2018-03-13 20:30 fiction science-fiction return-to-ebyx Benjamin Brood


They would have to get a camera crew past the militarized zones around the ruined city. M. thought he knew a way, he thought he could do it. He was in contact with one of the guards on patrol, who desperately needed money. "You don't even have to do anything," he told the guard, "all you have to do is, very briefly, absolutely nothing." The man agreed — for a large sum of money he would look the other way and let the broadcast crew through the checkpoint, knowing he would lose his job, maybe worse. "It will be fine," M. lied to him, "just claim ignorance, they can't do anything about it."

The crew would go in as light as possible — just three of them. M. would do the reporting, Orddot would take care of sound and setup, and Heaika would shoot it all. They'd bring enough film for maybe a full day of footage. That should be enough, he thought.

On the morning they were scheduled to leave, Heaika got cold feet. He said he was ill, but M. knew better. Now M. had to scramble — if he was still going, he needed to find a replacement. Nobody would be as good as Heaika. And M. was angry that someone else would know know about their project, it was important that it remain secret, not just for legal reasons, but if the viewers knew what was coming it would lessen the impact. He wanted it, he expected it, to have enormous impact.

The first cameraman he called didn't answer. This was too bad, M. thought, since he was decent. The second one he tried was out of town on a job and wouldn't be back for a week. There was one more cameraman, obviously not his first choice, named Kallik. He had a reputation — he was difficult. M. called and Kallik picked up.

"Are you doing anything? Are you available for a job?"

"Couldn't get a hold of Viktor, your first choice, hunh?" Awkward laughter from Kallik.

"Look, this could be an really important job. Unusual."


"Maybe. But I can't tell you what it is until you agree to it."

"When do you need me?"

"Today. In a few hours, in fact. For three days — maybe longer."

"It's a secret?"

"Yes. You know my work, I wouldn't mislead you. Yeah, there are good reasons."

"OK… I agree. I'll do it. Not just because I need the money…"

"I have your word?"

"Yes, you have my word… So where are we going?"

"The ruined city." M. said, he heard Kallik whistle on the other end.

"This legal?" Kallik asked.

"Not in the slightest." M. said.

An hour later they met in an old cottage on the edge of the road, one of those abandoned structures built before the road was carved through the hills, when the area had been farmland. It was damp and musty and poorly lit, but it was close to the ruined city. From here they would take terrain vehicles across the flat, open plain until they came to the fencing that surrounded the city. This area was less guarded than the opposite side, but still guarded. "When we get to the checkpoint, our man will let us through. Keep your face masks on, no doubt he'll be questioned after the broadcast. Then we'll head to the coordinates, if we get separated for whatever reason, meet at the coordinates."

They rode out onto the dry ground, scrubland, once fertile farming and before that, probably jungle like everything else. The dust and the sun and the crisp air sharpened their awareness of distance across the field to the tall fencing. M. was nervous because they were out in the open. As they got closer they saw a gap in the fence, but blocked with several metal bars attached to a large weighted lever. There was a small guard station, wooden, roof stained and weedy, just beyond it. This was the farthest point from the center of the city, and the least watched.

A man stepped out from the station, clearly having heard the sound of the approaching engines. They could see him raise his hand up to shade his eyes, the sun was bright now. The guard put his weight onto the lever, raising the metal bars via an antique geared mechanism. Faded tassels attached to the bars, once official and brightly warning, limply waved.

They slowed down through the checkpoint, M. giving the guard a minimal nod of acknowledgment. The guard gave no response whatsoever, other than promptly lifting up the handle connected to the gate, then closing it with a brittle clanking sound immediately after the vehicles were through.

Quickly the road became different. The foliage on the sides were lush, jungle that had been there for a million seasons, and only infrequently beaten back. They reduced speed, eventually crisscrossing the large snarled bundles of vines, fallen trees, and inexplicable rubble. Soon after that, they had to stop entirely. "We won't be able to get the vehicles any farther down the road, from here we're on foot." M. said.

Kallik began filming. M. and Orddot hacked their way through leaves and vines. The road was palpable below them, there was some strange magnetic feeling that they were still on it. It was an irrational but unquestionable sensation that they could not become lost. When the jungle thinned, they saw the city ahead of them, jagged shades of gray against the clear blue sky, like old alien teeth poking up through the planet, the shapes of which were in no way familiar. There was nothing in their world that looked like this, but here it was.

M.'s narration was planned. And he planned for deviations. In fact he hoped for them, for entertaining, insightful, gripping deviations that would make his program the most popular ever produced. Soon, though, he was aware that his tone drifted from the preemptive broadcast victory he had imagined. His tone was becoming muted, his excitement was becoming co-opted.

They entered the city over a long bridge whose integrity was questionable. The places where it hadn't fallen away seemed solid to them, but the amount remaining wasn't encouraging. "Like it was carved from a single piece of something, and much of it has rotted away," M. remarked. It was difficult to talk through this — he believed the bridge was real but in a different way, concrete and physical, yet the underlying concepts of it were foreign to him. The architecture was an unknown language, instead of inspiring drama, it produced a dream-like incoherence. They were on a bridge, it was crumbling — it wasn't disintegrating exactly, but it was dangerous perhaps — and yet it wasn't. M.'s narration started to ramble.

After the bridge Kallik turned off the camera and they planned their next route. They considered the inevitability of needing sleep. Since they didn't understand the layout of the city, and were unable to anticipate anywhere appropriate to rest, they would have to improvise. The priority was to capture evidence or gather footage of "The Dwellers".

There had been rumors of someone, or something, living in the city for generations. Maybe people. Maybe not people. Long ago, when their ancestors returned, they brought with them helpers, intelligent, smaller creatures with several arms, who were said to have lived side by side with them. But there was no actual record of this, it was simply spoken of, a memory of a memory. The stories about it varied widely, as you'd expect from fables, hearsay, and blatant confabulation. Since traveling to the ruined city had been forbidden for as long as anyone knew, the stories became more imaginative over time, piling up and mutating into absurd fantasies. Adults discounted them as ridiculous.

Recently however, there had been an incident that rekindled interest in the city, people began to tell those stories again.

The town nearest the ruined city had filmed fantastic lights, dancing around the shapes of the relics, illuminating the striations of ancient structures, as if it were a pattern, or a reflection, of an enormous broadcast inside the city where no one was supposed to live. The recordings of this event spread quickly through the networks, viewership had never been higher. People were openly reminded of the ruined city, a place that had become blurred by time, almost forgotten — it had become just another feature of the landscape. Now there was an onslaught of programs about the city, and it seemed to dominate every conversation.

The lights returned twice recently, captured in greater detail.

M. had argued with the producers the very next day: they needed to go into the city. Impossible, the producers said, no one goes into the city, everyone knows that you can't go in. More than just law, they reminded him, it simply wasn't done. The stigma of the ruined city stands for the past — for a civilization that was the enemy, that forced their people to flee, the city contained all the things that would remind their viewers of this — and it might still contain things that could cause physical harm. It just wouldn't be done, the producers said. But M. decided to go. He didn't know what he'd be able to film, or how dangerous it may be, or what punishment he'd suffer. He knew that the program he put together would have to be good, it would have to be great, it would be the only forgiveness for his unforgivable social breach.

M. told Orddot and Kallik they'd have to press on, into the darkness if necessary. There was no reason for being in the city unless they were going to take risks. He had bought some illegal stimulants from a drug dealer, and he handed a pill to each. Kallik rolled his eyes. "I guess we're in it now, hunh?"

They had a basic sense of where the lights had originated. They'd studied maps, most of them forbidden as well. Each time it had been in almost the same place. It wasn't quite the center of the city, close however.

They walked in a weighty silence. There were no sounds of birds or other animals normally heard in the jungle. Occasionally they'd hear part of a building crumble, a piece of stone, or whatever it was made of exactly, slide off and crash into the piles of detritus on the ground. M. was amazed anything was left, this had been happening for countless thousands of seasons. More of the buildings appeared intact than he expected. Previously all he'd seen of the interior of the city were badly done drawings. There seemed to be a few different materials used to construct the buildings, those that looked better were made out of some kind of metal that was now stained.

There was an odor of wet decay, inevitably elements of the jungle had crept in, bringing with it rot and haphazard growth. But he didn't understand why the entire city wasn't under a impenetrable blanket of vines and soil, much of it was clear of any vegetation.

"Did your hair just stand on end? By that last building I mean?" Orddot asked.

"Yes. You didn't imagine it. Maybe there's a power source. I don't know how. Maybe this has to do with the lights." M. said.

Soon the sensation returned. They paused this time. Kallik put the camera up and started to film, then stopped, puzzled, put the camera down and examined it — then tried again. "I don't know what's wrong with the camera, it won't engage." They took turns examining it. The camera would begin filming then stop. "Try your still camera," M. said. Kallik was able to trigger the shutter once, then it too wouldn't engage. "Frustrating. We're sunk if we can't get footage. Let's get as close to our destination as we can, we don't have much choice." M. said.

The sensation subsided as they moved along. Shortly afterwards Kallik announced the camera was working again. "Strange. Try filming," M. said. The film camera was also working. They repeated this experiment at the next spot they felt the peculiar sensation. "Same thing, cameras don't work."

The sun inched downwards, Cbyx rose directly opposite, creating that familiar cross-cutting of shadows appropriate to the season, but here, with the often immense buildings, the lines were distraught and long, cutting and overlapping in ways that created vertigo. Each man winced and tried to focus on a small part of the ground in front of themselves. Frequently M. took out his rough, hand drawn map and tried to orient himself — it was becoming more difficult as the buildings became denser and closer together.

"I think we're close," he said.

"What was that?!" shouted Kallik. He was looking up. M. and Orddot then looked up too, but saw nothing.

"I didn't see anything, what did you see?" M. asked.

"I don't… It was… It was a large bird I think."

"You think? Was it a bird?"

"I've never seen a bird that large. Not a bird like that. But it was flapping. At least I think it was flapping, it was odd." Kallik said.

M. and Orddot were silent, they didn't know how to respond. They believed Kallik. "OK, let's shoot some footage, and let's be ready for tonight." M. said. He pulled out his notes and they began filming. M. soon encountered the same problem he'd experienced earlier, while he could describe his surroundings and the camera could capture the images, there was essentially nothing happening — words couldn't convey the peculiarly muted feelings created by the architecture around them. The scale of the buildings were larger than anything M. had ever seen, larger than anything ever built. He struggled with ways to make that scale clear.

"There it is, I saw it," Orddot yelled. Kallik pointed the camera upwards quickly. The camera caught the last moment of something in the sky, something that moved behind the top of a building, something flying. "Were those legs?" M. asked. They waited, the camera still pointed up, in the last of the daylight, but it did not reappear.

"We're basically in the same area where the lights were coming from… what now." Kallik lowered the camera and fiddled with the night settings. M. and Orddot put on their head lamps which were dim red lights that bobbed as they spoke. "We wait, keep alert."

There was a slow increase of wind, that hummed through the corridors created by the buildings, the sound was symmetrical and oddly artificial. Cbyx cast a glow which provided enough light that even without their head lamps they could make out the tops of the buildings and the shapes of each other like black geometries. They waited. M. tried not to glance at his watch, knowing that it would exacerbate the drag of time. Around them the wind continued to increase, slowly, but eventually reaching a point that they, almost simultaneously, became panicked. Now they had to shout to hear each other. "We need to find shelter," yelled Kallik. "No, we need to be out in the open to film." His impulse, like theirs, was to bolt for cover, but he knew if they did, they'd be stuck until morning.

The next few minutes were tense. They were worried about being hit by debris, which rattled around them, or swirled in clouds down the canyons between the buildings. The particles kicked up from the wind blocked out most of the light from Cbyx.

"We can't stay here!" Orddot yelled.

"Just a few more minutes!" M. was unwilling to surrender his chances for footage.

There was a blinding shock of brightness — suddenly one of the buildings near them had become a column of pure light. When their eyes adjusted, they saw a pillar of white light shooting up into the sky. And from the tops of buildings nearby they saw, now clearly, more of the flying things collecting in groups, excitedly swirling in the air around the column. They were shaped similar to men, smaller perhaps, squatter, but their wings were like jungle bats. The flailing of their wings and legs as they went into and out of the light was disturbingly familiar, as if huge, obscene moths gathered in large numbers around a fire. Their frantic movements through the light caused it to pulse and variate in the sky above.

That was all M. could remember. He didn't know how they ended up in the field outside the city, laying in warm sunlight and the smell of fresh grass. His watch was broken, stopped. Immediately he looked around for the cameras. Kallik was rubbing his head, but still appeared to have all of his equipment. Orddot likewise looked confused, sitting up and wincing. "Did you get it?" M. asked Kallik, "did you get it all?" Kallik nodded, "I got it."

When they arrived back at their studio they found police and officials waiting for them. M. was ready for this possibility, his lawyer was prepared to counter their objections with enough jargon and ancient law — enough to buy some time — to get the program on the air. The strategy worked, the police and officials demanded the footage, but the arguments forced the mechanisms of law to slowly churn. While M. and Orddot and Kallik sat in a cell that night, their film was developed. When they were released, and a trial date set, they rushed to the studio to see what they'd captured.

M. wiped a sweaty sheen from his forehead. The footage was unusable. There was sound, his narration was there, then hours of howling wind. But the pictures… Other than motion on the edges of the frame, the film looked as if it had been taken in a mist, a pulsing opaqueness that infrequently revealed the forms of buildings, tantalizingly, but mostly just swirling fields of color. And the still images were exactly the same. There was no argument of it being ruined in development, it had not been. There was something in the city that obfuscated their recordings. M. focused on a single short series of frames, towards the end, where he believed he could see a few of the flying things on the edge, the motion of it he could identify as what he'd seen, what they'd seen, it was unmistakable to him. "That could be anything." One of the other producers said. No one saw anything meaningful. The films were considered a total loss.

M. was suspended. He determined he would write their experiences down, that there was still an audience for it. That they'd sneaked into the city was now widely known and assumed to be true. Although some began to argue that they could've staged the whole thing. How did they get out without passing through any checkpoints? Doubt grew.

A few weeks after the lights began, they stopped. There were no explanations. Travelers noted, however, that roads normally in the vicinity of the city were closed and diverted. Farmers in the area noted that a wall was now being built around the city, a gigantic wall.