The couple dances on the stage in silence. The lights dim gently, shrouding them with shadow. Suddenly they stop, a living statue of affliction. The audience holds its breath. The moment seems to go on forever. They wish it would never end.
But the dancers break it, shatter it to pieces. They move.
The viewers can’t see their faces, but they know. One of the men is dying; the other mourns him.
Tears run down the faces of the audience. Quiet music fills the room, tinkling against their poor, overexcited nerves. They stare at the stage helplessly.
But the tone changes, and a tiny speck of hope appears as the lying performer extends his arms to his mourning partner with the first uplifting tones. They both fling themselves into the air and dance frantically, as if they are not touching the stage beneath their feet at all.
The music culminates. The dancers freeze.
The audience holds its breath.
Complete silence falls.
Afterwards, the clapping seems without end. Finally, shaken, exhausted, and overwhelmed, the people start to leave the auditorium.
They tell their friends and families that the experience was perfect but do not venture to say more. They can’t find the right words. They know it was real and important and, in a way, more full of life than their actual lives; but they’d never quite wrap it in sentences.
They will all remember. Some will go back when they close their eyes, reliving the surreal moments. Some will find themselves obsessed with visiting the theater again. And again. And again.
For some of them, it might even change their whole lives.
Jakob collapses on the bed. He is breathing heavily, streams of sweat running down his forehead. He closes his eyes, but he can’t sleep despite his exhaustion. The mediators are still working.
“You were fantastic,” Dominic whispers and brushes his face gently. Jakob knows Dominic is tired too, both physically and emotionally, but Dominic always copes better than him. After all, the show is all he has ever lived for.
Van Leeuwen appears backstage, grinning. “Congratulations! You completely blew the Moranians’ minds!”
“Not that hard,” murmurs Jakob.
Van Leeuwen sneers and produces two pills from his left pocket. “There. You’ll feel back to normal sooner than you realize.”
Jakob takes the pill from his boss and swallows it. His exhaustion begins to drift away, leaving him with the pleasant weariness and satisfaction of a job well done. He can finally fall asleep.
“Sleep tight,” says Dominic and kisses him on the forehead, but Jakob is dreaming already.
A familiar scene is unfolding in his mind, a memory from a couple of months ago.
In the evening, after an especially demanding performance, he and Dominic are resting on a terrace high above a strange, shining city beneath three beautifully illuminated moons. The sight is captivating. Jakob doesn’t realize the director has stepped outside the flat until he speaks.
“I finally obtained permission to perform on Morana,” says Van Leeuwen casually. “We’re scheduled there two months from now.”
Jakob’s heart skips a beat.
“Aren’t you happy? I thought you wanted to go there,” Van Leeuwen continues. “It took quite a few greased pockets to get us past all the restrictions.”
“Of course.” Jakob collects himself. “I’m very grateful to you.”
“Good. You should be,” Van Leeuwen says. Jakob can hear the unspoken: You’d better be.
Dominic presses Jakob’s hand. “I’m glad for you.”
“I just . . . I didn’t expect it right now.”
“Don’t worry.” Dominic smiles. “We’ll show them how proper theater is done. They’ll love us. And you’ll finally see her again, after all these years.”
The morning after their first performance on Morana, Jakob wakes before Dominic. He slips quietly from their room and heads to the river. A small motor boat is waiting. Jakob buys a ticket and sits on the upper deck, alone. From time to time, he glances at the stairs leading there; the sting of fear never quite goes away.
The rising sun barely penetrates the cold fog lingering above the river. He can hear voices from the nearby market, smell the cooking food, and imagine the people arguing over the prices. He can imagine himself walking there, as if it were yesterday.
They bounce off the shore finally, leaving the tall sleek towers of the city behind as they continue upstream. The upper deck is still empty except for him.
Jakob lets out a sigh of relief, lies down on the bench, and watches the sky of bright green branches flow above him. Everything is tranquil. He wishes it could stay this way—his voyage on the river continuing forever, no more of Van Leeuwen, dancing, memories, anything.
You were always dreaming such impossible dreams, weren’t you?
An hour later, the boat docks in Minka.
The town hasn’t changed much in fifteen years. It’s still quiet, simple, suffocating, even more so than when he left it. Since then, he has visited other worlds, seen life elsewhere. When he called the system of Morana restricting all those years ago, he had no idea what restriction meant.
He can see them differently now, all these strangely normal people—no augments, no trendy modifications, not even something as innocent as bioluminescent tattoos. When he was growing up, calling for a change was just a pose. Nowadays he can understand why it’s necessary. But he still can’t do anything.
Except, maybe, saving at least one of them.
In his plain clothes, Jakob moves through Minka without attracting unwanted attention. Finally, he arrives at a small single-story house. His throat feels dry. After fifteen years of forced exile, he has returned home. He’d thought he was prepared for the sight of it, but he was wrong.
He forces himself to walk to the door and ring the bell.
The seconds tick by. Jakob concludes she isn’t home, and turns reluctantly to leave, but the door opens.
“What can I—” The woman stares in astonishment. “Oh my god, Jakob . . . Is it really you?”
“Yes, it’s me, Olga,” he manages to say. He blinks to force the sudden tears away.
She collects herself first. “Come in! They can’t see you here!”
They are silent for a while. Olga busies herself with making tea. He watches her back while she stands in the kitchen. Her movements are somewhat jerky.
No wonder, he thinks, she hadn’t expected to see him again in her lifetime, and here he is, ringing the doorbell without any previous announcement, an exiled criminal, the man who had protested and almost brought his younger sister down with him.
“How are the parents?”
He has to ask.
She freezes. “Well,” she says finally, “I don’t see them much. They’re both living in the city. In separate flats. But I’m not allowed to leave Minka—as you know.”
So they never pardoned her, even after all these years, even though she was just seventeen when they started the campaign. It shouldn’t come to him as a surprise.
Olga brings the steaming cups to the table and sits across from him. Jakob tries to make small talk, to find out what has changed—as if he doesn’t know that nothing ever changes on Morana if the government can do anything about it.
“Stop talking about my life here; I’m sick of it. Tell . . . tell me about yourself. How did you even get here?” asks Olga.
“I’m with Van Leeuwen’s Traveling theater of Life. It’s a small enterprise focused on connecting with the audience emotionally.”
“What does that mean?”
“The audience receives mood mediators—as do we. We just get a higher dose with slightly different contents. It enables us to give a completely different performance each time. Some people follow us wherever we go and are willing to pay thousands so they don’t miss one. When we’re on the stage, we’re not actually acting . . . we dance a story that comes to us. It’s hard to describe. It’s like we’re living it—in a world where everything is expressed with motion. Van Leeuwen can play with the lights and music to emphasize our dance. People in the audience think they can feel our experiences, go through a piece of life along with us. Well, it’s popular on some worlds. It was hard to get it here on Morana.”
Olga laughs bitterly. “Yes, I can see that. I’m surprised they even allowed you to come.”
“Van Leeuwen can get his way if he wants to.”
“And does he know . . .”
“Yes. Don’t worry, he won’t tell anyone. He’d only get himself into trouble for bringing me back here.”
“Even if he doesn’t talk, you shouldn’t have come back. You’re risking everything. What if Father finds out? He’ll denounce you the moment he sees you.”
Jakob forces himself to smile reassuringly. “He won’t find out. Even if I wasn’t married to Dominic and hadn’t changed my name, I’ve got new papers. Van Leeuwen arranged it. The system didn’t recognize me after we landed. It’s safe.”
He sees her smile briefly when he mentions his marriage. It warms him.
“But still . . . what if he comes to the theater and sees you?”
“Him? At the theater?” Jakob shakes his head. “He’d never attend.”
Eventually he manages to calm Olga. He doesn’t even have to lie. His father is too scared of the regime to visit the theater. What if the venue—despite the permission to perform—breached the law?
“You said you were married. Congratulations.” She allows herself a little smile again.
“Thank you. We met in the theater. We always perform together. In this type of art, you form an attachment to the person you act with, but I’d be lying if I said it was just that. Dominic helped me. I was a wreck after I was exiled and had to leave without even saying goodbye properly . . .”
She nods bitterly.
“Olga, I’ll take you away from here as I promised long ago, away from this wretched world. You’ll finally be free.”
His sister smiles sadly. “I hope so.”
“We have a final performance tomorrow evening and after it, we’re leaving Morana for other worlds. I’ll come for you. Van Leeuwen will take you aboard under the condition that you’ll work for him too, but I’ll make sure you won’t. I can’t allow it.”
“You look quite worn out. But is it that bad?”
“It’s . . .” Jakob struggles for words. “Each time, it’s like someone robs you of a tiny part of yourself. You change. The performances start blending into your real life. I’ve seen retired artists from other similar enterprises. They’re like empty shells. They have gradually forgotten who they were.”
They’re like puppets, he thinks, but he doesn’t say it aloud. Olga seems concerned enough now; he doesn’t want her to worry about him.
Later that day, he’s back in the city, walking through a park with Dominic. They talk quietly under the blossoming magnolias.
“Van Leeuwen will never allow you to quit,” says Dominic. “You have a debt to pay. And it’s never going to go away, you know that. With every favor, it’ll just increase.”
“We’ll run away then, all three of us together. Van Leeuwen’s reach extends far but even he cannot try to find us on every possible world. We could change our identities, start anew. There’s no other solution.”
Dominic stops. For a moment, he averts his gaze to a small pond before looking at Jakob again. He says: “You’re really serious, aren’t you?”
“And nothing can change your mind?”
“Not a thing.”
Dominic smiles. “All right. That’s what I needed to hear.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Van Leeuwen’s Traveling theater of Life! Prepare to be absorbed by the performance, to be astonished, shocked, saddened, cheered up! Experience a brand new element of life, unlike anything you can imagine!”
Van Leeuwen is handing out the pills, with an unwavering, broad, professional smile. The cocktail adjusts itself to the physiology of each member of the audience. It sharpens their senses, enhances their emotional experiences, suppresses their analytical thinking, and increases empathy. The contents, released gradually, induce increased susceptibility to specific emotions in a given order. Sometimes he decides to engulf them in deep sadness first and then bring them through various feelings to startling joy, sometimes he chooses a more elaborate mix. Not always does the audience leave his theater happy, but they always leave satisfied.
The room is crowded, every seat taken. Jakob watches the audience nervously from behind the curtain. It may well be his last performance. But soon, any nervousness will go away. He’s starting to feel the effects already.
Dominic taps him on the shoulder. “It’s time for the second dose.”
Jakob nods. There go any doubts and unwanted feelings . . .
They are already gone when he hears Van Leeuwen loudly announcing: “Dear ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Jakob and Dominic Baudin!”
In the slowly dimming lights, they dance onto the stage.
The audience inadvertently holds its breath.
Like every time before. Always different, always the same. We cannot escape it.
Dominic looks astonishing as he moves elegantly with all the apparent ease of an artist.
A brief thought flickers through Jakob’s mind, the notion that he has never seen anyone or anything more beautiful. A sweet desire to be closer to him, to learn all he can about him, fills Jakob’s heart.
Though they don’t realize it, every person in the audience is smiling.
Even the dancers are. Jakob catches sight of Dominic’s warm smile. Never anything more beautiful.
Suddenly he staggers. The audience flinches. The mood changes rapidly.
Something is happening. The joy and curiosity are pouring away from him. Jakob grasps at them, desperately trying to catch the remnants. The audience watches his struggle breathlessly, their gazes fixed firmly upon him.
He feels like he’s drowning. He stretches his arms toward Dominic who is his only chance of rescue.
But Dominic pulls away, his face distorted with sudden disgust, his movements angry. Jakob’s surprise, as he slowly loses the battle, is soon replaced with rage.
And then he’s free, the terrible feeling gone, and he’s dancing towards Dominic. The audience has never seen any ire more real than what they’re seeing now, and most of them probably never will again. They watch his quick, passionate motion with exasperation.
If Jakob was himself at the moment, he wouldn’t succumb to any of it. But he isn’t. That’s the point of the life theater. He becomes the kind of person the precisely mixed cocktail of mediators awakes within him. He’s barely aware of the music growing louder, like thunder, or of stopping unexpectedly as he and Dominic come to stand opposite each other for a second.
The performance changes into a vivid portrayal of despair and rage. It’s hardly a dance anymore; it becomes a fight. The dancers barely touch each other, but each movement seems like a fatal blow.
It is exquisite.
Van Leeuwen watches them with satisfaction from behind the velvet curtain.
The excited clapping goes past Jakob like a dream. He staggers from the stage, his heart racing, blood pounding in his ears.
The show is still getting the better of him. He barely realizes who he is, but he remembers that he has to go now. He has to fetch Olga and take her off this wretched, god forsaken planet.
With that thought in mind, Jakob rushes to the door outside.
The pounding in his head increases. Darkness dims his vision, swallowing him whole.
When Jakob wakes up, it takes him a few minutes to remember what happened. He must have fainted from the exhaustion. But why didn’t anyone wake him up or move him to the bed? Maybe they had things to sort out before the flight and hadn’t found him yet, he concludes.
He crawls to a table, drinks a glass of water, swallows a couple of stimulant pills, and hurries outside. He’s been out for almost forty minutes, which means he has to catch a later boat than he planned. But he still has enough time to bring Olga back.
The journey to Minka elapses in a haze. He comes to awareness just as he stands in front of Olga’s door. He chimes the bell.
Nothing. He rings it a second time. Still no response.
With a shaking hand, he tries the door. It isn’t locked.
“Olga?” he calls.
Jakob freezes as he enters the living room. “Oh, sister,” he whispers in horrified disbelief.
She’s lying face up in the center of the room. Her gray eyes are dim and still, the tone of her skin far paler than ever before. A pool of thick, dark blood has formed under her body.
Then he sees Dominic crouched on a chair in the corner of the room. He looks up.
“W—what happened?” Jakob breathes, hardly believing the sight in front of him.
Dominic rises and gives him a pleading look. He starts talking slowly and quietly. “You… you were already planning our escape from Van Leeuwen to start a quiet inconspicuous life somewhere. But you never asked me if it was what I wanted. I’m sorry, Jakob, but I can’t leave. The theater is my life. Each time I go on stage, I can truly live. I do something valuable to other people. I show them the meaning of beauty, life that’s more real than the real one. What would I become without that?” He produces a sad, wry smile. “But if I told you, you’d just leave me. I’ve heard you speak of Olga enough to know that you’d pick her. I can’t lose you. I do love you—and I also can’t perform without you.”
Jakob stares at him wordlessly, shaking.
Dominic’s gaze travels to Olga. He swallows hard.
“I tried to persuade her to stay here or at least to join the theater permanently, but she wouldn’t listen, said that you had to leave the show. I got mad. Forgive me. But I had no other choice.”
It’s too much. Jakob’s vision blurs. The pounding in his ears sounds like drums. His throat tightens. Before he knows it, he moves.
He may have killed Dominic, if not for Van Leeuwen plunging into the room and burying a needle into his neck.
Jakob collapses, but Dominic catches him before he touches the ground. He lays Jakob down gently.
“Shh,” Dominic whispers when he sees the panic in Jakob’s eyes. “Everything is going to be all right. You’ll just go to sleep for a while. I called the boss for help as soon as it happened.”
Van Leeuwen smiles briefly.
“When you come to again, we’ll be orbiting a different world and preparing for a new performance. You’ll feel no pain of loss, Van Leeuwen is going to take care of that. Don’t worry, he’s an expert. You’ll be fine and you’ll forgive me. When you wake up, you’ll understand.”
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