Copyright ©Hans Olsson
Like pictures out of a book
I can't reach it, it's out of my range
There is nothing that makes any sense
Existence, no sense, only denial
Resist, refuse, remove, replace
Icon of Coil - Remove / Replace
”Which one would you like?”
“I don’t know. Which one’s best?”
“That’s up to you.”
“But I don’t know!” He exclaimed and laughed nervously. “What do little girls want?”
His mum smiled at him coyly and patted her belly, and the gesture made his own belly tingle.
He looked at the toys. There was a red toy car that he liked himself. Although he couldn’t imagine how a little girl would play with it. He only knew what his school-mates liked, and of course his own mother. Except that his mum wasn’t exactly the most playful person he could think of. His eyes wandered along the shelf.
“You look around for a while, I’ll carry on shopping,” she said, and walked off in the aisles.
Peter was left standing by himself. He stepped a bit closer and took a sniff at the new plastic toys. They smelt wonderful. He drew his fingers over the glossy surfaces and the soft synthetic cloth. Some of them were softer than Betsy, the neighbour’s dog. They were washing her with shampoo. That was vain, as his father used to say. In any case, he wanted his little sister to have the best birthday present he could get. He was really looking forward to a little sister. He knew that she’d be far too small to begin with of course, but he was so much looking forward to telling her what she should do. Boss her around. He grinned to himself, then threw a quick glance over his shoulder. Most of all, he was looking forward to taking care of her and he could already imagine how her future class-mates would tease her.
“Your hair’s ugly,” a fat, freckly boy might say. And who would then be around to tower over the little brat? Oh yes, he would be there, frightening the kid so much that he wouldn’t even dare to think about Peter’s little sister again. And she’d look up at him with big, admiring eyes. He looked forward to that. A lot.
He looked once more at the toys and then made up his mind. He reached up and grabbed hold of a multicoloured wristband. It was made of metal and would withstand the tests of time until she’d be old enough to wear it. Two years? Yes, it would be about right to wait that long. And it would be worth the wait.
He held the wristband tightly pressed against his body and then run further on into the shop to find his mum.
Peter remained in his seat at the poker table, not quite sure what he should do. He wasn’t due to meet Dibley during this break. For a brief moment, he considered trying to find her anyway. He could apologise for his earlier behaviour, explain to her that he was naïve and that of course she could do exactly what she wanted during those last precious hours of her life. He could put his arms around her and fondle her soft breasts.
No, that wouldn’t do at all. Apart from that, she could be anywhere, if indeed she was still alive. He could look for her name on the bulletin boards, but something told him that would be a bad idea.
The players at table twenty-three had gone off as soon as they could when the second round was over. It wasn’t that he wanted to hang out with them, but at least he knew their names. Familiarity was, just then, very tempting and the unknown was frightening and repulsive.
The only real option was Lennart. Although Peter didn’t know where he was and didn’t want to waste precious time looking. He looked around, tired. There were many players still on that floor. They were probably in the same position as Peter, there wasn’t any point eating again and it was too early to sleep. Sleep… That word seemed strange. Sooner or later he’d have to, maybe after the next round. If he was still alive then. Sleeping came down to two possibilities: either sleep in the dormitories, or sitting at the poker table.
Every year, a few exhausted players made their way down to the dormitories and forgot to set the alarm clock, or quite simply overslept. They were rudely awoken when the rounds started, dragged from the dormitories and shot. Statistically there were on average four players every year. Awful way to be eliminated. It gave the expression sleep like a corpse a whole new meaning.
But you had to sleep eventually. Without sleep you became sluggish and could make bad decisions that could also guarantee your execution. Things change after having sat completely focused for twelve hours. You get tunnel vision and the body starts to use energy reserves that shouldn’t be used unnecessarily. And from then it just carries on. It was a risk that most contestants at King’s Hope were aware of. There were always a few disciplined players that slavishly followed their predetermined schedules. Just like elite sportsmen, they ate as regularly as they could between rounds, didn’t engage in conversation and slept for almost the entire hour, apart from the time it took them to move around. It was as if they had their own personal dinner bell and alarm clock.
Peter stood up and collected his chips together. It had gone well despite everything and the bag was heavy on his shoulder. He walked towards a group of players that were standing and talking by the lockers, where he’d thrown in his personal belongings earlier.
“No …,” a woman protested when Peter joined them. “…labour has nothing to do with the tournament. There are plenty of people that can work. What I mean is that we, humanity, are losing loads of knowledge in here. I work as an accountant at a listed company, but now that I’m not there they’ll make more mistakes since my skills are no longer there.”
“So, you mean you’re that indispensable?” a man wondered.
“You’re not listening,” she said, throwing out her arms. “What I’m saying is that everyone has their own unique set of skills, and a great deal of those unique abilities are lost during the tournament.”
“Well,” the man objected. “Personal thoughts and ideas are eradicated, but humanity’s collective brain is huge. I don’t agree with you.”
“Consider this, then,” the woman burst out. “Where I work, there are huge security holes in the system. I’m certain that I’m the only one in the world that knows about at least two of them. That makes my knowledge unique, and it might go to waste during the tournament. In that case, you can imagine how much other unique knowledge disappears in here.”
“Maybe you should have sold the information?”
“Yes, perhaps, but I don’t know anyone who’d want to buy it. It was, after all, a really crappy system,” she added, laughing. “Now the company will have to sweat it out for a few months because the security holes are still there. As soon as the monologue booths open during the next break, the cameras will broadcast what I tell them, and soon the hackers will be racing to get into the system. And my former colleagues will be fighting to locate and patch the holes. Besides, I won’t need to work any longer if I win the tournament or reach the top hundred. And if I don’t win… Well, we’re all contributing to a better healthcare system.”
“Is that why you’re here?” the man with number 9,102 wondered.
“Partly. My mother needs a new kidney and the waiting time will be considerably shorter if a family member takes part in the tournament.
“Why didn’t you just donate a kidney to your mother?”
“They wouldn’t allow it,” she said and looked defiantly at the man.
“I saw a man with cancer,” Peter added in the short silence that followed.
“Here? At the tournament?” 9,102 wondered.
Peter nodded. “It looked as though it was quite advanced. They can’t possibly use his organs?”
“The organ market is just an excuse to get rid of a few people,” 9,102 sneered. “I don’t know a single person who’s gotten a new kidney or lungs. Even though it says in the brochures.”
“Maybe he wants to pay for the treatment if he wins?” the woman added. She had number 3,471. “Or else he just wants a final adventure? Or he has titanium implants. King’s Hope auctions out things like implants and gold teeth each year.”
“Perhaps. I thought it was weird anyhow, because they make such a big deal out of it in the media and on TV. I saw one headline - ‘Shorter liver queues soon!’”
“On TV they had a jingle,” another man with number 2,799 agreed. “The organs go on parade, each year when the tournament starts. The queues get shorter faster, and so rejoice your livers, kidneys and hearts! Fucked up!”
“I think it’s a good thing,” the woman said. “If I don’t win, my mum’s going to get my kidney. And the rest goes to charity, so to speak.”
“Mmm. Fucked up, like I said,” 2,799 muttered. “I think we should sit together for round six. It sounds like you want to lose, doesn’t it? Then you can give me your chips.” The man raised his eyebrows in a suggestive manner and looked at the woman.
“Do you think I’m stupid? I’ve still got a chance of winning and I’m not committing suicide for any reason. Who are you to think you can get free chips just like that anyway? Is there anyone sick in your family? Is there?”
The man grinned and started to mumble something that Peter couldn’t quite hear.
In the sixth round you weren’t assigned a floor, you got to choose yourself. He should try and find Lennart before that. And maybe Dibley, the treacherous seductress. Although, did he want to sit with Dibley? Maybe not, he’d have to think about it.
One of the men peered over his shoulder, leant forward and whispered. “I met a man before who’s thinking of organising something that’s never been seen at King’s Hope before. He’s got a plan to escape from the casino. We can join them if it all goes wrong.”
“Escape isn’t permitted,” the woman said firmly. “How will he manage that?”
“I know it’s against the rules, but it doesn’t hurt to talk. And the cameras don’t record sound in the corridors, so nobody up there knows anything. I thought it sounded interesting in any case, and the one I spoke to sounded confident,” the man replied and shrugged.
“The woman that won three seasons ago, what was her name again?” a woman wondered, biting her lip.
“Lena ‘Crimson fighter’ Mendez, you mean?” 2,799 replied. “What about her?”
“Exactly! She’s the one I was thinking of. She talked a lot about investing her part of the winnings in a scheme to obtain the blue prints for King’s Hope. Does anyone know if she managed it?”
“Not that I heard.”
“Oh well,” the woman said, disappointed. “I just thought … If anyone knew a way out of here apart from the front doors, it might be her. What have the winners from the last few years done, by the way?”
“Well,” 2,799 started counting them om his fingers. “Heinrich Jaurmann, the winner from two years ago, bought the news channel Drought News and turned it into an analyst firm. I’ve heard very little about M. ‘The Reactor’ Korhart. Didn’t he buy a palace and fix it up? And then there’s Billy ‘The Abyss’ Mountainhead, last year’s winner. He got his hands on a piece of land in North America.”
“I still think that Lena Mendez has the plans for King’s Hope,” the woman said. “And since it’s so hard to get access to the plans, there must be unguarded exits or shafts that lead out. I’m completely sure there are.”
Peter stopped listening to the wishful thinking and looked at his watch. There was a lot of time left until the next round, but since the last break had been so stressful he wanted to make sure now that he had plenty of time. He drew his wristband over the electronic bulletin board.
Amount of chips: 28,400
Round three is to be played on the nineteenth floor, table twelve.
He went up there without delay and located table twelve where his name stood on the electronic display, two seats to the left of the croupier’s position. He was starting to get tired. Or not tired, but rather glassy-eyed. True exhaustion was still way ahead. He got up and went away to find a large cup of coffee. On the way, he locked his own bag into the lockers. When he got back, another player was sitting at the table to the right of the croupier’s seat. The display in front of the man declared that this was Friedrich Pengibel, number 3,810. Peter nodded politely when he made eye contact, but got no response. He shrugged and started unpacking his chips.
“You won’t get far with that pile,” Friedrich said, and Peter looked up in surprise. His accent was hard, Peter guessed German. He had a Nordic appearance though, so it was hard to place. Friedrich had a long, narrow face, black hair, a large nose and a pronounced overbite that reminded Peter of a squirrel.
“Oh yes I am. I’m going to win the whole tournament.”
Friedrich coughed. “Bullshit. The chance that you’ll win is one in eight thousand, and with that meagre stack it’s not going to happen. You’re worthless.”
Peter winced involuntarily and opened his mouth to say something, but stopped himself in time. He shouldn’t get irritated. That was a foul tactic from Friedrich. A tactic that had almost put him off-balance. Instead, he took a gulp of coffee while he studied Friedrich’s pile of chips that was relatively big – 24,200.
“What do you do for a living?” he asked in the end, completely changing the subject.
“I’m a software developer. Stuff you wouldn’t understand.”
“Really? Why not?”
“Because you need an education.”
“I have an education …”
Friedrich pursed his lips. “Some second-rate accountancy at secondary school, no doubt. No, you won’t get very far with that, kiddo.”
Peter purposefully took another gulp of coffee. He wasn’t sure if this was tactics at all. Friedrich appeared to be generally obnoxious and arrogant. He’d most certainly get on Peter’s nerves. Just as long as he didn’t let the squirrel get to him, it wouldn’t be a problem.
“What do you develop?” Peter wondered, with a stoic calm that surprised even himself.
Friedrich leaned forward and squinted to read Peter’s name plate that had just lit up.
“Do you mean right now, or at work?”
Peter shrugged. “Does it matter?”
“It certainly matters. Just now I’ve developed a little program that keeps tabs of the odds for me. You won’t win a single hand.”
“Oh really, you think so?” Peter said, irritated. “Do you have a computer with you?”
Friedrich slowly raised his right hand and tapped his head. “I don’t need a computer. Things like that are basic and trivial, and you wouldn’t understand them.”
Peter muttered to himself and wished he hadn’t asked.
“At work, I developed advanced solutions for biotechnical units.”
“I see, that explains everything. You’re a cyborg that didn’t get manners installed,” Peter stated and twisted in his chair. He was starting to become aware of the exhaustion, and if he didn’t get some peace and quiet then his headache that was starting to develop would get worse … Not good. Friedrich didn’t even hear, or chose to ignore Peter.
“I’m the main architect for three invaluable projects. There's nobody else of my calibre at the company I work for. I’m invaluable …”
Peter found this ironic, having just heard a conversation about knowledge that disappeared during the tournament, and that it wasn’t invaluable depending on your point of view. He made up his mind straight away that he’d try to knock Friedrich out of the competition himself. But until the next round started, he had to get the arrogant man out of his head. That proved to be impossible, unfortunately, since Friedrich droned on constantly with a monotonous and tiresome voice whilst tossing out insults as often as he could. Peter took a long time moving his chips up from the bag to the table. When he was done, he stood up and found an armchair close to the elevators. He sat there and stared into space while he waited for time to pass.
He leant his head back, shut his eyes and allowed his thoughts to wander. He envisaged his own path and how his choices had led him to the casino. The first event that had led him here was a simple ban. He’d been maybe eleven or twelve when he’d happened to see the tournament on TV.
“I don’t want you watching that!” his mother had told him, seized the remote control from his hands and turned the TV off. Right then, and for a few years after that, this ban lay over him like a stifling blanket. But beneath that, curiosity boiled up and his mother couldn’t prevent him from sneaking up at nights and watching repeats of the tournament. It was fascinating how players, for different reasons, chose to gamble with their lives. What drew Peter then was mainly the excitement and the adrenaline pumping around his body. Being so close to death all the time must be how gladiators had felt once upon a time. The majority of the participants died of course, but huge rewards awaited those who made it further. Back then, the thought of actually taking part was very remote, but the seed was sown during those nights. It was also then that he’d started to learn the basics of the game of poker, even though it would take a long time before he got to use that knowledge.
When he was seventeen, he managed for the first time to sneak into an illegal casino. He'd been so nervous that he’d had diarrhoea for several days after that. Once inside, he managed to stay at a poker table for almost three hours, and during those adrenaline-filled hours he learned a lot, both about himself, his intuition and how addictive it was to play. That time, he’d lost five hundred Swedish Crowns, about fifty Euros, money that he didn’t really have and that he’d stolen from his mother. He’d be ashamed of that his entire life, and he’d never owned up to where the money had gone, even though he’d later secretly placed banknotes in his mother’s purse. It was one of those things that he’d keep to himself, for good or bad. It was thanks to this that he’d never really been drawn into any gambling addiction. But the excitement and interest in poker and cards was always there, and he often took part in tournaments, both at illegal casinos and normal regulated ones.
That wasn’t the entire reason that he’d ended up here. No, one of the reasons was Morrie. And Karl. Karl and Peter had been inseparable friends all the way through to upper secondary school. He recalled that time with mixed feelings. During the summer between the first two years, he and Karl had been at an outdoor bathing area late at night where they’d drunk booze that Karl had gotten hold of. On the jetty, there were open changing rooms for men and women, and they sat in the women’s changing room, hidden by the darkness, and gulped it down. There was this smell of wood and mould, like an unwashed towel in a cold sauna. Neither of them were used to alcohol. It was one of those evenings that turned them into teenage philosophers.
“You,” he’d slurred. “It’s so fucking great that we’re mates!”
“You’re right there,” Karl replied while he reeled, giggling, to one side and sat down on the floor.
“I mean, it doesn’t matter how it goes in school. We have each other.”
“Yeah, so damned nice to have a mate to talk to. The others just don’t understand how it is.”
“No, I know.”
They fell silent, and during those long moments Peter had an idea.
“I know what we should do. We should become blood brothers.”
Karl stared at him and his eyes moistened in the darkness. “That’s the best idea you’ve ever had,” he said with respect in his voice. “How do we do that?”
“Wait,” Peter said, and searched in his pockets and in the bag that he’d brought with him, and drew out a small pocket knife.
“Like this,” he said, standing up. He opened the blade and solemnly cut his thumb. It hurt, but he was so filled with admiration for his friend that he barely noticed. Karl stood up as well, took the knife and made a cut in his thumb. There they stood, in front of each other in the dark, as their hands came together in a boyish greeting. They rubbed thumbs and embraced each other in silent agreement, in a manner that only drunken teenage friends could do.
“Now we’re blood brothers,” Peter murmured with emotion in his voice. And it was at that moment that he saw the words on the wall that would be forever etched in his retina.
Morrie was here.
He opened his eyes and allowed the memories to fade away. Before him lay reality and The Book was still far in the future. He stood up and walked back to the table where new players had arrived. Friedrich was still droning on, but the sound of his voice was covered by chairs scraping and nervous coughs.
A woman sat to Peter’s left, number 5,919 by the name of Natascha Rappanova. Her black hair was tied up in a tight knot and her eyes were hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses. Her mouth was a thin line. She was wearing loose-sitting trousers and a dark green polo neck. Peter’s immediate impression was that she was a pro. He trusted his gut feeling and it told him that Natascha was dangerous. Her pile of chips was smaller than Peter’s, 19,800.
To the right of Peter and next to the croupier, a man called Sebastian “The Contorter” Cougel sat, number 898. He was impeccably dressed in a suit and tie. His grave face was hidden beneath a well-trimmed beard. 11,300 in chips lay in front of him. Beyond him and to Natascha’s left, sat a thin man with black hair and a hooked nose, Rogan Flugelhorn, 3,199 with 7,600 in chips.
The next player was a woman dressed in a clinging leather skirt and a tight sports bra. She was blond with red lipstick on her pouting lips. She was dangerous in another way. This woman was called Sarah Rook and hade number 2,263. She had 11,500 in chips.
Finally, there was Janet Ortegha, 4,519, a latino woman with hazel-brown eyes and jet black hair, between Sarah and Friedrich. She had 12,700.
Their croupier soon arrived, a woman called Lisa according to her name tag. She sat down and pulled out a pack of cards from the breast pocket of her shirt. It was 9.23 pm and the adrenaline had started to pump around his body again. Would he survive another round? At that moment, he understood just how grand the tournament at King’s Hope actually was. Nothing could match that level of excitement. When adrenaline didn’t merely pump, it ran through the players’ bodies like tsunamis. Feelings of vulnerability and doom disappeared and were replaced by ecstasy. Peter also felt the euphoria, just then. With death ever present, like a snake creeping inside your clothes, you appreciated every moment in ways that other situations couldn’t make you appreciate. He’d never believed that he’d experience King’s Hope’s version of nirvana – pokervania. The feeling lasted for maybe twenty seconds before it ebbed away and disappeared. At that moment, he knew that whatever the outcome, it would be worth it just for sitting here.
While the clock ticked, Lisa turned cards up in front of them. Sebastian was dealt 3♠, Peter 10♦, Natascha 8♥, Rogan 5♦, Sarah Q♣, Janet 4♠ and finally Friedrich was given K♦. Peter eyed up his stack wearily, he’d be starting with the big blind. Lisa picked up the cards, shuffled them and then looked expressionlessly out over the laminated felt battlefield where the fight was about to commence.