TBOTSG-Chapter 8

July 1, 2024

The sky had completely transformed into something hard to accept as real, something even more alien and more threatening, but perhaps because of that, even more beautiful than before. A huge cloud, made out of methane flames, extinguished in places by clusters of black crystals of a vivid but strange shine, began to first envelop the horizon in the direction we had come from and it gradually became the roof of the world. Only the blue star still shone timidly.

I followed them, and at one point I had the strange feeling that something had fallen out of my pocket. I put my hand there, but it was impossible, as I had come into this world only as a spirit, as an immaterial consciousness. What could I have dropped? The urgency with which Fox and Thanatos ran made me focus on what was ahead of me: I ran after them. It was not far – a few hundred meters perhaps – when we reached a place where there was apparently nothing except for a metallic disc of a greenish-blue color at ground level and a thick line, both inserted directly into the surface of the bridge, with an illegible inscription somewhere to their left. The two positioned themselves in front of the line, and I stood right behind them as if waiting for something in a poorly organised queue. It took no more than a second before the line – rather a rectangle – began to rise, and with it, the metal disc. No more than five seconds later, we stood before what seemed to be some kind of an elevator protected by a light barrier – resembling those water screens with droplets forming various images. Tha went through the luminous screen first, which seemed to open like a flower, scanning him entirely, three-dimensionally. Then Fox. Both were calm, as if they had done this hundreds of times before. When it was my turn, I couldn’t help but feel a kind of fear. I felt nothing, contrary to what I had anticipated. Not even a tickle, much less an invasion of my consciousness by some external force, the thing I was actually afraid of. Once gotten through the gate of light, I was able to enter the cylindrical-shaped elevator, and, in its haste, it closed its door immediately after I stepped inside, already in a descending motion before I could gather my thoughts. Only a few seconds later, we stopped again, the door opened, and a small sound, like a beep, invited us out. Or not exactly out, because now we were inside the transparent monster, seeing with amazement that there was no digestive apparatus or one that produced flames. The snake, the threatening dragon, was now like a mother, who, feeling the danger, had hidden her young in her protective pouch.

And what a dreamlike view it was there, a fairytale for all the senses. The outside noise, a background hum whose intensity you couldn’t truly appreciate until it stopped completely, also ceased, as if the world had become as mute as I was in the face of the new magic show. It was completely quiet – quieter than inside our traveling bear’s belly. The smell seemed like something resembling a green meadow in summer. Like the sun shining through the window when you get out of bed in the morning. Like fresh air and ozone. I found it strange that I could still smell, but I didn’t question it. What would have been the point? I focused my attention on the wonder inside which we found ourselves, not just us, but others as well. Soon, a kind of train stopped right in front of us, waited for us to take our seats and put on a safety belt as fine as a silk scarf, then started with a rapid but subtle acceleration. At speed, the world beyond the rainbow-gleaming windows now seemed magnificent, created by a superior being only to amaze us, the small creatures carried by the passage of time to who knows where, before hitting a hard and cold pavement.

The blue and gray and black cloud had now covered almost the entire sky, darkening even more, only a faint ray, seemingly bluer than before, still escaping from the oppression of the new dome. But I knew it wouldn’t be long before it was also banished from our new world, which had become even darker. Once the eyes adjusted to the new light, you could see it was no less beautiful, on the contrary, the tongues of fire had shed their blue hues, and the flames were now almost white and bright, like the sparklers you burn on New Year’s Eve. White sparks were reflected by the glassy shell of the beast we were in, and what reached us were diamond and white and black shines, each seemingly fighting for a bit of attention. The sea had also begun to shine brighter in the unexpected darkness, its light reddening the horizon.

Around me were people like Fox, like Tha, with red skin and their cat eyes, whom I could hear occasionally making sounds of wonder and appreciation, most of them happy to have caught such an event precisely there, in the best place from which they could see it. They were happily anticipating the spectacle, it’s true, but I also felt worry hovering over the older people, some whispering – maybe I wouldn’t have heard what they were saying if I didn’t have this inhuman body – that two storms in a week was unusual and that in Reeza’s time this was unheard of. But the mysterious Reeza, the goddess Fox had told me about, was nowhere to be seen – I wouldn’t have known what to expect even if I had seen her. I did assume it was something I would have recognised.

A few minutes later, just as I was getting used to the new view, the small wagon we were in stopped. Together with another 15-20 people, we reached our temporary destination: a double door made out of metal, mechanically operated by two people through a complicated (and unnecessarily beautifully decorated) system of pulleys, opening lazily on large tracks. Everything seemed to be made to close hermetically – the parts seemed to fit perfectly. I marvelled at the extremely meticulous design of everything around me when we were all invited inside. The wagon conductor told a man who seemed to be in charge that it was just as the sensors had said, there was no one else outside in their section, not even in the surrounding areas, and that they could seal the gates without worry.

We were all invited to sit down. A lady asked the children if they needed to use the toilet, but none of them wanted to leave their father or mother’s side. I was a bit amused by how, in such a different world, the security offered by parents is just as universal.

Some stood up and disappeared for a minute or two, then, upon returning, most of them stopped by the desk where the clerk from earlier was now seated. He was taller than the rest, not by much, but enough to make you notice that almost all the adults were actually about the same height, regardless of whether they were men, women, androgynous, or androids. There were differences among them, but small, almost imperceptible. Seeing so many people with red skin all gathered together, it suddenly came to me why everyone saw me as different from them: the android in which my consciousness now resided had white skin, perhaps even whiter than mine would have been, maybe if I had never ventured out without a parasol even on rare outings. My hands were normal to me, but when you looked around and saw only very long, thin, and exaggeratedly delicate fingers, you realised why my hands, perhaps modelled after athletic ones, seemed foreign and were watched with great interest, not only by the mischievous children, who laughed among themselves and dared each other to come and touch me, but also by their parents, who cast furtive glances when they thought I wasn’t looking.

Besides, there was no need to look at anything in particular. In that half-filled room of chairs and people, I had another revelation about my nature: it was enough for something to come into my field of vision, and it was as if I had seen it completely, up close, and in all its grandeur. In other words, I could focus on something without necessarily directing my gaze toward it. Quite an interesting and useful feature, I thought. And my ears worked better too, more focused: if I concentrated on someone, I could hear their breathing, even their heartbeat.

One of the younger children took very seriously the dare to come and touch me and to talk to me. It seems it wasn’t so natural for them either to see androids like me walking freely on the street. I didn’t make a move: I let her timidly touch the hem of the blouse I was wearing before Fox shook her head disapprovingly, sending the girl, embarrassed but still victorious, back to her friends.

A little boy—no older than 5 or 6—was terribly upset because, as he said, he had lost his pet, apparently a large, majestic hawk, according to his description. I could understand his state of agitation. I even thought that in his place, I would probably have cried hysterically if I had lost, for example, Napoleon, especially since the clouds above us didn’t seem to foretell anything good. What I didn’t understand was how his mother was so calm about the lost animal, occasionally lifting her eyes lazily from a glass tablet like Fox’s, annoyed that the boy didn’t understand that she would get him another one.

Most people, however, when not casting a curious glance at me, were looking through the huge windows that curved down to somewhere below the edge of the floor, as if we were inside some kind of glass globe.

In fact, that’s exactly what it was: the room we were in was indeed inside an almost perfect glass sphere, which, like the bridge, reflected light in all directions, with shades of red dominating the fiery rainbows.

Although I didn’t personally feel the worry that I could effortlessly read on the faces around me, I could tell that something was about to happen. At the first sound we heard from outside, people began telling those around them or even themselves that it had started. I wanted to ask what had begun, to ask Fox or even Tha to enlighten me—but there was no need. I could see with my own eyes, as a made not born being, and marvel like everyone else, perhaps even more. The tall man’s voice sounded as if it came from everywhere, telling us that the level 5 storm had officially started and inviting us to take our seats for safety. Clearly, there was no need to tell anyone to sit down; everyone was quietly seated exactly where they had been instructed from the beginning. Two very beautiful women—twins to my eyes—came with a device and manually activated each safety belt, which, like a ribbon of fine silk, did nothing but better mold to our bodies frozen with anticipation and somehow make us feel safer. The entire operation took them no more than two minutes, but the rain, which had started timidly, now drummed heavily enough that I could clearly see that what fell from the fiery clouds were not drops of water, like on Earth, but rather a stubborn kind of hail.

The noise, it was quite clear to me, was diminished by the layers of protective glass, which didn’t seem to suffer much from the violent contact with nature. Even so, after another minute or two, it was the only thing I could hear. Any attempt at conversation ceased completely, with both adults and children looking up at the sky with slightly parted lips. The two women took their seats as well, and like the others, they were looking upwards. From there, the hail fell mercilessly, faster and faster, growing larger and larger—I was witnessing for the first time what I would experience hundreds of times later in my dreams.

When I didn’t think it was possible for it to rain harder, it was as if someone wanted to prove me wrong. We all enjoyed the view, though, one that is hard to do justice to: the hail refracted the sky’s light into hundreds of colorful rays that bounced from one pebble to another, forming a kind of fabric of light with prism-like knots. The sky served as a brilliant backdrop for the almost geometric spectacle of light, shape, and color, placed there as if to add an extra touch of je ne sais quoi to the enchanting landscape. It was truly like a fairy tale. There’s no other way to describe this brutal dance of nature’s forces.

I then remembered a visit Fox had paid me a few years ago, just before she got married. We had a bit of a fight then because I couldn’t understand why she felt the need to validate her lies with an even bigger lie. I knew, I knew, that I wasn’t going to change her mind, that I wasn’t going to convince her that what she was doing was wrong, but I couldn’t help myself. I was mad with grief because I hadn’t just lost my stepfather, whom I had come to love as much as my real father, but I had lost my family altogether, feeling as if I were left alone in the world. I was trying to protect what was mine from the mirage of salvation, but I had no chance of success. So, tired of all the accusations she threw at me in the form of arguments for her new and pure love, I started telling her what was on my mind and how she had wronged me over the years, especially during the short mourning period after Dan. She started crying, not used to being told things straight to her face, as she was usually the one who had the habit of telling others her truths and fleeing before anyone had the chance to respond in kind. But I had done it, finally. I felt guilty afterward, it’s true, but also somehow liberated. I let her cry and went out onto my small balcony overlooking an inner courtyard full of parked cars. A single large linden tree shaded the courtyard on the left, and in the middle of summer, it covered everything in a sticky sap that the car owners cursed vehemently whenever they got into their cars. You could hear a few sparrows squabbling over a piece of bread or a pretzel that some child had dropped on the sidewalk and would have picked up as if nothing had happened if his mother, following close behind, hadn’t firmly told him to leave it because it was dirty now, and she would give him another. I lit a cigarette, one that I had left on the balcony in the drawer of the table where I often drank my coffee, from the time when I smoked a pack of white Marlboros daily, and leaned against the railing to listen to the sounds of the neighborhood: cars passing back and forth, always busy; a child on a bicycle honking at anyone who didn’t get out of the way, as if on purpose; two or three women pushing prams, each more expensive and more adorned with trinkets than the last, some holding the hand of an older child; poorly dressed men and women rummaging through trash for empty bottles and cardboard, occasionally shouting, ‘Old iron, old iron we take, old iron we buy,’ almost like in my childhood, except now they had no horses or carts, each pulling a sort of a two-wheeled little cart filled with their precious cargo. That’s how recycling was done around here, and I always enjoyed the free spectacle of those who did what the majority saw as wrong but I saw as right. I was maybe on my third puff when I called Fox from inside: ‘Come quickly, I want to show you something beautiful!’ And it really was beautiful: a very fine rain was falling from a fluffy white cloud that didn’t cover even half the sky, letting the sun’s rays bathe each drop in diamond-like gleams. I looked at her and felt better now that I saw her smiling again. ‘If this is what she wants, so be it,’ I told myself then, and kissed her brotherly on the cheek, then on the forehead, hugged her, and told her that all I wanted was to see her happy, no matter what that meant for her, or, I would add, no matter what unhappiness her happiness brought me. And, resigned, I thought about how much good Fox’s wedding would bring to my mother, who was now just a shadow of what she used to be, as if this death had overwhelmed her worse than the death of her first husband and my first father. It was natural, back then she was younger, stronger, with a school-age child and a job that kept her always busy and constantly whispered to her that she had to keep going. But now? Now she lived only to die. That’s what she said, ever since Dan, and her only joy now was our visit, mine and Fox’s, once every week or two.

Poor thing, she didn’t know anything—not about the true relationship between Fox and me, nor that Dan had found out about us one evening when he came home early from work, nor that that was why he couldn’t find peace and why he wasn’t sleeping well at night, unable to understand what was wrong with us and how he could fix it, feeling somehow responsible, guilty, and choked by the secret he held from our mother. We watched the rain for a long time, soon perfumed by one of Fox’s more expensive cherry-flavoured cigarettes, who wherever she went knew not only to turn all heads but also to keep them there, in their fixed gaze on her. We didn’t say a word then, feeling that it wasn’t necessary, that the rain seemed to wash away everything that had been said unfairly and thrown at one another just to make us hurt. That the tiny sparks had the sole purpose of occupying all the space in the mind and filling our thoughts with beauty, not with ugliness, with white magic, not with malice and enmity. Soon, we no longer thought of anything other than the fact that the sound of that click-click-click was adorable and that nature, a true master of sound and image, had perfectly matched it with the angelic panorama.

When, through the noise coming from outside, a kind of faint alarm was heard, the clerk said clearly, his voice echoing from all directions, that the storm had been reclassified to level 3 and that we would soon begin the descent. Soon presumably meant now because the sphere of glass and metal in which we were all both captives and precious guests immediately began its slow but sure descent toward the sea of lava. We were still descending when a lightning bolt was seen branching out from somewhere in the distance, not downwards, descending to the ground, but passing through the clouds that sparkled strongly with a continuous crackling, exploding here and there with a loud boom. The succession of explosions, some slow, almost inaudible, others loud enough to make your heart jump, was only a precursor to the main spectacle. Just as we stopped descending, 20-30 meters above the sea of lava below, where everything was filtered by the reddish light and by the vapours around, from everywhere, a booming sound like a dynamite explosion shook us, the sky above us being red, heated by the path of a larger lightning bolt.

The children were frightened and began to cry, stomp their feet, and try to get out of their seats. Their mothers panicked too, saying they wanted to get up just for a second to hold them in their arms, some screaming without realising it. The seat belts kept both them and their children captive in their seats, making them scream even louder due to the claustrophobic sensation caused by the fact that they couldn’t move. Everyone else was terrified and could only keep their fear inside by clenching their teeth strongly. The clerk asked us all to remain calm and assured us that we were completely safe. There was no reason to worry. One of the twins undid her seat belt and went with a tray to each of the agitated children. She offered them some colourful candies, which the little ones seemed to be suspicious of at first, but eventually ate them curiously, calming down a bit from their agitation. As the sweets took effect, the room sank back into the noise coming only from outside, leaving us all still scared. Shortly afterward, we noticed a slight hum, and felt a draft—the air conditioning units were working hard because being so close to the hot lava, we would all probably have baked without them.

Another lightning bolt streaked across the sky, this time only partially obscured by clouds, abruptly curving its path through the hailstones that continued to fall forcefully and swiftly for more than 20 minutes already. The pebbles in the lightning’s path exploded, illuminating the sky like meticulously crafted fireworks. The lightning bolts had started to intensify as well, some larger, some smaller, but always frightening and beautiful, caught between two worlds of fire. And we too were caught between these two worlds, protected only by windows that no longer offered anyone a sense of complete safety. I could hear each heart individually, each beating wildly, jumping and stumbling with each louder bang from outside.

I looked around me and thought how lucky these people were to still have a place to hide from such a calamity, and even to enjoy the spectacle unfolding before anyone who cared to see it.

A second alarm went off, and a woman let out a short scream, unable to suppress it in time. I didn’t know what this could mean, but it was evident that something was about to happen, because we had started descending again even before the clerk spoke to us calmly through the speaker again, telling us that an intensification of the storm was expected, potentially reaching level two. I watched as people struggled to compose themselves, each crying, praying, or wondering if they would survive, in solitude—somehow having no energy or time for anything other than themselves.

Tha, however, turned halfway towards me, half-smiling, and whispered that he survived a level 1 when he was little, in his village. According to him, their bunker wasn’t even half as efficient and didn’t have all the components 100% mechanical, so they had to fix the electrical first before they could get out of there. It was fun. I doubted it had been fun, and the look Fox gave him told me it had probably been terrifying.

The clerk told us that we were going to submerge into lava, but until then, we had to prepare for anything. I didn’t know what a level two storm meant, but it must have been something terrible if someone preferred to sink into a pseudo-solid lava rather than wait outside to see it. As the lava began to cover our small submarine like a tide, hopes and fears grew louder, and above us, gusts of wind had started scattering that crystalline hail in every direction. Red lightning had painted the entire sky, each scream echoing like titanic monsters battling for supremacy. The moments of pause between them gradually diminished until they overlapped, clashed, merged, and produced even larger hailstones that pelted our suddenly fragile roof. I was glad we were sinking into lava because outside was nothing but hell, the sky above becoming a demonic mirror of the sea of lava, showing who wielded true power.

Before we submerged completely, we heard one more boom, muffled this time, like a final groan, and with it, the lights went out, and we moved only by inertia. I felt as though I were floating in the ether, as if I were no longer anchored in this reality of the body I inhabited, but soaring above it all like an eye observing and marvelling.

We were finally safe, yet in a tomb-like darkness, prisoners of our rescuers. No one screamed, no one panicked, as I would have expected, but instead, I heard relieved sighs from everywhere. Soon after, emergency lights, beautiful and familiar, came on, later I learned that they were powered by electricity coming from a steam engine. It was only natural for such a thing to exist when you knew you could stay hidden for a while in the fevered bowels of the earth.

Tha leaned over as much as he could, held by his own seatbelt, just to see Fox who was seated next to me, I was interposing between them.

‘What a marvel you have here; it didn’t even flicker during the electric pulse from earlier,’ he said, then looked at me and smiled as if we were now close friends, adding with a hint of pride, ‘Regular androids would have had all their brain circuitry completely fried if they would have been turned on. How did you know it would withstand?’

‘Intuition,’ Fox replied curtly, suddenly seeming quieter, colder. Different, in any case.

We remained trapped under lava, protected by its dense mass for nearly two hours, but as soon as we arrived, all seat belts were released, and we could move freely. Those who needed to could use the restroom, and some even went to another room to lie down for a bit after taking some sedatives. ‘There’s no danger down here,’ Tha told me, just as I felt a slight tremor, like a gentle earthquake.

‘It’s true,’ Fox replied in place of Tha when I looked at him suspiciously, ‘even if the bridge above were to collapse…”

‘I don’t think that’s possible; Reeza’s the one who made it,’ Tha interrupted, as if such nonsense was rarely heard.

‘…and if it were to collapse, we’d still be safe for a fairly long time.’

‘Several days?’ I asked, eyeing with envy a pastry that Fox was enjoying, which my body clearly did not desire.

‘Several months,’ Tha answered enthusiastically. ‘They’re much more practical than those dug into the ground, thanks to the abundant energy available here with minimal effort. You just need the right tools, and here, obviously, you not only have them but also 2-3 backups.’ I glanced at Fox to see her reaction to Tha’s interruption, but she didn’t seem bothered in any way.

‘You’re the other one!’ I blurted out without realising.

‘The other one?’ Tha asked, mouth filled with pastry, becoming increasingly relaxed and friendly.

‘That’s right. Yes.’

The simplicity with which she acknowledged that she wasn’t Fox left me perplexed. I couldn’t understand how she could be so relaxed under the circumstances we were in, in the bizarre situation she found herself in, with a foreign resident in her own body. Somehow, seeing over her shoulder a black wall of lava perfectly mirroring us made me realise that for her, this world with all its oddities was normal. For this extraterrestrial woman, I myself wasn’t a chance occurrence or a bizarre entity. And perhaps neither was Fox.

‘My name is Sela Koro from Firal-Afal,’ she said plainly, without any hidden pride. She was one of those people who had always been above others and had become familiar with their own grandeur. They no longer had any use for pride or arrogance. They were truly modest people because, although great—intelligent, with a centuries-old family tradition, beauty, resources, everything a mere mortal could desire or imagine—they knew that others saw them even greater than they actually were and placed them on a pedestal higher than they considered themselves worthy of.

And that’s exactly how it happened. It was enough for her to say her name for a murmur of amazement to ripple through the entire room. Two minutes later, the clerk, accompanied by the twins, stood before us and invited us to an adjacent room. ‘It’s for VIPs,’ he added somewhat embarrassed, looking at people who had suddenly transformed into a specific breed of jackal unique only to humans. The invitation was addressed only to Fox, or rather to Sela, and obviously to me too, as I was like an appendix to her in this oddly normal society, if you only looked at those who populated it. Everyone had their fears, the fear of death being the same everywhere, but they all quickly forgot about it if any small event, like the discovery that a personality was among them, took them by surprise. Everyone stared at Sela, probably without realising it, driven by a curiosity that I understood all too well. And I was curious about Sela too, just for different reasons than they were. Anyway, when I started to move to the next room, I signaled to Tha, who seemed completely abandoned, still standing exactly where we had been when they came to invite us. His face lit up, coming after us like a puppy almost wagging his tail. I liked him, and apparently so did Sela, because she had no objection when she saw him entering; in fact, it seemed to me that I saw a controlled smile on her face.

The new room was a mirror image of the previous one in terms of size and positioning, but completely opposite in appearance: here, the chairs in the middle of the room were replaced by only a few large armchairs that seemed very comfortable. Six capsules lined the walls, similar to the ones I had seen in sci-fi movies, looking futuristic with their semi-transparent covers—four of them coloured green and the other two red, all adorned with numerous tubes connected on the sides and turquoise-green pixelated writings on the front. ‘Hyperbaric chambers,’ Tha explained, sticking close to me, clearly curious about me but also eager for conversation, which Sela didn’t seem interested in.

She had taken a seat in one of the armchairs—not too close to the edge, nor too close to the center—and studied her tablet with exclusive attention. It’s rare to see people so absorbed in what they do—Aunt Martha was one of them, and I found it fascinating to watch her cook, read, or even watch a movie: she was completely immersed in her activity, and if you asked her a question, she couldn’t tear herself away immediately, turning her head towards you after a couple of seconds and calmly asking what you had said. Sela was the same way, so I knew it wasn’t worth venturing into a conversation she wouldn’t want to engage in. After all, I knew nothing about this being, another reason to avoid asking questions whose answers I wanted to know. I realised the best way to learn about the world I was in was to continue talking to Tha, who, although eager to learn new things about me, was also happy to talk, tell stories, to explain.

Tha explained to me how the 6 hyperbaric chambers, which apparently were quite different from each other, worked. One even had a vegetative sleep function—which, he told me, was extraordinarily rare because the technology used was very complex and could easily break, and the materials needed for it to function perfectly were very costly, two of them being found on the third house and imported from there only at annual exchanges. The Third Home was much closer than it had appeared to me in my dreams, and there were some small shuttles that made continuous trips during the time of the gods—practically in all of the new history, as Tha emphasised passionately—but since the new regime (who wanted democracy and who had become an imperial conqueror and tyranny in a few years) these interplanetary routes called hahshak had become less frequent.

Reeza, Tha told me—which I felt he had been waiting to say all these things for a long time, and now that he found someone to listen to him, he was happier than ever—was an incomparable goddess. There had been nothing similar even in the history of the ancients, from what he had read at least, and among the 14 deities, she had no equal: she was not only beautiful in the form she gave to her avatars, but her behaviour also seemed to be pure and truly submissive to a higher moral code. Often others had criticised her for this very reason, but Tha was convinced that the other gods behaved just like ordinary people, shamelessly doing all sorts of foolish and even atrocious things, escaping judgment because they were indeed gods who could not be held accountable. Their power was truly immense, he said, staring into space, until I asked him what had happened to them, why they were no longer in power.

‘Their story is simple, and in no way different from so many others of the ancient world’s monarchies,’ Tha said. ‘The gods lived in their avatar forms, most often having a plethora of people to serve them in exchange for their divine protection. No one felt that protection anymore, each having their own life, doing agriculture, working as officials, or whatever, many still dreaming to be close to them. Over time, those who really became the close servants of the gods ended up ruling the world, founding all sorts of committees, taking all sorts of taxes. For several centuries now, the society of the Second Home has become increasingly oppressive, and those who led us had more and more influence. The priestesses, those who held the most power, had one among them with absolute power. She herself was like a kind of goddess with unlimited powers. But while they used to heal people on their journeys that sometimes lasted their whole lives, in the end, most didn’t leave the temples, to which ordinary people were not even allowed to approach without a special permit from their local administrator—a governor or village chief. And in the last few years, no one issued permits. The lands became increasingly difficult to cultivate and produced smaller harvests, the heat intensified, public punishments increased… The world grew tired of being ruled by gods. And one day, they announced bluntly on all the buildings that the gods had been abolished, defeated, placed in capsules, and put to sleep forever. Some found it to be blasphemy and cried bitterly, others found it to be a blessing. One thing’s for sure—the world changed completely. Those who ruled were ousted and replaced with someone else. The ideology was now different: the people ruled… but the people have never ruled, and even now it wasn’t so. The people still die of hunger, even more fiercely than before, only now realising the role the gods had played in our world. But it would be wise to keep my big mouth shut if I want to get out of here and still be free.’

I felt his fervour, his rebellion, but also his fear of what was to come. I wanted to ask him if he still thought the gods were the solution for them on this planet. Yet, after seeing his expression of an oppressed, censored man, I knew he couldn’t answer me. I had just encountered the resistance.

I looked at the black window, where we were perfectly reflected.

‘This glass is beautiful. I wonder how it was made to withstand such forces?’

‘It’s made of carbon,’ like any other.

‘Is it a diamond?’

‘Yes, that’s what it was called in the ancient world. Here, it’s simply called glass, because it’s easy to make and used everywhere. They even use a special type here—it’s processed in labs, irradiated and para-irradiated to be ten times harder than the ordinary diamond found by the ancients in their world. And yet… diamonds, so to speak, are also what the hailstones are made of. I suggest you take one home if you go back…’ he abruptly stopped, realising that mentioning what I was could be was as dangerous as stating his beliefs aloud.

‘Have you ever seen Reeza?’ I asked to change the subject, and he immediately pulled out a small box from a pocket, as if he had been prepared for this moment for a long time. When he opened it, it turned out to be a secure container for its contents – a kind of small circular tablet, about the size of a euro, which had all sorts of forbidden information, as he called them. He showed me two looping images, like gifs, of two truly extraordinarily beautiful and radiant women. I was surprised to see that the images were 2D, unlike everything else I had seen around there.

‘2D takes up less space,’ he explained. I need as much information packed into this little box as possible because many things have been banned since the new… regime. Many of them would be lost forever if it weren’t for this box, which has something else extraordinary: a tracking system so advanced that I could throw it into the sea and still find it weeks later. He closed it and put it back into his pocket, leaving me to ponder about the two avatars of Reeza.

We began to approach Sela. We sat awkwardly beside her, feeling somehow guilty for how well we understood each other and how easily our conversations flowed. I was also curious about what I could learn about Fox from her. I imagined their minds must be interconnected in some way, and she might know every hidden thought of hers. I wanted to ask Sela if it was true what Fox said, that she was now a different person, not just her sexuality had changed but her entire logical apparatus had undergone a metamorphosis when Dan had died. Surely, suffering, especially guilt, changes you, but sometimes you do nothing more than hide from yourself. Clearly, even if Sela knew the answers to all my questions, she wouldn’t have told me, that was quite clear to me, because you don’t betray your closest friends, let alone those with whom you share the same body forever, maybe. Moreover, I thought maybe Fox was there and saw everything watching both Sela and us, in fact.

Continuing to ponder on how my mind now presided like a queen over its domain, how vast it seemed compared to when I was myself, the original me, when the space for thoughts was neither large nor small but just right, I realised how crowded Sela’s mind must have felt. I recalled the unpleasant sensation I had when the captain’s hologram appeared in the bear’s cockpit, and the discomfort I felt then. That’s how I imagined Sela must have felt, even though she displayed a calm and benevolent demeanour outwardly. And Fox, what had Fox sought so intensely, to end up in a world from our future, created even partially by thoughts that transcended the barrier of time and space in a way I couldn’t explain but was sure had truly happened. Sitting quietly next to Sela, I could see her more clearly, see how she frowned, how she smiled, how every action provoked an almost imperceptible expression, yet one that made her more real to me than ever before.

‘The storm is almost ready,’ she said when she finally lifted her eyes from the tablet—a diamond tablet, I thought with a hint of irony, but also with envy. ‘We’ll be getting out in about 20 minutes, and then we’ll have to hurry—I’ve never been late, and I won’t start now.’

‘And then? When we get to where you want to go, what will happen?” I asked, wanting confirmation that we were going where I presumed, not where she had stated.

‘I’ll receive a diploma, they’ll give me some keys—some universal ones—and from then on, I’ll fulfil my dream of being the first in my clan to head the Koro laboratories.’ She raised her eyebrows with a tone that suggested is my explanation sufficient?

But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t satisfactory. It would be safer to talk outside, once we were on the road again, but I couldn’t wait.

‘And the rabbit?’ I asked, knowing no one else would understand what I meant.

‘The rabbit… how you call it, later. It’s not… urgent. Not today.’ She looked intensely at me, then turned to Tha and said briskly, ‘You’re coming with us.’

He looked at her, obviously not understanding what was going on, and I didn’t quite understand either, but somehow I suspected our meeting hadn’t been entirely accidental. Still, I hoped his accident hadn’t been caused directly by Sela, and in a way, I found it hard to see her as a villain, but I was prepared for anything.

‘I need you for this thing she’s talking about…’

‘What thing? Tha asked almost foolishly, now looking sometimes at me, sometimes at her, seeming reluctant to draw hasty conclusions, and keeping his calm until he could form a fitting one.

‘The rabbit,’ Sela said, without looking at him again, tapping on her tablet.

‘The rabbit?’

Tha was utterly astonished. He didn’t understand anything—which was normal, as the only reason I called it so was because of my idiotic interpretation of a tattoo symbol. I couldn’t explain anything to Tha, and he clearly saw that, and that somewhat reassured me. It’s a big deal when the people helping you aren’t idiots, and although he saw he hadn’t understood much, he realised he might understand if he were patient. Another realisation was probably that Sela might reward him with something more than simple answers.

‘Fine, we’ll go to the ceremony, and then to hunt rabbits. By the way,’ he said, changing his gaze to me, ‘how long have you been here?’

‘A few hours? Not more than half a day, let’s say? Why?’

‘I thought so! You didn’t choose a very appropriate code name if you didn’t want to attract attention: there are no rabbits here. No surface animals, anyway.’

‘Are you saying there are no dogs, cats, horses… bears?’

He started laughing amused, almost entering a state of relaxation as before.

‘They exist,’ he said, ‘but they’re luurofelfei—pets that only grow inside residential complexes. Even there, you rarely find a cat, even more rarely a dog, and as for horses… I don’t even know if they exist. And that’s only because the first settlers came from the first house, that is, from Earth, and they didn’t imagine the world they’d live in could be so arid and hostile. They took out their laboratory tools and got to work: they made sheep, cows, goats, even rabbits, animals they thought they could eat. But their agronomist engineers couldn’t make pastures for them, or even areas with any kind of vegetation. Sure, over the years, they developed plants that could grow more easily in our hot and dry soil. But when they succeeded, they didn’t return to the idea of raising animals, but focused on what they had: arid but very rich soil that produced much more nutritious fruits, vegetables, and cereals. Meat was considered a luxury for a few centuries until it was completely removed from our diet, following a study that clearly showed it did us, the animals, and nature harm.’

‘Are you saying you’ve never eaten meat?’ I asked, feeling a twinge of regret for what I felt he was missing.

‘No, and I think it would be nothing but disgusting. It’s a kind of cannibalism to eat animals that struggle to get through their days just like you.’

‘Probably,’ I said complacently, recalling the steak I had eaten less than two days before.

As Sela said, in less than 20 minutes, we had already begun ascending through the scorching magma in our protective sphere. When we pierced the lava surface, the diamond window of the sphere remained perfectly clean and crystalline, as if it completely repelled liquids—it was specially treated, Tha whispered to me when he heard me marvelling at it. He stood right behind me, and we both gazed at the new sky, empty, without clouds or suns, but full of stars, varying in size from small to large points of white light, just as I knew them. I stared at them for a long time, wondering where I was and what I was actually looking for there, and where my home was. Occasionally, an almost translucent cloud with pink-violet glimmers timidly passed over the roof of our ascending dome.

Once we reached the bridge-level, we all exited our protective cocoon, happy to breathe the air of freedom once more. We boarded the waiting car. Tha let the first ones he had lifted go first, then the next, and so on, each one bidding farewell to those still remaining in the car, until only the three of us and the woman with the 5-6 year old child who had lost their pet were left.

The child fidgeted constantly, trying to see something on his mother’s tablet, but the seat belt restrained him, which irritated him and made him grumble incessantly. The mother remained calm, and when she found what she was looking for, she showed it to the child, who suddenly brightened up. They also got off, chatting happily, the mother telling him they would first get the car and then go after the missing pet.

Since we were the last ones to board, we were also the last ones to disembark. We politely greeted the tram driver and headed towards the cylindrical elevator.

‘What would have happened if the storm caught us here, or in the elevator?’ I asked, seeing that everything was fine, no holes in the diamond coating of the dragon.

‘We would have died instantly,’ Tha replied simply. ‘It’s not about hail or lightning. Not even about explosions. But the air becomes more toxic, and if you happen to be near a striking lightning, which happens often, the first thing that happens is that it burns all the oxygen, then the nitrogen and helium, leaving only poisonous gases around. Your eardrums can burst from the noise, you can be struck by lightning, poisoned, or scorched by hot air… oh, and worst of all—yes, there’s something even worse—the pulses can stop your heart, and in some cases, even your brain. In the sphere, you’re protected by its own electromagnetic field, that’s why you’re safest there. During that grade 1 storm, there were elderly people who died because the pulses were too strong. And androids… like you or with other forms, are even more sensitive to electromagnetic pulses. Even with the sphere’s protection, others like you would have been reduced to recyclable circuitry.’