“Do you know why you hate them so much?”
Daryl’s deep voice rolled and echoed around the cavernous metal space. The words seem to be reflected in the shimmering walls and glittering consoles that descended in rows like desks in a college lecture hall.
Tom didn’t hear a word of it. He was awestruck, all consciousness was driven out of him to make space for the wonder invoked by the scene in front of him. Mere minutes ago he had been on the surface, sitting in a dingy bar amidst the ruins of Manhattan. Now, he had to squint against the bright, fluorescent light in an immaculately maintained control room. Computers, dials, and headsets sat neatly at each station in the gradually descending rows below him. And where he would have seen a podium if this were a lecture hall, was a piano inlaid into another metal console, with a few buttons and dials above it. On the far wall, a series of massive screens stretched from floor to ceiling, all black and dead but standing at attention, ready to spring to life at the touch of a button.
Tom could see his own warped reflection in the dead, black screens. His once clean-shaven face had been hidden behind a brown beard. He suddenly felt rather plain standing beside Daryl and amidst this fantastical setting. He felt as though he was a background character, thrust into the forefront of a story he didn’t belong in. Try as he might for years and year before this, he had been relegated to the status of nameless fodder. And suddenly, in two weeks’ time, he felt that he was finally at the center of the world.
It had been a ten-minute ride on a freight elevator to get here. Straight down into the bowels of the Earth. That ten minutes were all it took for Tom to go from a bit of aimless curiosity to hurtling along on the track to his destiny.
Beneath a society of exiles and criminals, this treasure was hidden.
“What is this?” asked Tom, having not heard Daryl’s question.
Daryl stepped forward from behind Tom. He was tall and lean, with a thin black beard and long greasy hair. Tom couldn’t see Daryl’s face from this angle, but his eyes still instinctively searched for it. Daryl’s face was scarred with five straight, short scratches, once deep, but now healed. It was just grotesque enough to disgust and terrify, without being so unsightly as to force Tom’s eyes away. It demanded to be stared at.
Tom was glad he couldn’t see it right now.
“This,” said Daryl, raising his arms as a king might while addressing his subjects, “is the last bastion of order in the world.”
Tom’s puzzled silence served as the necessary question.
Daryl lowered his arms and began to slowly, deliberately walk down the aisle towards the piano below. His heavy, steel-toed boots clacked against the cold floor, punctuating his speech. “When the vote came down all those years ago, and the USA ceased to exist, my grandfather was right here, in this room. Twenty other men were with him, and they all had one thing in common.”
Daryl stopped and looked over his shoulder at Tom, who still stood at the top of the steps. Tom’s gaze found Daryl’s cold, sunken green eyes, then drifted from the tops of the scars to their bottom. Daryl’s lips parted, revealing slightly yellowed teeth. “They all knew it was a lie.”
Daryl raised an eyebrow at Tom and motioned with his head for Tom to follow. Tom obeyed, and Daryl continued as they walked. “They were the only people left in the world who knew about this place. It was the last secret of the government, and they kept it. They all made a pact to stay here, in the complex below, and stay quiet, while all the other facilities and weapons and organizations were dismantled. They all agreed to wait.”
Daryl stopped a few steps from the bottom and reached out a thin hand to drag his fingers longingly over the smooth surface of a console. His hand came to rest, and the man became still. Tom realized that he was waiting for the next question. Daryl was like a wind-up toy awaiting waiting for another twist of his gears so he could complete his journey. One moment dragged into the next, and Tom’s initial confusion became curiosity. How long could Daryl simply stand there? Another moment passed, and that curiosity turned to terror. Daryl didn’t even seem to be breathing, but Tom knew he was. The gaunt man was unbreaking. Another few seconds passed, and Tom couldn’t take it anymore. “Wait for what?” he asked, desperately trying to keep his voice from shaking.
Daryl came to life instantly, resuming his movement down the steps as though he had been in a paused movie. “The right moment. The moment when all the lies people had been telling came back to haunt them, and they cried out once more for order. When they got down on their knees and begged to be ruled honestly once more.”
Daryl came to the bottom of the stairs, standing only a few paces from the piano. He seemed to lean against some unseen barrier, unable to take another step towards it. He raised a hand and rubbed his fingers together, then turned to Tom, gazing straight into his eyes.
“This is a weapon, Tom. A crown to rest upon a king’s head. A whip to keep people in line. From coast to coast, central Canada all the way to the isthmus between continents. This is a symphony of power.”
Tom was struck, not for the first time, by the strange contradiction of emotions he felt when he spoke with Daryl. They had met only a few weeks ago, but already Tom felt they had a complex and storied relationship. Daryl was at once terrifying and comforting. He had an air of command that was impossible to ignore. He seemed to know exactly what everyone wanted. Even stranger, he seemed determined to give it to them. Being around Daryl was like conversing with a genie who granted only the wishes you wouldn’t dare say out loud.
“Do you know why you hate them so much?” Daryl asked again.
This time, Tom heard him. He blinked in confusion, then his eyes narrowed with resolve. “I told you — they cast me out. They said I had no worth. They say that to a lot of people. If there isn’t a price tag on it, they don’t care for it.” There was a long silence, then Tom, feeling he had to say something, added, “it’s wrong.”
Daryl closed his eyes and his mouth widened into a mirthful grin. He shook his head slowly. “That’s not the whole story.”
There was silence in the room for a long moment, and Daryl’s eyes meandered over the black screens on the far wall. Tom watched the gaunt, tall man, not sure what he expected would come next, but knowing that he was both afraid and excited.
“They say that the greatest crime is ‘the initiation of the use of force’,” Daryl’s voice rose into a high, mocking tone as he quoted the phrase that was so oft-repeated outside the exile’s city. “Murder, theft, rape, assault.” Daryl laughed and turned back to Tom, meeting his eyes. “These are petty nuisances. With any modicum of power, one can insulate oneself from these things. Kill the murderer, imprison the thief, castrate the rapist, terrorize the batterer.” Daryl spread his hands and made a disapproving frown. “Problem solved. There is no mystery except to track the man who did it and punish him accordingly. That’s justice.”
Tom was silent. Daryl was dancing on the edge of something Tom had chased his whole life, and he feared that at the slightest interruption, the truth would flitter off again like it always had.
He needed to hear what Daryl would say next.
“The real crime — the worst evil of all — is the lie. And that’s the crime they inflicted upon you, and everyone else like you. They lied to you.” As he spoke, Daryl began to climb the few steps between himself and Tom. “The liar can’t be fought. He can’t be tortured or imprisoned. At least, not until you see through the lie. And no amount of power can help you do that. Only the truest virtue — wisdom — can protect you from lies. And when knowledge is denied to you, by those same liars, wisdom is unattainable.”
Now, Daryl was at eye level with Tom, standing a step below him. He was silent, completely still again. He had to be wound up, Tom realized. And by the right question.
Tom hesitated, feeling dread at the thought of not hearing what came next. His fear pushed the first thought that entered his mind out from between his lips. “What did they lie to me about?”
Daryl’s answer seemed to begin even before Tom had spoken. “They told you the same lie they told themselves when that vote was passed. They said that they would create a world without rulers. They said that everyone would be the master of their own destiny. They said that everyone would be free.”
“But we’re not free,” Tom whispered, almost involuntarily. He felt for a moment that he understood.
Then the feeling vanished, replaced by confusion. Tom knew this. This couldn’t be all there was to it. His brow furrowed and his mouth opened to protest, but he was silenced as Daryl raised and hand and fired a disarming smile at him.
“Yes, yes, you’re not free. But there’s a deeper lie behind that. They made you think that you could be free. They told you it was not just possible, but that it was good to be free.” Daryl lay his hand on Tom’s shoulder, and Tom felt all the energy drain from his body.
“Wisdom,” said Daryl, quietly, glaring into Tom’s eyes even as Tom attempted to look away, “is calling things by their proper name. Freedom is a lie. There will always be the greater and the lesser — the master and the slave. Anyone who promises you freedom is only seeking to rule you. Their grand lie, their unholy crime, was to tell you that you could be free, all so that they could sit safely on the throne that you thought didn’t exist.”
There was a long pause, and Tom realized how much he had shrunk under Daryl’s oppressive presence. He absentmindedly realized he wasn’t free even at this moment — Daryl had total control. In a blind rebellion, Tom righted himself, and he forced his eyes to meet Daryl’s unflinchingly. He was surprised to see that, due to his position on a higher step, he was actually looking down on Daryl.
Daryl’s gaze softened, and he reached up a second hand to Tom’s other shoulder, turning a gesture of control into one of affection. The scarred man smiled warmly. “But you, Tom. You saw through it. You had the wisdom to see, if not the words to say. But that’s alright, you weren’t made for words like I was. You were made for music.” Daryl swept his arm behind him, gesturing at the piano. “And this will be the instrument of your wisdom.”
Daryl turned and gazed at the piano, but Tom’s eyes never left Daryl. The genie was about to snap his fingers, and Tom knew that when the glittering magic dust settled, he would have everything he had never admitted he wanted. A bubbling impatience welled within him, and he gulped it down.
“I’m not promising you freedom, Tom. I’m promising you something better. Why struggle and slave in the dirt, when you could sit upon the throne they told you didn’t exist?”
Confused, Tom shook his head, trying to keep the unbelieving haze of thoughts at bay for the time being. “What? You want me to use it?”
“In time, yes. But first, I need you to unlock it.”
Tom had set out to prove that the world wasn’t as perfect as they all thought. He had put his mind to hammering at the cracks in their system until they realized, as he did, that it was all rusted and hollow. If they wouldn’t see, he would make them see.
At least, that’s what he had told himself. Maybe, in the end, it had just been about power. Or maybe he wanted to see it all burn. The reasoning didn’t matter.
He had gotten caught.
Theft wasn’t a common crime, but then again, no crime was common these days. Subtlety was the name of the game when almost everyone in society was armed. There were no victims anymore — at least, not in the old sense.
Tom had chosen theft because it was the perfect symbol. All anyone cared about was ‘property’, so he would show them just how fragile ‘property’ was. Of course, he wasn’t cut out for a literal theft. Plus, that wouldn’t get the point across. Even if he got away with it, the insurance companies would pay for it all, and new security would be installed.
No, he had to go for a bigger score. He had to strike at the vitals, and strike to kill.
Everything was held up by the insurance companies — the DROs; Dispute Resolution Organizations. They held every reign there was to hold in society.
Tom’s parents had died when he was five. His DRO decided who would be his guardians. Tom wanted to take music classes at eight. His DRO assigned advisor told him, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Tom requested a new advisor at thirteen. They complied, only to send him a woman without any noticeably different opinions. Just a different pair of lips to form the same words.
And those words were so familiar after hearing them for fifteen years. “Tom, you can pursue your music, and you should. You just need to do something in the meantime. Your grandparents can’t and shouldn’t just pay your living costs for years and years until you make it. And that’s assuming you even do!”
Ah yes, the joy of spending all his time and energy in a job he hated, for the privilege of going home and barely being able to keep his eyes open to compose.
“It’s not that bad, Tom. If you don’t like your job, we’ll help place you in something that is more your speed.”
Right. They had placed him in eight jobs over seven years. They all had the same fundamental problem.
It wasn’t making music.
So Tom sought an investment. He applied for an educational loan through his wonderful, all-seeing DRO, on the premise that the earnings from his music would pay it off.
When the DRO wanted to put in a clause about payment via labor if his music didn’t sell, he tore the contract up.
More bullshit. More reduction of his real talents in favor of some monkeyish manual labor job.
If you weren’t the kind of smart they liked, you were just a warm body for some maintenance job.
So much for a free society. What was he free to do? Certainly not what he wanted to do.
And Tom wasn’t the only one, either. As he was gradually relegated to the lowest echelons of society, Tom got to know the others who had been cast out — who just hadn’t fit, and so they were gleefully ignored.
Those like him.
Able of mind and body, but narrowly focused in spirit. Geniuses in their own ways, but those were ways that the DROs and the happy-go-lucky idiots who ran them didn’t value.
These souls weren’t worth anything.
So, Tom found a new kind of symphony to compose.
An elaborate dance of fraud.
First, he threw himself into becoming a case representative for a DRO. And not just any DRO — one that specialized in low-income cases. One that focused on precisely the people Tom wanted to help redeem.
He hated every minute of the work, yet he was driven forward. This was a puzzle he needed to solve — there was no way around it. This was his final stand. He had to show them. Then, he could do what he really loved.
It took a few years, but he got in.
Once he was licensed to manage cases, the real work began. He would find two people, down on their luck with their dreams denied to them, and they would be players in his symphony.
Player A would need to have dreams that required only their mind so that they would be willing to sacrifice their bodies. Player B had to be big, with at least some history of violence.
The story was pretty simple from there. Players A and B would start frequenting the same bar. They would go there for months, slowly building up the narrative. They would start out as friends, but things would gradually devolve, in full view of witnesses and cameras.
One day, it would come to the boiling point. A biting comment from Player A to a drunk Player B would light the fuse, and later that night, while Player A was alone but in view of a camera, Player B would exact revenge.
A few broken bones later, and it was done. The case was opened and promptly closed. Player A was paid hefty damages, and Player B was given the usual offer — repay the DRO for those damages with your labor, or be exiled from society.
Not literally of course, just socially. Unrepresented by a DRO, Player B wouldn’t be able to buy or sell anything. Nobody would speak to them, deal with them, or otherwise help them.
So, Player B would take the labor plan. They would work five or ten years, then get out.
Player A’s damages would allow them to live and work comfortably for a few years at least, and modern medicine made sure they were back on their feet in a few weeks. The Player would use that time to work on whatever their true passion was, and Player B would be paid with some of those revenues once they finished their repayment.
The goal was never to bankrupt the DRO, just to show them that they were wrong. Tom’s theory was that once freed from financial enslavement, those with lofty dreams and eccentric talents would be able to prove their worth to society beyond a shadow of a doubt.
And in so doing, he would prove himself and his music to be of value as well.
Tom didn’t get to see if he was right. They caught him after his third set of Players caved to cross-examination.
Tom was given the same choice as his players — repayment or exile. In a fit of rebellious fury, he had chosen exile.
A few days later, staring across the Hudson at the grey, crumbling city of Manhattan, he thought that perhaps he should have chosen repayment.
Manhattan and cities like it had been slowly abandoned as communication and transportation technology improved. The need to live so close to each other disappeared, and so the cities were hollowed out, and in time, reclaimed. Famous structures were torn down and rebuilt elsewhere, metal recycled, and pavement churned up to be relaid in someone’s driveway.
The city was now one of five exile colonies spread across what used to be the USA. Places where exiles were allowed to congregate and help each other to survive.
Tom looked around at the small, bare-bones military-esque encampment that encircled where the last standing bridge to Manhattan met the land. Men with rifles stood atop bare towers of metal scaffolding, watching and waiting.
“I thought the whole point of this was non-violence,” Tom said, matter-of-factly, jutting his thumb towards the tower.
The officer standing next to him, clad in black kevlar armor with yellow trimming, didn’t even turn his head to see Tom’s gesture. His eyes stayed fixed on the chain-link gate before them as he spoke. “You can leave whenever you want, they won’t stop you. They’re just here so we know if you do.”
“Sure, anytime. Except that the only bridge left is blocked.”
“Nobody will stop you from building your own; if you can. Or, you could swim.”
There it was. That tone that had driven Tom straight out of society. That way that everyone had of making something sound simple when it was anything but simple.
As if there was nothing more to what they were doing than being a lifeguard, watching kids in the pool. Except these kids were in an abandoned city, and they were all criminals that had been forcibly ejected from society.
It was only a just ejection for some of them.
And they tell us horror stories of the old prisons as if they haven’t come up with something crueler, Tom thought
Tom was familiar with this impotent rage, and it was easy enough to grit his teeth and tamp it down.
The gate rattled to the side, leaving an open path to Tom’s future. It took everything he had to pick up one foot and put it in front of the other. Walking through that gate felt like the final punctuation at the end of a death sentence.
What kind of world was he really walking into? It’s not like they had prepared him for what he was about to face. All he had was a small backpack of clothing and other necessities — such as a small switchblade knife, the only weapon they had allowed him.
Then, Tom heard the gate rattling closed behind him, and he couldn’t stop himself from looking back. He hadn’t even realized he had stepped through. Somehow, he had passed from one world to the other, and barely noticed.
Unceremonious, he thought. Just like everything else in their world.
He took a deep breath, trying his hardest to be happy that the world he hated was closed to him now. Then he turned to the city, and began the long walk across the bridge.
In an attempt to distract himself, Tom turned his attention to the skyline of the city. Only a few low, ugly skyscrapers remained of the famous skyline he had seen in old pictures and movies. All the others had been reclaimed. The remaining buildings all looked out of place, with no clear theme ringing through.
No cohesion. Everything spread over everything else.
Tom tried to imagine the city as it had once been. All reaching for the sky together, the smaller buildings hidden in the petrified tussle for dominance over the skyline. All of a piece, all representing a theme.
Now, it was broken. A symphony missing half it’s instruments.
He thought back to the long drive here. He had been silently staring out the window for most of it, watching the land rush by, growing more frustrated with each tower he saw. Little spurts of humanity, constantly interrupting the perfection of nature. Never were there more than two or three of them together, nor could you find a single vista without any.
He wondered how many girders in those towers had been taken from Manhattan.
Tom shifted his vision to gaze at the water below the bridge. The channel was churning and brown.
Yeah, sure. I’ll just swim right across, Tom thought sarcastically, remembering the guard’s earlier comment.
Again, he tempered his annoyance, forcing his thoughts to wander somewhere else.
The skyscrapers caught Tom’s attention again. They were simply designed — all the decent looking ones had been taken down and rebuilt elsewhere.
Still, it served to occupy his mind to pick one out and begin disassembling it in his mind. He started by breaking it into its component parts, forming neat piles amidst his grey matter. Windows here, concrete there, masonry in a separate pile. Then the girders, pipes over there…
Once he had it all laid out before him, he silenced his internal voice and listened. Each material had a distinct sound to it, he only had to discover it.
The bricks made a satisfying clacking when clapped together. That would do. The pipes echoed when struck with metal. He rubbed an aluminum sheet against the girders, producing an imaginary sound, not unlike a poorly-tuned guitar.
Once he had it all, he began reconstructing the tower, but with the sounds, rather than the materials.
A few moments later, he had the beginning of a song.
The percussion would start things off. Rapid strikes on a large drum, petering off like bricks crumbling. A long bass riff bridged the gap to the main beat — a slow, echoing bum, bum, bum-ba-dum. The piano now, high notes only — broken glass hitting the ground. And then the voice.
Tom didn’t know the lyrics yet, but he knew the voice had to be deep and calmly strong. Something that could hold the whole structure together without sounding strained.
The song had the distinct beginnings of a slow jazz tune, so he added a couple of brass instruments to finish out the palate.
Before he could get to the lyrics, the angle of the ground changed sharply under his feet, and his attention returned to the present.
He had arrived in Manhattan proper.
And it was empty.
The streets were unpaved — it had all been reclaimed when people moved out. The roads were packed dirt and stone. Tom’s eyes wandered up to a tenement across the street. It was brownstone, punctuated by black metal steps and ladders bolted to the wall. He was surprised to see that most of the windows were intact though, and some even had curtains behind them.
There wasn’t a single sign of life though. That is until a man meandered around the corner a block ahead of Tom. The man stopped when he saw Tom and raised his hand, hollering and beckoning. “Come on in, man! Yer welcome party is waitin’!”
Tom didn’t like the sound of the man’s sarcasm, but he figured that might just be the way of things here. Still, when the man turned and walked back around the corner, Tom reached into his backpack and took out a small switchblade, then slipped it into his pocket. He caught himself feeling almost grateful that they had let him have that on him during the drive.
When Tom rounded the corner cautiously, he saw two men sitting in chairs at a small round wooden table outside the door to a bar. A deck of well-used cards was spread on the table, and two glasses of water sat half drunk. One of them was the man who had waved Tom down, lean and clean-shaven, his leg bouncing anxiously. The other was heavyset, bearded, and watched Tom with beady black eyes. Both were wearing camo jackets like old government soldiers, shabby from wear.
“Wahey! There ‘e is! What’s yer name, new guy?” Asked the lean man, his voice sarcastically jubilant and thick with a southern twang.
Tom replied honestly and inquired after the two men’s names in return, his hand not yet leaving his pocket.
“I’m Ray,” said the lean man, poking his thumb into his chest, “and ‘e’s Charlie, but we all call ‘im Char.” Char nodded his approval.
“Well, nice to meet you,” said Tom, trying to keep the unexpected fear out of his voice. He didn’t know why he felt so uncertain about these men. He had gone through his first meeting with his fellow exiles in his mind many times, in an effort to prepare himself to present a strong front. All that had melted away before Ray’s insidious smiles and Char’s burning gaze.
“Come on,” drawled Ray, standing and clapping Tom on the shoulder jovially. “Don’t be so scared. We’re civilized, just like out there. Just a slightly different kind of civilized. No need to get the jitters.” Ray turned to Char, his hand still on Tom’s shoulder, and said, “I’m bettin’ this one’s a thief. Whadya say Char, put a drink on it?”
Char shook his head, his expression unmoving. Tom couldn’t tell if that meant he disagreed with Ray, or he agreed and didn’t want the bet as a consequence.
Ray seemed to understand though. He swung himself back in front of Tom’s eyes, his face looming a little too close, and put the question to him. “Well, whadya do?”
Tom felt suddenly that this was a crucial moment. Ray had guessed right — sort of. But should he tell them that? How had Ray guessed it? Had he thought Tom looked scared, and so assumed it hadn’t been violent?
A lie occurred to Tom, and he was at once satisfied by it.
“No. I killed a man.” Somehow, he was able to say it perfectly confidently.
Ray raised an eyebrow and released something vaguely resembling a laugh, but too deep and throaty. “Well damn, son.” Tom thought he detected a hint of sarcasm, but couldn’t grasp it. Ray returned to the table, saying to Char, “well, I s’pose it’s good you didn’t take that bet, Char.”
Char slowly nodded, his eyes not leaving Tom.
Once Ray had sat down, he clapped his hands on his thighs and gestured to the door with a flourish. “In you go, kid. Best place for a new exile to start — Daryl’s the owner. ‘E’ll put you up for a few nights while you find your footin’. An’ don’t give him that ‘killed a man’ business. Ole’ Daryls a stickler about the truth. Tell it, or he’ll know. Though it don’t take a genius to read you.”
Tom was momentarily uncertain of what to do. Part of him wanted to rush inside the bar and be rid of Ray and Char, another part of him wanted to defend his lie.
The fearful part won out.
Tom turned to the door. There were no windows, so he couldn’t see inside. He uttered a habitual, “thanks, nice to meet you,” before heading in.
Ray and Char had returned to their cards and made no reply.
Tom had expected the inside of the bar to be dingy, dark, and run-down. The reality that greeted him was comfortably dim, subdued, and while a bit shabby, had no lack of charm. The furniture had all clearly been through many rounds of repair, but the repairs were done by a skilled hand. Soft lights cast illumination around the room, leaving no corner in shadow, but also not threatening the pierce the retinas of potentially inebriated customers.
The customers themselves were sparse. It was midday, so Tom supposed that was to be expected. Two men sat at the bar, chatting with the bartender. Neither had a drink, and both were wearing the same camo jackets as Ray and Char. A man and a woman sat in a corner booth, his head diving for her neck like an arctic fox hunting a hare. She was giggling, but exerted careful control over her balance, not letting her glass spill. Tom saw it was a wineglass, but couldn’t fathom how there could be wine here. Lastly, at a table in the middle of the room, a man sat scribbling rapidly on a piece of paper, with other yellow sheets spread out on the table.
It made for a surprisingly comforting scene altogether. The only thing that was missing was music. Perhaps I could do something about that, Tom mused..
Tom took a couple of steps towards the bar before a voice stopped him. “Best not to interrupt them, they’re a bit busy.” It was the man sitting alone. He had looked up from the paper, revealing sunken green eyes and a thick but short black beard. Most notably though, Tom couldn’t stop staring at the five long, verticle scars that etched the man’s face from hairline to chin.
“Oh,” said Tom, uncertain. “The guys outside said-”
“I’m sure they did,” the man cut Tom off, gathering the papers he had been scribbling on and standing. He shoved the haphazardly folded wad into his back pocket, then spoke. “‘Talk to Daryl’, they said, right? But they didn’t tell you who Daryl was.”
Tom nodded, catching himself leaning away from the man slightly, then righting himself.
“Always laying traps, those two,” the man said wistfully. “But I suppose that’s part of why I keep them around. I’m Daryl.” The man extended his hand to Tom.
Tom hesitated, then reached out and shook the man’s hand. His skin was coarse and calloused, and his grip was iron. But as he met the man’s eyes, Tom thought he saw a kindred spirit flickering behind the green pupils.
“Thanks, I’m Tom.”
“Nice to meet you, Tom,” the man said, then gestured to the table. “Come have a seat.”
Tom obeyed and followed Daryl back to the table. They sat, and not knowing what to say, Tom stared transfixed at Daryl’s scars for several long seconds before becoming aware of how rude it was. Grappling in the dark for something to say, he managed, “What was that you were working on?”
Daryl’s eyebrows raised in a relaxed gesture of surprise. He smiled coyly, reached to his back pocket, and Tom heard the sound of crackling dry paper as Daryl placed the folded sheets on the table. “Just a bit of music,” Daryl said, leaning back and tapping his finger on the paper.
Tom was suddenly filled with excitement. He jolted forward, and before he could think, he was asking, “can I see it?”
Tom only had a moment to chastise himself for his over-eagerness before Daryl’s low, plodding laugh interrupted him. “Sure,” Daryl drawled, shrugging and flicking the papers towards Tom. Tom eagerly unfolded the papers, then slowed himself when he noticed how old they were. I suppose they aren’t producing paper, he thought to himself, dismayed.
What he found as he skimmed the pages wasn’t a song or a symphony. It was a jumbled mess. There were symbols he had never seen, notes that would be impossible to play, and random words interspersed along the lines of the melody. Then Tom noticed that it wasn’t handwritten. No, the ‘music’ was printed and layered over with Daryl’s confused notes.
“This is…” Tom realized he didn’t know what it was, then a word launched itself out of his gut before his mind could question it. “… a code!”
“Oh?” Daryl’s genuine surprise was played out clearly in his voice. It was the only time Tom ever caught him off guard. “It is indeed.”
Somehow, Tom’s excitement only rose at this realization. It was a challenge that felt as though it were designed for his mind. He struggled to pull his eyes away from the pages. “Where did you get it? What does it do?”
Daryl leaned casually forward, his composure reconstituted. “It was given to me by my grandfather. He locked my inheritance behind solving it. He said if I could solve that code, then I’d be wise enough to deserve the inheritance. Damn shame I’m no good at music.”
“What is it? The inheritance, I mean.”
Daryl released a solitary chuckle and leaned back in his chair. “Solve it and I’ll show you.”
It took Tom almost two weeks to solve the code. During that time, he stayed in a room above the bar, courtesy of Daryl, and learned a bit about how things ran here.
Daryl was in charge. Not just of the bar. Of everything.
There were two kinds of people in Manhattan. Those who worked for Daryl, and those who just obeyed him. It was a fine line, made clear by the presence of a camo jacket on the shoulders of any person Daryl favored.
Tom was initially put off by this organization of things. Daryl was the de-facto dictator of Manhattan. But as Tom observed how Daryl lead, and the results, he became more comfortable.
Manhattan wasn’t exactly swimming in resources, but it was well organized and well run. There weren’t any food shortages, even if luxuries were still rare. And most surprisingly, there was no crime. A society of criminals and it was perfectly peaceful. Daryl’s men patrolled the streets day and night, weapons on their hips. None had guns, but in a society where few were armed, a knife or a bat was more than enough.
What was even more surprising to Tom was how much culture had been maintained. Daryl’s men organized little events, sometimes in the bars, sometimes in the overgrown parks. It would be generous to call them parties, but they involved games, food, a bit of drink, and a subdued kind of camaraderie.
Not that Tom had much time or energy to attend. Every waking moment was spent with the code.
Daryl had maintained a kind of small library. All the actual libraries in Manhattan had been emptied out, if not entirely dismantled. But Daryl had assembled his own little library from books and other art pieces that were left behind. It was far from comprehensive, and a few decades out of date, but it came in surprisingly handy for Tom during those two weeks.
The code wasn’t as complicated as Tom had initially thought. It was less about codebreaking, which Tom knew little about, and more about understanding references. The unrecognizable symbols were meaningless red herrings, only allowing the code to be broken once removed, and the notes themselves had simply been jumbled.
The real challenge was presented by the words amidst the music.
Daryl’s grandfather had clearly been a well-read man, and Tom was grateful for his own education in the old arts from the days of governance. The words that were interspersed in the music were references to notable quotations in novels and films. By completing the quotations, other notes were revealed. Tom had to visit Daryl’s makeshift library frequently to decode them all, though some he could pull some from memory.
Early on in the work, Tom wondered why nobody else had been able to solve this. Had nobody even bothered to try?
The more time he spent around his fellow exiles, the more he understood. Many of them were kind enough, and certainly suitable as neighbors, but Daryl was the only person Tom found that he could bear to talk to for any length of time. All the rest seemed to lag just a few steps behind Tom, and it was enough to make conversing with them range from boring to frustrating. Even Daryl’s favored soldiers weren’t all that sharp, though that didn’t stop them from being effective at their jobs.
If Tom had not been so engrossed in the code, he would have wondered why he seemed to be the only clever person around besides Daryl.
When he solved the code, Tom rushed straight to Daryl to show him.
Twenty minutes later, Tom stood in the control room of the most powerful weapon ever built.
Daryl pressed the decoded pages into Tom’s hands. “This is the symphony you were born to play.”
Tom’s mind was blank. Again, he was absent from his own body, just as he had been as he entered this room. All that was within him was awe. His fortune had finally changed. At last, he had gotten what he deserved.
He took slow steps towards the piano. He sat, and ran his hands over the cover, the opened it, placing it so softly that it made no sound. He organized the pages on the stand, and his hands floated over the keys.
A thought appeared in his mind, and as eager as he was to play, Tom felt that it would be wrong to press a single key with his mind distracted. “What exactly does it do?”
Tom could see Daryl standing behind him in the black, warped reflection of the screens. “It will send sound waves through the earth to whatever precise point you determine. Those waves will turn anything on the surface there to dust.”
He said it so simply, as though there was nothing else to it than matter becoming dust. No destruction, no death, no moral questions. It reminded Tom of the people outside that he hated so much — the way they spoke about such important things with such simplicity. No nuance. No possible questions. Only the simple ‘truth’.
The thought faded to another question. “Why lock it with a coded symphony?”
“Originally, it was a series of keys. But, my grandfather knew it would be a long time before the world was ready to return to the proper path, and keys were prone to get lost. He had to create a code that could be deciphered, rather than needing to be remembered. He was a musician in his spare time, and he thought it would be proper for such a machine to be locked behind music.”
Tom’s hands came to rest on the keys. “And how do you know now is the right time?”
“My grandfather was too patient. He wanted people to learn the lesson on their own. I’m not so committed to letting them fail and suffer. With this, we can show them what I’ve shown you. We can raise them up. They won’t be ruled in secret anymore. No more lies. The most terrible evil in the world — the most terrible lie — removed. By you.”
“I want that,” Tom said, wistfully, gazing down at the pure white keys under his fingers. “I want that more than anything. Your grandfather really did a great thing here, Daryl. What happened to him?”
Daryl didn’t miss a beat. “Exactly what you were afraid of when you first came — the reason you had that switchblade in your pocket. Someone killed him. That’s how I got these scars — bringing justice, and in time, order.”
There was a long silence. Tom commanded his fingers to move and thought he could feel the message traveling down the neurons in his arms like a lit fuse slowly burning.
Then, he began to play.
The symphony was a solemn dirge — a rhythmic, grim, determined march. Each note bounced around the room, echoing and replaying over the newer notes, creating the sense of a growing pressure that would explode at any second. Tom realized dimly that the effect was intentional, and felt a rush of respect for the genius of the man who had written it.
The symphony was seven minutes and six seconds long. For every note of it, Tom felt at utter peace. At last, at lifelong last, he was fulfilling the purpose he was born for. His fingers danced over the notes of his destiny, and the joy of it filled him to bursting. He smiled as wide as his mouth would allow, then pursed his lips in concentration. His eyes never left the sheets of music, even though he knew them by heart. He had heard these sounds in his mind hundreds of times in the last two weeks, and yet he had still never imagined their true majesty.
With each note, another piece of the grand machine around Tom slid into place. He saw it assembling in his mind, and it was beautiful.
The final note played, and Tom opened his mouth to express his gratitude.
Tom’s words were choked to a halt as Daryl’s hands wrapped around his throat.
Tom gagged and struggled, reaching his hands behind him in an attempt to fight Daryl off. His fingers traced Daryl’s scars uselessly.
As Tom’s life faded, an image flashed in his mind. The image of an old man being strangled by a young man, in this same room. The old man’s nails were carving deep cuts in the young man’s face.
The screens flickered to life, their new light erasing the reflection from their surfaces. A reflection that would now have born the image of Tom’s lifeless body.
Daryl had forgotten Tom’s name the next morning, and the sounds of the symphony too. Both were meaningless to him. All he remembered was the way Tom’s hands had moved across the keys.