Kal Danem awoke abruptly, to the whistling echo of the wind outside, as it crashed into the window to his right. It forced him to jolt upright in the bed. The night was as humid as it was bright, and individual rays of moonlight spilled through the window of the cheap, rented motel room. He shivered when another bead of sweat trickled down his spine stopping just shy of his buttocks. He glanced over at the inexpensive Holo-clock on the small oak table to his right. It projected a blue, revolving, three-dimensional image of the time, ‘3:51am’.
He turned his attention over to the girl, who lay naked and asleep by his side, and gently ran his heavy hand up her thigh causing her russet eyes to open slightly. She parted her lips to form a half-smile, and whispered, “Hey”.
Danem smiled back at her, running his fingers through her shadow swept hair.
It was only in these tender moments, in the midst of the night, that they were almost able to forget that Selena Kalahari was a wanted criminal. Perseuns were anything but welcome in the city of Sphera. For months, they’d fled from place to place, hiding, surviving out of dire necessity. No money, and even less hope, all that they had had was each other, and that had been enough.
The sleep began to fade from Selena’s face and she dragged herself into an upright position. Denam reached over to the small bed side table, picking up the half-empty packet of cigarettes and tapping one directly into his mouth. He stretched over again, this time for the lighter in the top drawer of the bedside table, and lit the protruding cigarette. He took in a long drag of the nicotine laden tobacco smoke, and exhaled slowly. Selena, as always, attempted to waft the smoke away from her face, faking a little bit of a cough in a futile attempt to tell him how disgusting he was. He laughed a little, and continued to fill his lungs.
“Having trouble sleeping, Kally?” Selena had asked. “I just have a bad feeling tonight, that's all” he replied. “You always have a bad feeling!” “Which is what's kept us alive until now, isn't it?”
Selena didn’t respond, but they both knew the answer. She placed her index and middle fingers at the rear of Kal's skull, and scratched lightly with alternating fingers. He closed his eyes and relaxed a little, but it was to be short lived.
They heard it simultaneously; a metallic sound from the hallway beyond the wooden door to their left, audible even through the chaotic racing of the wind outside.
Their eyes met suddenly, and for a moment, Kal’s fear reflected back at him through Mia’s eyes.
Instinctively, they leapt to their feet, scrambling to dress themselves in whatever presented it self. Denam took three quick paces and snatched the sawn-off shotgun from the desk under the window, and tossed it to Selena, who snatched it from the air with one hand, pumping the barrel once with a typically eerie confidence. She opened the door to the tiny bathroom behind the bed’s headrest and took position behind it, aiming the double barrel of the fire-arm at the tattered motel room door. Denam hurried over to the kitchen sink to the right of the door, picking out an elongated carving knife. He took up position in the corner of the dimly lit room, just outside the view of the doorway. Sirens sounded in the distance.
“The law?” Selena asked in a whisper. “Or worse”, he replied, hastily dismissing the speculation with a gesture, in time for three thunderous knocks at the door to the hall beyond.
They turned their attention to one another… To the door… Then back again.
A voice commanded from the other side of the door. Then a pause for what was probably a couple of seconds but to the pair of them, seemed like an eternity.
“Miss Kalhari. We know you’re in there.’
Denam maintained his cool as Selena began to panic. She glanced around the pokey motel room for any form of escape, already knowing that there was none.
“I love you, Kal”, she declared; turning to face him, to which he responded with a forced smile immediately turning back to face the door.
“Open the door please Ma’am”, barked the voice again, with a definite aura of unquestionable authority.
There was a smash against the door… Then another… Until the door swung open, crashing into the plasterboard wall as it reached 180 degrees, hurling the bulky locking mechanism across the room and under the bed.
There was a moment of silence.
Through what was left of the doorway, bounced a small but weighty round container, metallic in sound. Before either of them had the opportunity to find cover, the Flash Grenade erupted into a screen of blinding white. With closed fists, Denam tried to rub the pain away from his eyes. He was barely able to make out Selena's silhouette through the momentary blindness, as she desperately fired off two poorly aimed rounds from the barrels of the shotgun.
With only partial vision, Denam watched on in horror as a Commanding Officer of a Spheran Emigration Squad entered the room. Stocky in build, the officer was covered from shoulder to toe in KV86 body armour, which flickered blue with electricity. The officer was holding a Military grade rifle, which he pointed in the direction of Selena.
Before ten seconds had passed, with vision still impaired, Denam half-watched the thickly-built man as he let off a burst of the rifle through the door where Selena had taken cover.
Denam's throat began to swell, as Selena screamed and faced him. Black-red blood seeped from under the door of the bathroom, and from the hole that emerged from Selena's right thigh. She stepped out from behind the door, throwing the shotgun at the officer’s feet, and fell swiftly to her knees with a thud. Selena glanced at Denam straining her eyes momentarily, as if to command him not to move. He knew he had to act quickly, but he had to time it right. He knew he'd only get one chance. The officer, smirking to himself, thrust the butt of his rifle into her face, instantly bloodying her mouth and nose. Selena took it well.
The lump in Denam's throat grew larger. Right before he could act, two additional officers entered the room. The smaller of the three walked directly to Selena, grabbing her by the hair. He clenched his teeth and dragged her across the room as she screamed and kicked, out through the door to the corridor. Denam filled with rage. His fingers whitened around the grip of the blade which he tightly held to his chest, biting down on air harder than he knew he could. His heart pounded rhythmically; faster with every beat, and his hands began to tremble. Adrenaline surged through him like the wind, to the ends of his pale, pulsating fingertips. Danem was completely under the rule of his bitter emotion. He quickly assessed the situation. He had to act now.
Three officers of Spheran Emmigration armoured from shoulder to toe. They hadn’t spotted him. By his reckoning, this gave him the advantage.
Without hesitation, Danem threw himself behind the two trailing officers, and thrust the blade of the knife through the side of the neck of the officer to his left. He let out a high-pitched yelp as the blade pierced skin, then muscle - and halted against the bone beneath, causing a geyser of crimson to erupt from the gash. Then, with one swift motion, the blade retracted, instantly mirroring the stabbing motion into the neck of the trailing officer to the right. Simultaneously, they dropped like moths in a flame. Denam’s upper lip twitched and he clenched his teeth once more.
He had him now.
Before the broadened bull of an officer could turn himself 180 degrees, Denam unleashed an emotional war-cry, brutally smashing the handle of the blade into the side of his skull with such a level of force that he felt it collapse a little with the impact. He fell to the floor with all the etiquette of a plane crash.
Denam gave him a moment to come around from the blow, and walked towards him. Fuelled almost entirely by anger, he commanded:
There was a momentary pause, as the officer began to slowly scramble to his knees.
“I SAID, TURN AROUND, YOU FUCK”.
“Mmmm” the officer attempted through closed teeth, and instead, decided to spit a vile concoction of blood and saliva at Danem’s feet.
With every ounce of strength in his being, Denam lunged the thick black boot of his right foot into the officer’s bloody, wincing mouth. He grimaced from the pain, and rolled over, collapsing onto his back - it landed hard against the wooden floor.
Danem stepped in a little closer. Still shaking from adrenaline, he pressed the tip of the blood-stained blade against the officer’s throat. Through his eyes, he could feel his fear. Any sense of reason that remained had now dissipated into the handle of the blade he held so tightly, and his knuckles were whiter than the sun. Denam sank the blade into the side of his jugular, and precisely dragged it from left, to right - tearing the flesh between. As the officer gasped and attempted to utter something with his last breath, the sirens in the distance drew nearer.
Denam immediately released the blade, which fell to the floor with a ‘chink’. He sprinted out of the door and through the dimly lit corridor. He took the steps three at a time as he descended.
From below came a barrage of footsteps and voices from the lobby. The sirens now surrounded him.
Denam, still sprinting, approached an officer holding a pistol from behind, somehow managing to place his hands in the right places to quickly twist his neck, causing it to snap and the officer to collapse behind him as he passed. Still charging down the stairwell, he faintly heard Selena's screams as she was dragged outside. Denam's pace increased, somehow.
On approaching the bottom of the stairwell, his face was met with an almighty fist. His legs flew up in front of him, and he landed dramatically in a heap on the cold, hard floor.
“Don’t you move fucking move, son”, an officer demanded, as five or more backed him up from the rear.
Kal remained still. Perfectly silent, perfectly still. It was of course, the only option.
The lead officer stood over Denam like a shadow. He was a tall figure, with whitened hair and skeletal features, staring down at him from above. Kal flinched slightly as he felt the unmistakable prick of a DNA Reader press against the rear of his neck. It sent a cold shiver down his spine.
The emaciated officer leaned over the scanner, and nodded once to the constable holding it. He picked up his communicator which hung from his belt, and called:
“Zulu 12, this is Zulu 1; respond”.
There was no reply.
“Zulu 12, this is Zulu 1; please respond”.
The silence told the whole story. The officer didn't think twice. In an unusually calm voice, he stated:
“Kal Danem. You are under arrest for the aiding and abetting of an illegal immigrant, and the murder of three officers of Spheran Emigration”.
Denam looked up, and lifted the corner of his mouth as if to smirk; but it was not sincere.
“Four” said Denam, brazenly.
“Four?” asked the officer.
“Four officers. There were four.”
The official lifted his arm back and over his head and made a fist, then proceeded to swing it like a golf club at Denam’s lower jaw. On impact, Denam barely flinched.
“I must inform you, Mr Denam, that state policy dictates that you are assumed guilty, unless proven otherwise”.
Denam held his chin up high. Almost on impulse, he slowly moved his hands around behind him, where he felt the slap of cold-steel cuffs against his blood-covered wrists. A larger officer lifted him to his feet from behind and turned him toward the exit. The customary gag-bag was placed over his head, and he was led into the darkness of the outside.
Some moments later, his skull was met with a violent thud, and he felt his eyes as they rolled slowly into the back of his head.
He crashed to the floor.
The following morning, Kal was awoken by the enormous displeasure of a back-handed slap to the face. His eyes flicked open, and he was greeted by a threatening “Oi”, from the mammoth of a man before him.
Kal blinked a few times and shook his head, in an attempt to awaken and acclimatise himself to his new surroundings. His view partially blocked by a gargantuan, alpha-male type, perched on the foot of the poorly constructed bed where he lay in utter discomfort. The man was a tower, with scalpel-shaven head and what looked like a tattoo for every year he’d been alive. By Kal’s count, that would have put him in his fifties.
“Do you know where you are, son?” asked the man, in a bottomless tone.
Kal took a moment to look around the room. It was hazy to begin with but he was quickly awakened by the unfamiliarity of it all. It was well lit. To the left of where he laid, in the rear corner of the small room, was an almost polished-chrome looking toilet bowl, with a far from generous ration of toilet roll to accompany it. Directly ahead of him, at the foot of the bed, was the visual and audible hum of a security field, blocking the only exit. Whilst Kal didn’t respond to the question, he had a pretty good idea of his location.
“You’re in Cell 311 of the ARC preparation Facility” he blurted out as if it were a sales pitch. A wry smirk appeared on his oval, red face, and he announced; “You’re fucked now son”.
Again, Kal Danem declined his offer of conversation with a subtle turn of the head to face the graffiti-laden, white-tiled cell wall to his right. The unknown whereabouts of Selena Kalhari repeatedly shocked him into shaking.
“Quiet one, ain’t ya boy?” he went on to say. The man arose to his feet, and hastily wandered the space-deprived cell, seemingly randomly, with his hands tucked neatly behind his back.
“Raff’s the name” He stopped where he stood, held out his left forearm, and with his right, pointed to a badly-drawn tattoo of his name. Kal wondered if he’d branded himself with that one. “What’s your name, son?” he quizzed.
Kal stirred a little under the rough, auburn bed sheet, and brought himself upright. He thought at this stage that it was probably not wise to ignore the man for much longer.
“Danem” replied Kal, through a concealed frown.
“Oh, so, you’re not a mute then, son?” “No”, Kal replied bluntly. “Not a mute.”
It had struck him as a little odd, that here stood a man, seemingly content with being held in this cell; like it was normal for him, perhaps. So, to settle his curiosity, Danem asked, “What are you in here for?”
Raff began stroking at the bit of brown fluff on the bottom of his chin, and raised his smile into the shape of a crescent moon, displaying a series of crooked, and browning teeth. His wandering slowed to almost a halt, then out of nowhere, he thrust his head toward Kal’s, stopping just shy of his face; “Murder. This time” he said, softly. His head retreated, and he continued his rapid stroll around the cell, hands, once again, behind-back. “Same as you; I’d bet”, winking in the direction of Kal Danem.
Again, he halted, and took a seat on the lid of the toilet to the rear of the cell. His tone and mannerisms immediately altered to something closely resembling sanity.
“Danem” he said softly, with an air of calm “What’re you in here for…?”
Before Raff had finished speaking, Kal’s mind brought up a horrifyingly clear image of Selena being dragged from the motel room by her hair. It startled him, but he shook it off.
“Murder, they say”, Kal responded.
Raff again took to his feet and began to wander with hands again, behind his back. Perhaps it was more of a bounce than a wander. The type of bounce you’d expect from an addict going cold turkey.
”And you disagree?” Raff asked, sarcastically.
“I’d call it justifiable rage” Denam answered, blinking once, slowly, whilst tensing the muscles in the sides of his mouth. Raff turned away, tugging gently at the tuft of hair on his chin once or twice.
“Level three!” he muttered under his breath to himself, in disbelief.
“Level three?” enquired Kal.
“Level fucking three” agreed Kal, not knowing exactly what it was he was agreeing with. That’s not to say he didn’t have a pretty good idea.
“You know how it works, don’t you son?” Raff’s tone altered with every breath. From calm, to chaos. “You know what they do to you in there?” he continued.
Kal twisted his way out from under the sack-like cover on the rickety-framed bed, and stood to his feet. He stretched himself out into a star position, causing several audible ‘cracks’ to echo around the minuscule holding cell. Intrigued at this stage, he made a conscious decision to continue his conversation with the balding, middle-aged psychotic.
“I suppose you do?” Kal said, confidently.
“Of course I fucking do!” Raff barked, and exhaled slowly. Calmer, he continued “This isn’t the first time I’ve been here, you know?”
Kal Danem’s curiosity peaked, and he allowed Raff to continue.
“I’ve done a couple of ones, and a two, but never a three” he shook his head violently, and again raised his tone “Never a fucking three, you know?”
A man screamed out in the distance, causing Kal to flick his head around in the direction of the sound. Raff didn’t even acknowledge it.
“Go on…” said Kal, curiously.
Raff took a seat on the closed toilet lid. He took a deep breath, and calmly went on;
“ARC. The Alternate Reality Chamber. You’ve heard of it, I know” Denam nodded once in response, but remained silent. Raff continued “It’s just that. A chamber in which – you lay – in an altered reality. You’re living a dream. The most vivid, lucid dream of your fucking life, you know?” Raff’s eyes made contact with Kal’s, and he continued;
“There’s a catch, though. You die in there… you die out here. Don’t you be thinking for one second that you’re invincible in there. You ain’t.”
Raff took a moment, as if to steady his nerves.
“Level one. Think of it as a community service. You know, a short sentence. The worst you’ll endure is a heavy, regimented work load. Sure, there’s some trouble, but it’s nothing you can’t handle.
Level two. It’s a prison sentence, all right. They say it replicates the experience on Perseus. Let me tell you, it’s much fucking worse that any fucking prison colony could ever, or has ever been. The guards treat you like shit, the prisoners treat you like shit… and it’s not long before you’re eating and sleeping in shit. Oh it’s shit, all right!”
Danem could make out Raff’s slight twitching of the left eye, and could see the slight sheen beginning to form on his forehead. He was becoming anxious, and fearful. Danem had good instincts for that kind of thing.
“And level three?” asked Danem.
“Ahhhhhh, level three, son. You wanna know about level three, do ya?”
Raff mopped his brow with his sleeve, and continued. “Level three. This is where they really have some fun. It’s like the old death row, you know? Although, they’ll never call it that. About eighty percent of in-mates die in level three of the ARC. Those that do get out, come out mad, messed-up, or worse. It gives the programmer a fucking free reign, you know? They can put you anywhere, any time. Any factual or fictional scenario fabricated in the depths of their twisted imaginations. I shit you not. Anywhere. We’re lab rats for the law abiding, my friend.”
Immediately, Raff leapt to his feet, and continued his incessant pacing around the cell.
“Level fucking three” Kal said again, this time with certainty. Kal took three steps forward toward the force field at the foot of the bed. It was transparent, but oddly visible. Danem held out his right hand, just close enough for its warmth to caress his finger tips, but not close enough to touch it. Raff’s face appeared suddenly from over his shoulder.
“I wouldn’t touch that if I were you.”
Raff held out his right hand. What Danem had originally mistaken for another of his poorly sketched tattoos, was in fact, severe scarring to the back of his hand, and fingers.
“I made that mistake the last time I was here. I promise you, it ain’t worth the trouble, you know?”
Danem took note of what appeared to be sound advice, and sat himself down again on the wafer thin mattress of the military-style bunk. Danem, once again found himself fighting with the image of his lover’s face, full of fear and agony, as if it were branded to the inner of his eyelids.
Another 24 hours had passed, and Danem laid awake in the lower bunk of the poorly constructed steel-framed bed. A stench emerged; something difficult to pin-point, vaguely resembling both cabbage and damp. Danem hoped for a moment that it was coming from anywhere but his cellmate in the bunk above him.
The night had brought to Kal a cocktail of imagery and vivid nightmares. He cared about Selena. More than he’d ever cared about anyone.
Danem was all too aware of the Spheran government’s take on punishment. Defendants were referred to as ‘The Accused’, and remained guilty until proven innocent. There were no courts, no lawyers, no witnesses, no jurors. In true Spheran style, they’d adopted a no-bullshit policy on prosecution. A single judge assessed the case, and carried out the sentence. Errors were inevitable, but that’s the beauty of the ARC. Convicts can simply be unplugged if eventually proven innocent, and their minds completely restored. That is of course working on the assumption that they’re still alive.
Danem let out an audible sigh in response to Raff’s continual stirring. It caused the flimsy framed bunk to creek, not unlike the rusted hinge of an old wooden door, only louder.
In the distance, footsteps echoed their way to his cell; drowned out somewhat by the toneless whistling of the guard responsible. The footsteps, along with the whistling, suddenly ceased. There was a moment’s pause. Three violent knocks of the guard’s baton crashed against the force field, causing it to pop and bang with each strike.
“Threeeeeeeeeee one ooooooooone!” yelled the guard from beyond the now blurry force field. Raff immediately clambered down from the upper bunk and sprung to his feet facing away from the officer. Something told Danem that experience had taught him this, so he followed suit. The consistent buzz of the force field increased in volume considerably for a split second before absolute silence when it was deactivated. The guard’s unmistakable footsteps approached the pair of them from behind.
“DANEM, KAL” yelled the guard, needlessly. “Sir!” replied Kal. “You’re up.” “Up?” “Up. The judge is waiting. Follow me”
Obediently, Kal turned one hundred and eighty degrees to face the officer. Fear picked this moment to hang over his head like a black cloud awaiting the perfect moment to begin its monsoon season.
Kal stepped out of the cell, as ordered. Immediately, the force field snapped back into place and resumed its monotonous hum. As it did, Kal felt the now too familiar feeling of cold steel cuffs as they slapped against his wrists again. Danem was led off to the left by the guard, and two more followed, both more heavily armed than the first.
Danem’s heart rate increased as he was led through two sets of white steel doors, into an intensely bright corridor beyond, lit solely by the natural light its design allowed. Its floor, ceiling and walls; constructed entirely from re-enforced Perspex. After squinting for a moment before adjusting to the new light, Danem couldn’t help but wonder just how many men had had their last glimpse of daylight in this very corridor.
In the distance, a solitary white door, identical to the two they’d just passed drew nearer.
On approaching the door, the lead guard pressed his thumb against the Scanner to the right of it, causing a light to flick from red, to green. Danem was led through, escorted by the guards.
Directly ahead of Danem as he stepped through the door, was a blinding white light. It sat strategically positioned behind the head of the Judge, as if, perhaps to conceal his identity. The judge was nothing more than a silhouette of anonymity.
“Sit” said the judge, somewhat more aggressively than Danem had expected.
Danem walked forward, finding the wooden chair in front of the Judge’s desk. He sat. The judge fidgeted for a moment, holding up a couple of the case files to the light behind his head as if to remind himself of the details. After only a few seconds of apparent pretence, the Judge spoke.
“Danem, Kal” “Yes s…” Kal responded. “Ten years. Level three” the Judge interrupted.
And before Kal could speak, the Judge’s hammer slammed down on the desk. The sound of wood on wood pierced Kal’s very soul.
And that was that.
The lead guard grabbed the blood-stained collar of Danem’s shirt, and dragged him to his feet, choking him a little in the process. Reminiscent of his arrest, a violent ‘thud’ struck the back of Danem’s skull. Again, his eyes turned to white. Again, there would be blackness.
The room was as chilly as it was dark. The damp of its walls as prominent in odour as it was in colour. Paperwork was stacked highly on untidy steel desks, lining the walls to the rear of the room. In the centre, eighty-four chambers laid side by side. This place; this was the ARC.
Kal Danem eventually came around from the blow, and attempted to open his eyes, fruitlessly. Covering them was a translucent gel which prevented him from doing so. Kal strained in an effort to lift his right arm, but it, along with the other limbs, were restrained in the substance, and the grasp of the chamber. Through the nebulous cloud of fluid, Kal could scantily make out the carbon mask that covered his mouth and nose, barely allowing him to breathe. He began to panic. Kal let out a scream, but it was muffled by the confines of the chamber. Around him, the shapes of men and women, dressed in white coats went about their day. A couple of them checked the chambers of the other in-mates, whilst more of them laughed and joked as they drank coffee and ate their biscuits.
Kal was approached by one of the women, of about medium height. Kal couldn’t make out any more than this. On approaching him, the woman immediately grabbed a lamp above his head and pointed it directly into his eyes. She picked up the palmtop from the panel just inches from Kal’s head and began skimming it. Lazily, she read aloud.
“Prisoner; Danem. Juncture; Ten. Level; Three.”
Kal struggled in the chamber, locked in its restraints. He made every effort to free himself, but it was futile.
Kal screamed again through the mask; quickly clamping his eyes closed as the gel began to sting his retina. Another approached him, this time male; his hair as white as his coat. He stood over Kal and calmly said;
”Mr Danem. I am the Doctor responsible for your well-being in the ARC. In a moment, you’ll be connected to the chamber. Your mind will enter a state similar to its most vivid dream… or nightmare”. He sniggered to himself.
Again, Kal struggled; only to remember that it was as tiring as it was useless. Fear filled him again.
“A warning, Mr Danem,” the Doctor said; this time with a little more command. “May I suggest that you utilise that killer instinct of yours. I wouldn’t want the hassle of disposing of your corpse.”
The woman had now taken on the role of nurse. She flipped a switch to the left of Kal’s head. Kal felt his pulse increase as the chamber audibly came to life.
“I’m going to have to ask you to count backwards from ten” the Doctor said. “Blink if you understand me.”
Kal blinked once, now trembling with terror.
Kal winced as the pair of metallic pincers pressed against the soft-tissue at the rear of his neck, entering his head.
Kal began to count backwards from ten, as the device appeared to clamp at something inside his head. He tried to think of anything other than this very moment. Selena Kalahari.
Kal blinked, slowly. His eyes began to roll, and he counted;
There were no two or one.