At the end of the 21st century, the world had seen its worst days. The rich and elite formed Royal Districts in ten major cities around the world. New York, Shanghai, Zurich, London, the ones you’d expect. Each district was protected and secured from the commoners of the day. Which translated to anyone who didn’t have a global account worth more than 30 million credits. They stood as a monument to the world’s richest families for nearly 300 years. The Royals, as they called themselves, outlasted the last world wars, ceased power from the last President, stole kingdoms from the last Kings and Queens. You get the picture.
Every night at 9, they would project a hologram in front of all of us and congratulate us all for a hard day’s work for preparing their planet for our ultimate destruction. You see, those reports you used to hear about regarding global warming seemed to have a little bit of truth to them. Maybe they were far wrong with the when and the why, but ultimately our revolution became too extreme to handle and brought the planet too close to the sun during summer. You wouldn’t survive the heat during the day so most business and operations happened at night.
In the last decade, the district's protective shields had failed and caused them along with 90% of the rest of the planet had burned - leaving the rest of us to surround New York City. But we were hanging on by a thread.
So why is my story important? I’m on a mission to find something. A heart-shaped locket to be exact. They were engineered by the greatest artisans of the 22nd century to spark life to anything. And rumor has it there is one left inside the Royal District Market.
I had a plan - albeit, maybe not a great one. I’d been repairing an old solar cruiser that I had pulled from a demolition center. The foreman owed me a favor and looked the other way as I tucked it under a blanket in the back of my truck. They wouldn’t draw that much attention from anyone in the district. The only problem remaining is passing through the global credit barriers surrounding the market. The A.I. monitoring each passerby is known to be aggressive and trying to defraud it would usually leave you with more volts running through your body than anyone cared to ask for. So I had the option of taking the jolt of electricity knowing damn well I barely have 50,000 credits to my name. I could try to convince someone to vouch for me once I got into the district and maybe then the shop owner would let me through. I have nothing left to lose in either scenario.
But then I still had to wrangle a way to steal the locket without getting caught. So I either die an idiot trying to steal something that may or may not even work - or I make it out of there with the heart-shaped locket and my life still fully intact. I just needed to get the locket first. I’m pretty good with thinking on my feet and I thought I’d wing it on my way out.
I waited that morning of the mission, at the last truck stop outside of the district. It was 5:47 in the morning. I was too nervous and too excited at the same time. I could be able to acquire something that could change my life forever and help reconnect me with my one true love. I watched from afar as the guards at the checkpoint chuckled at one another. Their shift was about to end and they couldn’t be more excited. I kind of felt half bad knowing that what I’m about to do will keep them on duty for the next few hours or more.
Any minute they’d be leaving their post. Leaving me with 7 minutes and 32 seconds to get from this truck stop and through the shield entrance before burning up in the sun.
No pressure, right?
The first guard looked almost directly at me and then over to his partner.
Did he see me? Couldn’t have.
Together they turned away and started walking inside the shield. Soon enough they disappeared around a corner and that was good enough for me.
I slung my bag over my should and jumped on the cruiser to start speeding towards the district opening. The roads in haven’t necessarily been the best for decades, navigating through the misplaced pavement and avoiding the occasional kicked-up rock felt like speeding through a warzone. Melting cars on the side of the road gave little to no faith that I’d make it more than a few more days in the sun.
I was nearly there, I’d never been this close!
Dodging and weaving through all of the debris felt exhilarating - I could get used to this.
I could feel the heat on my back, the sun was starting to burn the ground almost as soon as I was crossing it. This felt wrong. The sun didn’t nearly burn this hot, not this early in the day. Today can’t be the day. We should have more time. I pressed forward, pushing this cruiser to its limit.
I was getting anxious - this is the longest 7 minutes of my life. I sped closer and closer and as I breached the entry…
A loud cracking rattled the entire core of the Earth. I fell off the cruiser and slid further into the district.
I knew I was a little disoriented, but my eyes were not playing tricks on me. As I looked around, everything seemed to dissolve. This was absurd. The heat shield that was protecting this district was gone. Those massive buildings that made New York this magnificent city were a sliver of their original form. Smoke billowing from every possible opening. Some cars were left in the middle of the roads, some of them still with the keys in their ignition.
Did the shield fail?
Am I dead? What happened?
There wasn’t a soul in sight. Not even a bird in the sky. Nothing. I didn’t know if I should run away, sit here and cry, or push forward. But I suppose now is better than any time to just push forward. It was strange to see the city like this, but almost serene to see it so empty. It’s the kind of moment you wish you could experience when you’re in the thick of heavy traffic that you normally expect from such a busy city.
Even with collapsed walls overlaying the city streets and some overgrowth, it still looked like New York City. I could see just a few blocks away, a fallen sign for the market.
Maybe this was my chance!
I started sprinting towards the market with hopes that I may be able to bypass the barrier and still be able to grab one last locket. I jumped over some of the rocks and kept my eyes forward. I was getting closer - now within earshot of the electric sparks of the sign. As I drew closer I approached with more caution. Looking for anyone. Anything! But there was still nothing.
I looked at the sidewalk, where the barrier should have begun and there was nothing at all preventing me from continuing. But I closed my eyes and held my breath as I stepped forward.
I MADE IT!
With more urgency, I rushed through the glass turnstile door and looked observantly to every square inch of the market. You’d think something like this they would stand out but there was nothing that looked quite like it!
I looked for a back door area and saw a swinging door that was moving just slightly. Did I somehow cause that to move? Not possible. Did someone beat me here? I couldn’t believe it.
I carefully stepped towards the door. I had no weapons, if someone was here, I was surely done for. As I opened the door, sparks flew at me from one of the light fixtures near my head. The back room was dark except for some streaks of light from the daylight.
“Stop!” a voice from inside the room shouted.
“Don’t step any further.” she said. I heard what sounded like a gun being holstered. “You’re too early, Frank. You weren’t supposed to be here. Not yet.” she continued. “I can’t let you see my face. Or you’ll surely face a much worse fate than I’d ever want.”
I still hadn’t moved, but I wasn’t nearly as tense. “Who are you?” I asked. “No questions. No looking. Nothing.” she retorted.
“Are you going to kill me? What do we do from here? Tell me something!” I was growing more impatient.
“You came for the locket, but it’s not here. Your mission doesn’t stop here, Frank. The planet is due to crumble in the next 12 hours. But I’m here to offer you the opportunity to continue your search for the heart-shaped locket. The choice is yours - but you’ll need to leave immediately.”
I couldn’t believe it.
“Time is not on your side Frank. Take this key and your new life begins now.” she said with the utmost confidence. “Or don’t.”
I tried to see her face in the darkness, but there was no hope for that. I had my choice. Live or die. Without the heart-shaped locket here, I had no hope of escaping the planet. But I also had no idea where this key would take me or what it would open.
She held out her hand with a silver key that looked centuries old.
I reached for it - and no sooner than I touched it, she disappeared like fog in the darkness.
What was I supposed to do with this key? There were no instructions. The sun outside was about to reach it’s peak and I wouldn’t survive a ride out of the District. I was stuck.
I looked around in this market to see if there was at least anything of value and then out of nowhere, I saw a door that looked out of place. It wasn’t attached to a frame or event flush with the wall itself, it was leaning against a pile of rubbish and the key in my hand started to shake. I rushed over towards the door and the key flew from my hand right in to the keyhole. A perfect fit. Without me needing to do or say anything, the key turned and the door swung open almost as if it was bursting at the seams. A flutter of colorful birds, green grass and ginormous trees erupted through the door making this market look more overgrown than anything outside.
“What the-” I exclaimed.
What just happened? I looked around and saw life returning to the city faster than I could blink my eye. Crumbled buildings rebuilt in an instant. Cars that had been melted by the sun now looked shinier than ever. And just then, I heard footsteps from behind me.
“A little help here!”
I rushed back over to it and saw an arm outstretched looking for mine. I pulled her up and through the door. She looked at me. Not through me, or around me, but directly at me. And she was stunning. Wrapped in clothes you’d expect from the apocalypse.
As she spoke, I recognized her voice. It was the woman who’d given me the key in the first place.
“It’s been a minute, Frank. Shall we continue?”
She grabbed my hand, and in an instant, we were running out of the market and into the city streets.
“They won’t be far behind. You’ve unlocked their door now.”
I couldn’t think. I just ran. We brought life back to the city and the sun wasn’t melting my skin. Did we just fix the planet? I didn’t care!
We just kept running. And didn’t look back.
About the author
Born in Northeastern Pennsylvania, now residing in Michigan with my girlfriend and two pups. Raised on a steady diet of science fiction, fantasy, and comedy with an affinity for any story that’ll allow my mind to wander.