Zero

A dull headache pulsed between my temples, coaxing me out of my slumber. Thud, thud, thud, it sang softly. I struggled to open my tired eyes, and the effort turned the quiet thudding into a raging roar. Dazzling light came flooding in and my pupils adjusted until they could handle the glare. I winced, and suddenly I was all too aware of the rough ground beneath me. Cobblestone dug into my skin, accompanied by sticks, twigs, and thorns. Small slices and scratches littered the exposed flesh of my arms and lower legs, dirt and dust filling the stinging cavities. I shifted my weight, attempting to maneuver into a sitting position, but my body wouldn’t obey. Alarm flooded my frazzled mind as it dawned on me, like a headrush, that I couldn’t move. Mustering all my strength, I willed myself to scream but before I could try, a soothing voice emerged from the silence.

“Don’t panic”, it said, “The poison hasn’t taken effect in full yet, drink this and you’ll be fine.” 

a pale hand hovered near my face, holding a vial of golden liquid. 

“Poison? You poisoned me?” another wave of panic swallowed my bones.

“Goodness no, they poisoned me not long ago, too”, the stranger insisted. “Look, if you want to lay here and die a grizzly death, be my guest. I’m just trying to do my good deed for the day.” They shoved the antidote in front of me once again, and though I couldn’t see their face, I could feel their expectant gaze on me. What do I have to lose? I sighed through my nose and accepted, and the stranger poured the gilded, bubbling elixir into my mouth. The taste of licorice and mint flooded over my tastebuds, every previously unfeeling nerve zinging back to life. My body went from numb, to pins and needles, to burning like fire within seconds. I felt a scream rip itself from my throat, but I couldn’t hear it over the ringing in my ears and soon enough, I blacked out.

When I woke up, I was propped against the wall of what seemed to be a treehouse of sorts. One small room with a sleeping bag and a makeshift kitchen consisting of a firepit and a kettle. Across the room was a boy around my age, no older than 19 with messy brown hair and dark eyes. “G’morning !”, he chirped, “feeling better ?”. I nodded, thankful for the absence of the pounding headache I had earlier. “This would probably be a good time to introduce myself, right? My name is Four, I’ve been living in this treehouse for about 2 years now and I like making things!” He seemed bubbly, despite my confusion and borderline annoyance. “What’s your name?” He tilted his head at me, waiting for my response. I opened my mouth to reply, but my racing mind was blank. I desperately searched through my thoughts for any fragment of memory from before that morning, but the effort was fruitless. Four noticed my confusion, looking at me with sympathy. “You don’t remember, do you? Don’t worry, I was the same way.” He grabbed my right hand and flipped it over, pointing to a small imprint on my forearm. It was located directly over the bluish vein, it’s black ink outline stark against my pale skin. It consisted of two small numbers, both of them zeros with squared off corners. It looked mechanical, stamped onto me like an expiry date on a carton of milk. “See that marking on your wrist? That’s your new name.” He squinted to see it more clearly, and his eyes lit up. “Zero! It’s nice to meet you, zero!”, he shook my hand and beamed at me. I couldn’t help but smile back. 

“Nice to meet you too, four. You’ve got a lot of explaining to do.”

An hour or so later, the sun was setting, and four was finally wrapping up his story. In short, there was a group of eight of us who were captured and brainwashed until we forgot who we were. We were an experiment of sorts, each chosen because of our outstanding creativity and intelligence. The group who kidnapped us was called the silence, and we only managed to escape their facility with the help of one another, but their brainwashing transcended our time there, and none of us could remember a thing. The only reason we knew the story was because flashes of it came to us in dreams, thanks to one rogue member of the silence halving our dose of whatever drug was wiping out our brains. It had been about 3 years, we thought, since we escaped, but we couldn’t be sure. On the rare occasion, an eagle carried messages to us from three and six, who met up around two years ago, the same time that four arrived in this forest. Three had stumbled across six’s base, frantic and frazzled. Six was originally hesitant to trust three, but three quickly proved himself by providing information to six. At this point, they’re inseparable, more like brothers than any of the rest of us. Three was the first to see all eight of us in his subconscious, and he kept a journal of all the things he remembered from his dreams. Six, on the other hand, was the communicator. He was cautious and careful not to give away their whereabouts, or ours, to any untrustworthy passersby. They made a great pair, and four assured me that they could be trusted. We still had no idea where or who one, two, five, and seven were, but four told me that he’d been sensing the presence of two people, both friendly, for a while now. One of them had been me, clearly, but the other was still unknown. 

“That doesn’t explain why I was poisoned though,” I reminded Four. 

“Oh right! I’d forgotten…” Four scratched the back of his head sheepishly. “When we were kidnapped, they injected us with poison pods. They release some toxin into our blood every now and then, usually around six months apart. It’s not poison, per se, but more a paralysis agent that stops us from moving around while they search for us. The longer you leave it untreated, the more permanent the effects become, and the more likely it is that the silence will find us. That’s why I made the antidote after I got my first vision of it.” Four told me about the vision, and how he’d first seen himself paralyzed on the ground, and then a flash of two types of leaves. He recognised them immediately, thanks to his foraging expertise, and put together an emergency antidote. He hadn’t had a chance to test it yet, but luckily for me, he got it right the first time. Four continued explaining the mechanics of the poison, and while I tuned out most of it, I took a liking to him. He was optimistic and bright, when I was confused and terrified. Regardless that I’d only known him since that morning, we felt like old friends and I was grateful to have him. We chatted and inquired into the night, before falling asleep over sad bowls of makeshift stew.

Snap! I jolted awake to the sound of leaves crunching under someone’s feet. I sat bolt upright, looking around the dark room. Four was alert too, and we met eyes in a silent call to action. We both jumped up and crept to the window, peeking out carefully so as to not draw attention to ourselves. Our plan failed though, as the first thing we both saw was another boy, around our age, staring right back at us. I jumped back, ducking beneath the window, and stared at Four, shocked that he wasn’t following suit. I tugged at his arm.

“What are you doing? Get down, what if it’s a spy?” I whisper-yelled at him. He ignored my inquiry. 

“You’re one of us, aren’t you?” He softly said to the stranger. Four held up his wrist, displaying his marking in the dim light radiating from the oil lamps. The stranger mirrored four’s action, and I squinted to make out the imprint. ‘07’, it read, the zero squared off just like my own. Four practically flew down the wooden ladder, grabbing seven’s hand and dragging him into the treehouse.

“Quick, they could be watching.” Four urged seven to hurry. seven closed the door behind him and joined four and I, who were crouched on the floor. I was still wary, and four looked at me as if to say, it’s okay, we can trust him. Four’s judgement had proven accurate with me, so I turned to seven.

“I’m Zero, this is Four,” I said bluntly.

Four gave seven the rundown of the story since our new companion seemed awfully confused when we started planning our next move. It didn’t take as long this time, Four cut out most of the rambling that I got the courtesy of hearing.

“Seven, how did you find us?” I asked once he was all caught up.

“I’m not sure, to be honest. I just had a feeling, and I followed it. It’s good to meet you, by the way.” Seven answered.

“Ahh,” Four chimed in, “That must be your power, if you will.” we both looked at Four, confusion painting our features.

“Why are you guys looking at me like that?” his eyes flicked between the both of us. 

“Remember how I told you about three?” He aimed his question at me, “he gets the most detailed dreams and visions out of all of us. Six is good at keeping us under the radar. I have accurate instincts, seven is a human compass”, he elaborated. 

“What does that make me…?” I pondered aloud.

“We’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we?” Four smiled. 

“Seven, do you think you could lead us to the others? If we decided to, say, meet up and go back to the silence’s headquarters, take them down?” I asked. In all honesty, I had no idea if we’d be capable of this particular expedition, but what else were we supposed to do? The silent were many, while we were just eight, but something told me it’d be a close fight if any. Four looked at me, shocked. His eyes were wide as saucers and his mouth was agape. 

“Why in hell would we do that?” He said loudly, clearly appalled at the mere suggestion of our return. 

“Wouldn’t you rather get rid of them than be on the run for the rest of our lives?” I countered.

“I already have a feeling of where to go next, if we so decide,” Seven remained neutral on the matter. Four seemed lost in thought for a moment, and he opened his mouth to respond. 

“I think that we should..” Four trailed off mid-sentence, his eyes filling with fear.

“Four..?” I placed my hand on his arm reassuringly. He jolted out of his trance.

“They found us..” he breathed, jumping to his feet, “They’re coming after us, we have to go.” 

“Four, slow down,” Seven said soothingly. “What happened?”

“I just have a feeling, okay? I ignored it last time and i nearly got myself killed, we have to leave.” Four rambled quickly, throwing a variety of things into a tattered backpack, first a canteen of water, then a handful of herbs (which frankly I wasn’t sure the point of), followed up by a few changes of clothing. The urgency in his tone convinced seven and I, and we hopped up too, helping Four gather things. Within moments, Four’s panic was justified. The sharp smell of smoke flitted on the cool breeze, and the sky above us took on a golden tinge. fire, I realised with a start, they’re setting fire to the forest. As if on queue, a tree not 200 metres from our base was impaled with an exploding arrow, the entire tree quickly engulfing itself in raging fire. 

“I know where to go, follow me!” Seven yelled over the commotion, the crackling of embers and the roar of distant commands. I bolted after Seven, Four following Swiftly behind me. 

I didn’t dare look back until we’d escaped the forest, my legs aching, lungs burning from lack of oxygen and abundance of smoke. I glanced behind me to check on Four, and though he was alright, my heart nearly stopped at what I saw behind him. Flames on flames on flames, and above it all, one single soaring hologram flag. An eye in the centre of an open palm. The symbol of the silence.

 

These stories were written in our Factory Feedback program, which was created with, and generously supported by, the Dusseldorp Forum.