I came to with a spinning head, a racing heart, and a stomach doing cartwheels. Someone was calling my name and I was beginning to hate the sound of it.
“Get a bucket here, quickly.” Vlad.
“A bucket?” Sonia, bewildered.
Vlad was right and Sonia was slow. I threw up on the floor, an inch from Sian’s knees. The knees disappeared in a flash.
“I’m s—” I tried to say but instead threw up again. And again.
“What did you do to him? What the hell did you do to him?” Sian yelled.
“What had to be done. Hey!”
I tried to move the weight of my head up so I could see what they were doing. When I did I wish I had the energy to laugh. Sian was holding Vlad by the balls. Literally. And she wasn’t being gentle. Vlad’s face was puckered.
“I showed him reality,” he said through his teeth. “Now let go. He’ll be fine.”
I turned to the floor again as another spasm shook me and a second later Sian was back next to me.
Sonia had run off but Sian sat where she was, holding my shoulder, making sure I stayed propped up on my elbows while I parted with my breakfast. When it was all out and no more was coming I lay there, cold, shivering, and sweaty, and utterly horrified by what I’d seen. Vlad had imparted knowledge on me like they did in The Matrix: suddenly, without any preparation. In the film, it looked cool. In reality, it was anything but cool.
Sonia came back with a bucket with water sloshing in it and a mop as I tried to straighten up. Sian helped me while Vlad stood beside her and watched me through narrowed eyes, oblivious to any suffering I may have endured. Now I knew why. Whatever happened to me was nothing compared to what could happen to billions if we let Adelaide continue killing guardians.
“Better?” Sian was stroking my face, wiping off the sweat.
“Please,” I croaked. She led me to the chair like I was an old man, settled me in and rushed off to the kitchen. The water she brought me was the tastiest thing I’ve ever drunk.
“What happened?” she asked, shooting a glare at Vlad who had regained his place on the couch. “You might want to go and help Sonia, don’t you think?”
“Me?” From puckered with pain to wide-eyed with shock, Vlad had today displayed more facial expressions I believed he was capable of. It would have been amusing under other circumstances.
“You,” Sian said, adding a nod for emphasis. “Go. You won’t miss anything.”
Vlad got up, shaking his head. I leaned mine on Sian’s arm. She moved it to hug me, settling my head in her lap. “What happened?” she asked again. I shivered.
“I think I saw how the universe works, at least this part of it. We’re holding everything together.” It made no sense put like this but all I had seen was an image that carried a message and I couldn’t summarise this message any better.
I’d seen twelve shapes suspended in blackness, arranged in a circle. Twelve pale, semi-transparent humanoid shapes in darkness, still and silent. I could discern no features where their faces were supposed to be because there were no faces. There were no bodies to call bodies, either.
“I’m not sure I can put it in words.”
“Everyone sees the guardians differently when they see the real thing,” Vlad said. “But the thing to remember is that if Adelaide continues killing guardians, what we’ll all see will be what you know as the Apocalypse,” “I’ll go change this water, it’s disgusting.”
“Was it very scary?” Sonia asked quietly when Vlad left the room.
I sat up and turned to her. She stood there, next to the chair, with the mop in hand, and her eyes were pleading with me to say no. I couldn’t do that.
“Yes. We held the world together. I don’t understand it but that’s what I saw.”
Sonia nodded, her mouth set in a grim line. Vlad came back with a bucket full of clean water and set it next to her. She passed him the mop.
“Go on,” Sian told Vlad. I knew that voice: it was the voice she used in the kitchen and that voice left no space for arguments or complaints, or anything but obedience. It also anchored me to a reality a little bit better than what it had been a day ago.
Vlad sighed as he collected the mess on the floor and rinsed the mop. He made a face.
“The guardians are there to keep humankind’s sanity in balance. The negators are there to keep them in check,” he said. “What else do you want to know?”
“Sanity?” Sian repeated. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got a balance there but I may be wrong.”
“You are,” Vlad said. “Without the guardians we’ll have chaos. Like I said.”
“How?” I said. “How does this work?”
“It just does. Has been since the dawn of time I suppose. There were always guardians and there were always mentors. You’re not supposed to know all this unless, well, we’re in a situation like this.” He stopped mopping to flash a grim smile at us. “You could’ve died there. That’s why we don’t tell you, guardians, about everything. It tends to scare people away from their responsibilities.”
“He could’ve died?”.
I put my arm around Sian’s waist. I didn’t know how Vlad would react to a second attack. Vlad raised a finger.
“Theoretically.” He rinsed the mop. “I have to change the water again.”
Twelve people set in a circle, six guardians, six negators, all milky white and insubstantial. I shuddered.
“Are you okay?” Sonia had stopped by the window, glancing out every now and then.
“We looked like ghosts,” I said with the intention to only say it to myself but failing that. “They. The guardians and the negators. They, we, had no faces.”
“Ghosts?” Sian’s body tensed again. I shook my head.
“They just looked like it, but they weren’t really ghosts. More like… essences. I guess that was just my way of seeing it all, like Vlad said.” I didn’t believe a word I was saying even if I was wrong and Vlad was right. We did look like ghosts and I suspected this was because in some way we were ghosts. Only I didn’t know what way that was. I felt as alive as ever. Adelaide had looked very much alive, as well. Too alive for my taste.
“You saw the spirits of the guardians.” He was back with the bucket and the mop. “The essence that passes from one human body to another when the first dies.”
This made all the sense I needed. We were vessels for the substances I had seen. The substances that, according to Vlad, kept the world, the human world, in balance.
“And what do you want me to do now? Dream a, what, a vessel for Adelaide’s negator?”
“Exactly.” Vlad went on mopping like he’d been doing it all his life, with even, regular strokes, no longer wincing in disgust. The floor was almost clean. “Sonia will move out and you’ll be free to take all the naps you want.”
“I don’t nap,” I said just as Sonia said “He doesn’t nap.” We took the luxury of sharing a smile. Even Sian’s lips trembled and their ends twitched up for a split second. “How do you know I won’t dream about… Antonia.” Pushed to the back of my mind by the vision I’d had the thoughts about my daughter were quick to reclaim the spotlight. Saying her name hurt.
“I really hope you don’t. I hope what you saw just now will keep you focused. That’s why I did it. Madeline and Alisher are keeping track of Adelaide’s location. We know where she is at all times. But we need the negator.”
“Can’t one of you kill her?” Sian said. “You’re mentors. Aren’t you stronger than your charges?”
“Can you breathe coal?” Vlad asked smoothly like cutting a slice of soft cheese.
Sian cocked an eyebrow but I felt her heart beat pick up under my hand. I tightened my grip around her.
“Not over the long term, no.”
“And we can’t kill guardians.” Vlad wrung the mop for the last time and took it and the bucket away. The water in the bathroom started running. He was washing them. I would have been grateful and impressed if I had the capacity but right now all I could focus was on what the mentor wanted me to do and how long it would take me if I even managed to do it. I didn’t have to look for motivation: the image of Adelaide killing my daughter was etched in my memory deep enough for me to want to dream an army of negators.
“I think you should go,” I told Sian. “I’m really happy you came and I’d love you to stay forever but right now—”
“You have to sleep,” she said. “I know.” She kissed me, very gently, and put her hand on my head. She ran a finger across my forehead where the cold sweat had dried up. “Don’t take too long, okay?”
“The sooner you stop that woman the better.”
“I know.” I stifled the wince and even managed a smile. Sian kissed me again and stood. “Call me. Whenever. You too, Sonia.”
“Oh, sure.” Sonia even waved at her.
I could only nod, overwhelmed by emotions I thought had drained out. Sian left the room like she was in a hurry. Or maybe she just didn’t want to see Vlad again. The door clicked softly shut behind her.
“Okay, here’s what we’ll do.” Vlad was back again, wiping his hands on a pink towel, one of Tony’s. The pain stabbed me again, this time mixed with annoyance as Vlad was clearly feeling at home – he threw the towel on the back of the couch. “I’ll go and do some shopping because you’ll need all your strength and then I’ll check on you once a day until we get our negator. Okay? I don’t want to be a pain,” he said like he meant it, eyes on me unwavering, face serious, “but right now I’ll be what I have to be. We must stop Adelaide, are we clear? Sonia?”
“Yes,” she said from somewhere above me. I felt her hand on my shoulder and patted it – like an old, sick man would gratefully pat the hand of his granddaughter who’s come to empty his bed pan or change his diaper.
“I’ll do my best.” That’s what I settled for and that’s all I could promise, anyway. Nobody wanted this woman dead more than me, not right now. So I’d spend the rest of my life in bed if I had to.
“Okay. Let’s go, Sonia.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow. I want to make sure you’re all right,” she said and she did something I’d never expected: she leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. Another stab of pain bit into the raw wound that had closed for a while as we talked but now gaped again as wide and deep as before.
“I’ll be all right. I promise.” My chest hurt, my belly hurt, everything that was now the wound hurt but there was no point in telling her, or anyone. I knew when the wound would close. “I just need to catch up on my sleep.”
Sonia’s silvery laughter made the room a little lighter for a second.
Once I was alone, I took a much needed shower to wash out the stink of fear, desperation, and puke. Then I turned on my laptop and browsed social networks while I waited for Vlad to come back. Everything in the world was the same as it had been two weeks ago, if my Twitter feed was any indication. I let go of my thoughts for a while and tried my best to immerse myself in this world of inconsequential things happening to other people. It took quite a while to push the image of Tony and Adelaide that had been drilling in my mind for two weeks to the back of it and ignore the task at hand but I eventually succeeded for a couple of minutes before Vlad came back with two huge bags of groceries and broke my concentration.
The groceries turned out to be in fact takeaway food of all kinds.
“That should be enough for the next couple of days,” Vlad said as he unloaded the food. The counter looked like an exhibition of cuisines from around the world for a while. Then he put everything in the fridge. “I’ll check on you the day after.”
“I’m not sick or helpless, Vlad. I’ll be fine. I’ll call you if there’s any news to share.”
His eyes narrowed at me and his mouth puckered for a second but he nodded.
After I shut the door behind him and locked it, that image came back like an avalanche of pain. This was the first time I’d been alone since the funeral. I usually liked that but now the flat felt too empty and quiet. I leaned on the door and strained my ears for ambient noises – a rare petrol car, a loud sneezer on the street, one of the three students living in the flat above mine walking around in hobnailed boots – but I was out of luck. Everything was quiet. I had to make my own noise.
I had a choice of romantic comedies and police procedurals streaming between six and eight pm and it was extensive enough to relax a little bit. I settled in bed with the laptop and clicked on a random title. I doubted I could follow a fictional plot but at least it would make noise and have movements that would interfere with the image in my head. And maybe TV would help me sleep.
Four hours later when I woke up with a start from a dream in which I was chasing someone for some reason I had no recollection of, I realised it had helped me sleep. It hadn’t done anything about the image that forced me to watch it or the job I had to do. The laptop had slid off my lap and was now lying next to me. I closed the lid and lowered my pillow – I’d fallen asleep sitting. The laptop was good company right now. I pulled the covers up and tried to sleep again.
“Any luck?” Sonia was calling for her daily update, as regular as an annoyingly accurate clock.
“No.” This was the second sleepless night I’d spent alone after Vlad’s big revelation and I knew he was getting nervous but not as nervous as me – I was beginning to feel like a criminal condemned to unwanted phone calls. “I can’t sleep at night and I can’t sleep during the day because I keep expecting Vlad to call me. Or…”
“Or me.” Sonia said. “I understand. Sorry. I’ll stay away from your number for two days, then. But that’s all I can promise. I still don’t trust you.”
I wouldn’t trust her if she had spent the better part of two weeks thinking and talking about suicide but things were different now.
“You have nothing to worry about. I have a different priority now.”
“I guess I’m glad to hear this,” she said after a long pause. “If I tell you to try and not stress too much over it, will it help?”
I laughed. I could also try and not breathe too much.
“Right. Okay. I’m going back to work now and I won’t call you till Thursday. I promise.”
“How are things there?” I hadn’t set foot in the office since before the holidays and I wasn’t sure I would be able to work at all again. I could never make the image of Adelaide running her hand across Tony’s throat, the image of the blood, disappear forever. I couldn’t even hope it would go away. It would be a fantasy.
“Everything’s okay, I’m handling it. I hired a couple of fresh graduates from CBS to help with new clients but one of them is talking too much about letting the computers do his work so I’m thinking of letting him go.”
“You’re old-fashioned,” I said.
“And I’m not ashamed of it. The day I let a computer do my work is the day I’ll change careers,” Sonia said. “I’m still better at it.”
She was. Vague warmth crept up my chest and spread. We were talking about work. It felt odd and precious, like finding a picture from your childhood you’d forgotten in a box of mementoes in the attic. I saw Tony again, and Adelaide’s arm around her neck, and her peaceful face, devoid of any fear while the woman’s free hand descended on her. The warmth dissipated.
“It’s good to hear everything’s okay,” I said. “I have to go now, try to nap or something.”
“Just try to not overthink it. And yeah, I heard how ridiculous this sounds.” She cleared her throat, which she did when she was embarrassed. “Talk to you soon.”
“Two days.” I said.
It sounded like a promise.
I went back to the old cop show I was watching today, CSI. It wasn’t exactly about cops, the characters were forensic scientists but they acted like cops. I’d moved to the living room for a change and since it was almost noon I thought I’d heat up some of the food Vlad had bought for me in expectations of a lot of productive sleeping.
I felt guilty even though I knew I had no reason to. Dreaming a whole person into existence was a tad more difficult, I suspected, than adjusting reality. I couldn’t explain why I felt this way. One person was smaller than a whole reality but there it was. I was also afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it and Adelaide will continue killing until everything breaks down. I remembered the twelve ghost-like shapes in a circle and shuddered. One of these shapes was me.
Vlad had packed two extra large doner kebabs in the supply bags and they were now snuggled on the top shelf of my fridge next to a large plastic box of rice. I pulled one out. I wasn’t hungry but I had nothing else to do, except drink myself to sleep and based on my previous experience drinking would only make sure I didn’t dream anything of use.
I unwrapped the doner and put it in a plate. I was opening the door of the microwave when my eyelids suddenly felt heavy and a buzz began in my ears. My arms and legs felt heavy, too, in the way limbs feel heavy when you’re on the verge of falling asleep. I managed one step in the direction of the living room before everything disappeared.
I found myself in some sort of a lab. There were three long rows of work tables with machinery I didn’t recognize. There was a sink at the end of each row and a young woman was washing her hands at the nearest one. She was shorter than me, like most people, and plump. And she was a product of my mind. The moment I saw her I knew it and I didn’t have the slightest doubt I may be deluding myself into this. I knew it. It was a fact. Her name was Belize, she was a chemistry student from Kenya and we were in the lab she spent most of her time in. We were in Dresden.
I stood as still as I could, which wasn’t hard given my shock at how real the girl looked, until she was done with the washing and turned the water off. She turned to me and froze, wide-eyed, water dripping from her fingers. Somewhere in the building someone was hitting a wall or a door with what sounded like a hammer.
“Hi.” I raised my own hands in that universal “I’m not a threat” gesture that so many dangerous people used right before they attacked their targets. “I’m Lars. Nice to meet you.”
“I know you.” Belize relaxed enough to let her hands drop and blink. “How do I know you?” She had a soft, low voice, a soothing voice. I shook my head. I had no idea how she knew me.
“And you want something from me?” She narrowed her eyes and a single wrinkle appeared between them like she was concentrating hard to solve a particularly difficult problem.
“I need your help,” I said. The sound of a hammer hitting a wall got louder. “We have a—”
I woke up in a blast of noise. Someone was banging on the door.
“Get dressed, we have a plane to catch.” Vlad said when I opened the door. He waited in the hall while I scrambled to put together an overnight bag. I didn’t take long.