St. Greta, novel, part 1

Transitions №2

Author: Olga Slavneysheva

Translated by Alexandra Golikova

 

Translator’s Note:

This novella, written by a female member of a highly infamous role-playing/LARPing group on the fringes of Russian Tolkien fandom (groups like that were very ubiquitous in the nineties/the 2000s), was released online for free in 2006. It’s an odd, but an extremely fascinating and, in my opinion, well-written text: a curious mix of a Warhammer 40,000 fanfiction with serial numbers filed off, Gnostic philosophy and a rather insightful satire/rumination on being a (girl) child in the late Soviet Union/the 90s (e. g. the comments about dentists and the adolescents mooning over “a pen with an inscription in a foreign language” are very obvious digs at the life back then). This is approximately one third of the novella translated; to be continued (hopefully).

Contains slurs; they’re meant to be there: those people are evil.

 

 

                    The dead know neither pain nor weariness;
                    The dead feel neither remorse nor fear;
                    The dead have no place among the living
                    Nor do the living among the dead.
                    The True Bible, security code 12-HVN. For professional use only.

 

The Firing Range

 

1

The empty expanse of the firing range, still bearing the gouges from the grousers and armored attacks, spread underneath the winter sky. The land was powdered with snow, as if it were a funeral shroud, and only came alive during military exercises. Now everything seemed dead, save for a speck of a campfire, so well-hidden behind the blocks of the old base which had been dug from the ground that only thermal goggles could spot it.

Next to the campfire were children, four of them. The smallest boy was busy with breaking old crates and adding the planks to the fire, which was giving off a horrible smoke. Another boy, slightly older, was stirring the wood with an iron staple; he was plump, ungainly and wore a soot-stained jacket in the latest fashion. The other two sat motionless a little way from the light, watching the fat boy’s every move. Their faces were rather solemn, like those of adolescents – tired of being children, not yet grown into monsters.

‘Over there’, one of them said lazily, leaning forward for a moment, his eyes flaring up from behind his dark, all-too-long bangs. The fat boy sighed, went to the other side of the campfire and started to stir up the wood there.

‘Are you sure she’s coming, Kleiss?’ he asked, a little annoyed.

‘She said so’, Kleiss nodded to shake the hair off his face and looked at the fat boy. He shivered and started to move the staple more vigorously. A swarm of fiery sparks flew up into the air. The smokes filled the fat boy’s nose, and he started coughing.

‘What if her parents say no?’ he asked, peering into the darkness across the fire. Instead of answer the darkness laughed derisively. A pebble was thrown at the fat boy.

‘You miss Greta?’ the second one asked, surprised. He rose and walked up to the campfire. The oilskin that he was wearing was too large in the shoulders, the sleeves were too long, the left sleeve and the chest had been patched. Still, it was a real military oilskin, and it made everyone who knew anything about stuff like this sigh with jealousy. The green eyes that looked at the fat boy condescendingly from underneath the large hood belonged to Paul, always orderly, taut and ready to fight. The fat boy threw a stealthy glance at his own sooty jacket and sighed again.

‘Yes, I do’, he muttered. If you slide a staple back and forth along the side of a plank, the sparks fly into darkness, like fiery hornets. He was sliding the staple back and forth along the side of the plank, until Paul took it from him and stirred the wood as one should do. The flames crackled and leaped up happily.

The smallest boy brought more planks, but Paul said: ‘Enough, Unit, or else we’ll be spotted.’ The boy threw the planks at his feet defiantly, sat at the fire and began to warm his small hands.

‘She’ll patch up, she’s healthy as a horse,’ Kleiss said from the darkness. ‘Remember how she fell from the crane?’

Paul grinned. The fat boy laughed.

‘Wow, look at it go!’ the smallest boy said with satisfaction, looking at the fire. Paul patted his small reddish head lazily.

‘She’ll be angry when she finds out…’ the fat boy muttered, trying to make out the outline of Kleiss. Now that the fire was burning properly, he could see Kleiss’ boot and the leg of his pants, and the nest of branches that he was lying on, but Kleiss’ face was still hidden in the darkness.

‘She’ll be mad,’ Paul grinned widely. When Paul smiled, he looked just like a completely usual boy, but the fat boy knew he wasn’t entirely that. The usual boys dream of becoming a Legionnaire, or a space cruiser pilot, or a captain of a cargo ship, or a missionary who carries the name of Jeesus through space – not a Tech cleric. But the day before yesterday Paul had confessed to have been invited to the Seminary, once he finishes school. Yeesh…

The fat boy imagined Paul wearing a black priestly cowl with silver crosses on his shoulders and with a torch in his hand, the flame of which encircled his face just like the campfire was doing now… and suddenly remembered that the Holy Week was starting tomorrow. The fat boy smiled. Paul noticed it and also smiled lopsidedly. Unit put his hands away from the fire, but didn’t smile. Kleiss suddenly jumped to his feet, casting off the darkness as if it were a cloak. Everyone looked at him.

‘You hear that?’ he asked.

They heard the clinking of metal somewhere in the distance.

‘She’s coming!’ Kleiss breathed.

***

They left the campfire and hid behind the blocks. The icy, hard path between the grousers led directly to the ruins. The thin shroud of snow was torn by the treads of bicycle tires – here, one could only move by a vehicle. Right in the heart of the Furing Range and, more or less, in the middle of the universe as they knew it, lay the foundation of the destroyed church. On the right rose the city in all its gleaming splendor, on the left – a string of lights from the military small town, where Paul and Unit lived.

The Shooting Range was cloaked by the night; nevertheless, the worried children kept staring in the direction the clinking was coming from. Even the fat boy became tense, holding on tightly to the metallic rod in his hand. It could be anyone…

It was Greta. Sweeping out of the darkness, she turned on the flashlight, and the bright light hit the fat boy in the eye.

“I saw you from five meters, Bonga!” she shouted. “You’re dead!”

Her right arm was still resting inside a cocoon of plaster, and a band-aid was covering the bridge of her nose.

A chain was wound around the left handlebar of the bicycle; from that chain hung a heavy metal crucifix. It was swinging and making a clinking sound as it hit the frame of the bicycle.

“Hi,” Greta extended her other healthy hand to Paul. “Where’s my brother?”

“Here.” Kleiss left the side of the block and took her bicycle.

“You’ve missed school today!” Greta said in a strict voice.

“Here she goes again,” Kleiss smiled. “And you haven’t?”

“I had a valid excuse!”

“I have ten!”

The fat boy, named Bonga, felt sad. He was looking forward to her return more than everyone – and here she is, talking to Kleiss, as if they didn’t have enough time at home! He came closer to her, gazing into her pale face. Kleiss and Greta looked very much alike, but during her time in hospital her hair grew so much, she looked almost like a girl. Just don’t tell her about it…Bonga squeezed his eyes shut and said quickly:

“The Vagrants have a new shaman!”

Paul glared at him – that was his line! But Bonga didn’t regret a thing – it was him Greta now looked at, wide-eyed: “What did you say?”

“A new shaman,” Paul answered instead of Bonga, reluctantly. “He blocked all roads that lead to the Vagrants. Bonga was putting up the barbwire for them, got all ripped up…”

Bonga shook his head ferociously to affirm. He didn’t rip up anything, but you couldn’t exactly say to those kids: “Look at this new jacket Daddy brought for me!” – you’d get laughed at. “Poor thing,” Greta stroke Bonga’s sleeve, “so it’s your new jacket?.. And what does he look like, the shaman?”

“None of us saw him,” Kleiss said. “Unit, add some wood to the fire, quick…” he told the smallest boy. “Go and suck a dick!” he mumbled and didn’t move an inch.

“Interesting…” Greta said, looking into the heavy sky. “We should see this shaman someday…”

“How?” Paul snickered. “Finally, it’s begun!” Bonga thought, overwhelmed with the anticipation of a great game, and started to stomp his feet on the melting snow.

“We’ll think of something,” Greta said. “Tomorrow is the festival!” Bonga said, having remembered another piece of news. “In the Clemency Square! Are you coming?”

“Tomorrow? Of course, I’m coming!” This had cheered Greta up. “I’m coming too!” Unit shouted, looking at Paul with defiance. “You can’t – you must be twelve,” Paul threw up his hands. “Shut up, Polly, you piece of shit!..”

“Let him come, if he’s so curious,” Greta said.

“He is now, but who will scream and piss himself at night after?” Paul said mockingly. Everyone laughed.

“You’re the one who pisses himself!” Unit shouted in anger. “You’ll watch the censored show on the visor,” Kleiss laughed. “A special edition for kids under twelve, y’know…”

Unit kicked him with his boot, then took out a battered pack of smokes from his pocket and lit up a cigarette. “Have any of you seen that?!” Paul squinted. “Mother will give me hell! What are you teaching the child, she screams. Well, I don’t smoke and he does! Have you seen that?”

“Oh my, such a big boy,” Greta squeed. “Here, take some candy!” She gave Unit a popsicle. “Suck it yourself! Sucking is what the girls are for! I’m not a girl.” Paul spat on the ground.

“When does it start?” Greta asked. “At nine, Clemency Square,” Kleiss answered. “They say there’ll be orbital fireworks and some kind of megashow…”

“And those others?” She said it without any preface, but Kleiss understood. There was no way they could talk about it at hospital, but finally Greta could. Kleiss threw a cursory look at Bonga, to see if he wanted to have the first word, but the fat boy was too busy arguing with Unit about who will be the one to throw more planks into the dying fire.

“We lured them into a pit,” Kleiss said quietly. “Both of them?” “Both, yes. Paul was riding the bike ahead of them and jumped over the pit, and they just flopped down on the stakes, together with their bicycles. One had his spleen and some other shit ruptured, the other had multiple fractures.”

“You’re sure it was them?” Greta frowned. “No innocents suffered, I swear!” Paul reassured her. “Alright then. You should have waited for me, though…”

“You’ll have chance enough,” Kleiss snorted. “Damn right,” Greta bared her teeth. “But still… the new shaman… I wonder if I know him!”

Suddenly she sprung to her feet (she always moved as abruptly as Kleiss did) and said:

“I want to see the road they had blocked! Right now!”

***

Many winding roads lead from one side of the Firing Range to the other: military roads, bulldozed by the tank grousers; civil roads, looking more like tiny paths; even railroads, where train locomotives speed by, carrying chemical waste aboard. The roads converge, then diverge, disappear and reappear; some of them lead nowhere, some lead to the city, some lead to the small town named Hills, where Paul and his little brother Unit live. If you have grown up at the Firing Range, you know all those roads, or almost all of them. There is also the Path of Darkness, which leads to Hell, and other roads, which are blocked and lead into death. No one in their right mind would follow them, unless they’re an adult, who has grown up and forgot the way the things are – or they’re dead and do not care where they’re going and how.

The adolescents moved slowly in a single file across the broken ground, underneath the dark, heavy clouds. Blue lights brightened the clouds in the large place, where the tanks lived and the soldiers looked down from their towers, and in another large place, where the chemical factory spread its buildings. Bright beams from the powerful projectors were prodding the sky like fingers, but the clouds weren’t ticklish; they quite enjoyed it and descended ever lower.

Having finally reached the road, the children mounted their bicycles and rode forward. They moved rather quickly, sometimes even racing each other.

Lumps of frozen soil were towering over both sides of the road; inside them, beams and railroad ties were stuck. Stories were told about some amateur archaeologist who was digging here, but didn’t find anything except for a few shards of porcelain and radiation sickness. The gaggle of children, sensing the danger, intuitively steered clear of those lumps of soil, passing them as quickly as possible, and stopped in front of a large open area. The snow here hadn’t been touched, and the area was completely white. Beyond it the road led down to the river, and beyond the river, on the opposite shore, iron monsters were grinding their teeth. Sometimes the wind carried over their complaints – inexplicable sounds, at the same time ghastly and sorrowful.

There was a lot of interesting stuff on the other side: Aldibey once said he had found a bunker that must be full of ammo. He had even wanted to go on an expedition to THE OTHER SIDE, but then Greta had her arm broken, and the shaman put a deadly curse on every road that lead to the Vagrants. Aldibey heaved a painful sigh. Greta understood everything: he was afraid the Vagrants stumble across the bunker he had discovered and steal everything. Well, it was time to see how good the road was.

Greta left her bicycle with Bonga and walked slowly towards the white snowy ground. Her fingertips prickled, her legs went numb – all a sure sign that the road was, indeed, blocked. Then Greta heard a squeaking sound in her ears, like when you’re at the bottom of a school swimming pool, and stopped.

There was no going further. In front of her was something that could only be felt, like a force field… But force fields around protective screens give off a faint shimmering and an unpleasant electric sound. They’re not alive by definition, yet the thing that was blocking this road was alive.

It was a huge and hungry thing, it hid ahead, lying in wait for a careless traveler to put his foot onto a white patch of untouched snow…

Greta clutched the crucifix inside her hand and raised it, and the wind, as if it had been waiting exactly for that, attacked her from everywhere.

‘In the name of Jeesus!’ she shouted. The wind was throwing her hair in her face and trying to pry the cross from her hand, as if gone mad… Then they heard a booming sound from the Industrial Complex. The wind fell quiet, but the ground shook, the sirens wailed from afar, the projectors on the opposite shore woke up, fell down and started to comb the terrain. Greta ran back.

The road was indeed blocked in the most thorough of ways.

‘Seen enough?’ Paul asked gravely. ‘Then let’s buzz off.’

 

2

They came to a fork in the road. Paul and Unit left, and the three of them continued their way alone. Greta pedaled to the best of her strength, trying to keep up with the others, but Kleiss saw that she’s in pain, and drove slowly. The glow in the sky moved closer – they were approaching the city. Bonga’s fat sack of a body was bobbing on the road far ahead; he was the fastest, and it made him happy.

The city was glowing with a million lights. Greta looked: neon flares glided across the swirling clouds, making the whole picture rather ominous, like a theatre stage with scenery illuminated for a scary effect. Kleiss and Greta drove in silence and watched the city grow above them, as if rising from the soil which had been grinded by the tanks of the Firing Range. Here and there, a few skyscrapers were sticking out like bare bones someone has gnawed all the meat from; they pierced the sky, but the sky didn’t bleed – it had been murdered ages ago. It was glowing on its own – the projectors that cast neon lights at the clouds had nothing to do with it. This was how a true sky above the Hell looked.

‘This is where I live,” Greta thought to herself, as the city drew closer. “I live in Hell. We all live in Hell. Can I really be the only one who knows?..”

Bonga stopped and waited for them. “So… see you tomorrow?” he asked, looking alternately at Greta and at Kleiss. “See you tomorrow,” Kleiss said.

“Aren’t you gonna get in trouble because of this?” Greta nodded at the sleeve of Bonga’s coat – it was stained with soot.

“I am,” he said simply. “Alright, bye!” They watched Bonga drove off. “Wish I had a bike like this,” Kleiss said for the umpteenth time.

“Yours is just as good… You’re sure they don’t know?” Greta asked. They meant her parents.

“I’m sure,” Kleiss reassured her. “Our guys all said the same thing – they saw you roll off the mountain, arse-over-teakettle.”

“Good…”

“What, you think they didn’t get enough?” he sneered.

“I still need to pray for them,” Greta answered. “Why don’t you pray right now?” her brother asked acidly. “Why don’t you pray yourself and ask for a tricycle?!” Greta bit back.

They laughed. Then she looked back at the Firing Range, and her heart raced. The Firing Range was a dark pit, and inside there were doors which lead into nothingness. “See you tomorrow,” she whispered.

 

Mother had already come back from the factory where she worked and was now peeling potatoes; father hadn’t shown up yet. Greta knew for certain he had a mistress, knew it was her perfume that his shirts smelled of. But she hadn’t told anyone, not even Kleiss.

“Where’ve you been?” mother asked to the rattling of her pots. “Riding a bike,” Kleiss said.

“You want to break your neck a second time?” mother asked Greta. “All is in God’s hands,” she answered and retreated into her room. “All is in God’s hands!..” mother mocked her. “Come, the dinner’s ready. It’s string beans today. Go and eat!”

“Uh-huh,’ Kleiss responded from his room behind the barrier. Greta closed the blinds – only then did she switch on the desk lamp. “I’m coming!” she said, smiling at the crucifix on the wall.

Jeesus the Monsterslayer was waiting patiently. There was a tiny dim mirror where his face should be; it reflected a wire filament of the lightbulb. The lamp shone over the dresser and the narrow bed covered with a brown blanket. Otherwise the room was empty, save for an iron chest under the bed and the candlestick in the corner, underneath the crucifix. Small white candle corpses adorned the candlestick. There was a flower on the windowsill, but nobody watered it, and it stood sadly, half-withered. Greta lighted the candles and switched off the lamp. There was some water left inside the plastic bottle; she emptied it into the flowerpot and looked at the crucifix. When was the last time she had talked to the Monsterslayer – really talked to him, not like they do in the hospital, but with all the rites that give one the right to ask Jeesus a question? She had so much to tell him, a night would not be enough.

“Greta!” came a shout from the kitchen. “Kleiss, go fetch her!” Kleiss appeared on the doorstep. He had already changed his clothes and was now wearing a black turtleneck and green corduroy pants with pockets at the thighs. For a moment, Greta stood looking at him, transfixed. He looked at her and at once, understood everything – that, judging by the glowing candlestick, she had to talk to the Monsterslayer, and also that she had missed her monastic cell (there was no other name for it). Kleiss’ room was completely different – there were holographic planets and model starships swinging and swirling beneath the ceiling, and a huge glowing poster on the wall; it showed military robots storming a space base in the name of Jeesus. Next to the poster, there was also a crucifix, but Greta was certain that it was poster Kleiss is looking at during the evening prayer. He also had a visor and a console with tons of video games; a tank helmet that was riddled with bullet holes (found at the Firing Range); cardboard fortresses (made together with Paul); comic books; and all the other things you would find at a usual boy’s room – a closet with clothes lying in the crumpled pile inside and a dresser – clean, tidy and well-dusted on the outside, but on the inside!..

“Are you coming?” Kleiss said. “Let’s go,” she sighed. Other than the Monsterslayer, she would have gladly talked to her brother, but at home that was impossible – the walls were too thin and the things to be discussed much too important.

Kleiss winked at her, We’ll talk later. Greta smiled lopsidedly.

 

The kitchen was tiny — or maybe, the round table was too big. Greta hurried to take her place, Kleiss sat next to her. Without saying a single word, mother put food on the table: plates with reheated string beans, a butter dish with natural butter and a basket with chunks of bread.

They prayed and started to eat.

The atmosphere was depressing; it had always been like that, even though Greta had taught herself not to notice. She looked sideways – mother was something very serious and absolutely useless: wiping the dishes with a towel before putting them into the cupboard. It wasn’t that talking while eating was forbidden in their family; at the same time, you would have been better off not doing it. Kleiss touched her leg with his knee and looked pointedly at the plate: Who’s the fastest?

He was almost finished with the food. Greta tried to speed up, but she wasn’t used to holding the spoon with her left hand. Kleiss ate slowly to give her advantage, but when his sister was almost done, he swallowed the rest of the string beans with a sly smile in his eyes, leaving the plate empty. Greta could barely restrain her cry of “It’s not fair!”

“Are you done?” mother asked harshly. “Yes!” Greta and Kleiss spoke in unison. “Now take a shower and go to sleep!” They rose and went to bathroom together.

When Greta was little, she knew for a fact that bathroom was the gloomiest place in the world. The bath, only big enough to sit in, had been eaten away by detergents; spiders lived underneath it, maybe, even rats. Walls were painted a dirty shade of green, and the paint was peeling off in large patches. Very high up, underneath the ceiling, where the vapors drifted off to, was an unclean window; black cobwebs hung in the corners. Greta and Kleiss had usually been locked there as a punishment; then there was nothing to do, but listen to the drip of the water against a tin can – the faucet was always leaking. Besides, there was this constant damp smell… Greta once tried to brighten up the bathroom a little by bringing some dried flowers, but they forbade her, and she had never tried anymore. No means no, after all.

Still, she was happy to be here once again. Kleiss helped her put toothpaste on the brush, whispered “Make it quick!” and left her alone. As she was brushing her teeth, Greta was thinking if she really felt good here? On the one hand, of course, she did! She had her own room, and mother came back from work late enough… But on the other hand… the hospital was exactly the same. EXACTLY THE SAME. Before, Greta had simply never known it, but now she was beginning to understand: their house was run the same way state institutions were – both here and there, it was deadly cold. Their house was not a place to relax – it was a cold war. Thinking about it made her want to cry – or even to die.

I wonder if I would fight back then, had I lived in a different place? Suppose, if Bonga was my brother, and his family was my family? If they loved me? Would I?

She remembered how a chain with a crucifix slipped into her hand and burned her with its cold (there wasn’t enough time to put on the gloves). Then, there was a fight, short and merciless, and a weary, indifferent voice said:

“Break her right arm. Quick!”

I wish I were there when they squirming in that pit, on their sharp stakes! Then again, it was me who put those stakes there, so…

She spat out the toothpaste and washed her face. She wished she could wash her entire body to get rid of the hospital smell, but right now, she couldn’t, and she settled for washing her hair. She was just wrapping her head with a towel, as Kleiss came to hurry her.

“Sweet dreams,” he said. “And don’t pray too much, or you’ll sleep in. We’ve got school, remember.”

 

3

And then Greta was finally left face to face with the Monsterslayer.

She knew that it was best to talk to him at night, when everyone goes to sleep.

During the day he has too much to do and cannot speak to some little girl. But now he probably isn’t busy. Now is her time, now he will listen.

“Hi,” Greta knelt before the crucifix. “It’s me, Greta. You probably already know everything, right? Look – they broke my arm! Though, I guess, you had it worse… If you’ve died for my sins, it’s probably alright that I put those stakes there, right? Yes, it’s probably is… In this world, people must fall into pits like this every day. Do you think Hell is better? You’ve been to Hell, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t have done what you have done… or would you? Did you do this on principle, or did you really wanted to save me – me and everyone else? You know… when that guy broke my arm, I said “Go ahead!” But I did it on principle – because I didn’t want to cry for fear or to scream “Please, don’t!” But you did this for the sins of the others… Still, you do forgive me, right? Right, Monsterslayer?..”

The candles were burning calmly. He probably did.

“If you do forgive me, then give me the strength to open at least one road – otherwise my friends will doubt me!”

 

She didn’t put out the candles, but let them burn out one by one, so that the room would be filled with a pleasant smell of paraffin. She was lying in her bed and looking at the crucifix. Now she was at peace, but her thoughts were still revolving around a white patch of ground, enclosed by invisible walls… A shaman she didn’t know blocked the road with a deadly curse. It was a challenge. Still, it would be better to think about it tomorrow – now she had to sleep.

Greta wrapped herself in the blanket, like in a cocoon, and began to tell a fairytale to herself. Once upon a time, there was no Firing Range – instead there were green meadows and plentiful fields; a country road winding across the hills, a clean river where weeping willows grew; and a church, where now only its foundation remained. A church, like the one Greta had once seen on one of the old engravings – small, its domes shining brightly. That place was so holy you hadn’t even have to go inside – just glance briefly at the building and say: “Monsterslayer, forgive me!” – and your mind was instantly at peace.

And then the evil came.

Greta knew: at night, all the iron at the Firing Range dug itself out of the frozen ground, crawled together and formed a giant iron tyrannosaurus, like a child’s set of building blocks. Then that tyrannosaurus went out, clanking, rumbling, wailing. It was him that had devoured the white church with its bright domes, like a piece of cake, leaving nothing but the foundation. Then the whole landscape changed at once: the country toad was marred by the grousers, the weeping willows disappeared, the river changed its colours. Then the dragon roared and shook many missiles off himself, and they flew in different directions. The dragon then stood up, pressed his small, underdeveloped front paws to his chest and looked at the sleeping city, greedily.

You couldn’t kill him – he was dead to begin with. But you could keep him away with just one artifact – a magical thing that Greta possessed.

 

It happened about a couple of years ago. Kleiss and Greta were riding their bikes, suddenly came across the foundation and, of course, had to see what’s there. Blocks of stone, scattered by the shock wave, hid a cellar. It took them a whole week to clear the entrance. They didn’t share their secret with anyone, except Paul; he brought shovels, and work became easier. Finally they were inside; Paul switched the flashlight on, and everyone gasped. The stone ceiling was born on a number of massive rectangular columns; the concrete floor was barely visible under piles of debris; and above… At first Greta was so scared that she gave out a cry, so unexpected was the picture. Kleiss thought the ceiling was crumbling: he dashed towards her, hid her face on his chest and raised his hand. Paul directed the ray of his flashlight above, and the three of them stared at the fresco, amazed. On the ceiling, there was a painting of the Monsterslayer – and he had a FACE!!!

At first, they didn’t got it – something just seemed off. Then Paul said: “He’s got a face!!!” Greta shuddered with fear and excitement. Then, of course, oaths were made, they prickled their fingers, signed with their blood, swearing they would never ever, under no circumstances…

“Or else we will be burned alive,” Paul said. “Because of what we’ve seen.” “They don’t burn children alive,” Greta said. Paul didn’t answer – he just looked at her, and this look made Greta feel disturbed.

“They can burn you alive for things like this,” Kleiss said darkly. He was absolutely right. ‘So what do we do?” Greta said. She couldn’t take her eyes off the FACE.

“It’s simple,” Paul smiled. “We’ll paint his face over and make this place our headquarters.”

Paint his face over! But this was… blasphemy!

“It wasn’t us who did this,” Kleiss muttered, taking Greta’s side. “Who cares?”

 

“But we’ve seen this,” Paul shrugged. “We should already be on our way to the House of Saints in order to report this. Shouldn’t we?”

What could she say to this?

“So who… is gonna do this?” Greta said in a weak voice. To paint over the Monsterslayer’s face seemed a crime. To leave it as it was – a crime squared.

“I am,” Paul said simply. “It will be my responsibility.”

Kleiss looked at him as if at a hero.

 

Then she had found the crucifix.

A few days had passed, and God’s face still hadn’t been painted over. Paul, Kleiss and Greta fiddled around the piles of debris. They weren’t in any hurry – among the charred planks of wood (which must have once been icons… must have once had FACES, like him!), among deformed pieces of iron and shards of stained glass one could sometimes find a trophy that was almost unharmed. Paul, for example, had found a couple of books, Kleiss — a handful of machine gun shells and a piece of cloth, riddled with bullets, that, according to him, was a priestly habit. Greta shone her flashlight into a niche and saw a crucifix among many shards.

It was a symbol. Like the crucifix was telling her: “Come on – take me, if you can! Pay with your blood, if you dare!” It was a large metallic crucifix – and she though it had a face. Her hands shook from the excitement. She held her breath, thinking: “Please, don’t let them take it away!” Greta glanced around, saw her friends were as involved in their excavations as she, and bravely dug inside.

The most important thing was not to scream, that she had understood from the start. If you want to have a magical thing, you have to bear the pain.

The shards were cutting her hands, but she strove on and on. If only she could reach it… Blood ran down her fingers, the crucifix slipped away and fell even further, time after time, and Greta dug even deeper, time after time, swallowing her tears.

“Greta! What are you doing?” (Must have been Kleiss.) Her heart was beating so loudly, she couldn’t tell whose voice it was. Where is it now… There, a sparkle! Oh my, what huge shard… Please, don’t let them start pulling me back – it’ll be a certain death.

“Greta! You’ll cut yourself all over!”

“Careful! Don’t touch her!”

“Greta!”

There it is, the crucifix. Now, grab it as strong as you can and go back, don’t let it slip away… Wait, how does she go back? There are shards everywhere… Oh, her friends are already clearing the path. Just lie still and don’t move…

“Greta! Are you alive?!”

Just don’t move. Oh, it hurts so much!..

She licked her own blood from her wrist and shone her flashlight at the crucifix. Yes – the same face as on the fresco… Do forgive me, Monsterslayer, but I’ll have to wipe your face away, or else they’ll burn me alive. You’re not allowed to look at the world with your own eyes anymore – it’s become too scary. Or has it become scary because God has no face anymore?.. Just forgive me, okay?..

Someone was shaking her, turning her over and feeling up her body. She opened her eyes – Paul and Kleiss were bending over her, pale with fear:

“What an idiot? Why?!”

She opened her palm and showed them the crucifix.

They looked strangely at her, but didn’t say anything. Only Paul remarked, as he was bandaging her wounds with his shirt: “I hope this is worth it.”

 

It was worth it. The crucifix was massive and felt very nice in her hand – like a brass knuckles. She could knock someone out cold with it. Then Greta had an idea: she hung a crucifix on a chain with wide links and took it to school. That was a good solution: brass knuckles and knives weren’t allowed at school, but how could one say no to a crucifix? The real magical thing was how quickly Greta’s cuts healed – there were barely any traces left. And those were very deep wounds – Kleiss had to carry her the whole way back home…

The dragon in Greta’s fantasies was afraid of the crucifix: he lost his monster form, compressed into a small, laughable, ugly-looking ball, and began to roll back, leaving spare parts in his wake. Greta’s crucifix also followed her into her strange dreams. The first time she changed the wind’s direction was in her dream – unfamiliar words suddenly flared up like plasma on the back of her eyelids, and she shouted them aloud. Then it happened in reality, and thunder clouds that had been crawling towards the city suddenly stopped, confused, as if finding themselves against an invisible barrier, and then rolled back. Greta stood on the edge of the cliff, grasping the lower end of the cross, raising the hand with the chain wrapped around it, and repeating the words from her dream. She felt insanely powerful – and insanely happy. God had sent her an artifact, God had singled her out, bestowed grace upon her. She loved God more than anything in the world. Maybe, even more than Kleiss.

Maybe.

 

By the time the final candle had burned out, Greta was already sleeping. The door opened without a sound, and Kleiss stole into her cell. He stood over Greta for a while, listening to her breathing peacefully, then kissed the tips of his fingers and touched them against her pale forehead.

 

Sunday

 

1

In the morning, the snowfall began. The sound of the church bells, ringing in honour of Sunday, swam over the Outskirts in the gloomy snowstorm; sometimes it grew louder, sometimes it subsided, but never fell silent, as if the ringing was born of the wailing wind. Half-dreaming, Greta could even see those bells, black, enormous, praising the God’s clemency with their funeral toll, speaking on His behalf with anyone who was ready to hear.

She saw the azure sky and the red clouds which began to arrange themselves into words; but then the bells of the Church in the Outskirts began ringing, the sky changed its colour, and Greta woke up completely. She was cold: the wind, trying to break through the window, was filling the cell and there was a draft across the floor. The glowing numbers of her alarm clock told her that it was too early, not that she felt like going out of the bed anyway.

Greta wrapped herself up in the blanket even more tightly and kept lying and listening to the droning silence. A long, vast Sunday awaited her, and the Sunday school, and the festival on the Clemency Square… but the most important thing that awaited her was a talk to Marek, the leader of the Vagrants. That was something she was ought to discuss with Kleiss.

Greta dangled her legs over the side of her bed reluctantly, found her slippers and stole into her brother’s room, trying not to make any noise. She moved very quietly, yet as soon as she stepped into the room, Kleiss opened his eyes and whispered:

‘Why so early?’ He sat up. Greta joined him in his bed, wrapped in her blanket, and started to look around curiously. Kleiss’ room was pretty well-lit, mostly because of the poster and the planets under the ceiling. Even the outline of a crucifix in the corner was lit up because of the neon paint.

‘That was the hour the hospital routine started, when I was there,’ she whispered. ‘I would get shots…’

‘You got treated for brain fever?’ Kleiss chuckled. ‘You can lie with me, if you want…’

‘No way!’

‘They’re gonna wake up late…’ He put his arm around her shoulders. ‘It’s cool you’re home again.’

‘It’s winter again outside. So cold…’ Greta sighed and laid her head on his chest.

‘Tons of snow. My ass! We could build a castle…’ Kleiss said. Greta drew her right arm from the cocoon of a blanket to show the plaster cast:

‘You’re joking?’

‘Well, at least now you have an actual reason to boss the builders around. Unlike last time.’ They burst into laughter.

‘Hush…’ Greta listened, but the parents were sleeping. ‘I had an idea… Kleiss, would you cry if they died?’ She nodded towards the parents’ room.

‘And you?’

‘I asked first!’

‘Well, er…’ he sighed. ‘If it happened tomorrow or something, we would get taken to an institution…’

‘Shit.’

‘It’s alright, you’ve just forgotten how they are.’

‘The hospital was just like this, you know. Just as cold.’

He put his second arm around her.

‘Suppose we get a visit one day from some government department,’ Greta started to fantasize. “Greta, Kleiss, you’ve been switched at birth, they say. Your real parents love you and want you back…’

‘Yeah! Your real parents are the Minister of Propaganda and his wife!’ Kleiss went on. ‘And then – a 10 000 townhouse or something, motorbikes… real, live horses…’

‘And a yacht…’ Greta sighed. ‘A dog… a new pair of leather pants.’

‘I rode a motorbike once,’ Kleiss confessed. ‘Along the District highway. Almost 120 an hour.’

‘Stop making shit up!’

‘No, really! I wasn’t at the wheel, though. Man, that was something! That was crazy.’

‘Me, I just got fifty-four shots into my ass…’

They burst with laughter, giggling into the blanket. ‘Did it hurt?’ Kleiss asked.

‘No, that was nothing.’

‘No, I mean this,’ he touched the plaster cast.

‘Well what do you think?!.. Oh, yes: what do I tell Marek? If I show him the cast, he’ll just say both Vagrants are already in the hospital, and all debts are paid.’

‘Yeah, tough… Well, tell him he’s a faggot and roundhouse-kick him.’

‘Kleiss, I’m serious.’

They looked at each other. ‘Talk to him after they take your cast off,’ Kleiss said.

‘No, that’s not right. I plan on having a serious talk with him at the Firing Range.’

‘They’ve got a shaman,’ Kleiss reminded her. ‘He can mess with the roads. We have to take care of the shaman first. Marek is smart – he won’t be taken in by your bluff. We need to ask Paul.’

‘Take care of the shaman…’ Greta echoed. Her face grew dark. ‘But how, Kleiss? I’m not telling this to others, but… I don’t even know how to unblock all those roads he’s cursed.’

‘Elementary,’ Kleiss smiled, and dimples appeared on his face. ‘We catch one of the hairy ones and put him ahead of us. That’s the easiest part, actually.’ Greta shrugged:

‘But I want to learn myself, how to,,,’

‘Then we catch the shaman and torture him.’

‘I don’t think he’ll say anything useful.’

‘So what? We’ll gag him and torture him for our own pleasure.’

‘Amen. You know, I had a strange dream in the hospital. I stood at the road that led into darkness. It was summer, the sky was blue, there were pretty flowers everywhere, but around the end of the road there were black scary clouds. Then I looked at the ground and saw bones. The road was made of bones. Even the stones which paved it weren’t stones – they were skulls, some large, some small… Some very small. But you know… for some reason I had to go there, to the scary clouds. The blue sky felt heavy, everything was unreal, like a drawing… Like a backdrop of a theater that becomes dusty because nobody cleans it. But the dark clouds were real, and the flames – the walls of the flames at the end of the road – those were real, too.’

‘And you went there?’ Green neon light were dancing inside Kleiss’ dark eyes. Nobody could listen the way he could.

‘I went there. Or, at least, I made the first step, but then the anesthetic wore off, and I woke up. Do you think it was the Road of the Dead?’

‘The Path of Darkness?’ Kleiss repeated, brushing the hair off her forehead. ‘But there’s no evil in you, Greta. You punish yourself for the tiniest sins, even though I don’t know what kind of sins you could probably have on you! You’re practically a saint!’

‘The Path of Darkness stretches through every world,’ Greta whispered, ‘and leads directly to Hell. But you don’t have to be evil to go there, you know. It’s only a path.’ Kleiss sighed and looked at her, disturbed.

‘And that book says…’ Greta stirred a little in his arms to lie more comfortably. “For all – for sinners and for saints, regardless of faith and desires, regardless of one’s earthly ambitions and thoughts, and sins, and something I don’t remember now… — for all, the road that leads beyond the Treshhold is uniformly challenging. It’s uniform and alike for all… of the dead.’

‘You’re gonna be burned alive one day for thinking like that.’

‘For the dead,’ Greta repeated. ‘After all, among the living there are enough those who are already dead. But if the Path of Darkness can teach me to open and block the roads, I’ll follow it…Oh, you’ve got a new starship!’

Kleiss looked up. Beneath the ceiling, slowly rotating, a small copy of Seraphim was flashing its side lights among the glowing planets.

‘Father’s gift,’ he answered, slightly embarrassed. Unlike Greta, he at least got presents sometimes.

‘Do you think they went to Heaven after they died?’ Greta was drinking in the sight of the starship with baited breath.

‘Who, the Inquisitors from Seraphim?’ Paul chuckled.

‘The Inquisitors?’

‘Paul asked his father… Just don’t tell anyone! They had a mission – to fly to the Moon and found there a base named “The Stronghold of Light”. They had everything – experts, robot builders, construction plants – basically, everything. But then they had missiles fired into them in orbit, and I don’t think that made them saintly.’

‘And I was imagining a cruiser speeding towards Heaven, in a halo of heavenly radiance…’

They laughed. ‘Quiet!’ Kleiss whispered. ‘How about we leave a bit earlier today? You can’t have a proper talk here.’

‘Alright.’

‘They’re going to come wake us up soon, anyway…’

‘Yes…’

‘And then they start screeching how we can’t be in the same bed…’

‘Then let me go.’

‘I will. A bit longer… just let me.’

‘I just don’t get it: why do we need this expansion to other planets? Didn’t Jeesus fight monsters? Can monsters worship the Monsterslayer? Maybe, on Earth – yes, but on other planets?.. They must have their own Monsterslayers, because to them we are the monsters! I don’t know about you, Kleiss, but I just don’t believe any of it, myself. The military conflict with the Continent of Evil I can believe in, but the Interplanetary Crusade they used to lie to us about in the first grade? That’s too much!’

‘Jeesus was on that ship,’ Kleiss whispered, barely audibly. His breath was tickling her ear rather pleasantly. ‘They carried him aboard.’

‘Did Paul say that?’

‘He eavesdropped on his father talking to other Techies. Those guys know everything.’

‘They sure will never burn Paul alive.’

‘Wouldn’t be too sure about that. They broadcasted a trial while you were gone. A Techie woman is gonna be executed today. I think she worked in a department close by, even Paul’s father knew her.’

‘And what was her sentence?’

‘Dissemination of heresies and practice of witchcraft… They’re coming!’ Kleiss pushed Greta violently from his bed onto the floor and dropped to his knees next to her. The footsteps reached the door and fell silent. The door was yanked open.

‘Jeesus the Monsterslayer, have mercy and protect thy slave from alien monsters,’ Greta muttered monotonously to the neon God on the cross. ‘Deliver every one of us from the monster inside and accept us the way we are… Mom?’

‘What are you two doing?’ The woman shouted from the door. ‘Greta! What are you doing in your brother’s room?’

‘We were praying together…’

‘Get back to your room, quick! Now!’

‘But I…’

‘I said get back to your room! Slut! You could have put on clothes, at least!’

‘Go,’ Kleiss whispered. Greta caught a glimpse of his eyes flaring with unspeakable hatred. She rose slowly, keeping the blanket in place with her left hand, and went up to the woman she never called ‘Mom’ in her thoughts – alone with herself, Greta only called her by name. The woman gave her a strong push and a kick: ‘Quickly!’

‘Honey, what’s wrong?’ the father gave Greta a look of disgust. ‘What happened?’

‘Again!’ the woman shouted. ‘They prayed together, you see! They prayed, right, of course!..’ she burst with unnatural laughter. ‘Barely had returned home – and here she is, in her own brother’s bed!.. Praying, I’m sure!’

‘Is that true?’ the father lifted Greta’s face by the chin, looking her in the face. ‘Why don’t you pray in your own room?’ Greta forced herself to calm down, made her eyes well up with tears and answered meekly:

‘I have missed Kleiss – and I have missed God. In the hospital, we only prayed sometimes and never took communion. I just said to Kleiss that I would like to visit the church on our way to school…’

‘Why, have you already sinned, you little bitch?!’ the woman shrieked. Please, let Kleiss stay silent!, Greta screamed inside and asked her father:

‘Have I committed any sin? I was only praying to God together with my brother…’

The woman wouldn’t listen: ‘What’s under your blanket?!’ Lingerie! And a leather whip!

‘My nightshirt. Why?’

‘Oh, nothing!..’

***

‘Calm down, honey…’ The father clutched Greta’s shoulder. It hurt. ‘I am not going to punish you today – God has punished you enough by making you fall from the bicycle. But if I see you again like this, in the room of your brother, I shall give you a whipping. And I always keep my word. Now you’re dismissed. You’re without food for today – going to school hungry will do you good.’

‘Yes.’ Greta was fuming inside, but still kept a meek appearance.

‘Now go,’ the father sighed and let go of Greta. She quickly disappeared inside her cell, closed the door and stood with her back against it, her chest heaving, tears streaming down her face.

Why? What did I do to deserve it? she asked the Monsterslayer who was sprawled on the cross. No face – just emptiness. No emotion. No pain. Emptiness… But maybe that was the point?

I hate them. I’m going to kill them one day.

Something dropped behind the barrier. Must have been Kleiss throwing things at the wall, to vent his fury.

 

2

They did, in fact, stop at the church on their way to school, like they always did. The bells had already stopped ringing by then, it was quiet, and snow was falling gently. Having entered, the siblings stomped their feet at the doorstep for a bit to shake the slush off their boots and continued their way on to where thousands of candles were burning and clouds of frankincense swirled.

Kleiss – his head uncovered, his hair wet with the snow — whispered, “I’ll go buy the candles”. Greta let go of his hand, smiling, and came up to the icon of the Holy One. Ben the Apostle had a narrow face and eyes that looked defiantly from beneath his long strands of hair; his shimmering halo looked more like the illumination of a force field. His right hand held a stun gun, his left hand, of course, the Bible – the True Bible, each verse of which held terrifying power. The memories of what he did with this power sent shivers down Greta’s spine…

Kleiss returned and brought two burning candles; Greta crossed herself, put her candle in the middle of a candleholder and knelt. Kleiss knelt next to her. Some women who stood nearby smiled beatifically at the two little angles paying a visit to the church on their way to classes.

“O Murderer, the Holy One,” Greta whispered, ‘”we need to settle this Vagrants business! They forget their place, they bully our friends, they mock us, they revile and belittle us six ways from Sunday! They take our money, and their shaman blocks our roads; they’re all dumb pigs, they’re fucking nothing! You hate them as much as I do, I know that. Give me strength to deal with the Vagrants like you have dealt with Redonne; let them die in horrible pain! Let the earth become wet with their blood, let the wind blow away their ashes, let the walls of Hellfire devour their souls, forever and ever. Amen, amen, amen!”

“Amen,” Kleiss echoed. They fell silent, staring up at Ben – behind the Holy One’s back, the force dome of an enemy city was tearing apart. Ben the Apostle must have ascended at the exact moment when his Battlestar Latgale detonated and dissipated in the light of a nuclear blast.

 

When they left the church, Paul and Aldibey (Bonga was late, as usual) were already waiting for them. “Why the long faces?” Paul asked, guessing their feelings with impeccable precision – he probably took after his parents, when it came down to Tech abilities.

“Parents don’t let us pray… together. Hi, Aldibey”, Kleiss mumbled. “Hello!” Greta offered her plaster cast to Aldibey. “Wanna leave your autograph, by the way?”

“Sure thing!” a short boy with dark complexion and lively black eyes threw back the cover of his bag, took out a marker and wrote his name across the plaster cocoon in large, brash letters. “When are you taking this off?” “The day after tomorrow.”

“I don’t get, though – why’ve they given you the cast? Did they send you to a state hospital?” “They did!” Greta laughed.

“Does it get in the way?”

“A lot.” “So, this is why you have to walk, right?” Paul as well as Aldibey themselves were standing next to their bikes which they left leaning against the foundation of the church pulpit.

“Wanna leave your autograph, too?” Greta took the marker from Aldibey and handed it to Paul. Paul grinned, looked over the marker critically, gave it back to Greta, took out a pen with neon ink, left his signature and, on a second thought, also drew a smiley face next to it. The body of Paul’s pen was made of metal and had an inscription in a foreign language.

“Where’d you get it?” Aldibey sounded jealous. “Traded with Bonga,” Paul answered casually, twirling the pen between his fingers as if it were a drumstick.

“What did he give you?” “A pocket calendar.” “Stop kidding!” “I’m not. Disbelieve all you want.” “Wow!.. Can I take a look?”

“Go to hell,” Paul said, hiding his pen in a little breast pocket. He wore the same oilskin as he did at the firing range. Greta knew that only the surface of his oilskin was tarpaulin – underneath there was a weaving of thin steel cords and a lining of nanorubber.

‘What time are you two going to the festival?’ Aldibey asked Kleiss, but Paul answered instead:

‘I suggest we all met right here at seven in the evening and go together.’

‘Wait, where’s Unit?’ Greta asked, surprised. ‘At home,’ Paul lifted his bike to clean the snow clinging to the frame. ‘He and Father had an agreement yesterday. Instead of school, he’ll go to see the drill.’

‘At the Firing Range?!’ Aldibey gasped. ‘Where else? There’ll also be an after party, but naturally, they won’t admit Unit there.’

Aldibey swallowed and spoke with a dreamy expression: ‘I wonder if they’ll serve pineapples?’

‘There are no such things as pineapples,’ Paul informed him, as if conveying a secret. Aldibey stared at him, shocked. Kleiss and Greta guffawed. ‘Hey, Aldibey,’ Paul went on, smiling patronizingly. He leaned his bike against the foundation again, rose up the pulpit and continued:

‘Wanna win a neon pen? By the way, the ink glows in the dark.’

‘How?’ Aldibey batted his eyes. ‘Get up here, on the railing, and cry like a rooster three times!’

‘Show me the pen!’

‘First tell me if you agree.’

‘First, I must…’

‘Do you agree? Or not?’ Paul took out the pen again and began twirling it, showing it from different sides. Aldibey’s greedy heart succumbed to the temptation, and he shouted:

‘Agreed!’

‘Only cry real loud!’ Paul warned him. He jumped down to join his friends and Aldibey got up instead.

‘You’re serious?’ Kleiss whispered. ‘Of course I am!’ Paul said.

‘So, I must stand on the fence?’ Aldibey repeated. His eyes were fixated at the pen.

‘Quickly, or we’ll be late to classes.’

Aldibey threw his school bag into snow, jumped up, grabbed the railing, pulled himself up, climbed up – rather easily – the church fence and shouted:

‘Cock-a-deedle-doo!’

‘I can’t hear you!’

‘Cock-a-deedle-doo!!!’

‘Two more to go!’

‘Cock! A!..’

The janitor who heard the noise went out, saw Aldibey and his face started turning red; Greta watched him with amusement: the old man stood there with his fur-trimmed mittens and his snow shovel, flapping his mouth and trying to inhale as much air as possible. Finally he rumbled with menace:

‘Well, I’ll teach you little…’

Aldibey grabbed the intricate metal pattern of the railing and froze in his place at the very top; the fear took the boy by surprise and paralyzed him, preventing him from jumping. Greta, Kleiss and Paul dashed with laughter and howling, and Aldibey remained stuck at the fence.

‘I’ll show you!..’ the old man’s bass rumbled. ‘Mister, please, don’t!’ Aldibey screamed back. The friends hid around the corner and stopped to take in the spectacle of the punishment. Aldibey was red and disheveled; he was screaming, trying to get away. The janitor was holding him by the ear with one hand and whipping his ass with another.

‘I’ll show you to climb the fences! I’ll teach you!..’

“I won’t! Please, I won’t again!..’

‘Sandni*r! Heathen!’

‘I won’t!..’ Finally Aldibey managed to wriggle free, and now he fled, dragging the bike along. The janitor kept shouting something and swinging his shovel.

‘That was your plan, right?!’ Aldibey threw himself at Paul and pushed him with his upper body. ‘You did it on purpose!’

‘There, there,’ Kleiss put himself between the two. ‘It was your choice and your responsibility. It’s your own fault that you’re an idiot.’

‘Give me the pen!’ Aldibey wheezed.

‘The pen?’ Paul repeated in surprise. ‘ Why the hell should I?’

‘Give it to me! I did what you told me to, fair and square!’

‘Fair? And how many times did you shout? I think we agreed on three times, and you did what – one and a half?’

‘Give it to me!’ Aldibey’s eyes were flaring, but still, he didn’t dare to attack. ‘Cool down,’ Greta said. ‘Everyone here heard the rules.’ ‘But the janitor!..’

‘Well, you shouldn’t have gotten down!’ Now Kleiss was outright tormenting him – his smile was openly cynical. ‘Or, when you have, you should’ve kicked him in the balls, not started with your ‘Let me go, mister! Forgive me, mister!” bullshit…’

‘Aldibey is a sandn*ah!’ Bonga chimed in, having just pulled up. He was all fresh and clean – he always was in the morning. ‘A sandn*ah and a chink!’

‘You’re a n*ah! Bonga the n*ah!’ Aldibey screamed at him.

‘Mommy’s little n*ah!..’

‘Stop it,” Greta told them. ‘Bonga, you’re always keeping us waiting!.. Let’s go. Paul, are you going?’

Aldibey pushed Bonga aside with his elbow, started to walk in strides and soon got ahead of everyone. He was disheveled and angry.

‘Mommy’s little boy got hurt!..’ Bonga sang at him in a nasty little voice.

‘Shall we roll this fatty in the snow?’ Kleiss suggested. ‘We’re running late,’ Paul said, looking at his watch. ‘Want to go for a run? What you say, Greta?’

‘I say yes,’ she said.

Bonga who had snow tires on his bicycle got ahead of them at once. Having caught up with Aldibey, he couldn’t resist the temptation to smack his ass with his foot.

 

3

By the time they reached the classroom where their Ecclesiastical History lessons took place, there was already a crowd at the door. Some sat on the windowsill, some on the floor, some were examining the pictures on the walls – illustrations to well-known didactic stories from their books for edification of the young. Greta walked up to the students, her gaze searching for Marek. She saw him, but Kleiss caught her by the sleeve and whispered: ‘Later.’

Marek’s eyes met Greta’s for a moment, but he turned away at once to hide his hatred. Greta recalled that one of those who fell into the pit with stakes was a friend of his. ‘We didn’t have to run even,’ Paul grimaced, looking at his watch. ‘He’s late again.’

‘He’s always late,’ Bonga threw his bag under the wall and landed on it. ‘Last time he showed up twenty minutes late.’

Leis (today her skirt was a bit longer) approached Kleiss; Greta looked away and turned to the window to watch the snow fall over the iron exercise machines at the sports ground. The Ecclesiastical History teacher was the strangest person she had ever had the chance to meet. To begin with, he would often come late and never gave anyone bad marks. When he was telling them of something, the whole classroom was quiet as a grave, save for the teacher’s voice – warm and always calm, never raised. But the most remarkable thing about him was his face: it was as calm and patient as that of the Monsterslayer, crucified in that fresco under the Church Foundation…

Ever since they introduced an elective Ecclesiastical History class on Sundays, Greta never missed any of his lessons. Suddenly the student crowd started moving – the teacher was walking down the hallway. Greta tried to catch his eye; when she succeeded, he said:

‘Hello, Greta. Did you bring your medical report?’ She needed it to prove that she wasn’t just skipping classes.

‘There it is,’ she handed him a sheet of paper with the stamp of the hospital, covered in illegible handwriting typical of doctors. The teacher put it in the pocket of his overcoat and headed to the door.

‘Why don’t you wear a skirt, Greta?’ Leis’ voice hissed poisonously right next to her ear. ‘Is it true that you’ve got bowlegs?’

‘Have you already sucked my brother’s dick so quickly?’ Greta demanded.

‘Leave her alone,’ Kleiss asked.

‘You leave her alone, Kleiss!..’

The students were already streaming into the classroom. For a while, Greta and Leis had a staring contest, trying to make as disdainful an expression as possible, but Kleiss finally grabbed Greta’s arm and pulled her inside.

Greta usually shared her desk with Paul, but during her absence there had been some changes. To her surprise, Paul was sitting next to Marek, and her… Oh no! Anything but this! Who should have approached Greta’s side but Don Alvarez in all his acne-covered glory?!

“What is this?!’ Greta was looking around her. ‘How is this..?!’

‘Alvarez has also been absent for a long time due to an illness,’ the teacher said (somehow, he had heard her). ‘Because of that, you will be sitting together.’ With that, he opened the class register and began the roll call.

‘Fine,’ Greta spat through her teeth, looking darkly at Alvarez. ‘What a day!..’ Sitting next to Alvarez was considered an all-time low.

Alvarez took a seat and spread his elbows as wide as possible. Kleiss, Paul and a few other students were splitting their sides. Leis – who was sitting next to Kleiss – was grinning savagely, her painted lips revealing all of the teeth.

‘Move over!’ Greta muttered. ‘Shut up,’ Alvarez grumbled. ‘I’ll fuck you up!’ ‘I’ll fuck you up!’

As if everything else wasn’t enough, Alvarez was also a Vagrant. He was already wearing his hair long, and his thin ponytail, tied with a simple cord, reached almost down to the seventh of his neck vertebrae. Greta waited until the Teacher looked the other way, then suddenly brought out her Flieger knife and drew a deep line with its double-edged switchblade, dividing the desk in two.

‘That’s your half,’ she said, looking sideways at Alvarez, ‘and this is mine. Clear?’ Alvarez went pale and moved as far away as possible. Greta glanced around herself quickly and hid the Flieger in her pocket again.

‘Very well,’ the Teacher said, closing the register, ‘everyone’s here and nobody is absent. Which is very good, because today’s class is going to be very interesting. No need to take notes – just listen.’

The class fell silent as the Teacher was looking over them slowly. Greta stole a glance at Don – he was frozen in place, tense with attention, his mouth half-open and dripping saliva. Greta grinned: she knew what kind of power a grown young man with long hair could have over an amateur Vagrant. For Don Alvarez, the Teacher must have been a true idol.

‘What do you know about God?’ he asked, stopping in front of the blackboard. ‘That He is kind? That He looks a bit like your dad? I’ll tell you about God. A long time ago, He came into this world, but people crucified Him, and God died. But before dying, He promised to return.’

‘Centuries passed, and He didn’t came, and people learned to live without God. They lost their faith; they forgot that He died for their sins and stopped being grateful for that. Their ways became twisted, their souls began to fill up with darkness, more and more; but some of them still remembered God’s commandments and lived according to His testament. Those chosen ones guarded the light of the true faith amidst the all-pervading heresy and all-pervading oblivion. Their souls remained untouched by the chaos and its destruction; they didn’t stray from their paths because the light of God’s Name shone on their paths. Those chosen ones did everything that He may come back.’

‘And forty eight years ago, He did.’

Alvarez swallowed with a loud sound. ‘He came back, but this time, without a face,’ Greta thought to herself, arguing with the Teacher, as always. ‘Where did He come back from? Where was He all that time He was gone? Tell me! I know you know that!’

‘He did come back,’ the Teacher continued in the grave-like silence, ‘to never leave us again.’ Greta thought of the Monsterslayer and felt a chill run down her spine. ‘He is eternal. He will always be with us, and those loyal to Him, will live eternally, as well… But, as His own example proves, to live eternally, one needs to die first. Every one of you,’ the Teacher’s look was that of a man aiming before pulling the trigger, ‘will die someday – and every one will someday rise again. We are all flesh of our Lord’s flesh… and you too, Bonga.’

A giggle rustled through the classroom. Greta saw Bonga hid an unfinished sandwich in a bad and turn deeply red.

‘What kind of sandwich is it?’ the Teacher asked. As Bonga was trying to chew and answer at the same time, he had crumbs falling out of his mouth. The students laughed again, louder. ‘Go outside, chew, then come back,’ the Teacher waved his hand casually, but imperatively, permitting Bonga to leave. The boy quickly walked out with his hands over his mouth – he too was having fun.

‘One needs to die first.’ The Teacher waited until Bonga closed the door behind him, then asked: ‘Do you know how our God died? Of course, you do! Did everyone use to have the Church comic books?’

Don Alvarez nodded vigorously. ‘Of course, you did!’ Greta thought, looking at him sideways. Alvarez accidentally caught her staring at him and blinked, surprised. Greta looked at the Teacher again.

‘Do you remember the pictures? First, they caught Him; then there was torture, the trial, and finally, the crucifixion. All of that took exactly one week. They caught Him on Sunday – that is why today is Sacrifice Sunday: today God wants a sacrifice from us, that we may be purified. A very bad person – a serial killer, a terrorist, a heretic… Is everyone going to Clemency Square today?’

‘Yes!’ everyone shouted happily.

‘On Monday… Quiet, everyone! On Monday they brought the one who betrayed Him before Him, so that the traitor would repeat his accusations – and God forgave him. That is why this Monday is called Mercy Monday. Do you know what one should do this Monday?’ The teacher stared at Marek and Paul. ‘Marek? Paul? Do you know?’

‘One should forgive one’s enemies?..’ Marek answered half-questioningly after standing up to show respect. He was tall, had a neat ponytail of very fair hair and wore a suit and a pair of cufflinks which drove all Greta’s friends into rage.

“Not just that,’ the Teacher smiled. ‘Paul? Do you wish to complete the answer of your… classmate?’ Paul stood up next to Marek:

‘On Mercy Monday one should ask for forgiveness from one’s enemies.’

When Paul smiles like THAT, he looks like the Little Angel from Don Alvarez’ comic books, Greta thought. He can fool anyone when he smiles like THAT.

‘Sit down,’ the Teacher said. ‘Yes – your classmates are absolutely correct. To forgive and to ask for forgiveness, to repent, to wash one’s soul with tears so that it may be redeemed – all of this shall take place on Monday.’

‘On Tuesday, they began to torture God – they didn’t feed him of give him drink for an entire day. That is why this Tuesday is called Famished Tuesday. What does it mean, Bonga?’ he asked Bonga who returned to class again.

‘They call it ‘Famished Tuesday’ because it’s prohibited to eat on this day,’ the fat boy answered with an earnest face. Some students laughed again.

‘Go take a seat. Not simply to eat, but to drink as well. Then, there was Wednesday. What can you tell us about the Wednesday, Greta?’ Greta rose, and everyone looked at her. She answered simply:

‘Bloody Wednesday. They hit God with a whip, and all of His clothes became wet with blood.’

‘Correct,’ the Teacher looked at her. His gaze became warm, he smiled a little, and Greta felt herself turn red. ‘God lay on the cold, stony tiles of his cell for a whole night… On Bloody Wednesday you should subject yourselves to corporal punishments. If you can’t do it yourself, ask your parents – they will be happy to help you… with their whip. Right? Take a seat, Greta. On Thursday… What happened on Thursday, Aldibey?’

‘On Thursday they washed God and shore His beard,’ Aldibey answered boomingly, followed by a burst of laughter.

‘What amazing blasphemy! What a train of audacious thought!..’ the Teacher marveled at his words. ‘They shore His beard!.. It’s called Sheer Thursday because God purified His soul through the confession. On Sheer Thursday one should confess one’s sins and go to communion. All of you are familiar with the procedure, so start to recollect them now.’ 

‘By Aldibey’s logic, the Friday is named ‘Black’ because God had slept through it… In fact, He was staving off a demon who was tempting Him with freedom. That is why on this Friday you are prohibited to leave your homes (except for school), to sleep, eat and drink… and to watch the visor! You heard that, everyone?.. Instead, one ought to kneel and pray, from morning till night, until the first of the stars lights the sky… Now, what about Saturday? Kleiss?’ Greta turned her head to look at her brother. Kleiss half-rose and answered in a serious voice:

‘It’s called ‘Bright Saturday’, because God had fought a demon and emerged victorious.’

‘That is correct,’ the Teacher agreed. ‘God has triumphed over that demon and cast him into the depths of Hell. But even that is not the most important thing – it was, first and foremost, the fight of God against Himself. He knew that none of the living could stop Him or oppose His will had he simply stood up and walked out of that dungeon; but He remained to redeem the sins of this world.’

‘On Sunday there was a festival – it’s called Easter, in case some of you haven’t heard. On Sunday God was crucified and died. Yet He left us the commandments to live by while we await His return. And now, Alvarez shall name all those five commandments for us, one by one.’

The acne-covered boy next to Greta jumped up in surprise, then sat straight and stared into the Teacher’s eyes with terror. ‘Come now,’ the Teacher’s voice was soft, yet commanding. ‘List the commandments for our benefit.’

‘Thou shalt not kill,’ Alvarez started in a little nasty nasal voice, ‘thou shalt not take your neighbor’s possessions, thou shalt not commit witchcraft, thou shalt not betray…’ ‘And?..’ the Teacher urged him in case Alvarez was going to fall silent for too long. ‘And… Errrrr…’

Apparently, Don’s brain froze. Greta knew how it was – it’s like you know the right answer, but cannot put it into words; yet she had no pity for him. Alvarez gave a deep sigh to show he’s given up. ‘Come, name the fifth one!’ the Teacher demanded. Don Alvarez sighed again. He couldn’t recall the fifth sin for the life of him and started to scan the class with his eyes, begging for help silently.

‘Thou shalt not breathe,’ Greta whispered under her breath, barely moving her lips. ‘Thou shalt not breathe!’ Don shot happily without even thinking.

The students virtually moaned with laughter – even the Teacher laughed. Greta looked at Kleiss. You couldn’t mistake the look he gave her: he knew it was his sister’s joke. The Teacher said something, and the class became less lively. Silence fell, and he repeated:

‘Thou shalt not lie. Lying is the fifth sin. Have any of you ever lied?’ Silence. ‘Of course, we did! Millions of times!’ Greta thought.

The Teacher was scanning them with his mortifying stare. Finally his eyes stopped on Greta, and her heart fell. ‘One should only ever speak the truth,’ the Teacher said in conclusion. The students breathed a sigh of relief. He waved his hand, ‘Sit down, Alvarez.’

Greta was totally digging that hand wave of his – it was so authoritative, so negligent, showing the true depth of the rift between the Teacher with all his culture and class and this pimpled loser.

‘Sit down, and try to think for yourself next time. By the way – someone did egg you on to give the wrong answer, right?’

Again, the silence fell. Greta felt like her throat had been put in a vice. The tension was causing a dull ache in her stomach.

‘Who did it? Tell me, and I will not punish you… for heresy.’ Alvarez rose. He did so very slowly, and Greta saw his hands shake. ‘Yes,’ the Teacher repeated, ‘for heresy. For it is a heresy not to know the five deadly sins at your age! Look at Alvarez. Right now, he is caught in a dilemma; on the one hand, he cannot lie and has to name the one who gave him the wrong hint. On the other hand, he cannot betray his school friend, for betrayal is also a deadly sin. What should he do? Well? Any ideas?’ Silence. ‘What do you think, Greta?’

Greta rose next to Alvarez and said: ‘I gave Alvarez the wrong answer. I wanted to pull a prank. Please forgive me.’ ‘Well done,’ the Teacher smiled. ‘Sit down, both of you. Now, let’s continue…’

Alvarez lowered himself onto the chair next to her. He was breathing heavily; a bead of sweat left a wet trail on his temple. ‘You’ll pay for this,’ Greta heard his whisper with hatred.

‘Tomorrow, the Cleansing Week begins,’ the Teacher went on. ‘Tomorrow, all of us shall begin our way, following in God’s footsteps, to cleanse ourselves from all of our sins – the whole package, wholesale. Day after day, until the week ends…’

‘You’ll pay for Patcher… and for Ilse…’ Alvarez kept snapping his teeth at her as an outlet for his belated fear.

‘Your suffering shall purify you. For all of us sin, one way or the other. Even if it’s just thoughts, such as wishing harm upon one’s neighbor…’ the Teacher’s voice was now as gentle as always.

‘It was you Friars that led them on into the pit, right?.. I hate you all…’ Don’s hateful whispers got right under her cortex. Greta felt the rage wash over her. Please, not now… anytime but now… ‘Shut up,’ she hissed through her teeth.

‘I know it was your shithead friends who did this!’ Now Alvarez went off. His eyes were burning, like he was mad. What a fucking nut…

‘I’ll cut you up into small pieces… After school…’ Greta whispered with a completely straight face. Alvarez made a strange sound (apparently, in an attempt to conceal his rage) and fell silent. Greta was staring at the desk, at the four-letter word that had been carved over many other words and expressions which, just like this one, made no sense at all. Patcher and Ilse… so those were their names. The guy who broke her arm was called differently. Why are the innocent always the ones to suffer?

 

Marek was the one to approach Greta, and not the other way around. She was packing her bag; the Teacher had already left. A gang of Vagrants was swarming at the door. ‘Guess they’re keeping a dog watch at the hallway,’ Greta thought, hurling her writing implements into the backpack with her left hand and pretending not to notice the leader of the Vagrants.

‘It happened to them because of you,’ Marek said quietly. Now Greta had to look at him. His expression was very weary and… desperate?

‘Now this means war,’ he said. She could see that it cost him a lot of effort to stay calm. ‘Then again, isn’t this what y’all wanted?’

He turned away and headed for the door before she could give an answer. Paul who somehow turned up next to her at once whispered: ‘What did he say?’

‘Declared a war,’ Greta closed her bag and raised her eyes to Paul. ‘We need to talk.’

‘Not here,’ Paul walked past her, checking the girl with his elbow, and left, following Marek. With a sigh, Greta threw the bag straps over her left shoulder.

 

4

Bonga’s new coat was extremely tacky, not that he minded at all. ‘A sniper could spot you from six miles away,’ Kleiss said. They were walking down the alley towards Space Avenue. ‘Did you pick it on purpose?’

‘You’re just jealous of my coat,’ Bonga explained in a patronizing tone. ‘Dad brought it to me from somewhere. Can’t buy a coat like this ‘round here. See? It says “Deef-lay”! What’cha say, huh?’

‘”Deef-lay”! Our Bonga wears Deef-lay, would you look at that!” Paul snorted.

‘Up yours!’ Bonga answered, being a proud owner of a Difle brand that he was.

‘Would you stop? This is getting real old. How about someone tells me what’s happening?’ Greta said. Bonga was quick to answer: ‘You mean, you don’t know?’ Greta noticed the glare Paul shot him, and said again: ‘What’s happened?’

Paul said slowly: ‘We didn’t want to tell you… Actually, Kleiss told us not to tell you.’

‘-but you’d learn anyway,’ Kleiss finished. Greta grasped the fat boy’s sleeve: ‘What happened, Bonga? Tell me now!’

‘One of those… you know. Those that fell into the pit. One of them is in intensive care right now – and he’s not a Vagrant, just… some nobody.’

‘He’s Marek’s cousin,’ Paul sighed. ‘Came to visit and stay for the Holy Week. So now we’ve broken the Rule.’

‘Dogshit!’ Greta spat, letting go of Bonga’s sleeve and putting her arms around herself. She was suddenly very cold. Paul shrugged:

‘It had to happen one day. Only a question of time.’

Greta asked: ‘Do any adults know?’ Kleiss kicked an empty cigarette box: ’’Course not! There’s so much crap lying around the firing range – who’d be surprised at a pit with some stakes?’

‘You think everything’s fine?’ she said.

‘I heard two Vagrants talking,’ Bonga suddenly decided to spill. ‘They think that shaman they’ve got will do us in in no time. Cuz none of us seen him, they said, so he’ll have an easy time dealing with us—‘

Paul laughed.

‘That’s what they said!’ Bonga started shouting. ‘They said: No need getting complicated – we’ve got the shaman!

‘Who said this?’

‘Martin and Anny!’ Bonga kept shouting. ‘I heard it with my own ears!’

‘Anny? The ladyboy?’ Paul said.

‘Yeah, they said Anny wears lipstick,’ Kleiss chimed in. ‘Someone saw him in make-up, in an adult club, with some dude…’

‘What do you know about the shaman?’ Greta turned to ask Bonga, and his entire being lit up at this. The boy started rattling off:

‘He’s not from our school – lives somewhere across the Canal – Vagrants found him at the Firing Range – they say he beat up four guys at once – they became friends, though – he plays the guitar – long hair, like all of them Vagrant trash – ten bucks say he listens to Codex M –‘

Paul gave a little smile at hearing the name of a banned group. Bonga was a careful one. Greta once got a hold of the Codex M mixtape, but Paul absolutely refused to play any tracks by “these nimrods”. The reason wasn’t his fear of death. Inquisitors don’t listen to Codex M. That’s what he said then.

“-that’s what I know about the shaman,’ Bonga finished.

‘So you say he lives across the Canal,’ Greta repeated. The other side of the Canal was all slums; it was commonly thought only the lowest of the low live there. ‘The Transcanal Shaman…’ she said, and Bonga burst into laughter.

‘Hey, wait for me!’ someone shouted. Kleiss turned, and they stopped. The voice belonged to Leis, who sauntered towards the group down the alley. She was in a hurry, however, she didn’t look funny or lame; with her long legs, she was gliding over the snow with surprising grace.

‘Is that your new girlfriend?’ Greta said to her brother, displaying total indifference. Kleiss only shrugged ambiguously. She noticed that his hair was reaching critical length – another inch or less, and he could try out for a Vagrant. She said: ‘You should get a haircut.’

‘True that,’ Paul joined in. ‘Thanks to Kleiss and the likes of him, we’re gonna lose our street cred in no time.’

Leis stopped a couple of steps away from the group, saying with a beaming smile: ‘I forgot to give you your notes, Kleiss.’ He approached. ‘Are you going to the festival?’ she continued in her SPECIAL voice. ‘Can I go with you?’ She was looking straight at Greta now.

‘I don’t think so,’ Greta answered in as cold a voice as possible, but Leis just wouldn’t quit: ‘What are you going to wear, Greta?’

Now Greta knew why Leis was trailing them so eagerly. That girl was just asking for trouble. Looking closely, she saw THAT smile on Leis’ face. The latter continued: ‘You’re going to wear these ugly boots, aren’t you, Greta?’

Leis was now much closer to Kleiss, who had put away the notes, practically against him, and wearing a completely different kind of smile. Greta heard her cooing voice: ‘You mean to say, see you tomorrow? Right?’

Kleiss mumbled something uncertain. Leis, throwing Greta a death glare, went on her merry way. His eyes kept following her, until Greta finally decided to draw him from his stupor: ‘Are we going?’

‘Wanna fuck Leis, don’t you?’ Bonga winked at him. Kleiss asked him to please shut up, but he kept going: ‘Wanna put yer hand down her panties? Feel her pussy? Try her mitten on?’

Kleiss swung his fist at him, but Bonga promptly dodged him, seeing the attack coming. He was jumping around the furious Kleiss, like a colored ball, and kept teasing him: ‘Let’s try your mitten on, darling! How about we try…’

Flying into rage, Kleiss broke into a chase, and Bonga ran down the alley with a speed and agility you wouldn’t expect from someone his size, laughing.

‘So the Vagrant have declared war,’ Paul mused. ‘And the shaman locked all the roads leading towards him,’ Greta said. This thought had taken away all peace. It was infuriating.

‘Here’s what I think,’ Paul continued. ‘We need to find out who he is, and bash his skull in. If they want war, they’ll have it.’

Having finally caught Bonga who was still laughing and going on about the mitten, Kleiss was shoving snow down his collar.

‘Let them have it,’ Greta agreed.

 

5

The porch of the Temple-on-the-Outskirts was thickly cloaked by spring twilight, and the candles in the small windows made the inside look twice more cozy than usual. Kleiss and Greta were silent; standing next to him, she was looking at the sky – the stars were still too high, or maybe the twilight wasn’t yet thick enough. Finally, Kleiss stirred to look at his watch.

‘We’re too early,’ Greta mumbled. Kleiss put his hand back in his pocket, his breath forming a cloud: ‘I’m starting to freeze.’

‘You promised to tell me something,’ she said. ‘Tell me now.’

On their way home he promised to tell her about the Canal – or, rather, what lay BEYOND. Now was the time.

Kleiss said: ‘I’ve only been there once. I don’t have much information.’

Greta immediately retorted: ‘I’ve never been there, and I have even less!’

‘How do you want me to tell you anything when you keep interrupting?’ he asked.

‘Fine, I’ll keep silent.’

He began: ‘There was some kind of malfunction in the subway; a lot of water was drained from the Canal and several stations were flooded, you probably remember that. There was no maintenance, and the stations were simply closed. They say only parts of them are flooded – other parts are not, and if you know the way, it’s possible to walk along the entire line. Maybe, even reach the Underground City, not that I believe that, really. Sounds like a schmuck bait. There’s also an abandoned factory – now, that I have seen.’

‘You’ve never told…’

‘It was, like, centuries ago,’ he said. ‘I swore to keep it a secret and then just forgot to tell. Heinok and I broke into the place a long time ago, even before… Never mind. That factory was the strangest place I’ve ever seen, stranger than ‘Little Lights’ Combine. Imagine a huge ass pile of iron – an enormous furnace, pumps larger than your mom’s butt for compressing gas or some shit… No ground anywhere, only concrete – and manholes. Several rows of manholes, no covers. Drop into one of them and kiss the ground bye-bye, nothing will get you out. They say the factory used to make something poisonous and space-related – graphite rods or some bullshit like that. There were some stained glass pictures that survived – they showed ancient rocket ships. The very first models. That factory is old as balls. We found there some rings that light up, and traded them to some primary schoolers for bullets,’ Kleiss smiled at the memories. ‘There are practically no ads in those parts – very little light, in general. It’s dark, and you wade in the dirt while you walk. There’s nothing good or beautiful there, you feel like it’s night, and it’s gonna last forever.’

‘Maybe, it’s the underside of the world,’ Greta said. ‘Its dark side.’

‘Maybe,’ he agreed. ‘Oh, would you look at that. Bonga and Aldibey made up!’

That was true – the two were approaching, busy with arguing about something important. ‘It so will work!’ Greta heard Aldibey say in a high-pitched voice. Bonga gave a mean laugh. Now they were so close that it was possible to make out what the boys were saying.

‘I’ve got two pounds of the stuff! Never mind the door, it’s enough to blow the entire wall to pieces!’ Aldibey shouted, waving his hands around. Now Greta knew what that was about: Aldibey had been going to blow up an entrance to the abandoned bunker and break in. It was an old project of his. Bonga drew the line:

‘We need to talk to Paul. Oh hi! Where’s Paul?’

‘Why so late?’ Kleiss asked. He was jumping from one foot to another.

‘You should’ve worn warm clothes,’ Bonga said in that condescending, advisory tone of his. ‘Why don’t you tell your parents to buy you a new coat?’ Kleiss narrowed his eyes with distaste:

‘A coat like yours?’

‘Can’t buy you a coat like mine. They don’t sell them over here,’ Bonga blew out a bubble of pink chewing gum.

‘Where did you get the explosives?’ Greta said to Aldibey. He mumbled: ‘None of your business. There’s no other way to break in. You understand that, right?’

‘Do you really believe it’s full of machine guns?’

‘I don’t care what you believe!’ Aldibey shouted. ‘A girl won’t understand!’

Greta frowned: ‘Just you wait… They’re taking off my cast the day after tomorrow. There will be reckoning.’

Aldibey only gave a braying laugh.

‘You want me to lend you my old coat?’ Bonga continued, talking to Kleiss. ‘The sleeve is a bit torn, but your mom could patch it up…’ Kleiss was looking him up and down, contemplating where he should hit the boy. Bonga quickly added: ‘…on the other hand, it’s probably too big for you… Oh, finally Paul’s here!’

Paul materialized from the dusk, from the exact direction you’d least expect him to, and asked: ‘Are we going?’

Behind him, a huge figure loomed in the shadows. It was Lordi, who’d been held back a year in school, yet was grown beyond his age. This boy, who could already try out for Space Force, had always been seen with Paul when something important was happening. Kleiss asked: ‘Have you picked a spot for us to watch?’

‘The roof, I think,’ Paul answered. ‘The square is going to be packed.’

‘The roof! Great!’ Bonga cried. ‘I’ve brought sandwiches…’

‘Let’s go, then,’ Greta said. ‘The festival is about to begin.’

 

Clemency Square lay sixteen subway stations away, the road already difficult enough during the usual rush hours; today, however, in anticipation of the promised bomb of a show, the road before the subway was crowded like never before. People at the Outskirts mostly dressed in grey, camouflaged against the non-life around; among them Greta felt as if carried by a stream of protoplasm. She wove deftly around the monochrome backs, trying not to be slowed down; however, she had to pause at the subway glass doors. She saw a couple of helmet visors gleaming – the cops were there, trying to regulate the huge influx of human bodies. All of it reminded her of meat being pushed through a meat grinder, except in rewind. She had no choice but to let herself be pressured from every side.

‘Just in case,’ Paul spoke from behind the shoulder of some burly man, ‘we meet in the square next to the escalator. Got it?’

‘Got it!’ Bonga and Aldibey answered. Kleiss was moving a little behind Greta, holding on to her coat, so as not to lose her. The pressure kept growing, and a couple of painful minutes later she was carried down into the hall. After making her way through the turnstile and reaching the escalator, she was sweating all over. Somewhere in the middle of the stairs, Kleiss reached her.

‘Where are they?’ Greta asked. ‘What a crowd… I thought my guts were going to spill.’

‘How is your cast?’

‘Fine.’

‘I don’t think we’ll find them in this crush anyway,’ Kleiss said. His face flared up with the neon letters from the ad slogan creeping across the wall over the escalator.

If I just straight up ask him about Leis, Greta thought, he’ll say it’s none of my business. He’ll be right, too. She said: ‘A lot of things changed here, while I was gone.’

At this point, the escalator brought them down, robbing Kleiss of an opportunity to speak.

 

In the train car they were almost literally compressed together, and Kleiss could embrace her openly, without hiding. People were pressing on from every side, giving them no other choice. Greta put her cheek to his breast and closed her eyes. The world around turned into the sea at night; the car was picking up speed, voices around turned into murmurs of the wind. Greta clang to Kleiss lest the wave drags her away.

Once they were out of the subway, in Clemency Square, Unit somehow spotted them and strolled next to the group without a care in the world, leaving even Paul speechless. They entered one of the entrances to an ancient five-story apartment building with a pitched rooftop. A couple of stone lions sat at the entrance; all the house dwellers had been resettled. Paul warned Unit:

‘If you only scream in the night, even once!.. Or piss yourself—‘

‘You’ll be the one pissing yourself!’ Unit echoed immediately. The stairwell stank of the very substance they were talking about; grown-ups had to have been relieving themselves here. Greta pinched her nose in disgust; Paul shone his flashlight on the stained stairs. ‘It will be a miracle if the roof is empty,’ he said.

The roof was empty. As they crawled through the skylight, Greta saw a round gazebo made out of stone, waiting for them at the roof. Right before their eyes loomed an enormous flat screen; along with the other two, it had been erected around Clemency Square.

‘Rad!’ Bonga shouted. ‘Totally copacetic!’

The gazebo was empty. Paul said: ‘We need to block the skylight – look! That cover, over there!’

‘You thought of everything, didn’t you?’ Kleiss said, his voice echoing approval. Paul stroke a pose, Greta laughed, and Lordi the future Space Marine easily blocked the round skylight with a shutter of respective size, securing in with a wooden board for support.

And then they headed for the gazebo, balancing along the ridge one after another.

 

In the gazebo, Unit immediately sat upon the brick railing, dangling his feet over the emptiness below. His coat was only a little smaller than Paul’s oilskin; out of one of the pockets, he took a pack of cigarettes and started leafing through them, looking for a cigarette with the “right” number. The child’s fingers looked even smaller against the huge sleeves.

‘You smoke too much,’ Paul said, boring into the scrawny back with his strict eyes.

‘I don’t give a fuck,’ Unit said.

‘What did you say?’ Paul asked. Unit spat and answered even more clearly: “I don’t’ give a fuck!’

Greta said, ‘Leave him alone, it’s just a phase. We swore like this when we were his age, too.’ Unit just shrugged his shoulders to indicate what he thinks of her opinions. Kleiss gave a soft smile. ‘You’re being too hard on him,’ Greta continued. ‘Oh really?!’ Paul sneered, baring his teeth.

Unit took a drag of his cigarette and breathed smoke out of his nose. The screen at the rooftop of the neighboring house flared up with flashes of red. ‘Yay, it’s starting!’ Bonga shouted.

The fanfare pierced the sky like an arrow; looking up, Greta finally saw the stars. The stage resounded with a slightly muffled greeting: ‘Good evening! Good evening to all of us!’

‘Clown the Smarmy! He’s lame!’ Unit shouted, jumping up on his butt.

‘I’m Klein Marlett, your host at this bomb of a show!’ he continued, echoing Unit’s words from below. ‘And this is my beautiful assistant, the star of the TV-screen—‘

‘—Dai Shi Sung!’ the crowd in the square echoed. Again, the fanfare. Unit, Kleiss and Aldibey screamed at the same time: ‘Die-Shit-Sucks!’ Everyone burst into laughter, especially Unit, who still was dangling his feet over the precipice and blowing rings of smoke. Taking a whiff, Greta actually smelled tobacco.

‘What brand are those?’ Lordi asked him.

‘Cosmos Smokes,’ he answered.

‘Can I borrow some?’ Lordi said.

‘Sure, bro!’

‘Daishisuuuuuuuuung!—‘ Clown the Smarmy sang as if it were a single word, and then Die-Shit-Sucks started to sing, too, in her little doll voice:

“When Lord calls out

To us from heaven,

We open up our hearts to him.

My soul’s a pure

And gentle stream of

Unending faith and clemency…”

Bonga and Aldibey were singing along, making funny faces; the former was swaying his round body like a brightly colored balloon, repeating all the nonsense lyrics with a totally straight face. Only his round eyes betrayed the happy sparks dancing within. Aldibey was swaying his little, quick limbs to the rhythm; it was so funny that Greta’s stomach hurt from all the laughter.

“When Lord will ask me

What I’ve been through,

Of my misfortune and my luck…”

‘I’ll tell Him all, and He will tell me: You are a whore, die, this shit sucks! Fa-la-la…’ Bonga and Aldibey sang along, making the best of their music abilities. Kleiss and Paul howled with laughter, like wolves, and their howling got lost in the glittering sky full of ads.

‘Thank you, Daishiiiisung! Thank you, girls! Now, my dear friends!—‘ Clown the Smarmy cried in his mic, and everything went silent. Greta turned to the screen; Die-Shit-Sucks was baring her teeth next to the Clown, resembling Leis somehow – just as cheap-looking and doll-like. Backup girls from “Starlight Ensemble” were already turning their perky asses and retreating, giving way to black-clad clerics. The camera zoomed in on of them, making Greta stare into the lifeless, dark eyes of an inquisitor, then turned back to Die-Shit-Sucks. Making a pious face, the Clown spoke:

‘This night isn’t just about the festival. We have gathered here in the name of Jesuis. The purpose of this night – the night when the Cleansing Week starts – is to remind us all of Him suffering for our sins. Our Lord suffered for our sins, and we – we will suffer for our own pleasure, just because.’

Greta started — the drumroll fell, sending heavy splashes of sound, frantic spotlights were running around the square until they finally stared at the same spot. The spot marked with a pallid white cross over a pile of firewood.

The festival began.

All the clerics made a step forward, forming a rank, Die-Shit-Sucks and the Clown were suddenly gone. Something was happening down there, below. ‘We need to crawl closer, to watch,’ Greta said, speaking mostly to Paul and Kleiss.

‘You call that a bad view?’ Bonga nodded towards the screen, already unwrapping his sandwiches.

‘I didn’t haul myself over to the roof, only to watch visor!’ Greta said. ‘I’m going to crawl down to that pipe. No one will see us up there; we, on the other hand…’

Paul and Kleiss looked at each other, then back at her. Unit, still sitting on the railing, spoke in that high, clear voice of his: ‘My brother is fucked in the head.’

Greta glanced at the pipe. “Crawl down there”? Sounded too easy to be true. She sat down on the roofing, sensing the rusted iron under her palms. I’ll probably have dirt all over my ass… or slide past the pipe to my certain death – the roof has a dangerous slant…

“Are you sure it’s a good view down there?’ Paul asked, crouching next to her.

“I think so…” she said, then took a deep breath and started crawling, helping herself with her hands. She tried to plant her feet on the slope, but slid down instantly, like it was ice, fell on the brick pipe too quickly to be scared and caught her breath. Instantly, Paul slid down on his ass next to her, then Kleiss, then there was no room left for anyone else.

‘Let the babies watch visor,’ Paul sneered. ‘But we’ll need to crawl to the edge of the roof and look down, otherwise we’ll just get the same view as them…’ a nod of contempt towards the gazebo. ‘Alright. Off I go.’ He knelt and carefully spread his entire height along the roof, then crawled a couple inches on his stomach until his fingers touched the iron bars of the fence. Greta sighed, glancing at her (relatively) clean coat. But what must be done, must be done…

They were lying closely, looking down on the huge square filled to the brim with people, three enormous screen broadcasting everything that happened on the stage, and Greta felt her breath taken away by the view. The clerics were silently moving their lips in prayer, standing in a rank in front of a cross atop a pile of firewood, then one of the inquisitors said “Amen” into his mic, and everything fell completely silent.

Greta turned to Paul: “What was her name? Did your father know her?’ The position she was lying in wasn’t particularly comfortable, but she’d already got used to it. It wasn’t that bad, as long as you didn’t move – or think about the way back.

‘A Tech has no name,’ Paul answered, staring in front of him. Greta remembered having heard it from him before.

‘Already at the school,’ an inquisitor spoke, ‘all of us learn about the five deadly sins—‘

‘Unless you’re Don Alvarez,’ Paul whispered, and Greta smiled. The inquisitor raised his voice:

‘Such are the names of those sins: Murder, Thievery, Witchcraft, Treason and Deceit! For every one of them, the punishment is death. The woman that will die here today has committed one of those sins.’

‘Which one?’ Greta asked, but Paul kept looking down at the square, silently. The inquisitor continued:

‘Now she has no biography, no future – her name itself has been consigned to oblivion. She will have no grave for her family to visit—‘

‘No family, either,’ Kleiss laughed.

‘It is the weight of her sin that is the reason why she’s been chosen to be executed in public. Bring in the criminal!’

Again, the drumroll. Kleiss was lying to the right of Greta, and she felt his shoulder tense.

The Tech woman’s face was veiled in black; her arms were bound by heavy chains, according to the overall style of this bomb of a show. She was walking slowly down a small passage flanked by the cops with their shields of nanofoam, who had to contain the crowd, eager to spit at the victim or throw their rotten food at her,

Slowly, she rose to the “scaffold”, stopped at the stake, and the spotlights converged at her figure, covering her with another, different veil – that of unbearable light.

Two clerics, one on her right side and one on her left, led her to the cross, put her hands into special braces and stepped aside, joining a motionless line of black cassocks.

Another four did a military about-face and approached the scaffold, bearing odd-looking black batons. When the batons were brought closer to the dry firewood, they flared up with blue fire.

“Electric torches,” Paul commented. “The handle has two contacts: press a button, get the fire. Some Divine miracle.”

The firewood must have been doused in something; it instantly burned with a raging flame that obscured the victim completely. Then, her terrifying scream sounded over the still crowd. Now, every screen displayed the Inquisitor’s face. Fire was reflecting off of it; the Inquisitor was speaking in a lecturing tone, and all the while he was speaking, the scream was also heard:

“Everyone who has sinned against the Lord’s commandments goes to Hell. Everyone who has sinned against the Lord is doomed to an eternity of torture. Has Lord not suffered enough that you keep going against his will?.. Does His word mean nothing to you anymore?..”

The flame on the cross behind his back shook in a waving motion once more and then was still; the body had sagged and was now burning quietly, not thrashing in a way excruciating to the onlookers. Paul swore under his breath. Greta looked at Kleiss – the dying fire was glinting in his dark eyes. Down in the square, the people started kneeling and the Inquisitor spoke softly:

“No one is born pure – only made by their own efforts. For many of you, the following week is the last chance to avoid infernal torment and to live a life of virtue and peace; your lat chance to wake up one day in Heaven,

at the feet

               of our

                             LORD!”

Dynamic hidden at the scaffold’s corner burst with blaring sounds of a church hymn; limelights flew up, pointing to a holographic projection of a battleship; neon letter “In the Name of Jesuis” lit up before the sky bloomed with chrysanthemums of fireworks. The ashes of the body disappeared, as did the cross and the cinders from the firewood – Greta missed the moment when the scaffold turned back into a stage again. A concert was about to start, little children dressed as angels were skittering around the square, handing out prosphora, paper petals were dancing in the air, like snowflakes. Greta became cold and had pins and needles all over, tired from hanging upside down from the roof’s edge, especially now that the interesting part was over and Clown the Smarmy and Die-Shit-Sucks were back on the stage.

“Let’s get out of here”, she said.

“You first,” Paul said.

Kleiss was still looking down at the square. Hi eyes were still with hate.