I remember it clearly: the seventh day of December at 9 PM, I left the factory for the last time. The air all around the loom smelled like burning cotton, but in the alleyway, this smell turned cold and damp. The lofty walls of the alley behind the loom building blocked all but a few flurries of snow from reaching the ground where they turned to slush. The methodical rush and clank of the loom behind the smoke-clouded windows rumbled through the cobblestones.
Something along the narrow reaches of the alley caught my eye. It looked like the flickering light of a gas lantern far off in the darkness.
“Put out that light,” I whispered, and with a moment’s hesitation, it was extinguished, leaving only the light pollution from the Government Compound against the clouds to light the labyrinth of alleyways. This labyrinth was called Fashaw City, the ghetto around the Government Compound. This is where they housed the public, the workforce that kept their machine churning.
The man with the smoking lantern at his feet asked me, “Who are you?”
I answered the way my father said, “The public. I am the public.” I did not say my name.
We met later in the orange glow of a lightbox in his basement apartment. He had told me to follow him out of the alley at a distance of ten paces, and he would give me a new job far away from the loom. That could have been a very bad idea, the way thieves lurk in strange niches of the alley network. As I saw more of him in the light, I knew he was no one to be feared. He was little taller than me, grey at the temples: an aging man with no ill will in his eyes.
The basement apartment was only large enough for a bed, a shelf, and standing room for two or so people. The entire building smelled strong of fish and curried meat. We sat on his grey sheets, and I told him what had happened at the loom that day: a girl, my friend Willa, got her fingers caught under the heddle bar of one of the smaller looms. She had been reaching for an ivory hairpin she’d stowed in the bosom of her dress. Her naval captain husband gave it to her before he died in the war, so she always kept it with her to remember times and places outside of Fashaw City. This had happened before to other girls at other looms in other factories, but I had never seen it myself. The bar crushed her fingers to the reeds in a splash of blood.
She could have lived without her hand, but the yeoman, who watched this all happen from his surveying box high above the factory floor, came down to execute her for destruction of public property, his sallow face so full of glee. Four hours later, after batting the decision back and forth, all the while working, I left the factory through the alleyway door with no intent to return.
He had been waiting for someone like me.
“Noble of you, in a way,” he said now. He stared deeply into my eyes in an almost frighteningly focused way. But I guess he must have really been listening.”I’m not sure I was doing anything so productive,” he continued. And I realized I hadn’t put it all together.
He was destroying public property, too. The reason he needed the lantern was to see the mural he was making on the alley wall. I only glanced at it in passing, a blue and gray sparrow, the size of a tall man. It stood out from the dust-colored bricks like an apparition. It didn’t seem like much at the time, but now I realized such an act would mean death in Fashaw City.
Now I was the one studying him intently. “Why would you do that?” I said.
He shifted in his seat to check the lock below the doorknob before returning his gaze to me. “We were in the Guild of Artists before the revolution: Sylvia and I.”
“Who are you?” I found myself asking him this time.
“My name is Hugo Lindauer. I think, once, I may have been a great artist.”
“I remember. I saw your exhibit at the National Gallery the December before the war started. It was about birds, wasn’t it?”
He smiled weakly. “Ironic, now that I think of it.” He glanced at the lock for the second time. “The former Guild of Artists has been reduced to prisoners of the state or worse. Last I received news, Sylvia was in the Government Compound awaiting her execution.”
I looked down at my hands, clenched around the wool of my skirt. “Why are you telling me this?”
“You left. You were brave enough to leave, weren’t you?”
“No one noticed I was gone,” I whispered.
“You saw an injustice while so many others simply turned their faces back to their looms and went on.”
I stood against the wall in the small space of the apartment. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m sorry.”
“Wait and listen.” He tried to grab my wrist, but I unlocked the door and opened it before he could so much as move. “I can’t help you. I—I have to look after my family.” His intense gaze followed me long after I shut the door. I hurried down the wood-paneled corridor, and before he could catch up to me, I was up the narrow staircase and on the front stoop. In hindsight, he wasn’t even following me.
He doesn’t even know my name, I thought. He’ll never be able to find me.
I caught my breath in the wet air. It felt like rain had fallen while I was inside.
The night watchman at the corner glanced at me and looked away. The street was empty except for him and all the lines of lightless streetlamps rendered useless by the sickening glow of the floodlights at the Government Compound.
I ran across the street to the nearest alleyway before the watchman saw me again. As I snaked my way through the maze of alleyways toward home, I wondered about Hugo Lindauer and Sylvia and their life together.
When I reached my family’s small blue door in what seemed the farthest alleyway, I imagined my mother scolding me about being out after curfew, a few wisps of hair escaping the tight bun on the back of her hand. She would be brandishing a spoon or a stoking rod, and I would apologize by helping her cook.
I reached out for the door and a beam of light momentarily blinded me.
“State your business.”
I shielded my eyes so I could see her in her white and gray patrol uniform. The patrols could appear anywhere in the city. The only surveillance they had came in the form of our friends and neighbors, one public snitching on another, or odd lights in the alley network waiting to be snuffed out.
“State your business,” the patrol repeated.
She would go in and search my house. She would find publics without work papers. She would find truants. My heart started pounding in my chest.
“I’m lost,” I said. She lowered her flashlight so I could see. This didn’t make much difference. “I don’t usually use the alleys after dark.”
“All the women in this sector should be at the factories now,” she said.
At a loss for excuses, I turned to run. The patrol caught the hem of my coat and my boots slid out from under me on the melted snow. When I realized I had taken her down with me, I lunged over her and snatched the jumpbox from her hand. I twisted it lengthwise, and in a tingling breath, I was standing in the central atrium of the Government Compound.
The atrium of the Government Compound stretched the height of the building, 412 stories. From where I stood at its center, in a sort of arboretum apart from the hustle of starch-collared workers, I could see through the glass at the very top, to the spire and the floodlights against the clouds.
The arboretum was a domed greenhouse at the atrium’s center. It was supposed to represent something like the government’s care for all creatures, but no one was allowed inside. The only reason I remembered it was because my brother Lars built it. He was in charge of its design and construction before we even saw the omens of the oncoming war.
I sat against the trunk of a tree and wondered how long it would take the other patrols to find that one and then for them to find me. Then my mind went to all the other prisoners hidden somewhere within those walls, then to Sylvia, then to Hugo Lindauer.
I flipped the jumpbox over in my hands. It was slate-gray and almost entirely opaque, except for the creases in its shell through which a coded system of lights would glow according to the location you selected to be transported to. These were still in testing when I was in grade school. My sister and I had borrowed one from the lab where Lars worked. We didn’t have it long before mother reprimanded us, so I wasn’t too adept at using it.
The sector of Mr. Lindauer’s apartment fell between Iota and 12 on the grid. I could get the jumpbox to get me that far, but pinpointing it would be a little more difficult.
There was a tap at the arboretum’s glass. From there it started to rattle. A hammer shattered one pane, then another, and five patrols in their white uniforms stepped over the broken glass. Unlike the woman who stopped me in the alley, their masks were down so I couldn’t see their faces.
I twisted the jumpbox along the creases Iota-12 and closed my eyes. I landed with a splash in another lightless alleyway, this one shielded from the light of the Government Compound.
“You.” I recognized the voice and turned around. It was Lars in his white patrol suit. He had two more gray chevrons on his shoulder than the last time I saw him. He crouched in the alley with his jumpbox in one hand and sorry-looking cigarette in the other.
“How about, ‘I’ve missed you so, Hilde,’ or ‘My darling little sister’?” I said. I stepped toward him, but he put up his hand, the white glove with coal-black fingerprints.
“I come here to intercept a truant thief and what do I find. You left your place at the loom?”
“Someone has to stand up.” I was thinking of Mr. Lindauer.
“Who’s put that in your head?”
“Who put it in your head not to?”
Lars looked down the alley and lowered the mask over his face. It reflected my face in the small light of the jumpbox. The mask muffled his voice: “30 seconds and I’m coming after you.”
I nodded before I ran down the alley. I turned three corners, sided with colored doors and tapestried windows, until I reached the main street. I slapped the jumpbox against my palm, and I stumbled down the street a few blocks down. On the corner, I recognized the same night watchman unmoved from his post.
The apartment building across the way smelled strong of fish and curried meat, the same as before. I ran down the stairs to the basement and hammered my fist on the door I remembered as belonging to Hugo Lindauer.
“Who’s there?” he said.
I stepped back from the door. “The girl who’s going to help you save Sylvia.”
The patrols’ switchboard would know the instant the jumpbox was activated, so we’d have to be quick. We’d have to find the main surveillance room for the compound and shut it down. This would help us find where they keep the prisoners. This was the plan, and this is not what happened.
We jumped into the Compound safe enough, but when we turned the corner of the corridor, there was a blue flash and a squad of patrols appeared in our way. Another flash reflected off the corridor walls from behind us, and I knew we were surrounded.
The patrol at the front of the squad raised his mask. It was Lars, and he frowned at me so coldly even I doubted our relation. He said, “You’re under arrest.”
I grabbed Mr. Lindauer’s arm and hit the jumpbox against my palm. The sight of the squadrons of patrols dissolved into the new picture of the greasy walls of a boiler room with sulfurous air. We must have jumped into the basement. The patrols would follow once they got their order. I sat against the wall next to a mop bucket and buried my face in my hands.
“The patrol captain, he’s your brother?”
My cupped hands muffled my words. “How did you know?”
“The name on his badge, Burkhardt, unless I am mistaken.” He read my silence, and he came to sit next to me. “I’m sure he wouldn’t let anything bad happen to you.”
I raised my face to look him in the eyes. “How could you let something happen to Sylvia.”
“I don’t see how.”
“We were all being arrested,” he said. “She refused to oblige them. They wanted us to burn our art.”
“And you did.”
A whistle that came form the boiler made me tense, but I focused on Mr. Lindauer.
“All of it, up in flames,” he said.
“My brother was an inventor,” I said. “He worked on the jumpboxes. Then they stole all his work, and he joined them.” I felt my face getting hot, but I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to cry.
With my eyes shut, I felt the warmth from a jump afterglow. I felt Mr. Lindauer brace himself against the wall. I opened my eyes.
Lars stood before us in the middle of the boiler room. Without his mask and helmet, his blond hair reached his shoulders. I realized how long it had really been since I’d seen him, seen him on his own, without the other patrols or the uniform, seen my brother.
“Hilde,” he said without the acrimony his voice had in the alley. He held his helmet at his hip. “You stupid girl.”
“Is that all you can say?” I asked.
“You’re making my job very hard.” He set the helmet at his feet. “If I let you go, you have to promise me you’ll leave Fashaw City.”
“I can’t.” I stood, brushing off my coat.
“I’m giving you your freedom,” he said.
“Arrest me,” I said.
Lars couldn’t answer.
“Arrest me so I can save Sylvia.”
“No,” Mr. Lindauer said. He stood next to me. “There is no Sylvia.”
“What?” I said.
“Sylvia isn’t who you think she is,” he said, “And they didn’t burn my art. My truest creation is at the heart of this Compound. ”
“The power source,” Lars said. “You’re the one who made it. You’re Hugo Lindauer!”
Mr. Lindauer started to explain, “I worked for years on that power source. It runs on a compressed fission reaction, a fickle one, like the heart of a woman. So I named her Sylvia. She is the love of my life. Sylvia is the central force of energy for the jumpboxes. Without her and the switchboard, they wouldn’t work. Without her, the Government Compound would be nothing more than a building. The patrol would be nothing more than a glorified police force.”
“Where is she?” I said.
Lars looked awed. “In the arboretum. I’m the only one who can get in now. You knew Hilde’s my sister.”
“Don’t you wish you could destroy your creation? Make the jumpboxes disappear?” Mr. Lindauer said to Lars.
“Of course,” he answered quietly. Lars lifted his jumpbox as Mr. Lindauer put his hand on his shoulder. I caught hold of his arm just before he jumped.
We landed in the very center, exactly where I had landed before, at the place where I could see through the trees straight up to the spire. The air was crisp and cool and smelled of oak leaves. The broken glass panes had already been fixed. The lights were bright and shining like morning, and Lars stooped down to dust the ground beneath our feet. He brushed the dirt away from a hand-sized latch, which he pulled.
A box rose an inch from the dirt and sank into the ground, disappearing into a black hole in the center of the floor, followed by another step around it and another. We gave it distance until a section of the dirt a yard wide had descended. Lars stepped toward the hole, but Mr. Lindauer held him back.
“Only my jumpbox will activate the final sequence,” Lars said.
Mr. Lindauer held out his hand. “Give it to me. Get your sister out of the city.”
“What’s going to happen?” I asked.
“Sylvia will self destruct,” Lars said.
“And everything inside along with her,” Mr. Lindauer added.
I looked through the glass at the edge of the arboretum. Patrols and office workers passed by unaware. I pushed the thought from my mind and came back to face Mr. Lindauer and his love, the terrible machine. “What about my family?”
“There will be chaos after the blast,” Mr. Lindauer said.
“We’ll come back for them,” my brother answered.
Mr. Lindauer opened his hand to Lars one last time, and Lars set the jumpbox in it. I tried to give the one I was holding to Lars, but he said, “Won’t work outside the city.” Lars took off his patrol jacket, leaving only the black shirt underneath. He didn’t look so menacing without it. “We’re going to jump to just inside the city and run from there.” He looked at the jumpbox in my hands and said, ” Omega-5″
This was the farthest jump I’d ever do. I took a deep breath and watched the box turn in my hands along the creases. Lars put his hand on my shoulder before we evaporated and reappeared at the bottom of the city wall.
Burning in the pit of my stomach dissipated to a tingling in my fingertips that lingered with me as we started up the ladder. All the patrols who usually guarded the walls had jumped back to the Government Compound. It’s floodlight flashed red, started by Hugo Lindauer entering its heart. A siren echoed through the alley network.
When we reached the top, Lars and I stood watching the lights and clouds at the middle of the city. I didn’t know why we were waiting. Then a blue light shot up through the spire, the same blue light that trailed each jump. Shards of glass went flying through the air. Starting at the bottom, the floors imploded on themselves one by one.
I couldn’t breathe. I felt myself standing outside my body, only my sense of sight left to guide me. The building crumbled in slow motion. When I breathed again, the Government Compound was a heap of shrapnel at the center of the city, the spire a warped crag jutting out from the carnage.