His co-worker clapped him on the shoulder, standard-issue blue overalls straining against his generous stomach.
“No.” He shook his head.
“You sure? It’s payday, ain’t it? Don’t you wanna celebrate?”
Celebrate what? His meagre pay cheque was gone almost as soon as it landed in his account, no matter how long or hard he worked. All he could hope for was that the power was still on when he got home. Each night he sat alone in his fetid box of a room while the city groaned around him, watching improbable romance and tortured fiction play out on the vid-screen.
And trying to not to think of her.
His grandfather had told him, once, of the time before. When a man could choose his own path through the world, when fields lay green and gold with food, when the sky had blazed with stars, the cities contained within their own black borders. But things were not perfect then, either. The roots of their current predicament were already being laid as countries squabbled and shoved, posturing and sabre-rattling while behind the scenes the great cabal worked to set up the machine, to create a world where fear and consumption were king, where thoughts of anything other than the next purchase were discouraged. Even so, it was a time when dreams still seemed possible.
He had always been a dreamer. And so had she. When they were children, playing together on one of the few remaining patches of green, she would lie in the grass and look at the stars, counting each one, making wishes. Sometimes her hand would creep into his and it was as though the stars burst above him, spinning like Catherine wheels against an endless deep blue.
She dreamed of a house in the hills. And a garden for vegetables, and clean air, and for her father not to cough up endless black gouts of blood, for her mother to stand straight without pain.
But no matter how many stars she counted, how many wishes she made, her mother grew greyer and more bent, until she cracked, like a falling tree, leaving the family suddenly bereft. Her father coughed his last breath a few weeks later, drowning in the years of filth accumulated working for others.
By then handholding had progressed to something more. The patch of green was paved over and built upon, another gleaming tower housing those who liked to look down on the workers who made them rich.
He had held her as she cried, and they had watched the stars together, the sparkles blurring into darkness. “I’ll never leave you,” he whispered into hair that smelled of green leaves and roses. “Not ever.”
But she left him, instead.
“Fair enough,” his co-worker said, one dirty hand scratching the back of his neck, moving his rough blue collar to the side. A patch of dark hair was revealed, and just visible beneath his collarbone: a small tattoo of a single star.
The pain was as fresh at it had ever been. He pulled at his own overalls, as though he could feel the star etched into his own skin. “Maybe I will join you, after all.”
The years passed. The circles slowly tightened as the great cities sprawled into the green. What was once field and farm and forest was overtaken by concrete and glass, homes for the workers who drove the machine. The promise of work and money had brought more and more people back to the cities, which then shuddered and burst out to cover another few acres, each time saying it would be the last. But it never was. The machine ruled all, and dreams, when they came, remained just that.
It didn’t stop them from dreaming, though. To be free of the city that boiled, free from the lines of people everywhere, walking, working, always on their way to the next thing. Free of neon screaming against steam and darkness, sweet and sour sounds from sunken stairways leading to darker places where heat hung in the air, bodies ripe and sweaty surging and pushing and writhing, trying to forget.
And they found others like them, dreaming the same dream.
“C’mon,” she’d said, her face lit by red-orange light, pulling him by the hand down an alleyway. “Follow me.”
He did, just like always.
They’d each taken their turn in the chair, wincing at the sting of the needle. The tiny blue stars were covered with a small dressing. Still sore, they’d been ushered up narrow stairs to stand beneath a skylight, holding hands, pledging their allegiance to the dream, to the stars above.
“A single point of light,” she’d said later, tracing the shape of his mark with gentle fingers. “A sign of hope. And the more of us there are, the more chance we have of bringing light to everyone.”
He had believed her.
The bar was small and smoky, the air a jumble of talk and music. The rattle of mass transit cars rumbled overhead. He followed his co-worker to join a group of others, all of them in the rough blue suits that designated their worker status.
They pooled their meagre pennies, pushing them together on the bar, drinking and drinking and drinking some more, the alcohol burning his throat, the room starting to spin.
It wasn’t enough to forget, though. Not yet.
They’d started small, at first. Just a few who shared the dream. But slowly, as the city’s grip tightened, as hope was leached from more and more people, their numbers grew. They’d protested, marched in the streets, distributed leaflets, hoping to collect enough stars to forge a new world. But their masters pushed back, and so the dreams became darker. Industrial sabotage, rolling strikes, collective demands. And the balance began to shift.
But not enough.
He’d though she was mad, when she came to him with her idea. “Infiltrate them,” she’d said. “At their highest levels. See if we can change the machine from within.”
She was chosen, they’d said, because she was one of the youngest. Her skin was still fresh, her eyes still clear, her body not yet broken by work. They’d dressed her up in the clothes of their masters and taught her how to speak, how to act. How to catch their eye.
And they’d sent her to them.
She had kissed him, on their last night together. Long and slow, as though she wanted to capture every part of him to take with her.
“I’ll come back to you,” she’d said. “And I’ll think of you, every time I look at the sky. Our star is there, remember?” He’d smiled and kissed her back, his mind filled with green grass and wishes and a girl’s soft hand in his. With the promise of love, and the optimism of youth.
He only saw her two more times.
The first was on a platform, a cheering crowd surging and roiling at her feet. She’d stood with their master, her hand clasped in his, a diamond on her finger, shining like the smile on her face, like the lights that flashed, like the stars above. He had turned away, unable to believe it. Still holding onto hope that she’d keep her promise and come back to him.
There were no stars the second time, the night of their final meeting. The belching smoke of a thousand factories wreathed the city, chimneys coughing like the people who thronged the streets below. She had appeared, as if from nowhere, as he stood on his tiny balcony. Dressed in silk and smelling of roses, impossibly fresh in his dingy rooms.
“How’d you get in here?” He’d started towards her, his heart expanding with hope, with their promise. But she’d held up her hand, the diamond sparking, and his hope died.
“Leave,” she’d said. “Now. They’re coming tonight, for all of you. I can’t save everyone, but…”
His heart had clenched. “How?”
He’d known, though. By the way she’d turned away, by the glimmer in her eyes, not so bright as the one on her finger, but bright enough to know where the root of their betrayal lay.
She’d left a blue jumpsuit, rough cotton, folded on a chair. A key, and an address. “I’m sorry,” she’d said, as she went out the door. “I’m so sorry.”
He’d sat there, in the darkness, for a while. Tried calling the others, but their phones were already dead. He’d thought about jumping. Or perhaps waiting for the knock on the door, submitting to being dragged away to the electrodes and the water and whatever else they might have had waiting for them, to crush their dream.
But in the end, his will to survive had won out. So he’d put on the jumpsuit, picked up the key and walked into the night, leaving everything of his old life behind.
Except his memories.
More people spilled in from the streets above, the bar getting noisier. The endless newsreel flashed and flickered, a neon-bright trail of information running around the edges of the room. He drank more, pulled more pennies from his pocket, not caring any longer, his throat raw from shouting and laughing and sorrow.
Above him, on the infinite screens, flames flickered in the night, smoke drifted, broken bodies littered the streets. More people who dared to dream of a better way, and the lesson they were all taught: that there was only the city, and the masters, and the pain.
His co-worker leaned in close, his breath rich with wine. “Do you follow the star?” he asked, his hand pulling at his collar.
About to reply, his gaze drifted to the screens above. And there she was. Still in silk, her dark hair pulled back, her lovely face sombre as she mourned the dead. Nausea rose and he pushed his way through the pulsing crowd, hand to his mouth, bruising his shin on his way up the stairs. He emerged, gasping and fell to his knees on the dirty pavement, his hands smacking into concrete with a wet sound. He looked up past swirling clouds soaked with light to a patch of navy blue and a single star. Kneeling back, he stared at the tiny silver pinprick, so pure, so clear. And he wept, tears running hot over his cheeks and into his ears, the uncaring crowd parting to walk around him.
He would never be free of her. Not as long as he remained.
He followed the star high into the hills, to a place where the air was clear and silent, the water cold as the snow whence it came. Under cover of dark he climbed, higher and higher, until steam and smoke gave way to open night sky. Half dead with thirst he fell, rolling onto his back, eyes wide at the wild brightness above. He turned on his side and sucked at the droplets clinging to the cold grass, gaining enough energy to take him the final few steps to a nearby house where a tap, half rusted, stuck out from the wall. The metal protested as he turned it and gulped at the clear coppery water, coughing the blackness from his lungs. He slept in the grass that night, dreaming of his grandfather, of a girl with long dark hair, waking to a golden dawn.
The house was empty, the owners long gone. He broke a window to get inside, disturbing nothing more than dust. It would do, for now.
As the wheel of the seasons turned, he worked to build a new life, finding his way back to being human. He cleared a patch for vegetables, using seeds found hidden in tattered packets in the falling-down shed. At night he walked along the nearby ridge, looking down at the vast spreading stain of the city. From above it looked almost beautiful, a sparkling network of lights half hidden by billowing clouds. But he knew how ugly it was. Even in winter, when frost outlined every twig and the ground was iron hard, he walked along the ridge, wanting to remind himself of what he had left behind, of what he would never have, even as he worked to make her dream come true. He listened, too. Voices rumbled along the wires, whispered discontent crackling across the interweb stream as he stood in someone else’s dusty living room, looking through cracked glass into dark forest. Revolution, change, the people rising up. The star on his collarbone was still there, but nothing else remained. There was nothing that humans could do against the machine. It was everywhere, in everyone, except for those few who chose to turn their backs on all they knew and walk away. The only revolution he knew was the one within his soul. He pulled the plug from the wall, not bothering to put it back.
That night he went to the ridge once more. His feet were cold beneath the layers of wool and rubber, crunching against stones on the path, his breath like iron in his chest. The city groaned below, a grid of sparks against black.
The dark shapes of buildings moved. What was solid rippled, like grains of sand under water. The ever-present clouds changed from dirty white to blue, lightning like metal forks shimmering to stab the earth. There was a rumble and the ground beneath his feet moved, several small stones rolling over the edge. He stepped back. There was a pause, like a breath drawn in.
Then it blew.
Streamers of blue and silver rose up, a howl of a million voices. He watched it soar into the night, tears on his cheeks. It was beautiful and horrifying, dust and ash shining with an unearthly silver blue glow over a black, gaping void.
He thought of a girl dressed in silk and smelling of roses.
Of her dark hair, tumbled next to his.
Of a warm hand, and a promise long broken.
Of his grandfather.
He turned, walking back to the house on the ridge, where the air was clear and vegetables grew.
Where he could see the stars.