I thought I would never return to Yellow Deah, but after a long time I did. Not only did I return to the novel, but I found out how bad is and how needed the revision is. So I threw myself into new edits and the final, improved version may soon be released under Fantom Print.
No writer would publish a work if he knew it is not perfect or if he knew it contain errors.
I was naive few years ago and I thought that the work is good. So I paid for translation into English language (from my own pocket). I am sorry now to just throw it away. That’s why I put it here, free to read. Maybe you’ll find it entertaining.
Teodor is an unhappy young artist who sees no sense in his life. However, he is too big a coward to take it.
Yellow disease has turned the world around him into the land of the dying, but he just keeps his eyes closed.
But then something happens that turns his life upside down, and he discovers that neither he, nor his miserable life or apartment, is the centre of the universe.
Neither is his planet.
He will have to make a decision. A decision about his own end.
Or has someone else made it for him already?
Yellow Death (The bad version)
“…that is why YellyD22 ranks among the most dangerous diseases we have ever encountered. Ultimately it could mean, and I’m not being overly pessimistic, the end of the human species on Earth. It seems that God has a sense of irony when one remembers that the greatest global issue several years ago was overpopulation. “
“Doctor, what do you perceive as the biggest risk of the Yellow Death?”
“The deceitfulness of this virus is mainly in its symptoms, because a normal man usually notices that he is infected only when it’s too late. In the first stage of the disease, there are symptoms such as frequent urination, accentuation of veins due to the weakening of the skin, or increased appetite. The first stage lasts no more than forty-eight hours, which is exactly why most of the people afflicted by this disease fail to act. The second stage brings the typical yellowing of the skin, fever, headache, and muscle pain, but also euphoria, or other mood disorders. This can take up to a month. And finally, the patient becomes affected by hyperactivity, increased heart rhythm, aggressiveness, and also the loss of moral scruples, or conscience. Six months later, death comes. But it is precisely in this last stage that the disease is most contagious. ”
“Thank you, doctor. Now, I would like to ask you about the vaccine.”
“Sure. Even though, except for some exceptions, Yelly does not attack children or elderly people, which reduces the amount needed, producing the vaccine is so expensive that not everyone can afford it, regardless of the waiting list. And even those who get it are not out of danger. Although there has been substantial progress achieved in the Yellow Houses, we are still behind the disease, which is able to adapt incredibly quickly. To put it as clearly as possible, the vaccine will give you about a one third chance that you will be immune… “
I was sitting in my favourite armchair (the only comfortable one in the entire apartment), watching the news, but in fact I was not paying any attention to it. My thoughts were dancing in my head without any order, and I wasn’t even trying to catch them. Except for the light from the screen, the room was dark, a clear sign of the ongoing creative block.
“Smoke, or you’ll make me turn yellow,” I heard a voice say behind my ear. I was so startled that I winced.
I had completely forgotten that he was still there. Ota Lešek, my intrusive neighbour. And perhaps also a friend. He, his mother, and I were the only tenants on the floor, so it was impossible to avoid him, and I had never had the strength to tell him to leave. Ota didn’t want to spend time with his mother, so he often stayed at my place, and I had somehow gotten accustomed to it. Perhaps I would prefer to be alone, but it also had its advantages. My girlfriend rejected him, so I didn’t have to spend so much time with her.
I handed a joint to Ota, who impatiently wedged it between his lips and puckered his chubby cheeks.
“…the world outside is cruel and merciless. Have you encountered what you feared the most? Do you think that nothing makes sense anymore? Don’t give up! You met your happiness in unhappiness! In the Yellow Houses you will find a new life! Trained personnel will fulfil all your wishes. Luxurious rooms, bars, cinemas, swimming pools and wellness centres will take care of your entertainment. And all of it for free! Don’t lose hope… Try Yellow House – and perhaps you will be the one thanks to whom we will find the cure!”
“After the commercial break, we’re back with Valdemar Janský, a semi-professional astrophysicist, who was first to discover Janský lines, as he named them. Valdemar, can you tell us a bit more about these beams, which are subject of much discussion?”
“Sure Mark, I’ll be glad to. As all of you surely know, or as many of you have seen yourselves, there are narrow beams seen in the sky from time to time, somewhat resembling lasers. Actually it’s not correct to say ‘in the sky’ for according to my observations, these beams always start and end their paths on the Earth. They are hard to spot, because they appear in various places all over the world, lasting just a fraction of a second.”
“And what do you say to the official statement issued by Chinese scientists, who also observed these beams with their giant FAST radio telescope, and which the scientists from the international European Southern Observatory (ESO) go along with? To quote them – they say the events causing electrical discharges between the ionosphere and lithosphere are increasing due to the increasingly drier surface of our planet. They say it is natural that, due to the loss of water, more storm clouds are formed, and the emergence of these phenomena is actually caused by unstable and changing weather.”
“You are well prepared. Thank you for your question. I have no direct evidence for it, but I believe that this theory is, I dare to say, incorrect. These beams can’t be of natural origin, simply because of their structure. Have you ever seen a perfectly straight bolt of lightning?”
“So you contend these beams are of artificial origin?”
“That’s right, Mark, I do.”
The door opened and a slim blond girl entered. She held a shiny computer in her right hand, and two plastic bags with a round logo in the left one.
“Teo?” she shouted as if I was not sitting right in front of her, “I have a big surprise for you. You’ll be amazed!” She switched the light on, setting the bags aside and taking off her light coat made of some dead animal. She hung it over the easel. I had told her at least a hundred times not to do that.
A memory of our first meeting flickered through my mind. She had come as a potential customer to take a look at the paintings. She stepped into the doorway and stopped at the threshold. She had bewitching eyes, accented by black lines, narrowed into crevices. She looked over the paintings without any interest, and her gaze bore into me. She was so beautiful that she took my breath away.
I am sure the beauty of a woman changes as you get to know her personality.
That is why she was taking my breath away now, but also for a completely different reason.
“Ugh, what a smell “she said, and it looked as if she only now noticed the neighbour.
“Hi Tayra,” he uttered dreamily. Even the blind would notice that he loves her.
“Hi. Could you give us a moment?” She wore a tight-fitting shirt ending above her belly button and tight leather pants.
“Sure, Tayra. But…” “ He looked at me hesitantly, “Mum mustn’t see me like this.” He quickly dropped the joint butt onto the plate overflowing with cigarette butts.
“Will you just get out?” she said impatiently. She despised Ota, but she usually enjoyed playing with him. Not today. I didn’t feel good about it. Something told me I wasn’t going to like the surprise.
When he‘d left, she sat on my lap, placing her hands behind my neck. “Tomorrow we’re going to get vaccinated! I got us the vaccines!” she cried out, unable to contain her excitement. “What do you say? How much do you love me?”
My feelings showed. . “Vaccines?” I stammered incredulously. “Isn’t it a bit useless for me? I meet no one; who would I catch it from? And where did you get money for it? Have you sold your flat … and the flats of your friends?”
She jumped up from my lap, as if I already had the disease.
“You ungrateful bastard …” she began, her eyes blazing.
“Wait, Jana,” I raised my voice and raised my arms in a defensive gesture. “Do not be hyster …”
“Don’t call me Jana!” she sputtered, “My stage name is Tayra.”
“Your stage name sounds like a pseudonym of a hooker.”
I shouldn’t have said that.
“Do you envy my success?” She began to pace the room; it was a wonder she didn’t bump against anything. “It’s just your own fault you’re in here, jerking your dick with Ota, instead of finishing some painting so you can stand on your own two feet. And when a buyer comes to you and he is interested, you reject him. Such money he offered! ”
“You know I will not sell the Colorik”, I muttered sadly.
“Because you’re a wimp. My friends have successful, creative artists with class for partners, but mine has to be such a … „She could not find the right word, and in her anger, she went to kick one of the paintings leaning against the wall. Fortunately, she realized what she was doing in time and she turned her pump with a fashion buckle to the wooden box standing nearby. “I bought the food right under your nose, I take care of your health, and this is how you repay me.” She began to whimper for a change. “Just so you know, I have friends in this field, and I got this vaccination for free.”
Sure, certainly from that solarium-tanned nob, Richard. I guessed – no, I knew that she had paid for it more than enough. Just not the money.
“I didn’t mean it like that, I’m sorry…” I took the path of least resistance.
After a moment, it was as if nothing had happened. The problem was solved and we started to enjoy the boxes of Chinese food. I was poking at the meal while my girlfriend already embarked on the second course. She really liked food, and it had begun to show on her. Then ‘all of a sudden’ she lost weight and she’s stayed slim, regardless of what she eats. She didn’t think I suspected anything, but I wasn’t stupid. Once I looked at her medical records and found that in she lets a modified type of tapeworm grow in her guts. It’s fashionable these days. That was one of the reasons why our sex life hadn’t been up to much. Every time I approached her, I couldn’t help but imagine the snake in her belly.
But I could not hold it against her; nor against Richard.
“…last battles subside, and so it seems that the War of Water will be over soon. This time, perhaps permanently. Russia, owning the very effective ice melting device, and China, which also solved the problem of water shortage, have agreed to share their technologies. It will not be for free, of course, but…”
“How can you keep listening to that? It’s so depressing. There’s a new autumn collection on the Fashion Channel, could you switch over to that?” she asked between her bites. I obeyed.
Jana did not spend the night there with me, but she picked me up the next day and we went to the new, modern buildings of the Zemiva pharmaceutical company.
I rolled my polo neck sweater up to my neck. It was a cloudy, drizzly day. The few sunbeams which the clouds allowed to pass through reflected from the Glass Bridge down onto the dirty river. The wind was bustling fast-food trash down the street (given that the majority of real, natural foods were rationed or otherwise restricted, the question was, what was the source of the cheap meat?) and except for a few people on the street, it was empty. It wasn’t an extraordinary sight. The Yella disease flourished best in these urban areas. It expanded outside the cities just occasionally. Most people were escaping to the countryside or were dying. Yet it wasn’t so bad for the Central Europeans; the disease and the living standards were much worse in other countries.
We rode the tram; three of the five stops were around the Yellow House complex. In fact, it wasn’t yellow; it was just illuminated that way. I was looking at the sharply angular, modern building, and I smiled ruefully. Even though the ads made it sound good, there was still a three meter tall fence around the place.
Despite the fact that there was only one man in the waiting room and that we had an appointment, we had to wait for about an hour. When it was our turn, the various tests they did took about the same time, until the man in the white coat finally injected an awful lot of transparent liquid into our veins. We got several leaflets, and phone, email, and Facebook contact details, and then we were released. Just before that, our doctor casually announced that we would have to visit a specialist every day, who would observe whether the body responds correctly. Or something like that.
I didn’t believe that the vaccine would work. To me it was just a way for someone to fill his pockets even in these sad times. “Listen, Teo, do you realize it took me a lot of effort to arrange the vaccine for you? “ Jana said innocently, as I was helping her up the steps onto the tram
“Yeah, it must have cost you a lot of sweat.”
“What do you mean by that?” she frowned.
“What do you want, Tayra? “ I sighed resignedly.
We sat next to each other. There were, unusually, a lot of people in the tram, about ten. They made me nervous. “You know, I thought that you could buy something nice for me in return”. I saw an absolutely amazing mink fur yesterday, and I immediately knew I just had to have it …” Jana said.
“Well, when I sell something, I’ll buy it for you,” I quickly interrupted her and I tried to look out of the window. “Seriously? You’re the best! And you’re also lucky because I got a buyer for the Colorik. ”
“No, no way.”
“Wait, don’t get upset. He said he is willing to offer a generous amount. He was a great collector of your grandfather’s work. He’ll just take a look and he’ll tell you the amount. If you don’t agree, you don’t have to sell it. ”
“For sure? Haven’t you promised him anything?”
“OK”, I said after a moment of feigned thinking. I wasn’t going to sell the painting in any case.
“Great. He is coming to see you on Wednesday, so do a little cleaning. ”
Suddenly, a scream came from the front part of the tram, which escalated to a roar of several people. Jana immediately stood up in the aisle, and I also rose to see better. An elderly woman with a look of horror on her face was rushing toward us. “Yellow Death! He has Yellow Death“, she screamed. She was running down the aisle, and bumped into Jana so violently that they both fell on the ground. I was so stunned that I just stood there and didn’t even help her to her feet. Panic grew in the tram, and more and more people were trying to get to the opposite end.
Up in the front part, only one man remained. His once-elegant suit was crumpled, dirty. His white shirt was bloody, and the tie around his neck was loosened, resembling a medieval noose. He wore a baseball cap. His face was sickly yellowish, as if he had hepatitis or some other liver disease.
People were trying to squeeze closer to the door, so they could escape as soon as possible when the tram stopped. Drivers were already thing of the past, so even when someone pressed the emergency button, they had to wait till the main system evaluated the situation and stopped the tram. It should have taken five seconds, but something was obviously wrong.
The yellowed man bared his white teeth and headed toward us. He was chuckling and repeating “Boo boo boo boo!” I was just standing there, and instead of screaming with the others and scrambling to the door, or helping Jana out from under the pile of bodies, I was staring at the man in fascination.
The whole time I had known about the disease, I heard about it all the time, but I had somehow persuaded myself that it didn’t concern me, just as people do with death. It wasn’t until now that confronting the infected man opened my eyes.
The tram abruptly stopped and the doors opened. Before the man could approach us, we all fled outside.
Jana was not injured, but she was shocked. “I have never seen them with my own eyes,” she said, clearly shaken by it. “It’s terrible.” After a moment, she looked at her crumpled and muddy outfit and started to cry.
I was also in a state of shock. It was an experience comparable to one that happened to me when I was a kid. That’s when I first saw a corpse. Across the street, they were building a new apartment building and the strong winds loosened a poorly-secured strut. A nearly two-ton construction 3D printer fell on a woman passing below on the sidewalk. There wasn’t much left of her; it was a horrific sight.
Now for the first time I saw a living corpse, and it struck me almost as much as that event twenty years ago had struck me as a little boy.
I took Jana to my home. The horror we experienced together had brought us closer to each other, and we lived through a peaceful rest of the day together, and on the contrary a frantic and beautiful night.
Five days later, we were sitting in front of the TV screen with Tayra and Ota, playing a popular lifelong online logical game, and stuffing ourselves with chicken (hopefully) wings. There was a good mood in the room, with everyone laughing, smoking, and enjoying themselves. Jana was happy that she got that mink coat, Ota was happy to be sitting next to Jana, and that I had unexpectedly returned all the money I’d borrowed from him. I’d finally sold my painting. But it was not because of Jana. It was because of the yellow men in the (or a… a….) tram, who had made me realize that I won’t be here forever, and that I want to leave something behind. The sales contract also contained a condition that the Colorik would be displayed in a place where the public can see it. Sure, the empty space in the corner always made me a bit sad, but despite that, even I was happy in the end.
“I’ll probably burst … but I’d still have something else.” I licked my fingers and threw the bone into the ashtray.
“My stomach says the same” Jana said, and reached for the bucket to see if there was anything left. Then her sleeve rolled up, revealing a wrist covered by a network of protruding veins, like the ones Ota’s mother had. On young skin, treated by body lotions, it looked unnatural. She noticed it, and with her eyes widened she pulled her sweater sleeve all the way up to the elbow, and she did the same on the other arm. It was everywhere.
The good mood vanished instantly, and an oppressive silence settled around us. Ota was the first to respond. He jumped up, put his hands in front of him and began to back up rapidly, kicking (OR tripping over) the paintings and empty beer bottles over the floor. “Oh, no … I’m sorry … I have to …” he muttered one word over another and then he ran out the door, without closing it behind him.
Jana kept staring at her arms with more and more disgust. Then she turned to me and said, “I’m going to die, Teo.” It was just a factual statement, nothing more.
It scared me even more than the veins on her arms. I wanted to sit closer to her, but she moved away. I tried to hug her, but she pushed me away violently. She started to have a hysterical outburst. This was the first time it was not directed against me. But as often happens with violent emotional reactions, even that could change.
I didn’t know where it came from, but I just slapped her, so hard that she fell to the floor.
Surprisingly, it calmed her down. She stared up at me with a mixture of distrust, humiliation, and perhaps even respect.
“We’re going to see that specialist”, I said.
The specialist was a tall, slender, old man of old age. His white coat was hanging on him as if he could hardly bear its weight and the responsibility associated with it. When the information terminal in an empty hall invited us to the door and we walked in, he was hunched over a long office desk, writing something. As soon as heard us, he looked up and then stood up.
The small room did not feel cramped, only because of skilfully-distributed furniture and the choice of bright colours on the walls. There were potted palms standing in the corners, reaching to the ceiling. A number of different diplomas and certificates were hanging on the walls; and also one discrete announcement about the sponsorship from the Yellow House. Did the expensive cars in the parking lot for the staff belong to that sponsorship? But who cares; the people working with this awful disease probably deserved it. But why was a public clinic funded by a private company?
“I truly apologize, but I am sure you will understand that preventive protection is extremely important in my job.” He reached into a drawer and put a mask over his mouth and transparent gloves on his hands. He shook our hands, seating us in two plastic chairs. “I’m doctor Fine, and amongst other things I’m responsible for the two of you.” He sat down too and moved closer to the table. “Before we begin, I would like to ask why you did not turn up for the agreed appointments.”
“We had a lot of work this week …” Jana looked like she was about to collapse.
Somehow I had no desire to make excuses. “Frankly, doctor, would it be good for anything? Would it help us? ”
Doctor Fine looked surprised. “If your body had begun to fight against the vaccine, it would have been necessary to quickly apply the appropriate medication.” He removed his glasses. Then he said much more quietly: “Look Mr. Teodor, you know as well as I do that there is no cure for the Yellow Death. So in this regard it would really do no good.” His eyes, the only uncovered part of his face, looked at me with pity.
Then additional tests began. He took samples of our blood and skin, measured our blood pressure, even let us ride a stationary bike.
After all of these procedures, when we were completely exhausted (especially mentally), he regretfully told us that we were both positive for the Yella d22 disease.
Ever since I’d slapped Jane, I had been subconsciously preparing myself for this possibility. But it hit me anyway. As if my heart and lungs had stopped, I felt a pressure in my chest. I did not hear the rest of the words leaving doctor Fine’s mouth. When I look back at it, I have lived through all five stages of dying – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Reconciliation, though not in that order. At that moment, however, I felt nothing.
I took some leaflets when the doctor handed them to me, I shook his hand when he offered it to me, and I passed through the door when I opened it.
We plodded along the street, without saying a word, like two zombies. And that’s how I felt; dead inside; artificially maintained in motion by some force. Like one who has to die again … Then I realized that the space next to me was empty. I turned back and saw Jana standing stiffly on the sidewalk some distance behind me. I ran back to her.
“It seems that we are left with only one option,” she said. “Tomorrow morning, we will sign into the Yellow House.”
“What? I’m not going anywhere, Jana. ”
She looked at me with a puzzled expression. “Are you serious? And what are you going to do? Paint your medicine? Or paint five more years for yourself? “She was getting upset, which was clear from the two lines under her nose and around her mouth. They appeared whenever she wanted to argue.
“I am not going anywhere.”
“Pff,” she snorted. “Have you even read those brochures? I doubt it. Let me educate you.” She pulled out one of the leaflets from her purse and found the appropriate page, oblivious to the people passing in the doorway of the Apple mall. “Here it is. Once the carrier overcomes the first phase, he becomes the carrier and he becomes dangerous to his surroundings. It is therefore necessary to limit their contact with other people and to live on some secluded space. They are banned from staying close to healthy subjects, with the exception of the weekly grocery shopping and social resources, if this cannot be done online, but always with an assigned escort. Then, suddenly, she tossed the booklet angrily onto the sidewalk. “You can’t even poke your ass out of the house, otherwise you get arrested. Maybe it suits you, but I just can’t stand it. So make up your mind. Either you leave the only person who’s ever cared for you, or you’ll rot that stinking slum of yours.” Now she was really screaming. She was waving her hands so she nearly lost her balance on those heels.
As I was watching her, the penny finally dropped. I am certainly not going to spend the rest of my life like this; with her. I can’t stand it.
“Stinking slum sounds wonderful,” I said.
She threw her purse at me, but I ducked. The leather bag struck a gentleman who was standing nearby, pretending he wasn’t listening, right in his head. He quickly left. Jana picked up her purse, gave me the finger, and proudly walked away.
And so I was left alone. At first, I didn’t mind; I would even say that I enjoyed the peace. Ota also didn’t show up, and I guessed he wouldn’t. Perhaps it was a bit too much for his little brain.
I sat in front of my TV, listening, crying, and thinking; usually about the meaning of life. The last few years I’ve thought that for me the meaning was is my paintings. But was it really so? Or did I just need to express myself somehow and to make others understand me? Or did I just want to be in the centre of attention, in my own introverted manner? Could the meaning of life be so shallow?
As always, I didn’t get anywhere.
I found that I examined myself more and more often. Has this vein on my wrist always been visible like this? Are my fingers yellowed from smoking or is there something more behind it?
And I was constantly hungry. I ate in two days all the food I had for the week. There was just ketchup and horseradish sauce left in the vacuum refrigerator. I found my computer under the mountain of garbage and dishes on the table in the living room, sat back in my arm chair and ordered six pizzas, five gyros, and roasted chicken wings. The whole order ended up in my stomach by the next day, by 0:31 to be precise. I had a bloated, distended stomach, I was stuffed, but I was still hungry. But if I had eaten something else, it would probably have ripped me apart.
I had no other choice than to connect with the operator on the yellow pages. She explained to me that this is normal, and she sent me my guardians, who brought me two boxes of specially-prepared high-energy foods.
I was thinking of Jana. She had not contacted me. All I had to do was to sacrifice five of those 562 minutes that remained till the end of the day, call her, apologize, and I could be with her. She had be worried alone at home, more than …
Stupid me! She is in the Yellow House! From there, any contact with the outside world is prohibited. How could I forget? Maybe she was right that I never listen to her … For a moment I flirted with the idea that I would also enrol, but I rejected it. Jana would not return to me anyways, and I wasn’t going to become a trained monkey in the last days of my life.
If I had missed her, the very next minute I felt like killing her. Anyway, it was her fault; I had caught it from her … or the guy on the tram?
Am I going to end up like that as well?
, I look out of the window, thoughtfully and then I turned to the television that was bigger, its image denser and more satisfying.
During the week, I alternated between just about all possible emotional states. At one point, I determined that I was going to do everything to survive and I rolled on the floor in tears and spasms of despair, the next time I spent staring stiffly into the wall, seemingly aligned with the inevitable.
When I googled the Yellow Disease, my screen became swamped by an infinite number of disgusting images, so I ran into the hallway in a rage (only in shorts and a T-shirt stained with horseradish sauce) and ripped the Wi-Fi transmitter from the wall.
I also tried to flee; I got to the tram stop, but there my guards caught me. They stepped out from behind a corner, as one man, casually grabbed my arm and dragged me back home. The few pedestrians stared at me with fear and disgust. I could not blame them. I hadn’t washed all week; I was afraid to look in the mirror.
I tried to paint, but I spent hours in front of a blank canvas, without drawing a single line, with my mind wandering elsewhere.
As the disease approached its second phase, I felt like junkie who’d misjudged the dose. I watched my skin; it looked yellow to me, like pure gold. Drops of sweat, forming on my forehead and dripping from the nose, were pounding on the palm of my hand.
I teetered between reality and a dream, and each was worse than the other. I realized that I was sitting in the fridge, I had wet myself, I had a fever and a stubbly face. Then I was again overwhelmed by the feeling that I was falling through space. For a moment I was cold as if I was walking in the cold emptiness of space, then I felt hot as though I approached some odd pair of stars, absorbing each other.
Enough, I decided when I felt better. If I should die, I’ll die with dignity. The decision itself gave me a surge of power so great that I could stand up. I undressed and got into the shower, where I spent quite a bit of time. Then I cleaned the apartment, threw garbage bags into the hall and dressed in my best suit that Jana had bought me on the occasion of some stupid fashion show (and just in case I would ever want to ask her to marry me). I made a calligraphic, pathetic inscription with a black crayon on the blank canvas:
“Do not destroy my paintings, they are the only things which will I leave behind, T. Kordula”, and I sat down in my armchair.
I have no idea how long I sat there, but when I regained consciousness (returned from the world of dreams and the unconscious), my eye fell on a wilted flower behind the window (from Jana), surviving only on humidity of air and the moisture from rare rains. I had never watered it. I could do it now. I took it inside and quickly closed the window, through which the cold air came inside.
And then it happened. I definitely lost my mind.
I touched the stem and the flower died in front of my eyes. The leaves yellowed from the tip to the stem and withered, and before they completely dried out, they started to turn brown. The plant started to shrivel, until only a charred pile remained, which then spilled into the vase which gleamed with some kind of beams of green energy, flowing around it like a forcefield. They changed into sparkling blue lines that, like visible electricity, revolved around my hand, penetrating into the skin of the fingertips, with a slight tingling.
I was frightened; I dropped the vase on the carpet and jumped backwards. I tripped over a chair, spread my limbs, and fell on the floor. Before I hit the carpet, thunder rumbled through the room. When I recalled the situation later, I came to the conclusion that there was no loud noise – except for the thud of my own body hitting the floor. At that moment, I thought that it was thunder mainly because the whole room lit up, as if someone had turned a strobe on, or photographed with a flash on.
I got up, and the smell of burnt plastic hit me in the nostrils. Immediately it was clear why. One corner of my wide screen was burned, and solidified drops of melted plastic had fallen onto the round table. But that wasn’t the worst of it. In the wall behind the screen there was a gaping hole, burned through the limestone-sandstone bricks up to the outer insulation. The carpet was sprinkled with white powder.
What the hell is going on?
I had to put my hand into the hole in the wall to believe that it was real. In recent days, I had realized that I should not just blindly believe my eyes. Rough edges of the damaged walls were still warm.
I turned around, and with only vague feeling I hesitantly raised my arm and pointed my fingers at the sofa. Yes, I am definitely going crazy.
A faint but undeniable tingling was born somewhere in my fingernails; it engulfed my index and middle fingers, then the other fingers and it began to spread through my entire palm.
Someone crashed through the door; it flew off its hinges, fell to the ground and crushed the painting with the working title “Psycho in the arena“ beneath it. It was unnecessary, for the door was unlocked.
Three men in yellow chemical protective suits and green rubber boots ran in.
“You’re too dangerous to society, you will be escorted” I heard the distorted voice of one of them say.
“What’s going on? What does that mean? “I asked. I felt as if I’d been caught in the act. I just didn’t know what act.
“It’s time, Picasso” another man said, twisting my wrists behind my back and tying them together with a plastic strap.
They led me out and loaded me into the back of a white van with a round logo.
We didn’t drive too far. I didn’t even have to look through the back window to know where we were going.
We stopped, the driver told the porter something which I didn’t understand, and we drove in.
They opened the back door of the van, removed my handcuffs, let me out of the van and left. Suddenly I found myself alone. In my sinuses, I could still feel the burned plastic of the charred screen.
I stood on a large, unfriendly area covered with new concrete and narrow strips of grass. It started raining and the wind started to blow. It was cold and I got scared. When I saw the Yellow Houses up close, they didn’t feel like places of customer satisfaction. Rather the opposite.
From the nearest house, marked with a discreet but visible “A”, a bald man came over to me. My sixth sense had just shouted itself hoarse.
He was middle-aged, in a fitted pale blue check suit, buttoned with one button, an understated tie of the same colour and with leather gloves on. He wore high military boots. The tailored suit could not hide his muscular body. To regard him as a professional limo driver or a bouncer of some expensive club was unthinkable. Why? I cannot say exactly. He seemed almost detached, but there was something disturbing in his eyes. Something very important, serious. Just from his posture and walking style, you would say he would never degrade himself to the said professions.
He did not introduce himself, didn’t greet me, he just motioned me to follow him with a barely perceptible glance. I wouldn’t have even thought of disobeying.
His skin was white, so he probably wasn’t sick. But he wasn’t wearing any mask (Perhaps they already have a cure? I was clutching at straws).
We walked into the building. Warily, I walked two steps behind him. We went through a long, uniform corridor and stopped in front of an inconspicuous door. The man motioned me to enter. So I did.
The door closed behind me and the lock clicked loudly.
In the bare, grey room, there was a dimly lit metal chair, and that was all. So I sat down, waiting.
A few minutes later a fluorescent lamp started to flash, bringing into view a cubicle in front of me, even smaller than the one I was in. The rooms were separated from each other by a plastic window with three round holes. On the other side, an older woman appeared with a file in her hands.
“Hello,” I said, although I was so nervous I almost couldn’t speak. She didn’t answer. I was hoping that all the people around were not dumb.
She sat down, unfolded the file, and sternly placed glasses on her nose.
“Name,” she said.
“Is your name ‘What’?”
For the first time, she looked at me. She expressed no interest in what she saw.
Then an exhaustive interrogation followed. She asked me about everything, starting with general information and ending with personal issues. I didn’t know the answers to some questions. Some of them were downright stupid. Some of them seemed to have a deeper meaning. As if it did not matter what I answered, but how I answered. The woman didn’t record anything during the whole time, carefully watching me and hardly pausing between my answers and the next question.
It took a long time, and my butt was hurting from the sitting. As soon as I had answered the last question, she slipped a thick file through the duplex drawer for me to sign.
“Basically it says that you are ours, we can do with you as we see fit, and you will never encounter the world outside.” She moved the pen closer to me, as if I was about to sign a bill for electricity.
Naturally, I didn’t want to do it. “And if I refuse?” I asked.
She gave me a sarcastic smile that seemed to say: We both know you will not refuse, Mr. Kordula. We both know that you’re too big a coward to refuse.
“Then we’ll give you time to think. Maybe even a few weeks,” she said with satisfaction.
I swallowed. “Good. It sounds good. Tempting offer. So I’ll study it at home and I’ll call you … or something.” Every second, an ominous feeling of being a small, cornered animal kept growing stronger in my guts.
The woman adjusted her grey bun with her hand and then she stood up. She was at least a head shorter than me. “I will return when you sign it.”
I felt a rush of heat, followed by cold sweat. “You can’t do this! Are you going to keep me here until I sign it …? So you’ll just let me stand here, staring at the wall? ”
“You’ve got a chair. You may sit.” She approached the door and grasped the knob.
“Wait! I have my rights! “I shouted to stress that keeping me here was illegal.
She turned her head and used sarcastic grin number two. “Not here, Mr Kordula.”
They left the lamp on, and so I read the entire file. It was written in such a complicated way that I had to read each sentence a few times, and then I forget what the previous one contained. Its illegible font was jumping in front of my eyes in the bad light.
What I understood was exactly what the woman had said. They will own me; I will be their slave, without any rights or powers. All my property goes to them. No benefits for me from this contract. I looked at the locked door. But did I have a choice? Will they leave me here to starve to death?
So I signed it.
At that moment the door opened and there stood my blue-suited guide. He was alone, unarmed and turned his back to me. I could try to escape. But the man was behaving so naturally and confidently, that it seemed as if escaping was impossible. Maybe it was. And on top of that, I am not the type of a person to break the rules.
He led me into a room with no windows, just as grey as everything I’d seen inside so far. Besides an iron bed, bolted to the floor, with a mattress (no duvet or pillows), a dirty toilet bowl, a chair and a desk with a rusty lamp, it was bare.
“Now listen to me, because I will not repeat this information, and it is vital for you,” the man spoke for the first time. He had a cold, deep voice. You could feel his hostility, contempt, and disgust, which he made no attempt to hide.
“My name is Instructor and I will accompany you during your stay here in the Yellow House. Never interrupt me, do not try to argue with me or question my orders. Then we will get along fine. Is that clear?”
“Yes,” I gulped.
He nodded slightly, as if to say it was understood.
“You were all named after the ordinary and dwarf planets of the Solar System. Your temporary name is Pluto. You will all get your rightful names when the time comes. ”
There are more of us here? I wanted to respond, but I stopped just in time. The Instructor knew it, and for a short moment, he paused. It was a warning.
Everything about the man was a warning. His body, fully filling the doorframe, evoked a vision of a war god, an ancient barbarian able to crush the skull with one hand. The only things scarier on him were his eyes. They were black and dead. They were looking without any interest, mechanically, as if he’d never seen anything worth looking at.
“For now, you will stay here, where the progress of the disease synchronizes with the remaining participants in your group. You fill the time here by thinking about your life so far, especially the unfulfilled dreams and goals, and you will write them down on the paper which you will find in the first drawer of your table. I suggest you write honestly, because then you will not have any time to think about your past life. I’ll come back in ten minutes to pick up your personal belongings, including your clothes. In the second drawer, you will find new clothing.” He turned and placed his hand on the outer handle of the massive metal door.“ And do not forget the following, Pluto. You will get answers to questions when the time comes. But if you fail to strictly obey the orders we will give you, the time spent in the Yellow House can shorten rapidly. ”
He slammed the door and the lock clicked loudly.
I found a notepad, pen, socks, firm black sports shoes, and faded overalls with an embroidered sign showing some circles. I got changed, and I gave my things to the instructor when he came back (May I have a question? No.) I sat at the table, and tried to write, but my mind was too busy by crazy theories regarding my fate.
I imagined that I was bedridden and doped with experimental drugs, inflicting unspeakable pain on me.
I imagined using an electronic key (the old malfunctioning card from the front door of my apartment block, which I had forgotten I had in my jacket pocket and which I hid from my captor in a drawer) to unlock the door lock (as in the movies), escaping down the corridor, with the alarm sounding, and finally I end up tangled in the barbed wire on top of the perimeter walls.
I imagined the door opening and people running inside with party hats, giving me a glass of wine and congratulating me on passing the admission ritual into the Yellow House.
I finally wrote something. After all, the thoughts of my unsatisfying life kept swirling in my head constantly. When I was finishing a third page, completing the idea that I did not really know what I felt, and my hand was beginning to hurt, the Instructor brought me some food. I was so immersed in my writing that didn’t hear him coming. He tossed a bowl with some kind of rice on the table, where it clattered and skidded, crumpling my papers. Then he left, and the door shut behind him.
The rice tasted like shredded cardboard, but I was really hungry; incredibly hungry. I have completely forgotten about it in the course of events. I spent bitter moments in my cell, sometimes in peace with myself, lying on the bed, peering into the yellow light table lamp, often shivering in the corner. In a rage of helplessness, I pounded on the door, eager for answers (but never actually with all my strength, because I was afraid that the Bald Cripple could actually come).
When I tried to sleep, I couldn’t; other times I fell asleep very easily. I never knew how long the sleep lasted (but I guess not too long – the bed was hard, I was sticky with sweat and I was cold) and I totally lost my perception of time. I don’t know whether I was in that cell a day or a week.
The silence was unbearable (God, how I missed the monotonous hum of my television), with only one interruption, when they escorted another patient into the cell next to mine. Through the unsealed iron door, I heard the same monologue of the bald headed man. I was thinking about calling him, but I didn’t dare. His terse voice alone commanded respect. I remembered the key hidden in a drawer. A hot wave run through my body, fear overwhelmed me so hard that my knees buckled and I cursed my stupidity until his voice subsided into silence.
When the door opened later and the inspector hurried inside, my heart almost stopped. I staggered somewhere between dream, sleep, and fever, and he appeared as the personification of a nightmare. His dead eyes slid quickly across the room and stopped on me. “It’s time,” he told me. He left, leaving the door open.
I didn’t know what it was time for, but in any case I didn’t want to stay inside the room, soaked with fear and sweat. I staggered into the hallway (which some hidden ventilation filled with cool, refreshing air), where there were several people. They were dirty, ruffled and confused. I probably looked the same. They were stealthily glancing at each other, but no one said a word. They were all dressed in the same overalls, with the same bare arms and necks (we did not get any underwear, which was really annoying). A strong man with a big, purple bruise spreading over his left eye and half of his face walked out of the last door.
The Instructor started to walk down the corridor, upright and confident. Everyone was looking at everyone else, until a few people started to follow him, then some more, and finally all of us. We followed him down the hall and through a half-open door marked with a big red number one.
A huge hall, surrounded by a red clay running track opened around us. Almost the entire inner area was full of aging fitness equipment; weights, mats, balls, wall bars, dumbbells, belts and racks with towels. In the middle, there was a small podium, around which men in all black but different clothes were standing.
There was a man standing on the podium, casually dressed in a thin grey sweater and jeans, hands clasped behind his back.. I immediately noticed him. It was not because of his clothes or the fact that he stood on the steps. It was the way he stood, how he looked. That itself told me that he was the boss, he was the one who was in charge here. He had black, rectangular glasses, dark cropped hair and the look of a man without fear.
I need to clarify this somewhat. Every person on earth is afraid of something. And subconsciously they show it by their mimic muscles, which can express a thousand of expressions. Other people unconsciously read it. Sure, I cannot tell just from their face whether they are afraid of spiders, when they’re not thinking of them, but the complete absence of fear is unnatural … and yet it was quite obvious in the man’s face. Suddenly, my fear of the Bald Cripple seemed somewhat irrational.
We walked up to the stage. It seemed that he kept looking at me. I could not see his eyes behind the glasses, but I felt that he was staring at me. I had the urge to look back, and then after a while to lower my eyes completely.
“Why does he keep staring at me all the time,” someone whispered, as if it was a joke, but it sounded more like fear. I looked around, because I could not bear the gaze of the man any longer, and I discovered that there were exactly thirteen of us, the same number as the men in black.
“Greetings, my friends and fellow fighters here in the Yellow House,” the man on the podium said. His voice was distinctive; his speech was without any errors. His clear pronunciation of Czech surprised me, God knows why. “That’s right, I said ‘fighters’.” He paused. “Don’t we fight every day for our survival? Don’t we deal with our destiny every day, which just throws obstacles in our way, trying to bring us down to our knees? Of course we do. „He spoke slowly, walking and gesturing with his hands, leaving long but deliberate spaces between the words, like an actor in a dramatic role. Yet it seemed sincere.
“Now I am your destiny”, he said, folding his arms behind his back again, “and I’ll be the one who will throw obstacles in your way. But every obstacle you overcome will make you stronger. Fast. Effectively. Any obstacle you overcome, any problem that you resolve, will never again pose the slightest problem for you. When we’re done here, you will be better people. That sounds good, does it not? And why will you do all of this? Because you will have a goal in front of you, which you will want to achieve. You will not have to, you will want to. This I promise you. ”
He did not speak into the microphone, but he could still be heard all over the hall, just as if he stood beside me. “And what do I want? One thing only; I want you to try it. Let me tell you frankly that now you have no choice. But I want you to give it some time, deciding not immediately, but later whether you want to follow me or you want to go your own way. I promise you that if so, I will offer you a way out.
Therefore I am asking you to try it. ”
There was a stunned silence. When it did not seem that he wanted to continue, and the effect of words began to slowly subside, someone plucked up courage and shouted: “Who are you?”
The man on the podium lost his smile for a while (if permanently slightly-lifted corners of his lips count for a smile), but it was enough to make the first row of men step back. A shiver ran down my spine.
“You have heard who I am, and what I mean in relation to you. As for my name, you can just call me the Teacher. And please, do not ask further questions. You will not get the desired answers. You are allowed only one question each cycle, so think about it well. The cycle is equal to one or two weeks, depending on the exercise. ”
He said “please”, but I knew that the first rule was determined: ‘Do not ask’.
“Enough said. Let’s start! “His voice cracked the air.
At his signal, the black-dressed men (who I had completely forgotten about) approached us, each of them unerringly finding a partner. I was approached by a man in his thirties, a strapping guy in a tight black T-shirt and cargo pants, with a military haircut. He curtly explained to me the meaning of the words set, reps, and top-speed training to failure, and he sat me on a machine, used to train back and shoulders.
And so the agony began.
We worked hard, took turns on numbered machines, ran, jumped, and strained muscles that we did not even know we had. Several people responded to a positive motivation and encouragement, but the trainers were mostly using negative motivation (or a combination of the two). They used their fists and their tears were flowing. I even saw one of them slap a woman (yes, I had slapped Jana too, but that was something else).
When it was finally over, I could hardly stand. They took us to a shared shower, which bolstered us a little, we were given clean overalls, and everyone was given a salty, yellow cube to eat, resembling Turkish sweet meat. A tiny, skinny girl next to me was refused it, looking as if she was going to throw up, rather than eat anything. One of the guards (they had never introduced themselves, so we started to call them that) approached her, grabbed her chin with two fingers and said:
“Once we had a guy here, who also didn’t want any. He defended himself so fiercely that he broke my finger.” He was talking to her, but so that all could hear. “Since then I give a choice. Who does not want to eat, does not have to.” No one moved.
“What happened to him?” Someone asked.
The guard bared his teeth and looked pleased. “When he had become so hungry that he started to chew the soles of shoes and gnaw linoleum, I came to him. He begged me on his knees to help him. And I did … but only after I had broken all his ten fingers.”
After the meal we went back into the hallway. I thought we’d go back to our rooms, but they moved us to a common room with bunk beds along the sides. I can’t say more about those areas, because when foreign hands had sent me to a soft pillow, I fell asleep immediately, perhaps even before my head hit pillow.
A loud bell woke me up. I was startled by it, because as an artist without any fixed working hours, I wasn’t used to an alarm clock.
And I immediately realized one thing. The cruel hunger, devouring my guts was finally gone. That was a relief.
I wanted to get up, but my strained muscles made themselves felt, and I fell back onto the blanket. I would have remained lying there, but during that brief moment in the not-entirely-horizontal position, I saw something which made me literally jump out of my bed. On the lower bunk, on the opposite side of the room, Jana was sitting and staring blankly ahead. Her hair was ruffled, lank, her fringe covering her right eye. She wore baggy overalls, and despite this, or perhaps because of it, she had never looked more beautiful.
I was so happy that I forgot about our breakup; I stumbled toward her, and I wanted to caress her hair as I always (sometimes) did. She recoiled. She looked at me. I searched for a sign of surprise in vain; she had probably seen me the day before. I expected joy, or relief that she was not alone, but the emptiness in her eyes turned to anger, dislike, and hatred.
“Jana …” I tried to stop the barrage of expletives that would surely follow, but she said quietly: “I’m not Jana anymore. I’m not even Tayra. My name is Ceres. Now get out. ”
“You’ve left me. So now don’t come near m ” She bowed her head without looking at me again. Well, I should rather say that she left me.
The door opened and the guards rushed in. They grabbed us as we were and led us out. I suggested to my guard that I’d go by myself, but he pushed me so hard that I almost fell.
A young man in his twenties had wet himself during the night for some reason, and now he had his suit draped over a bed and a bed sheet around his waist. The guard did not let him get changed and dragged him across the floor by the hand until the sheet loosened, exposing him. He tried to resist and cried. It was very inhuman and degrading. His cry was heard everywhere, but nobody paid attention. Only that strong man with the black-eye stood up for him: he broke away from his guard and ran to his aid. His guard caught him, twisted his arm behind his back as if he wasn’t only half of the man’s weight and took him out, bent.
That day was worse than the previous one. I was so stiff that I thought it wouldn’t be able to move at all. I was wrong. I moved; it was just more painful.
On the third day, I gave up. “I can’t,” I said, and I fell to the ground. I knew that I was not going to get up. The guard tried to motivate me with a few kicks, but I really couldn’t do it. I guess it was obvious, because he stopped.
I felt like fainting, but suddenly something lifted me up and I couldn’t breathe. My reflexes responded and I began to twitch. I opened my eyes and through the fog I saw the expressionless face of the Bald Cripple and his pumped-up arm, which gripped me by the throat. My sadistic guard stood behind him, amused.
“It doesn’t look like you can’t. When the Yella starts filling your lungs with pus and you shit your own intestines, will you make an excuse to yourself, gave up and die?”
“Yes,” I wheezed.
He slightly wrinkled his nose and loosened the corners of his lips in a sign of contempt. As if he were an android and his only installed emotion contempt. He released his fingers and pushed me away. Oddly enough, I didn’t pass out and kept standing. “You’re lying,” he said.
And I actually still could work out some more – for about a minute. When I collapsed again, I fainted completely.
So I spent the night in a sort of regeneration tub, marinated in some kind of oil, like many “colleagues” before me and after me.
We were so exhausted that we just exercised, swallowed yellow cubes, and slept. Someone mentioned that for the entire time he hadn’t used the toilet, hadn’t eaten and hadn’t drunk, and yet he did not feel the need. Those who weren’t asleep began to nod, and I only now realized that it was the same with me. The last thing coming out of me was undigested rice, which I’d got here in the Yellow House. I had no energy for further analysis, and I fell into a sweet unconsciousness. In the whole week I found an opportunity to speak with Jana only once, but with the same result as before.
I was so angry at Jana, my captors, and my fate, that when a guard pressed my face into the mat for an imperfect press-up, I lost my temper.
I was really angry (I admit that this reaction should have come sooner, but that I’d had a problem with it all my life). I leaped to my feet and pushed the surprised muscleman away. There was a loud “Huh” sound as he exhaled the air rapidly and tottered a few meters back, where he knocked down another guard. This outburst of aggression was also based on my feeling that I was stronger (which I really was, even after those few days) than ever before and my unreasonably increased confidence.
All the men in black within ten meters of me jumped at me at once. It turned out that each of them was skilled in some martial art, and my strength (whether real or imaginary) meant nothing. They beat me like a dog. Their fists and heavy boots fell on every part of my body, regardless of how much I twisted.
No restorative bath took place; I cried silently in my bed all night, the only one not sleeping. I was crying because of my self-pity. Tears of pain fortunately look the same.
The next day we again stood before the Teacher. Again, it seemed to me that he was looking only at me, but this time, perhaps rightly, because there was no place on my body that wasn’t purple and swollen, making me stand out compared to all yellowish peers.
The Teacher stood, smiling and waiting. Finally it dawned on me; I was the first one to realize that we had the right to ask a question. I desperately wanted to know why we exercised there, when we would all be dead in a few weeks.
I was afraid to just speak. But I also did not want to be silent, so I raised my hand. Before I finished the movement, someone was faster.
“Where are all those bars, cinemas and swimming pools that they showed us on TV?” the very shrewd-looking man with the black eye (he actually had his face full of bruises now, just like the others, but I’d got used to calling him that way).
I wanted to kill him for this question. Really, with my bare hands.
“They’re here, do not worry, Mr Uranus. Actually, it’s all right behind this wall, “the Teacher pointed left. “But you do not have access to it yet. That’s all for today, you can go. ”
No one was leaving. The dose of information was not satisfactory. The Teacher also remained.
“And when are we going to have that access?” Uranus, whose stupidity was endless, asked. The Teacher frowned. Not much, but enough. All of us were surrounded by cold aura; it appeared as if the huge round lights on the ceiling had lost their intensity.
Uranus’ partly smug, partly curious grin faded and he began to tremble, gasp, and turn blue, as if he was being strangled by some invisible hand (or several hands, due to the circumference of his neck). Veins in his face bulged, his eyes looked as if they were about to pop out of their sockets. The man was undoubtedly experiencing great pain, and he was unable to scream only because he was suffocating. He fell to his knees, began to squeeze his own throat, and then he started to pound his chest. People around him took a step back and formed a circle. We were all watching him and the Teacher by turn. He gracefully and slowly, like a character in a dramatic play, walked down the steps of the stage and came to the dying man. He slightly leaned forward, so he could look at him closely.
“Are you stupid, Uranus?” He asked, waiting for an answer. But Uranus could not speak. Instead, his bloody eyes were begging for mercy as no words could.
“Are you so stupid, you’ve failed to remember what I asked you for last week? Apparently, yes. I do not need stupid people here. Their dullness is a threat to their life and other people’s lives, and they’re wasting my time. Therefore, I sincerely hope, Mr. Uranus, that when I ask on the next cycle who wants out of the circle, you’ll go first. ”
If I had wanted to kill him a moment ago, now I pitied him, and I was glad I wasn’t in his place, that it wasn’t me whom the Teacher didn’t want there. I did not understand my feelings, because I thought that I was one of those people who wanted most to get out.
Uranus, still in agony, kept shivering and rolling on the ground, legs kicking, and his head was red like a melon turned inside-out, but he could not move his eyes away from the Teacher. Their pupils were linked with an invisible tie. Uranus had bitten his tongue; blood started to run from his mouth.
“In your reflection you wrote that you regret that you had not managed to do anything important in your life. No wonder – when you get a chance and you carelessly throw it away. ”
I could not bear the sight. I wanted to shout: Enough! Let him be! … But I was so shocked (scared) that I did not move.
The Teacher shook his head, as if he had a child in front of him who had broken a toy and tried to blame it on a friend. Then a theatrical sigh.
“I pardon your misconduct for the first and last time. I firmly believe that it won’t happen again. “Now he was talking to all of us. Uranus’ head fell onto the ground and blood was spilling all around. It seemed that he was dead, but then he began to cough, wheeze, and regain his colour.
“I see that you have not chosen a leader yet. Do it,” he said as he was leaving. Without turning, he added: “It will be easier for you.”
The rest of the day was free. We recognized it by the fact that nobody beat or tortured us. We could visit the washroom, shave, and relax.
Jana had fixed her hair, and she was obviously better, because she even smiled during her conversation with Uranus. (Which in turn made me feel worse). I think she felt sorry for him. He was silent, processing the humiliating scene from the morning. His tongue still hadn’t healed, but he again aired and tried to solve his problems in front of everybody the only way that his idiotic brain had ever known: by conflict.
I preferred to turn my eyes away. The youngest patient, I think his name was Earth, was sitting and leaning against the wall up on his bed for several hours, staring at the crumpled Ecipp (ECIPP – Electronic Colour Ink Paper Photo – a photograph based on electronic colour ink) pressed in his palm. No personal belongings were allowed, but the Bald Cripple did not look everywhere. It was a picture of the man’s girlfriend. Maybe he had fallen in love not long ago. Perhaps she had persuaded him to go to the Yellow House. Maybe she had promised to visit him.
Maybe someone should talk to him.
It was not only possible to leave your life behind. It was possible to pretend it had never existed. It was possible not to think about it at all. But it wasn’t possible to forget.
I missed my paintings. And although I had always considered myself a loner, feeling best when left alone, I had to admit that I even missed conversation. I wanted to share my feelings and opinions with someone. I wanted to express …
But to hell with conversation. I missed Jana. In my reflection, I had written a long list of her bad habits which had driven me crazy. But I had never realized all the good things I used to find in her; and that she had been the only thing I had.
Jana was still talking to Uranus. He sat down next to her on the bed. She pulled away. He put his hand on her thigh. She pushed it away. That was enough.
“That’s enough,” I cried. I got up and limped toward them. Everyone stopped their activities and looked at me. I was limping, but a little more than necessary. I was hunched and breathing deeply. Certainly, the guards had beaten me a lot, but professionally. I had no broken bones, no internal bleeding, only superficial injuries.
“Hey fat boy, how about showing the lady some respect?” A sentence that I had probably heard in some movie. Uranus stood up. I think that’s what he wanted. Someone weaker, whom he could use to fix his mood and a bruised ego.
When he had come here, he was fat rather than ample. Now, his extra pounds became an advantage. He had begun to develop his massive chest, for which common doorframes weren’t big enough anymore. Maybe that was the reason why the others averted their eyes when he was checking to see if anyone else had a problem with the situation. He was waiting for me to come, with a faint, impatient smile on his face.
“I’ll teach you respect if you don’t buzz off immediately. This cat is mine.”
“Yours? Have you bought her? Or have you received her from someone? I did not know that it is possible. I would have bought someone too. Hello, does anybody here sell anyone so he would explain to Uranus how to behave? ” I turned to the others, but still closely watching his ruddy face. “I know my ex well enough to know she’s not interested in your clumsy paws,” I said seriously (Maybe I imagined it, but at the word “ex” Jana blinked, startled.)
Just as I finished the sentence, Uranus turned and swung his fist toward my face. Despite how I looked and what my body was saying, I was expecting it and was prepared for it. I knew he was left-handed, so I wasn’t surprised. I quickly crouched and immediately straightened again, as if doing a quick squat. Uranus expected resistance, faltered and was forced to take two steps forward to regain his balance. That way I dodged the blow, and now I stood behind him.
The bunk beds in the bunk were connected by a rickety wooden ladder. In a split second, I noticed that one rung was cracked, and guessed where to pull, so I would have a piece of wood in my hand. It worked, but I had no doubts about it anyway. My mind and body functioned as a perfect machine. I tore the rung and I wanted to turn around, but something warned me. Maybe a shadow on the wall, perhaps the faint squeaking sound of rubber soles on linoleum. I dropped back down as fast as gravity would allow me. And it was barely fast enough.
It turned out that I’d underestimated my opponent. His clumsy body approached unexpectedly quickly. The hair on the top of my head was literally split in half by his kick. A heavy boot kicked through the three-centimetre thick oaken plank of the bed as easily as if it would have kicked through my skull if I had not flinched.
I spun on my heel a hundred and eighty degrees like a break-dancer, and hit him in the shin with the rung so hard it vibrated in my hand. Because he was still standing on one leg, and I’d just tripped it, he began to fall. Still kneeling, I turned sideways so he wouldn’t fall on me, lifting one leg to the kneeling position as if proposing marriage. As he fell his face struck my knee. I distinctly felt the breaking nasal cartilage and a few more little bones, and he crumpled to the ground.
There was silence around us, broken only by Uranus’ swearing, as he tried to staunch the blood flowing from his nose with his paws.
Everything had gone so smoothly and easily that I was surprised with myself. But my anger had not vanished. I looked around and I saw only ruined and desperate faces.
“I’m the only one who knows how to behave?” My voice grew louder. I stood upright, the pain from my old injuries dampened by adrenaline. “How about a little respect and cooperation? Perhaps nobody had imagined it this way, but we are here now, and we have to deal with the situation somehow. It’s not you or me, but us or them, ” I pointed at the door. I could hardly control myself, and small drops of saliva were flying out of my mouth. It was like I was releasing all the anger repressed inside me for a lifetime. “I don’t know about you, but I’m really fucking interested what is happening here. Because there is something damn wrong. And I want to figure it out. I hereby pronounce myself the leader. Has anyone got a problem with that? ”
Nobody answered. I realized that I was still clutching the rung of the ladder and I threw it on the ground. I offered my hand to Uranus.
“Go fuck yourself”; he spat out blood, got up and left.
I shrugged and turned to the others. “Now we’re friends. We’re more than that, we’re family. Because we have no one else, and we’re running out of time. And I don’t want to die without knowing why I was tortured in the final days of my life. I want answers! And if I don’t like them, I’ll want revenge! ”
They began to applaud. Really, they even stood up.
What had happened to me? I realized later, that’s not me, I don’t behave like that. I’m used to sitting in a corner, waiting for commands. I don’t hit people, and I don’t decide on their fates. Whether this change had as a result of my impending death, my captivity, illness, or loss of Jana, I realized something really strange – I liked it.
The next day we thought we were going to train as always, but this time the bald Cripple passed the door with the number one on it and led us on. We followed him for several minutes, until we came to another door, the same as the previous ones, except for the number. A big red number two was painted on it.
This hall was slightly smaller, and except for the equipment it was nearly identical. The same grey walls, the same convex lights on the ceiling. Instead of fitness machines, there was a punching bag, and the floor was covered with mats, otherwise it was empty.
Our guards divided us again and began to teach us ways to fight. They told us that there wasn’t enough time to learn complex fighting styles; the purpose of these fights was to train our physical and mental endurance, our reflexes, ability to improvise, and creativity.
So we were beaten in the styles of karate, kick-box, and judo; we were falling to the ground, trying to get up again and again, trying to find a chink in their defence or to surprise them somehow. But not very successfully.
The guards were ruthless. When they were tired, they let us fight each other. When they saw that we were somehow sparing each other, they stepped in again. A broken finger and blood flowing down the chin were quite common. The miraculous healing baths healed all the wounds in a few hours. It was not exactly a pleasant procedure, but it was efficient. I even considered posing a question concerning these miracles of medicine, but I realized that it was about the tenth question on my list.
“You fucking piece of shit. I’m tired of you messing up my kimono. Try to dodge at least once! „the muscular maniac in black shouted at me.
That helplessness and anger gave me wings, perhaps only momentarily. I grabbed a half full bottle of water that was standing nearby and flung it at him. By now I was on my feet and rushed him.
The guard turned in a balanced pirouette, almost denying the laws of gravity. The kimono swirled around him, the movement barely perceptible, and I fell to the ground. I slammed into the floor, my head bounced off the mat with a thump, and I rolled over twice before I ended up lying on my back. He slowly walked towards me and looked at me in a way that said: “You can’t win, but it’s fun to watch how hard you try.” His chest was moving with calm, regular breathing, he looked full of energy, and I knew I could never beat him.
Well, a small, rational part of my brain knew it, but it was surrounded by a thick wall of despair and anger.
“Come on, man, take it easy. There is no need for unnecessary emotions. They are mostly a nuisance,” he told me, and drank water from the bottle that he’d caught during his pirouette. “Do you think you can beat your opponent when you see red?”
There is no need for emotion? Was I the only normal one around here?
In my entire life, my most aggressive reaction was painting a Cubist painting (except for a lost ten-second slapping game in the third grade). Now I was convinced that if I had enough physical strength and skills, I would kill the man standing above me.
“Do you want to bet?” I gasped.
His mockery was indescribable. He literally spat water droplets and I nearly got him – I nearly choked him with my pitifulness.
“If I get you on your back, you tell me what’s going on here,” I managed the tone of a serious businessman at a business meeting.
“Deal,” he said with pretend fear, and retreated.
I got up heavily from the mat and stood. He hinted to me that I could attack him whenever I was ready. I ran straight at him. He turned his eyes up and with a stiff frontal kick he flung me several meters away. I stood up again.
I let him pound me over and over, falling to the ground and spitting blood. To pretend I was weaker than I was had paid off once already, and I saw no reason not to try it again. The right opportunity came when I was bent double after a particularly painful blow to the abdomen, and the guard let me get too close to his body. He wanted me to knee me in the face, to take me down for a while and mock me and give me his smartass advice. I had him figured out.
At the right moment, I ducked, than I jumped on him and wrapped my arms and legs around him, holding him firmly. I swung from side to side until he lost his balance and we both tumbled onto the mats. I climbed onto his back and with a panicked vision that any second he was going to break my limbs, I applied a stranglehold and furiously began to choke him. Before long, he was slapping his palm on the mat.
“I won,” I cried triumphantly, and I released him. I could lean on the excitement I felt. The others had even stopped to look at us. It was not the manliest victory, but a victory it was.
“Okay, you won,” he said grimly. He clenched his fingers into a fist, lifted himself into the press-up position, put his feet under his body and slowly stood up. Symbolically, he brushed off his clothes. “You wanted to know what’s going on, huh? I’ll tell you, but you won’t like the answer.”
“Don’t prolong it, swellhead”; I could not wipe the huge grin off my face.
He shrugged resignedly. “It’s mainly about beating and crippling you until you start beating me.”
Now he was the one smiling.
In the evening, when we were released into the sleeping quarters, I was only in the mood for bed and long sleep. But that I was not allowed. Several people came to me. The first was a petite brunette with a bruised face. She looked neither frightened, nor broken, she looked … baffled. I could have talked about my own suffering until the next morning, but I pulled myself together and I listened to her. Since I had pronounced myself leader, I had to be one.
She insisted on privacy, so we stepped aside, and she told me that she hadn’t had her period for a long time. She said she was aware that it can be caused by stress and extreme physical stress, but she needed to know for sure that she wasn’t pregnant. She needed the test to know whether to end it before the child developed. She said she couldn’t live knowing that a child who wouldn’t survive the birth was growing in her. I understood her. I promised her I’d take care of it. The relief and trust that I saw in her face made me proud of myself.
The next in line was a man who needed an inhaler. He claimed that he would die without it. I didn’t have the strength to remind him that he were going to die anyway. I promised him that I’d get him one. And so on. I did not know how I was going to arrange it, but they were so grateful that I was not going to disappoint them. Jana watched me talking to them, but she didn’t come to me. I lay down and turned to the wall. Before I fell asleep, hard, incontrovertible sleep, I noticed an inscription scraped into the wall: Do not trust them. This fight is not ours.
The next waking up was the worst I’d ever experienced, and I doubt that anything will ever surpass it.
I was woken up by a scream, and brought to a state of complete wakefulness by a blow to the abdomen. Someone dressed in white towered above me, getting ready for another blow. A hard baton hit me right in the face and tore my cheek. I tumbled out of bed onto the floor and tucked my legs into my body. Thus ended my defence. The man kept beating me indiscriminately. I was writhing and screaming. Then a bright light was turned on, blinding me completely. When I got used to it, I saw that the others had met the same fate.
(It was the guards). Each of the guards was standing above the person he was in charge of, dressed in a white kimono and equipped with a long baton. When it finally stopped, the lights went out, and our tormentors left. They did not say a single word. They left us screaming, except for Earth, the guy with the photo, who was carried away because he fainted and fell into a coma. Until the morning, nobody dared to fall asleep.
At the usual time, the rusty sound of the alarm came again, and we were again driven into the hall number two, where the harsh training continued. The guards were again in black and acted as if nothing had happened. I guess it goes without saying that any questions were answered by blows from their fists.
Extreme physical exertion had also taken its toll mentally. It was slowly becoming unbearable. I needed to do something. I wanted to resist, to break the rules. When it came to swallowing that synthetic food, the guards looked like saints, and when one of them winked at me and said: “Bon appetite!” my cup of patience overflowed. I jumped on him and nearly strangled him. It was worth the beating.
We went to bed, but most of us are couldn’t sleep (some couldn’t even lie down because of the pain, so they were walking or sitting around). We were waiting in fear) to see if the previous night’s performance was going to be repeated.
It was. This time the metal gates burst open as if there’d been an explosion, and the guards rushed in with a loud roar and started chasing and beating us. Even though we’d been expecting it, we were so weak and bruised that we could not resist. With my own eyes, I saw Jana frantically limping away from one of the guards only to run into arms of two others, whose white uniform sleeves were stained with blood. When they began to beat her, I somehow freed myself from the grip of a tall man and, crazy with rage, ran to help her. In vain. We were helpless.
In the morning I gave the order for everyone to try to save their strength during the day as much as possible, or get a place in the healing bath. It was not easy, but we had a good motivation.
The attack came nearly in the morning. We were exhausted and dead tired, but quite prepared.
This had preceded it: The evening before, Mark (Earth) had attempted to hang himself. He had it well prepared; in an unguarded moment, he slipped a loop made from the bed sheet over his head and jumped down from the bunk.
“I can’t stand it! Leave me! “He cried as Monika, the tiny bruised girl that I’d promised to help, held his legs while I loosened the loop.
For some time we were comforted him, and I repeated that the Teacher had promised that anyone who wants to will be able to leave. I don’t know if I’d managed to convince him; I saw only despair and hatred in his eyes. Hatred against everyone and everything. It reminded me of my own hatred.
“Hell, this is not fair!” I shouted, and I got the attention of the others “I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough of this. I never even wanted to go to the Yellow House! I wanted to sit at home, watch TV, enjoy the last six months and meet death in my own way. They’ve kidnapped me, tortured me both mentally and physically, and now they’re going to watch me die in pain and tears? No way. I’m not saying beat them up; I am not saying put up with it. I am saying let’s kill these sons of bitches! ”
Two seconds of stunned silence, followed by tumultuous cheering. I spoke from the hearts of some of them, others looked uncertain. But nobody was one against it. Days of psychological and physical torture had created in our hearts hatred stronger than moral scruples. “What will they do to us? Fine us for breaching the contract? Put us in prison? “I had my lips stretched in an absurd smile, with two loose teeth swinging. “There are as many of us as them. They follow no rules, why should we? At least one of them is going to be carried out of here feet first tonight! They want to make animals of us, so we’ll show them we can bite! ”
Even the last few undecided ones started to cheer. I think this was the last chance, a way not to collapse, not to give up. If this didn’t work, many of us wouldn’t have the strength to continue.
When they’d calmed down a bit, I ordered: “You two smash some bunks and try to barricade the door. Mars will stand guard. Choose the most alert ones and schedule turns, so all of us don’t have to be awake (the appointed one swelled with pride and took his task seriously). And the rest of you, make your weapons! Rip ladders from their beds, make sharp tips on your brushes; I just want everyone to have a deadly weapon within an hour! “And really, everyone eagerly got to work (except for Mark, he sulked holed up in bed and Uranus, who did something similar, except that he was piercing me with his gaze).
“I have an idea,” a voice behind me said shyly. It was Jana. “We can tie bed sheets together and use them as nets or ropes.”
“Great. Do it. “I was so enraged that I did not even realize it was the first time she had spoken to me voluntarily. She seemed to want to say more, but then she turned around and went to prepare her traps.
I was pleased. Really. I didn’t see broken, defenceless creatures around me. I saw warriors ready to fight.
So the guards were taken by surprise. They commanded us to open the door, but we did not let them in. Eventually they broke through and a not-so uneven fight ensued. One-on-one we wouldn’t have stood a chance against their combat techniques, but we weren’t fair. We had nothing to lose. We fought like we’d lost our senses (violet-blue, swollen faces, twisted in crazed gestures), and with such fervour that eventually these trained, rested and better warriors retreated. Even though the number of casualties was even on both sides we felt like total victors.
With satisfaction we noted that two guards were missing during the training, and a few others bore signs of minor injuries.
The next night the guards used the hidden entrance in the floor beneath one of one of the beds, and they took us completely by surprise. Nearly half of us ended up in the baths.
And they used one more trick. When we started the “normal” training, the guards suddenly pulled down their black kimonos (under which they wore white ones), drew their batons from inside pockets and pounced on us. But we had the same plan – we had tucked our “weapons” into our overalls, ready to ambush them. It failed, but at least we could defend ourselves better. We came through without any major losses, just because we were like lions in our despair, while the guards didn’t give it everything and, moreover, even they were tired.
There was one thing I was wondering about; there was no punishment for assaulting the guards, on the contrary, it was as though it had been expected of us. I gained the impression that we hadn’t manifested our free will, but we’d only acted exactly according to some plan.
There was no ambush on the last day of the cycle.
“They are making soldiers of us, because we’re dead anyways” a voice whispered behind me on the way to the hall.
“But why? Do you think the United Government wants to attack China?” a second voice replied.
I was convinced that something else was at stake; that we were missing something important.
I must admit that when I was walking with my friends to door number two and standing in front of the newly-built podium, I was proud of us. I was exhausted, tired, pain in one or another part of the body was omnipresent, but I was not broken. And I think the others were no different. If this was some kind of test, we had succeeded.
The Teacher entered the room and my excited mood slowly faded; it was replaced by a kind of sadness. There was just something wrong with him, my sixth sense was screaming as much as it could.
He stepped up to the podium and looked at us. His mouth and a few shallow wrinkles around it (his eyes were still covered with glasses) reflected the jovial conduct of an optimist. But it did not look too convincing. There was a sort of natural fear that could be felt around him. I admit it without any shame. And that was it. As if his jovial behaviour was just a poorly- worn mask, and each of us instinctively knew that something life-threatening was hidden underneath… like a poisonous cobra coiled in a pink stroller. Despite all this, I couldn’t say with certainty that all of this wasn’t just figments of the imagination of my lately quite overloaded brain.
“Congratulations on surviving to the next cycle,” the Teacher said in a hushed and confident voice. “I am sure that you are glad to see me. My presence means the end of one thing and the beginning of a new one. You don’t even realize how true this statement is. Now you might ask: But does it mean we don’t die? Do you perhaps think that when you see me here, you’ve survived another cycle, and you continue on? Do you think you can’t drop dead? Have any of you perhaps forgotten the disease that rapidly progresses through your body, from one part to another? ” He was still smiling, but just a little less.” Everyone will die one day. Everyone. Some sooner, some later. But isn’t time, this relative substance, what really matters? An hour of incredible pain will be longer for you than five hours spent on activities that you enjoy. So what’s more important – how long you live, how long you feel that you might have lived, or what you do or accomplish in your life? “Then he paused. Honestly, I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Pluto, what’s your question?” He asked quietly.
I swallowed. I was wondering how he was going to answer. “Why do you keep us here? What is the goal of all this? “I blurted, unreasonably nervous.
The Teacher looked as crafty as his plastic face allowed. “Nothing less than saving the planet Earth and all the creatures that live on it,” he said.
You could’ve heard a pin drop. Everyone listened intently to see if he would continue, but he didn’t.
I raised my arm, asking for a permission to speak. The crowd murmured. I tried to resist Teacher’s gaze.
“If you open your mouth now,” he said, “you will face the punishment. Do you really want to go through it, even though it is not certain whether I’ll answer? ”
“I do,” I whispered and coughed. “Some of us really need certain medications I want to ask you for them. ”
The Teacher barely nodded, walked down the steps and towards me. People had again created an aisle for him. As he approached, a sense of panic grew in me and I could hardly stop myself from trying to escape. He stopped in front of me.
He struck incredibly quickly. Probably. For me, it was as if the universe exploded in my stomach. I doubled over, spitting blood in a wide arc onto several people. But not on the teacher, who managed to evade the spray. Before my body collapsed, a shower of punches followed, so incredibly fast that they seemed to merge into one overwhelming blow. Where they hit, they left shattered bones and torn body parts. Before I collapsed into a pile of dying flesh, he grabbed me by the throat and held me in the air by two fingers. He was still smiling. I could not feel resentment, and perhaps not even fear, because everything was engulfed in a horrible pain, shock, and confusion. Life was leaving my body every second. Too slow. I heard a woman’s voice screaming.
He was strangling me, but my lungs pierced by my ribs would be unable to oxygenate my blood anyway. Before the darkness gradually enshrouding my vision totally absorbed me, he had loosened his grip. “You’ll get it,” he said, and I died.
I woke up in the bathtub, a U-shaped gutter full of glowing tubes, and I emerged from brownish goo. I tried to catch my breath and filled my lungs with dry air. I felt faint, I was disoriented, but the memories were slowly returning when I realized I was breathing deeply, clenching my fingers into a fist and … nothing hurt. Impossible.
I got up (my legs were shaking a bit but it wasn’t that bad) and a little irrelevantly I wanted to know what time it was.
Just a moment! Something was wrong. I stopped in mid-stride and thought about it. Water was dripping from my body onto the grey floor, creating a puddle. I don’t know how long I stood standing there, but soon I was completely dry. But I still couldn’t figure it out. The only thing I had was a feeling. The feeling that I was missing something. Part of me. Like I was mentally castrated, lobotomized. For a moment I panicked and I felt dizzy again.
Instructor. That word appeared before my eyes when the door started to open. Only a second later a bald head with apathetic eyes, followed by a bulky body appeared in the doorway.
He had personally brought me clean clothes. He waited until I dressed and then led the way. As I walked beside him, he patted me on my shoulder in a gesture of friendship or recognition. It surprised me so much that I thought about it all the way to the quarters. Before letting me in, he said: “You missed two days; you’ll have to catch up.” I looked at him questioningly, because his tone was gentle, honest. “Or you’ll face the consequences, believe me,” he said sympathetically.
When I walked in, people crowded around me and began to shake hands with me and thank me; some applauded. I was touched. Then Jana came, reluctantly smiling, and giving me a long hug. Then she politely took me from the attention of the others and led me to a cleanly made up bed.
She was looking directly into my scarred face, and opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, a heavy hand fell on her shoulder. She gave way to the robust body of Uranus.
Not that. That I had not missed.
But Uranus didn’t move. Then he said: “He sure messed you up, didn’t he?”
He looked into my eyes and I didn’t hold his gaze. “I was a little surprised; otherwise I’d have handled that.”
Uranus smiled and shook my hand. And I know that all was okay. Apology accepted.
“Are you alright? “I asked, because he seemed to be limping.
“My tailbone hurts.”
He looked at me like I was dumb. “Out of nothing, it’s just a pain in the ass.”
I had to laugh. It hurt, but I could not stop. He joined in and we were both laughing.
After several long minutes, I noticed that we weren’t living in that poor hole anymore, but they had moved us to quite nicely-furnished rooms. We still slept on bunks, but now more robust (and more convenient), made of polished spruce. We had clean linen, and each bed was fitted with a wall-mounted lamp. We had sanitary facilities there: a sterile shower, toilet, basin and a television mounted on the wall. What surprised me most was the surface of the walls, ceiling, and floor. It was khaki, camouflage pattern, and it looked very rough. No windows. Beds were only on one side of the wall this time, the entire opposite wall being lined with some sort of advertising panels from the ground to the ceiling. There was a detailed scene of snow-covered mountains, a huge photograph behind which strong, but – thanks to the paper – dimmed lights were placed. It was like a giant window. Because of it, the light in the room was strong enough to fight off the oppressive atmosphere of the dark walls.
Actually, it was quite cosy in there.
The next morning, we marched into room number three. Only the Instructor was waiting there; no guards. The hall was about half the size of room number two, with the same wallpaper as in our quarters. At regular intervals, there were benches made of solid wood, each of them with an embedded stone bowl containing a curiously iridescent cube – shaped object with rounded corners the size of an apple, pulsating with warm colours.
I could not take my eyes off it.
I wanted to touch it.
“Stay where you are for now,” the instructor said politely, but firmly, when we were getting closer to these strange objects.
“Before we begin, I must tell you a few things. You will surely have lots of questions, but I am not authorized to answer them. So save them for the Teacher. It is important for you to know that what we are now going to learn is dangerous, so be careful and do only what I tell you.” He walked over to the nearest bench, leaning on it with two fingers of each hand, and carefully looked at us. “You’re here because you have some ability. Some of you already suspect something; some of you have already experienced something they couldn’t explain.
It is the ability to manipulate energy. ”
The crowd began to boil with excitement, some were even talking aloud.
“Enough!” the Instructor disciplined us. “You might wonder how, why, and what, but it’s not my concern. Talk about it back at your quarters. We have a lot to work to do, and I’m not going to waste time with chatter. “When we had quietened down completely, he said:” It is a dangerous and powerful weapon. In this cycle, we will try to convince it to listen to us. Now proceed to your tables. What you see before you is called Zex. It’s basically a battery full of power in its purest and most acceptable form for you. “When he was talking about Zex, I saw for the first time his extinct eyes lighting up. They were literally devouring the colourful cube; he didn’t look at us even once. I watched him, and words like addiction, obsession, came into my mind. I looked at the others, to see if anyone else had noticed it, but all had their eyes fixed only on the Zex.
I was not immune either, the morphing rainbow, the power visible to the naked eye, fascinated me …
“Handling basic manipulation should be more or less intuitive” the voice of the Instructor disturbed my thoughts, “but you need to experience it. And you also need a sort of starter. Try to impose an idea on yourselves, persuade yourselves that you desperately want and need this Zex that you must have it, but you can’t get it. ” He spoke dreamily, his mouth moved, but his mind was somewhere else.
He took off his fingerless gloves, and I saw his bright red, scarred hands on which a sort of complicated pattern was etched in black.
He held out his hand over the cube and closed his eyes. “Try to grab it, but without having to move. Accepting the force is not rocket science, it only depends on your degree of adaptation and readiness. ”
Almost immediately, eagerly, the top of the Zex began to crumble, change to an indigo, shimmering glow, soar, and like a snake coil upwards. About halfway up the sheaf of energy split up, formed into a V shape and started flowing into his hands. It was a thrilling spectacle. I was watching it open-mouthed, and I constantly admonished myself – my rational self was trying to tell me that this was an illusion, a trick like many seen on Youtube.
But this was no trick; it was just too … perfect.
It turned out that Zex is hollow, and its walls are formed by a very thin surface. This peel dissolved, and became lost in the stream of pure force. The meat on his arms, almost the length of his forearms, was shining orange, highlighting the bones. The Instructor grew up (or I diminished), he seemed larger, more threatening, although physically nothing had changed. He just stood there, motionless, his eyes closed. His electrifying power had to be real.
Suddenly, I saw no humanity in him, but an armed weapon, a weapon of mass destruction. My skin crawled.
Then he made a casual movement and simply dropped the energy on the ground. At that moment I felt sorry, I thought it was such a waste … It shattered in a cascade of glitter and crumbled around him, bounced off the walls and effectively vanished in the flood of disappearing flames.
Monika gasped in amazement.
The Instructor opened his eyes. They were dead again, indifferent.
So this I want to know, too, the thought went through my head.
“Today, it is imperative to learn to handle this ability,” he informed us. “You have twenty-three and a half hours. Keep trying, as I told you, but also experiment and follow your intuition. Those of you who manage to do it can go back to the room to relax. Those who don’t will have to try until morning and then they will undergo further training. If they’re not dead by that time. ”
He took several deep breaths, and then he looked up and frowned. “Begin.”
He did not have to urge us twice. I put my hand about seventy centimetres above the Zex and then, trying to follow the advice I heard, I focused on the energy intake. I closed my eyes, imagining how the cube falls apart. My arms had begun to ache when I felt the heat on my hands. But maybe I just convinced myself of it…
Suddenly, I was startled by a flash that penetrated through my closed eyelids. I opened my eyes and saw Mars, a man just a little older than me, quickly etherealizing the battery that was being absorbed into his hand. He leaned his head backwards and opened his mouth to scream soundlessly. Then suddenly, he absorbed the entire Zex and his yellowish skin turned orange. Then his whole body stretched, he leaned against the bench and slumped to the ground. Burnt imprints of his palm remained on the wood and black smoke was rising toward the ceiling.
There was an outbreak of confusion, and then I realized that the instructor was yelling:, “Get it out! Get rid of it! ”
And then, out of every pore of the man’s skin, weak but numerous rays of white energy started to shoot out, burning into the metal table legs, bouncing off into the air; thousands of flashes per second were painlessly absorbed by the human bodies standing around him.
“Are you okay?” The Instructor asked Mars.
“It hurt,” he said heavily. “But nicely,” he said and smiled.
The Instructor grabbed him, lifted him as if it weighed nothing, and carried him away. When he returned, others had started to work with even more eagerness.
“That’s bullshit,” the youngster Earth said, “am I the only one around here who thinks this is totally crazy? Is everyone insane? I reject this! “When he found out that nobody, not even the Instructor, was paying any attention to him, he ostentatiously stood up against the wall, folded his arms and looked indignant.
Meanwhile a sudden rage had begun to overcome me. Again. My ??proverbial?? patience had disappeared somewhere.
I was upset with my own inability, and partly with that stupid battery. I wanted to destroy the Zex, I wanted to kill it. I imagined drawing all the power out so much that …
… And there it was. A barrage of hot energy surprised me. The shock made my heart miss three heart. As if someone had pumped litters of adrenaline into my veins. It was too much, too much, it was almost impossible to bear… but also impossible to disconnect. And then the transfer stopped, the cube disappeared; it was in me. That urgent pressure spread throughout my body. It was flowing Like lava through my guts, violently rushing forward and leaving burned rock behind. I was indestructible. I almost died. I could do anything. I couldn’t move. If only I weren’t so taken aback by that power, paralyzed … and then it was just too much. It was amazing, but too much. It hurt. I didn’t want to have it in me anymore.
It seemed like eternity before my brain sent impulses to muscles. It was as if foreign fingers grabbed me in spots right below the ribs, literally ripping and pulling the hazardous energy out of me like a piece of matter, which cumulated in a glowing ball. It was a relief … But I felt partly empty, as if I was holding a piece of my own soul in my hands; my own power, myself. Quickly, before I could make a bad decision, I dropped the ball. It sailed through the air, glittering, slightly changing its shape and size, and then, like a house of cards it collapsed into itself and imploded, leaving nothing behind but an image burned into my retina.
Exhausted, I fell to my knees. My head dropped to my chest. It seemed like I had just thrown away my will to live. I was too tired. Then I just remember how perfectly waxed shoes entered my field of vision, as something picked me up and carried me to my bed. I tried to stay awake to find out whether Jana had made it, but I could not prevent myself from falling asleep.
I woke up at dawn (the dawn created by high wall panels). We weren’t woken by the siren, as we were used to, but the Instructor came personally. He’d exchanged his fitted suit for even more formal black jacket, still wearing a blue tie with circles. His bald head gleamed. Nothing here happened by a coincidence. A change of one little thing meant a change of other things, which I had already understood during my stay.
But the atmosphere of that day was festive, positive. I felt it from the moment I opened my eyes.
He was carrying a silver tray with twelve of the squares so well known to us. “Get up, sleepyheads. I am bringing you breakfast in bed. Enjoy it because it’s the last time in your miserable lives. ”
I was looking at my hands, examining them for traces of burns and thinking about yesterday. I was not sure if I could cope with that unnatural strength again. And the instructor looked so … so …
“Take one, they are still warm,” he placed the tray on the table. It took a while before I realized that he had just made a joke. His stony face was quite confusing.
God only knows why it cheered me up.
A shower and clean overalls followed. Earth was not with us, and from what I had learned he had refused to attend the workout from the day before until the last moment. We never saw him again. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t care what happened to him. He was just a burden to the group anyway.
I was rather looking forward to what was coming next.
Actually, if I don’t count him, throughout the training period our group was bonding, with everyone finding their place. In the last few days, this process had been happening faster than ever before. A fleeting smile, a handshake, a word of praise, or simply listening to one another were the details that reassured me of the fact that we ‘d begun to trust one another and cooperate. There was nothing of the initial hostility left.
When we moved to room number three we found that the tables were gone. They had given way to targets in the form of stone figurines standing against the opposite wall.
One table still remained in place. A square, matt black box lay on it (I didn’t dare to guess what material it was made of), with two decorated handles on the sides. Given the number of tiny projections, holes and special characters on the surface, it appeared more like some kind of device rather than a chest or box.
The instructor turned to us, waiting. We quickly silenced, wondering what was to come this time.
“Yesterday you passed the test,” he walked around the bench and slowly moved toward us, “which showed that you really have what it to belong among us. That’s not all. To continue your journey, to achieve the desired goals, you get this.” By this time he was right beside us. I do not know why I expected (or feared) that in his presence my clothes would start smouldering or my hair, charged by static electricity, would start standing on my head, but none of that happened. Up close he looked like a normal person.
He took off his leather glove and showed us his palm. The others surrounded him, so that everyone could see. Finally, we could properly see what he had been concealing for so long. He had a surprisingly complex design etched or implanted into the skin.
They were variously interconnected circles, like star constellations, some strange solar system, or a molecular formula. The longer I looked at the pattern, the more I could see the complexity and detail of individual shapes. My mind was slowly moving away from reality, soaking up every little detail; my vision was dissolving in the fog, my subconscious mind gaining dominance, as if in hypnosis … and then he clenched his hand into a fist, and I was wide awake again.
Without a word, he turned and went back to his place. He looked at me and beckoned me to step forward. I obeyed him uncertainly. He opened the box (which looked like a snobby toaster costing the price of the average Year’s salary). The inside consisted of small rectangles of different heights whose protrusion or retraction formed two hollows; Five-finger hollows.
The device was glowing lightly, even though it was not connected to any visible power source.
Meanwhile, the Instructor continued: “This symbol is not just a stylish decoration, so treat it with respect. It will become part of you, merged with yourselves. You’ve never had it, but you’ll soon discover that it’s the most important thing you could ever have.
And would you like to know what it is for? First, it is a unique sign of our community, our responsibility, our common goals, our uniqueness. But more importantly, it is also a weapon. It is your personal link to full control of the energy. It’s a conductor, a carrier. It is a tool by which all your powers can be regulated, but also strengthened and modulated. Once you get used to it, it will be easier for you, less painful, and it will extend your boundaries … It is as if we had given you bullets in your hands, which you could have thrown, but now we’ll give you a gun. ”
That was all I needed to hear. I had long been fascinated by all of this. Furthermore, if I was about to die anyway, what could I lose? I put my hands into the holes and the Instructor laughed at my impatience. He put his gloves on and closed the lid.
At first I felt something wrapping around my wrist and fixing my hands. Then some soft mist wetted my skin with cool liquid.
And then it began to cut through my palms.
I flinched with shock and the nearest two bystanders jumped backwards. Something was stabbing and slicing into my muscles and tendons, ruthlessly, purely and incredibly fast. When it began drilling into the bone, I nearly fainted. The pressure and resonance radiated throughout my whole arm up to my shoulder. I wriggled and bit my lips so I would not scream.
It lasted about a minute, and then it stopped. A water jet washed my hands, and the grip around my wrists eased. I gently took my hands out and two drops of blood dripped onto the grey floor. I wanted to see the result, but the Instructor stopped me.
“Until you gain the energy, don’t look at the signs. Especially not for the first time. It could end up bad. Conversely, if you ever suffer a mental block and you are unable to get rid of the energy, look at it and maybe it’ll help. “He handed me a pair of gloves, patted my back and with that he also sent me away. “You know, it’s a science,” he continued in his warm, explanatory tone, “you could study your whole life and you still wouldn’t find anything. But time is what we are lacking, so we must be quick.” Jana was pushing her way right behind me, but it was explained to her that every character is unique so she must follow the list.
After the successful branding, we spent the rest of that day and the next absorbing energy from the cubes and releasing it in the form of bolts, laser beams, or phase waves against the targets and figurines.
“Look,” Uranus cried excitedly, “it’s like fucking magic!” Above his stretched hand a sparkling, growing ball was rotating. When it had reached the size of a human head, he hit it with the lower part of the palm of his other hand. The ball flew across the hall and hit a swinging figurine in the chest. It exploded, burning rubber pieces flying in all directions.
We were destroying targets as big as houses, as small as a pea, flying and falling, of various materials. We were deaf from the continuous explosions, so before we fell exhausted into our beds, our usual conversation was replaced by a lonely whistling in the ears.
But we almost didn’t need to talk. During these last few days, we had learned to know one another well enough to understand our companions’ thought processes better than our own.
Mostly it was due to our training in teams. The games like conquering the fortress or stealing the flag took on a new dimension, considering our new skills.
Uranus and I had become the strongest players, so we always play on opposite sides of the barricades. It was a challenge, because he was a real maniac. When he didn’t know how to do something, he just used all his power. Once we defended a fortress (the Instructor called those huge buildings “stage sets”, and they brought them daily from the gate on rails) and Uranus and his team had to conquer it. I sent a man ahead to do a reconnaissance, assigned several members to places where they would most likely try to penetrate, and sent the rest to protect our supply of Zex (which was always strategically deployed by the Instructor, and we were not allowed to move it – it was the only rule). I positioned myself on the first floor, observing the opponents through a loophole.
Note: One might ask how I could have control over my people. How could I know where they were and coordinate them? The answer is simple: There was no need. In all that time there was never any misunderstanding. We always knew exactly what to do and how to do it. Somehow we were on the same wavelength. We always knew the position of all the others, because to us, each source of energy was like a halogen lamp to a moth. Therefore, there were no communication technologies required.
It was the first time Uranus had been in command, and I was very curious about what he was going to try. I expected a fake frontal attack to divert our attention… But with him, nobody could be sure.
I really hadn’t expected what he did. Of the eight Zexes his team had for the entire game, he had absorbed six, one after another. Until I saw it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it was possible. The whites of his eyes, now red, were bulging out of their sockets. They were they only distinguishable human feature visible (We were wearing suits made of snakeskin to avoid fatal injuries. They made us look like we were camouflaged for the jungle.) With his loud roar he was releasing the mix of pain and pleasure the absorption of the force was accompanied by. Then he ran, jumped over a three-meter gate as if it was just a bigger step, then to the gallery on the first floor, and then, without any shortness of breath, he got to my level. I had no idea what he wanted to do. If I’d attacked him with an energy flow through the loophole, he would have overcome it and my power barrier as well, but he wouldn’t have achieved anything…
He took off his gloves and his fingers glistened with a golden glow that spilled over his hands. And then he swung and hit the wall with his fist. My puzzled expression changed into one of understanding, when after a blow resembling an explosion of a shell, the dust covered my head. He pounded the wall until it cracked and began crumbling to the ground. With his bare hands he was tearing the iron rods, pulling them out of the walls in enormous lengths. He either left them in there, twisted, or he threw them behind his back in undisentanglable half-ton balls.
I perceived him as a demon, a god of power, a monster against which there is no defence. I totally forgot about my own skills, I suddenly became Teodor again, an unsuccessful artist, and something in front of me was tearing the last remnants of the walls to pieces, and at the third attempt it plucked the iron loophole from the wall. A thick beam of light burst inside
Uranus finally ran out of power and ended up tangled in the fittings of the wall, unable to move, but his teammates, who followed him, easily broke in and swept me to the ground before I managed to open my mouth.
So instead of a long fierce battle it was over after a few minutes.
But I also learned something. Strategy isn’t everything, the fighter must above all trust his instincts and his strength.
Exceptionally beneficial was also the training in which we had to experience how not to release all the energy, not get overwhelmed by it, and always keep a limit below which we can’t go, even if we should die. What Uranus did won the game for them, but as the Instructor said, sometimes losing a good fighter is worse than losing the battle.
That’s why we fought naked afterwards. We had no longer felt embarrassed since the shared showers, so we were not shocked.
Fighting without snakeskin could easily kill us. To prevent that from happening, we made our shield from our own energy. If we ran out of it, we would be left naked and defenceless on the battlefield full of mortal danger.
It was fun.
We returned our quarters empty, exhausted, but … happy?
One day, instead of Zex, a piece of wood, a flower, an apple, or a live beetle was waiting on our tables for us.
“Biomass is the biggest and best usable energy source for us,” the Instructor said without greeting us as we arrived. He stood straight, in his spotless ironed jacket. He seemed incongruous next to our haggard, sleepy faces and bodies in worn-out snakeskins. I had the opportunity to observe him for a while, and I dare say he wasn’t comfortable in his own skin.
He waited until we’d all begun to concentrate, and then continued. “Ingestion and processing of such a small cockroach” – he took it between two fingers from a plastic cup and showed it to us – “will give your body about one hundred kilojoules. This is what your body expends for example in twenty seconds of running. But if you take its power and process it yourself as you learn it here, you’ll get twenty times more. That would be enough to burn a hole about the size of a tea cup inside my chest. Right from the place you are standing now. ”
He returned the cockroach to the cup and looked at us seriously. “You must not forget that the more you take, the greater the risk that you won’t be able to handle the power. Death in this case is very painful and not always exactly fast. Any questions?”
For the first time we could ask questions. I did not expect it, and of course, I had thousands of questions. However, someone was faster: “Does it mean that we can draw energy even from people?”
“Yes, it’s possible, but … It’s not strictly forbidden, but except for exceptional cases it is not recommended. If the person does not agree toit, it’s like … stealing someone’s soul, which is certainly something that none of you would want. There are certain defence mechanisms, but as I’ve just learned, there is no time. If you have to, you’ll find it out for yourself. Okay, that’s enough, now go to work. Before the day is over, I don’t want to see any debris larger than Saturn’s dick! Move!”
“What should we save the Earth from? What dangers threaten us? “I asked a question and I was trying to look into the Teacher’s dark glasses. Subconsciously, I probably tried to get to his level, but I felt like a little kid who imitates his parents. Or as a laboratory mouse, which is trying to find the cheese in a maze, but doesn’t know that it will remain trapped forever. My voice sounded hollow and shy in the huge space.
The corners of his mouth twitched gently, as if I’d said something funny. The smile on his face seemed inappropriate. His hands were clasped behind his back; he was standing straight, unmoving.
Just like us, he was standing on the snakeskin, mottled greenish plastic material, which was covering the entire interior of the hall. No stage, no guards. Hall number four, in which we found ourselves, didn’t feel as empty as the previous ones, despite the fact it was twice as big as the all of the previous ones combined. In front of us, there was a field covered with randomly placed concrete cubes, which formed a sort of maze. Blocks with sides of about half a meter piled up in some places up to impressive heights like the remains of some ancient buildings; on the other hand, there were empty spaces in some areas.
The Teacher had us really soak up the atmosphere and the cold smell of the large space, and then spoke: “Their name is not given, in different places they give them different names. For us, however, it’s always going to be the Opponent. It is the most advanced weapon ever produced. Note and remember that I’m saying produced, even though it is a living being. ”
Then he paused. I almost stopped breathing as I devoured his words, hoping that he would continue. The Teacher nonchalantly waved his hand and a hitherto invisible door slowly opened in the wall a few kilometres away from us.
“The Opponent doesn’t have to breathe, eat, or drink. It stops for nothing. It is its own source of energy. It can survive strong radiation. It can withstand almost any temperature and pressure. By human standards it doesn’t even get old. You can shoot it into space and you have a high chance that it gets to its destination. If you shoot a whole army of them, the chances increase …“
I had stopped listening to the Teacher. Because what had come out of the black hole overwhelmed all my senses.
My mind simply could not absorb it. The human brain, if it gets information that it fails to process, starts to look for other ways of understanding. You tell to yourself, for example, that you were only dreaming, or you come up with even the most unlikely explanation, just so you have one.
In this case it did not work. The Opponent was so real and so obviously inhuman, unearthly, that my consciousness drifted away somewhere, perhaps just so it wouldn’t have to deal with the problem. It just ran away like a coward.
And then, when my consciousness came back and sorted it all out I was finally able to process visual and other stimuli in real time. Maybe I stood there in awe for just a few seconds, I can’t judge it.
From the darkness of the open gate a formidable creature stretched out. Due to the fact that it straightened up after entering the hall, I estimated its height to be just over four meters. Yet the first thing to strike my eyes was its surface. It was shiny and silver. Not uniform, but interwoven with irregular hairline cracks. As if it was wrapped in a broken mirror. Nevertheless, its appearance did not seem metallic, it was malleable and flexible. The shape of its body was conical, wide at the top, narrowing towards the bottom, but aerodynamic. It faintly resembled a humanoid. The middle part of the body could have been a broad chest, two strong arms on the sides, two legs, stunted compared to the rest. No head, at first glance, no bodily orifices.
The creature remained still, and then it turned towards us. Its movement was incredibly fast, smooth. Only now could I see that somewhere in the “chest” area a strong, red light shone through its hairline cracks. It didn’t shine steadily, but it pulsated like an extremely powerful heart.
The Opponent began to move. The way it moved was the most frightening aspect thing about it. It was the most unnatural …..locomotion, I’d ever seen. The Opponent stretched its limbs to incredible distances, catching and pulling itself forward. It used its rear limbs minimally. This movement resembled a fish floundering on dry land, but there was nothing clumsy about it; it was absolutely methodical..
“Remember,“ the Teacher’s voice penetrated my ears, “that the energy absorption capability is partially limited by the body, but mostly it is your mind that is blocking the transmission. There are creatures that absorb entire stars.
“The Opponent raced towards us. It covered half the distance in a few seconds. Bumping into a concrete block. it threw it aside as if it weighed nothing. The block hit the ground with a resounding crash and disintegrated. I felt the floor vibrating beneath me.
And then it produced that sound. It was a shriek which made my teeth ache (not to mention my ears). In that shriek, there was inhuman suffering of a cornered animal with no choice. Either it survives, or its enemy does. No other option exists.
I’d already started to back up. I almost turned away and began to run. Every person is different, responding differently to difficult situations. Uranus next to me was laughing hysterically. I do not know what made him have quite this reaction, but it helped me.
“So what are you waiting for? Destroy it! “The Teacher commanded. He did not shout, he had never raised his voice. Yet it worked as a mental kick in the ass.
And, believe it or not, I ran towards the monster.
Time seemed to be smashed through space, my senses sharpened; adrenaline was coursing in my veins. I was yelling.
To explain this a bit… I knew little about the Opponents, but I knew that they were intended for killing and destruction, ,- possibly the destruction of our planet. That would raise a wave of patriotism in everyone. But that was just part of my motivation. This fuelled my anger and hatred towards the creature, but what actually forced me to run now was kind of indescribable desire to compare our powers. We’d had the hardest possible training, and we ‘d changed; both physically and mentally. We did not have to ask questions to realize Yella was no disease. Rather the opposite. We ‘d become more resilient, more ambitious, and more determined. And especially stronger. They’d made soldiers of us. Everyone needed their own time to deal with the fact that it was against our will, but did we want the war? Was that our will?
And some of us had really been looking forward to using their skills in a real fight.
The monster used its swinging pulls to rush directly towards us. Concrete blocks were not slowing it down at all; the Opponent was pulverising them into clouds of dust which engulfed its silvery body, but the Opponent remained shining like a diamond.
Behind me, I felt the presence of my people, and in front of me, boiling power, escalating by the moment. But the perfect and infinite source of power hidden in the chest of the Opponent was also my source. It was the very same essence of our existence, which was why we were created. This was a guarantee that the adversary couldn’t be stronger than us. It was like an equation, adversaries on either side and the “equals” sign between them.
The Opponent was just fifteen meters from us when his silvery limbs, resembling unbalanced pistons covered with a mosaic of glass and silver, sank into the ground around us. And then suddenly he was on us. In a split second I saw, as in a giant bizarre mirror, the determined faces of my fellow fighters, disfigured by the refraction of light, alongside my own.
At the same time, I lifted my legs and dropped to my knees, as in the rock and roll slide on a stage, and I crossed my arms in front of him. At that moment, my training showed through, because even in such a tense situation, I managed to completely clear my mind, like a thousand times before, and use my body as a mere conductor of energy. And at the right time, reach into the flow of energy and shape it just like children do it when they stop up the end of a garden hose to spray water on each other in the summer.
Although our bodies didn’t physically touch, I felt such a blow that I saw darkness before my eyes, as if my brain had gone out.
When I able to see again, a second later, I found myself at the far end of the hall, by the wall. I freed myself from the iron container that embraced me like my mother’s arms, and I lost a few more seconds sorting facts and information.
I looked at my hands. White smoke was rising from them. If it weren’t for the exoskeleton suit, reinforced by thin, ultralight tubes (the final, more modern and more durable – and more stylish- version of the snakeskin suit), I would have been dead ten times, and even now it was a close call. Later, my Teacher said my move was indeed heroic, but stupid. Like running with my head against the wall. But he also told me that this exercise was to teach us exactly that. The Opponent can’t be destroyed by using strength, only by using brains.
When I recovered, I found that my friends were in trouble. They could not even think about an attack; they were having a hard time just staying alive. Jana had found out that it made no sense to focus on the Opponent’s body, so she focused on its limbs. She was sending beams of energy into the earth, where they bounced from the snakeskin as if from a mirror, preventing the Opponent from gaining traction at any spot. Uranus covered her back, since the Opponent was so fast that it could move before they had time to turn around. The other eleven fighters tried not to get in the way of them, and not to hit one another with their energy beams. Some were apparently helpless and unable to respond quickly.
The Opponent suddenly produced that terrible shrieking sound again, straightening up and preparing to throw its full force at Jana. Instead, unexpectedly, it fell backwards, right onto Venus and Mars, who were trying to surprise it from behind.
And it was clear to me that this was the end for them. They lost their lives because they mistakenly assumed that the Opponent had a front and rear, that it had eyes, and that it behaved like any creature we know. In a microsecond, several images ran through my head – images of the nearly-broken Venus, who had shyly asked me about tampons, before becoming a strong fighter, and Mars, who always devoured my speeches, took advice as orders and behaved towards me with the utmost respect.
I knew they were dead but I didn’t want to admit it. I rushed forward, determined to attack the creature with all my power, even if was going to tear me to pieces. The only thing I achieved was that I saw up close how the Opponent kills. Venus and Mars were trapped in a triangle formed by two of the Opponent’s limbs and its own body, with the space enclosed by a sort of transparent shimmering curtain. Then the Opponent crouched, and its shining centre changed its colour to dark blue. The brightness of this cold light was so intense that it was impossible to look at it. What I saw before I looked away is something I won’t forget as long as I live. In the newly-created prison, blue hell was unleashed and our two friends were at its centre. As if in slow motion, I was forced to watch blisters forming on Venus’s face, bursting immediately as the fluid mixed with blood. She arched her back and screamed in pain. Mars was still alive when his eyeballs burst and leaked out of their sockets. The personal computer, which we could not live without, and which he’d somehow acquired, glowed in his pocket and leaked out like oil. This armour had hardened on him and started to glow red.
All that could only have taken about two seconds, but it certainly was not a quick death.
The Opponent did not hesitate, and chose another victim.
I jumped over a piece of cracked block, which was rolling to me on the floor and I ran. My gaze swept across to the Teacher who was still standing in the same place, still stiff, carefully watching us. However, there was no time to think about that. The atmosphere was saturated with energy, and I collected it with my entire body, throwing it at the Opponent in the form of jagged bolts as fast as I could. I was still full of anger, but I’d learned. This time I wanted to attract the enemy’s attention so that the others could regroup, because the Opponent had driven them almost into a corner.
It didn’t work all that well. The monster straightened up, its diamond chest glowing again, then it lifted its legs and headed towards me like a giant cannonball. Then a shiny black sphere flew towards me, and I could see from too close a distance coloured streaks resembling cosmic nebulae. I reacted instinctively. I waved my hands as if I were a bird and was about to fly away, and I released some of the energy with which I filled. It whipped me up, and I actually flew. Beneath me, I saw the ball slamming into a concrete cube, suddenly disappearing before my eyes as it quickly spread, and wrapped up the whole object with something like a soap bubble. Then there was a flash inside of it and it disappeared. From the concrete block, only a half-dissolved lump remained, like a piece of butter left in the sun.
I felt suddenly uncomfortable flying and cursed gravity for its weakness. If the Opponent had shot another ball into my flight path, I wouldn’t have been able to avoid it. But it didn’t, because it was now preoccupied with enraged Uranus. I landed on my feet, blocking the kinetic energy with my palms, squatting. I paid no attention to the fact that a normal person would have broken their legs and pelvis to smithereens if he’d fallen from such a height. I got used to relying on the fact that a lot had changed.
“Come to me, quickly! Regroup! “I shouted at the others. It seemed that they were just standing there. But then I sensed that Uranus was creating a protective shield for the whole group. The others grouped around him, touching his shoulders and head and transferring their power over to him. His robust body was so full of it that it shone like a small sun, even through the exoskeleton. He knelt on one knee, his arms raised above his head; it was clear that he wouldn’t last long. The Opponent, on the contrary, never seemed to get tired. At first it tried to get closer to the fighters by sheer force, but when they resisted, it again raised its silvery arm whose end was lit up blue, pushing it into the invisible shield like a blowtorch into steel. The more it tried, the more energy was produced by its core, which also meant energy for us. It might have seemed like an endless carousel, except for the fact that even much human bodies so drastically transformed could not withstand such load.
And then I suddenly knew everything.
I knew that the Opponent uses massive doses of neutron and gamma radiation to destroy living organisms and technologies.
I knew it can float through a broad spectrum of densities of various substances.
I knew that the Opponent ‘s heart is a biological reactor on cold fusion.
I knew that it travels so incredibly far, wrapped in ice, that no one is safe from it.
I knew the Opponent, like a spider, wraps its prey into the power grid, that it is more dangerous when working in groups …
I knew a lot more, but I had no time to think about it.
I knew how to kill it.
And I knew that the others knew it too. Maybe they had known it before I did, and they were just waiting for me to join them.
Their shield suddenly disappeared, as if it had never existed.
Some were falling to their knees, some raised their hands up, as if to pray, but without exception, they gave out everything of themselves.
Question. How to make unstable something, that is designed so as to be stable under all conditions?
In the Opponent ‘s core, in its heart, an immeasurable, incomprehensible amount of energy was flowing, constantly changing, flowing through precisely- defined paths. If I tried to change the paths, it would be like poking my fingers into a turbine – I would lose them. However, if there was a pair of hands for each turbine blade, and they grasped it exactly at the same time, they would be able to stop the rotation. Sure, they could be cut …
So we all pushed our mental hands inside the opponents’ chest up to the elbows, and with all our strength we tried to cause fundamental changes in the elements of the reaction, which would have disastrous consequences.
Beside me, someone began to scream. The type of screaming which can give courage and strength, but which is also announcing that you are at your maximum and that you won’t last long. I would have screamed too, but my entire body was in spasm, so my heart was not even beating all that much.
The Opponent started producing a tortured roar. It was like the lowest and the highest tone at the same time; a tone that was tearing at the eardrums, shaking the ground under our feet at the same time. Its limbs were expanding and contracting uncontrollably in all directions, and its chest was pulsing insistently with the unconsumed energy.
Its whole body was shaking, and a crack opened on its side; it attempted to attack for the last time, and then it exploded in a dazzling flash.
The actual explosion was so fast that before the human brain would learn about the first particles falling on the body’s nerve endings, it could be repeated a million times. We still noticed something. Energy poured into us with such force that we were immediately filled. I can’t even describe the effort that I had to make in order not to keep drawing more. But I remembered well the training, and the very painful impact of overestimating one’s powers.
That is why I let the remaining energy, in the form of oxygen-burning fire, flow around me.
Just like the others.
It was like being in hell. Just for a moment, but just like that.
At first I did not feel pain or anything at all, and maybe that’s why I thought I was dead.
But after a while I began to see light, to recognize shapes, and then the fog subsided, and I could see again. The heat had burned my eyes, but my body, overflowing with powerful energy I had never felt to such an extent, regenerated my cells almost spontaneously.
Yet it took a while before I could get up.
There wasn’t much left around me. Black smoke quickly disappeared into cracks somewhere in the ceiling, and I soon saw that the concrete blocks had been turned to dust, and the hall was almost completely empty. It took me a while to realize that those black bodies with white, moving eyes, with maybe a tooth here and there were the people from my team.
Their regeneration proceeded quickly as well. Ten minutes later we’d started talking (chattering, shouting, and cursing); in fifteen minutes we got up, and in twenty minutes nine naked people shedding the remnants of the destroyed exoskeletons from their bodies were standing there in a circle.
We couldn’t stop grinning at each other, because we felt like we had passed the test of a lifetime, scaled the highest peaks, and could quite happily die. We watched a few pieces of the Opponent as if hypnotized; they resembled large uncut diamonds, reminding us of our enormous success.
Then my eyes fell on the Teacher. I had completely forgotten about him. It was as if this had been done on purpose, by some magic, and now he had made up his mind that he wanted to be seen again. He was standing there, neat and formal as ever, not a crease on his pants would have been wrinkled (if he wasn’t wearing jeans).
“Not bad,” he smiled slightly.
I felt a wave of happiness and pride over my abilities. These had been the first Teacher’s words of praise.
“But remember that this was just a baby. You have to be able stand up against dangerous adult specimens.”
With these words the elevated mood quickly disappeared. And perhaps rightly so, because we didn’t have a very good score.
, Three of us were dead. Of the two that the Opponent had killed, only cracked exoskeletons and jelly balls covered with dust, remained, fused to the walls. And the third one, Eris? Planet name?, had died from exhaustion and total energy expenditure while holding a shield before the last attack.
He was a skinny blond guy, not too popular from the beginning, because he was the only child of a wealthy family who’d battered his wife. But here, he was a fighter. And nobody had expected that he would do for others more than he could bear.
The remains of all three were placed into modern graves, sarcophagi lined with dark marble, vertically embedded in the wall. At eye level, the epitaphs were written in gold letters. For Eris: To pay the highest price in the fight for all is an honour, but not everyone is worthy of it. He was, and therefore can proudly bear his true name – PEACEMAKER.
So we fought, day after day, learning about our enemies. We were not trying to find out how to kill, but how to kill efficiently; how to take the most of their power that we could.
We voluntarily prolonged our trainings session, switching halls so fast that the guards could not even keep up with changing the snakeskins on the walls, and the more of us that died, the more we could think of one thing only. Revenge, death, and power.
Revenge, death, and power.
Revenge, death, and power.
When someone came up with a new way of killing, a new strategy, or new understanding of energy, it was good.
When someone died, it was bad.
Especially because there weren’t many of us left anymore. Sometimes we managed to crush the Opponents, sometimes it was the other way around.
Sometimes the Instructor had found me, taken the yellow cubes from the pockets of the exoskeleton and put them into my mouth, with almost concerned care.
But not anymore. Now, just the energy was enough for me.
We hadn’t seen our quarters, bathrooms, or hallways for days.
Why should we, when there was a war raging.
And then, suddenly, it was over.
The Teacher told us that we were ready. That there were no Opponents here anymore.
They ordered us to take two days off, but it was like a year. We did not speak, because there was nothing to speak about. We knew what, when, and how to do whatever was necessary and we wanted to do it, but suddenly we couldn’t. So we were sitting on super-comfortable leather seats in luxury rooms, staring ahead and waiting.
And perhaps it was just because I had too much time to think, that I began to have doubts. So I went to see the Teacher (for a long time we had been allowed to move freely about the complex). I found him standing in the connecting corridor with his arms folded behind his back, under a light panel. As if he had been waiting for me.
“I have a few questions.”
“Of course,” he said.
He walked down the hall and I caught up with him, aligning my steps with his.
The thud of my boots on the tile echoed around us, his sneakers making no sound. Suddenly I didn’t know how to begin.
“If the Opponents attack us, where are they going to do it?”
He turned his head towards me. “I’ve never said that they’ll attack you, Pluto,” he said. “But they certainly will, if you do not stop them” he said before I could react.
We turned right, slowly walking to the areas through which I had never gone before. In fact, it almost felt like this right turn had never been here before.
“Why would they use the Opponents? We also have nuclear bombs; don’t they have weapons that could destroy us faster, more efficiently? ”
The Teacher looked annoyed. As if I was asking the wrong questions, as if my stupidity was too boring for him. “Time is relative; I have already told you that. The Opponents are the most effective weapon; I have already told you that as well. And if you ask me why they don’t use more powerful weapons against you, it’s simply because these will be enough for you. ”
Even though he gave me the creeps, despite risking his anger, I needed to know more. “Why all the secrecy, why don’t you tell people the truth? I mean,” I continued, “the governments unleashed this show with a fake illness across all the media, they vaccinate people with nanobots, exchange technologies with you to prevent a war for water or to win it. It isn’t the simplest solution. ”
It was just our theory, which we have agreed is most likely true. It all made sense (Admit it, where would Russia and other countries have acquired the technologies more advanced by decades than the Japanese ones). And I wanted to confirm it with this question. And according to his expression, I knew that I had hit the jackpot (he slightly raised his right eyebrow).
He took his time with the answer. Finally we stopped and turned against the blue-grey walls.
“Look,” he waved his hand and the wall became transparent along the entire sector. In the corners there were strong power cables leading into some sort of round devices; otherwise the view through the wall was like the view through glass.
I wondered how many times they had watched as we were preparing our escape or traps for the guards …
On the other side, the Instructor had just opened the cells of newbies who were uncertainly staggering out in their overalls. I knew that I also used to be like that, but I felt only scorn for them. They were so … weak.
“What do you think they would do if they suddenly saw one of the Opponents? ‘the Teacher asked.
In response, a sort of snort came out of me.
“Exactly,” he said. “They are weak. Frightened. But malleable. ”
“But still, it would be good to know the truth,” I tried it once more.
The Teacher smiled again, in that unnerving way. Involuntarily, I wondered if I would prefer to stand against him or an Opponent. “In a war is not important what is right, but what is effective. Moreover, the truth is subjective and different for everyone. It just depends on how much information the observer has. That I swear, as I’m standing here.” And then he held out his hand. I was surprised by it. I accepted it.
But my hand didn’t encounter the expected resistance and went right through the Teacher’s hand like he was a ghost.
“What the hell…”
“Projection,” he said, keeping his smile. “A perfect example; of what I just said about information, I mean.”
“Projection of what?” I was still astonished.
For the first time, he took off his glasses. His eyes were like two yellow universes, too big and too heavy for a human skull. “And does it really matter?” he tilted his head.
I thought about it. And then some more.
No, it did not matter. He was right, as always.
The next morning we reported to the Teacher, fully prepared. New exoskeletons, supplies of nutritional cubes, Zexes, and of course lots of energy in our bodies. Uranus depleted three batteries just to make a smooth surface on his forearm, where he intended to produce cuts for every Opponent killed (‘Cracked Mirrors’ as he dismissively called them). His eyes were empty, as were as mine. Jana exceptionally had her hair untied (she’d wanted to shave it, but during rapid regeneration in the baths, it had been growing back) and she wore bright white lipstick. She had a firm, yellowish body. Even though I thought she was pretty (she had different exoskeleton – a female one that left room for breasts), I had my reproductive instincts almost suppressed. Which I did not lack – on the contrary, but I thought that would make things much more complicated.
The Teacher told us that he was sorry, but that had been sending shock troops in groups of three, so one of us would have to resign (yes, there were only four of us left) and become an instructor somewhere in Brazil. My chest contracted in a fear that it would be me.
It was Jupiter. I was happy that the Teacher had picked him, because he was the one least coordinated with us (not much, but he still lagged a bit).
And then he finally said we could go. We didn’t look back, didn’t say goodbye, we entered the round door and flew away on a white beam.
 I nicknamed the beloved Instructor this way. It has become used by others as well. I think it was also a way to deal with the fear of him and to tickle our egos a bit.