Anthony Englisch

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(with Illustration's by FRANUS GRAUEIS)

                               

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Text sample

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BOOK I

(when little robots dream)

 

  

1.The Prophecy

  

“It’s only this age group, I’m dead sure of that,” spoke the man in the long coat woven from bird feathers, at every step swaying from side to side, motley shimmering. He was in a hurry. White, however, was the hair on his head, which he wore in an odd way. At least on the spots where he was still wearing it.

But one could not tell where the skull was bald, whether it had been gone lost in a natural process, due to age, or just shaved off. Maybe a mixture of both. Much too precise was the circle, showing itself to the curious eye, that solely the humorous act of nature could have been the cause. Furthermore, where the skin was bare, it had been lacquered with a kind of red paint.

With a high gloss varnish, reflecting each light beam straight in all directions. Underneath the remaining hair hovered, braided like a plate. Not overly thick, just one or two fingers, but five inches in width. If not fore and aft even a good deal more. So, from a distance, one could almost get the impression the man was wearing a halo.

That, however, would be nothing but big fallacy. The same goes for the second man, to whom these words were addressed and with whom he was discussing vividly while marching through the corridors of the castle.

And ‘marching’ is exactly the right word, for it was not a stroll of wise scholars, perhaps engrossed in an intellectual dispute, forgetting time and space. No, both were focused on the matter. Even if, of course, each had his own view on this, accordingly, pursued a different goal. Which, although diametrically opposed, was still the same in one point. Both wanted to achieve it as fast as possible.

 

At all costs!

 

 

“No, no, my learned colleague, Mr. Ralpanin,” the second man answered now. Probably the same age as the first since his hair was white too and braided in a similar way.

If he wasn’t even born a couple of days earlier. Rising as a suspicion when you take into consideration the state of his coat. Some of the motley feathers were broken and stuck out wildly. Giving a worn, almost tatty impression. In short, it looked shabby.

But perhaps one should not allow such trivialities to irk the mind when assessing the age. Overhasty prejudgments are rendered quickly, mostly with great delight, but rarely withdrawn. Maybe the second man was not as vain as the first. Or he was just poorer and could not so often afford this so important garment for a man of his rank. For solely the seers were permitted to adorn themselves with the iridescent feathers of the birds of Saloga. “It can’t be,” he continued, “You have forgotten the third throw of the bones, unequivocally revealing us a time frame of five years, did you?”

“No, I didn’t!” the first man replied defiantly. “But we’ll know soon in whom of us in this matter the Emperor is willing to put more trust in. In you, my learned colleague, Mr. Valaspun, or in me.”

And no sooner he had uttered this than they stood in front of the high door leading to the throne hall. Their true destination since they had left the level of magicians and seers in the lower city half an hour ago.

And this high door was almost a gate. Which, that’s self-evident, was closely guarded. From the imposing bodyguards of the Emperor. Otherwise, he would have never felt safe. Far too many were after his blood as that his sleep could have promised him peace and bliss. Servitude and drudgery, it was what he demanded from his people. Revenge and death, what they hurled back as an answer. Daily and out from every corner of his empire.

Forsooth, rather strange creatures were now to be seen, which everyone throughout the whole universe simply called Bakone. Adamant and insuperable, they made it impossible to move forward without consent. And in dim light, you almost could think they looked like toilet paper rolls on which someone, perhaps a child, fairly clumsy, had something painted like a face.

Although this comparison is misleading, can only limp, as they were much taller, thirteen feet if not even more, and, in addition, heavily armed. And if one stood right in front of them, as now the two seers, nothing in their faces called to mind the gaiety of felt-tip pens. It was only the shape that was allowing the comparison. Round like circles they were, and incredibly dangerous.

Therefore, appropriate quiet, almost obsequious, the tone of the just with Valaspun addressed was when asking for entry. “Bakone, please step aside. We must see the Emperor forthwith,” he demanded softly. “We have to tell him something of the utmost importance. Something that doesn’t brook any delay in time. Not a split of a second.”

Whereupon one of these terrifying creatures, as if out from nowhere, a single arm grew out of the round belly. Seemingly without a bone, like a fat snake. At its end, three long and slender fingers, holding something like a walkie-talkie. Which, in turn, after a short swaying in midair, was pressed to a blue and yellow mouth, and a few sentences mumbled in. In a language but neither known to one of the two visitors.

That all happened quite quickly. Accordingly, an answer was not long in coming. After this had been inhaled from a big green and orange ear, however, so quietly that the two waiting seers in their dazzling robes were not able to understand just a single word, a second arm popped up. Directly below the first, slightly slimmer and longer. Which with one of its three pointed fingers punched out a numerical code on kind of keyboard on the wall, like it was a safe. Ultimately, prompting the gate to open with a barely audible hiss.

“You are expected by His Highness, the Emperor,” was the brief invitation to enter. In a language now familiar to the two scholars again. Even if it was not the dialect spoken by the upper class in the palace otherwise.

The two did at once as they had been told, for the matter they want to carry forward to the Emperor was, indeed, of such dramatic urgency that it couldn’t wait. Accordingly, their footfalls, echoing in the distance, became even more hastily. Also, because the throne room was so incredibly vast.

To be precise, there has never been a vaster one in the whole universe. It can be expressed in many yards but also confirmed by the fact that the two envoys of fate were now marching past a whole army of Bakone. In pairs, left and right, they lined the way. Like trees of an alley. Overall more than a gross, what is a dozen multiplied by a dozen, if Valaspun had not miscounted. Out of sheer effort, the old man even got into a sweat. And although he struggled hard to keep astride with Ralpanin, he yet dropped behind. On and on. He was probably the older after all.

Thus, it was the other who first felt on his knees in front of the many steps leading straight up to the Emperor’s throne and spoke, “I am so sorry to badger your majesty, but we both come in the name of a matter of paramount importance, forthwith requiring your wise command.”

The Emperor, by contrast, was a man in his prime. In good shape, which could be seen pretty well despite the distance and all the golden glitter dropping downright from his uniform. And with a head still full of hair under his big golden crown, spangled all over with glittering jewels. Somewhat bored, he threw a cursory glance down all the many steps leading to his splendid seat. He was an Emperor for such a long time that only a few things really were still able to put him in excitement.

 And as to that, two old seers were surely not included. Nevertheless, did he adhere to the traditions. After all, by virtue of his office was he the head of every religion. There is only one God, and he bears his name:

 

‘Samlan, the Third’

 

But that was not tantamount that he paid in any form deference to them. He only did it because it was useful to him. If not, he would have abolished all faith a long time ago and kicked out all those who proclaimed the litany on his behalf to the rest of the universe. But it certainly shouldn’t hurt to hear first what these two old scarecrows had to tell.

The Emperor even chuckled silently to himself about this so fitting comparison. His voice, though, was extremely calm when he commanded, “Get up, Ralpanin. Speak, what do you have so important to report to me?”

The one called by the name did at once what he was told, even though his comrade was just about to genuflect next to him. “Majesty, a piece of incredible news has reached us,” he spoke hastily. “Concerning an old prophecy. The very one that had already appalled all your predecessors, even more than the yellow devils of Panakan. But as you know, the bones do not lie. The bones never lie!”

“Yeah, yeah, the bones never lie,” echoed the Emperor, even though he himself believed something quite different. All nothing but humbug. But if he can take advantage, what should he do? “And what do they tell, the bones, and to which prophecy exactly you are referring to, Ralpanin? There are so awful many that if I would give my hearing every day a new one, it would take me nine lives alone to understand them, wouldn’t it?”

If irony resonated in the tone, Ralpanin was not able to hear it. He was far too preoccupied with his own importance that the environment got a chance to influence him. He didn’t even notice that Valaspun beside him, at long last, was getting up, with trembling bones and heavily panting for breath. With a profusely bobbing white halo at that. Giving the impression as been attacked by several severe gusts.

No, the track of the plan was straight, and nothing was given the power to lead Ralpanin astray. That’s why he gripped, without appreciating his rival with just one gaze, under his coat and brought to light a long staff, made of any metal, gleaming silvery in a dangerous way. Almost baleful.

Promptly, the protectors of the Emperor let appear out from their round bellies snakelike arms, holding at their ends weapons. Here it was a sword or a crossbow, there a ray gun or an erase-me-off.

The fingers of the Almighty, though, gave a placatory sign. Thus, all these killing devices vanished as quickly as they had come into sight.

Quite rightly because Ralpanin only pushed a harmless button on the pommel of his staff. Causing the thing to emit a light beam. Which, in turn, on halfway between him and the emperor, as out of thin air, a kind of transparent newspaper let pop up. Only much bigger. Seven to ten feet. On which one could read:


One day

when times are dark and gloomy,

and you cry and afraid for wife and child,

he will come,

the Redeemer,

and destroy the king

who neared ever more the unmitigated evil

to kill all dreamers.

 

After he had read the message, the emperor chuckled again. Only silently to himself, of course. My goodness, what old balderdash it was! Mothleg and doghair, damned should be this gang of seers!! No doubt that he knew this prophecy. After all, all his predecessors had always dreaded it so much. Particularly his own father. The so-called wise men on his side took care of that. That’s for sure! It was their daily bread. But he had never had the feeling that there was more evil will in him than in the others, not in the slightest. Why, then, should this prophecy be bang on target now of all times, moreover, befall especially him? All his ancestors had been nasty, sneaky, and sly. That’s simply what the job, being an Emperor, entails. Not only on the strength of the genes. This office requires nothing else but to be mean and evil. (And there had never been a chance that one in the long line of blood could have escaped this fate.) Even if there were kings who ruled with kindness. He had heard of them. And, no question about that, every last brought into subjection on the spot. That was him easy prey. And look now, whom is fate giving assent? They are all dead. Every man jack! He, though, was still alive. And alone for that reason, he was no great believer in cherishing feelings of benevolence and love for his people in his mind. Never! That’s not becoming for an Emperor. No, that would be downright indecent!

That’s why the ruler spoke, “I know the prophecy, Ralpanin. It is indeed an ancient one. Older, maybe only the universe itself. But what has happened so urgent that its hammer should hit the toe of the dragon today of all days?”

But it was Valaspun who took word now even though he was not meant. He would never allow his opponent to push him that easy onto the siding. “Your Majesty, we have thrown the bones,” he spoke. “As we do so every morning, singing in the last glow of the moon. As the law requires it from us, from the year one. As it has to be that fate can bestow its favor on us. But what we had to read today, hidden among, feared our hearts deeply. The bones irrefutably spoke: This Redeemer has arrived. If his spirit did not behold the light of day even five years ago.” Briefly, the old man cleared his throat as he was still a bit short of breath, but then resumed, “However, that doesn’t mean that it might not have happened later. Four, three, two, or even only one year ago. Much too vague was the position of the key blade and the pelvis.”

“Exactly!” now Ralpanin struck in, who in turn also didn’t want to be steamrollered so easily. “The Redeemer has arrived. But if you have looked closely with still young eyes,“ and more than just dismissively, even full of contempt, his own view was wandering now over the smaller Valaspun, “Then you would have descried that there were two crossed ribs in the jaw of the mouse. The one, skinned and boiled and freed from all flesh, to be The Chosen One given the right to reveal nothing but the holy destiny to the living. But that stands irrefutable for today. And just for today! There was nothing to be seen of a five-year time frame.”

Then he even snapped into attention in his robe made of motley feathers. “Yes, Your Majesty, today the Redeemer was born. And only today. Where, however, is unknown to us. Nothing in the bones let on a word about that. They didn’t even give the slightest hint of where we have to look for. In the west or east, the north or south, or whether we should go to the top, or the down below. Or maybe even to the place no foot has ever made a step on.”

 “Stop, stop!” Valaspun shouted, who felt almost overwhelmed by the words of his opponent. “It’s not correct, Your Majesty. Not at all! It was only one rib that showed itself in the head. And what’s more important, it didn’t stick in the jaw but in the eye socket. In the left, to be precise. And that means nothing else than this prophecy could have met truth already five years ago. Even with a small tendency to the six because, quite steeply, this rib pitched in the air. Like it wanted to be the gloomy tower of forebode.”

“That’s not true!” blustered Ralpanin, more and more getting in a state of agitation, with a head starting to turn red. Which looked rather strange. Especially in consideration of his hairstyle and the painted skull. “There were two ribs, and they crossed in the jaw. I have seen it with my own eyes. You, though, you are nothing else but a shabby charlatan! You should never have been permitted to become a member of our guild,” and deeper and ever deeper the red became under the red and the white.

Indeed, it looked alarming. But before the shaman could suffer serious health damage (his head might burst out of sheer anger, and his halo simply flew away, freed from the rest of the body) the Emperor chopped in and ordered in an utmost concise tone, "Stop bickering like old stallholders, you two, this instant! Better tell me, what you recommend me to do. You first, Ralpanin.”

The so-called took in a breath down to his belly button. It helped him a bit to regain composure. The calm he otherwise was so famous for and which only left him when a lie had yanked it out of bed. Timbered from childhood hitherto, day by day, out of the feeling of constant superiority. Something only ever this damned Valaspun achieved. What an obnoxious pest he was.

But after this notorious calm had been regained, this stern coolness as well slipped back into Ralpanin’s voice. Accordingly, almost icy were the words that could be heard now. “The situation is serious, Your Majesty,” he spoke. “So serious as it has never been. That’s why I recommend you urgently: kill all the hosts of this age-group. Only if you act in this way, you are on the safe side. Not one should be allowed to escape. Not one should breathe tomorrow.”

The Emperor listened attentively. What a dramatic proposal it was! Then, after Ralpanin’s last word, he even nodded slowly, just as if he was in full agreement. Although, in fact, he wasn’t. Not at all! Not only because the seer was pestering the throne not for the first time with this very recommendation. (If he had counted correctly, it was already the seventh time just in his own reign.) And not because to murder so many souls would have given birth to just one lousy pang of remorse in his breast. As an emperor, he had already ordered so many deaths that a few more did not really count. And if they were millions. That’s simply the job of an Emperor, as he understood it. No, but for a totally different reason. A reason, wham-bam, finding itself staying stark-naked under the glaring spots of the limelight, though, must be considered as a tad mundane. That’s why he softly spoke, “And what do you recommend me, Valaspun?”

The person questioned evidenced nothing but a puzzled look first. Or at least pretended as if he was baffled. Also, as if he actually has to think twice about this question, although the answer was lying on his tongue, ready for pick-up, since the early morning hours. So, when he finally opened his mouth, the words almost tumbled over the lips like hot mumbles. “I, Your Majesty, I recommend you something else, something completely different,” he spoke. “Kill nobody, but order sentinels on the side of the neuralgic souls, without delay. Preferably in pairs, one out of the House of Xan and one out of the House of Tak. This precaution should be enough. Nothing else is in need. Besides, consider what an economic loss it would be to murder five complete classes. Downright enormous! Not to speak what a dramatic weakness of your forces would be the result.”

And as soon as these words had come to an end, the Emperor nodded again. But this time because he literally agreed with what he had heard since exactly that was the reason he feared most. The so profane-looking reason. And he was damn glad that someone else had spoken it out. It saved his face. Because soberly speaking, what’s an Emperor worth without money? Not much. And the revenues lost here could perhaps even be the ones finally missing in the war chest. But what in his view was making up an Emperor, apart from being unmitigated evil, mean, and sneaky, what his real destiny was, was the opportunity and the freedom to go to war whenever the whim ordered it. If he seriously would kill all the hosts of this age-group, though, and maybe for an encore the other four classes as well, his army would be weakened in such a dramatic way that it was hard to envision waging war ever again, even if it was one only to defend himself and his empire. And he would become fat and even fatter, here, sitting all alone on this splendid chair. But only the battles made him feel to be still alive. Him, who had everything, but was horribly bored by everything.

And so, it happened, bearing all this in mind, the Emperor spoke his expected power word, “As Valaspun has just recommended it, let it be done!” he ordered.

And that the conversation was completed with that was at once evident to everyone involved. No need for further words. A slight stretching of the fingers of the right hand was perfectly enough, because like Ralpanin was famous for his calm, the Emperor was well-known for his incredible irascibility if someone dared to contradict. Walking backward, bowing repeatedly, the two seers departed.

The decision between the two parties had been made, then. However, was it not synonymous that now peace was willing to prevail. Certainly not! If only because one goal had been achieved and the other not. And so, barely arrived back in front of the gate to the throne room, Ralpanin plucked out one of the many feathers protruding Valaspun’s coat and brandished it wildly before the other’s nose. “Why did you lie, you sanctimonious dog?” he asked furiously. “There were two ribs, and they crossed in the jaw. I have seen it with my own eyes. After all, I was present. And no one can erase that image out of my memory. Not even you.”

“Yes, yes, my learned colleague, Mr. Ralpanin," the assaulted but only replied in a perfectly serene tone, for he was the lucky one who had gotten from the Emperor what he had angled for. “You may have seen it that way. Nevertheless, fate had opted to take another path. And how long this will be, we both mustn’t seriously argue about for nobody can tell. Never mind how many bones we throw in the morning. We can only hope to get old enough to see perhaps a few steps of the end of this new path.”

And hardly these cryptic words had been spoken, he departed from his companion and disappeared into a side corridor of the castle to pursue his further business of the day.

 

 

Because important things

just had happened,

 

but much more important things

still ought to come.

                                                  

 

2. What must be used up?

 

 

A bit later. Years or just a couple of days, who dares to say? On a planet, blue and round.  On a planet called by the inhabitants the Earth.

At least by those who had something like a language to play with. Even if, of course, there were the others. To mention them all, however, would lead far beyond the scope. Only that much: some drank first milk, then ate grass, just to be slaughtered in the end. Namely by those who called the earth the Earth, themselves humans, and those who ate the grass and then gave milk, mostly cows. Less often goats or sheep. But who it was who had given permission to the humans to call themselves humans could never be found out.

And one of those humans was Paul. To be precise, Waiter Paul, since all and sundry called him so. Even those who only lived by chance with him in the same house and had nothing to do with his profession. Even the postman, the baker, and the butcher, for he was one of those people without a surname. The right and respect to bear one he seemingly had forfeited a long time ago.

But not for this reason was Waiter Paul stunned at that moment. That he was deprived so entirely of dignity and standing was his own will, what happened right now, though, not. “I do not exactly understand you, madam?” he said while shaking his head slightly.

However, only with one intention to stall for time, and if it should be merely a few lousy seconds. Because Waiter Paul had understood very well. And that was exactly the reason why his head was filled to the brim with nothing but bubbling confusion.

 

Such a thing was without a precedent.

It was almost unbelievable!

 

 

*

 

But to understand the entire story in every particular, this moment of absolute bewilderment of Waiter Paul must be pushed slightly aside, for the present, and time needs to move a small step back. An hour, however, ought to be enough. Little Anthony, eight years old, dark blond hair, nearly brown, blue-eyed, and a tad on the chubby side, but not that much, was standing in the hallway. His mother was moping with a handkerchief, moistened with spit, a stain from his face. At any rate, she tried to do so. But unlike all the other children in the world, he did not resist. For the simple reason, he knew, resistance is futile. Besides, he was as good as off. If not forever, then at least for the coming weekend.

“Be polite to the Walker and behave yourself,” spoke his mother while continuously rubbing busily. No, she downright commanded it. He, in turn, nodded just silently and in obedience. “They’re rich people. Perhaps they bequeath to you someday something or other. Maybe even all their possessions. Then even you will finally be useful, not only for draining our pockets.”

Anthony was abashed. It was a serious charge. Then, however, he just nodded mutely again. Although the center of his forehead, his mother so desperately rid of the filth of the world, was burning hot in the meantime. But that did not hurt as much as the words did since he already knew it.

“Always at the same spot you’re making yourself dirty, you old piglet,” she murmured as if to prove it, narrowing her eyes even more, for she had no glasses on.

Supposedly she could not tolerate such a thing, and it made her dizzy. But a pair of glasses certainly would have helped her to realize that this kind of dirt simply could not be removed this way. Not even with scouring cream, as she had tried once before. And not with vinegar, for it was a liver spot.

Nevertheless, Anthony took it lying down without a word, for pointing his mother to this error would have brought him only a box on the ear. So often proved. Nothing she hated more than being corrected. Least of all from such a wisenheimer like him. And of no one in this world, he was more afraid of, not even of his father.

“Are you finally ready, you two?“ his call could be heard, coming out from the living room. “The Walkers are already down and honking the horn. For the second time!”

“Go, and say goodbye to your father!“ the mother ordered while simultaneously shoving Anthony with her free hand under the door frame.

Where the boy wearily raised his hand and said, “Bye, Dad.”

His father, though, did not really take notice of him. Sitting on the couch, he merely mumbled, “Yeah, yeah, off with you!” Then, with a freshly decanted bottle of beer in his hand, he turned back to the TV, where just some sports event was running. For a split-second, Anthony could spot a little yellow ball inexorably approaching a net, for whatsoever reason. Then he made for the front door and himself scarce.

Descending the four floors was also quickly done. Like a living rubber ball, the boy jumped down the steps. Suddenly he was full of joy, although the Walkers were not what he would have labeled as friends or perhaps even imaginable parents. If he had been allowed to wish for any others as the ones he called his own. For both cases, they were much too old. About fifty. But in the main, they had always been very nice. After all, they had never beaten him, or much worse.

 

And in the world,

as he knew it,

it was already worth something.

 

*

 

Usually, people like the Walkers do not consort with people like the Noll’s, as Anthony surname was. The social gap between both walks of life was far too wide for such a thing, but it had happened all the same.

 

How and why?

 

Well, that’s no secret and quickly elucidated. A teacher at school got the impression that Anthony’s demeanor with the years had become increasingly strange. That’s why she sent him, after consultations with the Youth Welfare Office, to a psychologist. For ten sessions. Who, after carrying out a lot of tests, attested the boy, as the upshot of all these, sound intelligence coupled at times with an exuberant imagination.

The teacher, in turn, greeted this news with great incredulity because Anthony scarcely opened his mouth at school. Allegedly, he only spoke with trees. (Which was true. Preferably with the solitary one in the middle of the schoolyard. Him, the boy could confide all his worries and always got a well-founded response, even if life seemed to be much too difficult and next to unbearable.) Otherwise, he mostly remained silent and participated virtually never in class. Just looked out of the window and hummed softly to himself. And gave if actually been called up, usually nothing but utterly senseless answers.

Once, for example, to the question, ‘How many legs have the spiders?’ he simply responded, ‘Wednesday’ that was all. Then sat down on his chair again, as if this word had settled the mystery for all times. Or transplanted, with a long stick in his hand, on the big global map (in geography invariably clamped before the blackboard) when the question was to assign capitals to the corresponding countries, Moscow amidst the sea, where he just let it perish. Maybe in the belly of a big whale or an akin monster. But what ultimately remained his secret because when asked, why grinning so silly when acting so stupid, he was, as usual, without reply. Shuffled back to his desk, sat down on his chair, stared out of the window, and hummed softly to himself.

With that, the issue could have found its end, a child with sound intelligence does not have to go to special school. This question was closed. But by coincidence, when Anthony was patiently serving his appointments, also Mrs. Walker was in treatment by these psychologists. For the reason, her only son had lost his life so tragically recently. Which had let slip her spirit deep into magnetic darkness. While cleaning the gutter of the house, he had overbalanced the ladder and fallen onto a fence with pointed pickets. Three days before his twentieth birthday. And so, one day, when Mrs. Walker was leaving the consultation room (with a heart a minimum of a pound lighter, on account of so much talking and crying) and looking at Anthony, who was sitting before and waiting, the unexpected happened. From one second to the next, the old woman was besotted with the boy. Enclosed him in precisely that heart that now had so much new room. And this must be indeed considered as a great coincidence because, otherwise, they never met. But on that day, as a special exception, Anthony was dead on time.

 

 

 

The only time!

 

 

 

Forsooth, this Mrs. Walker, who everybody just called the good Nancy, was even pretty dotty about him. For what reason ever because Anthony was not a child you want to embrace straight away. Not that he was ugly or even repulsive, but he hardly ever smiled, and too often was his face just blank. And these are simply no circumstances having the power to induce the affections of strangers to brisk up to you right off the bat.

Utterly devoid of any kind of expression his face even was, what, if one looked closely, pertained to for the rest of his body as well. It was almost as if the boy never wanted to attract attention, not at any price.

 

 

 

And sometimes,

 

when he was standing

 

in front of a gray wall,

 

one even got the feeling,

 

if there were not the clothes,

 

he would be completely invisible.

 

 

 

Indeed, Anthony even should have been adopted by the Walkers on the spot if it had been up to them, but the Noll’s vehemently rejected this idea. Even the mother.

News, which Anthony, in turn, more than just a bit surprised. Particularly loved by her, he didn’t feel.

 

 

Never!

 

But although the Walkers were what in common parlance is called monied (if not to say, they even had bills to burn) was the head of the Youth Welfare Office, otherwise, pretty easy to bribe, always aware that they, unfortunately, were already too old for legal adoption. That’s why he canceled this proposal. And it didn’t help that everyone in the office was fairly well aware of how quickly Mrs. Noll lashes out at the slightest provocation and how strong her husband was addicted to the booze and, therefore, never found a job. Because, on the other hand, nobody could profess that Anthony was scruffy or even neglected in any way. His clothes were always in a freshly washed state, and his hair combed. He was a bit conspicuous in his demeanor, not a scintilla doubt about that, but that are many other children as well.

No, that was not an argument strong enough to tear the boy easily out of the bosom of his family, and not a single rule could be bend for that. Never mind how often good Nancy plead and how many banknotes she put in boxes with candies, which in those days so often could be found on the important desks of the office. And so the agreement had been worked out, that Anthony was allowed to be a guest in her house every other weekend. In the end, even accepted by the Noll’s.

But probably simply for the reason because the banknotes, previously sticking in sugar without asking, after making a short walk through the wallet of Anthony’s father, could be exchanged in beer and snaps. And so, everybody involved in this matter was happy from that hour forth. Even little Anthony, who had never been consulted about this subject, whether before nor after. If, he had moved to the Walkers the same second, for good and ever, even though they were so terribly old.

 

*

 

The last five steps the boy conquered with a single jump. A new record he had just set last week. Arrived at the car, he was hugged and kissed on the spot. What he endured as patiently as the treatment by his mother before. Which gave almost the impression, one thing was as worthy for him as the other. And to the question, why this so avidly kissed forehead was so awful red, he just answered, it would probably come from that he had leaned with the head against the window during waiting for the pick-up.

A little lie. But chosen with deliberation because why should he disconcert good Nancy with dirt that was no dirt at all, and simply couldn’t be removed with spit and a handkerchief? This way, she was glad that he had longed for her coming.

Then she spoke while patting in fun with one of her so lushly bejeweled hands on his little tummy, “But now, my little frog, we are as good as off on the way for a fantastic dinner. I’m sure you’re ravenous, aren’t you?”

Anthony nodded forthwith even if he did not really understand why she permanently was calling him my little frog. Maybe it was because he always took the steps at least by twos, whether up or down. For old people, such a thing is already a sport. But in any case, it was better than to be named fat pig or dirty rat as it so often happened in school.

With a joyful heart, he quickly climbed on the backseat of the car where the dog was waiting for him, with a wagging tail. Who was the one, if he was honest, he had looked forward to the most. Then the engine started.

And the only thing the boy was now hoping for was that the destination was the same as ever, the fast-food restaurant next to the ramp to the highway. For the simple reason, French fries and hamburgers he loved to bits. Which child doesn’t? But in vain. This time things changed completely.

Indeed, the path of fate is unfathomable. This time Mr. Walker intended to wine and dine. Tantamount to, that there was no cheap fast-food for little Anthony. And the reason was this, they had been married to each other for thirty years, he and his good Nancy. And today was their wedding day.

At any rate, that’s what the old man told the boy in the backseat with his deep voice across the shoulder and the backrest. Nevertheless, constantly with one eye peering over the steering wheel and checking the upcoming street, in perfect performance of duty and responsibility.

And that Anthony reacted politely was beyond debate. Promptly he offered his congratulations. Even though the term ‘wine and dine’ first had given him some good grounds for some great concerns. But after his question, whether there were French fries with ketchup, had been answered with a clarion “Why, yes!“ his nerves were willing to calm down again.

Albeit, to be honest, not completely. An importunate rest of worry simply couldn’t be shaken off. Maybe it was, indeed, a swell idea to ‘wine and dine’ as assured, but maybe not. The thing was, he didn’t know. With his parents, Anthony not once had ‘wined and dined’, not even when they had enrolled him at school. And a wedding day had never been celebrated anyway. What his second thoughts made three, then even five, however, was the fact that, apparently, only Mr. Walker was fidget to embark on this adventure with a broad smile on the face, but not his good Nancy. “Oh, it doesn’t have to be something such out of the ordinary,” she interjected. “Why don’t we just go where we always go? For me, it’s enough when you say you love me.”

Today her husband had nothing but a tin ear for that, though. No matter how often she repeated her words. He wanted to celebrate in a befitting manner, and so it ought to happen. But if the good man had known what dramatic consequences this idea would eventuate in, for all of them, also for the aforementioned Waiter Paul, he certainly would have refrained from it.

 

 

Or wouldn’t he?

 

*

 

The three of them were sitting at the table (the dog wasn’t allowed in the restaurant, therefore, had to stay in the car) and this very Waiter Paul was standing beside. Still so stunned that he merely was able to repeat in a monotone tone what had already been said by himself, “I do not exactly understand you, madam?”

But Waiter Paul was not merely stunned. No, that would be far too few words. It was rather more as if this moment something had gone broken in his little world, to wit so tremendous that it never could make whole again. And if you want to make a comparison, it was maybe as if Waiter Paul had lived all his life in one of these magic globes you just have to shake and gorgeous glittering snow falls. Obscuring the view on the world beyond the glass. So wicked that he didn’t want to see it, never because here was his place. Here, he was waiter Paul, a man with no surname, nevertheless, a man with a certain degree of identity.

No doubt, quite often a raw deal had been given to Waiter Paul at this place. But never mind, rich people are just like that. And they did well to do so as he was only born to serve. That was his attitude. And rather more, it was their right to kick and insult him, for they had come up in the world, and he simply not. He would never rise above his station. For him, it was perfectly enough if they just let him participate. Let allow his thoughts and dreams to wallow in their splendid lake of luxury and glamour. But that, it was simply too much! And it was as if an inexorable growing solidification slowly was clutching everything, and nevermore some of this gorgeous glittering snow would fall in his little world again.

That rich people misbehave had often been seen by Waiter Paul. When they tipsily grabbed in each other trousers, or, heavily drunken, peed under the table. That was nothing new to him. One big sponge and only five seconds later it was forgotten again. It was their privilege. They had worked hard enough. But that someone so utterly was beside rich people’s behavior as known to him, that someone did not prove worthy of his wealth at all, that was not acceptable. It was indecent. No, it was even obscene!

That’s why he asked a third time, “I do not exactly understand you, madam?” (Perhaps also, to maintain the frail hope, that the curse, lying its icy shroud gradually more and more on everything he called his little world, still could be somehow averted with words.)

However, it didn’t alter anything. For the fourth time, he got the same pestering question to hear, “What must be used up?” And it was good Nancy who was asking it. Perhaps somewhat naive in the tone, nonetheless, ruthless searching for an answer.

And, in fact, the good woman meant it that way, what must be used up? For the reason, she and her husband haven’t always been rich. No, they had worked pretty hard for it. For every single cent. Commencing with this tiny shoe store, no vacation, never time, and only then, after many years, enough money to open the first branch. Today ten, after all.

Up to this point, she and her husband were still in accord with the expectations Waiter Paul was placing on his clientele. But from that point, ways parted significantly, for she never had the feeling to be above somebody else only on account of the money. (On account of other things, for sure!) Rather, it embarrassed her. Not to possess it, no, that was God’s will, but to squander with. She was a good Christian.

And these are, as it is general knowledge, supposed to shroud themselves in the garments of humility and modesty. That’s the dogma they have been taught for over two thousand years, every single day. With sharp words cascading down the pulpit. Be humble and orthodox, only then will paradise be yours. And nothing good Nancy wanted more than to go one day to this place. Accordingly, her right forefinger was wandering over the menu, toing and froing, always between the two cheapest dishes. And what made a decision so impossible for her was the fact that both did cost the same. Up to the cent!

At first, Waiter Paul had been asked what he could recommend. Who, on the one hand, praised the fish, tossed in butter, and on the other hand, went into raptures about the uniqueness of the vinegar, the salad was refined by the chef de cuisine personally. But what the good Nancy didn’t help, because with these answers he didn’t put his feet unambiguous in one camp. Not even after all the other questions, she asked him. Until the ultimate one had come into her mind, the one that seemed to be the only way out “What must be used up?" Because humble is the Christian and eat if it must be, even the crumbs from the floor in the devil’s kitchen.

But it needs to be said, for good Nancy it was very important too that the whole world was able to register this incredible modesty of her soul. Thus, the discussion, in its length, bounced loudly back and forth across the table.

It was so bugging that at some point Anthony, deeply ashamed, just wished the ground under his feet would open up and swallow him forever. What encouraged him more and more in his decision, never to grow up. What he even swore to himself at this moment because these adults were altogether nothing but strange. Some this way, the others the other way around. In what they were saying, and above all, in what they were doing.

But even Mr. Walker seemed to feel damn uncomfortable. For whom good Nancy but also didn’t show a spark of consideration. Because what ought she to do? What does it help her to be unassuming and meek on earth if no one is registering it? And who knows, maybe she will need the witnesses of this spectacle when, one day, she was standing before the judge who is the one who has to decide if she is allowed to sit in the shade of the tree of knowledge, only to scratch the head of the snake.

But now Waiter Paul was pulling himself slowly together again, for he spoke, “Madam, we are the first house in town. Everything is fresh. Always! Hence, nothing must be used up. And in this regard, first and foremost the vegetables are worth mentioning. I am going to bring you the salad, then. Will you be requiring anything else, maybe something to drink? ... A glass of tap water … I'd be glad to.“

After overcoming this hurdle, Waiter Paul waltzed off because the orders of Mr. Walker and Anthony were listed on a small piece of paper long ago. This woman, though, was too much for him. For the simple reason, she was in a way just like him. She was nothing better. She hadn’t merited her wealth at all. Rich people must not be humble and modest, they are not entitled to that. It is the prerogative of the poor. No, no one has the right to challenge his claim on this role in this house! So, one thing was clear, she would only get what she deserved.

And that’s exactly how it happened. After the chef of cuisine had made the golden shimmering bell ring, always waiting on the counter for such a moment, with a short dab of his right hand, and waiter Paul had received the salad, the latter disappeared for some seconds in a dark corner. Where he, unobserved but with great relish, spat three times on the green leaves and stirred them thoroughly with his index finger. Those he then only licked clean while at the same time pivoting around, to went back into the restaurant. There, arrived back at the table, he put the bowl down, right in front of good Nancy, with a broad and fat grin on his face. What he commented with, “Enjoy your meal, madam!”

At which she responded, with gladly sparkling eyes, “Oh, it looks so delicious. It’s almost unbelievable how much you get at this place for that little money!”

Yes, that was the right answer! At long last, some of this gorgeous glittering snow in the small glass globe was falling again. Although Waiter Paul knew exactly, in this land, belonging to him, it would never be like it was once before. No, there will nevermore be a white Christmas.

*

 

The trip home as well was nothing but a complete disaster. If all wedding days ended that way, Anthony never wanted to celebrate one. And he was just happy that his parents never did. The whole ride back the both old in front were only arguing. He couldn’t remember seeing them like that ever before. At least there was no violence. Only words flew through the air, no hands. Also bad, but better to stomach.

He reproached her, “I just wanted to do you something good, but, as always, you are so notoriously hard to please. You are only ever thinking of yourself!”

And she retorted, “The Lord doesn’t like it if you blow your money!”

Then it went on in this tone. “Oh, and all the diamonds on your fingers, what’s about that?” he asked.

And she replied, “That’s a different matter altogether.”

Back and forth, the words bounced, over and over again. And even remembering the French fries, Anthony didn’t find much mirth in his breast. Let alone on his palate. They had been flabby. Not as crispy fried as in the branch of the fast-food chain. He had wrapped them into a napkin and given, one strip at a time, to the dog on the back seat for guzzling, who at least was delighted. He, however, will never wine and dine again.

 

 

What utter nonsense it was!

 

Just a silly pleasure for adults.

Never again he would allow the Walkers

to cajole him into such a terrible thing.

 

 

But now it was almost as if heaven had an understanding because Anthony’s wish actually should come true, never he would wine and dine with the Walkers again. That was for sure. Even if this wish very different came true than intended by him as, at some stage, the dispute on the front seats escalated.

Why and wherefore? Anthony didn’t know. He missed the exact trigger. This world was not his, and that’s why he had stopped listening long ago. Rather, had he tickled the dog with one hand on the neck, looked out of the window, and otherwise hummed softly to himself.

Until it abruptly was getting so loud in front of him that he was not any longer able to avoid taking an interest. Out of the blue, good Nancy pulled one ring after another of both of her hands, right and left, and threw them on her husband’s lap, at the same time crying with a shrill voice, “Look, I don’t need that stuff. And anyway, on the way to paradise you cannot take such grotty souvenirs with you. Only the pure heart.”

What seemed to be an act being devoid of any sense. Not only for Anthony. However, never one which for itself would have been an appalling impact on fate. But unfortunately, it was only the preface because now little tragic circumstances strung together, one after another until an unstoppable great disaster was born. First, one of the rings tumbled on the ground and rolled straight towards the accelerator pedal, then, one of his brethren fell through the slightly parted legs on the seat just to find his way from there under the old man buttock’s, where it not notably violently, but steadily and persistently, drilled into the soft flesh. Which, thirdly, compelled the tortured to get up and scramble with one hand for the culprit.

And that’s not all, what followed, in short, was nothing else but the fourth, fifth, and sixth step of fate on its way straight into the inevitable. Because, as one can already guess, not a second later the right foot slipped over the ring on the floor and pressed the accelerator pedal to the metal. Only one hand on the steering wheel, this was promptly jerked in the wrong direction, then already a crash barrier burst with a loud crack. Remnants thereof jumped in the air and a windshield shattered into a thousand pieces. And although the splinters of this barrier were made of pure wood, both Walkers, hit by them, most likely were dead instantaneous. No human being can survive a thing like that.

Maybe there had been a little scope for fate to rescue Anthony and the dog, who knows, but as it is all great Tragedy’s inherent, it happened on a bridge crossing a river. (Even if, that's self-evident, not the bridge itself is the important detail of every great tragedy, but that every adversity invariably carries the next hidden in a rucksack on its hump. Staggering from crisis to crisis.) Therefore, the car made a half somersault through the air and smacked at the end with the roof onto the waves.

Then already icy water ingressed in a big gush through the large hole in the front. So fast that the boy didn’t even get the chance to verify if the swimming lessons he recently had chosen in physical education were a suitable preparation for practicing in the wide open. On the spot, he fainted. And only for a split second, he was able to see (but more like it was just a dream) as if a strange being, coming out of the water, diffuse bright in his appearance, reached after him. After him and his life.

 

Was it the

EVERYBODY LOVING GOD?

 

 


 

3. An Odd Awakening

 

 

Anthony awoke. Or at least it was to him as if he awoke. It was so accustomed. Almost like home, for he had the feeling of lying supine on a soft bed. Besides, there was no more icy water all around him.

But whether he actually had opened his eyes, what belonged for him to a proper awakening, or not, he couldn’t tell because nothing changed. In both cases, it was just dark. And from a being made of pure light, or even an EVERYBODY LOVING GOD, nothing was to discover anymore.

Although, simply to say that it was dark, would not be strong enough since it was even black as jet! So black that Anthony, hardly he had picked up his thoughts and lined up in formation, more or less neatly, had to put the crucial question to himself, even if he didn’t want to do that. But after the previous experience, it was as good as inevitable. This crucial question, that reads: Did he still have something like eyes, or was he perhaps dead?

No, Anthony didn’t want to put this question to himself. No rational being wants to do that. Thus, a great fear surged inside his chest. A fear that kept billowing on. And if this place, as it happens, was paradise (good Nancy had told him from so many times full of bliss) where the souls go after death, then he wanted it just as little as he wanted to wine and dine once more in his whole life. How could someone look forward to such a creepy thing with a cheerful heart? Adults are so often quite odd creatures. He, by no means, wanted to lie in the deepest darkness for eternity. That’s no laughing matter. That’s just scary!

 

 

But, all of a sudden,

there was a change.

 

 

Although, no, that to say would again not be correct, as it was not really a change. Anthony heard someone breathing. Both on his left and his right side. But already all the time. A fact he had not noticed yet because his mind was so merciless stricken by this terrible fear. Which now abated a bit. Apparently, he was not alone. “Is it you, Nancy, John?” he asked with a timid voice.

Nancy, John, never Anthony had called the Walkers that way, although it had so often been offered by them. For him, their names had always been: Mr. and Mrs. Elder people strictly must be called this way: Mr. and Mrs. Just for the sake of respect. But in paradise it was maybe OK to make an exception once. Because who else should lay next to him? The two were the last people he had seen, and that he now was in Dog Heaven, he did not believe. Why should he? In addition, the dog had been alone and thus could badly split into two sides. But there was no answer. Were the two old possibly also dead?

What a frightening thought it was! Immediately this terrible shiver skulked through Anthony’s limbs again. This fear without limits.

 

 

But no!

 

It can’t be.

 

 

The dead do not breathe!

 

 

 

Anthony had never really paid attention in school, but on TV, in the crime films, that was the infallible sign. One held a mirror in front of the victim’s mouth, it misted, and everyone breathed a deep sigh of relief. Most of all, and that can be taken for granted, the one who had been presumed of being dead. That’s why he tried again, “Nancy, John, why don’t you talk to me?” And this time, at least, he could hear something like a soft grumble.

However, strange enough, Anthony was not able to assign it, neither to the left nor to the right breathing. It was evidently still a step further away. And now it even responded sleepily in whole sentences, “Oh, my goodness, Ant, that you never can wait until Glomp wakes us. And what utter hooey is this Nancy and John? Are these perhaps names from school? To which house do they belong?”

Anthony, although he had hoped for a sign of life, was quite frightened about this strange voice, even if it seemingly belonged to a child. A boy. In particular, what this voice had spoken filled his heart with fear. After all, it made pretty plain that it wasn’t Nancy and John lying next to him. But who was it?

The boy instinctively tried to straighten up to get an overview. Which, in the face of the deep blackness engulfing him, though, made no sense.

However, also due to another circumstance. And he would have certainly decided against it if he had known the score because only short was his head on its way up. At most, a hand width. Then he already bumped against an obstacle. So hard that he promptly bounced back into his starting position.

And although not a second later a terrible pain began to creep through the nose and over the back of the head as well, more and even more, Anthony suddenly realized:

 

 

He was trapped!

 

 

So that the fear in his chest, willing to be tamed for a few seconds, that moment spiked itself. So high it flew that there can be no doubt that fairly soon he wasn’t any longer able to keep it in check.

But before the prisoner could scream, simply to announce this terrible fear to the world, louder than a siren for the fire brigade can do, what he certainly would have done, something new happened. So unexpected that it stopped everything in him cold. And then some, as it hit him so hard that even his breath nearly came to a total standstill.

Forsooth, no exaggeration, since no more air could be found in Anthony’s lungs now, not for just a single word, even if merely whispered. And the reason was, it became bright around him so abruptly, as if a flash had effaced darkness. Blinding bright!

No wonder, the obstacle with which his poor forehead so unpleasantly had just tried to make new acquaintance, had disappeared with a jerk.

 

 

He was free!

 

 

And so it truly was because this obstacle had been nothing else but a lid. The lid of a rather flat box in which Anthony now found himself lying. However, not alone, for suddenly he could see three other children next to him. All in pajamas.

And that was not all of the surprises. Now even a completely unknown face popped up right in front of him. The face of an old man. That, strange it may sound, nevertheless, had somehow an inexplicable familiar effect on him. With a questioning eye, it peered over the rim of the box. Was it perhaps the EVERYBODY LOVING GOD?

In fact, the boy asked himself this question seriously for a moment, so baffled was his mind by the circumstances. But the EVERYBODY LOVING GOD in church always wears a white beard, this man, however, did not.

Moreover, he now got an utterly different name. A name which, in addition, didn’t sound what you would call particularly divine. “Good morning, Glomp,“ he was welcomed by the left child that not long ago was just soft breathing for Anthony. Yawning, it was rubbing the sleep from its eyes.

Promptly the old face turned to this very child. “Of course, good morning to you too, Miss Sims,” ​​it spoke. “I hope you have slept well?”

Then, apparently remembering its good manners, while making a semicircle over the remaining box, it added, “And not to forget, good morning to you as well, Mr. Ant, and Miss Ramshin, and good morning to our bear-strong Mr. Broms.”

 

 

 

What the hell

was going on here?

 

 

 

Anthony’s confusion made an upsurge into the immeasurable. Was it maybe yet the paradise where he had landed? It almost seemed. Merely the angels were still missing. Everyone was so affable and polite to each other.

Even more, good breeding was what matters, as barely it had been said so by the unknown old face, the whole audience answered him as in chorus. “Good morning to you too, Glomp,” and only he, Anthony, remained silent.

And, no doubt, that he preferably would have made himself invisible now. The last resort to escape the world when he didn’t understand it. Was it just a dream? But why didn’t he wake up?

But to make himself invisible didn’t succeed because the with girl addressed with Miss Sims poked him with her pointed elbow in the ribs and commanded laughingly, “Come on, Ant, you old sleepyhead, get out of the box. School ain’t gonna wait forever.” Just as if she would know him for ages. So that his head, full of questions, almost wanted to burst. (Even if the pain in his nose and at the neck was on the way to subside slowly again.) Where had they met, and above all: When?

The discernment of the boy, though, in certain moments in life simply to button his lips, and if not to be completely invisible, at least, making himself as good as invisible, was so well-developed, that in this very moment this order was given to him by an inner voice. For the simple reason, the whole thing going on here was so strange and crazy, anyway, that even if one of his many questions would have been answered, only a new one would have followed at its heels. Not merely regarding the girl. For he couldn’t say where he was, let alone, how he, wham-bam, had come to this place. He even didn’t know if he really was himself because, obviously, at this place, he wasn’t Anthony anymore but only Ant. Well, at least it was easy to remember.

Indeed, everything was just a big mystery. And that’s why Anthony, who suddenly was called Ant, did exactly as he was told. Silently he stood up and tried to shadow the other kids with every further step. What did they do? What did he have to do? Although so many questions were desperately looking for answers, apparently, he was one of them, part of their group. No one treated him like a stranger, albeit they were so terribly strange to him. Their names were easy to remember too, but who were they in reality?

After getting up, though, the boy quickly realized that a major relearning was not necessary because even here in paradise you get dressed first. By the way, all of them, girls and boys, with identical garments. So that, less than five minutes later, they looked like little soldiers in uniform. There was light blue underwear, blue socks and shoes, even darker blue shorts, and a blue and white striped T-shirt. And the only difference was regarding the cap. Although it was blue too, with a white brim, there was evidently no rule how it was to put on, the visor pointing straight forward or to the back. Some did it this way, the others the other way around. Then they sat down at the breakfast table.

Somehow it was a bit like home, except that the kitchen was not separated but combined with the bedroom. (Which astonishingly seemed to be the living room as well for Anthony had spotted, immediately after Glomp had lifted him and the others out of the box, a couch set next to him. On the various chairs of which their clothes had laid, neatly folded.) And that the old man behaved as if he was an attentive mother.

Of the kind Anthony never had. After all, at home, he always had to help himself, had to get the butter out of the fridge, and cut the bread. Nobody there got up along with him. But here, everything was already lying on the table. And what delicious things there were: Orange juice, ham and eggs, a great variety of jams, a big jar with honey, and even a few slices of cheese.

The evidence began to harden. Apparently, it was yet paradise where he had landed. You could get used to it. Everything looked so tasty and appetizing. And yet, Anthony didn’t get a single bite down.

Pretty in contrast to the boy sitting opposite of him, and whom everybody called Broms. He was eating almost as if he had a hole in his belly through which everything promptly fell out again.

And this, forsooth, again is no exaggeration, so that Anthony was almost tempted to look under the table whether it actually happens that way. Downright tremendous the heaps were this boy gulped. But apparently, that was just a habit, too, for none of the others commented on it. Not even the old man, who was more concerned about a constant and sufficient supply. Stooping and looking would certainly have raised suspicion. They already looked at him in a dubious manner, anyway. Until finally the girl named Ramshin even asked him, “What’s wrong with you, Ant? You haven’t spoken one syllable all morning. Never seen you that mute. Not that I wouldn’t appreciate it, of course not, it’s like winning in the lottery, but you must admit, it’s pretty unusual, isn’t it? Besides, you haven’t eaten a single bite yet.”

Thus far, everything had gone smooth, but a direct question was not so simple to dodge. And making himself invisible was no longer possible as well. But the fact that he badly could tell what really was depressing him was also clear to Anthony. Oddly enough. It is the instinct that cautions you. That’s why he tried a response which everywhere else would have satisfied the enquirer at once and had made, under normal circumstances, a further probe into the matter pretty difficult. But not at this place, for he said, “Oh, nothing, I think I only had a bad dream,” because, in no time flat, everybody around him felt silent.

More than just that. It was almost as if these few words, like lightning, had struck slap-bang in the middle of the table. Hands stopped dead and suspended in mid-air, and even the boy named Broms forgot to chew.

It was an oppressive silence, first broken after a couple of seconds, with a cautious voice. “Please, what did you?” asked the girl by the name of Sims.

Anthony’s eyelids fluttered nervously. “I think I only had a bad dream,” he repeated. However, this time already a bit quieter in the tone as he somehow realized that something was going awry. Horribly awry! But why?

Luckily, the old man named Glomp chopped into the conversation, so, already in the next second, a big deal of the incredible tension could fly through the open window, wafting between the walls so antsy before. “Oh, children, don’t listen to him. You all know pretty well how much our Mr. Ant loves it to tell a joke,” he spoke.

Then, however (while raising the index finger of his right hand with an air of admonition, after hastily wiping it on his apron) he amended, “Although, that’s for sure, this isn’t just a harmless joke. No, indeed, it isn’t.“

But those were the right words at the right time, and all the other hands cracked into motion as well. Even Broms remembered his teeth. With a big crunch, he bit in a new roll.

Yes, almost everything was back to normal, and only the girl who was called Ramshin chuckled. Even if it seemed a bit artificial and skittish. “Yes, indeed, it isn’t,” she said, “Glomp is bloody right. It’s a highly dangerous joke, as we all know full well how the second commandment is to read: Robots do not dream. Robots are forbidden to dream. If a robot acts contrary to this instruction, the Gray Guards must be apprised immediately, and the final shut-down is irreversible.“ And then she even turned to Anthony, the tip of her nose nearly touching his. “So think well, Ant, you old prankster, what next you want to make one of your stupid jokes about, will you!“

But, “Oh, leave him alone, Ramshin,“ spoke now Sims. “We all know that you are the savant of our group. You don’t have to make such a parade of it. Your emotions, however, are probably a step on the meager side. You should have a closer look at our Ant, he is just feeling out of sorts. He is somehow ghastly pale around the nose. Maybe something is wrong with his power mode. Glomp, I think it is reasonably urgent to run the rule over him, best right after breakfast. Will you, please?”

Indeed, the girl was absolutely right, although Anthony didn’t know what she meant with power mode. That he did feel out of sorts, however, was nothing but a big understatement. His whole face was as white as chalk! Was the world already before without any order, so it now skipped out of its joints completely. No, this was not paradise, that was for sure. “I am a robot?” he asked with a limp voice.

That, though, was the straw breaking the camel’s back. If previously scattered vestiges of tension still should have been twanging on the nerves of the others, they vanished into thin air this instant. And Broms, who was already on the way to bite into a new roll, snorted it in sheer hilarity in a thousand crumbs all over the table. “For sure, you’re a robot, Ant, you old joker. We’re all robots,” he stated.

And then, as if on command, all of them linked hands, not forgetting Anthony, and began to sing loud:

 

 

We are the Robots, robots, robots,

We are the Robots, robots, robots,

Lalalalala

 

We are the Robots, robots, robots,

We are the Robots, robots, robots,

Lalalalala

 

Have a sage,

to dispatch all puzzles,

Have a fighter,

to detach all the bricks.

 

We are the Robots, robots, robots,

We are the Robots, robots, robots,

Lalalalala

 

We are the Robots, robots, robots,

We are the Robots, robots, robots,

Lalalalala

 

Have a magician,

to change all the lights,

Have a transformer

to morph himself into all sorts.

 

We are the Robots, robots, robots,

We are the Robots, robots, robots,

Lalalalala

 

We are the Robots, robots, robots,

We are the Robots, robots, robots,

Lalalalala

...

 

Endlessly, the stanzas were willing to float over the lips, but suddenly Glomp put a stop to it. “Order, children, order!” he commanded. “Enough is enough! School is about to start, and you still have to prepare yourselves.”

Who, after he had cleared the breakfast table, as announced, took care of Anthony’s power mode. Whatever was meant by this. The boy didn’t have even the slightest notion.

As if he was in a trance, he went through all. Stood bolt upright in front of the old man, who, with a small apparatus that looked like a cell phone, waved right in front of him, up and down, at a distance of about ten inches. From the head to the belly and then already back again. About three times.

Then the boy even had to stretch his arms to the sides so the device could glide from his left hand to the right. Which, in the process, gave off comical beeping sounds, seemingly directly related to the colorfully lights flashing on its display.

Some in step, some not. What let Glomp state, “Indeed, you are perfectly right, Miss Sims, the power mode has already dwindled into the problematic zone. But strange it may sound, I cannot find the cause for the malfunction.”

“Shoot!“ moaned Ramshin. Actually, not been addressed, but yet equally felt so. “It’s just sickening, so close to the semester exam. You will put him back in order and shape, Glomp, won’t you? We simply cannot afford such a loss. You know that!”

“I’ll see, what I can do for you, Miss Ramshin,” the old man answered. “But I can’t promise you anything. For the time being, I merely can recommend keeping all burden away from him. Maybe he recovers by himself. Unfortunately, such a thing happens frequently with the freshmen. The energy cells are not yet fully consolidated in their structure.”

“You can rely on us, we will tend to him,” now Broms cut in. Who, needless to say, was no less interested in what was going on than the others. “We are one team. That’s what we have sworn back then. Here in this room. ‘No one stands alone!’” and with a funny wink of his right eye, he indicated to Anthony that he honestly meant it.

Whereas Ramshin’s moaning just increased a note louder. “What a bummer, now, of all times!” she wailed. “It’s pretty easy for you to talk big, my dear Broms, you only have to train your thick muscles, but I still have so much to learn. There are more than twenty books I still have to hit for all the tests,” and her right arm was now pointing to the shelves on the wall on the right side, where a minimum of ten times more books stood, orderly in rank and file. Obviously, every single one reserved just for her alone.

Broms was about to respond, but Sims forestalled him, “Play it cool, Ramshin,” she spoke. “It’s not that we others don’t have to learn. We body-transformer, for example, have to make the grade in three fields: head, hands, and feet. And the only thing I can perform up to now, after a fashion, is the job with the head. Of course, not with the whole, I am only a little freshman. But in the exercises with the hair, I am not such a slouch. If not to say, I got quite deftly at it by now.”

And no sooner she had spoken so, she pulled off her blue-white cap and changed, without employing her hands or any other aid, before all eyes her hairstyle. That meant that her hair was not merely getting shorter. No. Had it previously been red, once of a sudden, it was both black and white. What sounds a bit strange, but one side stood exactly opposite the other, as if parted with a ruler.

Anthony, in turn, who had observed with keen eyes this strange metamorphosis, lost in total amazement, once again, almost forgot to breathe.

But even Broms was seemingly quite impressed. “Wicked!“ he exclaimed in a tone of honest and great appreciation. “I hope that someday I’ll be able to handle it myself just as well. Although, I don’t have as many lessons in this subject as you. Certainly not, it’s not my focus. But maybe in the third or fourth semester. Otherwise, I must concede: you body-transformers do learn really great stuff. We poor fighters, in effect, just doing one thing, practicing, practicing, and practicing again. Ramshin is bloody right with that. Day in, day out, it’s the same old song. But one thing I can tell you, that’s not half bad.” And hardly spoken so, he had rolled up the right sleeve of his blue and white striped T-shirt and showed all eyes his upper arm, just for proof.

An upper arm, Anthony had never seen one on a child and very rarely on an adult. However, that was not the end of it. Now it was almost as if a balloon was sticking in this upper arm, slowly inflated by its owner. Further and even further.

But before it could burst (what it actually looked like, at least for a few seconds, as this upper arm had already reached the size of a melon) Sims replied, “Duly noted, my honorable Broms. Indeed, it is pretty impressing,” and, of course, was it now up to her to show appreciation. Which she did with a waggishly stinging of her right forefinger in precisely this upper arm. Then she added, “That’s why we are a team. None of us is a master in every department. I cannot perform magic like Ant, and nobody is as smart as our Ramshin. But if we join our forces, we will never be beaten again.”

“Yes, that’s the way it is!” shouted Broms and was about to burst straight away into the old song:

 

We are the Robots, robots, robots

We are the Robo ...

 

This time, though, he didn’t get far because the always so good-natured-looking old Glomp could also become strict. Albeit never with pleasure. “Get up, you gang of little rascals!” he commanded. “Clean your teeth, and off you go. You know pretty well that some of the teachers are fussy sticklers for punctuality and can become sorely nasty if you keep them wait. And particularly a certain Doctor Wustlonom is said to have insisted on the final shut-down already due to minor offenses.” And then, as if he had something important left there, he tapped softly with his right hand on his forehead and added, “Don’t forget your satchels!”

 

 

 


 

4. School

 

 

Somewhat later, four of them were sitting on a bus, the satchels on their laps. On a bus, Anthony had to admit, he had never seen one before, as there were no wheels. So, you almost could get the impression the whole thing was hovering a good three inches over the ground. Furthermore, it had the form of a huge iron.

That was not the only difference that opened up before his eyes, though. Everything here looked somehow different. The little house in which he had woken up and in which he apparently had to live from now on had not yet aroused his suspicions, even if it was not what he was accustomed to. After all, he and his parents lived in a gray, square lump, utterly hideous, inside as well as outside. In addition, they were not the only dwellers but resided there with many other families for rent. This little house, however, was round and pretty and had a garden of its own. (To be precise, even two. A small one on the front and a much bigger one at the back, adjoining the terrace.) And only one floor. (At least there was none on top. Whether it had a cellar, he didn't know.) And obviously, it belonged only to the four of them. (Or five, if he included the old man by the name of Glomp. But that was only a guess, for he hadn’t paid attention to where his bed was. Maybe he yet came from outside.)

No, a little house like this was not really what he would have called unfamiliar since such a thing can be seen on earth as well. (Albeit there only in the countryside, but this was undoubtedly a city. An enormous big one to boot. As Anthony learned later was its name Ibalon. Some gigantic skyscrapers were even visible in the distance. And the traffic was also getting jumpier the longer they drove.) Unusual was the rest. The grass was a shade greener, the trees a level higher, and the flowers had gotten a dollop more color from nature. Even the birds and animals he caught of sight by now had nothing in common with those he knew. And if it was just from TV, or out from books. Some of them looked like dogs and walked on leashes behind people, but were striped like zebras. And the cats, in any case, the one jumping down from the roof of their little house, when they were about to leave it, poised heads on their necks that you might think they would rather be lions.

Thus, Anthony was asking himself a lot of new questions while watching in silence the immediate vicinity in front of the windows of the moving bus. Even if some of these were just the old ones. If it was not paradise nor the earth, where else had he alighted on? Was it perhaps a foreign planet? But if so, where are all the spaceships? After all, somehow, he must have come to this place. And that he had flown straight through the universe (maybe on his way the EVERYBODY LOVING GOD and his angels passing, in their white robes sitting on the brim of a star, waving cheerfully at him) by any stretching of his imagination, he could not recall.

Forsooth, everything was so utterly strange at this place. But so odd it may sound, and although he was apparently a robot now, probably after death (what was so terribly scary merely to think about) Anthony, nevertheless, felt more and more at ease with every minute passing. Because this unknown planet was not simply strange, but also incredibly exciting. He was eight years old, at this age, you get used to the new quite quickly. Only the old want to live in yesterday. Only the old never want to leave it.

It was even much more exciting than the train ride he had once taken when he was allowed to attend a youth camp for two weeks during the summer vacations. What up to now had been the epitome of all exotic. On the iron horse, he had traveled several hundred miles across the wide country. He had won the trip at the school raffle. And the teacher, it was the same who had sent him to the psychologist, had insisted that he took up this journey. So relentless that even his mother could not resist, although she tried hard. That’s for sure! But the new he had seen back in these days couldn’t compare with what was going on here only on the sidewalks. Not a bit because even the stores did not look like the ones he knew. In front of some was hanging on wires equipment so peculiar and different that one could hardly guess aim and object. Was it intended to work with or perhaps to do some sports?

Therefore, the boy soon did make himself a big fun in assigning that just as the whim suggested it. As he had done so many times before when sitting in his place at school on earth and staring out of the window, driven by blank boredom. Because all the things that were to be seen there and then had gotten a new use pretty quickly as well. An odd shoe lying forlornly on the lawn, for example, turned into a pedal boat for mice, and in reserve, a convertible on the teacher parking became a coffee mug for a giant. With a street sign as a spoon to stir milk and sugar.

Time was fading more and more into the unknown while the bus was covering distance. And as if he wanted to keep up with every yard they were dashing over the streets, Anthony slipped deeper and deeper into a state of happiness. Even so comfortable he felt that, from time to time, he was laughing heartily to himself about his queer ideas. What a contrast it was how he had felt shortly after getting up. But that was only a few steps of the minute hand over the full circle ago.

However, it was not only the vivid imagination the psychologist once had attested, increasingly making life a pure joy for the boy, it was a lot more. Above all, that in his old life, he had always been alone. With his parents as well as at school. And even with the Walkers, to speak in all candor, he had never really got warm on. They had been far too old for that. Here, though, he seemed to have friends. Here, he was part of the show!

And as if he has to prove that, the boy named Broms bumped him with his elbow once again in the side, the two girls sat three rows behind them, and spoke in a conspiratorial undertone, “You can tell me, Ant, you did lose your memory, didn’t you?”

Whereupon he, who felt as if he knew this boy already for ages, merely nodded silently. Full of trust. Although it was not the whole truth. After all, he remembered, but only a life seemingly lost forever.

“Yeah,” Broms continued compassionately. “It happened to me too. Right at the beginning of the term. Even in the first week. But nobody noticed it, for we all were bloody new and, anyway, hadn’t the slightest inkling where the cactus is wearing his swimming trunks here.”

For what he got from Anthony but nothing but a confused look first. However, it didn’t encourage him because he went on straight, “You must know, that’s what we fighters say when someone is too goofy to drink a glass of milk.”

Unfortunately, this as well was only another at anchor lying but already sunken attempt of an explanation. (If one wants to stick a third time to the slang of the fighters.) Since Anthony’s glance didn’t really get any wiser after. So, the little fighter simply gave up and spoke, “Be that as it may. As I said before, since it was at the beginning of the term, thus it wasn’t that much memory I could forget. Still, I never told you. We yet didn’t know each other so well. Was afraid of the Gray Guards and that they shut me down for good. And do you know how it happened? Didn’t pay enough attention during training and let drop when ‘hurling stones in the air’ such a damn thing right on my head all by myself. Bloody stupid, isn’t it? Couldn’t sleep after. Not for three long days.” Abruptly his voice swooped even lower, to a whisper barely audible. “But the craziest thing about it is, in the short time, when I was lying on the ground knocked out, it is said it had been almost two hours, I  even dreamed something. Like you, last night.” Then, though, he put his broad index finger over his mouth, glanced backward, and ordered, “But Psst! Mum is the word. Don’t tell the other two. Particularly not Ramshin. As you know, she always wants to be teacher’s pet.”

Anthony nodded forthwith but was, all of a sudden, seized by an incredible curiosity. “What exactly did you dream of?” he asked, now whispering too.

Broms chuckled and chortled, “I don’t dare to tell it. I was sitting on an extremely strange vehicle with only two wheels, one in the front and one in the back. And somehow, I had to kick my feet constantly around to get forward.” For a moment, he was even miming this movement with his hands. Then he continued, “That’s nuts, isn’t it? There is no such thing.”

But suddenly he urged Anthony with a finger of one of these hands, just a second ago spinning in fast circles through the air, to look outside, and spoke, “Here, you just sit on a Somm-chair, if you have the money for and are not dependent on the bus like we poor pupils, and off you go. You don’t have to struggle that much.” Because, as if by chance, right at that moment, a woman with an extremely solemn and stiff facial expression, sitting on such a vehicle, overtook them.

Anthony’s eyes almost popped out of their sockets. An utterly normal chair, one you can find in any living room, also on earth, zoomed over the street as if he suddenly wanted to be a motorcycle. A good three inches above the ground, like the bus did they were sitting in. Nevertheless, he turned at once back to Broms because what happened here was even more exciting. “Yes, and on, what exactly happened?” he asked.

“Oh,” answered Broms, “To be honest, I don’t really recall. You must know it was as dark as night in my dream. But somehow, I had the feeling as if I had got a push in the back. Even a hell of a blow. But I don’t want to swear on that.”

For a moment, the fighter paused, apparently remembering other things. Then, though, after his wrinkled eyebrows had smoothed again, he continued, “Never mind, maybe it wasn’t a dream at all. Maybe it was nothing but a lousy figment. You know …” and now he displayed his typical broad grin again, “…we are robots, we cannot dream, can we?”

Almost inevitable that the fighter's voice had become louder and louder with the last words so that after the last dot, he was able to switch back to the old song almost seamlessly.

 

We are the robots, robots, robots,

We are the Robo ...

 

This time but the whole bus chimed in because it was full of children who had to go to school, like them. And they all knew this song. Of course, they do! And even Anthony caught himself humming the melody softly.

 

We are the robots, robots, robots,

We are the Robo ...

 

 

 

*

 

Then they had finally arrived in front of the school. It was a gigantic skyscraper and located in the dead mid of the city. So unbelievable high that Anthony, after everybody had alighted from the bus, was not able to toss his head back enough in the neck to detect the upper end.

Chiefly due to the fact that this mighty tower was not only a square lump, but everything about it was round. However, not evenly round like it is with a long tube, rather did it look like if someone with a gigantic hand had stacked discs of varying thickness and radii. Furthermore, not always neat and tidy because sometimes they protruded to a third and sometimes even by half. In addition, most of them were lacking a segment. Just as if this someone with his gigantic hand had swiped one or two wedges out from a cake. Sometimes, even more, up to three-fourth.

In short, it was a fantastic sight! And above the glass entrance, carved into a black marble arch, there was a greeting:

 

 

Enter,

you learning robot,

 

and walk down the stony path with us,

 

to experience the great adventure at the end.

 

 

 

And the funny thing was that Anthony, as it happens, could even read and understand this greeting. Even though it was written in a language extremely different from the one he only knew yesterday, and on top, with totally different characters. With letters thick as trunks. Which, at large, looked as if someone had thrown a huge Mikado game on a sticky wall. (Maybe this someone with his gigantic hand.)

And only then the boy realized that he was making himself understood in this foreign language already the whole time. Even with his first words, ‘Is it you, Nancy, John?’ So naturally, as if this language had been part of his knowledge all his life.

So, one thing was clear to him: If there really was still need for final proof that he was part of this world, hereby it was furnished. His old life faded faster and faster into gray oblivion. Much too gaudy and garish was the new.

However, after they had passed the glass entrance and entered the assembly hall, something surprising happened with Anthony. But not merely with him, with all the other pupils as well. Or, properly speaking, something surprising happened with their uniforms. All of a sudden, logos and crests were emblazoned all over. As if been activated at the very moment, they had crossed the threshold under the greeting and made their first steps on the school premises.

And that’s exactly how it was. At first, Anthony was not able to see it very well on himself, but all the better on the others. Right in the middle of Broms cap, who was wearing the visor casually backward (what he had imitated when putting on his own in the morning) a sign popped up that could be found across the back of Sim’s T-shirt as well, there only much larger. Also, on Ramshin’s socks. In this case but only on the outside, both left and right, at the height of the ankle. It looked like a bee. But what did it mean?

Again, a new question. One of these, finding an answer for was not that easy. Because even if there were many other pupils with a blue and white combination (Anthony on the bus initially had thought of being brothers in the spirit, although some of their T-shirts had shown vertical stripes or were even all over white) he couldn’t detect the sign of his group a second time. As many other backs he scrutinized. And also not on the pupils dressed in red and white, or on those in yellow and black. And not on those  in green and purple, or orange and turquoise, and so on, as there were so unbelievable many other variations in color more.

Of course, had Anthony on the spot checked if he was still part of his group. And to his great relief was given from fate the honor to spot that he was worth the sign too. In the process of intently looking down on himself but also that this, in his case, could be seen on the inside of the socks. Ignorant that there was a rule, he had put them on the wrong way around in the morning. (How could he? It had been still invisible.)

A blunder Ramshin straight away alerted him on. “Oh, Ant, don’t make a sap of yourself! Your socks cannot stay like this, even you know it better,” she spoke. However, more mellow in tone than at breakfast. After all, she was back at school, ready to learn more. Patently, making her happy. Then she exhorted him, “Hurry up, and change that quickly before a teacher can spot you. I’m pretty sure you are not looking for trouble, do you?”

Of course not! On the spot Anthony did what was thought advisable. Then Ramshin and Sims left while Broms stayed by his side. Coincidentally, both had the first two subjects, two lessons each, together. But even so, had the fighter agreed to take care of him until lunch break. In the afternoon, Sims ought to take over.

Suddenly, though, Broms strode abruptly and quite determined towards the great wall on the left, on which many small black holes could be seen. And Anthony, after the logo was finally recognizable correctly on the outside of the socks, fell in behind. To his astonishment, although the hall was crowded with students, one scarcely pushed each other and was, if it happened, very polite. No comparison to his old school.

About five steps before arriving at this very wall, the teammate turned his head and spoke to Anthony (now with a rather patronizing tone sneaking in between the words) “Actually, I as a fighter, would make it on my own hooves. It’s not that far, twenty-second floor. But because you are in the game, I will make an exception and take for once the comfortable elevator.” And hardly spoken so, he stepped into one of those black holes in the wall, strangely enough, suddenly showing the exact same size as he.

Whereas Anthony abruptly stopped. He hesitated. But not because he liked stairs so much, but for a totally different reason. He was quite leery of this idea.

“Come on!” but the other waved hastily. “The door often closes much quicker than you expect.”

He but even shook his head now in disbelief and stated, “I never fit in there.”

The prompt answer to this, though, was mere, “Sure, you do! A whole Jokoringteam fit in here if it must be. Come on, stir yourself. We’re darn late anyway.”

Finally, Anthony complied and was pretty taken aback when the hole, as promised, got instantly bigger after he made another step in its direction. As if it was willing to adapt itself always exactly to the number of people who wanted to make use of it.

After he too had fully entered, and it actually felt like being in an elevator, with walls made of metal all around him, however, without any buttons, Broms spoke, “Magic course for Beginners.”

For a split of a second, it got black all around, no longer than it takes to close an eyelid, then bright again. They had arrived. Albeit not exactly. But only short was the way across the corridor to their classroom. Arriving there, they opened the door and could see a boy casually leaning on the wall beside the frame, apparently waiting for them.

At the sight of this lad, Anthony at once was seized by a great fear that now a legitimation would be demanded of him. Something he did not possess. And that his swindle still would pop after all. Thus, his heart pounded wildly.

Luckily, this boy only put a hand languidly into a box and handed Broms and him each a pen he had taken out of this. Then he spoke with a twang, “Because you are late, you must take a seat in the last row.”

An order apparently meant to be a punishment. Anthony, however, did not complain. On the contrary, it came in quite handy as the classroom was pretty large. Concerning his urge, to make himself invisible whenever it’s possible.

Broms but also gave the impression of being fairly satisfied. “It hardly needs mentioning that Ramshin almost always sits in the first row,” he mumbled as they passed the others.

Apart from the fact that the classroom was so large that more than fifty pupils fit in, was it a classroom like any other, thus one Anthony already knew. There was no difference to his former school. Even the blackboard was green and had two wings for opening.

Since the lesson hadn’t started yet, he asked Broms, after they had sat down on their seats, “What’s this weird pen good for we got from this lad standing next to the door?”

Broms, however, who was just about to put his own diagonally in front of him on the desk, looked at him just utterly dumbfounded first. Then he moaned, “Golly robot! Ant, you actually forgot everything.” In the next second, though, he grin again and stated, “Although, if I remember correctly, it wasn’t that much different with me. Go figure, I didn’t even know my own name. Thought I am called somehow different. Cannot recall precisely how, but when I come to think about it, it sounded, indeed, a bit like this Nancy. Do you remember? The name you called in the box this morning. That’s funny, isn’t it?”

Anthony flinched in surprise. And no doubt that it was now his turn to look utterly dumbfounded.

What Broms noticed but assigned to a different reason. “Oh, that pen,” he said while rolling his own a bit bored with his fingertips, back and forth, over the desk. “Look at it carefully. Do you see a lead in it? You little silly, it’s a magic wand. Nothing but a lousy magic wand. One you magicians get only in the first semester, but I have to make do with all my life.”

Anthony, who in the meantime had recovered from his surprise, wanted now to ask what that very name was and whether Broms, too, was perhaps coming from the other world, once the only he knew. No doubt about that! But something in his mind gave him the advice that, for the time being, it would be better to withhold such questions. If the other remember, he would certainly tell him. They both were already now big buddies.

That’s why he was absolutely satisfied with a totally different question, not of less importance to him. “Why you for a lifetime and not me?” he asked.

“Because …” answered Broms, now falling into a whisper since the teacher had just entered the classroom, “…you are a wizard in the making. Therefore, always provided you pass the final exam, you will receive your first golden finger at the end of the semester. Whereas I, as a fighter, will get seven golden ribs implanted. But once you have this golden finger, you don’t need any longer a magic wand, as it is worth incredibly much more. The stuff you can do with it never can be created by a puny wand. Not even if it’s one of these made of pure silver quartz and baked in a hell furnace for more than a year. And wait until your golden hand is complete, after the fifth semester and so many days of hard training, and it’s time to head for the Great Adventure, whatever is possible with this. Because that’s the only aim and object at this school, for all of us. To embark on the Great Adventure. But now pipe down, with Doctor Wustlonom, indeed, it isn’t a clever idea to play jokes, as our good old Glomp has already stated. No, far from it!” And, demonstratively, Broms turned away now. With a face unambiguously displaying that he didn’t intend to incur the wrath of this teacher. Definitely not!

That’s why Anthony had to ride on his own train of thoughts again and did so. That he now should be a magician he had already noticed in passing. Sims had mentioned something to that effect at the breakfast table. But he hadn’t taken it seriously, for he didn’t feel like being such one. The only thing he could conjure was that, at times, the air surrounding him begins to stink like hell.

Now, though, Anthony even laughed out loud at the memory of this stale joke Mr. Walker once told to him. Of course, when his good Nancy was not in the room. Which instantly earned him a punishing glance from Broms, who quickly ducked still lower, just to escape Doctor Wustlonom’s permanent roving and raking glance, never missing anything.

No, he wasn’t a magician. All he knew on that subject was from a book with the title: ‘Harry Potter’ To be precise: ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ from J.K Rowling. He had liked it very much. But that’s only a modern fairy tale, as the class teacher at his former school had always stated. Besides, he hadn’t spotted anyone here wearing a black cape or maybe poising a pointed hat on his head, as it is described there. And this was not an old castle either. On the contrary, everything here was so incredibly modern.

Then the lesson started. But the more time passed, the less was Anthony able to follow. Terms hovered through the air, he had never heard of. And everyone used them as if it was just about that a brush often can be extremely useful for combing the hair. Accordingly, he slipped back into the world of his many questions.

And only once he listened when the teacher posed one. This time not only to himself (as he frequently did behind his desk, loudly and without expecting an answer) but straight to his attentively listening audience. A question which even he, Anthony, was able to understand.

“So, why, you learning robot children, do we magicians always have to use such strange expressions?” the teacher spoke. “Such as:

 

 

‘Rat tail, rat tail,

make the monkey’s left leg round sail’.”

 

 

Promptly some children jerked up a hand. Anthony, in turn, just was curious, what the answer could be.

In particular, when he heard whom, by name, the teacher vouchsafed the right for that answer. “Yes, you, Broms. Broms Number Six, what is your explanation for that?” he asked.

Immediately Anthony turned to the left. Where, to his astonishment, the person sitting there but displayed not the slightest movement. Let alone one indicating that he was about to stand up soon. And the reason for this reaction, which was in effect no reaction at all, was easy to find because this person was not one of those who had thrown before a hand in the air so zestfully.

Thus, a different boy, front right, rose from his seat. Who looked as strong as his new friend but, in contrast, wore a green and white striped uniform. Seemingly a bit excited when he started to explain, as his voice was slightly shaking, “It is that no misfortune befalls the humans. Should one of them by coincidence stumbles over a magic wand, either gone lost or maybe even been stolen, it is prevented by these so often meaningless seeming rhymes, that he activates it unconsciously and possibly comes to harm. The protection of humans is the holy duty of the robots. Therefore, the more powerful the magic ought to be, induced by the wand and the accompanying stanzas, the more senseless the latter must be.”

“Very good, Broms Number Six,” praised the teacher this boy. “To be honest, it wasn’t you, I intended to call up. But, as so often, I got a little confused with you fighters. To me, one looks like the other. Never mind whether male or female. Muscles, muscles, all over nothing but muscles. Nevertheless, I am reasonably sure you will pass the finals too.” Then he added the obligatory, “You can sit down again.”

Anthony had understood the answer, surprisingly also in its meaning, and yet he continued to stare surprised at his left side.

What this other Broms eventually noticed. “What are you gawping at me like a toothless buffoon?” he asked. “I’m Broms Number Thirteen, not Number Six. It’s a name not necessarily rare among us fighters. Do you think I’m batty enough and volunteer myself to Doctor Wustlonom?”

Indeed, exactly that was the question Anthony had silently put in. You could tell they were already now big buddies. They understood each other increasingly better, even without words. “And what number am I?” he asked.

“You are Number Eleven. Ant Number Eleven.”

Once again, quite a piece of news. A big one to boot. But just when Anthony was about to ask another, the gong sounded, and the lesson was over.

Faster than a new year rocket, Broms jumped up from his seat and shouted. “As quick as we can, let’s skip out of the deadly circle of Doctor Wustlonom,” Then, the next second, he demanded from Anthony, “Hurry up, open your satchel and get your schedule out.”

What Anthony did. Or at least he tried. But after opening his satchel, all he only could find in it was a disc made of glass. “You must activate it,” Broms went on, by now carrying an identical thing with his left hand in front of him, like a waiter a tray, “By itself, it doesn’t do anything.”

Then, though, after realizing that poor Anthony was completely over-challenged with this task, the little fighter demonstrated to him how it worked. Because there was a small hollow in this special disk in which you must lay your thumb first, only then it turned out that it was more than that, a disc made of glass, but a slender screen. One, as it happens, suddenly showing a schedule.

A hell of a clever idea, as Anthony found. And yet not the fact wrapping his mind with amazement. That was something completely different. Nevertheless, a detail that was nothing if not interesting. Mainly because it appeared so ordinary at first glance, all the same, had caught his eye on the spot. That’s why his right index finger was now wandering over this schedule, from left to right, back and forth. Every time over this interesting detail, for he was counting. Then even again because it was much too hard to believe. Only to exclaim suddenly in total bewilderment, after arriving at the tail end of all mathematics, “That’s eight days a week!”

Indeed, once again, Anthony was absolutely stunned. But Broms simply replied, “Why certainly! What else do you expect? Two plus two is four, and four plus four is eight. So, we have half a week and a quarter of a week.”

Then the little fighter even shook his head slightly, giving the impression of being mildly bewildered himself. “Everything else doesn’t add up, or do you think it would be better if the week perhaps has suddenly nine days or even seven?” he asked. “Nine, okay, that’s leastways divisible by the three. Three times three. But the seven cannot be divided by anything. That would be nothing but utter nonsense, wouldn’t it?”

What, although so startling, was so glaringly obvious that Anthony right away had to agree with his new friend. Eight days, yep, that was making sense. Strange how long he had gotten along with this seven. What a crooked number it was. Doesn’t match with anything at all.

Arrived at the classroom door, Anthony quickly realized, why he had to get the schedule out of his satchel. The same boy who had greeted them stood next to it, now but to collect the wands again. And before putting them back in the box, he skimmed with a small, strange cube over the schedule. Where he briefly stopped above the column that evidently marked the day. Whereupon the little box that said ‘Magic course for Beginners’ turned its color from white into blue. And not only that, immediately the box below began to flash, in which was written ‘Sports for Beginners’.

 

And there they went.

He, Ant Number Eleven,

and his new buddy, Broms Number Thirteen

 

 

5. Jokoring

 

 

As soon as he had reached the assembly hall, Anthony felt a bit queasy. No wonder, he hadn’t eaten a nibble in the morning. But mainly because sports had never been his favorite subject.

Broms but soothed him right away. “Certainly, we will only play a game of Jokoring again,” he said. “That’s what we do to up ninety percent in those two hours. The difference between us fighters and the rest of you is far too great for serious training even to be possible.” Briefly, he shook his head. “No, we do not even have to think about such mouse polo. Even three of you would never be able to lift a stone I lob with just one hand twenty yards. Actually, these two hours only exist for one reason, that the rest of you, and it is highly recommended in this regard to think of the students from the guild of the wise, like Ramshin, in the first place, once in a while get some movement in the bones. Not to pore with smoking heads over musty and hefty books in stuffy libraries for eternity, while the rest of the body is rotting and moldering away slowly.”

And just as Broms predicted it, it happened. But it needs mentioning that the locker room they entered first (after they had slipped once again in a hole in the wand and stepped out of a totally different one) by no means was lacking presence as far as the topics musty and stuffy were concerned. No wonder, after all, they were about fifty children who soon found themselves gathered in it. Fifty children, profusely sweating with excitement.

There every last were handed over black sportswear. From an old oil-smeared service robot full of dents, dragging a leg. Sportswear without logos, they dressed on forthwith. And since this was a course crossing the semesters and disciplines, Anthony could now see plenty of kids much taller than he. However, only a handful of members of the fighter guild. And that was quite certain, even for a little magician in the making with incorrect working memory. Way too lanky and clumsy the rest was. Not to mention the frequently utterly spiritualized gaze.

 

 

 

Out on the playing field (so vast that Anthony wondered how they had got it into the building, not to speak of stands all around, stretching immensely high) a green expanse of lawn received them, on which a whole series of numbers was painted. Mostly, in white or red. Sometimes just strokes, lines, and circles. All didn’t have the slightest meaning to him. Of course not. Far too much they were that he was able to associate them with any game he knew from the earth.

Then four captains were designated by the gym teacher. A woman by the name of Mrs. Manwalus. Every last a representative out of the guild of the fighters. Two girls and two boys, one of whom was Broms. Who now, in turns, picked one out from the rest to reinforce their team.

Broms had promised Anthony to pick him in due course because up to now he had always been designated to be one of the captains. Just to put him on the bench, as a reserve. This, though, cannot be done with the first pick since everyone here exactly knows that the sporting ambitions of a magician, particularly his, are so modest and itsy-bitsy that they are, more or less, in a barely measurable area. The goal of every fighter but is always to win, even if he plays just for fun. It would cause suspicion if he would put him right away in his team, then.

But, never mind, it happened completely differently anyway because it was one of the girls who snatched Anthony. Apparently, they were friends. For when he was standing next to her, a boy in his back whispered, “Look, she’s got him again. They’ll probably get married before long, maybe already tomorrow.”

Two of girls of his team giggled promptly. Then both even started to hum softly, but still audible, “Robot Love, Robot Love" and the head of his captain turned all red.

After the whole bunch had finally been split up and arranged in blocks, no one left, the gym teacher (who actually looked more like a man, notably on the strength of her short haircut) stood in front of them and raised a hand. To be precise, the right one. In which, suddenly, two of the fingers began to shimmer golden. Having the effect that all the shorts and jerseys these very fingers were pointing at instantly changed color. The one team became yellow, the other blue, the next two, red and green. Thus, no one was black any longer.

One time more, Anthony’s gaze was more than just puzzled. What the same boy noticed who had just predicted him an early marriage. “Not as half-bad for a fighter, isn’t it?” he spoke. “Albeit there are some with even three golden fingers. But this class would never content themselves with a job as a teacher. Not even at this school. They’re bound for somewhere else on this world, devoted to higher pursuits.”

But the fact that Anthony was not part of Brom’s team didn’t make much of a difference, for his captain, too, let him keep the bench warm by reasons of clemency. (Or most likely because she also wanted to win. And that is, to be honest, a thing highly improbable to happen with Anthony in your team, and on the playing field into the bargain. Never mind whether with a properly working memory or not.)

Sitting on this bench, he carefully studied the environment. Of course, first of all, the gym teacher and her hand. But this was altogether back to normal. That she commanded over two golden fingers was not even to guess.

And as long Anthony scanned this hand, it stayed that way. Thus, at some point, he turned his attention to this outlandish game taking place right in front of him on the lawn.

In the locker room, Broms had quickly tried to give him a rough idea of what the goal of it was, however, to no avail. What the fighter merely took note of with three sentences. First, “What the hell, there it is,” second, “Nobody can make the night see the sun,” and third, “You haven’t even grokked it before you lost your memory.” Then he shook his head full of incomprehension and added, even a wee bit sad sounding, “It’s such a pity, isn’t it? Apart from us fighters, no one else understands this game properly. Some of you may master the rules, to some extent, I must admit, but to fathom the deep spirituality in it, isn’t given to just one of you. No, it isn’t.”

Anthony was not able to do anything with the term spirituality. He only knew that adults always did make use of it. His good Nancy, too. Notably she! Even if she had other letters in her repertoire to write it down on a sheet of paper as her language was a different one. That’s self-evident. But the meaning was the same. For she only used that word when she was about to show the world what a nice and peaceful person she was. What she did very often, for the world should know that not only humility and fear of God were living deep in her bosom. But the longer he followed the game, the less he was able to detect parallels. Especially for one reason, the dealing with each other on the playing field was not of that kind that he personally would have called it peaceful or nice. Anything but that! Somehow a stone had to be put into a hole, which in turn was defended by the players of all the other teams. As a result, there was a permanently pushing and dragging, a hustling and tugging. And the only parallel he was able to draw in his mind was that it reminded him of his former school playground. Although there was no tree in the middle, he could quickly climb on in case of being in dire straits.

Indeed, with the minutes passing by, it became even rougher in front of him. And every time one of the stones had disappeared completely in one of these holes, there was a big howl. And to use the plural is perfectly right, for it was not just one stone but three, since there were four teams. Thus, with seven, it would have been six. With nine, eight, and so on. Broms had even talked about the fact that in former days there had been games in which up to thirty teams had participated. But that would only rarely be put into practice nowadays, as the spectator would have a hard time following the spectacle. Especially on TV. That’s why such big games wouldn’t be broadcast for many years. Five teams are the absolute maximum, that could be consumed by the audience without too much mental effort.

But if Anthony had hoped to get away with a black eye, he had to face big disappointment. Even though he didn’t get such one after he had been brought in, shortly before the end. But he was beaten and pushed that he found himself more and more often on all fours. Once, an unknown hand raked over his face, and at the end of its short journey, in order not to lose grip, it even drilled its pointed fingernails into his forehead without mercy. What, as it happens, seemed to be a foul because the whistle of the gym teacher took in place instantly.

Albeit was it not a thing Anthony necessarily would have denoted as a gift, for it was now up to him to carry the stone, that was unbelievable heavy. No wonder that he was darn happy when it was snatched out of his hands again.

In the end, his team finished second. The one led by Broms won. Which made the other profoundly happy. “Great game, huh?” he stated in the locker room, and his eyes gleamed.

 

 

Then they went together for lunch.

 

 

 

6. Lunch Break

 

 

They had made an appointment in the magicians’ recreation room. And Anthony, who never had clapped an eye on it (at any rate could not recall if he had done so before) accordingly, had no expectations. Nevertheless, once again, his mind was whirled by complete amazement. No, nothing about this school was reminiscent of his former one. Because after leaving the hole of the elevator, this time hidden in a gigantic tree (so big that a war galley could have been easily carved out of it in one piece) they entered a rolling countryside. Far and wide, there was no wall to be seen anymore and no window, only in the distance a mountain peak with a cap of snow on it.  And there, where a ceiling should have been, was nothing but infinitely blue void.

The whole sight was so impressing that Anthony looked utterly flabbergasted at Broms and asked, “Where did we land?”

But not only he, his new friend as well seemed to be quite intimidated by this awesome backdrop. “I must grant …” he said, “… you magicians are close to brilliant if you make an effort. Yes, you really are.”

Then, however, he answered the question, “Even though I have been here several times, I hardly can believe that we are still in the school. Allegedly this is the forty-third floor.” Now he even nodded with his head fervently. (Which seemed a bit as if he had to assure himself of this assumption.) Then he resumed, “The landscape changes every fortnight, but what remains the same is that every time you do have the impression of being in the wide open. That’s exactly what I call a proper recreation room. I like it. Yes, I really do! In ours are only ever weights, weapons, and scores of other devices scattered over the floor. How should one chill in such a mess properly? It’s nothing else than another gym, isn’t it?”

“Stop grumbling, Broms,” but suddenly a voice could be heard. And it was definitely Sims’. “You are a fighter, and you love it to be one, don’t you? Better tell me, how did it go?”

Broms, though, first looked a bit confused to the left and right as he could not spot the caller on the spot. And only after she had raised an arm, he knew where she and Ramshin were lying in the long grass.

With Anthony straggling behind, he went straight towards the girls. “Oh, I gather we acquitted ourselves pretty well, although our Ant will never make a good Jokoringplayer,” he answered after arriving. Then he even chuckled, “And if I’m allowed not to put too fine a point on it, he’s not even of use as a corner flag.”

“They really put me hard through the wringer,” but Anthony complained immediately while carefully examining his forehead with a hand. The spot where somebody else’s fingernails had tried to keep him apart from the game. It still burned.

And only now did he descry that he probably had been hurt a bit more seriously than he thought first. At any rate, could he see on his index finger, after he had led him before his eyes, suddenly a red round stain. Stunned, he realized,

 

 

“I’m bleeding!”

 

“Oh, that’s nothing,” Broms stated at once. At the same time showing an airily waving of his right hand, just as if that really was not worth just one word of excitement. “That little drop of red juice. Once, they dislocated my left shoulder, and it was Mrs. Manwalus, of all people, who reset it. I can tell you, that was a hurt straight out of hell if ever there was one.”

It was beyond any doubt that the little fighter was perfectly right. This tiny drop was not worth any excitement. Not even for Anthony. The point baffling him was a different one. “But if I bleed,” he said. “How can I be a robot?”

An important question. But only for a moment there was silence among the others, then a reply was good to go, “Oh, Ant, you old daffy goof, please stop your silly jokes, will you?” and it was Ramshin who could be heard this way. Reprimanding and teaching were second nature to her. “You are a robot out of the X3-Z04 series. The most human-like product ever built. Do not pretend you do not know. There is no more gap between you and the original. Not in the slightest! You are flesh and blood. You have bones, joints, and also cartilage. And that’s not all, you can feel like them, you can laugh and even cry. Although the latter, and there is no need for further explanation, is prohibited. Not to say, strictly forbidden! All to find and read in: ‘Introduction to Robotics, Volume 203’” Now the little wise even showed a brief disapproving shake of the head. However, did not forget to add in a pretty lofty tone, “You see, it is high time for you to have a good look in a good book, my dear Ant. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt you both other too, would it?”

“You dear robot, what you not all know about the world,” now Broms chopped in, at the same time with these words taking over Antony’s defense. “X3-Z04? Why not, for example, BB9-5?”

But even though the little fighter’s intention was to pull Ramshin with this question a bit out of her shell, so was he, in order to stay in the language of the Jokoringplayers, only putting a hefty square stone in his own square hole, since she faced the challenge promptly and retorted, “Yes, exactly, X3-Z04, and not, BB9-5, or maybe some letters or numbers exchanged or even added. But to know that, you don’t even need to read a good book, my good Broms. You simply have to have a gander at your soles.”

For a second, it was again silent. “What, on my soles?” then the so addressed asked flabbergasted. Who for a short moment actually had believed in, to survive against Ramshin in a word-skirmish, and if it was only for once. Then he even repeated what had just been said by himself, at least in the spirit, “Something is written there?” as if he couldn’t believe it.

All the same, on the spot, he slipped out of his shoes and stripped off his socks. But only to avow in the end in a resigned tone, “Indeed, she’s right again. Our walking encyclopedia. Here it stands, X3-Z04. Even twice.” Astonished, he turned to Sims. “Did you know that?”

A bit embarrassed, the little body-transformer nodded. “But only by accident,” she answered. “Only last month we got in a lesson ‘Body-transforming for Freshmen’ major: foot, the task to make hooves out of them. What I, if I may say so, was able to manage, after a fashion. To be honest, they looked more like cut off table-legs.”

Broms did not really listen to her, though. He had got a good hiding and was still gravely weakened. “And you, did you know that?” he now asked Anthony, completely forgetting that not only that the little magician did not know.

Then he even showed him one of his soles, the right one, on which, in fact, on the back of the heel, as tattooed with black ink, was written: X3-Z04.

Although not big, Anthony could read it very well. An answer to the question, though, he saved to himself, as he assumed that such one not seriously was expected of him.

So it was. “Well, after all, I’m the most advanced model,” Broms snarled and started to put on his socks again. However, first the wrong way, the logo inside. So it was quite obvious to everybody that he still was all in a fluster.

“There is not a scintilla of doubt about that,” answered Ramshin. In her thirst for victory seemingly ready for another blow, since she amended, again in this lofty tone, “The most advanced model, but as we all know too well, only second choice.” Only to bite already the next second on her lip, recognizing that nobody else than she herself it was who must hold liable for, to have put right now a hefty square stone in her own square hole. That’s why she extremely hastened to add, “But that signifies nothing, as we all four are only second choice. Never mind what the price in the end was. And Glomp had told me that this is nothing but bloody hooey, anyway. He had seen premium quality losing just after three weeks its complete memory forever, and thus had to be handed over to the Gray Guard for the final shut-down.” And all the little wise was hoping for was that the issue was done with that.

But in vain because now it was up to Anthony to stir the whole story up again, albeit out of sheer ignorance, for he asked, “What does that mean, I’m only second choice?”

“Oh, don’t listen to her,” now Sims chimed in. “All nothing but rumors. Not a word thereof is proven. Just because our owner is not a nobleman and not boundless rich, therefore, is only able to afford one age-group, namely us, it doesn’t mean that he had been fobbed off with paltry leftovers. The price does not always determine the quality. For sure not!” And the expression displayed on her face at these words was quite convincing.

Anthony, however, was utterly perplexed once again. What a terrible piece of news it was! The demoting from a human being to a robot had not been that easy for him. Not at all! But now, in addition, he should be only a shabby rest? “But I don’t feel like I’m just junk,” he protested defiantly.

“Sure, you are not,” but now it was Ramshin who tried to soothe him. Realizing, more and more, that the stone she had placed in her own hole was even thicker and heavier than the one Broms all of a sudden had found in his. Accordingly, she was at pains to remove it with all her strength and as quick as possible. “As Sims said …” she rushed on, “… the price alone is never guarantee for anything, let alone quality. And besides, it’s all nothing but a lousy bunch of trashy hearsay. All well-known producers, not only those who built us, firmly deny that influential people would be preferred in distribution. For that simple reason, it would be against the law. Anyone who legitimately writes off taxes with us must be treated equally according to the paragraphs. Otherwise, hefty fines can be imposed, also on politicians. Sometimes even prison.”

 “Yeah, that’s the name of it,” but now Broms could be heard. Who, in the meantime, was about to tie his shoelaces. Ignorant that with this statement he was only pouring new fuel into the nearly extinguished fire.

Just as he was utterly ignorant to what that in practice was, to write off taxes. Just like the others. No question about that. Even Ramshin, who knew the word only from a book but had not really absorbed the meaning.

 

No wonder, they were still children.

 

Freshmen.

 

 

What the little fighter knew, on the other hand, was that it was wiser than wise not to start unnecessarily a scrap with a student from a wealthy house. No matter how high your own price was. The teachers, who were always the referees at the competitions too, knew exactly out from which purse the greatest puddle of school fee was dripping. To whom the hand belongs, giving them food and drink. That’s why he cautioned Anthony, “Yet, it is pretty advisable not to pick a fight with those of whom you can spot the logo in almost every hallway. Better give them a wide berth. Notably, when they are represented over a dozen times in only one age-group. Sometimes they count up to the hundred if you include the other semesters. Not because they may be superior to us. No, not that. I have beaten far too many of them to believe such silly flimflam. But rather because the law is always nothing but written word. We, however, live in the harsh reality.” Now he even darted a special eye towards Ramshin, galvanizing her to nod forthwith in eager agreement.

What for the little wise but was a hard job, as if a pole made of iron suddenly was sticking in the neck. For the written word, in effect, was like a religion to her in every other condition of life. But needs must when the devil drives, and a peaceful line finally been drawn under this damn matter. It was dragging itself much too long anyway.

It succeeded in the end, although Anthony still had another brief query, “What, we have an owner?”

But had to settle with a concise response, he now got again from Sims, “Certainly, what do you think who is paying for everything here? It is easily the best school there is, hence, the training is pretty expensive.”

Then she opened her satchel, reached with a hand in it, and spoke cheerfully, “And so, my dear robotic children, let’s eat up our delicious sandwiches, good old Glomp has so lovingly prepared for us. We four are not as rich as the others who are allowed to pick up their meals in the canteen every day, but we are hungry too, aren’t we?”

Now, everybody laughed. Even Anthony, although he did not really know why. But it was contagious. Moreover, it was a damned good feeling to be part of such a close-knit group, even if you do not always agree with each other.

Indeed, the sandwiches, as promised, tasted delicious. And finally, Anthony also ate something. Of course, not as many as Broms, whose satchel seemed to be filled to capacity with nothing else but sandwiches. Then, somewhere in the distance the chime of a bell echoed, but no direction could be identified, heralding that it was time to leave this place and go for the afternoon classes. In pairs, they entered the hole in the tree and attended their courses.

 

*

For the next two hours, Anthony was accompanied by Sims. So it had been agreed on since both had the course ‘Body-transforming for Amateurs’. And as he learned from his schedule in this regard, he was with her most of the time anyway. In a week crammed to the brim with lessons. That means, always three days at a stretch, one day off. Four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon. On a normal day, he had four subjects, then. (What sounds a bit queer but isn’t. Because one should not forget, always two hours were lumped to a block.) In total, at six days full of lessons, there were twenty-four units, then. Of which he had to visit exactly half of all alone, though. The subject was named ‘Magic for Freshmen’ and was his master-class. (Very different from those of the other training directions, as each has its own. That’s self-evident. A fighter simply is a fighter and not a wise.) This, in turn, comprised three fields: Potions, Curses, and Incantations. But not in equal numbers because the hours with the incantations were twice as often listed on the schedule than the other two together. In the twelve remaining units, he mostly met a member out of his team. They were divided into one time ‘Magic course for Beginners’ twice ‘Sports for Beginners’ thrice ‘Learning for the Great Adventure (Part I)’ and six times ‘Body-transforming for Amateurs’ A subject again subdivided in: Part I, Part II, and Part III. Synonymous with: Head, Hands, and Feet. Thus, Body-transforming and magic were closest to each other. Whereas Broms and Ramshin shared only one unit a week, as Anthony learned in this context from Sims.

The lesson now taking place was called ‘Body-transforming for Amateurs (Part II)’ Synonymous with the hand, then. And like in ‘Magic course for Beginners’ here, too, next to the doorway, a lad doled out wands to the classmates. After all, none of them had passed the freshman exam. Therefore, the wizards and witches did not have a golden finger, and the body-transformers no layer of golden skin. Let alone the golden fingernail. Not permitted to them before the end of the third semester, anyway. (Always provided, this exam had been passed successfully.) And, once more, Anthony heard something stunning. “What, bones are taken out from you? But then you will slump as if being made just of pudding.”

Sims but merely laughed, “No, no, it isn’t that bad.”

By the way, the little body-transformer, too, was in the meantime privy to the fact that Anthony didn’t know anything anymore. The confidence in his team grew by the second. She had told him, but already on the way to the classroom, that this is nothing he must be afraid of. Glomp had once talked, not only this morning, such a thing would happen in quite surprising frequency. Naturally mostly with the freshmen. Anyway, critical it only becomes after two days. But then, at the latest, the Gray Guards must be apprised forthwith. She herself would have, on and off, small dropouts in which she felt as if having experienced things before. But never more than a couple of seconds. Then she didn’t comment on this topic any further, though.

In the here and now, Anthony but was permitted to keep on digging. Which he promptly did because the differences regarding the training directions were of no less interest for him. That’s why he asked, “How am I allowed to understand that, it’s not that bad?”

“Well, you get your golden fingers, we, in turn, our golden skin,” Sims revealed. “Always one layer more at the end of each semester. And even if this is just like any ordinary skin you know and does not shine golden at all, believe me, it is so strong and tear-resistant that you don’t need just one single bone in your body at some point. However, not all of them are removed already after the first semester, as you ignorant robots from the other disciplines often like to profess. No, only a handful. After all, to the same degree, the skin is strengthened, the bones, especially the thick ones, must be made soft and supple. But that takes its time. Thus, we are completely empty only after the fifth semester. Apart from our golden fingernails because without, we cannot transform our bodies. That’s self-evident. When you allow me to leave the hairstyle and other small tricks out in the cold for a moment. And which naturally cannot stand a comparison with the golden finger of a magician. Nowhere near! Nevertheless, in some way is  another wedge of the same cake, as he also replaces the wand. You see, everything happens in due time. Only then is the skin strong enough to compensate fully for the lack of internal structure. Which but is not synonymous with that it is rigid or stiff. Of course not! Quite diametrical, it is stretchy and foldable like nothing else you know. So, we can adopt any possible shape at the close of our training. We even can be a lonely leaf from a tree. What’s exactly the purpose of a body-transformer, isn’t it?

Well, he didn’t really get it, but Anthony was satisfied with what he had heard for the time being. Especially, as it seemed to be a damn long road to become a master in this field. The teacher, his name was Mr. Kollpan, barely after he had shut the classroom door behind his back (it was more kind of slamming) put the task to the pupil, to create webs between the fingers. What Sims managed fairly well with the help of a magic wand. Not to say, excellent! For the rest of the class but ended up in the same disaster as for him. What, at least, had the point that his incompetence did not stick out.

Barring that, it was a pretty funny hour. For some of the pupils grew feathers out from their fingers, and one girl even managed to transform her thumb into the head of a frog. Unfortunately, more by accident than designed by will. Therefore, it was bloody embarrassing for her. Her head instantly blushed crimson.

But maybe not merely for that reason, as she permanently threw covert glances at Anthony. No wonder, it was the same girl who was his captain in the sports lesson. As he learned from Sims was her name Agada, and she belonged to one of the many teams of the Prince of Ibalon.

Otherwise, there was much to laugh about, and the two hours accordingly zoomed past. But after that, Anthony was on his own. No Sims and no Broms hovered over him anymore. Because now he had ‘Magic for Freshmen’ (The Great Domain of the Curses) with no one less than Doctor Wustlonom standing before the blackboard.

 

 

So, already on the way to the elevator,

his heart, in terrible dread,

was pounding with hammers.

 

 

 


 

 

7. We are One Team

 

 

Doctor Wustlonom was feared at school like no other. Quite rightly! And it is safe to assume that he would have handed Anthony straight over to the Gray Guard the moment when finding out about his mental state. The loss of memory was not tolerable for a teacher like him. But it turned out quite differently. Luck reared its pretty head and was kind to Anthony once more. Totally unexpected Doctor Wustlonom got sick.

 

Outrageous!

 

Such a thing was unheard of for the last ten years. No wonder that school at once was awash with rumors. Supposedly an even greater wizard had cursed the doctor.

Hardly to imagine for the students. At least initially. Was the doctor in his appearance of such a presence (some would say of such an incredible arrogance and haughtiness) that just the very thought was forbidden, someone on this world could outstrip him. After all, he was not only the owner of a golden hand. No, he did possess, moreover, two golden fingers on the other side. And that special feature is not often found even among magicians. Then the buzz was that someone had tried to poison him at lunch, but he nearly avoided the assassination. He had swallowed only a few sips from the manipulated cup, so he just feels a bit queasy today.

The whole truth was never known to the students, though. But Anthony was it a severe warning that at this school, where everyone was so friendly and nice with each other, also harsh manners could prevail.

The lesson was conducted by a probationary teacher named Mr. Blomquast, who had only recently passed his exam. Accordingly, was he still very proud of his now complete golden hand. With which he performed a crazy feat after another in these two hours. To demonstrate to the pupils what is all possible with it. For example, did he turn a mosquito into an elephant and a rubber dinghy into a sausage.

Although, frankly speaking, this elephant did not have much in common with an elephant Anthony knew from the zoo. This one had pointed ears, two proboscises, and was, to cap it, green all over. But that it was an incredibly big and fat animal, at least that was undisputed. (And that the mosquito was a small flying insect was as well not at issue. However, so tiny it was that you would not have dared to tell at the distance if it was, in fact, a mosquito, one that wants to steal blood with a nasty spike, or maybe just an ordinary fruit fly.)

But never mind, that was not the point because it depends on the tricks. And every single one of these was just fantastic. That’s why you must call it nothing but a big show. With loads of action. Much more than in any movie in the cinema. Maybe even a film to end all films. So that when Anthony was on the bus, along with the rest of his team, driving back to the little house where he had woken up in the morning, and was telling Broms about all the sparkling punchlines which furthermore could be admired in these cover lessons (instead of the things one so often must find on the boring syllabus, also at this school) his new friend listened with red ears and was even a bit envious.

“You dear robot, what lucky devils we are that old Wustlonom has choked today,” the little fighter eventually spoke. He seemed almost a little relieved.

No wonder, he couldn’t stand the Doctor. Not at all! Close to him, he felt this instant ill at ease. Not only because this awful threat of the final shut-down suddenly was hovering over everything one was doing or saying, like an invisible puff of poison, no, in general. “This serves him right,” he added in a whisper. “I personally would call it nothing but poetic justice. Yes, I do. My congratulations to the one who did it.”

 

Back home, the table was already set and Glomp just about to bring a steaming pot out of the oven, which he placed between the plates. Not smack in the middle of the table, of course not, but so that it was as close as possible to Broms place.

The children took a seat, Anthony, too. Then the servant wiped his hands on his apron, as always acting a little awkward, and wished everyone a good appetite.

Which everyone had, including Anthony. Mostly, and that can be taken for granted, the little fighter. Not only did he have an appetite, he was seriously hungry. No surprise, the whole day in motion, that needs its calories.

Again, no exaggeration, not a crumb, for the bear-strong indeed trained almost around the clock. He had shown his schedule to Anthony to prove, who could hardly believe it. In addition to sports, his new friend had scarcely any other subject. Only two double-lessons in ‘Magic course for Beginners’ in “Body-transforming for Amateurs’ and ‘Learning for the Great Adventure, part I’. Accordingly, did Anthony picture the training to become a fighter as a rather bleak and monotonous business. How lucky he was to wake up this morning as a magician!

After dinner, Glomp cleared the table while the four little robots sat down on the blue-and-white-striped sofa, next to the sleeping box and right in front of the big black screen hanging on the wall opposite the one with the library. There Ramshin handed over each a pair of black glasses.

And, immediately, everyone laughed again, except Anthony. Who didn’t chime in because he thought it highly ridiculous to put on sunglasses just to look into a black screen. Until Broms showed him that there was a switch on the left leg of these special sunglasses, he had to flip first so the black screen on the wall could turn into a TV. However, in one everyone can choose their own program.

The girls watched a cartoon. Even Ramshin, who usually was only interested in the news, and sporadically in one of the few informational programs without advertisement. Whereas Broms, needless to say, for him as well as for Anthony had programmed the sports channel, where just some game was running. Probably Jokoring again. At least it was played on the same field and, once again, big stones played a decisive role. Big stones and big holes. Anthony still didn’t cotton on to it. Then it was already time to go to bed.

Briefly, Glomp clapped his hands and ordered, “Come on, come on, my dear robotic children, take a shower and give your teeth a thorough brush. Then straight into the box!”

For which he reaped a general grumble first. That, though, was just habit and never seed of true resistance. After all, all of them got up and followed his order forthwith. As everyone had his own small shower cabin, the stay in the bathroom didn’t last long. Therefore, after only fifteen minutes, all of them were standing in the living room and ready.

Carefully, Glomp picked one by one up and put him, or her, in the box. In the same order as they had woken up in the morning. On the far left Sims, then Anthony and Ramshin, and finally the bear-strong Broms. “Goodnight, my dear robotic children,” he wished. And the echo just answered, “Goodnight to you too, Glomp!” then the lid closed.

But as was to be expected, silence could not reign instantly after such a day. And it was Broms who threw words in the pitch darkness first. “Well, that was a jolly good show. Yeah, it really was!” he stated with satisfaction.

“Yeah, still,” Ramshin answered. “Let’s hope our Ant will recover soon.” But then she turned her head to the other side and asked the little wizard straight, for she too had been initiated in the meantime that there was a little problem with his memory. (If she hadn’t guessed it already at breakfast. And at the latest at the lunch break when he was asking if there is an owner of the team. After all, she was a wise. And, to cap it, a damn clever one.) “And, Ant, do you feel like you’re on the mend?”

What Anthony, after a short hesitation, but only replied with, “If I’m honest, no.”

And that, scrupulously honest and sincere, he had to be. So far, all of them had put such much trust in him that he was not allowed to lie to only one of them. Even if he had preferred, everyone would be damn happy about the great progress he had made. No doubt. But he still couldn’t recall the dimmest thing before this morning, unless it concerned his old life. As for that fact, however, he thought it better to keep his lips still glued.

Accordingly, Ramshin’s reaction was. “Blast it!” she groaned.

Now but Sims interfered in the conversation. “Oh, don’t fret about, Ramshin,” she soothed the little wise. “Until the final semester exams take place, and that’s only in three weeks, Ant is certainly back on his legs. I am sure as hell of that.”

“What, already in three weeks?” but now Broms asked out of his corner, quite startled. “Golly robot, and I still have so much to train!” And then, after he had turned himself around loudly, he still added, “But with Ant, I’ll warrant you, up to this date we’ll have nursed him back to health. Albeit, we cannot perform miracles. After all, a lousy wizard remains a lousy wizard, doesn't he?”

But it was only Sims who was now chuckling at his little joke. Whereas the recipient remained silent because what ought he to answer? He didn’t even know, being a wizard. Although, after this fantastic show in the afternoon, was he on fire to become one.

 

That’s for sure,

Who could ask for more?

 

That’s why it was again Ramshin who took up the thread of the conversation. “I’m not worried about the exit exam, my dear Sims. If Ant isn’t on his feet by then, the Gray Guards will have picked him up already well before, and our team will be scattered to the four winds. Because I can hardly envision that our owner, Mr. Hampalan, muster such a pile of money once again. Leastwise not after such a short span of time. And if he is really able to do so, he certainly won’t dare to put it into such an iffy project again. For you must know, only five percent of all teams get through till the end without a loss. The others can only hope that their owner is quicker rolling in money than ours and supplies fast replacement when needed. Or that the rest can manage to find shelter in another team, suffered a loss this year as well. Because if you are a hapless robot, it doesn’t work out in numbers, and you will be shut down even though you are perfectly healthy at heart. Read on ‘Statistics and Future Predictions on Raising Robots’ Volume 18” Then she was silent for a moment (Broms let hear a soft yawn) just to add, now turning her head again back on the side of the little fighter, “But frankly, this topic is beside the point. The day after tomorrow is what I am seriously concerned about. Because my good Broms, in case you haven’t noticed yet, we are in the second half of the week, not in the first. Accordingly, tomorrow is the first day of the last quarter. What’s ensuing, we all know too well.”

 

Again, it was silent in the box for a moment.

 

Black and silent.

 

Even so silent that everyone was able to hear his own heartbeat.

 

Until it was up to Broms, who was actually about to fall asleep, to thud with his left palm violently onto the bottom of the box, to moan loud and to shout, “Blimey! As always, she is right. I almost forgot the game.”

“Yeah, the game,” Ramshin repeated. “If Ant fails there, we don’t have to worry about the exit exam anyway. Then we have had it on this day, for an escape is hardly possible. As you know, the Gray Guards are supervising all games. Especially when it comes to that a team, or maybe even some more, get the chance to jump up a notch. We’re currently third.” For one or two seconds, she could now be heard, turning around in her place once more. Not only her head. For the reason that the other two could understand her well again. “So, it’s about nothing less than to defend our hard-won place for the play-offs, my highly esteemed robotic children. And I am quite sure you all know versus whom? Against one of the teams of the Prince of Ibalon. Against Ibalon Three. They are by points exactly one place behind us. Logically fourth. But as I know the referees, we can put up from the start ten minutes to our score, to wit ten minutes minus! Even though the other six teams participating shouldn’t be a deuce of a problem for us.”

 

And again, there was an oppressive silence in the box.

Now lasting even more than ten seconds.

 

Until Sims finally spoke, “Oh, don’t worry, it will work out in the end,” though the tone of her voice betrayed that she herself was not really sure about that. On the contrary. But after another short pause, as if to encourage herself, and all the others as well, she went on, “And isn’t it true that at the last game, without Ant, we certainly would have made before last? If not even last.”

“That’s perfectly right!” Broms remembered at once. Who, by the way, was always willing to acknowledge a good job on the field. No matter what the name of the game was. Easy for him now as it was Anthony they were talking about. But even with the opponent, he was quite often lavish with praise. “If Ant hadn’t got this brainchild with the marbles, we would have never caught up so dramatically. And unequivocally the three of us it was who had put the mockers on the game before. You surely remember how they slipped over the nasty little things and then tripped up over each other with wild circling arms like windmills until even the last was plonking his fanny on the ground. A sight to behold! It was just marvelous, wasn’t it? You did some nifty work that day, Ant. Indeed, you did! In the end, we earned second place.”

Sims fell promptly in, “Yeah, my sentiments exactly, that was a jolly good idea. It's not only for this that we owe our Ant a tower full of nothing but thanks. What did I say, even two!” Then she suddenly chuckled softly and added, “Although he is a lousy wizard. That’s for sure. And we all know it. Yes, we surely do. Who else if not his team? But, as a last resort, he maybe can become after the fifth semester with his golden hand a teacher in a special subject named ‘Accidents in magic, and how to hush up their traces as unobtrusively as possible.’ What do you think of that?”

An excellent joke so that now even Ramshin heartily laughed. Glad to banish all these unpleasant thoughts for a fleeting moment. Then, though, she ordered, “But now we must keep quiet, my dear robotic children, as we must sleep. Tomorrow is a damn tough day, and I still have so much to learn.”

And this silence, solicited by her, this time even reigned on the spot. Only Anthony was still saying, “Thank you all for your trust. It’s a great feeling to have such friends.”

But it was only Broms who mumbled an answer, “Ah, Ant, wrap it up. You know, we are one team. That’s what we have sworn back then, next to this box ‘No one stands alone!’” And before long, the little fighter began to snore quietly.

However, not only he was totally zonked. After only a handful of seconds, everyone had plunged deep into the sweet sea of sleep.

Everyone except one. Poor Anthony was awake the whole night. Hour ensuing hour, and in his mind nothing but questions. Chasing each other at a wild gallop. In the process, however, the old ones were replaced by new ones, one by one. Definitely and for good. That’s the way with the eight-year-olds. It was no longer a question of whether he was dead and how he had come into this box, wham-bam faster than a pistol bullet. In which he now was lying with his new friends again. It was more about: Why couldn’t he recall? Was it because he was not a real part of this world after all? But he truly wanted to be. It was so nice not to be alone anymore. It was so nice to have friends.

Indeed, hardly one of these questions had been answered, the next already made a sally out of its corner. So, it was a tough and long night for Anthony. But it passed by. And, all of a sudden, it became all-around bright again, and a once utterly unfamiliar face appeared right before him. The face of an old man. Who but wasn’t so strange anymore. “A good morning!“ he wished him and the others.

And “A good morning to you too, Glomp!” it right off sounded back in chorus.

 

Now with his voice too!

 

 

 

8. A faulty Power Mode

 

They stood on the boundary line of the playing field. A bus had brought them there. On a completely different line as the one, they usually got to school. No wonder, the venue was far from the city. At the foot of the mountains, standing side by side as if being one single high fence. And Anthony was just amazed by how steep, rugged, and lofty they rose in front of him. Beyond was supposedly a large lake.

They had been on the road well over an hour and landed slap-bang in the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, the number of visitors was already now over the border to uncountable. This playing field didn’t have much in common with the one Anthony knew from school, though. Chiefly because what was near to come was not a game of Jokoring, as he had expected and hoped for at the same time. In which one somehow could wangle his way through. Inasmuch as most of the others, apart from the fighters, understood its deep spirituality as little as he did. No, the team competition was a challenge of a completely different sort. But first things first.

Anthony had weathered yesterday. Very likely because Doctor Wustlonom still kept the bed, plagued by severe cramps. Which almost everyone at school loved to hear, particularly Broms. And it was again Mr. Blomquast who deputized him. All four units, the two in the morning and the two in the afternoon, for it was the first day of the last quarter. Day seven of the week. Intensive-day. That is to say, every student, no matter what training he went through, was taught only in his major subject.

Under normal circumstances, this would have been the inescapable end for Anthony, as they were only fifteen students in his master-class. (At the start of the term, it had been 2 x 2 x 2 x 2. (What else do you expect?) But a poor wretch had been handed over to the Gray Guard by Doctor Wustlonom for the final shut-down on account of persisting ignorance.) And fifteen is much too little to avoid attracting the attention of the teacher at some point. Nobody can hide that long. Not even a natural like him in this respect. But it worked, for Mr. Blomquast was still at full speed ahead. Hence hardly took any notice of his students. Not even when they applauded him frenetically. And only after the monster, which he had conjured out from a lighter in the first unit of the afternoon, had set with his hot breath fire to the first row of desks, he was willing to rein back a little his dramatic thirst for action.

Meaning, the second unit was reserved to the last second for nothing else but to bring everything back in apple-pie order. To cover all traces and screw the promise out of the students not to tell the headmaster a single word. A pledge, gladly given. Even with swearing an oath on the magic wand because never had the class spent more amusing and diverting hours, least of all with Doctor Wustlonom.

Unfortunately, Anthony hadn’t slept this night either. The second in a row. As a result, he was barely able to keep his eyes open. Especially bad it was when Glomp carried out his usual morning examination. With this device that looked like a cell phone. Was waving it eagerly up and down right in front of him. No less than three times. Not forgetting, from the left to the right and back again. With all those little colorful flashing lights on its surface. Some so monotonous in their frequency that Anthony at some point thought their only purpose was to hypnotize him. Which they almost succeeded in doing.

And what Glomp at the end of all this screening had to say was also not exactly what one would call a morale booster, or maybe even a tonic imbued with the power to give Anthony’s sluggish blood a new lease on life, for he spoke, “If the energy mode already yesterday was in an acute problematic field, so it is now close down to zero. And to say it in all candor, my dear robotic children, I don’t know any freshman surviving a thing like that.” (It hardly needs mentioning that the other three had clustered around him like grapes around a stalk during this examination.) Then he went on, “In short, in view of impending stress, is the likelihood that our Mr. Ant will collapse today far greater than that he will experience the next morning in the box. Full of beans and feeling well again. That would border next to a miracle. But the rest of you know pretty well that it will start more than just a spot of bother if he breaks down before we, according to the rules, have apprised the Gray Guard that there is a serious problem within our team."

Instantly a dramatic silence lingered in the air. Then the old man cleared his throat, seemingly moved by the tragedy of the circumstances, and resumed in a husky voice, “On the other hand, my dear robotic children, you ought not to forget your oath ‘No one stands alone! I, however, are only your humble servant and bow to your vote. Whatever the result will be. All those in favor that we wait until tomorrow, raise your hand now.”

Anthony was so exhausted that he almost did not care how the court would decide because he was already dead, drowned in a car, two days ago. Nevertheless, did he feel as if his heart was giving a slight lurch when Brom’s arm, loaded with so big muscles, without the connected head was squandering even one rinky-dink thought, in less than a tenth of a second, jerked up in the air. And was seconded by the so much slender one of Sims not much later.

Only Ramshin took her time. And whether she actually agreed with all her heart or only was giving her OK because convinced by the laws of mathematics, was not evident. For it didn’t make any difference whether it stands two one or was a lopsided vote after all. In any case, the verdict had been brought in. Now the team only could hope that fate was on its side.

 

 

 

Mainly because since this fate, that can be betrayed, was not so easy and put copious hurdles in the way. The first at the entrance to the playing field. Which, in addition, was an extremely high one. Because, as it was par for the course, Gray Guards had been posted at this gate to check that no unauthorized person gained entrance. And, of course, no robot as well. (But probably also that none of the latter, whose final shut-down the court had decided, could escape.)

And the name Gray Guard was utterly earned by every last serving in their ranks, as nothing about them was color. Not the eyes, not the teeth, and not the clothes. And Anthony, who was so damned dog-tired but could not sleep, naturally, looked suspicious under their permanently prying eyes.

 

Extremely suspicious!

 

No wonder that one of these Gray Guards pointed that out when they were about to pass this gate. (Which were, to be precise, actually five gates, since the masses stood in as many long lines before, separated only by waist-high barriers, made of iron. As one knows overall the universe.) In a sharp tone, she spoke to Glomp, “Stop, servant! What is wrong with this player? To me, his energy mode seems to be out of order.” Simultaneously pulling a device out of her right jacket pocket. Just for the purpose to examine Anthony there and then.

By the way, it was pretty much the same device Glomp had used to scan him this morning. Except that none of its many lights was colorful but all gray, as gray as the Gray Guard was. What Anthony didn’t understand until a little later. Because anything that gets in touch with a Gray Guard turns as gray as she is, in no time flat. It is as if she pulls all the color out of everything, which only returns slowly. For example, when a Gray Guard walks across a green lawn, her footprints can be seen there the same second, gray, as if being a trace in the sand.

 

And only the waves of time

are able to obliterate them.


“Funny,” the Gray Guard, quite unexpected, but suddenly said, whose expression, though, was more as if she had never thought of anything funny in her life. “My device doesn’t show a sign.” Then, now even giving the impression of being at a loss, she shook her head and turned to one of the other guards standing next to her and ordered, “ZZAJ790897, please give it a try.” What this specimen instantly did. However, with the same result.

That, indeed, was fairly strange because these little devices otherwise never fail to serve. But when she doesn’t receive any data which could be used as a peg to hang on further actions, the Gray Guard is missing the purpose of life. And that’s not a thing pleasing her heart even if she has none.

However, this was not the end of the inspection. Certainly not! After all, if a Gray Guard has once identified a suspicious situation as a suspicious situation, she just reluctantly let it slip. Accordingly, this one was about to obtain a third opinion.

Fortunately, some humans, also standing in this very line, shouted suddenly impatiently, “Come on, you hollow tinheads, we don’t have time forever. … The tickets aren’t what one would call a hot deal.”

That worked because the welfare of the humans is the supreme duty of the robots. Even for the Gray Guards, unless it’s a case of emergency. Then, the humans and their comfort must succumb to the sense of duty as well.

However, the now and here were still far afield from such a case of emergency. That’s why the one, addressed with ZZAJ790897, spoke, “You can pass with your team, servant. But we are expecting from you, at the latest tomorrow morning, a calibrated and sworn transmission report to the head office, as to the energy mode of this player. Do not forget, this incident is hence on the record and noted. Any infringement of this instruction will automatically result in an immediate final shut-down. His and yours. ... Move, get moving! … Chop-chop, beat it!”

Thus, this difficult hurdle was mastered, albeit with such a balloon full of luck that one might think fate in person had intervened. Because why so suddenly was there such a complete malfunction of these hand-held devices, otherwise so reliable? What was the reason?

But to lavish extensive thoughts on this issue was no time as too many other sticky patches were still hampering the way. Mainly because the competition imminent had nothing in common with a game of Jokoring.

During the drive on the bus, Broms quickly had tried to explain to Anthony the rules. “It’s a relay race,” he drawled patiently. “Each of us will get a task. One that always is new in every game, and from which you only know that it is part of your major subject. And only after sorting out this task can you pass the wand to the next player. Savvy?”

To interpret Anthony’s gaze as if it was so, was extremely difficult, though. So Broms patiently repeated his words.

Then even again and again until the little wizard at least finally nodded silently. Only then he resumed, “But not only the task is always brand new, but also the order. Today Ramshin makes the start, then comes you and me until it is Sims’ turn. Who hopefully will be the first crossing the finish line.” And because that was easy to understand even without repetition, he merely still added, “Hip-hop, hip-hop, it will turn out OK. Yes, it will!”

After the Gray Guards had permitted them to pass through the entrance gate (where, as to expected, the logos on their uniforms had been activated) all they had to do was to walk down a small corridor, made up by various tents on either side, then they stood on the area marked as the starting field. With red ribbons on the sides and flags of the same color in the corners. And while Sims was on the way to see a referee, to hand him their registration forms, Glomp bowed to a stranger who, after he had swung his left leg over one of that red ribbons, came up to them. He was, as Broms whispered Anthony quickly into his ear, her owner, Mr. Hampalan. Far and wide, the largest producer of honey. That’s why the bee emblazoned across the back of their school uniforms and now on their chest too.

This Mr. Hampalan was not just an ordinary beekeeper, maybe with five or ten hives in his garden. Certainly not. He was the owner of many other companies as well. So many that one can call him a reasonably wealthy man, without exaggeration. (At any rate, in comparison with an average inhabitant of Ibalon. Albeit not from the Prince of Ibalon’s point of view. That’s for sure! For him, he was never one he would call a fat cat, only one as gray as every other of his church mice. He wouldn’t even remember him if would run past him naked.) However, much more important, he was able to afford his own team. And such a thing didn’t happen very often. Never mind that it was just that. (No wonder when you think of how expensive this hobby was. For that money, you can even buy in other regions of the universe whole planets. If not gas giants.)

After giving the servant a friendly pat on the shoulder, he greeted with a breezy face his team, “Well, my dear robotic children, how are you? All well? Does good old Glomp always provide enough for your physical well-being?”

And the prompt answer was, “Thanks for asking Mr. Hampalan, everything is fine with us,” and it came out of Ramshin’s mouth. No doubt, for the little wise always took on the leadership of the group at such moments. It was her a wont. Tantamount, that she regarded it as her job to take the floor.

“And what’s with you, my boy?” continued Mr. Hampalan while pinching Broms with two fingers of his right hand in the left cheek. “Do you always have enough to eat?”

The little fighter, though, only mumbled, a bit embarrassed, “Thanks for asking, Mr. Hampalan, mustn’t grumble. My stomach was always full.” And the blush, covering his whole face by now, didn’t seem to come just from the short pinch. Broms always found that humans were sort of awkward. The less he had to deal with them, the better it was.

Fortunately, Mr. Hampalan omitted to notice the deep skepticism of his little fighter, rather praised him, “Right, my boy, keep it up!”

Then he turned to the rest of the team, since Sims had returned in the meantime, and spoke, “Well done, one and all! I am so proud of you. Indeed, I am! And you can believe me that this is not just idle prattle, because, in this regard, I really think about every last of you. After all, that hadn’t been for a long time that a small private team could master the promotion into the county league. If I may trust the papers, not for sixteen years. I hope you give your best today and do not disappoint me.” Just to pivot around the next second and wave already a last short goodbye with his right hand. However, not forgetting to put his left arm almost simultaneously around Glomps shoulders and drag him along. Energetically, not tolerating any form of resistance. Apparently, he had still some important matters to discuss with his servant.

Shortly he could hear in his back, “You can count on us, Mr. Hampalan,” and, no surprise, it was again Ramshin speaking on behalf of the whole team. Then he and the servant (after both had decided to slip out under the red ribbon this time, maybe on account of the age of the servant) had disappeared in the dense crowd to take their seats on one of the umpteen tribunes.

Not a moment too late because the throng, still pushing and shoving in five long lines through the entrance gate to see the spectacle, grew with every second. For not only the freshmen had to take up their challenges today, but all the other grades as well. As it's an old tradition on the last day of the week, almost a hundred times all over the country.

But, of course, it was the freshmen who made the start. That’s why soon one of the referees approached the four small robots and asked them to follow him. (Besides, it was the same whom Sims earlier on had handed their forms over.) For the purpose, to put everyone in his place.

That meant in detail, that after only a few yards, he sat Ramshin on a chair in front of a table on which something like a big box was, but still cloaked under a cloth, and ordered Anthony to stay put next to her, as this was the starting place. (Which all the other teams in a long line of identical tables had already occupied.) Then grabbed Broms and Sims each by the hand and led them, after passing a short track about five yards, into a small tent, standing beside seven identical tents. This he left with Sims only, after about two minutes. Just to vanish with her out of sight.

With every second adding, it was getting closer to the start. Accordingly, the tension increased. And as an unmistakable sign for that, more and more birds could be spotted in the sky. All white and pretty big. Which Anthony certainly would have described as swans just three days ago, although their feet showed no webs but claws.

However, none of them spiraled against the ether just for fun and frolics. On their necks, small boxes were hanging with cameras so as to record the event. From all possible angles. Small boxes out from each a short steel pin was sticking.

But this was no looming hazard, just the antenna. Such one was needed to relay the pictures wirelessly to the big screens spread in large numbers on the ground, notably around the grandstand. So even the visitors for whom it was not possible having a direct sight on the playing field at the moment, for what reason ever, missed nothing.

The flock of the big, white birds even increased the next minute. And while Anthony was still watching their majestic circles high above him in the almost completely blue sky (which only near the sun had begun to turn into a light purple ring, becoming deeper and ever deeper with the evening hours) his head wide in the neck, forgetting almost everything else happening around him, the starting signal was fired, and the competition took its course. The cloth covering the box in front of Ramshin was removed with a jerk by a referee, as were the seven other clothes on the tables of the competitors, and the little wise got down to work.

 

The murmurs in the audience subsided.

Everyone was all eyes.

 

 

9. The Deciding Game

 

 

Ramshin was on track three. And what the cloth had kept hidden heretofore was the mental game Omalgarochon. A name Anthony but learned only later, just like the rules. Which he, by the way, as little understood as the ones of Jokoring. What his mind was able to absorb was, it is probably the most complex and knotty mental game in the whole universe. You can compete man against man (naturally, the man is interchangeable with female or robot) or, as in this case, try your luck against a computer. It offers several degrees of difficulty and is played on four levels. On plates of the same size on which circles of different colors are painted. And you play it with pieces that somehow all look alike. (At least it seemed to be so to the little wizard who, strangely enough, constantly was thinking of Parcheesi.) The goal of the game is to make a tube glow, divided into eight segments as if it wanted to be a much too long traffic light. And only when all these eight lights are beaming, one by one adding, you have won. Ramshin, though, patently mastered this game nothing if not well. Indeed, she was the first who succeeded in defeating the program chosen for her age group.

After the last of the eight lights in this strange tube had lit up brightly (this time even accompanied by a little fanfare, with which the computer congratulated his opponent only ever if there was no false move in its game to discover) the referee now in charge of their team, handed Anthony straight away a magic wand. And sent him, with an almost simultaneously waving of his hand, down the path leading straight to the tent in which Broms had disappeared a few minutes earlier.

Arrived there, the boy threw the cloth, representing the door, aside and entered. Without knowing what kind of scenario would welcome him. But also, without any expectations, for he had never played this game before. Nevertheless, was he surprised to see the fighter sitting by himself in a round cage. In one that is normally in use for birds, only much larger and much more stable.

To really wonder but was no time as the imprisoned had a message for him, which he uttered hastily through the bars, “Ant, you must push me out with the cage! At the opposite side of the tent. The track continues there. At some distance, the referee didn’t tell me the exact length, is a candle on a table, which you have to light as quickly as possible with the magic wand.” Suddenly, his voice became even faster until it almost cracked, “Nothing else is in demand. But I tell you one thing, this modicum of luck right now is not what I would call amiss because this special incantation, to create sparks with a magic wand, even I know. That says something as it’s not that simple. Nevertheless, I trust you can keep it in mind. That’s important because I can’t tell outside anymore. Too many cameras. I have to clam up there. Otherwise, the audience will immediately sense that something is wrong with our team. Do you copy?”

Anthony’s infinite fatigue seemed to be forgotten for a moment. He nodded and spoke, “Yes, I copy it, and I think I can glue a single magic spell somehow and somewhere in my mind.”

 

So Broms spoke,

now slowly and emphasizing every word again,

“Long tree, long tree, who is the child at my wobbly knee?”

 

And Anthony repeated monotonously,

“Long tree, long tree, who is the child at my wobbly knee?"

 

“Again,” Broms demanded.

 

"Long tree, long tree, who is the child at my wobbly knee?"

 

 

Then it was Broms who finally nodded and spoke, “Right, now we can get out. Or do you maybe have a question?”

“Yeah,” replied Anthony forthwith, who not really had taken in the situation. “What happens after I have made the candle burn?”

Broms thought for a moment, then hunched his shoulders an inch and answered, “Search me. The referee told me we will see that at due time. But one thing is clear, the closer you get to it, the easier it is. Albeit no freshman can fling a flame with the wand over a distance of ten feet. At one foot, though, it can be mastered even by a dead chicken. But now, hurry up. We don’t have time forever!”

Broms chivied Anthony along. Yet, it was he, of all people, who, quite unexpected, demanded sharply to stop. Just as the little wizard was about, to push the cage out of the other side of the tent. “Halt!” he shouted. “I almost forgot one thing. You may not leave this cage further than three steps, as long as the candle isn’t burning. Otherwise, we’ll be disqualified automatically. That adds to the difficulties. Thus, the sooner you manage to inflame the wick, the less you must push. This competition is about time and nothing else. Just about time. But now pull your feet out of the bog!”

“Yeah, only time counts. It’s about time, about nothing but time,” repeated Anthony.  Then he pushed the cage, with a crimson head and heavily huffing and puffing, completely out of the tent.

Instantly the audience applauded because they were still the team in front. Briefly, Anthony stopped to orient. But it was as Broms had predicted it, the track continued.

Although, as he could see at once, unfortunately, far more than this dubious distance of ten feet. It was rather a good fifty if not even a few paces more. (Even if Anthony right away had to concede that he permanently was struggling when it comes to estimating distances. What never changed during his whole life.) Nevertheless, did he reach out his hand with the magic wand and spoke loudly, "Long tree, long tree, who is the child at my wobbly knee?" What, as it was to expect, remained to no effect.

No, the wand didn’t show a sign of life. But what else could or should the boy do? So, with a deep sigh, he began to push the cage again. However, not forgetting to keep on rattling down the incantation., “Long tree, long tree, who is the child at my wobbly knee? Long tree, long tree, who is … “ time and again.

Yes, still Anthony was the first on this stretch, but tent after tent opened its backdoor and the adversaries emerged. One and all shoving a cage, reaching out a hand with a magic wand, and murmuring the incantation.

But now some teams were at an advantage because in their cages female fighters were sitting, which usually are built a little more petite than their male colleagues. No dainty lightweights, far from that, but by no means, such heavy blocks as Broms was one. For some others, however, it couldn’t have been worse. In their teams, the wizard was a witch, and the fighter just a big chunk of meat, already in three semesters sporting a thick beard proudly on his cheeks.

Nevertheless, it was precisely these witches who mastered the magic with the fire almost near to fantastic. Some of them flung the flame, as soon as they had left their tent, even up onto the wick.

After seeing this, Broms in his cage only snarled sullenly, “I, in any case, have never made it more than ten feet. And you ought not to laugh, Ant, neither did you!”

Anthony but did not feel like laughing at all. What Broms had interpreted as a cheeky grin was rather an extremely harried expression. On account of the strenuous shoving of the cage but also on account of what now was revealed to the eyes of the teams and the spectators. Because after the first flame had inflamed one of the wicks of the opponents (to be more precise, the candle on the far left, since the tables also stood side by side as the tents did in front of them) the riddle, why this was a part of the task, promptly solved itself. A balloon dangling above was caused by the force of the heat to burst and released this way a key, hidden in it all the time. And with this, after fallen with a quiet tinkling on the table, the cage could be opened.

So, it was bound to happen what must happen, one team after another got its own and overtook Anthony, while he kept on shouting stoically, "Long tree, long tree, who is the child at my wobbly knee?" unchanging and in quick succession “Long tree, long tree, who is the child at my wobbly knee? Long tree, long tree, who is the child at my wobbly knee?"

But still, nothing happened. After the luck with the Gray Guards at the gate, all the misfortune of the universe seemed to be willing to befall him and his team. Barring one small detail. The wizard of team Three of the Prince of Ibalon apparently had not been properly informed by his female fighter. Otherwise, it is not understandable that he, at some point, almost as incompetent in his efforts as Anthony, left the cage to approach the candle with the wand in his hand until it finally inflamed. Or maybe he just lost self-control.

In the final consequence but it didn’t make the slightest difference. Given this blunder, he and his team had to be withdrawn from the competition on the spot. Far too many cameras had documented his departing from the cage that there was just the ghost of a chance left for one of the referees to intervene with a helping hand. No, as sorry they were, they had to stand to their word that any form of cheating was synonymous with automatic disqualification. For everyone. Thus, at least the most dangerous team was eliminated, even by its own hand. The other six, however, were now running plainly in front of Anthony and already facing the third stage of the task.

Now Broms, too, but suddenly did lose his self-control. (An upsurge of emotion which, luckily, in the end, turned out to be a flash of inspiration. Rarely enough that both came true at the same time. Wherever in the universe.) “Come on, Ant, knock that stupid cage over and roll it, then it’s faster!” he ordered.

And that’s exactly how it was. It even went on damn faster that way. Quite amazing that no other team had hit upon this idea even though it almost was proffering itself. And while Anthony was shoving again, Broms was running like a hamster in a wheel.

Even beyond the dividing line of the dead chicken, determined by the little fighter, which triggered a nervous murmur among the spectators. For only when Anthony was so close to the candle that you wanted to think he was about to light it with his magic wand as if this was just a normal lighter, while continuously mumbling, “Long tree, long tree, who is the child at my wobbly knee? Long tree, long tree, who is the child at my wobbly knee?” a few short sparks shot out from the tip and fulfilled the task. The candle burned.

 

 

Then there was a loud:

 

 BANG


The balloon burst,

 

a key was falling,

 

and Broms was free.

 

That the little fighter was still a little dizzy from the sight of the bars of the cage, and how they flew by before his eyes, is self-evident. But then he took over the magic wand from Anthony and started to run. Straight towards the point in the distance, to which the outstretched arm of another referee was darting. (The one now responsible for their team.)

The third phase of the competition, thus, was ushered in for everyone. And in the face of the new task, the birds which looked like swans, but showed claws like eagles, were in demand. Mainly the cameras, dangling from their necks. Because all fighters had been ordered to climb the mountain named Iflaton, adjacent left to of the playing field. Admittedly, none of the highest, but one of the steepest in the small mountain chain. And before long no, team could be seen with the naked eye anymore.

Only on the large screens, none smaller than the cloth of a great sea-sailor (hanging in the wind while crossing the endless sea) the spectators were now able to watch their favored team and how it was making headway. (Only a few selected ones used an electronic telescope or a pair of magnetic binoculars for that. Far too expensive for the ordinary people.) And hinging on the partisanship, one could hear now jubilation mixed with a wild clapping of hands, or just a loud groan.

 

 

The latter, needless to say, came particularly from those still congregated around the small betting shacks. Where they had placed their little wagers before the start of the competition. When the odds had been still okay for Sims, Anthony, Ramshin, and Broms. On which scarcely anyone would have placed even a cut-off toenail now, although Broms continuously caught up. But the distance to the leaders seemed far too great that one should seriously reckon with a realistic chance of winning. Like screw clamps, his fingers dug into the rock. So quick and strong that one was willing to believe he would fling himself just with the strength of his arms, time and again, umpteen yards up into the air.

Indeed, it was a tough fight. And three teams the little fighter could overtake in this way until he, too, reached the peak. Which but was not a pointed needle, but a plateau. Far too even and smooth to be natural, as the result of a millennium full of wind and erosion. No, as if with a big saw, human hands had intervened. Or, better said, robots and machines under their surveillance.

On that plateau, a new task was waiting. This time one of the sorts giving the teams with a male fighter (and so Broms as well) a mite of an advantage over the teams with a female. As compensation for the handicap, he and his colleagues had to suffer in the previous stage. Because even if the female fighters are incredibly strong, on average the male fighters are a bit more. And he was supposed to haul a pile of massive stones upon one side of an even bigger seesaw. Until this finally would tilt and at its other end, on a rusty chain, pull up a heavy gate. The one, closing another cage in which, in turn, Sims was sitting.

It was a hell of an exhausting business. And Anthony, who, despite his incredible tiredness, was gazing as mesmerized at one of the big screens, didn’t want to believe that such heavy stones could be lifted and hauled. Especially not by a child his age. But, in the end, it was worth it, for another team was overtaken.

Only two were still ahead of Sims, then. Whose task, after taking over the wand from Broms, sounded so simple and yet was so incredibly difficult. She was just ordered to reach the valley as fast as possible and cross there the finishing line in advance of everyone, nothing else.

Since the two teams in front had done well with what had been taught to them at school, to transform hands and feet into hooves so as to jump down the sharp-edged rocks like young chamois, this path was closed to her because hardly any time was to gain this way. The gap between her and them was far too wide. Therefore, after taking over the wand from Broms, she was almost forced to take a bold step a freshman ordinarily was not entitled to.

That her personal approach to the task prompted an onslaught of protests later is beyond question. As so often, since seldom did  such an important game end in harmony. But to no avail. The jury smashed down every single one. On the grounds: it is not illegal for a member from a lower grade to present himself and his prowess at a higher level. Everyone as best as he can. Besides, it too tied in with what Sims and all the others of her kind had been taught during the semester, albeit performed a bit differently. That’s why her didn’t grow eight little webs between the fingers, as learned in the lesson, but three big ones. One each between the arms and the legs, from hands to feet, left and right, and one between the legs, down to the heels.

A fantastic transformation, holding the audience for over half a minute completely rapt. On the other side, did cost a lot of strength and concentration. Much more than the other two teams in front had invested in this task up to now. But it paid off even though everyone at this moment was still wondering, not only the spectators, also the members of her own team: Why does little Sims do that?

The answer was promptly given, though. Because, at the end of this metamorphosis, Sims was able to spread her arms and legs sheer unbelievable wide. Just for the purpose of sailing down to the valley like a dragon. While the big white birds that looked like swans, but showed claws like eagles, swirled around her excitedly, not to miss a single picture. And when she was turning to the home stretch and the goal coming clearer and ever clearer into sight, the gentle sailing even turned into a wild nosedive, simply to make the impossible still possible. Namely, to be the first crossing the finishing line. And, indeed, it is hard to believe, Sims really made it. She won! The audience went delirious!

Admittedly, it was only two seconds the little body-transformer was in the lead when finishing first, but considering her speed was the gap to the following team far greater than just the literally well-known single nose. Hence, more than enough that the victory concerning this point, too, was not in the merest disputable. It also didn’t matter that the landing wasn’t as graceful as the flight before. After all, scarcely one foot on the ground, she fell head over heels several times. This, it was more of an ungainly rolling over the finishing line, like a sack filled with potatoes, than a sublimely running, head high, resembling the queen of everlasting pride.

And, unfortunately, that was not all. In the end, she even hit with that very head on exactly that cage from which Broms had recently been released, and next to Anthony was still standing. Pretty hard and with a sickening sound.

All the same, did she stagger to her feet, shook herself just briefly, and stated in a halfway pragmatic tone, “I think that’s done.”

 

 

What Anthony merely answered with,

 

“Yep, my good Sims, that’s exactly the way it is.

That’s done!

 

 

We won!!”

 

 


 

10. The Five Commandments

 

 

Again Mr. Hampalan spoke to Broms, “Right, my boy, keep it up!” But then he turned to everyone, “I’m so proud of you. Of each one of you. No exceptions allowed, for only together, you have achieved the impossible. There can no more doubt about that, as the results of the other tournament sides have just arrived. And I can tell you, in our group all played so inauspiciously…" and now he even laughed out loud, “…or better said, so auspiciously in our sense, that none of them can challenge you your honestly earned place for the promotion-tie anymore. That’s not to say that we will move straight into the county league, but for the first time in sixteen years, there is a chance that a private team could cope with the challenge. You just have to mop the floor with two other teams also qualified for this decisive game.” Now his laugh was becoming even a notch more boisterous. “What, my boy?” And, once again, he pinched Broms in the cheek with two fingers. Then he even repeated, “You just have to mop the floor with them!” to show his little fighter that they were brothers, leastwise in the spirit.

Unfortunately, this little fighter, so unexpectedly chosen to be a sibling, not necessarily felt the same. Humans are humans, and robots are robots. No matter what they are doing or saying. Besides, humans are rather odd. Occasionally even extremely odd. Nevertheless, did he reply well-behaved, “We will give our best, Mr. Hampalan. That’s what we always do.”

Hearing this, the owner of the team but almost broke into tears with emotion. He was a human and was allowed to do so. Deeply touched, he gave every single one a benevolent look and spoke mawkishly, “But I know that, my dear robotic children. You are my team, you will never let me down. No, you will never do that.”

Then, all of a sudden, he pivoted around and was as good as off. However, not forgetting to wish with a brief waving of his right hand a last goodbye to the team, and to place at the same time his free arm around Glomp’s shoulder. For the purpose, to drag the old servant once again along at a fast pace, as he still had some very important things to discuss with him. As so often.

Such important things that he did not even hear Ramshin who shouted after him, “You can count on us, Mr. Hampalan. We will mop the floor with them. In one swoop. Yes, we will!” Once more, all over the leader of the pack.

The duty had been carried out. In the meantime, from the students of the upper grades as well. Therefore, all and sundry, not only the team with the bee on the chest, got onto the buses and started the journey home. Where this time was such a teeming mass that it was not worth the bother to insist on the seating order rooted in tradition. It was determined by pure chance. Always provided, you had been lucky enough to get a seat at all and didn’t have to stand the whole trip back in the aisle.

What Anthony succeeded in doing, but suddenly saw himself sitting in the front row. Right next to the entrance. The place where, slap bang in the middle of the window, the plaque with the orders and decrees in force was durably affixed. And, of course, the at present valid wanted list of the Gray Guard. (A fact, however, only astonishing Anthony. Which actually needs no mentioning as it was compulsory by law to post this important information, as well as the commandments of the robots, at every public place and in every public means of transport. Everywhere not only in Ibalon.)

The wanted list, today featuring the heads of three very sad looking robots, said nothing to the boy, but, for the first time, he consciously perceived the commandments. Of which he already knew two by now. But in total there were five.

 

They read:

 

First Commandment: ‘There is no god but the Emperor. If a robot adheres to another religion, the Gray Guards must be apprised immediately, and the final shut-down is irreversible.’

 

Second commandment: ‘Robots do not dream. Robots are forbidden to dream. If a robot acts contrary to this instruction, the Gray Guards must be apprised immediately, and the final shut-down is irreversible.’

 

Third commandment: ‘Robots do not cry. Robots are forbidden to cry. Except in the case, to offer the humans their compassion, or it is commanded by a higher-level authority. If a robot acts contrary to this instruction, the Gray Guards must be apprised immediately, and the final shut-down is irreversible.’

 

Fourth commandment: ‘Robots do not steal and do not lie. Robots are forbidden to steal or to lie unless it is commanded by a higher-level authority to do so. If a robot acts contrary to this instruction, the Gray Guards must be apprised immediately, and the final shut-down is irreversible.’

 

Fifth Commandment: ‘Robots do not hurt and do not kill. Neither other robots nor humans. Robots are forbidden to hurt or to kill unless it is commanded by a higher-level authority to do so. But if, even the well-being of the humans must take on a subordinate role. If a robot acts contrary to this instruction, the Gray Guards must be apprised immediately, and the final shut-down is irreversible.’

 

Anthony probably was perusing the text a minimum of ten times. All the same, he didn’t get it. And with each time, his face adopted more and more an air of seriousness. Just why was it forbidden for the robots to dream or to cry? That doesn’t compute. Not at all. Especially since both cannot be forbidden, it just happens. Utterly unconsciously.

However, the little wizard was not allowed to ride still longer on his circling horse of thousand thoughts because Sims, who had noticed his gloomy look and who this once was sitting next to him, suddenly nudged him briefly with her pointed elbow in the ribs. As she loved do it.

With what she right away got his attention. Then she took off her blue cap with the white brim and changed, once again, her hairstyle without employing her hands. Not only was her hair shorter afterward, no, had it been before blue and white, proudly presenting the colors of her team during the competition, so was it suddenly both white and black. One side exactly opposite the other. As if drawn with ruler. It was probably her favorite color combination. And Anthony, notwithstanding that he had seen it already several times, watched again with bated breath. Full of amazement.

Whereas Broms and Ramshin just laughed out loud and, almost simultaneously, as they sat in the row behind, threw their arms forward to reach for their hands. Then, once more, all of them began to sing.

But not only Anthony chimed in this time. No, the whole bus became a choir again. Because all the other teams as well knew this song. Of course!

 

 

We are the robots, robots, robots,

We are the robots, robots, robots,

Lalalalala

 

We are the robots, robots, robots,

We are the robots, robots, robots,

Lalalalala

 

Have a wise,

to understand every problem,

Have a fighter,

to defeat all monsters.

 

We are the robots, robots, robots,

We are the robots, robots, robots,

Lalalalala

 

We are the robots, robots, robots,

We are the robots, robots, robots,

Lalalalala

 

Have a magician,

to flummox the senses

Have the transformer,

to deceive every look.

 

 

We are the robots, robots, robots,

We are the robots, robots, robots,

Lalalalala

 

We are the robots, robots, robots,

We are the robots, robots, robots,

lalalalala

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

Although it dragged on, as the bus had to stop so often on account of all the pupils, was it a pretty funny trip home. A trip that briefly allowed to forget what the Gray Guards had requested at the gate from Glomp:

 

‘We are expecting from you, at the latest tomorrow morning, a calibrated and sworn transmission report to the head office, as to the energy mode of this player. Do not forget, this incident is hence on the record and noted. Any infringement of this instruction will automatically result in an immediate final shut-down. His and yours.’

 

But no sooner, the door of their little house had closed behind their backs, everyone remembered again. Thus, despite this unexpected victory, the expressions on their faces were no longer full of mirth.

And even at the dining table was scarcely any talk. At which one sat a few minutes longer because not only Broms gobbled down more than usual. All of them had to recharge their energy storage. Even Anthony developed a brisk appetite, in spite of his almost unbearable exhaustion.

Unfortunately, without resounding success, because after Glomp had scanned him with his device, the servant merely shook his head and stated sadly, “Actually, you should be dead, Mr. Ant. None of the gauges had flared up even a weeny tiny bit.” Then, however, he forced his face to a smile and went on, “But we still have the night. Yes, we do. So, nothing is lost yet.”

No signs on the display of the device was not really a piece of news willing to radiate just a single beam of optimism. Definitely not! Therefore, even the usual hour of watching TV was canceled.

Which probably would not have taken place anyway, after such a tough day filled to the brim with ferocious competition. Too tired and exhausted the heroes were. But this time, there was not even a discussion about whether the screen should be tuned in or not. Without resistance, they went into the bathroom, took a shower, brushed their teeth, and put on their pajamas.

Back in the big room (which, indeed, was all in one, living and bedroom, and also the kitchen) Glomp carefully lifted one by one and put him, or her, in the box. In the order, they were used to. On the far left Sims, then Anthony and Ramshin, and finally the bear-strong Broms. And, as always, he wished, “Goodnight, my dear robotic children.” Then, however, with a cryptic but at the same time encouraging smile lapping his lips, he added quite unexpected, “It’s gonna be okay. The night has healed so many wounds before. Why not ours? Trust me.”

And the echo merely spoke, “Goodnight, Glomp. That’s exactly what we hope for too.” Then the lid closed.

Or, better said, the lid pretended to do so. Because instead of bringing pitch-black darkness, quite unexpected, it stopped dead during its way down. Then you could even hear Glomp say something, and that was, “Well, didn’t you forget something, my dear robotic children? Something of mighty importance.”

That, at first, but only created a strange silence until Broms finally asked drowsily, “What did we forget?” The little fighter was already half asleep. He had eaten enough, showered with delight, and finally brushed his teeth thoroughly. So, in his opinion, nothing has gone lost in the chores of the evening.

“Oh, our little pills!” but now Ramshin answered, who was the first who understood.

“Yes, so it is, your little pills,” confirmed Glomp, lifting the lid again and handing each of them straight off such a small, green one with his old fingers. “You have won the competition, that is to say, each of you gets one. So is the law, and that’s the laurel of the winner. Use it well, and above all, use it sagely.” And only now he really closed the lid.

Instantly it was pitch dark in the box, but, naturally, not quiet. Because, “What did he mean with that: Use it well, and above all, use it sagely?” asked Broms, now a bit livelier. “I for one, will swallow mine. What else do you expect? Or should I fling it at the cat tomorrow in the morning when she maybe is putting a dead mouse on our doorstep again?”

“Yeah, how did Glomp think that?” now Sims asked too, but more herself than the others.

Whereas Anthony merely asked, once more not able to wrap his mind around anything happening, “What’s that funny little green pill for? Does it help against my thumping headache?”

Which first caused Ramshin to let out a demonstrative sigh. Then, though, she took the question seriously. (She couldn’t help it, she was a wise. It was her nature. Every question that can be answered, must be answered. Never mind how bugging it at times can be.) That’s why she spoke, “Ant, you old doofus, that is a so-called Pep. A Performance-Enhancing-Pill. At least that’s what the ordinary people on the street say to it. Though, it’s not true. Certainly not because it is no doping, and it never was. For the simple reason, this way constantly only the winning team would be pushed forward. Thus, the others soon wouldn’t have a prayer making first. Let alone to speak about that it would be nothing if not unfair. No, it helps to ...”

But further the little wise didn’t get with her explanation because suddenly Sims interrupted her, “I got it! I know what Glomp had meant,” she shouted excitedly.

That, of course, sired once again a sudden silence in the box. This time, even a rather odd one, for each of the others was pondering where the answer was hidden, he (or she) apparently had missed.

Then, however, it got loud, as it was Broms who was asking, however, also on behalf of the others, “Yes, what? Come on, don’t be so coy little princess. Start firing, what did he mean with that: Use it well, and above all, use it sagely?”

The words Sims gave him as an answer were much quieter in the tone, nevertheless, well audible. “I, for my part, have resolved, I’m going to give my pill Ant,” she solemnly declared.

Indeed, that answer was in such certain terms that even a drowsy Broms got the drift on the spot. “You are perfectly right!” he exclaimed. And then, in the pitch darkness, one even could hear him slapping his forehead. "By gum, forsooth, that’s profoundly sagely, isn’t it? Because if someone needs help in the here and now, it’s our Ant. Damned, what a silly nitwit I’m so often. Why didn’t I figure it out myself?”

Thus, a decision had been made. At least it seemed to be so. But now Ramshin threw a wrench into the works. On principle. “Do whatever you please,” she stated defiantly. “No problem, it’s alright with me. You can understand it that way. And none will ever get huffy. For my part, it’s promised. I, however, prefer another solution. I’m going to swallow my little green pill myself. For the simple reason, I honestly deserve it for playing the Omalgarochon so well today. I have never been that good at this game before. I didn’t make just one single mistake.”

“No, you can’t do that,” but Broms retorted straight off. “Don’t forget your oath. The one you have sworn beside this box, in front of all our ears:

 

‘No one stands alone!’”

 

That hit home! Accordingly, Ramshin’s further struggle for victory was not as saucily as just before. “I dunno what one should have to do with the other?” she resisted desperately, even if inwardly suspecting that it could be associated quite quickly.

And Sims was on the way to make it plain to her, brief and to the point, but quite unexpected the one piped up whom something good should befall. “Stop arguing,” he ordered wearily. “I won’t accept your pills. On the contrary, you can divide mine among you, if you want. In my case, for the simple reason, I didn’t contribute a single idea to our winning today. Hence, yours truly is not entitled to a victor’s wreath, not at all.”

That, indeed, was surprising! None of the others had ever expected words like these. A small green pill for free, others were willing to betray their own team. With three, you can bribe every teacher at school. Except maybe Doctor Wustlonom.

But if Anthony had hoped for that now peace will reign in the box again, and everyone would bow politely to his verdict, he was wrong. Broms even let hear a bright laugh.

Then the little fighter asked in a quite mellifluously and mockingly tone, “Oh, your Fabulousness will not swallow his little pill, I am right?”

“No!”

“But what if we force him to do so?”

“How are you going to force me, here, in the box?”

What appeared to be a question having the ring of logic. At any rate, at first, and only for Anthony. But he better would have saved it for a rainy day as he could not react that fast, and Broms was already lying beside him. What seemed next to impossible but still had happened. He had swapped place with Ramshin, now lying in his corner, softly chuckling. Merrily remembering how often they had played this game in former nights.

Whereas Anthony just asked totally stunned, “How did you do that? That doesn’t work. It’s much too confined in the box, isn’t it?

“Oh, Ant,” now Sims answered. “It’s high time for you to finally remember. Yes, it truly is. You taught us the trick yourself.” But then she already commanded, “Grab him, Broms!” What the little fighter promptly did.

It was only the right arm of the bear-strong, now locking Anthony. But always careful, not to hurt him seriously. While the left hand was not idle, as it was holding the nose. Then the fighter spoke rather tauntingly, “Would you please open your mouth, your Fabulousness. … Oh, that’s great, what a good boy he is. … Wide open, like at the dentist, so that the little green things will definitely find their destination.”

But not only he was pushing things forward. They were a team that played well together. Every last knew his part, for even Ramshin was in the game now. And while she was releasing Anthony’s pill out of his more and more slacking hand, Sims was already throwing the others into an open mouth. First one, then the second until finally that very fourth as well had found its way. And in the process, she reassuringly spoke, “Don’t resist, Ant. Deep inside you know: it’s only for your own good.”

That, however, was the last thing the little wizard heard. Because no sooner than the medicine was swallowed, a bolt of green lightning struck through the middle of his head, just as if it wanted to cleave him in two parts. And unimaginable pain coursed through his body.

Thus, it was by no means clear to him that what just happened was actually for his own good. No, it didn’t seem to be so. Not in the slightest at all!

Then Broms relinquished his firm grip, and it became silent in the box again. Even more than just that, it was as quiet as it only can be in a tomb until Sims anxiously asked, “Say, is he dead?”

And the little fighter merely whispered, “I don’t know. I think he’s not breathing anymore.”

 

 

END OF BOOK ONE



 

BOOK II

(when little robots sing)

 

 

 

11. The New Leader ofHis Majesty’s Secret Service

 

 

Motley bird feathers, braided to a coat, swayed through the corridors of the castle. Ralpanin was on his way to the Emperor. Again, he was pressed for time. This once, however, he had even been summoned. Accordingly, his stay at the gate was only a short one. No Bakone obstructed his way. Without a whisper, three slender and much too long fingers punched out keys on the wall, and, in the next second, the obstacle hissed silently aside.

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