Welcome to the city of Efficiantum, where the rain always falls, where the Autocrats reign, and where things are just beginning.
Written and performed by Michael Meinberg @meinberg13
Tracks “Spider’s Web” “Blue Feather” “Mirage” “Ossuary 2- Turn” and “Awkward Meeting” by Kevin MacLeod of incompetech.com
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
So you want to hear about the city of Efficiantum? It’s a strange city, for sure, but I suppose I could tell you some stories. I eventually developed a habit of poking into things that I shouldn’t, so I have more than my share of tales. How about I start at the beginning? Or at least, near to it.
For as long as anyone can remember, the city has existed. It lies perched astride both banks of a great river as it flows into the ocean, like a colossus of steel and chrome. For as long as anyone can remember, the rains have poured down. The skies have been grey and dark since before the great furnaces of industries began pumping their smoke into those clouds. For as long as anyone can remember, the city has been ruled by Autocrats. They have governed from the tops of their spires looking down over the people like cogs in their machine.
And we’re all cogs, even those Autocrats. Our every breath and every motion fuels the momentum of the city, the engine that keeps pumping forward. But some cogs have it better than others. Even those that manage to climb the ranks of the Corps can still be dragged down. Especially those that don’t look like me, those with different color skin or different gender or whose bodies work in different ways. No matter how successful they become, they are always seen as Other.
Or so the Autocrats have decreed, so that they might keep the cogs railing against each other rather than raging upwards. So the Autocrats have decreed so that those beneath them will turn their despair further down. So the Autocrats have decreed so that the city can continue to function according to their plans.
The rain pours down and the streets are wet and umbrellas form artificial ceilings along the walkways, keeping those dry who can afford an umbrella’s protection. Off to the side, discarded lives carve out niches in the alleys, seeking shelter where they can. The streets twist at inexplicable angles, forming patterns too complex to be seen, crossing and weaving, a maze only navigable by the native.
It’s easy to spot a newcomer, lost in the streets, unable to discern path from place. For a coin or two, guides can be acquired from enterprising youths. Maps can be purchased at kiosks, but these are tools of the hegemony and not to be trusted.
No one really knows where the newcomers originate from. They say names of places and speak in foreign tongues, but the places don’t form into a greater tapestry. All the natives know is the city, and all the city knows is how to grind forward, every day another piece sliding into place.
But the city has grown since its mythic founding. It’s no longer just a core of spires; it sprawls out over the landscape, over the nearby high cliffs, reaching always upward and outward, like a bruise on the landscape, purple and dark and aching. It contains places of work and places of rest, for rest is always needed.
Joy and excitement can dwell in the dark cracks between the elaborate machinery of the place. But it is always tinged by the work, by the lies of the spires, and the will of the Autocrats to place one form of entertainment over another. Even our rest is marred by brands, brands that we wear on our skin and in our hearts, unable to escape.
The factories stopped five years ago, but the smoke clouds haven’t gone away, and the rain continues to pour down, thick and viscous like oil. The trains persistently hum and clatter, bringing in goods from that outside that must exist, and boats pull into the harbor, crewed by haunted men who do not speak of their time at sea but spend their coin freely in the dingier bars.
And every day, we try to live in the shadows of the spires.
As for me, I was an accountant for CrossCity StreetCleaning. Not a highly ranked one, or an especially influential Corp, but I had a place in the machinery of the city. It wasn’t a glamorous position, but it let me work with numbers, let me see the patterns forming within the transactions of my corp. I was the youngest member of my team, newest to the position, but that meant I had more time to rise.
The bulk of my labor, and that of my team, was processing receipts. The sound of our pens scratching into tablets resounded through our office as we transformed the raw data into usable spreadsheets to be sent up for further combination and analysis. As much as our labor was divided between us, we all shared the details of the data in the scant moments devoted to rest and break. And we took our work with us to the pubs, further putting together the pieces.
I did well in primary school, passed with highest marks and was given my choice of a path forward. Certainly, there were more glamorous routes, to be a craftsman or a theoretician or an entertainer or transporter, but those routes were bound at the highest end. The most they could hope for was to become a Luminary. Luminaries are celebrated, certainly, and respected for their skill, and live extravagantly.
But they don’t have the control of an Autocrat.
Only three paths traditionally lead to becoming an Autocrat, and only three have the route signposted for others to follow. Marketing required charisma and creativity that seemed like too much work for me; being able to generate that much enthusiasm for the mediocre products of the corps lacked any appeal. And finances were too risky. One wrong pick and an entire career crumbled.
And so accounting it was. Having access to the numbers, to the pattern, is a powerful tool, and one which can be leveraged in the right hands. Much of middle management is not the right hands. But survival at the top layers requires insight and data, lest they be consumed by their rivals. And so those towards the top came to rely on their accountants. Came to rely on people like me.
I was relatively young, compared to my co-workers, as I graduated from my trade school early. It simply meant that I had more time to advance up the rank, time that would open up so many opportunities for me.
Or so the dream went.
The truth was, I woke up every day like everyone else and trudged through the rain-soaked streets to work. I put in my ten hours, every day, ate where and when I could, scribbled numbers until my fingers went numb. And then made my way to the pub for food and drink before escaping into the hope of slumber.
And the days and the years ticked by, in quiet contemplation of the years yet to come, of the hope that I will be able to get more and higher. But with every day, the shine of my precociousness grew dimmer. With every day, the higher rungs were farther and farther away. With every day, there was nothing but labor and drink and the occasional song or story to fill those precious few empty hours.
Maybe I should have settled down, and accepted that I would never reach the top. Perhaps I should have found love and comfort. I probably should have come to accept my place as another cog in the machine.
But the dream shined brightly in my mind, the dream of the top of those spires, and the true freedom that came with them.
But no matter how grand our dreams, we have to contend with reality. -I- have to contend with reality, no matter how strange and unreal it might appear to be. The doors began to crack one night, on my walk back home from the pub.
The entire team had been drinking heavily. The job opening at headquarters went to Herb from across the hallway. Not only did it mean my application was rejected, but it meant that Herb would be how headquarters saw the rest of our office. He was a solid enough scratcher, handling the copying of data with suitable speed. But when it came to thinking outside the box or taking initiative, Herb was less than capable.
And it’s not like it took us much to get going in the first place. But the rest of the team was happy to turn their despair into celebration, launching into raucous songs that filled the pub, until they were tossed out by the bartender. Still, it meant they missed the downpour that came crashing through half an hour later.
In the sudden, rushing quiet that suffused the pub in their absence, only myself and one of my co-workers, Teri, remained. Teri wasn’t caught up in the jovial mood either, and we talked over whiskey, thick and dark, like the mood that had settled in over the place with the rain pounding overhead.
Teri was a striking woman, with almond shaped eyes and pale tawny skin, and a build that seemed like she could toss me across a room without any effort, despite being the same height as me.
Teri, it seemed, also hoped to climb the ladder, to reach the heights. She was a year or two older than me, not quite as precocious as I, but more cut-throat, more willing to make the sacrifices that were needed. But yet, she had wound up in the same office as I. The same office that blunted our hope at a future above the stations to which we were born.
We ended the night cursing Herb’s name and drinking a few too many whiskeys, before departing our separate ways. The rain hadn’t stopped, the rain -never- stopped, but it had diminished to a slow trickle rather than a full deluge. So I eschewed my umbrella for the first few blocks, allowing the water to fall onto my hair and run down my face sober me up.
I was a little over two-thirds of the way home, back under the protection of my umbrella, and feeling the chill beginning to set into my bones when I turned the corner onto a strange sight. Standing in the middle of the street, five people stood. Each of them faced in the same direction heads tilted upwards at a forty-five-degree angle, rain splashing onto their vacant faces.
Despite none of them looking in my direction, I felt off, like the walls had come to life for the sole purpose of judging me and my failures. I felt eyes boring into my form from every direction, piercing my layers of self and bleeding together. In being seen, I had no choice but to see, to feel the pulsing hum of something far larger than I pounding in my skin, pulsing in my heart, tracking the pathways of the nervous system of my hollow body.
For a moment, I felt the connection of an existence greater than myself, a soft caress that I reached forward in a vain attempt to hold onto, for even a moment more. A sorrow, deeper and more profound than even the passing of my parents, burrowed its way into my heart and I trembled in that sudden absence.
Then five heads swiveled in my direction and five sets of eyes locked onto my tear-stricken face and five mouths opened and no words emerged, nothing but the sensation of words.
I ran then. All the way back to my home, leaving me gasping and panting as I barreled into the shelter of my apartment, bolting the door behind me.
As far as I could tell, no one had followed me. But that night, I dreamt of watching and of being watched.