Gavin stood on the edge of emptiness and let vertigo roll over him.
In truth the plate-glass window overlooking the central plaza was inches thick and could take the weight of a thousand men, but he enjoyed the sensation of being suspended over infinity. The Residence was five hundred stories or more high – every time he thought he had its measure he would meet someone else from a floor he had not known existed. Sometimes he wondered if there was a practical limit at all; perhaps the City really was endless, and if you could find an elevator to take you all the way up you’d find your way back to where you started. One day, he thought, he might try.
Somewhere, far below, ten million men were going about their lives. When he considered them, he felt like a cog in a vast machine. Every day he would ride the elevator down to Ground 85, and every evening he would ride the elevator back up. His shift for today had ended an hour ago, hundreds of men on the next shift entering the Processors as he made his way out. The Processors generated food and air and power for the City and they never stopped. Day followed day and shift followed shift, and he grew older. One day he would be replaced. And the City would go on.
There was a knock on the door.
He had never had a visitor. Why should he? He was just a worker; every day he ate his ration, went to work in the Processors, made his way home, ate, and slept. What interest could anybody have in him?
He thought for a moment about the appropriate response. Clothes. He had dumped today’s clothes in the clean-chute when he got back to his apartment. Opening the wardrobe he took down a fresh pink tunic and shrugged into it; the yellow tunics hung at the end of the rail, as ever untouched. He didn’t even know why they were there, he would never wear them. Once, years ago, he had dumped them all into the waste disposal; the Controller hadn’t taken the hint and the next morning his wardrobe was restocked again with equal numbers of yellow and pink, all pristine and fresh-laundered.
There was a man at the door dressed in yellow. This was almost as unusual as the knock had been. This was a Pink area; over ninety percent of the inhabitants of this level were Pink. The man gave no sign that he had even registered the door was open. The man’s eyes were blank, unseeing. “Hello?” Gavin ventured experimentally.
The man in yellow’s hands lashed out and wrapped around Gavin’s throat.
The two of them went barrelling back into the apartment, and far from yellow and pink, Gavin’s world was going grey. And then the hands at his throat were gone and the man in yellow flopped aside; brilliant red leaked from his scalp. Another man stood over Gavin, and this man was neither yellow nor pink. He was dressed all in grey, and that was impossible.
“I’m sorry. I came as soon as I could,” the grey man said.
“Who are you?” Gavin demanded, getting to his feet and rubbing his bruised throat. “What do you want with me?”
“My name is Herald. I’m from the Grey Men. And you,” said the man in grey, “are our best and only hope. The lives of millions of people rely on you tonight.”
And that, of course, was the most impossible of all.
“You’ve got the wrong man,” he said as they rode the elevator down. Herald had insisted Gavin use his ident to operate the lift, as he didn’t have one of his own. This at least was something Gavin could believe; the Grey Men were ghosts and legends, and ghosts didn’t have idents. “I’m just a worker. I’m not a Protector.”
“If you were a Protector, I wouldn’t be within ten miles of you,” Herald said. “There’s no mistake. It didn’t have to be you specifically, you just happened to be one of the first attacked. You were fortunate I was following.”
Gavin was wearing a grey top over his tunic, obscuring his colour. Herald had told him, It may soon become unpleasant on the streets for those in pink, and we can’t afford the time. Gavin didn’t understand this. There was nothing about this he really understood. The lift was descending, far below Ground 85. Deeper than he had ever gone. He watched as they passed Ground 12. As if in reflection of his earlier thoughts, their descent seemed endless. “Where are you taking me?” he asked.
“We’ve going to see Sol,” Herald told him. “In the Undercroft.”
The Undercroft – the subterranean world that delved deep underneath the City, filled with Creepers and miscreants and Grey Men, was as much a legend as the Greys themselves, so Gavin thought this seemed perfectly consistent. “I’m just a worker,” he said stubbornly. “It’s not even my shift.”
The Undercroft was much like the Processors, Gavin found. The same cramped, narrow corridors; the same spacious chambers full of arcane equipment; the same ubiquitous strip lighting. But where the Processors were stuffed to overflowing with workers, the Undercroft was empty – Gavin barely saw a soul as they walked. And where the Processors were sterile and light and clean, the Undercroft was dark and dank, slime dripping off the walls.
Sol turned out to be a grizzled old man, with the kind of beard you could never get away with above ground. He met them, flanked with two other Grey Men, in one of the open chambers, his voice echoing in the hollow. The chamber had been converted into a garage of sorts, hovercars and trikes lined up in neat rows. “I’m sorry for the brusque welcome,” Sol said as Gavin entered. “I would have preferred to meet you more formally and with more time in hand, but things are falling apart out there and we need to move quickly if we’re to prevent wholesale slaughter.”
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” said Gavin. “What slaughter?”
“I’ll explain on the way,” said Sol. Herald and Sol’s acolytes shepherded Gavin into the back seat of a hovercar; he was joined in the rear seat by Herald and the old man. As the vehicle smoothly and silently accelerated away, Sol made good on his promise. “It begins, and ends, with the City. You see, the City is not a city at all. It’s a giant experiment in artificial intelligence.
“The experiment is intended to force the whole City to decide between the Idea and the Possibility; to declare for pink or for yellow.”
“Don’t be stupid,” said Gavin. “Pink is so much better. Pink makes us stronger, faster, better.”
“And yet,” said Herald, “just minutes ago a man in yellow was within moments of killing you. Can you explain that?”
Sol laid a wrinkled hand on the younger man’s arm. “What Herald is trying to say is that there is no practical difference at all. All yellows believe the same of their colour as you just asserted for pink. What might surprise you more, is that people can change their allegiance over time. The experiment is all about the way in which that change can occur.”
Gavin listened in growing incomprehension as the old man talked. Snatches of his explanation rang true. “All citizens are implanted with their ident at birth,” was one statement that he could agree with. But the old man continued with: “The ident is a way for the Controller to keep track of the populace and where they go. Without idents, the Grey Men are limited in where we can go and what we can do. We can get to the Ground levels, but we don’t have access to the Residences or the Centre.”
“How can you not have idents?” Gavin asked.
“Sometimes children are born who will never be able to work. Others meet with mischance and lose their abilities. Sooner or later, all such end up down here. We take them in as Grey Men.”
The Undercroft walls were flashing by the windows, innumerable chambers and passages all tending upwards, as Sol explained that the ‘experiment’ would be over when all of the people of the City wore the same colour. “When the experiment ends, it is our belief that the Controller is programmed to shut down the City. Along with everyone in it. Until then, the City will go on – as it has for hundreds of years. We know this, because here in the Undercroft there are records, dating from before the earliest histories. We think that the Undercroft is another City, another experiment, completed ages ago. When it was done, the Builders built the City – our City – on the ruins of the old one.”
“So what do you want with me?” Gavin asked.
“Freedom,” said Sol. “Self-determination. We want to shut the whole damn thing down – we can’t allow the experiment to come to an end.”
“We need to destroy the Controller without the experiment ending,” said Herald. “Destroy the Controller, we end the experiment without ending the City.”
Gavin frowned. “Life isn’t so bad as it is. Yellow and pink are closely matched. It doesn’t sound like it’s all going to fall down overnight.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” said Herald.
“We’re out of time. That man who attacked you is one of the first. Everything has changed.” Sol took up the story. “One locus of the Controller has found a solution to the impasse. Through the ident, it is able to directly control its people. If it can’t persuade the Pinks to change, it will eliminate them.” The car was exiting the underground now, turning onto a ground plaza. Gavin watched in horror as the view out of the car’s windows became clear. The city was burning, and all around he could see violence.
“It’s begun,” said Sol. “Yellow will decimate Pink. Soon enough, the imbalance will become critical. It will be a genocide. Yellow will win, and the City ends.”
“Unless you can destroy the Controller,” Gavin guessed.
“Unless we can destroy the Controller,” said Sol.
“And that’s why you have to help us get in,” said Herald.
The Centre was a pillar of chrome that stretched into the sky like an accusing finger. The size of a city block, it anchored the centre of the City like a spindle. As Gavin and Herald left the hovercar behind and started across the open ground towards the base of the Centre, Gavin could see the mayhem around him escalating. There, a small group of yellows armed with metal poles were ambushing pinks as they exited the Processors. There, a yellow man armed with a knife chased an older man dressed in pink up the road; the man in pink stumbled, and the end was quick. Elsewhere, a team of zombie yellows were laying explosives at the base of a Residence. Gavin wanted to go and interrupt them, but Herald caught his arm. “Leave it,” he said. “They haven’t seen you yet, but if they catch a glimpse of pink under that shirt we gave you then we’re both dead. This will all cease if we succeed.”
“Let’s be quick then,” said Gavin.
As they approached the giant silver needle, Herald continued his exposition. “We need your ident to get into the Centre – it will open for a Resident. The experiment is designed to be self-limiting. But without idents, we’ve been unable to get access.”
“You can’t make your own idents?” Gavin asked.
“We are few in number, and we have limited resources. But the most critical resource of all is orichalcum, a metal with unique resonance properties. It ties the people together into one big neural net and connects them to the loci in the Controller. And of this metal, we have none at all. It does not exist within the City – except in trace amounts within the ident chips. Even were we to retrieve ident chips from City residents, we would be unable to extract and work with the trace amounts.”
That was the moment at which three identical men in white tunics stepped around the nearer corner of the Centre building. Herald and Gavin were crossing open space and there was no cover; the Protectors saw them immediately. Moving as one, they lifted their arms and pointed in Gavin’s direction.
“Run!” Herald cried, and demonstrated the method. It was all Gavin could do to keep up. They crossed the remaining metres in seconds and Gavin slapped his palm against the reader next to the great double doors. Ponderously they began to open, and amidst the thock! thock! thock! of gunfire, Gavin and Herald dashed inside.
“That was close,” Gavin panted, unaccustomed to exertion.
Herald put his back to the wall and slid down until he was sitting. “They were Protectors,” he said. “Protectors don’t miss.” His grey shirt was slowly going black as blood sheeted down his chest. “Go on,” he said. “Last chance. Take off… shirt. Protectors… won’t follow you… ”
Gavin left his grey overshirt behind him as he moved deeper into the building. Behind him came the terrible sounds of the Protectors reaching Herald; programmed to immediately destroy anyone not showing their colours of allegiance, they were brutal in their efficiency. The path into the building was straight as an arrow and without turn-offs; the sounds receded quickly as Gavin followed the corridor to its end, silver doors flanking another elevator shaft.
This carriage rode up and up endlessly, but Gavin was used to that by now. Eventually it came to a halt, and the doors opened onto a large room. In the centre of the chamber stood an obelisk of obsidian, inlaid with an intricate pattern of circuitry in golden copper.
A soothing voice filled the air, higher pitched than any man he’d ever heard; it was disturbing, but also somehow pleasing. “Welcome, citizen. Have you come to adjust the running parameters?”
The words were strange but he divined their meaning. “I have,” he called.
“Ready,” said the voice. “Please indicate preferred colour.”
This was it. The moment his life had been building towards. He brought the heavy hammer out from behind his back and advanced on the obelisk. Standing over it, at the centre of all he had ever known, he couldn’t bring himself to swing the weapon. An hour ago he had been a mere worker; now he held the fate of the City in his hands. It was too much responsibility, he didn’t want it. He choked back a laugh, a strange kind of hysteria overcoming him.
“Chartreuse,” he said. “Orange. Cyan. Turquoise. Brown! Blue! Charcoal! Green! Yellow! Red! Vermilion!”
“Yellow accepted,” said the voice. “Altering parameters. All uniform repositories set to yellow.”
He was struck with a sudden horrible certainty: his dresser now containing nothing but yellow. By this time tomorrow, nobody would own a pink tunic. He had brought the experiment to its conclusion. He had damned them all. “No!” he shouted. “Pink! I want pink!” But his words met with no response. In sudden rage, he lifted the hammer high, about to bring it down on the obelisk, the object of his torment. As the hammer reached its apogee, however, he reconsidered. The controller was a dumb machine, and it was only doing what he had told it to.
And yellow was such a nice colour after all. He let the hammer fall back to his side. What was the problem? Everyone should be yellow. It was logical. Yellow made them stronger, and faster, and better.
He had to get home, back to his residence. He was just a worker, and the City would go on, and his next shift was in twelve hours, and he was happy in yellow.
Written in response to Flash Fiction Challenge: “Roll for your title” on TerribleMinds.
For those who might be interested, the human brain processes ideas and decisions in a similar way to the Controller – by generating possible options and systematically suppressing them until only one remains. See http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=you-have-a-hive-mind.