A TIME-TRAVEL STORY
Published by Eve Human at Shakespir.com
Copyright 2017 Eve Human
Antonio Fernandez looks at me with an expectant glance. I am now to claim something I most certainly do not possess: my father’s authority.
Darryl, the Texan organizer, has already prepped Antonio and his team, consistent of Brent, Patrick and Kelly, though Darryl himself would not participate in this operation. They all are ready to proceed, the bags with nanobots well hidden underneath their lab-coats.
Still it is me who has to get them inside the drone manufacturing plant. This is most vital for our plans.
My mouth has dried up and I swallow. We have been waiting in the plant’s visitor launch for a while already.
When finally a stocky man in his mid-forties enters, I’ve set an impatient expression on my face that isn’t feigned.
I know the man, it’s still the same manager as last time I was here with my father.
Will I be able to pull the wool over his eyes?
I’ve squared my shoulders and focus.
The park lay in darkness beside the road, though David could still hear a few birds twittering in the peaceful surroundings. There wasn’t much traffic to disturb that dark peace either, and the illumination by the street-lights standing at regular intervals and the few lit windows on the other side of the road didn’t do much to diminish the darkness of the night.
However David noticed that strangely enough, the air had changed somehow. The wet-cold April evening had given way to a rather warm night.
And then he remembered that tomorrow was the first of May. For the first time in many years, he had a positive thought about his father as he suddenly remembered sitting on his lap while his father taught him a song. This song, his father had told him, was written by a famous Icelandic writer and poet. David still remembered the melody and now he concentrated to recapture the lyrics.
They started with “Oh how light are your foot-steps, oh how long have I waited” after that they talked about the long-awaited end of winter with the coming of May tomorrow, and though the times were still hard, no work to be had, and the poet had nothing to offer except his hope and his life, he still knew a star that would be shining until the sun of May would rise.
David looked up into the sky. No stars were visible at the moment since clouds were covering the sky, though David had a feeling that soon the southern winds would clear them away.
And David did have his Hope, whose footsteps were light, very light indeed.
However looking at her, he noticed her heavy mood and her down-cast eyes. And he also noticed that she was biting her lips. Once again she was thinking hard, trying to make a decision.
“Uncle David,” she said hesitantly, “maybe I could show you something, although I do not want to go through this memory again. Yet I still do, over and over again, for I dream about it every night. But it is something horrible, and if you see it, it might enter your dreams as well.”
“You are asking me if I am ready to look at this horrible memory of yours?” asked David.
Hope nodded doubtfully.
“Yes,” he answered her request, “I would like to see it. I have heard that sometimes it can be helpful to re-live a traumatic experience in your memory in order to overcome the trauma. And this time around you won’t be alone because I will be right there with you.”
Hope took a deep breath and said:
“Alright, though I’m not showing it to you to overcome the memories. I could never forget, never ever.
“It is just because of Marco Santini, because you have seen his letter, that’s why I think you should see this, or maybe you shouldn’t, I’m not sure,” she added mysteriously and asked:
“Can we sit down over there?”
David nodded and walked over to the next bench. On any other night he would never have even considered sitting on a park-bench in the dark, closing his eyes to dream of another world. However this was Hope’s night and David did not worry about anything except her.
He also was seriously intrigued, wondering what it could be that she had just tried to explain. It didn’t make sense…yet.
The bench was located in a small alcove of bushes clustered beneath a maple tree. David sat down and closed his eyes.
The scene that materialized showed an angry Ms. Morgan, Hope’s mother, arguing with Sensei Thomsen, Hope’s teacher. They were standing together with Hope in the middle of a large hall, a hall strangely empty, devoid of any furnishings or decorations.
Hope herself also looked strange for she wasn’t wearing her usual suit, rather it was a suit made of a brownish cotton material and a cap of the same color. David remembered he had seen boys and young men wearing this kind of clothing in news reports from Afghanistan or the tribal areas of Pakistan.
“No, I still say no!” Hope’s mother’s voice was raised, “Hope is different, you have to see that. She cannot go through with this.”
The teacher spoke in a reasonable low voice, as if trying to calm her down: “Ms. Morgan, I do understand your concerns. This is not easy, not for any child, nor is it easy for the parents.
You have to see reason. She has got to do it. It is the law–one of just three international laws which we have. The single exception accepted by the law would be if she were intellectually impaired. And you cannot seriously argue that to be the case.”
Hope’s mother was visibly upset: “No, I’m not saying that.
Yet still, she is different. She will never be able to forget.”
“No, she won’t,” Sensei Thomsen agreed, “however that is exactly the point. Nobody should forget this.”
Surprisingly he cited a quote David had heard many times before in his own age: “For those who do not remember the past are destined to repeat it….”
“Yes, I know,” Hope’s mother tried again, “but Hope, she….”
“Mamma, please,” interrupted her daughter who had been tugging at her mother’s sleeve for a while. “Please, I told you I do want to do this, I have to. I don’t wanna be different from the other children. How can I be normal with my friends, when I’m the only one who is excluded from this?”
Hope’s mother took a deep breath and begged: “At least let me go in with her, so she isn’t alone there, please Mr. Thomsen. When Hope lost her father it was so hard on her. I couldn’t help her at the time; please let me help her now!”
Sensei Thomsen shook his head compassionately yet firmly: “I am sorry, but no, I cannot allow that either. It would be against the rules. No one is allowed to go through the scenario twice, not even a parent or a teacher.
“It must be a one-time experience so that people will not become used to the violence and accept it as normal. And it must be done on the twelfth birthday before any form of adolescent cynicism might set in.”
“I will be alright, Mamma” Hope comforted her mother, “I’m no longer nine years old. I will not break down with this.”
Hope’s mother gave up. She sighed, lowered her eyes and became quiet, letting Hope’s teacher now do the talking:
“Hope, as you know quite well, you are here in the community center of our village, however in a few moments, this will become another village looking like one which once has existed over 200 years ago.
“You know that ordinarily holographic image stories have to be done mostly by drawings and computer animation. Do you know why this rule exists?”
Hope nodded: “So that the participants in the story will not get confused by no longer seeing the difference between a story and reality.”
Sensei agreed: “You are right. There must be a distinction between real life and fiction.
“However, in the case of the Victim Scenario, there is an exception being made. Everything in there is as close to reality as possible, the landscape, the houses, the vehicles, all of them were real when the scenario was published nearly a hundred years ago.
“These were no computer-created images; the people you will see were living human beings, acting in the roles of people who lived over 100 years before their own time.
“You now will also play the role of a person who lived at that time. You have been dressed already in the clothing people wore in that village.
“While in a regular interactive image story, you would only wear gloves so you could touch the holographic images, in this image story, the clothes you are wearing right now are actually a full body touch-suit.
“With this and the other simulation techniques applied in this scenario, all your senses will be engaged: you will hear, see, touch, taste, and smell.
“And because of that, you will, within only a few minutes, no longer feel any difference from reality. You might even forget that this isn’t your reality.”
Hope nodded. “I understand.”
“Now give me your hands” Sensei ordered Hope.
While wearing gloves himself, he now applied a dark fluid from a strange looking bottle to Hope’s hands and after that, rubbed it carefully all over her face.
“Now open your mouth,” Sensei said, and when Hope did so, he opened a smaller bottle and dripped several drops of a similar fluid onto her tongue.
He once more ordered, “You can swallow now.”
He started his explanation again in an impersonal voice:
“The fluids I applied to your hands, face, and tongue contain nanobots, tiny programmed computer-chips, which are synchronized with the scenario programs.
Better than any gloves you have used before, these bots will give you a realistic illusion of touch.
“Those bots that went down your digestive tract will allow you to eat and taste virtual food. The bots will be active throughout the next hours until the simulation is over. Afterwards they will disintegrate without doing you any harm.”
Once again Hope nodded in understanding.
Sensei went on: “You will impersonate a boy, by the name of Farooq. He was sent by his parents in a bus, an ancient form of transport, to the village of Pazwaak to visit his mother’s relatives there because his parents thought it would be a safer place than his own hometown which was so close to a war-embattled area.
“The story begins after Farooq has arrived at his destination and has left the bus.
“When Farooq grew up, he wrote down the events that happened in Pazwaak at the time he was there. In reality, he had been in that village for several weeks, however for this scenario, some of the most important events are shown to you in only a few hours. And you will live through them as the boy Farooq and become a witness to them, just like him. The language that most of the people will speak will be English.
“As you know of course, all children from every village in the world will have to go through this scenario on their 12th birthday. Still everywhere they will hear their own native language spoken by the villagers of Pazwaak, so that every child will have the same understanding of the events as Farooq had.”
Hope nodded again: “I understand.”
“Now stand on this spot,” Sensei Thompson pointed to a small x drawn on the floor in roughly the middle of the hall, “while your mother and I leave the room.”
Hope watched them leaving, her mother still reluctant. And as Sensei closed the door, she turned around and gave Hope one last worried glance.
Hope took a deep breath and prepared herself for what she knew would be an ordeal, while the room changed around her.
Suddenly it was an open square surrounded by walled in old stone houses. The ground of the square was dusty, just like the road that led to it, the road on which a bus was just now leaving in a dusty cloud.
Sensei had been right; Hope could feel the dust in her nostrils and even her eyes. She could also feel the mid-day sun burning her face.
Hope looked around herself. A bag made from cloth was sitting on the ground next to her. The village seemed to be rather small. Most of the houses surrounded the square, no other streets seemed to exist.
Hope could barely see more than the roofs of those houses, since each house was enclosed by high walls. She counted about 15 compounds like these, though perhaps a few more were located behind them which she couldn’t see from the spot on which she was standing.
The square was devoid of people at the moment. Suddenly she heard the sound of running feet and heavy breathing behind her. She turned around to see a boy of about her own age hurrying toward her.
“Assalaamu Aleikum,” he exclaimed, slightly out of breath. “You are Farooq, aren’t you?”
And when Hope nodded, answering the greeting in a low voice, he went on:
“I am Khalil, your cousin. I was supposed to welcome you today, but I just came from school in Pashtana, the next village. My teacher kept me to the last minute and that is why I am late to greet you.”
Hope didn’t answer right away. She was too fascinated by Khalil’s appearance. He was wearing clothes similar to the ones Hope was wearing, yet it was his cap which had caught her attention and at which she kept staring.
Khalil noticed her stare.
“You like my tagiyah ?” he asked. ”My Mamma made it for me. She is very good in making patterns. Maybe she can make one for you as well.”
Khalil’s cap was knitted in a truly artistic and elaborate pattern, though this was not the reason for Hope’s surprise.
What astounded her was that she had seen this pattern so many times before.
It was one of the most popular patterns Hope’s mother produced in her embroidery shop, always at the request of her customers.
It was a pattern so complex that part of it had to be done by hand, stitch by stitch, since the programmed machines just couldn’t do it well enough. Now Hope realized where it had come from.
“My Mamma is very good in making patterns like these as well,” Hope replied, slightly confused about seeing this kind of familiarity in what had at first seemed such an alien environment.
“Of course she is,” Khalil stated, “after all, your mamma is my mamma’s sister.”
Then he asked: “Have you been waiting long?”
Hope shook her head: “I just arrived a few moments ago. You can still see the bus over there.” She pointed to the disappearing dust-cloud in the distance.
The two children once again inspected each other from head to toe. Khalil was carrying a couple of books under one arm, and protruding from a pocket, Hope could see the upper part of what was most likely a pencil – she recognized it from historic images, although she had never seen an instrument like this actually used for writing.
“I’m glad you didn’t have to wait long,” Khalil broke the silence, “I’ll show you now where we live. Is this your bag?”
Without waiting for an answer, Khalil picked up the bag from the ground and led the way to a house located behind those around the square, while Hope walked beside him.
Together they entered a courtyard through a small gate. A couple of girls who seemed to be about seven or eight years old and a little boy of about four were playing, blowing feathers in the air, while a woman was sitting on a step in front of the house pulling those feathers off a dead chicken.
Another woman was washing some clothes in a basin, while a toddler, clutching her dress with one hand, played in the water with her other hand. Everyone looked up and stared at Hope and Khalil, and finally greeted them loudly. Answering courteously, Khalil started to make the introductions.
“Here is Farooq, our cousin from the big city. He just arrived with the bus. And over there is my Aunt Mahtab. She will make chicken for dinner tonight. Over there are my cousins Badria and Baasima, her daughters, and my little cousin Mashaal.”
Mashaal ran over to Hope and pulled on her jacket, while the two girls scrutinized her from a distance. Both girls wore colorful head-scarves; Badria’s scarf was light blue and only covered the back part of her head, while Baasima had covered half her face with her turquoise scarf.
From under it she sent Hope a smile with the one visible eye, a smile that was far from being as shy as her gesture made it seem.
Khalil turned to the other woman: “This is my mother, your aunt Parween, and here is my little sister Fatima.”
The little girl had only now noticed them coming into the yard. With a shout of glee she ran over to Khalil. The boy thrust the books and the bag he had been holding into Hope’s arms and lifting his sister up in the air, he whirled her around and around, producing ever more excited shouts from her. After Khalil had stopped turning, Fatima looked suspiciously at the new-comer while holding securely onto her brother.
Her mother, however, gave Hope a beautiful warm smile and addressed her: “We are so glad that you could come to stay with us, Farooq. We were saddened to hear how difficult things are in your area. I really wish that your whole family could have come to stay with us as well, but I understand that your father cannot leave at the moment. How is your mother doing?”
Hope, of course, had no idea how Farooq’s mother was doing, still she answered in the standard polite terms, saying
“She is fine, Aunt Parween, and she sends you many greetings.”
Parween nodded: “Yes, she always says she is fine, in spite of everything. Khalil has read all her letters to me.
“But now, what am I thinking–you must be so hungry. We have prepared lunch for you and for Khalil. Please come into our home.”
The house was sparsely furnished, although beautifully patterned carpets decorated the floor as well as the walls. She saw no tables or chairs, and it was obvious that people both ate and slept on the floors. Dishes of warm bread were set on a mat next to bowls filled with a variety of mashed foods.
The children sat down on smaller mats surrounding the bigger one. Hope followed Khalil’s example, ripping up the bread and dipping it into the various bowls.
To her surprise, Hope found the food quite tasty and could actually feel it going down her throat.
After they had eaten, Khalil led Hope back into the courtyard to show her something he was fully excited about.
“Look at my kite,” he called out and asked: “Do you fly kites at home?”
Hope shook her head; she had never seen a strange square thing like that before. It seemed to be made out of colored paper and thin sticks of wood attached to a ball of string. Could that thing really fly?
“Oh,” Khalil sounded disappointed, “I thought all boys flew kites in the big cities. But I guess they only do it in Kabul.”
When Hope shrugged, he went on: “Papa and I went to Kabul last year. We could only stay for a week, there I met all these boys, the friends of my cousins, who had a kite-flying competition, which one goes highest, you know?
“And my cousins showed me how to make a kite and how to fly it. They told me that before the war, boys had those competitions all the time, but now there are some people who hate kites.
“This is why they have to be careful nowadays to fly them only on days when it is safe.”
Khalil examined his kite carefully to make sure it was in top condition.
He went on: “Tonight we will have a Pazwaak competition. I showed all the guys how to make kites and we have practiced together many evenings. You can come, too, if you want, and fly your kite.”
“But I don’t have a kite,” Hope answered, astonished.
“Silly,” Khalil answered, “we’ll make one, of course.”
And for the rest of the afternoon, Hope and Khalil were building a kite with the help of more or less practical remarks by Badria and Baasima and even a bit of help cutting and coloring the paper pieces for the tail. They had to chase off little Mashaal once in a while, since his attempts to help weren’t exactly helpful.
When they finished, they went up to the flat roof. And there between clotheslines filled with freshly washed laundry, Khalil gave Hope her first lesson in kite-flying.
And it quickly became quite clear that Hope was not going to win any competition that night. Yet still, she had a lot of fun with the whole process and was looking forward to the evening.
However first Khalil and “Farooq” were called inside.
The women and the girls had finished the preparations for the evening meal, and the girls seemed in high spirits.
“We are going to watch from the roof tonight,” Baasima explained excitedly.
“Mamma and Aunt Parween will watch as well.”
Khalil’s mother nodded smilingly. “But first, while we are waiting for your fathers, you will read for us from your books again, won’t you, Khalil?”
“Of course Mamma,” Khalil agreed, “I have already decided what to read to you today.”
While everyone else made themselves comfortable on mattresses and cushions, Khalil picked up one of his schoolbooks.
“I am going to read two poems for you tonight,” Khalil proclaimed in a solemn voice, while he sat on his mat, facing his eager audience.
“The first is written by a poet from Kabul and it is about you, Mama, for it is called ‘The Beauty of your Voice’.”
Khalil stopped for a second and added belatedly: “… and about you, as well, Aunt Mahtab.”
Aunt Mahtab laughed while Khalil’s mother smiled at her son, the way only a mother does, warming Hope’s heart.
And so Khalil started his recitation:
“Your voice is like the rising sun
Calling the world to a new day.
Your voice is like the gentle rain
Falling down on parched flowers and grass
Your voice is like the colors of the rainbow
Ornamenting the sky when the rain has gone
Your voice is like the sun’s red fire
Taking leave of a long, long day
Your voice is like the diamond drops of light
On the black velvet of the night.
Your voice is a mirror
Of the beauty inside your soul”
Khalil ended the poem with an expectant glance toward his audience and a sideways glance at his mother. The girls clapped their hands and Khalil’s aunt nodded appreciatively. His mother smiled and said:“Thank you, Khalil.”
Hope had to agree, the poem really did fit her. She had a beautiful voice and a smile that felt like an early morning ray of sunshine.
Khalil was gratified by the reaction of his audience and so he went on: “The next poem is written by a lady poet, who has the same first name as you, Mama, Parween. and the poem is called ‘The Arms of Peace’.”
Once again Khalil recited solemnly:
Like the thirsty man on a mountain
In search of a water spring,
Like the hungry man on a journey
In search of a freshly cooked meal
Like the freezing man in a cold night
In search of a warming fire
So need the children of our war-torn times
A place to rest
A place to sleep
In the arms of peace
The arms of peace
When Khalil finished, everybody was clapping again, and after the others had gotten up to go to another room, his mother whispered: “That last one was even more beautiful than the first. It is wonderful that you can read these beautiful words, Khalil.”
Hugging her little daughter she pleaded: “And one day you will teach Fatima to read those words, won’t you, Khalil?”
“O Mama, I told you I will teach her, you know I will,” Khalil said in a voice that indicated he had made this promise many times before.
“I know you did,” his mother replied, “I know you will, incha’ Allah.”
Looking down at the little girl in her arms, she told her:
“One day, Fatima, incha’ Allah you will read those beautiful words, just like Khalil does, words that make the heart fly like a bird.
“One day, you will be full of wisdom and knowledge, like the daughter of the Prophet, peace be upon him, whose name you bear.”
Fatima didn’t aspire to solemn wisdom at the moment.
She wiggled out of her mother’s lap to crawl over to Khalil and try to grab his book.
“No, Fatima, books are precious. You have to handle them with care,” Khalil scolded her, holding it out of her reach, though when she made a face as if she were about to break into tears, he took her in his lap and allowed her to touch the book again, showing her the drawings which accompanied some of the written pages.
Parween watched her children with deep satisfaction.
“I could teach you as well,” Khalil suggested, looking over at his mother.
“No, no, I am too old for that,” she refused.
Khalil shook his head in exasperation, as if they had had this argument many times before as well.
“But Mama, Farooq’s mother learned to read and write, and she is your sister.”
“She lives in the big city now; that is different.” Parween’s words sounded final. She stated once again: “But you will teach Fatima.”
“Yes, Mama, I will,” Khalil repeated.
“No, he won’t,” a man’s voice sounded from behind. The man had just entered the room and Hope knew that he must be Khalil’s and Fatima’s father and Parween’s husband.
Hope could see deep shock fall over Parween’s face and tears welling up in her eyes. Hope gave the man an angry look.
However the man spoke again, un-phased: “Khalil won’t teach Fatima to read because he will not have to. Fatima will go to school.”
“To school?” The shock had disappeared from Parween’s face, leaving an insecure surprise behind.
“Yes, to school,” her husband repeated. “I just came from the village council. They have decided to build a school for girls right here in Pazwaak. And just like our boys attend school in Pashtana, so the girls from Pashtana and Samsor will go to our school, only that they will not have to walk as the boys have to, and the girls from the other villages will be picked up by a bus. It is safer that way. So it will be a big school, and two or even three lady teachers will be coming from the big city.”
While listening to her husband, Parween’s face had lit up with happiness. She now picked up her daughter again to cuddle her:
“Did you hear that, Fatima? You will go to school, just like Khalil.
“And a lady teacher will teach you.
“You will learn to read all those beautiful words in Khalil’s book. And one day….”
“One day,” Khalil’s father concluded his wife’s sentence, “Fatima will be full of wisdom and knowledge, just like the daughter of the Prophet, peace be upon him.”
When Parween and her husband looked at each other, it reminded Hope of the glances she had seen her own parents exchange. It both warmed her heart and made her sad with desperate longing.
Khalil had had enough of mushy feelings for the moment and decided to remind his parents that there was some other important news right there in the room.
“Papa, look who has come, my cousin Farooq from the big city!”
His father turned around, having only now noticed Hope in the corner of the room. He greeted her with polite formality, bid her welcome, and asked after the health of her family. Hope felt a certain shyness toward Abdul-Lateef, yet answered with appropriate politeness and in the same way when she was introduced to Abdul-Khaliq, Khalil’s uncle who entered the house a few minutes later.
When dinner was served, the men, including Khalil, little Mashaal and Farooq-Hope, ate in one room while the women and girls ate in another. There wasn’t much conversation during the meal.
And although Hope actually enjoyed the food, she imitated Khalil by eating as fast as possible in order to get out and get ready for the kite-flying competition which had to take place before it got dark, so as to use the evening wind that would be just right for kites.
Outside in the village square, they were met by a group of other boys their age. Khalil introduced them as Latif, Dawud and Dilawar, who were brothers, and Badee and Bakhtawar who were also brothers, and Omaid, Jawad, and Baseer, who were their cousins.
Everyone was excited to meet a boy from the big city who surely would be an expert kite-man. And Hope felt slightly ashamed to have to admit that she had never flown a kite before this afternoon’s session on Khalil’s roof.
“It’s because of the war, isn’t it?” Baseer suggested. “Your parents won’t let you.”
“We have other games where I come from,” Hope replied in a low voice.
“You don’t have to worry about the war here,” Omaid, the oldest of the boys, reassured Hope.
The boys forgot about the newcomer, or rather treated him as one of them, as a gust of wind reminded them that it was time they concentrated on raising their kites.
It was clear that the experience of the other boys made a big difference, for Hope’s kite spent far more time on the ground than in the air. Khalil, who saw her frustration, called out helpful suggestions on how to use the wind.
And finally Hope’s kite was up in the air and flying. Yet now Khalil’s kite-string got entangled with that of Jawad, which brought a few not so kind words from the latter.
Khalil only shrugged while trying to disentangle the strings. He had gotten distracted when he saw both his father and uncle following a group of other men who were quickly entering one of the compounds surrounding the square.
Hope had noticed this as well, and of course, the second she took her eyes off her kite, it was down on the ground again. Khalil drew down his own kite and left it on the ground, leaving a slightly angry Jawad to disentangle the strings.
While gesturing to Hope to follow him, he made his way to the compound into which his father and the other men had disappeared.
“They never have village council meetings so late in the evening unless something really important has come up,” he explained to Hope. He pointed surprised at a grey-green big-wheeled jeep standing in front of the mayor’s house:
“I have never seen that car before. It’s not from our village and not from the neighboring villages either. I know that. A stranger must have arrived and is talking to the mayor and the whole village council.”
Hope had noticed similar vehicles parked in front of other houses, though this one seemed bigger and somehow gave her a feeling of dread. When they entered through the small gate, Khalil carefully looked around. He obviously didn’t want to be seen.
“This is the house of the mayor and the place for village councils,” he explained. “And it is also the place for Friday prayers, for we have no mosque here and no imam. Our village is too small, you know.”
Khalil carefully approached the house.
Stooping down, they slowly walked around the house, passing several windows until Khalil stopped at a small open window next to some shrubbery that gave them cover.
“In there is the meeting room,” Khalil whispered. “From here you can hear everything they say inside, and you can peek in without them noticing you.”
Hope nodded. She was as curious as Khalil about what was going on, so both of them peeked through the window.
She could hear murmuring in the room and the clink of china cups. There was a large group of men sitting along the walls of the room, each with a cup of tea in front of him from which slow sips were taken.
An elderly man directly opposite the window now started to talk:
“I have asked you all to come to this meeting tonight to meet Mr. Qasem and his young companion Mr. Rashad.”
The elderly man, whom Hope supposed was the mayor Khalil had talked about, pointed at the middle-aged man sitting next to him and a quiet, dour-looking young man sitting next to the other one.
In clothing and manners, these two men looked quite different from the men of Pazwaak. The mayor went on: “Mr. Qasem has come all the way from the land of the Prophet, peace be upon him. He wanted to address the village council because he has an important message for us.”
The man thus introduced started to talk: “I am Qasem Abu Jalil. And as you have heard, I have come from the land of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and I bring you greetings from our brethren in the holy cities.”
Different from the soft calm voice of the mayor, the visitor’s voice sounded harsh and pretentious.
Mr. Qasem continued: “As you all know, we are living in times of great conflict and evil. Infidels have invaded our lands to destroy our faith, our people. Nothing is sacred to them and they spare neither men nor women nor children. And those of our people who survive the attacks physically are eventually infected by the evils of the mind which the infidels are spreading wherever they go. Unless we fight them, all of our people will be lost to hell.
“Yet for all these many years, our brethren have been fighting the holy war against those infidels who have the form of men though, hidden inside their rotten cores, they are nothing but demons from hell to destroy us.
“I know this will be hard for you to imagine, since your village is so remote and you have always been shielded from the evils of our time. However, these evils are a reality, to which we who have had to fight the good war have been exposed every day.
“To help you to understand the severity of this reality, I have brought you some images of the things those demons in human form have done to our people.” From inside his coat, Mr. Qasem took out a bundle of square thick papers which seemed to contain images. He passed them around.
From her place at the window, Hope could not see what was portrayed in the images, though from the murmurs and the shocked intake of breath by the men who had seen them, she gathered that they were seeing something really bad.
Mr. Qasem went on: “Here you can see how those demons treated our people after they took them prisoner. By all that is good, it would have been better for those prisoners to have been killed instead of being taken alive by those monsters.
“Not even the dead do these infidels leave in peace. I have seen with my own eyes how those demonic beings have opened up graves and desecrated the bodies of our dead.
“These demons are evil beyond any human behavior, they must be fought until the end, they do not deserve any kind of mercy.”
Most of the men in the room had expressions of disgust in their faces and the murmur that followed Mr. Qasem’s words was one of agreement.
Mr. Qasem was satisfied with their reaction and continued his speech: “As I said before, my brave brethren and I have fought for many years against this plague of infidels. But I have to tell you that they are not only evil at the core of their being.
“They are also cowards and stupid beyond measure.
“In many wars, they have fought infidel against infidel. And in order to win the wars they were too cowardly to fight themselves, they have given us, the fighters of Allah, the weapons to fight for them, believing that they had us under their rule. Some of their weapons are so powerful they can poison the air over a whole city of infidels; others are able to shoot airplanes from the ground right out of the sky.
“Of course, it is in our interest to fight the infidels using the weapons of other infidels.
“However, they are mistaken in their assumption that they have control over us, the faithful servants of Allah alone.
“And this is the reason why I have come to you tonight.
“The weapons we have received over time we have used well, and we have fought many infidels in many lands, winning many battles. Yet some of the weapons must be hidden and preserved for another time. Once the war against the weak enemy is over, we will have to start the real war against the strong enemy, the bigger demons.
“These weapons need to be stored at a place where it is safe, far away from all areas of trouble. And your village of Pazwaak has been chosen as the safest place for storage. You have been selected for the high honor of preserving the means to the final victory.”
Mr. Qasem ended his speech looking expectantly at his audience. The murmurs were beginning again, though only the elderly mayor responded directly by asking a question: “Why would Pazwaak be the place to be chosen?”
Mr. Qasem answered in a convoluted manner: “This is a wise question, of course, honorable Mr. Mayor, and I will answer to your satisfaction.
“We have heard that you intend to build a school for girls in this village. And this would be a most expedient opportunity to build a weapons depot right below the school. The enemy would never suspect it there.”
Now everybody started to talk and Hope could not make out the words, though it seemed the opinions were divided.
Eventually the mayor once again raised his calm voice. Immediately everybody went respectfully quiet.
“Mr. Qasem, we have listened to your speech and we have scrutinized the horrific images you have shown us.
“And we agree that they show great signs of depravity and barbarism. Although we do understand your feelings regarding the acts of those infidels, we still have to decline your request to store those weapons you were talking about in our village.
“We cannot risk the safety of our women and children and especially the lives of those innocent young girls who will attend the school for the sake of the plans you have outlined for us. Even though you consider the choice of Pazwaak as a great honor for our village, we still must respectfully decline this honor.”
“You decline the honor, Mr. Mayor?” Mr. Qasem’s voice had now lost any trace of calm: “What kind of faithful are you really…… not faithful at all, it seems to me. You say that you have scrutinized the images. It seems rather that you have averted your eyes from them, in order not to see. If you had really opened them to the reality of this evil, you would not hesitate for even a single moment to grant our request, and you would send all your young men to join us in our good fight.”
Unlike Mr. Qasem, the mayor had not lost his calm: “Mr. Qasem, you are in error; the members of this council and I did not avert our eyes from reality. Indeed some of us, including myself, have not spent all of our lives in Pazwaak. I have seen the evils of this time more than once. I have seen the bloodshed of the innocent caused by the infidels, and their brutal and uncivilized behavior toward women and children.
“However I have also seen those who claimed to fight in the good struggle for Allah and our faith behaving in a similar fashion. I have seen the dead mutilated and their bodies desecrated by those who claim to be faithful servants of Allah.
“Some I have seen committing those acts were even brethren of yours, Mr. Qasem, from the land of the Prophet, peace be upon him.”
Mr. Qasem was now fuming, and although this could be heard in the quiver of his voice, he made an effort to restrain himself: “Whatever you claim to have seen, Mr. Mayor, it would have been amply justified with the evil done by those demons in human form.
“In some cases it was necessary not only to defeat this enemy yet also to frighten him out of his wits to prevent him from ever attacking the faith and the faithful again. This will eventually save the lives of millions of our people.
“Yet for now, it is your duty, Mr. Mayor, and that of all the men of Pazwaak, before Allah and the community of the faithful, to support the defense of our faith in this exceedingly small manner we have requested of you.
How much more glorious will be this task in the service of Allah than building a school for girls,” (the sneer was clearly audible in Mr Qasem’s words) “a school that quite possibly might lead these girls away from the path of righteousness.”
The mayor did not answer Mr. Qasem directly, instead ignoring his assertions, he simply repeated firmly: “As I told you, Mr. Qasem, we must decline your request for the reasons I gave you before.”
The mayor paused for a second while looking at Mr. Qasem’s furious face, and continued, “However you and your companion are cordially invited to stay with me and my family tonight. My wife and daughters have provided a meal for all of us.”
This time Mr. Qasem did not even try to restrain himself, and flaunting all the rules of traditional courtesy, he yelled: “I will not eat with anyone here in this village or sleep in the house of cowards and sympathizers with barbaric infidels. You are traitors to our faith; you might even be considered worse than the infidels we fight!”
With these words Mr. Qasem abruptly got to his feet and left the room. Mr. Rashad, who had not said a single word the whole time, quietly followed in his footsteps as before.
Within a couple of seconds they emerged through the outside door, passing so close to the house and the window that Mr. Qasem nearly bumped into Khalil.
With an angry sound, he pushed Khalil aside, and noticing Hope-Farooq, he gave her an even angrier glare before erupting from the gateway. A moment later the children could hear the roar of a car’s engine springing to life.
In the room, the murmur of discussion had started again, though Khalil seemed not to be interested any more. He gave Hope a sign and they left the courtyard the same way they had come.
On the square, Jawad had managed to disentangle the strings, and he and the other boys were still flying their kites. The sun had fully set and night had descended, still the stars and moon were bright enough so as to be able to perceive the kites as dark shadows in the sky.
However Khalil was no longer interested in kite-flying. He picked up his kite from the ground and headed in the direction of home. Hope picked up her kite and followed.
Khalil was in a subdued mood; what he had heard at the council meeting seemed to bother him a lot.
Finally, just before entering his house’s courtyard, he turned to Hope and asked: “Do you think we are cowards here in Pazwaak?”
“Of course not,” Hope answered.
“But those infidels, they have done terrible things to our people,” Khalil went on doubtfully.
“I heard about those things long before Mr. Qasem came. You must have heard about them as well. Won’t they go on doing those things if we don’t fight them, if we don’t defeat them?”
“I don’t think you can defeat them by fighting,” Hope answered slowly. “Though I do know that they will stop one day.”
“I don’t know if you are right. But shouldn’t we at least try to defend ourselves and store those weapons Mr. Qasem was talking about?”
“Do you really want little Fatima sitting quietly in her new school, right on top of a weapons depot?” asked Hope, answering his question with one of her own.
Khalil shook his head violently: “No, no, of course not.” He fell silent though he still made no attempt to enter the courtyard.
After a few seconds, he raised another question: “Do you believe that the fighters of the faithful could really be as cruel and barbaric as the fighters of the infidels?”
Once again Hope answered with a question: “Do you think your mayor is an honest man?”
“Of course he is an honest man,” Khalil said decisively, “the most honest, just like my father. You are right, what he said he has seen must certainly be true.”
He mused for a while, and finally sighed: “But it’s sad, you know…to think that our own people can be as evil as the enemy.”
Hope nodded: “It is sad,” she agreed.
After that both of them went inside. They were greeted by Khalil’s mother, who immediately noticed Khalil’s dark mood, yet when he didn’t want to talk, she let it go and just asked both of them to get ready for bed.
Khalil did not want to talk to Hope either, and he stayed in his quiet brooding mood until both of them fell asleep side by side on their mattresses.
It seemed only an instant later when they were awakened by loud noises. Somebody was banging on the outside door, and then there was a crash as someone broke through the front door. Loud yelling could be heard from the front-room. Little Mashaal woke up and started to cry. He crawled over to Khalil’s mattress; the noise had scared him as well as Hope and Khalil.
Now they could hear Khalil’s uncle asking the intruders why they were there. They heard another yell and the sound of something hitting the floor and the screams of Aunt Mahtab.
At that moment the door to the small room where Hope, Khalil, and Mashaal were huddled was pushed open. A soldier stood in the doorway. He pointed a gun at the children and gestured wordlessly with it to indicate that they must leave the room. Mashaal had stopped crying aloud, yet was now desperately clinging to his cousin, his head buried in Khalil’s side. Hope kept close to them as they scuttled into the front-room.
There the rest of the family was already assembled. Most were pressed against each other at the wall. Five soldiers were pointing their guns at them. Aunt Mahtab was hunched over and sobbing next to the unconscious body of her husband on the floor. Hope could see a large bleeding wound on Abu-Khaliq’s head though she could also see that he was breathing. He was still alive.
One of the soldiers pushed Mahtab away and toward the others. When Mashaal looked up and saw his mother, he started screaming again and stretched out his little arms toward her. Mahtab, still sobbing, pulled him into her embrace and buried her face in his hair.
Khalil’s mother was holding her own baby, arms trembling as she looked at Khalil and Hope. Her husband was standing in front of her, partially shielding her and the children with his body.
Yet now one of the soldiers yelled what seemed to be an order, for two other soldiers grabbed Abdul-Lateef and dragged him away from his family. They twisted his arms behind his back and bound them with white plastic twine. Hope could see that it was cutting into his flesh and his hands were turning a bluish shade. Though he made no sound.
The commanding officer yelled again. Another man had just entered the house. He was not wearing a soldier’s uniform still Hope could see that he belonged to them. The commanding officer said a few words in his strange language and the man without the uniform turned to Khalil’s father and started to speak: “The sergeant says that we are here because we are looking for a dangerous criminal and terrorist. He has stolen many weapons to be used for terrorist activities. His name is Qasem and we know that he has come to this village. All we want of you is that you tell us where he is now and where the weapons are that he has been transporting.”
Abdul-Lateef did not answer.
The sergeant barked a command and the soldier who had pushed Mahtab started yelling at Khalil’s father and with that he kicked him in the groin.
The translator said: “The sergeant says that you’d better answer his questions or we will be staying at your house for a long time.”
The sergeant pointed at Parween, and the soldier who had pushed Mahtab now grabbed Parween’s arm, and when she resisted, he pulled the headscarf from her head and yanked her hair to pull her closer to the sergeant. She screamed out in pain and shock which was echoed by the screams of Fatima whom she was still holding in her arms.
Now Abu-Lateef cried out as well: “Let them go, please let them go.” Yet the soldier kept hold of Parween’s hair.
Fatima continued to cry and the sergeant yelled again and the civilian man translated: “This is your wife isnt she? You know what we can do to her if you won’t talk.”
The sergeant pointed at Khalil and gave another order. The soldier let go of Parween’s hair and grabbed Khalil by the arm and dragged him close to his mother and father.
“No,” cried Hope, Parween and Abdul-Lateef at the same time. Khalil’s father answered the sergeant’s question in a desperate voice: “This man Qasem you are looking for, he was here, but he left. I do not know where he is now; nobody in the village knows. My wife and son, they don’t know anything. Please let them go.” The translator said a few words to the sergeant who yelled again and the other man translated: “We don’t believe you. We think you are lying. You know exactly where Qasem is and where the weapons are! And you are going to tell us!”
The sergeant gave the soldier holding Khalil a sign with his head and the soldier now grabbed Khalil by the shirt collar while pushing his gun into Khalil’s backside.
A horrible scream came from Khalil’s mouth and Hope could see the back of his pants suddenly turning dark red.
“No!” a scream burst in unison from both his parents. Abdul-Lateef was hopelessly trying to free himself, while Parween, still holding on to her little daughter with one hand, tried grabbing at the soldier with her other hand to pull him off her son.
Hope could no longer stand still; she was trying to get to Khalil, trying to help him to do something…anything. However another soldier, the one who had entered their room earlier, held her back with his arms. He looked at her for just an instant and Hope saw that the expression on his face was somehow different from that on the faces of the other soldiers. There was no hatred or cruelty there instead surprisingly, what she saw was shame. The soldier, still holding Hope and the others in place, turned his head and yelled at his comrades.
The sergeant yelled back, yet eventually gave the soldier who had been torturing Khalil a sign with his head. The soldier let go of Khalil and pushed him and his mother back into the direction of Hope and the others.
Khalil had stopped screaming. He was now sobbing soundlessly. Parween handed the crying Fatima over to Hope, and sobbing herself, Parween hugged Khalil tightly: “Mamma,” he whispered, “Mamma, Mamma.”
The sergeant addressed Abdul-Lateef again through the translator: “You will come with us now. Eventually you will talk! There is no doubt about that. Otherwise we will be back for this brat of yours.” With that, they dragged Khalil’s father through the outside door into the courtyard.
Khalil, no longer sobbing, limped after the soldiers crying out: “Papa, Papa!” When one of them pushed him away, he screamed desperately: “Let him go, let him go!”
But now he was pushed to the ground. His mother who had followed picked him up.
Hope handed Fatima to Baasima and went to her friend’s side, and they followed the soldiers who were dragging Khalil’s father along.
However when the first soldier passed through the narrow gate, a sudden shot was heard and Hope saw the soldier fall to the ground. The other soldiers started yelling and picking up their weapons, and while taking cover behind the walls they started spraying bullets to the outside. Hope heard a few answering shots after that it fell quiet.
The sergeant yelled again and the soldiers jumped into the two army-jeeps parked in front of the compound, dragging their wounded comrade inside while leaving Khalil’s father behind. Abdul-Lateef stood alone, hands still bound behind his back.
The soldiers started their engines and one of the jeeps pulled off. Though at the last moment, the soldier who had tortured Khalil jumped off the other jeep, and rushing back into the court-yard, he shot Khalil’s father point blank, then jumped back into the jeep and they all sped off.
Khalil’s father collapsed as if in slow motion as Khalil, Parween, and Hope ran to his side.
However there was nothing they could do.
Abdul-Lateef was dead.
Parween sank to the ground and started wailing as she knelt beside her husband. There was no beauty in her voice any more, only dissonant hamstrung sorrow.
Khalil was quiet, his face empty and cold. Hope knew this expression only too well; she could feel it in her bones. It was an expression of sheer disbelief. This couldn’t have happened. His father couldn’t be dead; none of this could be real.
Now the other members of the family came slowly from the house. Mahtab was steadying her husband who had regained consciousness though he was still bleeding from his head wound. Baasima was carrying Fatima who had still not stopped crying, though now it was a low hopeless sort of sound, as if she knew what had happened. Badria followed, leading Mashaal by the hand.
Other people had left their own houses, entering the court-yard of Khalil’s family. More and more people streamed in, a few of the men carrying guns. For a while no one said a word; all that could be heard were Parween’s desperate wails and Fatima’s low cries.
All at once everyone started talking again.
Hope couldn’t make out the words; all she heard were angry, fearful, and desperate voices.
And finally Khalil’s uncle said to his wife: “You have to go now. They will be back; those soldiers will be back, and there will be more of them next time.”
“Abdul-Khaliq is right,” said a man whose voice Hope recognized as that of the mayor. She looked up and saw him at the gate.
The mayor went on: “They will be back with airplanes and more weapons. Their revenge will be terrible. All the women and children of Pazwaak have to leave. They must leave right away.”
“Leave?” Mahtab sounded frightened: “Where should we go?”
“You must go to Pashtana,” the mayor said, “to the school-house there. The people of Pashtana will help you. But you have to go now! There is no time to be lost. Don’t take much with you, a few blankets and bottles of water and pieces of bread will be enough.”
The mayor turned to the other men: “Tell your families to leave as well.”
Mahtab turned to her husband: “Are you not coming with us?”
Abdul Khaliq shook his head, saying in a sad voice: “I have to bury my brother, and we must defend the village.” Then his voice became rough: “Leave now; take the children and Parween and go!”
Khalil’s mother had not listened to anything that had been said. She was in her own world of grief. She struggled at first when Mahtab attempted to help her up, finally she allowed herself to be led into the house. She was staring blindly ahead, moving like a sleep-walker. Mahtab had to take all the initiative. Efficiently she packed two baskets with food which she handed to Hope and Khalil, afterwards she ordered them and the other children to each bring a blanket.
Finally handed Fatima over to Parween while picking up Mashaal herself. And now that everyone was ready, Mahtab led them outside, abandoning their home. Abdul Khaliq had already left with the other men.
When their small group arrived at the village square, they saw dozens of women who had also left their houses with children in tow or in their arms. Some of the children were crying, and most looked confused. Their mothers looked frightened.
And so the dreary group started walking along the dirt road.
Hope and Khalil walked side by side with Khalil’s mother, who was still walking wordlessly as if in a trance. Khalil was strangely quiet as well. Hope knew better than to try to talk to him.
Nobody else talked much either, not even the children.
Omaid and Baseer, the oldest of the boys, were leading the way, a way they knew well since they walked it every day to school. And though it was night, the moon was still shining brightly enough for everyone to see where they were going.
Normally it would have taken them about an hour for the journey, yet with all of the little children and the bundles everyone had to carry, it surely would take longer, Omaid explained to Hope, the only stranger in the group. Hope just nodded.
They must have been walking for nearly half an hour when they heard the noise of an airplane above them. Hope knew that this was an ominous sound and so did everyone else. People started to walk faster, some started running. All of a sudden the darkness was gone, replaced by fire which rained down behind them. Everyone screamed as they looked back. The fire fell on the village Pazwaak and then the flames blossoming out of Pazwaak lit up the sky.
An unfamiliar smell was suddenly in the air. Hope felt a painful burning sensation in her nostrils and all the way down to her lungs. Most of the women turned away and started running again, dragging their children behind, however Khalil and his mother stood transfixed, staring at their burning village.
In the distance they saw a small figure running towards them which resembled a burning torch. Almost instantly it fell, flames still blazing.
“My uncle,” Khalil whispered, “my uncle.”
“No,” Hope protested, “you can’t see that. It’s not him, it’s not him.”
She shook Khalil by the shoulder. “We have to go now,” she urged, “we have to go. Hurry!”
Reluctantly Khalil turned around. And when Hope touched Parween’s arm, she turned around as well. They started walking again, walking, walking in the direction of Pashtana, where they would be safe.
However it wasn’t over yet. Another noise could be heard in the air, louder, closer to ground, even more menacing.
Hope looked up like everybody else. She recognized those air-vehicles. She had seen images of them. They were called helicopters. There were at least three of them– maybe more, Hope wasn’t sure–yet there were three giant lights scouring the ground. And now a new sound–the worst sound she had ever heard–filled the air, thousands and thousands of small explosions. Hope knew what they were. They were shots.
The people in front of them fell down. Some were screaming in pain, others in fear, some were just quiet.
Then Khalil’s mother dropped down, still holding Fatima in her arms. Despite the darkness of the night, Hope could see a dark fluid discoloring her clothes and those of little Fatima, spreading to the ground around them.
Parween began to breathe laboriously. Khalil stood stiff with shock. Parween started talking in a gurgling barely audible voice: “Fatima,” she said, “Remember Fatima.”
She tried to lift her little daughter up to Khalil with her last ounce of strength yet her arms dropped to the ground and she lay quiet. Hope cried. Khalil bent down to take Fatima from his mother’s lifeless arms. He clutched her tightly to his chest. “We have to go now,” he told Hope in an eerie toneless voice.
However Hope had noticed that the helicopters had circled back, the lights once again closing in on their group. More shots could be heard. Hope let herself drop to the ground and tugging at Khalil’s clothes, she screamed: “Down Khalil, down. They’ll shoot at you if you are standing.”
But it was too late already. Khalil had been hit. Hope watched him sink to the ground, and like his mother before him, he still held his baby sister and even said the same words as his mother had: “Fatima, remember Fatima!”
In desperate expectation, he looked at Hope who took the baby from his arms. Khalil gave one last deep breath and expired….
The lights from the helicopters were finally switched off and their sound was dying down. They were leaving. Hope was still on her knees holding the baby.
But then she gently laid Fatima back in Khalil’s arms. She had already seen what Khalil hadn’t seen or hadn’t wanted to…
The bullet that had killed his mother had killed Fatima first. It had gone right through her into her mother’s body. And where her little heart had been, there now was a hole.
Hope got to her feet. She looked around and listened. There was no sound to be heard.
Finally dawn was breaking and Hope could see the women and children of Pazwaak as small heaps on the ground…silent, motionless heaps.
Suddenly she saw a tiny movement not far away. She leaped toward it. But then she stopped, not wanting to go any further. A turquoise scarf splattered in red was fluttering in the wind above another small motionless heap. Hope knew who this had been.
She started screaming. She screamed like she had never screamed before.
And at that instant, the dawn of Khalil’s world disappeared, giving way to the glaring artificial light of a big empty hall.
The door opened and Hope’s mother entered, running toward Hope who was still screaming.
The sound changed to a sob: “Mamma, Mamma,” she cried. “They are all dead, all of them! Khalil and his mother and Fatima and Baseema, all of them, all of them…”
Hope’s mother had wrapped her arms around her, talking softly, soothingly: “They died a long time ago, Hope, a very long time ago. It was only a simulation. It wasn’t real.”
“No Mamma,” Hope sobbed in her arms. “They died now, just now.”
She felt her legs weakening, suddenly she was falling, falling into her mother’s arms who held her even more tightly, and so everything went black.
And it stayed black.
David could feel himself breathing. He slowly opened his eyes. He noticed that this time Hope felt as sick as he did. He could still see her image glowing in the dark, though the expression on her face was dark, too dark even for tears.
David shared Hope’s sadness, but it became more and more mixed with his own feelings of towering rage.
“How could they do that to you?” he burst out.
“They traumatized you. What kind of teacher is that, to force you into a simulation like that, even over the objections of your mother.”
“It is the law,” Hope answered. “All children have to go through this when they turn twelve.”
“What kind of brutal, ruthless law abuses children like that?” David could not accept it.
“And your people call our time the Dark Ages?”
“In your time, children play simulations where they become perpetrators of war violence. You talked about that with Mr. Santini, remember?”
Hope couldn’t help herself. Even now she had to defend her culture: “In my time, we simulate becoming victims of war-violence.”
“Not all games are violent and not all children play violent games. And those games are far from being as realistic as what happened to you in there,” David insisted.
“In your time,” Hope said sadly and in a low voice, “that was not a simulation. Many children all over the world had to go through war.”
She hesitated for a few seconds, and finally added: “And the people of Pazwaak are really dead.”
That stopped David in his tracks. They both fell silent for a while, staring into the dark sky, listening to the sound of far-away traffic.
Eventually David asked: “What happened to Farooq, do you know?”
Hope nodded, answering: “Sensei told me after he had carried me home from the community hall. And he also visited me every day for a week until I was well enough to go back to school. He is a good teacher,” she said defensively and went on:
“As for Farooq, he was captured by the soldiers who had invaded his village. However the night before he was to be transported to a military prison, one of the soldiers drove away with him to release him in the next town. Yet the escape vehicle broke down close to a village.
“And when the soldier saw the other soldiers approaching, he told Farooq to run and hide, while he himself stayed in an abandoned house. The villagers hid Farooq in a shed, but they told the other soldiers where the compassionate soldier was.
And while he didn’t see it himself, Farooq was told by the villagers that the soldiers had surrounded the house and thrown bombs inside and in the end they had carried Farooq’s rescuer out of the house, dead.”
When Hope stopped talking, David concluded: “That soldier was Marco Santini, wasn’t he?”
Hope nodded: “Sensei never told me his name, though I’m sure now that it must have been him. The stories are far too similar.”
She took a deep breath and went on: “When Farooq grew up, he became a man of peace.
Although he should have grown up to become a man seeking revenge for all that had happened to his relatives and what he had seen being done to the people of Pazwaak, he didn’t.
“He wrote down what he had seen and told it to many people, first in his own country, after that to the people of many countries, until his story was known all over the world.
And when people asked him why he had not become bitter and full of hatred, he always said that he had seen humanity in the face of his enemy.”
Hope stopped again and David repeated wonderingly: “Marco Santini…….because of Marco Santini…..It’s strange to think that this one act of compassion could undo the effects of all the horrific things Farooq had gone through before.”
Hope nodded: “Yes it’s strange. However it is because Farooq became a man of peace that his story became the Victim-Scenario for all the world’s children in my time.
“Farooq was given many coins in his time. And he used most of them to teach people all over the world about peace. Though some coins he used to build a monument at the place where the women and children of Pazwaak had been killed.
“Although in his time and place, people often objected to having statues of human images around, this one was allowed to stay there. And it is still standing there in my time.”
The image of a stone memorial appeared in the darkness of the night in front of David’s eyes.
At the top of the statue was the figure of a boy sitting with a toddler in his lap.
He was holding a book in front of the toddler. Both children were looking and pointing at it.
Letters David could not read were engraved on the stone below.
Hope knew what they meant and she translated for David:
“I will always remember Fatima.
I will never forget the people of Pazwaak,
the voices of the innocent crying out to the heavens.
On this spot hope (Omaid) was destroyed
and gentleness (Latif) and gerosity(Jawad)
and the smile (Baasima) of a child.
Light (Mashaal) was darkened in the shining of the moon (Badria and Mahtab)
and in the shining stars (Parween).
Though only for a time,
for the voice (Pazwaak) of all of you has been heard
and has been answered.
For now my friend (Khalil), sleep.
Sleep in the arms of peace,
in the arms of peace.”
The manager is dressed in a tailored suit and striped tie, giving the impression of someone with a societal and living status well above average in Nephilim City.
I know the man’s name to be Remus Talbot, though I decide not to use it. Instead I barely acknowledge him with a nod and start with:
“We have been kept waiting here for quite some time. You do know me, don’t you or do I have to introduce myself?”
“No, of course not, Mr Galt,” Talbot assures me, flinching nervously.
“Although it has been several years, since you inspected this plant together with your father. What can I do for you?”
“For me?” I return the question in an ice-cold voice, “nothing!
“However it is my father, who is extremely disappointed with the way you manage this facility. Your output has been lacking severely and my father suspects inefficiency.”
“[_ Mr Galt,though” Talbot protests, “we do have increased production by 20% over the current year. We are doing our utmost to meet...” _]
I interrupt him coldly: “Has my father not told you how insufficient this is at the current time?”
“Yes, sir, Mr Galt, he has, and we have increased our efforts ever since. We…”
“Obviously not enough,” I interrupt again, “or why would he have considered it necessary to send me here personally together with his efficiency team?”
I point fleetingly toward Antonio and his men.
[_ I have to keep on pushing, not leaving Talbot any room for thought or objections, and so I'm giving my orders: “Production must be increased by another 30% at least. These men here are our top efficiency experts. They will determine where the faults lie and which machines or personal will have to be replaced immediately. _]
For the next five hours these men will have access to every single work station, every production line and to the hangars. Is this understood?”
“Yes, Mr Galt, of course Mr Galt. My staff will fully cooperate with your experts.”
Once again I nod curtly: “My father expects nothing less of you.”
They sat in the dark, engulfed in their intermingling thoughts of deep sadness. In time David felt the darkness deepen even more as his mind was flooded with feelings of ever-growing fear, eventually turning to utter despair.
David noticed that Hope had covered her face with her hands although she wasn’t crying.
Finally she started talking, slowly murmuring as if to herself and with long pauses in between her half-sentences:
“I always believed that it was the right thing…the right thing for us to go through the scenario… that it is necessary, like everyone says…necessary to preserve the peace… But now I don’t know…I don’t know anything anymore.”
She took her hands down and faced David: “It didn’t work, Uncle David! It just didn’t work.”
Her voice had become loud and desperate: “You were right, you were right about my Mamma and….oh no…oh no…..”
David instinctively reached out to her, only to grasp thin air. He caught himself and pulled back his hand, wishing he could at least for this once have taken Hope in his arms and comforted her.
Instead he said softly: “Hope, please tell me now…please Hope, what happened in…” and the words formed in his mind “Orange Country and… and Nephilim City?”
Instantaneously it was as if a dam had broken. A giant flood of images, faces, voices, and sounds washed over David’s consciousness simultaneously, together with emotions alternating between suffocating fear and raging anger.
“Hope, I can’t…” David trembled under the mental overload, “Please go slowly, tell me, in the way you told me before.”
David could feel the mental strain it cost Hope to concentrate again. She closed her eyes and David closed his. The images and sounds subsided and everything went dark again, though the disturbed feelings could not be subdued.
Out of the darkness David heard Hope’s trembling voice: “It started six days ago…no, it is seven days now…a week…
“Only a week ago everything was normal…there was peace…
“Mamma had been on her assignment for more than ten weeks. And she was supposed to come home for a six-week break in only two weeks time, but then…then….”
Hope took a deep breath: “It was only morning, when I already knew that something must have happened. Great-uncle Professor said barely a word at breakfast and afterwards, he locked himself in his lab.
“On my way to the cow-shed, and later on my way to school, I could see the grown-ups whispering to each other. But whenever we children came close, they stopped. Strange expressions were on their faces. I couldn’t read their looks.
“The same expression was on Sensei’s face during class. All of a sudden, he finished his teaching and sent us home early…without any explanation.
When Sensei had left, Jason Tyler, one of the boys, told the rest of us second-year sempais that he knew there would be a village council meeting in the evening.
His older brother had managed to crack the absentee key, and he was going to meet with his adolescent friends to watch the meeting. Jason had pressured his brother to give him the key too so that the sempais from our class could watch it as well.”
To David’s unspoken question, Hope explained: “The absentee key is a password sequence that allows those grown-ups who are unable to attend the village council meeting to watch it from their own home.” She continued: “We decided to meet at the home of Jenny’s family because she could not leave her little brothers while her parents were at the meeting.”
The darkness lifted to be replaced by the image of a group of seven teenagers in a warmly furnished living-room, sitting on a single couch and two easy chairs arranged facing the wall which acted as a big computer screen.
One of the girls, Jenny, was sitting on the carpeted floor, playing with two toddlers while trying to observe the screen with one eye.
On the screen, a big hall could be seen where hundreds of people sat on long benches behind narrow desks.
While the front rows were already filled, people were still filing in at the back, and the last five rows of seats were slowly emerging from below the ground.
Now the hesitant voice of Ameenah, Hope’s friend, could be heard in the living-room: “Maybe we should not watch this. It’s against the rules. We probably don’t need to anyway. If this meeting is about something that concerns us, the grown-ups will tell us tomorrow.”
“No, they won’t,” Jason sounded angry, “I happen to know that it does have something to do with what happened last year. My brother told me—he found out. It’s about that girl from the Deer community who was exiled to Orange Country last summer.
He knew her, she is the same age as him, really still an adolescent. I think something like this does concern us. But they didn’t tell us last year, so I don’t think they’ll tell us now either.”
Ameenah still looked doubtful and guilt-stricken, though she didn’t reply, nor did she try to leave.
Finally the meeting started and everyone concentrated on the screen.
The first row facing all the others was slightly elevated. Behind it, the wall acted as another giant screen, and at the moment, “Asylum Request Conference” was written at its top.
Below the words there could be seen - larger than life- the images of three of the people sitting in the front row: a young man and a young woman holding a small child of about three years of age on her lap. The young man was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt while the young woman and the child wore badly fitting dresses covered with a variety of white dots and circles on a brownish foundation.
And so they were looking rather different from everyone else.
When the last villagers had finally found their seats in the back of the hall, the sound of a bell could be heard, and the murmur of voices quieted.
The woman sitting in the middle of the front row rose from her seat. The narrow desk in front of her also slowly rose to become a pulpit.
At the same time, her image replaced the images of the other three people behind her on the wall. Once again this image was larger than life. Above her, what was obviously her name appeared in large letters, “Erin Keilar”.
Ms. Keilar took hold of the pulpit with both hands and started talking to the audience:
“Good evening, my fellow citizens of Spesaeterna.
“As all of you probably know, I have been the chosen organizer of the village council for these past two months and will be in this capacity for another 4 months to come.”
Ms. Keilar’s voice sounded formal yet insecure. Her demeanor showed clearly that she wasn’t quite comfortable with the role assigned to her. And she also seemed rather unfamiliar with speaking in public.
Taking a deep breath she continued formally: “Tonight I have called for an extra-ordinary council- meeting because I have received applications from three individuals for asylum in our village. These applications are being sponsored by two of our citizens, Ms. Monica and Mr. Aaron Callahan from the Deer-community, who are the parents of one of the applicants.
The applicants are Ms. Luscinia Callahan and Mr. Jonathan—”
Ms. Keilar was interrupted by a woman from the audience who had gotten to her feet. Like the desk of Ms. Keilar, this woman’s desk also rose to become a pulpit, and now her image and name—Dora Paine—were being displayed next to that of Ms. Keilar on the screen-wall.
Ms. Paine was at least two decades older than Ms. Keilar and she sounded far more self-confident: “I protest formally to the child being at this council-meeting. It is no place for a child, especially when an asylum request is being discussed. I propose that my youngest daughter Sheila be called. She is a responsible young woman who can take care of the child for the duration of this meeting.”
Ms. Keilar answered in an apologetic voice: “Well, we did try to have someone take care of the little girl, although she cried so much and so…we didn’t know what to do…and…”
Now the young woman in the dotted dress-- Luscinia Callahan, according to the text above her picture--handed the little girl to the young man next to her and got to her feet. When the pulpit had risen in front of her, she started to speak:
“You have to understand, Ms. Paine, that Natsuki is very upset and really scared. Everything here in the village is new to her and so different from what she has known all her life. And she also misses her parents so much. Jonathan and I are the only familiar people here and that is why she holds on to us so desperately.
“Please allow her stay. She won’t understand anything that is said here; her native language is Interlingua.”
Ms. Paine was not yet ready to concede: “Still where are her parents? Why aren’t they here?”
“That is a complicated matter,” Luscinia swallowed, “I will explain the whole story to all of you. Just as I will explain why and how Jonathan and I have come here.”
“Yes, this is truly something I do not understand at all,” said a man in his forties who had jumped to his feet and was now portrayed on the wall along with Ms. Keilar, Ms. Paine, and Luscinia. His name was indicated as Henry Darby. With determination in his voice, Mr. Darby complained: “According to the rules made by the village council of Spesaeterna, a person who has been permanently exiled can never apply for asylum in our village…”
Now the middle-aged man who had been sitting in the first row next to Luscinia Callahan rose to his feet, the letters over his image indicating that he was Aron Callahan, obviously her father. Mr. Callahan didn’t even wait for his pulpit to rise before he started shouting rather than talking, and so his first words were still inaudible: “…precious rules, that’s what counts for you, Henry Darby, nothing else! Not the people, just the rules! What you have done to my daughter—what all of you have done to her…” Mr. Callahan’s voice broke.
Now Ms. Keilar interrupted, saying: “The current discussion is highly irregular. Please, only one person should speak at a time. I was about to explain the procedure of…”
Mr. Callahan didn’t listen and looked as if he hadn’t even heard. He had taken hold of his daughter’s arm, lifted it up and drawing back her sleeve to the elbow, yelling “This is what you did to her…”
Luscinia’s arm was covered with about half a dozen round scars which seemed to contain a strange pattern. Luscinia pulled her arm back, covering it again and talking soothingly to her father, though her voice was still audible to everybody else: “Papa, please…they didn’t know, nobody knew…”
Her father was not mollified: “They should have known, they should have tried to find out before they sent you there. You were only 19, only 19…it was wrong…I should have done something…I should have…” His voice was breaking again, finally he burst out: “Dr. Perez, tell them, tell them…”
At the other end of the first row, a middle-aged woman by the name of Maria Perez got slowly to her feet. Standing at her pulpit, she cleared her voice before speaking cautiously: “Last night at the request of Mr. and Mrs. Callahan, I, as the doctor of the Deer-community, examined their daughter Luscinia. I found the young Ms. Callahan to be severely undernourished, her blood showing a deficiency of several vitamins and minerals…”
Dr. Perez cleared her throat again continued: “Her body also showed many bruises of different age and form as well as scarring around her feminine parts. What puzzled me the most were those pattern-like markings on her back, her arms, and her legs.
“After consultation with Nurse Jennesy from our community, as well as Doctors Arend and Newman from the Dolphin and Bear communities,” she said, pointing at one man and two women sitting next to her, “we concluded that these markings were burn marks and that they could not have been the result of an accident.
“We as professional health-supporters have never seen injuries of this kind before. And after researching the matter on the Peace-Web, Dr. Newman suggested that these injuries could only be compared to marks of torture used during the Dark Ages… ”
A murmur of shock went through the audience. The woman sitting next to Mr. Callahan, obviously Luscinia’s mother, buried her face in her hands. Although no sound could be heard, the trembling of her whole body indicated a desperate sobbing. Mr. Callahan’s face had lost all color. He sank back into his chair as if his legs could no longer support him.
Dr. Perez had sat down, as had Mr. Darby and Ms. Paine. Only Luscinia and Ms. Keilar were still standing and visible on the big wall, the latter holding tightly to her pulpit and the role she felt she had to perform.
Now another woman from the audience got to her feet. It was Ms. Alba, a friend of Hope’s grandmother.
She didn’t address Luscinia directly; instead she spoke to her father: “Mr. Callahan, I am sure that I speak for all the members of this council when I say that we all are deeply sympathetic to your feelings regarding the injuries your daughter acquired in Orange Country.
“However as your daughter rightly pointed out, we did not know that something like this was ever going to happen over there.
“And do I really have to remind you of what happened last year:
“Luscinia Callahan was found lying there in her blood after having committed one of the most extreme acts of violent rule-breaking against her own unborn…”
Ms. Alba swallowed and went on:
“There is hardly a village outside Orange Country that would not consider her rule-breaking as serious enough to ward some form of exile. And do you remember what afterwards occurred during the court proceedings against her? How she refused to show the slightest sign of remorse for her heinous act. Her rule-breaking was committed only two months after having declared herself an adult. And if I may, I’d like to mention that that declaration was legalized through the testimony of many official voices from your community, including those of you and your wife.
“Please remember also that at the court-hearing, there was an intense discussion about the adult ruling, and if your daughter’s demeanor had been different in the slightest way, there surely would have been a reversal of this ruling.
“However, the absolute coldness she showed regarding her rule-breaking indicated such an intense callousness that we had no choice except to take it as clear evidence that she would be unable to ever live by the rules of our village in the future.”
Incensed by Ms. Alba’s justifications, Mr. Callahan tried to get to his feet again, yet was prevented from doing so by his daughter who had laid her hand on his shoulder and was pleadingly shaking her head. With this Luscinia faced Ms. Alba and answered herself:
“You are right, Ms. Alba, I did not show outward remorse at my court-hearing in front of the village-council. I know that if I had laid myself on the mercy of the court, your ruling would have been different.
“However at the time I was unable to do so. Although I did feel remorse, more than you probably can imagine, I still could not ask for mercy for I believed that I did not deserve any mercy or forgiveness for what I had done, ever.”
With an expression of deep sorrow Luscinia looked down at the child Natsuki, who had buried her face in the chest of the young man next to her, the man she had called Jonathan.
A single tear ran down Luscinia’s face. She dried it with the back of her hand and started speaking again:
“However something has changed over this last year, and we, the three of us, have come back here to my home village to explain to you, why we are convinced, that no woman, no matter what she has done- deserves to be sent to Orange Country.
“Actually, I will even say that no one in the world should be sent there any more, no woman,” Luscinia looked once again at the young man who had accompanied her, “and no man either.
“With your permission, Ms. Keilar, I will now tell the village-council the reason why I believe this to be true.
“I will begin by telling you what happened to me in Orange Country.”
Ms. Keilar nodded her consent and with an expression of relief, sank back onto her chair. Ms. Alba had already sat down.
Luscinia Callahan took a deep breath and began her story:
“To reach Orange Country, we, my parents and Mr. Andres, whom the village-council had assigned to escort me, and I had to change maglevs several times. At every station we had to wait for the container with the trade goods you sent with me to be reloaded onto the next train.
“It took us a whole day and night to reach the borders of Orange Country. During all that time, I felt a kind of relief, as if by leaving my village and community behind, I would also be able to leave behind the horrible deed I had done and the person I had been. I thought that by entering this new place, my past would be erased and I could start a new life.
“ For the last half hour of the journey -after my parents were told to stay behind-, the maglev only carried people and goods destined for Orange Country, together with the assigned escorts. Although half of those people were like me, exiles and rule-breakers, I still kept quiet and totally to myself, and neither did any of those other people try to talk to me.
“Finally the maglev arrived at the border station and everybody left the train.
“Ancient vehicles were waiting for the containers with the trade-goods. Machines with scanning devices were there to register the containers. Over the intercom we heard a crackling voice speaking Interlingua which directed our escorts to stay behind. They were told to pick up some papers at the border station and carry them back to their respective villages.
“We exiles were told to walk single-file along a narrow pathway until we came to a small gate.
“We obeyed and started walking. I estimated that about 200 exiles, mostly men were in our group of new arrivals.
“After entering Orange Country through the gate, the voice in the loud-speaker told us:
Welcome to Orange Country!
“After that we were told to leave behind all bags, packages, our wrist-controls and all other belongings we had brought with us, and to go through a scanning machine. Those belongings, we were told by the impersonal loud-speaker voice, were inappropriate and would have to be confiscated.
“The only effects we were allowed to keep with us were the papers we had brought along which confirmed our names and the trading-goods our villages had provided for our up-keep.
“Eventually we were told to enter a wide twelve-story building directly opposite the border wall. This building had two large entrances; men were told to enter on the right and women on the left.
“Inside the building, we women were greeted by a man who told us that in Orange Country, coin-counter chips were to be embedded in the palm of everyone’s right hand. If we wanted to be paid for our trading-goods, we needed to agree to receive this implant, which would subsequently be connected to a new wrist-control, we were going to receive after that.
“Another chip would subsequently be implanted into the neck next to the spine at the base of the skull. Receiving these implants would be an absolute requirement for citizenship in Orange Country.
“We were told the second implant was a tracking device, and it was meant to assure our own safety and that of our fellow citizens.. It was explained that since Orange Country had always been a nation without rules or laws, certain measures had to be taken for the protection of the population from acts of violence or property destruction.
“Insurance agencies, via their associated security agencies, would guard the life and property of any insured person. This implant would also allow those agencies to track down anyone who did bodily or property harm to an insured person and to prevent those acts from happening again.
“Nobody among us protested or refused the procedure, since it was made clear to us that without it, we would be refused asylum in Orange Country. We stood in line for our turn with the doctor, quietly awaiting the cut on the hand and the neck injection.
“After the procedures, we were told that while the chip in the palm could be removed at will, the one in the neck could never be removed unless it had first been deactivated by authorized security personnel. Unauthorized removal would result in an explosion inside the neck which would sever the spine and most likely destroy the brain. However, we were reassured, if the chip was not tampered with, it would be quite safe to live with it.”
A shocked murmur went through the village-council, yet Luscinia’s voice didn’t change. Calm and impersonal, she continued her story:
“After the chip in the hand had been implanted, it was given a 200,000 Marsian-coin load, which was the Orange Country coin-value of the trading-goods you sent with me.
“After that we were led by a woman to another floor in the building where the loud-speaker voice demanded that we women undress and leave our clothing behind, since those clothes were inappropriate for female citizens of Orange Country. It was a rather strange request, though once again, none of us protested.
“I felt disoriented and confused, as if life had become unreal, a disjointed mess of voices and images unconnected to anything I had known before, isolating me from the world and everyone else.
“And so I stripped like all the other women, only to be told to pass a body scanner which would estimate the measurements of our bodies to ensure that the new clothing we would be able to buy with the coins loaded onto our hand-chip would fit correctly.”
The murmur in the audience had increased, yet Luscinia continued without pause and the audience fell silent again:
“After being scanned, we were divided according to those measurements and each group was led by another woman into a section of the clothing store which was located on a lower floor of the same building.
The clothes in the section I was led into were of various colors and styles, though all of them were so tight that when I tried them on they felt extremely uncomfortable. Those clothes were also so short that they left my arms and most of my legs bare and the upper part of my breasts as well.
“I asked the woman who had escorted me if maybe the scanning machine had miscalculated the measurements of my body.
“Speaking Interlingua like everybody else, she told me, of course not, the machine was infallible in this regard. As a citizen of Nephilim City, this was how I was expected to dress. I did not protest any more, for I was naked.
“After getting dressed, I asked the woman her name. She pointed to a tag on her own tight clothes. The tag was imprinted with a long number.
“’We do not use names here,’ the women told me, ‘unless we know somebody well and are good friends.’
She said that I would also be identified by a number now. It was my account number inscribed on the two chips in my body. And one day when I would find employment in the Marsian Coin economy, I would be required to wear a similar tag with my own number attached to my clothing.
“I asked her about the Nephilim City she had mentioned, for I had never heard of a place by that name. She told me that it was the village of all the exiles, the largest village in the world, and it was located in the center of Orange Country.
“I tried to pay her for my new clothing in the way I had always done, however the number-named saleswoman informed me that being generous was inappropriate in Orange Country.
“And so I realized that the people of Orange Country not only dressed differently from us, they also traded in a much different way. And though I didn’t get it at that point, within a short time I came to understand that generosity was not only inappropriate, it was actually impossible when you had to trade with their scarce coins.
“The woman led me to the elevator and told me to go to the upper-most floor where the housing agencies would be located.
“Leaving the elevator at the designated floor, I stepped into a long hallway with many doors. All doors were alike except for the initials inscribed on each of them, always preceding the words Housing Agency. Next to every door was a row of seats, nearly all of which were occupied at the moment.
“I chose one of the few unoccupied seats located besides a door tagged J.G. Housing Agency. Once again I waited my turn.
“When I was called inside, a man—I don’t remember his number—told me he was the housing agent.
“Without any preliminaries, he asked me to choose between eight apartments which were for sale by his agency. He opened a computer screen flashing a number of images. They pictured the outsides of buildings and the insides of apartments I was to choose from.
“The outsides all looked the same: gray housing-blocks without balconies along streets without plants or green-houses. I asked the man where the people in those houses would be growing their food. The housing agent told me to my surprise that no food at all was grown in Nephilim City, and that all of the food-providing villages were located outside the City.
“The apartments themselves were nicely furnished and they were painted in different colors and patterns. The prices of the apartments were all the same, though—exactly 180.000 Marsian Coins, the agent told me. This seemed a high price to pay, taking most of the coins I had received for the trading-goods.
“However the agent indicated that if I wanted to sleep someplace tonight, I would have to choose right away. And so I chose one of the apartments at random. By now I had become so tired that I scarcely saw any difference between them.
“I paid with my hand-chip and was given two keys, one for the outside-door of the building and the other for the door to my apartment, for in Orange Country, the agent told me, all doors had to be locked at all times for insurance reasons.
“The man told me to take a taxi, which he explained was a form of transport, to get to my new apartment. He also told me that I urgently needed insurance for myself and for my apartment—that first thing the following morning, I should go to the insurance agency located on the same street as my apartment-building.
“When I arrived at my new apartment, I tumbled into bed, exhausted, and after my first night in Orange Country, I did as I had been told and went to arrange for insurance.
“There was a large sign in front of an office at the end of the street which read J.G. Insurance Agency.
“ Inside several men were sitting there, each behind his own large desk. One of insurance agents talked to me -I once again don't remember his number- he said that it was absolutely necessary for me to buy an insurance policy to protect both my personal safety and my property. He also told me that the safety needs of a woman were far higher than those of a man and therefore the fees would be correspondingly higher.
“All in all, a woman’s insurance policy would cost me 250,000 Marsian Coins for the first five years. He also explained that the fees had to be paid in advance. Feeling utterly confused, I told the insurance agent that I had not been given that many coins on my chip, and after buying the apartment, I had only a small fraction of the original sum left.
“The man only nodded; he seemed to have known that all along.
“And so he told me that there was an alternative: I could contract myself to one of the Venus Projects.
“And one of the branches of the J.G. Venus Project was conveniently located just around the corner, a mere hop, skip, and a jump from the insurance agency and my own apartment-building.
“With the usual five-year-contract they would offer me, I would receive a fully-paid five year insurance policy for all of my property and even a life-time paid personal safety insurance policy.
“The agent explained to me the great advantages I would receive when signing a contract with any of the Venus Projects. This contract would make me totally independent from the Marsian-coin economy during its whole duration. Besides the insurance policy, all my needs and wants would be provided for without the use of any coins at all.
“So I went around the corner to look at the J.G. Venus Project building for the first time.
“The house was built quite differently from all the other houses in the neighborhood. First of all, it wasn’t gray. It was pink, with painted golden bows surrounding the entrance door and each of the arch-shaped windows.
“A fountain in the form of a lily was located in the middle of a small tree-enclosed porch in front of the building. Water from an arch-shaped faucet was falling on the statue of a barely-clad sleeping woman inside the fountain.
“While I was looking at the building, a man was entering and so I followed him inside. From the entrance hall he went immediately through a door on the left.
“When I tried to follow him through there, I was intercepted by another man. He greeted me warmly and told me that he was the manager of this branch of the J.G. Venus Project on 97th Street. His number I remember well; it was 1,487,359. He led me through a door to the right and into his office.
“After asking me to take a seat, he welcomed me once again to the Project and told me how glad he was that I was considering joining this very branch. He told me that like any other Venus Project, utilizing the full potential of the female of the species for the service of mankind was the main priority of all the efforts made here.
“He also told me that unlike in the Marsian-coin economy, here in the Venus Project they were kind to women. All of a woman’s needs and desires would be fulfilled here. Every woman working here would be freed from any concerns regarding provisions for her health and her living.
“Free of any worries and concerns, she could concentrate on using and developing her natural talents to their greatest potential.
“After this introductory speech, Mr. 1,487,359 started to show me around the different rooms of the Project. In every single one of the larger rooms, one or more women were dancing in strange ways, and men were watching and cheering.
“I had never before seen such dances as they were performing, and they were done in such strange places. One woman I observed was dancing inside a cage suspended from the ceiling; in another two rooms, women were dancing around poles, alternatively holding them with their hands or legs.
“In still another room, two women were dancing together in an even stranger fashion. The clothing they wore seemed even tighter and shorter than the kind which I had had to buy the previous day in the big building at the border.
“I noticed that their clothes were also made differently. They were fabricated in such a way that the women wearing them could rip them off with one hand, piece by piece, while still dancing, until they were finally stark naked.”
A scandalized murmur could now be heard from the audience, but Luscinia did not react and continued her story:
“Mr. 1,487,359 told me that in Nephilim City, only one in five citizens was a woman.
“And because of this, the Venus Projects were needed to provide a vital service to the nation. These projects were fulfilling the needs of males while providing for the needs of females as well.
“ After leaving the larger - he called them public rooms- behind, he led me upstairs to a smaller room which was empty at the moment.
“The room contained a bed surrounded by silk curtains; mirrors covered the walls and the ceiling. I asked the manager what the function of that room was and he told me that those customers who paid more coins would get coupling services from the women on contract with the Project.
“After hearing all this, I told the manager that I did not want to work in the Venus Project.
“ The manager replied that he was truly sorry to hear this, though of course signing or not signing a contract in Orange Country was a free choice every individual would have to make for him- or herself.
“And though he wished me all the luck in the world, he still feared that it would be quite hard for me to find employment in the Marsian-coin economy that would pay enough for both my living expenses and the insurance fees. Yet, he told me, if I should ever change my mind later on, the doors of this project would always be open to me.
“When I left the place, I had decided that I would not buy any insurance policies. After a visit to the food store a few houses further on, I calculated that with the rest of the coins on my chip, I would be able to survive for over a year if I bought nothing except the least expensive food items. Surely within a year, I would be able to find employment to make a living.
“I was not worried.
“For the next four days I went all over Nephilim City in search of employment, using the ancient transports which they call buses.
“Sure many places like restaurants and stores had signs stating in big letters that they needed help, meaning employees. Nearly all of the signs, though, also contained a line: Uninsured women need not apply.
“I also passed by those J.G., S.K., L.W., V.R., and P.R. employment agencies. These agencies arrange for people to get employment in large production shops of the same names.
“Those jobs would be much better paid, I was told.
“However once again an uninsured woman would not be considered for any of those jobs. I was frustrated, though still not too worried. A year would be enough time to find something.
“I saw many more branches of the J.G. Venus Project, as well as those of the S.K., L.W., V.R., and P.R Venus Projects. All the branch-buildings of the J.G. Venus Projects looked the same, though the buildings of other Venus Projects were slightly different.
“For instance, the houses of the P.R.Venus Projects were painted red, yellow and blue, and the fountain in front of each was shaped like a large seashell with a statue of a woman in a sitting position inside.
“I also noticed many other offices of the J.G, as well as the S.K., L.W., V.R., and P.R. insurance agencies located close to offices for security agencies of the same names.
“When I returned to my apartment on the evening of the fourth day, I noticed that the door had been broken. Inside, all the furniture that had come with the apartment had been broken to pieces as well—chairs, bed, tables, and the closet.
Red paint had been splashed all over. The pillows and blankets had been slashed with knives and so had the pictures on the walls. On the living-room ceiling had been painted in giant letters: YOU NEED AN INSURANCE POLICY.
“Now I was worried.”
Luscinia paused for a moment to take a deep breath and continued by keeping her voice neutral without portraying the emotions she must be feeling.
“I spent the next day again searching for employment, this time far more desperately and still without success. I dreaded coming home in the evening to my destroyed apartment.
“Yet I had nowhere else to go.
“At first glance, the apartment looked the same as the night before, yet all of a sudden, a man emerged from my bedroom. His face was covered with a black mask, leaving only his menacing eyes visible.
“I was shocked.
“Another man came out of the bedroom and then another one, and finally two more; five men all together, all wearing masks. I screamed and turned, trying to run, but it was far too late.
“They caught me at the door.”
Luscinia’s voice had started to waver slightly; the murmuring in the audience had stopped. In the absolute silence that would have made the drop of a pin audible, Luscinia went on, the tremor in her voice being that very pin.
“Those men held me against the door, and one after the other took turns to…to couple with me.”
Luscinia took another deep breath and added: “They hurt me.”
After another second she continued:
“When the last one had finished, he whispered in my ear: You need an insurance policy.
“After that they dropped me to the floor and simply left. They slammed the door shut behind them, however because it was broken, it opened up again.
“I was lying on the floor; I couldn’t move, I couldn’t think, I wasn’t even afraid any more. I heard a few people pass by, heard them whispering, saw them staring at me; I didn’t care, I didn’t move.
“It must have been hours later when a woman came inside my apartment. She didn’t say a word, just went to the kitchen to get a glass of water. She raised me up into a sitting position and gave me to drink. Afterwards she helped me up from the floor and steadied me as she walked me to her own apartment. The pain was so intense, I barely could walk, though I didn’t care.
“She took me into her own bedroom. Wordlessly she washed the blood from my legs and finally she gave me new clothes from her closet.
“Finally she told me her name is Nanami Allegri.
“This was the first time since I had come to Orange Country that somebody had given me their real name instead of a number. Nanami told me to rest in her bed while she picked up her little girl from the neighbors. They had been taking care of her while Nanami was working the evening shift in a production company, and her husband Pedro had already left for his night-shift.
“When Nanami came back, she was carrying a sleeping child. She laid the little girl into a crib next to her bed and after that she pushed a button on a strange square-looking device which made a constant sizzling sound. She explained to me that this was a scrambler which would disrupt any voice-recordings. It would allow us to talk without being overheard by a listening device.
“Nanami explained to me that no rooms in this apartment-building existed, nor in any other building in the whole of Nephilim City, which weren’t equipped with constantly running listening devices. All spoken words would be picked up by those devices and eventually data-mined. I was too tired to ask or even care why on earth all Nephilim City conversations were recorded and then “data-mined”, whatever that was, though she told me anyway.
“She said that the security agencies would search for suspicious words and expressions by everyone in order to prevent any planned attacks against the body or property of insured persons, as well as Nephilim City as a whole. However, she told me, only insured persons would be protected, and that was why everyone needed an insurance policy, especially women.
“With this, in spite of the scrambler, she lowered her voice still further and whispered that those men who had attacked me most likely belonged to a group who called themselves “jackals”.
“Their official title was Special Troops for Security Enforcement. They worked as one unit for all the security agencies. Their first task was to punish all those who transgressed against customers of the agencies. The jackals’ second more secret task consisted of making sure that everyone—especially women—knew that insurance policies were a necessity.
“And finally Nanami said something that nearly made me jump up and run out, except that I was still too weak to even get out of the bed on my own. She told me her own husband Pedro worked for the security agencies in the Security Center. He was one of their data-miners. However she explained that Pedro didn’t really like the work he was doing.
“However, since this kind of work paid far more coins than any other available job, Pedro and she were hoping to save up enough coins in the next eight years to buy the insurance policy for their daughter Natsuki which she would be required to own when she became twelve years of age. So Natsuki would never have to work for one of the Venus Projects.
“I told Nanami that I didn’t want to work for the Venus-Projects either.
“She replied that I probably would have no alternative. Though she mentioned that some of the food-providing villages outside Nephilim City used to occasionally give asylum to female exiles.
“Yet then again, she had heard recently that those villages weren’t doing it any more.
“She explained some additional things, however by that time I was too exhausted to listen and fell asleep as she talked.
“The next morning I woke up when I heard Nanami’s husband coming home. I got up in a hurry to leave, thanking her for her kindness and declining the breakfast she offered to make for me. I did not want to talk to or even be in the same apartment with a man who worked for the organization of those who had attacked me, however I did not dare to go back to my own apartment either.
“So I went to find a bus which would bring me out of Nephilim City to any of the food-provider villages.
“When I came to the main transport station, I chose the bus to Antonio Village, which was the first one scheduled to leave. It was also one of the villages closest by.
“When the bus arrived at the gate of its destination, I noticed that Antonio Village was completely surrounded by a high wall.
“At the gate a man entered the bus with a small scanner in his hand. He checked the hand-chips of only those passengers he did not seem to know personally. When he had scanned my hand he ordered me to leave the bus since I had no passage permission.
“I asked the man where I could get a passage permission, and he told me that an uninsured person like me would not be able to get it. I tried to explain to him that I was seeking asylum in Antonio Village. He did not answer and just grabbed my arm leading me out of the bus holding me back wordlessly until the bus had passed through the gate and it had closed again. Finally he told me that I would have to wait until the bus returned so I could get back on it again in order to travel back to Nephilim City.
“After these final words the man disappeared into a small room beside the gate and closed the door behind him. I started banging and banging on the door, calling out and begging him to allow me to see and talk to some of the villagers inside, repeating my asylum request over and over again.
“In the end a woman came through the gate. Her name was Sally, she told me. And then she explained why Antonio Village could never again grant asylum to an exile woman.
“They had done so several times before, having felt compassion for the women who knocked at their gate.
“However, one day about half a year earlier, a large squad of security enforcers had arrived at the village’s gate. They had used explosives to destroy the gate, severely injuring the gate-keeper who had been on duty that day.
“Those enforcers had scanned the village for the tracking chips of the exile women and dragged them out of the houses, together with some of the local young girls, after having forced themselves upon them.
“The villagers were told that all exiles belonged to Nephilim City and that if they were ever to harbor any exile again on their village grounds, their own young girls would be taken to Nephilim City as well.
“Now Sally was crying. She finally managed to choke out the fact that one of the girls who had been hurt had been her own daughter. With this she fled back inside while I waited in misery for the bus to leave the village and bring me back to Nephilim City.
“When I arrived at my street I did not go home. Instead I went around the corner to the house with the lily fountain in front and there I signed a five-year-contract.”
Luscinia exhaled and let go of the pulpit as if in defeat or maybe just sheer exhaustion. The murmuring in the audience became audible again. Luscinia’s story, though, was far from finished. She once again squared her shoulders, took hold of the pulpit, and went on in a voice she kept deliberately calm and composed:
“ The first day at work I was told that I had to leave my wrist-control at the security enforcer booth and there I was given a tag with a name- not a number- on it, but it wasn't my name.
“The names given to women working in the Venus Projects all ended with the letter Y, like Hussy, Tiffy, Slutty, and Bunny. I was called Candy. Three other Candies were working in the same house, just like four Hussies and six Bunnies, mostly working on different shifts though.
“I was taught how to paint my face and my nails and how to walk and how to talk. It was difficult for a while though. Hussy-3 and Bunny-2 called me a “prude,” which is the worst insult that can be used against a woman in the Venus Projects.
“During the first few weeks, I had to spend hours each day in the basement of the building. Downstairs were both the sick rooms and the learning cells located.
“In each learning cell I was taught by a female voice while soft music played in the background and softly lighted images of men and women were projected on a screen. The voice explained that a woman’s highest and most natural purpose is to arouse the desire of men; her demeanor, her voice, her style of clothing and her movements all needed to be shaped towards this single purpose.
“And after a while, I started to believe what I was being taught about the meaning of being a woman. More and more I got used to the things I had to do in my work. In time I even began to compete with the other women in trying to attract the attention of our costumers.
“It was now some other new exile woman who received the derogatory title “prude.”
“Materially I was well cared for. The manager hired some workmen to repair my apartment and to paint it in the colors I chose. Using my Venus contract-card in the J.G. food, clothing, and furniture-stores, I could take whatever I wanted, including decorative objects for myself or my apartment.
“Every week a doctor visited the Project to examine each of the women for any illnesses, giving us medication or inoculating us so we wouldn’t become pregnant. These medications and inoculations made me feel unwell for a while. However I was told they were necessary.
“The costumers we had to dance for or to service were usually loud and sometimes rude. Most often they smelled of alcoholic drinks. Some however acted rather crazy.
“Tiffy-1 told me that the more crazy-acting ones were consuming a substance called crack. She suggested to me that I should ask those customers to share their substance with me.
“I asked her why I would want to act as crazy as those customers, and she told me that this substance would make me feel better. Tiffy and some of the other women often made themselves feel better that way, though I thought it made them look worse every time.
“One day a rich customer saw me dancing and requested my exclusive services from the manager. The manager told me that to be chosen by such an influential customer was truly an honor for me. Now I would no longer have to dance for or service other customers, and the other women even envied me for having garnered such a special customer’s attention.
“After the first day with this rich costumer, I was to call Mr. X, I begged the manager to bring me back into the general rooms. However the manager refused, telling me I had no choice in this matter since I had signed my contract with the Project. And that contract included all exclusive services any customer was paying for.
“When Mr. X heard that I had asked to be excused from the exclusive arrangement, he hurt me worse than I had ever been hurt before, leaving the first few of those marks on me which Dr. Perez spoke to you about. Mr. X said there would be worse to come if I ever talked about him with anyone again. And in case I was considering running away, I should know that there was nowhere for me to hide; within hours I would be found and killed.”
Now a collective loud and shocked intake of breath from the audience could be heard.
And for the first time, Hope took her eyes off the screen. Looking around she saw Marcella holding both hands in front of her mouth as if stifling a scream. With the exception of Jenny’s little brothers who had fallen asleep curled up on the carpet, everyone else was as pale as a ghost, boys and girls alike. Nobody said a word.
Down in the village community center, Luscinia went on with her story:
“When he told me that he would have me killed, I was not sure if I even wanted to live any more. For a while I stopped eating except on the days when he collected me to go to a restaurant with him.
Three times a week Mr. X came to the Venus Project to pick me up in the dark-windowed transport vehicle he owned. It was the same routine every single time. Inside the vehicle I had to change into the glittering outfits and golden tiptoe shoes he had brought along.
“Like all Orange Country clothing, the clothes were extremely tight and left my arms, most of my back, and the upper part of my breasts bare.
However these clothes did cover my legs down to the ankles. However the right side of the lower clothing piece was cut open all the way to my hip so that my right leg was always exposed when I started walking in the tiptoe shoes.
“ I had gotten used to shoes like those, working in the Project. They are formed in this tip-toe way so that a woman’s legs look longer. Over both of my wrists, over my right ankle, and around my neck all the way down to my breasts, I had to wear ornamental chains containing glittering stones.
“The clothes were also covered with glitter stones, though those stones were only made from glass, Mr. X informed me, while the stones on the chains he said were of more value than ten women like me. All those glitter-stones looked the same to me though.
“The restaurants Mr. X took me to were as glittering as the clothing he had me wear. From the decorations on the walls and ceilings to the ones on the tables, everything sparkled.
“The men who were sitting at the other tables all seemed to know Mr. X. Like him, they also had women like me with them, women who were dressed in similar clothes and with similar ornaments around their necks. Often those men would talk to Mr. X. After looking me over in an appraising way and with greedy eyes, they would congratulate him for his choice. Like me, the women sitting with those men would never say a word.
“After we had finished eating, Mr. X would lead me to one of the floors above the restaurant into a room with a big bed inside. There we would always watch two image stories from the times of the Dark Ages – one after the other, different ones every time. In the first stories, Dark Age people would shoot or blow up other Dark Age people in some way. During or after the killings, those Dark-Age people would laugh about the things they had done and admire those who had killed the most. He even forced me to watch stories about a man who would first kill and afterwards eat his victims.”
At this moment Hope noticed Marcella leaping up from her easy chair and running out of the room. Hope knew exactly why, for she too felt nauseous. And still she couldn’t take her eyes from the screen; she had to keep on listening in horrified fascination.
Luscinia down there in the village-meeting hall continued in a neutral voice:
“The second type of image-stories Mr. X forced me to watch—he would hit me when I tried to close my eyes or cover my ears—these image-stories were even worse than the first ones. Although a different story every time, each one would start in a similar fashion. Men would call women hateful names and after that they would pull the women’s hair and scream at them.
“And finally those men would do unspeakable things to the women…painful things to body and soul.
After watching these stories, Mr. X would do to me what he had seen done to the women in the story….”
Luscinia paused, taking a deep breath, and with the slight tremor remaining in her voice that involuntarily betrayed her agitation, she continued:
“One time I asked Mr. X why he did those things to me. He answered that this was the way women should be treated. Men either dominated women or were dominated by them.
“When Mr. X had finally finished hurting me, he brought me back to the Project.
The second time this happened, I was ready to die and would have done so, if it hadn’t been for one woman I met at the Venus Project. Her name was Inessa…. And that was her real name.”
Luscinia’s voice, which she had kept deliberately impersonal with a note of artificial detachment, now became warmer and softer:
“By most of the women, Inessa was referred to as the “sick one in the basement” or “the one with the life-contract.” And yes, she really was the only woman with a limitless contract. So bound was she by that contract that she couldn’t even leave the Project—hadn’t left for nearly fifteen years.
“A security alarm, triggered by the tracking device in her neck, would go off, so I was told, if she ever tried to leave through the entrance or any of the windows. However she hadn’t tried for many years.
“There was now a profound sadness in Luscinia’s manner and voice:
“By the time I met Inessa, she already was severely ill.
“The doctor’s medications for the illnesses women got regularly when they worked in the Project could no longer do her any good—she had been working there for far too many years.
“When I met her for the first time, Inessa could barely leave her bed to go to the bathroom any more, and she needed help even for that.
“The women in the Project had been taking turns caring for Inessa for a while. However now since most days I had nothing else to do except wait for the arrival of Mr. X’s transport, it had become altogether my task to take care of her.
“Though ill as she was, Inessa was a good listener. When I told her I wanted to die, she told me I needed to survive until one day I could get out of the Project.”
Luscinia inhaled deeply and continued: “When I said I could not bear it any more, she told me Mr. X would soon tire of me and the worst would be over.”
Luscinia took another deep breath: “And finally she told me that I should pray. I replied to her that there was no God there to pray to, for Nephilim City was hell. And she responded that there was no place where God was not….”
Luscinia now shook her head softly as if in wonderment: “I couldn’t understand how she could still believe this after all that had been done to her.”
After a brief pause, and still shaking her head, Luscinia continued: “She had a son, she told me, a son named Jonathan. And when her boy had been five years old, her husband had taken her by force to the Project and insisted on a life-long term and that she should never be allowed to leave the premises.
“After she had tried to escape several times, she was chained in her room. Certain kinds of men were attracted to her predicament of being chained. Men like Mr. X she knew only too well. Later on, instead of chains, they used the security alarms to keep her inside.
“In spite of all this, she steadfastly believed that she would see her son again and that this son of hers, though he had been living all those years with his father, would still be different from him.
“And she added that if I would not give up hope, one day I would leave Orange Country and go back home to my village.
“We, all of us in the Project, knew that Inessa was dying.“
Once again sadness crept in Luscinia’s voice.
“She was such a pitiful being, yet she was also so very kind. I did not want to upset her, though I was sure that there was no chance of those pipe-dreams of hers ever coming true. However to make her happy, I pretended to agree with her delusions.”
Now Luscinia paused for a long moment before continuing with sheer amazement in her voice:
“But she was right and I was wrong.
“One day Inessa’s son Jonathan came to the Project after not having seen her for fifteen years.
“And yes, he was not like his father.”
Luscinia shook her head as if still in disbelief and looked down at the young man seated beside her, the man with the sleeping child in his arms.
“From that day on, Jonathan came every evening to sit with his mother for hours. He paid the manager a large amount of coins to keep his visits secret from the owner of the Project, John Galt…Jonathan’s father and Inessa’s husband.
“Three weeks later, Inessa died. During those weeks she kept telling Jonathan and me to find a way to leave Orange Country.”
Luscinia paused for another long moment, this time to wipe the tears from her eyes. Though the hoarseness in her throat she could not hide.
“And that is what we did. Using a map of the Nephilim City sewer system, Jonathan found the place where it came closest to the big wall. From there he was able to dig a tunnel that went below the wall. It took him nearly two months.
“Some time during the first month, another of Inessa’s predictions came true and Mr. X lost interest in me. Now Jonathan could pay the manager to keep me exclusively, away from the other costumers—yet Jonathan did not want any services from me.
“Every day Jonathan would come to the Project to tell me about his digging progress. In the last few weeks I went out with him and helped him dig. However he could not spend all his time with digging, since he had to keep up pretenses with his father and work for him as his assistant.
“He thought he had covered his tracks all this time, however we had both forgotten the listening devices.”
Luscinia took another deep breath.
“One day when I came home to my apartment, my neighbor Nanami asked me to visit her. She invited me into her bedroom, where she turned on the scrambler.
“To my utter dismay and shock, she told me that she and her husband Pedro knew exactly what Jonathan and I had been planning. Like everywhere else listening devices were installed in the Projects, and some of our words had triggered an alarm.
“Luckily though, this Project had been in Nanami’s husband’s data-mining district. And he had decided not to report us to his superiors. Instead, he and Nanami wanted us to do something for them.
“They wanted us to take their little girl Natsuki with us.
“I barely could believe it. I knew how much Nanami loved her daughter and so I asked her why, for goodness sake….
“And so Nanami told me through her tears that the insurance agencies had all of a sudden decided to triple the fees for insuring girls aged 12 to 25, and that all of those fees would be required thirteen years in advance. And however hard they would try, Nanami and her husband would never be able to save enough coins to pay those fees and prevent Natsuki from having to work at a Venus Project.
“Like all women in the last thirty years, Nanami too had worked there… and she had met costumers like Mr. X.
“She did not want this kind of life experience for her daughter. And so she and Pedro had decided to send Natsuki to the outside world with Jonathan and me. I asked her why she and her husband would not also be joining us, however Nanami told me that she was quite sure that neither of their home-villages would allow them to come back home. Still Natsuki was innocent; they surely would not refuse her asylum.
“Two days later, Jonathan finished the tunnel. Nanami and Pedro reported their daughter as dead and prepared to cremate an empty coffin. Pedro had acquired the code and “borrowed” the device with which to deactivate the chip in my neck, and he had found a doctor who would remove it.
“This doctor didn’t talk much and I never learned his name, not even his number, yet there in Nanami’s bedroom he removed both chips from my neck and hand.
“With these chips removed, the manager of the Project—induced by threats and bribes—was able to declare me as dead, sending in the chips to the border station, and having a coffin containing animal remains cremated. Though one of the officials at the crematory would also have to be bribed.
“The thought of more and more people knowing about our plans scared me, however Nanami told me that I needed to trust them.”
Luscinia was shaking her head again and explained: “In the time since I had come to live in Orange Country, my ability to trust had nearly been lost.
“However making sure that we would not be missed for quite a while was really vital. We all agreed. And so I forced myself to swallow my fears.
“The day before we left, Jonathan told his father that he would go on a three week vacation to a village at the seaside. His father accepted this explanation for his upcoming absence and told him he hoped that after his return, Jonathan would be rested enough to work harder than he had done the last few months.
“On the night of our flight, Jonathan picked up Natsuki and me at my apartment. Nanami had given her daughter a sleeping medication before she handed her over to me so that Natsuki would not make any sounds. She finally kissed her “bless” and left my apartment in silent tears.
“Jonathan was going to carry Natsuki while I carried a small bundle of clothing I had sewn out of a blanket and my apartment’s curtains, for I knew that the clothes I had to wear in Nephilim City would be too conspicuous in the outside-world even in other villages than Spesaeterna.
“We walked all the way to where we entered the sewers. Although Jonathan owned a small transport vehicle which he had used when working on the tunnel, we knew that on the night of our escape we could not risk having this vehicle found anywhere inside Nephilim City when Jonathan was supposed to be far away in one of the sea-villages.
“We climbed down into the sewer, and after that we walked for miles until we eventually crawled through Jonathan’s narrow tunnel. After we had emerged out on the other side, we changed clothes.
“We then asked those who lived in the next village for help to use the maglev transport, telling them the truth about having escaped from Orange Country. The villagers were not sure of what to do, though seeing little Natsuki and being told about the Venus Project, an elderly couple named Henry and Lea Bower took pity on us and bought us tickets for the maglev journey all the way to Spesaeterna. And that is how we came to be here.”
Luscinia paused for a second during which a growing murmur could be heard. Ms. Keilar was half-way out of her seat when Luscinia shook her head and started again apologetically:
“With your permission, Ms. Keilar, I would ask you to allow Jonathan to speak also.
“I believe that what he has to say about Nephilim City might be even more important than what I have told you so far.”
Ms. Keilar nodded again to indicate her permission, and Luscinia sat down. Jonathan transferred the sleeping Natsuki to Luscinia’s arms and got to his feet. When the pulpit had risen, he cleared his throat and started to speak:
“My name is Jonathan Galt. I am the son of Inessa Stakova and John Galt.
“One morning when I was five years old my father told me that my mother had died. And while I still did not quite comprehend what that meant, he presented Mr. Tanner to me and told me that from now on, this man would be my teacher.
“ When I was eight years old, Mr. Tanner started -unbeknownst to my father- to teach me quite different lessons from those my father wanted him to teach. The lessons Mr. Tanner would teach me in secret would be about what we in Orange Country call the outside-world and of how the people there lived and what they believed in. Though I loved and admired my father as a child, I came to trust Mr. Tanner far more.
“When I was fifteen years old, Mr. Tanner was released from his teaching position and my father took over the rest of my education himself.
“Although my work and my studies never fully satisfied him I am still his designated heir and he wants me to follow in his footsteps. He trained me in a variety of scientific fields and let me work on some of his scientific projects as his assistant.
“Three months ago, my former teacher Mr. Tanner approached me again with the stunning information that my mother was still alive and that she was being held prisoner in one of my father’s Venus Projects.
“As Luscinia already told you, my mother died only a short time later.
“A week later my father initiated me to his Transhumanist Society.
“And there I found out what evil and dangerous men he and his friends really are.
“Since you here in Spesaeterna don’t know me at all, I do not expect you to just take my word for this. However I know for certain that it is vital for all of you here in the outside-world to understand exactly what you are up against.
“This is the reason why, before I left Nephilim City, I made the audio-visual recordings which I’m going to show you now. They contain a record of the last meeting of the Transhumanist Society I attended about one month ago.
“I also brought with me a projection device, since I happen to know that Orange Country technology is not compatible with yours here in the outside-world.”
With this, Jonathan Galt pulled a small device out of the bag at his feet. He placed the device on the pulpit and turned it on, directing its beam against the wall behind him. While he adjusted the device for greater clarity, he started to talk again:
“The man you will see giving a speech is my father John Galt, main owner of the J.G. Corporation, which includes the shops and production plants, as well as the connected insurance and security agencies. Standing to his right you will see Larry Wurner, main owner of the L.W. Corporation and Stanley Kern of the S.K. Corporation, the man Luscinia knows as Mr. X. To his left are Vladimir Rukowski of the V.R. Corporation and Paolo Ramirez of the P.R. Corporation.”
With the device adjusted and ready, Jonathan Galt stopped and let it do the talking.
The projection started with several dozen men, all wearing suits, applauding the entrance of five other dark-suited men. They walked onto an elevated podium in what seemed to be a lecture hall. The clapping stopped and a respectful silence ensued.
Four of the men sat down to the right and left of the pulpit, while the fifth a man in his late fifties who bore a striking resemblance to Jonathan Galt went straight to it and started speaking:
“My fellow Trans-humanists, honored members of our Society:
“It fills me with great joy and pride to be able to celebrate this, our 35th anniversary.
“At a time like this, it is always customary to look back at our humble beginnings and to see where we have gone from there.
“As you know, it all started with the five of us here on the podium having a vision, not a small one, rather a great and glorious vision – a vision of a future devoted to progress once more.
“As you also know only far too well what has happened in the past two hundred years.
“Humanity as a whole has been living in a time where human development has been stunted; you might even say reversed. Science has been emasculated and has been used as nothing more than a kitchen tool to fill the bellies of an all too complacent humanity.
“The enlightened Progressive Ages have been defamed by the outside world as the so-called Dark Ages and the human race has fallen asleep in a female fairy dream.
“However thirty-five years ago, the kiss of awakening was prepared when this Society came into being. Progress is once again in sight and it will lead us on to the future, to the greatest achievements the world has ever seen. Eventually we will reach the stars and conquer the universe.
“And this will not go forward without a good fight. We need to overcome enormous obstacles and this is good so.
“ ’War is the health of nations,’ a wise man once said. Truer words have never been spoken.
“War has always united nations towards higher goals. In fighting the common enemy, men have united their strengths and formed unified and loyal brotherhoods for the common good. In the processes of war the most intelligent and worthy of our species have risen to the top.
“Therefor the times of war have been the times of greatest progress in the past. Most inventions have been inspired by the needs of war or even only the threat of war. These have allowed human societies of the past to direct their main resources towards science.
“As our progressive forefathers knew: Life must inevitably be struggle; if there is no struggle, there will be decline and degeneration.
“The outside world of our times is a degenerate and effeminate place where life has stagnated. And whatever stagnates will inevitably rot.
“Orange Country, however, is a nation ready for battle. Masculine, fresh, and strong, Nephilim City will soon be the center of the world, the center of science and human evolution.
“Thank you all for your unceasing support and effort to make this vision we had thirty-five years ago a reality today.
“Thank you also for your loyalty and discretion without which the current stage could never have been reached.
“For as you all surely must know, even here in Orange Country, there are far too few who are intellectually capable of grasping what needs to be done if humanity wants to succeed in the evolutionary battle. It is a fact that all true knowledge must necessarily always be a privilege given to those few worthy of it.
“You—my fellow trans-humanists—are the worthy of our age, worthy of truth and of knowledge.
I applaud you.”
While John Galt was clapping his hands, everyone else in his audience started to clap too until the applause rose to a standing ovation.
The unintended audience of the Spesaeterna village, however, had fallen into a deadly silence.
At a sign from his hand, the Trans-humanist Society stopped clapping and John Galt continued his speech:
“Now after these preliminaries, the time has come to report to you in practical terms how far we have come in acquiring the tools necessary to fulfill the vision.”
At another sign from his hand, a man entered the stage through a back door, carrying a large glass container filled with live flying insects.
Galt explained: “Our scientists have worked on this project for several years now and I’m proud to say they have succeeded even beyond our wildest dreams.
“ The mosquitoes contained in here are the deadliest weapon mankind has ever known. They carry a virus with a human killing capacity over and above 90%, all within four days of infection. After initially being infected by a mosquito bite, the subject will function as an incubator and will subsequently spread the disease directly to anyone with whom he comes in contact. Less than 10% of those infected have been shown to recover from the disease.
“We have already developed the anti-virus protection for our people, which will be administered as soon as the weapon will come into use.
“These mosquitoes themselves have been genetically modified so that they can no longer be detected by the regular electromagnetic insect-detection and repellent screens of the outside-world.
With these modifications, they now can enter any village or community spaces and attack any person they come across.
“What we still need for this weapons-system is long-range distribution capabilities.
“As we reported to you earlier, we have been tirelessly working on these long-range systems for years now. Using the stealth-fighter-plane technology of the Progressive Ages, we will have the capacity by early next year to launch thousands of such fighters which will nearly simultaneously enter the air-space of every nation on earth, releasing their virological payload.
“Strategic plans have been drawn up according to our best virological, sociological, and psychological knowledge. The attack will commence in areas most remote from Orange Country in order to diffuse any possible suspicions tying the outbreak events to this nation.
“It will take the outside-world probably four to five weeks before they will find the common denominator of those viral outbreaks and be able to put an effective quarantine regime in place. During that time, the world population will be reduced by at least one third. This sudden loss will cause certain chaos and the breakdown of most inner-village and inter-village social structures planet-wide.
“After the suitable period of a month, there will subsequently be an outbreak of the viral infection in several of our own food-provider villages. Those villages will be quarantined immediately. And within a week, we will present our effective anti-viral vaccine. Having proven its effectiveness we will offer the vaccine to the outside-world.
“Holding the only remedy for this humanity-destroying threat, Nephilim City will indeed become the center of the world. A side-effect of the life-saving vaccine will be, however, the drastic reduction of female fertility. This will, within a single generation, reduce human population by another 50%.
“ Of course the 95% reduction as envisioned by our ancestors of the Progressive Ages will not be reached before another century has gone by.
“However even this provisional reduction will eventually lay the foundation for the greatest and most ambitious of all human visions, a post-human world. The faulty and decrepit human race will be replaced by something better, by truly rational beings not bound by any emotional or intellectual limitations, beings who will truly conquer the world and the universe.”
Spontaneous applause could be heard from the Trans-humanist audience. John Galt nodded gratified and continued, raising his voice in a tone of triumph:
“And now you will be shown the results of more than forty years of research which I myself have been conducting. Overcoming numerous obstacles, I finally can report back to you our success in the first step of human self-evolution, something the wise of humanity have been dreaming about for centuries.”
He turned to the back and gave a loud command: “Tanner, come in!”
Once again a man entered through the back-door. The man was holding a baby in his arms.
John Galt went on: “My fellow trans-humanists, may I present to you the pinnacle of our research, the future itself!
“This,” he pointed to the baby, “might look to you like an ordinary infant. However looks are deceiving, oh how much they are deceiving today. This infant has not sprung from a female womb. He is the first in over a century who has been conceived in a test-tube. And he is the first ever who has been grown in a maturation chamber functioning as an artificial womb for six months and finally matured for another six months in a specially developed incubator.
“Though there is more to him than that.
“Building on animal research done during the Progressive Ages, we have found a method of genetic enhancement that has given us a chance to improve the human genome far more than ever thought possible.
“What our ancestors did to mice in preparation for a human trial, we finally have succeeded in doing to this infant: We have included an extra pair of chromosomes containing all of the genetic traits with which we wanted to endow this boy. After virtually a thousand trials, all of which had to be terminated during gestation, we finally have gotten our prototype:
“This infant will grow up to be at least three times as strong and as fast as any human who has ever lived and he will be gifted with ten times the intelligence of an ordinary human being.
“Additionally, his brain biology and physique will in time allow the attachment of cybernetic parts to his brain and his body—whatever might be needed to fulfill his goals.
“The reason for all this is of course that this infant is no longer human. He is the fulfillment of ours and our ancestors’ dearest dreams, the first post-human being.”
Once again excited spontaneous applause could be heard. John Galt allowed it to interrupt him for about a minute. Eventually he continued his speech:
“As I said before, this infant has matured one year after gestation, until two weeks ago when he was taken out of a special incubator. Inside this incubator his audio-nerves were trained and his brain development increased. For the last two weeks, he has lived outside this incubator undergoing special training whereby his oral muscles were developed so that now he can utter the exact words he already learned during gestation. Mr. Aaron Tanner, who as you might know was the tutor of my own son Jonathan, has now taken on the assignment of teaching and exercising this boy and supporting him with the development of his natural abilities. As you will find, this new-born infant’s speech-maturity is already that of an ordinary 5-year old child.”
Turning to the baby John Galt ordered: “Tell me, post-human boy, who are you and what is your name?!”
The answer came in a clear baby voice: “I am Alpha, the first of a new breed, born to be king. I’m a prince of the universe.”
Another standing ovation commenced and with that, Jonathan Galt turned off his projector.
In Spesaeterna, the murmur of voices had turned into a storm, with dozens of people having gotten to their feet and demanding to be heard.
In the living-room of Jenny’s family, Jason was turning off the projection of the village-council-meeting.
All the children in the room, with the exception of the two toddlers who were still sleeping peacefully on the carpet, looked pale and sick.
For a moment nobody said a word.
Finally Jason pressed out in a low and creaky voice: “We need to destroy them!”
Barely breathing, Ameenah asked: “You mean the virus-mosquitoes, don’t you?”
Jeffrey didn’t answer, he just stared at her and the others.
Ameenah whispered: “You don’t mean the people, you can’t mean the people; the First Principle, what about the First Principle…?”
Jason shook his head.
In an urgent whisper, he breathed:
“It’s us or them Ameenah—us or them!”
As promised Nanami has made contact with with her husband Pedro and with Dr Bukovik.
Nanami has told us to meet them during Pedro’s break at the restaurant where most of the security’s centers’ staff normally eats their lunch. This fact is tearing severely on my nerves.
When we arrive Pedro Allegri is already waiting outside. When he sees Darryl, me and the three from Spesaeterna he wordlessly enters the restaurant. We follow Pedro to take our seats in the farthest corner. Dr Bukovik is already sitting there, and in a second Mr Wang has made his scrambler ready.
As everybody has expected, Pedro Allegri agrees to get Darryl and his team inside the security headquarters. Actually, Pedro is more than ready to join me and the infiltrators from the outside world in our plans to kick-start a Nephilim City revolution. And he tells us in a low voice that he is not the only one of the security center’s staff.
At the moment the others are now calmly discussing a 3-dimensional floor-plan of the center Pedro and Darryl are creating with the help of the holographic program in Darryl’s wrist-control. Of course Pedro knows where each of the surveillance and communication centers are located. I know that this is important, however more and more I feel my nerves, what if someone sees the image.
Yes, I know, Darryl says it’s shielded from view beyond the table. Still our group sitting here together surrounded by a whole bunch of security enforcers seems to be a crazy risk.
The nerves make me fidget in my seat. I just can’t concentrate on those plans any more and besides, I need to pee, I need urgently to pee.
And so I whisper to Mr Wang and leave for the rest room, only to stay there much longer than necessary. No, it isn’t exactly a breath of fresh air I’m catching, most certainly it isn’t, just a moment alone, something I need even more urgently.
There are too many people around me and too many expectations.
Soon I am expected to confront my father. Yet how can I do this, nervous as I am right now, without giving everything away. I keep telling myself, that I have done it before.
I have kept Mr Tanner’s secrets from my father since I was only a child.
He has never found out that I have found my mother or about Luscinia and the tunnel we were building together.
Yet this, this is different, it is so much more than anything I’ve done before. If only Luscinia would be out there sitting at that table with the others, instead of… instead of Ms Alba for instance, with her constant look of distrust.
When I finally return to the conspirator’s table I hear the Professor saying:
“We agree it’s going to be our first priority to disable the tracking center, even though the place is behind hard to crack special security doors. You will need to find a way in there as soon as our men are inside the center, even if it means the use of explosives, the nano-bots might be too slow this time. That’s absolutely essential, since we just haven’t got the time and medical personal to disable and remove the tracking-chips from the necks of all those we want to rescue while they are still in Orange Country.”
“Explosives,” I interrupt, “they will be a dead give-away. You won’t go unnoticed, Darryl! Why can’t we just do it as we had planned to? The doctors will take those chips out in the incubation tents anyway.” I’m more than slightly confused.
I don’t like changes in our plans, it makes them more complicated. So many things can go wrong.
“Dr Bukovik never told you when he did the procedure on Luscinia, did he?” The Professor looks at the doctor, who shakes his head, and back at me with something like pity in his eyes.
“If Luscinia would still have had that chip in her neck when the two of you crossed the border, she would have been killed instantly. The border electronics trigger the self-destruct mechanism.”
My heart stops beating, I feel the blood draining from my body and for a moment the world rotates around me. I sway, am about to slip off my chair, however Ms Alba steadies me.
“You are an idiot, David Morgan” she hisses. “Couldn’t you have told the boy at some other time?”.
I barely hear her. The thoughts are turning in my head:
I would have killed her. I thought I could save her, yet I would have gotten her killed!
If it hadn’t been for Nanami and Pedro and that doctor…
The Professor is unfazed by Ms Alba’s remark, calmly and matter of fact he goes on:
“Have you never asked yourself why you were the first and only people who ever came back from Orange Country? Now you know why.
“Your father never had you chipped, intending you to be one of the elite. Luscinia’s chip had been removed and the little girl wasn’t chipped yet.
“They don’t chip children until what age, Mr Allegri?” The Professor looks questioningly at Pedro.
“At the age of ten,” he replies and I can see in his face that he is thinking that Natsuki at least will never be chipped.
The Professor turns back to me:
“When we talked to Mr. Allegri about our plans for getting people out, he told us something I had already suspected. There have indeed been hundreds before you who have tried to escape. Some tried to climb the wall, some went underneath, some tried to escape by boat. None of them succeeded, all have been killed”
“But why did we never hear about that,” I ask, shaking my head violently. I still can’t belief it. “Why did we never see any images of those peoples bodies from our news-centers?”
This time Pedro Allegri answer sounds sad: “The bodies of those who were killed above-ground were disintegrated by small laser-armed drones operated from the security center.”
With this he shrugs: “Those who died underground are probably still there in their tunnels.”
I shudder and keep thinking about Luscinia and what could have happened…
I feel the now so familiar surge of anger at my father. He along with his fellow elites has kept this information out of public knowledge, one more of their secrets; otherwise nobody would have tried. Or at least not without finding a way to disable the chip.
And yes, of course this is exactly the point. My father and his fellows have wanted to make sure that nobody, not a single soul would be able to escape.
“I think, we are finished here,” Mr Wang’s rough voice interrupts my thoughts.“The rest is up to you, Mr Kenneth.”
“Sure,” Darryl agrees. “My men are in position. We will wait with the operation until we get the “go ahead” from you and Jonathan.”
There is nothing more to say. We are leaving now while Darryl, Pedro and Dr Bukovik stay behind.
TO BE CONTINUED IN:
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Hope is being traumatized by a war-experience. David is appalled, he has finally witnessed the dark side of Hope's world. Jonathan and his companions prepare for the endgame. Luscinia tells her story and the people of Speaeterna at last find out what is really going on in Nephilim City, something they hadn't been interested in before. Now this pressure cooker is threatening to explode around their ears.