So, I don't write code at Hyperion Gray, but I do write poetry and fiction, and I get to post some of it here! It's a colorful change of pace, and a ton of fun for me. I was inspired to write this story by a song which I embedded in below, at the spot where I 'heard the story most clearly' (go ahead and click the soundcloud file when you get to it). Now, you can read it without the music playing, but it helps atmostpherically. There's also an image at the very end that I made to go along with the story. Hope you enjoy!
Tella stared intently at the flickering Screen less than a foot from her face. Her eyes tracked the character's movements, her head motionless. Fluorescent blue light poured through the floor-to-ceiling windows as rain trickled and danced down the glass. Outside, cars zipped through the fog in silence.
Benton watched his seven-year-old granddaughter from the hallway. “Hey, Tella? Tellybean?” he called. No response. The walls began glowing warm light as he walked into the living room. Tella turned around, brushing strands of hair from her face.
“Hey Tellybean, how’d you like to go someplace with me?” Benton bent to a knee and ran a hand over her hair.
“Well,” she started, looking down at her flickering Screen, “I really just want to stay here and watch my show. I really like it.”
“I know, Tellybean, I’m sure it’s a fine show, but what do you say we take a break and you come with me?”
Tella looked down at her Screen again and scrunched her face. “Mmmmm….”
“It’s just that,” Benton began, “I hardly get to see you, and I really want to show this to you. It’s very special to me. Your grandma Shella and I used to go all the time.”
“Is it like a store? Or a restaurant or a cineplex or something?” she asked.
“No, no,” he waved a hand in dismissal, “way cooler than that.”
“Well can I bring my Screen with me at least?”
“I’m afraid not, Tella. You’ll miss everything if you bring that thing.”
She rolled her eyes reluctantly, but conceded.
“I tell you what,” he said. “I’ll let you bring it if you can promise to be a big girl and turn it off when I ask you to. Deal?”
Her eyes lit up. “Deal,” she grinned.
Benton’s car slid through the air, the faint, hollow whistle of the engine thrumming away behind them. Raindrops streaked along their windows like tears. Tella, who was, at first, interested in the sky traffic, now pointed her eyes into her lap at her Screen. As the car drove, Benton stared at the buildings, appearing from somewhere beneath them and extending to somewhere above them, both ends obscured by fog. “You know,” he said, “when I was your age, I used to be able to see the tops of the buildings.”
Tella didn't look up.
“Can you see the tops of the buildings?” he asked, looking over to her. “Go ahead, look up, see if you can see them.”
Tella looked up for a moment, then back at her Screen, and said, “Nope, I can’t see it. They must be way up there.”
“Yep,” he said, returning his eyes to the skies, “they sure are.”
Benton put his hand on the steering wheel and flicked a tiny switch on the steering column. A soft feminine voice responded, “Manual Driving engaged. Remember to obey all traffic laws and safety regulations.”
“Where are we?” Tella asked, looking up. The sky was no longer the fluorescent blue of City haze, but a sandy, arid gray. A small patch of cloud glowed high above them with dim yellow light. They were no longer surrounded by buildings. Instead, a vast expanse of dry nothingness stretched out below them. Tella looked behind them and saw a dense cloud inside of which laid their City. She tensed her arms and began breathing rapidly.
“Don’t worry, Tellybean,” Benton said calmly, placing a hand on the back of her head. “I’m right here, I know where we are, and I know where we’re going.” Her tension visibly lessened.
“Where are we?” she asked again.
“We’re outside the City. You’ve never been outside the City, have you?” Tella shook her head. Benton continued, “I used to bring your dad out here when he was your age, but he didn’t care much for it. Just kicked around and whined about wanting to go back home to his Screen.” Benton laughed a little.
“Are we even allowed to be out here?”
“There’s no rule saying we can’t be, but nobody really leaves the City anymore. If they have to, they do it in the Minute Trains.”
Tella rose to her knees and peered down through the window at the ground below. “Oh wow…” she breathed. It was largely covered in windswept dust, with sporadic vegetation.
“You’ve never seen the actual ground before, have you?” Tella shook her head again. “Yep,” Benton smiled, “People used to live down on the ground, you know.”
“What’s that curvy thing down there?” she asked, pointing with her finger.
“What thing?” he replied, looking down through his window. Hundreds of meters below them, a dark sliver, smeared with dust and debris, snaked its way between hills and through valleys. “Oh, that! That’s a road!”
“A road?” Tella repeated.
“Yep, a road. Before cars could fly, they used to have wheels and they drove on roads.”
“Have you ever driven a car on a road?”
“No,” Benton sighed, “I can’t say that I have. But we’ll get close to it.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“We’re going to get out and walk around, Tellybean!” he pointed at a tall ridge ahead of them in the distance.
An expression of fear and excitement burst forth on her face. “What?!”
The car began descending. Six hundred, five hundred, four hundred meters. Tella stared mesmerized as the ground crept closer. Three hundred, two hundred, one hundred meters. “Oh, be careful, Grandpa! Don’t crash us!”
“I got this, I got this, keep your shirt on. This isn’t my first time driving, you know.” The car came to a gentle stop one meter from the road. “This is the fun part,” he whispered giddily, and the car began sliding forward, following the road’s turns and dips and crests. The road climbed steadily as the hills rose up on both sides. Tella stared all around with eager and nervous fascination.
“Where are the animals?” Tella squinted. “I've seen animals in my shows; aren't there supposed to be animals on the ground?”
“I don’t know,” replied Benton. “I know there used to be, but I don’t know where they are now, or if there are any left.”
There was a long silence as the two eased through the valley.
“This is so awesome, Grandpa,” Tella gasped.
Benton smiled. “You think this is awesome, wait til you see where we’re going.”
Tella was standing in her seat, hands pressed on the dashboard in front of her, nose almost pressed against the windshield when they turned the last corner of the road. The hills fell away behind them as the road sloped downward. Tella inhaled sharply as her eyes met a mesmerizing spectacle.
“What is that?” she stammered.
“That," Benton replied with a smile, "is the ocean."
“I think I’ve heard of that before!”
“Yeah? Well now you get to see it.” Benton halted the car and it lowered to the ground. “Before you get out,” he said, reaching into his jacket pocket, “we have to put these on.” He handed her a circular piece of thin, white fabric. The edges were stiff but flexible and a band stretched from one side to the other. Tella slipped the band over her head and formed the stiff edges around her mouth and nose. Benton did the same. She took a deep breath and then gave her grandfather a thumbs up.
“It’s good,” she said.
Benton hopped out and walked around to the other door. Tella opened her door and slid out onto the ground. She stomped one foot, then another, then ran a few steps and jumped, landing on both feet. “This feels so weird!” she cried. Benton leaned on the car, his hands in his pockets, his eyes shifting from his granddaughter to the ocean.
“Don’t go too far,” Benton called after her, “stay where I can see you. I don’t want to lose you in the fog.” Tella ran around, skipping and jumping and stomping her feet, never more than thirty meters from the car.
She stopped suddenly. “What’s that noise?” she asked, turning around.
Benton motioned to her to come over. “That’s the ocean,” he called back.
“Really?” she whispered back. “That whussshhhhhh sound is the ocean?”
Benton nodded, then lifted her up, placed her on the hood of his car, and put his arm around her. Her eyes were wide with fascination.
“What are all those things out there?” she pointed with her chin. “All those little things floating in the water?” Flecks and spots of green and white and black and gray and brown of all shapes and sizes filled the water, rolled in the waves, climbed up the shore, retreated back, danced with the current.
“That’s from all the cities. It gets poured into the ocean.” Walls of debris, many meters high, traced the shoreline in thick bands.
“It’s so quiet out here.” she whispered.
“Yeah. It’s peaceful. I like to come out here and sit sometimes. Listen to the stillness and the silence and the ocean. You don’t really get stuff like this in the City.” There was a long pause, then he said, “You know, my grandparents told me that when they were young, they used to swim in the ocean.”
“Really?” Tella was awestruck. “No way--really? In all that?”
“Yeah!--Well no, of course not!” he laughed. “They said it didn’t look like that.” He pointed his finger in a wide arc. “They said it used to be clean, that there was hardly any stuff in it.”
“Can we go down there?” she asked.
“No, unfortunately we can’t. It’s not safe. We could get very sick if we touch the water.”
“Are there any parts of the ocean that aren’t covered in that stuff?” she stood up and searched the horizon, then furrowed her brow and frowned. “I can’t see any from here.”
“I don’t know,” Benton sighed. “I’m sure there is, somewhere. The ocean is pretty big. But I don’t know.”
They sat in silence, watching the sea of plastic and metal and paper and food roll in and wash out, hear the sound of bottles and cans crinkle and churn in the waves. “My grandfather told me fish used to live in it too,” he added. “Huge fish. There were these things called whales, and they were huge, bigger than three of my cars--” he patted the hood of his car. Tella’s eyes grew wide. “--and these things called sharks. Sharks had huge jaws with sharp teeth. My grandfather told me that he once saw a shark take a bite out of a boat.” Tella looked puzzled. “Oh, uh, boats were these things like cars, but for the water.
“My grandmother told me that one time, when she was your age, she actually swam with this thing called a sea turtle.” Tella’s jaw dropped.
“What’s a sea tural?”
“I think it's 'turtle'," Benton squinted his eyes in thought. "She said it was this huge creature that had a thick shell on its back and swam really slow. And there were these things... sorfish I think they called them. They were these big fish with a giant thing on their backs--” he fanned out his hand and put it behind his neck, “--and a big pointy nose, like a knife--” he pointed his finger, held it outward in front of his nose, and ran it straight forward.
“What happened to them all?” Tella asked, her eyes searching the water.
“I think they’re all gone now. I don’t think they can live in water like that. But you may be able to find pictures of them on your Screen, maybe even videos.”
“I don’t know,” Tella replied, “I think Screens only ever have shows on them.” More silence. “Are you sure we can’t go down there?” she asked.
“It’s not safe to get in the water,” he said.
“What if we don’t get near the water, but just go down a little closer?”
Benton took a deep breath, cocked his head to one side, then the other, then said, “Alright fine, but we have to be careful and stay close together.”
Tella slid off the hood with a whoop of excitement, and for the next three hours, they explored the shore. They found, among a great many other things, broken seashells, timeworn glass bottles. "My grandparents said people used to drink out of glass bottles." They discovered a mini-refrigerator, soda cans—one of them was labeled Pepsi. “A long time ago,” Benton explained, “when I was about your age, there were other brands of drinks, not just Coca-Cola.” They also found an entire box of plastic bags, an old appliance of some kind with a faded label on it that read Maytag, a bunch of threadbare clothes. "Wow," breathed Benton, "I've never seen clothes like this before." Tella noticed a pile of more than a thousand ragged stuffed animals; “They must’ve all been dumped at the same time," she surmised. “Like that pile of old shoes over there.” Cords, string, nets, an antique recliner. "I saw a picture of my grandfather sitting in one of these!" Benton laughed. But perhaps the greatest find was a decomposing car tire. "Tella, this is what I was telling you about! Cars used to have four of these things on the bottom, and they used to make the car roll." They dug out of the sand with sticks and rolled it up to the road, before pushing it down the hill into a pile of debris.
By the time they got back to the car, the temperature had dropped significantly. Tella's teeth chattered, and the dim yellow glow in the sky was no longer above them, but orange and low on the horizon. Benton helped Tella clean off her shoes and hands with sanitizing cloths. When they got into the car, they removed their masks, which were now brown with filtered particles, and threw them out beside the road along with the sanitizing cloths.
The car rose into the air, one hundred, two hundred, three hundred meters, as Tella climbed up on her knees to stare out the window and watch the undulating waves crash on the shore, bob up and down, and disappear into the foggy horizon. Four hundred, five hundred, six hundred meters. The shoreline disappeared in the haze, and as the car turned back toward the City, Tella slid back into her seat and grabbed her Screen. She tapped its face and it sprung to life. “Would you like to watch a show?” a voice asked excitedly, and a single button appeared in the middle of the screen that said 'YES!' Tella tapped elsewhere on the Screen but nothing happened. She turned the Screen off, then back on, and the same button appeared. “Would you like to watch a show?” the voice repeated.
“No,” Tella snapped.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure."
The homescreen faded into view. Tiny squares of animation cascaded in columns down the Screen; her favorite shows bore a shining outline around their edges. Tella tapped around for quite some time before she found a search feature. “Show me a sea tural.”
"I'm sorry," replied the voice, "I don't know what that is."
"Try turtle," suggested Benton.
"Show me a sea turtle," she said.
The Screen flashed a collage of images and animations. Tella inhaled sharply and smiled.