It began with Charles, who worked a mundane job at Nultech, a security software company in City-25. While leaving, his friend Cassius, of that time, called. With a sigh, Charles answered,
"What, Cass? What do you want?"
"Is that any way to talk to the guy that hooked you up with your woman?" Cass replied with a whine in his voice.
Charles rolled his eyes and pulled the phone from his ear, and observed the skyline brimming with light as the sunset in the distance. Cassius loved the sound of his voice and could talk to a mirror with his image for hours.
Charles returns the phone to his ear, interrupting Cassius's speech, "Look, Cass, I will see you later at Zee's. And please, don't do anything stupid. You know how Emilia gets when she is annoyed."
Cassius laughs on the other end as Charles face-palms.
"Look, Charles, I love annoying Mily. It's my duty as her oldest friend."
Charles grabs his brow and responds, "Alright, alright. I'll see you later tonight.”
Cassius chuckles, "I will have a beauty with me as well, so, if it gives you comfort, I will be preoccupied.”
"Whatever. Bye, Cass." Charles hangs the phone up.
" This guy will ruin everything I've been planning, again." Charles reaches gently into his coat pocket and pulls out a ring box. "It's been a year. Three attempts have failed, but today is the day."
Suddenly, someone slams into him, sending the ring box into the air. With a thud, Charles plummets to the ground. He clenched his jaw as he nursed his back. Quickly, Charles scanned the surrounding area while standing back on his feet, seeing a man lying on the ring box.
"Watch where you're going!" Charles shouted as he grabbed the man. "You know how much I paid for this ring?"
As Charles held him by his shirt collar, he saw all the scars on the man's face and arms and slowly released him. He was wounded. Badly.
Charles lowered his head to meet eyes with the man, "Are you alright? Sorry about that. I got carried away."
The man met his eyes and let out a sigh of relief, "Charles, it's finally time." Charles tilted his head and stumbled away from the man.
"How do you know my name?"
"No time," the man says while looking behind them. As Charles peered over his shoulder, he saw an Agent and Enforcer, subjects to the Guardians, protectors of City-25, running in their direction, shouting aloud with eyes glowing like a red flame. The man sprinted, leaving the area, leaving Charles there confused, trying to process the moment.
"How did he know me?" As Charles moved forward, his foot slipped on something: a black pocket-sized notebook. Charles dragged the notebook under his foot to the building wall, reached down, and placed it in his coat pocket before leaving.
But after walking a few blocks, curiosity took him over. Nothing has ever happened in City-25 to make an Agent and Enforcer appear together. So, Charles carefully opened the notebook. Once his eyes met the pages, a tunnel of light swept him away, and it swirled and shifted in sixteen distinct directions, cutting through the thick walls of the city. Echoes began to overtake his senses, and the light shined brightly in his eyes. He covered his ears and squeezed his eyes shut. He screamed in pain as he heard a loud voice saying, "Use the Sol to break the wall."
He forced open his eyes, and his body jumped, surprising everyone seated at a table. He frantically looked around. He was at Zee's Restaurant with Emilia, Cassius, and his date.
"Are you OK, Charles?” Emilia asked with a softened gaze.
"I must have dozed off," Charles shaking his head, "And that must have been a dream.” Emilia slaps his hand, “I didn’t know I was boring you.” Cassius and his date break into laughter as Charles tried to calm Emilia.
“Apologies. The day has been long,” Charles secretly grabs the ring case out of his pocket, hiding it under the table, “but I have something that will make it better.”
Charles's smile faded as he saw Emilia’s frown, so he turned toward the TV and an image of the man he bumped into being broadcast on every screen. A $20,000 reward would go to any citizen with valuable information. As it ended, a stunned silence rested at the table. Charles glanced at Emilia, who wore an icy stare. Cassius grabbed the bridge of his nose then exclaimed, “What happened to the peace we were promised?”
Emilia rolled her eyes, “What is peace without security? He got in because someone was sloppy.”
Charles, with a raised eyebrow, replies, “Isn’t peace what we’ve been taught? To be concerned citizens and tending to our field for the sake of others?”
“No, Charles,” Emilia checks a message on her phone, “security creates peace in restlessness, so a weapon is more valuable than green fields. Because without one, the owner loses the field.”
Charles, with narrowed eyes, replies, “But peace creates better men, right?”
“I’m counting on that.” Emilia meets eyes with Charles and winks, and finishes her drink.
“I have to go,” Emilia stands abruptly, “This guy cannot escape.”
“Can you wait for a minute, Emilia?” Charles stands, grabbing Emilia’s hand.
“I don’t have time. As an investigator for Guardian, I have to go. The security of the city is at stake.” Emilia pulls away from Charles’s grip and motions for a taxi.
“I have to do this. We will talk tomorrow. Is lunch a good time to meet?” Emilia says with a smile.
Charles lifts his head and responds. “Fine,” Charles begins to scratch his head in frustration, “just be careful.”
Emilia leans in and kisses Charles. “I’m always careful, Charles. That’s why you love me.” Emilia leaves as Charles watches her taxi drive away.
“Mily is the best world, Charles,” Cassius finishes his drink and burps, “No one has ever escaped her gaze once she wants to find you. I mean, look at you! She tracked you down good, didn’t she?”
Cassius burst into laughter, but Charles was unmoved. He felt helpless, knowing he couldn’t protect her. Cassius got the drift.
“We will be on our way then,” Cassius checks the time and motions for his date.
“Don’t do anything crazy. Curfew is in an hour at 9 PM. Go back to your place and rest. The day will soon be forgotten when met with the new.”
Cassius and his date wave as they leave, and the sky darkened, and the wind blew rain directly in Charles’s face.
“Great,” Charles kicks the puddle of water on the ground, “What else can happen?” He continues on his way home in the unforgiving rain. Then suddenly, someone pulls him into the alley startling him. A sharp pain shoots up Charles's leg as he looks down to see a syringe being emptied into him. Panicked, Charles elbows the attacker’s side. He breaks free, but his vision keeps blurring.
“The Syringe!” Charles pulls the syringe from his leg, but it too late. A burning pain overtakes his body. Gripped in pain, the attacker pushes Charles against the wall.
“Focus, Charles.” He grabs Charles by his shoulders, “Remember who you are!”
As Charles hyperventilates, the tunnel of light from before sweeps him away, and he shuts his eyes tight. The smell of burning wood reaches him, but he has no memory of ever seeing a forest. Yet six people were sitting with him, laughing and eating. Only one face was clear enough to see. It was the man he has been encountering all day.
“Manny,” Charles pointed toward the man, “The journey is greater than the moment. Yet no journey is made great by standing still.”
Manny smiles with tears in his eyes and nods in agreement. The light fades as Charles awakens in the alley, gasping for air as the rain continued. Charles calmly stares at the man and repeats the name he heard.
The man known as Manny smiles, “You remember?” Charles nods as relief moves through Manny’s body. “There is no time, sir. Listen carefully.”
Charles's eyes are filled with light dividing the city.
“What is this light I’m seeing?”
“It's called Sol Sight, sir.” Manny glances over Charles's shoulder and down the alley. “Unique and in your possession. You are the Cipher. The one who decodes the world.”
Charles squints as the sight fades and sees Manny’s panicked look. The Agent and Enforcer approach.
“You must turn me in, sir.” Manny stands them up. “To complete my mission, you must live if I must die.”
Charles stares at Manny in shock, “I just got you back.”
“I understand, sir, but this is the only way. Collect the money and come up with a strategy to awaken the five. Break the wheel. Free these people.”
Charles reluctantly agrees, grabs Manny, and forces him out of the alley, catching the Agent and Enforcer's attention.
“Your service is noted, citizen. Raise your ID.” The Agent grabs Manny while the Enforcer scans Charles.
“Citizen Charles,” The Agent speaks stoically, “ visit the chambers in the morning to collect your reward.” The Agent forces Manny toward their approaching vehicle.
A crowd forms outside to see Manny’s arrest and cheers.
“They’re blind and afraid of the journey,” Manny says while being shoved.
Before they can put him in the vehicle, Manny shouts, “But the journey is greater than the moment! And no journey is made great by standing still!”
Charles cannot stomach the moment and turns his back as his body trembles. He left those words to Manny, and now they will lead him to his death. Tears fell from his face like the falling of rain. But Manny smiled, even though he knew it was the end.
As they left, Charles stood there, in the alley in the dark of night, opening his eyes to a new world, through fresh eyes as bright as a new day. He was awake now because of Manny’s undying loyalty. This unique sight allowed him to see the machinations at work that simulated the environment. Indeed, there was no sky, no sunshine, or real rain. All of it was fabricated, seeping from the walls like a mold. Charles follows the light in the night, dodging Enforcers and Agents patrolling during the curfew. The light bent and twirled through the city gate, and he followed. There were breaches in the wall that his eyes could see even in the darkness. Charles breaks through and climbs the wall to see the world outside. It is beautiful. The wind wrapped around his body, and the sweet smell of the field filled his lungs. The beautiful glow of the sun hugged him like a warm blanket. It felt distant yet familiar. Then Charles slowly began turning his eyes toward where he arose.
And City- 25 like a cog plugged into a perpetual wheel. Each topped with a steel-like dome. The twenty-fifth Roman numeral was etched atop the dome, and beneath it was a message, and Charles read it aloud,
“Our enemies will become friends as we rewrite the world in its image.”
He paused and clenched his fist in anger “The hypocrisy,” Charles said through ground teeth, “They expel real people for fabrications and consider that noble? This beautiful cage was made for us to die in like rats. One cage was enough. Twenty-four is an atrocity. Never again.” He used his sight to re-enter the cage. A beautiful lie made to entrap men and women. Charles knew, and he collected his $20,000 and went to work the next day at NulTech, as usual, plotting revenge on the place he called home, not knowing when he ever arrived. This was our Liberation Day. The light passed through a dark stranger, and the beginning of the end of the famed Universe 25 was at hand.