In the cold shadow of Mount Aramis, perched on the southwest corner of a world without death, sat the old, ornamented city of Somatis. Somewhere between the raw, biting frost that perpetually bloomed on cobblestone and the chilly attitude of a cloaked woman with curly hazelnut colored hair and fiery green eyes, Simon struggled to keep warm while being carried in a wheelbarrow through snow packed streets. His fingertips tingled in the pockets of his long jacket. Sarah Molloy, his captor, said nothing. She looked angry. Where is she taking me? Simon wondered.
The city and the cobblestone looked strangely more isolated with every block. Surreal snowy silence blanketed Simon's perception of time and location. Even the bumpy pavement buried under ice seemed to smooth out over time. The frosted windows of houses, dark with inhabitants fast asleep, seemed like glowering eyes in the endless night.
"No one lives out here," Sarah said, softly cracking the silence.
"How can that be?" Simon whispered. "We have barely enough housing in the city for our current population."
"And you see houses everywhere, right?"
"Do you believe everything you are told, Simon Randall?"
There it was again. Sarah's tone was accusatory and condescending, but also a little enigmatic. Simon shuddered while thinking of the things she knew; the things that led her to club the back of his head while looking at letters she wrote while stealing from him.
"Let me present you with three facts by which you have lived. I do this so that you can begin to understand a little bit before I show you the truth. Will you cooperate?"
"Certainly," Simon said.
"Thank you. Fact one: Homeless people living within the city are cleaned off the streets by officers of the law, before being reintegrated into society. Do you agree?"
"Yes. That is true."
"Fact two: There is not enough housing for the population of this city."
"Fact three: There are sizable numbers of homeless people."
Also a true statement. Simon scrambled in his brain to find the logical link that resolved the problem Sarah was posing, even though it should have been a glaringly obvious problem.
Sarah continued. "Add to this information a couple of details you did not know. First, no one lives out here. No one has for quite some time."
"So you've said. How do you prove that?"
"Consider the snow. Body heat and movement within the city streets keeps the snow relatively limited- especially since we never have weather patterns. Now look at the streets here."
Simon looked. They were essentially rolling through drifts. This is not really proof, he told himself. "Hmm. Hadn't thought of that. What else do I not know?"
"Second, I have been unable to locate the whereabouts of any of the people I once tried to protect," Sarah said, in a low monotone.
"You never gave up info on where they were living, right?"
"Right. And all of those makeshift houses are now gone."
"Maybe the poor people found somewhere else to live?"
"What do you think?" Sarah asked, brittle tones creeping into her voice.
"I'm not sure."
"That is why we are talking about this. You've been a public defender, Simon. How can you publicly defend someone who vanishes nearly the moment your trial with them is over? What kind of a defense is that?"
"They don't vanish, though. The officers of the law take them to communal housing, after which they relocate."
"We had this conversation once before. Even I was a little misinformed back then," Sarah intoned. "I believed that because they were relocated and not educated, they were being sentenced to a repetition of their own woes. I soon came to find, through my own experiences, that the problem was far more simple… and terrible."
"And what was the problem?" Simon asked. Sarah pulled her hood up a little, shutting out the question to the sound of the wheelbarrow compacting a pile of snow.
Simon saw, looking past Sarah, that they had just wheeled past a sign bearing a triangular shape. He had not seen the front of it, but he could reasonably guess what it stated: "Dead End." His trip was almost over. He found himself getting dizzy again; he wondered if the hard knock he had taken earlier in his house amounted to a concussion. That, or he was afraid.
Darkness suddenly swallowed him, followed shortly thereafter by Susan. The sound and feel of the wheelbarrow became rough and unsteady. They were now in a tunnel of some kind; the biting chill in Simon's nose changed to a musty, damp odor.
"We are almost there," Sarah spoke, a little louder than before. "We'll follow this tunnel down for a few miles, but we are safe now."
We? Safe? Simon's head was beginning to throb again as they wheeled past small wall mounted lanterns, flickering solemnly.
At last, after what seemed an eternity winding downward through tunnels, almost always curving slightly to the left before one final straightaway at a steep slant, they came to a large pair of doors made of reinforced iron.
Sarah let go of the wheelbarrow to pull on a rope to the right of the doors. A faint gong sound uttered behind the doors. After a minute or so, Sarah pushed her face against the door. Simon heard a steel scraping sound and Sarah spoke. "I have returned. I brought the lawyer with me."
"Any impediments?" asked a deep, masculine voice on the other side of the door.
"Opening up now. Stand back."
The door opened into a giant warehouse, several stories tall and wider than any outdoor building Simon had ever seen. They had come through the door onto a steel catwalk suspended high above a concrete floor. All around, he saw people moving about. Men with long beards and ragged clothes carried stacks of things against the far end of the warehouse, a dull gray color illuminated by a preciously small number of lanterns on the ceilings and on the ground. Women and other men were hauling bags away from tents constructed from cement support blocks, spikes, and painting tarp. These tents covered nearly half of the warehouse.
Simon was shocked by the number of, he guessed, homeless people who had been sheltered here. Reading his face, as she wheeled him down ramps towards the concrete floor, Sarah said, "There are many people who call this home. These are not nearly all of the homeless people in the city."
Simon chose not to respond, taking in all of what he could see. The people here had nearly the same facial expression underneath what dirt covered their faces. Fear.
"Sarah, you made it!" a man cried at the bottom of the ramp. As they reached the ground floor, Simon got a look at the man.
"Merrick?" Simon asked.
"That's me." Merrick responded. He was a tall man with black hair and brilliant blue eyes. The only things that separated him from his time spent as a competitor with Simon for the partnership at Dramery was the long knotty beard he now wore, the weariness embedded behind those smiling wrinkles, and the fact that Simon had earned the top spot in the firm, and Merrick had not.
"Why are you here?"
"To show you our city. Hey Sarah," Merrick said, ignoring Simon. "I missed you."
Merrick threw his arms around Sarah. Her whole complexion softened, just looking at Merrick. She became kinder, more womanly, more interesting--Simon considered that he may have been projecting those qualities onto her, however, because, in her eyes, he saw the same weariness as with Merrick. She kissed Merrick quickly, as if guilty, then spoke.
"No signs of the arbiter. No taps. But they won't be long."
Merrick sighed. "Well, they'll have to be awhile. We haven't gotten all of these people evacuated yet."
"Please don't expect a miracle. We should have gotten them moving days ago. I told you that if they get caught up in this, the likelihood of us succeeding will drop." Simon could not understand anything of this conversation.
"I know. Can we just look at the model?"
"OK." Sarah agreed.
Simon was suddenly dumped out of the wheelbarrow. Falling to his knees on the floor, he felt an extreme sense of head rush. He couldn't stand up until Merrick reached down and picked him up, nestling Simon's body weight against his shoulder.
"I need you to keep an open mind right now, Simon, do you understand me," Merrick confidentially whispered to him. "I have no hard feelings about the partnership. What I'm about to show you will change everything you know about the firm we used to work at. Bear with it."
"I understand. Sarah told me some things, but I'm still trying to figure out why I'm here," Simon coughed.
"And you will. Maybe not all at once. Realize however, that every single moment we spend here with you, we are all at peril. I will show you why."
Merrick carried Simon to the middle of the warehouse floor. From above, Simon had seen nothing at all except a large white patch. Now, spread out in the middle of the floor, he could see the perspective. It was a mock-up of Somatis, done using countless pieces of folded and interlocked papers. My legal documents, Simon thought, but he still couldn't see why his papers had been used. Buildings and miniature folded versions of statues were propped up everywhere, spanning several yards.
It was an impressive work of modeling. "Wow. You made all of this from my papers?" Simon asked.
"Mine too. Although I had significantly less than you. Do you remember that other people, besides law practitioners, do not use this quality of paper?"
"And look what it's good for!" Merrick laughed. Simon noted that, occasionally, there would be one paper soaked with red ink. Several areas, however, were completely red.
"What does the red mean?" Simon inquired.
"The red is where people have vanished, Simon." Sarah stepped in, motioning toward the outer edge of the model. "Do you see that line of red buildings on the southeast side?"
"I guess. Is that southeast?"
"Yes. That is where the small buildings I built when you handled my case existed. In this case, there is neither trace of construction nor record of the inhabitants."
"We documented this, Simon. Do you remember?" Merrick sternly asked.
"That's why you're here." Merrick let go of Simon and turned to face him completely. "Simon, your history has been changing every day."
"What do you mean?"
"Where you're coming from, what cases you have handled. We were originally going to compare my notes after leaving the firm with your notes, which was an extreme stark contrast to be sure, but we decided instead to symbolically represent this information."
"I still don't understand."
"Public record tells us that those red houses, with a few exceptions, are occupied, Simon. They're not. Anyone can see that, but no one living in town can hold down the memory of having seen it. Someone is physically altering history, even in the collective consciousness, without ever touching it. Think about it: Have you ever lost a court decision?"
"Who do you represent now?"
"The City Interest Committee."
"Run by whom?"
"Has any law ever really changed the nature of the city we live in?" Merrick asked, coming to the central point.
"It's just a guess at this point, because recently we've never really seen him since he made you a partner and left to become a city councilman, but John Dramery is probably the instigator of all of this. Ever since I left the firm, I've been distanced enough to watch you fail a court decision."
"But I just said--"
"You lied, Simon. You lied, and you have zero recollection about it, because someone changed your history!"
"Simon," Sarah said. "I have to apologize for attacking you before, but what we are going to tell you cannot be seen nor heard by anyone living in the city above with the sole exception of you. Do you understand?"
"Yes, I guess. I mean, I promise."
"Good," Merrick said.
"Someone is changing history. This person or thing can make a man disappear. Is that man dead? We don't really know, but we do not believe that it is possible to bring them back. We believe this entity to be a man, because it only works to uphold the law," Sarah explained.
"Like an officer of the law?" Simon asked.
"No, because it happens within seconds or sometimes moments before the crime has been committed. All of those red buildings represent dramatic changes in the shape of our world, our city, done at the hands of someone with a vested interest at maintaining the status quo. Someone broke a law, smashed a window at one of those houses, or voiced an opinion on the street, and someone with authority over you and the decisions you make made them disappear, utterly destroying evidence of wrong-doing. Someone who appears out of nowhere on city streets, in a dark cloak, wishing away homeless people just for breaking the law of not sleeping on the street."
"And because of our actions in trying to bring you here, there is a fair chance that this person, who we have termed 'the arbiter,' will be coming down here," Merrick said. "If that happens, every last homeless person living in this city will vanish. If you cooperate with us, we may be able to eliminate that threat in time."
Sarah grabbed Simon's hand and held it. She's like a chameleon, always changing, Simon thought. None of this makes any sense, but if they're right...
"We need you. Simon, can you fight for us? Can you be someone on the inside to help us figure out what's happening here?" Sarah asked.
"I will try, but I'm still not sure if I can take you at your word."
"Stay with us tonight. You are not scheduled to work tomorrow. We will explain more," Merrick stated.
Later on, after all of the homeless people had left to hide somewhere else, and all of those hiding from the unknown eyes of a history-altering enemy had fallen asleep, the arbiter arrived.