Short Story – Lotus Eater

A Hyundai, or rather the wreck of one, stood slumped by the side of a road. A corroded frame, the interior of which had been rendered unrecognizable; by decay and plant life. Hungry vines tore without mercy at the springs and wiring. Mold-like fungi had embedded themselves in all available cracks and spaces, slowly expanding and breaking the structure apart.
I sat slumped against a concrete wall. A sun-bleached flier advertising Utopia City fluttered above my head.
There hadn’t been a patrol helicopter in sight for several hours. Sundown, and the cover it would give, was nearing. The rest of my group – or tribe, or whatever noun describes them best – was currently in an abandoned factory building, presumably cooking dinner and unpacking our mattresses.
The search parties had grown increasingly common as we trekked towards the city. Until now we had managed to stay unseen; We traveled by night, assigned guards every hour of the day. Kept to tunnels and ruins, avoiding open ground. We had no plan. How could we have had one? We knew nothing about Utopia City. No one who’d entered, as a captive of the search patrols or by free will, had ever returned. Not a single person among the wasteland scavengers and wanderers knew what lurked behind the ivory-colored walls.
Perhaps we were scouts. I think most of us saw ourselves as such. A ragtag group of freedom fighters, whose goal was to get in, see our enemy, and get out. Perhaps afterward, when we knew what we were up against we could organize a resistance force, we thought. How naive. Nearly all of the wastelanders scattered across the crumbling cityscapes would be incapable of fighting. They were diseased, famished. A lot of them had gone insane, slowly rocking back and forth in the corners of cellars and bedrooms. Our ambitions were delusional.
Others had fled, but that was just as futile. There was not, is not, just one Utopia City. They are scattered across the globe. I know now that nearly all inhabited land on Earth is regularly surveyed by the patrols.
I was called back to the camp for food. One of the others, who was done eating, took my place at the lookout post. I don’t remember who, now. All their faces blurred together, and I imagine mine didn’t differ. Pale skin, tightly draped directly on the bones. Dry lips, sunken eyes. Hair that, no matter how it had once looked, was now long and unkempt and colored a uniform greasy brown.
I don’t remember the food. I assume it was soup.

The next day we saw the city for the first time. A clutter of white shapes emerging from the ash-like concrete ruins on the horizon. I remember comparing the city to a skull then. The face of damnation, grinning at the cadaver of the nation it had killed.
The terrain before us was difficult to travel. The land was moist, and when there was no one left to maintain buildings and roads, nature had begun to reclaim it. Large parts of was flooded with muddy water.Vines and slender swampland trees had taken control of the rest, going as far as to scale the dangerously tilting skyscrapers.
I remembered, though vaguely, the time before. A time when Man was the master of Nature. When plants and animals, even the climate itself, was thought of as fragile and weak. In need of protection, lest we should destroy it by accident. That all changed with Utopia City. The Utopia Cities. In only a few years, those who maintained and developed were gone. Some of the younger members of our group – younger than I – knew only the present. They had never experienced material wealth.

I had a machete; The blade part of a paper cutter I had found in some office weeks ago. Some of the others had axes and kitchen knives. We hacked and slashed our way through the mass of vegetation.
Patrols were no problem. Four or five times we heard the chugging of helicopter rotors, but the undergrowth made us as invisible to them as they were to us.
We never stopped. Occasional walls of roots that needed cutting provided us with natural breather pauses. The only food we had left was dry chunks of stray dog, which we could just as well eat while walking. The landscape didn’t encourage resting either. With all electricity long gone and the sun completely blocked, there was only the damp, suffocating darkness.
Some hours after sundown we arrived, soaked and freezing, at the walls. Where we stood, we faced an unscalably sleek surface. However, about fifty meters to the left, sculptured letters emerged. Then I barely remembered how to read, and I was in any case too tired to care. Now, I know what was written. What is still written: ‘Convincing illusion renders reality obsolete’.
We fashioned ropes of vines. Those who had walked behind – that is, those who didn’t wield tools and who therefor were less exhausted – were given the task of climbing ahead. They crept upwards, slowly, searching with bony fingers for the most sturdy places to fasten the ropes. One by one, loose ends were thrown down towards the rest of us, and we followed.
There were no watchtowers, no guards or sentries. I think we got up unnoticed. The summit had a walkway, like on a medieval fortification. It was connected by thin bridges to two pearly-white and futuristic silos. We followed a stairway circling around one of silos to the ground.
We now stood in a plantation, among rows of corn illuminated only by the moon. Where the field ended a tower stood, startlingly bright against the night sky. We stopped, had a short and whispered discussion, and decided to go there. Our footsteps were silent against the soil. Ominous machines stood in the distant darkness around us. Eventually we reached a staircase; a few broad marble steps that led to the main entrance of the tower. The door opened by itself as we approached; Disappeared into the door frame with a faint swooshing sound. There was a short hallway in front of us, so well lit that we were momentarily blinded. Once again we had a a hushed conversation, and decided to split up into two groups. I and two more with me, would venture forwards. The rest, about five or six people, would hide and guard the entrance.
After walking a while, we found ourselves one member short. The third person in our group – a girl in her mid-twenties – had stopped a while behind us. The source of light in the corridor was two rows of lamps; one row per wall and a distance of around two meters between each lamp. They were built-in and grew dimmer towards the edges, so that the transition between lamp and wall was indistinguishable. The girl stood in front of one, staring in amazement and disbelief. We pulled her away. After a moment she snapped to her senses and followed.

We reached the door at the far end. It was somewhat smaller than the one at the entrance, but swooshed open in the same way. Despite the splendor we’d already seen, the sight that we now beheld amazed all three of us. We were in the central room, which stretched vertically through the entire height of the tower. Rows and rows of grate catwalks lined the walls, connected to each other by short stairs in the same style and material. Along each such walkway was a row – interrupted only by said stairs and occasional doorways – of technological pods; Slightly tilted, around two meters tall and one wide. They were made of polished plastic and metal, but had transparent lids.
There were people on the catwalks, far above us. They were spread out wide, one or two people for every dozen rows of pods. I gestured to my companions to retreat back into the hallway, and started making my way forwards as stealthily as I could. My decision to go alone was less motivated by bravery than some obsolete notion of chivalry. Or something.
I reached one of the pods, and I’m fairly certain no one had seen me yet. The lid was foggy with condensation. Beneath it, a fleck of pale pink could be vaguely perceived.
The reason for what I did next, I do not know. It wasn’t a rational decision. Perhaps I did it because no other course of action seemed possible. Perhaps it was just a desire for destruction, a frustrated attempt at accomplishing something. In any case, the actual event can’t be denied. I lifted my foot, the right one. Focused most of my remaining strength in it, and kicked.
I expected a satisfying crash, an explosion of shattered glass. Instead I got the low-pitched groan of fissuring plastic. I kicked a few more times, grabbed the large semi-shard I had caused, and bent it loose. I threw it aside. It wobbled mournfully on the floor.
Inside the pod was a human. A middle-aged man of South American complexion, clad in a simple hospital gown and surrounded by intricate machinery. He seemed to be sleeping. I noticed a mess of wires going from the back of the pod to a set of outlets in the floor, and started tearing them loose. The man twitched, momentarily terrified, but then went back to looking sleepy. I attempted to pull him up by the collar and shake him, but was too exhausted. He slumped backwards again, blinking.
‘What is..’ I started, but suddenly remembered the people on the catwalks. I looked over my shoulder, but it seemed like I was still unnoticed. I lowered my voice to a whisper, and continued.
‘What is this place? What is going on?’
‘Who are you?’ the man mumbled.
‘The machines,’ I said, ‘What are the goddamned machines?’
‘The pods? Um, the pods…’
‘What do they do? What do the machines do!?’ I said, all stealth again forgotten.
‘They… Who are you? Where do you come from?’
I pulled by machete from my belt and held it toward him with a trembling arm.
‘I’m a tough sumbitch with a big knife!’ I screamed. ‘What are these goddamned machines and what do they do!?’
Somebody grabbed my shoulder. I turned around. It was a woman in her 40s, wearing a tasteful gray business suit.
‘Paradise City’ she said ‘is a community built to minimize negative human impact on the environment. A data network that can be connected brains of inhabitants gives them access to a global database of culture. It also offers contact with all other inhabitants worldwide, excepting those currently deciding to stay in private mode. Furthermore, programs compatible with the processes of imagination enables convincing virtual reality simulations and memory re-experiencing of any type imaginable without the need for manual graphic design. Essentially, these pods eliminate the need to spend time in the physical world for all purposes but machine maintenance, nourishment and exercise.’
Despite having understood only a fraction of what she had said, I got the essence. Got, not comprehended. I stood dumbfounded. There was a metallic clink, probably my machete dropping to the floor.
Most of the people on the catwalks had noticed the scene by now. They were making their ways downwards, moving with the unmistakable demeanor of curiosity. There is a metallic clink, probably my machete dropping to the floor. The South American man slumps backwards again, blinking, and the room fades to gray. There is a metallic clink, probably my machete dropping to the floor.
A stylized depiction of a sepia photo – the LifeTyme logo – appears in front of me. After a second or two it vanishes. The lid slides aside, wiping off the condensation against a strip of black rubber. I sleepily massage my neck, and stand up. A nearby monitor informs me that the time is 06:01 on the thirteenth of August. It’s my turn to make a routine check on the automated farming machinery.

I make my way to one of the upper exits. I pause at the edge of the outdoor bridge, breathe the chilly morning air. I continue across, reach the walkway of the fortification and head left, towards the garages. I stop again, and look outside the city wall. I gaze, still somewhat sleepy, at the crumbling structures of asphalt and concrete. I notice a Citroën, or rather the wreck of one, that stands by the side of a road. A corroded fame, the interior of which has been rendered unrecognizable by decay and plant life. Vines and fungi have taken control, nourishing themselves on the materials within. Their tendrils seek out all matter unspoiled by purification, and gradually reclaim it in the name of the soil.

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