Dancer City

my first solarpunk short novel

For ages we wandered in the desert. Years, centuries maybe. None of us had ever been really interested in keeping track, so we could not do it. It lasted for most of my lifetime, and most of the lifetime of those older than me. Kani used to say we were among the first tribes to wander again, to get out of the underground cities and into the desert. We all liked the idea, but it never sounded like the truth, even to Kani’s ears.

It’s not that we hated the cities. Most of us even honestly enjoyed them, from time to time at least. They were colorful, rich, and lively. City people were always welcoming, those we knew as much as those who knew us. There was a lot to experience there, a lot of music, a lot of colors. A lot of smells, a lot of noise. A lot of stares. We liked the cities, from time to time at least. We never felt like staying for long, the comfort of the desert always caught our preference. It was not an easy life, but a life chosen for and by ourselves.

In that, we were like the traveling merchants. They also did not like staying in the cities. Like us they were stopping, doing their trade, enjoying their stay knowing it was to be kept short. In a lot of other aspects, we were unlike the merchants. Like the cities, it’s not that we hated them, just that their company was enjoyable to us because it was occasional. I do not think it was otherwise for them. There was this simple agreement that our harmony was forged in the scarceness of our contact.

One night, we were staying with a group of merchants again. These ones were not wearing the typical toga most desert dwellers had. Instead, they had some very thick coats made of barely processed plant fibers. Apparently, these coats were useful when venturing in colder regions. In our travels, we had never encountered such cold that would call for more than the shirts and pants we padded with cactus fiber, so we were not that interested. And our padded clothes looked far more comfortable.

The gathering happened after a long time alone because we had travelled in some of the remote parts of the region. We were approaching a city, the city of Ybbs. It was often that we spent the night with merchants before entering cities. It was a nice first step into the world outside the tribe. The merchants had many names for us. Some we liked, some we liked less, most we did not really understand. In general, they called us “dancers”. This one was of the names we liked without really understanding it. Most of us did not like dancing, surely not in front of outtribers. This night, we asked them why they gave us this name, even if we never danced for them. The answer they gave was as surprising as it was delightful.

“It’s true that you do not dance with your body, but you surely dance with your minds. On every occasion that sees the crossing of our paths, you seem to perform for us all the ideas you have, all the adventures your minds seem to like getting into.”

And it was true, in a sense. We had a nice relationship with the merchants. A distant symbiosis, some would say. An understanding that even if we did not understand each other, we could still cooperate. This night, like most nights spent together with strangers, we engaged in the so-called dance. The ones of us who wanted did, at least. At the time I was not in the mood for dancing, because I was focusing my mind on gathering memories in an account similar to the ones you are reading now. But I still remember what was danced about. It was one of the long nights, in the winter. The temperature was still very pleasant, but the sun would be gone for a long time. During these long nights, the merchants were particularly fond of Oni’s dark and often frightening stories. Oni seemed to be capable of making them real in their own mind, and tell the tales so they felt true. But it was part of the pleasure to know they were not, of course. With the smell of the fire filling our nostrils, staring at Oni’s clear eyes piercing through the mess of their red hair, and almost hypnotized by their dramatic gestures, we pretended together, as if we were playing a game of sorts. Sometimes the game would go even further, and Oni would let somebody from the audience tell pieces of the story, as one character. It was the dance of Oni, to frighten their audience, and leave people pleased that the world was kinder than in their imagination.

After Oni’s came Kani’s dance. The merchants who did not know Kani, hence did not know what to expect. Knowing Kani, I knew it was impossible to know. Kani was a very calm, kind and caring person, maybe the most caring of us all. Their arms carried the promise of a soft, healing embrace. But in their mind seemed to reign a chaos one could only see the edge of. Never would they present the same dance twice. This to the merchant was like magic. Sometimes Kani appeared to be a musician, and the next time they were a scholar. After that, they were a painter, and another time they would be a thinker. To us dancers, who lived with Kani, it was not magic. We saw and understood part of the process of coming up with all these different dances. Kani simply threw themself entirely into new ideas, all the time, and never looked back to old ones. The dances they came up with were just the ones that stayed with them. This night, Kani was showing all the plants they had grown, presenting them like old friends. It was a grotesque piece of botanical theater, a living cabinet of curiosities. Funnily, Kani almost seemed to disappear amidst their plant, wearing only green clothes as they liked to.

On this night, we also had a third dance. The dance of Hulm. After the eerie dance of Oni, and the festive dance of Kani, Hulm drastically changed the mood once more. As the merchants anticipated, judging by the notebooks and coal pencils they had prepared, Hulm gave once more a very serious and rigorous dance. They had built a new small machine, apparently purely emerged out of their mind. The merchants were eager to draw it, understand its design, its function, its power. In clever gestures and cleverer words, they would sketch gears, rotors, mirrors and wheels in the warm air of the night. They presented all their creations like gems, or like children, offering their wonders to the crowd. Their old round face was always gleaming with pride at the end of a dance, and this night was no exception.

As usual after dancing, a meal was shared. The merchants often had a wild variety of things to eat, compared to us. We only ever had the bare necessities: what we could grow and harvest from the desert, with the addition of a few things from the cities. The merchants were carrying weeks’, sometimes months’ worth of goods of all sorts. We liked our own food very much, but to have a meal with new texture, new tastes, and new smell… That was something else. The sleep after these nights was also always slightly different. It was the same than in the cities. It felt as if we were more tired, or maybe just tired in a different manner. Between ourselves, we often said a specific muscle was used when meeting with outtribers. A special kind of effort we never managed to describe better. The night of the dance was a nice way to stretch the muscle, before entering the city.

Moments before we parted ways, as we were going to the city and the Merchants were going away from it, they told us of a child, a child we could be interested in taking with us for a while. It happened sometimes. We seldom birthed children of our own in the tribe, most often we just had people join us. When we asked the merchants why they thought the child would fit among us, the answer was brief. “The child has the eyes, like you. The eyes of a dancer”.

And so, we walked towards the city of Ybbs, taking the child with us, along with food and clothes the child liked, given by the merchants. The child’s name was Gaar, but they barely voiced it. They almost never voiced anything, actually, and preferred to listen and talk in gestures. Gaar had a beautiful way to say their name with their hands. To me, it looked like the motion of the dunes during the hottest days.

Passing the massive stone-made wall, we entered Ybbs, one of the prettiest cities. A lot of its above-ground buildings were made of an orange stone. According to Hulm, this stone was once used to make iron, and the iron inside was giving it its nice color. It was so omnipresent on the ground level that Ybbs was often called the Orange city. Outside of this specific trait, the city was very much like many others we knew. Most of the buildings were low, to benefit from the protective effect of the outside wall against the sand. Buildings were connected to underground sections of the ancient shelter, where now just the power supply was hosted, and maybe some algae farms. Most of these buildings, we did not really know what they were used for and frankly, we did not care. Part of our life as dancers led us to accept that the inner workings of the cities were outside of our grasp.

The general design of the city, according to Hulm, was like a big seedling. It had roots in the ground, to go drink the subterranean rivers. It also had long appendices on top, reaching out of the UV shield-dome and much higher than the outer wall. These branches had different functions, but a lot of them ended with a pretty windmill. The windmills delivered energy in different parts of the city, where energy from the big, ancient core was not necessary. There were also some light harvesters, these big flowers of mirrors, bringing sunpower way deep in the autofarms. I have yet to see one of these autofarms, but Hulm has described them like thousands of gigantic plants, densely knitted in tight underground rooms. Kani told me the plants like it there, that they were designed for this way of life. When I first heard this explanation, I remember feeling weird about it. It was still a part of city life I could not feel was mine. I was more of a desert being at this time, and I had witnessed how plants in the desert never really grow too close to each other.

During our short stays, we always focused on the important things we wanted to do before the call back to the desert became too strong. On this occasion, Hulm had been asked to check a machine of their design that was used in several places in the city. They explained it was one of these machines that could turn mechanical power into electrical power. Apparently, there was some malfunction nobody could understand, and Hulm was of course very excited to tackle this mystery. Others, including myself, wanted to visit an old friend, an old dancer, Juana, who had settled in Ybbs a few years before.

Juana lived in a big blue building. The walls were of the same orange stone than most of the city but had been painted in a nice light blue color. In some spots, the orange stone was piercing through the blue paint, creating both very pleasing texture to touch and a beautiful sight to behold. When we arrived, we all spent a few seconds feeling the building with our hands, it was amusing. I even saw Edi make a note in their book of nice memories. This short hiatus came to an end when we saw Juana exit the building and slowly walk our way. Their round, arched figure was supported by a much straighter and taller city folk. It was a few years after our last meeting, maybe three? As I said earlier, keeping track of time was never our strong suit. For me and Kani, it was like we had just left Juana’s side. The two youngest, Oni and Edi, had never met Juana. Exchanging hugs, soft glances, and kind words, we each communicated our joy to be gathered. Kani transmitted a gift from Hulm, a very small machine supposed to reproduce a sound Juana liked. To me it just sounded like the wind in the desert. Maybe that was the point?

I cannot recall the moments spent with Juana so well. It was nice in its evanescence. I can remember the warm and mellow feeling of their company, but it’s hard to say more. We talked about how much easier it was for them in the city than it was in the desert when they were with the tribe. Juana praised the way the city was built and organized, ensuring things were always accessible even when one could not walk very far. That, for sure was not part of the desert’s kindness. But what would become the most important is the rumor Juana mentioned. They had always been good with rumors. Juana told us about some people venturing quite far north of the city, beyond some high dunes, and that was where they had found some plants. Kani was immediately spiked with great interest, being again in a huge plant phase. It was shortly decided that we would follow the tracks to find these strange plants. And so, we did! Leaving Ybbs, our spirits lifted by Juana’s kind heart.

We had a few days to walk in an unknown area, which was unusual. The desert is the desert, it’s not something you would call full of surprises, but it’s still important to be careful. We were traveling to a plateau, north of Ybbs, reputed to be very harsh. We all knew city folks had a tendency to see harshness in most of the desert’s gifts, hence we marched towards the plateau full of confidence. It was a big mistake, and I could sow the seeds of drama and let you wonder, but I will disclose now that all of us were safe in the end. Still what an awfully frightening climb that was! After a few hours, winds began to howl, and sand was whipping our sorry faces. Hulm started to curse at the “bloody silicates”, and frankly we were all slowly losing our tempers. In my mind remained the sole idea of wrapping myself in Kani’s soft arms. It was only thanks to our newest element, Gaar, that we managed to reach the ledge of the plateau. Their sharp eyes red the winds, and with expert movements of their small body Gaar tore through them like a bird. Thus we were guided through the storm to a safe place higher up by their small figure dressed in bright. In the natural stronghold of a hollow boulder, we could rest and praise Gaar’s skills. We give names to very few places in the desert, but ever since that moment we often referred to this small cave as Gaar’s shelter.

With the ghost of danger and the light-hearted spirit of the ones who had just escaped it, we spent a quiet and sweet moment, waiting for the desert to calm down. Once the sky went clear, we slowly got out and stretched our limbs, readying ourselves to walk again. The plateau was a very pretty place, planted with black rocks and garnished with darker sand. The pleasure of discovering a new place progressively replaced the fear of the storm as we got closer to the plants’ supposed location. Kani had some idea of what they could be already, based on some descriptions from the people who had found them, but no certainty. The hours passed, the tribe was advancing through the plateau, the sun was slowly falling down the sky… And then we heard Kani gasp, yell in joy, and run forward. Kneeling on the ground, they called us to see the fabulous plants. I never fully realized what was so special about these plants, even after sitting through Kani’s very thorough explanations. You would have to check their notes to get the full picture. What I can recollect now is that they were very old, from something Kani called “seed bank”. Plants from old seeds, which had been sleeping for a long time. Kani wanted to study them to know what their awakening could tell us about the world. They also wanted to bring them to cities so they could be cultivated. To me, they looked like plants. But the wonder in Kani’s eyes, that was something. Looking at them, you knew instantly that the plants would inspire great dances for ages.

While we were preparing the camp near these small, fantastic shrubs, something unexpected happened. A group of travelers approached, slowly. As per usual, we greeted them, and offered company for the night. They explained how they went through something similar than us, coming from the opposite flank of the plateau, irritated by the coarse and stormy winds. They were tired but glad to find people from the other side. Apparently, this high and hostile climb constituted a barrier people rarely bothered to cross. Looking at them, it was obvious that they were dwellers from distant parts of the desert. They had tools we did not know, and clothes we could not name. They carried a salty smell on their cloaks, deposited by winds we had not yet met. We learned from a short discussion that they were not merchants, just explorers. Surprisingly fast for people from distant lands, one of the travelers seemed to recognize who we were and said:

“Oh, you’re dancers? Are you from Dancer city?”

And these simple words left us all fall in an uneasy feeling of astonishment. We had never heard of a city of Dancers. We knew a few dancers who dwelt in cities, but they were never more than that, a few in the middle of city folks. As we questioned the traveler, they revealed to us that somewhere on the other side of the plateau one could find a small city that had been founded by several tribes of dancers. It seemed like such a strange idea, and yet the traveler was not lying to us. Their description fully resonated with us, both in how they described the inhabitants and the place. It was quiet, it was soft, it was dim. Like all the cities, it was lively and kind, but in a different way. The way of dancers, the way we recognized as our own even in the words of a strangers.

For once, we spent the night listening to this poor traveler, drinking every word like it was dew. When came the morning, we all had one idea: to go there and see the city of dancers with our eyes. And the traveler’s tongue was dry of words to describe this place, because we were all so thirsty for stories.

I would like to tell you the way there was another adventure, another odyssey, but the truth is the journey was very fast and easy. As a sign of gratitude to the outtribers, we told them everything we could remember about our side of the plateau. All the cities, areas, winds and plants. Gaar even drew a map for them on a piece of paper, and then we left.

In all my time in the desert, I cannot remember wanting to arrive somewhere so much. We were moving faster than ever before, and Kani even had to reason us at some point because our haste was starting to become dangerous. But finally, we arrived in sight of the city, as indicated by the traveler. When this big dark ball started to appear in the distance, we were all so excited! Its dome was more opaque than the other cities’, so that the light inside was less aggressive. The windmills were all decorated by thousands of art pieces, and so greased they did not make any noise, only a pleasant and soothing humming in the distance. When we passed the gate, for the first time, we somehow did not feel like leaving as soon as we had entered.

For ages we wandered in the desert. Now, we know the pleasure of being welcomed and cared for by our home. Sometimes, I still go out into the desert. Many of us do. It’s the desert that grew us, that led us to our city. We wander, and try to give what we can in return for its hospitality, for all the gifts we do not need anymore. But it’s not the same, knowing there’s somewhere for us, where we settled. Somewhere home.