"The prince is here, the prince is here! Layoff your wrenches and place down your hammers! The Prince is here!"
For the first time in that day, the old man gazed up from his work and turned his head to the call that had grabbed his attention. Several workers nearby, his acquaintances that work along him everyday, did the same, and the sound of hammers being dropped, wrenches being clattered, and the chattering of great numbers began to emerge.
The old man grunted, placed down his hammer and nail, and with a great effort, lifted himself up to his feet. By now a line had already formed, men and women of all ages were moving in the same direction, their heads held up high in union to meet the spiral path that led them out of the giant metal cylinder.
The old man tested a few steps. His legs were not as strong as they used to be, and he knew from experience that his legs could collapse at any given moment. He picked his ears as mumbling grew around him. It was then he realized that someone was beside him.
"Need a hand, sir?" a boy asked with a smile.
The old man paused for a few seconds and then nodded. The boy gave him a shoulder to lean on.
"I can't believe it," the lad said in wonder as they joined the line. "The prince has finally come to visit us!"
The old man said nothing. The event was nothing special to him. Several years ago, the king himself had arrived for a visit. It was a phenomenon that nobody had ever heard of. The old man, once young, had seen the king's face. He had seen his majesty's long white beard, his golden crown, and his pure white horse. He could recall the king's friendly expression as he pointed to him, his powerful yet surprisingly soft voice as he spoke to him. The old man, once young, had stood before the king and reported everything about Metapolica. He had pleased the king with his attention to detail, he had been recognized by the king. He had considered himself lucky for living through such an event. The king never visited again.
The bright beaming sun appeared over the metallic walls, making the old man shield his eyes. He felt the rays warming up his skin and welcomed the pleasant change from the cold dry air beneath. The line of workers had already formed a crowd before the giant hole. It was immediately obvious who had captured their attention.
"Wow," the boy whispered.
Somewhere a horn was blown, silencing the crowd. The boy brought the old man to the center just when a soldier stepped up and announced boldly of the prince's presence. The prince then jumped off the back of a giant black horse.
The young man wore a glorifying crimson cape and a majestic crown that seemed to be shining brighter than the sun. Heads followed as the prince marched before the crowd, his chin held up higher than each worker who dared to meet his eye.
"Metapolica," the prince started, pausing to let the suspense hang in the air. "You all stand above a gold mine—a gold mine not of the land, but of the sea. For many years, our ancestors have wandered into the far regions of the land, explored every corner and every edge of the giant continent. Only the greatness of the sea, the inability to traverse through its swallowing waves, has baffled them greatly. But not anymore. My father has given us a great gift: he allowed us to stand on top of the waves; he allowed us to expand the empire farther than what the land would allow. We've seen what his reign can do. Now it's time to see what we can do! This is the generation that will conquer the sea; this is the generation that will see the lights of Metapolica!"
A cheer went up among the workers. The old man stood still, letting the boy's gesture and laugh express what he felt inside. The prince, obviously satisfied with the result of his speech, turned for another round. For a brief moment, their eyes met. For a moment, the prince seemed to have frozen.
"You there," he called. "Come forth."
As if by a magic spell, the cheering immediately ceased. Heads turned this way and that, passing along the confusion of the prince's sudden request among the crowd. The boy, with a jolt of excitement to his realization that the prince was looking in his direction, pointed to himself numbly. The prince responded by taking a few steps closer.
"You," he called again, this time accompanied by a gesture towards the old man. "Come."
All eyes were on him as the old man straightened himself and moved away from the support of the boy. Mumbling rose, the crowd made way for the old man. It was almost nostalgic; the same thing had happened under the eye of the king and it was certainly special for those who had never experienced the authority of royalty. But for the old man, the prince was a figure of less importance. Even so, he was greeted by a gentle pat on the shoulder from the young man.
"Look here, at your brother," the prince proclaimed to the workers. "He has got more wrinkles than all the cracks of Metapolica; he has seen more nights than the constellations of the stars. I praise his seniority and his initiative, his determination to work 'till the end. Indeed, he is a role model for this generation and the next, and a great one indeed."
The crowd gave no sign of agreement.
"All of you standing here shall learn through the example of this great man," the prince continued. "Let it be remembered that Metapolica was not built by laziness, but by sheer hard work."
The crowd was dismissed. One by one they looked back at the old man, faces of pity and irritation flashed across before they disappeared back into the giant cylinder. Even the boy, who looked back with sympathy, gave no further attempt at communication.
The old man, blind of the workers' sentiments, made an effort to return to his position when a hand landed on his shoulder.
"I wish to celebrate your seniority, sir," the prince smiled. "I admire you just as much as my father had."
The old man did not know what to say. The prince spoke before him.
"Come, bring your wife and children, and we'll host a great feast in your favour—"
"I do not have a family, sir," the old man blurted, his voice hoarse with age.
"You do not have a family?"
"Nor do I need pastry."
"Well then, good sir, how about a date with the finest women in the country, as fine as suiting to be your wife?"
Despite his old age, the old man shook his head wildly. "No wife, no children, that's my choice. I leave that to royalty."
"But sir," the prince persisted. "Certainly there is something you desire. If not a wife nor a feast, then I don't know how else to satisfy a man." He pondered for a moment, for the old man gave no suggestions. "Unless… how would you like a seat in the royal compartments? I'll persuade my staff to treat you like royalty."
Even before the prince had finished his sentence, the old man's head was already swaying side to side.
"Leave me be, sir," the old man said. "I am proud to stay, for my duty lies in Metapolica, my heart is in its soul. My calling is his royal majesty Saragossas the Third, for as long as he lives, I shall rise to his calling. Metapolica is his creation, and I am at his service."
The prince was utterly confounded. "My god, do you not care for yourself? Do you not eat when hungry, drink when thirsty? Are you always in by the word of the king? I envy your loyalty, but I fear your naiveness." He grabbed the old man's shoulders and turned him around. "Look out into the distance. Count how many metal you have placed, how many nails you have hammered. This is the world you have built. From my father's era to mine, you've seen it all. Sir, you've outlived my father."
For a moment, all was silent.
" I have… outlived the king?" No further words came out of the old man's open mouth.
"My father had admired you," the prince continued. "I see now that you had also admired him. Hand in hand, arm in arm; your purposes lie in each other, and Metapolica was the result. But you, having followed my father, left nothing for yourself. You have nothing to call your own. My father was a powerful ruler, but you—what are you? A worker? A servant? A slave? Have you realized it yet? My father will be remembered for the generations to come—I will be remembered as I take the throne first thing in the morning—but you will not, for you are just like the thousand others who are here bound by Metapolica!"
The prince's words echoed into the distance, bringing forth a cool breeze that swept through the artificial land. The prince heard nothing but a whistle, but for the old man, it was something much more.
"I have no more time," he whispered.
The prince watched as the old man turned, and, as if in a daze, limped towards the giant hole.
"It's too late for you," the prince said softly.
The old man appeared not to have heard it. The young prince, Saragossas the Fourth, shook his head. If he were the kind of king who regretted the past, he would be, at this very moment, regretting his earlier speech. But the prince showed no sign of regression as he jumped onto his mighty black horse and rode off with the soldiers, not looking back even once.
The old man listened to the trample of the horses' hooves disappear into the wind, his legs carrying a mind of their own as they brought him down the circular path along the edge of the giant cylinder. He did not hear the sound of the workers, the sound of clattering, banging, and the sound of the thousands who had realized their fate a long time ago. He did not even hear the boy's greeting as he sat himself in his usual seat, the seat that he stayed with at every waking hour.
He picked up the hammer, placed it beside the metallic wall, and stopped. There was no nail to hammer in on the wall. The old man's arm went limb. He stood.
"I have no more time!" he burst out, kicking his chair over in the process.
Heads turned towards his sudden outburst. In his fury, the old man whirled just enough to meet a support rope. He swung it out of the way, causing an angry outburst from the workers a floor below him who had been splattered with metal pieces from the carrier that once hung still supported by the sturdy rope. With the rope out of the way, the old man stepped to the edge of the platform.
Immediately he was seized by the arm. He tried to shake his arm loose, but the boy's firm grasp did not allow it. Terrified voices were everywhere as more hands came to grab him, eventually overpowering his struggling body and pulling him away from the edge. The old man had tears in his eyes, and the very presence of those tears weakened even the strongest of the grips. He ultimately struggled free.
"Oh, the cruelty of this life!" the old man wheezed, his eyes darting around as if in search for an escape.
He seemed to have seen something of particular value, for he began to limp further down the path. Workers, most of whom were anything but comfortable, made way for him as he came down. The old man stopped to pick up a pickaxe, then continued further down until he came to a complete halt beside a metal pipe. He placed a hand on the cold metal, his eyes followed the extent of the pipe until it could no longer be seen over the edge of the giant opening above. Then he gasped in a deep breath and raised the pickaxe.
"Shall go down with me, down and g'night!"
Somewhere, a scream covered the anguishing sound of the pickaxe bursting through the metal. Water gushed forth, plastering on to the old man's face, and shoving him back with the pickaxe still in hand. The pressure of seawater took over, breaking the bond between the pipe and the metal wall. The giant cylinder was quickly being flooded with a whirl of water.
For the workers above, running out of the giant cylinder was their only option. In their state of panic, they left everything behind. They trampled over each other and raced out into the shiny sun, as far away from the center of Metapolica as possible before the seawater would leak over the edge of the giant cylinder. The lucky ones who reached mainland would report immediately to the prince, who no doubt at this hour was preparing for his formal ceremony of obtaining the throne.
For the workers below—who were likely trapped between the gushing water and the rising level—they made themselves excellent swimmers, if swimming meant a chance to see tomorrow. As for the old man, the seawater washed his tears away; his sorrow for the passed king melted away like his existence. But whenever the legend of Metapolica would rise again, whenever it would be spoken out loud by mainland civilians, an old man with no name will be mentioned, and everyone would know that there was only one old man in this story of Metapolica.