A short story about Kuala Lumpur set in 2063. First published as part of the six story FUTURA anthology, where select writers were to envision the future in 50 years time.
The Dome loomed ahead, curving ominously out of the jungle that had reclaimed the ruins of abandoned housing estates. The force field glimmered, alternating between a dirty grey and an ugly misty purple, as it kept the inhabitants of Kuala Lumpur captive.
We took the long way around, through Brickfields, as the Dome had only one entrance. The convoy lined up before the Gate thus: a light tank, the command trailer, two supply trucks, the UPV van and a personnel truck at the vanguard.
“Activate the portal,” I ordered.
The line diagram on the screen showed a change in the frequency of a tiny section of the Dome, a ‘hole’ big enough for the convoy to go through. If one were to look at the Dome itself, there would be no discernible difference.
The moment we entered, we saw the festering masses, their faces disfigured by boils on the verge of bursting. Their unwashed rags were streaked with pus and blood. Cupping their hands, they chanted, “Tolong kami. Bantu kami.”
We were the Sungai Buloh RELA platoon and our permanent mission was to deliver cargo to the Domed City. Sickies –rounded up by the Unit Pengesan Virus – and monthly supplies usually made up the special delivery to the rotting denizens.
RELA members assigned to Sungai Buloh were usually there as punishment.
I was good at my job, but I had killed a man while on security detail in Genting Jaya. That wasn’t the issue, he was about to kill and rob the wife of an Atasan. No, the problem was that the man was having an affair with said Atasan’s wife, and I knew all about it. I received a commendation, a promotion and a transfer to Sickie Service.
“Jijik gila,” Smith said, looking at the feed from the outboard camera. We were in the trailer. Despite the airtight seams, positive pressure and airlock, we still wore protective suits. I avoided the screen.
“I wish I could acid gun the whole lot of them,” Smith continued.
The guy was from the UPV, which made him doctor, soldier and jerk, technically under my command.
“Harsh, Smith. Where is your humanity?” I asked.
“Feh. Where is their humanity? Look at them. I’ll be doing them a favour.”
Thousands of Sickies stood behind the painted lines at Dataran. Unlike the earlier group, they observed us silently. On our side of the painted line was a solitary figure. This gentleman was the leader of their rudimentary government, an elderly man who had been there since before the Dome. In remembrance of better days, they called him the Kapitan.
The flagpole, once the tallest in the world, flew the Jalur Gemilang at a permanent half-mast. The city did not use the new Federation of Malaysia flag and why should they? They were not part of the Federation’s March to the Glorious Future. KL is less than a colony. It is a dumping ground for Sickies.
As my men fell to their work, tossing boxes out of the truck, I took up post near the flagpole, scanning the surrounding areas for trouble. In the distance, behind the Sultan Abdul Samad building, were the Petronas Twin Towers, visible despite the dim lighting. I used to try to catch glimpses of the twin highrises when I was stationed at Genting Jaya. On days without haze, if the light was at the right place, you could actually see the shape of the buildings.
I heard that the landmark made the Atasan jealous. Every once in a while, there was talk about “finishing off the issue”. Solutions included destroying the buildings altogether, darkening the Dome, or constructing bigger buildings in Genting Jaya. The last was laughable, considering Banjaran Titiwangsa had no space for more structures. Besides, all the money went into the tools of annexation: weapons. Bangkok was supposedly next, after the success of the Singapore campaign. I thought it was a ridiculous strategy, considering Bangkok’s defenses, but I’m just RELA, and what the Atasan wants, the Atasan gets.
Once the supply trucks were unloaded and dispatched back to the Gate, it was time to unload the Sickies. They stumbled out of the van, blinking despite the dim light.
They never looked as sick as I expected them to be. They looked like normal people, if a little haggard from the stress of the Virus diagnosis and, I presume, their future under the Dome. I queried Smith about it before and he responded with a lecture about the Virus’ long incubation period.
One of the new Sickies was slow on his feet, and he received a vicious push from Smith. The man still had some life in him and he turned to respond, only to find Smith’s acid gun in his face.
“Stand down, soldier,” I said.
Smith paused. He had murder in his eyes. Was the anger directed at me or at the Sickie in front of him?
Sensing his hesitation, the Sickie lunged.
I pulled the trigger. Phut.
The gathered observers gave out a collective exhalation. The bullet landed on the ground in between the two fighting men.
“Next one’s not going to miss,” I said. Smith knew the miss was intentional and that the statement was meant for him. He backed down.
The Kapitan, having observed the situation, came up and escorted the Sickie away. I always thought he would make a great ally, the Kapitan, but I was too embarrassed by his disfigurement and disease to have a chat. He nodded at me, and I nodded back, mutual acknowledgment of the other’s leadership role.
“Let’s roll, boys,” I said and headed for the trailer.
Before I reached the doors, there was a series of phut sounds. People ran, screaming, and bodies fell to the ground. Concussion grenades and reflector bombs went off, smoke and mirrors to confuse the roiling masses.
I heard a phut from beside me and something ripped into my left arm at high velocity. My body went into a spin. Before I fell to the ground, I saw the trailer move out of the square at top speed. The back door was open and Smith was there, holding his gun. He saluted me, a smile on his blasted face.
A nest of kerengga had set up home in my body. They bit and gnawed and kept me on fire and brimstone. I shivered and writhed and tore at my body and the sheets. When they were gone, I woke up and was too tired to know my name.
“Nasty stuff, this acid. Strictly speaking though, it is not an acid but a type of biologic that ‘eats’ into inanimate objects and cellular structure alike. How are you doing today, Lieutenant?”
A familiar face peered at me but I couldn’t recall who he was.
I blacked out.
“I’m not in Sungai Buloh, am I?” I said the next time I saw him.
“I’m afraid not. Kuala Lumpur.”
“Under the Dome. I was afraid of that.”
I had thought that I’d scream and make big drama, but instead, I blacked out again.
“You’re the Kapitan,” I said, awake once more.
“That’s what they call me, to my eternal regret. Others say I’m Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates.” He seemed to find something funny at that statement.
“I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you sooner. A person looks different without boils on top of boils on his face. Did you use magic zit cream or something? Prayers? Talisman?”
“Amazing what you can do with rubber trees, chemical engineers and 3D printing. And rags and a P. Ramlee movie.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Take your time.”
Another time, I grabbed his wrist so firmly I must have given him a bruise.
“Please don’t let me turn into a Sickie. No pustular, bleeding boils. No ooze from places that didn’t have holes before. Kill me first.”
And so on.
Eventually, I was strong enough to get up and hobble. The bright sunlight and the sound of life lured me to the window.
“It took years for us to get it this way,” the Kapitan said. “Beautiful, isn’t it?’
I couldn’t answer, my breath was taken away. Outside the window was a garden that stretched as far as the eye could see. It grew atop the old highways, in buildings, horizontal and vertical. Chickens, goats and even cows wandered about freely. Colourful, singing birds flew in the clean air, chasing after insects.
Men, women and children worked and played in the buildings, tending to the gardens. At ground level, roads were covered with grass and fruit orchards. Children climbed and ate fruits almost as quickly as they pick them. Little girls found flowers and made garlands.
From a distance away, came a man pulling a rickshaw, weaving among the empty spaces between the trees. He stopped in front of a woman, who was hiding under the shade. She settled herself in the rickshaw and for a moment, looked upwards. She smiled at something she had seen. A friend perhaps. I had a good look at her smooth skin. She had a healthy glow, such as the kind you usually see on the daughters and wives of the Atasan. I knew they were aided by make-up. This woman was all natural.
“Was it always a lie? The Virus, I mean,” I asked the Kapitan.
“Oh no. It was real enough. We lost a thousand lives within the first week in this area alone. Mortality was 100 percent. The Dome’s necessity was valid. Even sympathetic liberal nations supported the idea, they were afraid of a pandemic wiping out the world.”
“Why are you all still here then?”
“We found a cure, obviously.”
“Why didn’t you inform the outside world?”
“Because people started coming in who weren’t sick. Rather, they were exiled to the Dome. Artists, writers, thinkers, activists and politicians, ethical soldiers like yourself. As long as they’re troublesome to the Atasan, they’re sent here to rot, according to the perception of those in Genting Jaya. There is much one can accomplish with emergency powers. It helped too, that the populace was in fear of that 100 percent mortality rate.”
“So outside the Dome, they’re creating the illusion that people are sick so they can send them here to get them out of the way. And in here, we’re maintaining the same illusion so that they’d leave us alone?
I looked out at the happy scene before me and thought about the people who were saved through accident by the UPV – a veritable rat’s nest of spies – and through design by the citizens of KL. Reminded of the UPV, I made a note to deal with my good friend Smith once things had settled down.
Meanwhile, I had another thought. “We’re sort of a nature preserve, aren’t we?”
“That’s a fine way of putting it, my dear Lieutenant.”
“Is there a possibility that KL will rejoin Malaysia?” It was the September 16 and good time to feel nostalgic.
“In this place, apa pun boleh. But do you think the people of the Dome would want to give up our life, freedom and advanced state of science in exchange for what the Federation has to offer? All they can give us is their extreme fear of our diseased state. All the same, Happy Centennial.”
And so, to this day, we maintain our sandiwara of the leper colony. So long as the outsiders are afraid to go beyond Dataran Merdeka, they will never find the Eden that lies beneath the Dome.