Text by Aditya Ghosh
Drawings by Cameron Ringness
“One gets used to it.”
Ofelia looked up, as if by impulse at the clock. The minute hand was teasing towards fifty seven. She looked back at the room, the chairs empty and scattered around their desks. It was usual to give the students a few minutes before 3pm to get their bearings right and their return routes correct. As if reminded by the sight, she reached into her bag and brought out her tablet, pulled up a map and typed in “home”. While waiting for a response, she looked out of her window and could see an arm already starting to build around the school. “Can’t be late” she whispered to herself and gathered her books and pen, sliding them into her bag before slinging it onto her shoulder. The tablet pinged, displaying through her glasses a red glow at her feet, leading out of the classroom and left towards the main entrance. She followed it absentmindedly and walked out of the school building, stopped at the canopy by the letters PS 139 and looked around, squinting through the glasses.
She was facing an array of lanes, narrow pathways between walls of black that rose up from the ground like sleek tree trunks towering over everything around them, most of them almost a hundred feet tall. It takes the arms from the sky around five hours to build the lanes, they can be heard humming during the day, erasing the paths everyone took to the school in the morning and setting the secret, personalized paths everyone is supposed to follow to get home. They are meant to keep you safe. To deter anyone from being anywhere they shouldn’t be. The pathways have evolved with the threats. They are concentric circles in some neighborhoods, zig-zag lines in others. Lately some cities have patented their labyrinths to be a certain style. Los Angeles is known for the swirly stylized paths, like walking within cursive handwriting, here at home Ofelia got to go through right angled corridors, occasionally turning into some circular openings.
It took a while to train everyone to live in today’s world of labyrinths. No one was ever convinced that drills encouraging us to save each other would be effective, and as soon as the labyrinths came along, all the instructions and tutorials were to encourage breaking away from the pack, to move alone and know that the best thing one can do is to save themselves, that it is what everyone else is doing, It is what Ofelia did twice every day. As she set on her path, she stayed alert to hear the warnings.
The warning is a clicking sound, like pincers on a surface of stone, an urgent click -click-click and a pause, then again click-click-click. The clicks also vibrate within the pavers under your feet, just in case your hearing has betrayed you or you were never one to listen anyway. It is the alarm for you to look up and move away. Two seconds later, the black shape of the ARM emerges from the perpetual fog obscuring the stars above. It is a gigantic robotic appendage with multiple joints and sinews made of wires and circuits. These are wall printers, plotting around the city lines and routes. Once they have drawn a new border, the needle like end shoots out black polymer that hardens by the time it has hit the ground. Layer by layer the ARM builds a black wall that looks crystalline and impenetrable, an unscalable surface of matte onyx. A digital drawing a minute ago and now a resolute barrier to herd the city. At almost two feet thick, these walls have the appearance of spun resin, strings and lines of successive layers trapped beneath a pallid skin. They are both temporary and permanent, you will never see the same wall once you’ve passed it and yet you are certain to see them everyday.
Not everyone is frightened of the labyrinth. As always, the young ones have mastered technology even as it develops. The winding pathways and blind corners offer ample privacy for those who crave it. As Ofelia walked past an opening on her left, she spied two of her students from the corner of her eye. They hadn’t noticed her and were lip locked, arms woven into each other the way only young love can contort someone. She smiled and pretended not to have seen. Her new normal will be their nostalgia someday. She turned her eyes back to the red guiding light on the path. Left ahead, then slight right and a little slower at the next turn, pause 20 seconds before heading straight ahead at the next five-way intersection. These directions were getting more elaborate, and she took a faltering second to catch up to them.
The paths change every day. Mornings are now about waking up, getting clean and clothed and checking not just the weather but also what your commute that day will be.
People complained about how oppressive the walls were and the initial response was to fake the journey. Projections of sidewalks, trees and white picket fences so that the walk to school was the theme park equivalent of suburban utopia. That didn’t last very long, soon the fences were proclaiming allegiance to security companies or anti-virus software brands and the trees were plastered by virtual billboards. From monotony to too much imagery, the majority preferred to be inundated by silence, the walls went black again. Made for regurgitated plastic, they were poured and cleared every day, lending to the city an air of impermanence. If you live among the labyrinths, you never have to worry about getting used to your surroundings, wait a while and they will morph before your eyes.
The labyrinths were the only solution. Some refused to give up their rights and everyone was allowed weapons but humans have always underestimated their capacity to kill each other. Giving yourself up to the algorithm that directs your path might mean not knowing where you are anymore but nor will someone who is out to get you. Get comfortable in the darkness, not all puzzles need to be unraveled. Ofelia reached home safely and another day passed without incident.
“One gets used to it.”