By Ryan Matejka
Based on the writing prompt: You live in a utopian walled city. Until you saw what's outside of the wall.
The city of Communa was perfect.
Its buildings were laid out in a perfect grid, with each one designed to be uniformly rectangular, standing equidistant from each other, and increasing in height from the shortest houses on the outer rim to the tallest tower in the center. Individually, each boxy and pastel-colored building appeared plain, but seen together, the structures created a spiral of colors that swirled toward the city's center building, which shone in brilliant white. The center building’s striking lack of color and formidable height was matched only by the even taller wall which enclosed the city in a perfect circle, inside of which ran a wide, deep moat that was used for recreation and transportation along the outer rim.
To stand atop the white tower and view the city below was to look upon one of the largest and greatest wonders of the world; a perfect union between art, architecture, and city planning. True to Communa's reputation, anyone in the city was welcome to gaze upon its majesty, just as they were welcome to live a life of absolute freedom and luxury.
From the outset, Communa was built with one ideal in mind; perfection. It was intended to be a bastion of hope for the rest of the world; free of crime, jealousy, complications, and suffering. Food, education, transportation, healthcare, and all the other basic necessities to life were unrestricted, easy to access, and of the highest quality; leaving individuals unshackled by necessity to instead focus their minds on higher goals that benefitted all of society. Art and technology prospered as like-minded Communians united to improve the quality of life at speeds and to new heights that prior generations could not even fathom.
The air was fresher. The water was cleaner. The food was more delicious. The celebrations were more plentiful.
Communa was a self-contained heaven on earth. So perfect was life in Communa that no citizen had any desire to leave.
At least, not until Cassia.
Like the rest of the Communians, Cassia grew up on the outer rim of the city where the pastel buildings were shortest. In fact, her childhood home was on the outermost ring of the city on its west side - closest to the towering, curved white wall that separated the perfect city and the rest of the world.
Sometimes, on hot summer mornings, Cassia would sneak out of her house before the break of dawn and wade out into the crystal-clear water of the moat. There, she would swim out to touch the great barrier and look up to watch the brilliant light from the rising sun trickle down the wall to her like a waterfall of white-gold.
Like most people of Communa, Cassia was naturally curious about the world around her. However, like all people of Communa, not once on any of these mornings, nor during any days when she and others would wade and play in the moat, did she even so much as wonder what might be on the other side of the gigantic and all-encompassing wall. It wasn't until she was a young woman, when she eventually moved out of her parents' house and into an apartment several blocks into the city and several stories up, that she had the first grain of this particular curiosity.
It was a morning like any other. She got out of bed, ate breakfast, and wandered over to the west-facing window where she watched the waterfall of light trickle down the great wall. As the sun found its way to street level, she beheld the wall in its entirety, and for the briefest of moments she had a feeling that there was something missing.
As soon as the feeling manifested, it was gone.
Cassia found over time that she was a lover of two things; children and the outdoors. She created a life for herself that combined those two loves in a way that both gave her a sense of belonging and contributed positively to society. Whereas teachers would educate the children indoors, Cassia instead loved to enrich their lives outdoors. Each day she would travel to a different park around the city, introduce herself to the parents, and then interact with the children as they played and learned about the perfect little world around them. She would teach them new games, tell them the history of the park, help them learn how to healthily settle disputes, and otherwise do her best to make sure the children of Communa took advantage of every last drop of the joy of the outdoors that they could take.
Every once in awhile, while doing her part to make the children’s experiences in the parks a better place, Cassia might see an opportunity for improvement or simply have a spontaneous moment of creativity. After days or even weeks of thinking on it, she would develop an idea for something new she could add or something old she could change to make the parks in the city even more perfect than they already were. Once she felt confident in the idea, she would present it to the Communa Department of Leisure and Entertainment for consideration.
One such time, Cassia made her way to the Communa Department of Energy and Resources, which was just one of the many government branches operating in the white tower in the center of the city, to present an idea she had for a new and improved type of synthetic foliage for the city. The existing foliage that covered every synthetic bush and tree in the city was designed as part of the energy grid to absorb rays from the sun, convert it to electricity, and pass it down through the synthetic plant and into the city’s underground generators. This development eventually led to the city completely doing away with all natural plants long before Cassia was born, replacing each tree, flower, and blade of grass with a synthetic variety capable of contributing to the city’s energy needs while being scientifically-perfect in appearance and behavior. Cassia’s new design, however, would be capable of doubling or even tripling the energy gathered by each synthetic plant in the city by capturing not only the energy from the sun, but that of the wind as well.
After presenting her idea to a very enthusiastic group, Cassia felt too excited to simply go home, and so she decided to treat herself to the most beautiful view in the world by heading up to the top of the tall white tower. She gazed down upon the city as hundreds had before her. She took in all the sights from the pastel swirl of the rectangular buildings, to the parks that might soon be completely renovated to her recommendations, to the crystal clear moat in the distance that sat in the shadow of the great white wall where she used to spend so many dawns as a child.
It was then that the curious feeling came to her again; something was missing. As breathtakingly beautiful and perfect as Communa was, she got the feeling that it was lacking in something extraordinary.
Being a problem-solver by nature, Cassia latched onto this feeling and refused to let go. She stood still atop the tower as she thought long and hard about what it might be that she felt was missing, except she knew full-well that nothing was out of place, without purpose, or missing in Communa.
And that, she realized, was exactly the reason.
She grasped onto the root of the feeling and held tight as she made her way back down in the tower to the Department of Movement and Places, where she was seated almost immediately with a representative to answer her now incredibly dire question.
For the first time, Cassia had a desire that she wasn't certain could be filled. The notion that something might be out of her grasp was completely new to Cassia, and somehow that made it all the more exciting for her. Somehow, that made it more real than anything she had ever known.
"What transport can take me out of Communa?" she asked the young representative, who was neatly-dressed in a pastel blue shirt and pastel pink necktie, who took his seat in front of her.
"I'm afraid I don't understand," he said, then adjusted his necktie. " Don’t you have everything you could ever want or need here?"
"Not anymore," she said. "I now want to see what the world beyond the wall is like."
“But why?” he asked. “What could the world out there have that you don’t have here?”
“Something’s missing,” Cassia said with a proud grin.
The man’s face contorted into confusion, and in the moment that he would have typically given her a prompt and educated response, he instead politely excused himself from his seat and disappeared out his office door.
Cassia waited patiently, hands folded in her lap, as her heart beat heavy in her chest at the thought of experiencing a world where things were unknown, desired, and perhaps even out of reach. Try as hard as she could, Cassia couldn’t imagine what that would be like, and the feeling of not knowing, itself, might have been enough to satisfy her curiosity were it not for growing up with the core knowledge that nothing would ever be kept from her.
After a few minutes, the representative returned with a long polycarbonate tube held under his arm. He twisted off the top and pulled out a long blue rolled-up sheet, the likes of which Cassia had never seen before.
At that very moment, she knew that her new journey had already begun. Already, it was like the life she had known ten minutes ago was a long forgotten memory.
“There is no transport out of Communa, but maybe we can find something in this copy of the original blueprints,” the representative explained, uncurling the blue sheet so that it took up his entire desk space. “I thought it might have something that our modern systems don’t show.”
The representative traced along the outer circle on the blueprint. Cassia leaned in to see it for herself; a sky view of her city, outside of which the blueprint showed nothing at all.
“What does it say?” Cassia asked. She eagerly looked up at the man, whose own eyes shone bright with life and excitement like she’d never seen in her life.
“A-ha!” The representative proclaimed, stopping his index finger on a point on the blueprint and tapping it twice. “There’s something under here.” He traced the something with his finger across the blueprint, stopping in the center. “It looks like there’s an emergency tunnel beneath us that leads out.”
“How do we get there? Where does it take you?” Cassia asked hopefully.
“I think we just,” the representative started to say, leaning in to look closely at the plans, but didn’t finish. His eyes scanned the tunnel up and down, flipping the sheet around to look at it from different angles. Then he returned to the polycarbonate tube and peered inside as if he thought something might still be hidden there, but came back to the desk with nothing. He held his chin as he gazed down at the plans laid out on his desk once more, then, without a word, the representative for the Department of Movement and Places began to roll up the blueprints and put them back into the tube.
“What is it?” Cassia asked. “Where does it go? How do we get there?”
“I don’t know,” the representative replied. “Follow me.”
The representative led Cassia out his door, past the lobby, and to the elevators. Once inside, he eyed the number panel suspiciously, looking for the right button to push to get where he meant to lead her. The numbers reached from 1 to 100, and beneath the first floor there were two rectangular buttons, one marked “B1” and the other marked “B2,” one of which Cassia assumed would lead to the underground tunnel. Neither of these seemed to satisfy the representative, however, and he briefly reached for the cap on the tube as if to take a second look at the blueprints inside, but then reconsidered.
The representative extended his index finger and slowly drew it toward the basement buttons. Hesitating for a moment before pressing either, he extended his middle finger and pressed both buttons simultaneously. At first only the lights outlining each button shone in yellow, but then a third hidden light below them illuminated to reveal a similar outlined rectangle with “B3” alight in the center.
Cassia grinned, and the representative smiled back at her.
“My name is Cato,” the representative said, extending his hand out toward Cassia.
“Cassia,” she responded, taking his hand and shaking it firmly in hers, understanding that Cato would be joining her for as far as this journey led.
The elevator descended three dozen floors without interruption, slowing slightly at the first floor and then easing past B1 and B2, before coming to a stop at the mysterious third basement. The doors opened, and although Cassia was uncertain what to expect on the other side, she was completely unprepared for what she did see. Outside of the elevator was a small rectangular room in which there was nothing but a few benches, barely lit and covered in dirt and dust from ages of stagnation. The air tasted foul on her tongue, and she immediately tried to cover her mouth with her arm as if that would shield her from the airborne debris and stale, unused air. Cato coughed hard into his arm, then covered his mouth with his shirt.
“What is this?” Cassia asked, slowly stepping out of the elevator and making the first print on the dusty ground in generations.
Cato followed closely behind, clutching onto the polycarbonate tube like it was a child’s stuffed animal. “I think it’s the only way out,” he said through his shirt.
Cassia coughed twice into her arm, then, taking cue from Cato, also used her shirt to act as a rudimentary air filter.
Aside from the few benches and the row of elevators along the wall, there was nothing in the large, dusty room. Cassia briefly considered turning back and heading home, only to have the elevator they’d come down on close its doors behind her with a ding that echoed eerily through the cavernous space.
“I think that’s it,” Cassia said, squinting to make out a shape on the wall opposite the elevators. She pointed toward the shape, which appeared to be a pair of large, ornate half-circle doors. As the pair approached them and their eyes began to adjust to the low light, they found that the ornate design in the doors actually formed a aerial view of Communa, as if to remind them once more of the paradise they were leaving. Briefly, Cassia attempted to locate her childhood home, but due to the uniform design of the city and the doors’ lack of color, its location eluded her.
Looking at it from this perspective, for the first time in her life Cassia didn’t think that Communa was all that beautiful after all.
“Come on, let’s go,” she said, grabbing the handle of one of the doors and giving it a pull.
The door didn’t budge.
“Here, let me help,” Cato said, taking grip of the same handle, counting to three, and then giving the large, old door a forceful pull in unison.
With a loud, low moan that resonated through the room, the door opened. Cassia and Cato exchanged gleeful smiles as they brought it open as far as it would go, then eagerly peered inside.
A tunnel stretched before them for as far as the eye could see, with nothing but old, dim, dusty light fixtures every so often to guide their way. Cassia was the first to enter, and thus began their walk through the underground escape that measured the radius of the idyllic city above plus another seventy paces beyond.
Upon reaching the end of the tunnel,Cassia and Cato ascended a stairway and came to one final large metal sliding door at the top that was slanted at a 45 degree angle. Together, they heaved the door open, exposing themselves to the blinding daylight that poured in and forcing them to cover their eyes as they adjusted to the brightness.
In a show of support, Cassia and Cato held hands. Together, they braved the final step out into the world that lay outside the great wall of Communa. There, they took a deep breath and lowered their hands from their brow to look around as their eyes adjusted to the light.
The air, though less stale than that in the tunnel, bore with it a mildly unpleasant odor. Though the landscape itself was flat in all directions, it was littered with the charred and rusted frames of thousands of vehicles from a world long gone. Interspersed around and between the junkyard of vehicles were scatterings of human bones with not the tiniest bit of flesh or cloth left to indicate who they once were.
The dirt below them was scorched and barren, and yet, having never seen real dirt inside the pristine man-made confines of Communa, Cassia found it beautiful. She fell to her knees and ran her fingers along each crack and rolled the dry brown residue between her index finger and thumb. It was then that the realization finally dawned on her that the outdoors that she loved so much, and the love for it that she shared with so many children, was false.
“Well would you look at that,” Cato said behind her.
Getting back on her feet and turning to see the tunnel from which they had emerged, Cassia saw the reason that none of these skeletons had made their way into the safety and comfort of the city; the outside of the large sliding door was a small part of a more elaborate disguise that made the emergency exit look like nothing more but a large boulder jutting out of the flat ground.
Behind the false boulder, Cassia and Cato looked upon the outside of the great wall that they had both grown so used to seeing in every direction. While the wall separating Communa from the rest of the world may have been beautiful and white from the inside, on the outside, facing the sea of corpses, it was an ominous presence that towered over the land and bore markings from where hundreds, if not thousands, of the men and women who now lay scattered on the ground had tried in vain to break their way in.
Cassia climbed atop the nearest rusted and blackened vehicle frame to get a better view of whatever might lay beyond the graveyard. Squinting into the distance as the sun began to set, there appeared to be no end to the blistering and unmoving sea of metal and bone.
“What do you see?” Cato asked from the ground.
“More,” Cassia said. “See for yourself.”
Cato climbed up the steel to join her, put his hand above his brow, and peered off into the distance. “Wow,” he said. “It goes on forever.”
“Did you ever imagine you’d see something like this?” Cassia asked.
“I didn’t even know it was possible,” Cato replied, awestruck.
Cassia inhaled a deep breath of the foul-scented air and gazed out at the remnants of a desperate world long lost.
A grin spread across her face.
“I can’t wait to see the rest.”