An Interview with the City Itself
The ability of human beings to move forward, while yet staying completely still, was baffling to all of City’s newly acquainted travellers.
“Excuse me, please. I said excuse me, please.”
No one moved any faster. They simply plodded their way to work as they always did - at half the pace of a normal human walk.
He’d tried a few times to squeeze through the block of humanity in front of him, but to no avail - he had to be content with peering over their heads, longing for the station exit. At this time of the morning, the majority of City’s populace might just as well have been stationary.
Absalus dropped his head, and sighed. Within only a few minutes of arriving in City, he had learned that living here would be awful. He’d just come from a job interview and was heading home, to the outer counties; he was confident about the job, and knew he would take it, but equally couldn’t wait to escape City’s clutches for a little while longer.
As he trudged forwards, head down with the rest, he caught a glimpse of his own arm - blackened cuffs, slightly greyed skin from the smog, and a smudge of oil from the door of a tram. If he hadn’t known better, he would have guessed that the daily dealings of the tram-bound had already woven themselves into his skin as a patch or tattoo, displaying their frustrations and grunts and tuts as if they were his own. He chuckled to himself, sadly, realising that today’s 'inking' was to be the first of many upon his particular canvas, and shivered at the thought of what he would look like when he was done with living here.
Absalus scanned the other artworks pacing towards their morning drudgeries, and sighed at their varying states of blackened completion.
No one else seemed to notice any of the marks upon their skin, for such was (and is) the solitary nature of the sub-tram traveller. It was as if each new reflection on their journeys took a tithe on the personalities of those who ignored it, with every tram-shone railing, fogged-up window and worn-down eye acting as mirrors to the daily congestion within.
Someone walked by, bumping him out of the thought.
Absalus turned around to apologise for being in the person’s way, but she was already too far away to hear him.
He still said “Sorry”, but only to himself. Part of him was beginning to feel bitter about the whole thing.
Do I really want to live here? Is it even worth it?
He sighed. He could feel himself changing, and he’d not even been here an hour.
A different kind of interview lay ahead in the days, both formalised and foreboding, yet Absalus found himself content with the idea that he had, in keeping his thoughts to himself, and not screaming in furstration as he so desperately wanted to do, temporarily passed the test that City imposed on all its occupants. Impossible to fail, and didactic at its core, this test asked its subjects to be deeply alone in the midst of a crowd, and tasked them further with being happy that way. Marked by an endless system of peer-review, the minute and the hour of Absalus’ current moment would foretell a lifetime of City’s interrogation, with both the grade and the day being passed by the mass.
The Reasons that Good People Kill Each Other
The Flower that Wields the Hoe
Rule 1: Look at no one.
On his inaugural day as a true, working member of City, it had taken Absalus all of four minutes to break that iron-clad rule of the commute.
It wasn’t quite the same thing as saying “don’t look at anyone”, because the focus in City was on the participation: look at no one. Look around, look past, look through, but never at - a small difference, but a very important one.
“Platform seven for the 08:31 service to West Catchely, departing in nine minutes.”
All was well when the few eyes and ears not yet plugged into Isolators and Escapes were glancing across their co-travellers, or moving between the trams, but for any one of them to gaze with thought, with consideration, or - God forbid - to lock eyes with a stranger, was well and truly anathema.
Rule 2: There is always space;
Rule 3: Keep to yourself.
These were the golden rules of the sub-tram network. Absalus was certain that there were more, but these were the ones he knew so far.
The millions and millions of passengers who seemed to all but live in the tunnels of City formed the jury to these crimes, and many others. Their judgement was immediate, and their punishment swift; Absalus hadn’t actually seen anything happen yet, but he’d heard ominous tales back home.
Thus are kept the unwritten laws of City, and thus are its criminals led down the tunnels to their doom, he thought, sardonically.
To Absalus, new as he was to City, it seemed like the community of travellers before him was both a social gardener and the garden itself, deigning to pluck and replant every green-clad traveller in the communal soil of transit - all to better arrange the flowerbed as a whole.
It was unnerving, to say the least.
As he settled in the main hub of the station, waiting for his tram, Absalus caught himself in a reflection from one of the steel handrails. He could immediately tell how out of place he looked.
A tall, renaissance mass, with a cuboid chest and an overly, observably indulged paunch, Absalus hardly fit into the slimline, attractive medium of City. His work suit didn’t help: it was brand new, and made him stick out as if he’d been dressed in a completely different colour than everyone bustling around him, just because the jacket wasn’t worn-in enough to have dulled yet.
He coughed. City’s air would colour it in pretty quickly.
“Platform four for the 08:36 service to Borough Central, departing in eleven minutes.”
Off we go, he thought.
Regardless of all of the things he might have immediately come to dislike about City, and despite all the rules and legislations he had to remember for the coming days of travel, Absalus followed every rule and whim laid out by the collective mind of the commuters without even realising it. He was so distracted by thoughts of the day ahead that he almost entirely forgot not to look at anyone.
He left the hub and strolled along the station corridors, moving down to the platforms deep beneath the city surface as a perfect replicant of his quiet, preoccupied fellows. He walked by an advert on the wall, that read:
The average person sees about 5,000 adverts per day, but we’re confident THIS will be the one you remember.
Periphax Omega-9 Fish Oil is proven to improve memory, help form habits, and boost cognition.
Periphax - the only pill that helps you take it.
He walked past the thirty other ads in the corridor without reading them. Periphax were probably right.
Absalus parked himself on the platform when he arrived, watching the end of one tram disappear and looking into the void of the tunnel in anticipation of the next. He tried to figure out where the doors would stop by studying which parts of the floor were most scuffed, but his view was soon obstructed by so many people that it became impossible to tell.
As the platform filled, the paces of the creatures walking around him turned into shuffles, and eventually stopped all together. Most of the now-compacted newcomers were fairly soggy from the rain above ground, and it made the whole scene squeak with each arriving shoe.
Is City always this busy? Is it always this hot down here?
He would find out, he supposed, with time.
Within a few minutes there was barely room to breathe and, by the time he could hear the next subtram arriving, he had been shunted against his will all the way to the very edge of the platform - well beyond the painted safety lines. He was far from comfortable there.
Just as the lights of the inbound tram began to illuminate the tunnel to his right, Absalus heard some noise coming from the bustle behind him, as a particularly blustery person barged through the crowd, trying to get closer to the front.
Absalus began to turn his head, but only caught a glimpse of what was happening before he felt it: someone had been trying to take off their feathered coat, slipped on the damp floor, and grabbed onto the nearest commuter by instinct, cascading both of them forwards into the crowd beyond… and subsequently into Absalus.
Before he knew it, he had been thrust over the edge and into the headlights of the tram by a force that was only just enough to make him lose balance. If he hadn’t been turning to see what was going on, he might have been able to stay upright.
As he fell back, towards the tunnel, all the clichés arrived at once: the instant adrenaline suffocation, the tightness in his chest, the regrets… He began to close his eyes, dreading the moment and wishing he’d been in City longer; if he was going to die, he would have preferred it be somewhere he felt at least a little bit more at home.
Absalus’ back hit the side of the tram’s front-most carriage with a thud, as the force of its motion cannonballed him a few feet deep into the mass of commuters further up the platform and snapped his mind back to reality.
Ow, he thought. A second earlier and I might never have made it to work…
It only lightly troubled Absalus that this was his first thought after almost dying. City was clearly contagious.
With the platform being as full as it was, he’d somehow remained upright, leaning against the crowd, and had barely even dislodged the wall of briefcases and workers that had caught him.
The delayed agony of having had his shoulder dislocated by the tram (and then immediately relocated by the person catching him), hit him harder than the tram itself had. Wincing against the pain, and forgetting his manners for only a moment, Absalus opened his eyes to find himself staring right into the eyes of the stranger who’d been first in line behind.
Rule 1: Look at no one.
The expression that the stranger gave in return made him wish that he’d been squashed. Halfway between surprised and contemptuous, Absalus was terrified the man might turn him in to the station manager, but he was clearly too rushed to care - and simply pushed Absalus out of the way.
The other commuters tutted at him as they boarded the now stationary tram, walking around his stunned figure without excusing themselves. They were behaving as if he’d made the fuss deliberately.
The feathered coat that had almost killed him walked by soon after, and murmured a ‘sorry’ so faintly that Absalus wasn’t even sure it deserved speech marks. He’d have to write all this down, later on. It would be good for the book, he was sure.
When the carriage was full, a people-pusher that worked for the station helped cram ten more people - including Absalus - into the squashy block of flesh about to be carried off. It was uncomfortable, to say the least.
Battered, and bemused, he found himself right next to the speakers as the door-signals began beeping, about to close. He got his coat stuck in the door, and ended up with his face pressed against the plastic glass; his personal space was thoroughly compromised, but at least he was safely on his way to work.
It hadn’t taken him long to figure out how much he hated the sub-trams.
* * * * *
By the time Absalus had reclaimed his clothing from the doors and found a seat, he’d calmed down a bit.
Having grown up far outside of City, he’d resolved to give the ‘life of the many’ - as his mother had called it - a chance, but it was already proving difficult. Despite trying his best to stay open-minded, behind his semi-conscious tolerance of City’s ways was a vice on his persona, strong and subtle enough to hold him without his even realising the grip. All he knew was that he didn’t feel comfortable here… The pressure laid out by the grasp of ‘medium life’ made of him no exception, at least not for today.
Some new travellers boarded at a new station. Amongst them was a pregnant lady, wearing headphones - Absalus immediately stood, to offer his seat, but she declined, saying nothing and looking at him as if he wasn’t supposed to have noticed.
Absalus sat back down, presuming that the woman was just more comfortable standing, and looked around the carriage; no one else had stood. They were all busied by content on their Escapes, and thus completely immune to socialising.
Absalus made sure not to look at anyone too long, lest he break the rules again, but couldn’t resist observing them just a little. He was curious to a fault, and loved seeing all the odd little idiosyncrasies of the people around him. Being observant was just part of who he was and, even if he’d tried not to people-watch, it probably wouldn’t have helped.
Absalus didn’t have an Escape yet, so he had nothing to distract him. They weren’t just a ‘City thing’, but it had been much easier to avoid needing one outside of it - he barely even knew what they did, not properly, and they always made him wary. He’d been promised one by his new workplace, and was equal parts eager and apprehensive about receiving it. Without one, he felt oddly alien to the other commuters… He was, after all, surrounded by the things.
Still, instead of wasting time wondering about people and their handheld past-times, he let his mind wander the streets of his potential future. In crossing their rising cobbles, his eyes found their way roofwards, seeing beyond the faces of those on the other side of the carriage seating. He took on a gormless, occupied expression, subdued from gazing into the aether of floating advertisements so common to commercial subtrams.
Tired of the noise? Try the new Folex III Isolators, with state-of the art noise cancelling - and playback quality to match. Endorsed by the BSM sound team.
Be content, with your content.
Absalus would continue to stare at the adverts in this manner for the next few minutes, just as all his fellows did into their laps.
A few stops later, Absalus’ attention was stolen by way of a cough from the seat opposite him. A man, rat-whiskered and mousey, who was holding his head perpendicular to his lap - like almost everyone in his row - had broken rule number three - Keep to Yourself. He’d allowed himself to cackle out loud at whatever it was he was watching, disturbing the expected quiet and in turn beginning the snowball of distraction for several other members of the carriage.
Curious, Absalus let this little bit of human interaction capture his eyeline for only the smallest amount of time but, as he looked around, he saw that most eyes were already returning to their laps. In not doing the same, he had broken the rules himself - for the second time.
Rule 1: Look at no one.
“You’re watching people, aren’t you?”
Absalus looked up, heart suddenly beating quickly, staring directly into the stranger’s eyes. The around had become the at, and he had been caught red-handed.
The speaker was a blonde woman, much older than himself. She laughed, seeing his face. “Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble. It’s just… rare to see. Fight the Middle God, y’know?”
Though her hair was still the colour it had probably always been, her skin was cut by wrinkles, and withered by years of suffering beneath the force of the tramwinds.
“Ah… Thank you, I think. Um… The ‘Middle God’?”
The woman scanned her eyes over his bag, knowingly. “Ah. Do I take it you’re new to City?”
“Mmhmm.” he replied, sheepishly.
Absalus could almost feel the judgemental stares of the commuters around them, as the woman so flagrantly broke the rules herself, in talking to him. She sat down opposite.
“Hate to break it to you, but you don’t hide it very well. You write?”
“Um… Yes. How-“ Absalus looked down at his bag, realising before finishing the sentence that the MMCBAPLC logo had given his profession away. “Ah.”
“May I see some?”
“Of... my writing?”
“If you don’t mind.”
Absalus didn’t know what made him do it, but he took his notepad out of his pocket, and handed it over, fingers lingering on the spine as he let go. It was a deeply personal posession, but her request had been so straight-forward that he felt as if he didn’t have a choice.
The woman looked at some of his passages for a few moments, before looking directly into his eyes, and speaking much more seriously than before.
“I know that you don’t know me, but… Leave. As soon as you can. City isn’t the place for you.”
So saying, the woman stood up and lightly tossed the notepad onto Absalus’ lap, just as the tram came to a halt. Before he could even think of a response, she walked up the aisle and out of the carriage doors, disappearing into the thicket of travellers almost instantaneously.
Her words echoed in his head, long after he’d left the tram.