I made my way out of the vehicle, towards the open sky. Flying in the air for a long while made my head dizzy and I couldn’t wait to go to my apartment, get a good night’s sleep.
I was no stranger to this place. I was born here. But my heart sank a little every time I returned here. This place was called a safe haven, it functioned as an oasis in the middle of a barren wasteland stretching thousands of kilometers. This city was the first of its kind, and still the most populated in the world.
Well, you could call it a pretty simple city, a type of metropolitan with huge skyscrapers and business areas. Unlike other cities like it, it didn’t export food from anywhere outside, it made food. And transported it to other oases of the world.
People of all beliefs, nationalities, ethnicities, color, language and race came here, tourists and businessmen alike. Many had even spent their lifetimes here. It made me hollow to look at those happy faces, faces of the citizens of this city. How could they pretend that everything is so normal, when it isn’t. Nothing is normal here. But, the ignorance of the people to the abnormality of this place can be excused. Many had not been outside it.
I had the privilege to go beyond the city, to the barren wastelands that hosted no life. People told me that it was natural that a city had emerged in the middle of this lifeless landscape, that the city was shaped by thousands of years of civilization to make it like it is today. It doesn’t convince me.
The moment I saw the deep crimson soil; I knew that the same soil was in the city. That nothing could grow there as well. But the enormous fields in the city denied my plain. Plains of all eatables, food of every kind. If the land wasn’t fertile, everything must have been planted here on purpose. Even the air.
Everybody believes that humans started their life here, that this infertile, lifeless land, with no water or oxygen, gave the necessary conditions for a complex species to grow and evolve. And as far as my observations go, the only place where life exists is within the boundaries of the city. All the carefully bred animals die when they cross the thresholds of the metropolitan. Something must be wrong in here.
And then came the sense of not belonging. I have read various poems and epithets on patriotism, on the inborn will to sacrifice everything for the place where one is born. I have never had such feelings. The poets speak of the air of one’s homeland, how it is different from the rest. The only thing I feel about my homeland’s air is that it’s artificial. What does it feel to be human?
I took a cab to my apartment. The dimly lit corridors led me to my room. My roommate, and self-proclaimed best friend, was there as usual, waiting for me
“Hey, Charlie, how ARE you?” Timmy said. “And what on earth were you thinking, running away like that? I knew that you’d get caught.”
Timmy was twenty years old, of my age. He was born here like me. And we both were working in the Government’s archive department, registering people that entered this city and kept tabs on people that left it. And we shared the same room.
Timmy was a total nuisance. He was a caffeine-addicted insomniac that spent his spare time playing trash video games and reading strange fantasy books. He never took anything seriously, like life itself was a badly spoken joke. But I still had to bear with him. Timmy was the only friend I had.
As I entered my room, our room, Timmy leapt up and gave me a bear hug. Yeah, my best friend was a hugger. I could not be more grateful.
“I thought you were arrested and never coming back.” he said. “And I missed you. Why did you have to run away?”
Timmy got emotional sometimes. And sure he missed me. Who else would have gotten up in the middle of the night to make him coffee, when he was deeply busy in due archive work.
“We’ll talk later.” I said. “Be a little useful and get me something to eat from the cafeteria”
“You’ve got to be kidding me! Who would be serving in the cafeteria in the middle of the night,” Timmy said disbelievingly. “When I heard about your return, I saved some food for you”
“Thanks, buddy” I said gratefully. I was starving.
I went up to the apartment’s community refrigerator, and there were two chicken sandwiches reserved for me.
I took the sandwiches to my room and sat on the bed. Timmy was drinking coffee as usual, while occasionally glancing at me. It was Timmy’s way of letting me know that he was just thinking of the thousands of questions he wanted to ask me.
“Charles Tristan, you better tell me what were you thinking when we ran away like that?!” Timmy started. “Your parents were worried sick about you and they interrogated me very harshly”
Yeah, my parents lived in the North side of the city, while Timmy and I lived in the extreme South. I spent a three hours each day travelling from my parent’s place to the archives office. It was wearing me out, all the travelling in the Underground. Well, as usual, my best friend was there for me. Timmy had a room I could share in the south side of town; he had also been selected for the archives job.
“You know me, Timmy” I said to him, my voice weak, exhausted “I was just curious, I just wanted to escape, to find out the truth”
“There’s NO truth out there, Charlie. I have read thousands of conspiracy documents and there was NO EVIDENCE that what you believe is true” Timmy said, annoyed by my behavior.
“But you believe me, don’t you? You also have a feeling, a notion that humans came here, that we weren’t born here” I charged at him with equal annoyance
“You know what happened the last time we went there together.” Timmy said. “We don’t belong there, Charlie”
I pretty sure remembered the first time we went there, a blue and green world. We both were young, obsessed with finding out the truth. Working in the archives department helped us to get our hands on some inaccessible documents. They spoke of a planet Earth, well, we all knew about the planets of the solar system and Earth was no different. Lifeless, inhabitable, with no prime conditions to support life. But the documents spoke of contact with Earth. There were even records of meetings with people of Earth. As if Earth actually hosted humans. What more, we even found footage of Earth. It showed lush green valleys, huge, unlike the almost miniature pastures we have in the city. Enormous new skyscrapers and rushing foamy waterfalls. A vast expanse of land, but covered completely with water. Oceans, they were labelled. And humans. Not the man-like androids they the government had installed on Uranus, making it more habitable. Flesh and blood humans, a mother smiling with her child in her hands, people sitting in what seemed like an enormous rotating wheel, the likes of which can be seen in our museums.
Space travel isn’t much of a big deal. You just have to be rich and influential enough to hire a space-ship pilot and off you go. My father’s friend occasionally visits Neptune. But there were limits of course. Nobody ever went to Mercury or Venus or Earth, everybody thought they were useless.
Now, we knew what our Government was hiding.
Timmy, who didn’t have anything like comfort zones, was born with an adventurous spirit. He was ready to go. To Earth.
I wasn’t so sure about that at first. We’ll have to go incognito, as any unauthorized ship going in Earth’s direction would be stopped. Or, we could steal an authorized ship. Both were difficult. At the end we decided to go incognito.
I was born with innate hacking abilities, Timmy used to say. I had managed to make a friend in the Air Traffic Control’s validation department. And in the midst of conversation, he might have spilled some secrets about going incognito. Those secrets were all I needed.
In the East of the City, there was a junkyard of scraps. Metal pieces and equipment of all kinds. Metal was recycled here. But it was also an illegal market of metal tools and spare parts. If one gets very lucky, he might get a spare, used space ship.
We waited for about 6 months for a spaceship to be brought to the scrap shop. In the meantime, we made several plans, including plans about who’ll drive the space ship. One of fellow graduates, Linda McTominay agreed to cooperate. She had just passed spaceship flight test. Well, Linda said that we were fools on a suicide mission and we were not going to find anything on Earth. She was just going to drop us there, wait for our signal on a nearby moon and take us back. I remember thinking how grateful Linda should be because we had just hired her for her first flight.
Of course we needed money to buy the scrap metal space ship and also some to pay Linda. We also had to hire a mechanic to look at the spaceship, pay him too. So, we started saving our wages.
I remember how those six months had passed, I was always contacting the scrap dealer, waiting anxiously. At last, we had a spaceship reserved just for us. It wasn’t in a very bad state, so we had it fixed it no time. I hacked into the Air Traffic System and programmed it to ignore a vehicle having the profile of our spaceships Linda had practiced flying and she was very confident. We were all set to go!
The flight was a safe one, no troubles at all. It seemed wrong, somehow, to see all of our plans work out so well. We landed on Earth, with bags full of supplies. We weren’t sure if people of Earth ate the same food as us, so we were careful enough to bring our own.
Timmy exited the space shuttle first and I followed him. Linda shouted something about being careful, and then went off.
The sky was a brilliant blue and the Sun was larger than I had ever seen. The air felt so fresh, so pure.
“Charlie, I don’t believe we made it!” I recall Timmy saying this to me, with a broad smile.
“Me too!” I said.
“Well, this doesn’t look like a barren wasteland” Timmy said.
I looked down and knew what he meant.
Linda had landed us on some sort of helicopter launching pad on top of a huge building. And we could clearly see far away from where we stood. It was a beautiful city. It had a cathedral in the middle, made of a large brick-colored dome. It was surrounded by mountains on one side. Not those stale, rocky mountains we had back home. Lush green ones.
I remember being awed. Timmy was there by my side, looking at the city. The houses also had brick-colored roofs. It was simply beautiful.
We made our way down the building and asked the people where we were.
We wanted to hear Earth of course, but people said that we were in Florence. The city of the Renaissance.
We didn’t know what renaissance meant, for starters. Descending down the building, we entered a market. The place was crowded with people. We stopped by and looked at the various glass panes enclosing the shops. One shop had chic clothes, another one had shoes. The clothes seemed so luxurious, so extravagant as compared to the ones me and Timmy were wearing. Back home, simplicity was the key, and everyone, except few government officials followed it.
The sun had started to set. The sky looked magnificent, emblazoned with all the hues of orange, yellow, red and pale blue.
“Hey Charlie, where are we going to sleep?” Timmy said
“You know I brought the automatic portable tent with me, let’s find a hill or a beach and set it up there” I said
“You always thing about everything” Timmy said, sighing with relief.
“Well, when one’s going anywhere with you, one has to be careful” I said teasingly
We made our way across the streets until we found a hill, Bellasguardo, it was named. We made our camp there and slept.
The next morning, we woke up to find a police car parked next to our tent. A policeman approached us, looking grim
“We saw your vehicle enter the Earth’s atmosphere yesterday. You two are in big trouble”
We were forced to cooperate with the police official. He told us that he belonged to the Space Traffic Control on Earth, that they didn’t have many visitors. We were the first visitors in 5 years.
“But why don’t you have visitors like Uranus or Neptune?” Timmy asked “Earth seems like a beautiful place to visit”
“Well, you hide your jewels, not your waste, do you?” The Space Control man said, smirking.
“Buckle up, you two” He said, making us sit in the backseat of his car. “You’ll be explained everything once we reach the headquarters”
It was our second and last day on Earth. I remembered how the trouble started. We weren’t supposed to be there. Humans originated from Earth and colonialized other planets. People had been living on Earth for billions of years. That is when the shortages started. Resources became depleted. Scientists created systems which made life possible in other areas of space.
But one thing was agreed to. Nobody would ever hear of Earth nor any Earth’s human would go and interact with humans of the solar system. A secret group had this privilege.
As we were leaving, the General of the Space Control Headquarters said to us
“Make sure you don’t come back. You don’t want to get yourselves killed do you?