The Nomadic Metropolis

by H. van Blarenburg

It has been nearly three days, and they have not fed me.

I fear I am the last one of the colony. I fear they all have left. That all the colony’s prisoners have secretly been freed. That the guards have left with them. That I am the only one inhabiting this metropolis.

I was born into incarceration. To be imprisoned is my service to the colony. In the past, when I have asked as to why I am here, the guards reply mechanically that I must sacrifice my life to satisfy a debt unfulfilled by my father, now deceased. I never knew my father, just as I have known no one. But he was a traitor they tell me. I suppose I too then am a traitor.

Every morning, the intercom wakes me. I do not understand what it says, for the voice speaks in the guard’s language, a dialect unfamiliar to me. Three times a day they feed me through the slot. The food is drugged. I know this because, now, it is not merely that I am starving, though the hunger is unbearable, but also that I am experiencing narcotic withdrawal.

My perspective of the colony is limited. I live on the sixty-seventh floor, but through my cell window, roughly a foot by foot in length, I can only see the cells of other buildings. A broad expanse of the colony’s other prisons, edifices of concrete and cages and bars. Mountains of windows, all of them identical to mine. I cannot see the horizon. Nor can I see the sky or the ground.

Once, and only once in my life, have I ever left my cell. They transferred me from my previous hold–of which I had been born in and lived in till young adulthood–to the one I am in now. The two cells are indistinguishable. The same concrete floor plan. The same nauseating salmon paint caked on the cinderblocks. The same teal vinyl mattress. The same metal toilet-sink combo. And the same lightbox, protected by a cage. One can never actually turn the lightbox off. During evening hours, it dims, permitting the guards from their towers to observe me always. It is then that I take to dreaming of what I witnessed during the transfer. From the moment my door opened (it was the first time) and the guards stepped in to take me, I absorbed every detail. For I have such a deficiency of images in my repertoire that I am quite simple-minded. But that short walk through part of the colony I can recall with a clarity nearly identical to the actual event. Every day, I recreate the experience in mind, if not for pleasure then to ensure I do not lose any of the specifics. And at night I dream of those few minutes over and again with no variation.

They escorted me outside of my cell onto a catwalk but a few feet in width that extended down the side of the building. I stumbled the entire way. Both to savor the open air and the view. But also because I am partially crippled, for I have never had the freedom to take such strides. Three times I fell while employing underdeveloped muscles in my legs.

The colony is a colossal entanglement of bars and concrete formations, laced with repeating windows and trees. Its seemingly endless precipices of metal prisons are racked in by razor-ribbon fences and trains that circle the perimeters. The buildings climb dozens of stories higher than my cell, such that their tops shred through the clouds. But something else is crucial. The colony moves. It is in fact a mobile city, miles in length, mounted upon a platform of gears and belts and wheels continually lumbering over watery ruins. The sky is an infinite grey. And though I have read of a sun and moon and stars, none are visible.

In these past three days, I have realized as much. The colony is self sufficient. Whether the people are here or no, it operates on its own. All the gears still turn. It travels on. The intercom still speaks, but it is a recording. And the streetlights flicker though the streets are empty. And the trains still sound; as always, they run on time. And on the week’s seventh day, the church bells ring throughout the city, though no one attends the service.

And only in these past three days, soon to be four, when I have been its sole occupant, has it become clear to me that the city is breathing. And that emerging from its trees and machinery are large and searching eyes.

On the fourth day, the door opens, though no one stands behind it. Outside, the intercom is blaring Wagner.