Back | Next

In the Frozen City


Chris Roberson

I did it. I was responsible. Whatever blame or praise is due for what happens to the city, it falls on me.

I made the city, as surely as if I had laid every stone with my own bare hands. Not that I ever worked, not truly. When the construction of the city was begun, when I was just cresting my fortieth year, my hands had never once worn the calluses of an honest day’s work. But I paid for the city; without me, it never would have happened.

I was born to money, a platinum spoon in my mouth, and after years of dallying in the best schools wealth could buy, I saw it as my duty to expand my family’s immense holdings even further. Acquisitions, leverage buy-outs, takeovers-- “ethics” was a word I barely knew, and never used. Mine was greed for its own sake. Mine the ever-growing hoard of treasures, left to collect dust in an unmarked account overseas.

We buried my father on my thirty-eighth birthday, leaving me the last scion of our ancient line. I watched as his body was consigned to the flames in the crematorium, dutiful mourners at my side. I felt nothing, not sorrow, not anguish, my eyes dry and clear. I imagined the flesh peeling back, the bones beneath blackening slowly into ash in the heat, and still I felt nothing. When the flames had done their job, and we transported the urn to the cold marble of the family crypt, I stood before the serried ranks of my forbearers, all now gone. All had left behind wealth and accumulated power, passed from generation to generation, never lessening, all for the greater glory of the family. And all of it, now, on my shoulders, and in my hands. And still I felt nothing.

That evening, drunk on unimaginably expensive brandy, eyes stinging from the smoke of dozens of cigars each worth a laborer’s full paycheck, I sat alone in my grand study, surveying my life. A creeping realization came that not all the tears misting my eyes were caused by the smoke. I looked on my works that night, on what I had made of my life, and I wept.

What have I made, I asked myself. What do I leave behind me?

My only answer was an empty house, filled with treasure, empty of people. No friends. No wife. No family.

That night I dreamt of flames licking my heels, consigning me to ash and oblivion, forgotten, unloved and unmourned. Then I dreamt a legacy. I dreamt a city.


The next day I suspended all projects in which my corporation was engaged, hired an army of architects, scientists, sociologists, and artists, and began my work.

The city was my dream, my goal, my obsession. It would be my repayment for all that my family had taken over the long generations, a final recompense to balance the scales. When I died, my passing would have counted for something.

I purchased a large tract of land in New Mexico, miles to a side, had the land quickly surveyed, and ordered plans drawn up at once. Designs were debated, considered and rejected. A revolutionary waste reclamation system was developed solely for the project, and a previously unexplored energy source perfected and quickly applied to the needs of the city. Construction began just two years after the project’s inception, and continued day and night for two more years. I rested little until the city was complete, and expected the same dedication from each of those in my employ, from the highest-paid functionary to the menial laborer. All who could not meet my expectations were politely dismissed and immediately replaced.

By the time the work was done and the finishing touches completed, I’d bled dry the money my family had for so many generations hoarded. With barely enough left to support myself, I threw wide the gates of the city and settled back to watch.

I was the first inhabitant of what I’d come to call Haven. Many others joined me. Everyone who’d had any part in the city’s construction was invited first. Some resisted, sure they’d be unable to afford to live in such a paradise. The bright gleaming skyline, the carefully manicured parks, the wide, clean avenues. They thought it a playground for the rich, an exclusive retreat for those able to afford unattainable luxury.

When I announced that anyone that wished to could live in the city for free, that I expected no payment, no rent, the graceful townhouses began to fill. When I announced that no citizen would be forced to work, that they’d be fed and clothed regardless and could work only if they wished, the neat apartments in the shining towers became homes.

Soon, the city was alive, peopled by the homeless and hungry, individuals unable to work, families without food for their children. I welcomed them all. I had no screening process, no careful selection. Any and all could live in my city, as long as they did no harm to anyone else there.

At first petty theft was a problem, more out of habit than anything else. When the citizens realized that their every need was provided for, though, crime became virtually unknown.

Food was reconstituted from waste, water purified by huge processing plants. Energy in abundance was ours from the completely efficient and clean breeder reactors at the city’s perimeter. People saw work as a diversion, not a burden, filling every needed position, and the arts thrived as citizens started making full use of their abundant free time.

As the unofficial mayor of the city, I surveyed the growing prosperity from my penthouse suite in the center of the downtown area with a sense of pride. I myself found relaxation tending a garden daily in the city’s main park, marveling at the blisters and scratches on my fair hands. I made a friend of as many citizens as I could, and busied myself every week with the preparations for the parties I held in my home on Saturdays.

It was at one of these gatherings that I met Raymond. An artist with a master’s degree in fine arts, Raymond had spent the last ten years of his life on the street, subsisting entirely on charity and pity. Moving from one town to the next, he slept on rude cots at the Salvation Army, and ate hand-outs or scraps or not at all. Raymond had been one of the first to move into Haven, and was one of the most benefited by its existence. The works he’d produced since settling there were magnificent, staggering, and improved with each successive attempt.

We became fast friends in the months that followed, and rare was the day that passed in which we did not sit long hours discussing religion, politics, and the arts. Raymond introduced me to life, to real life, something I had before known only as an acquaintance.

It was fitting, then, that he was by my side when first I heard the news.

A secretary in charge of communication with the outside world came to me in my penthouse where I dined with Raymond and reported that some terrorist organization, I never knew which, had laid hands on a nuclear bomb, affixed it to a cruise missile, and let fly. Preliminary reports showed it angling towards the western area of the United States but, because of a baffling device built into the missile, no one was sure quite where it was heading. It might have been Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or even Haven.

Wasting no time, I rushed to an elevator, dragging Raymond behind. He began a breathless question, panting from fear and exertion, but I waved him to silence and waited. Seconds later the elevator doors opened onto a subbasement facility known only to me and a handful of the city’s designers. Raymond’s eye flashed with confusion, darting occasionally to me, asking unspoken questions.

He followed as I rushed to a large console, checked a few dials and displays, and pressed an unmarked button with a quick thrust.

Then I led Raymond up and out of the building, to explain to him and the others what I’d done.


When designing the city, I’d taken great pains that it should exist for a long time. It seemed to me pointless to go to such effort to produce a transitory result. I instructed a handful of researchers, then, to develop a means of protecting the city against disaster, natural or man-made. What they gave me, in the final days of the city’s construction, was the Screen.

It was a simple thing, really, an idea so obvious that once stated, one wondered why it had not been used before. At least that is what they told me. To me, it was as hermitic and confused as any of the things such researchers discovered. But the Screen would work, they assured me, and that was all that mattered.

The Screen was designed to stop any threat from damaging the city. Earthquakes would be stilled at the city’s edge, tornadoes quieted before ever passing over. And, yes, missiles of any type would never reach the ground. But there was a price. There always is.

Once the Screen was activated, it could not be shut off. Not without suffering whatever disaster had prompted its use. The Screen, it was explained to me, had the affect of accelerating everything inside it, so that from inside the outside world would seem to have stopped entirely. It had something to do with relativistic effects, they told me, but I cared nothing for their explanations; I wanted only results.


I told the citizens about the Screen, and about the threat facing the city. I explained that, because of the baffling device on the missile, we had no sure proof that we were its target, but that it seemed completely likely. I informed the citizens, then, that it was in our own best interest that the Screen remain on. We had nothing to worry, I said. We have the means of replenishing our energy supply, and restocking our food stores. We are self-sufficient, and have no need of the outside world. Do not panic, I asked, please.

At first, people remained calm. Stunned, perhaps is a better word. They went about their days, numb, as though nothing had happened. I had the foolish pride to believe that my words had dispelled their fears, and that life would go on as normal. But they were like a city asleep. And eventually the city woke.

The thefts were first. Hoarding—of food, clothing, “valuables.” Then came the beatings. Then came the murders.

A certain segment of the population found their bottled existence stifling, and could only think to vent their frustrations through aggression and violence. Dozens of people died with every passing day.

The city was thrown into a panic. I appeared before the citizens again, telling then to remain calm, to stay within their homes, the doors locked. This will pass, I explained, you have no need to fear.

So we stayed indoors, locked away as in cages, while outside in the streets the animals roamed free.

And outside the city, seen faintly through my high tower windows, the world outside stood frozen, cold.

In time, the chaos calmed, and the last two animals died, one killed by the other, and he by his own hand. Then the doors were opened again and we, the people, once more filled the streets.

We were fewer then, and calmer. We went through our jobs, our recreations, our lives, quietly, as though afraid to disturb one another. We became listless, slow, trudging along the wide avenues and bright green parks in vacant herds, moving from home to work to play to home and then back again, scarcely noticing the difference.

We grew old and crooked, speaking little and listening less. And the world outside quivered, just out of reach, a crystal mirage.

I saw little of Raymond in all that time. From the moment I pressed the button, I had no friend in the city. I was respected, perhaps feared, but I was invited into no one’s home, and no citizen would think to enter mine. I stood alone, day after day, tending to the small garden in the park, watching as others drifted by on bicycles or on foot, scarcely noticing me.

Raymond came to me there, in the park. I was trimming a hedge, and I did not notice him until he stood directly before me.

You’ve grown a beard, he told me. And your hair’s gone white.

I was startled, unsure how to react. No one had spoken to me in what seemed like years.

Yes, I began slowly. And you’ve gotten fat.

He chuckled a bit, flatly, and patted his round belly.

There’s little else to do here, he answered, his voice sounding bitter. We eat, and we sleep. What else is there?

He grew silent, and stood looking at me for a moment. I can only imagine what he saw. A bent old man, tired of life, busying himself with the minor lives of plants and flowers.

I looked back at him, and saw something in his eyes, in his manner. Something I couldn’t understand.

What do you want, I asked him. Why have you come to see me?

He stared hard at me, shifted from one foot to the other and back, and answered.

This has to stop, he told me. This can’t go on.

What do you mean, I asked, pretending I didn’t know.

If you won’t stop it, he answered, I will. I know how.

You don’t, I told him. It would be foolish to try.

I see. Exactly as I’d thought. Very well, I’ll do it.

With that, he turned and stalked away in the direction of the tower in which I lived.


I have returned home now. I wait. It is quite possible that Raymond will be able to understand the Screen’s mechanism, there remains the chance that he will be unable to deactivate it. Should he do so, there is a chance that we will all be spared. We have never known, after all this time, just where the missile was intended to strike.

I leave these words in the vain hope to preserve what we have built here, that my legacy should live on, if only in memories. But I know that, should the missile strike, these pages will be lost, and if it does not, they will lose all meaning, becoming the senile ramblings of a man who condemned an entire city to hell.

Raymond should have deciphered the machinery by now, if he is able. I have said enough. From where I sit, I can see out my window, over the city, to the frozen world beyond. I think of my garden, and wish I had finished the hedge.

Back | Next