Mr K woke up in Megapolis again as usual. And, as usual, he was still lost. He drew back the beige curtains of his cheap hotel room, and he looked out onto the gray expanse of tall, thick and featureless buildings looming without end under an equally gray ceiling of low-hanging clouds.
Another overcast day in an undercast city.
Mr K focused on the tallest building at the center of his view. That was his destination. He had received a job-offer, some time ago, from the Central Administration of Megapolis and had been trying to make it to the Tower Offices.
He had a job waiting for him. Messages were left for him from the Tower on his email and twitter. He was to show up at the Tower and take a position as a land-surveyor, with a decent mid-grade salary and benefits.
All he had to do was to show up and fill out the paperwork.
Which was exactly what, for a number of reasons, he just could not do.
When he could afford them, the taxis would always stop just blocks away from the Tower: but because the streets were so compact, and the other buildings hid the Tower from view that close to his destination, he always lost his bearings and could not find his way.
The bus routes and the subway lines were confusing. Too many links at the wrong times. The Tower was marked clearly on the mass transit maps at first glance: but a closer look showed a bewildering tangle of approaches -- so much so that having a map was worse than not having one.
His navigator inside his google-glasses was based on the mass transit map. So it, too, was useless. The GPS got confused by the height of the buildings and the depth of the thin canyons separating them.
He sent tweets and fb-messages to the Tower, trying to explain his difficulties in showing up, hoping for some help from the Central Administration. He even used the very old-fashioned email service, something only the amish and the indians (it was said) still relied on.
But no matter what form of contact he attempted, the reply was always the same: “message undeliverable.” The mailer-daemon denied entry to his every message, always reporting something about “viral-potentiality.”
Like -- “Don’t call us, K, we’ll call you.”
Except everyday, like today, he’d get another tweet from the Tower -- tweets that were growing increasingly more demanding and threatening. Tweets that were complaining about his apparent lack of interest in the job-offer -- because he hadn’t shown up yet. Tweets that were complaining about his apparent lack of respect for the Central Administration -- since he had failed to contact them via twitter or fb or even email, like “@MRK05271959 APPEARS THAT YOU DON’T WANT JOB & ARE LAZY & INTEND DISRESPECT FOR CENTRAL ADMIN - STILL AWAITING MESSAGE FROM YOU.”
Maddening. And depressing.
So, nowadays, he took to wandering the streets, hoping to accidentally find the way to the Tower. Which he never did: at least his google glasses always marked out, with its purple arrows, the correct way back to his hotel.
Today he was walking aimlessly in a crowd of pedestrians, huddled away from the clogged traffic on the street. It was an unending mass of individuals zoned off from each other, each one talking on their bluetooth into the air to unseen voices. Or, if not that, tapping out text-messages on their iWatches, selecting tunes, infotainment channels, project updates, social networking, celebrity profiles (like whatever Miley was up to, still making the news-cycle everyday on her reality-network, even in her 70s).
That is probably why no one noticed the grubby little boy standing at the corner, drumming on his little beat up drum. It is probably why Mr K was so startled when the boy stepped into his path and actually touched his coast and, shockingly, committed an extraordinary breach of social conduct: he talked to K, like, really face-to-face.
“Merry Christmas,” said the little drummer boy. “Could you give something for the poor children?”
Christmas? How rude, K thought. The very mention of that word was not only old-fashioned, but was the height of impoliteness. All days, the internet said, were “special” days, and every day, like every one, was just like another.
And poor children? There was no poor: every little individual was cared for in Megapolis -- the internet said so.
But this little boy, who should have been in school, was pointing to an old plastic jug, which was decorated by a crude marker drawing of a star, a man and a woman, two animals and a baby in some crude shelter.
“You shouldn’t be out here,” Mr. K. told the boy. “You should be in school instead of trying to get money from people.”
“But it’s not for me. It’s for the poor babies.”
OMG, K thought, He had heard about these babies. They were the undocumented, the un-numbered children: third or fourth babies, or illegal babies, babies that had been delivered outside the BlueNet managed healthcare system.
The boy looked straight into K’s eyes: “They are hungry. They are cold. I will show you.”
No one had ever offered to show K anything before. No one had ever showed him the way to anywhere. He had been lost on his own. Maybe this time he’d find something, somewhere.
On impulse, and certainly without much thought, Mr K said “Okay, show me.” And the little boy nodded with a smile: “Follow me!”
The boy led him down the nearest alley and onto streets that became, increasingly, less than well-maintained. Here and there were holes in the pavement and broken concrete. As they proceeded under overpasses, where the traffic was kept under the watchful supervision of TowerTrafficNet, the trusses underneath showed rust, disrepair and a decrepitude that should have caused real concern to Central Administration.
Mr K noticed that they were moving further away from the Tower’s environs. Litter could be seen on the streets, and the buildings became more ramshackle and actually decayed.
Finally, after what must have been hours of walking in inconvenient and uncomfortable surroundings, the boy stopped at a worn out crumbling large building. It was topped by a rusting dome, and fronted by two tower-like structures that were also rusted at the top. The windows were busted, but what remained intact looked like they held scenes and figures before the street grime had made them unrecognizable.
“Let’s go in,” the boy said as he began to ascend the concrete steps up to the large and dark wooden door.
Instantly, the earpiece on K’s google-glasses interrupted his usual playlist with a series of commercial jingles. He couldn’t make out much of the words, but some were clear: “Not enough time for Sunday, but make time for Funday” … “Every moment must be productive, so make yourself think reductive” … “Your feelings are the most important, religion makes you old and impotent.”
His glasses flashed scenes of Mel Brooks doing “The Inquisition” -- a stunning artistic masterpiece the critics say, to be sure, but why was it playing now, on my google display, Mr K wondered.
“Ahhh,” he said out loud, because now he understood. This is the ruins of an old church, and the Big Data Project at Central Admin is just doing the google tracking on my whereabouts, catering to my interests, which are surely normal and anti-religious.
“Yes, that’s it,” he told himself. Anti-religion is my interest. Surely.
“Come in,” said the drummer boy who had opened the old church door. “You’re here.”
Mr K’s iWatch began vibrating. “Warning!” a red text message was scrolling across the iWatch screen -- “You are approaching a hazardous intolerance zone with a record of non-diversity … You may encounter dangerous levels of uneducated, undocumented episodes of cultural toxicity.”
“But,” K thought, “these are the same people that threw my emails away, but turned around and got on my case for not contacting them.”
With just enough peevishness (and curiosity), Mr K moved up the stairs. He was about to step through the threshold when …
… his glasses went completely dark, blinding him in black.
“Sir, it would help if you took these off. You can get by without them.”
Mr K wasn’t sure about that. His google-glasses were always perched on his nose. Indeed, if he had enough credits in his account, he would have purchased the permanent google-glass eye-lens overlay a long time ago. And his iWatch was just as necessary as a constant companion PDA and multi-tool, with lots of handy accessories.
“Take them off, sir. They’re blinding you. It isn’t dark here.”
Little hands had reached his brow. He felt the gentle tug at his nose and his ear. He blinked. He could see.
Instantly, his heart began to race and he felt his chest constrict: pain shot up his left arm and his head felt like it was about to burst.
“Take off the iWatch! It’s hurting you!”
Could it be? Was Big Data so watchful that it could send nerve signals up my arm, and release adrenaline into my system like this?
He clicked open the wrist band and dropped it to the ground. The pain, and tachycardia, melted away.
The interior of the old church was falling apart, but it was kept as neat and clean as could be. In one corner of the large room, he could see a group of young children, listening to an old woman rehearsing vocabulary and spelling. In another corner was a line of old cribs, attended by some younger women. A man was bringing, from outside, green plants and red round things and yellow round things and other small brown irregular cylinders.
“This is my home,” the boy said, “and these are the babies.” He pointed to the children.
Mr K had never seen children before. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what to think. “Where am I?”
“The grownups call it ‘Marginalia,’ but the kids call it home.”
He could hear his iWatch buzzing furiously. But he could not keep his naked eyes from staring at the strange interior. Above the people, on the walls, were figures and scenes from very ancient times -- this was forbidden art, he knew, art that was kept from public view for everyone’s mental well-being, so the Tower said.
“What are all these pictures?”
“Here, let me show you,” the boy looked at Mr K again, deeply into his unencumbered eyes, “Follow me.”
The boy reached up and took K’s hand.
He had never had his hand held before: instead of the cold shock from the iWatch, this touch radiated warmth, and something else that Mr K didn’t have a word for …
Together, they moved to the front of the ruined church and turned to the outside door. They stepped into the cool evening.
There were few buildings to be seen, or at least they were hidden from view …
… by the trees.
They walked through the garden that never seemed to end. Mr K couldn’t account for its size, because it seemed -- beyond all logic -- to be much larger on the inside than it was on the outside. But as they walked, further in, the trees became much larger, and the grass much greener, more luxuriant.
The wind blew fresh and clean. Gone was the slight-sulphur scent of Megapolis: “The smell of a healthy economy -- take a whiff,” the jingles said. But now when he breathed, K felt contentment in his lungs, and something else, which he couldn’t identify.
The evening stars began to glow as the sun rested aglow on the western horizon. One star, however, seemed to glow brighter, and lower in the sky.
“Take off your coat, sir,” said the drummer boy, “and your shoes. This is a special place, better than anywhere you’ve been, with a person better than you or me.”
And Mr K, surprisingly, did not argue.
His coat lay on the grass by his shoes.
Barefoot, for the first time, with his face caressed by a fresh breeze, and his eyes being filled more and more by the gentle bright star, the drummer boy led him to the old man and the young woman, attending the poor Baby, watched by an ox and a donkey in quiet, kneeling repose.
“Little Baby,” the boy began to chant, in a quiet sing-song way, “I am a poor boy too … I have no gift to bring, that’s fit to give the King, so shall I play for You?”
The young woman nodded, smiling.
“I played my drum for Him, I played my best for Him.”
“I played,” and here, the boy that K once was, the once and future K, turned to his grownup self and smiled, “I played, and you came.”
“Then, He smiled at me,” K thought, later on in the unreal streets of Megapolis, the reality of the Manger in his heart. “Peace on earth: that’s the word I couldn’t think of: good will toward men -- even me.”
Pa rum pum pum pum.
“Me and my drum.”