When I was a boy, my mother told me stories about what lay beyond Metropolis. The cities with their fantastical names, each one devoted to some great work or ideal. Some of them were responsible for the steady flow of goods Metropolis received – food, medicine, raw materials for the factories, little necessities like the incandescent bulbs we used to light and heat our room. She wove stories about the buildings and the streets and the people who lived and walked and worked there, whispering to me after the lights had gone out, filling my head with wondrous visions of the world outside the city’s walls.
I didn’t realize until I was older that she’d never set foot outside of those walls, had in fact never been beyond the narrow streets that spread out around our factory like a crumbling maze surrounding a monolith. She’d made up those names from words she’d seen on the machine-printed labels that marked boxes and crates of supplies, made up the whole world just for me so that I would know there was more than cold crumbling concrete and rusting steel and the yellow-gray miasma that roofed the walls of Metropolis thanks to the constantly-running factories with their belching chimneys and trickling vents. She’d told me that outside the city the sky was high and blue with puffy white clouds drifting idly across it, clouds that sometimes dropped rain that didn’t burn but was instead cool and fresh.
That particular story was one she’d gotten from her father, and it was the only one she’d ever told me that was actually true. Not that she knew it was true, of course…but I think she wanted it to be. I never got to tell her, either, but I’m not sad about that. Because by the time I made it out of the city to see my never-met grandfather’s blue skies and white clouds, life in Metropolis had definitely taken a turn for the worse and I and a few lucky others had fled through holes in the broken walls, venturing out into a world that was part wonder, part horror.
It was a world at war, you see. A war Metropolis had in a roundabout way started, because her factories made things and parts of other things, and some of those parts were things other cities needed to build bigger things they could use to fight with. Battle wagons. Air transports. Guns and missiles and bombs. For a while they got away with doing business with everyone pretty much equally…but then someone got greedy and greed made them stupid. It was only a matter of time before one of those warring cities found out that the Owners were favoring the highest bidders, and that was when they and their allies and their enemies brought their war to us with weapons we had unknowingly helped them build.
It was a disaster, of course. In some other city things might have been all right for at least some of the inhabitants, but the people of Metropolis had spent generations trapped inside the walls under the yellow-gray clouds, and they knew nothing except working in the factories. They’d been bred and raised on schedules which were all but cast in stone. Work shifts were shared by the entire family, the entire neighborhood, and so were meal breaks and sleep periods. Freedom to act was a concept as unknown as blue skies. And so when the bombs began to fall and the walls to crumble, most of the people of Metropolis stayed where they were and died there, not knowing what else to do.
I was near the wall that day and lucky that our Foreman, although he knew no more about the bombs or the war than the rest of us, did know that things falling from the sky were dangerous and tried to order us to run to the nearest roofed area. And I was luckier still that he died mid-sentence, after only ordering us to run, and our line scattered in every direction. Five of us ran to seek the shelter of the wall, and in our fear and confusion we climbed through the rubble where part of it had caved in and kept running until we couldn’t run anymore.
We looked back to see one of the factories fall in on itself, the gray monolith collapsing in a cloud of dust and fire that rolled out over the streets and their rows upon rows of gray box rooms like a heavy blanket. Small planes like nothing any of us had ever seen before – they weren’t copters, or transports – darted in and out of the dissipating yellow-gray cloud that had been our city’s sky, and wherever their narrow noses pointed more fire sprang up and more gray walls crashed down. So we kept running, and running and running until we could no longer see Metropolis at all.
We hid from the fire-planes as best we could, and if the blue sky overhead had been a wonder then what happened as the sun began to settle into lights-out was beyond even my imagining. It made colors in the sky like none of us had ever seen before, everything from yellow to purple, and once those colors started to fade the sky began turning blue-black and little twinkling lights appeared – more and more of them the darker it got. And then another, colder, smaller sun rose up from the horizon and shone over everything with silver light instead of gold, and we sat and marveled at it until it too sank into the horizon and left us alone with the tiny flickering lights.
And that night, I told my four neighbors my mother’s stories – the sky had indeed been blue, so I could hope that her other stories might have at least some truth to them as well. I told them about Panchromosoniradiopolis, the City of Lights, where everything was sound and color and glass-walled factories made every kind of light fixture we had ever seen. I told them about Terrafluvimonsflorabellatopia where beautiful plants were grown, and Subterranononphotopolis, a city tucked away underground where the people felt their way along the streets because there was no light to see by, and about the sister cities of Mescalinomedichemicotopia and Intoxivinopharmanarcobibendopolis where medicines were made, and about far-off Polargyrofluximagnetopolis where everything was ice. And I told them about the shining silver city of Exnovotechnikageopolis where fantastic new machines were created by thinkers who journeyed from Cerebrasophocognimelantragiopia and workers brought in from Manuferroxylofactopragmatopolis. I told them about all of the places she’d whispered to me except one, the one I wanted to see most of all: Stylolexicartagraphicopolis, the City of Wisdom. Stylolexicartagraphicopolis was where the manuals came from that we had all been educated out of, and maps and signs and instructions and any and every kind of knowledge there was to be had, and ever since I was small it had been a dream of mine that I could go there. But that dream was too precious and personal to me to share with my neighbors, and so I didn’t. I knew, deep down, that they wouldn’t have understood.
The next day we woke up for our shift, but there was no shift. And there were no rations to eat, either. So we walked some more, and eventually we saw buildings in the distance. They were strange buildings, not made of concrete, and they were in different colors. One was short and white, one tall and unfinished which looked to be made of dull metal, and the third was tall and red. We had to stop and talk about that; red means danger, so a red building must be a very dangerous place indeed. But the metal building looked something like a rain shelter, so we finally decided that we should go see if there was anyone there.
The ground we were walking across was brown and had brown and yellow things that looked like broken fibers sticking up out of it, and before we had gotten to the other side of it a white-haired man appeared carrying a strange three-pronged picking tool with a long handle. He wasn’t dressed like a Foreman, but he didn’t look like a Boss either and certainly not like an Owner. He was wearing what looked like a protective jumpsuit without sleeves made of worn but thick blue material, and underneath it was a shirt which had an unusual woven-looking pattern of brown and blue stripes. His boots were dull brown as well, strangely stitched and pointed on the ends, and also covered with dust – an Owner’s shoes would have been black and shiny. The man was staring at us, so I bowed to him. “We don’t know what to do, sir,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t punish us for not knowing his title. “Could you please provide instruction?”
He looked confused by this, and he gripped the picking tool he was holding a bit tighter. “Who are you boys? What are you doing out here?”
I bowed again, happy that he had asked questions I could answer. “I am 461342,” I told him. “And we came here from Metropolis. Our Foreman told us to run, so we did.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You don’t have a name, boy?”
“Yes, it is 461342,” I repeated. “And these are 467291, 464866, 462950, and 471131.”
He seemed surprised by my answer. “Those are your names?” I nodded, and he cocked his head and looked us over; it felt like an inspection, so I stood still and so did my neighbors until he had finished. Our gray technician uniforms were somewhat rumpled and dirty, both offenses, but hopefully he would understand. To my great relief, he did. “By Metropolis you mean…that big place way back over that way? The place with the big wall?” he asked pointing back in the direction we’d come from, and I nodded again. This time, he nodded back. “I’d heard it had a name, never knew what it was. I’m guessing you boys were born there?” We all nodded. “So why’d your foreman tell you to run?”
“Fire planes came and dropped bombs on the city,” 462950 told him. “The walls were broken, and the factories collapsed. We aren’t sure why.”
“Oh, I know why,” the old man said. “I can try to explain it to you, I suppose. Come on boys, we’ll go sit in the barn and talk, and maybe my wife can rustle up something for you. Haven’t eaten since you left Metropolis, have you?”
“There were no rations this morning, sir,” 467291 confirmed apologetically. “We awoke at the proper time, I think, but there were no rations.”
“I can get you something,” the old man said again. “First things first, though, let’s get you into the barn before someone sees you all.”
We followed him, glad to have instruction even though it wasn’t very clear, but we had to stop when he approached the red building. “Sir, this is a dangerous area. We do not have authorization to be here.”
“Dangerous…oh, because she’s red?” I nodded. “I’m authorizing you to be here,” he said. “This,” he waved his hand, “is my farm, boys. Red doesn’t mean danger here, at least not when it’s on a building like this. This building is called a barn, I keep hay in it.”
“A storage facility?” He nodded, so we followed him inside. Large bales of golden fibers were neatly stacked from floor to ceiling, but several others were sitting in a clear space on the floor and he sat down on one, letting us know with a nod that we should do the same. And then, very slowly, he explained about the war. We didn’t understand most of his explanation at the time, of course, even though the Farmer did the best he could. What we did understand was that the Owners had done something wrong, had interfered in a bad way with the wars that had been going on elsewhere, and the bombing of Metropolis had been their punishment for it. And we understood that we couldn’t go back home to our city, because most of it had been destroyed and most of the inhabitants were either dead or had been taken off to work somewhere else. Even the Owners were dead, because the people who had attacked Metropolis had found them and executed them right in front of the city’s burning broken walls.
Years later, when I finally left the farm which had once sheltered five lost children of Metropolis, I made my path take me past what had once been our factory-city and found the remains of the Owners still there, their bones scattered and gnawed but their sun-bleached, jawless skulls still mounted on the spikes which had once topped the confining walls. I looked at them for a long time and then went on my way, leaving the burned dust and rubble of my past behind as I ventured out into the war-ravaged lands to search for the one place I had always wanted to go: Stylolexicartagraphicopolis, my mother's fabled City of Wisdom. Because I had learned that the one thing the world needed most was wisdom, and I was determined to journey until I found it.