"In the Sunrise of the Purple City"
“Every sunset brings the promise of a new dawn.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
“I heard some new 5Wing jokes today,” Frederic said, sitting on the rocks.
He and Ophelia had a task to perform. She held a small box in her lap as they sat and watched a sleek rocket launch from a local space-port. A hole in the dome that covered the city opened, and the rocket lifted itself away from the city.
Once clear of the dome, the ship’s rockets fully ignited, and it rapidly disappeared into the firmament, transporting colonists to an off-world colony. Ophelia sighed, clutching the box to her belly.
Frederic skipped a few small stones, watching the surface of the water dance. The reflection of the great bridge, lit up in glorious purple neon, trembled.
“5Wing is nasty,” Ophelia replied. “All he talks about are sex and drugs. Cockroaches enjoy sex and drugs. 5Wing’s work is so uninspired. He’s only a shock-talker. There’s nothing truly humorous about him.”
“You don’t find the stuff about food burning his private parts funny?”
“I find that juvenile,” Ophelia assessed. She was eighteen and needed to be wiser than her years.
“5Wing is funny,” Frederic objected. “Nothing wrong with laughing. He’s very popular and he’s an absurdist. That sort of humor is what absurdists do.”
“Rothko,” she replied.
“Rothko. He’s overrated too, in my opinion. Some people gush all over his work. One of his paintings just sold for two-billion dollars. Two-billion. I work like a banshee and can’t pay my bills on time, but he gets two-billion for painting squares on a canvas. And he’s not even around to spend the money. I think he’s a scam artist who managed to convince a bunch of giddy old art ladies he was a genius.”
“Okay. Painting is your topic. How would you paint this city?” Frederic asked. “Our purple city.”
“The orbs,” she said, looking over the domed city.
The buildings were crowded together, with small gardens planted everywhere, like the hanging gardens of Babylon. The dome that made the city livable, by maintaining fresh air and comfortable temperatures, reflected the purple lights of the city back down towards the body urban. Everything was awash in purple. There were hundreds of air-orbs – little air-filtering bio-orbs that floated about the city and acted as mobile air purifiers. The air-orbs bio-luminesced purple.
“I would paint the orbs.” Ophelia replied.
“They say that spirit orbs frolic alongside the air-orbs,” Frederic said. “Real orbs, spiritual presences.”
“That would be nice,” Ophelia answered. “Perhaps I might run into my family again.”
Frederic felt embarrassed. He should have known better than to say that. A group of hover-cars flew overhead, their wash transforming the surface of the water into a platter of sparkling amethyst light. “I’m sorry about your brother.”
“The big city has big temptations. Jonathan liked to drink and gamble. Well, I hope he liked to drink and gamble. His vices cost him his life. It would be terrible to think that he was killed by habits that brought him no joy.”
“So -- you wanted to talk about something? Other than the obvious?”
Frederic and Ophelia had been friends for years. There was nothing physical about their relationship. They were like fraternal twins, separated at birth and dropped into two families that shared little in common. Especially socio-economic status. Ophelia was a worker; Frederic enjoyed significant privilege.
They were an anomaly, as friends.
“I’m thinking of going off-world,” Ophelia said “Leaving the city and joining a colony. Mars looks great, but I need more education to go there. Titan will pay for my education, if I promise to stay five years and help finish terra-forming there. I can even sign up for life; have a future. I can see myself tending gardens filled with multi-colored flowers and growing food on Titan. I have a green thumb. I’ve already spoken to a Titan Colony representative. They need my talent there. They say the sky is orange, a soft-blue-violet-orange. That the entire colony smells like sweet olive trees.”
“You’d miss the purple of the city. You were born and raised here.”
“Being born and raised anywhere doesn’t obligate you to the place,” she replied. “I know that I don’t belong here. Why cling to a place that doesn’t cling to me?”
Frederic didn’t want to leave Earth. He had no intention of going off-world. Ever. Earth was home, despite its problems. Frederic was largely free from those problems. He would inherit sufficient wealth; he didn’t need to worry about survival. Not like Ophelia; she had to worry about everything.
Frederic’s social circle didn’t like Ophelia. She painted her fingernails and her lips black and seemed reluctant to accept her place in the purple city’s hierarchy. People like her cause dissention, they told him. And she doesn’t look like the type who could cause trouble. That makes her even more dangerous.
The purple city was highly organized; it liked to keep its citizens organized. The city elders would soon be asking Ophelia what she intended to do, what acceptable role she would settle into, in order to contribute to the city. They had to balance their books. If she wasn’t going to contribute, and contribute in a way they deemed reasonable, she would have to go outside.
That meant being sent outside the dome. Where there were no air-orb purifiers and no pretty neon lights. Where she would need to associate with a clan quickly – preferably even before being sent outside – to survive. It wasn’t quite Hell outside the purple city, but it was Purgatory. The outside changed people.
Inside the dome, it was Heaven. Frederic couldn’t understand why anybody would want to leave Heaven. But he was a good angel, content to sing the songs the city elders wanted to hear. He paid taxes and helped run the art museum. He didn’t want to tell her, but it had been his museum that had paid the two-billion for the Rothko, a purple-brown rectangle supporting a vermillion square, painted against a mauve background. A purple painting for a purple city.
And Ophelia? Not only did she stain her lips and fingernails black, but she had gray eyes and a green thumb. She talked about blue-orange skies and cultivating gardens full of multi-colored flowers. She was so not purple.
The city elders would not like that; they would probably send her outside.
It was no wonder that she was considering joining a colony. But even in entertaining that possibility, she was being dissident. She was electing to send herself far outside – off of the planet itself – before giving them the pleasure of exiling her.
“Titan is a better option than outside,” she said. “I like to grow things, I like to paint. Here they want me to be mundane and watch their programming. Not create anything. And outside – there’s no leisure when you’re just trying to survive the day.”
“You don’t know if they’ll send you outside,” Frederic said.
“Yes, we do. We both know that. I don’t like it here. That alone makes me a rebel. How dare I not like their city?”
Fredric, for his part, did not entirely understand why she didn’t like the city. The city had always been good to him.
Ophelia stood up, to perform the task that had brought them to the water’s edge, holding the small acrylic box in her hands. “Ready?’
“It’s more important that you are ready.” Frederic said as he stood up, skipping another stone. It bounced four times before sinking.
Ophelia bent over the edge of the lake, shaking the ashes from inside the box into the water. The gray ashes shimmered in the magenta illumination of the bridge’s lights. Then they sunk beneath the gentle periwinkle waves and disappeared.
“Bye-bye, big brother,” Ophelia whispered. “Bye, Johnathan.”
She closed the box, holding back tears. “This is where I scattered Mom’s and Dad’s ashes, too,” she said. “This very spot.” She looked at the bridge. “This is where you would have scattered me, if I behaved like I was told to and they allowed me to stay.”
“You could just do as you are told.”
“It’s easy to do what you’re being told to do, when you like the order,” she said. “Not so easy to do when the order is to deny yourself. You can only give a convincing performance for so long. Sooner or later somebody will see the disdain in your eyes. That’s when the pressure begins; they have to crush you. A house of cards collapses from the bottom, not the top. They can’t afford a wild card at the base shaking things up. The entire edifice could come crashing down.”
There was a moment of silence.
“Go to Titan,” Frederic said. “You’re right - you’ll never truly live if you stay here.”
“Thank you,” she said. “For letting me go. You were the only one I had left in the city. The only reason I had to stay.”
“It will be the city’s loss,” Frederic replied. “One less person to tell the Emperor he isn’t wearing any clothes. They’ll continue putting up purple neon lights and buying over-priced art to keep us happy citizens sedated. All of the real people will either go off-world or outside. And besides, Titan will be a better place because of you. I’ve never seen anybody grow flowers and herbs like you do. I’ll miss you. For what that is worth.”
“You’ll be okay. You’re lucky. You’re one of them,” Ophelia told him.
“I’m one of them,” he echoed. “While you go make Titan a jungle, I’ll stay here and be one of them. Tell me which banishment is more palatable?”
Ophelia shut the lid to the box that had held her brother’s ashes.
A little air-orb, attracted by the fine particles of Johnathan’s dust, swept by to gather up the microscopic residue of him lingering in the air. The orb was oblivious to the fact that the dust had once been a human being. Its entire focus was keeping the city clean.
There would be no contaminants. The purple city had to remain pristine. No matter the cost to the city.
The sun began to rise, shining through the dome, its yellow rays tinged lavender.
“At least I am choosing my destiny, not having it decided for me,” she sighed.
Frederic nodded. He recognized that her personality wasn’t fit for the city or outside. For a moment he felt guilty for belonging. Then he wondered if it wasn’t guilt, but resentment for her being able to leave.
He kissed the top of her head. “Name a new plant after me,” he smiled. “Some Titan flower that grows wild like a weed. Something that thrives.”
“A purple flower?”
“Any color but purple,” he said. “I want you to remember me better than that.”
He got up and walked away, leaving her with an empty box and full future. Yes, he thought, it was definitely resentment. His boxes were full, but his future he wondered about. The city elders were correct; she was dangerous. She made him question his city and his status.
The city would be better off with her on Titan. Even the outside was too close for such a dangerous being as her.
Ophelia stood up and looked at the water, its waves a beautiful ballet of amethyst light. It occurred to her that she would be decades on Titan when somebody else came to scatter Frederic’s ashes into the water. But that was where he ultimately belonged.
He belonged to the city. By virtue of that alone, it owned him.
And it would never let him go.
Laura Campbell is the winner of the 2007 James B. Baker Award for her science fiction tale, 416175. Close to three dozen of Mrs. Campbell's short stories have appeared in Pressure Suite: Digital Science Fiction Anthology 3, Spinetinglers, 200ccs, Leading Edge Magazine and other venues. Her two novels, Blue Team One and Five Houses are currently available on-line.