Science Fiction story

Warning: implicit sexual content.

As always, I wake up to the day rising over the wall. Its light warms my face, and I enjoy the feel of the soft wall beneath me, even as the stale breath within my mouth urges me to awake and wash. After three languorous breaths, my eyes open to stare at the shaded day floating above. I sit up and scratch the dark-soreness from my neck and stomach. As I stretch, I look around at all the others, similarly waking. Chan is already gone to wash, and I do not know where. As always, Yati’s face is buried into the soft wall, his head slowly shaking as he visibly struggles to retain sleep. The noises that everyone makes as they stand and head to the river never fail to shake him from his dreams. In a few minutes, he will give up on getting another second of shut-eye and will go after everyone to wash. The thought of waiting for him crosses my mind and immediately goes its own way. I go mine, towards the sounds of splashing, squealing and moaning.

The wall beneath my feet slowly changes to grainy solidity, the consistency that it shows throughout the rest of the world and up above. The day’s light is always less on the soft wall, and I wince as I near the river. I half-heartedly look around for Chan as I approach the bank, but his straight, brown hair is too common, and I would never spot him from afar in the thirty-odd group of heads already bobbing in and out of the water. Instead, I head further down the river, near its end. Washing alone and in relative silence can also be a pleasure.

The warm water welcomes me as I step into the slowly running river. Once I stand at its center, the water barely covers my bellybutton. The wall at the bottom of the river caresses the soles of my feet, as comfortable as it is in the sleeping area. I dive under, running both hands through my long hair as I try to wet all of it. When I stand, sodden, it settles on my butt, making my head heavy with the extra weight. I swim slowly around my little haven, enjoying the quiet before I go about rubbing the night’s sweat from my body while humming to myself.

I can’t help but feel a tinge of resentment when Yati joins me in the water, but he remains uncharacteristically silent as he washes. His hair is thicker and darker than mine, and the curls grant it deceptive shortness, so that although they barely cover his shoulder blades, he visibly struggles with the heavy, soggy mass when his head emerges. He is forced to crouch in the water, a black, tangled bunch floating behind him as he treads the river bottom. When we first met, I took him to bathe with me and mistook his brooding manner for shyness. He regularly comes to find me as I bathe, just to wash near me and talk. As always, he eventually (and inevitably) begins to tell me about it. Once he’s started, I feel far more eager to escape the river and join others on the flat for the day’s game, and I scrape at my teeth with hands wet with warm water to complete my washing.

“Hey.” He pauses. “I had the strangest dream last dark”. This gets my attention, because Yati is always too careful with his words. He speaks slowly, as if it were a great effort, and stutters if he’s shouting or saying long words, and he does not use exaggerations. “I was climbing the wall up above.” This isn’t the first time that Yati’s dream begins with him climbing the wall. I pull at my hair to show my impatience, and he continues: “Only this time, I felt strong, and I could push my fingers and toes into the wall.” Yati’s dreams are peculiar, and different. He’s the only one I’ve heard of that dreams of impossible events in the wall, and I think that he is strongly affected by them because of how realistic they are. The wall isn’t like people; it doesn’t change when enough strength is used on it. “I almost reached the light gray band at the top, when the wall suddenly…” He pauses for breath, “it pushes me off.” What a strange dream: the wall, reacting. I shiver at the thought. He finishes: “My last thought was, you’re about to die.” I stiffen, two fingers still on my teeth; Yati never knows what’s appropriate to say, and more relevantly, what isn’t. I spit water out, clear my throat and quickly mutter: “I’m off to the flat”. The surest way to tell him I’m upset or angry is to talk fast; he doesn’t always spot frowns, clenched hands or impatient sighs. The insult will only give me moments of peace; I know he’ll finish up at the river, shrug it off and join my team on the flat.

The flat is usually the largest place, separated from the far smaller soft wall by the river. Most of the others have finished washing, crossed the river and begun talking about their game by the time I find my team. The five of us have been competing with three other teams in wristnap for a while now, but the game can’t end until one team gets an advantage. At this point, I just want for one team to win, to move on to something else: wristnap is simple, and I don’t recall ever playing a longer game.

The rules are straightforward: each team is composed of one snapper and four arms. If a snapper is touched by any arm, that arm becomes the snapper, and the previous snapper becomes an arm after five breaths. A snapper must remain five strides or less away from a friendly arm. The game ends when two snappers of the same team win. As twenty of us chose to play together, four teams were made and the following rule was added: to win, a team must defeat the three other teams in a row. Many of us now regret this ruling.

I smile and nod to my three teammates as I join them, and explain that as usual, Yati will join us a bit later. We start to discuss strategy as we braid each other’s hair. Yati arrives just as we settle on one formation.

“Alright, we’re ready!” I shout, for the benefit of our opponents, standing near enough that their chatter, though inaudible, managed to be annoying. I frown at Yati to show he isn’t forgiven yet as Marie outlines the plan once again for Yati: “Okay, you’re the snapper. I’m first arm, and they are the wall.”

The first arm-snapper setup is one where there’s one arm that stays near the snapper and touches him when necessary. I don’t like having Marie and Yati as first arm and snapper, because Marie dislikes Yati and his clumsiness in games, and will inevitably take snapper early and rarely relinquish it. This said, Marie is two hands shorter than the three remaining, even smaller than Yati. She’s faster than any of us, and if Yati was just a bit heavier and sure on his feet, we’d be a four-arm barrier with Marie as snapper.

The other team starts to walk towards us, and as they approach, Vidal slows down and remains behind his team. The game has started. I keep my left shoulder pressed against Villa’s as our barrier nears theirs. They’ve decided to stand together until they can overwhelm us and let two arms run to Yati. My breaths are deeper and more frequent as our barrier faces theirs. I’m facing Dorothea and Victar. At this point, I could reach and touch either of their faces, and life seems to slow. My eyes trace a bead of sweat already running down Victar’s collarbone, and it almost distracts me from the first push at the other end of our barrier. I move forward, pushing into the space between Dorothea and Victar, hoping to separate one part of their barrier and disorganize them.

We push against each other for the better part of the game, pausing at agreed-to breaks. The only incident where two of our opponents manage to pass our barrier, Marie touches Yati and runs around him desperately as we ground Robin and Victar. I hold them down, and the rest of our barrier manages to catch Vidal when Marie is finally cornered. Both teams reorganized after that, the snapper simply having changed hands. Towards the end, bored by the defensive play, Marie convinces Yati to try running around the clashing barriers with her, in order to touch Vidal and win. Marie’s sprint catches Vidal by surprise and she touches him, but our barrier fails to retain the arms, and they catch both Marie and Yati before they can reach each other, securing their win.

We clasp arms with the other team. As usual, I feel most alive after the games, and the large smile on Marie’s face shows that despite the loss, she feels the same way. After calling at the other two teams to tell them the result, I walk with Dorothea, talking about their maneuver for disengaging their barrier from ours. Despite her small frame, she’s a gifted wrestler, and she’s usually the one to suggest new techniques to her barrier. As we all walk to the river together for a swim, I see Marie playfully push Yati, her smile a bit brittle or fake. He quickens his step to catch up to me and, as usual, begins talking. Dorothea first glowers at him, then turns to give me an understanding smile before walking off.

He has a habit of walking slightly behind me when we talk. “So, I was thinking about our conversation before the game”. He has another habit, of never leaving well enough alone. “You call that a conversation?” I answer, hoping against hope that he’ll get distracted. “You used body language. That’s not the point; it clearly bothered you that I said-“I hastily interrupt “What is the point then?”. I often find myself struggling to avoid certain topics when we talk. We go on for a bit in silence, surrounded by others jostling and laughing, as he tries to word what’s on his mind without hitting sore topics. His unimpressive attempt comes out as we reach the river: “I was just thinking, well… sleep is a bit like d-“For once, he notices my expression, and stops before lamely finishing “… going with the dark, don’t you think?”

I mull over how to end the conversation as we jump into the water again. As usual, he’s isolated me from the others, and I hate barging into a group conversation. Sometimes, once I’ve managed to make him go away, I’ll just stand near the others and pretend I’m enjoying my solitude, not eavesdropping. “What do you mean, sleeping is like that? We dream, and when you awake early, you can clearly see the rest of us breathe and live in sleep.” He presses on: “But what about nights when I don’t dream? What if you went to sleep this dark, and didn’t wake up when the day comes?” Imagining it makes my stomach knot up like a twisted braid, and I swim away from him without saying a word.

Swimming is followed by eating and napping. Since the games are over, I absentmindedly undo my braid as I follow a chatty Marie and Victar out of the river onto the soft wall. “That would have worked, if Yati the third limb had kept closer to me”, she complains to a smiling Victar. “Just admit we’re too fast for you, Mare!” Victar chuckles and elbows Marie, and even from behind I can tell that he’s hit a sensitive spot and she’s laughing to cover her pain. I grasp her neck affectionately as I start walking next to her, asking Victar: “If you win tomorrow’s game, we’re through with wristnap. What do we play next?” He looks thoughtful for a moment, and as his smile fades, forgotten, the wrinkles on his face suddenly appear. I trace mine and look down at Marie’s taunt skin. It’s easy to forget, but I am older than Yati or Marie, and I will eventually… go with the dark.

“Some sort of jump relay? I’ll suggest that at the vote after we win tomorrow” he answers, his smug smile returning. Marie breaks out in an almost hungry grin, as she always does when thinking about games without teamwork. I’ve taken her to bathe on several occasions, to joyous result, but she’s a demanding partner, and recently I much prefer Chan’s gentle, undemanding approach. I’m brought back to the moment as we reach the edge of the soft wall. I make myself comfortable against the upwards going wall next to them, and I turn to find food. I grab a soft, round food and bring its green skin to my mouth. After nibbling through it, I lick the smooth insides for a while, as the taste temporarily takes away all thought and distraction. I come to as most of the insides are gone, and the taste barely registers anymore. I nibble on the rest of the skin to finish, my stomach bulging. Besides me, Marie’s eyes are closed, and her mouth is rounded as if inviting a lover’s embrace. Meanwhile, Victar is looking at something on the other end of the wall. When he notices me watching him, the smile reappears.

Marie and I hold on to each other as we take noticeably heavy steps away from the upwards wall, and lower ourselves collectively to the ground. Victar joins us moments later, and we lie on our backs, arms and legs intertwined as we fall asleep.

For once, I wake up early, and the day is two thirds through the air. Victar rolled off to sleep alone, on his back, so I extricate myself from Marie and stand, doing my best to maintain a precarious balance among the bodies. I make my way over everyone on the tip of my toes, remembering the embarrassing incident when I accidentally kicked Vihaan in the nose as he slept, and assume a more usual gait as I leave the soft wall. Once again, I squint at the day’s light as I approach the river. Breathless sounds up ahead warn me to stay away from one end of the river, so as not to distract the couple. I sit on the riverside, my feet swinging in the water. Unbidden, thoughts of Yati possess me. He had a go at the river once, wondering how it came to be. My hands rub the smooth wall under my legs where it turns downwards as I look at the rounded sides and flat bottom of the river. It follows a slightly curved path isolating the soft area from the flat. I then look up, at the upwards wall surrounding everything. Although I end these conversations with Yati as soon as I can, his words return to me and I try to imagine: what if the river wasn’t here? What if there were no upward walls and the world was an endless flat? I jump into the river and start swimming energetically, only stopping when my chest makes loud sounds in my head, taking my head out of the water and breathing heavily. When I move my curtain of hair to look before me, Hadith and Fishel turn to me, surprised, laying on each other against the side of the river. Finally, we all laugh, and I swim back the other way.

Now, most of the others have woken up. I swim with the water’s flow to the end of the river, where the water enters the wall. I close my eyes and urinate and defecate, then wipe myself with my hand and rub it against the wall. I can clearly see my waste slowly go into the wall, so I swim back up the river and come out towards the flat. I remember the foul smell when Yati had a particularly difficult night, and woke up sitting in his feces. The entire group woke up early, gagging and running to the river. What if the river wasn’t there? Another shudder courses through me. I close my eyes and focus on the pleasant feeling of the day drying my skin.

Eventually, my group joined me on the flat, and the Acting could begin. We’d all been working on the same Act for a long while, and it was close to ready. We are first to rehearse, although I prefer watching the others perform afterwards (the lonely stretch as the three or sometimes four groups make and learn their Act is my least favorite limb of Acting). The tale we’d chosen and made is called Wall and Sky, and it’s a conversation between two smaller Acts. My Act is done with Vidal and Anthony, and we dance to the hypnotizing sound of Toni singing as the sky. The other act is sung by Raman, the Wall, with his own trio of dancers. Nine chorus singers supplemented both Acts.

Raman stands straighter and shouts out wordlessly. His three dancers step heavily around him, the muted thudding against the wall resulting in a jerky rhythm. The chorus takes its place, standing in two rows behind him, and hums. Some from the other groups are quietly going through their Act, at the edge of the flat. The rest are gathering and sitting around the ring made by the dancers’ steps. Finally, Raman’s deep voice grows, at first barely a growl, and eventually making my chest echo his song. The Wall’s song is mostly wordless. As I see it, Raman grasps the essence of the song, which is deceptive comfort. Although it is placid and slow, it comforts me in its repetitions, and the heaviness of Raman’s voice evokes the nourishing nature of the wall. The chorus, sometimes speaking but mostly humming around his voice, is supposed to represent us in the wall.

I open my eyes, not having realized I’d closed them. Most of the others are now gathered, watching the Act, and Vidal’s hand softly scratches my neck. I follow him towards the center, as Raman gives a final low hum. He is perspiring almost as much as his dancers as they move past us, and Toni takes Raman’s place at the center as the chorus begins to sing at a higher register. Yati tells me we make a pleasurable contrast, the three long-limbed dancers dancing next to the exquisitely small singer. Toni only recently grew enough to make her own material, and as she begins her strange song, I begin to move. The sky dance is meant to make the three of us look like the flowing water of the great river up above. At first, the dance is awkward and the fear that it simply won’t work appears, but we quickly fall into the right movements, and it becomes bliss, as I feel closer and closer to Toni’s song, and everything else fades. Eventually, I reach a state where I could be the one singing. This ends as the heaviness in my arms and legs brings me back to the two dancers moving next to me, the chorus singing behind, and the forty-odd group sitting, watching us, with behind them a short strip of the flat, the river and soft wall.

Behind the others watching, Raman and his dancers reform. The two Acts merge for a handful of breaths, before it suddenly ends. The wall dancers stop with the music; it takes my trio a few breaths to end our dance. I slowly walk to the back of the group and sit down as the cheering and shouting dies out.

Yati’s group performs next, with a story formed as a tragedy. Like all tragedies, it begins with the death of someone or something, and deals with the often tragic results of that death on the cast of characters. This story centers on the seven other people on the game team of someone who drowns in the river after falling asleep during an early morning wash. I’ve never seen such a thing happen, but it’s better than most tragedies in terms of credibility. Yati is in the chorus, which gives crucial information between conversations that the seven actors have as they talk about loss, and decide to go on as a seven-man Ranon team and win in his honor. As usual, Yati somehow manages to pout while singing, to show that although he’s participating, he isn’t happy about the Act. Arnar, standing right behind Yati, told me that Yati disagreed with the rest of his chorus group during the whole making, and threatened several times to leave the Act. The corners of my lips lift lightly at the idea. I suspect that Yati has been watching me, and notices, because his eyes narrow and he raises his chin further. He’ll no doubt give me the silent treatment when he returns, although it never lasts long.

The Act finishes in a wonderfully choreographed Ranon play, where the seven-man team comes against eight non-speakers, the other team. The seven throw one of their members, felling three on the opposing team, to run a six-strong group past what’s left of the opposing team. From experience, this is not a good tactic, but Adria, Merle and Chu acting as the three fallen opponents make it look natural this time. I’m wearing a large smile at the end of the tale, which must have infuriated Yati even more, as he sat next to me in a huff. The third group moves onto the stage.

Their tale is mostly unfamiliar to me, and it involves two lovers that can’t enjoy each other at the river. The tale is largely of Victar’s making, although he refuses to be one of the two lovers. There is only a small chorus, singing without words, and two dancers to represent the river, flat or soft background. The tale follows the two attempting to only be with each other, and the comical problems they encounter trying to explain it to others, as well as to themselves. This time, the lines presumed to be laugh-worthy are told in a more obvious fashion, which slows the pace and disrupts the whole. When they finish, I make my way to Victar to talk about the new approach to comedy in the Act. Luckily, Yati doesn’t follow me; instead, I can see him arguing with Arnar, whose clenched fist belies his mocking smile.

Little by little, everyone drifts back to the soft wall to eat and settle down for the dark. I eat with Yati and listen to him complain about his chorus group, and we lie on the soft. I enjoy the relative quiet of others murmuring to each other on the soft, waiting for Yati to start being himself.

“Mandy keeps sleeping during the Acts.” Perhaps our conversation won’t upset me tonight. “Yes, she snorted in her sleep and I almost laughed out loud during your tale.” I reply, amused at the memory. “Sometimes, I wake up early, and the day’s light is barely visible above the wall.” He continues, and I catch him rubbing his palms in the corner of my eye: “In fact, it probably happens to you more than to me.” This time, I just grunt in acknowledgement. He’s getting somewhere, and I probably won’t like it. A dozen breaths later: “What happens while we sleep? Anything could happen during the dark.” I realize that I’m not the only one listening to Yati’s strange comments, and it makes me more uneasy. He starts to ramble, as he falls asleep: “Does the river flow backwards in the dark? Is the flat soft? The food grows in the dark…” His last words come as a whisper, somehow louder than the droning tone he previously employed: “Do the upwards walls leave, and return in…” Yati’s speech is replaced by snores, and I realize that at least a dozen others around me are also holding their breath. I rub my eyes, and as usual, sleep comes easily.

As always, I wake up to the day rising over the wall. Its light warms my face, and I enjoy the feel of the soft-wall beneath me, even as the stale breath within my mouth urges me to awake and wash. I begin to stretch on the soft wall, keeping my eyes closed for as long as I can. For a moment, I wonder if I dreamed the strange conversation with Yati, but only Yati has those kinds of dreams. I finally open my eyes to stare at the shaded day above. It’s slightly higher than usual; I must have slept longer. Only three others still remain on the soft, and even Yati is gone. I stand up and walk towards the river.

I can immediately tell that something happened. Everyone is gathered next to the river in a rough circle around something. I run to see what’s happening. As I slip towards the center of the group, the strange silence unnerves me. Chan is kneeling in the center of the group, and as I push past Marie and Toni into the inner circle, I notice that he’s sweating and his lower lip is shivering. He’s holding Yati, who is lying down, eyes closed with an expressionless face. The side of his forehead is strangely angled, slivers of light gray showing underneath the already dried red.

I follow Chan and Victar across the soft as they carry Yati, taking one arm each, his legs trailing soundlessly on the wall. The others go to wash, somewhat muted by the wake-up surprise. Instead of Acting, there would be songs and dances for Yati later. A very Yati-like thought comes to mind: his name will probably not be heard after this dark. Life moves on like the river’s waters, as they say. We reach the end of the soft, and they lay him on the floor against the upwards wall more carefully. Chan looks surprised to see me when he turns around; Victar just grasps the back of my neck as he goes.

Once they are both far off, I succumb to the temptation of kneeling before him to examine him closer. He is making my stomach knot more than he ever did while… alive. More of Yati’s thoughts occur to me. How did he die? Staring at the depression in his head is hurting my stomach, so I stand up and turn around. The questions stand and turn with me. Could a fall kill him in that way? Why didn’t he land on his hands? Would his hair, unbraided in the morning, cushion the blow? These questions feel futile, and the pain doesn’t go away. Why did he die? Did he know he was going to die, was he trying to tell me something before it… happened? This isn’t going anywhere. Who might have killed him?

I see Marie, sneering at him as he runs and trips after Marsh in a Ranon game. Arnar, with a frustrated expression as he endures Yati’s endless arguments. Even Dorothea’s way of looking at Yati, her narrowed eyes and mouth betraying what… detachment? His last words echo in my ears.

How did he die? Memories flow through me, unbidden, of Yati telling me about his dreams, complaining about his group or team, asking for my opinion on countless obvious details of life. I’m always bored or pained, and others walk away rather than take part in these conversations. How did he die? Well, if someone had grabbed Yati by the hair, and struck the hard riverside wall with his head once, with strength…

I walk back towards the river and try to forget these strange thoughts. The last one stubbornly insists on being heard:

I need to find out who did this, and when, and how. And then…

— — —

As always, let me know what you thought of the story ! (if you made it all the way to the end)


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