Would one of them kill me this time? It was February 29 again, and the date lit up the wall, blinking every few seconds. I would have to face my family again. That was all it meant to me. The date disappeared, leaving only the dull grey of the bulkhead. Like every morning, I peered through the small, circular window to my left and only saw swirling clouds of red and orange. I never tired of the view. These clouds surrounded us, so we were told, and they were to be ignored. Everything we needed was within the glass and steel around us. I pulled at the rough tunic I’d worn my whole life. The belt was worn and faded, the cloth torn and threadbare. I’d always lived within these walls, but spent little time in this exact spot: my bunk. If I stretched out my arms, I could touch the window and the opposite wall. The floor was padded. It was where I slept. That’s mostly what I did here, since I had so little time away from my family. Sometimes, I’d wake up before the door slid open. Then I’d get a chance to look outside. There was no red in my home but blood. No orange save for the rust you’d find on a blade before it was sent to the incinerator. To look outside was to see these colours reach and mean things beyond my perception. The door slid open with a scrape; it always got stuck the last few inches. I stood and gave the door a kick. It buried itself in the bulkhead and I stepped through. The steel screamed as the door shut behind me.
Familiar darkness waited beyond my bunk. I could see dark figures all around me as boys and girls stepped out of bunks like mine. Many were younger than me. Only a few were older. Some were darker but most were lighter. All wore the same tunic I did, though on some it was tattered to little more than a loincloth. They were scuffed and dirty, many sporting grisly scars. I’d been taught to count when I first learned to counter-attack; you always countered between the second and third attacks. There were fifteen of us here now. Fewer than last week. Even fewer than the weeks before that. Sometimes there were more, when new siblings were brought to the pit. They, along with our fathers, were my family. Between each February 29, we spent every day training with our fathers. There were four of them, four for us all to share. The strongest got the most of their attention.
It had taken so long to get a single lesson from them, years spent being beaten by my brothers and sisters. I didn’t remember when I’d received my first lesson, but I remembered it exactly. I’d just slammed my brother to the ground and wrapped my hands around his throat when one of my fathers spoke to me. He was much taller, with broad shoulders and deep lines in his face. His hair was light, thin, and patchy. He showed me that my grip was wrong. He showed me how to wrap my arms around my brother’s throat rather than my hands; it was much easier to pry fingers away than an entire arm. He talked of a beast, a great hunter. It attacked from the shadows and tightened itself around its prey. He called me by its name. Python. I’d never had a name before.
Everything seemed to go so quickly after I received it. I had more attention from my fathers, learned new uses for my limbs as well as our weapons. There had been another February 29 since then. My left hand twitched. It remembered the knife. Remembered the two fingers taken. I remembered being left in my blood, watching my sister ascend through the gash. That was what we called it. A great gash that opened every February 29, allowing only one of us to slip through. None of us knew what was above, past the gash, but we knew it was better than where we were now. That was enough. Everything from the food we ate to the weapons we used came from it. Our fathers never went through it, never even spoke about it. They usually stood on a platform just above us, all around the pit. The four of them stood there now, watching us.
A light buzzed on, bathing the pit in harsh shades of red. There was a deep groaning sound from overhead as the gash began to open. My siblings didn’t look at me. I didn’t look at them. I went left. One of my brothers had already started for the gash, trying to run past me. I kicked at his knee and felt the joint shatter. He fell, barely screaming. Most of my brothers and sisters ran for the middle, straight for the gash. Idiots. The chain hadn’t even come down yet. Either it was their first February 29, or they just hadn’t learned yet. The first to reach the gash was never the one to ascend. They were the first to be trampled. Powerful arms wrapped around my waist, and my feet left the ground. I flew back, hitting the ground hard. I only got a quick glance of my sister. She kept her arms tight around me and moved to sit on my chest. I tried to grab her hair, but it was cut too short. She was on top of me now, and her fist crashed into my face. I tasted blood, knew it well. She punched again, slicing my lip open. She reared back for another hit. I spit. My blood splashed her face, hit her eyes. I thrust my hips up, and she flailed for balance. I turned, sweeping to the side, and found myself above her. She roared as her back hit the steel below us. I wrapped my legs around hers and looped my arm around her ankle. I threw myself backwards, her foot in my armpit. I felt every tendon stretch, then rip one by one. Her ankle flopped. I released her and leaped to my feet. My eyes shot to the gash.
A mass of bodies writhed under it, a tangle of fists and feet smashing into faces. Everything was red, but the blood still stood out, dark and slick. My family was covered in it. The chain hadn’t dropped yet, but the gash was open. I needed to head for it. Something moved at the gash. A pair of weapons plummeted through, disappearing within the struggling bodies. All of a sudden, the currents of violence changed. No longer was there a push to the middle; now there was a mad dash to escape from the centre, like a wave pulling back towards the ocean after crashing on shore. Bodies slammed into each other. Those that fell were trampled. Two of my brothers were standing in the centre, back to back. They’d caught the weapons. One held a long whip, which cracked through the air and sliced into our siblings. The other held a staff; one end of it a blade that crackled with blue energy. They wanted to thin out the herd before dealing with each other. Other siblings were backing away, trying to outpace the whip, this long thing that bit at them. It sliced across their backs and around their necks. I was tall enough to shove my way past them. My brother saw my approach. The whip swished behind him then came at me. I ducked and it cracked overhead. I was still too far. The whip cracked again. It bit into my ankle, wrapping around it and searing the flesh. I could smell it cooking. I gritted my teeth, locked my jaw, but didn’t scream. The fathers were watching. I grabbed the whip. I could feel a terrible burn forming. I pulled with all my strength. I was the strongest amongst my siblings. My brother lost his footing. A kick to his chest sent him flying back, hurtling past the brother with the staff. Startled, he swung, cleaving our disarmed brother across the chest. I looked up. The chain was finally there, dangling just above us, just out of reach. He saw it too. I pulled the whip by its handle, freeing myself. My wounds flared. I swung the weapon in a large arc. From the corner of my eye, I could see some of my siblings reconsidering their charge, skidding to a halt as the whip came within inches of them. Some began to fight amongst themselves. My brother and I squared off, weapons raised. He kept glancing at the chain, then back to me. He sent a series of thrusts that came up short. A sister ran at me from the side. My whip lashed out and wrapped around her neck. She gritted her teeth. I pulled the whip, bringing her to me. My brother took this opportunity to charge. I released my weapon, and my sister stumbled between us. I kicked her just below the sternum, and she flew back. My brother reacted just how I’d expected. The glowing end of his weapon pierced her, and she gasped as it did. She fumbled at the wound, at this crackling thing that rose from her chest. I ran at them. I could already hear my siblings closing in behind me. I jumped.
I nearly missed the chain. It yanked on my arm as I grabbed it, pulling me up. I couldn’t tell what was beyond the gash: it was far too dark. But I was rising. My fathers watched me go, their faces blank and unreadable. They said nothing. Something clamped around me, and the chain stopped, nearly slipping from my hand. A brother, nearly my size and completely bald, had made the jump. He held me at the waist. No more than one could ever go through the gash. The chain wouldn’t take us both. My arm started to burn. My brother reached up, grasping my tunic at the breast. He began to pull. “Let go!” I shouted. “You’ll kill us both!”
“Kill you first!” He shouted back. He heaved, pulling even harder. The chain started slipping. I spit in his face, then thrust my thumb down at him. The eye was tough, but my nail dug in. My brother groaned. His grip tightened. I pushed harder. The eye squelched. My thumb was drenched in liquid warmth, and my brother screamed. He flailed, trying to grasp my arm, trying to free himself. His grip slipped. Blood trailed from his face as he hurtled back to the bulkhead, smashing amongst half a dozen bodies. The bodies of our siblings. Those that still lived stopped fighting and their eyes rose to me. Inscrutable faces in dim red light watched as the chain began pulling me up again. The gash closed, and my siblings disappeared. I heard my fathers barking orders at them, and though I couldn’t hear the words, I knew my siblings would turn back to their bunks. I knew the wrathful grief that would seize their hearts as they pondered another failed February 29. I knew they’d hide the tears as the needles and shocks would jut from the walls to seal their wounds. I knew they’d hold these in, pushing them deep until the next February 29.
After a long, dark pull upwards, another gash opened above me. It was too bright, and my eyes squeezed shut. I had to blink the light away. The gash hushed as it closed below me, and the chain stopped moving. I squinted, trying to see around me. There was no one. No sibling to strike me. No father to watch me. Just white blurs. I released the chain, landing in a crouch. My ankle flared, and I slipped. The adrenaline was gone. The ground was cold, much colder than the pulsing heat of the pit below. I looked at the wound. Thumb-sized blisters had formed all around it, the skin scorched black. My left hand was similarly marked. My eyes were adjusting to the assault of light. I scanned my surroundings. The room was larger than my bunk but not quite as big as the pit below me. A padded bed took up one corner, and a small table was in the other. Every surface was white and smooth. The pit’s floors had been roughened by years of dried blood and deep gouges from our training weapons. There were no such marks here.
The entire wall behind me was clear, like the window in my bunk. Beyond it were the clouds of red and orange I’d seen every day. But here, they shined. At the farthest tip of my perception was a spot so bright it hurt to look at. It threw light at everything between us. The clouds were moving, swaying in front of me. I wanted to touch them, to swim in them. The pit was behind me now, my family was behind me. The clouds were ahead, within my reach for the first time. Would there ever again be a February 29? My eyes watered. Would I never see my siblings again?
I realized I was standing, my hand pressed against the glass. What was I doing? I remembered the siblings who went through the gash. None came back. It was still February 29; it was February 29 until you returned to your bunk. But if I never saw my bunk again, would it always be February 29? My stomach twisted, heavy as a ball of lead. I turned away from the clouds. They were a distraction. I rubbed my eyes. I ignored the bed. The table had three items on it, all different. On the left was something I recognized; a piece of steel sharpened to a point. It wasn’t the most elegant knife, but deep nicks gave it a vicious, serrated edge. In the centre was a ball about the size of my hand, the same colour as the clouds out the window. Its surface looked bumpy, like a hundred tiny fingers had pushed into it. It smelled sweet and bitter. To the right was something I’d never seen before. It was a grey block, as wide as my hand and a bit longer. Out the side came a handle, much like the one on a whip or a knife, except there was a hole in it. In the hole was a sliced circle that looked fit for the tip of a finger. My mouth was watering at the smell of the orange sphere, and my hand reached out for it all on its own. I stopped myself. I reminded myself that February 29 wasn’t over. I grabbed the knife, spinning it in my palm. It had incredible balance.
The lights died, and the room turned as red as the pit below my feet. The window darkened, and I couldn’t see the clouds anymore. I dropped into a crouch, electricity running through me as my body reacted on its own. My ankle burned. It took a moment for my eyes to recognize the red tint, to see it as clearly as before. The room had been too bright. A section of the wall split and the whole room seemed to move, shifting around me. A hole in the wall led into a hallway. I could see it clearly now. I moved to the edge of the hole, peering into the hall. The red light sliced through thick darkness for just a few feet. Beyond that, I could hardly see. I blinked. My eyes would adjust eventually. I listened. I couldn’t hear any siblings prowling beyond. I stepped through, staying low, keeping the knife high. The hole closed behind me. I could vaguely see the shapes of the walls, only enough to tell that they continued straight ahead. I hugged the left wall, keeping my back against it. I let it guide my steps. The pressure on my hand sent pain up my arm as the burn flattened against it. My ankle kept me from moving as quickly as I knew I could.
After several steps, my hand couldn’t find the wall anymore. There was another hall to the left. Something clanged ahead, and I hid around the corner, keeping the knife ready. The sound came again, closer. Once more, this time just next to me. I saw an arm, skin bare, go past me. I lunged. The knife tore into the skin, piercing the muscle. A voice cried out, but it was twisted, changed. His warm blood hit my chest. He tried to turn, tried to swing a weapon, but I rolled under it. The attack was weak, sloppy. He attacked again. This time, his weapon made a series of high whines and flashed brightly. I was still under him, under the weapon. My ears were ringing. I dove for his legs, and he slammed into the wall. Blood sprayed from his arm, a severed artery painting the wall. His head moved awkwardly, trying to see me. I stabbed at his gut, but the knife bounced and fell from my grip. I sent an elbow crashing into him, but it came back pulsing with pain. His weapon smashed into my back, and I hit the cool steel below. I reached for his ankles, spun and pulled. I brought him to the ground, and in trying to fight me he flipped himself on his stomach. I leaped onto his back. I slipped my arm between his chin and chest. I wrapped myself around him, squeezing his throat. My other hand went behind the big, bulbous head, pushing it into my arm. I heard him wheeze and choke. It was quick; there was hardly any blood left in him. I glanced up and down the hall. No others seemed to follow him. I let out a breath and let the body fall.
I tried to get a good look at him, but it was difficult to see any details, so I reached out and touched him. His chest was covered in something that felt like glass; it sloped around his form, down to his waist. His legs were encased in this same material. I couldn’t see its colour, but it had to be dark; it didn’t stand out in the shadows. Over his face was different glass, this one nearly as transparent as the window in my bunk. It went from his face to the back of his head. I placed my hands on either side and pulled. It came free, the head plopping to the steel floor. He looked like my fathers. He was as large as one and had lines in his face. He didn’t have as many, nor were they as deep as the lines on my fathers. He had more hair, and it twisted in tangled clumps. Could he have been someone else’s father? Were there other siblings up here? I didn’t know. I looked back to the thing in my hands: the head-glass. Inside it were these lights that blinked. The interior seemed to shine all on its own. I scanned around me again. I was still alone. I slipped it on. The sight was overwhelming. I could see every detail of the hallway: each drop of blood visible, each scratch on the wall like a trench. There was a blue tint to everything, but I could still get a sense of their true colour. The blood looked a deep purple, the man’s skin a pale blue. There was a patch on his chest, etched into the armour he wore. It held symbols I couldn’t recognize, a sequence of lines and dots. Everything was bright, so much brighter than in the pit. The blocky thing the man had carried caught my eye. His hands still clutched it. It looked similar to one of the items on the table, back in the bright room. Only it was much larger. I pried the dead fingers away from it. I tried to imitate the dead man’s grip; one hand on the handle, one hand around the other end of the weapon, near where it flashed before. It was a heavy thing. The pressure of it on my burns made my hand tense up. Three squares of blue light were on either side of it. I moved it in my hands, looking for an edge or a glow that would mark it as a weapon I recognized. Something clanked behind me. I turned and tensed. I heard two words. “Oh shit.” As I turned, the weapon came to life, kicking powerfully against my hip. It belched streaks of blue light, impossibly fast. Each streak made a terrible sound as it fired, the kind that rattles your bones. Some of them caught the man who’d just rounded the corner. The first few bounced off the glass on his chest, scorching the walls. More hit the glass and it cracked, then shattered. The beams punched through, and the man yelled. It was like he screamed directly into my ear. He hit the ground, and the weapon stopped. My finger was tight around the button, just next to the handle. I let it go. I pulled again. It made a whirring sound, but nothing else. The squares on its sides weren’t blue anymore. I tossed the weapon aside and plucked the knife from the ground.
I crept closer to the downed man. He had the same thing on his head as I did, similar glass on him as the other I’d killed. There was hardly anything left of his chest; just a hole that went all the way through. He smelled like cooked flesh. He carried a similar weapon as the man who looked like him. It was shorter and bulkier. It had a similar handle, the same button. I took it. I didn’t know what these weapons were. They were like nothing I’d ever seen. They could cut a man down from further away than the longest whip. With something like this, I could kill dozens of my siblings in just a few seconds. If these things existed, why did we club and slash each other? Was this all there was beyond the gash? More weapons? I shook the thought from my mind. It was still February 29, and whether these men were siblings or fathers, I needed to kill them too, or they would kill me. Who was the dead man? I removed the thing from his face. He was also like a father, with the same lines, the same size. His hair and face were different. He also had lines and dots on his glass, but fewer than the first. I followed the hallway the man had come from. It veered off into others, but I headed forward. I saw no other men, but I could hear them. It was as if they whispered in my ear, though when I turned they weren’t there. Their voices died when I removed the head-glass, so I left it on. I could hear them arguing.
There was a door ahead, wider and thicker than the door to my bunk. For the first time, I realized I’d never see that cramped room again. No one could have forced me back in there now; I’d kill them first. Yet I missed the view from my window. I thought of the clouds. I hoped to see them again. Maybe to go through the gash was to give them up. I hoped I was wrong. Something was slumped by the door. It was a body, much smaller than the men I’d killed. It was curled into a ball, its limbs drawn in. The bones were marred and dark, skin stretched over them like leather. Only a few inches from the body was the same ball as in the bright room, the colour of the clouds. A bite had been taken out of it, and I could see its insides were a juicy red. The thing was pristine, like it had just been bitten. My thumb ran along the hilt of the knife, stuffed in my belt. This sibling had made the wrong choice. I plucked the sphere from the ground and sniffed it. The sweet smell was gone, instead replaced by this powerful scent that bit at my nostrils. I tossed it back. It was stupid to fight so hard to leave the gash, only to be killed by their stomach.
The door groaned as I neared it, opening inch by inch. Something blared as it did, some loud whine that filled the halls. The voices in the helmet noticed, all falling silent in an instant. I squeezed past the door the moment I could. It shut behind me, and the whine stopped. A loud explosion rocked the floor. I swiveled, looking for a sibling or a father springing at me. Nothing. Then another explosion. Then two more. Four giant balls took up most of the room. The sound came from them. They were about as wide as I was tall and mostly clear. They nearly reached the ceiling. Another series of explosions and flames burst in the spheres just before the last detonation. I got closer to one of them. There was a hiss of gas, maybe five seconds long. Then another, twice as long. The hissing stopped. A flame burst from the bottom of the sphere, and my ears rang. A bright flash forced my eyes shut. When I opened them, a small pool of water had formed in the sphere. A hole opened at its bottom, draining it out. Then the hissing started again, and the whole process was repeated. I suddenly knew that the little water we were allowed came from here. Whoever controlled these spheres could make water from nothing. I needed to find them. Maybe they could tell me when February 29 would end.
The voices picked up again. They were coming. I slipped behind one of the spheres, ducking behind its opaque base. The door slide open. They were whispering to each other. They were splitting up, one on each side. I gave them time. Just enough to get close. I went right. He hadn’t expected me to, moved too late. I brought up the weapon and pulled the button. It kicked hard, nearly flying out of my hands. This one didn’t fire beams, not like the first one. It threw an explosion, shards of iron slicing through the man’s glass chest like it was nothing. He screamed into my ears as he died. I could see the door, still open behind him. I leaped over the falling body, over the piping that ran from the spheres into the ground. Someone spun from behind a sphere, pointing a weapon at me. I didn’t have time to fire. I spun, throwing my elbow at his face. My elbow exploded with pain. The head-glass didn’t so much as crack. But the man stumbled. That was enough. I finished my spin, dashing past him. The door was so close, just ahead. I looked over my shoulder. There were three others, about to turn, about to fire. I fired first. I missed. The shards of iron flew past the men of glass and tore into one of the spheres. The gases hissed as they leaked. The door sealed shut behind me, the lights dimmed and something blared. I could see them scrambling, running for the door. They pulled and pushed. I saw their efforts through the glass that made up half the door. “Motherfucker. We’re going to fuck you up!”
“He killed them. Who the fuck is he?”
“Don’t move, I’m getting crazy hydrogen levels.”
“And let him get away?”
“Shut up!” One of them shoved another. “A tiny spark and we’re dead! Stay calm.” One of them slipped the head-glass off. He had some of the lines in his face that my fathers did. A purple scar ran from his cheekbone to his chin. His eyes burned, like a sibling who’d just seen another go through the gash. I stepped away from the door, but still their voices rang. It was only a short hallway until another door blocked my path. It slid open, the room beyond pure white and terribly bright. I looked back to the door, to the father that stared at me. The others still had their head-glass. I slid mine off, casting it aside, and their voices died.
A small platform propelled me upwards at intense speeds. My stomach flipped, but I managed to keep it from emptying. I now stood in a room the same shape as the pit, but much smaller. The walls were covered with black windows. The floors were the same grim grey as the pit, missing the years of blood and grime permanently ground into them. Ahead of me was a platform, maybe up to my knee. I moved to step towards it, and it lit up. A man appeared. Reflective armour covered his chest and framed his shoulders. He was massive, larger than I could ever hope to be. Heavy steel rested atop his head, shaped to frame his features. It obscured all but a tiny glowing slit across where his eyes would be. Across the top of it was a plume of stiff wiring, brightly coloured, that stretched from ear to ear. It curved over the head, making the massive man seem even taller. He removed the steel. It wasn’t a father. She was like a sibling, but much taller and older. Her face was scarred and spotted, and there was a strange glow to her eyes. “What are you called?” Her voice boomed. It was like I felt it inside my head. It took me a moment to answer.
“Python,” I offered. It was the only name I had.
“You have come far, Python.” She crossed her arms. “Farther than most of your siblings.”
“Where did they all go?” I knew of several of them who’d crossed the gash. I’d seen none.
“There will be time for your questions.” She stretched out a hand. The dark windows lightened and the whole room brightened. I could see the clouds again. The reds and oranges flowed and mixed with one another. For the first time, I saw where they stopped. We were above them. They curved into a ball, impossibly big. Around it was all this blackness, dotted with bright spots. Here and there were spheres that shined; some I could tell were of a specific colour. It took my breath away. There was so much out there, so much more than the pit, the halls, everything. “Ask your questions.”
“What’s out there?” I finally found the breath to say.
“Everything,” she answered.
“Are my siblings out there?”
“Some.” Her eyes seemed fixed on something behind me. I turned to look, but there was nothing save the clouds. “They fight.”
“Because that is our way. They fight until they no longer can. Then they become fathers,” she said.
“But they’re in the pit,” I replied, shaking my head.
“They are not the only ones,” she answered.
“Where are the rest?”
“Everywhere,” she said.
“Who were the men in the tunnels? More fathers?”
“No. You have no fathers here.”
“But in the pit…”
“They are your fathers no longer.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Your mother. There are but a few of us. You fight for us.” She said. I fell to my knees. I’d known nothing but fathers. This was my mother? Where had she been? Why had she put me in this pit with my siblings? Tears came again, and I squeezed my eyes shut. All my life I fought to leave the gash. I wanted to find my mother now, though I didn’t know if it was to fight for her or to kill her. “Tell me. What do you want?” She said. My eyes drifted towards the windows, towards the clouds. They were so much bigger than I’d imagined, yet beyond them seemed to be things so much larger. My thoughts drifted from my mother, back to the clouds, the swirling masses that begged me to find them.
“To see everything.”
“Ah,” my mother answered. With a small wave of her hand, the clouds disappeared. Replacing them were scenes of the pit, of siblings tearing into each other. Only when I stepped closer, I saw it wasn’t exactly the pit. My siblings wore glass and steel, swung and fired weapons unlike any I’d seen. They fought against beasts, fought other things with armour and strange appendages. Fought others that looked just like them. “You wish to see all these places, to feel their soil under your feet as you crush our enemies.”
“Yes.” The answer didn’t feel right.
“This is your purpose,” she said, satisfaction evident in her voice, “everything you’ve done has led to this. It is natural to desire it, do not shy from this.” I looked to the screens, imagining the clouds beyond. I remembered looking through my tiny window every morning, longing to be surrounded by them. I imagined swimming amongst them. “You may have one more question.”
“Why the gash? The pit? My siblings? When does February 29 end?”
“February 29 never ends,” she said. I waited, expecting more. What was I expecting? An explanation? There’d never been an explanation. The fathers demanded something and you did it. The door opened and you exited; it closed and you didn’t look back. My mother flickered. I wanted to ask more, to say more. I needed more. Why did I need more? She was gone. The screens dimmed, and the room was dark. A door opened where she had been. A soft light came from beyond it. I recoiled but knew it was where I needed to go.
The room I emerged into was huge, but what it held claimed my attention. It was this massive thing of steel, all angles and bulk, that rested atop three prongs. It was the largest thing I’d ever seen. A man leaned against it, dressed in a loose-fitting, brightly coloured jumpsuit. He noticed me. “Python.” He straightened as he spoke. “Please, climb aboard.” My thumb trailed along the side of the knife. Still, the man spoke in a tone similar to my fathers. I followed him. We stepped up an inclined ramp that led into the belly of the steel monstrosity. It was hollow, spacious. It smelled vaguely of blade oil. The inside was all steely right angles, wires that seemed to sprout from wherever they pleased only to bury themselves again. There was a low hum that droned continually, barely perceptible. Occasionally, something would beep up ahead. The man walked ahead of me, stopping by an angled shelf sloping out of the wall. “Please put this on. You’ll need it.” His palm touched a glowing pad, and the shelf split in two with a hiss. I craned my neck to peek in. I saw the steel and glass that had covered the men from the tunnels, sitting plainly within the compartment. It was different, smoother and rounded. I looked to the man at my side.
“I need to wear this?”
“That’s right, the suit of a warrior. Be proud.” He said nothing else and stepped through a threshold towards the front of the steel monstrosity. He sat in a swiveling chair, placing some kind of head-glass on his brow. He busied himself with switches and buttons, pressing them in sequence at lightning speed. I looked back to the suit of plates in the compartment. The fathers demanded something, I did it. The suit looked complicated and intricate, but lacked snags or latches. I removed the knife from my belt, carefully placing it on the ground. I shrugged off my cloth tunic, the one I’d worn for as long as I can remember. It was tight and ragged, nothing like when I’d first received it. The armour slipped on easily. It was loose and hanged, then suddenly tightened. I thought it would constrict me, but it followed perfectly as I moved. It didn’t itch or rub the way the tunic had. Only the head-glass remained. It sat alone in the compartment, staring at me. It reminded me of the bulky thing I’d worn in the tunnels, but it was small and sleek. The glass was smaller, split into two angled eyes rather than a single visor. It had its own face to cover mine. I put it on. It was a tight fit. Everything was dark. Then, like eyes opening, everything came into view. There was a high-pitched whine that deafened me for a split second. The steel of the monstrosity was tinted purple, as were my hands. A quick stream of letters and numbers streamed over my eyes, too fast too read. They eventually settled. A set of numbers tracked my heartbeat, the number ticking up and down as the seconds passed. As I looked about, another number changed gradually; it measured my distance from whatever surface I looked at. There were others, tracking things I didn’t understand. I took the knife. The glass fingers made it difficult to grab. I had no belt for it, so I held it tightly. The floor suddenly lurched under me and I stumbled backward. As I did, my boot whirred and sped towards the floor. It clanged, then pulled me down. The other boot did the same. As the floor moved and lifted under me, the boots kept me solidly attached. I lifted my foot with great effort, then placed it ahead of me. The pull lessened as I did. I could walk with some assurance despite how much the world moved around me.
I entered the small room where the man had found his seat. An empty one was next to him. I took it. All around us was thick glass, and I saw blackness ahead, dotted with points of light. We crossed some shimmering barrier, then we swung around. I first saw my home, the thing of steel and glass I’d spent my whole life in. It was this massive, tubular thing that seemed to stretch forever. At the bottom was the pit, a wide circle. I could see blocks near the centre, where the halls must have been, and my mother’s room had to be at the very top. It was a dull, grey thing that hung quietly. There was so much of it I’d never known, would never know. Beyond it were the clouds. They formed into a massive ball, completely dwarfing the hunk of dark steel I’d lived in. Their fiery oranges and powerful reds were muted, distorted by the purple tints of the helmet. They didn’t look so beautiful anymore. I turned to the man seated next to me.“
Can we get a closer look at the clouds? I’ve never seen them up close.” I asked. The man looked at me like I’d grown an extra head.
“What for? It’s all just hydrogen.” His attention turned back to the blackness ahead. Just hydrogen. These clouds I’d looked at every day, these things I’d wanted to see and experience, reduced to a random agglomeration of gas. There was nothing special about them. I’d never see them again. I looked at the knife, still held tightly in my fist. Warriors did not dream of orange clouds.