This is chapter 13 of my novel, Foreign. I release a new chapter each Friday at noon. To catch up on previous chapters, you can check out the archives here. Spread the word about Mark and Justin as they try to find a way home from Tielmetra.
“Sir, they’ve escaped.”
-From the office of the Secadoma
For a brief moment Mark felt like he could have been walking by his own nation’s capital. The long, grassy expanse littered with people from all backgrounds, and monuments commemorating past experiences might as well have been in Washington DC. But the hovering taxi that was landing nearby reminded him that the statue he was approaching was of an unknown king.
As they ventured further into the plaza, they felt like they were in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, looking up. They were surrounded by mountainous buildings on all directions. Only directly above the plaza was open sky. In the time it had taken them to walk toward the middle of the grass, some nacreous clouds had lazily slipped into view. Their silky iridescence made the sky look like molten lava flowing across the sky. It was like nothing Mark nor Jacob had ever seen.
It was an eerie scene; between the unfamiliar clouds above, the buildings soaring to unbelievable heights, the oddly familiar layout of the plaza, hundreds of flying vehicles, and the oversized statue of an unfamiliar king. And yet, nobody seemed taken aback by their surroundings. Though a bit small or gaunt, most people had reasonable hair styles or plain-colored jumpsuits, and looked to be going about business as usual.
Mark tried to hear what people were talking about, but they were only able to glean bits and pieces of conversation because there were so many people walking everywhere. He didn’t dare approach any of them for fear of drawing unwanted attention. One young lady said to a friend that Tielseca was uncivilized. A child asked their father if they would be able to go inside the Zoan today. One man walking by himself discussed his plans for a romantic encounter. Was he talking into some kind of invisible phone? Nobody was mentioning anything too extraordinary, but it was jarring to hear English speech and watch mouths formulate non-English words, like playing a bad video game.
Finally in the middle of the plaza, they stood before the gargantuan statue. A thin man stood proud, chin up, staring off into some undetermined future. The metallic surface reflected the fiery colors of the sky, giving the statue an appearance of gold. At the base of the statue was a three-line inscription that read, “TIEL EMPEROR ZOAN. FATHER OF TIELMETRA. SAVIOR OF TIELLANDRA. 8746-8904.” Each letter was the height of a telephone pole.
“Dude! He was like 150 when he died!” Justin observed.
“Yeah. I guess you’re right.” Mark conceded, “But who knows what those numbers mean? Obviously their years aren’t the same as ours. I mean, heck, do they even use years?”
“Either way, we’re getting close that Hall of Records place. It should be just beyond this statue of Emperor Giant Dong… or Zoan… Or whatever his name is… Let’s keep going. I don’t like being out in the open like this.”
It took longer than they had estimated to make their way past the statue. It must have easily been over 1700 feet tall and 1500 feet wide at its base. Eventually they rounded the corner of the statue’s base and discovered the Imperial Hall of Records to their right. The building was one of the larger buildings of the Imperial Plaza. Rather plain, it looked like a giant metal cube, probably the height, width, and depth of five football fields. Its surfaces were all smooth. There were no outcroppings for windows, porches, or doors, yet they could see the white glow of interior lights shining through the metallic surface peppered around its sides. At the entrance stood four guards in Tielsuits.
“Will those guards let us inside?” Mark asked Corti.
“Of course. All citizens of Upper Tielmetra are free to enter all Imperial buildings, but the Tieldoma, the Secadoma, the Extraterrestrial Containment Facility, the Zanbarian Guard house, the assignment chambers, and the prison. The guards are only present to make sure foreigners or citizens from Lower Tiellandra do not enter. Your Tielsuit grants you immediate access to all Upper Tiellandran areas other than what I just mentioned.”
“Wow. Ok. Well, let’s see what we can find once we get inside. Corti what will we be looking for inside this Hall of Records that will help us find a way out of this place?”
“Connect to a data port and look for structural maps of Upper Tielmetra and Lower Tielmetra.” Corti explained.
The two of them had arrived at the front entrance to the building. The guards gave them a cursory nod, and motioned for them to enter.
There weren’t any doors in the wall, but as they walked closer, the wall slid open to reveal the atrium inside. They both entered.
In the main entryway they stood in a cavernous room. In actuality, they were looking at the whole building. There was a ground level with numerous metal cubicles in a grid. They could see all the way to the top of the building. Along the perimeter there were maybe fifty levels that went up the height of the building. Each level was open, though, almost like a porch that ran along the whole inner perimeter of the building. On each floor was even more cubicles. Suspended in the middle of the building was a giant three dimensional hologram of Emperor Zoan’s face, slowly rotating. Cubicles that were in use had all four walls enclosed. Near the far corner of the grid on the ground level, they saw a grossly overweight man walk out of a cubicle.
“I’m surprised he could even fit inside one of those things,” Justin murmured, “Looks like that’s our ticket.”
Squished inside the cubicle, it’s fourth wall automatically closed behind them. All that was inside was a chair.
“What do we do now?” Justin asked.
“I dunno. Try sitting down in the chair.” Mark suggested.
As Justin sat in the chair, the wall in front of him transformed into an interactive screen. The home screen looked like a blank internet browser.
“Corti, how do I use this thing?”
“There are multiple methods to access information. You can manually input search queries by using your hand to write on the wall or you can speak commands to the database and it will search for what you request.”
Mark asked, “Does this thing log what each person searches for and who searches for it?”
“Of course,” Corti replied, “All searches are logged into the Imperial Database of Tiellandra.”
Mark investigated further, “Are there any particular search topics that will send an alert to the authorities?”
“Not to my knowledge.” Corti answered.
That answer did not ease Mark’s anxiety. “Ok, well, let’s be quick with this. Once we find what we need, let’s get out and keep moving.”
“What should I look up?” Justin asked.
“Let’s start with the basics. Try searching for a map of the city,” Mark conjectured.
“I would like to see a map of Tielmetra,” Justin spoke to the wall.
The screen showed three options and replied to Justin’s request, “Would you like to view a map of Upper Tielmetra, Lower Tielmetra, or the entire city?”
“Let’s try the entire city.” Justin prompted.
The wall displayed a side view of a giant cylinder that grew wider at the base. It almost looked like a giant cone with a cylinder placed at the top of it. The image started to rotate and eventually moved up, giving a bird’s eye view. From the various vantage points, it became clear that the city had a perimeter wall like a giant hollow coffee mug that flanged outward at the base, with hundreds of interconnected buildings climbing to various heights in the middle. Over the top of the whole city was a type of clear enclosure so that all of Tielmetra was one cohesive unit.
“Is there a way to see a scale on this image?” Mark asked.
Instantly a line with tick marks appeared on the bottom corner. Each notch indicated a unit of length called a Zic. Mark estimated the hight of Tielmetra to be something like 70 or 80 zics.
“Corti, can you convert zics to miles for us?” Mark asked.
“Certainly. 1 mile is approximately 6.2 zics.”
“No shit!” Justin blurted out. “That means Tielmetra is like is over 10 miles high!”
“12.097 miles, to be exact,” Corti corrected.
Mark told Justin to ask the database where the hall of records was on the map. A flashing dot appeared in roughly the middle of the cylinder, almost 85% of the way to the top.
“That’s a long way down to the bottom if we want to leave this place.” Mark was getting more discouraged by the second. “How are we going to find our way through all this?”
Justin kept the search going. “Show me the base of Upper Tielmetra.”
The image enlarged so that they were looking at the part of Tielmetra where the conical shape met the cylinder. It was a profile view again.
“Take me in past the outer wall of the city.” Justin asked.
The wall became transparent. Through it they could see a solid line dividing presumedly Upper and Lower Tielmetra. There were no gaps in it.
“Is there a way to get to Lower Tielmetra from Upper Tielmetra?” Justin asked.
The screen spoke a response, “No.”
“They are divided by the Upper Tielmetra foundation.”
“Why is there a separation between the two regions?”
“They have always been divided.”
Justin was starting to get a little frustrated by the database’s simple answers. “Why does Lower Tielmetra exist?”
“It has always existed since Tielmetra was created.”
“Ugh! Stupid piece of trash.” Justin swore.
Mark suggested not asking it “why” questions. “Try asking qualitative questions like what is different between Upper and Lower Tielmetra. Stuff like that.”
Justin followed Mark’s advice.
The database replied, “Upper Tielmetra houses the elite classes of Tielmetra. All of the governmental and principle commercial districts are in Upper Tielmetra.”
“What do most of the people do for work in Lower Tielmetra?” Justin asked.
“The two largest career categories are energy and sanitation. 24% of the population works in energy production. 18% are registered as working in the sanitation department.”
“How about for Upper Tielmetra? What are the two largest job categories?”
The databased answered, “49% work in general commerce positions while 25% have civic responsibilities.”
Mark inquired if anybody in Upper Tielmetra worked in energy production or sanitation.
“No,” the database said.
“So they have everybody in the Pit do all the dirty work for everybody up top,” Mark realized. “So there must be a way they are connected. When you dump trash in Upper Tielmetra, it somehow has to make its way down into Lower Tielmetra, right? How is Tielmetra powered?” Mark asked the computer.
“Through the program called Internal Tielmetran Energy Resource. ITER uses a series of four tokamaks to create fusion energy.” Four rings spanning the circumference of the entire city were highlighted in the image of Tielmetra on the screen.
Mark put the pieces together. “So the whole barrier is a giant fusion reactor! That’s why nobody gets through it! It’s constantly filled with hot gases. Do any of the reactors ever go offline?”
“Yes. The four tokamaks are timed so that only three are going at a given time. This allows for them to cool down and for parts of the magnetic insulation to be periodically replaced.”
“Is the schedule predictable and open to anybody who wants to know?” Mark continued, sprouting the beginning of a plan in his mind.
“Every 3 hours a different tokamak shuts down. The temperatures get so hot that they cannot stay active for more than 10 hours. So in a 12-hour cycle each tokamak is on for 9 and off for 3. Out of that 3 hour time, the inside is only at a safe temperature for 85 minutes. Once shut down, the metal cools naturally for 33 minutes, and then heat exhaust vents open, allowing outside air to cool the metal faster. The natural cooling period is needed so that the metal insulators don’t warp and crack due to the extreme temperature difference from the outside air. The exhaust vents remain open until 10 minutes before the hydrogen gets heated again. The top tokamak cools first. It is followed by the tokamak beneath it.”
“Is there any way to access the top tokamak from Upper Tielmetra?” Justin asked.
“Does anything or anybody leave Upper Tielmetra at all?” Mark ventured.
“Yes. People can leave Upper Tielmetra through aircraft in the airport.”
“That’s it? There’s no other way that anybody or anything leaves Upper Tielmetra?” Mark pressed.
“Sewage is periodically dumped out of exhaust pipes into the air.”
“Show us the lowest place where it’s dumped on the map of the city.”
The screen zoomed in to a point right above the border between Upper and Lower Tielmetra. It showed a large pipe in the outer wall that emptied into the open air. It didn’t look too far above the topmost tokamak.
Thinking aloud, Mark asked the database, “How big is that pipe? And how high is it above the highest tokamak exhaust vent?”
“The sewage pipe is .01 zics in diameter and it is located .05 zics above the highest tokamak exhaust port.”
Corti converted the distances, “8.5 feet and 42.5 feet.”
“Damn. Over 40 feet is too high to jump.” Mark noted.
Justin disagreed, “Maybe for us normally, but think about these suits. They would probably absorb the shock.”
“You could be right,” Mark agreed. “There’s gotta be a way to access those sewage pipes from Upper Tielmetra. I mean, what would they do if one got clogged?”
“You’ve got a point about -“ Justin was interrupted by a rapping on the door behind them in the cubicle.
They froze, their heart rate skyrocketing. Mark told the database to clear its screen. Another knock came at the door.
“What do we do?” whispered Mark?
“Hell if I know!” Justin shot back.
“We’re coming in.” The door slid open, revealing two guards in Tielsuits.
For chapter 14, click here.