1

Even late at night, Acheson City growled.

The sound was ever-present, anywhere within twenty kilometers of the place. To the True Believers, it was the purr of their industrious society, never sleeping, always building, always making, always moving.

To the Detractors? It was the growl of a predator, always hunting, always hungry, never, ever satisfied.

Keske balanced on the fence between the two points of view. She came by it honestly. Her father had been a True Believer until the day he died, caught up---not literally---in the City’s machinery, used up by its constant need for talent, for energy. He’d given all that willingly to the City’s needs.

Her mother had started out the same---that’s how they’d met---but as time went on, as the man she married gave more and more of himself to the Machine and less and less of himself to anything else, she had fallen in with the Detractors.

Keske was alone, now, an only child whose parents had each spent themselves in their separate causes. The lesson she took from this was simple, or so she thought: neither love the City, nor hate it. Just try to live with it.

Easier said than done. What she realized early on was that, in order to live with it, she would need to learn about it. Her father had devoted his whole life to it, but never really understood more than his small part of it. Her mother had ultimately devoted her life to trying to change or destroy it. That she, and her cohorts, had failed to even attract serious notice, let alone do damage of note, demonstrated that she, also, never understood it.

Having seen their failures and recognized them as such, Keske set out with a singular purpose: to understand the City that growled, or purred, or both, or perhaps neither.

That was her first understanding, actually: the City, per se, did neither. It made noise because it was one vast complex mechanism whose constant motion kept its citizens alive in a hostile world. Acheson the Great had proposed that such cities be mechanically simple in nature, despite that his people had come here with the technology to travel the stars. This had been the prototype. “Anyone should be able to fix it.”

That was the key word. Anyone. Acolytes of later years took that to mean “everyone”, and a religion was born from mechanical engineering. The only real industry of Acheson City was a Acheson City itself.

Anyway, point was: the City was a machine. It had no intelligence of its own. It was a machine in the truest, oldest, most visceral sense. Gears and pulleys and belts, powered mostly by steam generated by boilers fed by anything that would burn, including trash and the city’s own dead. It neither growled nor purred because it was not, in any way, an animal, a being, a creature.

That insight came to Keske remarkably early in her dedication to understanding rather than simply living in her environment. She was maybe fourteen. Her father was two years dead, apparently of pure exhaustion; her mother, two weeks dead, struck down by a wrench to the skull while she and her tiny cell of would-be rebels attacked a drive node.

Returned home from a shift she’d accepted---the City did not actually conscript, but one was expected to put in a certain amount of work if one wanted to eat---to her now-empty cubicle, she lay awake, listening, trying to hear it the way either of her parents had done.

What she realized was that what she heard depended entirely on how she was feeling at that exact moment.

It was simultaneously obvious, and profound, and completely robbed her of the rest of her sleep. Fortunately, she had already declined a shift for the next day; otherwise, she’d have had to accept a demerit for skipping, or risk doing a shift muzzy-headed, and making a mistake that would earn her demerits anyway.

Instead, she spent her muzzy-headed day drifting around the City, listening. She’d stop at a cafe---the City was not entirely without its comforts---and listen to the conversations. She walked through parks and down crowded streets and just listened to the sounds of people doing their thing.

Over and under and through it all, the sounds of steam pushing pistons, driving gears, turning shafts. A hum and thrum and sometimes clank and thump.

And motion. Most people never talked about it, but she could feel it, today, the slow crawl in a particular direction, as the great machine grumbled and growled its way over a landscape nobody ever thought about.

On a whim, she let herself be drawn to one of the City’s edges. The streets were all arrayed to discourage this, to keep people focused inward, on the City itself. But it was not actually forbidden, and so, she went, doing her best not to seem like she was doing it with any purpose, in case anyone might be paying attention. Her mother had just died, after all, in rebellion. Someone might be watching.

(Some time later, Keske realized that nobody had been watching, then; that her mother’s rebellion had barely registered in the minds of the City’s leadership. That was after she had attracted enough attention with her explorations and drive to actually understand the City that she knew what it was like to actually be followed and watched and regularly questioned).

Traffic out on the Perimeter Pathway was thin, as she’d expected. There were no windows at street level, only cryptic signs that said in non-obvious terms that you had reached the outer wall of the City’s habitat.

But there were also doors.

She tried one. Locked.

She tried another one. Locked.

She had all day, so she kept on trying, until, almost half-way around the City from where she’d begun, a door she tried, opened.

On the other side of the door was another walkway, much like hers. For a moment, she thought she was outside, because on the other side of that walkway, she could see something she had never actually seen, but knew must be actual terrain, uneven, wild, green and purple and blue and brown. She had no real words for what she was looking at other than “outside”.

There was, in fact, a transparent wall between her and that outside, which was good, for as she realized much later, the air outside the City was not really safe for people. That was one of the things nobody inside the City really understood any more. The City was not an end, but a means, a place where people who came from somewhere very far away could actually live.

She considered walking the outer walkway, but this had been the only door she’d found unlocked. She didn’t know whether it might lock behind her, and she didn’t know she could find another one unlocked. She didn’t relish starving in this outer space just to satisfy her curiosity. That said, she spent probably a good hour, just watching the outside very slowly slide by, as the City made its crawling way past a...mountain? Was that a mountain? It kind of looked like one, she supposed. There was a picture book when she was very small that had a mountain in it, she remembered.

Eventually, she went back to the inner Pathway. She carefully closed the door behind her. It did not lock---she tried it several times, opening and closing. Every time, the lever shifted smoothly and the door followed suit. She wondered if the lock were simply broken. She still decided not to risk anything further, today. She drifted her way back home, no more obviously on a particular mission than she had been on her way here, and then, finally, with the image of the outside firmly in her head, fell onto her pallet and slept.