Roland Allnach

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The City of Never
Roland Allnach, 2011
Published in Aphelion, October 2011
** Editor's Choice, 'Best of 2011' **

Enjoy this short fiction and much more in Prism!

                                                                                                                                                                                       

            An excerpt from the Coda Urbani:

THE CITY, by nature, is an amalgam of the natural and the man-made.  Such a statement, obvious as it is, is not to be dismissed as pedestrian in nature, as it holds the pretense of so-called ‘urban’ design.  That is, the creation of a human dwelling among that which is already created, Nature.  One is not to preclude the other, for each is created in its own wisdom, and must find peace together in the tired eternity of shifting balances so casually referred to as yin and yang.  For it must be remembered, remembered at all times and all costs during development, that nothing can or does exist in a vacuum; all things exist with at least a taste of their complimentary opposite.

 

***

 

            I remember the freckles on the soft curve of her cheek under the golden light of dawn, like the photonegative image of morning dew glistening on Satan’s apple.

 

***

 

            Gregor gasped inside the stifling, claustrophobic confinement of the immense erector, heedless of the several square kilometers of havoc he left behind him.  The erector, a massive, octopus-like machine known as the Saanos-7, clicked, hummed, and hissed around him.  His gaze darted about.  He was weak, bleeding from a stab wound in his belly.  The sensor cap fastened to his scalp felt like an obscene nest of warm tentacles reaching into his mind, but it was through those neural connections that he wielded the might of the Saanos-7 and propelled its megaton metal mass with his thoughts alone.

            He blinked, his arms easing to let his hands dangle from the auxiliary control yoke before him.  Nests of analog gauges were clustered before his face, surrounding a small display screen the size of his hand.  A delicate wood flute was taped in crude fashion to the top of the display; a thin silver necklace with a small, imperfect emerald dangled along one side.  An old-fashioned spiral bound notebook was rolled up and wedged between some of the gauges to the immediate right of the screen.

            His eyelids fluttered.  It was stifling hot inside the Saanos-7, but then this was not the intended way for its use.  No, those plans were long gone, long lost.

            Sweat beaded and ran down his temples.  He closed his eyes and surrendered to the machine.  The world about him snapped into view, bleached under the scores of blinding searchlights that dotted the hull.  The leviathan lurched like a wounded animal, but then brought two massive articulated arms to bear, each wielding claw buckets big enough to swallow luxury homes, and sent the buckets hurtling downward.

            The ground trembled, torn and shattered under the assault.

 

***

 

            “See that?” Maggie said, her whisper almost lost among the distant birdcalls echoing in the early dawn light.  She turned and looked back, beckoning with the hand of her extended arm.  “This is the place,” she continued and crouched behind a large bush, her small frame draped in the dew-laden foliage.  Her hands opened before her as her eyes widened with excitement.  “This is the place I wanted to show you.  There’s no other place like this on any surveyed, inhabited world.  It must be preserved.  I’ll give it to you, Gregor.  I want you to have it, if you make me one promise.”

            “What?”

            “Never to touch it,” she said, her eyebrows rising over her large hazel eyes.  “Just look, look between those trees, down into the valley.  It’s like looking into heaven.  It must never suffer the hand or blight of man.  Of all things that should never happen, this is the one I would stake my life on, that I give my life for.”

            “I don’t understand.”

            She crossed her hands over her chest.  “It’s mine to decide, and I’ve decided,” she whispered.  She looked into his eyes and didn’t blink.  “The valley, as my life, I give to you.”

 

***

 

            AUDIO LOG 1, SESSION 2:

            “Good morning class, and welcome to this semester’s supplemental study course, Modern Minds and Their Societal Impact.  I am Professor Lucas Latham.  Our curriculum will commence with a study of Saanos Development.  Without further ado, we shall now start.

            “I’m sure at this point in your studies you’ve gathered at least cursory familiarity with Saanos Development.  Going back ten decades—Saanos prefers this measurement of time—you will see the introduction of the great Saanos innovation, the modern miracle combining nanotechnology and recombinant genetics, the so-called constructors.  The Saanos ‘constructor’ is essentially living concrete, self-replicating into preprogrammed forms that generate structures at amazing speed.  The resulting Saanos erector models—Saanos models One, through the latest behemoth, Seven—utilize dispersal and programming of Saanos constructors to build Saanos ‘environments’.  We call them cities, and Saanos builds them overnight in comparison to traditional construction techniques.  Saanos Development has been responsible over the last three decades alone for the resettling of millions of people into newly built Saanos environments.  This, of course, has reaped immense wealth for Saanos Development.

            “Which brings us to the focus of our discussion, the owner of Saanos Development.”

 

***

 

            Gregor hid behind an oak column, watching as Karl Saanos settled himself in a rather fanciful wood chair.  The old man gazed into the evening light streaming through the arched entrances of his retreat to the distant valley, site of his latest ambition.  He reached beside his chair to a small round table and the glass of red wine awaiting him before tipping his chin back and letting his gaze roll over the dozen or so local reporters seated before him, beneath the immaculate timber construction of his domed receiving room.  Karl looked up to regard the intricate carving of the dome’s beams.

            One thousand dowels.

            He looked down at the reporters, only then realizing they were shifting in their seats with their growing impatience.  After all, they were summoned by his invitation, his request, and under such conditions, he wouldn’t suffer their intrusion any more than necessary.  No, they would wait until he spoke, until he made his statement, and that would be that.

            He licked his lips and set his wine glass down before settling his hands in his lap and gazing at the reporters.  “Thank you for accepting my invitation,” he said with a soft voice.  “This won’t take much of your time.  By now you are well aware of the valley and rights I have purchased here.  Such things are not noteworthy in themselves.  However, I wished to gather your select group here to disperse in your local media outlets this simple announcement:  I have chosen to build my next environment here, on your lovely world.  This too is not a passing of note as I have been responsible for the development of many environments on many worlds.  This project, however, will be unique.

            “It will be unique, because it will not only be the greatest, but it will be the last, and then humanity will not hear of Saanos Development again.”

 

***

 

            An excerpt from the Coda Urbani:

THE CITY, by design, should not exceed a population of one hundred thousand.  This is by no means an arbitrary number; rather it is the result of intricate mathematical flow models.  Cities of the past have come to be complicated failures due to the one lingering curse of urban existence: over-development, that is, excessive population density.  For it is the inescapable supply and demand of human presence that must be controlled within the city, as the city, a living thing composed of individuals as its cells and tissues, must not diminish and demean the resident by depriving the resident of humanity and individuality.  One should be able to traverse the city by foot with reasonable ease to save on transit costs; the city must provide proper pedestrian conduits at public places to avoid the scourge of overcrowding; lastly, the city, of all things else, must be remembered for what it is—a mirror of its residents.  Let it grow ugly, chaotic, decayed, and it will spawn within its resident population disrespect, apathy, and inhumanity.  And then you will not have a city, you will have a crowded tomb of lifeless creatures, nevertheless unaware that they are stillborn, aborted by the very environment that was meant to nurture their lives.

 

***

 

            Gregor coughed, cringing at the pains the spasm inflicted.  He slumped onto the auxiliary control rods.  Sweat ran down his temples to drip from the ball of his nose.  He was tired, so very tired.

            He closed his eyes.  At once the Saanos-7 filled his awareness with a panoramic view of his surroundings.  The first twilight of dawn beckoned, but he cared little for that.  Teams of much smaller, but faster, Saanos-1 and 2 erectors scrambled around the bulk of his Saanos-7, spraying clouds of nanobot constructors preprogrammed with the visions dancing through the back of Gregor’s mind.  The Seven, wonder that it was, converted his visions in real time to three-dimensional models mapped with GPS coordinates and relayed to the surrounding, lesser Saanos-1 and 2 erectors.

            The city’s firmament was taking shape.  It was less than twelve hours since he started.

 

***

 

            AUDIO LOG 5, SESSION 4:

            “Ah, Professor Latham, and to what do I owe this harassment?”

            “This is quite a show, Karl.  Did you think I would miss it?”

            “Miss what, my good Professor?  The unveiling of my soon to be implemented Saanos-7, or the opportunity to pester me?”

            “You forget who you’re talking to, Karl.  You’ve had me document your deeds for too long now.  But I thought I sensed an opportune moment to add some more intimate material to my archives.”

            “Have you started writing that book about me yet, Professor Latham?”

            “No, not yet.  I’m still compiling my recordings.  I don’t quite have the proper handle on your personality yet.”

            “Then you better hurry, Lucas.”

            “Going somewhere?”

            “I have far surpassed my life expectancy, Lucas, even with the good graces of the best care money can buy.  As usual, I will be forthcoming for your benefit, to remind you of the privilege I have given you as my biographer.  I will make it official for your records.  I have secured the services of a certain fledgling bioengineering firm, which, for my sake, shall remain nameless.  I have invested heavily in them and in return over the years they have furnished me with two heart replacements, an eye replacement, three knee replacements, and two hip replacements, all grown from my native tissues.  I have planned far ahead of the Saanos-7’s debut to the day of our mutual retirement.  On the day I put the Saanos-7 to work on its final environment I will achieve the ripe old age of one hundred and fifty years.”

            “And what can we expect then?”

            “Ah, now that is a loaded question.”

            “Care to unload it?”

            “You are a sly one, Lucas.  There is no other machine like the Saanos-7 erector, in all of history.  It is unmatched in size, complexity, durability and versatility.  It can perform the work of five Saanos-6 models, and it is fully capable of directing up to twenty Saanos-1 and 2 models autonomously.  Further, it can be operated by remote, where my design team can consult on progress.”

            “So then, who will pilot the wondrous machine?”

            “Now Lucas, you know better than that.  I employ many architects, sculptors, engineers, various artisans, and any of them may have a turn at the helm depending on the stage of the project.”

            “But all under your name, right?  In effect, you’ll take credit for everything.”

            “I am responsible, don’t forget.”

            “Well, it sounds as if this machine can’t be topped, even by you.”

            “So they say.”

            “I know that smile, Karl.  Will you humor me?”

            “Of course.  I will tell you what you must tell no one else until you draft your book on me, hopefully after I have passed from this world.  I am considering a Saanos-10, to continue my good work after I have passed.”

            “Ten?  What of Eight and Nine?  Did you skip them?”

            “No.  I will simply say this, that Saanos-8 and Saanos-9 are already operational.”

            “Where?”

            “Ah, but that’s the beauty of those two models.  They will never be known, but what they will create, what they will leave behind, it will be the last thing, the greatest thing of Saanos Development.”

            “Is that so?  It’s hard to imagine anything more impressive than your Saanos-7.”

            “That’s due to your very lack of imagination, Professor.  Now, if you please, I have a waiting populace to awe.”

 

***

 

            Gregor looked about the newly constructed dome of the retreat, with Karl waiting by his shoulder.  “Do you like it?” Gregor said, somewhat hesitant.

            Karl looked about the wooden dome, admiring the crafting of the struts.  At the peak of the dome a glass cap had been inserted to show the starlit night sky above them.  “You have designed a thousand cities for me, Gregor.  How is that you could disappoint me in the design of a mere dome?”

            Gregor grew excited as he pointed to the beams.  “There are one thousand dowels holding it together.”

            “One thousand dowels?”  Karl grinned before looking from the dome to Gregor.  “I see, one for each environment you have done for me.  Do you think anyone will ever know?”

            Gregor lowered his head and shrugged.  “I’ll know.  It’s for us, for what we’ve accomplished, or I should say, what you have allowed me to accomplish as my guardian, benefactor, and patron.”

            “You are too humble, Gregor.”  Karl patted him on the back.  “So tell me, have you seen the valley?”

            Gregor’s gaze darted about.  “Yes,” he whispered.

            “And?”

            Gregor turned to him.  “It’s too beautiful.  I shudder at the thought of touching it, that I will never do it justice.  I have some reservations.”

            “And so it should be with any great endeavor.  But here, tonight, I will disclose our intention to some of these local mongrel reporters.  You have never failed me, Gregor, and I know that you will not fail me now.  But I want you to know something, something important.  For too long you’ve labored under the shadow of my name.  On this city you shall remain nameless as well, but I want you to do it for yourself.  It is to be yours, and yours alone, Gregor.  I am going to help you achieve your masterpiece.”

            Gregor stepped away with a nervous shake of his head.  “Sir, I, I—”

            “I won’t leave you naked to the wolves,” Karl said with a soothing tone.  He opened his hand.  “Now, listen.”

            Gregor looked about the dome.  The chairs for the local reporters were set out before the fanciful chair that would hold his patron.  Beside that chair sat a small table with a glass of red wine.  Trimmed, lush plantings surrounded the diameter of the dome where it met the stone floor, its trusses framing the many arched gateways that led out to the warm night.  Then, as if guided by some invisible brick road, Gregor stepped forward, raising a hand to his ear.  He heard it then, almost lost among the gentle bongs of the wind chimes outside the dome.

It was the soft, lilting tone of a wood flute.

            Karl grinned when Gregor glanced back at him.  “Well then, I see you remember our master ecologist, Miss Maggie LaFey.”

 

***

 

            An excerpt from the Coda Urbani:

THE CITY, it must not be forgotten, is a work of art.  One may differ and say that in the inherent need for functionality the city is precluded as a true work of art, as such an opinion would hold that only a thing which exists for nothing but itself is a piece of art.  Yet a city is a creation, it must be remembered, and all things that are created are pulled, culled, from the ether of imagination, that shapeless nether-space from which our thoughts descend to us.  And if all things we create are likewise uncreated before our intervention, then all creation exists but for our thoughts, and they exist for reasons we have yet to fathom.  It is such grandiose abstraction that must be plumbed to set the mind free to create not just this little word ‘city’, but to create a living thing, a thing where the people within are at peace with what is around them, a thing that represents more than anything else the state of our civilization.  For an asynchronous existence is one bereft of stability, and it will never know the solitude and serenity of existing for nothing but itself.

 

***

 

            “What did you do with her?  Tell me!”

            “I sent her away, back to that place from whence she came, the whispers of my dreams.”

            Gregor’s eyes popped open.  Savage curses erupted from his mouth as he pounded a fist on the analog gauges of the Saanos-7.  You bastard!  His eyes fell on the little notebook rolled up and stuffed between the gauges.  All my memories, never mine to control.

            He shook his head in frustration and wiped the tears from his eyes in embarrassment, even though no one could see him in the bowels of the Seven.  He cringed against the pain in his belly, but then let it fly with his resentment.

            The Saanos-7 responded by tearing into the hillside of the valley in which it sat.

 

***

 

            “Such a machine, it’s just beyond belief,” Maggie said with a sigh as she stood with her hands on her hips, her gaze lifted to the sky.  Sub-orbital transports were sinking on their gravity cushions to bring in the subassemblies of the Saanos-7, settling them in precise locations over the hill from the valley.  She turned to Gregor as he stood behind her, studying the folded plans he held in one hand while his other hand held a radio headset to his ear to monitor the communication bands of the transports.  “Gregor?”

            He looked to her at once.  “Oh, yes, it’s an amazing machine,” he said, guessing at her question.

            She shook her head and crossed her arms on her chest, her face settling as she shifted about.  It seemed an effort for her to meet his gaze.  “There’s something I need to tell you.”

            Gregor smiled.  “You can tell me anything.”

            She took a breath.  “Karl signed over the construction rights of the valley to me.”

            “He what?”  Gregor blinked.  “I, I don’t understand.”

            Her eyes settled with a plaintive cast.  “Neither do I, but he gave me specific instructions.” 

            He glanced over his shoulder to the domed retreat before looking back to her.  “Maggie, I—”

            She stepped to him to lay a finger over his lips.  “Please,” she hissed.  “You know him, sometimes his reasons are so hard to fathom.”  She hesitated, opening her hands before her.  “It may be your design, Gregor, but it’s to be my choice, and forgive me, please forgive me, but don’t do this thing, don’t build this city.”

            He studied at her, taking her hand in his own to lower her finger from his lips.  His face fell in confusion before he blinked it away.  “But I’m going to do this for you, so that it will be the greatest thing I’ll ever do.  It won’t be about me, or you, or us, but what lies between us, which I can’t name.  My mind, you know, I don’t remember things as others do.  There are moments, scattered, broken, but the one thing that links them, that gives them any meaning, is you, Maggie.  I long for you, even when you’re right beside me.”

            She stared at him.  Her lips parted, but she said nothing, her breath escaping her as a breeze rustled the short curls of her hair.  The evening sun cast a glow on her face.

            He found himself feeling very much at peace then, looking at her in that moment, even with all the work that lay before him.  He dropped the headset and let it dangle from the wire connecting it to the receiver on his belt so that he could lay his hand on her cheek.  “I want to show you later what I prepared for Karl’s birthday.  It’s an emerald set on a fine silver chain, perfectly cut, but flawed with a small carbon inclusion.  I remembered what you told me one time, about the perfect imperfection of organic life, and how it always resides in the imperfect perfection we create.  It seemed proper.”

 

***

 

            An excerpt from the Coda Urbani:

THE CITY, as a creation, must be nothing less than a masterpiece of its setting.  It must be so, as anything less will bring naught but disappointment and decay to its citizens.  And, as such, the design process must not only be a labor, but a labor of love, a labor of inspiration, the sort of inspiration that keeps men restless at night with the prodding anxiety to conjure its reality.  For the greatest works of art come from such fits.  Genius is not an easy path, and the best of inspirational emotions always carry their tragic overtures, with that very looming tragedy driving the inspiration to greater heights of realization.  It is not enough for van Gogh to love; he must cut off his ear—he must suffer.  And then it is not enough for him to paint; he must be immortal in his work as an artist.  So too the city, for long after the mind that conceived it has passed, the city will remain.

 

***

 

            “And what is this?”

            Gregor looked up at the adoptive father he knew as Karl Saanos.  A small, old-fashioned spiral bound notebook lay open beside the lit candle on his desk, the empty first page of the notebook staring back at him.  “It’s a journal.  Am I in trouble?”

            Karl grinned and patted Gregor on the shoulder.  “Of course not,” he said with good humor.  “Unless, of course, you mail any secrets of my brand new Saanos-6 before I get to unveil it.”

            Gregor’s eyes widened.  “I would never—” he began, but bit his lip when Karl’s eyebrows rose.  He looked down at the notebook.  The candle set shadows dancing about the wall against his desk, his room dark in the late night.  It reminded him why he had asked one of Karl’s security agents to acquire the little notebook.  He cleared his throat, and though his gaze darted about the desk, he found it impossible to look up.  “My memories,” he said, but then fell silent.  He shifted in his chair.  “My memories, they’re often confused, broken up, their temporal order jumbled.  My objective memory—the mathematical side of my mind—that seems photographic and limitless.  But my subjective memories, people, places, things I feel, I find it very difficult to keep them ordered in my head.”  He swallowed over a dry throat and looked up to Karl.  “Why am I like this?”

            “We can’t help the way we’re made, Gregor.  I would have liked to be taller,” Karl said and shrugged.  He said nothing more.  Instead his gaze fell to the notebook, his eyes narrowing as he stared at the blank page.  Then he reached out and flipped the page, the troubled look on his face at once passing to one of deep satisfaction.  He looked to Gregor and patted him on the shoulder even as Gregor fidgeted and blushed.  He gave Gregor a reassuring nod.  “Everything will work out in the end,” he said and left.

            Gregor looked down.  The open page showed the portrait he had sketched of the young woman he met earlier that day, a woman that captivated him the moment he saw her.  He picked up his pencil and spelled out her name.

Maggie LaFey.

 

***

 

AUDIO LOG 6, SESSION 8:

“Ah, Professor Latham, we meet again.”

            “Congratulations, Karl.  Your Saanos-7 seems to be a big success.”

            “Would I accept anything less?”

            “No, but surely, Karl, you must know that your latest marvel here hasn’t met universal acclaim.  In fact, there has been a fair share of criticism concerning the first work completed by your Saanos-7.”

            “They criticize what they see, not realizing it as a great deed.   All great deeds in human history have brought criticism because they represent change and threaten the status quo, that prickly comfort zone of the human psyche.  Criticism is what criticism has always been, Lucas.  Criticism of great deeds is nothing but the jealousy of the uninspired and the envy of the incompetent.”

            “There’s a quote that’ll go over well.  Can I use it?”

            “Sarcasm aside, Lucas, you know you can use all my quotes, after I’ve passed from this life.  That was our deal, and I will keep it.”

            “Well, in that case, Karl, I’d be interested in what you have to say about the criticism you’ve received from your fellow urban and civil engineers concerning your private little publication, the Coda Urbani.  They say it only showcases your vanity, that it reminds the rest of us how most of your cities have wound up being resorts and playgrounds for the wealthy.  They’re dismissing your book as a bunch of metaphysical nonsense that, they claim, displays the fact you’re not the great engineering genius you claim yourself to be.”

            “Every genius is pelted with the stones of fools in his lifetime, Lucas.  As far as my little publication goes, the Coda Urbani wasn’t meant to be a textbook, it was meant to help the students of urban design comprehend a more conceptual and subjective approach to their work rather than the cold framing of calculations.  I make no apology for what is contained in my little book, because it’s not from my heart, and not my mind, but somewhere else in between.  And it’s what resides in that place that makes me Karl Saanos, that makes me so unique.”

            “Yes, so unique, and still you remain the most eligible bachelor in known space.  Have none of the corporate families sought a tie with you?”

            “Ah, if I had the time for all the overtures, but no, such is not the way for me.  I will tell you something now, something to add to your archives.  Do you see this splendid city before you?  Its creation came from the work of many minds, but the over-riding inspiration, the vision, is my vision, long planned out, and what my artisans achieve together is all from me, from what I had the capacity to imagine and initiate.  So I ask you, how could I be the integral part of things so grandiose, only to step down to something so small as a commitment to some single person?  Look at this city before you, and more so, consider what went into summoning its existence.  It is to such things that I am wed, and have no time to spare on paltry substitutes.”

            “You know, I think I have a hold on your personality now.”

            “Do you?”

            “You’re a monster, Karl.”

 

***

 

            Gregor sat with his legs folded before him, his back straight as he looked up to the stars, his little notebook open in his lap.  Maggie emerged from the depths of a broad-leafed bush, her gaze on her fingers.  “I put the repellor stakes down,” she said as she walked by him to get a water bottle by their sleeping bags.  She poured out some water and rubbed her hands on a small towel she pulled from her pocket.  “That’ll keep the bugs away for the night.”  She tiptoed beside him before settling down and stealing a glance at his notebook.  “Still keeping the journal?”

            He nodded.  “Every day, even if it’s only a word or two, but just enough so that I can look back and keep everything straight.”  He opened his hands.  “It’s conceptual, not factual.  Impressionism, if you would classify it.”  He blinked and looked down at the valley.  The river that snaked through its length glistened under the full moonlight, the little waterfalls along its length sparkling with silver and white foam.  A long breath slid from his lungs as he turned and looked to her.  “I can’t thank you enough for taking me out to see this, to see it the way you see it.  It made my decision easier, even though I’m nervous about Karl’s reaction when I tell him.  I’ll never build a city here, Maggie, because I learned something else.”

            She stared at him, her lips parting.  She looked to the valley for several moments before glancing down, her lips pressing shut.  Then she took a deep breath and turned back to him.  “Gregor, I—”

            He did something he never did before, with anyone.  He turned back the blank page in his notebook and laid it in her lap for her to read.  She glanced at him, but he kept his eyes on the valley.  She took his hand, worked her fingers between his, and took the notebook in her other hand so she could read what he wrote.

Before her eyes could focus in the scant light of their little battery lantern he recited the words for her:  “She said, ‘The valley, as my life, I give to you.’  The city, as it is intended here, will never be built, because today I realized what I might have known all along.  All these years, it was never about building cities, or inflating Karl’s ego, or my humble servitude in the greater pursuit of human dwellings, or serving anonymously under Karl’s name so that he could protect my seclusion.  No, the root of it, the passion, has always been the same, and now I know why, except for one sketch, that she is never mentioned here.  I never pin down my memories of her.  Undefined, unbound, she is always with me, and there are no spaces between.”

            He turned to her, but she kept her eyes on the notebook.  Then she swallowed and closed the notebook, pressing it to her chest before she laid it in his lap.  For several moments neither of them moved, but then she rested her head on his shoulder and squeezed his hand.

            A slow blink passed over his eyes, and when they opened, he saw the starlit night above.  “A shooting star,” he whispered.

They watched the silvery streak before it vanished.

 

***

 

            “Wake up, Gregor.”

            Gregor sat up in his bunk, stunned, his eyes focusing on the portal of his cabin to see the stars drifting by the interplanetary transport.  He blinked and rubbed his face, only to turn and find Karl standing by, wrapped in a night coat.  He held a small box in his hands, which was odd, as Gregor knew how Karl detested lifting or carrying of any kind.  “Sir,” Gregor said, turning to face him.

            Karl slid a hand from under the box to still Gregor before setting the box on Gregor’s desk.  “It’s late, local time where we’ll be landing.  I’ve been debating with myself, and I’ve come to the conclusion, this being the last planet and the last city we will develop, that you should have these to flesh out the memories that you keep in your journals.  They’re audio recordings of various sources.  Some of them from my offices, but most of them are copies of interviews done by my biographer, Professor Lucas Latham.”

            Gregor stared at the box, unsure what to think. 

            Karl took a deep breath before letting it go.  “Ah, Gregor, the end comes at us with haste, my friend.  Our work will culminate in the city you will build in this valley I have chosen.  Time, then, to close all the loops.”  He stared at the box for a moment and then left without another word.

            Gregor’s gaze held on the box.  He had no idea as to what Karl meant, but in his innocent curiosity, his hands moved to the box.

 

***

 

            AUDIO LOG 3, SESSION 2:

            “Ah, my sweet Miss LaFey, I’m so glad to see you.”

            “Hello Karl.  I saw some of the preliminary plans for the Saanos-7.  Impressive.  And please, it sounds so silly when you call me Miss LaFey.  Call me Maggie.”

            “And so I will, but even informal meetings should begin with some formal recognition.  And this meeting will be very informal, because I must discuss a certain intimate, very personal matter that has come to my attention.  I shall be brutally and tastelessly blunt, so please excuse the brevity of my courtesies.  We need to discuss your relations with Gregor.”

            Silence.

            “I see.  You must understand, Maggie, that Gregor is a very special man, as special as you.  I have invested great wealth in developing him to his full potential.  And I know, because it is so very obvious, that much of his drive springs from his attachment to you.  And I know as well, because my life has not always been exclusively centered on my developments, that there has been no consummation between you two.  I implore you, in the strongest way I can, not to do such a thing with him, or I will have to bar you from ever seeing him again.”

            “Karl—”

            “Let me finish.  His creative genius is founded on his desire for you.  The greatest wellspring of passion is desire unfulfilled.  Gregor is an emotional simpleton, but pure, and with his crippled temporal memories, his unfulfilled desire will not spoil as it so often does in most people.  His creativity burns as he is, even though he does not understand why, and I will not suffer anything to change that, and if you change that, I will most certainly hold you responsible.  Your relationship is to be platonic, and nothing more.”

            “Why are you punishing me?  I haven’t done anything.”

            “I have fostered you much the way I have fostered Gregor.  I will not have that wasted.”

            “Wait, Karl, you don’t understand, it’s not at all what you might believe.  Don’t you think I’ve tried to feel differently, that I haven’t tried to contain it in the time we’re apart?  You think I’m blind to how different Gregor is?  How can you, of all people, ask me to contain my feelings, my love?  Don’t you think I’ve tried to find a replacement, a substitute?  That I haven’t been sensitive to how things could spoil between us?  There’s no conscious choice in this.  For all your talk of creation and fostering passion and living life from its energy, you ask me this?”

            “You and Gregor, I look at you two as my children, the children I never had.  This request is only to protect you.  For the sake of that, and only that, I ask that you honor my request.”

            More silence.  “Why?”

            “For things yet to come, my dear Maggie.  It’s for the greater interest.  In time, all shall be as you wish it to be.  You must trust me in this.”

 

***

 

            Gregor woke, the memory of the audio file whispering in his subconscious.  The dawn light came across the valley to hit him in the eyes.  He blinked and pushed himself up on his elbow.  Maggie was still asleep beside him, her back to his chest.  The little battery lantern’s light was lost in the long early rays of the sun.  He looked down, appreciating her in profile, her face quite peaceful as she slept.  He studied her, cementing his memories of her with the reality of having her next to him.  His gaze dwelled, memorizing the freckles on the soft curve of her cheek under the golden light of dawn.

            There would be no city, he knew.  And with no city, his work was done.  And with his work done—

“It’s all over,” he thought aloud.  “Yes, it’s all changed.”

            He shifted, moving his arm to brace himself as he leaned over her.  She stirred at the sound of his voice, turning onto her back to look up at him.  He swallowed, his jaw clenching for a moment.  For years he never risked letting his imagination run to this place, but then it was happening, and he let himself sink down, closing his eyes as his lips brushed against hers.  He backed off to look down at her, her gaze full on him.  “Gregor. . .”

            His heart raced, and then he heard his voice, whispering the one thing he yearned to say for so long.  “Maggie, I love you.”

            He kissed her again, and she held him to her, and he had little thought for cities, or Saanos, or what was to come of them in the days to follow.

 

***

 

            Gregor could hear himself sob as he trembled in the knotted center of the Saanos-7.  Despite his grief, it was anger and resentment that formed the brunt of his emotional turmoil.  He screamed, deafening himself in the little control pit as he closed his eyes and threw the massive bulk of the Saanos-7 into the hillside he had torn open.

            The valley shuddered.  The many trailing articulated arms of the Seven flailed in the air as its weight sent it sliding into the bowl he had dug.  It came to a halt with a boom that resounded across the landscape, masking the racket of the many Saanos-1’s and 2’s spraying frantic constructor streams to foster the nascent city’s burgeoning foundations.

 

***

 

            It was evening when Gregor returned to the retreat, his face a stolid mask.  Maggie returned earlier in the day to pack her things while Gregor followed the now superficial pursuit of overseeing the final assembly of the Saanos-7 and the so-called firing of its power plant.  The leviathan was ready to work, but there would be no work.

            He encountered no security personnel in the retreat, and walked its ornate halls with growing suspicion at this oddity, so unlike Karl’s obsession for notions of safety and privacy.  He emerged in the wooden dome to find Karl alone, seated before a large planning table.  A holographic display of the valley glowed above the table.  Karl looked through it to glare at Gregor before summoning him to the table with a wave.  “I want to show you something,” Karl said and pointed to the hologram.  “Our engineering corps finalized the subterranean infrastructure plans.  They’re being uploaded to the Saanos-1’s and 2’s so they can start tomorrow.  I see you have the Seven set to go.  You’ll have a busy day tomorrow.  Have you deduced your vision?”

            Gregor stopped beside the table, across the hologram from Karl.  As decided as he was, he felt a deep, sudden remorse, because he detested the notion of hurting this old man that had been so good to him, that had done so much for him, and asked so little in return.  But then he thought of the whispers of the audio files, and rallied himself for the confrontation.  “No,” he said.  “I have no vision.”

            Karl shrugged.  “No matter.  You have several days before you’ll have to address the urban over-structure.  And with days come nights, and with nights, well, you know how it is.  In the dark, creativity always runs wild through the consciousness of the creative mind.”

            “I have no vision for this city,” Gregor repeated.

            “Yes, I heard you.”

            “And I never will, because I’m not going to build it.”

            Karl glared at him.  He crossed his arms on his chest.  He looked away, and picked up a steak knife to slice off a piece of smoked meat from a plate resting on his side of the table.  He chewed, seeming to ignore Gregor, but waved the point of the steak knife to a location of the hologram.  Gregor looked down to find a green color-coded pipe—a sewage pipe—that trailed up the side of the valley and over its edge, straight through the spot where he had lain with Maggie. 

Gregor’s eyes widened.  He looked up to find Karl staring at him.

“Did you think I wouldn’t know?” Karl said with deceptive calm.  “It called for a slight adjustment.  You didn’t respond to the audio files quite as I expected.”

            Gregor failed to find his voice.  He stared in mute shock.

            “Maggie knew the rules, but she wasn’t strong enough.  She decided not to wait to understand what I was trying to do here, what I had planned for so long and with such care.  She is your inspiration.  I know this.  Your love, never recognized, that was to be the driving force, the tragedy behind your genius.  It was why I brought her here for you to see again, to drive that nail a little deeper into your heart.  I gave you the opportunity to create a final masterpiece, but no, you two thought you knew better.  So now you have forced me to reintroduce the tragedy by less subtle means.  Perhaps you will be better, creating through anguish, rather than through joy.”

            Gregor retreated a step from the table.  “What have you done?”

            Karl tipped his head, but he looked away and sliced off another piece of meat.

            Gregor ran from the room.  His footfalls echoed in the empty halls of the retreat.  The place, he realized, was abandoned.  It was just him, and Karl.

            He grabbed onto Maggie’s open doorway to stop his charge down the hall.  His fears solidified when he looked into her room.  Her things were scattered about, draws were left half open, a light was still on, but what caught his attention was her flute, the precious wood flute she had made, left out on the floor.  He forced himself forward, his quaking hand reaching down to the flute.

He winced and clutched it to his chest.  “No, no, no!”

            He ran from her room back to the dome to find Karl sitting by the hologram table, still eating his smoked meat.  He seemed quite satisfied in his air of apathy.  He paused to sip his red wine before looking over to Gregor.  “Ah, so you see.”

            Gregor gasped.  “Where is she?  What did you do?”

            Karl shrugged.  “You don’t understand, Gregor.  It’s time to play this out.”

            Gregor clenched his fists.  “What did you do with her?  Tell me!”

            “I sent her away, back to that place from whence she came, the whispers of my dreams,” Karl said with a whimsical tone, waving his knife by his head.  He smiled.  “Enough.  I want to tell you a story.  The first time I had my heart replaced, I recognized that mortality would not overlook me.  Being that my DNA was sequenced in full as part of the process to grow my new heart, I made a proposition, a courtesy in return for a large investment of capital.  I knew I wasn’t one to marry and, as such, not one to have legal heirs.  I ordered the production of an heir, one very much to my requests—a boy, my little Saanos-8.  But being that this boy had certain flaws—in particular, certain areas of his memory—I requested the crafting of a second child.  I asked the technicians to be creative.  They came back to me with a young woman, her mind imprinted with vague memories of a generalized childhood.  That project was Saanos-9, but I decided to name her Margaret LaFey—my dear, sweet, Maggie.  And the boy, yes, the boy, well, I decided to name him Gregor.”

            Gregor felt dizzy.  “You, you made me?”

            Karl sighed. 

            “And then, you, you made Maggie?”  Gregor swayed on his feet, the awful realization hitting him.  He looked down to the flute.  Nausea swept over him.  He wanted to scream, he wanted to cry, he wanted to tear his eyes out.  He wanted to see her again, hold her and tell her he loved her anyway, and kill the disgusting secret truth, kill it by—

            Karl glanced at him.  “I know.  It’s repulsive, your consummation with her.  That’s why it was not supposed to happen.  She is your sister, but more than that, she is your complimentary opposite, because each of you is almost all of me.”  He sliced another wedge of meat, his eyebrows arching in thought.  “The two of you together, well, it is so very incestuous, if you consider the philosophical aspects of such a thing.  Then again, perhaps I should have seen its inevitability, the yearning of two lesser halves to reunite to their greater whole.”  He looked up to Gregor as he chewed the meat before offering a shrug.  “You understand this, yes?”

            Gregor’s heart froze in his chest. 

            “You will never see her again,” Karl said.  “Ever.  I’m dying, and there’s nothing more that can be done for me.  This city was to be our eternal achievement.  It was to be your masterpiece, but artistic triumph is unfortunately realized only through tragedy.  You see, Gregor, the heart must bleed.  It must bleed.”

            Gregor fell back a step, his hands dropping to his sides before his knees gave out and he slumped to the floor.  He felt disemboweled, he felt disowned, betrayed in every possible way he could conceive, and worse, worse than anything, was the dawning realization, the agonizing realization, that Karl had planned this for so very long, all that time smiling upon him even as Karl plotted his agony and ruin.

Gregor sprang to his feet in rage.  The emotion was something so new, so alien to him, he was powerless to resist or control its madness.  He charged around the table and slapped his hands around Karl’s throat.  His momentum was too much, toppling Karl from his stool to send them both to the floor.  Karl’s head whipped down on the stone tiles, smashing against them with an awful crack as Gregor fell on top of him with a shriek.  He rolled over, the steak knife buried in his belly, only to see Karl’s vacant eyes fixed on the dome.

            Gregor clenched his teeth and pulled the knife out with a quick jerk of his hands, clasping his side as his blood spilled.  He laid there, his body losing tension as his mind sank into the delirium of what Karl told him.

Maggie, I ruined you, I destroyed you!  All I wanted to do was love you.

            He gasped her name and rolled onto his back.  He squeezed his eyes shut in a failed effort to hold back his tears.  “No,” he hissed.  “No, Maggie!”  Blood from the wound seeped between his fingers as he screamed.  Ignoring his weeping, he forced himself up on his knees and looked down on Karl.  He spotted the emerald he and Maggie gave as a gift.  With a curse he ripped the chain from Karl’s neck before shuffling to the table to retrieve Maggie’s flute.  Then he made his way to his room, grabbed his notebook, and went back to the dome.  He paused in an archway, looking out into the night to discern the outline of the Saanos-7 where it rose above the trees.

            He took several labored breaths, his gaze locked on the Seven.  He heard the soft bong of wind chimes in the lazy breeze.  He looked down at the flute and staggered toward the Seven, his mind sinking to the murky depths of delirium.

 

***

 

            An excerpt from the Coda Urbani:

THE CITY, as a monument, is meant to outlive its creator, the one who envisioned its form and accompanying function.  But the design, the design remains, and, if it is done right, if the mood of the creation is captured and pure, the emotion that drove it will live on and the city will be its witness and monument, for the created is always connected to the creator by inspiration, and these three prime elements, like the sides of a triangle, can not exist apart.

 

***

 

            Gregor slumped over the auxiliary control rods.  He coughed, his hand dropping from his side to let his blood spill from his belly.  It was impossible to continue.  Despite his failing body, his thoughts raced unchecked.  In those last moments of anguished clarity that remained in his life, his vision achieved its full form and became the final instructions of the Saanos-7.

            The mighty machine, possessed by its mindless urge to follow the vision, didn’t stop itself.  It drew pipes from a deep bin near its base, clutching them in its metallic tentacles before impaling itself, driving the thick pipes through its metal innards until they emerged from the hillside.  The machine sputtered, billowed smoke, but nevertheless finished its orders.

            The ground trembled, cracked, and fell upon the alloy hull of the Seven, burying it in the side of the valley as the Saanos-1’s and 2’s scurried about to finish their labor.  When their work was done, they too fulfilled their orders by plunging their masses into the senile depths of a nearby lake.

 

***

 

            An excerpt from the prologue of ‘Paradise Crumbled: The Enigma of Karl Saanos’:

What is one to think, looking at this, this empty thing one can barely call a city?  It sits in a valley, its buildings set in strange geometric patterns that analysts say can only be appreciated from space.  The structures, scattered about the glistening river of the valley, are small and simple, like so many little mausoleums, and come in several discernable types, the units of each type forming the points of triangles, with the triangles merging into larger matrices that certain intrigued mathematicians have mapped to produce repeating sets of prime numbers.  Each set culminates with the number seventeen.  What significance that number carries no one has been able to say, and it remains part of the city’s mystery.

            Yet the haunting beauty of the place is not to be denied, even if it lacks any possibility of being occupied as a city.  There is no infrastructure to speak of—no electricity, no plumbing, nothing.  In fact, the utter lack of such things suggests that perhaps this city, for whatever reason, was never meant to have residents, and so it earned its odd name, the City of Never.

            In the twenty years since its completion not one of these mysteries has been solved, even by interrogating the former employees of the now defunct Saanos Development.  With the unsolved murder of Karl Saanos the company unraveled, and all in its employ—even me, Karl’s biographer—have been left with no recourse.  As to the cities Saanos left behind, it seems there was a fatal flaw in the constructors that formed the cities.  This has led to the exponential decomposition of the constructor material and the inevitable collapse of many buildings to piles of dust.  All but the City of Never, which, by circumstance or some hidden agenda, will not suffer the same fate.  The soil used by the constructors in the city’s founding is unique to the valley in which it sits.  With the secrets of the constructors lost, it’s now impossible to tell.

            All that as it is, people still come to this valley to look upon the empty city, the city that will never be lived in, the paradox of a city built as a ghost town.  Even as tourists and students alike come to study the place and often mumble as to the waste of its construction, their eyes are inevitably drawn to the now densely vegetated hillside that contains the wreckage of the Saanos-7.  They stare at the gleaming pipe ends poking from the ground, not understanding until the late evening winds come to the valley.  Channeled through whatever maze of piping exists unseen to the eye, a new sound comes to the valley.

            It’s not the clank and roar of the once mighty Saanos-7, but something that only adds to the mystery, yet completes the experience, and leaves many who come here speechless.  Although I have spent many days here trying to figure how this place fits into the unsolved death of the greater mystery that was Karl Saanos, I too wonder what it means.

            For it is music, music like that of a wood flute, whispering a sad melody through the valley under the starlit night.

                                                                                                                      -L.  Latham

    

(END)

 

 
     
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