No one remembers how the world ended, we just know that it did. In the aftermath, humanity did what humanity does best. We rebuilt.
Our governments did their best to unite us and create a new world order. Unfortunately, they were no longer to be trusted. Somehow, our destruction had been their fault. Or so we were made to believe. For a time, it was hard to know what truth even was.
There were those who understood the desperation of the situation and found a solution. The scientists, people of higher learning. They knew more than any of us and they told us that we would rise again. They made a way for us to hope for a future. They gave us courage to start life anew. With their guidance, we did just that. We listened to them. We believed them. We were grateful.
Most of us, anyway.
There were those who didn’t agree with this new way. There were those who saw the new city as a new kind of hell. They were scared. It’s understandable since everything was so different from what it had been. But they shouldn’t have fought against the future as hard as they did. They should have been grateful.
They weren’t. And they left to live in what became known as Trash City.
As for the rest of us, we’re happy. So happy.
The city of Paradise was protected by a wall that looked like it reached to the heavens. None ever passed from one side to the other, so there were no obvious entry points. It was a pristinely designed city with buildings erected in organized lines. In comparison, Trash City was comprised of decades of junk from the world-that-once-had-been, collected and piled together to form the city. People lived there, but they were rebels, criminals, and escapees from another time who somehow found ways to survive.
Only The Obedience ever came and went. Nasty, gruesome, horrid creatures The Obedience were. Pets of the city of Paradise, and those who’d made them. People were often taken by those monstrosities from Trash City and brought to Paradise.
That’s what had happened to Carys.
Atlas stood at the mouth of the canal from which a mighty river spilled. No one had tried to sneak into Paradise before, but he was determined to do so. Carys was his best friend, and he wasn’t about to let her suffer because he hadn’t been able to save her in the first place.
He stuck his hand in his pocket, gripping the rusted silver heart-shaped locket for courage. It was all he had left of Carys, that precious trinket she’d inherited from a mother long forgotten.
“Hold on, Carys. I’m coming.”
The culvert was dark, the roaring waters loud. If there were any of The Obedience patrolling, at least he knew they wouldn’t be able to hear him kicking the rocks he couldn’t see along the narrow shore.
A light in the distance both frightened him and gave him hope. He had to reach that light if he wanted to find his friend, but he feared what he would find when he reached it.
Shielding his eyes, he stepped out into the most beautiful landscape he’d ever seen. The river wound its way through an enormous city of towering skyscrapers made of clean, bright metals and glass. Between him and the nearest buildings were all manner of trees and flowers. He had never seen a garden before, and it nearly made him forget why he’d come.
It was stunning. And eerie.
A sense of foreboding befell Atlas as he stared at the wonder before him. There was something terribly wrong about where he was. He didn’t like being here. Not one bit.
With careful steps, he made his way to the nearest street. There were people going about their daily business, and a group of kids were playing on a strange structure. As he watched from the shadows, he noticed that something was off. The people were just too . . . happy.
Trying to keep from being seen, he slunk from building to building, eyeing the people nervously. There weren’t many places to hide, but everyone he saw seemed oblivious to everything around them.
He was just about to risk crossing a large street when a loud song filled the air. All the people stopped in their tracks to stand like statues, their faces turned to the sky.
Atlas looked up as well. Above him, the image of a bespectacled man smiled down at them.
“People of Paradise,” the man began. “It’s another glorious day. Our indicators show that the city’s joy levels are at an all-time high. With the temperature at twenty-three degrees centigrade, it’s the perfect day to get outside and enjoy the many parks that have been designed for your leisure. Pack a picnic or have a barbecue. Today will be another perfect day.”
The image faded, but not before Atlas realized what had been in the background of that video. It was Carys. He would recognize her anywhere. She was being held somewhere, likely underground.
The people of Paradise were on the move. Some were returning to their houses; others were running hand in hand along the streets. Each and every one of them wore that shudderingly wide smile.
One woman was walking near where he was hidden. If he wanted to find out anything about Carys, he needed to know more about the bespectacled man.
“Excuse me,” he said stepping out in front of the woman.
She turned her smile on him. “Hello. It’s such a beautiful day.”
“I guess. Listen, who was that man on the video?”
“That was Doctor Liege,” she said without hesitation.
“Do you know where I can find him? He has my friend.”
The woman laughed. “We’re all friends here. Everything here is perfect, thanks to Doctor Liege. He saved us. He made us happy. Won’t you join us for a picnic?”
“It’s a lovely day.”
Atlas backed away from the woman, unnerved by what she’d said.
The woman continued on her way as though he didn’t exist.
With the city emptying into the parks and gardens, the streets soon were cleared of pedestrians. Seizing the opportunity, Atlas snuck along the widely paved roads, fully aware of how exposed he was. Even though there were buildings all around him, he got the distinct impression that he was being watched.
As he passed by the towering structures of reflective glass, he noticed papers posted in some of the windows. Curious, he moved in for a closer look. He wasn’t particularly strong at reading, but the words on the posters didn’t sit right with him.
One said, “Building the new world. Doctor Liege, the heir to humanity.”
Another read, “City of Paradise. We’re all happy here.”
The third made him feel like the city was closing in around him. It was an image of Trash City. Beneath it were the words, “We will save them all.”
He was staring wide-eyed at these words, rolling them over on his tongue when he saw The Obedience reflected behind him. The distinct clicking sounds of the predator made the hairs on the back of his neck and arms rise in alarm.
As was his instinct, he ran. He was used to running from The Obedience, but he wasn’t accustomed to the streets of Paradise. They offered little in the way of protection. His feet pounded on the pavement, but he wasn’t fast enough. Though he wove his way around the lampposts, there were no walls to climb, and no holes to escape into.
He was just about to try his luck inside one of the buildings when powerful sinews wrapped around him, cutting off his breath and plunging him into darkness. When the pressure released and light returned, he was groggy and nauseous.
A groan escaped his lips. White light filtered beneath his fluttering eyelashes so that he couldn’t see anything, but he could hear the shuffling activity of people.
“W─” he tried. His throat felt dry.
“A . . .” another voice said next to him.
Turning his head, eyes watering from the bright light directed at his face, he saw Delilah, one of his friends from Trash City. As his vision adjusted, he saw Flynn beyond her, and others beyond him. “What happened?” he asked. “Why are you here?”
“The Obedience came,” Delilah said, her voice cracking. “They attacked right after you left.”
Shame nearly choked him. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I should have stayed. I should have been there to protect you. All of you.”
“There’s nothing you could have done,” Flynn said gently. “Did you find Carys?”
He shook his head.
“Welcome,” a familiar voice said.
Atlas turned to see a face he already knew all too well. It was the bespectacled man who had made the announcement over Paradise. Doctor Liege.
“It’s so good to have all of you here,” the doctor continued. “Sorry for the rough greeting. Don’t worry though. You’re safe now.” He nodded, and with a smile on his face, walked away.
Someone pushed the bed Atlas was strapped to so that he was wheeled down a hall to a smaller chamber. A bracer was placed over his head, holding it in place. All he could see was the ceiling.
“Hello,” a cheerful voice said somewhere outside his range of vision.
“Who are you?” Atlas asked.
“Oh, don’t you worry about that. I’m here to help you. Just relax. We’ll have you fixed up in no time.”
“What are you going to do to me?” he asked, fear making his breath come in short gasps.
“We’re going to thread you.”
He didn’t like the sound of that. What he didn’t like more was the needle descending toward his face.
Atlas was strapped to a chair, his arms and legs bound. The pain was beginning to subside, but he could still feel the inflamed flesh of his cheeks. His mouth tasted of copper, and he could feel the residue of drool on his chin.
His friends were strapped to chairs of their own to either side of him. Carys was seated next to him. He wanted to call out her name, but he was afraid to move his mouth. What pained him more was seeing that each of his friends had been threaded, their mouths stitched up in permanent smiles.
Nurses arrived, jabbed them with needles, then left.
A screen flickered on before them, and an image of Doctor Liege appeared, smiling disturbingly. “Hello, dear friends. Your hardships have come to an end. Let me be the first to say, welcome to Paradise!”
As he continued to speak, they were shown images of the city and all it had to offer. The people featured were smiling happily as they lived their lives. Even the animals at the zoo appeared unnaturally joyful.
Atlas felt his thoughts swimming and churning in on themselves. His sense of being wavered as he lost himself in the voice with all its promises. This is wrong, he thought to himself. This is very, very wrong. I don’t want this. I want to go home.
The drug was beginning to take its effect, blurring his thoughts.
But it was tough living in Trash City. Food sources were becoming scarce. Eventually, someone was going to get sick. Without medicine, someone would have died.
This is so much worse. We aren’t free.
But we could be. We could all be free. This place is so beautiful. We could stay here and be happy. All of us. Together. Just like we’ve always been.
We were happy.
No, we weren’t.
We will be. Yes, in Paradise, we will all be happy. We will be together. Safe. Because here in Paradise, everything is perfect. Absolutely perfect.
I’m no longer afraid. I’m happy. So, so happy. . ..