This is chapter 14 of my novel, Foreign. I publish a new chapter each Friday at noon. If you want to catch up on the previous chapters, you can go to the archives by clicking here. Also make sure to subscribe to the blog by submitting your email address in the upper right corner. Then you’ll keep each chapter in your inbox!
Mark and Justin stared at the two guards, unsure of how to respond.
“Your time is up,” one guard stated.
“What are you going to do about it?” Justin asked, preparing for a fight.
“You need to leave. The Imperial Hall of Records is at full capacity and you’ve used your allotted time for the day. Unless you have special clearance you must leave now,” the guard outlined.
That’s it? Oh Thank God!
“Certainly. We apologize for the inconvenience. Time got away from us. It won’t happen again.” Mark tried to be as deferential as possible.
“That is alright,” the second guard said. Just gather your things and please exit.”
Outside the Imperial Hall of Records, they surveyed the plaza. It had gotten darker since they last saw it. There was very little light coming from the sky above them. The plaza took on a white hue as the artificial lights became the main source of light. Though evening was near, there was still a large amount of activity everywhere they looked.
“That was a close call back in there,” Justin commented.
Mark agreed, “Too close if you ask me. So what now? I could have spent hours in that place. There’s still so much we don’t know.”
“Yeah, but it sounds like there might be a way to get out of here through Lower Tielmetra, but the chances of survival seem less than trying to sneak on a plane and fly out of here.”
“Yeah. I know. It seems like suicide. Going in through a functioning fusion reactor?”
“But then again, what other choice do we have? We obviously just can’t hang out here forever. Besides, I’m getting really hungry. I could even go for some of those nasty cubes we had back in our cells. They’ve got to have public facilities like restrooms and water fountains.”
Mark wasn’t so sure. “Do they, though? I mean, we still don’t know crap about this place. For all we know, everybody might be able to get back to their house within minutes so they don’t need public places. If we don’t find a way to survive in this city, we won’t last long.”
“You’re right about that.” Justin said. “Let’s figure out how to get out of this plaza. Maybe as we make our way down to the base of Upper Tielmetra we’ll find more answers. Besides, I can’t think of anything else to do.”
They walked down the steps from the entryway of the Imperial Hall of Records back toward the middle of the Plaza. Zoan’s statue was illuminated by pulsating lights that faded between various colors. It was an impressive effect in the twilight. Facing the opposite direction from earlier, they noticed that across from the statue was a large open-air structure. Though there were people all around them, this area looked to be extra congested. They made their way across the grassy plaza toward the crowd.
“Corti, what am I looking at?” Mark asked.
“Straight ahead of you is the Imperial Plaza routing station for the TMT, the Tielmetra Mass Transit. This routing station is the largest in the city, so it’s also the largest in the Empire.”
“Who can ride in it?”
“Anybody who wants to. It’s the Tielmetra Mass Transit.”
“How much does it cost?”
“It doesn’t ‘cost’ anything to ride it.”
“So Corti, you’re saying that we can just ride it anywhere for free?”
“Where does it go?”
“This is one of the four major routing stations within Upper Tielmetra. The Imperial Plaza, Domicile Square, the Commercial Loop, and Industry Park. Each major routing station connects to multiple smaller stations within that particular sector. The TMT runs a continual circle through all four major routing stations.”
Justin made up his mind, “That sounds like our ticket out of here. Let’s go for it.”
Currently at the end of the lawn, they let the natural flow of the growing crowd to push them under the large overhang of the routing station. Under the metal enclosure, they were bombarded with sights and sounds. The curved ceiling displayed a myriad of video advertisements and they could hear the corresponding audio as they walked directly beneath that portion of video. The crowd reminded Mark of going to a rock concert. He was surrounded by random bodies. Only those who were traveling in groups said much. Most people walked silently. The noise of the advertisement barrage made conversation difficult.
This is madness. I don’t even know what I’m walking into.
Even though he was almost a head taller than everybody else who wasn’t in a Tielsuit, he still found it difficult to see very far ahead. The awning was a good quarter mile long. There was no way to really see what waited for him at the end of it, but everybody around him continued walking forward without any sense of anxiety. So Mark just continued with the flow, watching some of the advertisements.
There was the same general diversity of ads Mark would have expected to see during a prime time TV show. The ads were mostly for modern conveniences, food, and entertainment. One advertised a restaurant where you could eat while flying through the air, another described a new Unicom that emitted pheromones guaranteed to attract a mate. The next one discussed the manifold features of their new screencard. Even though they were of products he had never seen before, they very quickly started to blend together. Most were pretty bland, but some most definitely caught his eye. Just as casual as the ads for various restaurants, these ads had fully pornographic scenes. Sex shops were being advertised right next to clothing stores in a totally public place where families were present, and nobody batted an eye. In fact, most people hardly even noticed the advertisements at all.
The crowd continued through the routing station, passing dozens of advertisements, gradually getting closer to the boarding platform. They were funneled into a smaller line to accommodate the traffic of those who were just arriving at the routing station. The ceiling of advertisements never tapered away. Before long, Mark could see a wall up ahead with windows and doors that met the ceiling. People were entering through the doors and finding places to sit. He was looking at the TMT vehicle. After an indeterminate amount of time, a red light flashed above the doors and they eventually slid closed after people cleared the area. Once closed, it was near impossible to tell that a door had ever been there. Before long the wall started to move as the vehicle quietly glided away. Mark was impressed at its length. It went on for quite a while before it was gone. In the blank space it left, Mark saw that they were somehow in midair. The station must have been an outcropping into an open space. About a quarter of a mile away more buildings shot upward, speckled with hundreds of tiny lights from windows. The vehicle that had been waiting at the station just seconds ago was hovering in mid air, perfectly stable, without effort.
In less than half a minute another TMT vehicle filled the void the previous one had left. The front of the vehicle looked like the front of a bullet train, only it wasn’t riding any track. It quietly came to a stop and the doors slid open to let out its passengers. Once the tram was adequately emptied a white light flashed above the doors and the crowd started pouring into the doors again. Mark was relieved to see that people just walked into the vehicle. There weren’t any security scans or guards waiting at the entrance.
Without difficulty, Mark and Justin entered the TMT tram. The vehicle extended outward in both directions for a significant stretch of length. Walking down the center aisle toward the back of the vehicle, they noticed that it was wider than they had expected. This train could have easily held over a thousand passengers.
“I call a window seat.” Justin said, pointing to an empty bench about twenty feet away.
“If we sit over there, we can be across from each other and we’ll both have one. I want to look out, too. I’m cool going backwards.” Mark offered.
Settled in their seats, they looked out the window, ready for their free tour to begin. Mark still couldn’t get over the idea that they were simply hovering in midair. He craned his neck as much as possible in the Tielsuit to see what was directly beneath them. The chasm was monstrous.
“We must be a good tern or fifteen thousand feet above the nearest ground!” Justin marveled.
Mark added, “If that’s even the ground… This place is huge.” He turned his head in the opposite direction, trying to discover how high up he could see.
The buildings that were across the chasm from them continued upward for at least a few thousand more feet. Some went further than others. There were a couple that looked like they went right into some type of ceiling. Still others appeared to be separate but then were connected at multiple places by types of bridges. Actually, the more he looked, almost all of the buildings looked to connect at one place or another.
Through all of the open areas Mark could see countless traffic patterns of flying vehicles. The farther lines of traffic looked like straight lines of glowing ants, while the closer lanes allowed him to make out specific features of individual aircraft. It was strange to not only see lines of traffic going left and right, but also up and down. He also saw a pattern that resembled a coiled spring, winding its way down into the bowels of the city. In parallel was another coil that was winding its way back up. The coil patterns grew more apparent as he saw them further down in the city, probably because there was less light. The sheer volume of vehicles put a Manhattan rush hour to shame. As the vehicles would leave the traffic patterns, many were parking on platforms that scattered all over the sides of buildings at multiple levels. The overall level of activity was astounding. Even more unbelievable was how the entire city did not feel frantic. Mark had been in large cities before and they often had a palpable sense of anxiety, like everybody was running late for some important engagement. That was not the case here.
And without any fanfare, the Tielmetra Mass Transit tram pulled away from the Imperial Plaza routing station.
The ride on the TMT was extremely smooth. There was no hum or vibration from an engine. It accelerated and turned at such gentle rates that it was sometimes hard to even notice the change in speed. As the TMT was fully detached from the Imperial Plaza station, it began a slow dive to the left, banking into the large opening Mark had seen from above while they were waiting to depart. Now he understood what the coil traffic pattern was. They were a part of it. It was the steady stream of TMT trams making their way down the city or back up it.
“Now that we have to time to sit, I’ve realized that I can’t remember the last time I’ve peed.” Justin pointed out. “I haven’t seen any public bathrooms or anything. Besides, I don’t even want to imagine going into a stall with these suits on. What are we going to do? I’ve really gotta go soon.”
“I don’t think we should ask anybody. People would expect us to know our way around since we are in these suits,” Mark noted. He was glued to the window. The city was getting darker by the minute, probably due to the combined effect of their descent and the diminishing daylight. “I can hardly imagine how dark it must be at the bottom of this place.”
“Apparently not too dark. Look down there. It looks even brighter than here if you look way down there.” Justin was correct. In the lowest recesses between the buildings he could see a multicolored glow. It took on different hues in different areas and some spots almost had a strobe effect. Regardless of the specifics, everywhere beneath them was brighter than where they were.
The swirling effect that the building lights made as the TMT spiraled down was mesmerizing. Combining with the lights of other flying craft that were moving independently from the buildings, the TMT’s movement gave Mark the feeling of being flushed down a giant digital toilet.
Justin’s agitation was almost at the point of making a scene in the crowded room of the TMT. “Corti, what do I do if I need to go to the bathroom in this thing?”
“If it is liquid waste then just relieve yourself.” Corti replied.
“What? Are you serious?”
“Of course. There is a receptacle that funnels your waste into storage compartments within the Tielsuit. You can store up to 2 gallons of liquid waste. Just make sure not to defecate inside your Tielsuit.”
“Why not?” Justin pressed.
“Trust me. It won’t be in your best interest,” Corti replied.
“Ok. So I’m just gonna go for it. You’re ready?”
“Ah. Sweet relief.” Justin couldn’t help but tell Mark about his discovery.
“Dude, that’s nasty.” Mark rebuffed.
“Say what you want, but you’ll have to soon enough and you’ll thank me for what you know now.”
“Maybe so, but I won’t announce it to you when it happens.”
“I dunno. You might. It’s a pretty odd sensation to pee your pants and not feel anything!”
“I’ll have to take your word for it.” Mark turned his attention back outside the TMT. “Corti, where are we right now? What is all this stuff?”
“We have just descended out of the governmental section of Tielmetra and we are now entering into the primary living quarters of the city. This is the largest section as it houses 99.94% of Upper Tielmetra’s total 50 million inhabitants, while Lower Tielmetra house 100 million people. The Routing Station for this section is still another 11 miles away. The TMT is not the most direct form of transportation from one section of the city to another, but it is the cheapest and the easiest. However, the TMT must take a spiraling trip down and up the city in order to have enough space for the descents and climbs. The TMT is not able to maneuver as effectively as other vehicles within Tielmetra. What you are seeing out the window right now is the upper section of the living quarters.”
“So is it all apartments? Do people move very much?” Mark asked.
“The average adult in Tielmetra moves 5.3 times.If they have children, the children move with them.”
“Why would you want to move from one building to the other? That seems like a lot of work for not much benefit. These buildings look the same everywhere. Are some nicer than others?”
“Of course. Some domiciles are significantly larger than others, but those are already occupied by people in the higher classes of Tielmetran society. Usually adult Tielmetrans move because they are switching partners. One is considered to be very lucky if they pair with a higher class partner. Not only will this yield a larger domicile, but it will also enhance reproductive status in the lottery.”
“What’s the lottery? Mark asked, fascinated.
“Due to the limited size of Tielmetra, the population density is at roughly 97% of full capacity. In order to maintain this number, only certain families are able to reproduce. Families must win the lottery to be eligible for one reproduction. There is a popular belief that the higher one’s social status, the more likely they are to win a reproduction, but that correlation has not been tested to prove causality.”
“So how many Tielmetrans actually get to have children?”
“1 in every 4.6. However, couples don’t have a choice when they can reproduce. If they are selected in the lottery, they must begin the process within 30 days or they forfeit their privilege. These numbers are all based on keeping the birth/death ratio balanced.”
Mark continued his gaze out the window at the sea of buildings all filled with homes. What he would have given to know what it was like inside some of those homes.
“Do most Tielmetrans work?” Mark thought of a new line of questions to ask Corti.
“Of course. All Tielmetrans work from age 20 until death.”
“Until death? That sucks. How often do they work? Do they ever get vacations?”
“Tielmetrans are required to spend 1/3 of their time at work. They can work more if they wish. Most don’t.”
“But no vacations?” Mark found that hard to believe.
“I do not have a Tielmetran equivalent for your word ‘vacation.'”
“Wow. Ok. So if everybody works the same amount of hours, why would some people choose harder jobs than others?”
“Some jobs have a higher potential for tips. Everything is technically free in Tielmetra, but currency does exist. Everybody is expected to work and they all receive the same compensation for their work. But Tielmetrans are free to give money to whomever they please. Naturally, some jobs and industries have a higher potential to please people than others. Over time, people have created expectations about certain goods and services that they will yield tips from clients.”
“Wait, so Corti, let me get this straight. You’re saying I could walk right into a store and just take whatever I want?”
“Technically, yes. But that merchant would expect gratuity since they provided you with a quality product or service and if you didn’t give them anything they would probably be very angry.”
“Could they do anything to me for not giving any gratuity?”
“Legally, no. But they might be tempted to harm you. It’s considered very rude to leave no gratuity at all.”
“I still don’t get why anybody would do crappy jobs, though? If they could choose anything, I would think nobody would choose those jobs that don’t tip well or are a lot of work.”
“Generally speaking, the more risk or effort a job requires, the higher the expectation of gratuity. Additionally, many of the tasks you are probably considering are actually only performed by the citizens of Lower Tielmetra.”
Still looking out the window, Mark noticed that the swirling effect began to subside. As the TMT leveled out, he saw that they were coming down onto a large flat structure about nine square miles if he had to guess. At each corner of the square was a large, well lit, glamorous entryway. In the center of the square, where they were approaching, he saw what must have been the top of the routing station because it looked similar to pattern of the overhang in the station at the Imperial Plaza. He also saw many smaller looking vehicles leaving the station, headed in every direction.
The TMT pulled into the routing station and the doors slid open. Most of the people stood up and exited the vehicle.
“Do you want to get out here?” Justin asked Mark.
“I don’t really see much point,” Mark responded. “Let’s get out at the commercial loop and see what what we can find to eat.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Justin agreed.
Outside the window they could see the TMT that was going up the city as it was unloading and loading passengers. The station was significantly brighter than the one in the Imperial Plaza. The very ground underneath them was aglow. They soon discovered why.
With the TMT almost emptied out, passengers started to board. These people looked very different than those who had previously been on board. Most of the people coming from the Imperial Plaza were modestly dressed. Apart from periodic Tielsuit guards, most wore simple jumpsuits of one or maybe two colors, typically plain solids like white, black, or khaki. Their hair was neatly styled and most people carried themselves professionally. The families were a bit of an exception, but they still mostly dressed conservatively.
The passengers who were currently boarding came in all varieties. Practically none of them wore plain jumpsuits. Colored hair, piercings, body art, revealing clothing, and even lights on garments were the norm.
Justin discreetly pointed to one lady you looked to be about seventeen, “Dude, she looks like a hooker. And a really hot one.”
“If she is, she probably doesn’t make much. You can see just about all you need for free.” Mark happily observed.
“That’s cool with me.”
“Yeah, but it’s crazy. She looks so young. What would her parents think?”
“By the way this culture looks, they’re probably proud!” Justin said.
Still other people came onto the TMT looking like they were headed to the Oscars. The sheer diversity of characters on the tram looked surreal.
“How can all these people be going to the same place?” Mark wondered.
“Maybe it’s a big place with a lot going on.” Justin suggested.
“I suppose we’ll find out pretty quick here.” The doors slid closed and the TMT began to move.
Instead of gliding out of the station, the TMT slowly descended like an elevator. Once the main floor of the station was out of view, Mark and Justin were overcome with a spectacle of lights outside their window. The same buildings that held plain apartments and homes just a little above them were now covered in flashing lights, giant screens displaying movies and text, and holograms that were being displayed in midair. Traffic was moving in a much more sporadic fashion in this district of the city. The typical chaotic movements of people and vehicles in large cities was in full effect here.
“Talk about sin city, man!” Justin motioned out the window to one part of town that was displaying a constellation of erotic images, movies, and holograms. “That couple must be like 200 feet tall! Right there! Just floating in midair!”
Mark was amazed when he realized that there were many children in the TMT with them.
These people certainly aren’t reserved!
Another area displayed giant images of various foods. To their dismay, none of it looked familiar or appetizing. All around them they saw displays for anything they could imagine. There were places selling clothes, food, sex, drugs, appearance modifications, home appliances, entertainment devices, and even things that Justin and Mark couldn’t figure out.
While they were spiraling their way down to the routing station, Mark explained everything Corti had told him about Tielmetra’s economy and how they could find food if they really needed it.
“We should definitely check this place out.” Justin stated with confidence.
“Yeah. I’m pretty hungry.” Mark concurred.
“Shit, dude. Screw the food. Look at everything else they have. That food looked terrible. Think of all that tech stuff down there. Think about how much money we could make if we brought just one of those things back to Earth with us!”
“And how would we do that? Whatever brought us here burned up everything we had on us, let alone every hair on our bodies. Whatever gets us back will probably do the same thing… if we even get back,” said Mark, being his skeptical self.
“Bull. We’ll find a way back. And it can’t hurt to take some of this crap with us,” Justin countered.
“Keep in mind, just because this stuff is technically free, that doesn’t mean we can just take whatever we want. People will get pissed if we just start taking a whole bunch of stuff. The last thing we need to do is make a scene. You do remember that just a few hours ago we were running for our lives, right?”
“Of course, but they wouldn’t expect us to do this. They probably think we don’t even know what we’re doing at all. They probably can’t even fathom that we’ve already made it this far from where we started. We’re like ten miles away already and this place is huge.”
Mark still thought it best to be prudent, “Still, I think we should start with what’s essential. If we’re gonna steal stuff-”
“Take whats free, you mean…”
“Take, then. Whatever. If we’re gonna take stuff, we should start with the stuff that would help us the most. That way if we can only take a few things we’ll have everything we need.”
“Ok. What do you purpose we get first, then?” Justin asked in mock sincerity.
“Well, it would probably be good to get some food because we don’t know how often we’ll be able to eat, and plus, I’m starving.”
“Ok. That makes enough sense. What else?”
“Seeing all these crazy looking people has made me think that if we are ever out of our suits we’ll stick out like a sore thumb. And even as we wear them, we’re not too inconspicuous. We should find some way to change how we look so that if we ever get caught, we’ll at least blend in a bit more.”
“Sounds good, but I want blue hair.”
“Fine. That would be perfect. For now, that’s all I can think of. You got any ideas?” Mark asked.
“We should check out some of the gadgets they have. We might find something useful there. We might also be able to find out why our guns didn’t work when we needed them to.”
“Great idea. I think our first priority should be changing the way we look. Because if we try to take our helmets off to eat a meal, and we’re totally bald, we might as well wear a sign around our necks that says we shouldn’t be here.”
Justin agreed. “I’m also going to get a blue beard. That would be pretty sweet.”
The TMT slowed its descent as it neared the routing station. This station looked like the others, but there were even more advertisements and even some eager venders who were posted right on the exit platform.
The doors slid open and Mark and Justin got ready to leave.
For chapter 15, click here.