Discover more from A Flash in the Pan
The Golden City: Part II
Jack and old Sam reach the Golden City. What will they discover?
Issue 22: Sunday 12 March 2023
In the previous episode:
Jack Cobb was down on his luck, getting into trouble with the tanner whose hides he need to buy so his father could make shoes. Then he met Sam, an old man who was obsessed with crossing the deadly barrier to the City where the rich folk lived. With Sam’s help, Jack manages to find a way across the barrier. As the previous episode ended, Jack began to run towards the golden tower.
The gardens at the foot of the city were shaped into low grass-covered hills and shallow valleys. Small trees and artfully-arranged piles of rocks dotted the artificial landscape. To Jack, it was all strange, far more lavish than even the fanciest garden he’d seen, owned by the richest merchant living on the other side of the Fence.
He ran over grass and stone, weaving a little to follow the contours of the land, and all the time expecting to hear the sound of alarms and cries, or even to feel the pain of one of the magical weapons of the City People. But there was nothing.
After a time, as his breath started to come hard, he came to a sudden stop. He had almost run into the side of the City itself. He had always seen it from afar, and it was so huge that there was no scale to apply to it. The City. He was really here. He reached out and touched the smooth wall, ran his hands over it. It seemed to be made of a dark glass, so dark he couldn’t see through it.
He looked back, to see Sam slowly working his way towards him over one of the low hills. Even over the distance that separated them, Jack could hear the old man wheezing and gasping. Jack waited for him, suffering agonies of impatience. When he finally caught up, Sam’s nose was tinged with blue, and his breath came in great racking gasps. “Stop… stop a moment.., lad, for the love of God. Oh God. Just a moment.” And Sam sat down with his back against the wall of the City.
Terrified they were going to be caught, Jack looked about on either side. But it seemed they had not set off any alarms, and here against the very wall of the City, it was surely impossible for them to be seen from inside the City itself. They were safe enough for the moment.
After a few minutes, the natural colour began to come back to Sam’s face, and his racking gasps of air slowed. “Ah, lad, that wasn’t too good. I’m too old, too old.” Then he sat up and looked about them. “But lad, we’re in. You broke the Fence, you wonder. This is the day I’ve dreamt of, lad, getting inside the City… I never thought you’d do it. I was sure you’d be killed stone dead.”
“Then you should have stopped me,” Jack said crisply. “But we’re not inside the City, anyway. We’re on the outside, still, and I don’t see how we’re going to get in.” He had hardly thought beyond crossing the Fence.
“There has to be a door, lad. You go look for it while I catch my breath.”
Jack nodded, and began to stride along the level pathway which ran beside the wall, perhaps circling the whole City. Surely there must be an opening in the wall somewhere?
It wasn’t easy. In fact, after about a quarter of an hour, Jack despaired and decided to head back to Sam. Perhaps the nearest door was in the opposite direction. He had almost reached the old man, who was still sitting against the wall, when one of the panels of dark glass slid silently aside and someone came out. Jack gave a cry of alarm and stopped in his tracks.
Not someone. Some thing had come out.
If it was a person, it was very short – a dwarf who barely came up to Jack’s waist. And it was clad entirely in metal, like one of the knights in the old picture book his mother had shown him once. The dwarf came out, seemed to spin a half circle, and faced him. The glass panel closed again without a sound. Jack cursed himself a little for not dodging in when he had the chance. But then, the dwarf might have stopped him.
The dwarf had two enormous glass eyes, spaced on each side of its head. The eyes swivelled up and down, examining Jack. He was ready to start running at any moment. Surely he would be able to outrun this little person, with its short legs… Except that now Jack saw that it didn’t have legs. It was moving, balanced, on a single fat wheel. Was this some kind of mechanism, then? Like the expensive, fancy clocks he had seen in the market, which popped out little tweeting birds every hour?
It turned its huge eyes downwards. From somewhere it drew a cloth, and before Jack could react, the thing was polishing the dust from his boots! It looked up again, and Jack fancied that the dwarf was examining his rough clothing with a degree of contempt.
But at least it didn’t seem as though this thing was going to attack him, or sound some kind of alarm. Could it understand him if he spoke to it? Jack gestured frantically to Sam, who began to clamber to his feet, his mouth opening in astonishment when he saw the dwarf.
“We want to get into the City,” Jack said to it slowly and loudly, as though talking to an idiot. “Inside, see?” He tapped the glass wall behind him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sam hurrying up and could hear his wheezing breath.
“Let us in,” Jack repeated to the metal thing.
The dwarf paused for a moment as though puzzled. Then it spun on its wheel and the huge glass panel slid aside again. It rolled in, its head turned so that it looked back at them as it went. Jack grabbed hold of Sam’s arm and they quickly followed the dwarf.
Inside. Inside the City! Jack’s heart was galloping inside his chest like a bolting horse.
They were in a short corridor, lined with the same dark glass as the outer walls. The dwarf sped ahead of them, and they hurried to follow it. Before long, they came out into a great hallway, whose ceiling was covered in a fantastic pattern of crystal shapes. Its walls were lined with dozens of silver doors. There was no one in sight.
The dwarf looked up at them with its huge glass eyes, then apparently deciding that its work was done, a small glass panel slid aside in a wall and it dodged in. Before Jack could decide to follow, the panel slid back, and the dwarf was gone.
Jack and Sam stood looking about them. If they were going to find anything to steal, they would have to pass through one of these silver doorways, that was certain.
Jack fidgeted in anxiety. Now that they had performed the impossible feat of actually entering the Golden City, his fear had taken over his foolhardiness. At that moment all he wanted to do was get out of the City and run away to tell the tale. But then he glanced at Sam, who was standing looking around with his almost toothless mouth wide open, but showing no sign of fear.
Perhaps Sam was too old to be afraid? After all, the old man had little life left to lose. Then Jack cursed to himself. What was he thinking of, to let an old man show him up in bravery? He straightened his back, quietened his heart, and strode forward to the nearest set of silver doors.
He pushed at the doors, but they did not move. There were no handles, and the doors were perfectly smooth, meeting evenly together in the centre. Perhaps they were locked, only to be opened by a special signal? He looked about. There was a small square of crystal next to the doorway. He reached out, intending to see if it would turn, but as soon as his hand touched it, a light came on inside the crystal, and the doors opened. As simple as that.
Jack glanced quickly in through the open doors. No one was in sight, just another wall. “Sam”, he called, and the old man looked around and nodded. To his surprise, he saw that Sam was now weeping.
The old man smiled and wiped away the tears with a ragged, dirty sleeve. “Well done, lad, well done. Now we have to be quick, or we’ll be caught. We’ll dash in and grab some of the golden plates, and we’ll be off out again. Right?” Jack nodded.
Jack turned away to examine more carefully what lay behind the silver doors. It seemed to be just a very small room. He stepped inside, with old Sam right behind him.
The room was hardly big enough for them to stretch out their arms, and there seemed to be no other exits. It was a dead end. Puzzled, Jack looked up, and saw that there was no ceiling to the room. It was like being at the bottom of an enormously deep well. He gave a grunt of surprise, and Sam looked up, too.
“It’s a mystery, that’s what it is, lad.” Sam said. “Have a look down.” Jack looked down, and his heart gave a leap. The floor of the room was the same yellow colour as the Fence! They could have been killed, squashed flat, just stepping into the room. It must be a trap.
Even as he thought that, the silver doors shut with a click behind them. In sudden panic, Jack pounded on them, until Sam shook his shoulder. “Now, lad, keep calm. We’re not dead yet. Let’s have a think about this, and see what we can do.” Trembling, Jack looked upwards. The shaft seemed to go on and on, with no end to be seen. In any case, the walls were smooth, and there was no way he could climb up even a few yards, even if he could see an opening above.
He looked down, and saw that old Sam was examining two long columns of tiny crystal squares set next to the inside of the doors. “Touch one!” Jack said. “Maybe they open the door, like the one outside.”
Sam frowned. “Then why so many? There’s a few hundred squares here, I reckon. Can you read, lad?” Jack shook his head, and Sam sighed. “No more can I, now that my eyes are bad. There’s something written small on each of the squares. Never mind. Let’s see what happens when…” And Sam reached out and touched one of the crystal squares.
Jack was expecting the silver doors to open at once. Instead, his stomach gave a lurch, and he was falling. He gave a cry, and flailed out with his arms, hitting old Sam, who was falling with him too.
At every moment, Jack was expecting to strike the ground with a shattering smash, and to die a moment later. But then his eyes, contradicting his senses, told him that something impossible was happening. They were falling upwards! Up the great well.
The walls whizzed by so fast he could hardly see them, and the yellow floor was disappearing rapidly below. Then, moments later, they seemed to slow, and eventually come to a halt. Another floor slid out from the walls under their feet, and with immense relief, Jack felt his feet on something solid once more. He gave a gasp, and sat down, feeling as though he was going to vomit. Old Sam was lying collapsed on the new floor, looking green and blue at the same time. “Are we dead?” the old man said in a croaking whisper.
“No,” said Jack, “more’s the pity.” Then he saw that there was a new set of silver doors in front of them, and that these doors were now opening silently. Not prepared to let the chance slip, Jack clambered to his feet, picked Sam up bodily and dragged him through the doors.
Then Jack’s legs gave way again, and he collapsed to the floor with old Sam sprawled loosely on top of him.
Jack looked around, expecting at any moment to be surrounded by a crowd of the City People, demanding to know what they were doing breaking into this place. But there was still no one to be seen.
They were in a wide corridor, lying on something soft: a thick, fawn-coloured carpet which stretched away on either side. Above, white light fell from panels in the ceiling, though Jack didn’t think that it could be daylight. They couldn’t be at the very top of the tower. They had ‘fallen’ upwards a long way, but surely not that far.
Gold-coloured doors were set at wide intervals into the walls all along the corridor. Jack couldn’t see the end of the corridor in either direction. There must be hundreds of such doors.
Sam sat up, and groaned. “That’s no way for a mortal man to travel, lad, that’s for sure. Falling upwards! Them City People must be fools. What’s wrong with a nice set of steps?”
But Jack was hardly listening. “Sam!” he said urgently, “Where are they?”
“The City People! Why haven’t we seen any of them?”
Old Sam shook himself, and stood up. “In their rooms, lad, have no doubt of it. They’ll all be wining and dining and looking out of their windows at us poor folk, and laughing all the time. But it’s lucky for us they don’t much seem to like taking strolls outside their rooms. Come on, then, we’ll have to have a look.”
Together, Jack Cobb and old Sam walked down the corridor. Nervously, Jack glanced back to make sure they would be able to find the silver doors again, though he wasn’t looking forward to going back down the well. He had thought of leaving his handkerchief to mark the spot, but now he saw that there was a brightly burning sign hung on the ceiling outside the doors.
Old Sam came to one of the gold-coloured doors. Unlike the silver doors, there was only one, not a pair. But it too had a crystal square set next to it. Sam reached out and touched it. A light came on for a moment, but nothing happened. The door stayed shut. Frowning, Sam paced down the corridor to the next such door and tried again. Again, nothing happened. “It must be a kind of lock, that must be it,” he said. “Anyone can use the falling-well, but only the owner can get inside his room.”
“Perhaps we should just knock?” Jack suggested. But Sam just gave him a foul glance.
They were both becoming fidgety, nervous. Already, their exploit had taken too long. Jack had hoped, somehow, that they could just dash in, grab something valuable and then rush out again without being caught. He should have known it wouldn’t be so easy.
Sam rubbed his grizzled chin with a rasping noise. “Can you smash it lad, do you think? Not the door, mind you, but the crystal? It might be enough, if we’re lucky.”
Jack pondered, then looked down at his belt. His small cobbler’s hammer was still in its pouch. He pulled the hammer out, sized up the crystal square, and delivered the hardest blow be could. It was on target, and the crystal shattered. Sparks flew, and there was a sudden smell of burning. The golden door quivered, seemed to hesitate, and then came half-way open. Jack stood with the hammer raised, expecting to hear cries of outrage from inside. But all was silent. Sam chortled, and squeezed through the gap. Somewhat reluctantly, Jack followed.
Inside was a palace. Or so it seemed at first to Jack, for whom luxury was a straw-filled mattress to sleep on.
A small hallway led into a complex of rooms. The first was clearly a bedroom, with a huge double-bed covered with a fantastically embroidered quilt. Strange devices whose purpose Jack could not imagine stood next to the bed. On the walls were what seemed to be glossy tapestries, showing scenes of cloud-capped mountains.
Another room contained a huge bath, plated with gold-specked tiles. Frowning, Sam fumbled with a lever on the wall. After a moment, steaming hot water came gushing from an outlet to fill the bath. Sam scratched himself underneath his rags, and turned away grinning.
One room had a desk and big grey panels of glass on its walls; there were another two bedrooms, each with its own white-tiled privy; and a room empty of furniture, whose walls were padded with soft material.
Yet another room had a huge table made of beautiful laminated wood. A small door was set into the wall with hundreds of tiny crystal squares next to it. Sam pushed randomly at a few of them, and in a matter of moments, the small door opened to reveal three plates of hot food, with what seemed to be pieces of real meat and fresh vegetables. Sam gave a cry of delight and grabbed at it, passing some to Jack. They scooped up the food in their fingers and ate it as they explored. Finally, they entered a large room filled with a dozen comfortable chairs and small tables. The carpet was white, and even thicker and softer than that in the corridor.
They had examined all of the rooms. There was no one here. The place was empty, though it looked and felt as though the owner had just stepped out for a moment, and would be back very soon. That was an uncomfortable feeling. They sat down on the soft furniture, still munching on handfuls of hot meat, and looked at each other. Almost anything they could carry from these rooms would be worth a fortune at the foot of the City. The embroidered bed-quilt alone could be sold for twenty pieces of silver in the market. And there were dozens of things here made from precious metal. Not gold, perhaps, but strong steel, almost as valuable.
Jack looked at old Sam, and wondered if he felt the same way Jack did. They could escape from the City now, and be rich, but that would leave behind a mystery that would nag at them forever. Why hadn’t they seen any of the City People yet? Had they just been lucky? Sam shook his head. “I know what you’re thinking lad. You don’t want to go back without being able to say that you’ve seen just one of them Golden People.”
Jack said fiercely: “Not just seen one. I’d like to kill one of them and carry back his head, just to prove I’ve been. Imagine, living in places like this, while we…” Anger choked him.
Sam nodded. “It’s no wonder they shut us out with the Fence, all those years ago. Otherwise, all of us Squatters would have rushed in and taken over this place, that we would.”
Jack shook his head. “So will we try another door? Or the falling-well again?”
Sam gave a sad sort of smile, and said “Well lad, I’d like to stay here for a while myself, have a bit more food, maybe a sleep. I’m terrible tired, and it must be night outside by now. Why don’t you have a wander off, and come back a bit later?”
Jack frowned. “But what if I meet one of the City People? Or if the owner of this place comes back and finds you here?”
Sam shrugged. “In the first place, you’re a big lad, and can take care of yourself. And in the second, well, there’s not much of me to be missing if they haul me out and toss me out of the window. The truth of it is, lad, that I’m happy. Nothing I could buy outside the City would make me as happy as I am right now. We’ve shown them City People up, for sure, breaking into their City and whooping it up in one of their own rooms. It’s paradise, lad, that’s what it is. You go off, if you want.”
Jack nodded slowly. He was reluctant to leave the old man, but on the other hand, he wasn’t happy about staying put, not knowing where the City People were, expecting at any moment to be surprised by one of them. He had to find out for himself.
So he left Sam enjoying himself, squeezed out of the broken door into the hallway and set off for the sign that marked the falling-well. He wasn’t looking forward to using it, but there was no choice. He touched the crystal square, and the doors opened obediently. To his relief, there was still a floor there, and not an awful drop.
His legs trembling slightly, Jack stepped in. Before he did anything, he looked carefully at the long columns of tiny crystals on the inside of the doors. There was a faint green light behind one of them, which seemed to be the one that Sam had touched to bring them to this level. Jack couldn’t read, but he knew how to count. Counting carefully, Jack worked out that it was the thirtieth square from the bottom, on the left. He wanted to be able to get back here again.
Above the square indicating the level he was on were hundreds more squares. Jack pondered for a second, and then, bracing himself, he touched the very topmost crystal. In an instant, the floor slid back into the wall and he was falling again, falling upwards. Though he had a flash of panic and his stomach lurched, this time it was a little better: he knew what to expect, and he could keep his fear under control.
As he fell upwards, his speed increased until the walls were just a flickering blur. Then at last, he slowed, and came to a halt. The floor slid back under him, and the doors opened.
Jack gave a gasp of surprise. He was no longer inside the City, but out in the open. He stepped out. It was just after sunset and stars were beginning to twinkle above. It was quite cold, and the air seemed to be thinner, somehow. Jack stood waiting for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. He seemed to be at the edge of a huge area of farmland. What had happened? Had the falling-well transported him miles away from the City?
Then he turned around, and understood. He was on the very roof of the City, perhaps thirty yards from the edge.
Huge transparent walls ran along the edge of the building, keeping out the wind, and preventing anything falling off. From here, Jack could see for what seemed to be hundreds of miles, to the far western horizon, where the red-gold of sunset still hung. The whole roof of the City was covered with farmland, in raised tiers which at first he had thought were hills. Jack could see crops stretching away into the distance on all sides. And there was movement, lots of it. City People at last? Jack stepped back to the side of the falling-well, wanting to keep out of sight. He hefted his hammer, and waited.
But, after a moment, he saw that he had been mistaken. Moving among the nearby crops, tending and weeding, was a steel dwarf, similar but not identical to the one which had let them in to the City. Jack watched it in wonder. It was whizzing up and down between rows of what looked like cabbages, hoeing the soil with its arms. Jack stepped out from the shelter and went closer. The machine paid no attention to Jack at all, even when he came close enough to touch it. He looked around. There were dozens of such machines nearby moving among the crops. One of then was harvesting vegetables and piling them up in a hopper.
Jack began to understand. The City People would never soil their fine hands with such menial work as farming, of course. But they had to eat, and their food had to he grown somewhere. So their wonderful machines did all of the work for them, never stopping for lack of daylight, nor from tiredness.
Stimulated by curiosity, Jack followed one of the harvesting machines for a while, until its hopper was full. Then it turned and rolled towards an opening in the floor, and tipped the contents of the hopper into it. From the opening, Jack heard the sounds of busy machinery just below. His brow furrowed in thought, Jack went back to the falling-well. He would like to see what happened to the crops once they were harvested.
Inside the tiny room once more, he pressed the crystal square just below the one for the roof, and fell only for a fraction of a second as he dropped one level.
The doors opened on a scene of intense mechanical activity. There were thousands of the mobile mechanisms moving around on a vast floor, and huge contraptions as big as a house were in operation. There seemed to be no inner walls here, just supporting pillars, and the activity stretched away as far as Jack could see. But still there were no City People, just machines.
Ignored by the steel dwarves, Jack moved into the area, amazed and filled with wonder. Food was being prepared automatically by the thousands of machines, cut up, cooked, seasoned, and then placed into a complicated sorting device that sped the food in different directions. Jack remembered the food Sam and he had obtained in the room far below, and realised that each of the City People’s rooms must have a device which commanded those machines to select and deliver the right food from this vast cornucopia. Here then, thought Jack, was clear proof that there were thousands of City People in the City, though he had not seen them yet. Someone must be eating all of this food.
But then he moved on further, and saw that enormous quantities of cold and spoiled food were being emptied by the ton into a huge hopper of waste, and conveyed to a machine which churned it up and vomited forth a foul-smelling mash that seemed to be destined to be turned into fertiliser for the roof-farm.
Jack frowned in puzzlement, and paced slowly back to the falling-well. He went down again, stopping at levels at random, and walking out to see what he would find. Most of the top levels of the City seemed to be occupied by automatic machinery carrying out different kinds of manufacturing work. One level was nothing but clothes-making machinery, producing beautiful gowns, shirts and pants, gorgeously embroidered and coloured. And, to Jack’s chagrin, superb and delicate boots and shoes tumbled from one machine. But in another area on the same floor, unworn clothes were being ripped to shreds and fed into a furnace.
As Jack moved further down the building, the living areas began. He wandered through the corridors, smashing at the crystal locks, and sometimes getting access into the rooms. Nowhere did he find another human being. Where were the City People? The busy machines were producing food and goods which were never used, but appeared happy in their ignorance, continuing to produce and destroy at the same time. What had happened to the people these things were intended for? Where had they gone? None of it made any sense.
Filled with confusion, and exhausted from his explorations, Jack stepped back into the falling well and carefully counted up to the thirtieth crystal from the bottom of the left-most column, and then touched it. He would go back and tell Sam that the Golden City was empty, and that he could, if he liked, stay here forever.
Jack found the broken door without difficulty, and squeezed through. He was in a hurry to tell Sam all he had seen. But as he entered the living room, he sensed something was wrong. There was a faint gasping sound. Jack ran in. Sam lay flat on a couch, his face quite blue. Scattered plates surrounded him. The old man was still alive, but just barely. He greeted Jack with a flicker of his eyes, and tried to say something. “It’s all right, Sam,” Jack said in a panic. “Save your breath.”
But Sam was determined to speak. His breath was coming in and out as a ragged wheeze, and it took him many attempts before he could get it out. “Enjoyed… myself… too much… good… happy… die happy…” Then he ceased the struggle, and was silent. After another few minutes, there came a sudden spasm, and a terrible rattle from Sam’s old throat, and it was over. Sam was dead.
Weeping, Jack stood up from the old man’s body, and turned away. Then his legs trembled, and he was forced to sit down on one of the plush chairs, completely exhausted from the combined effect of his emotions and the day’s hard activity. Before he knew it, Jack was asleep.
He was awakened eventually by the sensation of nearby movement. His spine prickling with horror, Jack sat up, half-expecting to see old Sam’s ghost standing over him. But poor Sam was still dead and motionless. The movement was that of one of the steel dwarves, busily moving around the room. There was an open hatchway in one of the walls, from where the thing had apparently come.
The machine was tidying up. It was picking up the discarded plates that lay about poor old Sam, and placing them in its hopper. Some internal device was sucking up scattered pieces of food and dirt from the carpet, and as it passed a small table, it extended an arm to polish its surface.
Jack watched the machine working in pensive silence. The City People had never had to lift a finger to help themselves. Everything was done for them by their wonderful machines. No hard toil for them, no breaking their backs tilling the earth, no piercing their fingers with needles as they sewed garments to keep out the cold, no callouses forming on their hands as they used them to make boots so they could earn enough to eat. Their lives must have been endless comfort and luxury. And now they were gone – wherever they might have gone to – yet their machines still kept on working, growing food, making clothes, all just as though the City People were still here, needing it all. In fact, mused Jack, so far as the machines were concerned, the City People hadn’t needed to exist at all.
Suddenly struck by the direction of his thoughts, Jack sat up straight. But the next instant, something happened which made him forget what he had been thinking.
The dwarf had reached the body of old Sam, lying sprawled and blue on the couch. Touching the hand of the corpse, the machine hesitated for a second, and then reached out two powerful arms to pull Sam from the couch and started to drag him towards the open hatchway.
Shocked, Jack leapt up and grappled with the machine, trying to break its grip on the body. But its mechanical arms were far stronger than Jack’s merely human ones. It paid no attention to Jack’s efforts. Seized by sudden anger, Jack pulled out his hammer and struck blow after blow at the machine, smashing its crystal eyes, and causing blue sparks to fizz and spit from the breaks. Jack kept on smashing, and broke the joint of one of the thing’s arms. It let go of old Sam, spun in a circle, and retreated hurriedly towards the open hatchway. The hatch closed behind it, so tightly that the hatch was almost invisible.
Jack gasped in relief, and sat down. He could not have said why he had been so outraged by the machine’s actions. But like all his people, he had a reverence for the dead, and he also had in his mind the awful image of Sam’s body ending up in that foul-smelling mishmash of wasted food on its way to be fertiliser for the roof-farm.
Then he frowned. Things were starting to come clear in his mind. Whenever one of the City People had died, It was clear, the machines would have come and taken his or her body, and then tidied up afterwards. There would be no sign, a few hours later, that the person had ever existed. So that would explain why Jack and Sam had not come across any skeletons of the City People in their explorations. But that didn’t explain what had caused them to die out in the first place.
Jack stood up. It was time to be gone. Now that Sam was dead, he was starting to feel lonely and afraid, all alone in this vast building. But he wasn’t going to leave Sam here to be turned into fertiliser. He hefted the old man’s body up over his shoulder, and started off.
He was almost out of the broken door before he remembered that the reason they had come into the City in the first place was to steal some treasure. He put the body down for a moment and went to the bedroom to get the embroidered quilt. He tied it like a thick sash over his shoulder and around his waist. Then he stuffed as many small metal items as would fit into his belt and pouch. It was enough. At least he and his father would not starve now, and would be able to buy new hides even if they had to pay someone to deal with the tanner on their behalf.
Burdened by the quilt, it was hard to pick up old Sam as well. But he would manage.
Outside the door was another of the steel dwarves. This one was busily repairing the damage Jack had done to the crystal lock. Despite the heavy weight over his shoulder, Jack stood and watched it for a while. It was delicate and clever in its work, better than any human workman. And it needed no one to supervise its work. If thousands of these things had been created, Jack thought suddenly, why then, human life would be futile. What point would there be in a life where you needed to do nothing at all?
And so, just like that, Jack Cobb understood why there were no City People left. Sobered and depressed, he turned away and walked smartly towards the falling-well.
Back in the crystal hallway on the lowest level, Jack made his way along the short corridor through which they had entered. For a moment, he wondered if he would need to wait for another steel dwarf to appear to let him out. But in the event, the dark glass panel simply slid aside as he approached with his burdens, and he was outside. It was still night-time, but the sky was becoming brighter as dawn approached.
Jack’s arms and legs ached and he felt utterly spent. Old Sam had been old and thin when he was alive, but now that he was dead he seemed to be growing heavier by the moment.
Shifting his burden to make it more comfortable, Jack slowly climbed the shallow hills which surrounded the base of the Golden City and made his way towards where he had broken through the Fence. It seemed a lot further away than he remembered, but he had no fear of missing the spot.
He came to it at last, marked by the shattered remains of the cart. He reached the yellow band and stood looking at the two faint lanes of pale brown that lay across it where the cart’s wheels had passed. He put the old man’s body down and looked back at the City, pondering.
Now that Jack had broken through, any curious person might come along and walk safely across the Fence here. In time, the news would get about that luxury and wealth lay in the City for the taking. Nothing could stop everyone who heard of it from moving into the City. And once there, within a generation or two, their lives futile, they might also die out, leaving no one at all left in the world.
“Sam,” said Jack sadly, “I’d like to bury you properly, but I think you’d be happier doing something else.” He lifted the old man’s body and tossed it onto the yellow band to one side of the ragged lines of brown. The body fell with a awful wet, crunching sound, and Jack was forced to look away, feeling sick. Had he done the right thing? He thought so. Old Sam would be happy to be left within the Fence he had studied so long, and no carrion could come near him where he now lay.
Then Jack picked up the pieces of the smashed cart and one by one tossed them onto the Fence so as to mostly cover the lanes of pale brown. Only when that was done did he pick up the quilt again and carefully pick his way over the shattered wood until he was across the Fence and back in his own land.
He looked back to examine his handiwork. It was perfect. The shattered boards and wheels of the cart, the crushed body of poor old Sam. To anyone who came along, it was clear what had happened. Some fool had tried to drive a cart across the Fence, and been killed doing it. No one would try to cross, knowing they would suffer the same fate.
The sun was rising. Jack Cobb looked up at the Golden City for one last time, sighed, and then turned and headed home.
After a while, he began to whistle.
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved.
About This Story
That’s the end of the story, but not the end of me talking about it. In Part III, out in two weeks, I’ll give what I think is a very interesting account of how the story came to be, how long it took to complete, and who gave me some valuable tips along the way.