A clear plastic wall, about twelve feet high, surrounded the city for as far as I could see. A man in a uniform very similar to a police officer’s stood outside the wall. He held out his hand in a “stop” gesture. Strapped to his back was a large, clear bucket, filled with various coins and bills.
“You’ll have to pay the toll if you want to get into the city.”
I remembered what Dad said about not talking to anyone so I kept my mouth shut.
“You can’t make us pay to go in there.”
“Can you read this?” he said, pointing to a patch on the left side of his chest.
“Actually, I can’t,” Dad said.
“You must not be from around here then.”
“What language is that?”
It looked like a bunch of symbols and things only resembling letters.
“That’s the new Universal Language. Anyway, it says ‘Travelease.’ In case you don’t know, Travelease owns all the sidewalks in the city. So if you plan on using the sidewalks, you’ll have to pay.”
“Then we’ll just walk on the road,” Dad said.
“One: that’s illegal. Two: do you really want to walk on them?” He gestured through the gate, into the city. The sidewalk was relatively clean but the road seemed to be filled with at least an inch of something resembling raw sewage.
Dad decided to react the same way he always had when he didn’t want to pay something—with extreme anger.
“That’s outrageous!” he cried. “What kind of city is this? Sewage in the streets! Some hokey Universal Language!”
The guard cut him off. “Now now, best not to go insulting the city like that. The Universal Language was the easiest way for all the businesses to communicate with everyone without offending anyone. If you don’t like it, you can just walk around.”
One of the bodyguards approached the guard just as Dad drew back his fist, most probably to punch the uniformed man in the stomach, and offered him a wad of cash. I couldn’t really tell if the guard could see the bodyguard or not, but he took the money and put it into the canister fastened to his back, turning to press a button embedded in the gate. It shushed back into itself and the guard said, “You folks have a pleasant evening in Home City.”
The eight of us walked into the city. The sidewalks were jammed with people, all of them ducking into the shopfronts, looking at all the garish advertising, talking, arguing and fighting with one another. A man came up to us and said, “Hey hey! Y’all need a tour guide. Can’t do the city right without a tour guide. And you,” he pointed to me. “You need some shoes. I’ve got a pair right here that would fit you real nice.” He bent down and began taking off his shoes. We collectively ignored him.
Our group continued walking. He followed after us for a while, continuing to squawk. The road was jammed with cars and trucks, taxis. The smell of exhaust mixing with the sewage was overwhelming. People came out of the shops carrying armloads of things. Some of them went straight to a dumpster where they dumped all of their purchases before going into the next store. All the stores were very brightly lighted and filled with people. I heard one woman call out, “Watches are the most important thing in the world to me!” before collapsing onto the middle of the showroom floor.
On the other side of the street was a church. It was one of the tallest buildings, the steeple rising absurdly into the sky. I couldn’t be sure but I think it had a radio tower at the top of it. Over the door, a sign flashed in the Universal Language. In fact, all of the signs were in this Universal Language so I didn’t know what any of them were for. Most of them were advertisements but I didn’t know what they were advertising unless there was some kind of picture along with the words. The church had a strip club on the left hand side and a bar on the right hand side. A priest or minister or whatever waited outside each venue, waiting to lure people into the church as they came out. The strip club must have been a hundred stories tall, a girl dancing in each window. Of course they weren’t naked. Nudity, here, would probably cost a fortune.
We continued moving.
“If I were a travel agent,” Dad said. “Where would I be?”
The onion-faced bus driver came out from behind one of the buildings and, before I even knew what I was doing, I ducked behind one of the bodyguards. Onionhead fired off a round and another bodyguard went down. The other five formed a wall between Onionhead and me and Dad. She ran back behind the building and I wondered why she didn’t just stay and try and pick off the remaining five bodyguards. Dad seemed oblivious to it all. He was counting on his fingers and looking up into his head as if trying to remember some vital bit of information. I just stood there and watched him, hating almost everything around me. I didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to make it here. My head pounded. My thoughts swam. A group of men in front of us had formed a ladder, trying to make it to the second story of a building, muttering something about “Control.”
People dashed on every side of us, bumping into us, pushing us.
“I can’t hear myself think!” Dad shouted. “Quick! Follow me!”
He picked up his pace. Now two bodyguards walked in front of us, two behind us, and one on the side facing the street. We reached the end of the block and turned left into an alleyway. When we came out of the alleyway we stood in what I guessed was the center of Home City. Everything here was even larger and gaudier than what we had left behind. Dad ducked into another alley until we were behind yet another building. It wasn’t even dark in these areas. There were advertisements targeted at the homeless. It offered them essentials like food, cigarettes, and alcohol in exchange for organs. All of this I picked up from the pictograms accompanying the ads. Dad found something that resembled a giant plug with a giant cord coming from it. He grabbed it and, after struggling with it for a few moments, a couple of the bodyguards helped him tug the plug out of the socket. Once the plug was out, the city went quiet.
“There,” Dad said.
I imagine he thought this would bring about some sort of calm but it was just the opposite. Pandemonium broke out. There were loud explosions. Single gunshots became submachinegun fire. Cars rammed into each other and just kept going. Mobs and riots broke out. Looting ensued. Still, the noises of humans destroying one another and the buildings around them was quieter than the technodrone of the powered city.
“We’d probably better get out of here,” Dad said. “God only knows what will happen if they find out we’re the ones who pulled the plug.”
We all took off running back down the alley, trying to avoid the main throngs of people. Eventually, we came to a building resembling a giant ship and Dad slapped his forehead with the heel of his hand. This is what we had been looking for. He opened the door and we filed in. A pirate-looking man sat in the middle of the floor surrounded by candles. He held a broadsword and an antique pistol, just waiting for someone to break in although his door wasn’t locked. He raised the pistol and fired. Another bodyguard went down. Now we were down to four.
“Wait! Wait!” Dad said, waving his hands wildly in front of him. “We’re here to book a passage.”
I almost thought the guy would talk with some sort of trite pirate accent but he just said, “Where do you want to go?” In his voice was the boredom of someone who has been everywhere, always in search of something new and exciting and finding nothing.
“We need to go to the island of the Nefarions,” Dad said.
“That can be arranged,” he said. “It won’t be cheap.”
“I didn’t figure it would be.”
“When would you like to go?” he asked.
“As soon as possible.”
“We have a ship leaving in the morning. Is that soon enough?”
“That’ll be fine,” Dad said.
“How many people?”
“Two.” I wasn’t sure if this man could see the bodyguards either. I would have thought I was crazy if it wasn’t for all the physical, tangible things they had done for us.
“Very well,” the man said. “It’s all set.”
“How much?” Dad asked.
“How much do you have?”
Dad dug into his pockets and handed the man what amounted to about twenty dollars.
“Not enough,” the man said.
The bodyguards stepped forward and rained money down onto the man.
“I think that’ll be just fine. You’ll board just over the hill outside the city. Do you have a place to stay this evening?”
“We can’t stay here,” Dad said.
“Of course not. Why would you want to? On top of the hill there is a large tree. Under that tree is a small shack equipped with beds and covers. You’re welcome to stay there. If there’s someone inside just tell them to get out. You may have to fight them.”
“Thank you,” Dad said.
We exited the building and began making our way to the other side of the city. Since everything was so large, we had a lot further to walk than we had thought at first. A bodyguard got in front of me and crouched down. I hopped on his back. Dad did the same even though he couldn’t see that he was hopping onto a back. The bodyguards moved at a gallop and we reached the edge of the city just as the power came back. It was like a continuous shriek of feedback. A guard stood at the gates and tried to charge us for leaving. He was dressed in a much shabbier uniform than the first guard. His looked like it had been pulled from the trash. Dad punched him in the stomach and the gates opened. Astride our bodyguards, we made our way to the hill with the really big tree at the top of it.