The world is collapsing, people are being tortured and killed, and we are making an omelette at three at night. The sound of crackling oil sings in unison with the sounds of crackling hearts. The oil suddenly sizzles and splashes, hitting our skin; we scream, we jerk our hand back and drop the spatula. TVR shakes her television cranium and lowers the flame on the hob.
Living together with someone is strange, isn't it?
Most of the day, she hangs around our studio, watching us, holding in her ashen, almost skeletal hands her leather folder, and writes something down with a black pencil, seductively licking its graphite tip from time to time. Perhaps she records what we watch, what we listen to, what we do, what we eat, including the omelette with possibly expired ham.
Perhaps, she records what you think?
In our small studio, there's nowhere to hide from her, apart from the loo. The loo becomes a sanctuary. Sometimes she looms over us and watches how we lie on a bedding in the corner near the dining table (our bed is occupied by her), reading, or squeezing our head between headphones, listening to the radio and news from another stratum, news about strategic aerial interventions involving explosives performing kinetic precision strikes (or bombing, or shelling), enhanced interrogation techniques and coercive persuasion methods (or tortures), irreversible justice delivery (or executions), none of which are broadcast on the telly. It's hard to determine whether she is aware of what radio stations we listen to, and what the hosts tell us, but even if we lie still embracing the radio and pretending to sleep, we can hear the sound of her pencil scratching the paper, for sometimes it's louder than anything else. Occasionally she watches us frying eggs or cooking oatmeal porridge with water and a pinch of sugar and cautions us not to overcook it, or advises us to be careful with our fingers when we're dismembering a year-old frozen chicken.
—First, you need to lay the chicken on a clean, flat surface.
She's annoying, even though she's merely being caring. We hurry, not waiting for her instructions. The knife slips and cuts our hand leaving a long trail of blood on the cutting board and on the chicken. The tap water is cold and the sensation oddly soothes.
—Start with the wings. Find the joint where the wing connects to the body. Carefully cut through the joint and set the wing aside. Repeat this step with the other wing.
That was elementary. Dismembering 101.
—Next, let's move on to the legs. Like with the wings, find the natural joint between the thigh and the body. It should give way easily if you've found the right spot.
—Repeat with the other leg. Now, you should be left with the chicken breast and back. You'll want to cut along the spine of the chicken, keeping the knife close to the bone. This should leave you with two halves — the breast and the back.
Very, very good! You're a born butcher.
—Lastly, you can split the breast down the middle, and you should have two separate pieces. You can do the same with the back if you wish. And there you have it — a fully dismembered chicken.
There you have it — a fully dismembered chicken covered in your own blood. You should've listened to her from the start.
—Remember, practice makes perfect, so don't be discouraged if you don't get it right the first time,—she finishes and a grin illuminates her kinescope.
Often, we try to ignore her and walk around the house as if she doesn't exist — this is the easiest part, for it's not at all new to us. When we collapse into a settee to watch the telly, she stands like a watchtower next to us, observes and comments. If the telly malfunctions and gets static, she comes over and gently adjusts the two long telescopic antennae, just like hers. If that doesn't help, she would slap the telly with her hand, the static would disappear, and she would say "lovely", softly caress the telly, and go back to her position next to us. After a certain period of cohabitation, she turns on the telly in the early morning and turns it off late at night, keeping it on during the day. If we try to turn it off, she waggles her index finger, turns it back on again, and scribbles some note. So, the telly broadcasts incessantly, throughout our slumbering hours, and perhaps, would broadcast even at night, but none of the government channels have things to show at night.
For the majority of instances, excluding old historical pictures, the television exudes effusions of a special life, bearing more resemblance to a conglomeration of obstinate asininities.
(THE OLD GENTLEMAN in a wig appears on the screen.)
OLD GENTLEMAN: Our other "humanist" and, pardon the expression, "equalist" neighbours…
(At the word "humanist" the audience gasps, and at the word "equalist" they gasp doubly, either with shock or disgust.)
OLD GENTLEMAN: …refuse to relinquish our plutonium and copium and are boycotting our economy, whilst they are themselves in the deepest economic crisis. For them, it seems, their — again, please forgive me — made-up "humanist" principles are more important than the well-being of their citizens. At a time when our economy is demonstrating slight negative growth due to external pressures from the Collective South, they live in absolute chaos and their population is slowly descending into savagery and beginning to conform, it seems to me, to the level of their Satanic ideals.
(The audience laughs)
OLD GENTLEMAN: We now have our guest, a professor of economics and culture with us. Hello, professor!
(The television picture splits in two and a rotund man with a pink mug appears to the right of the old gentleman.)
PROFESSOR: Greetings! Thank you for having me on your splendid show once again.
OLD GENTLEMAN: Of course, esteemed professor, sir. Tell us, what is the situation in the mainland South now?
PROFESSOR: The situation is deplorable, to put it mildly. In addition to a noticeable economic decline, and quite a severe one indeed, there has also been a cultural transformation, affecting even the most basic domestic changes. People are being advised to do less laundry, use fewer household appliances, wash less, and now, one of the recent innovations, dictated among other things by their economic insolvency, citizens are being encouraged to eat insects. Packs of worms, flies, and house cockroaches are already available in their grocery shops.
(The audience gasps.)
OLD GENTLEMAN: Don't they even have cockroaches at home if they have to go to the shop to buy them?
PROFESSOR: That's exactly my point. Shocking, isn't it?
OLD GENTLEMAN: Absolutely shocking. Are they prepared to give up their favourite rare steak and “foie gras” in favour of... that? It's hard to believe, professor.
PROFESSOR: Truth is always hard to believe. It's heralded as an innovation and an achievement of the food industry! You'll be even more astounded to learn that slug tartare is now considered an exquisite delicacy there.
OLD GENTLEMAN: Ugh!
PROFESSOR: Yes, ugh indeed. I had to try it.
OLD GENTLEMAN: And how was it?
PROFESSOR: Absolutely unbearable.
OLD GENTLEMAN: Unbearable. How do they endure over there?
PROFESSOR: Well, it's not what you'd call a utopia, that's for sure.
(The audience is ecstatic. The old gentleman bids farewell to the professor and invites the next guest, a pallid man dressed entirely in black with short black hair and the countenance of an undertaker. Here follows a fragment of his speech:)
PROPAGANDOID: Our humanist pundits and dissidents are slinging mud in our Novo Czarstvo, working off the money paid to them by the Collective South. These dissidents exist on their imperialist money and are pliant puppets to their overseas masters; it is no secret that all so-called “reformists” — the enemies of our state — are financed by the plutocratic imperialists, living off its handouts, and so does anyone who takes to the streets with a banner or makes a snow angel against our ongoing peacemaking operation in Slobodna Zembla. All snow angels are fallen angels!
(While the propagandoid is speaking, the telly is showing how young people are being arrested by the police. The image cuts to the same young people making snow angels in front of the government building, then cuts again to the same young people sitting in the police patrol car, their hands cuffed.)
PROPAGANDOID: Not wanting peace equals wanting war. These elements are the real traitors, they are the spies and scouts of the Collective South in our country, they wish for the defeat of our army and an immediate attack of the enemy on our sacred island! They have even conspired about how, if anyone invades our great island, to surrender and surrender their homeland at once! Our Czar and I have already spoken of the surging swell of patriotism that will not allow anyone to play our country and never, that will not allow treason to be plotted in our home with impunity, that for every step of this dastardly treason will demand retribution, with their heads, with the life of a traitor! They are preparing treason, they are preparing to open the borders of our country to terrorists from Slobodna Zembla, they are ready to open wide the gates to a foreign invader, but they want to portray this affair as if it were a dark deed of some other, foreign hands! And this they call their supposedly genuine patriotism. Their game is exposed! The mask of treachery has been torn from their faces once and for all!
(The propagandoid receives a round of applause and disappears. The programme ends, giving way to another one. A pig-nosed general with rubicund complexion, small black eyes and protruding ears comes out, standing in front of a black and red flag with a large white bird resembling an angry pigeon. The pigeon's claws are empty, but its muzzle and extended claws make it feel like the bird is about to grab at someone's throat.)
PIG-NOSED GENERAL: Today our troops destroyed one thousand three hundred and fifty-four terrorists, thirty-three tanks, six aircraft, fifty-seven pieces of combat equipment. After attacks on several of our peacekeepers' positions, smoke, somewhat reminiscent of flames, was created and a decision was made to tactically regroup. Thirteen fighters were reported missing, the rest are safe and sound. The situation at the front is difficult but not critical. We have already dispatched dozens of combat units and a fully manned battalion of soldiers ready to defend our island.
(On the screen, clattering among the fields, appears a military train transporting myriad of black tanks with white doves painted on them. The scene cuts to a priest consecrating the tanks by dousing them in holy water.)
JOURNALIST: How are we going to respond to Slobodna Zembla’s escalating support from the Collective South?
PIG-NOSED GENERAL: Armed with the courage and professionalism of our peacekeepers.
JOURNALIST: How long will the mobilisation last?
PIG-NOSED GENERAL: There is no mobilisation as such. We are sending a request to the Czar for approval to send reserves to the front, but these reserves must sometimes be replaced. Fortunately, this is not required at the moment, but we will inform you as soon as that happens.
(Then follows an interview with the rocket operator who, it appears, is one of those in charge of ensuring the rockets keep hitting the cities of Slobodna Zembla every day. He doesn't resemble an archetypical military man, but more an archetypical scholar of mathematics and physics, a thin intellectual lost within his spacious clothes, wearing slightly tinted spectacles that people often wear in the hope that the light from a computer screen won't scorch out their pupils. His skin appears somewhat ruddy with a purplish hint. On his head, there’s a beret, even indoors, as if to conceal something beneath it. Amidst the perpetual senile stream, the fellow makes an impression of someone who has something interesting to say, the significance of which will not evaporate after every sentence, although there’s a ninety nine per cent chance that the interview with him, like with everyone else, is scripted.)
INTERVIEWER: Why did you decide to become a military man?
ROCKETEER: Well, because this way I can demonstrate my patriotism through actions rather than words, right? Everyone can boast about how much they cherish their motherland and would do anything for it, but what's the point in talking?
INTERVIEWER: That's true. And why a rocketeer specifically, if I may ask?
ROCKETEER: I have been fascinated by geography since I was a child. I remember spreading a map of the entire archipelago on the floor and exploring Novo Czarstvo and the other islands. In those moments there was nowhere to tread in our compact flat without stepping on the map, and my mother would always grumble, though she was generally supportive of my hobby. I know all the cities in the archipelago if you fancy a game.
(The rocketeer smiles revealing gingival embrasures between his upper front teeth.)
INTERVIEWER: Could you describe your day to us, what your work’s like?
ROCKETEER: I have to admit, it might seem incredibly monotonous for most people. Some even question, "What type of soldier are you?"
INTERVIEWER: Well, they are undoubtedly wrong.
ROCKETEER: Yes, it's rockets that win wars, not bullets any longer.
INTERVIEWER: I concur. So...
ROCKETEER: Most of the day, you have to hunch over maps, radars, typing instructions and coordinates into the computer, always with a radio at hand, waiting for directives or relaying them. Just like that. Once the computer has calculated everything, I ensure the calculations are accurate, press the button, and the rockets soar.
(The rocketeer performs a gesture akin to sending a spoonful of porridge to a child’s mouth.)
INTERVIEWER: How precise are your missiles?
ROCKETEER: The calculations are highly accurate, but as for the missiles... it varies based on the type.
INTERVIEWER: Well, you always hit some target eventually!
ROCKETEER: That's correct. Say "where," and we'll deliver.
(The rocketeer chuckles. The interviewer repeats after him.)
INTERVIEWER: Is it true that Slobodna Zembla is shelling itself?
ROCKETEER: Not Slobodna Zembla, but the terrorists who have taken root there. A military junta. They're the ones shelling.
INTERVIEWER: What if the Collective South joins those terrorists...
ROCKETEER: Well, they're already providing them with weapons. Where do you think they got the missiles?
INTERVIEWER: I meant physically, fully involved. What if they declare war against us? Would we be able to retaliate then?
ROCKETEER: We have a bomb, a massive bomb, the most bombastic bomb, a device with absolute lethal capacity that guarantees an absolute hit.
INTERVIEWER: "The Peace Bringer".
INTERVIEWER: Will you be guiding it?
ROCKETEER: I don't think so. It's dropped off a plane.
INTERVIEWER: Wow! That's truly fascinating.
ROCKETEER: Fascinating, yes.
INTERVIEWER: Two final questions... What do you like most about your job?
ROCKETEER: This might seem odd, but I suppose it's the fact that I can be here in Novo Czarstvo. Even though I'm in the military, you could say I work “remotely”, ha-ha. In the evening after work, I can return home, kiss my wife, hug my daughter, open an atlas with her and study the maps. I love maps and all that, and I impart this love to my daughter too. Perhaps she'll grow up to be a rocket scientist as well. It's a straightforward job if you possess a sharp mind. They say that girls are very welcomed there.
INTERVIEWER: Excellent. What's the most annoying thing about the profession?
ROCKETEER: I suppose that sometimes I have to work during the night.
WE: A soldier must have at least a semblance of a brain to understand that attacking another country, shelling it, destroying cities is not a protection of the Motherland. Is it, Rocketeer? Is it? Answer!
But the rocketeer doesn't answer, for he cannot hear us on the other side of the telescreen.
(An old man from the Novo Czarstvo Secret Service, NCSS, a general, in full dress uniform, decorated with a dazzling array of medals, akin to New Year fir tree festooned with glittering ornaments, stands in front of the podium.)
NCSS GENERAL: We possess reliable information about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Slobodna Zembla. To prove that, we demonstrate this (he shows off a vial with red sludge in front of the audience). This is the chemical weapon being developed a few hundred kilometres away from us. Our security agency found out that bio-laboratories supervised by the Collective South have conducted experiments involving the causative agents of avian influenza, plague, swine fever, anthrax, cholera, tularemia, brucellosis, Northern fever, hantaviruses, tick-borne encephalitis virus, leptospirosis, rabies, and other exotic diseases, including even ones of a sexual kind. Some say this vial may even turn one into a demon! Tests were conducted by their terrorist government on their own civilians, including women and children. At the same time, work has been underway to develop technical means to deliver other combat pathogens to the battlefield, chemicals that will be used against us on our land one day.
In desperate attempts to shorten the interminable day, we collapse onto our mattress and vigorously rest, but sleep evades us. Our mind is busy with itself, with what it has seen, with what it wants to see but never will. We don our headphones and fire up the radio, tuning into one of the stations where, as we wish to believe, Truth still lingers and reality takes an entirely different shape, a horrid abomination of hideous monstrosity.
You want to hear about something gruesome and daunting, something vile and excruciating—a fallen rocket in a playground, executed prisoners, cities and villages, wiped out from the map, snowy fields strewn with unidentifiable bodies, rivers of blood mixed with dirt and snow.
It's not a pursuit for escape, but rather something that might be its opposite—a wish to be there at the core of it, to touch upon the sharp edges of Truth and suffer at least the smallest portion of real suffering.
Anguish is all we want.
The light is an illusion.
We hold out hope for something even worse; something capable of bringing an abrupt end to it all, so endful that even nothing won’t exist anymore. Yet, there are no new reports, no broadcasts, no static noise. Instead, there, a soothing, serene symphony plays—a lullaby whose composer and title are obscure to us, but we're sure we've heard it somewhere; so sure, it feels as if we wrote it ourselves, sent it to the radio station on an old tape, then forgot about it, and now it found us. A gentle melody tinkles from the piano keys, summoning a whiff of nostalgia. The left hand marks a consistent rhythm that guides the right hand in a graceful waltz. The music swells, filling the room with numerous notes and chords, weaving a tapestry of sound as rich and lush as a summer meadow. It then veers into a minor key, injecting a drop of bitterness, grows expressive, twists and turns, brimming with chromatic unpredictability, crescendos, the piano bids goodbye with a soft and delicate touch, leaving behind a faint trace of emotions—a beauty birthed from bitterness, recedes and returns to its original theme, looping in the melancholy. Yet, something's strange about it—as if one key in the upper register fails to sound, inducing discomfort in the listener, making them miss a heartbeat, and leaving behind the eerie, enduring echo of each evaded note
You are in the long corridor where all the bulbs have extinguished. Doors flank the corridor, reminiscent of a dormitory, all decidedly shut. A distant drip-drop titillates the ear. A draught slithers along the floor. The same symphony resonates from a door before you. You approach it, press your ear to the keyhole, confirming that the music originates from within, and pull at the handle— it creaks open.
Inside the stark white room a grand black piano presides, and on its lid a red skipping-rope without handles dangles. Behind the instrument, raised on stools, a duet of a boy and a girl plays the symphony. The girl, adorned with pigtails and wearing a white dress, sits on the left; the slick-haired boy in a white suit and a red bow tie sits on the right. Registering your presence, the boy and the girl give a gentle glance, bestow a smile, but continue to play, unabated. Careful to minimise the creaking, you close the door, return to the corridor, and again shuffle towards the bright light.
At the corridor's far end, a cold, luminescent light emanates, and you see
She shrugs off her garments, and the light behind her, playing with abstractions, illuminates her naked and nonchalant silhouette.
She’s indescribably beautiful. She tempts us to trail. We open our mouths and
Shhh! Don’t say anything. Just follow the light.
The symphony, oddly, doesn't fade away as you distance yourself from the room with the children and move through the corridor Truthwards.
We wish we had a body like hers.
You’ll never have a body like hers.
Suddenly, the right adjacent door to Truth comes off its hinges, and a TVR walks out from it, heels clattering. Immediately, TVR assaults Truth with her bare knuckles and the luring light behind them starts flashing, blinding you. You hear grunts and growls. Fending off a few blows, Truth lunges at the antagonistic TVR, forces her to the floor, fists flailing. TVR defends herself with elbows, seeking to dislodge her opponent.
The piano keeps conjuring the symphony. All other sounds cease. The light brightens, transforming the brawling figures into two shadowy silhouettes, akin to dancing marionettes in a shadow play.
Abruptly, TVR wrestles back control, throwing Truth off, and retrieves from her pocket a garrotte — you somehow recognise it — crafted from red skipping-rope handles and a piano string, and commences the throttling.
Truth flails desperately, grasping at the hands of TVR, legs convulsing in a futile struggle, but after several breathless moments of resistance, she is quietly quelled.
From atop the vanquished body, TVR rises like a seasoned assassin. After surveying it for a moment, she then turns her gaze towards you. Frozen mid-corridor, you are paralysed and lack resistance. With exaggerated patience, TVR advances towards you, not stopping until she reaches your position. From her pocket, she produces a syringe, injects it into your arm, and in a moment, you sense how the red sludge silently seeps into your vein.