As I got closer to the door, the hiss morphed into a gushing sound of water hitting water, remotely reminding me of my shower last year when the drain was clogged, and the water splashed into the overflowing tub. Were there washrooms on the other side? Up here? I had to be careful. It couldn't be rain, we were above the clouds.
I laid down on the ground, holding my breath against the dust trying to see anything underneath the door. Next, I put my ear against the door. Besides the white noise, I couldn't hear anything else.
I tried the doorknob, and to my surprise the door opened with a drawn-out smacking sound of a door that wasn't opened in a very long time. I went slowly, millimetre by millimetre, constantly expecting somebody to yell bloody murder on the other side.
As soon as I was able to peek through the crack, I stopped. The door frame was wet from the outside, so was the stone wall, dotted with green patches of moss. Carefully, I opened the door wide.
A surrounding rock formation formed a cave the size of a small room, and when I could put my entire head through the door I saw the waterfall.
I stood behind a waterfall, slightly bent so my head wouldn't touch the ceiling. My finger ran over the material. It wasn't actual stone or cement, but some sort of hard plastic, painted grey brown and green, slick from the wetness, an artificial cave.
From the outside, the door was nearly invisible, decorated with rocks and plastic moss. Checking the door handle and the lock, I made sure I would be able to open that door from this side if I needed to, then I closed it.
Where was I? I went up, inside the hotel, many levels. Another floor?
I knelt down next to the water, an arm's length behind the waterfall. All I could tell was that this could very well be the outside of the hotel, probably the rooftop, except they built a blue sky-sized hall inside of it, what wasn't entirely unthinkable.
My index finger dipped into the water. It was warm, not as warm as the salt bath, but an inviting temperature. I smelled chlorine. Could it be a pool, an outside pool? On the roof of the hotel. For the employees, probably. No matter how hard I tried, I didn't see details behind the veil of water.
I weighed the odds: I couldn't stay here or in the storage room forever. Maybe nobody was on the other side of the waterfall, and I could explore other ways to get back down to Lethbridge?
Worst case, it was always busy, guards everywhere, then at least I would know that this way wouldn't be an option. In order to find out, I had to get to the other side of the waterfall.
I decided to carefully dive underneath it. I undressed myself, just leaving my boxer shorts on. My folded clothes I laid on top of my shoes on a shelf in the storage room.
Slowly I glided into the water, holding on to the ground, my feet testing how deep it was. Standing straight, the water went to my neck. It felt weird, not wearing proper swimming trunks.
By moving along the wall I kept my orientation, in case I had to abort my mission and bail. I also planned on not surfacing longer than necessary, just enough to see, what was going on out there.
I counted down from three.
: : :
After the waterfall massaged my back underwater, I surfaced carefully on the other side and wiped my eyes dry, keeping my nose barely over the wavy waterline. The light intensity of the sun and its reflection in the water blinded me temporarily.
While everything else was wiped out white, right in front of me the tanned face of an older man appeared, his eyebrows pulled up over the rims of his black shades in surprise.
My heart stood still. I decided to stand up fully, as confident as possible, so he wouldn't suspect I'd be hiding from anybody.
«I am Malthus», he said thumbing his grey-haired chest, «Nice to meet you!», and he started laughing.
«Arthur», in my state of shock, I gave away my real name, «Nice meeting you, too.»
«You are the palest guy I've seen in months, you must be a newbie.»
«Yes», and I thought, you are the person with the darkest sun tan I have ever seen; emphasized by several diamonds sparkling in the sun on his dark skin, around his neck on a golden chain and stickers in both ears.
Shapes formed out of the glistening white over his shoulders: palm trees and a beach to my right, the embankment of the pool we were standing in, and a beach buzzing with people, all with grey hair. Malthus had the first grey streaks by his ears. No pale person, everybody with a light skin complexion sported a dark tan.
And I didn't see a single solar panel. This roof should be covered with solar panels sending energy down to Lethbridge.
He rubbed his nose, displaying two more diamonds on his ring finger and his pinkie, «What did you do down there?»
I had the overwhelming feeling, any answer would be wrong and give me away.
Inevitably, my mind was busy trying to make sense of the situation, the blue sky above us, all the way around, and the sun drying my face and warming my hair in the clear and crisp, yet perfectly warm air. Was I outside? The air was chilly on the plank!
«Did you lose your shades?», he asked.
Oh, with 'down there' he meant down in the water, not Lethbridge! «Yes. Yes, I lost my shades.»
«They can be anywhere by now, the underwater jets could have blown them to the other side of the pool, and with all the oxygen bubbles in the water, it's hard to find anything.»
«But you shouldn't be without shades for over five minutes, especially on your first days, here», he pulled his off and handed them to me, revealing light blue eyes.
I never owned a pair of sunglasses. No need for shades in permanently overcast Lethbridge. I sat them up expecting everything to turn night around me, but magically the colors still popped out and the contrast was maintained. The fact he didn't seem to be suspicious and that I couldn't see any guards anywhere brought me some relief.
«They are good, huh!?», he said.
He pointed at his eyes, «Don't feel uncomfortable if I blink too often, I ruined my eyes, cataracts, my own fault, I wait for a new pair of eyes at the moment. Preferably blue, too.»
«No worry, that is okay.» His eyelids wiped over his glassy pupils in an attempt to clean the fog that covered them.
«I'm not blind», he said.
«Not yet. But our best agent is at it, I should get a surgery call any day now.»
I was wondering if I had met his agent myself. I remembered the organ agent hustling me, the public calls for eyes and other organs. Were they really going to Edmonton or Calgary? Or were they ending up here?
«So what did you do down there?», Malthus asked.
Now he meant Lethbridge after all. Back to square one. What was an acceptable answer? To buy me some time I started babbling, «Ah, you know, Malthus, I was kind of in the middle, you know...»
«Shuttle manager!», his eyebrows lifted an inch again.
Judging from his excitement about his guess, this would work for me as an answer, and I went with it, «Yes. You are right. How did you know?»
«In the middle, what else is in the middle, right?!»
«How long?», his constant blinking became distracting.
«That's long! Tough job I imagine.»
«And four years, really?»
Four years had to be too long for an appropriate answer, seeing the creases over his nose. I shouldn't risk going into details with stuff I did not know about. Time to turn the table. «Yeah, but I made it. What about you? What did you do? Down there», I tried to sound like him.
«I was born here.»
«Excuse me?», I thought the waterfall had mangled his words.
«I was born here. The second baby on top of the world. Hardine beat me, 26 days earlier.»
Processing this information wasn't easy. Could I believe him? Why would he lie? He was born in the hotel?
«My parents were one of the original founders.»
«Oh, I see!» I didn't see anything. If I saw anything, it was a world crumbling.
«But... you've been... down... there?», I asked.
«No, what for? Hahaha, good one. No worry, Arthur, you're here now, you have nothing to worry about anymore. You did your service, and I personally thank you», he grabbed my hand and shook it, «Now you can enjoy life. Come on, let's get the down-there out of you!» His hand contact switched to my shoulder, and he pulled me towards the beach.
: : :
Half wading, half swimming, I tried to make sense of the surrounding scene. The average age of the men and women was quite a notch up from the levels below, let alone down in Lethbridge, each one of them would be exposed to mockery and public shaming in the streets and would have to justify their existence. In the pool, we passed a man clearly in his seventies; a yellow balloon tied to his wrist bobbed around over his head.
Was this where they sent the greedy, the ones clinging to their life way past their prime? This place didn't strike me as a punishment when I saw those dinosaurs sipping rose wine and popping grapes in their mouths.
Not one man wore a mustache, they were all naked in the face, like a retreat for retired police officers. And there was something else: nobody seemed to be in a hurry here. The people were hanging out, casually talking on benches on the beach, standing next to each other in the water chatting, or leaning against the beach bar enjoying a cocktail. Two couples played a game of badminton against each other, without giving the impression, either side was keen to win. Everybody had endless time, and everybody wore shades and a hat against the sun.
As we approached the beach, I became aware of my missing swimming trunks, my boxer shorts weren't the worst, but clearly boxer shorts and out of place. I would draw attention to myself, attention I didn't want.
«Everything alright?», Malthus had turned around to me, as I slowed down pondering my problem.
«Well... I... the rubber band of my trunks ripped. I'm not sure...»
He laughed again, he loved to laugh, he must have a lot of reasons to laugh.
He waved it off, «I get you a robe, and myself some new shades, hold on tight, hahaha, wait in the water. That happens all the time.» He was already on his way. «If you swim a lot. This is my fifth, no, my sixth pair this year.» The last sentence he hollered over his shoulder back at me.
I stayed put, mouthing a Thank You, because I didn't want to yell. Some people turned their heads toward us, and I bowed my head, that was already too much attention.
Malthus marched to a kiosk where a friendly hotel employee greeted him with his name and a smile that radiated beyond the pool.
Every single white person here had a timeless dark tan bearing witness to a life out in the open, a life in the sun. Jewelry glistened and glittered from necks, ears, wrists, fingers and body piercings, some people resembled diamond-sprinkled donuts. The glitzy contrast emphasized their skin. Nobody wore that stuff in Lethbridge, too expensive, and with all the rain gear you had to wear, you couldn't really show off, anyway.
And not one person wore the No Defibrillator tattoo on his chest. Malthus didn't ask me about it, maybe because he couldn't see it. And all of a sudden, I felt more naked than before. How likely was that? By their age! Malthus was born here. I crossed my arms in front of my chest, covering my Noddy, even underwater. What was going on?
Malthus had put on a bathrobe himself, maybe out of solidarity, unfolded a new pair of identical sunglasses, sat them up, smiled a smile of satisfaction and held my robe in his right on his way back.
There were about a hundred people in my view, their average age I estimated around at least fifty years, most of them in swimming gear and no one with No Defibrillator tattoo. Not one. I shivered.
No screens either. Not even in the beach bar, for their menu, it was a chalkboard full of fancy cocktail names and drawings and doodles, even personal notes, flowers, names and jokes.
And: no suicide advertisement.
No picture, no slogan, no famous hero.
Where was I?
The bathrobe hit me in the head, I caught it before it could fall into the water.
I heard Malthus laughing, «Hey, dreamer, come on!»
While slowly walking toward him, I put on my robe, hiding my tattoo and avoiding dropping the robe into the water at the same time. Just the bottom got wet. I didn't care, main thing: I hid the tat.
«You should have seen you», Malthus said, folding his arms in front of his chest, mimicking me looking around with a gaping mouth, «Like a light tower that ran out of electricity.»
«Yeah, you know», I did not know what to say, so I suggested, «What about a cocktail?!»
«Now you're talking.»
: : :
Before we reached the bar he asked, «Any fave, Arthur?»
«Whatever you have», I said while I was looking down at my sand-caked feet, leaving their marks in the fine warm sand, an unknown, nearly erotic sensation. Dry sand I had never felt under my feet.
Malthus held two fingers up to the barkeeper, «Hi Captain, two Caipirinhas, please.»
«On their way, Malthus», replied the man and grabbed a bottle of Cachaca from the shelf behind him.
«You need to work on your tan», Malthus said to me as if he would divulge a big secret, «Otherwise you burn in no time. You got a good sun blocker?»
Whatever that was, I did not have it. But the canopy of the beach bar shaded us completely for now. It felt good. It was still warm though, even the sand in the shade. «It's pretty warm up here.»
«Sun, sun, sun, and the floor heating», he smiled.
«The entire area, you didn't know?! Hahaha», his arm described a semicircle in the air like a king showing a visitor his land, «Didn't you get a tour when you arrived?»
I skipped his question, «Outside floor heating? How much energy…?»
«Yeah, but we got enough, right!?»
«Do... we?» I didn't dare to mention the missing solar panels because so far I didn't see one.
«From our mushrooms down there.»
«Mushroom farms? One of the verticals?»
He laughed, «If you want so, good one, mushroom farms, hehehe, well, not even far-fetched, to view the entire city as a farm», he slapped my arm.
A woman in her fifties holding a half-empty cocktail glass in her hand approached us from the side, «You guys having fun here! Why don't you introduce me to your new friend?!»
Mushrooms. If he could picture Lethbridge as the farm, that would leave the Lethbians as the mushrooms. Was that their slang term for us? We are all mushrooms for them. How much of the energy I produced at the gym had been used in Lethbridge? Anything? Everybody owned and operated their own crosstrainer at home. This roof, a roof full of the most effective solar panels turned out to be a fairytale. I bet most of the energy we generated with our muscles was pumped up to this place, to the top. The electricity wasn't pumped down through the energy pillar, it was pumped up!
«Arthur, this is Hardine. Hardine, Arthur.»
We shook hands, her hand felt soft and brittle, like the wing of a dead bird in my hand.
Our drinks landed on the bar. We grabbed them in sync and cheered to one another. I took a tiny sip, I needed to stay alert.
«Look at your tan, I always love newbies, actually I wouldn't call this one a tan, I can't believe you decided against the pre-tan, and where do you have your bling, poor young man? I hope they didn't lose it on the way, those good-for-nothing shuttle portiers», she leaned against the bar and had to adjust her stand, this wasn't her first drink today.
«Don't be so nosy», Malthus told her, «Not all shuttle portiers are the same, there are good ones, am I right!?», he turned to me.
«Yes, of course», I remembered my own story.
«Hardine is the gossip girl here. But she has a point, where is your bling?»
And now that he let his two finger rings click together, I knew they were talking about the jewelry that I didn't wear. How would I? Time for another lie, «My bling is getting cleaned.»
Hardine took a deep breath, «What a good idea! With all the filth from down there on it. Do all newbies have to do this now? Disinfection and whatnot. I hope so.»
«Yes. From what I heard», I felt like that was the right thing to say, I was getting good at lying.
She snickered, «How often do we get a newbie? You'd think they announce a new arrival! When was the last one?», her hand landed on his shoulder and stayed there.
«He's the first, in a while, I'd say a year?!»
«Sounds about right», she said.
I took a long sip from my Caipirinha.
: : :
My toes and fingers dug into the warm sand, I clawed into it, stirred it and let the sand run off of the back of my hands and feet, an irresistible sensation I repeated over and over again.
The three of us had settled underneath a beach umbrella, which meant, I sat in the shade, Malthus and Hardine took to the sun, their tanning lotion glistening on their skin, their sweat getting absorbed by the red and blue and yellow beach towels, they were sitting on.
As much as I wanted to keep talking to them, I wanted to get away from the two. Their questions could eventually complicate my situation; on the other hand, nobody else suspected anything wrong with me, when I was with them, especially sitting in the shade meant my pale skin didn't look as pale, and I blended in better, and their company helped, too.
After my Caipirinha I would excuse myself politely and look for a way out, back home, back down to Lethbridge, to the other mushrooms.
For now, I enjoyed a period of quiet between us, over me the yellow umbrella and the blue sky. Nothing here reminded one of the hotel underneath. All building constructions were integrated into the landscape, hidden behind paint, wood, fake plants and rock formations, delivering the illusion to live on the top of the world.
I was torn between not saying anything, so I wouldn't stir up any suspicion, and asking questions like anybody else who would arrive here.
Not asking anything, I concluded, would also raise suspicion, by looking back and forth, I addressed both of them, «How is your every day, what do you do all day?»
She raised her practically empty cocktail and threw one leg over the other in a gesture that lingered on well past her prime. Her eyelids became heavy, the corners of her mouth saggy.
Malthus corrected his shades and sat up, «In the afternoon, I always swim and enjoy one of these», he clanged a ring against his cocktail glass, «I never met a newbie though. Speaking of which. Would you like a tour? From me?», his thumb wiggling over his shoulder.
«Yes», plopped out of me. In his presence I could move freely while spying out the territory, trying to find an escape route.
«Sorry, man, I'm totally in my routine, you must be curious, I can show you around.»
«Yeah, let's do that.»
Malthus stirred his drink with the metal spoon that doubled as a straw.
Nothing here reminded anyone where they were. No signs, no loudspeaker announcements, no screens, nobody even held a device, I haven't even seen a device since I was out here.
«You're looking for something?», he asked.
«I... wonder... do you have a device?»
«One of those gimmicks?»
«What about you?», I talked to Hardine.
I didn't get a reaction.
When I wanted to repeat my question louder, Malthus answered for her, «Nobody has one. What for? We have a life. I don't understand the mushrooms, and then again I do. It's a brain thing I was told, to keep the commoners mentally busy, a digital key chain rattle in front of a baby. But that's why they are there and we are here. I know they are big down there—for a reason. Everybdoy has the same chance, total equality, everybody, like you, Arthur! You pulled yourself up the umbrella and got up to us. How was it for you down there? Life? Did you have a device?»
«Yes, I had one. But I barely used it.» Lying seemed to be a muscle I could train here.
«There you go. Can you tell me...»
«Excuse me, what is with Hardine?», I asked, although she was obviously drunk, I felt the need to interrupt his train of thoughts before he slid into a full-fledged investigation.
«By this time, she has the five-cocktails-stare. She is done for the day, she'll be back later for the dance, she loves dancing.»
«We have several clubs where you can dance, different music, or you can just talk or hang out, listen.»
«Aha.» No devices! The thought lingered on, «No devices up here.»
«No», he looked around.
I tried to come up with a good reason to have one, «Not even for... checking the heart rate, blood pressure or something?»
«No, our hospital is right there, I can show you, you can visit a doctor or a nurse any time.»
«No waiting times?»
«No!», then he insisted: «You know what, that's where we start! Come on, let's go.»
He ex-ed his drink and waited for me to do the same.
I hesitated, but then I sloshed it down. I wanted to be a good sport, blending in as well as possible.
After we got up, I pointed to Hardine.
«Told you, she is out of commission», he said.