Caleb stepped off onto the platform, looking around in surprise at his destination.
“It’s a subway station,” he said.
“Your observational skills are remarkable,” Mister Midnight said dryly, following Caleb onto the platform. “Come on. We’re heading up.”
Caleb followed, looking around in surprise. Despite their subterranean location, the place was surprisingly light, partially due to being constructed of a type of brick with a faint golden hue. As they passed under an archway, Caleb found out the main reason for their bright surroundings.
Three stories above them, windows were built into the ceiling of the subway station, bringing in lots of light from the open air above. In the hustle and bustle of passengers rushing here and there to catch their train, Caleb stood still for a moment, taking it in.
“Sunset Square, huh?” Caleb asked softly, smiling. The name seemed fitting, what with the light coming in having a warm, gold-orange tint, mixing well with the peculiar bricks of the station.
“Come on, Greyson,” Midnight called. He was already at the stairs leading up, twenty yards ahead. Caleb shifted his grip on his suitcase and hurried over, eager to see what the outside world had in store for him.
“How many times have you been here?” Caleb asked.
“I come through a lot,” Midnight said. They reached the top of the stairs, and Midnight jabbed a thumb upward. “This is a major transit point in the Dominion.”
Caleb stared up, eyes resting on a sign over the stairs: Sunset Station.
“I thought you get to different Locations by boat most of the time,” Caleb said.
Midnight laughed. “That’s the least common way of travel,” he said. “The docks at Hollow Island are the only way off the island, but that boat doesn’t go to many other Locations. About half the time, you’ll get to different Locations through exit and entry points – walking. Very rarely, you’ll take one of the URS trains, like you have so far. And the rest of the time, you’re hopping on regular trains, all of which pass through Sunset Station at some point.”
“It’s a nice place,” Caleb said, smiling as he took in the city. It reminded him of pictures he’d seen of America in the 1920’s. A few cars, rounded and oversized, rumbled along the streets, which they often shared with pedestrians – there weren’t any crosswalks to be seen. Sunset Station was the center of a major intersection, almost like a city square, with a large, hexagonal road space lending to lots of weaving traffic as cars and people came in from and went out to six connecting streets.
Foot traffic seemed the most common, and there was something of a skyline to the city, something Caleb hadn’t seen outside of pictures and movies – Grimoire was large, but it wasn’t exactly big on vertical architecture. A few small skyscrapers were here and there, and Caleb started counting floors by the windows – the tallest building he saw was over fifty stories, and many others easily hit the twenties and thirties. The warm, orange glow of the station continued into the city, as if the entire Location was bathed in unending sunset.
Judging from its name, Caleb wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case.
“It seems that way, doesn’t it?” Midnight asked cryptically. “Stay close. Follow me. Don’t wander off. And as long as your eyes are wandering, try and take everything in – especially the signs. Don’t ask any questions yet. Just take it in.”
Caleb did as he was told, while Midnight led the way to the right, across the large intersection towards the closest of adjoining roads.
As they walked, Caleb began to understand why Midnight wanted him keeping an eye out. While the scenery was beautiful in a large-scale sense, the details troubled Caleb the more he looked at them. First, he saw a spray-painted sign saying “LIFE” in large blue letters, which then had a red X painted over it.
A few doors down from there, he saw a barber shop with a sign hanging in the window: “Enchanted Only. NO HUMANS.”
Caleb wasn’t sure how people would be able to tell the difference between human and Enchanted. Everywhere Caleb looked, he saw people who looked completely human to him. Aside from Madame Chronos and Mister Midnight, what with their strange, starry eyes, every Enchanted Caleb ever saw looked just as human as Caleb. No one gave him suspicious or unkind looks as he walked among the crowds, making Caleb continue to wonder how anyone would ever know.
And more than that… why were humans forbidden from entering a barber shop?
They passed a bank shortly after with a similar sign: “HUMANS NOT SERVED HERE.” Another “LIFE” spray-painted sign was in an alleyway near that, with another red X painted over it. In a fourth-floor window of an apartment building, Caleb saw a logo: a circle with a diagonal line through it, over the top of a picture of planet Earth.
Still, Caleb looked into the faces of the people around him, as the crowd thickened while the street narrowed, and he saw no signs of recognition or fear from them when they looked at him. Just as they looked completely human to him, he must look completely Enchanted to them.
What he did see in people’s faces told a story, though not the one that Caleb was looking for or expected. There was fear, but not directed towards Caleb, or seemingly towards anything. It was subtle, unspecified, but pervasive, from the businessman clutching his briefcase close to his chest, to the old lady casting furtive glances around her at every intersection, to the mother hastily pulling her children indoors and interrupting their game in the street.
Fear, under the golden sunset, ruled these people’s lives.
But fear of what?
Someone blew a whistle up ahead, and Caleb stood on tiptoe, adjusting around the crowd so he could see ahead. A pair of police officers, in blue suits with tall bowler hats, had tackled a young man to the ground and were hastily fitting him with handcuffs as he struggled. Next to the man was a blue paint can. On the wall nearby was the simple sign Caleb had been seeing constantly: “LIFE.”
“Do something about that, will you?” asked the officer who had managed to handcuff the young man. His partner nodded, plucking a can of red paint from his belt and mechanically, as if he’d done it a thousand times, spraying a red X over the blue letters.
“Is he?” the man with the paint can asked, watching as the arresting officer held up a blue crystal under the young man’s nose. The young man seemed to be holding his breath, glaring at the officer with wild, fearful eyes.
“Oh, just breathe!” the officer with the crystal demanded, delivering a swift knee kick to the young man’s stomach. He gasped in pain, and as he did, the blue crystal in the officer’s hand turned red.
“Oi, he’s a human!” the spray-painting officer said, shaking his head. “Thought you could slip past us, did you?”
“Come on, we’re taking you in,” the arresting officer said, pushing the young man along.
“All under control, folks,” said the spray-painting officer, offering a wave and a tight smile to the crowd. “Move along.”
“Am I in trouble?” Caleb whispered to Midnight.
Midnight shook his head. “You’re with me,” he said. “Special privileges.”
“But that guy…”
Midnight nodded. “You’re starting to see,” he said. “No more questions. Just keep watching. Keep listening. Try to understand where you are without needing someone to explain it to you.”
“This is why you wanted me along,” Caleb said.
Midnight chuckled. “This is just the start,” he said.
The street they were on opened into a miniature hexagon like the intersection around Sunset Station. Caleb found it very strange to be walking in a shared space with automobiles, but everyone seemed perfectly comfortable and confident, so he followed Midnight’s lead. It wasn’t hard to keep track of Midnight, since his long black coat stood out from the more conservative, lighter-colored clothing of the people of Sunset Square. Every man Caleb saw wore a three-piece suit and tie, and most wore narrow-brimmed hats. Every woman Caleb saw wore a dress, or a blouse and skirt combination, along with long gloves and wide-brimmed hats. Caleb began to notice that everyone was slender, and as he started to pay more attention to it, he realized that he never once saw someone even slightly chubby, let alone fat or obese.
Caleb saw another of the circle-slash-Earth logos, this time above the door of an office building. Inside, they appeared to be selling blue crystals, like the one the officer had used to identify the young man as human. The sign on the building read: “Sunset Special Police: Keeping You Safe From the Human Menace.”
Well. That certainly put things in stark terms for Caleb.
Caleb saw an argument between a man and a woman – the ring on the man’s finger, and their similarity in age, suggested to Caleb that they were a married couple, slightly younger than his parents. The wife seemed to be urging her husband to hide something he held in his hand, and she kept looking around in a panicked way, as if terrified that someone else would see what her husband had.
As the husband finally relented and began to put the object into his jacket pocket, Caleb caught a glimpse of it.
It was a small pin with blue lettering spelling out “LIFE”.
Several women had blue crystals tied onto their handbags, and some even wore them around their neck or hanging from their wrist. A handbag here, a wallet there, a pin there, with the circle-slash-Earth symbol.
Caleb passed a young couple. “Why don’t we just go down Ferris Street?” the girl asked. “It’s faster.”
“No way,” the boy said, voice trembling. “It’s one of those protected zones. I don’t want to go near it.”
“Coward,” the girl said with a “hmph,” but she continued along, following his lead.
Midnight and Caleb walked down a darkened street, dimly lit only because it was narrow and flanked by tall buildings that blocked out the angled light of the sunset. It was a short trip, and they emerged into a circular space that was like an outdoor bazaar. There were several tents selling wares – including one that seemed to specialize in knockoff versions of the blue crystals – and in the center was a wide stage. Atop it, a man stood, yelling at the crowd like a street preacher desperately trying to get people’s attention. He was dressed in a dirty brown suit that was two sizes too big for him, with a tie far too long for his short torso. His face was flushed, and his wispy hair was combed over in a desperate attempt to hide the fact that he was balding to an extreme degree, and soon wouldn’t even have hair to comb over.
“Please, it is not the humans who endanger us!” the man shouted, his voice reedy and light and terribly ill-suited to making public proclamations without a microphone or megaphone. Midnight found a wall to lean against, folding his arms across his chest as he listened, so Caleb stopped to listen as well. “It was the Radiant King and his Eternals. They are the only menace we should fear! And I have it on good authority that the Radiant King has escaped his prison! He will soon return to finish what he started, and if we don’t look beyond our hatred of humans and focus on the real threat, then we will be unprepared for –”
A whistle blew in the bazaar, and a trio of policemen soon arrived, glaring up at the preacher.
“Wait!” the preacher shouted, waving his arms frantically. “Don’t you –”
“I’ve told you seven times this cycle, Clemson,” said the lead officer, with a voice that sounded more exasperated than authoritative. “You have to keep your crazed ramblings to the protected zones. It’s illegal to talk like that in public.”
“But officer –” Clemson began.
“Come on, give it a rest,” the officer said, dangling a pair of handcuffs in front of him. “Your family is the only thing keeping you out of jail, and you know their patience is running thin. Do you want to keep spitting on their good graces?”
Clemson looked prepared for a fight, and then, all of a sudden, the fight went out of him. He slumped his shoulders, dropped his gaze, and shook his head wordlessly. “Good,” the officer said with a sigh of relief. “Come on, boys.” He led the other two officers away. Clemson slowly descended from the stage and made his way out of the bazaar, to excited cheers from the shoppers.
“Not much farther to where we’re going,” Midnight said, heading towards the far side of the bazaar, where a short walk led back to a larger street.
“And where is that?” Caleb asked.
“You’ll see,” Midnight said. “Any thoughts on the city so far?”
Caleb looked around, taking in what he could see and hear, thinking about what he knew so far. Finally, he answered: “I want to see more.”
Midnight chuckled. “Good answer,” he said.
“Can I ask questions yet?” Caleb asked.
“I’d prefer if you didn’t,” Midnight said.
Caleb smiled. “I’ll wait,” he said.
Along a main street they walked, crossing back and forth multiple times for reasons Caleb couldn’t discern. Used to the narrow, pedestrian-only, streets of Grimoire, Caleb found crossing in front of oncoming automobile traffic without any traffic lights or crosswalks a harrowing affair.
They didn’t enter any buildings, but Caleb kept his eyes out. Quite a number of office buildings and apartment buildings were unlabeled save for a number by their entrances. The temperature was mild, leading to several windows being open, and Caleb could occasionally hear fragments of conversation. Sometimes there was music, with the grainy quality of an old, antiquated gramophone.
They turned onto a new street, and Caleb was instantly holding his hand up against a glare. They now faced a setting sun, one that didn’t seem to actually set at all, and Caleb kept his eyes low and his hand up. He noticed, now and then, due to his insatiable desire to look around and see the world he was in, that men and women simply continued about their day on this street. If they walked towards the sun, they just tilted their hats slightly lower in the front. A couple pushing a baby in a stroller lowered a shade over the front to protect their child’s eyes.
“Down here,” Midnight said, and Caleb realized he’d lost track of his guide, who had stepped into a narrow alley. Caleb followed, and they headed about twenty yards down before stopping at a dingy door with a wooden knocker that was about to fall off.
“This is our destination?” Caleb asked.
“It’s our first stop,” Midnight said. He stared at the door’s knocker like it was a contaminated, disgusting thing. “Ingrid’s parents live here. We’re going to pay them a visit.”
“And then what?” Caleb asked.
“Try not to talk too much,” Midnight replied. “Just keep observing. You’re good at that. You haven’t seen enough yet. Also…” He wrinkled his nose. “Mind the smell. And the sights. These people are…”
“I seem to remember you calling them living piles of garbage,” Caleb remarked.
“Sounds about right,” Midnight said with a nod. “Well. Here we go.” He took hold of the knocker and rapped it against the door.