This is Chapter 2 from my dystopian sci-fi thriller Entanglement. It's not connected to Chapter 1, so you can read them in any order.
Alert and vigilant as always, Vietra saw him before he made his first move. The way he walked holding his right arm close to his body under the coat, his left hand clenched in a nervous fist. The fierce look on his face, the troubled eyes dispersing hatred and pain, the tight pale line of his lips. The rest of the people paid no attention, of course.
She was too far. Even though she started running towards him the very moment she noticed him, she didn’t have enough time. As she rushed through the unsuspecting crowd, she couldn’t believe no one had noticed anything yet. Floating in their thoughts, immersed in virtual reality, or drawn to each other by conversations, they felt so safe!
The man took the knife from under his coat and sliced right through the soft belly of a plump teenage girl who was interfacing with someone, laughing. He cut deeply and widely, mutilating her intestines, leaving her body wide open for everyone to see the inside of her. Most of the people still didn’t notice, and only started looking when they heard her first scream. At that point, the girl was more surprised than terrified, but the pain quickly caught up to her, and the tone of the scream changed into a more agonized one, disturbing more people.
Many stopped and looked around, perplexed, searching for answers in each other’s faces. Those who were closer repeated the screaming, multiplying the girl’s agony and making it part of the overall chaos and panic. Some started running away. Meanwhile the man with the knife cut the neck of a bystander who didn’t hear anything, separated from the outside world by the music in his earphones. The cut started right under his ear, destroying his carotid artery, leaving him little chance of survival.
Vietra could see the attacker clearly. His movements looked slow and predictable to her, unfolding into a precise curve of attempted future. But she was already close. She broke the trajectory of his next stab with a decisive strike on his throat. He collapsed immediately.
She wanted to kill him. It would be easy with the mixture of skills and anger she was filled with. Just one more strike. One or another. One of a couple dozen.
Imagining it caused a tickling sensation all over her body and made resisting more difficult. She couldn’t let anger take over; that’s what the Master had taught her. It was too easy to cross the line under the influence of emotions. Once it was done, there would be no way back, because most people would stand no chance against her. Power always messed with one’s head.
She wasn’t the one to decide who should live and die, especially while being irrational. Her skills were to be used for a certain purpose, something only the Master knew. Right. And yet… she was so pissed! Pissed at the people who felt so safe they didn’t even look around. Because they delegated the responsibility of defending them to someone else. The police. As if they were always around. But the people felt relieved because none of them liked responsibility. They preferred to pretend against all common sense they were actually safe. It meant they could relax and do nothing. They got so used to it that they began feeling powerless. And a vibrant rainforest ecosystem that had been breaking all the obstacles and crushing all dangers standing in the way of its growth suddenly became a soft, harmless mass that had no idea what to do when someone attacked it.
The mass got surprised or upset, the mass tried to get out of danger’s way but by not to protect itself. Just one man, with one knife, and so many people around who could have put him down in an instant before he did any damage, the very moment they saw his face. Even without any special skills or strength, just by the number of them, if only they could remember how to be survivors instead of spineless victims. If only they could unite and stand by each other.
Vietra despised the mass. All of it was so annoying that she had to kick the attacker in the balls to prevent herself from killing him. She did a couple of breathing exercises and realized it was time to get out of there as the distant sound of sirens reached her ears. She wanted no part of it.
“You did it again,” the Master said, as soon as she entered the Nest. Vietra heard disappointment in his voice, so she lowered her head and clenched her hands behind her back, looking at her toes like a little girl reprimanded by her father.
“I’m sorry, Master,” Vietra said. “It won’t happen again.”
“It will, and you know it.” The Master’s voice became colder. This time he was really displeased, she realized with slight surprise, maybe even angry. “You disobeyed me a third time, and you are lying to me. Such behaviour won’t be tolerated. You will be punished.”
“No!” Vietra uttered, more emotionally than was acceptable, raising her head and looking into the Master’s eyes. They were cold, like an interstellar void. Everyone turned their heads to her. She blushed. She knew she shouldn’t have reacted that way, but the Master caught her by surprise. She’d always thought she was his favourite, and he would allow her a little more leeway than the others. She also didn’t think what she’d done was such a big deal. It wasn’t the kind of disobedience that required punishment. After all, she helped those people. Didn’t good intentions count?
Apparently, they didn’t. And if she’d had a chance to avoid or soften the punishment, had she accepted it gracefully, after her shameful public outburst it was lost. She lowered her head again to conceal her panic.
“Should I escort you to the room?” the Master asked, in a voice that inflicted punishment by itself.
“There is no need,” she answered, raising her head and looking him in the eye. She had no right to be weak now. She couldn’t afford to evoke his contempt. That would be the end of everything. She still remembered Mroolic. That poor boy, who was too sincere to realize some things couldn’t be said. Some feelings couldn’t be shown. Not to the Master. “I will go.”
“How long will I stay there? Tell me it won’t be long!” her inner voice screamed. But she knew she couldn’t say it aloud. That would be unwise; another manifestation of her weakness that would toughen her punishment. She had already done enough, and she was angry with herself for that.
Vietra turned around and headed to the sensory deprivation room. She had to pass all the other Nestlings still looking at her with surprised disapproval. She was staring straight ahead as she walked through the huge, oval room. She knew it well. White bare walls and a high ceiling. No windows, just harsh electric glare coming from strip lights surrounding the room. Nothing in the room but the large black couch in the middle, where some of the Nestlings were now sitting, and some chairs put in random places. Vietra had always found the lack of aesthetics in the room and the whole building tiring. She wanted more colour, more objects that would make the room cosier, but the only person she’d dared talk about it with was Mroolic, and he was gone.
Vietra wanted to slow down, but it would be taken as another sign of weakness. Everything inside her was turning upside down, and every step was harder than the previous one. So close to the black door that slid open unhelpfully for her. To the grey, narrow corridor behind it. From there, it took exactly seven steps to reach her destination. She couldn’t allow herself to slow down, even though no one was watching anymore.
“Vietra!” a familiar voice called out. “Wait!”
“I can’t,” she said taking another step. “I have to get my punishment.”
“You’ll have enough time for that,” Tyssdin said, blocking her way. “Why did you do it again? You knew how it would end!”
“Are you here to reproach me? I’m pretty sure I’ve already got it, thanks.”
“No.” His voice was soft. “I’m here to tell you I think it was the right thing to do. A humane thing. You care. I care too.”
He looked her in the eye, like a puppy expecting approval. Tyss was shorter than her, which made him look up and that only intensified the effect. It made Vietra feel slightly uncomfortable. Did he really mean it, or was he only saying it to make her believe they had something in common?
“But you know the rules.” Tyss continued. “It’s not about being humane. It’s about obeying, and doing exactly what you are told, no matter what. That’s what the Master expects from us. You shouldn’t have done it. Not for the third time. He won’t forgive you. You don’t want to end up like Mroolic, do you?”
“Listen, Tyss, I appreciate your concern, but it’s already done. I can’t change the past, as far as I know, and unless you have revolutionary technology to offer, I’m afraid I have to go.”
“Are you in a hurry?” Tyss curved an eyebrow in a sarcastic expression. She had to admit he looked attractive when he did that. It moved something in her. Something like a long-forgotten memory; warm and safe. “Come on, V, I know how scared you are. You don’t have to pretend with me. Everyone feels the same way. It’s not weakness. It’s human nature.”
“I’m not scared!”
“He can’t see us now,” Tyss said, lowering his voice. “He isn’t watching. We have two more minutes before he comes to set it up for you. Two minutes is not much, but isn’t it better to spend them with a friend?”
“How do you know he isn’t watching?” Vietra asked. She knew it was a mistake, but she wanted to trust him. Or maybe to trust anybody at all.
“I...” he hesitated for a moment, probably also weighing how much he could reveal to her. “I just know. That’s not the point. You are safe for now. I know how frightening it is.”
“How would you know? You’ve never been there!” She tried to keep a note of disdain from her voice, but didn’t succeed because Tyss looked a little hurt.
“I just know,” he repeated, suddenly hugging her. It shocked Vietra so much that she didn’t move for a couple of seconds. They weren’t emotional; weren’t supposed to be. They were above all of that. Emotions made them vulnerable and weak. They were bound by respect as partners, and they were ready to give their lives for each other if it were necessary for their purpose. As well as leave others to die if that was required. They had to be driven by logic alone. See the clear picture. Not get attached to one another.
It wasn’t the right thing to do, especially now, when she’d already brought the Master’s disapproval on herself. But there he was, another human being offering her consolation. A warm, heavily built, middle-aged man with brownish skin and dark eyes. A temporary escape from fear. Vietra huddled up to him and suddenly felt she wasn’t alone anymore. Her terror was now shared between two and, surprisingly, diminished.
“That’s it, there’s no more time,” Tyss whispered. “You have to get in there now. He’s coming. Hang in there.” He looked her in the eye with a new expression and disappeared down the corridor.
Vietra entered the room, feeling a little dazed. Strange, she thought, but the hug didn’t make her weaker. On the contrary, it gave her a little more strength. She felt safe within Tyssdin’s arms. Now, though, he was gone, and it felt as if she’d been shaken out of a cosy bed into the cold. Probably it was true. Emotional expressions weakened them, after all.
She was in the sensory deprivation room. The absence of sound was similar to that of outer space. Nothing reached one’s ears, even the sound of one’s own voice. It was also completely dark. There was no difference between having one’s eyes open or closed. Vietra had been there before, and she knew that after a while she would completely lose sense of time and reality. She’d be totally disoriented, and hallucinations would take over her mind soon. There was no point in fighting them. She always lost that battle. They were too vivid to tell them from reality, even if she knew they were mere constructs of her brain.
Distorted sounds and terrifying creatures would fill the room. They’d surround her and creep around and come closer and try to touch or bite. They’d appear unexpectedly, jump at her out of the darkness, stare in her eyes, or examine her. Sometimes she thought she actually came in contact with aliens. Sometimes it felt like forever, and she began to forget who she was or where she was. She thought she’d never get out of there. After leaving the room, she found it difficult to focus and perform her normal activities. It took time to attune her body and mind back to normal.
Vietra remembered the first time she was in the room. When the first hallucinations began, she knew those were her mind games, so she enjoyed them. She imagined herself on another planet, studying its bizarre alien life. It was fascinating, but only for a short while. The more time passed, the more troubling the images became, and the more anxious she got. She tried to remind herself it wasn’t real, but her mind seemed to ignore it. After that, she could never enjoy the hallucinations again. The anticipation of the forthcoming horrors kept her unsettled from the very beginning, and it got worse every time. Nothing frightened her more than the sensory deprivation room.
“You disappointed me,” the Master’s voice suddenly broke the cosmic silence, and Vietra was `grateful for that.
“I know, I’m sorry,” she tried to say, but couldn’t produce a sound. It made her desperate. At least she could hear the Master, but who knew, maybe that was a hallucination too?
“You disobeyed me,” he continued, “lied to me and expressed improper weakness. All in one day. You see how such behaviour is absolutely unacceptable. I’m sure you understand that it calls for a more severe punishment than usual. I’m also sure you know I don’t want to do it, but you’ve left me no choice. You are valuable, Vietra, and I need you to be one hundred percent reliable. I don’t want to worry about you when the time comes to fulfil your purpose. I need you to be ready. I’m doing it for you. For all of us. For our future.”
Even though the temperature of the room matched the temperature of her body, Vietra felt a wave of heat sweeping through her, followed by a shiver. The Master had never said anything prior to a punishment before. The fact that he felt the need to explain it and the “more severe than usual” part terrified her. Something really bad was coming, and she had no means to stop it.
Vietra hated feeling helpless. She suddenly found herself on the edge of crying. She couldn’t risk tears, though, in case she was being watched, but it had never been so hard to control it. Fervently searching for something to draw some strength from, she found and clung to the memory of the hug Tyss had given her.
The feeling was broken by sudden, severe pain. Vietra saw hundreds of small insects eating their way through her athletic body, that she’d been trying so hard to keep healthy and fit, making tunnels inside of her, coming in and out. She was watching her pale skin turning red and blue and violet with blood and bruises. Each of the tunnels was a separate source of unbearable pain. Vietra didn’t know anything could be so agonizing. Seeing the insects destroying her body made her suffering even worse. She was writhing and shivering and rolling on the floor. She was screaming, but there was no sound. It was playing out in absolute silence. She couldn’t see anything but herself and the insects. Complete darkness surrounded them, as if nothing else in the world existed. Somewhere on the outskirts of her tormented mind there was the knowledge that it wasn’t real, but that knowledge failed to alleviate her pain. It was torture. It would leave no traces on her body but would maim her mind.
Suddenly she saw her mother. She’d never known her parents. She was an orphan, like the rest of the Nestlings. The Master was the one who had taken care of her for her entire life. But Vietra immediately recognised the woman in front of her. She knew it was her mother, she felt it: the tenderness, the warmth, the special bond. They looked alike, too. Her mother was a bit taller than Vietra herself, and her greying hair still had a playful redness to it. Her body was curvier than Vietra’s but looked athletic as well. Her skin was suntanned though, which Vietra could never achieve.
For a moment, her mother’s presence gave Vietra hope. She wanted to call out for her, move closer, give her a hug, look into her eyes, find out their colour. But she couldn’t move, and her mother didn’t see her. She was looking around, and Vietra could tell she was scared. There was still blackness all around, as if only her mother was in the spotlight. Then, three men emerged from the dark. They were wearing creepy animal masks and clown suits, and they were carrying grotesque weapons, with dark blood that dripped from them.
Her mother didn’t seem to notice them, but her movements became more nervous. Vietra wanted to warn her, to protect her. She knew she could easily deal with those three, but she couldn’t get up. She saw that the insects had eaten her legs, so she started crawling towards her mother, but she was too slow. She felt like something heavy and sticky was holding her back. Even small movements were a struggle.
The men were coming closer. Events were unfolding as if in slow motion. Vietra’s concentration had always slowed the world down for her, but this time it had gluey texture of a bad dream. Her own helplessness was unbearable. She didn’t want to see what would happen as one of the men reached her mother and started raising his axe over her head, but she couldn’t close her eyes or look away.
It was a different kind of pain. She’d been hurt many times in training. It never got easier or less terrifying–in fact, quite the opposite happened. She usually met the pain with the graveness of a weary soldier, head on. But seeing her mother get hurt, and being unable to do anything about it, had a new and alarming quality. A feeling of unfairness pierced Vietra. She was nothing better than a child, deceived and betrayed for the first time in the face of this new anguish. She was overpowered by sorrow and shock; she didn’t know how to deal with the wave of emotions that came over her.
Suddenly, there was darkness and silence. The image of her mother fell apart, and Vietra realized with clarity that the woman was a stranger to her. It didn’t make her feel better, but the next moment she fell into nothingness, free.
Featured image by DALL·E 2.