He had lived in the City of Domes all of his life and had never once questioned what was beyond its walls. As far as he was concerned, the world beyond was a toxic wasteland, destroyed centuries before in a war to end all wars. Nothing could survive out there; the water was poisonous, the plants deadly, and the soil radioactive.
So why did so many run in the belief that there was Sanctuary beyond the City walls?
Why did Logan run?
He gazed down at the small crystal embedded into his palm, seeing the green color that denoted his twenty-second year of existence. Eventually, the crystal would turn black, indicating his thirtieth year, and then he would be able to join others of the same age in Carousel, floating away from this world to a higher plane of existence.
He smiled, recalling the vision of seeing others stretching their arms upwards, some swimming quickly towards their new life while others reveled in the sensation of floating high above the crowd. Cheers would rise with them, reaching a crescendo as each figure was momentarily surrounded by a halo of light before disappearing from this world to begin life anew in the next.
It was a joyous occasion, and a moment to aspire to. It was the culmination of a lifetime of pleasure in the City of Domes with a promise of far more to come.
So why would anyone willingly give up Carousel and run to the outside world where death would come swiftly with no promise of attaining a higher existence? And if the world beyond was truly as deadly as the teachings made out then why bother to give chase to those who wished to escape Lastday? After all, the Sandmen who chased the runners outside the city perished too and hence, they also were denied entry to the next life that was offered through Carousel.
David sighed softly. Logan once told him that this was the price they paid for being Sandmen, and the reason why they were held in such high esteem. They placed their eternal life on the line to ensure that even those of faint-heart were brought back to join in Carousel, knowing they would be thanked when they joined with them in the next life.
That had made sense to David at the time, as it had been his deep-seated belief in Carousel, and his dedication towards ensuring all were given the opportunity to take part in Lastday, which had led him into becoming a Sandman. He took his duty seriously, bringing to justice those responsible for denying another the chance to reach Lastday. Yet, perversely, those found guilty of murder were sentenced to Carousel, though they did not journey to the next life accompanied by the cheers of those left behind. It was said that they journeyed alone, and that they would walk in darkness between this world and the next until they had repented their crime.
Did the murdered ones reach the next life? Was there some dispensation dealt out to those who were denied Carousel through no fault of their own?
Although he had been involved in several chases, only once had he caught a runner. Malcolm 3 had failed to attend his Carousel and the hunt had begun. They had chased the man through the thoroughfares of the city, pushing through the crowded pleasure areas and finally, David had caught up with Malcolm as he attempted to gain access to the underground vents. He had shot the runner in the leg, slowing him down, and then David and another Sandman had brought Malcolm back to the main arena, supporting him between them, and assisting him into his Lastday attire.
"You will thank me in the next life. Be at peace," he had said to Malcolm and then watched as the anti-gravity pulled Malcolm away. He floated upwards quickly, with his fear and resignation-filled eyes focused on David's as if drawing strength from him. David still recalled his intense pleasure at seeing Malcolm enveloped in the white light, his corporeal form glowing brightly for a moment in time before he disappeared, beginning the journey to the next life amid the jubilant cries of those bearing witness. At the time it seemed to David that he had done something of momentous importance, considering Malcolm to be one of the many fortunate ones, for though it was rare for someone to make it beyond the walls of the Domes, those runners were never recovered.
Neither were the Sandmen who had been sent to follow them, giving greater credence to the teachings that nothing could survive outside; something he had believed -- until today.
David pushed a lock of hair back from his face; his eyes riveted on Francis's back as they strode through unfamiliar corridors. He had been guarding one of the main escape routes used by runners, poised in readiness should anyone attempt to break the seal and leave the city, and had been shocked when someone came through from the other side instead.
A bundle had been thrust into David's arms, and he staggered under the unexpected weight of it, only then seeing the exhaustion in Francis's eyes. The request required no spoken word, and David followed on behind as Francis turned away, glancing down at the heavy tome that had been revealed as the tattered cloth fell aside.
David had recognized Francis immediately, even though it had been almost a full year since he had left the City of Domes in the chase of Logan and Jessica, though there had been a rumor that Francis had been seen in the city from time to time. David had put that down to fanciful thinking, but now he had his doubts.
As they paced along the corridor, David remembered that the last time he had seen Francis; recalling his initial awe at Francis's dedication to his duty, knowing that he had denied himself his chance of attaining renewed life through Carousel in the vain hope of bringing his friend back. Francis and Logan would have gone to Carousel together if Logan had not run -- and that event should have taken place many months ago.
Instead the months had passed and most everyone had believed him dead -- along with Logan, Jessica and the Sandmen that Francis had taken with him on that chase.
David shifted his grip on the heavy package uneasily and thought of Logan. It had come as a great shock to him when Logan became the first Sandman ever to run, especially as Logan had always been the most dedicated among them. He had been responsible for saving many runners in the past -- bringing them back to Carousel, and saving their eternal souls. Even stranger was that, only a few days before, David had overheard him planning Lastday with Francis, wanting to celebrate their imminent rebirth. He had seen the joy in Logan's eyes as he talked of Carousel, and he had seen the pleasure there too as Logan cheered on all those who went to Carousel before him.
So what had changed him?
Most believed Logan 5 had not run at all but had been following his duty to recapture the runner, Jessica. However, David had been watching the monitors in the control center that day and he had seen Logan assisting Jessica rather than chasing her. He had witnessed Logan's attack on the other Sandmen and then he had seen him disappear into the forbidden areas below the City of Domes. Afterwards, he had witnessed Francis's rage as he, in turn, gave chase. Yet, when David went to replay the recording on the following day -- just to confirm what he had seen -- he discovered that the recording had been irretrievably erased from the computer system.
Someone had not wanted anyone to know that Logan 5 had become a runner.
David's attempt to trace the origin of the erasure met with failure as he came up against a security code far higher than his code. He brought the information to the attention of another supervisor, and that was the last he heard of the incident, but now he wished he had pursued it further.
Francis had not spoken since stepping back into the city, and David could feel more questions bubbling up inside him as they walked along in silence. His eyes dropped to the palm of Francis's hand automatically, and he took a sharp breath as he noticed that the crystal was clear whereas it should have been black. He glanced sideways at the Sandman who had stepped up to stride beside him on Francis's order, sharing the burden of the heavy package, but Geoffrey had never been one to question anything and would find a plausible excuse for even this. Yet David could not help but wonder at all the inconsistencies he faced.
If the crystal of life turned black on the thirtieth year then why was Francis's crystal clear? And if the world beyond the City of Domes was a toxic wasteland where none could survive, then how had Francis managed to live outside of the Domes for the past year? Also, if he was no longer giving chase then where was Logan? Why had Francis returned without him? And what was in this heavy book that he carried? And where had it come from?
None of it made any sense.
Francis looked directly at Geoffrey. "You wait here." Then his eyes moved to hold David's. "You follow me."
Francis's tone brooked no argument and David glanced once more at Geoffrey, noticing how his fellow Sandman took up position beside the doorway without a murmur of dissent having shifted the weight of the heavy tome back onto David. Only then did David realize that Francis had led them towards one of the forbidden areas of the city. Francis stepped through into the forbidden area, and after a moment's hesitation, David stepped in after him, trailing him through unfamiliar corridors until they reached a dead end. He saw Francis place his palm against one of the strange, engraved patterns on the wall, the clear crystal on his palm fitting into one of the indentations. The wall seemed to part before him, revealing a previously concealed entrance.
With relief, David allowed Francis to take the book from his arms.
The words had been unnecessary for David froze as Francis stepped forward alone, his eyes catching sight of something terrifying that stood in the chamber beyond. It looked like a man but its skin hung in folds down its face, and its wispy thin hair was pure white. Gnarled hands rose in welcome to Francis, and then the door sealed, thankfully hiding the hideous apparition from David's view.
He had a horrifying thought. Perhaps this was where they brought runners or Sandmen who had reached the outside world and then returned. Perhaps contact with the radioactive wasteland had severely disfigured and sickened them so they could not be allowed to rejoin the beautiful people. Maybe they were forced to live here in isolation until their time came to join in Carousel.
It occurred to David that Francis might have remained unchanged because he had never been outside the City of Domes. Logan could have returned upon realizing that there was no Sanctuary, only a slow, agonizing death beyond the City. With his body damaged by radiation sickness, Francis could have brought him here.
He gasped slightly. Perhaps that hideous creature *was* Logan 5.
That last thought sickened David as he remembered the handsome, dark-haired, clean-limbed man with joy-filled eyes who had taken him under his wing when he had first joined the Sandmen. Logan had been his supervisor and David had hero-worshiped him, wanting to be just like him. He had tried to emulate Logan, wanting to be as strong and brave, and wanting to make a difference in the lives of others.
Instead, he had seen his hero defile all that they stood for when he not only aided but also joined a runner in her escape from the City.
He had spent this past year trying to come to terms with Logan's betrayal. Yet, just as he had managed to put the past behind him, Francis had returned, dragging all his questions back into the open and adding even more to the list.
David closed his eyes. It cannot be Logan, he thought, knowing Logan would have joined Carousel immediately upon his return, for his crystal had been flickering to black on the day Logan made his run. And Francis would have joined him in Carousel.
But if it was not Logan then who -- or what -- was it? And why did it greet Francis with such familiarity? And why had Francis taken the book to it?
He felt the beginning of a headache and tried to push the questions aside, wanting his mind to go blank. However, the questions refused to leave him, and try as he might, he could not believe in the trite answers that his mind tried to supply.
Twenty minutes later, the door opened again and Francis stepped back into the corridor. David fell into step behind him, following him back along the corridor to where Geoffrey waited and, eventually, back into the familiar surroundings of the City. They passed through crowded galleries, and across parkland covered by perfectly manicured grass and well tended shrubs until they reached the control center.
Only Sandmen were allowed into the center, but as they crossed the threshold, Francis turned to them.
"Return to your duty stations."
He made no reference to the journey they had taken into the forbidden area of the City or to what David had seen within. It was almost as if he had forgotten that they had been with him -- or didn't care.
Geoffrey turned away immediately but David hesitated, watching Francis disappear inside the center. He raised his hand, palm upwards, and stared at the green crystal, then he looked at the perfect features of the happy people walking past, his eyes dropping to their palms and catching a glint of color from white to red.
No one -- not even a new life -- should have a clear crystal, he thought.
Aware that he was starting to gather concerned looks, David raised his head high and strode back through the crowds, the grey and black of his Sandman uniform contrasting strongly against the lighter pastel almost translucent material preferred by the normal populace. They moved out of his way out of deference to his position within their society, and soon he found he was striding alone through the corridors back to his guard station.
The last hour of his duty shift passed by slowly, with his mind full of the questions he had tried to exorcise earlier. Eventually, he saw his relief approaching, and he greeted his fellow Sandman curtly, unwilling to linger in small talk as he would normally.
It was his routine to go to the pleasure dome to relax after his duty shift, taking his pick of the beautiful women who offered their bodies willingly. However, their bright smiles and eager fingers did little to push away the dark thoughts crowding through him. Instead he wandered along the thoroughfares, refusing offers that would have tempted him at any other time, and eventually he returned to his apartment.
He fell asleep instantly, but visions of Logan as the hideous form he had seen in the shadows filled his dreams, and he awoke covered in a fine sheen of sweat, with his body trembling in fear.
David had to know. He had to know if that apparition was Logan or something else entirely. He had to know why it was hiding in the forbidden area, and what it had to do with Francis.
Swiftly, he cleansed away the fear-induced sweat and climbed into a fresh uniform. David stole through the darkened corridors and across the silent parkways, retracing his steps until he reached the seeming dead-end that concealed the hidden doorway.
He placed his palm against the engraved pattern on the wall, feeling the crystal fill the slight indentation that would have passed unnoticed if he had not been aware of its existence. The door slid open revealing a darkened interior, and David stepped across the threshold, his muscles bunching in fear as the door closed just as silently behind him.
The soft glow of crystal wall light provided the only illumination but it was enough to produce a deep shadow indicating a doorway opposite. David approached it cautiously, his footsteps echoing too loudly in the empty room. He paused on the threshold and saw that the doorway led into a corridor lit by the same soft glow. Swallowing hard, he stepped out and followed the corridor to its end, eyes trying to pierce the deepened shadows collecting in doorways leading to other darkened chambers.
The wall at the end held the same engraved design as the one he had passed through earlier, so David raised his hand and placed his palm against it. He pulled back, cursing his jumpiness, as the wall slid apart silently, revealing a brightly-lit chamber lying beyond.
David froze, staring at the hunched back of the creature he had seen earlier with its wispy white hair trailing down past its shoulders. It turned slowly, revealing the folds of skin that lay like heavy drapes upon its pallid flesh, and its pale blue eyes captured David's.
"Francis?" Its voice was feeble and yet it held an edge of authority.
David took a shaky breath, aware that the apparition had trouble making out his features, and saw a frown deepen the seamed lines on the wizened face.
"No. You are not Francis. So who are you, boy?"
"I'm..." He cleared his throat. "I'm David 12."
"Then take a seat, David 12. It hurts my neck to look up at you."
David sank into the seat opposite the creature, now fully aware that this was a man and yet unable to take his eyes off the seamed flesh.
"Did radiation do this to you?"
The man blinked in confusion and then his eyes widened and he laughed loudly. "No. This is not radiation sickness."
"I thought... perhaps... that you were one of the Sandmen who had gone outside of the City."
"No. These are the ravages of time, my boy." His eyes held sharp intelligence that speared into David. "I am preparing to die, and Francis will be my successor."
David's eyes dropped to the thin, liver-spotted arm, then down to the hand resting on the yellowed pages of the heavy tome David had carried for Francis. The hand turned over, and opened like a bony flower to reveal a clear crystal.
"I don't understand."
The old man leaned forward. "Understand this... by rights I should have you killed for entering this forbidden area. I should have you killed so you cannot reveal what you have seen." He leaned back, with weariness dragging at his features and dulling his eyes. "But I am an old man -- a dying man -- and I feel the weight of lies heavily upon these frail shoulders."
He took a shallow breath.
"The world outside has long since healed, supporting life again. The air is breathable, the vegetation edible and radioactivity is well within tolerance... but the foolish Council of Elders do not want to see the end of the City of Domes. They do not want to see the pure blood of the Dome dwellers mingle with those who endured the centuries outside in the once-radioactive wasteland."
He sighed, then his seamed lips pursed in contemplation.
"Everything you have been taught is a lie. Carousel is a lie."
"Is a means of population control, otherwise the City of Domes would have become overcrowded within a few generations." The man moved with surprising speed, clutching at David's arm. "A necessary evil at the time, but now it is simply murder. No one needs to die when they reach their thirtieth year."
David looked upon the old man in shock. He wanted to scream out that it was all a lie, that Carousel was the path to enlightenment and rebirth, but the old man's words had opened a floodgate in his mind, supplying answers to his questions that he had dared not consider until this moment.
With terrible clarity, David knew the man spoke the truth.
"Why are you telling me this?" He stammered.
"Because the one chosen to replace me does not wish to see the end of the power of the Elders over the lives of the Dome dwellers." His rheumy blue eyes took on a pitying expression. "You cannot change from within for they will silence you, swiftly... but I have given you the knowledge. So run, boy. Run. Find Logan and find a way to help other runners join you. Start a new way of life beyond the City of Domes."
The old man's eyes flicked towards a monitor. "Francis is coming. Hide in the ante-room until he is gone, then run... and live."
David pushed to his feet, still shocked by the words uttered by the old man. He backed away into the shadows, out of sight and waited, with his heart lurching as he heard Francis confirm all he had learned this day.
He waited a long time after Francis left before re-entering the chamber. The old man still sat where he had last seen him, poring over the crumbling yellowed pages of the book, but he reached into a box and withdrew a small metal object that David recognized as the symbol for Sanctuary. The old man pressed the symbol into David's hand.
"It is a key. You know the way out of the City of Domes. Find Logan, for your path lies with him now."
David nodded, his fingers tightening around the key he had been given, his heart hammering in his chest as he creeped along the darkened corridors, terrified that someone might be lying in wait for him. He took a shuddering breath as the doorway to the forbidden area closed behind him, sinking back against the wall.
Had it been like this for Logan? Had Logan discovered the truth about Carousel, giving him no option but to run for his life?
David paused, aware that he could not simply run like a thief in the night. The old man had said he could not change the way things were from within. Perhaps that was true in most respects, but he could sow a seed of doubt, and leave it behind to grow.
No one questioned him as he entered the Control Center and accessed the computer, quickly recording a message and leaving it behind to be triggered at the next Carousel.
Swiftly, David strode through the empty corridors, pausing only when he drew close to the hidden entrance that he had guarded earlier that day. He recognized the Sandman on guard, but David knew what he had to do. He approached Graham 9 with a confidence that belied his inner fear, knowing that only a few seconds remained before he become only the second Sandman ever to run.
David smiled, starting small talk to hide his intention, and then he struck, sending Graham into unconsciousness and pressing the key against the hidden lock. As the doorway closed behind him, David fancied that he could hear the shout raised in Control, his heart beating frantically with the knowledge that he was now, officially, a runner.
The small fire did little to ease the chill from his bones and he drew the blanket firmer around his thin, stooped shoulders. His blond hair had long since turned to silver then white, with his firm flesh thinning and becoming mottled with age.
Strangely, the memories of the distant past seemed closer these days as he recalled the people and places he had once known, remembering the hard journey he had embarked upon that day. Hardship had followed doggedly in his footsteps, bringing grief and pain, but also immeasurable joy.
Eventually he had found Logan, though it had taken several years and, by then, he no longer traveled the path alone. Although Logan had been the first of the Sandmen to run, his flight had been cleverly concealed by the Council of Elders, but David had ensured that no one would doubt that he had run.
One of the first of the runners to come after him had told him of his success, of how the first Carousel following his escape had triggered the message that stated it was all a lie, and that the world beyond was safe. The Council of Elders had reacted swiftly to negate his words but the seed had been sown, and over the years the trickle of runners became a deluge that none could stop.
"Grandfather? Are you ready?"
He nodded once and allowed his grandson to assist him to his feet. He paused and looked deep into soft green eyes that reminded him so much of his own, seeing himself as he had once been; tall and strong-limbed.
As he looked into the bright eyes of his eldest grandchild, he knew that this was a sight he would never have been granted had he remained in the City of Domes. He smiled, treasuring this moment as further proof that he had made the right decision all those years ago. Had he stayed then he would never have known his children, let alone his grandchildren. He would never have shared the grief and joy of watching them grow, seeing them make their own lives and bring laughter and tears into his world.
Only now did he truly realize how superficial his life had been inside the city, where the computer decided parentage with the child produced within a test tube. Machines nurtured the children until they were old enough to fend for themselves and then sent them to the underground city where they lived as half-savages until they reached the age where they could be reprogrammed and slotted into society. They never knew their parents and they never knew their offspring. They never shared their history with the next generation or learned from the previous, and only an uncaring machine noted the passing of their lives, ticking off the time to Lastday and Carousel on the crystals embedded in their palms.
David stepped outside the makeshift tent and stared across the stony desert to where the City of Domes rose majestically towards the sky. Fifty-three years ago he had fled the city, never expecting to see it again, and leaving behind a seed of hope that others would follow and find Sanctuary.
It had taken several years of searching with Logan before he realized that Sanctuary was any place beyond the influence of the City of Domes. It was any place where a man or woman could grow old and die as nature decreed, rather than be led to Carousel before they had even begun to live -- like lambs to a ritualized slaughter.
By then their numbers had swelled as more runners sought them, and eventually, they had settled in a fertile valley far from the city, raising crops and families.
Logan had died only a few months earlier, and though no halo of light surrounded his body as he gave his last breath, no one doubted that he had found his way into the next world. Silently, David wished Logan had lived a few more months -- long enough to make this journey back to the place of their birth.
The cart swayed as it carried David towards the city, drawn by a single horse. It drew to a halt barely fifty feet from the city, and then they waited.
"Grandfather... someone's coming." Jonathan spoke excitedly, his hand reaching back to clasp David's as the outer seal opened wide, revealing the interior.
Though time had ravaged his features, David recognized the old man who stepped from the recently unsealed entrance to the city. He smiled, no longer feeling any animosity towards the man who had hunted Logan -- and then him also -- for so many years before finally giving up and allowing them to live in peace.
"Francis," he replied in acknowledgment, watching as two assistants set two chairs upon the stony ground. Francis took one seat, and David settled into the other, relieved to take the weight off his tired legs.
"He lived a full life... and is now gone."
With hesitant steps, a Sandman came from the Dome, carrying a tray upon which sat a bottle and two glasses. The tray unfolded to form a small table that the Sandman set down before Francis, and then he stepped back, his eyes flickering around as if taking in the immensity of the world beyond the dome for the first time. Francis poured a measure of the pale blue liquor into the glasses and offered one to David, then he raised his glass in a silent toast that set a frown upon David's face in bewilderment.
David straightened, glass forgotten in his hand at the movement behind Francis. His eyes opened wide, lips parting in shock as several young people began to take hesitant steps beyond the City of Domes. David stood up, grateful for Jonathan's strong arm supporting him as the few young people turned into a dozen, into fifty, a hundred and then many more. All of them looked about with eyes wide as saucers, caught between the unfamiliar sight of two old men and the amazing vista set before them.
"Carousel is no more... and from this moment onwards, the City is open for all to come and go as they please."
"And to grow old as they please?"
The sounds of young voices rising in amazement around them answered David's question. They stared at their hands, and David could see that, for every one of them, the crystal of life had lost all color, no longer holding them to a Lastday decreed by a machine.
His eyes caught Francis's, and this time, when they raised their glasses together, it was in celebration of life.