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Demigods: Survive the death

DEMIGODS

Rose Marlowe

 

 

 

 

DEMIGODS

Copyright © 2017 Rose Marlowe

ISBN: 978-83-948313-0-1

 

 

Cover by Rose Marlowe

 

 

This is a work of fiction. All names, places, characters, events and organizations depicted herein are either a product of the author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously.

 

All rights reservered, including the right to reproduce this work in whole or in part, in any form.

For all action lovers. Thank you for choosing this book. Enjoy! :)

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

 

PRESENT DAY, YEAR 2041

 

 

 

It was a beautiful day.

“Today’s the day. I can’t wait!” exclaimed a tall brunette.

“I assume you’re packed.”

A man ran by and gave a gentle laugh.

“For two days now.”

Victoria, a beautiful, talkative, 17-year-old brunette was spending the morning jogging with her father in one of Tallahassee’s parks. Everyday before breakfast the two set out from their house in the suburbs for a run to keep fit.

School ended some two weeks ago. Victoria had pretty average grades. Although she had a great drive for self-development, she always thought that they spent too much time learning unnecessary information. In order to avoid brain drain, she decided to use the time that should be spent on school subjects to do things that were more interesting to her own personal growth. Even Andrew, her father trotting beside her, could not convince her on this matter. He finally gave himself some peace, and decided that he did agree with her, as long as her school grades didn’t plummet into the lower bounds. This all didn’t matter much anyway, since Victoria had just finished her senior year.

She had a few close friends, and a best pal, Jenny, who had just moved to Mississippi this year. She had even thought of flying off with her to some random university, just so that they could live together in the same place. In the end, she decided that she needed to focus on what’s at hand, which is why she chose to stay in Tallahassee.

And this is how she spent her usual day.

Victoria and her father were leaving on vacation after lunch* today. Their plans included visiting Zion National Park in Utah and the streets of New York. They were in for an exciting week of sightseeing.

A guy just sped by on a mountain bike. This was a very typical sight, seeing as their town was known for its specialized, obstacle-filled bike trails. There were also kayaks for rent that you could take out on the lake or regular footpaths for walking. These are usually what they used.

Since she was a little girl, Victoria’s father taught her a love of sports, since he himself was a Kung-Fu instructor at the local school.

She was an only child, whose sole relative was her father. Her mother died before she even had a chance to remember her, as did her grandparents. Her father received a large inheritance from them, which is why he didn’t have to worry much. He focused instead on his passions.

During his regular training sessions, he taught Victoria her favorite kind of fighting; Wing Tsun—a special branch of Kung-Fu requiring great intelligence, allowing a visibly weaker opponent to defeat his physically stronger rival. Brutal at times, but effective.

He was by all means a good father and a rigorous coach. Discipline was instilled into each area of their life.

An equally effective form of staying fit were their daily runs in the park. They both rhythmically panted as they ran alongside the forest. Their path was coming to an end. They began to run with all of their power to the edge of the nearby lake. They just finished a break, but neither of them were panting all too much.

“I feel better already,” said Victoria.

“Sweetie, I’ve got to go talk to to Jack for a moment. He asked me for advice regarding his business. It’ll take me 15-20 minutes. Okay?”

“Okay. I’ll wait.”

After these words, Andrew began to run off towards the forest. Not too far, because Jack’s store was about a minute’s run from where they were. Jack, a friend of Andrew’s, was a nice guy with a beer belly who owned a shop that lent sporting equipment—mainly mountain bikes.

Victoria sat down on the small beach where the land began to slowly drop off over the water. The sand was about a meter above the lake, creating small dunes. The earth had been trotted down heavily, but the plants around the path remained untouched, pretty and green.

The water hummed nicely. Victoria dreamed about jumping into it, but the image of herself trudging home covered in wet clothes stopped her.

Calm, focused, and happy. This is exactly how she felt after blissful physical effort.

 

***

 

The sun turned the sand into precious shades of gold, covering Victoria’s pale feet. The tiny glimmering parts resembled the color of her eyes, which now reflected the water’s surface.

Breathing deeply, she followed the beautiful circular water ripples that appeared on the surface of the lake.

Her watch pointed to a few minutes past eight.

Victoria closed her eyes in delight as the sun rays bathed her, nearing closer to the edge of the sand and dipping her foot into the water. So focused on her rest, she didn’t notice the quiet footsteps approaching.

Unexpectedly large, manly hands grabbed her from behind by her neck. They held her in an unnaturally strong grip, and dragged her into the water. She didn’t even manage to yell, because her head was already underneath the shallow surface. Her neck began to throb from the pain. All of her possible defense alarms were activated, mobilizing her instinct to fight for survival. The seconds continued endlessly, each one giving advantage to the man.

Her surprise caused Victoria to forget all that she had learned. She was paralyzed.

Silent screams coupled with attempts to break free began to spread out, creating circular ripples on the water—the very same ones that she sat admiring earlier, and which had now come to symbolize the fight for her life. Victoria’s body rhythm slowed down from the lack of oxygen, and her resistance decreased to such a point that oppressor let go of her neck.

After seventeen years of life, her last breath left her all too quickly.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

 

“Help!” Victoria tore herself free and took what was probably the deepest breath of her life.

She began to choke. She was confronted with a very real and unpleasant feeling of having her lungs filled with water.

And then relief. It was gone. As if nothing had ever happened.

A quite rumble surrounded her.

How did I get on a plane? She wondered.

A stewardess entered the cabin, encouraging passengers to order some food from the menu.

Victoria’s father sat next to her, closely observing her.

“Is everything alright, sweetheart?” he asked, in a deep low voice.

“Uhh. I think so,” she replied, slightly disoriented.

“How are you feeling?”

“My lungs hurt. I had a very realistic dream where I drowned,” she said wryly, choosing to leave out the details. “How did I get here? I don’t remember anything since our jog.”

Consternation filled her face.

“Strange. I came back from Jack’s, we ran home, had lunch, set off to the airport with our luggage and here we are. Just as we’d planned,” her father said with a worried look.

Victoria focused her mind to try to remember this, to remember anything—but it was a lost cause. Her entire body ached, especially her head. She looked at her puzzled father and decided that she didn’t want to worry him.

“Do you have any gum? Mint-flavored would be best,” she said with a forced smile.

“Andrew relaxed and took out a large bag of their favorite flavor. Just don’t eat all of them at once.”

“Oh, I don’t know. If I don’t do it, then you will. Did you know that there’s some ingredient in these that, when eaten in large amounts, works as a laxative. Last time…”

“Quiet!” he stopped her, with a rattled laugh.

This is just the kind of ease that Victoria appreciated in exchanges with her father.

“So where are we off to first?” he asked.

“I thought that this trip was supposed to be spontaneous.”

“Yes, but I wanted to suggest a spot where we could stop by first.”

“I’m listening.”

“Burgerland.”

Victoria snorted in laughter.

“It’s a shame I didn’t think of it first.”

“We’ve already checked off Italian, Spanish, and Californian specialties, a now we’ve got a chance to eat a real burger in Utah. Isn’t that fabulous?”

“It’ll be fabulous if our blood pressure doesn’t rocket. Sometimes I wonder if this is whole tradition is really worth it.”

Her father stared at her in amazement.

“But then I quickly come back to my senses and order another burger.”

“That’s my girl.”

They both started to laugh.

Her father’s hand made its way to her palm and squeezed it. Victoria tilted her head and focused her sight on the orange sun.

She felt an unpleasant throb in her neck, reminding her of her dream. She still felt some pain in that spot, but she decided that she wasn’t going to mention that nor her “temporary amnesia” anymore. She just wanted to fully enjoy herself on her long awaited vacation

 

***

 

Andrew attempted to gently wake his daughter up, but this seemed rather difficult to do. She finally began to make some contact, and rubbed her sleepy eyelids.

“Please fasten your seatbelts. We are landing shortly,” the stewardess said.

A few minutes later they were finally on land, feeling completely refreshed.

Why does everything hurt me so much? She wondered.

“Completely different air here,” Andrew stated, breathing in rapidly and looking slightly silly.

They had quite a long wait for their bags, after which they quickly stopped by the restrooms.

“Come on, we’ve got to pick up our bus tickets for Springdale.”

He fixed his glasses and ran his hand messily through his blonde hair. They then made their way up to the booth at the airport. Here sat a redheaded woman, overweight, with her eyes lined in thick black make-up.

Andrew took care of everything, and soon after they set off on their way.

The journey took several hours, which passed quicker than expected. They could see the mountainous wall in the distance, draped in all shades of orange.

It had been shaped naturally and extended along the left side of the road. On the right side, there was a chasm.

When the bus came to a halt, they had to switch over to a rental car.

The passing rock formations were already making an incredible impression on them. What would it be like once they reach the park itself? Victoria could hardly wait.

 

***

 

In front of the park entrance, Andrew went over a few safety rules before they both climbed out of the car.

Tall mountains had created natural patterns. From afar, you could see a sparse forest made up of low-lying coniferous trees. This was the kind of climate that allowed only the most durable of plants to thrive.

Victoria was captivated by the sights surrounding her. For a moment, she even thought about moving there, if it were only possible.

They slowly went up the mountain on a marked trail, which was slowly becoming more difficult. They had to take a quick break. Her father reached in his backpack and handed her a bottle of water. She turned toward the park’s vast, open space and began to drink.

What an incredible place. It doesn’t matter where you look, it’s beautiful everywhere, she thought.

Victoria felt a wet, putrid cloth on her face. Her legs gave in to the weight of her body and crumbled underneath her as she helplessly fell to the ground.

She would have hurt herself if her father hadn’t caught her, whispering in her ear, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine.”

 

 

CHAPTER 3

 

 

Flashes of consciousness woke Victoria up, after which she quickly raised her hand to her head. She felt as if her body was going to explode.

She opened her eyes. An unfamiliar room appeared in front of her. Andrew was sitting next to her with his hands braided together, making his caring expression.

“What is this supposed to be?!”

Victoria wanted to stand up but she couldn’t do anything other than sit—her legs were blocked by metal rings. In a futile effort, she began to jerk around, shooting her father an irate glance.

Why was he calm?! My God, he put me to sleep!

“Tell me what’s going on here!”

Andrew took a deep gust of air and started to explain.

“We’re in a place that we like to call the isolation ward around here.”

“I hope you’re not trying to say that I’m mentally ill?”

“Of course, not. You’re here because you’re special.”

“I don’t understand.”

She could see a man in a black outfit behind Andrew. She assumed that he was there to guard the entrance, but Victoria mostly took notice of the gun he was holding.

The room was small and square shaped. The two walls in front of and behind here were white, while the ones at the sides were see-through. There was a glass corridor behind them. Even further beyond the glass you could see an orange rock formation, from which water flowed onto the planted shrubs below.

Victoria was laying down on a large white bed, looking at a black plasma that was hanging on the wall. At least it looked like a plasma, except that it was far more futuristic than the ones that she had seen before.

Oh, thanks to the charming design I almost forgot about this camera that’s recording in the corner of this room.

“Special units have been sent out throughout the world,” he began. “For the past several dozen years, they have ordered that each infant be checked to find the quantity and quality of mirror neurons found in their body. Children fulfill the necessary requirement if the number of these neurons is above average, which means that they are built slightly differently,” he continued. “Only a small percentage of people are aware of the fact that a grown human, who qualifies into this sector after birth, can undergo ‘transformation’,” Andrew said, with a hint of excitement in his voice.

“Death activates a series of processes in these neurons, which then affect the entire organism. In order for full transformation to take place, a special kind of training is necessary—but more on that later. You could say that after their first death, these people are born again as half-gods. The second death must be avoided at all costs, however, because it would be final. You’ve surely started to experience some pain, since it’s one of main symptoms of transformation.”

Victoria looked at him in disbelief.

“You’re crazy. This is some kind of joke, right?”

Her father sighed and called over the guard. Victoria automatically tightened her muscles at the sight of the guy, or rather gun.

Andrew noticed this and immediately calmed her down.

Victoria could only now take a closer look at him. A needle was sticking out of his gun.

The guard laid it down flat on his hands. He began to stare at it intensely, then quickly moved his hands from under it. Strangely enough, the gun was in its original spot, suspended in mid air. He was now turning around on his own axis.

“What in the…” Victoria held her breath and stiffened.

“These newly-born superhumans aren’t called that for no reason,” Andrew pointed out. “After death, their altered mirror neurons give them extreme control over mind and body. Telekinesis is only one of many abilities.”

“Wait. I just realized something.”

Interested, Andrew stopped talking.

“I died…someone killed me!”

“Listen, sweetheart. It wasn’t me, I could never do such a thing—but it was in fact one of them who did. Calm down, let me explain,” he added as Victoria began to jerk around with the metal rings around her legs. “I know that this is a whole lot of information for you to take in all at once, but real soon, everything will make much more sense to you than ever. You’ve got to know that this was necessary. Listen carefully,” he paused.

He fixed his glasses and gave a cough.

“Mirror neurons are a gift, but also a curse, if you don’t act on them correctly. You feel okay now, but in a few years you’d start getting sick, weak, lose your senses and begin to behave like an unstable person from a pscyh ward; after which you’d finally end up suffering from a special kind of malignant brain tumor. These neurons demand to be set free. Otherwise, they begin to self-destruct. They sabotage the organism. Except, this doesn’t exactly work. This kind of person always ends up dying. They can only be saved if their in the insanity-death phase. If the tumor has already began to develop, it’s too late, nothing can help. The changes are irreversible. There have been very many cases like this. Everything is documented. There are no exceptions. Everyone either dies before and becomes superhuman, or dies after in pain and finality. Do you understand now that there was no other option? Luckily, these people exist. If it wasn’t for them, in a few years time, you’d be dead. I wouldn’t be able to survive that and I’m really grateful. I promised my loyalty and discretion. The age of seventeen is a perfect time for transformation.”

“Do you have any idea how helpless I felt? Years of self-defense training and I couldn’t do anything. I thought that it was a dream, incredibly real and terrifying, but a dream. Some guy surprised me from behind and began to choke me underwater, all while you were giving Jack some advice? Or maybe you lied about that too and you were actually there when I died? If I was supposed to die anyway, couldn’t it have been done in a different way? What kind of father does that?”

Andrew grew sad.

“I’m really sorry that you had to go through that. Transformation usually occurs differently than that, more calmly. If I’d told you the truth, you surely would’ve thought I was crazy. Even if I had gotten someone to share their abilities with you themselves, I couldn’t risk you running away. Since the beginning of the organization, there have been cases of runaways. Kids just weren’t ready for it, and it didn’t matter how good their relations with their parents were. Nowadays they gather kids in groups in an isolated spot where they can get to know the situation. I’m sorry that you had to experience that,” he said, followed by an awkward silence.

“What’s the next step in my ‘transformation’?” Victoria finally asked.

“You’ll find out later. In the next few hours, the last novices such as yourself will get to the isolation wards.”

“Like me? How many of them are there?”

Not much was sinking into Victoria’s brain right now, but she needed to know as much as she could. Right now, because she just couldn’t take it.

“200 people from birth year, all of them are 17 or 18 years old. The recruitment takes place every two years. There are also a few older people who’ll be teaching you. One of them is guarding us right now,” he looked over at the boy. “There are always ten experienced graduates with several years of work under their belt for the Academy who come. There are also a few hundred insider, ordinary people who manage the institution. They take care of the computer system, the cleaning and cooking. Schooling centers like this one are scattered around all over the continent. The one we’re in now is one of the biggest and most looked after. We have a maximum number of two hundred novices each year. Hmm, and as far as the total number of you guys on this planet—this, unfortunately, I don’t know. All the data is kept in the system, but I don’t have access to it.”

He fixed his glasses, then added, “After initial briefings from the parent, everyone is asked to head to the main auditorium. Your guardian will take you there when the time comes.”

“Guardian? Then why doesn’t he put that gun away…” she looked towards the boy.

“I can’t, that’s the requirement,” the guardian replied unexpectedly.

Victoria turned towards her father.

“And what if I don’t go? I didn’t ask anybody for this, I don’t want to be here.”

“Honey, there are very few people in this world who are special the way you are. I’ve been working with this institution myself ever since you were little. They saved your life. Remember that, and it’ll be much easier to adjust. We really owe these people. Besides, this is a really amazing place.”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m asking you please to not resist these people. You’re now part of a program that’s worth billions of dollars. It’s best to cooperate with them obey their rules. Please, try to make yourself at home here. The only problem here is that you’re disconnected from the rest of the world. You won’t be able to get in touch with your friends; with me, only after you’ve completed your first semester. These are good people, you have no idea how much you can gain here. Please give it a try, sweetie.”

 

***

 

Victoria started to crumple up the fabric of her shirt.

“Damn it.”

She hid her head in her hands. Andrew left some time ago, and that was fine. She didn’t want to see him right now. Really she just wanted to stay completely alone, but unfortunately, the guard was still making this impossible. She noticed out of the corner of her eye that he was staring at her.

“What are you looking at?” she snapped.

“I’m just a little confused. You’re very quiet compared to most other newbies. I was expecting some kind of conversation. And here nothing for hours. My name’s Ian.”

“Conversation? Maybe a monologue, filled with cuss words, which is quite a rarity for me since I never swear. Sorry, but I’m not really in the mood right now. I’m Victoria.”

“I know. How are you feeling?” he asked rather insistently, with an oppressor-like voice.

She was hoping that he’d let up and give her a break, but it didn’t seem like this would happen any time soon. She shouldn’t have spoken up. A surge of unpleasant feelings took over Victoria. It must logical for me to feel like this. Stupid questions.

She’s alone. In some center, without any possibilities of escape. It’s bad either way. On one hand she wasn’t sure what to think. If what her father said was the honest truth, then she owes them her life. On the other hand, she felt irritated by the fact that she was the one who had to go through this. If it was up to her, she’d prefer not to have any mirror neurons at all and live her life on her own terms; with joy and excitement, waiting for a peaceful old age. She was furious that her own body took away that chance from her.

Only now did Victoria begin to feel a strong urge to let out her emotions on something. Or someone. It didn’t matter on who. Ian was asking for it anyway.

“This sucks. I’m really annoyed because my own father lured me and left me in some unknown place with you, people who were not a part of my life plans. And I really like my plans, just like freedom, and this is what’s frustrating me the most, because none of you have any right to impose anything on me. And anyway, you’ve already done that with my father, keeping me in this cage like some hamster. I don’t know what this place is, who you people are, when I’ll get out of here, and I’d really like some explanations.”

Wow, Victoria always thought that she was a prime example of a stable person. She had no idea that was capable of getting this angry, probably because she never had a legitimate enough reason to do so.

“Are you better now?” he asked.

The boy was unmoved, as if everything she had said went in one ear and out the other. He was a tall, slim, good-looking blondhair guy with traditionally blue eyes and air of confidence. Maybe he wasn’t divinely handsome, but he definitely had something about him that made her like him immediately. As a friend, of course.

Victoria decided that she wasn’t going to trust anyone at the center right now, which obviously seemed to be above the law. She came to this conclusion after deciding that if kidnapping had already been permitted, who knew what else these people could be capable of.

“Yes.”

Strangely enough, some of her emotions had already come off, but she still remained distrusting. Just because her father said that these were good people, doesn’t mean that it has to be true. Andrew used up her trust limits. If she has no choice but to stay here, she’ll play along and try to fit in. She’d finally use last year’s acting lessons.

“Since we’re already ‘conversing’, maybe you’ll tell me something more. That thing that you did with the gun—can everyone do that?”

“Everyone,” he replied candidly.

Strange guy, first he wants a conversation, and then he becomes closed off himself. She couldn’t read too much from his eyes.

“You should know that my job is to observe and try to find your potential, while today’s introduction is up to someone else.”

“Okay, fine,” she said, not entirely convinced of what he meant by that.

A long silence fell between the two of them. Ian, if that’s what his name really was, turned to look towards the small garden behind the glass corridor. Victoria followed him and likewise began to closely observe the view.

She mashed and mashed her shirt. How long can you just sit there waiting, looking at glass?

 

 

CHAPTER 4

 

 

 

She wasn’t sure how much time had past since Andrew had left. Maybe thirty minutes, or maybe three hours? It was easy to lose track of things in this overwhelming white.

“Welcome”

At the sound of this voice, Victoria jumped out of bed, while here muscles tensed mercilessly.

“My name is Anthony Bens and I am the director of the Academy.” Victoria completely forgot about the monitor built into the wall.

A slim man, a little over sixty, dressed in a suit. From the background, you could tell that he was standing on a podium.

“Soon after this announcement, our people will take you to the main auditorium. I can not wait to meet you personally.”

As soon as he finished speaking, Ian entered the room. He unchained her and took her into a large tunnel.

“Hold on close, it’s really easy to get lost in here without a map. And I highly don’t recommend doing that.”

The half lit corridors made quite the impression. The walls, several meters high, were covered in small lights at the tops. They lit up the natural rock formations.

He turned left, and after a while, right, where you could see doors—equally as high as the tunnels. The light from the auditorium was spreading out like from a lighthouse.

They entered a room space as big as an opera. Victoria’s attention turned to the young people sitting in the center of the area, of whom there appeared to be hundreds.

“Over there on the left, that’s your year.” He pointed out the group of teenagers. “Go.”

Victoria sat down in one of the empty chairs next to some girl. Everyone sat in silence, waiting for something to happen.

The remaining empty chairs were filled five minutes later by latecomers. When the hall was finally full, the gates closed and the show began.

From a seat in the audience, a man stand up and took place at the podium. She recognized him as the man from the monitor.

“I’ll remind you my name: Anthony Bens. I’d like to officially welcome all of the novices to our school. Surely you have plenty of questions. I’ll try to explain everything as clearly as possible.” He glanced at the space, and then turned towards the older audience. “But first, would any of the graduates like to volunteer?”

All ten of them raised their hands. The director randomly selected a clean-shaven bold boy. The boy immediately stood up and walked up.

“In order to clear any doubts as to our abilities, I’d like to start off with a small performance.”

Bens took a gun out of his suit and pointed it at the bald head. Half of the auditorium held their breath. Several of the novices stood up. The older guests smiled at their reaction.

He pulled the trigger.

The bullet shot out loudly and hit the boy’s skull. After two seconds, he fell to the ground. He wasn’t moving. It looked terrifying.

“You killed him!” someone yelled.

“Oh God!” someone else shouted.

The boy lay there limply, while the director only looked at him with his head tilted and a twisted expression on his face.

“Stop fooling around, Matias.”

He smiled and shook his head.

One of the older guests shouted: “Enough! If half of the newcomers go off from a heart attack then the school will never survive. Get up!”

The novices froze. They didn’t know what was happening, at least not until the laying figure next to the podium began making some kind of strange noises, more specifically, laughter. The bold boy jumped up off of the floor, took out the smashed bullet from the back of his head, and returned to his seat with a look of great satisfaction.

“Forgive the dramatism,” Matias said.

“I’ll remember to never again choose you as a volunteer,” Bens replied. “At least now you’ve learned to expect anything. Keep your minds open.”

He fixed his tie and rested his hands on the rail.

“We are now in one the scientific-training bases. You have the incredible honor of taking part in a worldwide project. Each one of you has unique neurons with diverse characteristics. For example, some of you have substances that are able to heal and extend the lives of ordinary even twofold. You are stronger, more intelligent, healthier, and mightier than the average human. This will be especially true after your development training. You are the future of the world. Some of you will study, others will be studied, while even others will utilize their talents in government institutions or protecting the most important or wealthiest people on earth. Our task for today, however, is to fully utilize your potential in order to help you choose the most suitable job for you. Each year, the school takes in about 200 new young people, all of whom successfully underwent a predisposition test in their childhood. Your mirror neurons are very impressively developed, and we will ensure that this development continuous favorably. Of course nothing comes for free. Each one of you will receive one million dollar to begin with, for private use. In addition, you will get your own room equipped with modern furnishings, which you will be sharing with a roommate. The entire Academy is computerized and contains everything that you may need in life—from a luxurious sporting gym to a huge restaurant, free of charge, of course. You will receive brand new exclusive phones. On the top level, you will find the “storeroom”, which will serve a place in which you keep all of the things that you will need during your stay. You can order there almost everything you want with money from your salary, which we start to regularly deposit into your accounts. The salary amount will depend on your progress. Typical salaries vary between ten thousand dollars and a million dollar. You will find out about the remaining areas and benefits as the week goes by. Does anyone have any questions?”

A boy in the crowd spoke up.

“Can anyone leave here?”

“Yes, but only after half a year, after you’ve gone through your training. While you were sleeping, we placed special location device bracelets on you. These will be taken off in few years, unless we notice any insubordination.”

He fixed his suit.

“Now a final, slightly less pleasant remark. Your parents work for us. You are a legacy, and starting from today, no one has any say in the matter. You have no option of refusing to accept this offer. And a few of might not be able to keep up, to survive, and may even perish—but you’re too important. Your life has been planned and monitored almost since birth. The sooner each one of you accepts this, the better. Other than that, there is nothing to regret here. The life that you are about to encounter will be incredible. Most of the population would be jealous to have these kinds of possibilities. Your guardians will take you to your rooms. In half an hour you will come to the dining hall. In your room will find a map of the center. After dinner, you will be shown around. See you all later.

***

 

Victoria, slightly shook. Stood up and turned towards the exit along with the rest. Her guardian tagged along beside her right away.

“Oh, Ian.”

He looked at her and didn’t saying anything. He turned his head toward the new tunnel after the group of people.

“Listen, we’re now going to the female sector and I’ll have to leave you there for some time. When you get a phone call me, just write in my room number, 347.”

He stopped.

“391. That’s yours. I’ll come to get you before dinner, once you’ve unpacked. Besides the stairs, we also have moving capsules here, which are the main mode of transportation. You step inside, put on the holder, like in an amusement park, and then you begin to travel at 400 kilometers per hour through a tunnel in the earth. That’s how we’ll get to the dining hall.”

“I’ve forgotten that we’re at Zion National Park. Doesn’t anybody see you guys when you’re leaving?”
“This is actually a good thing. Who would ever think that at the very top of a national park there could be special units school with superpowers? It sounds dumb, but this hideout is the one of the best ideas. We’ve got tons of secret entrances and masking systems, so it’s possible for us to enter from the tourist side or from outside the park. But anyway, why waste my breath talking? You have everything on the computer in your materials about the Academy. I’m off, you have 20 minutes.”

Victoria raised her hand to wave goodbye, but Ian had already turned around and was gone. She clumsily grabbed the doorknob. A few girls in the distance were standing just like her—in front of their doors, wondering how this is all going to turn out. One of them placed their bracelet to the doorknob and suddenly disappeared. Victoria did the same.

She closed the door and stood still. A huge white bed. Shelves, sofas, a glass-metal table. It was beautiful like in a hotel. The main attraction, however, was the purple marble wall behind the bed. The natural rock patterns glimmered in the light, which was emanating from the entire wall. It looked as if it had been showered in diamonds.

She looked into the closet. She hung up nearly all of her clothes, while the rest she placed in shelves. Victoria then spent the next ten minutes putting up her books, cosmetics and memorabilia.

She opened the doors to the bathroom. Black marble contrasted with white elements. A huge bathtub reflected in mirrors on two opposite walls in the front and back.

She returned to the bedroom and laid down on the bed. Her fury had disappeared. These people saved her life, after all. She couldn’t contain her excitement. Something incredible.

Someone suddenly entered the room.

“Hello,” she said, “I’m Sarah.”

“Victoria.” She handed the new roommate’s hand

“Where are you from?” Victoria asked.

“Pennsylvania, the vampire capital,” she smiled.

The doors pounded loudly.

Victoria ran up to them and pulled on the doorknob. Ian stood there leaning on the wall. He didn’t say anything, and only stood there looking.

“You didn’t want to change?” he quipped.

“Why, is something wrong with my clothes?” she asked surprised.

“Nothing, I just thought that you’d notice the school uniform in your closet.”

She looked at him with squinted eyes.

“One like yours?”

“A little bit different. I didn’t have anything bad in mind, you look nice,” he smiled.

“In that case, next time, no comments,” she replied swiftly with a smile.

“I’ve landed myself a real woman.”

Victoria gave a laugh and nudged him with her elbow.

After the auditorium, the coming future seemed heavy and terrifying, but she felt as if she were at a survival camp or something like that. She wasn’t afraid. She always enjoyed experimenting and exploring new environments. Or maybe it was because subconsciously they’ve been preparing them for this since childhood. The only thing that was on her mind right now was will she make it.

Victoria introduced Ian to Sarah, and then they entered into the tunnel, following several other people. The group was waiting for the opening.

The silver pulled back revealing a row of leather chairs. They went in after the others. Ian sat Victoria down on the left, showing her how to put on the holder. Once they sat down, he pulled out a small, half transparent screen and pressed something on it.

“Now the computer’s going to check if everyone’s safely seated,” he said.

Something beeped in the capsule. He pressed several buttons. A beep.

Victoria felt a delicate movement. It became faster. The capsule was moving smoothly. From the inside it looked as if it were standing still. She felt pressure in her head. The transport slowed down. Only about fifteen seconds had passed. She was impressed.

Everyone got out and turned left. Victoria turned her attention to the girl next to the door. Crowds of people were entering the room, while she stood there looking towards the center.

Victoria stopped, while Sarah, who was walking straight ahead, didn’t notice and disappeared.

She was quite pretty, without make-up. She had light red hair and full lips. She still wasn’t moving. The beginnings must have been difficult for her.

Coming in closer towards the doors, Victoria decided to risk it. She never had any problems with chatting people up on anything.

“Hi. I’m Victoria,” she said lightly. “Do you want to come sit with us? They’re about to take all the seats.”

The girl looked at her blankly. Not a single emotion from her side, nor any response. Ten seconds passed, and she just kept on looking. This is a little awkward.

“Yeah, sure. Sorry, I’m still trying to figure out all of this in my head,” she said, with a shy smile.

“What’s your name?”

“Scarlett. You’re officially the first person that I’ve gotten to know here. Not counting my guardian, who works in computers security and left me here alone, because he had to do something.”

“Well, it’s nice to meet you.”

Victoria’s intuition had guided her well. The moment she noticed her, she felt right away that this was a good person; as if something positive were emanating from her. We’ll see if it stays this way. She was hoping that they’d get along.

Ian entered the situation.

“And I’m Ian,” he said, giving her his hand.

They walked through the entrance and the middle of the hall. They couldn’t find any empty seats. Ian must have caught a glimpse of some, because he swiftly headed straight. He hurried them and they reached the table after just a short moment.

A few foreign faces turned their faces towards them.

Victoria caught a glance of Sarah among them. She was talking to someone not far off. They came up and sat down at her table.

Ian disappeared somewhere. Maybe he sat with graduates.

“Hey, Victoria! This is Morgan,” she gestured at a delicately muscular brunette with Latino features, “and Andrew.”

The second boy was quite short and had red hair.

“Hey boys. Andrew—like my dad,” she said.

“He must be an amazing guy,” Andrew commented with a smile.

“If intoxicating your own daughter is a sign of being amazing, then yes, you’re most definitely right,” she replied with a sarcastic smile.

“It looks like I’m always right. But call me Drew, not Andrew.”

Victoria gave a sigh and threw her head back. She remembered her new friend.

“Meet Scarlett.”

The girl went still at the sound of her name and she nodded her head in hello.

“Hi. I wonder if they’ll serve us some luxurious food,” she broke through her shyness.

“When I was in my room I read a little bit about the school. In the chapter about food they said that they based their meals on fats, especially animal fats. That’s because fats gives the most valuable energy, three times as much as carbohydrates. The entire diet is built on very strict proportions—lots of protein, tons of fat, and little carbs. This combination is supposedly the healthiest and has the ability to cure a person out of nearly every disease, even diabetes. Our superbodies don’t get sick much anyway so we don’t really have to worry about diseases. They just want to maximize the effects of the training as much as possible.” Morgan said.

“We’ve got a nerd here,” Victoria declared.

“You know, I’d rather get to know everything that I can about this place if I’m supposed to be tied down here for who knows how long.”

“You’re right. To put it delicately, this is terrifying. From the very start they don’t give us any alternative options.” Vicotria agreed with Morgan.

“We have no choice. But there is something exciting about this, don’t you think? On the other hand, I do like it here. I had some problems figuring out what I want to do with my life before. Now at least I don’t have to ponder about that too much,” Sarah said.

Victoria’s eyes opened wide.

“We’ll talk in a week. We’ll see if you’re still liking it then,” she interrupted, “I wouldn’t rush with the trust if I were you.”

Morgan wiped his tanned forehead.

“Victoria’s right.”

Scarlett scanned the group, ending her glance on Victoria.

“Exactly. Keeping us here isn’t exactly fair or legal. On the other hand, institutions like these are run by their own laws, whatever applies outside doesn’t need to apply to them. Just imagine how many others like us there are in the world.” Scarlett declared.

“Not many.” Drew replied.

“So we’re not planning to rebel?” Victoria said.

“I think that only a dummy wouldn’t want a million dollar salary and the chance to discover new abilities,” Morgan stated, adding, “I mean grub and superpowers.” He made a silly face.

Everyone started to laugh.

“And by the way, are you all each others’ roommates?” Scarlett asked.

Drew nodded his head affirmatively.

“And you’ve got your whole room to yourself?”

“Lucky,” Morgan interrupted.

“You snake. You’ve got the best roommate of all of them,” Drew laughed.

“Yes, I’m living alone for now.”

“Hmm, the director said that each year the school takes in 200 students. My guardian, Ian, said that when someone’s missing, they find a replacement from some other region because apparently this place is the best. This is institution always has a complete group,” Victoria noted.

“Then maybe someone will join me. That would be better, I don’t like being alone.”

“You’ve got it pretty cool. You know for sure that no one’s going to be snoring all night,” Drew pointed out and nudged Morgan in the stomach with his elbow.

“But it’s you who snores!” he barked back.

“That’s good to know. I’m glad.”

The group burst out laughing.

“I’ve got to order some ear plugs. Apparently you can order anything you want to the storeroom, except for food.” Morgan gabbed his head.

“Oh yeah, so what about this food?” Drew wrinkled his face.

People began to get up and head towards the walls, as if by request.

Victoria just now turned her attention to the metallic decor. Food machines had been built into the ash-colored walls. The longest line had three people in it.

Victoria stood behind Drew, but he let her ahead of him. After a few seconds, she repeated what the person in front of her had done. She pressed her hand onto the screen. The machine recognized her fingerprints and gave her a silver tray with food.

She returned to the table and sat next to Sarah, across from Morgan. Not long after, Drew and Scarlett came. Sarah got almost the same meal, while the boys had something completely different.

“Everyone’s diet has been specially modified in certain proportions based on their personal data,” Morgan explained.

They started to eat.

A few bites were all it took for them to feel satisfied.

“It’s really good, although it doesn’t look like it. I only pity the vegetarians,” Drew took a excessively large bite of his pork.

“There are no vegetarians here. Everyone’s got to be on this diet,” Morgan said.

“Don’t be so smart. Slow down. Your cheeks are so full you look like a hamster,” Drew retorted.

“Thanks, everyone tells me that,” he laughed and choked a little.

The others filled with laughter and patted the choking Morgan on his back.

“If these meals continue like this, then I won’t make it to end of the week,” he took a sip of water.

When the dinner came to an end, the girls said goodbye to their new friends. They returned to the girls’ sector.

Victoria’s shoulders loosened up a bit. She was surprised how quickly she forgot about incapacitation and her nerves. It was somewhat silly of her to have to admit this to herself, but she really felt good with these people. As if she’d found herself exactly in the place that she’s supposed to be in.

She dived into her sheets and surrendered to a long awaited rest.

 

 

CHAPTER 5

 

 

 

A female voice came out of the device.

“Novices, please put on your uniforms. Wearing them is required on all perimeters of the center.

The day’s schedule came up on the screen.

9:00 – breakfast

10:00 – meeting in the auditorium

14:00 – lunch

15:00 – meeting in the auditorium

19:00 – dinner

From 20:00 – free time

 

“Very nice,” Sarah said, as she took out a dark, fitted jumpsuit from the closet.

Victoria opened up her closet, to see a few dozen pairs of different outfits. Short uniforms on the right, long on the left.

She reached her hand to the right, taking out a fitted maroon sleeveless shirt and black shorts.

All of the clothes were made from an interesting, layered material. It looked as if some kind of electronic devices were hidden between the layers.

She noticed the emblem on the breast. A black-gray-gold circle. The golden-orange design on the inside resembled a flame. A roman numeral one was placed above it in gray.

They put on their new clothes and turned to the bathroom, where their own cosmetics – thank God – were laid out for them, waiting.

Victoria quickly put on her foundation, next some powder, and then lightly applied some mascara and red lipstick.

In the meantime, Sarah brushed her hair and made a complicated braid.

After ten minutes, they were ready. They left their room and headed towards the dining hall for breakfast. There they met Morgan and Drew. They couldn’t see Scarlett anywhere. Before they ate, all of the novices received metal bracelets on their wrists. All of them the same – on their left wrists.

Right on time at 10:00, they all arrived in the auditorium, which appeared much larger to them before. They sat next to one another and waited – not entirely sure what for.

Director Anthony Bens went up to the podium.

“Today, we will show you what the imagination is capable of,” he said. “Make yourselves comfortable in your seats and place your hands on the armrests. We will connect you to Dreamer. The metal bracelet on your hand that you received today will connect you to your dreams, and bring them into your consciousness. I always eagerly await this first task, when we can finally measure your results. Let us not delay.”

Victoria thought that this sounded crazy, but just about anything was possible in this place. Shared dreams.

Four thick hand rings emerged from the seats. Metal parts shot out from the left side of the bracelet and connected to the ring, slowly immobilizing the left hand. Three metal wires with electrodes emerged from the rings on the right. Two belts, immobilizing the feet and abdomen, emerged from below the seat.

Victoria didn’t move, suppressing her anxiety. She connected the electrodes to her skin and the middle of her forehead, to her “third eye”, just like the director had shown.

When she finished everything, the rings immobilized her other hand.

“Now just a small prick,” the director said.

She felt a needle underneath her bracelet, and she instantly collapsed, absorbing the all-encompassing darkness.

 

***

 

Stupor.

Victoria was laying motionless on damp earth. She couldn’t lift her cheek, which was touching the dirty ground. The only thing that she saw were leaves shimmering in the sunlight.

A surge of energy allowed her to get up and join her peers. Some of them were still laying on the ground, or getting up, too. The ones who were already up, were all focusing their attention on some far off point.

It was Ian. He was standing next to a bonfire, waving for them to come join him.

They were in a forest, not sure where. They stood in a giant, beaten down, grass circle. A fire burned in its center.

“My name’s Ian. I’m a graduate and the master of this dream,” he said, with a slight hoarseness.

He stood next to the fire. Young, muscular, and manly.

“You are all connected to me. To begin with, I’d like to clear up a few things. I’m thinking that only a few of you were interested enough to read our history on the computer. Those of you who did, have a slight advantage which may prove to be the key to winning today. Although we may get a few talented pearls, anyway. Okay, let’s get to it. But first, let’s change the climate.”

Ian closed his eyes and wrinkled up his face in concentration.

Rain began to pour on the group, and strangely enough, did not put out the fire. In a moment it changed into snow, and then into tears of fire. A dark fog began to emerge from the fire. The rising darkness encompassed the entire group, creating a dome that disconnected them from the rest of the world.

The bonfire delicately faded out. Gold dust sparkled out with single ribbons of fire.

The curtain suddenly fell, revealing the exact same place, the same forest, only in nighttime scenery.

The silver glare of the moon contrasted with the fire, which changed its color to pitch black with flashes of gold.

“Black fire!” someone shouted, fascinated. The sight was impressive. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before.

“This fire is the heart of the dream, the energy source of today’s session,” Ian said. “Taking into account all that you’ve learned over these past couple of days, this shouldn’t really take you by surprise. Now nearly anything is possible for you, especially in your dreams. Sit down,” he pointed to the wooden beams that began to appear out of nowhere.

“I’ll began with a history lesson.”

Ian sat down on a beam and straightened up.

“We can trace the existence of this academy back to the Aborigine civilization. At the basis of their worship system is nature – which they feel very tied to. They believe that the world exists as one organism. Most of the notes that we have on flora and fauna come from them. According to their philosophy, the world is connected by energy lines, which form a kind of spiderweb. Emotions are especially important, because they flow throughout the entire web. Through their emotions, ordinary people can attract well-being by adjusting themselves to the appropriate frequencies. Thanks to the increased capabilities that our mirror neurons give us, we can have an even greater effect on the web. As people integrated with the world, the Aborigines discovered the phenomenon of power. This was around 10,000 years ago. This is the only civilization that dealt with developing this field throughout history. They discovered that death, for some people, is not at all final, and that they become different after rebirth. They didn’t have any specialized equipment to carry out studies, nor did they figure out what caused this phenomenon. That’s why people belonged to a very rare group. One person has experienced the mystery of longevity, but to this day, nobody knows how to recreate it. There existed special associations of ‘Dream people’. Everyone was aware of the existence of this power and they new how to activate it. For a time, even the suicide rate rose. The Aborigine that discovered the secret of longevity decided that he’d share his knowledge with mankind because he sensed his oncoming death. He believed that everyone should have access to it. One person – a representative of society – was opposed to this, however. As it usually is with insight and power, the person wanted for the secret to remain hidden for everyone but himself. The jealous person said that the Dream People shouldn’t have access to all that power, and to exalt themselves, but rather needed to stay modest. Disputes arose, because knowledge is power. Ordinary people wanted to find out if the secret of longevity would allow them to become extraordinary. Ultimately, the Aborigine decided not to share the knowledge with everybody. He concluded that this information should not be shared universally, because there would always be some ruthless and greedy individuals who needed to be kept away from power.

Ian raised his voice.

“He carved a short prayer into clay, with a few pointers. He used his power and placed the secret into the clay. He transferred a special high-frequency energy through it, in order to leave his mark on it forever. He telepathically connected the vibrations that he put in with the information, in such a way that only someone with very similar frequencies would be able to discover the secret. No one has been able to do this so far.”

Ian wrinkled his forehead and closed his eyes.

“In pre-colonial times, a scientist was getting to know these people, fascinated by their culture and beliefs. His respectful approach gained the trust of an old man who revealed to him the history of the Aborigines. The scientist shared his knowledge with a group of others. Influential people then became involved in an experiment. When the Aborigine theories and power proved true, the search to gather dream people began. After the scientists discovered that mirror neurons were responsible for the power, they came up with a system to test newborns for their presence. Talented individuals were taken to newly created places like this once they reached their teenage years. Being aware of their own eventual loss of power, the people of the world wanted to discover the secret of longevity and eternal power. The people of Australia held their claim that they didn’t know how to retain the power of the Great Aborigine. First, they amicably attempted to gain the information. Their knowledge increased, but not in the subject matter that they’d wanted,” he said.

“Desperate representatives of the largest Academies began to take brutal measures, believing that someone had definitely hidden some part of the truth. They wanted to get to the bottom of this at any price. Colonization began to take place in Australia. Disputes with these people caused the deaths of many Aborigines. The scientists didn’t gain anything from this, however. Open sources say that the Aborigines were a rather primitive civilization, which is not at all true. Their genius was hidden and confiscated, giving the handing over the rightful claim for their accomplishments over to others. Even when someone learned, without any knowledge or access to private notes about their grater intelligence, came into those in order to learn something, their doubts were quickly cleared. Nobody told them anything. The few Aborigines that knew the truth kept silent, in order to never again trust strangers. The rest of them simply went backwards in their development. To sum it all up, the spiritual power that the Aborigines had developed was destroyed in place of modern enterprises. Even powerful empires like Egypt or Rome eventually fell. That’s the nature of civilization. There will always be good and evil people. History likes to repeat itself because while people may change from decade to decade, they’re always pushed by the same forces – love, the desire for profit or jealousy. Today, the Academy doesn’t condone the sources that were once used at the expense of good people. Everything has changed for the better, however. We’re bound by an ethical code.”

Ian paused for a moment and glanced around at the novices. All of their eyes were glued on him.

“The idea of contact with nature and an interconnected web of all things living and dead, seeped from their philosophy into ours. In reality nothing is dead. Matter is thriving with life. We can saturate any object with energy. Send and receive signals. Affect matter,” he took a step towards the black-gold fire. “Today’s task will require you to engage some new senses. You need to find something that doesn’t belong to this place. Something that has a specific essence, but I won’t tell you what this is or what it looks like. You need to rely on your intuition.”

Ian concentrated, and a weapon appeared out of a gray smog next to the fire. A whole bunch of weapons. From machine guns to pistols, twisted daggers, swords. Anything the heart desired. They looked closer at the weapons in awe.

“The second part of the task will be to take the lives of as many competitors as possible. Don’t look at me like that – I didn’t come up with this,” he snickered.

Someone said to him that they didn’t sign up for this and they didn’t give them a choice. They were surprised how everyone agreed to something like this and were acting so normal, as if the place that they found themselves in was completely normal.

“Don’t worry, you’re safe in a dream. If you die, you’ll instantly wake up in the auditorium. In the beginning you’ll feel the pain, but it’ll get less noticeable with time. The more people that you kill, the better chance you have at winning and at getting a special money prize. And don’t focus on your friendships right now. It’s either them or you. If you don’t want to comply with the instructions, that’s your choice. I suggest that you quiet down your ego and do as I said, otherwise you may lose a lot. And now, the quicker, the better. Choose your weapon,” he said threateningly.

The youth threw themselves on the pile of deadly objects. Victoria followed their lead. She grabbed a set of large daggers. The slim blades were bent into half circles. From the arch, two smaller blades stood out, creating a triple knife. Okay – she thought, calming herself down – I have two knives.

Suddenly, next to Victoria, appeared…

Herself. With the same set of weapons.

“To equalize your chances, you have to defeat your own selves. Remember, that the clones have the same knowledge and capabilities as you. The only difference, is that they have a strong desire for the death of their double – meaning yours. Each of them will be hunting down their prototype.”

Everyone went white in the face and stood motionless. Someone couldn’t take it and vomited. Victoria noticed a bunch of trembling hands, including her own. But when she looked the other way, she saw a few crooked grins. These must have been some kind of psychos, since the thought of killing gave them so much pleasure. It was already clear who to avoid. A very tall, black haired, muscular boy stood next to one of the psychos. His calm, focus and complete lack of emotion intrigued her. She decided that she’d take his example and change her approach.

The tall stranger lifted his gaze from the black fire straight onto Victoria, who was still glaring at him.

She blushed, because at that same moment, she thought how handsome he really was. Only she was capable of checking out guys moments before a task in which she’d have to kill her future friends and quite possibly this guy himself. Bravo.

She straightened back up with the inescapable impression that he was now staring at her. She didn’t want to risk getting caught looking at him once again, though.

“You need to focus like never before. You have new capabilities which you may discover even today. Look for an unusual element, emotion, vibration. Your feelings are key here. In addition to that, you’ve got to keep yourself from getting killed. Multitasking,” Ian said.

“And one last thing that you should know is that in the beginning of conscious dreaming, the emotional spectrum and lack of brakes has no bounds. Your true face will be sharpened, and you’ll be doing things that you lack courage for in real life. Most of you will be overcome by animal instincts. In 20 minutes, your doubles will follow you into the depths of the forest. Good luck,” Ian waved his hand in the direction of the forest.

The group of two hundred ran out into every direction of the world.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 6

 

 

 

Victoria heard the scream of a girl. Some boy stabbed her in the neck with a knife. She didn’t even manage to cross the forest’s edge. That was a warning for Victoria. Trying to keep her fright under control she ran into forest, listening closely in order to avoid sharing the girl’s fate.

Someone threw themselves at her with a sword, but she dodged them. She kicked him the crotch and then used the moment of inattention to stab him in the chest with a blade.

He fell.

She started to run, not knowing where. She killed a person. She couldn’t believe it. In her defense, but she didn’t feel right with it nonetheless. She needed to be brutal in the face of violence directed at her, however.

She ran and ran, and when she heart the softest rustle, unfamiliar to the sounds of a forest, she fell to the ground. Why did it have to be her? Living with this murderers without the possibility of leaving. But she needed to calm down now. She needed to adapt to these new bizarre behaviors and make progress, just like she’d promised herself in her soul. Besides, they weren’t going to really die.

She heard soft steps not far off and started to crawl.

Her rival was close enough, she leaned her head and noticed Sarah two meters away from her.

Victoria stood up, sighed with relief and waved to her.

Sarah look at her, squinted her eyes, and threw herself at Victoria with a knife.

Shocked, Victoria ducked the blow, but was struck in the arm. Not thinking, she reacted and threw herself toward Sarah so quickly that she couldn’t do anything.

She stabbed her in the chest with her knife.

Sarah gave out a loud cry and slid onto the ground. The ends of her blonde hair turned red and her green eyes stagnated into lifelessness.

“Sarah,” Victoria gasped a whiff of air and her tires delicately teared up. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. Why’d you do that?” she insisted, forgetting that she can’t hear her anymore. She was gone. Because of her. She reminded herself that this wasn’t actual death—that it looked awful, but it wasn’t real. She calmed down a little. She decided that from now on she’d be more careful and professional, and not just a savage with a weapon. She realized that she was actually quite good at this. That was frightening.

She wiped off the knife with Sarah’s blood and started walking.

Not much time must have passed for her to stumble upon some people again. Two boys were walking beside her, constantly observing the area.

Victoria now found herself at the top, while they were on the bottom on the other side of the gorge. She laid down flat on the ground. She had a good observation point.

Suddenly, a figure jumped out in the terrain below. The man stabbed one of the boys in the leg so that he fell down. He took his gun and shot him in the head two times. The sound spread everywhere.

The boy must have been very well trained. Victoria had never seen someone handle a situation like this with such ease—being at a disadvantage both in numbers and firearms.

She stopped her moment of admiration as soon as she realized that the figure had now turned in her direction and gave a shot. A very precise shot. She wasn’t lost in admiration anymore, she was covered in sweat.

The bullet landed in a tree next to her face. She had no idea how he’d managed to locate her. She was sitting there quietly, it was dark and there were about 15 meters separating them.

The boy stood there listening for a moment, and then walked off.

Maybe it was those newly discovered abilities and intuition that they’re always talking about. How did she not think of that before? She felt like a dummy.

She squatted down and in one moment, she remembered everything that she’d recently learned. Influencing matter. Telekinesis. She looked at her weapon and focused like never before. She’d never felt anything like this. She imagined that her dagger was floating in the air. Her temples and forehead began to pulsate intensely. The insides of her stomach turned hot, and her hands paled as if the circulation in them had ceased. Ian’s hands had looked like this when he showed her the trick with the levitating weapon in the isolation ward.

It seems like it’s going in the right direction.

The dagger began to float up above her hand. A wave of excitement rushed through her entire body. She felt incredibly satisfied, then lost control of herself.

The white in Victoria’s hands began to spread all over her body, and her black hair turned white. Her hands began to tremble.

She dropped one of the daggers, and the other floating one was now in a fire on her hand. Her white hands were now covered in short red flames. The dagger began to melt in the air, and the trees and grass in her vicinity started to burn.

There must really be no better way to hide her presence.

Power came over her. An incredible feeling. Full of life and energy. She wanted to stay in this state as long as possible, but she needed to hide.

She focused on the feeling of calm and imagined herself returning to her normal appearance. Her entire body tingled. When she opened her eyes, she looked like she did before, but she felt like a completely different person—an awakened one.

She reached for her one, un-melted triple knife.

Her double.

When she turned around, she saw herself walking in her direction. Her double looked like she did a moment ago, all white.

The alternative Victoria approached with a cold look. Her pupils and irises didn’t exist. Her entire eye was a haunting white color.

This task was making her brain fuzzy.

Angry double swung her knife to finish with Victoria.

At that same moment, the double’s head fell off.

Victoria couldn’t hold back her scream at the sight of her own cut off head. This all looked too real. She covered her mouth with her hand. Her breath became shallow. An unexpected rollercoaster of emotions took over. All of this because of her stay in this place. She wondered what the others must be thinking and feeling.

She was normally a very stable person. Maybe a person becomes like this in the face of real death, as well as one in dreams.

Her savior or muderer – she wasn’t sure which yet – stood there looking at her carefully.

In the light of the moon, she noticed that this was the handsome guy that she was looking at earlier by the fire. He held a sword in one hand, and a gun in the other. But she was looking into his light, blue eyes.

“Get up. Hands in the air,” he said vigilantly.

Victoria burst out laughing, which was a completely inadequate reaction to the day’s events.

“What’s so funny to you? I have a weapon.”

“Hands up. It would be interesting to see police in this scenery. Is anyone in your family a cop?” She wanted to let him know that her intentions were good.

“By the way, I wanted to thank you for your help. I’m Victoria, and you?”

The boy couldn’t believe what was happening.

“I’m pointing a gun at you, and you’re asking me for my name?”

Victoria notice a shadow of a smile, which brought some ease to his face for two seconds.

“Yes, I am. Plus, I’m hoping that you’re a gentleman and you don’t shoot at women.”

He laughed. Victoria got the feeling that she’d come out of this situation in one piece.

“My name’s Aaron.”

“Victoria. Nice to meet you. Can you put down your weapon? I promise that I won’t cause any trouble.”
“Go your own way, so that we hopefully won’t have to meet here again.”

Victoria felt a tinge of regret. Maybe it was stupid, but she wanted to accompany him. He was dangerous, but he’d use that against those who’d stand in their path, not her.

“Okay,” she said.

She looked at him.

“Watch out!” she yelled.

Aaron’s double neared closer from behind him. He jumped on him, trying to strike him with a knife.

Victoria grabbed her own dagger and came up to the bunch of fighting Aarons. They were rolling on the ground. When one was about to win, the other suddenly got the upper hand, repeating the cycles over again.

She had no idea which was one the real Aaron. Both were tall, muscular and equally dangerous. Damn it.

She focused on flashes of her intuition and chose.

She threw herself on them and aimed for the back. She killed him.

“Aaron?” she turned her eyes toward the surprised boy.

“How did you know that he was the double?”

“I didn’t know.”

He instantly turned gloomy.

“I’m kidding, don’t get so upset. It’s my intuition. It’s sharpened.”

“I’d be fine on my own. And anyway, this situation wouldn’t have even happened if we’d each gone our own way.”

Aaron started to pick himself up off of the ground, grabbed his weapon, and started to head in the direction that he came from.

“No problem. I don’t doubt that you’d have handled it. It’s just probably would’ve taken much longer.”

“By the way, next time you watch me killing someone, try not to breathe so loud. I heard you right away. You’re lucky I missed.”

“It was you. That’s why you showed up here. You wanted to get me, because you weren’t sure if you’d hit me.”

“It is a competition after all, isn’t it?”

“So why didn’t you kill me right away? And saved me. That’s rather illogical, don’t you think?”

“So I’m a gentleman.”

“That explains a lot,” she laughed.

“I think we should split up,” he said.

“And I think that it’s safer to have support in an alliance.”

“Oh yeah? And who’s going to take that “unmatched element” when we find it?”

“Whoever is faster.”

Victoria smiled and cut in front of him on the path. She was leading them now.

 

***

 

“Do you feel something?” she asked.

“I can’t focus. Stop for a moment.”

“Good idea.”

“I saw your transformation. Did you know that something like that takes months of training? I think that in this situation, your intuition is the most effective of all of the novices. So, focus and to work.”

Did he just admit that she was better than him? In a moment, her self-confidence rose by 200% at the mention of how well-trained she was. She closed her eyes.

“Concentrate on the energy of the forest. What works in it? And where does this feeling come from?”

She repeated what she did after the transformation. This time, she aligned her feelings with the life thriving in this place. She felt something different, that wasn’t supposed to be here.”

“I’ve got it. The only problem is that-” she stopped.

She looked again into the bush.

“I feel it in the entire other half of the forest,” she pointed with her finger.

“Concentrate harder,” he insisted.

With an intensity that she’d never felt before, she tried to connect to everything that was there.

She heard the splash of a stream. Enlightenment.

“Water! This something is constantly in motion and sends out vibrations through the water. I feel it. Come on!” she ran off excitedly.

A silver beam reflected from the moon and unto Aaron’s face. He went after Victoria, satisfied that his plan had paid off.

She walked quickly, not counting how many trees she’d passed. Excitement filled her entire body. She was proud of herself, especially since not many had her capabilities, and those who did were older than her.

In her head she saw water, a network of streams and the color silver, which was making its way through them. She felt radiating vibrations.

“There,” she pointed to a small chasm on the right. “This something is swimming along the river. Quickly.”

Aaron began climbing down steep wall first. They needed to be very careful. Victoria began climbing right above him.

Aaron was already down below when Victoria placed her foot 6 meters above the ground. She gave a scream and tried to grab onto something, but didn’t manage to. She began to fall, paralyzed, waiting for the pain to hit her back.

Strangely enough, she felt no pain. Only after a moment, she realized that she was laying in Aaron’s soft arms.

He was so close, that she felt his minty breath on her face. Oh my. He was more than handsome. His light blue eyes were peering through her. She couldn’t read him. He looked at her for too long, too intimately.

Victoria felt herself blush. She had the feeling that if she hadn’t cut off this long exchange of looks, they would have stayed here all night.

“Uhh, thank you. We need to hurry, someone may have heard my scream,” she blushed as she pointed to the river.

He must have noticed her cheeks, because he gave a rogue smile. Victoria, slightly beaten off of her path, tried to focus again.

They walked along the rocks and grass, looking into the sky reflecting water.

“The river branches off in a few places. And we’re specifically interested in that over there,” she pointed to a few bushes.

“Good that it’s not on the other side.”

Aaron turned gloomy.

“Is everything okay?” she worried.

Is he only using her? She didn’t want to ask.

“It’s there 200 of us. Don’t you think it’s strange that we haven’t seen anyone for a while now? Even if there are only 10 living left, they should find us out sooner or later. That bunch didn’t stay here by chance, only because they were more advanced and better. We need to hurry. If by some lucky chance they’re not after us now, they will be in a moment. Lead the way.”

Victoria walked quickly. She began to run. Aaron caught up to her and slightly cut in front.

They were next to the bushes. Like she said, there was a shallow branching behind them.

A metal sphere was submerged halfway in the water. This is it. They look at each other knowingly. This was the moment. Whoever is first wins.

Aaron yelled loudly and fell to the ground, right on top of the silver sphere. He seemed to be first, but Victoria was confused by his behavior.

Victoria noticed a shining dagger deep in his calf. A boy was running in their direction. She understood that he was the one who had attacked Aaron.

Everything happened so quickly.

A blinding white light started to beam out of Aaron, or actually from underneath him, where the sphere was laying.

Victoria touched the sphere. Her ears rang in pain at the sound of a loud whistle. The light blinded her.

And everything suddenly disappeared.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 7

 

 

35 YEARS AGO, SEPTEMBER 2006

 

 

David Moon, a 28-year-old surgeon from Tennessee and his beautiful fiancee were looking at real estate in Atlanta, this was their last. It seemed like the best option so far. They were planning to move out of Nashville together. Unfortunately, the asking price was too high, even for their circumstance. They left the place with a slight twinge of regret. This was one of those houses that you could imagine yourself growing old in.

They got into their SUV and started off on their 4 hour return journey. They thought about other options and their advantages, but they both agreed that nothing compared to what they just saw.

David decided in his soul, that he would get this house no matter what. After all, he had plenty of savings that Cassie knew nothing about. He would surprise her.

 

***

 

David couldn’t keep up with all of the changes in his life. Freshly out of college, he started working in a hospital, proposed to his long term girlfriend, Cassie Parks, and was now waiting on a move into the unknown. This truly terrified him. He wasn’t sure if he could handle the pressure. At this moment, however, he was trying to focus on relaxing, because a few days ago he had started his three week vacation.

He was extremely happy that he had Max – the third member of his childhood friend pack. A tried and true friend, who regularly visited them. As kids, none of them would have even imagined that Max Bridgedown would start his own business. He went from being just a shy guy into a decidedly less shy business leader.

Max came to their anniversary dinner. Today marked three years of David and Cassie’s relationship. She made a vegetable and cheese casserole and for dessert, a homemade brownie with extra chocolate on top. David poured some white wine into their glasses. Spanish sherry was their favorite.

Cassie took a small sip. They usually just had one glass because the wine was especially strong. They never overdid it.

Max started to dig around in the casserole. He took a bite of the dark pasta with chopped olives.

“Did you find anything?”-Max asked.

“The last house we saw was perfect, but we can’t afford it,” he said with delicate disappointment. “Maybe if we took out a mortgage, but we have to think about it.”-Cassie said.

They were wealthy. Not immensely, grossly so, but they could afford many things. David was an only child from a rather prosperous family that owned a hotel. He didn’t have to pay for medical school himself, so what he made as a doctor he got to keep in his pocket, not spend on repaying student loans.

Cassie worked as a waitress in one of his parents’ hotels. She came from a poor family, but was very ambitious. This eventually led her to a promotion as restaurant manager. At the same time, she studied architecture. One day, they ran into each other. Since that day, David always hung around the restaurant. He was completely taken by her.

Max was the son of David’s parents’ friends. Green-eyed, tall, slim, with light brown hair. They met him during a very difficult time in their lives, during which they constantly fought with each other and eventually signed up for marriage counseling. The psychologist who had brought peace between them for good was Max’s mom. His and David’s parents have been friends some 20 years now – just like Max and David. He knew him inside and out, always shy and closed off to social business. Max preferred to focus on his family, his small group of friends and his work, in which he had managed to program several applications. He had recently sold the rights to one of them for a hefty sum of money. He was now working full time on developing applications, but under his own firm.

David was more unsettled. Ever since he had started working as a surgeon, he’d experienced bouts of anxiety which he couldn’t control. He had the lives of other people in his hands on a daily basis. This is why he became a doctor in the first place; to help them. He certainly knew what he was doing, but theory and practice had differed just a touch more than he had expected. There was no place for fear because people depended on him. He was a man who had to have everything under control, all of the time. This paralyzed him. Most of the time he really did a great job. In fact, he eventually built up quite a reputation for himself. The only problem was his fear of losing control of the situation. All that it took was one moment of inattention, due to exhaustion or a bad day, and someone would have to suffer as a result. How could one describe David? The most fitting word would be PERFECTION. He had extremely high expectations for himself which made him work almost like a robot, except perhaps with even greater efficiency. He took extra hours and was always highly alert when he was on duty. Theses were things that he couldn’t help but doing due to his immense sense of responsibility for other people’s lives. Perhaps he was too sensitive to work as a doctor, but he never told anyone about this, nor about his anxiety. He wanted to be perceived as strong.

David often felt exhausted, but he always carried on. His life was good. There was plenty of hard work, but this was the kind of life that many people dreamt about. He had a beautiful fiancee who took care of the house and with whom he was planning a joint future, he had financial security, and on top of all of that he felt fulfilled in his career. There were frequent meet-ups with the family as well. Less time was available for friends, with the exception of Max, of course.

When he turned 18, David received access to the family savings account, only for himself. Thankfully he was a practical guy and hadn’t touched nearly any of it since then. No one, except for Max, not even Cassie, knew how much he had. He had planned to make his first large purchase. After seeing how much Cassie had loved the previous house they saw, he planned to buy it this week and tell her two months later, on the day of their wedding. She’ll be overjoyed.

David scooped up some mozzarella and pasta with his fork and took a quick bite. He was almost done. Cassie was an amazing cook. This shouldn’t come as such a surprise, seeing as she had worked near a kitchen for nearly ten years, ever since she was 18. She laughed that she had never learned to cook, but somehow the food turned out well.

“Cassie, can I have a brownie please!” Max laughed.

David quickened his pace at those words and finished up his dinner.

“Me too, please!”

Cassie served them each three pieces of cake, and took two for herself. She poured hot, melted chocolate onto the cold brownie. Her dessert was pure delight.

“You know what the best part of my job is?” Max paused to ask.

“You can schedule free time in whenever you want to,” David cut in. “Yes, we know. You say that too much.”

“I really feel sorry for you sometimes, my friend. I don’t know anyone who works as much as you do. I think there’s a name for something like that,” Max said.

“Workaholic?” Cassie laughed.

“I do it for you, sweetie,” he said, giving her a wink.

“Are there any more brownies?” Max asked.

“You still have a full plate,” Cassie laughed.

“I’m just asking for future reference.”

“There are three more pieces left.”

“If you guys have nothing against it, I call dibs on all three.”

“I’m fine with that,” David said.

“I am not. You can have two. I’ll leave the other one for myself to have in the evening,” Cassie added with a smile.

Max pretended like he was offended, and then turned to his plate.

“So you’re staying with me for another half year,” he added sadly. “And who’s gonna cook for me?”

“Find yourself a wife, pal. Besides, you’ll visit us at least once a month. It’s only a four drive,” Cassie smiled.

“Yeah, Max. We want live close by to Cassie’s family. And anyway, Atlanta’s awesome. I only wish that you wanted to come with us, too.”

“Don’t say that I don’t want to, I just can’t. You know the situation with my mom. She’s the most important to me.”

Max’s father died of a heart attack a couple of years ago, and his mother was diagnosed with benign tumor. Max was very stressed by the whole situation. He rented out an apartment next to the hospital and visited her daily, if only for a moment. She only had him. He was an only child, like David.

“Last time I told you that she was getting better, but it turns out that she felt worse.

“I’m really sorry to hear that,” David said.

“No, I’m sorry, let’s change the subject. We talk about this too much recently. There’s no point in talking in circles. It’s your anniversary.”

“Don’t apologize.”

The atmosphere became somewhat heavier. Max tried to keep his negative thoughts away and talk about something more pleasant. He relaxed and started to bombard his friends with questions.

“You know who I’ll miss the most when you leave? Didi.”

David shook his head pitifully and looked over at the white cat. Didi was a fluffy Persian, who was currently eating some chicken jelly. Cleaning up her fur was always a hassle in the house, but David really loved that cat. His parents bought her for him ten years ago. He didn’t even remember how she ended up living with him permanently. Now he didn’t have the heart to give her away. She behaved more like a dog and always greeted him when he came home. She purred, fawned, and followed him from room to room. She slept on a pouf cushion in their room.

“Well that’s just great,” David laughed, “twenty years of friendship gone to waste.”

They talked for a long time, reminiscing about old times and school. Then they watched a movie and drank lots of iced tea. Cassie put the plates away into the dishwasher. It was getting dark outside.

“What time’s your reservation?” Max looked at his watch. “Not too long now. We’ll have to get going soon.”

“It’s at 7:30,” Cassie replied.

“Hmm, Cassie, I’ll take him home. I’ll be back in some 10 minutes.”

“Okay, I’ll start getting ready.”

The two friends headed out and Cassie trotted upstairs. They locked the doors and turned toward the sidewalk on the left side. Ever since Max moved closer to the hospital, he lived closer to them as well.

They talked a bit more about manly things and joked around some. David said goodbye and turned around. He was at his doorstep in a few minutes.

Cassie, as a woman, wasn’t quite ready yet. She put on some light make-up and got dressed in an elegant maroon dress. Then she touched up her eyeliner, bringing out her light blue eyes. Now, in a slight chaos, she was running around looking for her gold earrings. Five minutes later and she’d found them. She quickly brushed through her straight blonde hair and sprayed the top of her head with dry shampoo, adding some volume. Then, on went high black heels, a black coverlet on her arms, and a gold necklace.

David gasped in awe at the sight of her. She dressed quite nicely on a daily basis, but rather modestly. He loved special occasions and the way she looked when she attended them. He hugged her and gave her a purse.

David glanced in the mirror at the two of them. Cassie looked like an angel, and he was rather dark with brown hair, hazel eyes, and a black suit.

They locked the door and hopped in to their taxi. They had planned to have a little extra wine today.

Their date took place in a quaint Italian restaurant. Inside, the colors brown and red dominated. They sat down at their reserved, wooden table and started reading over the menu. They decided they’d both have the same dish. David politely called over the waiter and placed the order for both of them.

He lit the candle on their table.

Cassie really respected people in from her profession. She recalled her early beginnings, the hard work, and the occasional unhappy customers. What frustrated her the most was that she couldn’t react like she wanted to in those situations. In real life, she would never allow herself to be swept aside. She was strong, but at her job as a waitress she sometimes needed to play meek, even if the client didn’t deserve it. Restaurant management repeated this often, so she listened to them. She valued her work and took it seriously. In the beginning, it was really difficult for her. She didn’t have many material things. All she had was a strong desire to work, resilience, and patience. She became a living example that you really can achieve success. She managed to escape her previous life, and had become truly happy after being promoted to manager.

The two of them reminisced about the beginnings of their relationship. He poked fun at himself, and told her how he’d hesitated to approach her for half a year because she made him so nervous. He decided to set a goal for himself, though. He wanted at least to try, and he finally mustered up the courage. It was much easier from then on. He knew that they could comfortably talk with each other, so he asked her out for coffee. He still felt a twinge of shyness, but this only increased his feelings for her. They began seeing each other more often, getting to know each others interests and personalities, eventually becoming closer. After a few months, they officially became a couple. They reminisced about their trip to Paris, about sightseeing the Notre Dame, the Louvre, Champs-Elysees, and their picnic under the Eiffel Tower. They also dined around some multicultural restaurants during their visit. They tried Italian, Spanish, Parisian, Chinese, and Greek – all in one day. This was their first trip together to Europe.

The waiter put a pause in their reminiscing. He brought the warm part of the meal.

He placed pasta with king prawns, cocktail sauce and a bottle of white wine. Next to that, he served them a mini pizza on thick crust with chopped turkey, tofu, lamb’s lettuce, and pear, which came with a small jar of garlic cream sauce.

They paused their conversation and started to eat. The portions were just right, not too big.

They exchanged thoughts on the food. It was very well seasoned.

After about 15 minutes, they were finished. The waiter took their plates and quickly returned with dessert.

He placed their plates – covered in a cloche – on the table. They lifted the covering up.

The dessert was made up of two large scoops of homemade ice-cream – mango with orange and raspberry with white chocolate. They were sprinkled with a touch of stevia leaves and edible flowers. Next to the ice cream, ther was a small cup of hot, white chocolate with maple syrup.

They started by drinking the hot delight.

The ice cream itself wasn’t so sweet. After a nibble of dessert, they could taste the slightly bitter taste of stevia, which turned sweet after a few moments.

They smiled at their plates, and then at each other. They loved this. Some people had climbing as a hobby, while they loved to experiment with flavors in restaurants. They tried to eat out three times a week and try a new place out at least once a month. The one they were sitting at right now was in their top five favorites. The chef regularly added new items to the menu or changed the existing ones up a bit. There were some really original combinations here.

The smiles didn’t leave their faces. They ordered hot tea and stayed another hour.

“I can’t wait until we start a family together. You make me feel like the happiest woman on earth. When we finally have a child, I’ll be the happiest woman in the universe,” she said lovingly.

They started trying for kids not too long ago. They were both 28 and decided that there was no need to wait any longer for this. Their wedding was in two months.

“I love you you,” he replied equally as lovingly.

“I read that women who ate foods rich in phytohormones had a greater chance of having a girl.”

“And what about a boy?”

“I’d like to have a girl. I’ll be asking you to jump to the store for tofu,” she laughed.

“I’ll try to remember that. For a son.”

“We can try for a son the second time around.”

“Or now,” he laughed and gave her a lush look. “Maybe we should get going home now?”

She blushed and nodded with a smile. They thanked for their delicious meal and left a tip. The taxi showed up soon after and took them home.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 8

 

 

6 MONTHS LATER, MARCH 2007

 

 

 

“Have you seen my phone anywhere?” David asked.

“It’s probably where it always is,” Cassie replied.

“Meaning?”

“Check in the living room.”

“Okay.”

David started getting ready for work. He took a quick shower, combed his hair, got dressed and went down to the living room.

“Could you call my phone?”

Cassie stood next to the hot pan and didn’t even think about leaving it there without her watchful eye.

“Please.”

“Okay, okay.”

She dialed up his number and made a quick call. The ringer went off in the living room. David went up to the white leather sofa, lifted up the cushion and thanked Cassie.

She returned to her cooking.

“What have you got cooking there?” He asked interested.

“Some pancakes with brown rice, mascarpone and fig jam.”

“Great.”

“Five more minutes, I need to cook them all the way.”

Cassie wasn’t in a rush. That was just her style. When she was at work, she tried to take care of everything as quickly as possible. When she was at home, though, she usually saved her energy and took things slower. She got dressed only after breakfast. Until then, she walked around in light pyjamas and a thick blue bathrobe.

She started to serve the pancakes – three for herself and five for David. Two spoonfuls of mascarpone and a dollop of jam. She sprinkled everything with stevia. Then she made them each a cup of sweet tea and took everything to the big glass table. The living room had plenty of big glass windows with a view on their small garden.

Today was a cooler day than usual. David turned on some extra heating and directed it as Cassie’s legs, knowing how much she liked that. She always had colder hands and feet.

It was seven on the clock. David started work at 8. They got to eating their breakfast. When they finished, they talked some about work. Cassie still worked as the manager, but she dreamt about having her own restaurant. She knew that she needed to wait a few more years, though.

Cassie started her job at lunch time, at 12 o’clock, and finished at 10.

David reached for the newspaper and briefly read over the headlines. He quickly put it down and started to get ready to leave.

Cassie kissed him goodbye on the cheek. He got into his SUV right on time at 7:40.

 

***

 

Their wedding took place several months later in a small hotel banquet hall. They didn’t want anything too stuffy. Cassie didn’t even buy a white dress. Instead, she wore a beige dress just below the knee. The only guests were their family and a few friends. The entire ceremony could be described as quaint. To finish off the day, they had a lovely joint dinner together.

She loved David. He made her happy, and she made him as well. She had noticed, however, that something just wasn’t right recently. Their relationship had been very smooth for the past several years. She couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Maybe after marriage, people changed slightly, became less involved? Or, after several years, something between them had burned out. People changed throughout their whole lives, of course, but she had a feeling that it was something else.

David had been acting strangely for the past two, three months. She had the impression that he was isolating himself from her. He would sometimes be overcome with aggression, and then burst out in tears afterward, which never happened to him before. He yelled at her, and then he calmed down, explaining to her that he didn’t know what had come over him. He seemed increasingly more distant. Cassie was upset because their work schedules already left them with very little time during which they could be together. She decided to try her best and let him know that she was ready to work on their relationship. She endured his emotional bursts because she knew that his job was very stressful. She loved him and wanted to support him, no matter what. That’s what real marriage looked like.

 

***

3 MONTHS LATER

 

 

The home move was taking longer than expected. Cassie and David decided to postpone it for another half year. David had bought the house that they liked the most, but didn’t tell Cassie about it – even after their wedding.

Maybe because he had doubts? He wasn’t completely sure about the move, but he knew that it was important to her. She thought that David also wanted this, because he confirmed it himself. He needlessly told her that some changes would do them good. Besides, they were already looking for houses and had established some things with her family in Atlanta. Everything was planned. He didn’t want to let her down.

Maybe it was something else, though. It wasn’t about Cassie. She was the most important person in his life. He noticed that he was the one who was going through some troubling things.

He had considered himself a very stable person his whole life, but recently things had begun to change. He had no idea what to do with himself. It was as if he was disappearing, and in his place there appeared an aggressive imposter over which he had no control. During these times, horrible thoughts took seed in his mind. When the attack had receded, and he realized what he had just done and thought, he began to panic. It was as if his complete opposite suddenly took over, and he had no control over it. At all.

He thought to go to a psychiatrist or psychologist, or even to some form of anger management, but he was afraid that people would find out. His greatest fear was lack of control. He was terrified because these outbursts were becoming more frequent, and occurring on a regular basis. He had an idea to cut down his hours at work, but this didn’t help much. The attacks came more often, which made him feel like someone with a psychiatric disorder.

He grew somewhat distant from Cassie. He wanted to take care of this problem first. It also became problematic at his work. He had been close to making a significant mistake and nearly killing killing a person on the operating table. In this extreme situation, however, he managed to control his anger somehow. He didn’t know what to do so he acted is if nothing were wrong.

He feared that the move would only make things worse. The idea of staying put in a safe place was more appealing. He convinced Cassie to take their time on Atlanta and not to wait a bit longer.

They were supposed to spend the rest of their lives in that place, after all.

 

***

ONE MONTH LATER

 

 

David was especially tired today. After a ten hour work day, he felt even more exhausted than he had before he decreased his hours and worked twelve hour shifts.

He took a nap for two hours. The alarm went of at 8 p.m.

He felt slightly more regenerated, so he decided to surprise Cassie and make her some supper himself.

Usually, they would order it from a restaurant since both of them came home so late.

David knew how to cook, but not too many things. He would sometimes watch Cassie and she would teach him basic dishes. He knew that he would never be able to match her skills, but he wanted to make a nice gesture.

He laughed to himself and decided that he would make some pizza. He had just under two hours until Cassie got back, so he reached into the cabinets for the ingredients. He couldn’t remember the exact proportions for the dough, so he took out her recipe diary to check.

He prepared the crust, the tomato sauce with basil, cut up the cheddar, peppers, onion, baked chicken, black olives, sprinkled everything with parmesan and placed it in the oven.

In the meantime, he prepared the sauce. He poured some yogurt into a bowl, a spoonful of mayonnaise, half a glass of pizza flavored ketchup, a large spoonful of garlic, and stirred everything up in quick movements. He tried it and was happy with the taste. The mix was poured into a sauce bowl and into the fridge it went.

As an evening snack, he reheated some broccoli soup for himself.

You could say that right after work, food was the second most important part of their lives. Cassie loved to cook, and David loved that she loved to cook. He was her own private culinary critic.

He waited impatiently until supper was ready. Fascinated, he came up and peered into the oven every five minutes or so, checking how the pizza looked in each phase of its development, not unlike a child. He slightly opened the oven to take a closer look, but then he remembered that he shouldn’t. Cassie never let him do this and she often repeated that it makes the heat escape. He smiled as he reminisced.

Finally. The pizza preparation had taken him about an hour and a half in total. Cassie would be home soon after 10. He set the table. The supper remained in the warm oven, waiting for his wife to arrive.

She was home. He greeted her with a sweet tea. He proudly announced what was prepared for supper. Cassie praised him and gave him a kiss, but it was apparent that she wasn’t really in the mood.

“Is everything okay?” He asked her.

“I had a tough day. I don’t want to talk about it,” she said with a weak smile.

They sat down at the table, and David quickly served them. Cassie took two pieces on her plate, poured some sauce over them and quickly ate. When she finished, she thanked him and placed her dishes in the dishwasher.

“Hmm, maybe we could speed up our move a bit?” She asked from behind the counter.

“Why?”

“Honestly, I’m tired of my job. I’d like to start fresh somewhere else.”

“What happened today?”

“Just usual restaurant problems and issues with a client.”

“And more specifically?”

“It’s not important.”

“It seems like it is.”

“Let’s go to bed.”

“Please Cassie, tell me what’s going on.”

She looked into the distance and started to think. After several seconds she spoke up.

“One of the hotel managers tried to make some moves on me today. Disgusting situation,” she said not looking at him.

David violently got up from the table, aghast.

“Which one was it?” he yelled.

He came up to the counter.

“I handled it myself. I slapped him. He just ruined my mood for the rest of the day.”

“Who was it?” he asked furiously. “I’ll show him.”

“See? That’s why I didn’t want to tell you. I know you want to protect me, but it’s over. I’d rather keep this a secret, and if you go and do something then the whole hotel will find out.”

He was overcome with fury, first for the man that had attacked his wife, and second for Cassie. He felt that he was losing his self-control. Irrational thoughts and insinuations began to fill his mind. He was about to get an attack. He turned toward the stairs so that he could calm down in the bedroom, but before he reached them he already felt not like himself.

He turned around facing her and starting yelling. Even when he was angry he never managed to cross certain boundaries. Something inside of him today burst, however. He started name-calling Cassie, accusing her of cheating and protecting her lover’s name.

She stood there frozen and didn’t know what to say. She didn’t recognize the man with whom she had decided to spend the rest of her life with. She began to defend herself.

David came up to her and did something he shouldn’t have. He threw her at the refrigerator and grabbed her by the neck. She tried to break free but he held her too tightly. She was paralyzed and started to cry. At last, she broke out of his grip and ran straight ahead. David ran after her. He grabbed her by the hand and pulled on her so that she jerked around to face him. Next he struck her in the cheek. She fell onto the ground.

David stood for a moment, bemused. Cassie took advantage of the moment, crawled quickly to the bathroom and locked herself in.

He ran up to the door and started shouting at her, yelling that she was guilty.

Full of tears, she called Max. Three minutes later, he ran into their house, breathless. He sprinted over there, without even thinking about locking his house.

He saw something unimaginable in front of him. His best friend was kicking the doors to the bathroom and calling out his wife’s name. Max called him over and started yelling at him to calm down.

David started taking his aggression out on Max. He even tried to hit him, but failed to. His friend had once practiced some martial arts and knew how to defend himself. He tried to throw himself at Max again, so Max punched him with a fist in the face. He stood alert and yelled at him to calm down.

David was kneeling down on the floor. He was breathing heavily. The attack was coming to an end, and he had only now come to realize what had happened.

He began to cry, understanding now that he had hurt his wife, and realized that he could have done much worse had she not locked herself in the bathroom.

He apologized to Max, who was still eyeing him distrustfully. He knew that nothing would be the same from now on. He had crossed a line, but the other two didn’t know that he didn’t do so deliberately.

Cassie lightly opened the door and observed them from afar. David saw fear in her eyes and felt horrible. The feeling of guilt was crushing him. He apologized to her loudly, but she didn’t respond.

“Get out,” Max said.

David didn’t seem to hear.

“Get out of there,” he repeated more confidently.

More tears streamed down David’s face. He quickly got up, put on a hooded sweatshirt, took his coat, apologized again and ran to his car.

 

*****

 

It was now 11 p.m. He wandered around the streets of Nashville, not knowing what to do with himself.

Just an hour ago his life seemed perfect. He had everything and lost it within just several minutes.

He stopped the car next to a dark alley. Nothing mattered to him anymore. He stopped crying but he still felt awful. His eyes wandered around the street.

Someone tapped on his window.

He lowered it. Now he clearly saw a young man in a dark sweatshirt.

“Eighty dollars?” he asked.

David took out his money without thinking. The boy reached in through the crack in the window and took the money, placing it inside his bag and quickly turned around the other way.

He was now looking at his thighs. There was a packet sitting on them. David recognized what it was. He felt hopeless, and thought that it really couldn’t get worse.

He grabbed his purchase and took the drug – for the first time in his life.

He always tried to stay away from trouble. He didn’t get drunk, smoke cigarettes, and never took illegal substances. He had the reputation of the perfect son, husband and friend. People were actually quite jealous of him. At this moment, though, nothing mattered to him. He had never felt like this before. He imagined that this is what a nervous breakdown looked like.

He took the keys out of his car and put his hood on over his head. He rolled up the window and locked the car from the inside. He was now out on a buzzing street.

He experienced strange sensations that he’d never felt before, and knew about only from other people’s stories. Most importantly, he felt distracted. He couldn’t focus on his problems now. Everything started to feel more tolerable. He straightened himself out in his seat and started to breathe deeply.

Someone knocked at his window. He wanted to have at least a moment of peace. He opened his eyes and saw a police officer, around sixty years old. David’s mouth opened slightly ajar in uneasiness. The policeman knocked again, so he lowered the window.

“Please step out of the car.”

“Is something wrong?”

“Please step out, sir.” He raised his voice.

David was high at the moment. He wasn’t fully thinking logically and opened the door obediently. He stepped out and the officer immediately noticed that he was under the influence. He noticed the packet laying on the passenger seat.

Anger began to rise in David. He felt completely unhinged and wasn’t sure what was reality and what was a hallucination.

“How are you doing Mr. Government? Havin’ a good day?” He started joking around.

The police officer turned him towards the car and grabbed his hands behind him. He managed to cuff one of them. David yanked the other one out and pushed the officer away. He started to laugh and pretended like he was going to jump the policeman. He stretched out his hands and came closer to him, still giggling.

The officer wasn’t smiling, however. He took out his gun and aimed at his heart. He told him to get back in his car and place his hands on the hood. David did as he asked and thought that his new friend was ruining all the fun.

He came up to the guilty party and put down his weapon.

David suddenly turned around. When the gun was once again pointed in his direction, he forcefully took the man’s hand and yanked it out. He fell to the ground, grabbed the weapon and pointed it at the police officer.

“Hands on the vehicle,” he said seriously.

“Don’t be stupid, boy. I already wrote down your registration number. Don’t make your situation worse than it already is.”

David felt another attack coming on. Something bad had started to take over him. He felt a terrible anger towards the man standing in front of him. Not only was his private life shattered in pieces, but this man had the intention to pull him down even further. He stopped thinking and gave in to his emotions.

He gave away two shots in his chest. The man fell to the ground. David lowered the weapon, maybe because of the loud noise, or maybe because a flash of humanity that passed through him. He didn’t realize the reality of the situation…

He got into his car and drove to a nearby hotel.

He paid in cash and collapsed into bed.

 

***

The phone.

David quickly got up. He looked around the room. Not much of last night remained in his memory. He grabbed the phone and saw that it was noon. 12 missed calls. A few from the hospital, a few from Max, and a few from Cassie.

In the blink of an eye, the events of the previous night came back to him. The argument with Cassie, the fighting, drugs, and…

The police officer?

Did that really happen?

He ran to get his sweatshirt, but decided that it’d be best if he kept it off. He rolled it up and grabbed it in his hands. He put on his coat and ran out of the motel. There wasn’t any police around. He ran up to his SUV. The packet of drugs was still there on the passenger seat. Not thinking, he drove to the spot of yesterday’s events. He needed to know if it had been a hallucination. Yesterday he thought that it couldn’t get worse, but now he really understood what real fear felt like.

His stomach was tightly straining. He saw police cars from afar. He slowed his car down to get a better look.

The police officer wasn’t there, but there was a big red stain on the road. Oh God, he must have killed a man.

David began to sweat. He would have to give himself up to the police. They would find him anyway. They would definitely reach him. His entire world had just fallen apart. He decided that there’s no point in delaying it. He felt awful. This was beyond him. He decided that he had ruined everything, so he should at least act responsibly now.

He abruptly turned his car around, and his eyes glazed over. His breathe quickened.

He stopped in front of the scene of the crime, stepped out of the car and walked up to the nearest police officer.

He admitted what he’d done.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 9

 

 

8 YEARS LATER, YEAR 2015

 

 

David was sentenced to 14 years in prison. The police officer had survived, but his account of the event had compromised the accused. The attempted murder of the officer as well as possession of drugs was handled rather leniently. He wasn’t persecuted, he confessed himself, and carried out the crime under the influence of mind altering substances, which dismissed the possibility of a premeditated attack.

He disappointed everybody. His family still couldn’t believe what had happened, although they visited him regularly. David’s mom was particularly upset. She came to see him less often than his father. They couldn’t allow themselves to just abandon him, and they knew that he must be feeling guilty inside. He was their child.

The first half year was intensely difficult. Cassie cut herself off from him. She only came by once with Max to let him know that she was filing for divorce. She said that she didn’t want any money from him. Each of them would keep their own savings. Due to the fact that the house belonged to David, she would move out during the week. He didn’t want that, however, just like he didn’t want the divorce, but he bent to her will and his friend’s advice. He impulsively signed the papers and after consulting with his lawyer, he gave the house to Cassie. Maybe it was due to the guilt that he felt, or maybe because she wanted to remember his last gesture as a positive one. Max also stopped contacting him after that visit.

The prison wasn’t easier. He needed to build up a reputation in order to stay out of danger. The beginning especially was marked by small fights in order to keep the peace in the future. He signed up to work as a volunteer, stayed in shape at the gym, visited the library, and generally tried to stay away from trouble.

He used to work over a dozen hours a day, but now he had to get used to a much lazier lifestyle. He still tried to remain active, but he gave up trying to live his life stressed. He had never felt like this before. He went to work only because he wanted to, not because he needed to make money. His food was served to him for free on a tray. He didn’t have to worry about taxes or any other kinds of responsibility. He knew that it was stupid, but calculating things like that uplifted his spirits. He tried to focus on the positive and fit in as best as he could in order not to lose his mind completely.

He didn’t manage to do so very often. Most of the time, he felt frustrated because of Cassie, his career, Max and his uncontrolled attacks, which just kept getting worse by the year. It was a good thing that he was behind bars now. He just needed to keep himself from harming his cellmate. Thankfully, the guy wasn’t very confrontational and they didn’t talk too much with each other, so he didn’t feel the need to lash out at him.

He spent much of his time thinking. He suffered. More than a dozen times, and at least once a month, he wanted to commit suicide, but something held him back. He replayed scenarios in his mind in which he had gone for help for his anger, in which he hadn’t touched Cassie. These thoughts came to him so often, that eventually the feeling of guilt began to fade. Hope was the main thing that kept him going – hope that he would be able to fix his situation, and that his friends and family would forgive him.

He wrote letters to Cassie and sometimes to Max, begging them for forgiveness. He remembered how happy they were together, and asked her to wait and come back to him. He became obsessed on this point, unable to give himself a break. She was the most important person in his life. He sent out several letters each month. Only one reply letter returned, after a year of prison. His heart shattered.

Cassie wrote him that she felt horrible because of what he had done, and asked him to let her go. She didn’t want to be with him and she never would. She wanted to move on without looking back, because she had already suffered enough because of him. To close, she wrote that she didn’t want him to contact her anymore.

He didn’t know how to stop, however. His obsession only grew. He was furious with her one moment, and the next it was Max. At these times, he would write horrible things to them, but when he calmed down he crumpled up the letters and threw them with the rest of the pile in the trash.

He still wrote, every day now, but sent only the letters he thought were good enough about once a month. He didn’t want Cassie to feel ambushed. Sometimes, when the guards weren’t around, he would take out his regret on the other prisoners, starting small scuffles with them. He would occasionally return to his cell with a new bruise on his stomach or a knife wound in his leg.

Years passed with no replies. David became a different person; mentally and physically stronger.

During the course of these several years, he worked out everything and built up his muscle mass. His face hardened and the first signs of wrinkles began to appear. His uncontrolled anger attacks turned into suicide attempts. After five years, however, he had learned to suppress them. This required a significant amount of effort from him. The psychological weight that he had to endure during his attacks nearly crushed him on a few occasions. The only thing that kept him going now was a conditional prison leave and the possibility of seeing Cassie. He still had hope that he could fix things. He only wished that he could see or talk to her. His parents tried not to mention her. Both of them decided that their son has an obsession and he needed to let her go. One day, he couldn’t take their stance anymore and told them not to visit him anymore. He was left alone.

On the horizon, he could now see freedom. He tried to be perfect. Seven years had passed. In December, he had turned thirty-six. If he only tried and carried himself well for the next half year, he would be able to leave prison earlier. This is what he focused on.

He fell into a routine, counting down the days and marking them off in his notebook. He wrote today’s date in it, January 12th.

He would leave prison in July. The excitement steadily rose within him.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 10

 

 

PRESENT DAY, YEAR 2041

 

 

 

A deep breath, soreness, and disorientation. Victoria didn’t know where the pain was coming from. It was in her entire body. As if her insides were exploding. She grimaced.

A sizeable group of teenagers peered into her face. Five minutes of waiting. Finally, the director came in.

“Aaron Rot! Please stand up. Congratulations. You won today’s task, and in addition, a large sum of money,” he said.

Victoria started to scan the room with her eyes.

Aaron was standing in the very top row. His face failed to reveal any emotion. The entire room started to clap. After a moment, he sat down.

Oh, no. She lost. Because he was stabbed in the leg with a dagger and fell. How stupid was that. It was her who actually found the sphere.

Victoria couldn’t shake off the feeling of slight injustice. Next time, she’ll try harder and won’t leave things up to chance. If she loses, she’ll do so because she deserved it, not because of some bad luck. Period, the end.

“There were, however, some special circumstances involved,” he continued. “Today, instead of a second place, there will be two firsts. Victoria Therman, stand up. From Ian’s accounts, as well as the results from the system, it looks like an accelerated activation of your abilities took place. It was you who felt out and found the sphere—and were one of the last few who survived. Congratulations on your first place,” Anthony Bens said.

Oh my. Now she felt justice. So they observe everything in this place. They even know what she’s feeling inside.

The sound of clapping filled of auditorium.

“Second place goes to Tom Scolck. Stand up. You tracked them down, killed many along the way and were second closest to the sphere. Congratulations on your bonus.”

A blonde-haired boy stood up a few seats ahead of her. She didn’t see his face, but she knew that he’d been the one who threw the knife.

“These are the final results,” he pointed to the wall behind him filled with two hundred names.

Victoria couldn’t believe it. Not only did her name appear next to first place, but also to a sum of 520,000 dollars. The hour 11:06 was written below. She’d just made half a million dollars in an hour.

This was unbelievable. Her father had money, but he taught her to respect it, so she had experience working. Her highest salary per hour was 12 dollars. In order to make that much money at her previous rate, she’d have to work 15 years, 7 days a week, 8 hours a day. She’d have to spend half of that on living expenses anyway. In order to save that amount, she’d likely have to work about 30 years.

She felt incredible. Aaron did make 50,000 dollars more, but they both got first place. Only the top three spots won sums with five zeros in them. That Tom Scolck had 300,000, while the others received tens of thousands or several thousand.

More than half of the group had one or two thousand dollars in their accounts. These were the ones who didn’t even make it into the forest or got killed very early on.

“You are all surely very tired, and your bodies must ache. This is perfectly normal during the early stages of simulation. What was the real purpose of this task?” the director asked.

He waited.

“Ian, your coach, kind of gave you a dare. We don’t usually condone killing if a different solution exists. The task was just the background. Ian sharpened the aggression within you, but only by a small notch. You were there just as you are in reality. We wanted to see how you would behave if you were unstoppable, to see who has inclinations towards altruism and who towards violence. Now we know exactly what each of you must work on. We organized a break for you, an integration picnic. Right after our meeting is over, your older colleagues will take you to the Oasis. Goodbye.”

He turned towards the doors behind. That’s where his office must have been, because he always came out of there.

Just like he said, a group of 9-something people and Ian showed up and came for them.

They started to leave. Every now and then, a part of the group stopped next to the transporters with one of the elders.

Victoria stopped with the next group. They entered the transported and began to move.

They exited the capsule and walked into the new sector. It looked different than so far. It was covered in white marble, and plants filled every corner of the space.

They started to walk along the bright hallway, and then turned right.

In the distance, there were big glass doors, aligned with 5 meter-high walls.

The doors opened automatically on their own.

The gates to another world opened.

The space resembled a shopping center, except instead of McDonald’s and shops, there were flowers. Most of the floor was covered in grass, which was cut by pebbled paths from time to time. Trees, shrubs, and flowers in the most diverse colors and shapes you could imagine. There were wooden benches and soft poofs spread throughout the entire space.

Victoria looked up.

The room was about twenty meters high. The sun flooded in through giant, glass dome ceiling. Rock formations were visible on the sides. They were in a kind of crater.

The place was filled with life. Victoria immediately felt great. She began looking into the familiar faces.

“Who are you peering at?” a soft voice asked.

“What?” she turned, to see Ian, who was now looking at her legs coming out of her shorts.

She blushed a little.

“I’m looking for my friends, but it’s hard with so many people in here.”

“I wanted to tell you that I’m impressed. First place in the first task. And in addition to that, you activated the power. That’s rare. I’m almost certain that if it that boy hadn’t fallen on the sphere, the podium would be yours.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right. I forgot that you saw everything. That was your dream. I’m not sure if I would’ve won. Aaron is really well trained, although I’m not sure where he learned all that. Most of us are less prepared, and he looks like he’s been through some kind of special training.”

“That’s because he probably has.”

“How so? I mean he couldn’t have known about this place.”

“Well, you see, we cooperated with your parents and guardians. Besides just raising you, they were supposed to instill in you traits that would be relevant here at the Academy and in your future work. Think about it. What did your father teach you?”

“Martial arts, survival, a love of sports and strategic games,” she understood.

“Most people teach these things. The one who had the strictest coaches in these areas usually do best. I think that this boy had a very tough mother.”

“And father?”

“He doesn’t have one.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, saddened.

“Every person’s life experience tested them in some way,” Ian retorted.

“Hmm. Now everything’s a bit clearer. My father always said that what he taught me will come in handy one day. Even when I couldn’t take it anymore and rebelled, he wouldn’t let me quit. Most of our practices were very exhausting. He was always tough and demanding.”

“Now you have the effects. You still need to work on your emotions,” he showed his white teeth. He was good looking.

“You’re right. It would be nice to beat Aaron,” she said stubbornly. “Do you know anything about him that I should know?”

She asked for research purposes, of course. Well, actually, she just wanted to find out more about him. He really made an impression on her, and she kind of had a thing for him.

“Well, nice! Hmm, I can’t spill too much. Most of the contract information is kept secret. The only thing I can say is that he was raised in Pittsburgh, and that I recently was told that some first bought out an entire room for himself. Only two of them could have afforded something like that. What’s interesting is that this pair was sharing a room together. Aaron was most likely the one who moved out. No one wants to live with someone who threw a knife at you.”

“Wow.”

“He’s smart. His rival won’t be able to observe all of his progress and his daily schedule.”

“Changing the subject – how old are you?” Victoria asked.

“Twenty-two,” Ian laughed. “How old do I look?”

“Something around there,” she smiled. “I’m just wondering why you’re here. They told us that at that age we’d be sent out on a mission.”

“I’ve got a year long internship here. I’ll be your coach. I fought really hard to get this gig. This is one of the best available jobs for someone like us.”

“Why?”

“I wanted to take a break from stress. Besides, they pay similar salaries, but I can’t really talk about that. For now, at least,” he winked.

Was he flirting with her?

“Do you want to hear something interesting?” he asked.

She nodded.

“We’re inside of a mountain, which you already know. Do you see the ceiling and the sun? Take a closer look. The sun looks very real, but it’s actually fake.”

It really was. When you squinted your eyes and took a closer look, you could see metal parts.

“I forgot to tell you why I came to talk to you.”

He came to talk to her on purpose. He was definitely flirting.

“In the Academy, there’s something like a club for novices with potential. Each year, they accept people who exhibit exceptional skills. It usually takes a while longer for the best to reveal themselves, but in your case, the place is basically set in stone. That’s why,” he took out a piece of paper from behind, “I’m giving you this.”

There was a code made up of letters and numbers on the paper. Victoria looked at it questioningly.

“This is the key to the club. This place isn’t on the map. When you enter the capsule, you have to unwind the keyboard and type in this code. Don’t show it to anyone. Remember it and destroy it. We meet everyday after lessons.”

“Mysteries everywhere.”

Victoria felt excited at this thought.

“Do you want me to reveal another mystery?” he asked.

She was waiting impatiently.

“When we were in the dream, one boy thought that the misfit item was an old rain boot. I needed to jump in and intervene so he wouldn’t make a laughing stock of himself,” he burst out laughing.

Victoria rang in laughter, she must have heard correctly.

“I’m happy we got to know each other,” she said.

“I’ll see you later,” he promised.

“See ya,”” she smiled.

This school wasn’t so bad, she thought. I think I’ll be friends with him.

When he walked off, Victoria noticed Morgan. His Latino look automatically caught her eye. His light tan and characteristic facial features set him apart from the others, especially from short, red-haired Andrew, who was standing next to him.

“Hey guys!”

“Morgan, our hamster’s here. Where are your fat little cheeks?” Drew joked.

“I got plastic surgery. How’d it go for you?”

“We both got into the first one hundred. Drew got into the top twenty. I didn’t make too much. This time.”

“I got 11th place. As you can see, I only pretend to be the dumber one,” Drew added. “And now, will you tell us the secret to your success?” he continued.

“You’ve just got to be me,” she sighed.

“But seriously?”

“At first, I was terrified and I couldn’t even accept the mere thought of killing someone. But soon after, a lightbulb went off. You’ve got to give everything you’ve got. It’s either them or me. I think that besides the determination, it was all down to my rollercoaster emotions. Most people I met weren’t in control of themselves. I managed to gain control, and then I met a boy who helped me.”

“Let me guess, the one who got the sphere? You found it, and he took it from you, right under your nose?” Morgan asked.

“You only know part of the story,” she replied.

She wasn’t going to tell anyone exactly how he got it. It’s better that they don’t believe that he just got lucky.

“We decided that we’d find the object together, and then the quicker person would grab it. He’s well trained and I can only congratulate him.”

“Honorable woman,” Drew stated.

“You should know. Do you guys have any idea where Sarah or Scarlett is?”

“Sarah said she was going to her room because she didn’t feel that well. Scarlett should be around here somewhere. I saw her not too long ago,” Andrew drew a circle with his hand.

“If I were you, I’d go to Sarah first. She may need some support. She was pretty upset,” Morgan said.

“I’ll do that. See you later boys,” she waved.

Victoria turned to the doors. She was admiring the flowers. Some people were sitting on a bench, others on the grass. Many were following her with their gaze. She pretended that she didn’t notice.

At that moment, or actually, ever since she woke up in the airplane with her father, her senses had intensely sharpened. Following this task, they became rather uncontrollable. The sun. The sound of calm music. Trees and plants in the room that were thriving with life. She began to notice more. To experience joy and to appreciate nature and life.

As she walked, she looked around the room. Maybe it was stupid, but she was searching for Aaron. She thought about the moment they met, and how he had caught her when she fell. Their faces were so close to one another. For a moment, she felt as if he’d given her access to peer deep within him. She wondered when they’d meet again.

She walked the great corridor until she reached the capsule entrance. She chose the female room sector and her hair hung in the air for a moment.

Barely a moment had passed, and she was already at her door. She placed her hand toward the scanner.

She entered and saw Sarah laying on the bed with a listless face.

“Hey,” Victoria said. “How are you feeling?”

“Not great,” she muttered.

A momentary silence fell.

“Because of you I’m almost the very last.”

“I’m sorry about that, but it’s not my fault.”

She abruptly got up off of the bed and scanned Victoria with her gaze. She didn’t say anything.

“I don’t know why you’re so upset. First of all, nobody asked you to throw yourself at me. I was supposed to just stand there and wait until you hurt me? If you hadn’t attacked me, we could have helped each other. And second, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Don’t take everything so personally.”

“You’re saying that because you won. Now, what? You think that you’re better and you have the right to preach to me?”

Victoria froze. She hadn’t known her very long, but she didn’t expected this from her.

“That’s not at all what I think, but I see that I can’t convince you of anything. To be honest, it’s your fault. I’m disappointed in the way you’re acting. You provoked me, and now you’re throwing baseless accusations at me. You could have chosen help instead of throwing yourself at me like some savage. Everyone has a choice.”

“Sure. I would’ve walked up to you, and you would’ve done your thing. You may look sweet, but there’s something off with you when you look closer. Get out of my face.”

Victoria started to get upset.

“You must’ve been blind. I wasn’t sneaking up on you, I was just getting up off of the ground and waving to you. And you only see ulterior motives here. Let’s end this conversation because it’s really becoming ridiculous. I was wrong about you. Stop putting the blame on others and grow up. I didn’t know that you could be so jealous.”

Sarah laughed.

“Definitely not jealous of you.”

Victoria glared at her. Hatred was seeming out of Sarah.

“I’m not going to argue. Maybe you were listening, but you still don’t understand what I mean.”

“So now I’m stupid? Stupid and jealous?” Sarah said, provoking her.

Victoria rolled her eyes, went up to her closet and took out a sweatshirt.

“I won’t continue this conversation anymore. It’s not getting us anywhere. I’m going out.”

“Too bad you’ll have to come back,” Sarah snapped.

“I won’t have to do anything. Goodbye,” Victoria snapped back.

She went outside.

What a human. She just ruined her terrific day. There was no way that she was going to spend any more time with her.

Victoria knew exactly what she was going to do.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 11

 

 

 

“Yes, I like this one,” Victoria pointed to a picture of a nice, big room. The space was set up in maroon-black tones with elements of gold.

“One year’s rent is 60,000 dollars.”

This was one of the cheapest option, but for her it was a ton of money. She’d normally move in with Scarlett, but her new roommate had just arrived, and all of the other girls were already paired off. She had to choose between her jealous friend or a check.

She thought about Sarah again. No way. She was not going to spend any more time getting upset over this toxic person who argued aimlessly.

“I’ll take it. Right away for two years.”

“Please sign here,” a blonde haired woman pointed out in the contract.

Victoria was now in a place you could call the school’s secretarial offices. The sector consisted of a row of large rooms. This is where the staff observed and controlled them.

A short, slim woman placed the paper in a reader.

“The computer will transfer the information into the system and encode it straight away. When you get to your room, the scanner will recognize you and the doors will open. Could you tell us the precise reason why you’re choosing to do this?” she asked.

“I just like to have my own space,” she said nonchalantly.

“That’s fine. That will be all. We’ll move your things momentarily.”

“Thank you, m’am,” she smiled lightly.

They said goodbye, and Victoria thought abut how nice it was that her new room was so far away from her old.

She arrived at room number 161. Just like the lady had said, the scanner recognized her.

She could finally bask in her solitude.

She remembered what Ian had said about living alone: it kept her progress and results hidden from her rivals. She felt more confident and laid down on the bed. She deserved some rest.

Ignoring the fact that she didn’t wash the make-up off of her face, Victoria tucked in for a nice, long nap.

 

***

 

The next day, she quickly got out of bed, took a shower, and got dressed in a full body black jumpsuit. It had extra belts sewn into the back and hips for weapons.

She arrived at breakfast on time, and noticed Drew and Morgan sitting at a table together. She was going to greet them, but Sarah sat down and joined their table. She looked at her and immediately turned toward the food dispensers.

There was no need for her unnecessary drama.

Victoria took her food tray and started walking slowly through the dining hall. She saw a group of people with mohawks, pink hair, and earrings on the left. She walked further toward the doors, but the idea of joining a random table made her feel weird. She didn’t see Scarlett anywhere either. It’s been a while since she’d seen her.

She turned back around and walked toward the end of the hall.

She noticed Aaron and sighed in relief.

He was sitting completely alone next to a small table in the corner of the room, with his back to the wall. He had a view on everyone from where he sat. He was reading something on his tablet.

Victoria cautiously sat down across from him.

He raised his gaze and looked at her strangely. It looked as if he wanted to ask her to leave, but wasn’t sure how to.

Victoria had no intention of going anywhere, so she said hello, dropped her head towards the tray and began eating.

Aaron growled something back at her in greeting, but he kept his head high. He stopped eating and became silent, just observing her.

She wanted to show him that she didn’t care about that. She took her tablet out of her bag and pretended that she was looking at something important.

He returned to his activities.

Victoria chewed slowly and started to read an article about dolphins.

Aaron finished his food and looked at her.

“Looks like you’re reading something interesting,” he chatted her up.

“It’s a secret,” she replied.

He tilted his head and took a closer look.

“Okay, fine. It’s actually not-so-interesting stuff about dolphins.”

“If you want to make progress you’ve got to work on your discretion.”

“And you on your people skills,” she retorted.

She gave a light grin.

“That shouldn’t be a problem for me, if it’s necessary.”

“Maybe the necessity should arise more often.”

He gave a laugh.

“Can I ask you something?” He became serious.

“Go ahead.” She took a sip of water.

“Why did you come sit with me?”

“Because.”

He shook his head with a smile.

“Are you sure you don’t want to elaborate?” he asked.

Victoria paused to decide if it was worth saying anything. He seemed trustworthy from the very beginning, and this didn’t seem like such a big deal. She decided to answer.

“My roommate is fake and aggressive. I have no desire to spend any time around her. She sat down with our friends before I did, so I left. I moved out yesterday.”

“It’s that bad?”

“It’s bad for me. If we were two boys, we would’ve already gotten in a fist fight. Girls use verbal violence. She’s jealous too and she’ll find any excuse for an argument. I can’t stand people like that.”

“What happened?” he asked inquisitively.

“She showed her true nature. During the task in the dream, I was getting up off of the ground and I showed myself to her. I didn’t think that she’d attack me. I thought that we would work together. I killed her so that she wouldn’t kill me. She provoked me, and when I talked to her in our room, all of her anger spilled over on me. Nothing I said resonated with her. She was nice and sweet before. After, though, she became mean and jealous. I got angry and I told her a few harsh things. I won’t tolerate anyone having a go at me with no basis for it. I rented out a room of my own and sat down with you. So that’s it, in a nutshell.”

“Nice.”

“I recommend avoiding her.”

Aaron looked up behind Victoria. She felt someone tapping her shoulder, and turned around.

“Hi, can I join you?”

Scarlett was standing there waiting on a response.

She was naturally pretty, tall, and looked more mature than most of the novices.

“Of course.”

“I didn’t want to interrupt. Keep on talking,” she said timidly.

“I think we pretty much finished the subject,” Victoria said facing Aaron.

“What subject?” Scarlett asked.

“About my ex-roommate.”

“What happened with Sarah?”

“She kind of went off the rails, so I moved out.”

Scarlett froze.

“I thought that she only changed towards me.”

“What did she do to you?” Victoria asked surprised.

“Maybe she has something against women. She said a few mean things. And yesterday, during the task, she threw herself at me out of nowhere and killed me.”

“So that’s why I couldn’t find you anywhere?”

“I wasn’t avoiding you – just her. Something’s off with her.”

“What a jerk. Don’t worry about her. I’ll tell you later what she said to me.” Victoria was upset. “If you ever want to come by my place, I live in room 161 now. We should alert the boys who they’re dealing with later,” Victoria added.

“Today?”

“Yes.”

The girls forgot that they weren’t alone.

“I forgot to introduce you. This is Aaron, and this is Scarlett,” she said.

Aaron nodded his head and reached out for a sturdy handshake.

“Time to get going. Lessons start soon,” he said.

Girls nodded affirmatively.

They put away their things and started to leave. Aaron went ahead of them and lead them to the auditorium. They arrived after several minutes.

They found seats at the very top. Aaron let them go first, and Victoria sat between the two.

Evidently Aaron likes to choose seats where he can keep his eye on everyone. Victoria noticed Morgan and Andrew, and the unfortunate Sarah sitting next to them.

The auditorium filled up. The director came out of his office and greeted everyone. He ordered for the procedures to begin, just like before. The metal rings tightened on their bodies. Now just a prick – Victoria thought.

 

***

 

The new simulation surprised everyone. They woke up in the Academy, in their seats. The metal rings opened up, and the novices waited on further information.

“From now on, all routine simulations will look like this. The purpose is to create a more realistic learning experience, which will allow you to better absorb what you go through. Throughout the next several months, you will just be learning. The next big test awaits you in half a year. This doesn’t mean that it is going to be easy. You really need to apply yourselves. The time you spend learning is of utmost importance. Six months from now, it will be too late,” Anthony Percent explained. “Please make your way into the training hall.”

Everyone got up and went into the capsules.

Victoria held on close to her friends. The were trotting ahead of the group. Large glass doors – about 6 meters high – appeared, just like in the orangery.

They found themselves in the largest and tallest room in the Academy. It had the same glass ceiling and artificial sun like the orangery.

The exercise room was the size of an airport hangar. There were countless stations visible from afar. A shooting range, a makeshift gymnastics area, ten glass oval spaces, and much more.

Ian was standing next to the gymnastics area with 9 other people.

“From now on, you have ten coaches. Yesterday, we checked your predispositions under circumstances in which you had zero preparation. Today, you have a chance for improvement. Your ranking could change depending on how well you do. After training, we’ll split you up into ten groups, twenty people in each. The higher up you are in the ranking, the better group you’ll join. You need to try like never before,” Ian said. “Gather round for a warm-up. We each have stronger bodies than the average person. You have naturally flexible and mandible bodies. The only thing you need to do is wake them up, and tire them out.”

The novices lined up next to one another. They started running 2 kilometer laps right behind the coaches. Ian started the first lap with a trot, then sped up in the second and finally concluded with a sprint in the third. A very fast sprint. He emphasized that they run as fast as they can to their abilities.

Victoria was in the middle of the group, not far from Scarlett. She notices a difference. She felt so light and full of energy. Normally, she’d be out of breath. Now, however, she only felt euphoria.

She watched the novices race against one another. Some of them came up with a contest, but Victoria just basked in the moment and enjoyed her state.

After the 11th lap on the 2 kilometer track, she noticed that she’d started to breathe more heavily. She wasn’t running at her maximum anymore.

Ian yelled at them to keep pushing 4 more laps at their top most speed.

Victoria listened and tried to run further ahead. She passed a few people, but she was still somewhere in the middle. Scarlett was about 10 meters ahead of her.

She began to feel more tired. This definitely wasn’t pleasant anymore, but she still wanted to give it her all.

The thirteenth lap. Blood rushed to every inch of her body.

The fourteenth. It was difficult to breathe now, so she slowed down a little. She wasn’t the worst, but she wasn’t the best either. She was now behind the middle of the group. Far ahead, she saw some blonde boy hastily speed up.

They were now on the fifteenth lap. The boy was running extremely quickly. He’d be fit for an olympic race. She noticed Aaron not far from him, only because the boy hit Aaron with his shoulder. It looked like he did this on purpose.

Aaron sped up, caught up with him, and the two were now running head to head.

They made it.

Aaron lost by merely a meter. Too bad.

Victoria was looking at the finished line like a person on a diet looked at a piece of cake. She couldn’t take it anymore. She increased her speed to get to the finish line quicker. Her cheeks burned from the effort.

She made it.

She immediately went off the side, moved her legs apart, and bent over towards the floor. She laid her hands down in front and kept her head low until her heart slowed down. A terrible and incredible feeling.

Scarlett walked up to her and got into the same position.

“Unbelievable,” she whispered.

“I’d say,” Victoria agreed.

Victoria was looking at everyone upside down. Morgan came into her view. She prodded Scarlett and they both lifted up their heads. She walked up to him and chatted him up.

“Hey, how are you feeling?”

“Oh, hey Victoria. Good, and you?” he asked.

He looked at her strangely. Maybe the other one had gossiped to him about something.

“Same. Everything okay?”

“Everything’s good with me, but I heard what you did to Sara. That wasn’t okay,” he started quietly.

“Ah, and what did she tell you?” She wrinkled her eyebrows.

“It doesn’t matter. This is between the two of you. I’ve gotta go,” he added nervously.

“It does matter. Since she talked to you behind my back, I want to know what she said,” she persisted.

“Well, basically, you killed her during the task. I know that’s what the whole point of the task was, but friends shouldn’t do that to one another. Especially since she peacefully came to you, thinking that you wouldn’t harm her. She said that afterward, you insulted her for now reason and finally moved out without saying a word. That’s not alright,” he replied worriedly.

Victoria was getting upset, but she didn’t want to lose her self-control. She didn’t want him to think of her as explosive.

Scarlett was listening in silence waiting on Victoria’s reaction.

“You know what? I really have no words,” she muttered tiredly. “That girl manipulates people. She’s mean and fake.”

“She said the same thing about you. I know you killed her, I asked Ian, the instructor.”

“I didn’t say that I didn’t. She just twisted the whole story. It was me who came to her and she threw herself at me. She provoked me and I had to kill her, because she would’ve done the same to me. When I tried to explain that to her, she started to spit her venom my way. I decided that I didn’t want to live with someone like that. And she insulted Scarlett and didn’t let her sit with you guys,” she snorted with contempt.

“It’s true,” a girl confirmed.

“She thinks that Scalett insulted her, which is why she told her to stay away,” he replied listlessly. “Listen, Victoria. I don’t want you to come and talk to me anymore. I don’t have anything against you, but it’s easy to tell who’s telling the truth here.”

She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Her eyes bulged. She was tired.

“I see that it doesn’t matter what I say, you won’t believe me anyway. You take her words as the truth, only because she got to you before I did – and that’s your mistake. You don’t want any contact with me. That’s fine. Just remember this conversation when she betrays you or treats you badly, and go ask Ian again. Don’t ask him who killed who, but how it happened. Bye,” she replied sadly.

“Victoria’s right, ask Ian. Sarah’s a manipulator,” Scarlett added.

“I’m off, girls. Bye,” he said sadly.

The girls looked at each other. She slammed them. Drew must think the same thing about them.

“Deceptive move,” Scarlett stated.

“That’s true, but I’m kind of tired of this topic. That woman is ruining my mood even when she’s not around. Could we talk about something else?”

“Sure. Tell me what kind of cosmetics you use”

Victoria gave a saddened smile.

“Just your usual volumizing shampoo, and some anti-wrinkle cream for ladies 60 and up.”

Scarlett giggled.

“You’re about 43 years too young.”

“The sooner you start lifting your skin the better. You should do it, too. Using those cosmetics when you’re 60 is silly because they won’t really make much difference. You’ll be able to maintain your beautiful skin for a really long time if you take preventative measures. When I turn 25, I want to do laser treatment every year or two on my face. Why fight all those wrinkles in middle age, when you can stop them from even existing. Besides, it looks much better and more natural.”

“I’ll think about it. Maybe I’ll take you up on the advice. What else?”

“Sometimes I use a lifting primer, foundation and face powder – but that’s only when I want to stand out. For daytime, I usually use lash-extending mascara, then apply that to my brows, and throw on some red lipstick.”

“But that’s not lipstick,” she noticed.

“It’s not. I have a matte, burgundy lipliner on. For me, it looks better than lipstick. It stays on for much longer. I don’t need to worry about it when I eat. Everything stays in its place,” Victoria smile. “Are you interested in these things? If you want, I can do your make-up professionally one day. I always have my bunch of cosmetics with me. Last year, I wore it everyday, now I only do it for special occasions, but I love it. I’ve learned to do some amazing things with face shadowing. I’ve got six shades of bronzer and tons of other little stuff. Interested?” she asked gleefully.

“Very much. Two days have gone by and I’ve already got a personal make-up artist.”

The girls laughed.

“Cosmetics are one of my favorite things” Victoria confessed.

“Break’s over!” one of the coaches yelled. “Come with us.”

“They followed the group. They went toward the other side of the room.

Victoria saw that they were coming nearer to the glass enclosures. She counted them again – there were ten. The cages were streamlined into an oval shape, and the glass looked as if it had been blown by someone.

When they approached the cages closer, they blackened. Ian must have done that, because it was his dream. Pulsing smudges of light appeared on the black glass. They were beautiful.

The coach started to speak.

“Today, we’ll mainly focus on hand to hand combat. Then we’ll move on to cold steel. Remember this. You are not allowed to kill today. You are only meant to practice. You can hurt one another, because that would be hard to avoid, but no killing from now until the test. Understood?” he instructed. “Good. Moving on. Today, each of you will be fighting 20 people at once. Pairs are selected by chance. The gender doesn’t matter. Your task is to give as many blows as possible and receive as little in return. Any questions?” he paused.

“How do we know who won?” someone from the group asked.

“We’ll decided that. Any other questions?”

Silence.

“Alright. We’re drawing the names now.”

A black-haired coach pushed a button on a screen next to the cage. Two names showed up on the screen.

“Paula Anders and Tom Scolck.”

He came up to the next cage and did the same thing.

“Morgan Gateway and Peter Vern.”

Victoria turned to look at her friend.

“Scarlett, what place did you make in the ranking?”

“Twenty-first.”

“I’m in the top twenty as of today and I want to try to stay there. I’m begging you, please knock-out whoever you need to as hard as you need to so you can win. It’d be awesome to be in the same group with you,” Victoria insisted.

“I’ll try,” Scarlett laughed.

The coach read the next pairing.

“Sarah Percent and Victoria Therman.”

Victoria abruptly turned her head to the coach. She saw Sarah walking in his direction.

This had to be a joke. Two hundred people and she had to land on her.

Scarlett looked at her. She understood her without any words.

“This is actually good. Now you’ve got a chance to get her back for everything,” Scarlett whispered.

Victoria nodded and walked up to the glass cage. The black glass made it impossible to see what was going on inside.

She stood in front of Sarah and sent her the fiercest glare possible. Her jaw clenched as she waited for the rest of the pairs to be drawn.

“You’ll always lose, honey. You’re too dumb,” Sarah whispered.

“I killed you in one move, so you better watch yourself,” Victoria whispered back triumphantly.

Sarah’s grin left her face and was replaced by hatred.

“I’m going to kill you.”

“You can’t, it’s not allowed. Were you that focused on picking your own nose that you didn’t hear what the coach said? ” Victoria retorted angrily.

“You’ll regret this,” she said with a dumb smile.

“I doubt it,” she smiled.

The coach read the final names and explained the rest of the details.

“The task isn’t highly philosophical. You enter the enclosure and fight each other for five minutes without weapons, then five minutes with. All moves, except for killing, are permitted. The more hits you make, the greater the chance you have to win. We’ll be taking into account an array of other things besides just hits, however. Go inside,” he commanded.

The novices listened to the coach and entered. Inside, the place was all black. Victoria was terrified that she couldn’t see anything. She listened for Sarah.

Light began to fill the cage. The black was replaced by a glaring white. The enclosure was quite tall and was about ten by ten meters in area. The walls weren’t straight, but oval like on the outside. It was so large, however, that it didn’t compromise the space.

Victoria focused on Sarah. She was standing there, with that dumb smile still on her face.

I wonder if she’ll be grinning like that with a black eye Victoria wondered.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 12

 

 

RELEASE DAY, 26 YEARS AGO

 

 

 

David managed to survive. A huge relief washed over him. This was one of the happiest days of his life.

He followed the procedures of prison release, and was given back several items that he had to give up years earlier – his wallet, documents, cash, coat, and watch.

He walked for about twenty minutes before he saw the bus stop.

All he could think about was Cassie. He was tempted to jump right out of the bus and show up at their house to check if she was still living there. He decided that he would first have to get himself together. He still had plenty in his savings, so he went up to a bank and withdrew several thousand dollars.

He got on the bus and stopped at an elegant men’s boutique. The cashiers looked at him strangely. He was well aware that he looked suspicious.

He picked out two pairs of black pants, two pairs of shoes, and a few polo shirts that accentuated his muscles. He threw in some sunglasses. The sum came out to $987.40. He changed in the store.

He returned to the bus stop. Finally, he felt more like a human. The next stop was a car rental shop. He picked out a silver jeep and was happy to drive off to a large shopping center where he could find everything.

He bought a phone card, fresh vegetables, fruit, bread, butter, meat, some sweets, razors, male cosmetics and perfume.

Finally, he went to an electronics store on the other side of the street. He bout a new phone, a small laptop and USB internet. He registered his card number in the store.

He connected to the wi-fi and found a house with rooms for sale. He called them up, and reserved the place for a week, then drove off right away to unpack.

He introduced himself to the woman who owned the house, checked in, left his bags in the room and went to the kitchen to make himself the biggest meal of his life.

He cooked up some meat and peeled the fruits and vegetables. Then, he cut up the biscuits and spread some butter on them. He couldn’t help himself from nibbling some bites her and there. It was only now that he realized how much he had missed good food.

Three full plates were quickly taken to his room and he started to feast. All of the food disappeared, perhaps too swiftly. He still felt unsatisfied so he finished off with some cookies with chocolate, snickers and a vanilla protein bar. This was his heaven. Finally content, he went to make some tea. He took the kettle to his room and made several cups for himself.

He knew that he had overdone it, but he needed to taste all of the flavors at once. After a quick calculation in his head, he realized that he had just eaten around three thousand calories and washed it all down with about a liter and a half of tea. He would need to withdraw some more money from the bank. His spendings today were too lavish.

For a moment he felt quite well, as if nothing had changed, but he soon returned to reality.

He sat at the edge of his bed, looked through the window and began to think.

Cassie.

He went to the bathroom and took a very long, hot shower. He thought about how he should play this out.

He shaved his beard off, used some face cream and deodorant. Then he got dressed and looked at himself in the mirror. He looked good – even better than he used to, he thought. His body had more muscle mass now. The wrinkles added masculinity, and his jawline had become sharper. He no longer looked like the skinny, stressed out doctor that he used to be.

He straightened up, put on some sunglasses, and headed out to his old house. Not to his family. Several years ago, he had a terrible argument with them and hadn’t been in touch ever since. He was going to his real home, where Cassie lived.

He packed himself up in his jeep and drove off to face reality.

His self-confidence slowly left him, and its place came a feeling of guilt, fear, and uncertainty. Cassie was perfect, and he was the polar opposite of that word. He needed to see her, though. For him, it wasn’t over. He loved her just the same, if not more, than he had eight years ago. She was his.

The drive took him nearly half an hour.

The sun wasn’t shining as brightly as before. He got out, gathered himself up and knocked on the door.

The doors opened a moment later. An older African-American lady stood in the doorway.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Hello. I would like to talk to you for a moment.”

“What’s this about?”

“I used to live in this house once. Eight years ago to be exact. My wife put the place up for sale. Maybe you could tell me the real estate agent that sold it to you?”

“Oh, we bought this house seven years ago. I don’t remember exactly, it was a long time ago. We were shown around the place by a short woman – I think she was blonde. I only remember the name of the agency… “Gold House”. Wait a minute, why do you need to know?”

“I need to contact them urgently. Thank you, m’am.”

David turned around before she managed to say anything.

He got into his car and drove to a nearby park. He opened up his laptop and started searching. First, he started looking for “Cassie Moon”, but there was no trace of her on the web. He then focused on the name of the agency.

A gold logo with an image of a house popped up.

He skimmed through the entire site and took a photo of the contact information with his phone. He knew the street that the agency was one, but he typed it into the GPS anyway. He noticed that a few shops that had once stood in the area had been replaced with completely new ones.

The drive took him about half an hour. He didn’t overlook the agency, and parked in front of it. After calming himself down, he went inside. He looked around for a short blonde woman, but there was no one like this in sight.

“Hello,” he walked up to an older African-American lady.

“Hello. Are you interested in buying a house?”

He sat down in the corner. Her desk was propped up against a wall on the left side of the room.

“I need some information. I’m looking for someone. Is there a blonde woman – of a shorter stature – that works here with you?”

“No, why do you ask?”

“Has she worked here?”

“Maybe. I’ve been working here for fifteen years, I don’t remember everybody. Many faces have passed through this place. The agency is quite big.”

“What about eight years ago exactly?”

“Unfortunately I don’t remember. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

He thought for a moment.

“Could you tell me about the transaction that took place at 23 Glove Street? More specifically, could you give me some contact information to the seller of the house?”

“I can’t give away information like that.”

“I was the co-owner. I would like to get in touch with the person who sold the house. It was a long time ago and I don’t know how else to find this person. Please, I’m asking you.”

“I’d like to help, but there are rules here that we need to abide by. There’s nothing I can do.”

David reached into the pocket of his pants. He still had some cash with him. He took out a thousand dollars and placed them on her desk, next to wall behind the computer so that no one would see them.

The woman was lost for words.

“I don’t…”

He placed another thousand dollars on her desk.

“Maybe you’d be able to do me a harmless favor and make two thousand dollars in two minutes, or I’ll have to leave and you would make the same amount only after a month of hard work.” His eyes penetrated her. “I just need the phone number and e-mail of the seller. Please,” he softened up.

She gave a sigh.

David decided that if this didn’t work, he’d hire a private detective. If she didn’t take the money or asked for more than he had given her, then he’d be in trouble. There were only one hundred dollars left in his pocket from what he remembered.

“Okay.” She grabbed the money and discreetly placed them in her drawer.

She started typing something, looking around every now and then to see if no one was watching her while she broke the rules. It seemed that she found what she was looking for, because she reached for a pen and paper. She scribbled something quickly and slid it over to David’s hand.

He took it under the table, read it, and thanked her. Finally satisfied, he got up and left the agency.

He got in his car and dialed the number he had received.

“Hello?” a lovely female voice answered. “Hello?” it repeated when nobody replied.

“It’s David.”

Silence fell on the other side of the line. He only heard a deep sigh.

“Where did you get this number? Where are you calling from?” she asked nervously.

“I’m on conditional leave. Can we meet?”
“I’m sorry David, but no. Please don’t call me again and don’t try to contact me, okay?”

“Cassie, please. We were married. Don’t you think that you owe me at least one meeting?”

“We were. I’ve already made it clear to you, a long time ago, that I don’t want any contact from you. Please promise me that you’ll let this go.”

“Can we meet?”

“No,” she said angrily.

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to. I went through an awful experience because of you and I want to leave this all behind me!”

“I also went through hell! I just want to meet up.”

“I’ve already told you a number of times that the answer is ‘no’. I’ve somehow managed to put my life back together and pick myself up. Please respect that.”

David couldn’t stop himself and started quietly sobbing. He was shaking his head, lost for words.

“I’m hanging up,” she said.

“We’ll meet whether you like it or not.” He finished the conversation and pressed the red receiver button.

He put the phone down and wiped it down with his hands. He found a private detective in his computer, and then headed to the bank to withdraw more money.

He drove to the private detective, gave the number and e-mail address he’d received, and asked him to track them down. After he paid a few thousand dollars, he drove back to his rented out room.

Now all he needed to do was to wait.

 

***

 

His cell phone rang three days later before 8 a.m. The detective was able to track down the street on which Cassie had answered her phone earlier. He sent David a text with the exact details.

David was confused. He new this address – it was the street that Max used to live on. That’s where his house was before his mother became sick and he moved to an apartment to be closer to her.

They must have still been friends. He felt a pang of regret. They met because of him. Max and Cassie had stayed in touch while they left him out in the cold.

He decided to pay them a visit.

When he arrived at the house, he got out and slammed the door of his jeep. In his head, he played scenarios of what he would say; that he was sorry, that he didn’t know what he was doing, that he felt awful that they had left him. He made a mistake, that was for sure, but he had also been let down by Max as a friend. He planned on telling him all of this.

David knocked.

Cassie opened the door wearing a bathrobe.

He froze, and she backed away in fear from the door.

Did she live here? She must have stayed the night! He had planned only to see Max there!

“What are you doing here?” David yelled.

“Max!” she called loudly.

His best friend ran up to the door.

“David,” he said coldly.

Max was only wearing pants.

David felt rage come over him.

“Is there something going on between the two of you?” he snapped.

Max stepped in front of Cassie to shield her with his body.

“David. I’m sorry that all of this happened, but you’ve got to go. We’re not a part of each others’ lives anymore.”

“Are you two together?” he pressed.

“Yes.”

David exhaled loudly.

“My wife and my best friend,” he yelled sarcastically. “What do you know!”

“Calm down.”

“And you go fuck yourself,” he lowered his voice.

David looked at Max with animosity.

“You really took advantage of the situation. I’ve often wondered why you turned your back on me. I made a huge mistake, but a real friend forgives. Now everything’s perfectly clear,” he gestured theatrically at Cassie. “I’ll never forgive you for this.”

Furious, he turned around and drove off.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 13

 

 

 

The breaks came to a halt.

He wasn’t concerned with his well-being anymore, all that he could feel was a cold sense of calm. He knew how to keep his cool thanks to his job as a doctor. This had taught him how to suppress his nerves and emotions. The attacks had settled down and became much less frequent. From that time, something had greatly changed in him. He had noticed a certain emotional turbulence. That, at least, is what he had seen it as.

He looked at the house.

The thought to leave didn’t even cross is mind; not until he had seriously spoken with each one of its residents.

The heat inside the car was intense. It was a typical July day. David took a sip of water.

Four hours later, after noon, he saw Max leaving the house.

As usual, he thought. He works whenever he wants to. No regular schedule to keep, so he can bum around.

Max got into his car and drove off. David decided to follow him. First, he kept close and wrote down his registration number. Next, he started following him at a safe distance. Max drove for about 15 minutes, and then stopped at a small glass building. If it did belong to him, he must have been doing pretty well for himself. He waited half an hour inside.

He prepared himself for the talk and got out of the car.

A young woman was sitting at the reception.

“Where is the office of Max Bridgedown?”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“You could say that.”

“Last name?”

“Moon. David.”

“Please hold on a moment, we don’t have you written down for any meetings.”

The woman had a delicate air of restraint. He looked him over from top to bottom. He was well dressed and cleaned-up. He gave the impression of a man of success.

“One moment.”

She reached for the phone, probably to avoid getting into any unnecessary misunderstanding. She usually didn’t waste any time on people who didn’t have an appointment.

“Mr. Max asked that you go up to his office,” she said, putting the receiver down. “Please make your way up to the top floor and turn left. You’ll see some large brown doors there. They’re hard to miss.”

“Thank you,” he said casually.

He turned in the direction he was told, took the elevator up to the top floor, turned left, and saw large brown doors with white engraved letters reading DIRECTOR, and underneath, MAX BRIDGEDOWN.

He knocked forcefully and opened the doors, not waiting for a response.

Max stood with his face directed at a set of high windows, leaning on his desk. He sighed and turned around only once David had shut the doors.

“What is this?” he asked coldly.

“We should talk.”

“About what?”

David shook his head.

“I had no idea that you were so unsentimental. Do you really think that we have nothing to talk about?”

“We have nothing to talk about ever since you beat up Cassie. Your run-in with the policeman was only a confirmation of that fact,” he replied mercilessly.

“I see the situation entirely differently.”

“Yeah?”

“I made a serious mistake, and the two people that I cared for the most turned their backs on me. Cassie, I can still understand. I really hurt her. It must have been very difficult for her and she probably had a horrible time, but you? I wouldn’t have expected this from you. I had tons of time in prison. I wondered why I didn’t get any news from you, if there was another reason for it. I thought countless times about what I’d do when I finally got out. I had planned to apologize to you, but the situation called for more flexibility on my part. I’ll tell you something else,” he paused. “I don’t care what you feel anymore, or what you did for her. You need to leaver her alone, her and me alone,” he raised his voice. “She’s my wife, she always was, is, and will be mine. She was with you because she got lost, because you took advantage of her pain and suffering. You caught her in a moment when she was at her weakest point, when she needed someone to help her. She was never yours and never will be. You need to break up with her, today. Then you need to get out of our life. Do you understand?” he asked sternly.

“Is that all?” Max retorted. “You’re shameless. It’s not enough that you’ve ruined her life, but you plan on ruining it even more. No way. Cassie doesn’t belong to anyone, and it was her who chose me. I don’t have any intention to continue this conversation.” He pointed to the doors.

David began to burn up inside.

“You didn’t understand what I said.” He paused. “Listen a little closer, then.” He grabbed Max by the neck.

Max started to jerk around and tried to get his David’s hands off of him, but he was too weak. He began to slowly choke.

“This is not a favor. Treat me with respect. Break up with Cassie today. Get out of our lives or I’ll kill you. I learned a few things in prison, but most of all, I lost all sense of hesitation. I could kill you here and now. I won’t do that, of course.” He slightly loosened his grip. “If you force me to, I’ll have to get rid of you, but in a much smarter way so that no one will be able to prove anything. I’ll take you in the most unexpected moment. In a month, in a year, in three years. You’ll live in fear, not knowing when I’ll show up. In the meantime, I’ll make your life and work miserable, and I’ll regularly show up. I’ll drive you out, cover up the tracks, dig you up, and that’s all that will be left of the charming Max Bridgedown.” He paused. “Or, you’ll make it easier for all of us and leave Cassie.”

Max tried to escape, kicking and hitting with his fists, but he wasn’t strong enough.

“If you still don’t understand what I’ve told you. To put it shortly, I just threatened you.” He let go of his neck.

“You’re a psychopath!” He started breathing profusely and reached for his phone. David yanked it out of his hands, put it back and pushed him up against the wall.

“Exactly. We explained the most important parts to each other.” He shook. “So what do you plan to do?”

“You don’t understand.” Max shook his head.

“I can’t leave her.”

David pushed him harder on his chest.

“You don’t like your life?”
“We’re getting married.”

“What?!” he yelled in Max’s face.

“Let me go!”

“You must have gotten your words twisted up!”

“No. We’ve been together for a few years now. We got engaged a year ago. Our wedding is in half a year. Look at my hand.”

“This is a fucking joke!” he looked at his hand and saw a platinum ring.

Max used his moment of surprise, jerked off of the wall and hit him as hard as he could. He reached for the phone and hit the alarm button.

David quickly got up off the floor.

“You double-crossing idiot,” he growled.

He jumped on him and started punching him in the face and stomach. He stopped only when the guards ran into the room and took him down.

“I’ll never leaver her, but you on the other hand, you’ll go back to prison,” Max yelled in a jumpy voice.

“You can only dream about a wedding,” he yelled back. “What I said is still relevant. You need to disappear!” He threw in as they dragged him out of the doors.

They cuffed his hands.

When they took him into the elevator, he looked at the receptionist and gave her a fleeting smile.

“The police will be here in a minute,” one of the guards said as they sat David down on the couch.

He became even more angry. He wasn’t in the mood to get arrested. Ever since his prison stay, the police didn’t inspire much fear in him. He’d seen worse.

One of the men who had taken him down went up to the receptionist to explain what had happened. He was now standing with his back turned to them.

“Could I get a bottle of water?” David asked one of the guards.

“Shut up,” he replied.

“You can get punched in the face for saying things like that.”

“Shut up,” he repeated impatiently.

“I’d like to use the bathroom.”

The guard lost his patience and yanked him forcefully.

David took advantage of the moment, tripped him, and ran out of the building.

With handcuffs still on him, he ran as fast as he could. He turned right, and heard a man running after him in the distance. He decided to run across a busy street. Cars were honking at him, and he was unmoved, running ahead and avoiding them. He could see his own car from afar. When he finally made it to the sidewalk on the other side, he started to run faster. He stopped next to the car, knelt down, put one leg through the other and in front of him through the handcuffs. He did the same with the other leg. His hands were now in front of him. He quickly took his car keys out and unlocked the jeep.

He closed the door, grabbed the wheel and drove off.

In that moment, he could still feel calm. He stopped at one of the parking lots. He’d learned several tricks while in prison. While he was shopping, he thought of everything. He had taken all of the safety precautions necessary, even if he was going to be arrested again. He opened the car compartment, moved the large first aid kit and reached for the pack of hair pins. He took them out, placed his hands in the appropriate position and started to tinker around with them. It took him a moment, but he finally managed to do it. He put the handcuffs away in the compartment. They may come in handy.

He quickly decided to go see Cassie, while she was alone, and he was free.

He put a few hair pins in his pocket, just in case.

He arrived at the house and knocked at the door.

Nobody answered, so he decided to open them himself. He took the hair pins out and unlocked the door, stepped in, and closed it behind him.

He briskly walked through the ground floor. Nobody was there. He started looking through their things. There were some pictures of the two together on the cabinet. Disgust filled him. He pulled them out of the frames, crumpled them up and threw them in the trash.

He ran up to search the first floor. There was nothing interesting in the first room. It was probably a guest room because there were no personal things in it, only empty furniture and a made-up bed.

He went into the second room. He heard someone breathe behind the door. He pushed back the doors and saw Cassie, crying.

“Please, leave me alone!” she yelled hysterically.

“Don’t be scared, Cassie. I won’t hurt you. I’m sorry,” he said gently. “Please stop crying. Calm down.”

“Please get out here,” she said in a quiet sob.

“Cassie, calm down. I want to talk.”

“We’ve already talked,” she said with a little more confidence.

“But I didn’t like how the conversation went.”

“I have nothing to give you. We broke up a long time ago. That’s history now.”

“I know, Cassie. I understand a bit more now. I came to talk about the future.”

“The future?”

“Yes. I know that I messed up. I wanted to apologize to you and ask you for another chance. I know that we can’t rewind anything. I can understand why you chose to do what you did. Now we can just focus on the future.”
“David. You’ve changed a lot, but so have I. I’m not the same person. I’m sorry, but I told you that I don’t want to be with you.”

“You’re only saying that because you’ve gotten used to life without me. I know that it may take a while for you to trust and love me again.”

“I don’t love you David,” she said sternly.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he replied.

“Please, leave me alone.”

“Is it because of him? Has he brainwashed you?” he asked nervously. “I know that you’re planning to get married, but I can’t let that happen. He’s a bad, deceitful person. Don’t you remember how good it was between us?”

“It was. Until you hit me, and then went to prison. You haven’t changed, David. I know that you beat up Max today. He called mi. You broke his ribs and he ended up in the hospital,” she said coldly.

“He deserved it.”

“No. It’s you. It’s just the new you. Even before prison, something started troubling started happening with you. You’ve changed, but in a negative way, and I don’t want anything to do with it. I’ve suffered enough because of you.”

“I know and I’m really sorry, but please give me a chance. You promised me something. You swore your love to me until death do us part, no matter what the circumstances. I know that you’ll only be truly happy with me. We complete each other. Max was just a temporary substitute.”

“Do you not get it?! I love him! And I want to marry him!”

David became very angry at these words. He grabbed her by the arms and pushed her against the wall behind the doors. He was furious and breathing very heavily. Cassie squealed. David quickly pulled back his hands.

“I’m sorry, but please don’t speak to me like that. I hate him. No one has ever betrayed me like that.”

“David, you have problems,” she moaned. “You should see some kind of specialist, a psychiatrist, whatever. You can’t behave like this. Ever. Stop waiting for me, stopping coming hear and don’t contact me anymore. I don’t want to ever see or hear from you again. I just want you to get out my life and stop reminding me of the past so that I can finally forget and move on,” she said bravely. “It’ll do you good, too. You need to stop hoping. There’s nothing you can do here, you can’t force somebody to love you. I’m asking you to please leave.”

He looked at her with sad eyes and listened.

“I don’t want to upset you. I’m leaving,” he retorted without looking at hear.

He ran down the stairs and left the house. When Cassie heard the doors slam, she ran downstairs, locked the doors and closed the extra lock that could only be opened from inside. She ran back upstairs.

She headed for the third room. In a rush, she pulled out a key, opened the doors, and ran to the closet, throwing clothes out of her way.

“Freddie, come here, shh, it’s okay, it’s okay,” she embraced a little six year old boy in her arms.

They sat down on the bed, she took him on her laps, hugged him even closer and started petting him on his black hair.

“Mommy, what happened?” he asked, frightened.

“It’s nothing now, sweetie. I needed to have a talk with someone.” She started rocking him.

“Will I always have to hide like that? When you’re talking?”

“No, darling. There’ll be no more talking with that person. Don’t worry. Do you want some cookies? What do you say? Should we make something with caramel?”

“Yes!” the child shouted excitedly.

Cassie forced a smile and lead Freddie into the kitchen.

“Here’s the recipe, pal. Please get mommy all of the ingredients out on the table.” She gave him a notebook.

“Okay, mom.”

“I’ll be right back. Everything needs to be ready on the table,” she laughed.

Cassie went into the bathroom and took her phone out.

“Martha? Hi. I have an urgent favor to ask you. Could you put in some extra hours and take care of Freddy all of next week? You could pick him up this evening or even earlier. I need to take care of some things, I’ll tell you about them later. Good. Okay. Thank you so much. I’ll sent you a text what time you should pick him up. See you.”

Next she called up Max’s office. She quickly told him what happened and asked him to send down one of the bodyguards to watch the entrance to the house.

Cassie put the phone away in her pants. She looked at herself in the mirror and sighed a few times, forcing a smile across her face. She went out of the bathroom once the smile became natural.

“And how are we doing?” she asked grinning.

“I’ll just get the eggs out,” the little boy said happily.

“Good, then we’ll get started on the dough.” She ran up to him, took a handful of flour and sprinkled in into his ebony hair. “Freddie, you grandpa, you’re losing your hair!” She laughed at his white head.

He took some flour and threw it back at her in excitement.

“Haha!” he yelled.

“Oh you! You shouldn’t get back at your parents, sonny!”

“Yes, you should!”

“No! Please crack some eggs. Immediately.”

Freddie reached for the bowl and obediently did as his mother told him.

Cassie was still feeling uneasy, but she had learned to quickly change her emotions. At this moment, all that counted was her son’s happiness.

“Very nice. You know what to do next,” she pointed to the notebook. “I’ll work on the caramel.”

 

***

THAT SAME DAY

 

 

Everything became somewhat complicated. He felt ready nonetheless. When he was alone in his own privacy, he would speak to himself. This helped him to gather his thoughts.

“Okay, let’s analyze this,” he said out loud while stepping into his apartment. “I know exactly what to do. I’ve thought over this script many times. I just need to have more money ready.”

He was putting the plan together in his mind and considering the pros and cons. Something in him made him want to try it, regardless. This couldn’t just be swept aside. She had been the only thing keeping him alive all of this time. He’d do it. He’d carry out his plan.

Night was approaching. After several hours of shopping and running a few errands, he felt ready to take the ultimate step.

The clock read 11:49. He had somehow lost track of time. All of this preparation had taken him longer than expected.

Full of confidence, he got into his car and drove to Cassie’s house for the last time.

 

***

 

The lights in the house had been turned off. She must have been sleeping. Only the streetlamps provided any light in the area.

There was a car in front of the entrance – it wasn’t Max’s. David had checked to make sure that Max was spending the night at the hospital. Some other man was sitting in the car.

David drove up closer and recognized him as the guard whose clutches he had escaped from while running away from Max’s building. Max must have asked some guards to watch over Cassie. He smiled to himself, nodding his head. He took the handcuffs from the compartment and got out of the car.

He got on the sidewalk and approached the other car, waiting for the man to step out, notice him, and try to catch him. That’s exactly what happened next. The man got out, but the conversation took a completely different turn. When the guard was stepping out of the car, David took out his weapon.

“Put these on your hands.” He threw the handcuffs at the man.

“You’ve really gotten yourself into some big trouble,” he replied.

“Maybe so, but right now you need to do what I say and be quiet. You’ve probably heard the reason the sent me to jail.”

The guard did as he was told. David walked up to him, weapon still pointed in his direction, took out a handkerchief out of his pocket and placed it on his face. The guard lost consciousness. David caught him before he fell to the ground and placed him on the back seat. Then, he put the wet handkerchief back in his pocket.

He quietly unlocked the doors, but they weren’t opening this time. He needed to find another way in. He noticed that one of the bedroom windows was slightly ajar. That’s where he would try to get in.

Very carefully, he grabbed onto the building with his hands and started to climb slowly.

When David reached the window, he delicately and quietly lifted himself higher. Cassie was laying on the large bed all by herself. He dreamily looked on.

Without making a sound, he made it inside and quietly approached the bed. He took out the handkerchief from his pants and placed it over her face.

She woke abruptly and grabbed him by the hand in which he held handkerchief. She tried to push him away, but David’s grip only became stronger. She had no chance when it came to a battle of strength. A moment later, she passed out from the fumes in the handkerchief.

David held the cloth longer near her face, until he was certain that she had lost consciousness. She was passed out.

He placed the bathrobe on her shoulders, picked her up, and took her down the stairs. He unhooked the inside lock and closed the doors behind him.

Carrying her, he briskly walked to his van.

He had returned the jeep a few hours earlier and bought himself a cheap van in its place. Before arriving, he had replaced the license plate with a non-existent one.

On the backseat, next to his shopping bags, he laid down his sleeping, ex-wife. He shut the doors gently and locked them in from the inside, in such a way that Cassie wouldn’t be able to escape without his help.

David settled into the driver’s seat.

 

***

 

It was nearly five in the morning. David hadn’t taken any breaks. He had only stopped once, in order to put Cassie back into an unconscious state. He quickly opened the door, placed a fresh handkerchief on her face, held it there for a moment, put it away, and closed the van.

He got back behind the wheel and calmly continued on his journey. They were quite far off from Nashville now. They headed out of Tennessee to Georgia.

They parked in Atlanta next to East Lake. There was a house there that was of significant importance – it had been Cassie’s dream house.

David had bought it a long time ago for nine hundred thousand dollars. No one besides him knew about this, but he had registered it under a different last name just in case. This was one of the matters that he had been taken care of recently. Everything else was new, too – new documents, clothes for Cassie, all of it.

The neighborhood was not far from them.

Out of all of the houses in the area, they had chosen the biggest and most expensive one. It was more off to the side, hidden off by trees about two kilometers away from the main neighborhood.

The fence was made from tall metal rods, and the entire house was hidden away by a series of dense shrubs and trees planted alongside the fence. The previous owners must have really valued their privacy.

David opened up the gate and drove into the garage. He closed everything and pulled Cassie out of the car. There were still a few hours left until she would wake up.

He took her to the living room, put a metal ring around her leg, and chained her up to the thick metal pantry doors. He pulled out the telephone wire and took it to his car.

There was no internet in the house, and only a few channels on the television. He had contacted someone earlier about getting the media in the house up and running. Before the situation with Max, he had withdrawn the remainder of his savings from the bank, all half a million of it.

He started unpacking. The clothes went to the living room, the cleaning products to the bathroom, the food into the refrigerator, and the bag full of money was hidden somewhere on the ground floor, where Cassie couldn’t reach it through her chain.

Everything was ready.

He had imagined a number of different scenarios during his stay in prison. Eight years is a lot of time. There had been a few times during his attacks that he thought what he might do if Cassie didn’t want him back. In this case, he would have to convince her. He had planned to take her away a long time ago. The thought that it would have to come to his had never occurred to him, however. He had thought, stupidly, that he wouldn’t have to do all this and that he would be able to fix everything. He had acted spontaneously, but he knew exactly what needed to be done.

Now, more than anything else, he had gotten time. She wouldn’t be able to run away from him. He would have an opportunity to convince her to return to him.

In quite the positive mood, David started preparing breakfast for the two of them. It felt like old times.

 

***

 

Cassie wrinkled her forehead. Her eyelids were heavy, she finally managed to open them. She wrinkled her face up even more and looked around.

She smelled pancakes.

Terrified, she turned to look toward David.

“Hi Cassie,” he said with a smile.

“What are you doing!?” she screamed.

“I made you some pancakes with maples syrup and cream.”

“I’m not asking about those! What have you done!? Where are we?”

“I knew that you wouldn’t want to come on your own, so I had to put you out. We’re in our house. You recognize it?”

Cassie looked around. He was right. She remembered how eight years ago she had been admiring the kitchen counter tops and the beautiful living room. Now the place reminded her of a mental institution.

“You’re crazy!”

“I love you, Cassie and I want us to have the chance to get to know one another again.”

“You really don’t get it! I don’t want this!”

“Maybe not now, but you’ll realize eventually that you want me just like I want you. I won’t give up.”

“You psychopath!” she started yelling.

She covered herself with her bathrobe, jumped off of the couch and heard a cling. She looked down at her feet and felt cold metal on her skin.

She looked at him sideways and ran towards the doors. The chain held her tightly. Grabbing onto it, she tried to yank it off. The doors seemed so far. She noticed a slightly opened window and began screaming.

“Help! Someone call the police! Help!”

“Cassie, please calm down. No one will hear you, and the chain is made of steel. Don’t waste your energy, you need to rest.”

“I’m begging you, let me out!”

“I can’t do that. You gave me no other choice. Please sit down, relax, and eat some breakfast.”

Cassie hopelessly returned to the sofa.

“You expect me to eat this? You probably added arsenic.”

“Jesus, Cassie,” he laughed. “Don’t be silly.”

“Who knows what else is going on inside that sick head of yours. I won’t eat anything until you unchain me.”

“I’ll leave the plate here for you in case you change your mind.”

“I won’t change my mind! About you neither! I’ll never be with you!”

“You’re upset. We’ll talk later. You have everything that you need here. The bathroom is over there,” he pointed at some white doors close by. “I bought you some cosmetics. Your new clothes are laying on the cabinet. You have a full fridge, too. Of course I can’t give you internet or phone service, but I’ll have a full t.v. packet and some magazines ready for you today.”

“I don’t believe this.” She shook her head sharply and placed her hands over her face. “I regret that I ever met you,” she started to cry. “You should’ve died in that prison.”

Cassie started sobbing louder.

“Surely you don’t think that. You’re angry. I know that we have lots to go over, but we’ll work on it. It’ll get better. I promise. I love you.”

“Get out of my face,” she yelled at him with a hateful glare.

“The chain may be uncomfortable, but it’s long enough so that you can reach all of your needs. Take a warm bath. Change your clothes. Think through everything.”

“I hate you.”

“It’ll get better.”

David checked the chain once more to see if he had done everything that he needed to. He went out of the living room and into the garage to take care of the van. He needed to buy a new car; something used and inexpensive.

He left her alone.

Cassie desperately began looked around at possibilities of escape. Her insides were burning. This was horror mixed with comedy. She was in a beautiful house, one that she had chosen herself, one that she had dreamt about. Now all that she could think of was how to escape and never come back. She thought of Freddie and Max. They’d be dying of fear to know where she was. She was becoming increasingly more furious. She didn’t deserve this – why did this have to happen to her? Why couldn’t it have been some average American? She’d had enough suffering.

When David had hit her, and then landed in prison, something in her had burned over. She was crushed. Max had really helped her during that time. They grew close. Then Freddie came long. The last several years had been very happy. Years since David had gone. Maybe fate had decided that she had been too happy, that she had seen enough joy and that she was now supposed to experience another trauma in the return of her ex-husband. It was horrible. She decided that she wouldn’t rest until she got herself out of there, and that she would do everything that was in her power to make sure that David ended up in a mental institution. His mind wasn’t right. This man didn’t remind her one bit of the one that she had fallen in love with. He must have grown ill, and if not, then he was either a psychopath or an extremely cruel person who wanted to punish her for leaving him.

Uncontrolled thoughts filled her mind. She planned to get herself out of there somehow no matter what. She decided to take a shower while David was gone. She then got dressed back into her pyjamas and bathrobe. She had no intention of getting dressed in the new clothes or using anything that he had bought her. She didn’t want anything from him.

Cassie returned to the salon and glanced at the plate of pancakes. She felt furious. The idea of a hunger strike hung in her head, but she thoroughly thought it through. He wouldn’t let her out. She needed to do it on her own, and in order to do that, she needed strength.

With distaste, she reached for the plate and ate everything that was on it. She made herself some green tea and sat Indian style on the white sofa.

She fixed her chain and began to think.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 14

 

 

PRESENT DAY, YEAR 2041

 

 

 

They were moving around the circular line like predators, steadily watching each others’ every move. Victoria approached and retreated.

Sarah ran up really close to her and gave a swing. Victoria dodged it and kneed her in the stomach. When she was bent down, she folder her hand and elbowed her in the jaw.

The girl must have gotten dizzy because she began to wilt over. Victoria took advantage of the situation and jumped up to her, clenched her fist and punched her in the solar plexus. Then she smacked her hard in the neck with her open palm and grabbed on so hard that Sarah started to choke.

She fell to the ground and started to heave. Victoria was about to ram her leg into Sarah’s stomach, but an announcement came on notifying that the first round had ended.

The girl managed to mumble some curses under her breath, but Victoria wasn’t bothered by it.

Sarah got up off of her knees, but still needed to keep her posture low. It was obvious that she still felt unwell.

The enclosure darkened.

Victoria waited for part two. It would be more difficult with knives, she thought.

The cage changed color to white once again. A table with daggers stood on their right.

Victoria was puzzled. Sarah stood there in front of her, as if nothing had happened to her. She looked full of energy and without any signs of having been harmed. That same stupid grin came over her face, and she ran up to the table first.

Victoria didn’t even manage to grab a weapon. Sarah swung at her when she reached for one. Defenseless, Victoria tried to grab one, but Sarah threw her weapon left and right, so she needed to pull back.

She scratched her arm, and then her stomach. It felt very unpleasant. She was bleeding.

Victoria was upset. This wasn’t fair. She waited for a moment of weakness. When Sarah raised her dagger high up in the air, Victoria kicked her in the knee as hard as she could. She heard a crash, but didn’t look back, and ran towards the table. She grabbed a weapon.

Sarah surprised her from behind. Her good luck streak had come to an end. Victoria now stood with a knife at her throat.

“And what now?” Sarah asked sarcastically.

She tried to break free, but each attempt only created more marks on her throat. It hurt a lot, so she tried not to move too much.

“I told you you were stupid. That you’ve lost,” she laughed.

“Something’s wrong with you,” she snapped back.

Sarah stopped laughing.

“I’ll kill you.”

“You can’t. You’re definitely messed up in the head, but you wouldn’t go so far.”

Sarah stood there frozen and silent. She seemed slightly terrified.

Victoria’s face contorted. The throbbing pain spread throughout her entire throat. She fell helplessly to the floor. Then everything went blank.

Sarah kept her promise, after all.

 

***

 

Ian stared at Victoria’s chest disapprovingly. Sarah didn’t adhere to the rules. There were always a few people in the group who chose not to listen. She couldn’t imagine what awaited her now.

They possessed a special preventative measure that ensured that novices who broke the rules would never break them again.

Ian stopped their fight.

Victoria’s body disappeared from the room. It looked as if she was being teleported.

Ian walked up to the girl standing there, pleased with herself. Triumph was written all over her face.

“What are you so happy about?” he yelled at her. “You broke the rules and now you’ll sorely pay for it.”

Her smile disappeared. She stood silently.

“There are always a few rebels. Always some who don’t listen. You’ll pay the consequences, and I can guarantee that you’ll never think about breaking the rules again. Follow me!” he yelled.

“I’m sorr…” she started, but he didn’t let her finish.

“Quiet. I know that you don’t regret what you did. We all saw it,” he pointed to the huge crowd of novices, waiting on their turn.

Sarah hurried.

“Yess,” he said. “They saw and heard everything. All that you see during the battle are white walls, but from the outside, we can see through them.

The crowd stared her down with distaste. Sarah noticed Drew who was looking at her with squinted eyes.

“You’ve made quite the reputation for yourself. Stand among the others and wait for your next battles. Then you’ll receive your punishment. In front of everyone,” Ian added.

 

***

 

Victoria woke up in the hall in her seat. She still felt a slight sting in her throat. She was angry. The metal rings around her hands opened up.

The director looked at her with bewilderment.

“Why did you wake up?” he asked.

His eyebrows wrinkled. She was still in a strange state. She slowly raised her hands and then lowered them. Pain still lingered throughout her whole body, but she tried not to think about it.

“I think I landed on someone with mental issues,” she slowly retorted.

“I’m sorry. Just know, that she will be punished.”

“In what way?”

“At the end of the task, in front of the entire group. She will greatly regret what she has done and will not repeat her mistake.”

“I don’t know what could possibly be so convincing.”

“Every person has their motivations – things that they don’t care about and those that matter to them. Do you know what is the one thing that always moves a person and forces them to think? Pain,” he paused. “You’ll see. Now I need to send you back into the simulation. Your task has yet to be completed.”

Anthony Bens began the procedure.

Victoria placed her hands into the meta rings. The electrodes were already attached. A prick of the needle and she was asleep.

 

***

 

Victoria woke up in the same spot. She made her way to the exercise room. From afar, she could see a crowd. The cages were transparent, and novices continued to fight in them. She approached closer.

Looking around, she noticed Scarlett in one of them, hand fighting Her attention, however, went to the tenth and last cage.

Aaron and Sarah stood on the right side of the enclosure. Victoria came up to them. She joined a group of observers watching the two.

The were fighting weapon-less. Sarah was poor at this. Aaron defeated her without much trouble. He showed no mercy.

Blow after blow, Sarah became increasingly weaker. She wasn’t even attacking anymore. She was only dodging and trying to defend herself.

Five minutes passed. The cage blackened from the outside as well. When the light returned, Aaron quickly ran for a knife. He blocked her access to the table in the blink of an eye.

Victoria felt shivers in her body. Now Sarah would see what it’s like.

“Not really fair, isn’t it?” he asked with a false reproach.

He must have been observing them earlier. Her fists tightened and her breath quickened. Sarah was defenseless, but Victoria felt no empathy. The only thing she felt was gratefulness.

Sarah glared at him and decided to attack. She jumped at him and attempted to punch him in the Adam’s apple, but he moved out of the way just in time. He slid out of the way and revealed the table from behind him. Sarah used the opportunity to grab a dagger.

Aaron speedily got behind her.

“And what are you gonna say now? I told you that you’re stupid. You lost,” he quoted Sarah, word for word, after which he slit her throat.

Sarah fell to the ground with her eyes wide open.

Victoria looked on in disbelief. That was horrible. She deserved it, but she felt uneasy nonetheless.

A few people standing next to the capsule started to clap.

Ian ran up to the cage. Sarah disappeared.

“What is this?” he yelled. “Stop clapping.”

He entered the enclosure.

“There are better ways of defending a woman’s honor,” he yelled at Aaron.

“She deserved it,” he replied flatly.

“You aren’t in the position to judge what’s fair or not, you’re not some kind of guardian of justice. We’re in charge of keeping order. Now you’ll have to bare the consequences, just like the other girl.”

Shivers ran through Victoria’s body and she felt a slight pang of remorse.

“Fine,” Aaron replied.

It didn’t look as if Sarah’s punishment made him too happy. It wasn’t fair that he was being treated the same way as her.

They entered the crowd. Aaron found Victoria with his eyes.

She was standing there, beautiful and unsure of herself with a concerned expression. Black wavy hair fell unto her shoulders. She was staring at him. He noticed her beautiful red lips. She mouthed the words “Thank you” in his direction. He saw understanding in her face. He came up to her.

They didn’t talk then. They just stood next to each other, awaiting the next names to be drawn.

The atmosphere was tense at times. The important thing was to pummel the aggression out of you and give it your all. Victoria fought fiercely.

The entire day went by rather quickly. When everybody finished their tasks, the coaches began the countdown.

According to them, Victoria won eight battles, Aaron nine, Scarlett eight, and Sarah four.

The coaches thanked everyone for their endurance and gave a short motivational speech. They also mentioned Aaron and Sarah’s punishments.

Ian finished the simulation.

The novices woke up. The director was waiting for them. He complemented the group on their efforts and said a few words of encouragement before turning his attention to the punishments.

“We cannot tolerate deviations from the rules. Your motivations for this behavior are irrelevant. You must learn to control your anger or you will suffer these consequences.” He pointed to two large seats on his right.

“Aaron, Sarah, please come here. First off, $100,000 has been deducted from each of your bank accounts.”

They stood up and walked over towards the speaker.

“Secondly, sit down.”

They listened to him, and were now sitting in two large black leather seats.

“Place your hands in the metal rings. The procedure will be the same.”

The metal fell into place. They dozed off.

Both of them had their eyes closed. Almost immediately, they started making horrifying sounds. Sarah moaned loudly, as if something were crushing her, and then she began to scream.

Aaron was more reserved, but he made more movements. While Sarah screamed at the top of her lungs, he began to moan heavily. Sweat covered their bodies.

Victoria was scared to think what was there.

Sarah’s screams became increasingly louder.

After three minutes they went quiet. With their eyes still closed, they gave a deep sigh of relief.

The punishment was coming to an end. They opened their eyes. Sarah was crying uncontrollably. Aaron turned red in the face. He looked defeaned. They had a problem with reuniting back to reality. They were still paralyzed.

“You just witnessed the pain simulator. It lasted about three minutes here. During the three hour simulation, you experience pain in its various forms – psychological and bodily, in tremendous doses nearly one hundred greater than the other. The average person could only withstand several seconds. This is the only and worst punishment that we use. It is not pleasant for us, but we need to consistent. This is why I ask you to please adhere to the rules, so that we don’t find the necessity to apply these methods. There are no exceptions, and no one can escape the consequences. Aaron and Sarah will return to their physical health, but they will never break the rules again,” Anthony stated with a concerned face. “Isn’t that right?” He directed the question at them.

Sarah mumbled an affirmative response, and Aaron nodded his head.

Victoria was petrified.

“That’s the end of today’s exercises. Go and rest,” the director added shortly.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 15

 

 

Victoria was laying on her bed looking up at the ceiling, and taking full advantage of her moment of rest. She tried to forget about the day’s events. She put her headphones in and turned on some music at full volume. Her eyes closed and her forehead creased. She wanted to extend this moment to its fullest, because she knew that it wasn’t yet finished.

Simulations took place in the morning and evening. When they were over, she’d have one hour of free time. Others already had their time off, but not her.

Today was the first time that she’d be going to club meeting. Normally, Victoria would be excited by this, but today she just wasn’t in the mood. She forgot about Sarah, but she felt sad on account of Aaron.

She lay there, as her eardrums became sore. Too many decibels. She took the headphones off and turned the music on through the loud speakers.

She took a long shower, longing for the hot water to hug her skin. After taking her time in the water, she redid her make-up, brushed her hair, dabbed her lips with maroon lipstick, and went to pick out a clean outfit. Her hair went up in a high ponytail.

She had memorized the code for the capsule earlier. With this long series of digits, she would gain access to the club. She glanced it once again to refresh her memory.

510015876345200

She crumpled up the paper and focused – not too much, not too little, just the right amount. The crumpled ball was beginning to burn. Victoria placed a trash can below her hand. A small blue flame was coming out of her hand, eventually burning the paper in its entirety. She threw the ashes to the bin.

Punctually leaving her room, she headed for the capsule. The doors closed and a keyboard emerged. She typed in the digits and waited.

After a short journey, she arrived at her destination and came out of the capsule.

She emerged into a small, rocky hallway and walked through until she arrived at a small, chamber room. The room was about 40 meters squared, like a small studio apartment. In the center, there were simulation chairs.

Victoria felt weary. She had enough of shared dreams already. When would this end.

On the right side, there stood a table with sweet and savory snacks, along with beverages.

A few familiar faces appeared – Ian, Tom Scolck, who had struck Aaron in the calf during the first simulation, Aaron himself, who was drinking coffee, and Drew. There were fourteen people in all there, made up of four novices and all of the coaches. Victoria arrived on time, but she still came in last.

Ian noticed her. She stood in the doorway. He walked up to her.

“Listen, I’m sorry about what happened today. How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Exhausted.”

“That’s how it is the first time you die in a simulation. The body experiences a real death, and when you wake up, you feel the result of that.”

“You really know how to cheer a girl up.” She gave a light grin. “But I’m more sorry about what happened to Aaron. If he hadn’t stood up for me, then he wouldn’t have been hurt.”

“Well, I’m glad that he did.”

“You can’t be. You’re a coach,” she said with surprise. “What about the rules? I saw how you were yelling at him.”

“For order’s sake. The others need to understand that there are no exceptions.Even if we don’t like the orders, we have to stick to them. I wouldn’t have done something like that, but I personally think that he did what’s right. Paradoxically, it’s what brought here him today.”

“How so?”

“If he hadn’t had done that, he wouldn’t have made it to the pain simulation, and we would never have known just how much endurance he has. He handled it much better than Sarah. He’s very well trained and he deserves a place in the club.”

“That’s a more solid consolation,” she replied.

“You should eat something, go to the buffet because we’re starting in ten minutes.”

Victoria quickly greeted Drew with a wave of the hand, but she had no desire for a chat. The one she’d had with Morgan was enough. If he wanted to, Drew would have to be the one to initiate the conversation.

Victoria went up to the beverages first. She saw that Aaron had noticed her.

“Hey,” she said, reaching for a cup.

“Hey,” he replied, not looking at her.

She placed a mint tea into her cup and poured some boiling water over it.

“I wanted to thank you,” she started shyly.

“No problem.” He lowered his eyes to the ground.

“How are you feeling? That must have been awful.” She tried to keep the conversation going.

“It was, but I’m fine,” he replied harshly.

Victoria saw that he wasn’t in the mood to talk, so she stood there near him for a moment longer, and then continued on to the other end of the table. She was now eyeing the food with hunger.

“You know that they make all of these right here on location? All of the snacks are healthy and contain stevia or himalayan salt. They also use a special kind of flour,” a feisty blond boy said.

“I didn’t know.”

She had no desire of starting any small talk with this guy. Last time she saw him, he’d jammed his shoulder into Aaron during their run. Earlier still, he had thrown a knife at him when they were standing in front of the sphere. This was Tom Scolck. No, thank you.

“Now you know.”

Victoria gazed at the ground and bit into a large, shortbread cookie with dark chocolate and walnuts. She sipped it down with mint tea. It was delicious.

“Victoria, right?” he asked.

“That’s right.”

“I almost caught up with you two,” he said triumphantly.

“Almost makes a big difference.” Her eyes widened and narrowed her eyes.

She hoped that he would leave her alone, but he laughed.

“You don’t like me, do you?” he asked with a smile.

“Why should I like you? A few centimeters and the knife would’ve hit me.”

“You shouldn’t take all of this so personally. This is a competition. The best wins. And I like to be the best. Besides, I have very good aim. I didn’t hit you because I didn’t want to,” he added playfully.

“Alright, we’re starting,” Ian announced to the group.

Thank God; he couldn’t have chosen a better moment. Victoria quickly finished her cookie, drank the rest of her tea and headed towards the chairs. She sat down at the first one on the edge, and placed her hands into the metal rings.

Unfortunately, Tom Scolck had chosen the seat next to her. He smiled at her, and she didn’t return the gesture. He was good looking, but there was something cheeky and revolting about him. She didn’t like how imposing he was.

They fell asleep.

***

 

The simulation had taken them to a lake. Around them was a resonating forest. It was dark, and the only light that was shining came from the large moon above.

Ian began introducing the four novices to the coaches.

“They know who you are and what your names are, so I’ll only introduce them to you. This is Matias.” he pointed to a very muscular, smiling man with his head shaven at the sides. “Amanda,” he gesturedd his elbow towards a pretty girl standing on his left. “Ruby,” he nodded his head towards a short girl raising her hand. Seven more names were introduced.

Victoria remembered the first day at the Academy. She recalled Matias. He was the one who volunteered to get shot in the head, and then pretended to be dead. She almost got a heart attack because of him. He was bald earlier.

“The first task,” he began, “involves putting on bathing suits.” Ian smiled.

He pointed to changing rooms next to the forest, each with a name of a novice, along with a hanging swimsuit.

Victoria had no desire to, but she changed into her bathing suit. The coaches changed as well. They stood across from them. Tom looked at her strangely. He was slightly disgusting and far too sure of himself. She felt awkward. Aaron looked straight ahead, and didn’t make a single glance in her direction.

Victoria was wearing a dark, fitted one-piece. She forgot to take the necklace off of her neck, but she didn’t feel like going back to the changing room.

“The first part always involves de-stressing,” he smiled. “Come into the water.”

“Can you make it warm?” Victoria asked.

“Yes. And now, run,” he replied.

She started to run after the coaches and jumped into the water with a big splash. She was happy that the lake was warm, because she had goosebumps on her skin earlier from the wind.

Her head went under the water so that the warmth could spread everywhere.

“This is so nice,” she said.

She sighed and swam towards Ian. The guy didn’t want to leave her alone.

“Hey, is it always going to look like this, the first part?” she asked Ian.

He dipped in and out of the water.

“No.”

“Then how?”

“It’s a surprise. But don’t worry, we try to be creative.”

She looked at him questioningly.

“Do you know what this is all for?”

“It’s a club for the best,” she started confidently. “You’ll teach us something along the lines of an advance class?”

“More than anything, this is a reward. We try to make sure that most of your time spent at the club is enjoyable and relaxing. Working on your power is kind of an added bonus.”

“Good,” she agreed.

Ian had convinced her. He asked her to float flat on her back, close her eyes, and drift. She slowly unwound. Ian placed his hand under her back. She felt as if all of the tension was leaving her body.

“Can you make the air warm?”

“Are you really that cold?” he laughed. “Sure. You’re supposed to feel good here.”

The cold breeze stopped after a moment. She felt warm wind on her face. Now it was extremely pleasant. She was doing absolutely nothing, except just laying there.

Everyone was talking in whispers. It was very quite. The others were trying to relax in similar ways. Victoria opened her eyes. She looked around for the novices. There were still four of them. Each one had one or two coaches floating next to them. They were whispering something just like Ian had whispered to her. There was a woman and a man next to Aaron holding a hand to his forehead. It was emanating a soft light.

“What are they doing to him?”
“It’s our method for even deeper relaxation. Do you want me to show you?”

“Okay.”

Victoria closed her eyes. Ian laid his hand on her forehead. She felt a warmth, and her head felt increasingly lighter. This sensation slowly spread down throughout her. First to her shoulders, then to each one of her fingertips, her abdomen, her pelvis, her legs. When it reached her toes, she felt as if she were brand new. It was a wonderful relief. A smile came over her face.

“How was it?” Ian asked.

“Incredible,” she said satisfied.

“You can float in this state as long as you want. I’m here next to you.”

Ian laid down flat on the water. They were now floating next to each other, admiring the starry sky, and eventually closing their eyes.

They floated for a very long time, but Victoria didn’t even want to think about time.

***

 

They came out of the water relaxed. Everyone dried down with their towels, but stayed in their bathing suits.

The coaches started to stretch and work out, instructing others to do the same. They stretched their necks first, then shoulders, backs, and finally legs.

They turned towards the wide deck on the right side of the shore. On it, they spread blankets and sat in a circle. Three candles were lit in the middle of the blanket, and they took out countless snacks, sandwiches, healthy, handmade chips, warm drinks and placed them around the candles. They started to eat. It didn’t matter that this was a simulation and wasn’t actually supplying their bodies with any real calories. It was meant to be pleasurable, and the food certainly added to the warm atmosphere. Everyone drank tea, cocoa or coffee. Victoria chose hot chocolate, with which she munched on vanilla cookies with caramelized stevia. She loved these three flavors. Cookie. Caramel. Vanilla.

She ate everything, and felt truly wonderful.

“Victoria,” Ian called. “Maybe you’d like to practice your power?”

“Why not.”

“Is your mood better?”

“A bit.” She looked at Aaron, but he was eating and staring into a candle, as if she didn’t exist.

Victoria and Ian got up. They walked around the circle of people and found their way to the end of the deck. In front of her was a bunch of curious faces, and behind her the lake. No one stopped eating, but they observed her carefully.

“Victoria, pull out your hand. Try to draw some water out of the lake. She focused intently, wrinkled her forehead, closed her eyes, and imagined that drops of the lake were slowly floating towards her hand. She felt moisture in her palm, and opened her eyes to see flattened water.

“Try to form a sphere out of it and levitate it over your hand.”

Once again, Victoria imagined what Ian had told her and without fear of failure, tried to channel her focus and imagination as before. That was easy enough. She had a ball of water smoothly rise above her hand.

“And now burn it.”

Victoria imagined flames and felt heat near her face. When she opened her eyes, a red flame rose under the ball of water. It started to hiss, and finally evaporated.

“Good,” he praised her, “but I see, that you’ve already practiced, so let’s move on to something harder.”

She felt a slight surge of stress.

“Take out your hands and extend them.”

She did this.

“Try to create as much fire as you can, slowly raising and lowering your hands.”

She didn’t close her eyes to see what was going on. She imagined orange light coming out of her hands, which she turned into a red flame. She raised her hands slowly. Smudges of fire followed the movement of her hands. When they were at the very top, she closed her eyes and tilted her head back.

It looked like eagles in the snow, except that it was red light-fire in the air.

She slowly lowered hands, leaving behind more fire smudges. Focusing more intently, she repeated the mantra “as much as possible” in her head. Her eyebrows wrinkled. Fire gushed from her arms and she began to operate it quicker.

The light became very bright, and the flames even bigger. Victoria opened her eyes and noticed that her hands had turned pale, and she noticed white strands of hair on her arms. She must have transformed.

“Great. Now try it all with a little restraint. Pull back your power.”

People across from them looked on in interest. Tom widened his eyes, while Drew and Aaron were watching like everyone else.

Victoria lowered her eyelids and imagined her skin returning to its normal color, her hair blackening, and the energy slowly diminishing.

After a minute, she opened her eyes and looked quickly at her hand. Everything was alright, just like before.

Ian started to clap.

“I won’t sugarcoat it, I’ll just tell you the truth. What you’re doing here is very rare. I’m glad that I’ll be able to help you develop this.”

She smiled gratefully.

Victoria sat back down in the circle. One of the coaches, Matias, gave her a high-five and said something nice. It was slightly amusing. She put on another blanket to cover herself up, then grabbed a second helping of hot chocolate, along with a caramel muffin made from stevia and small packet of biscuits with vanilla cream. Why not. You’ve got to take advantage while the calories don’t count.

She ate everything. It was delectable and couldn’t have been better. Victoria decided that these club meetings were her favorite part of being a novice. She would try even harder just so she would be able to return here.

“Should we make a bonfire?” Ruby asked hopefully.

“Why not,” Ian agreed.

They got up from the deck and asked the others to join them on the sand. Ian controlled the simulation. Suddenly, there appeared some dried twigs, rocks, matches, sausages, marshmallows and sticks.

The air was still warm, but Victoria decided to change. She felt more comfortable covered up. After returning from the changing room, she started to help out Matias with getting the wood ready.

“You couldn’t just make the fire already lit?”Matias asked reproachfully.

“I like to watch you sweat,” Ian laughed. “Besides, it’s funner this way.”

“Maybe for you.”He answered.

“Put those beautiful muscles to good use.” Ruby commented.

Matias shut his mouth at those words. He wasn’t complaining anymore, he just tightened up a bit. Victoria wanted to laugh, she needed to remember this quibble for the future.

They finished preparing the wood. Matias reached for the matches, but after he lit one of them up, the entire pack disappeared from his hand.

“What’s this? Ian!”

“I have a better idea,” Ian calmed him down.

He placed his hand under the fire, closed his eyes, wrinkled his forehead and shot a live flame out of his hand. The twigs quickly caught onto the fire. His hand paled, but returned to its original color momentarily.

He’s like me Victoria thought as she felt the advancing warmth.

The others started to place blankets around the fire. They took sticks and began filling up some with sausages and the others with marshmallows. Victoria did the same.

“Bring up some ketchup and mustard, please,” Matias asked.

“And plates,” Ruby added.

“And utensils,” Matias urged.

Ian smiled and took in their requests.

Ruby started squeezing the ketchup and mustard out on fourteen plates. When she finished, she passed them out around the circle. Everyone waited until the food was ready.

Good thing nobody’s asking Ian to hurry up the cooking process, Victoria laughed to herself.

Her gaze turned to Aaron. He wasn’t laughing or even smiling – just looking ahead of himself. His eyes followed the flame of the fire, unconcerned with the presence of anyone else around him. Victoria felt sad. She got up and walked in his direction. There was an empty spot on his left. A coach was sitting slightly further away and Victoria managed to fit right into the space between them.

He didn’t show any reaction.

“Aaron,” she whispered.

No reaction.

“I understand that you’re mad at me,” she said in a whisper, almost to herself.

They sat in silence. She placed the sticks on rocks in front of the fire so that she didn’t need to hold them herself. Victoria took a closer look at the marshmallows, and it seemed like they needed a few extra minutes. The meat was nearly ready. She waited a minute and took the stick out of the fire. She pulled off the sausage and started to cut it. Then she mixed the ketchup and mustard together on her plate into one sauce, and dipped the chopped up pieces in it. With an extra fork, she scraped up some extra sauce and tried it. She took another couple of pieces.

“I’m not,” Aaron said quietly.

“Excuse me?” The sausages nearly fell off of her fork as she turned towards him.

“I’m not mad at you,” he whispered. “I have a problem with letting things go sometimes.”

“You really did an impressive job. I want to thank you. You didn’t deserve that punishment,” she added in a whisper.

He didn’t reply. Once again, his gaze turned toward the fire. She waited for him to say something more, but he was evidently done. And here she thought that his nerves had let up. Victoria didn’t fully understand him. Maybe he went through something much worse than she could imagine. She felt a twinge of guilt again and decided to leave him alone.

She returned to her sausage, dipping it in the sauce, and patiently waiting for the marshmallows to fully roast. Lifting up her head, she looked around the group of people around her. Ian was looking in her direction. Her eyes caught his and he quickly turned his gaze down at his plate. Victoria blushed. He must have known what they were talking about. This was his simulation, after all. Or maybe he was just observing her.

On her left side sat Drew, who was currently sharing a story with Ruby. They both burst out in laughter. It looked like he was flirting with her.

Matias was focused solely on his food. His plate was full of sauce. You could actually say that his main dish was ketchup and mustard, and the sausage merely a side. He closed his eyes and made a somewhat exaggerated expression of pleasure, showing how much he was enjoying the food. He finished and put another couple of sausages onto his stick, munching on marshmallows in the meantime.

Victoria was amused by the scene in front of her and Matias’ contrasting personality. He was a large, manly guy who ate for two but sometimes behaved like some little haughty lady. From what she could observe, he liked to exaggerate and was nearly always laughing. She liked him.

Victoria still felt somewhat lonely, but she felt good. They gained her sympathies.

“Okay people, let’s finish eating and go back home,” Ian said.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 16

 

 

26 YEARS AGO

 

 

 

“What do you feel like having today?” he asked lovingly. “Maybe I’ll fry up some chicken and fries?”

“If only you knew how,” she snapped under her nose.

“Okay, I’ll start getting supper ready.” He grabbed the ingredients, not paying any attention to her bad attitude.

“I completely don’t understand you,” she began, “you kidnapped me from my house in the middle of the night, as if it were completely normal, pretending we’re some happy household, and the only thing that you can talk to me about is what food to make? If I were you, I’d be worried. You understand that sooner or later they’ll find me, right? This plan was a failure from the very beginning. Maybe you’ll think this through again and come to your senses? If you let me out now, freely, I’ll be able to ease the situation a bit for you. Otherwise, not if – but when they find us, you’ll be in a very difficult situation. Hello? David? Did you hear what I just said?”

He listened carefully to every word, but he didn’t even waste his time on replying. He as focused solely on the cooking. He started cutting up the chicken. There was only one knife in the house and he kept it upstairs. All of the utensils – anything with sharp ends – had been thrown out of the kitchen.

When he had gotten rid of the van, he drove to the store and bought a few packs of plastic utensils.

He reached for the spices.

“David, maybe we should make some sauce?” she asked sarcastically.

“Sure thing, sweetie.”

“I don’t believe this. I don’t believe that this really happened to me,” she shook her head. “So you are listening to what I’m saying?”

“All the time.”

“And you have no desire to reply? That’s why you dragged me here, anyway. You want to “get to know” me again.”

“Yes.”

“It doesn’t look like you thought this through all the way. You definitely must have left some prints along the way. They’ll figure it out and find us.”

“No.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“I planned everything.”

“I can imagine, but I’m sure that you didn’t do it perfectly. You can’t come up with the perfect kidnapping in one day.”

“In one day, no.”

He added more oil to the pan.

“Excuse me?”

“I didn’t plan this in one day. You can be sure.”

“Excuse me?” she repeated.

“I had time in prison. Eight years is not one day. I had time think about possible outcomes.”

“Am I to understand, that you’re an even bigger sadist than I thought?” she asked, puzzled. “You planned everything a long time ago? Who are you!?”

“I planned this option. To be honest, I thought that you’d come with me out of your own free will.”

“You’re psycho.” She raised her voice.

“I left them a little letter, too, so that they have something to keep themselves occupied.”

“What letter?”

“A farewell letter from you.”

“From me?”

“Yes. That you’re sorry, but you don’t want to be with Max anymore and you’re leaving him for me. When I laid you down in the van, I took some of your clothes and cosmetics, so that it looked like you were moving out on your own. They’ll surely come to the conclusion that you didn’t run away, but they’ll have to consider the possibility.”

“You’re a sick person. I would never leave Max, especially not for you.”

He gave her a cold stare and held it for a moment. She felt shivers go through her and decided to lower her tone. It was best to keep Max out of the conversation. David was unpredictable.

“Could you pour me some tea?” she changed the subject.

“It’s boiling. You can get up yourself.”

She sighed heavily and went up to get the kettle from David. She glanced at the knife. He noticed this and quickly hid it away into the drawer while she was still there.

Cassie took a sip of the hot drink.

“Why are you being so careful? You think that I’ll hurt you?”

“You’re angry. People can do plenty of stupid things when they’re emotional. Besides, I need to look after you. If something happened to me, you’d be left all alone here and eventually run out of food. You wouldn’t have any possibility of contact. You remember how far this house is from the other neighborhoods? About ten kilometers. No one would be able to hear you, and no one would help you. You would starve to death. I’d rather take safety precautions. I need to keep well so that I can take care of you.”

She slightly parted her mouth.

“And where did you get the money for all of this, huh?”

“I’ve saved a bit before prison.”

“What about the rest of the money?”

“I got it from a fund from my parents when I turned 18.”

“And you never told me about it?”

“I never told anyone about it. Not about the money, or that I bought the house. No one knows about this place. I bought it shortly before we got married. I wanted it to be a surprise for you, but everything turned out differently. When I went to court, there was no point in mentioning it anymore.”

“You didn’t tell anyone about it,” she repeated after him.

“Yes, I have some new documents, too.”

He put down the pan with supper and quickly ran upstairs to the first floor. He briskly came back down.

“Look.”

She was now looking at the new ID photo, but it wasn’t in her ID. There was a different name on it with different information. Her name was Carmen. Her passport was likewise remade.

“You prepared documents,” she said.

“Not just them. I prepared literally everything that we would need to start over. Max won’t find you. We won’t need to worry about him.”

“Your plans are lacking one serious detail.”

“What?”

“That I don’t want this. Right now, you’re holding me here against my will. I’ll never be with with you out of my own desire. You’ll have to keep me imprisoned for the rest of your life,” she joked.

“If that’s what I’ll need to do.” His tone turned serious.

“This must be some kind of joke.” She wrinkled her forehead.

“Yes, I was kidding,” he laughed. “I’m sure you’ll change your mind. You just need to remember the feelings that you had for me. I’ll wait as long as I need to until that time. We’re not in a hurry anywhere.”

“Oh, God.”

“I’ll serve you some supper.”

She grabbed her forehead and started shaking her head.

“I made you some tomato sauce.”

“You’re unbelievable.”

“Here you go.” He set the plate down in front of her.

She took it in her hands unwillingly.

“I really don’t know what to say so that you finally understand.”

David turned on some extra lights. The sun was setting behind the trees. He took out another plate and sat down nearby Cassie.

***

 

“This is a nightmare,” Cassie said to herself quietly.

She was laying alone in the dark living room. The first night. She couldn’t sleep. The sofa was comfortable, but Cassie was unable to take advantage of that. She tossed and turned. An anxious energy, or rather a feeling of endangerment, filled her body. Her head began to hurt. In her daily live, she tried to avoid stress, knowing how important it was for overall health. This situation was difficult for her, and it weighed especially heavy on her heart.

She thought about her little boy, who had absolutely no idea that this was happening. She only hoped that Max would be able to handle the situation. He would take care of little Freddie and come up with some reasonable reason that his mom had to go away. God, how she worried about him. She missed her house and Max. She feared what the coming days would bring. She knew that it would only be more difficult.

She recalled the early days of when she was getting to know David. Their first dates. Hatred filled her. She had no idea that a person could feel so much rage. He had been the most disappointing person that she had ever known. She had enough. David seemed to have been made to cause her pain. She laughed at the thought that he really thought that he would be able to make her happy. From all of the 4 billion men in the world, she had to get in a relationship with an absolute psychopath.

She turned the small lamp next to the sofa on. She wanted to obscure her thoughts with something. She grabbed a magazine on the table.

Celebrities, recipes, crossword puzzles, average people’s incredible stories. The last option stirred her interest. She needed to lose herself in a different story than her own.

A man who had survived getting struck by lightning. Next. From a roadside thug to a pastor. Something else. There was nothing there that struck her. She got back to celebrities.

Photos of beautiful people strutting around freely on the streets of Los Angeles. She wondered what they were doing right now. They were probably safely sitting inside their large, expensive houses.

There are so many people in this world. At this very moment, someone was teaching a child how to ride a bike, someone was getting married, someone was riding a bike, and someone else had just been murdered or kidnapped.

She felt as if she were in some kind of thriller. All that she could hope for was a happy ending.

She turned a few pages and reached the crossword puzzle.

1. Blood deficiency; weakened organism. – ANEMIA

2. In the center of a hive. -HONEY

3. Tooth disease. -CARIES

4. Boosts immune system; strong smell. -GARLIC

She stopped filling it in. It was pointless. She threw the magazine on the table and switched off the light. One more, she attempted to sleep. She fixed her pillow, snuggled herself up in the sheets, covered up in a blanket and laid down.

She was half asleep, resting but still alert. She couldn’t fully relax.

She got up and put on her bathrobe. She walked into the kitchen and started looking around in the drawers and cabinets, checking to see if David had left the knife there. It wasn’t there. The cabinets were full of food. Nothing of use.

She took out the milk and poured it into a pot. Then, she poured a huge portion of cookie, cinnamon and chocolate cereal into a bowl. She took the warm milk and poured it on top, scrunching the cereal pieces to the floor of the bowl so that they were all soaked. She could care less about her diet right now, and she had a craving for something unhealthy. She usually tried to avoid processed foods. The water boiled, and Cassie made herself some tea. Out of a drawer, she pulled out a bar of peanut butter chocolate.

Angry at life, she made herself comfortable on the sofa, took a bite of cereal and turned on the t.v.

There was little to watch in the middle of the night. After browsing through several dozen channels, she chose HBO. A Game of Thrones rerun was on. This would do.

She straightened up on the sofa and got lost in the fiction.

 

***

 

David made his way downstairs without making a sound. He got up very early and didn’t want to wake Cassie up, but when he showed up, she immediately lifted her up in his direction.

“How are you feeling?”

“Bad,” she laid her head back down on the pillow.

He looked around at the little mess around the sofa. Magazines were laying thrown about, dishes, empty chocolate wrappers.

“You shouldn’t eat so many sweets.”

“I needed them.”

“I won’t buy anymore. You need to eat healthy things.”

“Just when I think that it can’t get any worse, you come down here and open your mouth.”

“Listen, Cassie. I’ll go get you some books. What would you like?”

“Let me out of here, David. This won’t work.”

“Do you want some stories or some how-to books?”

“I really can’t deal with you.” She closed her eyes.

“Okay, I’ll pick something out this time. Maybe I’ll buy another cook book. You’ll have something to do, learn some new dishes.”

“David, I’m begging you.” She looked at him in sadness. “I’m begging you, just listen to me. Let me out, please. I went tell anyone what happened. I’ll think of something. You have my word,” she said calmly.

“Don’t look at me like that, Cassie. Please, stop resisting. My heart breaks when I see how you torment yourself.”

“Please, David. Have some mercy. I know that you have problems, but I know that there’s some good in you, too. That’s why I married you. I’m begging you, release me.”

He looked at her, pale in the face. He turned around, went upstairs and came back down with the car keys.

“I’ll be back in a few hours,” he replied slowly.

“No, no, please.”

“I know that the beginnings will be difficult. For me as well.”

He locked the doors. Cassie heard the fading sound of an engine.

 

 

***

ONE MONTH LATER

 

 

Each coming day seemed longer than the last. He didn’t talk too much. When Cassie had come to the realization that everything she said merely went in one ear and out the other, she grew silent. She tried to avoid contact as much as possible. She didn’t look at him, ignored his questions, and said nearly nothing.

She closed up in herself and just waited.

She wondered what the police in Nashville may be doing. They should have already found something by now that would help them find her. Her heart tightened at the thought of Freddie. She still had hope, however.

She crossed off the days in the living room calendar, dreaming that someone from the neighborhood nearby would grow interested in the house and somehow save her.

On many occasions, she tried to do this herself, usually when David drove somewhere.

She measured her scope of movement on the chain. She searched the groceries and drawers, yelled at the top of her lungs into the open window, tugged at the chain that was tied to the pantry doors. All was futile. The doorknob was thick and made from metal. She only managed to make a few scratches. On one attempt, she hurt herself in the ankle. David put her to sleep with some chemical discharge, and when she woke up, the chain was tied on her other leg. Her ankle was bandaged.

David went to get groceries every few days. He tried holding a conversation with her on a daily basis, but Cassie either went silent or locked herself in the toilet.

He bought her different things. Recently, he had brought some high-end make-up, and another time some perfume. Cassie refused to use any of these things. The only “things” that she let near herself was the cat, which he had bought a week ago. David’s old cat had died several years before. When she mentioned this to him, he went out and bought a new one.

The black, green-eyed cat slept with Cassie. When David was away, she took care of him and petted him. Otherwise, she didn’t let on that he meant anything to her. Officially, it was David who owned the cat. He gave him food and cleaned up after him.

To kill some time, she read plenty of books and watched several episodes of different t.v. shows everyday. Sometimes, they would make something to eat for one another.

She looked at her body and noticed that she had gained some weight. She didn’t feel very well. Sometimes, she would feel faint. Her life was overtaken by stress, and Cassie would often eat to cope with it. She pushed David to buy some sweets at least once in a while. He at least listened to her in this case.

Her well-being had reached a tragic level.

David came back home.

“Harry!” he called.

He went up to the cat’s bowl, put the grocery bags down, and took out a chicken packet. At the sound of the rustling foil, the cat jumped off of the bed and ran up towards the sound with his tail lifted high.

“Hold on, one second,” he said to the cat.

Harry started biting big chunks of the chicken in sauce before David had finished squeezing out all of the contents of the packet. He gently pushed the cat aside and put the rest in his bowl.

He picked up the bags and started to unpack the groceries.

“I drove by a restaurant and picked up some dinner. I brought you some egg rolls.”

“Okay,” she replied quietly, not turning her head from the t.v.

“Should I heat them up for you?”

She nodded affirmatively, so David got to it.

“Here you go.”

Cassie took the plate without a word and returned to watching the television.

“What have you been up to today, Cassie?” he asked.

“Nothing.”

“Maybe you should start exercising. I can buy you cross-trainer.”

“If you want.”

“Okay, I’ll take care of it this week.” He looked at her, and then at the plasma t.v. “Is there something interesting on?”

She looked at him and didn’t say anything.

“Cassie?”

“You tell me.”

She quickly ate the egg rolls and a few minutes later, locked herself in the bathroom.

David went to the kitchen in consternation. He heated up his portion, ate it, put the groceries away and took up all of the dishes. He put some detergent in the dishwasher and some extra shine gel for the glass.

He sat down in front of the t.v. and waited.

Cassie was in the bathroom for over an hour now. He went up to it and leaned on the door.

“Is everything okay?”

She didn’t respond.

“Cassie, are you alive?”

Silence.

“Cassie!” he yelled. “Answer me or I’m coming in there myself!”

Earlier, Cassie would lock herself in the bathroom for even a whole day, so David had recently removed the lock on the door. He could come in at any moment.

“I’m going to get the dessert ready,” he said louder.

Cassie was looking at herself in the mirror. There were bags under her eyes. She grabbed some cream and rubbed a thick wad of it all over her face. She brushed her hair, fixed her bathrobe, and came out.

“Cassie, you need to stop walking around in that,” he declared.

“And why’s that?”

“You’ve been wearing the same pyjamas and bathrobe all month. I’m asking you again to please put on something else.”

“I don’t want to.”

In reality, she wasn’t taking very good care of herself because she didn’t want to appear attractive. She rarely washed her hair or body. It was rather uncomfortable and awkward for her because she usually liked to be clean, but she wanted to stir up some distaste in him so that he wouldn’t want to come on to her.

“Don’t be silly. I bought you a bunch of nice things. Don’t you mind the way you smell?”

“It’s you I mind.”

“Cassie, come on, let it go.”

David went to the kitchen, took a ready-to-eat ice cream dessert with sauce in a plastic cup. He gave her a plastic spoon and sat down on the other end of the bed.

“I imagined all of this a bit differently,” he began.

“You thought that I’d fall into your arms?” she stuck the spoon into the ice cream.

It was August. The air-conditioning was working alright, but it was only after eating the ice cream that she felt a pleasant wave of cool.

“I thought that it would take you less time to warm up to me. You’re very stubborn.”

“Me!?” she laughed. “Stubborn? It’s you who’s the stalker.”

“And we’re back at square one. No matter what I say, you turn silent, throw sarcastic remarks or insult me.”

“Are you surprised? Don’t make me laugh. Now at least you know how I feel when you say that nothing registers with the receiver.”

He sighed.

“I’d like you to treat me like you used, or at least at least a fraction of that.”

“No chance. You’re a criminal.”

“I just want you to open up to me again.”

“So that you can hit me again?” she barked.

He froze, stood up and surely made his way upstairs.

“Finally, he left,” Cassie mumbled under her breath.

Harry jumped up on her knees. She turned on the t.v., finished her dessert and started to pet him.

Furious, David ran downstairs. Cassie saw a handkerchief in his hand. She knew that he was planning to put her out. She got up and ran into the kitchen. They started running around like cat and mouse. David finally caught her and managed to sedate her.

 

***

 

Cassie slowly returned to consciousness. She looked towards the windows. It was late evening. Slowly and weakly, she lifted herself up. She felt unwell. She noticed that she had been washed and that her clothes had been changed. Her hair was still damp.

“Did you wash me?” She looked at David sitting in a chair nearby.

She felt naked. He must have seen her and touched her. She shivered.

“You made me realize something,” he said confidently.

“What?” she looked at him angrily.

“I need to stop indulging you. From now on, you are going to show me respect. If I ask you to do a sensible thing like wash yourself, you will do it. You are going to take care of yourself. You won’t be able to let yourself go anymore. I’ll make sure of that.”

“What will you do to me? Hit me?”

“Be quiet!” he snapped. “I will behave towards you like you behave towards me. If you’re good, you’ll live like a queen. If you only try to insult me, you’ll suffer the consequences,” he said with fire in his eyes.

Cassie was truly scared now. Until now, he barely reacted. If he did, he would merely yell and go up to his room. The last time she recalled behavior like this was when she mentioned the restaurant situation to him years ago. He lost all control and took his anger out on her physically. Now that she was looking at him, she decided that she wasn’t going to provoke him.

“Did you understand?”

“Yes,” she quickly replied.

“Good. I don’t want to get carried away like that ever again. Nothing has changed, Cassie. I still love you, but we’ve got to bring in some rules. I’ve indulged you too much. From now on, you’ll wash yourself daily, put on fresh clothes, cook regularly, and clean up after yourself, just like before. I’ll buy you a cross-trainer this week so that you can exercise and put on some light make-up. You need to put yourself together and start functioning normally. No discussion.”

“Okay, fine.” She stared into an empty distance.

“Good, we have a deal.”

“But I have one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“You won’t ever put me out again. I feel very sick after that substance.”

“If you won’t resist, if there’s no need for it, then okay.”

“Fine.”

“Alright then. I’m going to take a shower.”

Cassie was left alone by herself. She wasn’t afraid anymore, just angry. All of her fear had gone, an in its place grew hatred. That’s what kept her going.

She would do as he said. She could play house, pretending that she was coming around to him. Slowly.

Once he trusted her more or if an opportunity arose, she may be able to escape.

She stood up with a new resolution. Bathed, wearing fresh clothes, she went into the kitchen and decided to make some supper, not only for herself. She took some pasta, meat and vegetables.

A delicious, appetizing tomato casserole was prepared. She took everything down to the small table in the living room. She called David.

“Eat while it’s still warm,” she ordered.

He glanced at the plate, then at Cassie. Then he sat down across from her.

“This will be your plate,” he gave it away to her and served himself some casserole on a clean plate from the other side of the counter.

“I wouldn’t poison you,” she said while taking a big bite.

He stuck his fork into the pasta and took a quick bite.

“It’s really good. Thanks,” he said after reflection.

“Since I’m already here, I don’t want there to be tension between us,” she said slowly. “I don’t like this, but I want to have some peace.”

“That’s a good start,” he nodded his head.

“I haven’t talked to anyone in a while.”

“We talk everyday.”

“Not for long.”

“Because you don’t want to.”

“What do you want to know?”

She ate a piece of the casserole and looked at him.

“I don’t know if you want to talk about it, but I’m interested about what life was like in jail, how you got on,” she voiced.

He exhaled and looked at her observantly.

“Well. It wasn’t a bed of roses, but in my case it wasn’t so bad.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I had it pretty calm. People usually stayed away from me.”

“Why?”

He had no intention of telling her about the attacks.

“Because I gave them reason not to come close.” He paused. “It was hard. I didn’t tell you this earlier, but I survived because of you. I wanted to give up many times, even kill myself, but you kept me alive. You literally saved me. I wrote you everyday, but I didn’t send most of the letters.”

She took a large gulp.

“I met many people there. I learned a lot about life, and I even learned a few tricks from some of them.” He sighed. “Can we talk about something else? This isn’t the most pleasant topic.”

“Maybe you can tell me about this house?”

“I wanted to talk, but when it came down to it, it was difficult for me to come around. I haven’t talked to anyone in a long time. I’ve lost ease with it.” He paused for a moment. “Okay. This house, as you already know, was bought by me before I went to jail, shortly after we visited it.”

“It’s too bad that you never told me about it.”

“Yes, it’s too bad.”

“Maybe everything would’ve turned out differently then. You know, if we had moved when we planned to.”

After these words, he became silent. He felt very sad, remembering that it was he who had postponed the move. He didn’t feel sure about it and chose to remain longer in Nashville. If he had only done differently. The attacks would still have come, but everything might have been better. He may have even gone to look for help in the new place, like to a psychologist. The awareness that he may have accidentally sabotaged his entire life ruined his mood. They finished the meal in silence.

“If you’d like, I can cook for both of us,” she proposed taking their plates away.

A feeling of hope sprang up in him.

“I would really like that.”

The evening passed by more calmly than usual. They didn’t talk. Instead, they both sat in front of the t.v. and watched a nature documentary.

When it was over, David stood up and thanked her again for the meal.

“Good night.”

“Good night.”

The atmosphere was clearly more relaxed now. David decided to give her more peace and space.

Cassie felt sad. She saw that he was suffering. He must have experienced awful things. Her anger mixed with empathy. He did deserve the punishment that he got, regardless, and the fact that he had mistreated her still remained. She just noticed the human in him once again.

She was hoping to gain David’s trust. It was sad that he had to go through all that he did, but it wasn’t her problem. He was the only one to blame. Her freedom was most important. She felt her confidence surge, because now at least she had a plan.

If no one was going to find them, she would free herself.

She made her bed, comfortably got in and fell asleep.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 17

 

 

PRESENT DAY, YEAR 2041

 

 

 

Victoria’s morning was surprisingly pleasant. For the first time, she woke up well rested, full of energy and motivation. Peace and happiness filled her inside. Yesterday’s club meeting did her very well.

After her shower, she got ready for the day’s lessons.

She went out of her room and transported herself to the auditorium. Scarlett was sitting at the very top row just like before. Aaron was sitting in the first row at the bottom. He must have felt some remorse towards her. The fact that she was being avoided saddened Victoria, but she didn’t want to be overbearing. She headed towards the very top where her friend was sitting.

“Hey Victoria,” Scarlett greeted her happily.

The girl stood up and gave her a big hug. They exchanged smiles.

“Hey, there. I saw your results. You’ve got one of the best ones,” Victoria said.

“I just hope it’s enough,” she added hopefully.

The director came in, greeted them and said a few words. Today they would split them up into groups of twenty. Victoria was sure that she would remain in the top twenty. She anxiously waited to hear Scarlett’s allocation, though.

The screen lit up and Victoria immediately scanned it, searching for Scarlett’s name. She got seventeenth place!

“You did it!” Victoria yelped.

Scarlett giggled excitedly. She looked happy. Victoria was now hanging on to third place. First went to Aaron with nine battles won, and second was held by Tom Scolck, who had won ten.Aaron despite being the loser in this task still ranked first in the overall ranking.

Victoria had wondered about Aaron’s results earlier. He had won nine, which means that he must have been defeated by someone. She was nearly sure that this person was Tom. Now she disliked him even more, because she had seen the way he had acted towards Aaron earlier during a competition.

One of the coaches started to speak. She recognized him as the one who had high-fived her yesterday – Matias.

“You see the divisions. Each of these ten groups will get their own coach. The first few days here were meant to check how well you would manage without professional training.”

One of the female coaches took stand now. Victoria recognized her as well. She was a short brunette with a slim face and a little nose. Her appearance wasn’t particularly unique, but she had a deep, charismatic voice. From what Victoria recalled, someone had referred to her as Ruby.

“The overall training program looks like this,” she pointed to the screen. “You have five minutes to read over it carefully. We will go over the points in two blocks – first theoretically, and then practically.”

TWO YEAR TRAINING PROGRAM

 

1. Fighting – 1st semester

 

*hand combat – krav maga, kung fu(wing tsun), kickboxing, jujitsu, attacks, deadly blows, self-defense, weak/sensitive points, immobilization/disposal of opponent

 

*firearms – competent use of pistols, rifles – sniper training

 

*melee weaponry – competent use of daggers, knives, swords, bayonets

 

*conventional-ranged weaponry – competent use of bow and arrow

 

2. Liberation in case of kidnapping – 2nd semester

  • escape from an enclosed space

 

  • training “How to keep from breaking – lying techniques”

 

3. INTERROGATION – 3rd semester

 

*Psychology

 

*Manipulation techniques

 

*The art of noticing details – expanding your perception

 

*Facial microexpression and voice emission

 

*Lie detection

 

*Intuition

 

*Extrasensory perception

 

4. HACKING – 4th semester

 

*Learning code, breaking restrictions, retrieving information, appropriating devices

 

*Engineering – electronics, building radio and other forms of communication

 

PROFESSIONAL DIVISIONS

 

1. DEFENDERS – physical

 

-defensive abilities

-strategy planning

-protection

-battle tactics

-leadership skills

-heightened physical capacity

-pain resistance

-survival

-speed

-agility

-higher density of hair and bone mass

-heightened telekinesis

 

2. SCOUTS – psycho-physical

 

-quick analysis and synthesis of information

-information gathering

-above average sight

-above average hearing

-heightened perception

-quick adaptation

-knowledge of the premises, climate, plants and animals

-survival

-heightened language capabilities

-telekinesis

 

3. MENTALISTS – psychological

 

-well-developed social skills

-manipulation

-influence over others

-facial reading

-observation

-self-confidence

-communication

-psychology

-charisma

-energetically influencing others

-telekinesis

 

4. MIND WORKERS – psychological

 

-drawing people towards you

-good aura

-gaining information in an extrasensory manner

-intuition

-pyrokinesis

-healing and self-healing

-above average efficient and resistant physical state

-heightened telekinesis

 

5. PASSIVES – psychological

 

-highly developed memory skills

-heightened brain efficiency

-above average intelligence

-highly developed hacking skills

-information gathering

-weaker physical fitness

-weaker telekinesis

 

Five minutes had passed. Everyone had read the screen as quickly as possible and was now awaiting the rest of the lecture.

Ruby finally spoke up.

“Your magnetism is what makes you stand out. Normal people will feel extremely pulled towards you. Your reactions are quicker, your bodies are stronger and your minds faster. Some of you may feel a heightened sexual drive as well,” she smiled to herself.

She noticed uneasiness on a few faces and changed the subject.

“For a normal person, it would be very difficult to kill you. That is your advantage. The first half year will focus solely on fighting – each one of its forms. There will be many things to implement, so I please ask you for resilience.” She paused.

Matias started to speak now.

“Surely, you didn’t skip over the professions. What are they?” he asked in a teacher-like tone. “These, of course, are predispositions required for future work. You read over the traits and skills necessary for each. We will help you choose what is most adequate to you personally using a psychological test and your practical training results. That doesn’t sound so bad, right? Almost like Sparta.” He joked and quickly turned serious again. “You yourselves have already noticed the changes in your bodies. Some things may sound scary, but your minds and bodies will handle it all just fine. They just need to be honed and lead in the right direction,” Mastias finished.

Ian nodded his head affirmatively and began to talk.

“You’ve by now realized that we, too, have our own professions,” he gestured to himself and the other coaches. “Each professional group will be overlooked by two coaches who have undergone that particular training,” he said and turned to look around at the novices. “Today, we will carefully test your minds and bodies. The learning part will begin tomorrow.” He paused. “We’ll start with the psychological test. Place your hands into the metal rings.”-Ian added.

Victoria felt a rush of adrenaline. This was all really happening. Sometimes, she felt as if she were in some kind of prolonged, deceitful dream from which she couldn’t wake. Now she felt alright, though. She accepted this placed and was starting to get addicted to the sensations. She knew who she was. She was a MIND WORKER.

 

 

CHAPTER 18

 

 

ONE MONTH LATER

 

 

 

It was very intense.

Victoria had experienced more in one month than throughout her entire life. She was used to high momentum, but this was a slight overstatement.

They had just finished hand to hand combat and immediately dived right into rifles. Today was going through day two of her new training.

She had learned thousands of blows, and her coerced mind had started to keep up. At that moment, Victoria could call herself a specialist.

She managed to remain in the top twenty, but she dropped a spot. It wasn’t a surprise that she was now part of a small group of MIND WORKERS. What did puzzle her was the fact that the group had only three people in it, which was ten, even twenty times less than the other professions.

Aaron continued to remain in first place. That didn’t mean that he was always the best. His winnings were summed up so that ultimately, he had won first place on some occasions and reached one of the higher spots on others. That was enough to keep his name at the top of the list. This drove Tom crazy. He harassed him, often provoked him to rivalry; he was simply jealous. Victoria wasn’t surprised – he had an overgrown ego. Sometimes, he won first place at practice and then went on to fail miserably. Aaron didn’t pay him much attention, however, which only stirred the other one’s annoyance even further.

Both boys belonged to the DEFENDERS group.

Aaron wasn’t so indifferent to Victoria anymore. They would sometimes talk for a moment, but she saw that he had some kind of aversion to her. Sometimes, she would catch him looking at her. He always said hello. If he happened to be beside her, he let her walk through the door ahead of him, which only added to Victoria’s confusion. He treated her well, but often acted as if she were tarnished or something. He avoided contact and conversation.

Once he had settled down after his punishment, he began to talk with others as well. It was stupid, but Victoria felt abandoned. He became good friends with Ian. This didn’t mean that Aaron was any more talkative – rather cold and close up – but during the club meeting, he opened up only to him. He acted friendly during those times and even joked some. He was rather cold and impossible to read on a daily basis, however.

Scarlett also remained in the top twenty. She had joined the group of DEFENDERS.

The two girls became even closer friends. They shared stories of their old lives, their plans, and interests. Scarlett had a boyfriend who she couldn’t get in touch with since arriving at the Academy thanks to their complete isolation rule. She wasn’t too upset by this because she planned on breaking up with him anyway. He started to act in ways that were unacceptable to her.

Victoria eagerly told her all about the club meetings. She was happy that she had met her. Most of all, she was happy that Scarlett was a real, honest person. She was a loner and shy at times, but she radiated warmth. She treated other people the same way that she wanted to be treated, and hated lies and vulgarity. That’s why they got along so well.

Scarlett thought that Ian had a thing for her, and she stubbornly pursued this topic. Victoria wasn’t so sure about this, and she didn’t even think about checking herself. He was a great friend, he treated her well, but she didn’t forget that he was her profession’s head coach. She told herself that whether or not he wanted to, he needed to establish a close tie with her. Besides that, she had noticed herself becoming anxious whenever Aaron was around. She considered him exceptionally attractive.

After Sarah’s punishment, Morgan had asked Ian about the circumstances surrounding the first simulation. He stopped talking to her and apologized to Victoria. She accepted, and every now and then they spoke to each other. It was typical, ordinary small talk. They weren’t very close, but he respected her. He was now part of the PASSIVE group.

Sarah was in group number six, which meant that she was ranked among the top 120-140. She was part of the MENTALISTS. Acting certainly made sense. That’s why in the beginning Victoria fell into her “friendship” trap. She didn’t bother Victoria anymore, though. Rather, she recognized an open enemy in her. There was definite jealousy and an ill-meaning look in her eyes, but ever since the punishment she hadn’t dared to try anything other than verbal offense. Victoria was over it, though. She wasn’t worth the energy.

Drew was becoming better during the club meetings. She became slightly closer friends with him. They shared a similar sense of humor. He was a bit unnoticeable and gave the act of a dummy, but then went on to win high positions in the rankings. He joined the MENTALIST group, which fit him perfectly. Unlike Sarah, however, he did have positive traits. They usually hung out together during the club meetings.

During yesterday’s general training all of the novices had to shoot while sitting down with a bolster in the shape of a rectangular triangle. It was wooden with a few carved out half-circles for the rifle barrel. Each half-circle was slightly lower than the previous. They were getting used to it.

Today, they shot standing up. They had to put on a special velcro suit disabling their movement, as well as gloves for rifle support. They were told to spread their legs, hold a stable stance, fold their gloved hand into a fist, place it under the rifle, and shoot. There was a screen hanging at each post displaying the target up close. They simply needed to look up to see how they had done. This was required for the moment. In later semesters, they would further develop their sight and perception, although a few people already had no need for screens. Their abilities were extremely varied. It wasn’t clear what exactly caused this, which is why they trained all of the novices in multiple areas.

Victoria loaded her rifle. She got in her stance, inhaled deeply through her lips and froze. Her shot hit the target and she exhaled. The bullet had landed close to the center.

All of the noise still took some getting use to. Victoria looked around the giant room. She had never seen so many shooting posts in one place. Two hundred people shooting at two hundred targets, all right next to each other. The posts were somewhat spaced out from each other for safety reasons. She’d shot from a pneumatic weapon before. It had been quieter and was loaded by the shot. During the training, they used real weapons which were extremely loud. She would ask the coach for some headphones, but no one had done so this far, so she decided against it. She just needed to get used to it.

Ian organized a little competition. How he loved games. If the opportunity only presented itself, he would come up with a way for them to compete.

He divided everyone up into pairs. Two people now occupied one shooting spot. The paper targets were replaced by three round silver badges, each around half a centimeter.

“The purpose of the game is to shoot down the badges as quickly as possible. Try not to be too hasty, though. If you miss just once, you’ll most likely lose. The winner will be the one who takes down two badges first.”

Victoria was paired up with a boy she didn’t know. She recognized all of the novices by face, but she hadn’t gotten to know all of them. She gave him a handshake.

“Victoria.”

“Derek,” he quickly returned.

They started preparing, took their positions, and waited on Ian’s signal.

“Now.”

Bullets colliding with the metal badges created an even louder noise.

Victoria hit it on the first try, as did Derek. She was too hasty on the second shot, however, and missed. Thankfully, he did as well. She had a chance. She grasped the moment when he missed took a deep breath and shot it right in the center. She exhaled in relief.

Half of the group was still shooting. Some were standing there waiting for round two, while others would join them momentarily.

Ian asked them pair up with the winner on their right side.

One hundred people were left. Victoria looked to her right. A girl with short black hair smiled at her. They had already met before; her name was Gina. They exchanged quick hellos and raised their rifles up. Victoria decided that this time around, she would do this carefully and with full control. They got the signal.

Victoria gave off two, quick, accurate shots. She shook Gina’s hand.

Fifty more remained. She paired up with the next girl and won.

Twenty-five people were left, so Ian asked one of the coaches to fill in the missing pair.

“This will be fair. You shoot like a beginner,” he said to Matias.

“Shut up,” he laughed.

Matias ended up winning, however – as did Victoria. Now there were twelve of them.

Victoria tried something new this time. She wanted to see what would happen if she uses her power. She was still developing her telekinesis and could use some improvement, but she was doing quite well anyhow. In fact, it’s what helped her win a moment ago. She decided to try one more time. No one said that it wasn’t allowed.

She stood ready for the next round. Victory. Six remained. Next. She won. She was now in the top three.

Ian glanced at her curiously. He must have known what she was up to.

“Now we’ll pit you all against each other.”

Victoria stood off to the side. Aaron was, of course, also in the last threesome. Drew, as always, had managed to make it to the top inconspicuously. Aaron almost instantly won. His muscles were tightly strained.

Now it was Drew’s turn. He tried to shoot as quickly as Aaron, but he pulled the trigger too hastily, so that those two shots could be counted as one. The bullet always hit the same spot – the very center. Two badges down.

Aaron came up to her, threw the rifle up in his hands and nodded his head in hello. Victoria really wanted to win with him. She hoped that this would get his attention.

She concentrated intently. Ian gave them the green light. Her body quickened and reality slowed down. She shot and hit the two badges right on target. She was surprised when she saw Aaron’s shot make it to the first badge in slow motion. She had just done something else than telekinesis. She was moving at a speed several times that of the others. She shook herself off.

Reality sped back up. The others were looking at her in disbelief.

“Matrix!” someone shouted from the crowd.

The novices burst out in laughter.

Aaron looked at her closely, but didn’t say anything.

 

***

 

Victoria awaited the next club meeting. All of her lessons for the day had already finished. She now had an hour to herself, so she made it over to her personal spa. She had ordered a bunch of cosmetics to the storage room earlier.

She took a long shower and washed her hair.

Then, she waxed her eyebrows, put on a green clay and hyaluronic acid face mask, placed two slices of cucumber on her eyes, placed a thick layer of hair mask, did a hair wax, and finally moisturized her whole body.

She felt very good.

When she felt that everything was moisturized, she washed her hair again and then blowdried it. She grabbed a dry towel and started to wipe away the remainder of the oily lotion.

She put her make up on as usual, put on a long one-piece and started to brush her hair.

After all of these treatments, she felt refreshed. She looked well rested, as if she had just gotten up. It was alright to go.

 

***

 

Victoria took the smallest chocolate muffin. She could have waited until the simulation, because she felt no difference in eating something here or there. She decided that she could let herself have a treat now, seeing as she deserved it after winning the day’s competition. Besides, once they start the simulation, they’ll first take some time relaxing and will have to wait a while on food, anyway.

She didn’t want to admit to herself that she had a problem with sweets. She tried to control her cravings, but sometimes it was difficult for her to do. It just gave her too much pleasure and happiness.

How stupid it was, she thought to herself. People have much worse problems, real addictions, and she couldn’t control herself when it came to sweets. Ever since she was a child. Her father gave her lots of them when she was a little girl, and eventually stopped, but her love for them never gave in. He laughed at her problem and told her that her mom had eaten plenty of sweets when she was pregnant with her.

Thankfully, she always stayed active and exercised often which allowed her to keep the calories off somehow. Now she felt that her willpower had grown. Ever since arriving at the Academy, she never felt like she lost her self-control. She knew how to curb her cravings. Now she was eating sweets, the healthy kind, only when she really felt like it, not because of lack of self-control, and certainly not in quantities like before. She felt much better because of this, because she really had a hard time with this earlier. Sometimes she would succeed, other times less so.

She ate her prize with great pleasure and told herself that this would do for today. She went into the simulation with a smile on her face.

 

***

 

This time, they found themselves in a self-help cafe. Victoria sat down at a table with Drew. He was telling her about something that had happened that day, but she drifted off in thought and started listening in on Aaron and Ian’s conversation. They were talking about Aaron’s results and then about engines. It looked like both of them had some car-repair experience. Their talk bored her, so she started to really listen to Drew.

He was talking about some girl. Victoria thought that this was even less interesting to her. After her at-home spa, she felt a bit lazy and wanted to lay down in bed more than anything else. She’d turn on some mindless television show and fall asleep soon after that.

The club meeting was supposed to help them relax and rest, but now it was slightly tiring her out. She didn’t want to offend anyone, though, so she stayed a bit longer. She drank her coffee, ate a few small salmon sandwiches and joked around with Drew.

She finally decided that she was too tired and wanted to go back to her room. Ian led her out of the simulation, and himself as well. She pressed him to stay, but he insisted that he would help her out. It was a bit cold for her. Ian noticed that and took off his jacket without hesitation, throwing it on her back.

They didn’t talk too much. The day was somewhat exhausting, and the evening nostalgic. Victoria didn’t feel like doing anything anymore. She thanked him and gave him back the jacket.

She closed her room doors, changed into comfortable pyjamas and collapsed onto her bed. She needed to finally slow down and give herself some time to regenerate, as much as she hated lazying around. Victoria decided that she would truly start taking advantage of life – but tomorrow.

She stopped thinking and fell asleep.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 19

 

 

25 YEARS AGO, OCTOBER

 

 

 

David took very good care of her, perhaps too good. He was obsessed about her.

She lived in a beautiful house, ready to fulfill his every desire. He would bring home fresh produce daily, treated her well, and showered her with gifts. Paradoxically, this made her feel worse.

She lived like in a palace. He took care of everything for her, while she barely had to lift a finger. Max and Freddie, on the other hand, must have been losing their minds. Cassie thanked David for the gifts, but steadily felt a greater sense of guilt. She wondered how much longer this would last.

She became very polite towards him, often thanking him. From this time on, she didn’t have any problems with David, besides of course the fact that she was imprisoned. In their day to day life, he would give her plenty of space and quiet.

Cassie worried greatly. Over three months had passed already. For now, it didn’t seem like anything was about to change. Help wasn’t coming. She became increasingly more anxious, not only because of this.

She discovered something that, under the given circumstances, terrified her more than mere imprisonment.

She was pregnant.

With Max.

She was afraid not only for herself now. It appeared to be the fourth month. She had managed to conceal it for now. The days were growing colder, so she asked David to buy her plenty of warm clothes – thick, large sweaters. She would put two of these on, explaining that she was just cold by nature. David recalled her icy hands and feet.

She prayed that the police would find them in time. It would be much more difficult to hide her secret very soon.

David hated Max for what he had done to him. If he found out about the child, there was no telling what he would do. He was calm now because she hadn’t given him any reason for conflict, including the pregnancy matter.

She was afraid that she would have to tell him. The idea of giving birth in the great white living room terrified her. He could take care child and do what he wanted with it.

At the thought of this she grabbed her belly.

They’ve been trying for a child with Max for several years now. Under the present circumstances, this blessing didn’t stir as much joy in her as otherwise.

For some time now, she’d been hiding her nausea. She also tried to block out her mood swings. Out of fear, she held back and didn’t tell him anything negative, even when she felt like getting up and doing something horrible to him. Sometimes, she even thought about killing him. She was afraid of her own thoughts. This wasn’t the type of person that she was. Fear can make a person do things that they would never expect to. Thankfully, Cassie didn’t carry out her imaginings. She wasn’t a monster. Her aggression was merely a product of her buzzing hormones.

“Good morning, Cassie,” David smiled, pulling her out of her thoughts.

“Hi.” She straightened up on her seat. “I have a question.”

She realized that he had been observing her for some time.

“I’m listening.”

“It’s about the t.v. It wasn’t working this morning. See?” She pushed something on the remote. “The t.v. turns on, but every channel has “NO SIGNAL” written on it. I checked the cables in the back. Everything’s plugged in. Could you fix it somehow?”

He went to the back of the t.v. and checked the plugs. Everything was in its right place. He tightened the cables, tried to turn on a channel, but nothing changed.

“Okay, I’ll try to take care of this. In the meantime, go get dressed, Cassie. We’ll be making breakfast in a moment.”

“Okay.”

She got up, marched over to the bathroom and closed the door.

David took the phone out of his pocket and called the t.v. distributor helpline. He got right through. The woman on the other end told him that they were currently having some conservation work done and that everything should be up and working again in a matter of hours.

The phone masked the noise in the bathroom – a large thud, as if someone had fallen.

David ran to the doors and opened them abruptly.

“Is everything okay!?”

He stood there motionless. Cassie was kneeling on the floor in her underwear, vomiting. His attention went to something else, however; Cassie’s unnaturally protruding abdomen.

“Are you…?” he asked, gesturing at her belly. “Oh my God.” Shocked, he dropped the phone.

“I couldn’t tell you!”

“Oh my God!” he took several steps back. He turned away from her and yelled across the whole house like a mad man.

“Please, calm down!” she tried to yell over him. “It’s just an innocent child, have some mercy on him!”

David began to cry and sob loudly. He stayed like this for several minutes until he regained control of himself.

“I’ll raise him like my own,” he said to himself.

He knelt down, his back still turned to Cassie. He started thinking out loud about the idea of having his own family.

She looked down at the phone. It was laying just a few meters away from her. David kept talking, but she was now focused on the cell phone. An opportunity like this was unlikely to repeat itself.

Cassie wiped her mouth with her hand and slowly began to move forward.

David stopped talking. This paralyzed her, so she threw herself abruptly at the phone that was laying between the bathroom and the living room.

He turned around and saw her holding the phone and slamming the doors.

She managed to dial the first two digits of an emergency number, but David burst through the doors. She wasn’t able to lock them and she fell violently backwards. David had gotten rid of the locks earlier so it was impossible to lock them.

He pressed her against the wall and try to yank the phone away from her. When he ducked his head towards he, Cassie grabbed the bottle of perfume that he had given her as a present, and slammed it against the wall. The perfume bottle broke, and she was left holding a broken glass bottle. She shoved it into his neck with full force. Several small cuts appeared on the skin and immediately began to bleed.

He gave a painful cry and jumped back. She ran out of the bathroom towards the kitchen counters and tried again to dial the number.

He ran after her and grabbed the chain.

Cassie fell down forcefully in front of her. David didn’t realize the strength that he had used. He let his adrenaline get the best of him.

Cassie now lay on the floor. The phone fell a few meters away from her.

David couldn’t believe what had happened.

Cassie turned out to be pregnant. He thought that she had started to open up for him, but when the occasion presented itself, she tried to escape.

He looked at her and felt terrified.

On the sharp edge of the counter, he noticed a maroon stain. He got up and ran towards her, nearly tripping up on his own feet. He knelt down, turned his ex-wife onto her back and laid her down on his laps.

In the middle of her forehead, Cassie had a large, deep, bleeding hole. She lay there with still, opened eyes.

He checked her pulse – it wasn’t there.

He couldn’t believe it.

He checked again, and then tried to do CPR on her. He patted her cheeks, yelled for her to come back, then ran to get some alcohol and poured it over her wound.

The hole, all cleaned, looked even more horrible than before. Now he could look at her closely. He worried that he was seeing her brain. He bandaged her up, started to pray, to cry, to scream.

He shook her obsessively and checked to see if she hadn’t blinked or moved.

She only lay there. It finally sunk it to him that was dead. He killed her. And her unborn child.

He fell helplessly to the ground and placed her bandaged head off of his knees. Earlier, he had closed her eyes, which made her look like she was merely taking a nap.

He grabbed his head and loudly sobbed.

***

 

David didn’t see any point in waiting. He had nothing to wait for.

With an empty hear, he took her by the hands and carried her to the backyard. He took out a shovel and began digging under a large maple tree. He stopped thinking, and tried to forget what he was doing.

He looked down at Cassie’s body once again in hope that she would wake up, and everything would just turn out to be one horrible, bad joke. Nothing changed, however.

He finished his dig and laid her down in the center.

He burst out crying again, unable to imagine his life without her. He had enough of everything. There was nothing left to live for. Many things had happened to him, but he always managed to overcome them somehow. This moment was different than the ones before. He could have just as easily laid down beside her in that hole himself. There was a plan already brewing in his mind, however. Once he finishes with the funeral, he would go and do what was necessary.

On a freshly made mound, he place a large cross made from small branches, and beside it a smaller one, to commemorate the child.

Overwhelmed, he said goodbye to his wife, apologized to her and left.

 

***

 

He remembered about the wound in his neck. He disinfected it with alcohol, placed a band-aid over it and wrapped himself up in a light scarf.

He decided not to wash the blood stains out. There was no point in it. All he wanted was to get out of that house.

He took a few of the most important things with him, some clothes, a bag with money and one of Cassie’s gray, thick sweaters. He recalled how she was wearing it a week ago. They were baggy on her. You could say that they belonged to David, actually.

First, he washed himself, them put the sweater on underneath his shirt. It was tight.

David stood in front of the front doors. For the last time, he looked around at the living room. This house was meant to be a fresh start. A place where they would start a family, where he would be happy, and where two days earlier, him and Cassie had come up with new dishes and discussed world politics. Just yesterday morning, he had watched her wake up.

His heart grew heavy. He destroyed everything that he touched. He had taken the life of the person who had saved his and who had giving his meaning.

She had been beautiful, smart and good. It was he who should have died. He should have died in prison. Everything would have been different then. Why had he yanked on that dumb chain? Why had he pulled so hard? He could have stopped her in another way. He could have ran up to her, she wasn’t so far away. Why did he let his emotions get the best of him again? What was all of this for? What was the meaning of life? Why does a person have so many feelings?

When he summed up the past several years, he decided that the older he got, the more suffering entered his life. His existence was futile. He saw no light at the end of the tunnel. He wondered how it was, that some people seemed to have everything perfect in life, while others suffered endlessly. There must be some pattern. It couldn’t have been a coincidence. Cassie was absolutely right – something was wrong with him, but he needed to stop thinking about that. He needed to stop thinking at all.

He took the black cat in his hands, stepped quickly out of the house, locked the doors behind him and got into his SUV. All of his things were in the back, and the money bag was placed underneath the front seat. He turned the radio on at high volume and set out on a journey.

 

***

 

Right after he left, about four hours earlier, he had dropped Harry off at the animal shelter.

He was now in Savannah. It was a beautiful town in Georgia, and he hadn’t chosen it by accident. A decade ago, he had come here with Cassie on their honeymoon. When she was a little girl, she had lived here for some time with her aunt and felt sentimental toward the place. The couple decided to visit it right after their wedding.

The city was beautiful with lovely, small trees, an interesting history and near the water.

On that day, they had planned many attractions, and David’s most treasured memory was a boat trip at sunset. When they saw the boat tour, they had to change their plans immediately, because Cassie desperately wanted to show David the city from the river. The trip cost them a little over sixty dollars, and they made a reservation. The River Street boat tour was planned to be two hours long. They set out at seven in the evening.

They stood outside now. Cassie was looking around, fascinated. She pointed to a few buildings, told him some history and urged him to take a few photos.

“Honey, come to the bar!”

“Do you always have to think about just one thing?” she laughed. “‘Let’s go the bar’, ‘let’s go to the store’, ‘ do you feel like some dessert?’” she teased him with a silly voice. “You’ll eat and drink once we see something.”

“Okay, fine. I don’t even dare to go against my lady’s wishes. After all, you rule in our marriage. The man wears the pants in the relationship? Every man would shrink after meeting you just once.”

“Oh, don’t be silly.”

“That’s the truth. You love to rule.” He shook his head.

“You’ve never complained before.”

“I’m not complaining now, either. I’m just stating a fact, not saying that there’s anything wrong with that. You save me lots of time, Cassie. You’re competent,” he smiled.

“I’m competent? Seriously?” She wrinkled her mouth. “How do you come up with these compliments?”

“In my head.”

“Be quiet! You dummy,” she laughed.

“Maybe not so competent after all.”

She slightly opened her mouth and elbowed him in the stomach.

“Okay, let’s go to the bar. Gain some weight. I don’t care.”

They left the railings and headed towards the room in the middle of the deck.

The tour was fascinating, but only to Cassie. David was pulling her to come inside. He ordered food from a special menu, and whisked her onto the dance floor where 50’s music was playing.

While they were dancing, they bumped into a middle-aged couple. They apologized to them and continued their chaotic turns. Neither of them could dance very well, but instead of standing against the wall, they got off onto the dance floor and just had fun as best as they could. They also made fun of themselves that they couldn’t move, and instead played games listing things that they “could do”. They sat down at the table.

“Whistle, heal people, gather honey from a bee hive.”

“Where did you learn that?”

“Honey, don’t you remember that I went to college?”

“Don’t be silly! When did you have time to gather honey?”

“When I was little and my father took me on a trip to a bee-garden. Apparently the bees weren’t supposed to sting, so I just put on a bee-keeper hat. I don’t what I did to upset them so much, but after I got back, all the kids called me ‘Blister-Boy’.”

Cassie burst out laughing. She tried to stop, but she couldn’t control herself.

“Are you serious?”

She laughed and laughed, and David kept her company.

“Well I wouldn’t lie to you about that.”

“And about something else, you would?”

“Depends.”

“David!”

“Like, for example, if you asked me if you looked pretty, and I happened not to like the pink shirt that you had on.”

“David, you don’t like my pink shirt?”

“You see? It’s not always better to tell the truth.” He laughed. “Now I’ll have trouble.”

Cassie shook her head.

“You crazy person. Salmon is very in right now.”

“Salmon,” he repeated with a sigh. “There used to be only a few colors before.”

“The world has to change, don’t you agree?”

“And I say to that, let’s go dance some more to 50’s music.”

“Not yet. Let’s order something to eat for a change and watch other people dance.”

“I don’t even have the energy to oppose that.”

“What do you want to get?” she smiled.

He looked at the menu and decided to get some meat with potato wedges, and green salad. Cassie chose the same. They put their orders in and focused on the dance floor.

The same couple that they had bumped into earlier caught their attention. They danced quickly and very smoothly. They must have taken some dance lessons. The middle-aged Spaniard decisively led the golden-haired, pale woman. A very contrasting pair.

They must have noticed that Cassie and David were watching them, because they came up to them.

“Do you like our dance?” the woman chatted them up.

“Yes, you move beautifully,” Cassie replied.

“Are you a couple?”

“Yes, we’re on our honeymoon.” David nodded.

“Ahh, young love,” the Spaniard replied.

“That’s right.”

“There’s no sight more beautiful than two people truly in love with each other. We wish you a relationship like wine, so that it only gets better with time. Enjoy your evening,” she said to them.

The blonde woman bowed to them with a dance-like flair and walked off with her husband to a table on the other end of the room.

He would have invited them over, but their table was only for two people, and the room was filled to the brim. They couldn’t see any more free tables on the horizon.

“Nice people.”

“Imagine us in twenty years,” David started. “Or when we’ll be retired already. We’ll travel, sight-seeing America, then Europe and Asia.”

“In that case, you’ve got to change your spendings a bit. Once we buy a house, we’ll need to start saving all over again.”

“There’s still some time until retirement Cassie. We’ll save up.”

David was going to tell her that he had bought the house that she had picked out earlier, but he still wanted to wait. They had time.

“I love you,” she looked at him warmly.

“Yeah, yeah, me too,” he laughed.

“Oh, David.”

“I love you very much too,” he said seriously. “Come here.” He grabbed her by the chin and pulled her closely to his lips. “I love you more than anyone else on earth.”

She returned his kiss, passionately. He grabbed her by the hand, and she wrapped her fingers into his. She leaned her forehead on his cheek and sighed.

“I don’t want to leave this place,” she said. “I feel so good here.”

“I don’t want to leave either. Don’t think about the return home, about work. Now we’re relaxing, celebrating. That’s it, chin up.” He rested her face on his hand.

They got their food and immediately began tasting their hot meal. The sun began to disappear and it slowly grew cooler.

They watched the sky.

It was a perfect evening, and the most beautiful sunset that they had ever seen. David was filled with joy, like never before. This must be what a man felt when he had found his other half.

Soon after, the boat arrived at the docks.

They took each other by the hand and headed towards the hotel.

 

***

 

They checked the temperature. 18 degrees Celsius. The night was approaching.

David met up with a man who had a boat for sale or rent. He proposed to trade him for his SUV. The man agreed, seemingly without any hesitation. They car’s cost was nearly double that of the boat. The buyer asked for nothing more.

David placed their bags on the small boat and gave him his car keys. He had occasionally sailed with his family on boats like these when he was younger. He knew more or less how to operate them.

The engine turned on and he swam out from the city towards the ocean.

He hadn’t chosen any destination in particular. He sat with his hands on the wheel and thought to himself, directing the boat straight into the Atlantic Ocean.

He had spent the entire day sightseeing the city. He drove around it in his car and remembered old spots. He visited the River Street boat that he had been on with Cassie. He picked out some take out from a restaurant and drove to the park. There, he opened the warm bag and ate his meal. He observed the trees, watching for birds. He closed is eyes and listened to the quiet, natural symphony around him. A tear ran down his cheek.

David opened his computer and searched the internet. He decided to do something good. He wanted to feel, at least a little, that he had paid for what he had done. He found what he was looking for.

He drove to a foundation that helped kids sick with leukemia. A nice woman greeted him. He asked for a sheet of paper and a pen, wrote down a short, anonymous letter, placed it inside the bag, and left everything on the counter. He said goodbye to the puzzled woman and briskly walked out of the foundation. He got into his car and noticed a woman running out of the store. She held the bag in her hands, and desperately looked around for David, but he was already gone.

He gave away all of his money. Nearly half a million. He was left with barely nothing, and while he had done something good for others, he didn’t feel any better. The mental agony hadn’t left his body.

Hopeless, he headed to the drug store. Browsing through the shelves, he turned into the perfume aisle. Dark chocolate with vanilla and musk. Benjoin. Cassie’s scent. The ideal mix of delicacy and strength. That was Cassie.

He spent the rest of his money, got into his car, and sprayed the scent into the air. Then he closed his eyes and remembered their first meeting, their first date, their joint apartment, their engagement, their wedding and wedding night, honeymoon, and all of their trips together. Everything existed once again in that one moment. Live, moving images appeared before his eyes. A tear fell down his face from the corner of his eye. Their love had been beautiful. He experienced something that most people never do in their lives. He smiled at the touching memories. In him, in his mind, Cassie would live on forever. She would stay with him until the very end – that loving, good, young waitress, who loved life.

He came back to reality and looked into the dark ocean. He took his wife’s perfume out and sprayed the oriental scent, bringing back memories; the scent that was there from the beginning of their life together. He thought about the fact that people die, but their trace always remained on planet earth.

A person was like a grain of sand compared to the entire universe. Billions of grains, and each one with a past, with their own history, problems, and emotions. Birth. Childhood. New skills. First love. Growing up. First job. College. Serious job. Wedding. Kids. Crisis. Retirement. Death. And in between all of those, were fleeting moments of joy, love, sadness, disappointment, hope and uncertainty. Walking life stories. A bunch of experiences and emotions. And all of that would remain in their loved ones. Memory.

He would love her until his last breath.

 

***

 

The nostalgic night was coming to an end. He saw the trace of dawn on the horizon. In the middle of the water, closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

He stood up and opened one of the bags. He took out a one liter bottle and spilled its contents profusely over his head. Then he stretched out after a sleepless night, took a cigarette out of the bag and box of matches.

He put it in his mouth, lit it, and then took it out and touched it to his shirt.

The gasoline burst into flames.

The fire spread very quickly, taking over his entire body and reached the gasoline that had been spilled on the deck. The boat was consumed in flames.

David screamed from the pain. His skin began to melt and stick to his clothes. He didn’t know anything anymore. He felt nothing besides the burning tearing his body apart.

He had planned all of this the day that he left the house, after Cassie’s funeral. He wanted punishment. He didn’t want and he didn’t know how to keep on living, not with the emotional baggage of guilt and loneliness. All he wanted was to go someplace that reminded him of his most cherished memories and best years of his life, to once again feel his wife’s presence and to say goodbye.

His life was at an end.

David lost consciousness.

 

***

 

“Hello! Mister!”

“Oh, Jesus! What happened?” He ran towards a large group of men standing in a half circle.

“Call Jared!”

“This doesn’t look too well.”

The half-naked man, laying on the deck suddenly woke up, spitting water out. He was choking, so one of the boys came up to him and started jerkily hitting him on the back.

All he had on were his pants.

“Get some covering or some clothes!”

“How are you feeling?” he asked.

“He’s alive” one of the men yelled. “I was scared he wasn’t. Thank God!”

“How the hell did you get here!?” another one asked.

“Leave him alone! Don’t you see that he’s overwhelmed? Who knows how long he’s been floating out there! Bring some food, drink and a blanket! Fast!”

The younger boy did as he was told and ran right away. A moment later, he was back.

“Here you go.” He covered him up with a blanket and gave a sandwich and a bottle of water.

The man that was laying down slowly raised himself up to sit.

He looked at his hands like a savage. He looked at his torso with wide eyes, then frightfully touched his face and neck. His skin was smooth, and the hair on his head was thick and strong.

He froze motionless, and people around looked at him in bewilderment and curiosity.

He drank the entire bottle in just a few sips and asked for more. Two more half liter bottles quickly went down and he chowed on the sandwich. Again he asked for another water and two more sandwiches. They were quickly brought to him and he gulfed everything down in just a few minutes.

“Jesus,” one of the men said.

“Where am I?” he asked in consternation.

“On a container ship.”

“What happened to you? Why are your pants blackened?”

“I don’t know,” he lied.

“Are you strong enough to stand up?”

“I think so.” He slowly raised his body up.

He felt incredible pain in his head, larynx and skin. He slowly stood up and took a deep breath of the ocean air.

“Take him to the cabin and let him change there.”

The same young man listened to the order and told the stranger to follow him. Two older men followed right behind them.

“Thank God that Hank noticed you.”

“Who?”

“Hank, he’s the local do-nothing. When he went out for a cigarette break, he went up to the railings for a moment and noticed you floating out in the distance. We were afraid that it was a corpse, but we fished you out and you’re alive. We probably won’t taunt Hank so much from now on. His laziness saved someone’s life.” He shook his head.

The men laughed at the unlikely coincidence.

They went into a room and gave him a uniform to change into. He took off his charred pants and began to get dressed.

“I’m Rafael, and you?” the boy asked.

“I don’t really remember,” he lied.

Rafael took his jeans in his hands. He checked the pockets. There was a charred piece of plastic in one of them.

David’s heart began to race. He wanted to grab the ID from him, but he had already managed to see it. He hoped that it would be too difficult to read.

“Pal, your ID is completely ruined.” He paused. “But you’re lucky, some of the information is readable. Your name is Anthony Bens.”

 

 

 

 

Thanks for reading, write me what you think :)

 


Demigods: Survive the death

What IF you could survive the death? Silent screams coupled with attempts to break free began to spread out, creating circular ripples on the water—the very same ones that Victoria sat admiring earlier, and which had now come to symbolize the fight for her life. Victoria's body rhythm slowed down from the lack of oxygen, and her resistance decreased to such a point that oppressor let go of her neck. Last breath left her all too quickly. Victoria is a 17 year old girl who got to a place where everything is possible. She discovers the shocking truth about who she really is and meets people who will change her life forever.

  • Author: Rose Marlowe
  • Published: 2017-09-20 11:20:15
  • Words: 53615
Demigods: Survive the death Demigods: Survive the death