KASMA MAGAZINE

Levels

By Lawrence Buentello

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"Thank you, Mr. Immanuel," Dylan said, bringing the plastic sheet before his obvious myopia. "I must have this condition treated soon. You know, the lines of this map are terribly fuzzy."

Dylan looked up suddenly and found the lift number cascading in brilliant red against the shelf of the corridor. The little man standing behind him bowed slightly and murmured, in a strange accent, of the foibles of the Lift System, not to mention the degraded state of the economy. Dylan polished his spectacles and balanced them on his nose. The act did nothing to reduce the confusion of lines on the plastic sheet. If only he wasn't so fearful of invasive surgery--

The little man, Mr. Immanuel, murmured gently. "Would you prefer a glass?"

"No, no," Dylan said. "I'm a programmer, you know. We pride ourselves on our attention to detail."

"Where do you work?"

"Southwest Level Twenty-Seven, off Briarlane."

"A lovely district."

"Yes, relatively. But lately we've had a rash of terrible murders. Though the police have been diligent."

"They are quite good, the police."

"Oh, excellent." Dylan rotated the map. "Are these directions in English?"

"Certainly."

Dylan's mouth became a tight line. He felt the tension in his shoulders again, the same pressure his growing claustrophobia caused him to feel every time he considered his exact location in the world. It was the same stress that caused him to seek out Mr. Immanuel's services.

"Could you possibly point me in the right direction?" Dylan said, at last. "I seem to be disorientated."

Mr. Immanuel bowed and took the map into his hands. He leaned near Dylan and let his index finder glide smoothly down the sheet. "And here, and here," he said as Dylan attempted to memorize the finger's path, "and then to here. You should reach the Upper Level at this point."

Dylan stared at Mr. Immanuel's finger, which rested calmly at the top of the sheet. "Yes, now it's clear."

"So."

Dylan's mouth was still a tight line. Until he spoke. Then his mouth became a soft oval. "And I should take this lift to which level?"

"Thirteen. And then to Mosslane three miles on the tube, and then from the Oaklane lift to Level Five, and then to Cypresslane five miles down the circuit, and then to the lift by the nursery. Don't buy any plants, since they are over-priced. But nearby you should find a girl in a booth with brochures."

"A girl with brochures."

"And protective eye wear. Some are sensitive."

"I see."

"Adieu," said Mr. Immanuel, bowing.

"Ah," Dylan said, bowing with a sense of convivial reciprocity.

*****

Dylan was fortunate enough to find a seat on the tube, which had run continuously since the diurnal workday had become an artifact of the recent past. The shuttles were full of the work-force, glassy-eyed servants of the Great Urban Underground, always moving and always fixated on momentary tasks. The woman sitting next to Dylan was an obvious professional; her blue hair was crisp and business-like. And Dylan could see a holster peaking from beneath her burgundy jacket.

"Lovely afternoon," Dylan offered, his hands on his lap, his eyes fixed straight ahead.

"Evening," the woman corrected. Her right hand lay positioned next to the holster. But otherwise, she seemed quite cordial.

"Pardon me," Dylan said, "my timepiece is not equipped to tell the difference."

"Is it an antique?"

"No, just terribly inexpensive. I suppose the intensity of the lamps confused me."

"Yes," the woman said. She was rather homely, in the manner that all deep-city dwellers were homely, with dull skin and corrupted features. But it was an acceptably professional homeliness. "Are you going to work?"

"Oh, no. I'm on holiday to the surface."

"To where?"

"The surface."

The woman turned unexpectedly, shaken from her inflexible posture. "Are you quite serious?"

"Yes." Dylan felt a bit shaken himself.

"Why on earth do you want to go to the surface?"

Dylan smiled, and shrugged. "I was feeling really claustrophobic and realized that I haven't been to the surface in years. As a matter of fact, I can't seem to remember ever having been to the surface."

"But the surface is a polluted, unreconstituted disaster," the woman said. Her grey eye shadow glowed strangely; she seemed pathologically earnest. "People flock to the city year after year to avoid the surface. The surface reeks."

"But I haven't felt sunlight in years," Dylan said, trying to remember how sunlight was supposed to feel. He wondered if he needed to properly explain his motives, now that other people on the tube were staring at him with poisoned expressions. "The thought occurred to me as I lay in bed one night staring at the ceiling. I felt as if the room was closing in on me, the air became stifling, the dimensions suffocating. My condition frightened me, and I thought a trip to the surface might clear the inner hysteria."

"Did you consult a therapist?"

"No, I didn't think that was necessary. I mean, the implications were quite clear."

"Still--"

"Haven't you ever felt the need for a holiday under the natural sun?"

"--the city is very beautiful--"

"And breathe the fresh air?"

"--aside from the ceaseless murders--"

"And see wildflowers in bloom?"

"--but if you survive the day--"

"And watch the sun rise and set?"

"--it can be a lovely place to live. Without ever having to be exposed to the deadly forces of an unprotected environment."

"But I've heard wonderful rumors of clouds, rolling hills, birds lighting in the branches of the trees-"

"Have you tried narcotics?"

"Ma'am?"

"Narcotics are much more satisfying than travel. The Surgeon General issued his report on narcotics years ago."

Dylan opened his mouth to present his counterpoint, but the woman said, "Excuse me, this is my stop."

Dylan closed his mouth again before the construction of an elegant philosophy could begin.

*****

Dylan stared at the faded street sign: Elmlane, L29.

Dylan was perplexed. Shadows bent from the entrances and corridors along the low, wide avenue, while shabby people shuffled gracelessly along the narrow walkpaths. Dylan walked stiffly down the unpainted curb, breathing in the current of stale air that curled from the ceiling. When he came to a corner monitor he inserted his card and waited for the screen to clear.

"Assistance Operator, please," he said, glancing dubiously at the passing gangs of bicyclists. "Where am I?"

"You are on Elmlane at level Twenty-Nine," the monitor purred. "Would you like a beverage?"

"They will over-charge you."

Dylan turned suddenly and confronted the affable presence of Mr. Immanuel, who bowed slightly at his turning.

"But tell me," Mr. Immanuel said, "I thought you were travelling to the surface?"

Dylan retrieved his card from the monitor, having passed on the beverage, despite feeling particularly thirsty. He was surprised, to say the least, and not a little mystified. "Mr. Immanuel, how did you find me?"

"I have found you?" Mr. Immanuel said, grinning. "No, good sir, you have found me. And on Level Twenty-Nine. Have you taken a bad turn?"

Dylan fell into a well of apprehension, one sunk solely for people in baffling situations. But he persevered, managed to scrape together a little benefit-of-the-doubt and accepted Mr. Immanuel's presence as simple good fortune.

"Yes, I seem to have gone completely astray."

"Did you not take the Mosslane tube to the lift?"

"I thought I did. Perhaps I didn't. It's all quite mysterious. I thought I was travelling north, but I suppose I was travelling south."

"A common mistake. Or perhaps there are some psychological underpinnings beginning to come loose?"

Dylan stared into Mr. Immanuel's grinning face; there seemed to be something shining in the man's eyes, a darkness full of unspoken knowledge. Dylan shook his head then, ashamed at his silly romantic paranoia. "Oh, no, nothing like that, I simply took a wrong turn. I must have missed my stop."

Dylan recalled his disturbing conversation with the woman on the tube--then considered Mr. Immanuel again. "But why are you here, Mr. Immanuel?"

Mr. Immanuel bowed again. "I am here visiting relatives. My sister's husband--a terrible assault. He was not sufficiently armed."

"I'm sorry."

"Not to worry, he was insured."

Dylan sighed. "Could you possibly help me get back on track, as it were? I hate to impose on your tragedy--"

"Nonsense. It is my livelihood. And I am happy for this coincidence to help you."

"Oh, good."

Mr. Immanuel instructed Dylan to take the tube to Briarlane, where he would find an Express Lift to Level Five. Dylan hurried through the shadows, as Elmlane seemed not the most hospitable of environs, considering Mr. Immanuel's poor brother-in-law.

Dylan escaped into the warm recesses of the tube, and though he wasn't fortunate enough to gain a seat, he didn't mind the discomfort--or comfort--of pressing against total, and totally unresponsive, strangers.

*****

"Where am I?"

The hunched man at the restaurant counter turned and regarded Dylan.

"Sir?"

"Where am I? What level?"

"Thirty-Two. Why, don't you live here?"

Dylan swallowed with an effort. His cup of cafe liqueur trembled a bit in his hand. "I thought I'd taken the Express Lift to Level Five. It's one-way, so once you depart the cage you can't return along the same line. I thought I was rising."

"Perhaps you were," the man said, and Dylan noticed, for the first time, a definite animalistic quality to his stare. Hawk-like, perhaps. And Dylan felt decidedly like a field-mouse. "Perhaps you took a Cyclic Loop by accident. It happens."

"The lift was clearly marked 'Up'."

"Perhaps so. But how far down did you go before coming back up again?"

Dylan bit his lip. He'd been pacing the street for nearly an hour trying to find a monitor. His claustrophobia was once again nagging at his brain.

"Something is terribly wrong," he said aloud.

"I'll say," said the man. "Just this past week my best friend was gunned down in a squabble over table space at Carny's. Bloody mess. Right into the Tar-Tar. And the week before my girlfriend's father was decapitated."

"How awful."

"I haven't had sex for two weeks. He was a sewer worker. Got caught in a dysentery riot. Say then, what's your employment?"

"I'm a programmer. On Level Twenty-Seven. That's where I live. But I'm on holiday."

"To Level Thirty-two?"

"No, no, to the surface. But I can't seem to find my way."

"Best find it soon. Once evening comes all hell's bound to break loose."

"I thought it was evening."

"I'm afraid not. I'm just off the job at the Circulator. The evening crowd's not even in."

"Dear."

"Better rush."

*****

Dylan fled the restaurant and continued his futile search for a monitor.

Despite his determination to seek the surface, he inadvertently entered an unmarked lift (perhaps it was unmarked, or perhaps, in his dark panic, he simply failed to notice the sign that would tell him where he was going) and fell decidedly to a different level. Only as he departed the Lift was he able to discern that he had travelled several levels down to the Fortieth.

The street had been dimmed to intensify the gaiety of the decorative lighting that the windows and girders displayed, and Dylan was momentarily heartened by the holiday aspect of the street. The boulevard was empty except for himself and a few children who were building a snowman from the accumulated waste. He walked up to them as they studiously assembled their ersatz being and was surprised by the craftsmanship a little flotsam could inspire.

"My, my," Dylan said to the four young boys, "what a wonderful snowman. What's his name?"

One of the boys, evidently annoyed by the intrusion, stared at Dylan and said, "Billy."

"What a nice name for a snowman!"

"No," the boy said. "Billy is inside the snowman."

The boy resumed his good work while Dylan slowly backed away a pace or two from the group.

He examined the pile of wood, plaster and more disposable garbage for a long time before he detected--perhaps spied--the sight of four and a half small fingers protruding from the sculpture. He swallowed miserably and shuffled quickly down the street.

The incident with the boys addled his perceptions appreciably. Dylan wandered down the walkpath hopelessly attempting to silence the percussion of his rapid breathing. This terrible affliction led him to wander into an area where the decorative lighting was not so prevalent, which was, as a matter of fact, fairly nonexistent. The darkness gathered around him as he sought to provide distance between himself and the youthful promise of tomorrow, and before he realized his error he found himself walking down a very dim alley.

Dylan looked up and saw the large figure of a man stooping over an unidentifiable black mass on the ground. The mass could have been anything--trash, canned goods, party favors--anything at all. But then Dylan realized that the mass was moving, or perhaps settling, and an anguished moan echoed into the street. The large figure rose from the shadows and turned to stare at Dylan. Dylan was reasonably frightened by the visage; perhaps terrified was the more accurate term, and he felt his legs slowly removing him from the alley.

"Come here," the large figure said, in a deep voice. "Come here, I want you to meet a friend."

Dylan's legs froze. Oh, treacherous appendages! he thought as the large figure extended his arms.

"I'm late," Dylan managed to say.

"You'll like my friend."

"Very late indeed--"

"We'll all be friends."

"Must be going--"

Just then Dylan felt a hand on his shoulder. The cry which threatened to escape his lips faltered on his tongue. The hand closed on his body most forcefully, and Dylan felt himself being pulled from the alley and rushed into the street.

Dylan turned and squinted into the darkness.

Mr. Immanuel stood before him, and subsequently bowed.

"Mr. Immanuel," Dylan said, perplexed. "What in the world are you doing here?"

"I must ask the same question of you."

"I must have taken a bad turn."

"It is a terrible turn. Were I not addressing a convention of my colleagues on this very level, I would not have located you in time."

"In time for what?" Dylan asked. They were not very far from the alley, and the possibility of the large figure emerging at any moment was not far from the forefront of his thoughts. "All this seems to have happened before."

"Let us not dwell on the past."

"The very near past."

"But past nonetheless. Let us remove you to the proper devices."

"What a wonderful thought."

"This, I'm certain, is the way."

Mr. Immanuel led Dylan back down the street, past the odd snowman (now devoid of the company of children; still, Dylan could not help shuddering as they passed the object, and he wondered what he might see if he simply brushed a little of the debris aside), and into a brightly lit station.

"Thank you, Mr. Immanuel," Dylan said as he boarded the Lift. "Will you not be joining me?"

"No. I must deliver my closing statements to my fellows. I have, you see, an obligation."

"Of course." Dylan was about to wave good-bye, but then a thought occurred to him. "Mr. Immanuel, how did you find me here?"

"I was never seeking you."

"But there must be an explanation?"

"That I was at this level addressing the business needs of my colleagues is the only reason I am here."

"But the coincidence is fabulous."

"Not necessarily. But you should be leaving, now. You're losing so much of a very needed vacation."

"I suppose."

The Lift's doors closed quietly.

*****

Dylan was lost. Again.

He'd thought that the Lift would take him to Level Twenty, where he could transfer without impediment to Level Sixteen, but apparently such was not the case. Instead, he boarded the Loop between Fernlane and Pinelane, which brought him squarely back to Level Thirty-two, though after the evening crowd had already left. Dylan then managed to board a Lift to Level-Thirty-One, and from there shared a Lift with an old blind Minster, who kept referring to him as Judas.

"Judas, why did you have to interfere with everything?" the old minister said.

"I think you have me confused with someone else," Dylan provided.

The old blind minister shrugged his smock around his bony shoulders.

"I know you, Judas."

"I am not Judas."

"They will find you, sooner or later."

"I said that I am not Judas."

"So says Judas."

"I am not Judas."

"Thus speaketh Judas."

"Please! I am not Judas!"

"Judas, Judas, Judas!"

"Stop calling me that."

"If it please thee, Judas."

The old blind man's deranged accusations continued unabated until Dylan simply had to debark the lift. He left the old man calling out, "Beware, Judas walks among you!" as he entered the street. Dylan sighed. He realized he had committed an egregious error by walking off the Lift, but the affront had been too demeaning. Now he wandered about searching for a clue to his location. He searched for a booth, and he searched for a friendly face, and he searched for his own sanity.

He searched a very long time and his feet began to hurt.

*****

Dylan's search continued for a long time thereafter, covering twenty-five levels, three restaurants, several shopping centers, a virtual amusement park fronted by salacious advertisements, several union workers' halls boiling with highly voluble members, a strange establishment ostensibly catering to 'profoundly immoral pursuits', and a vintage opium den replete with comatose patrons. He seemed unable to find the right path no matter how many conveyances he boarded, and finally threw up his hands in exasperation after arriving on a level without signs or Assistance Operators.

His search was finally interrupted by a familiar voice.

"You are still lost, good sir?"

Dylan turned and confronted Mr. Immanuel once again. Dylan was now, definitely, beginning to suspect something truly ominous was occurring, though he was still uncertain of its nature. Beneath his suspicion, though, he was terribly glad to see a familiar face.

"Mr. Immanuel, what in the world is going on?"

"Have you travelled much in your life?" Mr. Immanuel asked. "Is the experience something foreign to you, perhaps?"

Dylan raised his hands in exasperation. What he did not understand about the crazed infrastructure of the universe he attributed to his personal lack of experience in level-hopping. This had to be the subliminal truth. He even hoped, secretly, that Mr. Immanuel had been keeping a covert eye on him for safety's sake.

"No, Mr. Immanuel," Dylan said, "I do not have much experience travelling. But that doesn't explain--"

"Have you ever suffered hysterical fits?"

Dylan considered. "No."

"Aberrant personalities?"

"No."

"Delusions of grandeur?"

"No."

"Good for you."

"Mr. Immanuel, what are you doing here?"

"The Funeral Chapel is on this level. We were cremating my sister's husband. Have you forgotten the terrible tragedy--"

"No, I haven't," Dylan said. "But how did you find me? Again?"

"I did not find you," said Mr. Immanuel, "you found me."

"Now, how did I--"

"I believe you are following me."

"What?"

"It has happened before."

"It has?"

Mr. Immanuel reached into his coat pocket and brought a small leather volume out into the dim light. "A casebook of past travellers."

Dylan bent before the open book. He adjusted his spectacles and sniffed. "And all these people followed you around? To what end?"

"Isn't it obvious? I am a travel guide. People who wish to travel consult me, and I advise them on their journey. Yet some people--" Mr. Immanuel touched Dylan on the shoulder-- "do not really want to travel, so they follow me instead to fulfill their psychoses."

"Psychoses? What kind of psychoses?"

"Psychosis regarding the city. You see, many people wish to escape the city's tangible hazards, escape into the open air, the natural state."

Dylan nodded. That was precisely the way he felt.

"But they also fear leaving the protection of a secure environment. So they compromise. They follow me, and avoid a commitment to either extreme."

"But I don't feel psychotic."

"Actions speak louder than words. Consider your own actions. You have been following me."

"Amazing. Are you certain?"

"Well," Mr. Immanuel said, "I would ask you why you are on this level when I clearly gave you directions to the surface?"

Dylan leaned on a plasticine storefront, his mind spinning uncontrollably. He stared suspiciously into Mr. Immanuel's eyes, but saw only a solemn and peaceful resolve. Dylan considered his claustrophobic feelings--he also thought about being on the Fortieth level, and swallowed painfully.

"As a caution," Dylan said, "where are you bound next, Mr. Immanuel?"

Mr. Immanuel's eyes darkened considerably. "Oh, my. Down to Level Fifty, on business. Orchidland. You know, it's very, very dark down there."

Dylan tried to laugh, but only a strained note emerged from his throat.

"Could you," Dylan said plaintively, "possibly help me home instead? I've suddenly lost all interest--"

"But, of course," said Mr. Immanuel, bowing. "The customer is always right. It is, after all, my livelihood."

"Thank you, Mr. Immanuel."

"I only hope that no one gets murdered en route."

Mr. Immanuel led the way.



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