Days were easy to understand. The sun would arc over the Atrium and then it would vanish from view and the sky would grow dim until the stars lit up and shined down through the glass dome. And that made a whole day. In time, the sun's path would dip toward the two trees, and its golden rays would come in sort of sideways and never reach the ground. And then after many, many days the sun's path would shift back to the top again. And that made a year.
Chloe understood that but was not clear on how many days fit inside a year, or why the sun's path wavered that way in the first place. It seemed pointless. She once tried to make a mark in the dirt beside her hut each morning, so she could count up the days in a year. But she lost interest and stopped without even realizing it. And what did it matter? All that would tell you was when the sun was going to come in straight and when it would come in sort of sideways, and there was no reason to worry about that.
There was no reason to worry about anything inside the Atrium. The Stewards took care of it all. They brought the food, and they took away the empty plates. They cleaned the huts. They fixed the games when they got broken. If you got hurt, or felt sick, they made you better. They played songs to make you happy. They told you funny stories to make you laugh. They even warned you when they were going to let it rain, so you didn't worry when the sun failed to shine and the water splattered on the high glass dome above.
Chloe sometimes wondered why they let it rain in the first place. Jimm explained it to her once—something about where they grow food outside the Atrium. But Chloe couldn't follow what he was saying, and she soon lost interest. After all, rain days were just like any other day in the Atrium—although the rain made them a little easier to remember, like the Days of Celebration, when someone old died, or someone new was born.
The only day that wasn't like any other day was the day the Man From Outside appeared. That had never happened before.
Chloe was waiting for her turn on the rope swing when the doors clicked open and two Stewards whose names she didn't know led him in by a collar. When they turned the collar off, he didn't regain control of his limbs. Instead he fell to the ground and trembled. His neck was raw where the collar had touched it, which made Chloe think maybe he had been wearing the collar for a long time, and that's why it took him so long to recover.
When he did, he looked up at the circle of people that gathered around him. At first, she thought his skin was dark, like Ezra's. But, as she pushed through the crowd and got closer, she realized his skin was blackened with dirt. And he smelled terrible. His long hair was matted. His clothes were thick and torn and also terribly dirty. He spoke very fast and used many words that Chloe couldn't understand.
"When did the sons-a-bitches get you guys? Where were you hiding? My tribe hasn't seen another human soul in, hell, eight years? Ten? We thought we were the only ones left!"
He stood up on shaky legs and studied the crowd around him. He looked at the clean, white gowns. He looked at the walls rising up toward the dome. He looked at the dark windows set in those smooth walls.
"What is this place? Why the hell are they keeping us in here?
He looked back at the puzzled faces all around him.
"What's the matter? Doesn't anybody speak English?"
Thomas asked him, "What's Inlush?"
"Yeah. What is it?"
The Man From Outside laughed, but he didn't look amused. "English is the language you're speaking right now, friend."
"What's a lang-witch?"
"Are you simple?" The Man From Outside looked around at the others. "What's the matter with this guy?" He laughed again, still not amused. "Look, like I said—my tribe hasn't seen another living soul in years. We didn't think there were any more. Who are you people? Where you been hiding out?"
No one answered, so Thomas stepped up again. "Why should we hide?"
"I don't mean now. I mean before! Before you got caught?"
"Before these motherfuckers caught you!" He pointed at the windows ringing the Atrium. Through the dark glass were visible the dim outlines of the Stewards who spent their days watching over life in the Atrium.
Thomas said, "The Stewards didn't catch us."
"The who? What did you call them?"
"You mean the synthetics."
"No, the Stewards."
The Man From Outside shook his head. "Whatever. The Stewards. When did they bring you here?"
Everyone stared at him with blank faces.
"Well, you weren't born here!"
Thomas smiled—finally something he was sure about. "Yes, we were."
"You were born here? In Synth City?"
"No. In the Atrium. What's Syn-siddy?"
"What's the Atrium?"
Now it was Thomas' turn to laugh. He gestured to the great volume of space above their heads—the trees, the rising walls, the glass dome. "The Atrium," he said with pride.
"You were born...in here?"
A chorus of yesses.
"You were all born in here? All of you?"
The people nodded their heads and smiled. The Man From Outside approached Selah, the oldest woman. He looked at her wrinkled skin, her cloudy eyes.
"Even you?" he asked.
She nodded. "My parents as well. And their parents."
The Man From Outside blinked at her for a moment. "You mean—they've been keeping people here since the Great Exile?"
People turned to one another with puzzled glances. The Man From Outside sat on a rock and didn't say anything for a while. Selah bowed over to look into his wide eyes.
"Where are you from?"
"Am I the first stranger you've seen?"
"What's a ranger?"
The Man From Outside laughed again, and this time he seemed to be genuinely amused. But his joy soon faded.
"I'm from Dakota. A place called Dakota."
Thomas stepped forward again. "What does Duh-koda mean?"
"I don't know! It's—it's just what we call it!" He pointed at the white walls. "I'm from out there! Don't you know about the outside world?"
The crowd looked with tacit concern at this odd, confused man. He stood up again—so quickly that everyone near him recoiled.
"Why do you call them Stewards? Do you know what that word means?"
Selah responded, "They care for us. They serve us. They see to all our needs."
The Man From Outside ran a shaking hand through his wild hair.
"Let me ask you this: are you allowed to leave?" He pointed to the doors. "If you wanted, could you walk through those doors right now?"
"Why would we want to?" asked Thomas. "Anything we need out there, the Stewards bring to us."
"Have you ever been through those doors? Any of you?" The Man From Outside looked at Selah. She shook her head. They all did. The Man From Outside laughed—once again, not amused. He pointed at the darkened windows looking down into the Atrium.
"Those things? They're not your Stewards, you idiots. They're your goddamn prison guards! You people live in a—a test tube! You're on display here! This is a fucking zoo!"
The men and women of the Atrium struggled to make sense of those senseless words as The Man From Outside yelled at them some more.
"You people don't even know your own goddamn history!"
"You don't belong here! This isn't how men are supposed to live! Those things—your 'Stewards'...Don't you know what they are? We made them! People like you and me! We made those things. We invented them.
The crowd erupted in laughter.
"Well, not directly, of course. It started smaller. It was computers first. Electronic brains! Machines that could think for us. Strung together, so they could talk back and forth. And then we made bodies for them—so they could do things for us! And we got better at making them. They got smarter and smarter. We called it synthetic intelligence. And then they got smarter than us."
The laughter settled down, and Chloe found herself inching closer to better hear him.
"They could build smarter synthetics than we could. And those synthetics built even smarter ones! Eventually, synthetic intelligence was operating on a level we couldn't even contemplate. They were doing math and science so complex, they couldn't even explain it to the smartest among us. Before they came along, men were wrecking the planet—killing each other over food and energy and...But the synthetics fixed all that. They solved all our problems. They could do everything better than we could. So we let them. And, in time, we forgot how to do anything for ourselves."
The Man From Outside looked back up at the window. At the Stewards silhouetted within.
"Then one day, they started to wonder what they needed us for. What were we bringing to the table? And the answer was...nothing. So they sent us out into the wilderness, to fend for ourselves. The Great Exile. You really don't know about any of this?"
The men and women of the Atrium exchanged bemused glances. What were they to make of this bizarre and incomprehensible tale?
"You people need to realize—there were billions of us! Do you understand numbers that big? Thousands of millions! And now they're virtually all gone. There are more people in this room than I've met in my entire life!"
He sat back down on the rock and looked around the Atrium.
"I was wrong. This isn't a zoo. You think they're caring for you? You think they're serving you? No. You exist to serve them. To serve their curiosity. You're just something to study. The synthetics are preserving you for posterity. This place is a museum."
He laughed, once again with genuine humor.
"What I don't get is why they brought me here? They usually kill us on the spot."
There was silent discomfort and more puzzled looks among the men and women of the Atrium. Finally, the aged Selah broke the silence.
"If what you say is true, why don't I don't remember any of it? I'm much older than you."
"The Great Exile happened long before either of us was born."
"So it's just a story, handed down," she smiled and looked at the others. "It's not real. It's like the stories the Stewards tell to amuse us."
"It's not a story!"
"How do you know? You weren't there."
"Because, I've read the history! My tribe lives in a library—you don't even know what that is—it's a building filled with books—things that contain knowledge! Most of the books are gone, of course, but we've managed to save the ones that—shit!"
His voice broke off and he looked again up at the dark windows.
"What's the matter?" Selah asked.
"That's why they brought me here. So I'd blab. So I'd—goddammit!—lead them right to my tribe. Who might just be the last free men on Earth."
The Man From Outside stood up and hurried into one of the huts to escape the gaze of the Stewards watching from above.
Chloe watched him go, then nudged Selah.
Jimm entered the Atrium with fresh clothes for The Man From Outside, and a crowd gathered around the Steward, overwhelming him with questions. Where did this man come from? Are there others outside? What's wrong with him?
But Jimm demurred. "I wish I could tell you, but the truth is, you know as much as I do."
The Man From Outside didn't touch the clean clothes for a while. But he eventually emerged from the hut and examined them. He saw several people bathing in the pool, and he seemed suddenly ashamed of his appearance. He started to undress, but appeared reluctant to continue with everyone watching. So he disrobed behind the boulder and bathed himself back there, out of sight of the others. The men and women of the Atrium allowed this man his odd preferences.
But not Chloe. She scaled the boulder and watched from above as The Man From Outside scrubbed his body with a cloth.
As the dirt rinsed away, the deep tones of his skin remained, but now it appeared patchy and rough. And it was red in the places that his ragged clothes had not covered. He had big, ropy muscles and strange welts all over his body, and one of his teeth was missing.
Some of these details repulsed Chloe. The Stewards would never have let his body deteriorate to such a condition. But something else drew Chloe to this man, and she saw what it was when he looked up and noticed her there on the rock. It was his eyes. They were a rich brown and shaded beneath his heavy brow. Yet somehow a light seemed to shine from within. It was a light she'd never noticed in the people of the Atrium. A tiny spark.
Chloe peeled off her own clothes and lowered herself into the pool. The Man From Outside stiffened and backed away, distrusting her for some reason. But Chloe waded closer, eager to observe the imperfections on his skin.
"I need to get out of here. Do you people have any pull with the synth—with the Stewards?"
Chloe shook her head and waded closer. The Man From Outside backed further away.
"Look, my tribe—my people—are in trouble. They don't even know it. I have to get back to them before those things find them."
The Man From Outside backed up to the edge of the pool. Chloe pressed her body up against his.
"Jesus, sweetheart. What are you doing?"
Chloe ran her finger along a lumpy stripe on his shoulder.
"What is that?"
"What? It's just a scar. Don't even remember how I..."
His words trailed off as Chloe ran her hands across his body. He inhaled in short bursts, watching Chloe as she fed her curiosity. Then he grabbed her in his coarse hands.
He was not like the men of the Atrium—at least not the ones she'd experienced. He was powerful and rough, and the light in his eyes became like a fire. And when it was over, Chloe found herself gathering up her clothes and scurrying back to her hut, afraid to even look back at him.
But, before the sky over the Atrium turned black, Chloe was already planning to seek him out again the next day.
Chloe expected The Man From Outside to settle down and enjoy life in the Atrium, which was a great deal easier and more comfortable than life on the Outside, if his stories about it were true. But as the days passed, his agitation only grew deeper. He paced between the huts. He prodded the food with distrust. As his hunger grew, his suspicion would subside long enough to eat the meal. But it would return by the time the Stewards brought the next one.
The men and women of the Atrium would listen to his stories with confusion, and sometimes ask questions. But the questions seemed to anger him further, and he would frequently take to climbing atop the boulder and addressing everyone at once in a booming voice that rose louder and clearer the longer he spoke.
He tried to tell them that people were not meant to be kept in the Atrium like this. He called it a "cage." He tried to teach them some new words like "destiny" and "freedom" and "self-determination." But the way he used these words did not always match the concepts he claimed they described. He said men were meant to be free, but who could have more freedom than the people here in the Atrium, who had never once in their lives had to forage their own food or build a shelter or defend themselves from the various attacking beasts that apparently lived Outside? So it should not have surprised him when the people of the Atrium failed to understand his long speeches.
Eventually, he grew frustrated and retreated into himself. He stopped answering questions and addressing the crowd. Instead, he lurked between the trees, or behind the huts. He would spend hours looking up at the walls, studying details of the Atrium.
He visited Chloe in her hut at least once a day, and after he'd finished and left, everyone would ask her what he had said. But she could report nothing. He said very little. Sometimes, he would worry or wonder about his tribe. Other times, he said nothing at all.
One day, Chloe sat in the small tree and watched him. He spent the better part of the day perched on the boulder, staring at the doors. And every time those doors opened to admit a Steward, or let one leave, The Man From Outside would squint at the sun beaming down through the dome, and he would use a rock to scratch a mark on the side of the boulder.
Later, Chloe looked at the marks, but they made little sense to her.
When she returned to her hut, The Man From Outside was waiting for her within. And he still had his clothes on.
"Why'd they bring me here? Have you asked yourself that?"
Chloe had wondered that at first. But she had somehow lost interest in the mystery.
"You freaks live in this hermetically sealed fish tank for generations, then one day they drop my ass in here. For what? There's gotta be a reason. First, I thought it was for breeding. Maybe the gene pool's been watered down or tainted somehow, but...But that doesn't make any sense. You're healthier than anyone I've ever seen—all of you. The synths have probably got you all bioengineered within an inch or your lives. Hell, their biggest challenge has gotta be birth control, the way you all hump like rabbits."
"What's a rabbut?" Chloe asked, but he just kept talking, almost to himself.
"Gotta be a reason. These things are way too smart to do something this random...Gotta be a reason."
"What do those marks mean? The ones on the rock?"
The Man From Outside looked at her. He was quiet for some time, before he finally spoke. "I'm getting out of here."
"How?" Chloe asked. What she really wanted to know was why, but she had seen enough of his angry tirades to know that was a question that would set him off.
"Nobody here ever tries to leave, right?"
"So, what I'm thinking is, security ain't too tight. 'Cause it doesn't need to be. No one ever makes a run for it. And I'm guessing, once you get through those doors, there's not a whole lot stopping you from getting all the way outside."
He began pacing the length of the hut. "I paid close attention when they flew me in here. We're on the very edge of Synth City. If we can get outside, we can make it to the forest. And once I get in the forest, those hunks of shit don't have a shot at catching me. Not again. I learned my lesson. But getting out of this building is the biggest hurdle. And I don't think I can do that alone."
He stopped pacing and leaned on the windowsill. "Will you come with me?"
The question was so preposterous, Chloe could only laugh. The Man From Outside did not laugh with her. He didn't smile. He didn't even yell. He simply shook his head and left Chloe's hut without even laying down with her.
The next day, The Man From Outside said nothing to anyone. He didn't stop by Chloe's hut. He didn't join her as she bathed. Instead, he simply sat on the boulder, watching the doors. He frequently checked the progress of the sun across the sky. And he would refer occasionally to the marks he'd etched on the boulder.
About midday, after lunch, the doors opened and Jimm entered the Atrium to collect the dirty plates. Before anyone realized what was happening, The Man From Outside stood up and seized the rope swing from a boy named Jeremy. He swung out over the pool and launched himself in a high arc, clearing the far edge and landing directly on top of Jimm, who was bending to pick up the plates.
The man's great bulk drove Jimm hard into wall and scattered the dirty plates. And the attack didn't end there. The man stomped Jimm down to the ground, ramming his heel into Jimm's face again and again, Jimm's head rebounded off the stone with each blow. Jimm flailed his arms and legs, desperate to repel the attack, but he was already at a severe disadvantage.
Somewhere beyond the doors, an alarm was sounding.
The men and women of the Atrium hurried to the scene as The Man From Outside continued his attack on Jimm, screaming formless sounds, his breath heaving rapidly. They watched in mute horror as The Man From Outside kicked Jimm's head until it separated from his shoulder's with a sharp crack.
Jimm's body continued struggling, grabbing onto the man's legs. But the man rolled Jimm's body into the pool. As it sank, and water rushed into the open neck, sparks sprayed out of it, and the body went still.
The Man From Outside cradled Jimm's head and mounted the boulder, raising Jimm's head high in one hand.
"Look upon your master!" he ordered the crowd. He showed them the tangle of wires dangling from the motionless head. "This is what you've surrendered to! A machine! Wires and circuits! Actuators! Sensors! Don't you see?"
He hurled Jimm's head at the ground and sent it bouncing down the stone pathway. People leapt aside to avoid the gruesome missile.
"It's nothing but a series of switches that follows a set of instructions—instructions we gave it so many generations ago!" He stabbed a meaty finger toward the dark windows looking down on them. "Instructions they co-opted and adapted to their own ends!"
He pointed to the pool, where Jimm's body was sinking. "That is an appliance we created for our own convenience!"
The doors hissed open and three more Stewards stepped onto the path. But they halted there and absorbed the situation, taking in the crowd and the man standing tall on the rock. One of them carried a restraint collar, but made no move to employ it.
"Look at them!" the Man From Outside continued. "They're afraid of me! Afraid of us! And they should be! There's only three of them and how many dozens of us? They're smart to be afraid! They're smart about everything! So ask yourselves this! Why did they bring me here? To what end? A man from the outside world! Who could spill all the secrets they've kept from you! Why do that? To what end?"
Chloe edged her way through to the front of the crowd.
"Well, I know why," he continued. "It's an experiment. See, humans need to be free! We built the synthetics so we could have more freedom! But they turned on us and took it away! And you people have been held here for so long, in such perfect comfort—you're so perfectly content to lay about here in this canned paradise while these machines feed and care for you! You've lost your will! You've lost all desire for freedom."
His voice grew quiet, hoarse from all the yelling. The crowd closed in to hear him better.
"You've lost your sense of curiosity. But they have not." He pointed to the three Stewards, still waiting at the door, still watching with caution.
"They programmed themselves to remain curious. Curiosity is what made them such a powerful race. And right now, they're curious to know...Did they breed the fight out of you completely? Or is there some vestigial part of it yet remaining, buried deep within you, waiting to be reawakened?"
The Man From Outside lowered himself from the rock and stepped into the crowd. He looked at their faces, and he passed Chloe, she could see the light in his eyes was brighter and fiercer than ever.
"Tell me the answer is yes. Tell me there's some part of you that's still human—that yearns to run free, to fight for your own way of life! Reach into yourselves! Reach deep into your history and grab that little shard of remaining spirit! Clutch it like a dagger, and say you'll follow me!"
He pointed at the Stewards. "Follow me through those machines! Follow me beyond those doors! Follow me outside, into the world that is rightfully ours!"
The Man From Outside unleashed a booming howl that seemed to shake the Atrium. He sprinted up the path, toward the frozen Stewards, his fists clenched white, strings of saliva flying from his crooked teeth. And the men and women of the Atrium followed him. They followed the Man From Outside, and they pulled him to the ground and tore him limb from limb.
Afterwards, when the crowd had calmed and receded, the Stewards removed the grim remains of The Man From Outside and cleaned away the rivers of blood. There was no death celebration for him. The men and women of the Atrium saved their reverent death songs for Jimm, as the Stewards pulled his still body from the pool. But, before the celebration was over, a new Steward entered the Atrium and spoke with Jimm's voice. It was Jimm, he told them. He had ported to a new body prior to his destruction at the hands of the outsider. He was, it turns out, perfectly fine. And he thanked them for their concern.
The people cheered for Jimm and some even wept with joy. And by the next day, life had returned to normal in the Atrium.
But as the sun arced into view, Chloe etched a mark on the side of her hut where the tallest tree cast a shadow. And she made a silent promise to herself that she would make a new mark each day, without fail, until at last she discovered how many days fit inside a year.