
Keila nods. “All the cars can, Suza.”
“Back in my day, you had to do actual work,” Suza says, pulling back to lean on the door. “You weren’t just chauffeured around by a computer.”
“It’s actually incredible—”
“The podcast, Suza.” Keila interrupts Luc. “What about it?”
“Right. Yeah. I was saying, it’s, it’s not quite….” Suza rubs her forehead.
“Legal. It’s not legal.” Suza is talking much quicker than normal. “I could be shot. Please don’t tell them.”
Keila’s eyes widen. “You want me to listen to it?”
“Yes. I, I don’t know. There were things in it that made some sense. I don’t know you super well, I guess. But I feel like, I feel like I can trust you.”
“Where’d you get it?” Keila’s tone is intense, her jaw more forceful.
“Don’t be mad,” Suza says. “Please don’t be mad. I didn’t mean to break the rules, someone just gave me a CD, and I put it in the CD player I have, because they can’t track them, and I thought you’d—”
“Give it to me,” Keila says.
“Really?” Suza looks up.
Suza slips a black box into the car. She moves her head out. “Well. I know I don’t have to check you two too well, do I?” She laughs. “You’re Keila Milad, for goodness sake. Flying down to The Pillars? Yes? Anyways. Have a nice flight.”
The barricade lowers into the ground. The car passes through. And onto The Runway, a thin stretch of road that juts off into sheer nothing.
“Why’d you take it?” Luc asks. “Keila. Why’d you take the disc?”
“I want to know what’s on it.”
“You could be killed. They would literally kill you. I don’t want that to happen.”
“They’d be stupid to kill me.”
“What, you think just because you’re their best guard, that they won’t kill you? Do you think they exercise any restraint?”
“Luc. They’re reasonable. Stop it.”
They are reasonable, aren’t they? Well. Burt Philland and his group weren’t dealt with reasonably, but they were different. Treasonous. They were different. Right?
The car moves forward onto the runway. Preparing for takeoff, AiNsley says. Wings and an empannage unfold from the trunk and lock into place.
“You’re lucky you have me, you know,” Keila says, shaking her head. “Not everyone can just be dropped off down there.”
The car aligns with the runway, accelerates rapidly, takes off.
“I know. Sometimes I think about what it’s like to take the jet. There’s something communal about it that I think I could like. But I prefer solitude. Solitude with you.” He grasps Keila’s hand, brings it to his mouth, and kisses it. A reluctant smile cracks across her face.
Luc shifts in his seat to look through the back window. “Look at that,” he says. “Look at the city.”
Keila turns around. They’re at its level, circling it. “Wow,” she says. “Incredible.”
The steel pillars underneath the city stretch down to the ground, but you can’t see the ground from the city, anymore. The haze is too thick. Which gives the illusion that the city is actually floating. It looks like heaven, if the buildings in heaven show signs of wear and all the air in heaven is a thick, mustard yellow.
“Do you remember the first time you saw it?” Luc asks.
“It changed my life,” Keila says. “I don’t think I can forget it.”
The first time she saw the city. The photos couldn’t have prepared her for the glory of reality.
As soon as the shuttle had poked above the ground level of the city, Keila gasped. There it stood, towers spiraling, terracing, stretching into and beyond the clear, blue sky. And the sun. You could still see it back then. It glinted off each of the glass shrines to human progress, so brightly that it cast a halo around the entire city. A holy aura that engulfed and enraptured Keila.
Las Altas was a paradise. Not perfect, but better than earth. Happier than earth.
Heaven, with faults.
Since then, Keila has vowed to keep it that way. It’s the worthiest cause she’s ever known. And everything has its highs and lows; who is Keila to question it at its lows? Unconditional love begs more from us.
Are its lows worth questioning? Every city has miscarriages of justice.
But not every city’s capitol has been blown up by its residents. Five hundred casualties, government employees and protesters. Not every city needs a border wall to keep its people from jumping off the edge.
Prepare for landing.
Keila grips the handle on the door, looks out. Char. Small fires flicker in the distance. Not everything down here has burned, yet.
The underside of the city looms far above, but doesn’t cast shade, except in the center of The Pillars.
The car hits the ground, grinds to a halt.
Luc leans over, kisses Keila on the cheek. “See you,” he says, then opens the door.
A wave of intense heat sweeps through the car. “Close it. Quick,” Keila says.
Luc slams it shut, twists his helmet on, walks away over the sand. He’s tall. Six feet, about. There’s always a scruffy, unkempt-looking beard on his face, but it’s always the same length. His neon orange bodysuit—LAPMaPT stitched across it in silver—blends in, almost, with the haze.
“AiNsley. Back to The Edge.”
Roger that. Preparing for takeoff.
And the car flies back up to where it came from. Keila takes out Suza’s box. It’s black cardboard, feels like it’s been handled less-than-gently. White creases streak across the top where it’s been bent. One of the corners has been torn off. Inside, a CD player, a CD in a frosted plastic case, wired earbuds.
“Wow,” Keila whispers. “Wired.”
She lifts up the CD. On the top, PJ POD 17 is scrawled. Puts it in the CD player.
The car lands on the runway back at The Edge.
“AiNsley, patrol.” The car turns right onto the road that encircles Las Altas. On her left, the border wall, a pure, sheer, white concrete mass with barbed wire at the top. No graffiti on this side. On her right, a smoky abyss.
Keila reaches into the back for her vest. Military-grade, LABG velcroed onto the front and back. She slips it over her head, feels the rough against her skin. Adjusts her posture for comfort. Then, she grabs two cold, heavy black pistols from the case under the backseat. Puts them in the holsters built into the console.
“Alright.” Keila sighs. “Let’s see what the big deal is.” She jams an earbud into her ear. Hits play.
I’m Pastor Jean, and I’m coming to you from Beachtop. His voice is raspy, and he hisses into the microphone. Thanks to everyone who’s supported me and my family in these trying times. Alright, well, I’m going to jump right into it. Today’s episode is called “Rebellion.”
Intense, arrythmic strings play. Intro music.
Our government is playing the role of God. This, Las Altas, is like the Tower of Babel. We think we can avoid a catastrophe, just by being in the sky. And anyone who disagrees, anyone who thinks differently, anyone who tries to leave, is shot. There are border guards out there, right now, to make sure we stay on this abomination of a city.
Keila looks up. She doesn’t like to think about what she has to do. It’s to protect the people, anyways. They don’t realize what they’re doing. The only way to save them is to kill them, if they break through the wall. It’s been explained to her a million times.
You think the LA Civil War was the end? You think the capitol explosion was the end? His voice grows louder, syllables more stressed. Our government is restricting what we can do. They’re taking away our rights. We used to have prayer in our schools, now, we don’t even have schools. Our kids sit on their screens, watching government propaganda, day after day. “It’s educational,” they say. But they won’t educate our kids on the Bible. They know what we want. Our government is desperate to keep the peace. They know we’re here, that we’re ready to overthrow them. They know that this place is an abomination.
What's an abomination? Is Las Altas really bad?
And what does the Bible say about abominations? It says we have to destroy them. Cut them down. Same here, in this city. Because this city is wrong. It has done more wrong than any other entity, ever. Pastor Jean is yelling, now. His voice is captivating, intoxicating. We are living in a cesspool of pure, uncensored sin. And those in the government, everyone in the government, perpetuates it. This is all their fault. Everyone in the government. And all of us who don’t do anything about it.
We have to tear down this city, so we can build it up. We have to rebel. All of us. This is more than the Civil War. This is more than any one of us. This is a cause. A cause worth dying for. We need someone, we need people, to redeem us.
Keila looks around, suddenly worried someone will see her.
And she knows what her new duty is.
Luc opens the car door, heat sweeps in, he closes it. “Hi, honey. How was your day?”
“Oh, it, it was good.” Keila quickly runs her hand through her hair. “Hey. I wanted to ask, can you, would you take me to the mortars you were talking about?”
“Um, what? Why?” Luc laughs. “Are you joking?” His eyes narrow. “Why do you need them?”
“I’ve been assigned to a higher post. I can’t say much. Classified, and everything. It’s a big deal.”
“You seem nervous.”
“Just got out of the talk.”
“Okay… I mean, good for you,” Luc says. “That’s actually incredible. I’m so proud of you.” He leans over to kiss Keila.
“Wait. Do you know where they are?”
“Uhm. Yes, actually.”
“Where?” Keila’s heart beats, faster and faster.
“AiNsley, take us to Pillar 74,” Luc says. “Pillar 74, is where they are. They’re so impressive. A lot stronger than anything we’ve seen before.”
“Oh, wow.” Sweat springs up on Keila’s forehead in little beads. “That’s incredible.”
The car takes them to Pillar 74, stops. A black semi truck sits, parked.
“This is it,” Luc says. “This is the place.”
Heart crescendoing, beating more rapidly. Frantically. “Luc, would you take one out?”
“Oh, well, that’s not allowed, I don’t think. They said to keep them in there.”
“I’m higher up than them, now. I’m in charge.” Keila speaks with an authority that feels foreign. “I’d help but I don’t have a body suit. Go get it.”
“Um. Okay.” Luc gets out, slowly walks over to the truck. Scrambles over the bed. Drags a ramp to the edge, lowers it to the ground. Then, after what feels like an hour, the mortar. Heaves it down, panting and groaning. “Where do you want it?” he asks, loud enough to be heard through the thick car glass.
Keila motions for him to point it towards the pillar. “The pillar. The pillar. I’ll bring the car around and you can hook it up.”
Luc turns it so the barrel faces the pillar. He walks back, pulls open the door. “Good?”
“Is it loaded?” Keila asks. “They want them to be loaded. I’m, uh, I’m not sure why.”
“Uh, no. That’s really unsafe, driving around a loaded—”
“It’s what they want. Load it, please.” Keila’s voice is sharp, cruel. “Also. How are they fired?”
“Um, well, they’re remote, now,” Luc says. “It’s a really cool technology. There’s just a button that you push.”
“Okay. Load it and bring the button.”
“Are you—are you sure? About all this?”
“Luc. I need you to go.”
Luc gets out of the car. Climbs into the truck bed, again. Finally, he comes out, gingerly carrying the shell with both arms. A metallic box dangles from his hand.
Keila is caked in sweat. She takes off her guard vest.
Luc loads the shell in the mortar, then comes back to the car. “Okay, it’s loaded. I really don’t think this is safe. It’s unwise. Are you sure they want you to—”
“Do you have the button?”
“Yes. That thing.”
“Yeah, I have it. Right here.”
“Give it to me.”
“You’re not licensed to have one, you’re not—”
“Give it.” In Keila’s eyes is a righteous insanity, a rabidity. A fire, a purifying fire.
“Are you sure? You look unwell. Are you alr—”
“Luc, I need you to give me the remote.”
Luc hands it over, reluctantly. “This is illegal. More than illegal. We could both be killed.”
Keila feels the cold metal in her hands. Turns the box over. Her heartbeat slows, somehow.
The red button on the top of the box says “LAUNCH.” Keila stares at it.
“Honey, you’re not going to do anything, are you? Keila. Keila?”
She stares. She can’t hear Luc. She pushes the button.
“No. NO.” Luc starts talking quickly, with insanity. “What are you doing? What are you doing, honey? Sweetie? Keila!”
The shell launches out of the mortar, hits Pillar 74 straight on. The pillar creaks, bends.
“No,” Luc shouts. “AiNsley, move, get us out, we need to get out—”
Pillar 74 snaps in two. A roar thunders through and around the other pillars, loud and terrible.
Keila looks up. A ripple goes up the pillar, faster, faster, more and more violent. The dark ceiling cracks.
Keila. Keila? AiNsley, GET US OUT!
A section of the city breaks off, starts falling. Rapidly approaching. Faster, heavier, quicker.
She smiles. “I’ve redeemed them.”