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The Grotto

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I.

Samuel had lived in Sorcalino, the dense urban capital of Pluto his entire life, but he had never once heard of the Grotto.

The frigid air tickled the windows of the High Diplomats Hotel with frost. Inside, Samuel sat at a bar with his co-pilot, Joseph, who in his usual obnoxious and loud speech described the mythic yet repulsive place known as the Grotto to him. “They say it’s brimming with something people there like to call ‘murals.’ They’re allowed to plaster their community with paint anywhere they like. Dreaded place. I wouldn’t go there.”

Samuel nodded, for such acts were inconceivable in Sorcalino’s clean, organized sector 100. In a way, it’s not surprising Samuel had never heard of the Grotto, because according to Joseph it was in sector 900, the most barren sector of Sorcalino. Plus, Sorcalino was massive. 7 203 square kilometres, Samuel remembered from studying the Sorcalino Geographical Encyclopaedia long ago in flight school. Joseph suddenly bubbled with conversation, switching subjects and talking about exaggerated stories (as his impulsive nature curtailed), though Samuel was barely listening. Samuel’s eyes were frozen. He circled the rim of his glass of scotch with a stark blue finger, then picked it up and took a swig. Joseph followed, taking a chug of beer.

“Joseph, tell me more about this Grotto place,” Samuel said.

“Really?” Joseph was surprised by Samuel’s request. “Well, remember the Joshview case in the papers a couple years ago when Carl Joshview got caned to death for excessive littering near Bank Almighty? The Grotto doesn’t care about that stuff. I mean, there’s garbage everywhere and the walls of the buildings there are completely plastered! Chaos.”

Samuel scratched his head. Now there was garbage involved? He tried to hide his ignorance of this strange place from Joseph but still forced himself to ask, “Isn’t there a law against it like in all the communities?”

“Yeah, but it isn’t enforced. The Grotto dwindles so far on the outskirts of Sorcalino that no law enforcement agencies bother monitoring it. Let it go on being corrupt, I say.” Joseph chugged the remainder of his beer. Why had Samuel not heard of this place in Sorcalino where law is not enforced? Why had Joseph known? Samuel turned to the TV screen behind the bartender who was washing mugs. He watched the upright news woman talk about the window breaking bandit of sector 200, a travel law that had just passed in the House Almighty, and finally the new Kershik Fighter Jets which ran on one-hundred percent recyclable plasma energy that were being stationed in the Sorcalino Air Base.

“Idiot. It’s F-636 energy, not B-636,” Samuel commented on the news woman’s mistake.

Joseph peered at Samuel’s scrunched face. “Are you okay?” he asked. “You’re angry about something. You haven’t said much all night.”

“I just hate when they make silly mistakes like that,” Samuel said, still looking at the TV. “How easy is it to -- ah, never mind.” Samuel secretly agreed: he was angry. An episode that would pass, he thought, as he was angry at nothing in particular. Actually, that wasn’t true: it was everything around him that made him angry. The news woman’s mistake, the same washed out, blue skin that everyone had, the smiles that were jubilant enough to look real but restrained enough to be fake. Complete balance.

Samuel guzzled his scotch and felt a warm line run down his throat, then down his chest. It settled in a murky pit beneath his stomach. Samuel then decided that he would trap that anger in the murky pit. It didn’t hurt as much that way, and he could disguise it once he went to his apartment and slept. A new day with new stars and a new blue surface would come.

Samuel noticed Joseph chatting with a few other pilots who came in for happy hour. He sighed and dropped some cash at his empty glass, deciding he would leave the hotel and return home without greeting the pilots or saying goodbye to Joseph. The scotch, which was pleasant beneath his stomach but bitter in his mouth, affected him more than he thought it would. But it didn't feel like this mysterious feeling came from the scotch...

Joseph touched Samuel’s shoulder as he walked into the swivel door. “Hey, leaving so soon? You didn’t even say hello to the others.”

“Yes, I’m leaving so soon,” Samuel said sarcastically. “Good night.”

“If there’s anything I can do-“

“No. Good night.”

Joseph shook his head as Samuel exited the hotel, and the pilots’ uproarious laugh at something on the TV made Joseph suddenly forget all about Samuel's departure.

Outside, Samuel was greeted by familiar, grey-yet-pristine buildings and thick globs of people who either clumped at an intersection or shuffled along the sidewalk. Sirens lingered in the air, and the congested streets never seemed to sneeze. Always, there was traffic, a small fire somewhere which delivered panic to the city, and constant noise which made Samuel feel miserable. No solitude.

Which was how his love for flying planes was fed. During his training days he revelled looking down at the pebble known as the Senate Almighty, the tiny speck known as the Sorcalino Tax Office as he flew. And he wouldn’t hear traffic and noise or have to take part in the point-to-point march of walking on the sidewalk or the death row of driving. Only he and the whooshing of the plane’s engine existed. It was like the fourth dimension, that ancient concept that Plutonian immigrants brought along with them. It was a parody of the “Sorcalino Problem Solving Test,” which was clumsily projected through televisions and radio stations. The intention of this test was never made clear by politicians, but it was this: discover the first, second and third dimension of any problem in your community to solve it. The definition of the fourth dimension seemed to escape Samuel’s mind, however, as it had been a while since Primitive Religious Studies in college.

Samuel achieved what he thought was the fourth dimension once, when he flew his plane too high. He tilted the control stick back and propelled so high that even the Commander’s infuriated shouts through his headset wouldn’t faze him. It was at the pinnacle of height that Samuel believed he was in space. Pluto seemed like a shimmering boulder from his height, and the sight of it made his organs fizz with delight. Soon the engine of the plane began to fail in mid-atmosphere, and when Samuel finally crash-landed into a desolate crater outside of Sorcalino he was found by an explorer buggy and taken back to the air base. He was demoted and received two weeks leave.

But Samuel smiled, looking at a scar across his palm and knowing it was worth it.

As he walked down the hall to his apartment, fumbling in his pockets for his key card, he thought more about the Grotto and its deviance. Its mysteries. He wondered whether the buildings there, like sector 100, were arranged in a height-wise pyramid collapsing outward to the borders of the sector with the Senate Almighty in the middle and suburban homes on the outskirts. Rather, he wondered whether the people of the Grotto were as obsessed as sector 100 about littering laws and keeping the sector neat like a compulsive house maid would. And like that same compulsive house maid he wondered whether or not the Grotto was alive and happy with its existence; or, whether it was a host to depression like Joseph said it was.

When Samuel put his key card and wallet in the bowl he strode to the fridge, he decided he wouldn’t change out of his work clothes. He reached for a beer despite already sustaining a buzz from the scotch and took a seat at his desk, intent on discovering whether or not the Grotto even existed. He consulted his dusty, brick-sized Sorcalino Geographical Encyclopaedia, which contained information about every area of Sorcalino from the city as a whole to the sectors to the communities. Samuel rushed the index only paying attention to the phrase he was looking for. He then found “G,” where he ran his finger down the listings until finally he found it: “Grotto, The.”

It’s real! he thought. Excitedly, Samuel found himself standing up and quickly turning the pages until he settled at page 489. "The Grotto," he read, "is an undeveloped community in sector 900 which originated in 3074 during the Western-Hemisphere War as a refuge for Pluto's immigrants. It is notorious for its general lawlessness, gang activity and graffiti, which residents call ‘murals.’"

Samuel felt a pang of disappointment and immediately closed the book when he realized that was the end of the article. Why was he disappointed? The Grotto was clearly a place that was undesirable in every way. He knew it was trashy enough just reading about it; he should be thinking about his sector, how to improve it, instead of mulling about a decrepit scab of a town.
But he still thought about it.

As Samuel lay in his bed, oozing with sweat, he decided he'd exterminate the silly thought by taking a trip to the Grattis Grotto the next day. By roadster, of course, and he'd make sure no one, not even Joseph, discovered this little escapade of his. It was an indictable offence for anyone employed by the Sorcalino Air Force to go beyond sector 100 during working hours, after all.

II.

Samuel gleefully closed the door of apartment, citizen papers in hand, knowing he wouldn't return for… he didn't even know how many hours or days. He had called his base and told them he had the flu. Which wasn’t a complete lie; he found himself sicker of sector 100 each hour. He assured himself that was the reason for the contagious idea of the Grotto. I’ll go there, come back and it would all be fine, he thought. Round pegs in their round holes again.

If Samuel enjoyed anything about living in sector 100, though, it was the convenience of it all. Like the key card. He locked his apartment, took an elevator to the parking lot floor, took a conveyor to his roadster, unlocked his roadster, and started his roadster all with his key card.

But he got an even greater satisfaction when he tossed it into the glove compartment that morning, in hopes that he would never have to even think of using it while in the Grotto. Being plucked from that convenience was good, he thought. That would make driving through the high-cholesterol highways of sector 100 less miserable.

Samuel's hands were electric on the steering wheel as he was only a few miles from the border leading directly into sector 900. He wondered as his Roadster peaked five-hundred kilometers per hour if Joseph was infected by the same sickness as he was: the longing to go to the Grotto. It's quite possible, Samuel thought. Why else would he have brought it up that night? There are many other things he could have used to ignite a conversation. He likes law and order, though. He really does think it's repulsive. Well, he's a fool.

With labeling his friend a fool because he criticized a place he hadn't even been to yet shocked Samuel himself. He loosened his grip on the steering wheel. He was too electric. Calm down. I'm not there yet.

When Samuel’s roadster reached the border and sat humming behind other cars, Samuel looked at the metal signs raised along the ditch. Many of them were historical images of the first Plutonian settlers building the Grandmaster Highway.

It was disconcerting, then, when Samuel's roadster suddenly jolted and he was no longer in control. He looked out his window and saw his roadster had been magnetically rooted onto a conveyor which slowly ushered him to the border officer's booth. Samuel fiddled with the gas pedal, the brakes, and the steering wheel: all were locked into place, too.

But I'll be in the Grotto soon, he reminded himself as his roadster became drenched in flaring red light. They scanned his roadster and read his citizen papers before he was allowed to delve into the world beyond sector 100. The border officer gave Samuel a sidelong nod and his roadster was released from the relentless grip below.

Three hours later, Samuel saw a sign that read "Do Not Enter." This is it, Samuel assured himself and turned his roadster onto the rocky path.

The distance was bare except for pulsating blue rocks which encrusted the ground and the stars which freckled the black sky. The path he drove on was barely visible, but he saw faint treads of tires and streaks of plasma exhaust residue from previous explorers. Assuming he was liberated from the speed-checking satellites which often floated above sector 100, Samuel accelerated until his roadster pierced into the distance at two thousand kilometers per hour.

Strange, Samuel thought. The constant bareness wasn't strange, but he could have sworn he saw red blinks in the crusty corners of his eyes. Maybe it was the aftermath of the thermo-inspection. He slowed down to a steady eight-hundred and eventually found himself near the precipice of a crater, where he brought the roadster to a halt. Tensing his brow, he popped the sliding door open and stepped out. He took a stretch and realized looking at the jutting, tall rocks that resembled street lights that he had strayed from the flat, ghostly path.

"Simple enough. I'll just turn around and get on the path again," Samuel said to himself. Yet he enjoyed the emptiness of where he was then, the ruthless stillness of the air, and since he wasn't in sector 100 he could finally organize the scattered papers in his mind and find the missing ones. He hadn't remembered Sorcalino so quiet with no traffic and no people littering the streets, so Samuel walked over to the precipice of the crater and took a precarious seat. He dangled his legs, and the noise from his heels hitting the side echoed. He grinned. He grinned and dangled, grinned and dangled, grinned and--

He almost fell into the dark blue maw when, like the previous night at the hotel, a hand had gripped his shoulder grudgingly. Samuel turned his head and a masked supervisor stood behind him.

"Get up," he said. “You’re under arrest for traveling beyond your designated sector without informing your base.” Samuel got up and a tornado spawned in his mind, scattering all the papers again, returning him to the impossible puzzle piecing. It wasn’t the second dimension that created the problem, nor the third, but the fourth. The fourth dimension was contained by the supervisors. They always won because they never let anyone have the fourth dimension. They kept it caged.

III.

The supervisor explained to Samuel, after cuffing his arms and legs and grabbing his citizen papers from his roadster, how they found him. By proximity trackers beneath the ground on the Grandmaster Highway, which were originally installed to track smugglers, they recorded his every movement. "Oh, and it didn’t help that when your base called your house five times you didn’t pick up. They alerted us and the border patrol gave us your time of crossing,” the supervisor added. “How could a pilot in the Sorcalino Air Force be so stupid? So foolishly determined that you waltzed right into our trap?” He showed Samuel a GPS screen of his roadster's movements, the red colour of which resembled his blushed face.

His cheek to the ground, Samuel felt an urgency to remember the definition of the fourth dimension as if it would break the shackles that restrained him. As the masked supervisor congregated with two other supervisors, still holding Samuel’s citizen papers, Samuel clenched his brain as he tried to remember. Then it suddenly struck him:

“Complete happiness with the reality of your environment.”

Samuel took one last glance at Pluto's hollow beauty as he was tucked into the back of a supervisor buggy. Despite the situation, he grinned.

"I wouldn't be smiling if I were you," said the supervisor before slamming the door.

The supervisor opened it again. "Oh, and you know the Grotto is just an urban legend, right? Idiot."

Samuel discovered this for himself three days later, sitting in a squat cell at the Military Detention Centre, when he managed to find a copy of the Sorcalino Geographical Encylopaedia from the prison's book rack. "Grattis Grotto, The" was listed under the "Stories, Legends and Geographical Myths" category. After realizing this, he wanted a drink.

But after a few days in prison he was fine with those few minutes of glowing bare distance he got, that glimpse of the fourth dimension. When Samuel remembered his key card which still enjoyed its slumber in the glove box of his impounded roadster, that image proved to be a pleasing mural itself.





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