Dala was born in the Underground City, and for a long time she asked no questions. The rusted iron walls, her parents’ constant toil, her community’s near-enslavement, the strange ladders leading to nothing, to iron ceilings – she grew up with these things and so took them for granted. When she was old enough to pick up a toolbox she was put to work, and like all the other laborers in the Underground City, her life became a dull rhythm of work and sleep with no time for asking.
And then the revolution came. The laborers rose up one night and took their hammers and wrenches and pipes to their masters, breaking into their expensive homes to take them captive or otherwise kill them. The masters had weapons and defenses and guards who remained loyal, and the revolution became bloody and confused. In the chaos that ensued Dala noticed, for the first time, a ladder that led to a tiny opening in the iron ceiling. One of the masters must have somehow created the opening to retreat. Amidst shouts and screams that grew louder by the moment, Dala scampered up and squeezed her tiny body to the other side.
She found herself in an impossibly ornate palace covered in a thick dust. As she made her way through the labyrinthine rooms full of lavish furniture and opulent decorations, she passed skeletons lying in every possible position, taken by surprise by some form of immediate death. She passed from room to room, noting that the walls, ceilings and floors were all covered with dark purple cloths, curtains and carpet. After many hours wandering the infinite procession of rooms, she found a knife and cut a hole in the curtains, revealing the same rusted iron she grew up inside. It was only then that she noticed that she had been walking in complete darkness.
Somewhere in the days that followed she ended up in a vast throne room. She fell to the floor, starving and on the verge of death, wondering if she had the energy to turn around and head back to her city. And then, for the first time since she’d emerged in the palace, she heard a noise that she hadn’t produced. A squat man stood amidst a pile of skeletons, fashioning a rope from the thick velvet curtains. She watched in silence as he toiled and toiled, finally fighting his weight up the long rope, ripping the cloth from the ceiling, and giving an enormous sigh of relief as it revealed an opening. He disappeared into it, and after an hour Dala followed his lead with her renewed strength.
Dala spent the better part of that year finding her way from floor to floor, slowly ascending the city. Every floor was completely different and entirely isolated from the others. There were monarchies in some, warring factions in others, some that were completely uninhabited, and some that showed traces of civilizations that rose and fell. In every floor finding a possible exit proved either difficult or near-impossible, sometimes taking days, sometimes taking months. On some floors Dala kept hidden, searching in secret and stealing what she needed to survive. On others she befriended inhabitants, finding partners to help in her search or to protect her from other inhabitants. People asked few questions – and few asked the single question that grew and grew in Dala as she continued her ascension.
When she reached the final floor before the surface, she knew it immediately. This was a floor completely different from the others. It seemed ancient, like it predated every other floor, or was the only one preserved that many thousands of years. There were giant stones and sand everywhere, and the walls were painted a color that reminded Dala of the sky she’d read about in the old books. It felt the way she imaged the outside to feel – there was a different quality in the air, and a strange movement to it. This rugged and mostly desolate landscape was inhabited by Guardians – impossibly old, bearded men who dragged enormous swords behind them as they walked.
Dala planned her entrance carefully, seeming to fall from the sky in front of a few Guardians she’d chosen as the kindest. She told them she was a god, come to check on their progress. Being young and female, two things the Guardians hadn’t seen since the first days, they believed her. Over the next few weeks she learned of their history and their mandate. Many were so old that they forgot exactly what they were guarding. Only a few were able to articulate it, and even those had it down to the vague phrase, “Stop those from above. Stop those from below.” Dala sat and listened and took in her surroundings, always looking above, always seeking the opening.
In her second month she found it. It was complex, a dozen giant locks embedded in odd places amongst the stones. None were easily visible, but over time and with daily midnight wanderings she found them all. As the Guardians slept one night, she silently stole each of their swords, fitting them into the locks as she knew they would. One by one she stabbed the locks until she heard a click, and turned. When the twelfth sword turned the twelfth lock, a giant rumbling overtook her entire world. Everything shook, and after recovering from her fright, she scrambled towards the noise. Right above the Guardians’ beds a circular opening the size of a large room had opened up, revealing a long tunnel into darkness. Iron ladder rungs then emerged, leading into the nothingness above. Dala took advantage of the still-woozy Guardians trying to comprehend what had happened, and scrambled up the rungs without a moment’s hesitation. She heard them behind her but climbed so quickly that soon their grunts were a distant echo.
The climb seemed eternal, and she was glad for the darkness. After what could have been hours or an entire day, she found herself clinging onto a rung with her elbow, draped over herself, ready to surrender to her exhaustion. The Guardians must have quit long ago. She took one last look up before giving up and dropping into the nothingness. Her eyes had adjusted by this point, and so in the distance, she noticed the ceiling. She forced herself to keep climbing, her hands calloused and her body practically limp. The ladder led to a small circular hatch that she pushed aside with little trouble. Then she heaved her body onto the next floor and collapsed. She lay there for a long time.
When she awoke, she found herself in a vast control room full of rusted iron cranks and levers. Wandering through it she found a book, faded and coated in dust. She sat and read it in a single sitting, her eyes growing wider with each page. If she were to believe its contents, this Underground City she had known her entire life wasn’t a city at all. It was, in fact, a colossal automaton. The diagrams showed a giant humanoid machine whose head reached far above the clouds. A pestilence had settled over the world thousands of years ago, and the automaton was built to preserve her people. There was a revolt early-on that led to each floor being completely sealed off from the others. The automaton was built with dual purpose. Besides providing a moving shelter from the storms of the outside world, it was also built to defend the planet from a growing threat that was never named.
Putting the book down, Dala shook her head, deciding that it was a work of fantasy. For proof, she walked to the biggest crank she could find and pulled it as hard as she could. Her world shook and suddenly she felt herself ascending thousands of feet in an instance. Even through the iron floors she suddenly heard countless voices screaming below her. She fell to the floor, but looked up in time to see two enormous ovals open in front of her. She had awakened the automaton, and was looking through its eyes into a world she’d only read about in books.
She spent a long time perched in the automaton’s left eye, taking in the blues and whites, the different species of clouds and the blur of earthy colors far beneath them. Most of all, she sucked the pure air into her in heavy draughts. She watched the day become evening become night and witnessed her first sunrise. Then it was time to learn to pilot the colossus. She knew it was her only chance at escape.
For seven days and nights she tested each crank and lever, taking note of every movement the automaton seemed to make. She dined on all of the curious birds who flew into the machine’s eyes. By the seventh day she felt comfortable enough with the controls that she began operating the automaton in earnest. Though the control room was clearly designed to be run by a team of twelve or more, she did her best to move the machine without having it lose its balance.
The muted earthy colors gradually gave way to golden ones – a desert, if the books were right – she guessed. The golden sands seemed endless. Every morning she awoke, piloted the automaton an average of twenty steps and fell asleep that night exhausted. The days ran into each other, as they were mostly identical. Finally, on day fifteen or fifty, she gave a loud whoop at the sight of the color she’d been dreaming about since the beginning. Dark blue. The ocean. Without a moment’s hesitation she piloted the automaton into the ocean, watching the water get closer and closer. After two days of walking deeper and deeper into the sea, the water finally became so close that Dala could smell it. On the third morning the water was at eye level.
What happened to Dala is anyone’s guess. But lost in the ocean, standing and at the ready, is an enormous iron automaton. Built to defend the planet, it could also be used to demolish it. Perhaps a sailor will happen upon it. Perhaps a castaway. Or maybe the monster Dala read about it that book, said to be chained up in the lowest level of the colossus, will find a way through the iron walls and claim its place at the helm of the metal leviathan.
Animation by Jay Quercia