Smoke Beyond Masdar

Debarun-SarkartwitterDebarun Sarkar sleeps, eats, reads, smokes, drinks, labors and occasionally writes and submits. He studied English and Sociology at the universities, but now spends most of his time juggling between freelancing and writing while halting at Calcutta for the moment. Works have previously appeared and or are forthcoming in The Brown Critique, Aainanagar, Foliate Oak, Cerebration, and The Opiate.

Arriving in Masdar, the first thing she did was put her hand on the walls surrounding the city. She had touched walls of all kinds in her work as an archeologist, but as she touched this wall, she remembered a quote by H.G. Wells in which he had wondered about the ruins that will be left of New York while looking at the skyline.

The skyline of Masdar from the center of the city could easily be mistaken for any other city when standing at ground level, only with glimpses of dust flying in the distant horizon. But near the wall, the city felt like both a prison and a fortress. She wondered like Wells, what would Masdar look like a millennium from now or more, if abandoned.

She had come to the city for an academic conference on architecture. The conference droned on about urban systems, affordable housing, environmental hazards, but her mind wandered outside the window and towards the sky. A city in the middle of the desert, walled. Who had constructed the city and why did they bother walling it? The air conditioning was keeping the dust in the air out. She wondered about the lives led in former times on the same land—how had they breathed?

She skipped the evening informal meetings after the conference and went out into the city for a stroll instead, which took her to the bars playing heavy electronic music with beats on the edge of arbitrariness—a wall of sound which made sure no one in the audience talked to anyone without electronic mediation.

She downed a few shots and ventured out towards the entry into the city and nearer to the wall. She approached a structure which looked to her like an outpost of surveillance or a module that manually controlled the gates. With automation throughout the city including the transportation system, she was surprised by this one last remnant of manual labor. She found a metal staircase leading up to the outpost from behind. Glancing through the cabin window, she found a watchman in his thirties. He was sitting on a chair with a drink in his hand, barely looking at the surveillance feeds. She didn’t hesitate to signal her arrival and knocked at the windowpane.

She talked to him over the evening as they shared a drink and he explained that not many unauthorized people approach the wall anymore, so he keeps a drink by his side for the occasion. Masdar’s new governance structure had given it almost state-like capacities with no federal financial sharing—the village economies around it have no direct relation with Masdar anymore. He told her stories about anarchist insurrectionaries attacking the walls during the early days. His outpost was built during those days. Now that the drought had killed most of the population, the villagers don’t mind the fortress-like structure.

Far away in the distance, beyond the wall, a large plume of smoke rose up in the sky. The watchman’s relaxed mood suddenly changed. He sat upright and began cycling through various feeds on the screen.

“You should leave. The drones will head towards that smoke at any moment.”

“Right now? I should leave right now?” She gripped her drinking glass, half full, and kept it on the table.

“Yes, I will have to start filing a report. Any kind of smoke within a fifty kilometer radius of the city’s wall disturbs the speculative market of carbon trading. That smoke is not supposed to be there. I must file all sightings of unauthorized smoke. It’s important.”

She took one quick glance out at the sky. The sun was going to set soon. She picked up her backpack, climbed down from the cabin, and spotted an exit door as a faint light emanating from the wall. She ran towards it with all the energy she could gather, held her entry/exit card against the access pad, then held her breath for the tiny red dot to turn green as the metal door slid open slowly for what felt like minutes. One permission remained to enter the walled city—one last field trip beyond for research.

Stepping outside, the concrete suddenly gave way to sheer dust. She found her hair and eyelids caked in fine powder. As she wrapped the hijab around her head and face, the wind grew stronger and she took longer strides while the smoke billowed with no immediate sign of stopping. The line of smoke was only getting thicker.

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