Coffan De’Lashan had a royal sounding name, but a decidedly un-royal job. He worked for thirteen hours a day in Wheat Farm #8.
“I’m going to die here,” he thought bitterly as he washed the rich peat from his hands. “Right here on Wheat Farm #8. Wearing these ridiculous fatigues and surrounded by cocoa colored dirt.”
A soft voice bespoke from the nearby speaker, “Unit 334 wash time has ended, Unit 334.”
Flicking specks of water from his hands Coffan stood to his full, towering height. His back was sore from crouching in the field all day, but he still managed a shrug at his brother Hunaven. The man nodded back and they rejoined the line of laborers from Unit 334.
Of course Coffan and his brother had once profited from the sweat of the lower class laborers. But that was five years ago, and after their father failed to capture a rampaging Allosaurus the value of the De’Lashan name had plummeted. Once they were spoken quite highly of at social gatherings like the fashionable howdah tea parties.
Unfortunately the Allosaurus had gone on to kill three of the York’le’Fams before it was brought down by the guards. And as much weight as the De’Lashan name held, the York’le’Fams had a finger on every pulse in Haven.
The elder De’Lashan had been banished to The Forbidden Lands outside The Wall and presumably met a grisly fate at the claws of a hungry carnivore. Without a patriarch to rule the house the three sons were cast to the lower class. Their youngest brother Remelar had died in a street brawl brought on by mining riots. To survive Coffan and Hunaven had signed up for farming duties. They had indeed survived, although Coffan was the more anguished of the pair for he could remember the luxuries Neotechnoist life had to offer.
Fresh faced and eager eyed, Coffan gazed up at the straight frame of his dad. “Father, may I go to the Triceratops race today?”
“My lad, you have an hour of rifle practice and two hours of chemistry, and don’t think I’ve forgotten.”
Rolling his eyes and feeling rebellious, he poked at the old man, “Rifle practice, what’s the point?”
“The point?” His father turned and Coffan gleefully noticed a mix of anger and exhaustion at delivering the same speech. “My boy the point is to protect your very way of life from the savage reaches outside our fair Wall.”
“May The Wall stand forever,” Coffan automatically recited, his years of youthful training like a muscle reaction.
“Let us hope it does.” Quieter, “Let us hope it does.” Regaining his composure the elder continued, “For there are dangers outside it,” his father turned his back to the youth and swept a grandiose arm towards the distant border, “dangers you should hope to never face.”
“But father it’s so boring here -”
His father spun again, the tails of his suit jacket twirling as he did, “Enough!” Coffan immediately knew he had pushed too far. “My parents – your grandparents – worked very hard to make a safe life for you…for us.” His tirade finished the elder leaned heavily on the table and coughed. “I won’t have you disrespecting their memory with such talk.”
Silence hung in the den. A slight breeze ruffled the curtains bundled in the corner. “Coffan, I understand youthful vigor, but I also understand duty.”
Trying to sooth the old man Coffan obediently lowered his eyes and mumbled, “Yes, father.”
“Now put aside these childish races. They are cruel to the dinosaurs and unproductive for society.” The older man shook the lecture from his head and paused for a moment, clearly mulling over something under his worn brow. When he continued, it was in a solemn voice, “Perhaps it is time. Accompany me to the Great Library.”
Normally Coffan would have sighed at the thought of more book learning, but something in his father’s determined stride led him to believe an important page in his life had just turned.
“But, but that isn’t anything like what they taught us in school, father.” Coffan’s delicate understanding of the world was crumbling around him. They were in the lowest level of the Great Library and ancient, worn books were spread across the table in front of them.
“Some of The Council believe it is better to shelter the children. Some even argue that we should do the same for the adults.” From the steely glint in his father’s eye Coffan knew he was of an opposite view.
Still reeling from the historical texts, Coffan felt lost in a jungle of confusion. He tried to grasp onto a certainty, “But why then can you show me this?”
“My son, you know my place among the Historical Guild. Part of that high privilege is to share the True History with my children when I deem it necessary.”
Coffan slumped into the plush chair behind him, barely noticing how drained he was from the lesson. His mind was too busy racing over what his father had just told him. To Coffan and thousands of other children in the towns surrounding Haven, dinosaurs had always existed alongside humanity. There was nothing outside The Wall except degenerate, uncivilized savages. There was only Haven; the light of the world.
And now his father was telling him the Dusters – primitive, meat eating yahoos eager to pillage and destroy – were actually descendants of Neotechnoists. Merely men and women who had forsaken the safety and seclusion of life inside The Wall for uncertainty and danger in The Forbidden Lands. Danger…and freedom, Coffan thought.
He quickly derailed the unthinkable train of thought, and shuddered for even considering life outside. Suddenly Triceratops races and chemistry books didn’t seem so bad.
Furthermore the volcano at the center of Haven was only a few hundred years old. Coffan’s eyes scanned the pages in front of him, but his brain could barely absorb the truths plainly shown on the pages.
The men from the past had called the area surrounding the volcano Yellowstone National Park, and had never known dinosaurs. But the prehistoric titans had lived right below their feet in a perfectly preserved lava chamber.
On a quiet spring day in 2037 all that changed. Eruption Day. Coffan still couldn’t believe it. His face dropped as he looked over the diagrams of the chamber for the hundredth time. The hollow space was miles wide and separated from the surface by a thin layer of cooled magma. On Eruption Day the chamber had cracked open, and like invaders from another time dinosaurs spilled forth.
Foreign gases rushed from the chamber and heated the ozone layer, raising the temperature of the planet. Oceans rose into crushing tidal waves that wiped out the coasts. Jungles full of once extinct plants flourished around the volcano. And dinosaurs met and clashed with the remnants of mankind.
“Why would The Council hide this?” For a brief moment Coffan was inexplicably mad at his rulers, “What could they gain?”
“Control, my lad, control. Regardless of how awful conditions are for the underclass of Haven, they are taught with certainty that life outside The Wall is worse. So they stay.” For a moment Coffan realized how old and tired his father truly was. “They farm and mine and harvest for us. The Council won’t risk another mass emigration.”
“But I know, and surely others do.” Coffan thought of the various nobles the De’Lashan family socialized with – they couldn’t all be in the dark.
“Some do learn the truth, and may even secretly foray Over The Wall for temporary excitement and pleasure. But most who have the power and influence to hear the True History in the first place, well, they prefer the comforts of their station.”
Coffan scraped at the gruel in his tin dish, sopping up every last scrap to fill his rumbling belly. He remembered running away from his father’s house after learning the True History. But he was soft then – softer than the scarred body and calloused hands of a laborer would ever believe. Life with the underclass was hard for a runaway noble, and he had retreated back to the De’Lashan mansion, starving and crying like a lost baby.
That was in the past, Coffan thought, pushing the remnants of his meal away. Time to focus on the present, and the present was Wheat Farm #8.
The facility wasn’t bad compared to some of the stories he heard about the towns further from Haven. Laborers were allowed their own cot and bedside table in a shared bunkhouse. After a long day under the sun the laborer’s were left to their own devices, aside from the restriction of leaving the bunkhouse compound.
Like most nights Coffan found himself playing cards with his mates in Unit 334. They were a dour lot during the day – and rightly so – but cut loose at night in the desperate way only men on the bottom of society can.
Tonight was quieter, aside from the illegally brewed alcoholic slosh from a rooftop still. How the guards never found it Coffan never understood; in a way he suspected they had catalogued the still but let the laborer’s have their fun. Peace was important, sometimes.
“Oi I was talking to a lass in the market, an she tells me she knowsa feller who works The Wall.” Teddy was blustering again, as Teddy was wont to do.
“May The Wall stand forever,” Coffan joked, taking a swig and cringing.
“Right, so I says,” he puffed up his chest in the best imitation of a manly man he knew, “M’lady, whatever are you implying? All proper like right?” The rest of the gang nodded, they had long heard Teddy’s tall tales. “So she leans in close, all perfumey, right? And she says ‘Good sir, the anguish of the underclass is of great piety to me -”
“I think you mean ‘pity’?” Coffan interrupted.
“Whatever Coffan, ye bloody well knew what I meant?” Shaking his head in mock anger, Teddy leaned back over the table of slosh and continued, “So she’s all hearts aflame over us laborers. I almost tell ‘er to swing by and visit us poor, downtrodde’ folk.” Riotous laughter. “Apparently she wants reforms and all that. Typical snobbery, right? I tell her if she really wants to help ta’bring me a grapplin’ hook, a bag o’ Neodollars, and the schedule for ta’guards.”
Grumbling from the corner the old harpy of the camp spoke up, “Over The Wall? Forgot that.” He leaned into the light, mottled skin and stringy gray hair overruled by a long triple scar running from scalp to chin. “I tells ya every time. Curse that place. Enjoy wha’ ye have here, lads.” Hand waving and cries of “Bah!” all around. “I’m serious, thirteen hours a day ain’t nothin’ -”
Interruptions abound, “Oi only thirteen, they got ya on ta’light shift?”
“Ain’t nothing compared ta’wild dinos. You think ye seen it at the races, or when one gets loose? Bah! Child’s play, that’s what for. Domesticated and soft, just like all ye all.”
Cries of “Hey now” and “Watch yourself geezer” greeted the old man as he slumped back into the shadow.
Abrupt silence fell over the clustered group of Unit 334. The comments put some of the laborer’s to thinking. Most imagined the lady’s long tresses and smile, or at least their version of it. Coffan imagined the aforementioned guard’s schedule, caught his brother’s eye, and smiled.
“Hey Teddy, come here a minute.”
“Coffan I ain’t got all day, they need me on ta’processor by sun up.”
“Listen,” he looked around nervously, dropping his glance when a supervisor strolled by. “That lady you mentioned. What’s her name?”
“My story strike your fancy?”
“Mayhaps.” They stood in silence. Coffan fidgeted and glanced nervously around for guards. Teddy let him squirm a moment, then extended a hand.
“Right, but I get your work creds for ta’afternoon.”
Hissing through his teeth, “You bloody vulture.”
“Ya want her name’er not?” Smug and patient as a bloody vulture.
Digging in his pocket Coffan slapped a stack of gray cards into Teddy’s hands. The Laborer Credits were used as currency in the bunkhouses and company storeroom, and meant Coffan would go hungry for the night. “Fine. Well?”
“Cassandra. Red hair, okay face, long blue dress when I saw ‘er.”
Coffan tipped an imaginary hat and hurried to see Reginald, a guard with loose morals who was quick to look the other way when it came to laborer funded expeditions off the farm.
He was dead tired from his day in the field and hungry as a grazing Longneck. But Coffan still cautiously stalked outside the iron gates of Wheat Farm #8. The air smelt fresher, the grasses greener, and the sky clearer once he was free of the bars. A laborer’s life, he mused, settling into a low run to avoid the spotlights.
Another handful of Laborer Credits, this one painfully large, passed from Coffan’s hands to secure the later shift the next morning. Which meant Coffan had twelve hours, precluding sleep.
The clearing around Wheat Farm #8 was soon engulfed in thick jungle, and Coffan paid sweat and blood to tear through it. Long trees and strangling vines surrounded him, and only the light of the moon illuminated his desperate flight.
A gentle herd of Stegosaurus ignored his approach. Snorts of protest matched defensive shuffling as he neared the young, so he veered his course past the grazers and towards a stream. He greedily sopped up cool water, soaking his face and laborer overalls. Satisfied he continued to roam towards the distant lights of Haven.
The town was aglow even at the late hour, and he soaked in the bustling activity of his old home. Even in his laborer slacks the guards didn’t give him a second look. If he was inside The Wall he had a free pass in their books.
Haven. What a town. What a city, he corrected. The population was close to thirty thousand, from old steel frame homes stacked like crates to canvas huts high in the trees. And in the middle of it all was the volcano.
Coffan moved along the black flagstone streets and up avenues lit by gas lanterns. Small herbivores hitched to carts rolled past, each packed with grinning citizens. At one intersection a Triceratops’ horns had been rigged with pulleys and levers to raise a massive bamboo frame for a future office. Guards in the finest kinetic armor kept half an eye on the proceedings, their lever-action rifles stowed over a casual shoulder.
One of the more alert guards caught Coffan’s eye before he could glance away. “Citizen, you look in a rush. May we assist you?”
“Pssh offisha he’s assisting to us, with the -” Giggling broke the drunken slur, “With the, the thing! Yesh, the thing! Come alongs now Francis.” A genial arm was thrown over Coffan’s shoulder. Attached to the arm was a red faced bloated from fine wine. The guard stepped back as the arm gently steered Coffan towards an open square with a fountain at the center.
“Francis we’sho glad to find you. Where have you, where have you gone?” His numerous friends and admirer’s tittered with tasteful laughter. Each looked ready to fall over. Coffan turned to gulp fresh air before facing the crowd. Youthful nobles with nothing to do – the worst.
Plastering on a blank stare and what he hoped were glazed eyes, Coffan shouted, “What matters is Francis is here!” A cheer and a handful of belches erupted from the crowd.
“Good we just were just heading to the thing, the, uh,”
A feminine voice slurred by fruity drink helped from the back ranks, “Fountain!”
“Right, like I said Francis, the thing. The water, yeah…” the red faced lout’s arm went limp on Coffan’s shoulder and he knew the man was close to unconciousness.
Realizing how overwhelming his task of finding Cassandra was, Coffan figured drunk nobles were better help than no help at all. “I was with Cassandra, but now she has left.” Tisk tisks and sighs from the female half of the group. “Where art though fair Cassandra?” Coffan faked a swoon and held an arm to his forehead. The slop nobles appreciated.
“Francis! Francis my dear,” the red faced buffoon blinked away, “Cassandra is probably at her sillies wine and fruit den thing.”
Coffan’s ears perked up as the group continued to slowly stumble towards the fountain. What luck that all the nobles were still a gossipy, interbred group. “Wine and fruit eh? Steer me there and I shall deem to recover her.” Even after years on the farm he could still speak at their inflated, over-indulged level.
“Francis! Three-Claw Avenue. Yous of all should know this?” Having reached the fountain a brunette was quick to stumble over the edge and take a dip. Gasping and giggling through her corset and dress the gentle madam was quick to drag a pair of guests in. “Francis! Fountain party!”
“Of course!” Coffan shoved the red faced fool into the fountain and mocked horror at the splash. Then, smiling, he turned and stumbled away from the fountain.
Sputtering water the clingy noble surfaced and gurgled, “Francis! Where…where?”
“To…” Coffan vaguely waved up the street, “to the thing!”
I guess that would have been me, he thought. Father was right, it seemed. The races, the parties, the skimping practice to play and frolick were all leading him down the path of debauchery. Five years on a farm hadn’t been a small price to pay to save him from a life of waste. But Coffan imagined he would have been content with the smallness and safety of his life inside The Wall, if only in an ignorant, dull kind of way.
As he started up the narrow Three-Claw Avenue he knew none of that mattered now. Freedom mattered. Laborer Credits and overalls and wash breaks didn’t. To Hunaven he was daft and foolish, but so be it. The path Over The Wall, permanently, was often lonely and full of alienation.
He still remembered his station when gently pushing open the door to The Cove of Wine, which appeared to be the only reasonable wine and fruit bar on the entire avenue. Head lowered and hands crossed in front of him, he shuffled quietly to the bartender.
“Sir, I wish to speak with Cassandra.”
The gruff man slowly looked Coffan up and down, judging. Gruffness was a global trait of bartenders it seemed, but eventually he grunted and waved his hand towards the stairs. Coffan stole a glance around the room. The small, cramped quarters were painstakingly crafted from hollow dinosaur eggs. Candles shimmered in thin alcoves, pooling wax on carved bone tables.
The room at the top of the stairs felt smaller from the looming bookshelves and imposing stacks of papers. There was but a single table, and “red hair, okay face” Cassandra was seated at it, her back to Coffan.
Uncertain how to proceed, he settled for uncomfortably clearing his throat. Eager eyes greeted him as Cassandra swivelled in her seat. The squeaking oiled wood of the chair matched the groan of the floodboards as Coffan bowed.
“Ma’am, sorry to trouble thee at such a late hour,” Coffan lead.
“By all means, please be seated.” They sized each other up for a moment. Coffan glanced at her manicured nails and tried to place her accent. Her eyes were mesmerizing. Going to have to upgrade Teddy’s appraisal when I next see him, he thought. “You are a laborer, yes?”
“Yes, from a wheat farm not far from our fair city.”
Though her words said “How interesting” her face sunk with pity. “A challenging life, I’m sure.”
“Yes, well, my friend spoke very highly of you.”
“Did he now? I do not know very many laborer’s, you must understand.”
“His name is Teddy.”
She squinted in concentration, then rose to draw the thin curtain blocking the stairs. Returning to her seat, she leaned forward and took Coffan’s hands in delicate, trembling fingers. “You wish my aid?”
In under an hour Coffan was back on Three-Claw Avenue, enjoying his last few gulps of Haven air. A copy of the guard schedule was snug under his shirt, and his pocket was weighted by a heavy Neodollar chip. Cassandra had been a most elegant and thoughtful host, he mused.
He had but one shift at Wheat Farm #8 left, then he would slip away in the night, cutting straight south. A contact of Cassandra’s was already in the area and would meet him near The Wall to exchange a few final items of preparation. Amongst them he had been promised a grappling hook.
Coffan gave his brother Hunaven a firm handshake at the end of the day which garnered a quizzical look. At least as quizzical as a worn, tanned face can be. Although eager to correct the wayward comments of Teddy, Coffan resisted the urge to mention anything about Cassandra. The fewer that knew the better.
The day rushed by, heedless of Coffan’s efforts to savour his last moments of relative peace. Even knowing the True History he expected a hard life outside The Wall. Trepidation laced his motions as he settled into his bunk for the night. Or at least the start of the night.
He had intently studied the guard schedule all morning. In fact his reverie was only broken by the loudspeaker call for Unit 334 Second Shift. Now he slid the thin, precious papers out from under his bunk. Rolling them into his overalls he listened for any break in his comrade’s breathing.
Hearing nothing but the rhythmic snoring of dozens of exhausted fieldhands, he slipped out from under the covers. He stole to the door, checking both ways before sidling down the shadowed corridor leading to the farm gates. No work tokens were left to pay off the decadent Reginald, which left him in a dangerous position. Getting caught would likely mean hard labor. Hard, ugly labor – the type meant to kill a man first in spirit then in body.
He could see the gate and towers overlooking it. Coffan knew he had but a moment to distract the guards and slip away. Part of his work had included clearing the field of volcanic rock, and he had saved the perfect sliver for the perfect occasion. Sliding the rock down his sleeve he gripped the stone and took aim near the tower. With a flap of sleeve material he hurled the rock at the tower.
The throw was perfect and it rang loudly against the steel before clattering down the stairwell. Guards jumped and scurried at the sound, and he could hear the cocking of rifles. Amazed that the distraction had worked so well, Coffan sprinted from shadow to shadow before risking the final open stretch to the gate.
Voices echoed in both towers and the spotlights swung inwards, trying to find the cause. Coffan squeezed through a gap in the barred gate, thanking the architects that they had focused more on keeping dinosaurs out than keeping laborer’s in.
Once more the jungle awaited him.
He nodded and hefted the weapon, enjoying the feeling of power it gave one so often powerless. “This is perfect, tell Cassandra she has my thanks.”
“Of course, laborer.” Clearly the hunched merchant didn’t share Cassandra’s soft spot for the underclass.
“And the hook?”
“Yes, that.” The man sorted through the massive pack at his feet. He wore simple brown robes and a woven cap and had the edgy look of a smuggler. “Here it is,” he announced, dragging a collapsible grappling hook and a hundred feet of microrope from the bag.
Coffan hastily uncoiled the rope and gave the grappling hook a few tentative swings to get used to the weight.
The man stooped to pick up his pack and interrupted midswing, “I believe that concludes our business?”
“Yes it does, many thanks.”
The man in the woven cap bowed in an exaggerated stoop before shuffling his load further along The Wall. Coffan turned his attention to the guard schedule, peered up into the darkness at the top of The Wall, gave one final sigh, and whirled the grappling hook over his head.
In moments the shift would change, and the narrowest window to freedom would open for Coffan. The rope twirled and twirled and finally loosed at the exact moment the last shift of listless, tired guards turned their backs to start down into the frame of The Wall.
The hooks expanded and settled along the volcanic parapets. Coffan tugged the fine rope once before starting up the fifty foot climb. He didn’t look back once.
His arms burned as he threw a leg over the summit of The Wall. Even at night he could discern the distant horizon, scattered and broken by mountains and jungle. If he wasn’t on such a tight schedule Coffan might have stopped to weep. His entire life had been surrounded by The Wall, and only now did he realize how big and inviting the rest of the world was.
While gawking at the seemingly endless stretch of land he adjusted the grappling hook to the outside ledge and scurried out of sight. Sliding down the microrope was likely to sever his fingers through his gloves, so he took his time kicking down the sheer surface.
After his meeting with Cassandra he imagined what this moment would be like. He thought he’d visualize his life in Haven and on the farm, but instead all he could do was imagine the open road his future promised.
Landing with barely a whisper Coffan rose and scanned his surroundings. He was out. He was free!
A voice in the darkness took him off guard before he could relish his escape. “Psst,” it hissed, and his frantic gaze eventually settled on a shape hunched at the base of The Wall. “Glad to see you -” Horror stories from his childhood of the terrible outsiders welled up unasked, and his stun gun swung up in reflex. Before he could think he had fired a shot into the center mass of the shadow.
Months of mandated pistol practice paid off and the shade stumbled and fell. Coffan knew the blast wasn’t lethal, but he still didn’t want an enraged outsider chasing him. Uncertain feet carried him to the prone form, and uncertain hands hefted his walking stick. Cringing and closing his eyes Coffan swung the staff down. A blond haired man collapsed under the blow with barely a whimper.
Coffan scolded himself for the rapid degeneration into a violent savage. Then he stooped and rifled through the man’s belongings. “Already this far gone,” he consoled as he removed bits of food and pocket lint. His hand closed around something cold and heavy, and he dragged a golden shape from the limp form.
He held the shape up to the light and intently examined the outline. Some kind of…key.