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Excerpt: Semmant by Vadim Babenko

Chapter 3

At that time, unusual children were the subject of much talk. Their eyes, overly intense and vivid, were mentioned quite often – as was their skill in sensing each other from a distance, and their own language, made up of interjections, which they did not shed until early adolescence. Myths circulated, and one of them was so promising that some governments decided to invest quite a bit of money in us. Of course, this was no act of charity: these people were pure pragmatists. The idea was to create a special breed, a regiment of obedient geniuses who would later be able to pay society back in full. The millions being spent were supposed to reap benefits a hundred-fold. Someone, I guess, genuinely believed that.

They brought us from everywhere, and, to their credit, put a lot of effort into us. The project was massive and not intended to be done half way. The director of the facility met each child personally at the main entrance. I can still recall his narrow face and his troubled, ailing look. And I remember something else: everyone always called him simply the Director. Proper names were just not fitting, for him or for the School.

“Hello,” he said to me quietly. “We will try to make you happy.”

For some reason, it was hard to put much faith in his words.

I didn’t believe him, but I was wrong; they all tried as best as they could. We were treated with cautious dread, as if we were overly complicated playthings. They crammed a mass of knowledge into our brains, and we were eager to learn. But playing in each youngster’s head was his own music, the beating of his own pulse, which was, in fact, encouraged. On the wall of the dining common there was even a sign that read: Do not be like everybody else! And there was another one in the assembly hall, confronting us with the question: Do you have a mission? In slightly smaller script, as if in clarification, was one more: What do you do best?

These were the rules that defined our lives at the School. Clearly, they drilled their way into us forever. I really don’t know what clever tactics were supposed to turn us into team players. Any way you slice it, that idea sounds impractical and just plain stupid. However, top brass saw it differently. They had their own plan, and they conducted training exercises and special games with us. The shrinks worked in turns and called us in for short sessions every few days. We regarded this as a necessary evil.

Sometimes, the Director spoke before us, in person. At those meetings, he was a different man – the morose, self-consumed functionary would be transfigured into a veritable prophet. He would talk in impassioned detail about our extraordinary future. About how they were going to form us into an organized force, something like a Foreign Legion, to induce bloodless intellectual blitzkriegs. He drew diagrams and schematics linked with arcs and arrows to show how they were all connected. He inscribed small squares to indicate the headquarters, reservists, support center, and mobilized groups. United and structured, we would be capable of anything. Even the most complex problems would bend to our will in the shortest time!

He truly burned with the thought of it; it was obvious this project meant a lot to him. We could see he knew how to dream, and that worked in his favor. Of course, his goal was unobtainable. But one should never demand too much from a goal.

They probably should have hung something else in the dining hall, but even that would not have made much difference. When we grew up it became clear: every one of us was insubordinate beyond measure. The Foreign Legion of Indigo would issue forth as a band of loners who could not take orders. On top of that, some of us – children with overly vivid eyes – fell into a depression that was anything but childish, despite our young, happy-go-lucky years. And we weren’t the least bit grateful – not to society or anybody else.

One way or another, the School was ingrained in our very being. That squat, gray building just outside of Brighton, with the leaden waves rolling in beside it, forever carved into my mind. Wide corridors, staircases with banisters polished to a blinding sheen. The enormous rectangular courtyard, the athletic field, the covered natatorium… Sports were taken seriously there, as is typical for Brits. I wasn’t bad at boxing, and was a fast swimmer. Later, I developed a passion for lawn tennis. I would disappear for hours on the court, and after two years I had no equal. Sometimes I even outplayed the instructor – a brawny German with a very strong serve.

Sleeping quarters occupied the first floor, with the men on one side, the women on the other. The invisible boundary was guarded by Paul, who was half-blind. It required no effort whatsoever to take advantage of him, which we did, even though our amusements then were still very innocent.

All five years I lived in the corner room with the same three roommates. We got on well, although for some reason we never became friends. To tell the truth, we didn’t have much to do with each other. There weren’t many conversations, either – instead, each of the four of us found comfort in the mutual silence. That’s why, year after year, and without discussing it at all, we continued to live together.

I only got a little closer to one of them: Thomas, from Ötztal. It was Thomas in particular who would later play an important role. As for the School, he and I talked sometimes about sports or the mountain slopes. I taught him the topspin backhand, which he had difficulty mastering. He, in turn, educated me on the proper techniques for freeride and slalom. Brighton had neither mountains nor snow, but somehow I knew: there were skis in my future. And I trained diligently by adapting a skateboard to the purpose.

On the upper floor were the classrooms where we were taught everything by teachers who, like us, had been handpicked with great precision. Their task was clear: to push us from the shallow end of the pool into the depths. Not just to get our feet wet, but to throw us in head first, without holding back because of our age or the difficulty of the subject.

There were a lot of science classes, all mixed together. Our heads were filled with a hodgepodge of knowledge for us to sort out on our own. Now I know: many of those theories could not be grasped, no matter how you might try – unless you knew the complex mathematics with which they did not risk torturing us. But we tried anyway in some kind of excited frenzy. We even at times startled the teachers, who were not easily surprised.

By my sixteenth year, I had learned in minute detail many things that ended up being useless to me. I knew what caused killer waves and how eukaryotic ribosomes functioned, what leptons and baryons were – as well as metabolism and quark-gluon plasma. I could explain to anyone the Pareto principle and the structure of the Mayan language, the stages of subduction of the earth’s crust, the endless contradiction in the law of double negation. With Bradley, our astrophysicist, I discussed the properties of neutron stars and even pulsars competently enough. I could calculate the gas density of red giants in distant galaxies. In my notebook, I drew light cones and gravity-distorted Riemann spheres. Every scientific subject occupied a spot in our schedules; there was no clemency, no indulgence. Each teacher thought his discipline was the most important. This is also burned in my memory, just like their faces, their voices. Their passionate, restless devotion.

Some of them made friends with us. On occasion we would go to the shore together and wander over the pebbles crunching beneath our feet, sit on the stones sharpened by the sea. They would invite us to their homes, offer us afternoon tea with tasteless British cakes. They were lonely – each in his own way. They wanted to share with someone, and we met that need like no one else. They relaxed with us; some of them a bit too much. It was as if we drew out their hidden nature, opened up things concealed within. All the same, they seemed like eccentrics to us, nothing more. It was still too early to think of the fearful pressure of the social system.

The administration at the School encouraged these sorts of meetings. It could be they hoped the teachers would replace our families, since many of us had not been home since we were eleven or twelve. On the whole, we respected them – certainly more than our own parents, who had been left behind in countries far and wide. We liked to soak in their experience, even if it was a bit skewed, as if refracted through a tricky lens. And, still, we wanted very much never to become like them.

Nevertheless, we would often imitate them in something – children copying their elders. I, for example, made a badge for myself with an acacia branch on it, just like Bradley had. He told us, “For the Masons, this branch is a symbol of powerful, secret knowledge.” And my mate Thomas, under the gentle tutelage of Montgomery the biochemist, got into Daoism for just under a year. This met a pressing need, since he had been tormented by a fear of death since early childhood. Besides, he, as a Tyrolean, was impressed by the immortal sages removing themselves to the mountains away from earthly vanity.

Both he and Montgomery liked to quote Lao-Tzu, “Mountains, enshrouded in mist: this is the embodiment of harmony that arises from the union of Yin and Yang.” The mantra was naïve, but no one laughed at them. “In my search for the immortal I traversed the five mountains of the land. Their remoteness did not frighten me.” This saying hung above Thomas’s bed. Then the inscription disappeared. And Montgomery was thrown out of the School for drunkenness.

Some of the teachers acted outwardly like rebels – either on the seashore or at home sipping weak tea. They said things – obvious and self-evident, in our eyes – that would have shocked the ideologues of modern Europe. Democracy was attacked from all positions; this seemed bold to them, but, I must admit, their militant ardor had not the slightest effect on us. The fate of the world was the furthest thing from our mind: our own worlds were far more gripping. That’s probably why we felt closest to Greg McCain, a brutal cynic. His notion of boundless egotism recalled something important from the signs on the walls.

“When so much is expected of you, it’s not worth trying to please everyone. That’s foolish and unnecessary.”

“When you expect of yourself even more, you have to seize the most from every day you live.”

“As if tomorrow will be swallowed up in fire, flood, and plague. As if no broad will ever spread her legs for you again. Don’t deny yourself pleasure, dogma be damned. You’re already walking on a razor’s edge as it is…”

He talked like that profusely, puffing on his pipe and laughing in an all-knowing way. And we saw he was not one to be easily confused. “Pleasure” was the watchword in his heated sermons. Everything else served merely as a backdrop. For his own part, he denied himself nothing. This was an instructive example. At least his words were not at odds with his deeds.

The issue of pleasure was worse for us, and then – then everything got scrambled. Lightning struck; all at once, something snapped in three pupils’ brains. In the course of a week, one after the other, some horrible incidents occurred. The shrinks sounded the alarm, obviously desperate to show how necessary they were. Information was leaked to the press, and that was the beginning of the end. The matter was chewed over for quite a while; we were harassed by photographers, reporters, and frigid activists from child protective services. Though by then, there was little about us that resembled children.

Later, the Director gathered us and announced that the founders of the School were washing their hands of it all. They had an excellent reason, true; it was hard to blame them. “But we,” the Director nodded toward a group of dismal people from the administration, “we have decided to fight. We want to finish what we started, whether anybody likes it or not.”

His speech failed to make an impression, though I now understand the considerable risk they were taking. According to the rumors, it was a desperate battle, but nobody doubted the outcome. Problems began with the financing, and programs shut down, teachers deserted. Soon, the School was forced to concede defeat.

This left one question: what to do with us? It took quite a while for them to decide. For several months we lived in timeless limbo – those were strange days. Lessons were reduced, mainly limited to sporting activities. Paul, the almost sightless guard, was removed from the residential area; because of economics, moral concerns were brushed away. It was as if we were suddenly unfettered, and romances sprang up one after another. The first woman in my life also appeared at that time. For a long while, this was my happiest and bitterest memory. I didn’t know what was happening to me, since I did not dare call it love. Again, we grew up in a place without a hint of love. Perhaps this was the single thing that bound us forever.

Then everything was over – somewhat suddenly. The School was turned into a special institute for the deaf. As for us, we were taken one by one by leading universities, where we went and forgot easily – both the School and, curiously enough, each other.

The real world absorbed us and began to change, rebuild, and fit us in. My doctor believes this was my first step toward madness. I know he’s not right, though the procedure has been painful for some of us to endure. Yet, the world is not as strong as it seems; to us, looking from the outside, this was obvious. It’s a shame this wasn’t obvious to the doctor: he might have been more careful in his diagnosis. And of course, more agile in his words, especially regarding my “problem,” as he calls it.

One time I said to him, “We, Indigo children, don’t hold on to offenses. We don’t have time for it, and, besides, it’s boring, insignificant, and unimportant. There’s only one thing we take seriously: what do we do best? If we already know what our genuine calling is, we’re zealous to do it, and damn the rest. If we still don’t know, our quest is to find out as soon as possible. By tirelessly trying one thing after another.”

The doctor liked that. He wrinkled his face contentedly and marked down something in his little sketchpad, hiding the notes from me with the palm of his hand. I decided to help him, to explain in more detail. I told him about the mockery, the lack of money, the misunderstanding – all this inflicts wounds, pretty severely, in fact. But severely here is only according to average nobodies, only by the measurements of those who truly are not capable enough. As for us, we cannot be hurt by such nonsense. We may give in to despondency or despair, but it’s just a momentary weakness. Our true problems only lie where we express ourselves fully. In what we really do best.

I laid all this out for him quite coherently, but he made no attempt to write it down – not a word. He even waved it away, as if he didn’t want to spoil the picture he had already put together. Most likely he was afraid of contradictions, of shaky ground. It seems to me he sometimes doesn’t follow through. He doesn’t want to strain himself – maybe he’s just too lazy. It’s funny to see: he thinks I’m a sociopath. Of course, that’s the easiest way; but to me it’s clear: my “problem” lies somewhere else. Some might claim it’s in naïveté and stubbornness, and they wouldn’t be too far off. Naïveté is at the forefront, that’s true, but I’ll say it again: I was selfless and only wanted the best – judge me now for that. Cast as many stones at me as you like; I admit, I chose hastily, but the choice was logical and simple. An idea as a panacea, a plan complex in nature but comprehensible with the slightest effort – it’s not easy to think up, believe me!

Never despise anyone, our teachers told us again and again. Never despise the weak, the incompetent, the dim-witted. That is unworthy of those who are fortunate, they said; though fortunate depends on who’s looking. No matter what, we learned to bear no malice and not to hold others in contempt. You cannot go against training from early childhood; only for some – the ones who didn’t learn the rules – ire still overflows from their souls. That’s why they’re fruitless – and formless, according to our standards; that is, there’s nothing to distinguish them from all the rest.

But I’m not talking about them. I now mean the weak, the mediocre; I mean those who require little, who are easy to satisfy. Their needs are simple: some kind of fear to repress animal instincts, and a sweet lie – hope – so that the meaninglessness of life does not hurl them into despair every day. There is, as a rule, no lack of fear; the issue is always the sweet lie. And this is where I come in: here is your sweetest of lies. Only this time it’s no lie. It’s the truth.

Really, what could be more desirable? What could be more understandable than the ghost of freedom – from creditors and loans, from boring jobs and low wages, from the full-court press of the world that leans in with all its might and squeezes hard until it wrings out your juices? How symbolic it is to restrain the world’s power using its most insatiable essence, looking straight into the most evident of its various faces. How right and deserved this is: to establish the means of salvation from its malicious sins! To overturn the greed of the ruthless despots, their aggressive hubris, their desire to waylay another, to stomp him down, crush him, obliterate him…

So, it’s not surprising that I am now in an insane asylum. All the same, I’m not offended. I can always take solace in the simplest of facts: there is no point in my being ashamed of what’s happened to me. Just like Semmant has no reason to be ashamed of what he’s done. Or of what I did for him. Or of what the two of us didn’t get a chance to do.

And yes, I’ll tell you, finally, what he is. He’s a robot, nothing more – a program installed in an iron heart. But his own heart is by no means made of iron – so there’s no cause to look down on him. There’s no cause to resort to contempt, even if your teachers didn’t reproach you for that. In the end, every individual is the way the installed program makes him. And if nothing is installed – well, then, it’s unfortunate, very bad luck.

My Semmant is the most sophisticated program, nearly indistinguishable from a human being, especially if you work with him a bit. Because you need to work on a person to awaken what is human in him. Otherwise, everyone is just – I’ll say it nicely – such senseless cattle!

But in Semmant, at least, the program was flawless. Almost flawless. Almost.

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Genre – Literary Fiction

Rating – NC17

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Website http://www.vadimbabenko.com/

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