The sky which had been twilit a few minutes ago was already darkening quickly. Under the falling night, the city was unusually quiet. A silence akin to graveyard could be felt there, only broken by an occasional innocent shout or squeal of laughter coming from somewhere around the centre of the town. The buildings in the heart of the city had come quite near to ruin. Holes in the road had not been repaired; windows were broken; plaster was peeling. And yet there had once been a beauty and grandeur about this place. Through carved archways could be seen spacious courtyards filled with greenery, and there were great buildings that looked like palaces, for all that the steps were cracked and the doorframes loose from the walls. It looked as if rather than knock a building down and build a new one, the citizens of Cittagazze had preferred to patch it up indefinitely. At one point a tower stood on its own in a little square. It was the oldest building around: a simple battlemented tower four stories high. Something about its stillness in the failing night was intriguing, and had someone passed it then, he would have felt a very persuasive attraction to discover the secrets the bolted door at the top of the broad steps held.
The only inhabitants of the town were the few children that lived and played here, none of which had yet reached puberty. As for adults, they lived somewhere else. Their only remaining traces were the bodies of a few people-no-longer-people, the bodies of whom could be found at odd places: some right in the middle of a road, one leaning out of a window, another standing in waist high water and many others. All of them, though, had employed their hands to do one and the same thing: they were raised in front of their faces as if to ward off flying bats. None of them, however, were moving. Their eye sockets were hollow and if somebody wished to see, the back of the head could be seen through them. The people were not dead, yet completely lethargic so that no stimulus could affect them.
The cause for this was the specters. Only the people who had passed puberty could be affected by them and, so, could see them. Yet, if they did not fly at the sight, that was the last thing they beheld. Specters were capable of and guilty of eating the consciousness out of a grown individual. Merely white masses of swirling cloud, they had added another bow in their quiver a few decades ago: they could now predate even at things in the air, so that birds and other flying beings with consciousness were no longer safe.
The adults had at first been driven away from the city but as the specters had begun to increase their range, they had been compelled to think of a more permanent solution for the problem.
And then, at last, they found it. Specters were not capable of hunting underwater and that had become their refuge! With a little (read indispensable) help from the technology they had acquired some thirty years ago, the citizens of Cittagazze founded, in a lake near their city, Cittagazze Minor.
Cittagazze Minor was a city of a hundred or two houses situated on the bed of the lake and connected with each other by large transparent corridors and sometimes many houses could be found under one large glass roof. Air was provided to the citizens by the way of sucking it through large pipes the mouths of which opened overwater. The limits of the city were not explicitly shown by walls, fences or other such constructions but defined only by the following words engraved upon a stone table almost in the centre of the city:
The Minor City Of Cittagazze has been confined within Five Mile Distance measured henceforth corresponding every direction, extraneous to which the Authorities have neither Control nor Responsibility, ethical, official or otherwise.
Returning to the night this story is born, everything, till now, was normal in this cozy little cabin. The Import Export Duties Regulation and Control Department, being not a very big one, had also been assigned the rather irrelevant office of Sewage collection and Disposal. Jimnert Michel, the Disposer-in-charge was overseeing the last disposal of garbage out of the city and up to the Waste Banks.
“Now, what’s this?” he murmured, “Label says waste clothes.”
“Then that’s what they will be, Timmy,” said the portly coworker testily, “and don’t try to keep them, coz no one’s gonna take them. It is labeled level Five—and that means garbage, complete garbage.”
“Ok, ok,” said Jimnert, and pressed a button to move to the next item, “But this, Pip, is plastic. Completely reusable!”
“Level Three, though, mind you.”
“Even if it had been level Five,“ said Jimnert, and pressed a different button this time, causing the message Item Reflected to appear on the screen, “I would have saved it. Plastic is already so scarce and these fools are wasting it like…and what’s this, now? ”
Beep beep computer gave a sound.
“Unable to read label?” the coworker said, “Let’s see the label itself then…Ah! Upside down and even that’s not horizontal. That’s Harvey. He doesn’t care about the order of things as long as they are done.”
“Harvey Foster. I told you about him.”
“Hmm,” said Jimnert and sat thoughtfully for a moment. “Ray check.”
“Ah,” sighed the coworker, “when I said that about Harvey, I didn’t mean he isn’t trustworthy.”
“It’s not that.”
“Than what is it? It’s just a heap of junk and that’s it. Listen we’re already fifteen minutes late and-oh, ten more items –we’ll get an hour late for dinner and Susan’s made such a fine one, you’ll be missing it."
“We’re here for some work Philip Tinstone.” said Jimnert. “Yes, and I say do it. But why overdo? After all it’s only a bit off junk!”
Jimnert appeared a bit doubtful but at that very moment, the door of the office opened and a tall built man stood in doorway. Jimnert, with his nature to appear ever diligent, made his decision.
“I want the thing to be checked, Philp”
“Sorry for the intrusion Mr. Michael,” said the newly arrived, “Philp did I leave that watch here? The digital one?”
“Er—,” said Philip, rummaging in his papers, “there’s nothing here that look likes a watch Harvey.”
“Hmm,” said the man with dejection, “such a trifle though…well, then…”
The computer gave another beep to report the ray check..
“That looks like something electronic,” cut in Jimnert, “something small.”
“There can’t be anything in that!” exclaimed Harvey, “I was doing that and that iron was really hard to fit. But they can’t be anything electrical! Unless… Oh that’s it! It must be my watch; I think I felt something fall then.”
“Ah well, lucky you! Go, get it then,” said Jimnert.
“Ah well, I’m not opening that box again. It took me an hour and for a watch, I’m not opening…”
“That settles it,” said Philip who was already irritated with this extra delay. He pressed a button and the garbage line moved ahead.
“Perfect,” said Somebody somewhere and Harvey heard it, though Jimnert and Philip didn’t.
An eerie silence blanketed the West Bank. The land was hidden below feet of trash dispatched there by the people of the underwater city. There, somewhere among that multitude of waste, lay a metal box with the dimensions that could just fit in an average sized man. Even as it lay there, somewhere from inside it there came a beeping sound and then a sharp click. In that moment of perfect stillness, it was well the sounds were over quickly for their echo only increased the creepiness in the ghostly atmosphere.
Then slowly, the lid of the box flew up noiselessly in the air and landed with a dull thud on a pile of litter some feet away. Out of this box rose a humanly shape, clad in black cloak and hood. Nothing of the figure was visible—the cloak was clearly oversized for this person. The sleeves hung half a foot below the arms (as could be seen by the projections) and the cloak slithered on the ground behind him, though it made no sound. Steadily and noiselessly, the figure moved ahead—or was it gliding?—and skirting the Lake, entered the old crumbling town of Cittagazze Major.
The same quiet lay over the city broken only by the creaking of the robotic guards that inspected the city streets day and night.
Like a shadow, the figure moved through the city, now stealthily across the Square, now through an alleyway which lay hidden behind a bush, now stilling in front of a dark background as the machines scanned the region. It did not, therefore, take it long to reach Torre degli Angeli, Tower of the Angels.
Crossing the pathway, the figure approached the crumbling stairway and climbed to the top. The climbing motion, however, was quite unnatural. Instead of moving in a rocking motion, the body simply flew in a straight inclined line towards the top of the flight of the stairs and reached the door. It did not try the door, knowing it, it seemed, already to be locked. Instead, from the sleeve of the right hand, out came a sharp and slim knife and with one fluid motion, swiped itself through the crack between the door and the doorway. The lock being old, gave way easily. A moment later, no shadow lingered on the threshold.
Inside, the floor was made of flagstones worn smooth over centuries, and the air was cool. A flight of steps went downward and opened into a wide, low-ceilinged room with an immense coal furnace at one end, where the plaster walls were black with soot. The staircase that led upwards was made of blackened oak, immense and broad, with steps as worn as the flagstones: far too solid to creak underfoot. The light, low as it is, diminished as the figure climbed, because the only illumination was the small deep-set window on each landing that allowed a shaft of moonlight to illuminate a patch of the nearest oak flagstone.
The figure climbed up one floor, stopped as if to listen, then climbed the next, in the same abnormal fashion that only conveyed too much the idea that something was amiss. As it reached the landing, it moved off in the direction of the only door, opened it, and entered it.