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New Centralia

Gone, is the vibrant community Beautiful neighbourhood Scattered bricks, crumpled roads. Bent pipes releasing toxic gases are left to inhabit this land today.

One wonders how it all began when and how it will all end, and what became of the people Who lived in the town that was.

by Diana M. Helm

The weather was cloudy, almost threatening to rain. More and more cars arrived at the parking area. A small crowd started to assemble around the stage.

You could feel the commotion that Sunday afternoon in late July, 2062. The majority of the crowd was ecstatic, except for a few with mixed feelings. Some people seriously doubted the ideas that paved the path towards this event, others felt resentment as this had been their land, their town, but most attendees believed fervently in the ideal of a modern centralised society.

Less waste, less consumption, more space, more humanity.

By 2020 the last residents of the original Centralia either passed away or moved to adjacent towns. The town was flattened shortly after. The children and grandchildren of the last Centralians all stood together that day, most of them silent, as they knew the story all too well.

The fire that burned endlessly in the mine underneath the borough since 1962 had finally stopped; the land stood still for a couple of decades, and slowly began to be used for agriculture.

After over a hundred years of toying around with the concept and creation of centralised towns, the great minds finally nailed it. In order for everyone to be happy, they should not have to go to the city centre; they should be able to do everything from home, whilst requiring the least amount of appliances, and consuming the least amount of energy.

After the great oil crisis, we finally cracked down on wasting resources. Coal and oil were banned completely due to the irreversible effects on the environment that only became more notable year after year, thus solar became the primary source of energy. The population also increased dramatically due to medical advances, which led to strain on the electrical grid.

The only way to truly reduce emissions and energy expenditure was to remove the majority of household appliances, automobiles, and the last polluting industries. Controlling energy waste became the top priority in the late 30s.

During the following decades, ideas about centralised societies became more prevalent, leading to small experiments, but the technology wasn’t there yet.

Many towns and small cities started adopting limited centralised infrastructure, with the goal of implementing similar systems in larger cities.

First, waste management was centralised. Tubes ran from kitchens to underground facilities, they would suck out the household rubbish, recycle what was possible, and compact + deposit the rest in a rubbish facility twice the size of the town. It was fully automated with classifiers, sorters, recycling facilities, compacters, and incinerators.

It was the brainchild of Dr. Alexandra Rae Jr., and it was beautiful. It completely eliminated the need for garbage collectors, waste management specialists, and smelly bins outside houses.

Her idea had been received with great aplomb. Counties and cities all over the country began implementing it during the 40s. She began patenting multiple ideas to improve basic services for pre-existing towns without requiring substantial expense. However, she couldn’t realise her vision of a utopian city as she was found dead in her villa in 2048.

Till this day no one has been found guilty. The community suspected involvement from Mr. Patrick Hester, a local inventor who had terrible luck for most of his life. He had been promoting a variation of Dr. Rae’s ideas for just over 12 years with very little success while Dr. Rae was still alive.

Patrick Hester and his associates then came up with a series of ideas to centralise all basic services, thus giving birth to the concept of a truly centralised town. One of the most interesting aspects of this system was the washing and drying mechanism.

Clothes nowadays come with RFID tags, so it was a natural extension of the idea to build centralised washing facilities. Every day people would drop their clothes into tubes, and they would be sucked all the way to the washing station which was located underground. The size of the washing drums were massive, spanning the size of a house. Each facility would have 5-10 of these.

Experts found that having a single large washing machine would provide slightly better energy and water use than having hundreds of smaller machines.

Afterwards, clothes would be sorted by RFID tag and sent back up the tubes powered by fast & explosive bursts of air to the correct owners.

Every now and then there would probably be a mistake, and people would receive the wrong clothes. But it would be easily corrected by sending them back down again and waiting for a few minutes.

On paper everything sounded beautiful. The computer models displayed a 75% energy use reduction with this new type of system. The system was finished and tested merely weeks before the town’s re-inauguration day.

Patrick gave the opening words at the ceremony:

“Welcome everybody, to the official inauguration of New Centralia. Not only does this day represent a shift forward for humanity, but also a rekindled passion for this city. Many of the people from the original Centralia are here today, after having moved to nearby towns. However, in their hearts some of you always wished to return to your home town. We chose Centralia to make this vision a reality not only because of it’s name, but because of it’s location, now that the seas have risen and started narrowing our shorelines, we need to learn to build efficient cities further inland. Additionally, the caverns left by the great fires have given us ample space to build infrastructure and facilities. But more importantly, we chose this place due to the passion of the people here, with admiration for those who clung on to their town regardless of the smoke columns and health effects. We hope to at least be able to serve you as best as possible, given that the government did not act in time during the start of the fire, so this is our way of paying back for our mistakes.”

Some people cheered, some barely reacted. The crowd was rather large by this time. Among the visitors stood Jeremy Nixon, governor of Pennsylvania. Jeremy proceeded to cut a ribbon symbolising the importance of this day, as Patrick waved to the crowd.

Behind the podium you could see the structure and layout of the city, which looked so different from the grid system implemented in most cities in the USA.

You were in Cumbernauld some time ago. You went there to study the failed designs of the 20th century. You thought you could do so much better, but don’t you remember the problems plaguing Cumbernauld’s infrastructure and layout? How will this overcome them? Are you basing this on the ideas expressed in the old movie Zeitgeist? Or on the first ring of the city of Palmanova in Italy?

You blatantly ripped off her ideas, whilst increasing the complexity of her design. The more parts in a system, the more likely failure becomes.

You turned ever so slightly towards Governor Nixon; you observed a few drops of sweat trickling down his face, and the stains on his white shirt. You are visibly uncomfortable as well, will it work as expected? You rushed the implementation due to lack of proper estimates, and now everything was up in the air: Either it would become a success story, where the model could be applied to other cities across the country, or it would become a total failure, your ruin.

You looked once again towards the town, where hundreds of homes had already been built. The government was subsidising part of the cost, hence there was a long line of potential new home owners lining up at the booths. Contracts were signed, home owners smiled, bankers smirked, and you sat down to enjoy the celebration.

Over the following weeks people moved into their new homes, trying out the new systems.

Homes were spacious, there was so much room now that all appliances were unnecessary. No washing machines, no driers, no boilers, no fridges, no dishwashers, no cookers, no heaters, just white walls and couches. Now that AR was ubiquitous, screens were obsolete, as well as decorations. Everything customisable, virtual, perfect.

One inconvenience of this system was a hum that was heard throughout the day, a rumbling underground. It reminded some people of the fire in the coal mines. But it was the washing machines, the heaters, the giant dishwashers, and the items and liquids going up and down the tubes.

Apart from a few minor glitches, everything seemed to be functioning correctly. People mostly worked remotely from either their homes, or the spacious office spaces scattered throughout the city.

Those who didn’t work remotely found work at the pristine supermarkets, one of the jobs that was not completely replaced by Amazon despite their attempts in the late 2010s. Even though food and supplies could be received from the comfort of your home, for those who wished to socialise there were be large green parks with small restaurants and shops nearby.

Quite a few people also worked in the city centre, supervising, tending to, and maintaining the machinery underground. Although most departments were automated (including maintenance and part swapping), there was still a need in some departments.

By this time I had been in the city for a couple of weeks, observing and documenting everything, with the aim of publishing an article in a major newspaper. It would disclose how the changes affect families and society, routines, the environment, and if people were really happy.

Three things amazed me the most:

  1. The people were rather friendly. I believe this was caused by the layout changes, ample spaces, parks, and a great small-city vibe.

  2. Every few blocks you’d find monitors with dashboards displaying the current status and capacity of all services. Everything from sewage management to the status of the washing machines. There was also a counter of errors, for example, wrong meals that had been prepared, or mistakes delivering the right clothes. Your idea was to maintain this number as low as possible, so you organised, along with the government, a campaign to let every resident know that it is our duty to help maintain this number low.

  3. RGB street lights also served as a notification system for issues, not only with the infrastructure, but also with the weather (incoming storms or hurricanes) as well as nation-wide alerts such as terrorist attacks.

News had started spreading of the city’s success, and quite a few people from nearby towns and cities, such as Mt. Carmel, Ashland, and Girardville started moving to the city.

Curiously enough, these are the locations that many residents of the old Centralia flocked to during the decades-long fire.

As I strolled through the city taking notes, I noticed over the last couple of days a foul smell had been building up towards the south-western quarter. It was localised to that area but I couldn’t determine the source. I started to spend a significant portion of my daily routine strolling around there.

First I mapped an outline of the affected region, then I shaded each street based on the intensity. It wasn’t very strong, not enough to bother people, but I was still curious. It wasn’t an easy task to denote the intensity as it seemed to be intermittent. I reported about this to a couple of newspapers, but it was played down and went unpublished.

A week had passed since I started my investigation, I had narrowed the source down to a series of pipes with breathing holes which came from underground. The main purpose of these was to act as escape valves from pressure build-up in the clothes washing department.

However, the smell should be pleasant, not grotesque. It smelled chemical.

Some residents had started reporting an odd smell on their clothes. I knew I had to get to the bottom of the issue, this would make a great article on the dangers of moving too fast with a vast amount of city-wide changes at the same time. More importantly, it might inspire new cities to take more care when planning infrastructure layout underground.

I needed to go down.

Tonight, I concluded. Tonight.

Given that I was not a resident, nor did I have staff clearance for maintenance or operations, I would have to sneak in.

I stepped out of my rental flat at around 1 AM, and made my way walking towards the area.

I found a small hut with a metallic green door next to a set of tubes I had been walking nearby the previous days. I had a quick look around, it was past 2 AM. I couldn’t see anyone, but this looked like a plausible entrance. I yanked the door handle downwards. It didn’t budge. I put more of my weight on it, it didn’t feel that sturdy. Finally I slammed into it once more with all my weight. It broke, and I made my way in.

I felt ashamed about damaging city property, but I hadn’t come up with a good news story in months, and I was desperate to find something newsworthy.

I made my way down through the service ladders, it was pitch black. I made a couple of gestures which my AR kit picked up, it outlined every surface, eliminating the need for a torch, or god forbid, one of those old smartphone “flashlights”.

As I reached the bottom the smell increased slightly.

The washing and drying machines had stopped as they only operated during daytime.

I walked around the machines, which took some time due to the size and amount of them. There were at least 15, a sight to behold. The source of the smell didn’t seem to be in this room however.

I noticed towards the back of the hall there were a couple of doors. One of them was marked with a stairway symbol. I opened that door and the lights came on.

The stairway led both upwards and downwards, given that the smell was slightly more pungent down here, I assumed the source must be coming from below. I walked down a couple of stories and reached the next department: Recycling #1. This one seemed to be dedicated entirely to paper recycling. Huge vats towered over me.

The story was the same as with the previous department, the smell was slightly worse, but still not nauseating.

I decided to carry on going down until the smell grew worse.

I must have walked the equivalent of 10 stories when I started to feel ill. It had to be close. I should have brought a respirator.

I opened the door to the department on this floor. It was the waste treatment department. I had trouble opening the door as there seemed to be a pressure buildup. I finally managed to pry it open, and walked in covering my nose. It was dreadful.

I instantly noticed that the lids of two containers were bent, exposing different kinds of waste. This specific container seemed to contain chemical residues from other departments. There was a very powerful smell of gas as well. I’d have to notify the authorities.

I walked around the container, and accidentally nudged a lever with my foot. Machines spun into motion, liquids started moving from vat to vat. The swishing and swooshing made the smell even worse. I pulled the lever back as fast as I could.

Oddly, the room felt unusually warm as well.

I jogged back to the stairway. After struggling with the door once again, I managed to get out. I noticed the stairs actually continued downwards.

I looked at my watch. It was 4:30 AM and the departments were due to start their shifts in a couple of hours.

I decided to take a quick peek downstairs anyway.

I walked down a few more flights of stairs; it was starting to get cramped and less-well maintained. The stairs abruptly ended giving way to underground caverns. The fire had consumed so much during those decades, it was astonishing. The cave was huge. Clearly they had used as much space as needed for the departments to run the city that they had no use for this space.

I noticed it was really warm. Could this be the remnants of the fire? How could it remain so warm after so many years?

I walked for a few hundred meters, it branched out into a couple of paths, it looked like no one had been here.

It grew even warmer as I carried on, I was starting to sweat profusely.

I noticed a faint glow and followed it through a narrow gap.

Jesus Christ.

It was still burning.

This was the news I had been looking for.

I took a few photos using my AR headset, but I’d have to come down again with better equipment.

The coal burned bright, stacks upon stacks, the whole wall glowed intensely, there were a few areas where higher flames broke out.

I couldn’t notify the authorities yet, I had to break this news.

I thought I’d come down again the following evening, and then notify the government the following morning.

I walked back to the stairwell, and walked a few flights up to the water department. I had 30 minutes to get out of there. I took the lift all the way up to the clothes washing department, climbed the service ladders, and slid out through the same green door.

I stepped outside the building and walked around the corner.

I turned back, no one seemed to have noticed.

The sun was starting to come up, illuminating the crystal-clear tubes running through the city.

Beautiful, breathtaking, dangerous.

I was about to walk home when I noticed an odd smell… the earth started to tremble.

I walked to the middle of the road, the streets were mostly empty. The earth shook more, the smell increased, the tubes at the corner of the street grew cloudy. I tried to perform a few gestures so my AR kit would phone the emergency services, but just at that moment I heard a large rip, followed by a series of sounds I can only describe as deafening, shattering, clattering, thunderish. Did I do this? What is going on?

Then the floor burst open, probably a hundred meters away from me. Out came the drum of one of the washing machines at tremendous speed, followed by a plume of smoke and fire. Several more popped out in different places.

It probably flew 50 meters into the air before descending, I tried to get up and run, I screamed my lungs out, the ground was still trembling, I couldn’t get up.

One wonders how it all began when and how it will all end.

Note from the editor:

I would rewrite it from the start entirely in first person:

I’m Patrick. I might be only a meter tall, but that is, after all, the new standard from Genetic Control. You old people would have used up all the space for living by now, if people had been allowed to continue growing to any size they could. You HAVE seen the statistics, right? What are you doing, are you recording this? Stop doing that, you’ll get us both sanctioned! And don’t use my name either. If you want me to tell you what happened on my shift the other day, I need to stay anonymous. Right?

Note from the author:

Sounds good, maybe in version 2… considering it took me 3 years to go from draft to publishing this. Talk about writers block.