Julek Bohme was standing outside the water purifying plant on the edge of sphere #38. He looked through the thick glass towards the horizon where the sun began to hide behind the dunes of the desert. He didn’t usually think of anything while he looked outside to the sterile world, and it wasn’t odd to see him stand there hours at a time. But on that day his mind wandered through ideas of the world. Julek watched the rays of the sun create spectacular shapes in the sky as its light was reflected and absorbed by the mountains of sand and he couldn’t help but ask himself, What lies beyond those dunes? What lies beyond the desert? What inhabits the rest of our dying world?
“Hello Mr. Bohme.” Bohel had walked up to him unnoticed.
“Hello Bohel. Good afternoon. How are you today?”
“Fine and you?”
“I’m fine, I’m doing just fine… out here again.” Julek laughed, “The sky looks especially pretty today don’t you think?”
Julek and Bohel watched the clouds move with the winds from the outside and the rose colored sky that faded into black on the other side of the firmament.
“Yeah. Why’s that Mr. Bohme?”
“Well… I’m not exactly sure, but I do have a theory. Want to hear it?”
“Yes! Tell me!”
“Okay, but first, a question. What do you think is beyond the dunes?”
“Hmm… I don’t know, see, pay attention to our spheres. They’re all organized in a circle, we can see them all from here right?, why is that? Why not have a different layout? That way we could see more of the world, or at least we would have more presence in the ocean… It seems strange, as it is we can only see this part of the desert and only have one source of water.”
“At school they told us that the world had turned into a big huge desert many years ago and that there was nowhere else to go.”
“Maybe… may be. But something tells me it’s not. Take the ocean for example, it seems endless doesn’t it? But you and I know that it’s not. Somewhere in a distant place, farther even than that spot where the sun rises, there is land. I don’t know, it seems we are in these spheres for a reason. What that reason is, I’m not sure. But I’m convinced that there is something more out there. I think there is life elsewhere in this planet and that’s why sometimes the sky looks pink. There is someone out there sending us signals, waiting for us, expecting our return…”
Bohel looked at the sky in disbelief. To him the desert did feel endless, a hostile place where the thin dry sand would destroy his lungs with a single breath. “You think so?”
“Well… it’s a theory. But please don’t tell your parents or teachers about this… You know how it is.”
“Yeah, don’t worry about that Mr. Julek, my mouth is zipped.”
“Thank you Bohel. I think it’s time for you to go home, your parents might be worried. Are you going to visit me tomorrow?”
“I guess so, I’ll bring a piece of the cake my mom made.” Bohel smiled and began running towards his home without waiting for a response. Julek smiled too at the sight of the young enthusiasm Bohel had, it reminded him of his better years. He began to walk home with a good stride, not as fast as Bohel but an excellent speed for a 67 year old man. Each step he took crumbled small rocks beneath his feet that resonated through the mostly empty streets of the sphere he inhabited. He thought of the thick glass walls, of the air filtration systems, of the water treatment plant and wondered, who built all that? When had someone from the past decided to isolate themselves from the world? Each time he saw the sun rise in the morning he was less convinced of the history that was written in the books the government provided.
It didn’t seem likely that humans, weak and frail as they are, would be capable of destroying a whole planet. Out there, beyond the high dunes of the desert, something waited for him. He looked at his surroundings as he walked, trash contaminated the streets, the smell of chemical waste permeated the air and the water that he drank tasted acid and bitter. Maybe humanity was not protecting itself from the harshness of the world, maybe the world was protecting itself from the disease of humanity.
Julek arrived at the small cube he called home. The artificial lights from the sphere illuminated his room through the window in the back, a crystal table, a synthetic plant, two old chairs… one was his, the other one belonged to Dana. A picture on the wall beside the entrance reminded him of her youth, of when they were married and sat together to drink tea in the afternoon. Her large gray eyes, her imperfect smile, the life that she once had. Death came to everyone, but some met her sooner than others. ‘Sleep well, but not forever’, his father used to tell him. He couldn’t stop working, he couldn’t risk becoming unfit, he couldn’t end up like him. He’d live in honor of Dana’s life, in honor of the life of his parents and his friends, in honor of those who didn’t get to see the light of another dawn.
Julek walked into a dark room on the right side of his house. The machines stood heavy waiting for him to began his daily routine. What should he start with? His legs had been bothering him for weeks, so he started with them. He got on the machine and began to flex, to exercise and avoid human entropy, inevitable of course, but postponable. Each contraction of his muscles was more painful than the last, but he understood that it was the price of life. It was the cost of seeing the sun go up into the sky another day. After the legs came the arms, then the torso and finally his back. The government would not decide when he was going to die, he would have a good death, at his work perhaps, watching the murky water enter the purifier… a heart attack… a natural death, a death like Dana’s.
Someone knocked on his door. Julek dried his sweaty face in a hurry and walked to the entrance and opened it. Hermes Natil was standing outside with a face that seemed to have been awake for months, tired, with red eyes and tears running down its sides.
“Hermes, what’s going on?”
“Old friend, can I come in?”
“Yes, yes, please do… can I offer you anything? would you like some tea?”
“No Julek. I don’t need anything anymore…”
Both men walked towards the small dining room and sat down while Julek asked himself what might have caused his friend’s diminished state.
“Okay, well… tell me what happened.”
Hermes lifted his hand to his forehead and rubbed it as if wanting to order the ideas behind it.
“Well…” Hermes put a on fake smile, “I’m just… Two men went to my house about an hour ago. They were from the government, you know the kind. They were armed…” Hermes paused, trying not to recall the words the agents had spoken.
“So what happened? What did they say?”
A new tear left Hermes’ right eye, “You know what they said. That they had been watching me for some time, that they had studied the reports from work. They said I was no longer a productive member of society. They gave me that whole speech about limited resources in the spheres and what not… Today is my last day. They told me I should visit friends and family, but… well, I only have you. Euthanasia takes place tomorrow morning at ten.”
Julek didn’t believe his words. His only friend, his younger friend was now destined to die. Julek was aware that it had to happen some day, but he didn’t expect that day to be today, he wasn’t ready for it, he wasn’t ready to say goodbye. And though the first thing he felt was sadness, the second thing he felt was concern. If Hermes was now an unfit, how long would he – an older man – survive in that limit-ridden society? At any moment people from the government could knock on his door and tell him that his life was over. He could be drinking a cup of tea, enjoying the little pleasures of life without knowing they would be his last.
“Let’s get out of here Hermes. Come with me. Let’s get out of the spheres, there’s a world out there! There’s no reason for us to continue to live here as slaves to productivity, out there a paradise awaits us! Don’t ask me how, but I’m sure of it. Beyond the dunes in the horizon, beyond that place where the sun sets, there is a green world, lakes, trees, animals, or even other people. Don’t you see? We’re isolated! They are keeping us in isolation, they are hiding something… I know how to escape, we can leave this very moment. We don’t have a choice Hermes, our life is at stake here. What do you say?”
Hermes looked into his eyes. He knew Julek was being serious. His tears dried out as he felt a sliver of hope after having heard his friend’s proposal.
“What if you’re wrong? What if there’s nothing out there? What if all there is, is sand and a toxic atmosphere? What if everything they’ve taught us is true?”
“Then my friend, we will walk together as free men to our deaths. We have nothing left to lose you and I. We have no family, we have no friends… we have nothing that ties us to this place. If we die out there, at least we’ll taste the freedom that our ancestors had. We’ll see the sky as it is, not through the glass walls of this capsule we call home. We will feel the sun on our skin and together we will walk to it until we fall.”
Hermes nodded. There was nothing left to lose. It was a matter of choice. Either he died the next day at the hands of the government, or he died with his friend enjoying the freedom they had never had.
“Okay. Let’s do it.”
Julek smiled at his friend’s response. He remembered the last time they had tried to escape, when they were young, curious and strong. Those days in which they sought adventures, when the possibilities seemed endless. He remembered the failure they endured, two of his best friends had drowned and they weren’t able to report their deaths, or even bury their bodies. Now they would have a chance to do it right, it would be all or nothing, either they’d escape the system of spheres or they would die trying.
“Before we go Hermes, were you followed? Are they watching you?”
“No. I don’t think they deemed it necessary. Where can an old fool go? The last thing they expect is for me to escape… and even if we do, they wouldn’t care, I’ll be as good as dead to them.”
“Good. Let’s pack then.”
Julek took backpacks that he kept at his small gym to prepare for the trip, they grabbed everything they thought they would need. Pliers, canned food, toilet paper, a first aid kit, water, among other things. They then changed clothes and dressed in black in order to blend in with the night, to move unseen by the many eyes of the sphere.
“Are you ready?”
“Yes. It’s now or never.”
“We’re heading to the water treatment plant, do you remember the way?”
“We’ll go in silence, not a word until we get there. Follow me.”
Julek turned off the lights in his cube and walked to the window on the back. He wasn’t going to risk leaving through the front door, if they discovered Hermes wanted to escape his euthanasia he would be an accomplice and they would kill them both. He couldn’t take that risk, not when they were so close to being free.
They left the cube and began walking below the shadows than inhabited the streets of sphere number 38. Each step they took produced a relentless noise to Julek’s ears. The breaking of the tiny dirt rocks and the friction generated by the soles of their shoes on the ground seemed to scream to guards of the city. “They’re here!”, “They’re going to escape!”, “Get them!”. But the streets remained empty, the streets remained silent.
Occasionally as they walked through a cube or a building, a light would be switched on inside. A figure would move about and close the curtains, or stare at the strangers walking by with curiosity, mistrusting their intentions. Where were those two old men going? What were they carrying in those black bags? But none called them out, they watched them pass and went back to their sleep, or their tea, or the dreaming of better lives.
Julek glanced at Hermes who was walking close behind him. He had not taken care of himself, he had not kept in shape in spite even of Julek’s warnings. He looked old, with a belly that hung from his belt. It wasn’t a large belly, but it was a sign of ageing. Julek saw him limp a little, he hadn’t been stretching either. He could not believe the indifference some people had towards death, as if it were a passing malaise, as if death wasn’t the end, as if the universe didn’t end each time a man lost his life. He stopped a moment and Hermes stopped behind him.
“What’s the matter?”
Julek, not wanting to raise his voice decided not to reply, instead he poked his belly with disappointment.
Hermes looked down at his floppy stomach, “I can’t live in fear… not like you. It was my decision.” Hermes whispered into the silent night, “If you want to go back and not follow through this ridiculous plan… I understand. It’s my fault… I won’t hold it against you.”
This time it was Julek’s eyes which filled up with tears. He thought of the life he would have if he turned back, he though of the things he would miss. The frequent visits from Bohel, the satisfaction of ending another day at the plant, the flavor of the tea he drank during the nights. But there would be no change, he would still feel confined, he couldn’t live his life in fear. He turned his gaze forwards and signalled Hermes to continue.
Sleep well, but not forever.
He remembered the saying his father used to tell him before he fell asleep, somehow telling him he had to wake up early. Now he realised he had been asleep all his life and that he hadn’t enjoyed it. He had lived with the fear of death ever since his father was euthanised, but he now he had awoken. It was time to take that risk he had dreamed of for so long, it was time to find out what waited for him out there beyond the high dunes in the horizon, beyond the place where the sun goes down.
They continued to walk in silence and with no hesitation, and before they could get tired they arrived at the entrance of the water treatment plant. A rusty door welcomed them, the last door the would ever need to cross.
“Do you have the key?” asked Hermes.
Julek fiddled with a keychain he had on his pants and opened the door that sat under the shadow of the plant. They went through the doorway where artificial lights illuminated their way of metal floors and creaking stairs. They listened to the artificial waterfalls that roared inside, the bitter water that kept them all alive.
“Remember the last time we were here?” asked Hermes.
“Yeah… I about that day often, when we were young and looked for adventures. I remember that we were on this very spot when Joel took out a piece of bread he had brought with him. That guy was always hungry remember?” Julek laughed, “And I was going to say something to Martin and I moved my hand and accidentally threw his piece of bread into the water.” Hermes began to laugh as well.
“Yeah, I remember that, the poor guy wouldn’t stop cursing at you.”
“He didn’t eat his snack that day. I feel guilty sometimes you know? It was his last snack and I threw into the water. I mean… it was an accident of course, and I didn’t know…” Julek stopped mid sentence.
Julek’s face wore a confused expression as he struggled to finish the sentence.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
Julek turned to Hermes and grabbed his thin shoulders, “It won’t be like that again. I’ve been planning this for a long time, I just… I never did it out of fear of getting caught. But there’s nothing let to fear. This time Hermes, this time we’ll get out and we’ll breathe the fresh dry air of the outside world. This time no one will die.”
Julek opened a locker on the wall where two diving suits and two oxygen tanks waited for them.
“Where did you get that?”
“I stole it from the tank cleaners, sometimes they need to clear an obstruction and they use these. They won’t even notice they’re gone.”
They changed in silence and put the clothes they were wearing into their backpacks. Hermes looked at Julek in his black diving suit, with the tank on his back, his muscles sculpted the suite he was wearing.
“You look good buddy. I can tell you give good use to that gym of yours.”
“I can’t say the same of you.”
Both men laughed and felt the anxiety and stress of trying to escape everything they knew and had taken for granted, of going into the unknown hoping for the best.
“Now what?” asked Hermes.
“Now… now we jump.” Julek pointed to the railing that separated them from a precipice that ended fifteen meters below in the water reserve, “Once we are down there we’ll put on our masks and get going.”
Hermes looked at him with hesitation.
“In that tank, on the edge there’s a ladder that will take us to the bottom. Down there there’s a tunnel that’ll take us into a sea-water tank, once there we’ll have to go down again, and thats where our exit’s at. It’s a pipe that’s used to extract water from the ocean. In that pipe there’s two turbines for the extraction of water but they’re off at the moment, we should have no trouble getting out. So… follow me, there’s light all the way for the inspectors and cleaners so we’ll be able to see where we are going, no problem.”
Hermes peeked over the railing to the bottom where water remained still, like a mirror on the ground.
“Okay, let’s do it.”
“I’ll go first.” said Julek. He grabbed his bag and threw it in, he took a deep breath, crossed over to the other side of the railing.
“I’ll see you down there.” he said and threw his body over the precipice feeling the humid air pass through his ears, he felt his body fall and accelerate to a speed he had never felt before, it was as if falling to his death and for a moment panic came over him with the thought of striking solid ground. He felt death approach him through the darkness, and just before he was about to scream the cold embraced him. Water surrounded him and he found himself underwater while minute air bubbles crawled over his skin and hair. He kicked and thrashed and found his way to the surface where he floated with his oxygen tank and his backpack on his side. He looked up and saw Hermes looking back at him.
“Jump!” Julek moved from the way.
Hermes jumped causing an explosion in the water and submerging in it.
“I can’t believe I just did that.” Hermes laughed, “I thought I was going to die for sure!”
Julek smiled, “Let’s get out of here. Let’s go live the rest of our lives in freedom.”
They put their oxygen masks on and moved to the ladder, towards the tunnel, to the sea-water tank and the pipe that would take them outside to feel the heat of the sun, to watch the blue sky without barriers and to feel the natural wind of the world.
The only sound that made Julek company was the sound of his own breathing. In, out… in, out… And in that silence Julek thought of the journey they had ahead of them. This was just the start, the beginning of hard travels that they would have to traverse in search of life outside the desert, in search of a tree or any other sign of life. The simple thought of the long walk that awaited them made his legs and arms feel tired and worn out.
Julek and Hermes floated in the entrance of the pipe that would take them into the sea and they stopped a moment to look at each other. Both men smiled and hugged one last time before the final stretch. Julek went in first and began to propel himself with the walls of the pipe. Each push was a step, each step was one less moment he had to be in the system of spheres. Each meter he left behind was a meter more gained in freedom. His heart beat hard and his mind went over the possibilities of his future. He pictured himself living on the top of a tall mountain surrounded by trees in a small house made of wood listening to the song of the little animals that inhabited the zone. How he wished Dana could be there with him, how he wished he had been brave enough to leave when he was still with her.
They headed to the large blades of the turbines, and through them, a short distance from where they where Julek could see light. The sunlight he yearned for so long, the light that would guide him for the rest of his life. And in an instant of unfiltered clarity he remembered the plant’s operating procedures. The turbines are powered in the morning, when the workers start the day, when the sun begins to shine. If he could see sunlight then it meant the turbines would start any second. Julek turned to Hermes who followed him close behind. Unable to talk Julek grabbed Hermes’ head and brought it close to him as he took his mask with the other hand.
“The turbines! Move fast!”
Julek placed his mask over his face again and watched Hermes’ eyes open in shock and fear. With no time to spare Julek propelled himself forward by pushing himself on the blades of the first turbine. He swam through the cool dark waters and went through the second turbine reaching the last section of the pipe. Julek turned back to make sure his friend had come through with no problems, but instead saw Hermes fighting to free himself from the unmoving blades of the turbine. His oxygen tank was stuck on one of them and Hermes couldn’t figure out how to break free. Julek swam back to Hermes and grabbed his arms, pulling him with all his strength. Julek could see the terror in Hermes’ eyes, desperate to unshackle himself from the grasp of the turbine that could in any moment begin spinning and doubling as a human meat grinder. Julek reached for his backpack and frantically began to search through its contents, clothes? no, pliers? no, a battery? no! A pocket knife. He showed it to Hermes and with signs made him understand that he was going to cut the tank off his back. Hermes nodded and Julek cut into his friend’s suit and the thin tubes that came from his mask. Water entered Hermes’ mask and began to flood it as Julek pulled him and pushed himself towards the outside. Towards the open sea with his friend in his hand, hoping to reach the surface before he drowned. A thundering roar hit his ears and Julek knew the turbines had begun to spin, he pushed with all his might and felt as if his tank could not provide enough oxygen for the strain of his muscles. They reached the end of the pipe where Julek scratched at the rocky walls that now surrounded him. He felt as if his heart could stop any moment.
Not now, don’t fail me now.
Soon both men flailed a few meters below the surface. Julek grabbed Hermes and kicked until their heads felt the cool wind of the world’s dawn. He took his mask off and heard Hermes gasping for air.
“Hermes! Are you okay?”
In the middle of coughing and breathing Hermes could muster the words, “For now…”
Tired and worn out they swam clumsily to the nearest shore and laid down on the sand and as Julek looked at his surroundings he became aware of the farce that he had lived, of the lies they had been told and the unnecessary suffering they had endured all their lives. He rose to his feet and stood in awe as they took in the scenery around them.
A dense jungle thrived in every direction, and they knew that they weren’t in the ocean, they were on a lake shore not far from the sphere. The green was sprawled out and the singing of cheerful singing of the animals resonated through the trees. The air was fresh and the desert they had known for so long showed no sign of existing. Fish scurried through the water and birds flew above them. Behind them in the jungle they could hear the screaming and talking of various animals, saying good morning and singing to their young.
The sphere was not made of the thick glass that kept their populations alive, it was covered in strange black panels that kept the population prisoner under the guise of the threat of the great desert. It sat amidst the lush trees and bushes of the forest that grew around them. It had all been a lie.
In the distance, beyond the tall trees a city towered before them. Enormous bright buildings rose from the ground surpassing the clouds, seemingly reaching into outer space. Small spheres and cubes and pyramids flew around and through it. Colorful lights illuminated the windows of the inhabitants of the city.
“This can’t be” said Hermes.
Julek felt a wave of rage approach him, he felt the frustration of every person he had ever met and the miserable existence of the people of the system of spheres.
“This cannot be tolerated.”
Julek took his backpack, dropped the mask and oxygen tank, and began walking toward the city that loomed defiant in the distance. And together they began their journey in search for answers, in search of the truth, in search of justice for the people who lived in the spheres of the desert.