Nighttime in the Science District

by: Chris Thompson

An offering of flash fiction inspired by the dark and moody architectural style of Hugh Ferriss…

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“Buildings like crystal. Walls of translucent glass. Sheer glass blocks sheeting a steel grill. No Gothic branch. No Acanthus leaf. No recollections of the plant world. A mineral kingdom. Gleaming stalagmites. Forms as cold as ice. Mathematics. Night in the Science Zone” – Hugh Ferriss (1889 – 1962)1

In the dead of night, in the silent, glittering thoroughfares of the Science District, a guerrilla street scientist is preparing to work.

In his day job as a research technician he’s a bench jockey, endlessly blending culture-media for the city’s enormous feeder vats. There’s a certain amount of focus needed to perform these tasks, and a decade of experience has sharpened his wits.

And he needs them, for tonight, while the Crystal City sleeps, and as long as he is careful and quick, this act of rebellion should pass without incident. To be caught would mean punishment, almost certainly resulting in death. The embarrassment caused by his actions would necessitate a strong response. But to not act would be in itself a death sentence, albeit self-imposed, and taking a lifetime to unfold.

He lurks in the shadows off West Angstrom Street. On the fringes of Chemical Row. He has his supplies packed in a honeycombed bag slung over his shoulder; two micro incubators and their humming power supply, a reaction tank with its delicate spray nozzles and most importantly, the Tracer cells.

He crouches in the darkness, peering up and down the pristine, crystalline avenues, looking out for the Yellow and Blue’s, the cold, unfeeling enforcers who police this district. The sequential, glowing streets are devoid of traffic as he slinks from shadow to sharp-edged shadow, avoiding the harsh glare of the neon signs as they flicker their wild messages to no one. Even the shadows are sharp, he thinks. Only a city like this, designed by The Thinkers, could be this exacting. This deliberate. Everything is intentional. Nothing is without purpose. The edges of the shadows are sharp because The Thinkers want them to be. Want everything to have a boundary, a border, an easily definable margin that is callous and cold.

He glances to his right. Xenon Avenue extends for twenty, identical-looking blocks before it angles sharply to the south to follow the iridescent Gallium River. He surveys the towering pillar that marks the center of his own realm, The Genetic District, off in the hazy distance, its double helix glowing atop the monoliths crown.

This bloc of the Crystal City is oddly silent at night, unlike the ever-bustling thoroughfares that he calls home. The silence is powerful, its presence strongly felt, like a blanket smothering a fire. The rules are different here too. More strict. Curfews are in place. “For your own safety,” The Thinkers remind the people here, as they retire at dusk to their dormitories or pods. He glances up at the ruby skyscraper before him, the familiar glow of the vid-screens radiating from its windows, lulling the people into a false-sense of comfort and servility. “Smile,” the vid-screens say, and they do. “Frown,” the vid-screens say, and they do. “Sleep,” the vid-screens say and like magic, the green-blue glow blinks out from thousands of rooms at once, as if a master switch had been thrown that controlled them all.

Fools, he thinks. “Sheep,” he whispers, the warmth of his expelled breath condensing into fleeting vapors in the still and frigid air. He pulls a mask up over his mouth, stifling the billowing clouds of vaporous breath. Best not to give the detectors any hint of my presence, he thinks. He knows that they can be hidden anywhere. That they can identify a citizen from a single molecule of exhaled breath. A hair. A fingernail. A cell. He is out of bounds. Stealing through a district he has never entered before. A native of the Genetic District would never wander this far. Would never stray from the safety and routine of their own familiar sector.

But he isn’t just any citizen, for he is a Thinker himself. An enigma, born of the breeding pools like so many of his mindless brothers and sisters, yet able to reason for himself. He’s been hiding in plain sight, biding his time. Moving through the rhythms of the day like so many of his brethren. Aware of the injustices plaguing the Crystal City and committed to banishing The Thinkers controlling yoke. He reasons he’s an opportunist, albeit a patient one, and finally seeing his opening, he’s acted. And tonight, the inhabitants of the Science District will have their final slumber within this distorted reality. For tomorrow they would be, for the very first time, shown the truth. The truth about the Districts. About the Crystal City. About the Thinkers. And most importantly, about themselves.

The key had been getting the Tracer cells to respond rapidly to ultraviolet light. That way, when the time was right, the complex chemical reactions that he had trained the cells to execute would rapidly unfold, he remembers. It had taken him five determined years, toiling away in a tiny lab set-up within his dorm room, but he had finally figured it out. Once that hurdle had been solved, it was merely a matter of secreting equipment away from the feeder labs and building a device that was both portable and light.

He moves deeper into the Science District, crossing Millijoule Way, reflecting on his many victories. True, they had been numerous and small, but taken together, they were substantial, he thinks. He takes a sharp left and then a dodged right between two pulsating columns of phosphorescent light before coming to a rapid halt. He has arrived at his final destination, the evenings end of the line, the soaring tower of mineral and glass that marks the Science District’s core.

The equipment lands with a hollow thud as he unslings the bag from his back. Strange rays of fluorescent light radiate throughout the Crystal City’s streets, their twisting journey to the districts center almost complete. His pulse is quick in his temples as he sets to work assembling the ephemera for tonight’s rebellion.

In the center of the towers sprawling square rises a colossal statue of a Thinker, repeated in the central square’s of every district in the Crystal City. But this one is larger, more sinister, more authoritative and commanding in its presence. The statues enormous arms are shimmering and outstretched, its hands upraised, as if trying to pull down the jet black sky. Thick, glowing robes obscure the Thinkers featureless face as its interior dances in spectrums of orange and red, as if the very blocks had been set aflame.

He drops to his knees in the shadows of the monument, pulling piece after piece of delicate equipment from his utility bag. He unifies the tanks and the reactors with glowing, translucent cables, connecting it all, carefully, to the living power supply purring softly by his side. There is a sharp noise, like a hollow shattering of glass, and it sends a shiver up his spine. His keen, azure eyes, rapidly look-up from his task, seeking out the source of the sound with a calm, methodical precision. He is surprised to see a hammerhead-cat, an omen of good fortune, emerge from a grate set into the crystalline square. The glowing creatures body, more mineral than flesh, pulses through a rainbow of iridescent colors, its wide-set eyes simultaneously scanning both sides of the street from its shovel-shaped head. He has never seen an animal before and he marvels in the simplicity of the creatures design, the dignity with which it carries itself as it crosses the glowing square.

At least I’m not the only one The Thinkers cannot control, he muses, fastening tight the final bolt on his rebellious device. He leans back on his feet and rises effortlessly on muscles bathed in adrenaline, admiring his shimmering machine. It’s a thing of beauty and simplicity, much like the hammerhead-cat and he is overcome with a feeling of pride with what he has done. I do this for you, he thinks, visualizing the countless millions sleeping across the Science District tonight.

He steps back from the device and produces a twinned crystal of jade from a pocket about his chest. He presses a jeweled button on the crystal and the machine whirs to life, emitting a wave of sound that expands into the silence of the deserted square. It’s an empty tone. A hollow note. One that he imagines the Moon would sound like if he could stand upon the Sea of Tranquility and gaze across its gray, airless plains. The device comes up to speed rapidly and he looks up, past the statue of the Thinker, to the soaring tower of crystal and light that rises from the center of the square.

He remembers his teachings. That the towers are the lifeblood of the districts. Its eyes and ears. Its heart and lungs. The source of all that a citizen requires to live out their regimented lives. But he knows that this is also their weakness, for in order to execute its roles, the towers need to be supplied with a complex web of ducts and tubes.

He looks down to the glowing conduits as they dance just below the street. Countless channels of sustenance and information flow like rivers of pulsating light. Some are as thick as his arm. Others are more delicate, more fine, subdividing until they are no wider than a wisp of hair. And some of them are the feeder tubes, delivering the media’s that he toils to perfect each day.

The device before him emits a soft, repetitive tone. He smiles. The reactors have done their job well, merging with the circulatory system running below the translucent crystal street. He presses another jeweled button and the micro-incubators, their glassine vials teeming with newly grown Tracker cells, push gently their teeming contents through the golden spray nozzles, the shimmering liquid merging with the ocean of light coursing towards the central tower. Another tone sounds and the operation is complete. He pushes a silver button on the side of the device and the power source emits a pulsating light. It flashes rapidly, burning hot and white, expanding until the entirety of the device is engulfed by its phosphorescent glow.

Quickly he grabs his bag and slings it back over his shoulder, moving rapidly across the empty square, watching out of the corner of his eye as the device he labored so hard to create vanishes in a soundless detonation of smoke and light. He is sad to see it go. He feels like a piece of him has disappeared as well.

He wakes before dawn. Soundlessly, as if nothing has changed, he goes through the routine of preparing for the day. Exercise. Shower. Dress. Eat. He emerges from his dormitory into the dull light of the approaching day, merging with the trickle of brothers and sisters as they make their way to their various posts. Today of all days, is important. Today he will arrive for work early. Today he must time everything right.

He takes a high-speed lift to the hundredth floor of the building that houses his lab. Climbs into his chair and pulls it in close to the edge of his bench with the heels of his dangling feet. From his perch he can see that the Science District is still bathed in the shadows of the mountains that ring the Crystal City. It is almost time, he thinks. He picks up a heavy Infuser with both his hands, switching its dial to the feeder tubes that supply the Science District with the nourishment its people need. They will be rising soon, he thinks. They will need to eat. Removing a glowing vial from his pocket, he attaches it to the Infuser and throws a brassy lever on its side. The vials purple contents rush through the Infuser with a gurgling protest, speeding through the tubes on its journey to the glimmering tower at the Science Districts core.

He puts down the Infuser and sits back to wait. It will take some time, but eventually, one by one, the people of the Science District would be truly awake. The Tracer cells would be everywhere by now. Infecting everything the districts circulatory system touched. If the Tracer cells were the message, then the contents of the purple vial was the messenger. The vial was ultraviolet light in liquid form and everywhere it went it would turn the Tracker cells on. In the neon signs that lined the district’s streets, the cells would broadcast his message of truth. In the vid-screens that clouded his brethren’s lives, the cells would open their eyes. In the food that the feeder tubes supplied, the cells would expand his brother’s and sister’s minds. The truth would be inseparable from the Crystal City itself, and there would be nothing that The Thinkers could do.

The sun began to peak over the eastern summits of the encircling mountains, the tendrils of its brilliant rays dancing across the luminous faces of the Crystal City’s buildings. The Science District would be beginning to stir. Its people, to finally awake.

Tomorrow the Mathematics District, he thinks. And then, leaning forward in his chair, he begins to work, mixing the plentitude of media’s for the fast-approaching day.

  1. An American delineator and architect. Ferriss never designed a single noteworthy building, but after his death it has been said he influenced a generation of architects more than any other man. Ferriss also influenced popular culture, for example Gotham City (the setting for Batman) and Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow draw heavily from his renderings. []

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