DARKNESS fell upon the city, stealing down alleyways and skirting hastily around flickering street lamps. Night in Noctis was never heralded by glowing sunsets; on the contrary, it swept across the city’s skyscrapers, the tall buildings obscuring any distant sun rays fighting their way across the horizon. Only an extremely high vantage would allow some real glimmer of dusk to be felt upon the skin. Otherwise, the darkness itself was the thief in the night, coming so quickly that it was common to be caught outside in the sudden flight of day without any warning.
Tonight, something was different in Noctis City. Crowds of people were flooding through the streets, not with the brisk efficiency of returning workers but with a bristling fury that ran along the roads like electricity. They were running, shouting, pushing, crying. Smoke poured from buildings around them, glowing a murky orange as it seeped away from the fires burning beneath it, and the sound of shattering glass continually followed the crowds as bricks were thrown in soaring arcs before crashing through nearby windows. Some kicked down doors and began to raid the shops and houses, but most surged forward with a universal urgency towards the city gates, armed with weapons or passports or crying children as they reached the barricade waiting for them.
The gates were no longer there. They had been blocked in, built up, now part of the endless wall that circled the city’s perimeter.
There was no way out.
Noise rippled backwards through the crowds as the news caused cries of shock or dismay, swelling louder and louder into a cacophony of rage that filled the night air. People began to swarm towards the newly-built wall, and the lines of militia that stood in its defence calmly raised their guns.
As if on cue, a shrill siren blasted into the night, screaming down the streets and causing rioters to fall in multitudes to their knees, pressing their hands over their ears. When it subsided, a magnified voice echoed into the ensuing silence:
“Citizens of Noctis City, I am addressing you as your Governor and elected official, Charles Belamore. I have to assume that this unrest is a result of widespread ignorance, and so I ask you now to take heed of what I am about to tell you.”
Heads turned and voices whispered, but no one could see where the Governor’s voice was coming from.
“As you have been frequently reminded, Noctis is in a current state of lock-down, and the city is now officially quarantined. This quarantine-” The Governor’s voice grew louder over the shouts of protest, “This quarantine is for the benefit of those residing within the city walls, and is intended to protect everyone from the threat that lies outside Noctis. The reality of the situation is that the Pulmoria epidemic has reached the city – this virus is air-borne and fatal, and if it were not for the immediate construction over the last few days of our simulated biosphere, we would now all be in grave danger.”
Some looked upwards. Stretching above the city and reaching across the sky from wall to wall was a huge sheet of glass, curving over Noctis like a gigantic snow dome.
“As I’m sure you can see, the smoke from the fires that you have started is beginning to gather at our Ceiling, and as a result of your reckless actions we now have to try and neutralise a build-up of dangerous gases, in addition to protecting you from the Pulmoria threat.” The Governor’s voice deepened in its severity. “I strongly advise you all to return to your homes, for your own safety. Noctis City is now under the protection of the Sentry organisation, which will use any means necessary to keep our perimeter safe-”
The lines of militia stood absolutely still, each clad in a strange, dark hazard suit and mask. Their guns were still raised.
“They are your law enforcers, protectors and police, and they will fight for the welfare of Noctis citizens. Any attempt to break quarantine will be responded to in appropriate force. However…” the Governor paused. “The greatest danger in breaking quarantine is exposure to the virus that lies in wait outside these walls. This is your final warning: return to your homes.”
“But my family are out there!” a woman shrieked as the Governor’s voice cut out. She was immediately joined by hundreds of furious cries as the throngs of protesters pushed onwards towards the blockade, the ones first and foremost breaking into a headlong sprint. The front-line of Sentry guards, as one, dropped to one knee, and the ranks opened fire into the crowds, sending screams spinning into the air as bodies fell and were trampled underfoot in the crush. Momentum carried everyone forwards, and flocks of people continued to rush against the bullets and scramble over the dying on the ground, colliding with the Sentry in an almighty burst of gunfire and noise. Those who didn’t already have weapons in their hands tore their way through the ranks, kicking and punching and screaming as they were cut down in herds by the relentless guards. Some managed to break through; they hurled themselves at the wall, clawing at it desperately until a young man pushed his way through with a huge piece of piping and smashed it against the stonework, creating a spider-web of cracks that sent up a roar of approval. While the Sentry attempted to beat everyone back, and the protesters began to rip chunks out of the wall, no-one noticed the man fall to his knees with bulging eyes as he gasped for air.
In just a few minutes, everyone was choking. The crowds that had been pressed against the barricade were now stumbling away from the cracks and holes in the wall, coughing and spluttering as they attempted to push their way back out of the crush.
“It’s the virus!” someone screamed. “We’ve let the virus into the city!”
Eventually, they were all sprawled across the ground in their hundreds, and every one of them was fighting to breathe. The only ones left standing were the Sentry, peering through their gas masks and pacing amongst the dying like black vultures. They kicked away the hands that reached out for them. One girl lunged for a Sentry guard, grabbing at his head and pulling off the mask before she was shoved back down, choking. The guard inhaled deeply, smiling, and reached for his fallen gas mask, meeting the eyes of the gasping girl on the ground.
She looked terrified. “How…do you…breathe?”
The Sentry guard straightened up and aimed his pistol at her head.