Nothing is more dangerous for you
than your family,
There is a moment in every person’s life in which the features of their face take on an indefinite air; they become a hodgepodge of blurry lines, unsure which direction to take, a suspended confusion between what is not and what is yet to be.
Volja found himself in this very moment.
Silent like fish, we swim in a sea of unrealized possibilities.
Roxane had written a phrase on the electronic whiteboard and she explained its origin by bringing up ancestral regressions and archaic etymology.
Volja tried to listen to her. Usually her voice, rich in low notes that vibrated around wide and voluptuous harmonics, gave him a tingle behind his Adam’s apple, like a swarm of excited butterflies. But another sentence hypnotized him.
Nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada was printed on Roxane’s t-shirt.
Volja tried to return to the here and now by sliding his fingers on the cushion next to him. The auditorium bleachers were coated with organic hemp. Smooth, clean, brand new.
Every time, along with his companions, he sat in a different place in the stalls and the fabric never showed signs of wear. In there, they were the only ones worn out.
Deciding where to sit gave him the impression of being able to choose. He clenched his teeth. Their choices were reduced to taking seats on different cushions.
Maisondieu and Orìga listened solemnly. Queen Theo gave off a strong smell of undergrowth, wet bark, moss, cyclamen, and green leaves, which Volja had learned to associate with perplexity. He often happened to share Theo’s emotions.
Nada y pues nada y nada y …
There was no escape. Fish, speeches, silence, all the same, all nada.
Maisondieu asked to speak and Roxane agreed to it with a wink.
“We are the fish?”
Of course, since fish can’t escape, Volja thought.
His companions got tangled up in a discussion of metaphors, symbols, and the semantics of interpretation. Queen Theo took a sip from one of the flasks she hung around her neck and her smell changed into a flood of white flowers. Volja sucked it in and the string of nada y pues nada passed away, like a fish glimpsed underwater.
“The posthuman novel must be fragmented. We are touched by the single piece of the mosaic, but the mosaic exists only in our minds,” Roxane concluded.
A dutiful clap-clap, in the big empty room, sounded like small drops of rain on a metal sheet. The multimedia column’s sensors picked it up and added a fake, thunderous applause, as if the bleachers were full of people.
They found the gift in the vestibule: two e-books. They floated in the air, spread open, luminous, packed with words, footnotes, quotes within quotes. Roxane leafed through them and her face lit up with joy.
“Brazilovich’s treatise on humor and hermeneutics!”
Whenever any of them made others participate in the state of their own art, the Benefactors left them a gift. Roxane sucked the books into her reader: a gold ring she wore on her left thumb.
Lunch appeared on tables that were already set in the Amber room, on the first floor of the hotel.
“What will you do when you write the definitive novel?” Maisondieu was saying. “The Benefactors will no longer give you anything.”
“I’m far from writing the definitive novel,” Roxane replied, sitting at the head of the table. “Fortunately for me. We love only the road and the journey.”
“And how come, then, our asses are glued to our chairs?”
His companions turned their gaze on Volja and out of shyness, he lowered his head, but forced himself to continue.
“How long have we been here? Five years? Ten years? I’ve lost count. And what do we do here?”
“The best possible thing,” Maisondieu answered. “We actualize ourselves.”
“You never wonder ... why us? Why this place? Who are the Benefactors?”
“Ah, it’s a spiritual crisis,” Orìga remarked. “Volja dear, you should laze around less and work more.”
“You’re telling me I have to produce?”
A shiver of horror ran around the table.
“Hell! When you’re in this mood, you get it totally backwards. I’m saying that your concentration should be on your job; only work is important.”
The others nodded approvingly.
Volja stared at his fists, resting on his thighs under the table. What a yawn-fest. There was no art to carry on—not in that hotel. Fish in a bowl, that’s what they had become. They believed they were in the sea and were actually in an aquarium. A slight hum accompanied the protrusion of mechanical arms from the wall next to the table. Metallic fingers served the dishes.
The appearance of food, as usual, was inviting; the scent solicited salivation. They exchanged glances of gratitude and apprehension.
Volja grabbed the spoon and threw himself on the soup. He downed it quickly, angrily, as if it were an enemy to destroy.
After the meal, they moved to the Jade room.
They played cards, they read, they let their thoughts and eyes wander over the colorful fresco on the ceiling, which was constantly changing; they sought recognizable forms in the confusion of lines and spots of color, but none of them would admit it. We love the Abstract, only the Abstract.
They spied on each other, ready to catch any anomalous sign. A cough made them jump, a loud yawn attracted attention, the nervous beat of a foot accelerated the heart. If someone dozed off in the armchair, the rest remained vigilant, checking that he was still breathing.
After two grueling hours, having digested the meal, they separated. Everyone went back to the area of the hotel where they had chosen to live, and they didn’t see each other again for weeks.
Volja occupied the rooms in the south wing. He changed bedrooms according to his mood, east to watch the sunrise, west if he wanted to contemplate the rust of the sunset. In any case, nothing below the eighth floor.
Staying up high had given him serenity. But for some time now, the smell of cleanliness nauseated him, and the realization of empty rooms, divided by walls, like cells in an abandoned honeycomb, made his ears strain.
He dropped onto the couch resignedly and the lamp over the table lit up. In the lampshade, from the inside, there was an inscription.
What you have you will have.
Ah, thanks. A nice prospect.
The letters had been traced so that they could be read from the outside, as if a tiny man had climbed a tiny ladder inside the lampshade and painted the black words with a brush.
This exchange of messages between Volja and his mysterious interlocutors had been going on for some time.
One night he woke up from a nightmare. The lights had come on as soon as he had stretched a foot out of the bed, but that hadn’t reassured him. The room gave off an aseptic vastness, the carpet looked freshly installed, the drapes newly hung, the windows without a scratch.
Nobody had ever lived there, and nobody lived there now. The anguish of being a ghost squeezed his stomach. He got up and pissed in the middle of the room, turning around to direct the jet toward each corner, on the elegant table lamp, on the fake wood desk (so well reproduced that it looked real), on the striped velvet sofa, on the ottoman.
He fell back asleep with the acid miasma of urine in his nostrils and the next morning, the carpet was dry, the lamp clean, and the sofa looking like it had just left the factory.
“Damn bastards! Come out! I know you’re there!”
He raised a chair and cracked the bedside lamp, tore the curtains, broke the bathroom door. With the metal rod from the walk-in closet he broke the mirrors and the control column of the multimedia supports.
Cigarettes and matches were in one of the drawers; he set some magazines on fire and threw them onto the mattresses, the natural fibers igniting rapidly.
The fire alarm crashed in his ears as he threw himself out of the room, shutting the door behind him. The floor contained twenty rooms and Volja chose one on the other side of the corridor. They were all alike, aside from the varying shades of green and blue. He entered the bathroom, took a steam shower and laughed under the spray. He’d shown them. They certainly weren’t expecting such a reaction. He was drying himself in front of the mirror when he noticed some letters drawn on the reflective surface. Steam made a phrase appear.
Don’t judge yourself.
How long had it been there? Who wrote it?
He thought it could be a literary raid by Roxane. She must have gone up there without him noticing, maybe a week or even a month prior. She had steamed up the place, written the phrase with the tip of her index finger, and then left. Typical of Roxane to leave literary marks in unpredictable places.
Yet it worried him.
He didn’t mention it to his companions, least of all to Roxane. And he never returned to the devastated room. 802 had become taboo. Every so often, when he was nervous, Volja went up to the fifteenth floor and vented his frustration in the gym.
He’d activate the sparring partner function and the mechanical arms would fasten on his gloves. He’d punched the sack that dangled from the ceiling until sweat clouded his eyes. Then he’d enclose himself in the shower and wrap himself in the warm, fragrant clouds. Sometimes he masturbated and the steam became a multitude of warm hands that caressed him along every curve.
In the beginning—how long before?—after a particularly stimulating dinner and conversation, Roxane, Maisondieu, Orìga, Queen Theo, and Volja had met in the Amethyst room. They exchanged heat, saliva, muscle tension, and body humors, but they were restless, ready to spring, full of fear and anxiety. Volja looked at himself from the outside, like a stranger. He seemed to be acting to please someone else. Maybe the Benefactors.
Even his companions must have experienced the same emotion because, without agreeing to it, the meetings had dwindled and then disappeared completely. For Volja, the hotel had become even more impersonal.
Every now and then he went to read on the sixth floor terrace.
Reading was an excuse. He actually went there because there was a bar. The cocktail list was endless and he had tried everything, from the A of Aurora Borealis (ice, vodka, and iridescent bacteria) to the U of Uncle Scrooge (whiskey, coffee, and chocolate coins coated with gold leaf), only to return to the good old classics.
“Make me a Negroni,” he said to the mechanical barman and the arms that protruded from under the counter went to work.
He carried his glass to a table with a sunshade and let his gaze wander toward the horizon. The hotel was so out of date and poorly designed that it didn’t even have trees around it. A flat expanse of unnaturally bright green, uniform grass, that never grew and never diminished, covered hills and valleys up to the junction between earth and sky. An electric road, black rubber furrowed by two parallel steel bands, skirted the hotel and went off toward the opposite infinite.
The road by which he himself had come. On foot. Tired, hungry, downcast.
Something moved in the distance. Volja took another sip of his cocktail and squinted slightly. It was too distant for him to tell if it was the effects of perspective or a trick of the light.
He shot up straight. He wasn’t wrong—something was advancing on the road. Lucky day! A good Negroni and a diversion for his brain to chew on.
Half an hour later, he knew that the distant figure was a human being. Two hours later, he even seemed to know that way of walking. It had to be the effects of the alcohol. He started walking in circles, knocking into chairs, tables, and sunshade stands, forcing himself not to look. But then he looked and took the elevator to the ground floor to welcome the visitor.
The crystal entry doors opened and the woman entered with a determined step. She wore thin running socks, a sky-colored track suit made of nano-coated fabric, a wide-brimmed hat and a walking stick, which left an invisible trace along the paths and prevented one from getting lost.
The woman opened her mouth but Volja stopped her with a raised hand.
“No birth names. Now I’m Volja.”
“Amusing,” she replied. “I must give myself a new name, too?”
“Have you found yourself?”
“Maybe, but I don’t know if I like myself. And you, you came looking for yourself?”
“I wanted to talk to you.”
“Oh yeah? The elite needs me.”
“You can call me Lelit.”
And Lelit she was. Despite being covered with dust from the road, she was still as radiant as the image Volja carried in his heart, identical to the woman full of ideas with whom he had formed the most creative couple at the Multiversity.
He led her to the sixth-floor terrace to proudly show her the luxurious comforts of the hotel. Lelit accepted only a glass of water with a pinch of salt and let herself go in a chair, exhausted but smiling.
“You settled in pretty well.”
“We have everything but the essentials,” Volja answered with a vague wave.
“Ah, now I really recognize you! The malcontent.”
Volja was a little hurt but accepted the truth of that portrait.
“You too, though, if you got this far ...”
She sipped her water and lowered her lashes.
“I realized that I was spending time lining up items on the desk. You know how it is, the Multiversity isn’t breathing down your neck and you can doze off on what you’ve already done.”
“The Multiversity is a chicken coop and we are its eggs.”
“I was ready to break the shell. One day Liorka came looking for me, you remember him?”
“Who could forget him. Still Head of Development?”
“Promoted to Director of Deep Techniques.”
“As deep as a shelf,” sneered Volja.
“Anyway, one afternoon I hear Liorka’s voice at the end of the corridor and I don’t want to talk to him. He wants to involve me in a project on alteralter energies, has flooded my mailbox with proposals, but I pretended not to see them.”
“Alternatives to alternatives. They are trying to move beyond experimentation.”
Volja nodded, glad to have run away.
“So what did you do? Hide under the desk?”
“Worse! I shut myself in the bathroom and stayed there the rest of the evening. A ridiculous situation. I spent the time reading everything on the walls. One sentence read: nothing is more dangerous for you than your room, your family, your past.”
Volja winced. The Benefactors’ power extended to the Multiversity? But no, it was just a quote written by an unimaginative graffiti artist.
“It was then that I understood,” Lelit continued. “I had to leave.”
An explosion made the glasses on the table tremble. They turned toward the sound to witness the collapse of a corner of the east tower. Glass and rubble fell on the lawn below, leaving an irregular opening, almost like a bite in the building’s parallelepiped.
“It’s fine,” Volja winked. “Maisondieu is carrying out his project. He’s an architect of ruins.”
A second bang, weaker than the first, threw a cloud of dust and debris out of the hole.
“The elevator was the most complicated operation.”
Maisondieu rose toward the ceiling, the paraplegic chair snorting two columns of steam and remaining in midair as he illuminated the dark cavity of the elevator with a flashlight.
“I wanted to give it the feeling of a place to explore and, at the same time, make one think of obsolete technologies. I thought about filling the hole with debris, but there wasn’t enough.”
Roxane, Orìga, and Volja craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the bottom of the chasm. Queen Theo wandered through the wrecked corridor, fascinated by the gas lamps, leaving behind a trail of approval with her scent of spices. Lelit peered suspiciously at the contents of the brass ashtrays lining the corridor.
“I figured it out by fitting a fiberglass panel five meters below and covering it with burnt rags and ash.”
“Seems to me that I also see bones,” Orìga said.
Volja took a small step forward and grabbed a jamb to lean over the tunnel. The rough concrete of the walls were layered in levels of unequal thickness; black streaks, maybe burnt fat, stained the square casing; from above hung three ropes of different lengths, artfully frayed. The cage had been sent down and stopped at some much lower floor. But the gleam of the bones eluded him and Maisondieu was smiling, determined to keep his secrets.
The nuance of mystery—this was the architect’s goal, and the tower could be called a perfect mise-en-scène of his project.
The top three floors of the east tower did not appear to be damaged, as the explosions would’ve made you think, just gradually consumed by the passage of time. Maisondieu had transformed the old-fashioned hotel into something even older.
He turned off the electric current, removed the multifunctional columns of the rooms, dissolved the plasticized air from a place where no one ever lived. The corridors were covered with wallpaper faded by the sun, the runners of precious velvet crumbled under their feet; burnished brass cendriers at the corners, full of scorched cylinders; corroded tassels and fallen curtains; the doors of the rooms were gone, and even the furniture, beds, armchairs, lamps—vanished, plundered by previous, hypothetical visitors.
The opening made by the explosion looked like a natural gash, smoothed by the wind and rain. The sun’s light entered it sideways, forming a web of light and shadow that increased the indecipherable air of mystery. There was an atmosphere of “someone lived here before me” that made the place charming and melancholy.
Volja wandered through the empty and dirty rooms, filled with nostalgia. The scent emitted by Queen Theo increased the feeling of lost riches. Beautiful women had traversed that place, rustling their taffeta trains, wrapped in expensive perfume bubbles.
“Beautiful,” Volja muttered to himself, “beautiful.”
Lelit was beside him and watched everything with a seriousness he knew so well. They touched each other involuntarily, their fingers clasped, as if they had a life of their own, as if all of those years of separation had been a few minutes spent in separate rooms, but within easy reach of one another.
They looked at each other, moved by a single thread, the same thread that led them away from the group, several floors below. Lelit randomly opened the door of a room, like so many others, and they spilled onto the bed to weave a new fabric together.
“... Maisondieu arrived a few months after Queen Theo, and so we’ve become five, the creative number par excellence.”
Volja lay on his back, an arm behind his head, looking through half-closed lids at the golden friezes on the ceiling. He tried to retain the colored flashes that had accompanied the climax of pleasure. At that moment his being, for a split second, had become impalpable, aerial, full of light. Then it had fallen back onto the mattress, regained its consistency, but the expansion persisted.
“The hotel is your collective work?” Lelit asked, turning on her side. The sheet covered her body up to her navel, her uneven breasts descended in an almost vertical curve and then rose again in the two dark and tense tips of her nipples.
“Ah, no, we found the hotel as you see it. At the beginning, we tried to create something together, but we were too focused on ourselves.”
“Something interesting might have come out of this. An architect, a perfumer, a graft artist, a writer, and an interface developer ...”
“Let’s go eat.”
Their companions had waited for them, nibbling on some snacks. Maisondieu sat at the head of the table, wearing a velvet jacket with red plexiglass straps that squared his figure, making it similar to those marble busts of generals and commanders of antiquity. He would strut, moving his jeweled hands in the air and each gesture produced a jingle, a faint percussion, a metallic rubbing, a sonata for bracelets and rings.
“A gift for our guests,” he said, turning to Volja, indicating his own clothing. Eccentricity gave him special pleasure.
“You are the prince of architects,” Volja remarked, taking his place. He raised a glass full of wine and proposed a toast to ingenuity.
They ate and exchanged views on the newly built ruins, comparing them to other forms of plastic art.
“I, too, could be an architectural ruin,” Orìga said, showing off his bare arms, from which rows of human ears protruded. Delicate infant ears formed a triple garland around one wrist; hairy cat ears, with jagged cartilage, stuck out of his elbows; large ears with smooth curves, stood along the backs of his forearms, and the white auricles, the pink meatuses, resembled certain varieties of sea shells.
“Certainly!” replied the architect. “And people will line up to check you out, entering through your asshole.”
“I would find some of these ear canals more interesting ...” said Lelit, and moved an index finger, pretending to stick it in one of the other’s many ears.
“Orìga, your architecture is too individual,” Roxane objected.
“What does that mean? Maisondieu also builds according to his individuality, and you write based on yours.”
Queen Theo took a sip from one of the cruets around her neck, her cheeks turned pink, and a sweet, flowery, animalistic smell spread from her pores.
“Oh, Theo, that’s awful!” said Maisondieu.
“Horse hooves trampling on a carpet of shit and jasmine,” Roxane said dreamily.
“The dirt! I like your ruins because they are dirty!”
Volja felt excited by that epiphany.
Without finishing the meal, they all got up together and returned to the east tower for a second visit. The room they entered was tiled with pink marble, veiled in rubble and coarse sand, arranged as if it had been brought by the wind.
“Oh! The sound of your footsteps on the floor ...” Orìga said.
“Crunch,” Roxane articulated. “Crunch. Ch ch.”
Their lips swelled with each crunch and glowed with shocking pink, in the shadows veiled by the tattered curtain. Volja didn’t remember the tent being there when they had visited the rooms before lunch, but at that moment the scent of myrrh and benzoin coming off of Queen Theo confused his thoughts.
Maisondieu had lowered his chair and made it sway so that the soles of his shoes rubbed against the grain of the floor and the sound mingled with Roxane’s voice, which was saying ephemeral, upside down, perspective and kissing Lelit’s wrists. Volja tore Orìga’s shirt off his back and caressed the double row of tiny gummy ears that ran parallel to his spine. The auricles twitched in search of sounds. Lelit slipped a little finger into the dark cavity of a calla-shaped ear that bloomed from Orìga’s shoulder and blew into nearby ears.
The sound of Lelit’s breath merged with Roxane’s words, with Maisondieu’s rhythmic rattle, Theo’s warm scent, and Orìga’s soft roughness and Volja sensed the slow rising orgasm grabbing his hips, like a prehistoric reptile laboriously moving up the pegs of the ages to manifest itself in the future, full of primordial energy.
“It’s you. You are our interface,” Volja said.
“Is that supposed to be a compliment?”
Lelit bit into a focaccia, the sauce escaping from the side and splashing her white jacket red. She had taken off her traveling clothes and had rummaged through the closets of rooms 810 and 811, taking what she liked.
“The erotic communication between us was lackluster. Then you came ... and bang! We’re one body.”
Wolfing down the focaccia, Lelit took the tray full of salty canapes and stuck two in her mouth.
“Like old times, eh?” Volja winked, lifting up a vol-au-vent filled with anchovy cream and making it disappear in one bite. “Do you remember that craving for salty stuff would come after?”
“I still don’t quite understand why you left,” she said.
Lelit lowered her lashes and poured herself a glass of wine. A distant cry made her look up again. Volja jumped to his feet.
“Roxane. The east tower.”
They both moved toward the elevators on the terrace while a second scream ripped through the air. This time Roxane said something; Volja made out the word “help” and pressed harder on the call button.
In the room in which they had all been together only an hour earlier, they found Roxane and Orìga bent over something on the floor. Queen Theo, flattened against a wall, emitted the sour stench of fear.
Maisondieu’s air chair lay upside down on its side and he, lying on the dusty tiles, opened and closed his mouth like a fish out of water.
“No, no, hold on,” Roxane said, without doing anything to help him breathe.
Volja abruptly pushed his companions away, tore open the buttons of the architect’s velvet jacket, and tangled his fingers in the laces of the silk shirt. Maisondieu’s face turned blue, his eyes bulging with blood from broken capillaries.
Lelit pushed aside the torn curtains and opened the shutters. A rectangle of sun framed Maisondieu on the ground; the warm air from the outside diluted the acrid smell of fear but seemed to increase his suffering; he twisted, as if the purity of the air had whipped him, while an asthmatic rattle came from his throat.
“An allergy!” Lelit said.
She rushed to the first aid kit, hanging on one of the walls, opened it wide and gasped. It was empty. The only new and clean object present in that place, and it was completely useless.
Volja, who had followed her, gave a hoarse cry and left the room. The others heard him moving in the other rooms, looking for another box, and they stood helplessly in front of Maisondieu.
Volja returned, without drugs but still full of hope; he took a few steps toward the body lying motionless among the rubble.
“He’s dead,” Orìga said.
“No,” Volja replied.
Roxane walked away, covering her eyes. Orìga also crawled back.
“He’s not dead!” Volja repeated angrily. He grabbed Maisondieu by the jacket flaps and shook him. “Come on, you pompous windbag! We are all here to admire your ruins! Come and enjoy our wonder!”
A puppet stuffed with straw would’ve offered more resistance. Volja stood up, full of anger.
“We all ate the same food,” he said. “None of us is sick!”
“Maybe it was in the wine ...” suggested Roxane, who only drank water.
“I also drank wine!” Volja roared.
Lelit, who had bent over to examine the corpse, noticed that Maisondieu’s skin had darkened around his neck and chest. She grabbed Volja’s hands and showed them to him: the fingertips were bluish, stained with dye.
“The poison was in his clothes.”
He had scrabbled his fingers until he scraped the skin, and now his fingertips were burning, like the anger in his chest. Lelit had forced him to swallow a pill, a “broad spectrum antidote,” she had said.
“Here the ghosts kill us,” had been Volja’s comment.
“Explain what’s going on here.”
She curled up on the sofa in Volja’s room.
“When I arrived at the hotel, there were three people: Roxane, Orìga, and Hana. Hana was the youngest, she must have been ... it’s difficult to know her age. She was short and slender...ten years old? Twelve? Eventually I understood, from Roxane’s conversations, that Hana was already here when she arrived.”
“And where is she now?”
Volja closed his eyes. He reviewed the scene with a precision that he would have gladly done without. The small body lying at the bottom of the empty pool, the halo of blood around her head.
Lelit came to him.
“In the hotel there’s an old-fashioned, water-saving pool. You dive into the void and the sensors capture you and emit jets of air that allow you to float, as if you were in the water. Hana swam there every morning before breakfast.”
“A sensor failure is always possible.”
“Orìga believed it was an accident while Roxane...oh, she believes there are Malefactors. She set up her own religion. Roxane thinks that two distinct groups of people or entities operate within the hotel: the Benefactors and the Malefactors. The rewards, the food, the linen sheets, the comfortable clothes, perhaps even the air and the sun, are the work of the Benefactors.”
“The Malefactors, on the other hand, want to destroy, unravel, lead you to despair,” Lelit concluded.
“I have another hypothesis. The Benefactors and Malefactors are the same people. They observe us, spy on us, enjoy seeing our reactions every time they introduce a variation into our daily routine.”
“Roxane is a writer,” Lelit replied. “She’s able to explain the most absurd things, the least likely situations, in order to make them seem coherent and sensible.”
“But the dead are real,” Volja added.
Lelit squeezed his arm affectionately and he, sensitive to small gestures, let go of his anger and let the tears flow.
The hotel stairs always gave him the creeps.
Unmarked, winding, illuminated by small wall lamps with green lights, they were the only dusty place in the building. When he used them, Volja expected to be attacked at every landing, but it never happened. The Benefactors weren’t so predictable.
“There’s something you need to see,” he had said to Lelit, and now both were descending those disturbing steps.
An object on the landing caught his attention. Volja bent down and picked it up: a short plaiz stick, with one smooth end and the other carved and perforated.
“What is it?” Lelit asked.
“I don’t know.”
He pocketed the object and continued descending the stairs. He made that journey at least once a week and had never found anything.
A double overhead door led into the sub-floor. The warm, humid air represented a nice change from the sterilized kind on the upper floors. At the center of the vast area were two rectangular pools. The medium-sized one was empty, and a much larger one was full of water. One hundred meters long, ten deep in the deepest area, equipped with two trampolines, various ladders, oxygen and solar-like radiation purification vents hanging from the ceiling. It felt like being outdoors on a beautiful clear day.
“Here’s where we found Hana,” Volja said, pointing to the empty pool. He took Lelit by the hand and made her take a wide turn to approach the edge of the second basin. Their shadows projected onto the water and two orange shapes materialized below the surface. He took a handful of fish food from a bucket and threw it to the carp, which greedily made it disappear. Their huge tails made the sinuous bodies flicker in a perennial dance, side by side, altogether and then alone and then two by two; red, white, orange, and black flashed in the liquid darkness and sank down again. The water, constantly moving, hit the edges of the tub and vibrated a series of sheets covered with gelatin, glued along the entire perimeter and only partially immersed.
A skein of very fine transparent threads connected the sheets together and joined them, from the short side of the basin, to a glass cylinder full of viscous matter, into which several electrical cables (which descended from the ceiling) were inserted.
Lelit had followed the entire route with her eyes and stared at the cables.
“You did it.”
Volja crossed his arms and puffed out his chest.
“When I arrived the hotel was switched off, dead. Roxane and Orìga had some battery-powered flashlights and washed with cold water. Also this pool was air conditioned; the four of us changed that. Hana understood hydraulics. In the lobby, there was a fountain with fish, water lilies, and irises. I only expanded the carp habitat, and now they work for us.”
“Being out of the Multiversity has sharpened your wits,” Lelit said.
Volja put his hands in his pockets, squeezed the object he had picked up on the stairs, and understood its function.
The hotel basement did not end with the swimming pools.
In the corner of the large room, near the coat rack, was a trap door. A metal staircase led to an enchanted forest. Rows and rows of pillars, covered with bright LEDs, held up a concrete sky; arrows printed on the shiny purple linoleum floor traced one-way or two-way paths, and small traffic lights hung from the ceiling, like tricolored comets, regulating the non-existent traffic.
Volja and Lelit’s footsteps rang out in the empty garage. Parked next to a pillar was an aerodynamic car sparkling with silver-colored paint, an old-fashioned four-wheeled vehicle, equipped with license plate, side doors, hood, and steering wheel. New, as if it had just left the factory.
“It appeared a few months ago,” Volja said. He opened the door and sat behind the wheel. Lelit sat in the other seat.
Volja took from his pocket the object he had found on the stairs and examined the dashboard, looking for the key’s insertion point. Those means of transport resembled electric cars, but they didn’t have the navigation screen or autopilot.
He tried several cavities until the key fitted into a hexagonal hole, and immediately the dashboard came on, some lights flashed, and the engine roared. Volja put his hands on the steering wheel and squeezed it, expecting a reaction from the vehicle.
“I think we should also use our feet,” Lelit said.
Volja rummaged with his feet under the dashboard and felt three pedals; pressing the first one did nothing, same with the second, but with the third, the sound of the engine increased in intensity and the car leaped forward, then stopped.
Frightened, Volja had yanked his foot off the pedal.
“You’d waste half the fuel just learning to drive this,” Lelit said.
“I know. I should modify it, make it use a different kind of energy.”
“Tow a carp tank.”
“Go ahead and laugh. I’m trying day and night to find a solution. I want to get out of here before my number’s up.”
“You could always walk, nobody’s stopping you.”
“Where would I get on foot? To the east is the Multiversity, to the north is the city, and to the south is the desert. And the west is bad by definition,” Volja added after a moment of silence.
“What do the others think about it?” Lelit asked.
“They don’t know about the car, they don’t even know there is a garage.”
“How did you find it?”
“The Benefactors made me find it.”
“Do you trust them? It could be a new aspect of the game, introducing some variations to modify individual behavior. Have your companions also found unknown objects or areas?”
Only then was Volja struck by the thought of being only one of the pawns on the board. Roxane could have found messages in her rooms, as had happened to him. Orìga, too. And Queen Theo was always silent. Was she afraid of betraying herself?
“It’s always you,” Lelit said, shaking her head. “You think you’re the center of the universe.”
“Leave the hotel?” Orìga raised her head indignantly. “That’s the stupidest idea my ears and I have ever heard.”
“We’re in prison, you dickheads! Don’t you get it? We are five prisoners who believe that we’re free. How many of us will have to die before we move our asses?”
“I think I’ve identified a pattern in the Malefactors’ actions,” Roxane replied calmly. “In the past, a sacrifice was made after building a bridge, because the human had united what had been originally divided. The Malefactors are afraid of change, of the modification of reality, therefore they punish us every time we create a new reality.”
The perfect acoustics of the conference room amplified her voice by making it bounce off of the empty armchairs.
“If this hypothesis is correct, I would worry about you,” Volja said. “It means your novel doesn’t create a new reality.”
Roxane remained impassive.
“You won’t answer? Tell me that postmodernism doesn’t care about reality. And also the fact that two of us are locked in the hotel icebox.”
“You’re upset,” Orìga intervened. “Like all of us. We need some time to recover.”
Volja closed his eyes, resigned. There were a few seconds of silence, and then Roxane stood up.
“There are still five of us,” she declared.
“What makes you think Lelit wants to stay?”
Both of them turned to the person concerned.
“Ah no, leave me out of your troubles,” Lelit raised both of her hands, proclaiming her estrangement.
Volja stood up.
“You’re making me pay because I left.”
“You’re not the center of my life.”
Volja belligerently faced each of those present. He quickly understood that nobody would support him.
“See you at the next death.”
He walked up the steps and left the conference room.
After venting by pounding the gym bag, Volja decided to look for information on the internal combustion engine.
He still had the network connection chip stuck in the mound of flesh under his left thumb. He had silenced it long ago with a few drops of vegetable oil. He cleaned it thoroughly and waited for it to wake up.
The notched edge emerged from his skin and Volja scrolled to access the voice command.
“Information on the twentieth-century engine,” he said, and immediately the chip projected against a wall the screen of data, images, and drawings.
He soon realized that the variety and diversity of engines of the time would force him to analyze what was in the basement car.
Every morning he ate breakfast at the bar on the sixth floor and then descended into the garage. In the car’s trunk he found a set of socket wrenches and screwdrivers, with which he disassembled and reassembled some parts of the engine.
“How’s it going?”
Volja jumped up and slammed his head against the open hood. Lelit had come up behind him, quieter than a cat.
“The functioning is of a disconcerting banality,” he replied, rubbing the top of his head.
“Will you use the semi-organic gel you prepared for the pool?”
“How do you know it’s...oh, now I understand. You have a spectrograph in the microchip. Other than boredom and rebellion. You’re here on business, and you’re looking for alteralter energy.”
Lelit didn’t respond. She wore a caftan embroidered with plant motifs and branches, and flowery scrolls that followed those forms. A flower among the flowers. Volja thought sadly that the only person with whom he could share his thoughts was there to steal them.
“In my opinion, the first thing to do is to separate the electrical system from the liquid fuel system,” Lelit said.
Volja looked back at the engine.
“We need two independent systems,” she added. “If one causes trouble, you can use the other.”
“I’ve always had faith in independence,” he commented.
In a few days the garage pillars bloomed with diagrams, drawings, and chemical formulas scrawled on the plaster. Volja and Lelit spent most of the day around the engine. Sometimes they ate sitting on a blanket stolen from the sumptuous beds on the upper floors, sometimes they preferred the soft rear seats of the car.
“Why would they call it an ‘auto-mobile’?” Lelit wondered. “It doesn’t move by itself—it needs a pilot. Our electric cars are truly autonomous.”
“The Ancients were presumptuous,” Volja replied, chewing a sandwich. “And we are forced to travel on the electrified roads, therefore our autonomy also gets fucked.”
With the doors closed and the hood raised to block the front windshield, the interior of the vehicle turned into a small coffer and the rear seat became an alcove. It seemed normal to whisper and listen to each other’s breathing under the hard roof of the presumptuous auto-mobile.
By chance, they had found a function on the dashboard that allowed you to listen to music, and the notes of an old song wrapped sinuously around them.
“While I was coming here I was suddenly caught in the rain. I pitched the tent on the side of the road and took shelter in it. The sound of drops on the fabric made me feel free.”
“I had the same feeling the last time I went down the stairs of the Energy Institute. I was leaving forever. I was smiling contentedly. Everyone who met me totally thought: ‘look at this idiot, is he stoned?’ Turning your back on work, that was real liberation!”
“Have you ever regretted it?”
He looked at her sideways and added:
“But I’m glad you’re here, now.”
“Even if I steal your interface?”
He shook his head. You have to see if you can do it, he thought, chewing the sandwich. The salty taste of the seaweed cream filled his head with old images, equally salty and bright.
“Do you remember when we went to the beach?” he asked, rubbing his feet on the soft, prickly mat. They had both taken off their shoes before getting in.
Lelit nodded with her mouth full.
“It was hilarious! You were scared to step on the sand!”
“I had never seen it before. It seemed it wanted to swallow me. A treacherous substance.”
The speakers released another song, slower than the previous one. A song about carefree racing and easy living.
“Heaven,” sighed Lelit.
“Maybe,” he admitted reluctantly. “There are many types of happiness. I’m happy when I’m free to be on my own, maybe sitting all day thinking, without having to justify my time, without justifying myself or feeling guilty.”
“When I can do what I want: dismantle that engine and use its parts to build another.”
They remained silent for a few seconds. She was sucking the sauce off her fingers.
“You delude yourself that you got out of it, Volja, but you can’t get out of life. As long as we’re alive, we need energy.”
Volja handed her a second sandwich wrapped in a napkin.
“Another bit of energy?”
Lelit pushed his hand away, reached out, and kissed him on the mouth. Volja lay down on the seat, dropped the sandwich, and put his arms around her. It seemed to him that the music grew louder in his ears and the smell of the sea filled the compartment. They went up to the top together, and when it was time to slide down, he clung to her shoulders. A thread of yellow light, dancing and intermittent, coiled around their bodies and their legs vibrated, their joints were pulverized, the balance of the summit changed into the serpentine of two skiers on a single pair of skis.
“Did you see it too?” whispered Lelit. Her mouth behind his neck, her breath still labored.
“Yes, I saw it.”
The yellow light, fine and powerful, didn’t happen often; in most cases, the fireworks behind his eyelids were red, blue, and violet.
“What if we use orgasm?”
Volja took a few seconds to decipher her words but knew that Lelit had found the solution.
The problem shifted from the communications protocol between the two systems, for which it was possible to use the otolith gel that transformed the carps’ movements into an electric current, to capture and stow the energy emitted by orgasm.
“How did you get there?” Volja asked, diving into the hot water mixed with air.
They had left the garage, a bit wobbly, and had reached the Magnolia suite on the eighth floor: a cream-colored suite that had a whirlpool tub.
“A combination of electrified roads and fucking.”
“We just have to figure out how to draw energy.”
“Let’s dip a bucket in the wells,” Lelit smiled.
“The chakras. According to tradition, the first and second are full of sexual force, but yellow corresponds to the third chakra, located at the base of the diaphragm and related to digestion, heat, fire.”
“We could get the others involved,” Volja said.
“The other chakras?”
“I’m talking about Orìga, Roxane, and Queen Theo.”
“If it’s necessary,” Lelit replied, and immersed herself until the water covered her mouth.
There’s a moment in every person’s life in which joy and pain are freed from external events, and they manifest themselves for what they are—muscle layers of previous emotions. The past rises from cellular containers and leaps on us like a mugger, making us cry or laugh without any contingent cause.
Lelit was precisely in this moment.
She had chosen a suite in the west tower because she had a small pantry, from which she could take crackers, peanuts, and salted almonds to munch on.
She loved to spend her time without background music so she could contemplate the white board of silence; at first the space was filled with useless scribbles, flowers, repeating diamond-shaped patterns, but if you looked at it long enough, ideas and fragments began to emerge.
Fragments, above all.
Lelit had always had difficulty thinking of herself as a whole because she was born without a lower body. From the waist up, her chest, arms, and heart were well-developed; from the waist down, her pelvis narrowed like a funnel, her legs thinned into two dead cords, her feet were two commas with cartilaginous bones, too soft to support an erect posture.
Her five parents had quarreled: three wanted to have her insert a cellular implant that would grow her belly and legs before six months of life, one believed it was better to wait, and the other that it was necessary to wait until the child was able to decide for herself.
Eventually the latter idea had prevailed and Lelit reached puberty in a comfortable battery-operated walker. Then she went to a dance performance and wanted to have legs. Stem cells took years to build a new body for her. The most painful years of her life. She woke up at night, prey to anguish, because she felt bones, tendons, muscles, and connective tissue growing.
After that, nothing was the same. Placing your feet on the ground and moving them by making an arch from the heel to the big toe had changed everything. Confused at first, she had learned to focus on that gesture, so much like dancing or swaggering. Each step meant: I am here, I am here, I am leaving my mark.
The third chakra was the connecting point between the original self and the reconstructed self.
After rummaging in the closets of the rooms on the fifth floor, trying on gowns with trains and straw hats, her nostrils picked up a strong butterscotch scent, which degenerated into an acrid smell of burnt sugar.
She followed the trail and found Queen Theo, sitting between the brooms and buckets of a small service bathroom, vomiting into the toilet. It was her vomit that produced that smell. The girl lifted her head and waved to Lelit, but further retching forced her to bend over the bowl again.
The interface with the sense of taste is oral sex, Lelit thought. And the smell forms much of the flavor of what we put in our mouth.
Queen Theo wiped her chin with the frill of her dress.
“Would you make a perfume for me?” Lelit asked her.
Next to the Amber room were the kitchens. The largest machines were matter synthesizers, which assembled fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, increasing the stocks of plant and animal cells stored in the refrigerators. Inside a pantry, Lelit had discovered a chemical laboratory also equipped for microbiology experiments.
She had wondered if it had been prepared for her by the Benefactors or the Malefactors, but she didn’t care. It was what she needed right now.
Cloning some of her epithelial cells, she grew a tubular film. As she synthesized it, her eyes filled with tears. She had forgotten how painful it was to be next to someone you like but who doesn’t want you. And Volja, despite their perfect understanding, had remained the same: a heart under glass. You could see it but not touch it.
The energy-grabbing net was ready. She filled it with the semi-organic gel that Volja had invented and tears mixed with the compound, making it turn a pearly-gray color; it absorbed and reflected all of the nuances of the energy spectrum.
Tic tic tic.
A short interval of silence and then again
trickling down, all below but very distinct, like a pianist who plays a scale, firmly separating the notes.
There was a staircase, cream-colored marble with rounded steps; it connected the bar on the first floor with the parlors on the ground floor. The pianist was Orìga. He had developed a system of perforated boxes, connected together by plastic channels; he set the tempo, throwing the onyx pearls along the inclined planes, obtaining various rhythms, more intense, more bland. Some of his ears liked speed, others loved regular cadences; the rows of tiny ears on his wrists became excited by long, irregular intervals.
The last pearl fell and made no sound. Orìga looked up and found that Lelit had picked it up.
Your catastrophe is not my catastrophe.
Roxane contemplated the phrase, written in large letters, on the wall in front of her. Her handwriting managed to flourish even when she used capital letters. She used to open a bottle of champagne, blacken the stopper with a lighter, and use it to write. She liked the materiality of the gesture, the possibility of blending the letters with your fingertips, the burning smell. Drinking also played its role. She poured herself another glass and filled Lelit’s.
“You’re not like us. You grew up on a terrace and look down on it all. You want to command, you want to direct things.”
“I learned to command my legs and I like to move.”
“So you’re going to go with Volja in the end.”
“My catastrophe is not your catastrophe.”
Roxane sniffled and an alcoholic sob came out of her nose.
“I came looking for him because we were happy together.”
“And should I believe you?” the writer objected.
Roxane’s bloodshot eyes stared at her among the tangled tufts that rained on her nose. She picked up the cork, the burned end still smoking, and drew a few parallel lines on Lelit’s cheeks, ending with a fine line from the center of the lower lip to below the chin.
“Imagination is the key to everything,” she said.
For a long time I thought I hated you.
It wasn’t my feeling, it had been left to me by those who had known you. You have always been a shadowy creature, delicate, full of fantasies, hard to understand. You are the tuning fork that vibrates on strident notes …
Lelit was floating in the pool water and Roxane’s hypnotic voice came and went according to the waves, now they covered her ears, now they ran from head to toe. But if she clung to Orìga, holding on to the two large flat pavilions that rose from his shoulder blades, the sounds entered her fingers and vibrated along her skin, as clear as if Roxane were close by.
“... we warmed up at the same fire, we burned the same fantasies...”
Orìga sat astride the largest carp, a two-meter-long monster, and controlled it with his knees on the gills, if it showed signs of rebellion. The cloned leather straps, filled with semi-organic gel, surrounded his chakras like many transparent rings around a planetary body.
Body heat melted the casing, making it stick to the skin as the gel swelled, charged with energy. Volja touched Lelit’s back and massaged the two parallel strips that adhered to her spine, intersecting the circles at the height of the kidneys, the shoulder blades, the spine, and the back of the skull.
“...when I saw you, I saw myself. When I met you, I met myself. We talked, listening to each other. We spoke the same language...”
Roxane swam around them, tightening them in a circle of waves and words. She read the sentences projected by the multimedia column, which had moved from the conference room to the pool.
From the warm water of the tub rose the scented vapors that Queen Theo emitted, spitting and peeing. She stood right in the center, moving her hands and feet to stay afloat, and turned on herself to spread the smell of moss and ambergris and the memory of an oceanic heart the size of a room.
Volja’s hands closed on Lelit’s breast and Lelit half-closed her eyes. The air became cloudy like the water. Roxane’s mouth was now moving against her mouth and sometimes it became the sticky and cold lips of a carp, sometimes the elastic cartilage of Orìga’s abdominal ears.
Queen Theo lay on her back in the water, opened her legs wide and with her hands, moved her outer labia away, opened her three vaginas and released a blue smell that spread in a dense cloud. The carp were shaking, whirling under her mad with desire, the scales rubbed against her skin, on her skin, sliding in the opposite direction, from the head to the tail of the fish and they cut, skinned. The blood mixed with the blue smell and the water turned a purple amethyst.
“Like love,” Lelit stammered.
“What?” gasped Volja.
“Just like love,” she shouted.
Lelit slipped into the shower and stood under the warm water. The rivulets intertwined and separated, a multitude of hurried tongues, which wanted to quickly get to the end of the path. The outlet. The black hole in the drain.
Several floors below her, Volja was connecting the charged strips to the exchanger, which would in turn transmit the energy to the car’s electric motor.
Lelit turned off the water and quickly dried herself. She put on the suit with which she had arrived at the hotel, the wide-brimmed hat, the shoes. She filled her backpack with all of the bottles of water she found in the room’s fridge; in the external pockets she crammed the packets of peanuts and salted almonds.
She grabbed her walking stick and opened the door. Even before stepping into the corridor, she smelled something feral. Damp woodland and wet animal fur. At the end, a brown mass near the turning that led to the elevator moved its head and gave a snort like a short bark.
A live bear.
They looked at each other for a moment, the bear straightened up on its hind legs and opened its mouth wide, a row of yellow fangs. A dark sound rose from its throat.
Lelit closed the door and leaned against it with both hands. She sensed the beast panting and snorting.
She looked around. The desk looked sturdy. Gritting her teeth, she pushed it against the bedroom door: maybe she could buy a little time. She typed Volja’s room number into the telephone keypad and listened to the endless ringing. She hoped he’d come up to his room to get his bags. She hung up and tried the numbers listed in the phone book: concierge, laundry, room service. No reply.
She didn’t remember in which rooms the other lived. She hung up the phone and listened. No noise from the corridor. Maybe it was her imagination. The Benefactors had drugged her, or it could have been the Malefactors. The humorous divinities who presided over the life of the hotel were in the mood for jokes.
She climbed up on the desk and put an ear to the door. Nothing. She got down and moved the heavy wooden furniture half a meter away; she slowly turned the handle and opened the door a crack. The smell of excrement attacked her nostrils. The bear rubbed its powerful backside on the wallpaper. She approached the door as softly as she could and rebuilt the barricade.
She sat cross-legged on the bed and resigned herself to wait. Sooner or later someone would come looking for her.
She waited until her muscles went numb. She waited until she felt pain in her solar plexus. Her diaphragm, stiffened with fear, refused to do its duty.
Nothing seemed to have changed. The hallway was silent. She opened the usual crack, peered out, and then opened the door completely. The parquet was immaculate, the walls were clean, there was no smell or presence. She walked to the elevator. The hotel worked with the usual efficiency.
The hall was empty.
From the Jade room came Roxane and Orìga’s loud and cheerful voices. Lelit went to the door and encountered a strong minty smell mixed with words. They wanted to try and turn the whole hotel into a work of art. Orìga would create particular noises and sounds for any environment, Queen Theo would take care of the perfumes, and Roxane would write a story that linked every aspect of the place to imaginary characters.
Lelit tiptoed away. The crystal doors opened to let her out. She advanced to a flower bed and blinking, saw a silver dot shining on the horizon, an arrow moving away.
Volja was gone.
And he’d go far. The energy charge was strong.
Lelit took a deep breath to drive away the disappointment and felt her midsection melt. The crystal plate that had always divided her in half revealed its fictitious nature; it was frozen water. And it reacted to the heat by returning to its original form.
Relief rose in her chest, became a wave of fire. The inner furnace cleared away all feelings. Nostalgia for Volja, so intense and painful when she was left alone at the Multiversity, softened; her desire melted, lost its form, sublimated in a warm vapor; the desire to escape changed color, from incandescent white to pale green. And all, all of her emotions were raw material, ready to be worked again.
Aware of her uniqueness, she felt lifted to a higher place, first architect of a new world. She would forge new pistons, new connecting rods, new joints, and new power ratios. She was the engine!
Reality imposed itself, fresh and smooth. Charged with energy.
She never imagined it would end like this. Yet something had become present, the day she arrived at the hotel. Looking at Volja, she had been aware of the future, in one fell swoop.
After all, what is love? Energy. And the memory of love is stored energy. Set aside for reuse at another time, in another place.
 “Plaiz” (plastic maiz) is a plastic material made from corn.