Carr suddenly wakes up next to a woman called Mira, with no recollection of the past, and follows her blindly into a strange new place where every man must fight for themselves.
A staggering nausea overcame us in the morning, or was it night? Afternoon? There was no way to tell in the windowless room where we appeared to have been left to resurrect. The first thing that I felt was a ripple effect of vibrations, an army of ants forming a tidal wave. I could see her lying next to me as the uninvited tingling sensation crawled up along the four-legged gurney below. It lingered in the sparse layer of empty space separating my skin from what seemed to be a one-piece uniform made out of fabric that I had never felt on my skin before. The first thing Mira had done was unstrapping her legs to get loose from her restraints. Then she untied me. She told me we had to go. “Carr, we have to go.”
A thin, piercing noise echoed in-between my eardrums as I tried to focus but everything remained a blur amongst the rest. Mira reached for my arm, grabbed it with both hands, and hauled my heavy body from the gurney. I shook off the last of my confusion. Her crystallized exhale formed a miniature cloud. Yet, I felt warm as the slim suit that seemed to have been crafted especially for me protected my naked skin. Mira’s hands fiddled for a zipper in the back but found nothing but a smooth continuous latex surface that reached from toe to fingertips. The only skin that could actually feel the coldness of space was our pale cheeks and damp hair.
“Go where?” I asked as if she could have known. How could she? She was as lost as I was. But it felt as if the question had to be made and she was the only one I could direct it to.
Mira told me to stop asking stupid questions like that. “I’m not staying here,” she said, and told me to bring any object that might be used as a weapon and to meet her outside the vertical door that separated us from whatever awaited us on the other side. My legs were weak; knees bending under me.
“You’ll catch up. I’ll be right outside. Give me a sec.” The fire was in her eyes, a strength I had not seen in a woman since my mother’s house burned to the ground.
Mira left and the door shut close behind her. I was alone. My eyes began to focus and I could see a metal spear, an instrument of some kind, thin but robust, lying on a side table. Its point was sharp, sharp enough to cause harm; I hoped. A tiny sensation intensified under the latex, a few inches below my left ribs. I could feel it under the skin. Not deep at all. It was right there. I tried to open the suit, tear it apart but it was unbreakable. There was nothing I could do about the small, encapsulated device that had been inserted into my body. A tracking device perhaps. I tried to pinpoint its exact location, stretching the skin but the pain was too intense. A scar must still be healing. No use poking at it. I didn’t want to risk any stitches to break open. Better let it be.
Moments later Mira pulled me into the outer hallway, as the vertical door slid open, and pressed me against the wall next to her, her arm shielding me from the emptiness of the narrow passageway that extended itself into three opposite directions. “I think it’s this way,” she said. We clutched hands and agreed to be friends forever. “They all look the same but I’d be damned if this is how it ends. We gotta go. Listen, we’ll wind up dead if we don’t find a way out of this maze this very instant,” Mira told me. I believed her, handed her the metal spear and we began running as fast as our weak legs could move in the cold scentless air. A passing thought of Darwin entered my mind as fleeting as it left through my guts – adapt or die, it repeated itself inside my head. Knees were ready to fold but Mira was nowhere close to giving up. We ran as fast as we could and rushed ahead. Within minutes I saw the same hallway over and over and over again, repeating itself into oblivion. Five right turns and two left. No windows. No sign of life, and the room from which we came falling behind us, again, and again, and again.
Then, out of nowhere, a sudden burst of extreme pain moved in waves across my entire body like a thousand needles, and I could no longer feel my own arms and legs as part of me. I fell hard onto the grid floor beneath me. Convulsion took over as the muscle cramped in unison - until it all became black.
I opened my eyes only to meet Mira’s eyes staring right back at me. She hadn’t left me. I wanted to ask what had happened but was unable to. Her body pushed tight against mine in a narrow crack underneath the grid floor. I tried to speak but her hand pressed against my lips. I did nothing. Mira’s hand pressed harder and I could feel her move her body closer to mine as the space between began to vibrate in a familiar matter by the force of heavy steps. With my back against the floor I was unable to see to whom the steps belonged to as they came closer and closer, shortly passing above our heads. Mira removed her hand, and very carefully we climbed out from our hole. With eager hands Mira violently began to search the non-existent linings on my suit. Found nothing. In frustration she searched her own. “It’s the suits,” she said. “Somehow they gave you an electric charge. I could feel it. Like a thousand needles.”
“Yes, yes,” I said. “You felt it?”
“Mine too. I didn’t like it. Not a bit. What are these things?” I helped her search, pressing the fabric in-between my fingertips but nothing. I found nothing that could explain the sudden charge we had both been experiencing. Mira was about to declare her inability to find a way out, sure we had moved in circles as no stretch diverged from the other when we heard a faint sound of cheers in the distance. “Is that real, Carr? Do you hear it?” she said and grabbed onto my hand.
“I hear it,” I whispered and instantly Mira grabbed my arm and moved towards the sound. I begged her to slow down. She was leading me towards danger I was sure but unable to escape her clutch I had no other choice but to follow her into the dark end of the hallway.
Mira sprinted. “Don’t let go!” she yelled, and I held on tight. With nightmarish urgency we charged ahead and Mira yelled something I didn’t catch, and one turn later I felt my hand slip out of hers. We came to a complete halt as six eyes stared at us with a dull gaze. We had been spotted. In the midst of a junction three youngsters sat in a circle inhaling black smoke. I wished they had let me kept my pack of Luckies, I pondered and glanced over at Mira. What seemed to be happening in one slow motion, her foot lifted from the ground and I could see her body prepare for an initial contact and the metal spear was raised.
“Don’t!” I said and held her back, but there was no going back, not anymore. But something else drew her attention. The cheers grew louder in the distance. Echoing throughout the hallway. The youngsters’ heads turned towards it, ours no different. One of the teenage boys looked back at Mira and me. His nose had been broken twice and I could tell none of them wore suits like ours. Instead they seemed to be wearing patched up gowns from older suits sown together with a coarse lining, clearly handmade. Hair perhaps?
“You going or staying?” The boy asked.
Mira looked at me. “Going?” she asked and no answer was necessary. She knew by now I would follow her anywhere. What Mira had expected to find at the end of the hallway was nothing like what we shortly witnessed. The arena was gigantic. We were no longer alone. A 16 cell habitat divided into equal areas of triangular squares for what seemed to be an enclosed area with accommodations as nutrition, comfort, and hiding provided in a utopian fashion, for a population of over 3000. No guards, and part from organized fights in the centered core, five stories below, there seemed to be no external threats or diseases amongst the inhabitants. Although many of them bare large scars on their bodies like the youngsters that stood next to us.
“What is this place?” Mira asked. Each of the four walls had large cubes built on top of each other like stacked Lego pieces, all in black coated metal. Inside, and in narrow spaces in-between, more youngsters and older versions seemed to be nesting, hurdling together fighting and scavenging for scraps left by dead ones. At the top, six storages above our heads, supplies such as food and water was distributed equally through long tube, although, large groups seem to hurdle in certain areas while others remain partly empty.
I turned towards the scarred boy. “How did you do that?” I asked the young kid with a broken nose. “How did you cut through the fabric?”
“There are ways,” he replied with no sense of urgency. “I wouldn’t recommend it though. Be glad you have an intact one. Don’t let anyone fiddle with it. Keep it on.”
“It makes you stronger. You’re gonna need that in this place. There’s no room for weakness”
Mira looked at him. “Why?”
“We all gotta fight man. There’s no escaping it. Better bring some muscles. The suit helps you keep whatever strength you have left. It’s the pulses man, electricity keeps them active.”
He was right. We had moved too fast, running as if gravity was lower than normal. Something wasn’t right. This place was far stranger that we had thought and home was a lot further away than we had hoped. Mira took my hand as the surreal scene below trembled from the ongoing surr of the inhabitants fighting to survive in the wasteland of metal. We looked up at the dark roof far above us. An occasional glimmer appeared but was lost in the dark space as quick as we had witnessed it. In the epicenter of the stage, people of all sizes, stacked next to each other cheered two fighters in the center. The entire hall vibrated. Both of them, what seemed to be males, were covered in sweat and blood. With a mad electric charge the larger one defeated the smaller warrior with one punch and the entire hall praised their new leader by stomping their feet into the ground in accord with each other.
That is when a second burst of a thousand needles moved along my skin and it all became black. Fatigue must have overcome us for it took much longer this time to wake up. Mira was once again lying next to me, the spear clutched in the palm of her hand. Always ready to fight. We were not alone. In the defined space between two larger cubes, the three youngsters sat with their legs dangling over the edge. The one who seemed to have all of the answers turned towards me as he must have heard me moaning.
“Good you’re up,” he said and poked his friends. They nodded. “You think you can get us some food?” The one to his left asked. I was bewildered. Not that I was expecting them to care for us but to ask such a question.
“Yes I mind. Why don’t you get it? You know better than us how things work around here?”
“I don’t feel like it,” he said with an attitude I did not appreciate. But they were kind enough to let us rest in their quarters. “Do you feel like it Raz?” He asked his friend.
“Nope. How about you Lee?”
Mira sat up, staring at them by the edge. “Could be fun, let’s do it,” she said and winked to me.
“Fun is not how I would describe it.”
“Come on, let’s see what this place has to offer.”
Climbing took a toll on me but I followed Mira down towards what she guessed was the opening of the food tubes. A string of people moved back and forth to 16 different locations, one in each square, and we were slowly heading to number 14. “You hungry?” she asked out of breath. “Me too. I’m starving,” she continued without waiting from my reply. But I was starving. I could have eaten pretty much anything at that point. Finally at the ground floor I saw the recently fed ones moving from the tube opening with wet faces and residues of grain on their chin and hands. No plates. No cups. No fork or knife. Eat what you can and move on. And so we did. Filled our mouths with dry seeds and flour, moved to our right, and washed it all down with crystal clear water. And then we let it swell inside our stomach. Fermenting into a starched paste my inside seemed to dislike. “You wanna hit it again?” Mira said. I shook my head no. I had had enough. “Wait for me. I don’t want to climb up all that way on an empty stomach.” I watched her make her way through the ragged crowd who took no notice of her cutting the front of the line. She had no mercy. She would have plowed through a crowd of kids if necessary. Mira was born to be here. I wasn’t. She was the creation of Darwinism. The last of a long line of evolution.
An old woman startled me as she seemed to have been standing next to me for a long period watching me watching Mira, and said with a raw voice, “Bet she’d go well with the General.”
“Who?” I asked and took a step away from her. The smell of old fermenting grain stuck to her unwashed hair and patched suit.
“You didn’t see him win?”
“The guy in the field, the fighter?”
“Yeah, that’s him. No one’s beaten him yet. She should meet him.”
“Like in the ring? Fighting? I don’t think she wants to do that.”
“You never know. But tell her to be careful.”
“They don’t call him the General for nothing,” The woman said, and as she walked away she told me why. “He doesn’t just train his boys to be the best kind of soldiers, he trains them to be the worst kind of humans.”
“Wait! Is there a war going on?!” I shouted as she left but she never looked back and within seconds she disappeared amongst the crowd.
Mira returned with a big smile on her lips. Stuffed with food and water. “You need to take a look at this,” she said and pointed up to an opposite side of the enclosed hall. “They call them the beautiful. Isn’t that silly.”
I glanced up at the wall and what seemed to be another kind of second generation, was a group of exquisite beings: long fluid hair, red cheeks, big eyes staring back at us with contempt. “They are - beautiful that is,” I said, watching them grooming each other, eating out of each other’s hands rather than gulping down what ever came down the tubes. No scars, and instead of ragged suits they seemed to be wearing hand pleated drapes made out of human hair.
“They gave me this satchel, look!” Mira said and showed me a small bag dangling over her left shoulder. “It’s hair, can you believe that. Must have come from dead people, I don’t know.”
“You want to survive don’t you? Sometimes that means doing some nasty shit. Now we don’t have to climb down here every time we need to eat. We can take it with us.”
“No thank you.”
“What? You want to be like them? Just sit there and rely on others?” Yes, that thought had occurred to me. For perhaps that was the answer. “You don’t want to be like them. Is is far worse to lose your mind than your body.” Mira was always right, and once again I followed her up along the wall towards shelter. But I could not shake the thought of the woman's premonition. Perhaps Mira was doomed to meet the General. Perhaps she would win but if she didn’t, I would be alone and it wouldn’t take long for me to disappear as all the other dead bodies in this place. Perhaps I too would end up as a satchel.
Four months later Mira’s feet and mine were still dangling over the edge of our nest alongside the three youngsters. Mira handed out food and we ate in silence, watching the fights below, newcomers appearing in the opening on the third floor looking as bewildered as we once did. Mira’s muscles had grown rapidly as she varied the electric charges with daily excursions alongside the walls, and she was soon strong enough to begin practicing with the warriors below. I often asked her not to, not to risk her life, and mine, for what? Leading a thousand soldiers into an undeclared war we knew nothing about. But she told me over and over again, always with a smile, “What else is there to do?” And she was right. She was always right.
Two months later she killed her first man and that night I made a promise to myself. The following morning I cut my way to the front of the line by the food tubes. The elderly woman fell as I pushed her aside, hand reaching for mine to take. I didn’t. Instead I kept moving forward. There were no going back, not now. As my pouch was filled with grain, and my mouth saturated with fresh water I became undone. A master of trivial matters, the architect of my own dismay, or in other words, a foolish boy with two elbows I wasn’t afraid to use. Had my mother been alive she would have broken her promise and used such defile language it would make the universe itself blush. But she had never spanked me, nor would she’s now, for her father had not brought her up to be a diminisher of sheep. But she would have prayed. She would have prayed for my mind to return and that I once again was filled with the innocence of a collected soul. But that morning I became undone and there was no mercy, empathy, or care that shone through my hard shell. I was alone, Mira below, I up on the edge, watching. I would follow her anywhere.
Written by Alex Backstrom
Cover Design by Alex Backstrom
Year of creation: 2015