Nikki shook the can and sprayed again, trailing a long, jagged streak of crimson paint to the far end of the wall until the contents came to a sputtering halt. He stepped back to the crowded sidewalk to admire his handiwork.
He had defaced twelve buildings around Reflection Square. Eight houses, a grocery store, and three shops, all built of smooth, white stone and lined in neat rows with equally tidy flowerbeds. Mature trees dotted the square, throwing dappled shade on manicured lawns and meditation pools.
Though the crowds had thinned, no one had time to admire the square’s beauty or to take heed of Nikki’s vandalism. Even if they’d had the time to notice, no one would have tried to stop him. Everyone knew the consequences for not following the rules.
The bleeding paint had dried on all but this last building; the bots would have a field day cleaning the mess. Nikki tossed the empty can into a clump of pungent daisies.
He checked his watch. Nearly out of time.
He snatched his bag and raced for Trinity Gate, combat boots pounding the pavement. Twenty seconds. Forty. He tossed a torn shirt to the ground as he ran. Sixty. Eighty. A half-eaten apple rolled into a sterile gutter. One hundred. One hundred twenty. He launched a can of paint at a fountain. Blood-like splatter sprayed the marble tiers and surrounding grass.
The more the bots had to clean, the better.
Nikki skidded to a halt in the shadow of Contemplation District’s wall. White-washed and thirty feet high, the wall cordoned off Nikki’s neighborhood from the rest of the city. Serenity’s ivory skyscrapers loomed beyond the stone barrier. Nikki approached Trinity Gate and dumped his bag into a shallow gazing pool.
Ever since Trinity Gate had been locked for good years ago, others had tried to complete this task and failed. Of course, there was no evidence to say anyone was dissatisfied with their life in Contemplation District. Nikki and his friends intended to escape and show the world the truth.
Twenty minutes to vandalize the neighborhood as a diversion if they failed to melt through the bars and had to run back home. Forty minutes to melt the bars. No need to worry about the bots pursuing if they escaped.
“Nikki!” Nadia called, long raven hair trailing behind her and alabaster skin to match the city’s white gleam. Anthony ran beside her. Paint streaked their hands and clothes.
“We did as many buildings as we could,” Anthony panted. The youngest of the three, Anthony had celebrated his fifteenth birthday only last week. Nikki would be eighteen in a few days.
“Here.” Nadia handed Nikki a blowtorch. She gave another to Anthony and directed the third at the bars. “On three.”
Nikki looked up. Needlessly high, Trinity Gate boasted metal flowers and falling water in a near perfect depiction of the city’s landmark—Trinity Falls. Though Nikki had seen vids of the falls, he had never tasted their spray. No one on this side ever set foot outside the walls. Not anymore. Kids these days had only ever known Contemplation District.
“Three!” Nadia said.
They lit their torches as a train roared overhead. Nikki stared as the delicate metal arcs failed to warp and blacken beneath the heat.
“Why the hell isn’t it working?” Nadia exclaimed.
Rumor said the gate was indestructible. Nikki refused to believe that. “Keep going. We can do this.” He waved for them to direct their flames on the same section. “Just needs to be hotter.”
Three blue flames focused on a delicate metal arc depicting a wave of water and ever so slowly the metal began to warp. “See!” Nikki said. “We can do this!”
They kept working, losing track of time as they painstakingly melted a long, vertical line in the gate.
Nikki’s watch beeped. They couldn’t be out of time yet. He pressed the flame closer to the bar. They had to finish, if only to prove it could be done.
“Time to go!” Nadia said. She and Anthony turned off their torches and ran up the road.
“Nikki! Come on!” Nadia shouted. “We’ll finish another time!”
Nikki hated to give up. What if someone repaired the gate before they could return?
He had just started kicking at the damaged portion of the gate, bending the glowing red bars a little, when he spotted them—a perfect cloud of polished steel descending on the city.
Maintenance break was over.
Lily tugged on her mother’s skirt again.
“Not now!” Her mother kicked a little with her leg. “Go play.” Dishes clinked in the sink as steam clouded the tiny window overlooking a small slice of Contemplation District. Outside, a row of neat bushes lined a tidy walkway between rows of identical white-washed buildings.
Lily released the soft fabric and turned away with a pout.
She squeezed past the brand new couch and stopped outside her brother’s bedroom door. When would he be home? She hated playing alone.
Tucking a loose strand of tawny hair behind an ear, Lily opened the sliding glass door and stepped out into the humid heat. Her bare feet landed in warm, soft soil.
She followed the sloping path between two stunted maples, branches pressing feebly against the glass ceiling, and stopped to crouch beside the pond. She dipped a finger in, distorting the reflected trees and flowers.
Through the glass dome, she noted other glassed-in gardens and a sliver of the district’s Reflection Square beyond their apartment complex. Green grass cradled a meditation pool in the square and spilled down a bank. Just once, she wanted to run her fingers through that still water.
Just once, she wanted to step outside her glass box.
“Dammit!” Paul shook the scalding liquid from his hand and set the mug on the table. Another jolt from the rocking train sloshed more coffee, but he didn’t get to his files in time. He snatched a napkin and blotted the papers. He tossed the drenched napkin to the seat, eliciting frowns from the people across the aisle.
Ladies, gray skirts and blouses neatly pressed, deplored him with their glances. Men, every bit as severe in their slate-colored suits, grazed Paul with their glares. A moment passed, then another, before the low murmur of conversation refilled the passenger car, Paul’s presence, at least for the time being, forgotten.
Paul didn’t think he could take any more perfection. Given Serenity’s reputation, and the attitudes expressed by the train’s occupants, the city had very little tolerance for outsiders, especially a middle-aged journalist lacking fashion sense and an obsessive attention to cleanliness. Paul had never worried about his appearance before. He jogged a few times a week and kept his blond hair trimmed and his stubble to a minimum.
He glanced back down at his paperwork. Three missing persons, all teenagers. He suspected the whole story would fall apart as soon as he started investigating—anonymous tips being unreliable leads—yet he refused to pass up the opportunity for the biggest story of a lifetime. People vanished in other cities, not Serenity, the only city in the world to have conquered crime. Serenity’s proclamation had come within days of announcing a revolutionary breakthrough in city maintenance—pet-sized robots dubbed “cleaning bots.” The rest of the world was eager to accept Serenity’s solutions, which had so far withstood the test of time. The city couldn’t afford a single mar on its gleaming surface. Serenity’s mayor hadn’t wanted to grant Paul a travel visa, but he couldn’t afford not to. Not if there was nothing to hide.
Shadows from passing trees flickered into the train’s passenger car as Paul stuffed the last of his paperwork into his briefcase. His hand froze when the window revealed his first glimpse of Serenity.
Buildings, tall and creamy, dominated the landscape. Pictures, even the moving ones on vid screens, failed to convey the city’s untarnished beauty. A gleaming wall three stories high surrounded many of the areas below the tracks.
Paul locked his briefcase with a click and scooted closer to the window as the tracks veered to the right, replacing his view of the walled districts below with an even more impressive panorama—Serenity’s legendary Trinity Falls. A chunk of mountain carved out eons ago and since overgrown with vegetation and glinting architecture. Water gushed in three lucent arches from a cluster of white spires at the mountain’s crown and made a tremendous plunge to the lake below.
The train continued around the lake and ducked behind the falls before slowing to a standstill with a gentle rock.
Paul snatched his briefcase and followed the orderly crowd from the train, steam hissing into a glass-walled station. After navigating a maze of escalators, he eventually stepped off into a long transparent corridor that passed behind the falls, and balked at the sight beneath his feet. The architects had done nothing to obscure the vertiginous drop or the accompanying notion of a nasty death should the glass give way. Nor did the walls wholly eliminate the falls’ rumbling roar.
Impressive, but not really surprising, given Serenity’s mayor had his offices up here. Though why the mayor had requested a meeting with Paul after approving Paul’s visa was a trifle baffling. Tight security must go hand in hand with Serenity’s lack of crime.
Paul picked up the pace and came to a set of impressive marble doors with gold inlaid patterns at the end of the hall. Two bulky men in gray suits stood to either side. They opened the doors as he approached and nodded to him as he passed through.
Paul had seen the mayor on vid screens and countless magazine covers, yet the man appeared far more imposing than any of his pictures conveyed. Snowy hair. Face freshly shaved and a tad soft with age. An expensive suit of grays and creams creased with hard lines by a hot iron and an uncanny eye for detail. Like every other person Paul had encountered in Serenity, the mayor had an affinity for perfection to match the great city.
“Mr. Lambert.” The mayor flashed bright white teeth. “Welcome to Serenity.”
“Thank you, Mr. Douglas. Please, call me Paul.” He took the other’s hand in a firm shake. “An honor to meet you and finally witness your many accomplishments with my own eyes. I tell you, I’m not disappointed.”
The mayor chuckled. “I can’t take all the credit. I have an exceptional staff.” Modesty, of course. Paul knew the mayor had a direct hand in Serenity’s success. Everyone knew the problems Serenity had faced before—the crime, the violence, the riots. “Still,” the mayor continued, “I must express my concern with the reason for your presence in our wonderful city.”
Paul raised his hands, an unconscious response to the mayor’s implied accusation. “I assure you I harbor no ill will. I’m merely responding to an anonymous tip, as I explained to your staff earlier this week. I requested a visa and transportation to Contemplation District to follow this through. I hope you understand.”
The mayor’s smile failed to reach his gray eyes. “Of course. Journalists with an ever-ready thirst for the next story.” He leaned against his polished desk of golden wood. “I don’t fault your nature, but you must see it from where I stand. There are no missing persons, I assure you, and yet to deny you entry to Serenity would only lead you to believe we are hiding something. So, please, visit Contemplation District. You will find people in Serenity every bit as happy as they appear.”
Paul nodded. Perhaps this whole assignment was a mistake. Even if there were a story, what good would come of sharing it with the world? Cities around the world would be following Serenity’s example to solving poverty and eliminating crime. Would Paul risk dashing world peace, just for a chance to become famous? He shifted his briefcase to his other hand. “Am I correct in believing Contemplation District used to be the poor district?”
The mayor’s eyes widened. “We don’t use words like ‘poor’ in Serenity, Mr. Lambert. All our citizens are provided for. The needy among us receive new clothes and food. A home with a roof. And when a person’s basic needs are met, Mr. Lambert, there is no need for crime.” He smiled. “Serenity has solved poverty and all the problems that come with it. Cleaner bots keep our city immaculate, and you will find our least fortunate areas, like Contemplation District, the most pristine of all. We take pride in our city, Mr. Lambert, unlike so many places where graffiti and trash are as rampant as the crime rates. We are a city at peace and can only hope others will soon find their peace as well.”
“Contemplation District ahead, Mr. Lambert,” the mayor’s assistant, Porter, announced, pointing through the windshield to the massive metal gate ahead.
Paul looked out the window beside him as the car slowed to a stop. Shiny bots, ranging from bug-sized balls of steel to blocky canisters three feet wide, hovered in nearby trees, trimming branches and clearing away debris. Birds flitted around the branches, oblivious to the spindly arms whirling blades at lightning speed. Cleaner bots skimmed the streets and buildings, glinting in every nook and cranny. They worked, day and night, with only one hour off per day for recharging and any needed maintenance in the repair factory run by more bots.
Paul reached for the handle and found the door locked.
“A moment, if you please.” Porter turned round to face Paul. “People in Contemplation District prefer to conduct business during the bots’ maintenance break. Respect their schedule and do the same.”
Paul’s hand slipped off the knob. The rest of Serenity had no qualms being outdoors with the bots, evident by the lady in a neatly pressed gray suit walking along the sidewalk just outside their car. What made Contemplation District different?
Feeling a little disconcerted, he glanced back down at the black-and-white photo of the three teens he had received electronically and printed out before leaving his office. A lack of color made the teens appear older, despite their carefree posture on the fountain’s wide base and the semblance of a shared joke on bright faces.
An audible click filled the car. “You may proceed, Mr. Lambert.”
Paul thanked the man, closed his file, and exited the car. The trees were empty now, except for the birds and a soft breeze ruffling the leaves. He tucked his file under his arm and decided to leave his briefcase on the backseat. Porter remained in the car.
Paul stood on the curb of a spotless sidewalk before the most beautiful gateway he had ever seen. Having witnessed Serenity’s trio of falls with his own eyes from the best vantage points imaginable—the train on his way to Serenity’s city center and then again in the mayor’s office at the top of Serenity’s tallest building—he admired the craftsmanship and attention to detailed accuracy. The metal arcs of water appeared to be falling; a skillful illusion.
He blinked up into the blinding sun, trying to view the gate in its entirety, and almost stepped on a bot working on the sidewalk. No larger than a small cat, its blades were a flurry of motion throwing up weeds and pungent dirt. It finished a moment later, scooped up the displaced soil and broken blades of grass, and vanished over the buildings.
Paul turned back to the gateway and shielded his eyes from the sun. An odd, gaping line marred the delicate arches, as though someone had dragged a hot poker through the metal from a spot above Paul’s head down to the ground.
“Some people will never have an appreciation for the beautiful,” Porter called from his open window, waving to Paul. “If you discover the culprits responsible for vandalizing Trinity Gate during your investigation, we’d appreciate the information.”
Paul frowned. Why would Contemplation have a fortified gate, however beautiful? No doubt it was a structural remnant of a bygone era, when the city had tried to segregate the less savory from the rest of the populace. Paul remembered hearing about the riots that had befallen Serenity when they’d first cordoned off the crime-ridden neighborhoods, but free food and housing had solved that problem. Who’d want to vandalize such a beautiful work of art, whatever its past purpose?
Paul knocked again. Still no answer.
He stepped around to the window and pressed his hands to the glass, peering through a gap in the drapes. The interior too dark to discern any details, he muttered a curse and returned to the sidewalk, careful to avoid the line of neat bushes. Wet dirt clung to his shoes and left a glaring trail on the sidewalk. He glanced around nervously.
Contemplation District had been empty while Paul waited in the car. Now the streets bustled with people, all too busy to notice Paul.
He didn’t expect passersby to give him a reprimand, but their penchant for cleanliness made him nervous. He also had a rising suspicion the mayor had something to hide. The melted bars of the vandalized gate had bent outwards, suggesting the culprits had been on this side of the walls. Inside Contemplation District. Was the massive gate normally locked?
Thankfully, the third and final address wasn’t far. The mayor hadn’t approved a second visit, and Paul began to doubt he’d ever find anyone home.
To his surprise, someone answered the final door. “Mrs. Carlisle?”
She nodded, peering at him with a wary eye.
He noticed the vid screen on and a girl of five or six sitting on a couch. She was the spitting image of his own daughter. Long, skinny legs dangling above the floor and bare feet kicking the side of the couch while she munched on a handful of crackers. Crumbs littered the carpet at her feet and the seat cushions to either side of her. She appeared in profile to Paul, delicate neck jutting forward and big blue eyes riveted to the screen. His own daughter, Claire, would have been outside playing on such a sunny day.
Paul coughed. “I received a tip pertaining to missing teens in your district. May I come in?”
Mrs. Carlisle stepped back to allow him passage. The girl on the couch looked up and smiled. “I’m Lily!”
Paul froze, staring at the girl, then opened his file and withdrew the printout of the electronic message he had received. The haiku at the bottom read: ‘Lilies in the pond / Bob on soft ripples, never / Beyond glass boxes.’ He glanced out the glass doors at the little garden with glass walls. A glass box. And though no lilies grew by the pond, Lily probably played in the garden visible on the other side of the living room. Paul couldn’t deny the evidence. Nikki had to be his source.
A tremor of excitement coursed through Paul.
For Nikki to have sent the information to Paul ahead of time, before his own disappearance, Nikki must have known he and his friends might run into trouble. But Nikki’s message had come to Paul in a very roundabout way, having no apparent link to Contemplation District. Nothing was private with digital network traffic in Serenity, so such anonymity could only be accomplished through a hacking job. Maybe the kids had temporarily hijacked the network to get a digital help bottle out? Or maybe someone here in Contemplation had helped them? The peculiar haiku bearing an unmistakable reference to Nikki’s little sister just seemed too much like a hidden message meant to reveal Nikki as Paul’s source.
Paul had his story. Now just to figure out how the pieces fit.
He tucked the printout in his file and retrieved the black-and-white photo. “Mrs. Carlisle, when did you last see your son?”
She pursed her lips. “Last week. But you must be mistaken. My son isn’t missing.”
Paul’s mouth fell open. He showed her the picture of Nikki with Anthony and Nadia. “Your son sent me this along with information predicting his own disappearance.”
“A prank,” she insisted, her face hard. “Nikki’s always getting into trouble. I suspect they’re responsible for vandalizing Trinity Gate. Nadia’s father reported three stolen blowtorches. No doubt they’re off somewhere plotting their next escapade.”
Dreams of having found the best story of a lifetime descended to the pit of Paul’s stomach. He’d been played, all right.
But why me? A reporter from out of town who hasn’t had a big story in years? Why not a reporter from Serenity?
Because no one in Serenity would have believed Nikki.
Paul studied Mrs. Carlisle, at a momentary loss for words. She wore a simple brown dress of modest cut. Neatly pressed. A tight bun restrained her mousy hair. She’d been washing dishes. Water glistened on her hands and he heard the faucet running in the kitchen. He finally found his voice. “Why the prank?”
“I have asked myself the same question, Mister … ?”
“Lambert, but please call me Paul.”
She wiped her hands on her apron. “Nothing good ever came of kicking a gift horse in the mouth, Mr. Lambert. Our lives are better now. Poverty and crime eradicated. We have everything we ever wanted. If you ask me, children these days are ungrateful.”
Paul remembered the vandalized bars. Why would kids lie about their disappearance and burn a line in a beautiful gate? Something didn’t feel right. The melted bars gave the impression of a prison break. Perhaps Nikki and his friends intended the damage to be a message.
Paul’s gaze fell on the girl. “Lily? How do you like living here?”
She dragged her blue eyes from the vid screen, resembling his daughter so closely it made his chest ache. Claire was with her mother this week. Lily’s delicate brows furrowed in thought. “We have a nice garden. I have toys. Mother always says we’re better off now than the way things used to be. Everything’s clean. No one’s hungry. I’d like to play outside, though, or visit Trinity Falls.”
Paul gave her a sad smile. No wonder he hadn’t seen any children outside. Parents in this district must confine their children to the glass gardens. Such confinement would explain Nikki’s dissatisfaction. The pieces clicked into place. The three teens had probably run away from home after making a glaring statement in Trinity Gate.
“Serenity’s falls are well worth a trip,” he told Lily, resisting an urge to stroke her head, as he would have done to Claire. “You should convince your mother to take you there someday.” He turned back to Mrs. Carlisle, unable to shake a niggling doubt that something was amiss. That uneasy feeling ever since he’d boarded the train into Serenity. “The beautiful gate your son and his friends vandalized, is it normally locked?”
Mrs. Carlisle’s brows shot up in surprise. She ran her hands down her apron. “I’ll never understand why some people complain. We were worse off before, starving and homeless. And how did people repay the mayor? Riots in the streets beyond Contemplation’s walls. Vandalism, theft, murder. I don’t blame the mayor for his response.”
Paul frowned. While Mrs. Carlisle hadn’t agreed outright that the gate was there to keep people inside Contemplation District, it certainly seemed to be the case. And Mr. Porter’s odd statement that residents of Contemplation District restricted business to one hour a day. The glass gardens. Lily’s confinement. Contemplation District began to sound more like a prison than an idyllic solution to crime and homelessness.
But if the gate was kept locked, how had the three teens escaped? The wall was too high to climb, and they clearly hadn’t made it through the gate.
Something else could be keeping the residents of Contemplation District inside, too; though Paul hadn’t seen any guards or video cameras.
“I need to get back to the dishes,” Mrs. Carlisle said. The water was still running in the kitchen.
“Of course,” Paul said, his stomach churning. Her lack of concern for her missing son was every bit as disconcerting as Serenity’s penchant for cleanliness. “Thanks for your time.”
Nikki’s mother showed Paul to the door as the vid screen went to a commercial break. The commercial showed cleaner bots descending on cities around the world, transforming each one to mirrors of Serenity: “With cleanliness comes peace. Take pride in your city. The first step to a better future.”
He stepped into the sunlight. A neighbor’s door slammed as someone ducked into the house. Paul glanced at his watch. Would he have time to question those other two families now?
“Maintenance break is nearly over,” Mrs. Carlisle reminded him. “You would do good to bide by our schedule.”
“Not to worry.” Paul gave her a tight smile. Lily stood at her mother’s legs now, hanging on her skirt. “Little girls like you should be playing in the sun.” Not glass boxes.
He headed down the empty street, the niggling doubt that something was amiss growing stronger with every step. He was onto something here, he just knew it. Maybe he could get another travel visa, try to question the other two families again. Maybe Nikki was staying with a friend in Contemplation District. Or maybe, just maybe, Nikki and his friends had escaped, with no one on the streets to stop them.
Another door slammed shut.
Paul, feeling a sudden urgency to vacate the quiet streets, checked his watch again. A few seconds before his hour was up.
He hurried down the street past a serene gazing pool and passed through Trinity Gate, which shut with a clang behind him. Puffing, his heart racing, he turned to check the gate and found it locked, just as he’d worried it might be.
He glanced over his shoulder. Mr. Porter’s black car was nowhere to be seen. The mayor couldn’t have made a clearer statement. Paul was late and had overstayed his welcome.
He looked back at Contemplation District through the bars, wondering what to do next, when he noticed Lily running through the empty streets. She stopped to crouch beside a gazing pool and dipped a finger in.
Paul wanted to be happy that she was outside, disturbing what even the wind seemed incapable of doing, but with everyone else in her district rushing indoors, he wondered why she wasn’t running inside too. Should he be worried for her safety?
Which was ridiculous. Mrs. Carlisle had seemed unconcerned. Lily certainly seemed unconcerned. Maybe Contemplation District just had strange customs?
A glint in the sky caught his eye. Paul looked up. Countless cleaning bots were descending on the serene neighborhood. They engulfed Lily in a heartbeat.
The hairs along the back of Paul’s neck stood on end.
He gripped the cold bars with his hands, his heartbeat quickening.
Bots scoured roads and buildings and clipped wayward vegetation. He’d never seen the machines take an interest in a person before. Perhaps Lily had sullied her clothes in her glass garden?
“Lily!” he shouted.
A few moments later, the bots dispersed.
Paul stared, disbelieving.
Faint ripples remained where Lily’s fingers had brushed the water’s surface. The girl was … gone.
Paul blinked; a whooshing sound in his ears and his vision whiting around the edges.
“No!” he cried, his voice cracking.
Shock threatened to take his legs out from under him. He gripped the gate tighter. All he could think about was his dear Claire. He couldn’t believe Lily was gone.
He glanced down at the line melted through the gate. The mayor had unlocked it for him. Had Mr. Douglas known about the faulty bots?
Contemplation District didn’t need guards when it had cleaning bots. Bots that could be programmed to go after people in one area, while leaving everyone else in the city alone. Bots that would scour the streets nearly twenty-four seven.
And three teens, unhappy with one hour of freedom a day in exchange for clean clothes and a roof over their heads, who had failed to escape before maintenance break was over. Did Mrs. Carlisle know their fate? Had she and the mayor both lied, all for a comfortable life and clean streets?
Paul refused to believe that. Refused to believe Lily was dead. Refused to believe a city would allow such an atrocity or that other cities would soon welcome Serenity’s solution to poverty and crime.
“Someone help!” Paul rattled the bars. “Lily! Mrs. Carlisle!”
But he couldn’t ignore the facts. According to Mrs. Carlisle, the rioting had continued, even after free food and housing. The wall and locked gate must have failed to curb the violence, too. Serenity had declared itself free of crime only days after the arrival of its cleaning bots. Which meant the bots not only kept the streets clean, but kept people on the verge of rebellion indoors.
Paul had his story. The story of a lifetime.
But at what cost?
People, kids, were dying. Lily, the three teens. If Paul hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, he might not have believed it. If only he’d delayed his departure through the gate a little longer, he might have been able to save Lily. Or would he, too, have fallen victim to the bots? Perhaps that had been the mayor’s intention all along.
Paul gritted his teeth. The children’s deaths wouldn’t be in vain.
He released his grip on the cold gate. No one was coming out to answer his calls for help. The ripples in the gazing pool where Lily’s fingers had been moments before were gone, though forever ingrained in Paul’s memory.
The city had tried to erase her. Paul would make sure the world knew Lily’s fate and Serenity’s true colors.