Isaac’s eyes shot open. Nausea swirled around his stomach and a sharp pain extended outwards, reaching all the way into his fingertips. He stumbled forward, bare feet touching fresh grass below.
Where am I? What was I doing?
He rubbed his eyes and then gazed at his surroundings. In every direction, rolling meadows and fields of green stretched into the horizon. Yellow sunflowers, red petunias, and purple lavender created a kaleidoscope of colors, blending perfectly into the landscape, as if somebody had painted the whole thing with a careful, loving brush. Isaac’s stomach settled as the calming smell of a new spring and the warm light of the sun in the blue sky above embraced him. Instinctively, he looked at his fists - they were smooth, as if he had never worked a day in his life. As if he would never need to again.
Wasn’t I fighting someone?
As Isaac walked through the fields, a gentle breeze carried the radiance of early summer with it. But didn't spring just start? Time seemed like a mere suggestion in this endless landscape bursting with warmth and color. Some of the meadow had been cleared for a garden; ripe tomatoes, ready to be plucked, mixed with the dark greens of zucchini and the light green coils of string beans. Somebody had placed two wooden chairs at the edge of the garden, right next to a slow-moving stream. Isaac supposed one chair would be for himself, but the other one would be for...her. He could at least remember her, the brunette gardener from the end of his adolescence. This must've been her creation, then.
Beyond the rows of plants lay rolling hills, and beyond those stood a singular oak tree that ascended into the sky - no, it was as if it melted into the sky.
Is this what peace feels like?
Isaac’s gaze followed the oak tree, trying to find where tree ended and sky began. He wasn’t successful; perhaps nothing here began and nothing here ended. He took a deep breath and let himself fall backwards into the waiting field of flowers. As petals drifted over him, he saw it and realized the truth.
Ah, I see now…
Above him, the lonely jewel known as Empyrea floated across the sky. The dark blues were the planet’s oceans; the greens were the landmasses. Isaac could make out his home country of Arcadia, a proud peninsula jutting out into the sea. Behind Empyrea was the vast expanse of space, where sky met stars.
Then the sea gave way. The oceans fell into the stars with a tremendous crash, revealing the fire below the planet’s surface, a bright orange hue that threatened to outshine the sun. And then he saw deeper - he saw the metallic gears and chains that kept the planet spinning, turning, functioning. The gears churned faster and faster, and then the leaves of the oak tree rustled in the breeze, and then he smiled.
This must be Paradise.
When Isaac awoke, he was six years younger.
With a groan, his fingers fumbled around the desk next to him until he finally shut off the incessant ringing off his alarm clock. As he sat up in bed, something gnawed at him - he knew he dreamt of something, but couldn’t remember the details. Something about a garden? It left him with a bittersweet feeling. But he supposed all dreams were like that.
Buying a radio set him back three months of rent, but once in a while, Isaac had to indulge himself. He slipped out of bed and spent a minute simultaneously yawning while playing with the knobs. His favorite jazz station played slow, melancholic tunes in the morning, which made no sense because everyday life should start out with fast-paced saxophones and trumpets, a piano that echoes around the room, letting him know that he's here, that he's alive.
But mournful jazz came out of the radio, so Isaac turned the dial until it reached the news. “-lodged an official complaint with the Unified Pact over the mistreatment of the Arcadian minority within the country of Lawrence. However, the Pact has remained mute about the issue, even as a corrupt populace arrests and lynches our own countrymen stuck far from home, beyond our borders. Shameful. In other news, Army College won an absolute overtime thriller last night…”
After eating a quick breakfast of toast and donning his workman’s clothes, Isaac shut the radio off, cracked his neck, packed his lunch, then left his apartment. Well, official records recorded it as a apartment - but it consisted of little more than a single room in an already-cramped tenement hall where the subdivisions grew smaller and smaller over the years. But even though it was dark and dingy and dusty, it was still his home, it was where he slept, it was where he and his older brother spent long nights talking.
Isaac wouldn’t trade that small room and its memories for anything.
The thick door to the outside world only opened after Isaac put his back into it. But then, he was out there. His brown hair fluttered in the September breeze - the type of breeze that only comes this month, on the hinge of late summer and early autumn. All the signs of summer were still there - green leaves on the trees, warm days that seemed to last forever - but the breeze reminded him that change was coming. Did Isaac look forward to that change? He wasn't sure. Life seemed easier when things stayed the same.
With his cooler in one hand, he stuffed the other in his pants pocket and started off down the dusty roads of Patuxet. Only the main road was paved; only the main road had any signs of modernity. Once Isaac reached it, he joined the masses of people milling around the general store, the drug store, a weapons store, a bar, and Isaac’s favorite - the town theater that played newsreels and films in addition to plays and performances. The majority of people wore similar clothes to Isaac - soiled white shirts and ragged jackets and pants - and Isaac felt very much at home in the stream of them heading northwards toward the mines.
The mines’ owners had carved a huge sign into the hills beyond town to make sure all the citizens of Patuxet knew they were under the new management of the Zhanghai Industrial Corporation. Arcadia constantly fought wars, leaving it with few friends and high debts. Half the country, including the Patuxet mines, had been sold to companies based on the other side of the world, such as Zhanghai, to keep the nation’s financing afloat. Foreign mercenaries walked through the streets, dressed in an odd combination of modern military fatigues and old sandals, wielding an odd combination of swords laying across their shoulders and revolvers on their hips. Isaac joined the rest of the town’s citizens in clearing a path for two corporate samurai moseying down the sidewalk in the opposite direction.
One of the samurai kicked an elderly woman who hadn’t moved out of the way in time. Isaac tensed up, then shook his head and continued on, the laughter from the samurai drifting away into the breeze. Isaac had learned one rule in life - if he kept his head down, and he might just make it out of here. Zhanghai had culled a significant number of miners who hadn’t learned that rule.
The beefy-looking foreman, with a tired but warm smile on his face, gave Isaac a nod of understanding as he approached the mine’s entrance. Isaac nodded back, and then stopped before he entered the dark cavern leading below ground. Veins of coals existed down there, long channels stretching deep into the earth.
The sun continued to shine. Isaac stretched his head back, watching a flock of birds pass by overhead. By the time Isaac got out from the mines, night would’ve already settled in on the city. This would be his last time to experience sunlight until he left for work again tomorrow. Isaac took a deep breath, feeling the fresh air on his face, the warm sun on his skin.
Sunlight wasn’t a right - it was a privilege. A privilege many people died for. The miners who Zhanghai culled - they remained in the sunlight, refusing to go down until the corporation lowered the high taxes they levied against the Patuxet citizenry. To say those miners merely lost their jobs was an understatement - the survivors of the following purge were run out of town entirely. Isaac didn’t know if they were found work elsewhere. He suspected they didn’t. That’s why it was far better to enjoy the half hour of sunlight each morning, rather than risk everything to experience it all day. There was no guarantee of success, and in the event of failure, there was no guarantee of survival.
The darkness was comforting in its own way. Isaac would be out of sight and out of mind, and that’s all he could really ask for. After one final breath, Isaac stepped out of the sunlight, down into the earth, from which he would not return for another twelve hours.
Mining work wasn’t so bad. Sure, it was dark and cramped, full of dust and soot, and kept you in a black, twisting labyrinth below the earth for the majority of the day, but it paid relatively well for a country deep in economic recession. Sure, sometimes the elevator could break and send men plunging to their deaths, sometimes roofs could cave-in and bury men alive, and sometimes said elevator breakings and roof cave-ins could cause the dust and gas to explode throughout the mine, but the mines hired orphaned children and paid them regularly, as small as the wages may be.
Everyday life had a simple rhythm to it. Wake up, mine rocks, eat the daily turkey sandwich (Arcadia currently fought a trade war with Elysia which sent the local price of ham skyrocketing), push carts, push carts, drink a little, cough a little, tell the Zhanghai landlord that the money’s coming soon, don’t you worry. Life went along to the beat of a drum, and even as he gritted his teeth when a rock just wouldn’t budge, even as he got into brawls with rival kids from the next ore vein over, he was here and he was alive.
When the whistle let out its lovely screech to signify that the day was done, Isaac finally re-emerged from the mines for the first time since he entered them that morning. Darkness blanketed Patuxet; workmen lit the gaslamps lining the street while samurai did their nightly patrols, their cigarettes leaving an afterglow behind them as they walked. Oftentimes, Isaac went to the saloon, but tonight would be different. Tonight was a rare divergence from everyday life.
The tenement hall loomed over him as he arrived. Truthfully, it was a cluster of halls and buildings stacked on top of each other, connected by ladders and wooden stairs, that probably would fall over if the hills nearby didn’t hold it upright. The lights in the lobby flickered as Isaac entered. He took the stairs - the elevator wasn’t exactly known for being trustworthy.
As Isaac arrived in the hallway to his room, he realized there would be another divergence from the usual tonight. Outside his door, three fellow miners from a rival vein stood against the walls, their arms crossed against their chests. The lead miner, a man Isaac’s age known as Fat Lou, spat out the cigarette in his mouth and punched a fist into his open palm.
“Heard your brother’s about to leave for another semester at college,” Lou said. “It’s the funniest thing, though. He forgot to give us parting gifts. Can you imagine that?” His posse behind him laughed. Isaac kept his cool as Lou continued. “So, we were waiting here for him, but since you got here first, I’d figured you’d be kind enough to show us in.”
The cigarette embers died on the hallway floor, the majority of which featured odd stains. “You think we’re made of money?” Isaac asked in disbelief.
“Your brother goes to college,” Lou answered. “You have to be.”
A boot crushed the cigarette as Lou pushed himself off the wall. His two followers cracked their knuckles and stared down their opponent. With a sigh, Isaac set down his cooler, then cracked his knuckles.
“I suggest you fellas call a doctor after this,” Isaac said with a grin as he held up his fists in a boxer's pose. “It appears I’m going to be hazardous to your health today.”
The smallest attacker moved first; Isaac wound up and roundhouse kicked him through the ankles. As his first opponent collapsed, the second attacker moved in. Isaac dodged his blow, then gripped him behind the head and slammed his face into the hallway wall. The miner plunged straight through the thin plaster, debris and dust spilling to the floor as Isaac yanked him out and then tossed him away.
That just left Isaac and Lou. Truth be told - neither wanted it any other way.
Both men yelled and charged. Lou swung high, Isaac swung low. Lou missed, Isaac hit gut. Air hissed out of Lou as the punch knocked the wind out of him. He stumbled back, but before he could collect himself, Isaac struck him across the face with one final blow.
During the fight, Isaac had maneuvered himself so he now stood in front of his own door. Having been outclassed, Lou swore, then hauled his two followers to their feet. With more curse and dirty talk about what they’d do to Isaac’s mother had she still been alive, they departed.
Isaac wiped his hands, then scooped up his cooler. But before he could finally settle in, another person entered the hallway, someone far more menacing than Lou could ever dream of being.
“Hey hey hey!” she greeted, putting Isaac in one of her patented trademark headlocks. Isaac couldn’t free himself - he had never been able to - but after an unsuccessful struggle, he sighed and smiled. And then he started laughing, and she did too.
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