Hi. My name is Irene, and this is the story of how my world turned upside down. I’m the child of the copper city. Born and raised. My mother died when I was born and my father passed away last year in a work accident. So last year, my city became my only remaining parent. Let me tell you about my city.
Intricately designed by a single architect and made almost entirely from a single element. Copper. Copper everywhere. Reddish brown and gleaming in the sun. I learned to walk on copper streets and made myself dizzy by spinning around copper lampposts.
Dad always called me the child of the city. Mostly because of my hair. Reddish brown as the sidewalks. ”Copper topper” he’d call me. The hair is my mother’s, I’m told, and the freckles. But my grey eyes and wide mouth could only be my Dad’s.
I moved back home when Dad died. It meant a longer bus ride to work, but I wouldn’t have sold that old house for anything. I worked at the Copper City Chronicle. Not a journalist or an editor or anything. I just tinkered with the printing machines.
It was a Friday. Just last Friday. Work had been eventful and I was splattered with ink and late coming home. I sighed at the sidewalk and yawned at the gate and rolled my eyes at the cat rolling over on its back. I retrieved a stack of mail from my copper mail box, including my very own copy of the newspaper I’d printed yesterday. I kicked off my shoes and turned on a half dozen lights in the house, and headed for the roof.
I liked going up there since childhood. Up the ladder and through the hatch. Breathe in air and fasten latch. I felt lighter up here. I could see my whole world spread out on every side and held together with countless copper rivets.
And then I’d lie back and stare at the great big expanse above me. Great streaks of white cloud would drift in lines. Sometimes quite close. When they parted I saw mostly blue far above. Sometimes at night I’d come up and see the multitude of tiny lights so far out of reach. My sky and my city. But this was the day that all I’d ever known started to tip.
I sat back my blue striped canvass chair and started to leaf through my mail. A small, vivid green envelope caught my attention immediately.
I ripped it open and found a few lines printed neatly on pale paper.
Go look in the trap door in your basement.
Be careful when you do. And come to my
place for lunch on Saturday. Around noon.
I wrinkled my forehead in confused amusement. I knew Simon. Sort of. He was odd in his way, but not the kind of guy who sneaks into other people’s basements. Nor had I ever known him to play a practical joke. How could he possibly know anything about my basement that I didn’t? He hadn’t even been to my house since we were kids.
I shoved the enigma to the back of the stack and tried to read the rest of my mail. It was useless. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else until I dealt with it. It might be some mad joke, but I knew I’d have to look in my basement before I could get to sleep that night. It was already getting dark. I sighed, slid down the ladder, jogged down the stairs, dropped the mail on the kitchen counter, and began hunting about for my red electric torch. It needed new batteries.
By the time I’d got new batteries I had more the attitude of resignation than expectation in my quest. Still there was a certain eeriness in the creaking basement steps as I trotted down them. The basement was actually two stories below street level. It was like descending into a cave. All the copper city houses were like this, narrow and tall with deep basements.
I knew the door though I’d never seen it opened. I had never felt inclined to explore this place. Not when I had a whole city up stairs. But there I was, and there was the trap door. There was a stack of boxes on it and a mountain of dust. I pushed and shoved and coughed and knocked over a couple boxes and raised a storm of dust that filled the beam of my torch. The dust settled and I ran the light around the square copper plate with hinges and latch. I remembered what Simon had written about being careful and thought about how it was called a “trap” door. But what could possibly be dangerous about my own basement? I laughed off my own fear and grabbed at the latch.
Coldness hit me in the face and I gasped for breath. It was blackness, but not complete blackness. There were distant dots of light spread out across the dark expanse and twinkling. There were stars in my basement.
I dropped my torch. and saw it’s light spinning in the darkness getting smaller and smaller until I could hardly see it. Then it suddenly began to grow larger again. It came back within my reach, but I did not catch it. I slammed the door shut and fell back, breathing hard.
I very nearly went right then to go knock down Simon’s door and demand an explanation, but the buses didn’t run at night and the chain had come off my bicycle. The night passed in an assortment of sleepless hours and crazy dreams. Morning came with sunshine and birdsong, and at 11:24 the copper bus pulled pulling up on Simon’s street. It could count as ‘around’ noon.
The antique elevator only went up to the ninth floor. You had to take the fire escape from there to the fifteenth floor where his apartment was. I knew better than to look down. I hammered on his paint flaking door and waited. I breathed in the quiet of the air and felt the stirring of the city far below. I was on the edge of something I did not yet understand. The door swept inwards and there was Simon smiling like a happy dog. Like a happy dog who has been playing in flour.
“Hey come on in,” he said, shaking flour out of his dark hair. He wiped his hands on a bright orange apron and dusted off his green plaid shirt. “I’m just starting lunch really— so just make yourself at home. The others aren’t here yet.”
“Simon, Explain,” I cut him off coldly.
“Right.. well I guess you looked through the door,” he said. My face answered in an affirmative. “‘Right. Must have been a shock. Maybe I should have told you first, but you never would have believed me,” he rambled. ”It was just easier this way,” he ended awkwardly.
“What on earth is it?” I demanded.
“We’re not on earth,” he said quietly. “We never have been.” I blinked. “Here have a seat,” he said, tossing some boxes off of a kitchen chair. I must have looked like I needed it.
“So we’re just floating around in space?” I asked after a moment.
“No,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. Once this is out the oven I’ll show you something.”
I nodded and glanced around his kitchen. It was excessively cluttered with boxes, papers and the most random objects. There was an antique diving helmet at the end of the table, a ukulele on the counter and a telescope by my feet. There was also a box of green envelopes at my elbow torn open just enough to pull a single one out.
“Here we are,” Simon announced, pulling out pan from the oven with a small cloud of smoke. ”Empanadas. The only recipe I could find that used most of the ingredients I had,” he said. “I’m cleaning out my kitchen.”
“I can see that,” I said with wasted sarcasm.
“Right. Follow me,” he said, and took up the diving helmet and a ball of orange yarn. I followed him out the door and up a ladder to the roof. I’d never been up quite this high. It felt weird. Simon began tying the yarn to the helmet.
“It’s very strong yarn,” he said. “I wouldn’t do it with thinner.” I watched him intently without comment.
“Here,” he said, and suddenly tossed the helmet skyward (or the direction I had always thought was skyward.) It didn’t fall. The yarn went taut and the helmet hung there, suspended in air. “See that’s where the artificial gravity stops,” Simon said. “And up there,” he pointed,” is the earth.” I stared at the distant blue and greens and browns till my neck cramped.
“All this time we’ve been living on the sky?” I said. Simon nodded.
“The old books never mention green parts of the sky. The old books were written on earth.”
“Why did we come up here?”
“I don’t know, but not everyone came. There are lots of folks still down there. We think they make the lights we always thought were stars.”
“How long have you known about this,” I asked.
“We were playing hide and seek at your house. I was eight. Looking for a place to hide in your basement,” he said. He gave a tug on the yarn and the helmet came crashing down.
“So why are you telling me about it now?” I asked.
“Things are changing.” We heard a knock on Simon’s door.
“Hey Daniel, Nora!” Simon shouted, leaning over the edge. “Go on in. We’ll be right with you.” He turned back to me. “They’ll help explain.”
We all crowded into Simon’s kitchen and I was introduced to Daniel and Nora, a middle aged couple, sensible and good natured. Daniel was an engineer and had been Simon’s source for figuring out how the Copper City worked. They lost no time in clearing the table and we were soon settled down and eating slightly burnt empanadas.
“So tell me what’s changing,” I said.
“You know about the Silver City?” Daniel asked. I nodded.
“It’s that new settlement they’re always advertising. Not even real silver. They’ll never get me there,” I said
“Well, pretty soon it’s going to stop being voluntary,” Daniel said.
“What? They can’t do that!” I said.
“It’s not quite what you think. The Copper City’s engines are wearing down. By the end of the year it’s going to be a full out evacuation.”
“Can’t they fix them?” I asked. Daniel shook his head. “What happens when the engines stop?”
“The city plummets to earth,” he said. I was near tears.
“There still is a choice,” Simon put in softly, “Besides going to the Silver city, I mean.”
“Plummeting to the earth?” I asked
“Kind of,” he said. “But with a rather softer landing. There could be people living where the city will hit the earth, so I’m going down by parachute to warn anyone there.”
“Going down with the ship,” I said. “And you want me to come with you?”
“Yeah. Well I thought you might rather this than the Silver City,” he said, “and I didn’t really want to go alone.”
“Alright, I’m in,” I said.
For three days we studied wilderness survival and practiced our exit procedure. On the third night I was woken suddenly by a loud bang and tremor. Stillness followed. I was almost going to go back to sleep when the telephone rang.
“Irene? This is Simon. Daniel tells me that was one of the engines that just exploded. The city is going to start evacuating immediately. We’ve got to go now.”
“How soon is now?” I asked.
“Can you be on my roof in an hour?”
“I’ll be there.” I said and hung up. The next hour was a blur, but I was there on Simon’s roof. We had our luggage strapped to their own parachutes. Our most valuable possessions and what we thought would be the most helpful in whatever new kinds of lives we made for ourselves up there (or down there rather). Daniel and Nora were there to send us off. Simon wore his diving helmet. I wore leather aviator cap and goggles. We set up a tall ladder fastened to the roof. Simon went first, waved and let go. I clambered up the ladder and leapt into the air. The air caught me and instantly everything was sky. Looking back the city was already growing small. I was falling up. Up and away from everything I had ever known.
I looked back to where I was going and every second I saw more and more of what we were coming too. It came on and on. At last Simon signalled and we let out our parachutes. Then we were drifting, slowly descending.
I breathed a whole new air. The smell of damp earth and trees hit me like a wall. And then our feet slammed into wet grass and solid earth. Our legs felt weak, but we kept moving. From the top of a ridge we saw some roofs among the trees, and you know the story from there. The story of how we saved your village.