“This means, in a way, that true light is dependent on the presence of other lights. Take the others away and darkness results. Yet the reverse is not true: take away darkness and there is only more darkness. Darkness can exist by itself. Light cannot.” – N.K. Jemisin
City of Slaves, Nikki said and took a big sip of tea, It’s both the diamond and the lump of coal of the world. If you keep your head down and play by the rules, it’s a place of freedom and opportunity, but if you dare to break them, you’ll be severely punished.
And the rules are against stealing, trespassing, and violence, Neriko said, sitting at the opposite side of the table. Is that all?
Yes, there’re only three rules in City of Slaves. We call them the law of trinity.
What’s the punishment? Neriko asked, Slavery for stealing and trespassing? Execution for murder?
Never death, Nikki said, Always slavery. For how long depends upon the severity of the crime and the Council’s decision. Never lifetime, though. We believe no one can commit a crime so severe they can never atone for it, in theory at least. A thousand-year sentence is somewhat unlikely ever to be outlived.
Interesting, Neriko said and filled her cup to the brim again from a gilded teapot. The liquid was opalescent green. It smelled of summer and flowers.
The slaves, Nikki continued, The city is built upon their backs, built with their sweat and blood, their tears. The free people know that, and most of them have friends or family that are or have been slaves. We even have a holiday where we throw food and gifts into the pit for them.
What do they do? Neriko asked.
The people? She said.
No. The slaves. What kind of work do they do?
They dig into the mountain for precious metals and minerals, She said, and ate one of the sweets from the gilded plate on the table between them. They pump the oil from the reservoirs deep beneath the bedrock. The black lifeblood of the mountain that nourishes the city and covers it in thick black smog. Most of the city’s wealth comes from the mountain and the slaves’ labor.
Why are you people so afraid of electricity? It would make living a lot easier for you. You could use electric heating and lights instead of that dirty oil that poisons the air. Instead, you make all these astonishingly intricate mechanical devices and machines that could’ve been made half as complicated with the help of electricity. In Cloudhome we’ve had no problems with the Seekers.
It’s not only the Seekers, Nikki said, It’s the zealots of Citadel. It’s the truce we made with them six hundred years ago. You see, we used to electromance before that—hell, your people just rediscovered that lost art—but the zealots didn’t like it. As soon as they had sufficient numbers to lay siege to the city, they did. To them, City of Slaves was nothing more than an unsightly tumor on the face of the earth—a blasphemous one at that. They wanted to destroy us for practicing electromancy, and they almost succeeded before we turned the tide. You must’ve seen the cannon on the mountaintop, haven’t you?
Yes, I have. It’s hard not to see it.
That cannon was built six hundred years ago to fend off the zealots. The siege had lasted thirteen years, thirteen goddamned years. Some had lost their entire childhood to that siege. There was no more food to eat, water to drink, no steel for making weapons, no wood or coal to burn—that was before the oil; every last resource was put into finishing the Sentinel. The city was an empty shell, and the zealots were slowly cracking it when we unleashed the Sentinel upon them—and steel and fire rained over them. The zealots faced great casualties, but their beliefs wouldn’t let them surrender; they were obliterated, blown into pieces, their armor melted in the fire. It was a bloody mess, quite literary. Nevertheless, they did not yield, and we could not go any longer without food and water. Then the generals went behind everyone’s back and made a truce with the zealots. As long as we never again practiced electromancy, they would leave us be. They accepted it, and the rest is history. That’s why we don’t use electricity in City of Slaves.
I understand, Neriko said. Good thing we live too remotely for them to even consider attacking us. They probably don’t even know Cloudhome exists. Anyhow, let’s get back to current times: if the slaves are at the bottom, who’s at the top? Who rules City of Slaves?
Nikki took another big sip and continued, The power is fractured. Credits equal power in City of Slaves, and there’re some filthy rich families and corporations. Everything is held in homeostasis by a delicate balance of terror. If someone, say one of the houses, families, tried to extend a greedy hand too far, the others would rip it off. This is how everyone is kept in line. The imminent threat of severe violence quenches the need for it—beautifully so.
Interesting place your home, Neriko said and leaned over to fill her cup again, but she motioned for him not to.
Why are you asking me all this? She said. Are you trying to extract as much information as possible before you execute me?
No. I’m just curious. It’s not often I get to speak at length with someone from City of Slaves.
As a prisoner, I have no choice.
You are more than that, He said.
So, you came here to dream, I presume, She said and sat up straight.
Yes, I need to dream.
You need to, or you want to?
I need to, He repeated.
Really, She said. I don’t know why I even try moderating your use. I couldn’t care less if you shattered your mind entirely—if your men had to lock you away in a cage somewhere and never speak your name again. Why should I care?
You, my dear Nikki, He said and leaned back into his chair, You care about my psychological well-being because you’ve seen the destructive capabilities of this vessel that I command. You’ve seen it rain fire over your precious City of Slaves. You wouldn’t want a mad man ruling the sky, would you? That’s why you care about my sanity.
I think you’ve already lost it, She said. If one can lose something one never had in the first place.
Don’t be mean, He said and put a jar on the table between them. It was filled with white crystals that glimmered ever so faintly in the light of the fluorescent lamps.
You’ll run out; eventually, She said, looking at the jar.
And when I do, we’ll make more.
And I’m the only one that knows how to synthesize them, She said.
Yes, you are the only one that can do that one specific thing, He said. The same single exact thing that gives you any value to me. That thing and perhaps one more—all I need you for is supplying me with crystals and leading my dreams, Nikki. Nevertheless, why can’t we be friends? Do you really think I’m such a horrible person? I just want to do good; why can’t you see that? Sometimes you have to do bad things for the greater good. Don’t you think I see before my mind’s eye what destruction I made upon that city? Don’t you think I lay at night pondering my deeds?
I certainly hope you do, She said.
Shall we? He said and pushed the jar toward her.
She took it reluctantly and said, It requires a lot of trust, letting me decide the dose, lead your dreams.
There’s a lot of trust, He said and went over to his bed in the corner of the room and sat down on it.
So where do you wish to go? She asked.
I’m at a crossroads and need to know what to do. I’ve accomplished something important, and now I’m about to do something even more so. Something that will change the world.
Nikki kneeled on the floor beside the bed as he lay down. She measured out some of the crystals in her hand and put them under Neriko’s tongue. He closed his eyes. She leaned in and whispered in his ear and sent him away into his dreams. First, he was silent and still. Then he stirred. His eyes moved under his closed eyelids. His limbs twitched as he drifted into oblivion.