The Man With a City in His Head
by Maxwell Jameson
A Utopian civilization begins to awaken to its past when a strange old man begins describing a city in his head.
He was mopping the floor when he mentioned it. “Do you want to come with us?” he asked. His voice was soft. Too soft for his thick, masculine frame. He seemed hesitant to speak as loudly as he was capable.
I was behind the counter washing dishes. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“No one told you?” James responded.
“Well, I suppose you’re all right. A few of us have arranged a private meeting with that old man. We approached him today, while all the Citizens were busy talking, and we asked him if he would meet us privately and tell us what he knew. He surprised us by agreeing. So tomorrow after the event here, we are going to meet him at the Center up the street. He said he would show it to us there.”
I remembered the Centers. Taker gathering places scattered throughout the most decrepit parts of Our City. I used to frequent them often. They hosted communal meals and entertainments. I remembered having some of my most enjoyable times in the Takers’ culture.
“What do you mean he will show ‘it’ to us?” I asked. I felt tense for some reason.
“The old man has a city in his head. He wishes to show it to us, because he thinks we’ll be interested in it. There should be as many of us there as possible. You can come if you wish.”
I said thank you and thought little more of it. James and Aaron finished their work and left. Adam also left without a word. I closed my establishment and took the bus home. The holo-bay at the front depicted Frederick speaking in my establishment. His deep voice vibrated over the sound system.
I began thinking about what I’d heard that day. Frederick had lied, and that disturbed me. He said John the Leader was profiled in the Complete History, which was not true. He’d been all but removed. I remembered this from my reading of the Complete History.
But apparently among certain circles the full story of John the Leader was readily known and available. Which could only mean that the Complete History was incomplete. If John the Leader, a pivotal figure in creating the current state of Our City’s affairs, was not mentioned, how much more of our history was not available for common viewing?
And while the idea of there being a different city somewhere that we could see and learn from was exciting, it seemed to me to ignore the most important lesson from John’s time — that Our City could never be replaced, that the current state of affairs was the best of all possible worlds — and that an attempt to do so would result only in violence, repression and tyranny. It seemed like too much of an escape, the same kind of escape I’d sought by immersing myself in the Takers’ Culture. So I would be cautious in embracing such a sweeping qualitative change.
I returned home. I went straight to my copy of the Complete History. I turned it on. I waited as it connected to Our City’s mainframe. I typed in John the Leader. I was shocked when a full, detailed article came up immediately. The Complete History had been altered. The document that we Citizens supposed to depend on to be the absolute, unassailable truth was subject to change, somewhere in that electrical abyss between us and the Floating Center.
I went to sleep puzzled. But my dreams distracted me. I guess they were unsurprising. I was at the same party. But now I knew to avoid him I walked back and forth from the clumps of Takers. Whenever I saw him, I changed direction. He would always seem to have his back to me. I kept changing direction, but I kept turning and seeing him.
After a time, I was surrounded by him on all sides, so I ran to the fringes. I felt the need to leave, but past the borders of the firelight there was nothing but a black void. My insides burned hotter than fire. I looked back and saw that everyone at the party was him. But not him... another face like his... one I knew...
But when I awoke with a start it was gone.
The bus ride to work was very similar to the one from the night before. The same footage of Frederick played. As I got off the bus, I saw him projected at every corner as well, calling people to my establishment. It would be busy. I cringed and then got angry at myself for doing so. I should be thrilled at the thought of a busy and profitable day. I was contributing to Our City’s growth. Only a Taker would feel differently.
Our City’s News had downloaded into the datasheet by the time I got there. The image of Frederick talking danced upon the page as it had in the holo-ports on the street, but here interspersed with the freshly loaded words. One heading caught my eye:
JOHN THE LEADER RETURNS
FREDERICK THE WRITER: ‘WE ALL FORGOT SOMETHING’
Our City is in an uproar when long-standing rumors suggesting that John the Leader had in fact survived the Takers’ Invasion have proven to be true.
John the Leader, the controversial head of Our City’s Council in the era leading up to the Invasion, whose policies of acceptance and appeasement are widely seen as being one of the factors in causing the Invasion, has been revealed to be alive and well and living in the Outer Districts after a lengthy stay in one of our asylums.
Though a well-known figure in his time, John is now known primarily for allowing the Takers’ Army to enter the borders of Our City. Only the rise of the Floating Center and the quick response of our security forces halted the Invasion. The lessons learned from his era led to a new one focused on responsibility and maturity and a resurgence of prosperity and pride.
But several figures from Our City’s elite culture have allied themselves with John, most notably Frederick the Writer, the chairman of our Board of Arts. In a speech yesterday, Frederick promised a major announcement today, hinting that there may be an attempt to reinstitute John’s pro-Taker policies. The large number of Takers present at the speech made this even more likely.
Some leaders have...
I stopped reading. A feeling that something was very wrong took hold of me. The article made what had happened the day before seem far more dangerous than it had been to anyone who watched. It conjured the view I’d have of Takers when I was very wrong, given to me by my teachers, as if the Takers were a disruption of some inherently deserved state of total peace.
I turned the radio on as I prepared my establishment for the rush of people.
“And when you return to this... this politics of... of... insanity, all you’re doing is putting us back on the road to the near total societal collapse that we saw back when whack-jobs like John the Leader were in charge. It’s these types of regressive ideologues that brought Our City to the brink. And who will do it again if we’re not careful. They’ll say anything to get power, because that’s what this is about; it’s about power. They want you to believe you can’t do anything on your own, that you need them to bring your freedom to you—”
I switched it off. I knew the host would continue for some time, as he always did. He would restate his point several times, then have someone else on the show who restated it again to give it the illusion of objectivity despite the plethora of distortions.
I remembered thinking this way about most things I read and heard while I lived in the Takers’ Culture. But I’d somehow allowed myself to forget. I’d known the majority of Citizens listened to him, and so I wanted to understand and take on that viewpoint so that I’d be seen as normal. That was why I began Sharing as well. Why I’d saved up several paychecks to allow the apparatus to be implanted. And with that functioning, it was nearly impossible to allow anything else in. I’d believed that was how I wanted it.
But now I was in such close proximity to the events shaping Our City that I could not help seeing that what was happening was being presented incorrectly. The old man was not rallying followers. He was merely engaging people in conversation. He was not a rampant ideologue forcing his views on people. People came of their own volition.
Despite his resemblance to the pictures in the paper and in the newly-altered Complete History, I could sense that even if he had been that man he no longer was. In those pictures, he was so focused, his brow always furrowed in deep thought. I saw where the ridges on the old man’s forehead came from.
But in those pictures, he never seemed to be looking at anyone; he was looking beyond, at an as yet unrealized future. This old man looked directly at the people he spoke to and had no interest in such lofty ideas. All of that — good or bad — came from Frederick. The old man’s face was as open as a child’s. He’d given up the mantle of leadership and its flurry of goals, handshakes and imperatives. He had unlocked his own desire and was following it wherever it led.
I flipped through the datasheets some more, to the freshly-loaded editorial page:
WHY IDEOLOGY DIED
So everyone is excited because John the Leader has returned. And each Citizen of Our City is supposed to eagerly jump at the chance to join him in his rabid quest for greatness so that we can all live happily ever after.
Wait a minute? Haven’t we heard this before?
I know I have. John was around when I first began my work in Our City. I could never forget him because he was the embodiment of everything I loathed in Our City’s politics. As a young and idealistic journalist, I wanted to help Our City to mature, to become more fair and egalitarian for everyone. Many accused me of being a part of that radical sect of our culture that wished to join the Takers, but I knew that my compatriots and I were cut from a different cloth.
Anyone who came to power with as much populist fuel to burn as he should not have had any problem carrying Our City in a new and vibrant direction. But unfortunately, his lack of patience and humility and his intense thirst for greatness led Our City to the brink of destruction and gave progressive values a bad name for decades to come.
And now he’s back and expects everyone to do his bidding again. He tells us he will solve all of our problems for us. He will paint with master strokes, with Our City as his canvas.
Yes, I know. I’m a complete jerk. How dare I question this great man? How dare I suggest he’s done more damage to Our City than any single person in the last fifty years?
But some of us love Our City too much to see it going down a losing road again. Ideology died because it leads to violence. Only through practical increments can Our City move forward. Only by a focus on law and order and a refusal to coddle those who would take more than they are entitled to, will Our City become what we hope it to be. Humanity has already suffered one Annihilation, can we afford to risk another?
And those of us who know why ideology died aren’t about to let it infect Our City again.
There was a photo of a dour, potato-faced man next to the article. He had not been to my establishment. He did not know what was really happening here. Yet he spoke of it with the total assurance of an expert.
I felt a deep shaking in my stomach. I threw myself into my duties.
As usual, James and Aaron arrived before anyone else. They helped me set up. I watched as they helped with no demand of compensation, and I knew that that potato-faced man had never met Takers such as these. That it was unlikely he’d ever met any Takers.
When Frederick and the old man arrived, they brought a large group with them, all seeking to tend to the old man’s needs. He spoke very little. He was shuttled to his chair, and a Citizen ordered his refreshment for him. The old man seemed to watch with thinly veiled amusement.
They day was like all the recent days at my establishment. Citizens lined up out the door. But James and Aaron were a great help. There were more people than ever before. I felt sorry for them. They were expecting a strong, resolute leader telling them exactly what they needed to do. I read their Sharing easily. I’d had those same feelings in my own past. But that leader did not exist. At least not where they expected him to. Frederick did most of the talking these days, and the old man blew in his wind like a dried leaf.
But everyone was not so enthralled. Adam shuffled in, more pathetic and battered then ever. I couldn’t imagine what he did when he wasn’t here, or why he even kept coming. There was one older man in particular who walked in, bypassed the people and stood alone in a corner. I noticed him right away. He Shared strong. He stood tall with a dour expression. He seemed unimpressed.
But it was still early when Frederick gave his speech.
He once again stood up on the table in front of the couch where he and the old man sat every day. He once again raised his arms, signaling everyone to be quiet. One thing I’d noticed about Frederick was that he did not Share. Yet he somehow managed to exert such a sweeping influence.
Copyright © 2011 by Maxwell Jameson