The simplicity of the question astounded him. Was murder acceptable, if it prevented the deaths of others; should one life be taken to prevent future losses? Did the ends really justify the means in a situation involving life and death? Adrian sighed and looked back at his classmates: some seemed to watch him, waiting for his response; others were still taking notes, some even conversing in hushed tones, despite being under Professor Marlowe’s watchful eye.
He glanced away, shaking his head as the professor looked on. “Well, Mr. Smith? Is it safe to say that the death of one to save a hundred is an acceptable exchange?” Professor Marlowe asked, his tone something between mocking and seriously questioning.
“No; because, one person’s life is not equal to another, and certainly does not match the value of a hundred” Adrian muttered back to the professor. “I don’t think that killing someone to save others is moral… in fact I’d consider it a useless prospect, because the people who are saved through that murder would see the death of their enemies or persecutors as their final option to save their own lives,” he explained, his voice growing more confident as he spoke, the layers of reservation falling away as his true views and inner morals bared themselves against the eyes of the world.
Professor Marlowe smirked and nodded as he paced back along the front of the small auditorium he taught in. “Then, Mr. Smith, You’re saying that the wars that our nation is fighting, and has fought in over the years, might have saved us from death or enslavement, but did no lasting good?” The tone was something of a confidence shattering calm.
Adrian paused for a moment, thinking over his answer carefully before he spoke, his voice calm and unshaken. “Yes Professor, that ‘is’ what I’m saying. At least in the aspect of intercultural relations; if our nation cannot settle its problems without causing death, then every country that follows in our footsteps will believe that there was no other option when they reach a stalemate in diplomacy.”
Marlowe smiled and nodded “And by no longer using lethal force to defend ourselves, to push issues that other countries would ignore, how do you propose we handle conflicts and settle our disputes?” he asked, his tone changed now, more probing in nature, rather than being filled with a teaching spirit.
Adrian sighed softly and shook his head “I don’t know, professor,” he responded lightly, letting his eyes fall away, back to the notes he had been engrossed in before Marlowe had singled him out, seemingly just to test his ability to understand the material and express his thoughts.
Marlowe gave a sigh and set about his explanations, speaking in that fake, nurturing tone he was so famous for as Adrian focused back on his notes, taking down everything that sounded important, or seemed to stick out as odd.
When the class had finally drawn to a close Adrian stood and slowly mingled down to meet his professor. He waited for Marlowe to stop explaining something to another student before he stepped forward, clearing his throat, speaking softly, and glancing back as the last of his classmates slipped out into the hall. “Professor… I …I was wondering if you could enlighten me to our other options… once aggressive force is taken away.”
Marlowe looked up and smiled “I could… but what would telling you actually teach you in the long run?” the professor asked with that sly smile; challenging his pupil to think instead of falling to the basic principles of this society: where information was given and not earned.
Adrian looked at the floor then met his professor’s gaze. “I suppose that is true… but I don’t think that… based on what you’ve taught us of human nature, that there would be another option. Violence and death seem to be the only languages we understand...”
Marlowe nodded and stepped past Adrian, giving a flourish to the empty room. “And the simple fact that you can grasp that at such a young age is a miracle in itself,” He muttered, giving a light scoff as he moved to the black board, erasing the last bits of the lessons notes before he picked up a long piece of chalk, drawing out a diagram as he started speaking again. “You understand that national differences are inescapable, due to?” Marlowe asked, looking back at Adrian, expecting the answers to flow from his student with ease.
“Language barriers, religious differences and physical needs, right?” Adrian said with a small smile, cupping his left wrist in his hand, curious as to what his teacher was prying at
Marlowe nodded and put those key points down on the board, looking back at Adrian as he drummed his free fingers against the board in an uneven rhythm. “And even if we found a way to pass all of those barriers, there are still matters of internal conflict, such as?”
Adrian didn’t miss a beat, “Assertions for dominance, power, money and elevated status in the community, not to mention inter-racial politics.” Adrian’s mind began to tick, a fire of passion igniting in his veins as he started to seek the answer, not waiting on his professor’s next prompt… feeling that he no longer needed it, but only needed to know.
Marlowe smirked as he stepped to the side and drew a large ‘X’ across a section of the board, noticed the look in Adrian’s eyes, that lust for knowledge, knowing that such a bright student had fallen victim to the pull of such a mental challenge.
Adrian looked at the ‘X’ and tilted his head, glancing from it back to Marlowe. “And what is that supposed to signify?” he asked while stepping back from the board, taking all of the notations in at once… eyes drawn to the symbol.
Marlowe just gave a shrug. “It has its own meanings, be sure to close the door when you leave,” he muttered as he put some papers on his desk into a messenger bag and strolled out of the classroom, hollow footsteps fading as he moved down the hall and out into the rainy night, the door slamming closed behind him.
Adrian fumbled with his words calling out after him, though his voice only echoed in the empty lecture hall. He looked back at the ‘X’ and then sighed, closing his eyes for a moment, trying to ponder what exactly that particular shape, or letter could hold in reference to his current questions.
After a half hour of staring at that board, learning nothing, Adrian sighed and shrugged, grabbing his things and moving to the door, giving a moment’s pause to look back at the ‘X’, leaning against the door frame as he pondered the possibilities. After another long moment of thinking he gave a defeated sigh and pulled the door closed behind him, venturing out into the rain filled night, lightning flashing as he stepped into the torrent, the thunder reverberating through his chest a moment later.
It was time to leave. That’s all he knew, and all he needed to know; it was time to go. He didn’t know where, or why, but his body moved without his consent, dragging him along through a twisting labyrinth of hallways and corridors, all lined with steel doors and single hanging bulbs. Some doors were rusted, others seemed brand new… all bore marks that resembled the strike of claws, and in the intense light, stains that couldn’t be washed away.
Adrian tried to stop, but his legs wouldn’t listen and he was paraded forward, moving past open doors, forced to experience the occasional flashes of disturbing images and smells that hit him hard, disorientating him, making his stomach turn with every new step. When his legs finally stopped, he leaned against the wall, his abreathing heavy, the burn of acid in the back of his throat as he fought to keep whatever meal he’d had previously down. His eyes went wide when he heard the scream… the wail that echoed off of every surface until it reached an impossible level, the one that covered his soul in an icy fire.
He looked about, standing at a crux of halls; the scream seemed to echo from every direction at once… all just a ghostly remnant of the one previous. Eyes wide and heart thundering in his ears, he moved, heading to his left, passing several of the doors, only glancing at each as he passed them by, heading deeper into the maze. The scream reissued itself from the walls around him and he ran, the wail piercing his every thought, seeking to tear his fragile reality to shreds. That’s when he saw it, the open door, a light within and the form of a young woman splayed across the floor, a single hand outstretched towards the opening.
He paused for a moment before his body kicked in, moving him to the precipice, and no further. The figure looked up at him through a wall of tangled black hair, icy blue eyes shining with a sense of intellect and dread, staring at him and through him at the same time. He tried to speak, finding his voice failing him… that’s when she moved, clawing herself closer to the door as another scream, her scream, echoed forth and stabbed into his mind. He fell to the floor, landing on his knees, hands holding his head as he winced, glancing up to see her just beyond the door sitting in the same position. Looking up at her and meeting her eyes again, he nearly lost himself in them before he saw the burns, one on the underside of each arm… a simple ‘X’ on the left and a more ornate version on the right. She gave a smile, her lips cracked, blood flowing across the skin as she tilted her head, still staring at him, and screeched again.
The alarm continued to blare as Adrian sat up, looking across the nearly perfect dark of his room. He looked at his feet, raising his hands into view, staring at them, and past them, watching them shake, feeling his heart flutter in his chest and the sweat drip from his brow onto the covers. He breathed in and out slowly for a moment, if only to try and calm his own heartbeat, still fighting off the images of the woman… still hearing her scream echo in the darkest recesses of his mind.
It was after a moment of internal fighting that he glanced at the clock, noticing that it was no longer six, but seven, which meant that he was running late. The image of the woman flashed through his head, and he jumped, his own visions burning in his retinas. He fought back a cry as he glanced at the clock again. Taking a moment to calm himself down before he moved from the bed to start his day, trying to focus on getting ready, hoping only to rid himself of the images as he passed through more mundane moments in his life.
The morning managed to deteriorate from the nightmare, people all seemed to watch him, as if marked by something unseen by his own eyes and until he was at the door of his class. There was a note, in an almost primitive scrawl, reading that class was cancelled today. When he observed the scrap closer he noticed the image pressed into the paper, a single large ‘X’ with the same ornate pattern from his nightmare. He pulled the note from the door and flipped the paper, finding more of the scrawl.
It read simply: “The door is open. What you seek, you may find within.” The note was signed with an all too familiar signature. Adrian looked down at the door knob, slowly reaching out and giving it a hesitant turn, glancing back at the empty hallway, to be sure he wasn’t seen, before slipping inside, pulling the door closed behind him looking around the darkened lecture hall. The only noises within came from his own breathing and his slow footsteps as he moved to look at the board.
The ‘X’ from the previous night was gone, in its place was one on a larger scale with a diamond shape at its center. Scrawled along the arms of the cross were simple words, the two on the left were Death and Chaos; to the right was Life and Peace. Life opposite Death, and Peace, of course, opposite Chaos, and in the center was a single word ‘Nothing’.
Adrian looked over the diagram and gave a sigh as he leaned back against one of the rows of desks, he sat there for what felt like an eternity, staring, letting his mind try to untangle itself from the nightmares and his new reality. It took more time than he’d of liked. The only thing that drew his attention away from the board was the commotion of students in the hall outside, the change of class signaling an hour he’d been there, and discovered nothing. Looking back at the board he shifted his position as a grim realization set in.
Adrian bowed his head and gave a meek chuckle, a sick smile coming over his face. He stepped away from the desks and dropped to his knees, hands rising to his head as it all dawned on him at once. Why hadn’t he seen it, why had it taken him so long to piece such simple answers together? His form began to shake violently, his breaths becoming shallow and erratic, his heart beginning to thunder in his ears. A single word echoed in his mind ‘Run’, But before he caved to his mind, he stepped to the board, erasing the words there before scrawling his own “ ‘X’ will be the end of us all.”
With a small flourish Adrian smiled and took his leave of the classroom, never to return to the tutelage of Marlowe or the chains of such an institution. He disappeared without a trace, leaving no evidence of his existence and no memory, for without the peace that once cleared his mind… the chaos ensued, driving him to his own end… his own room with its own steel door.
Another student, another time, another place. Marlowe looked over his new pupils; he already had three or four in this group scoped out...all were promising but all still paled compared to Adrian. He settled for what he could get though, as their classes moved on, pushing their young minds into similar conundrums, all based around the cross and the balanced existence of everything above nothing.
Class was dismissed with a hand flourish as he turned back to his board, erasing the notes, hearing the thundering of feet before the sense of being watched pervaded him. He turned with that sly smile, clasping his hands together in front of him as he faced his student. “What is it, Mark?” His voice was calm and nurturing, a façade he’d mastered.
Mark looked away then back up at his professor, a hand reaching up to scratch the back of his head. “Could you explain today’s lecture in a little more detail? I feel like there’s something I’m missing...” he muttered, looking almost ashamed of his lack of knowledge.
Marlowe’s smile increased and he nodded, turning to the board and offering a near condescending tone as he started writing on the board again, the click and scratch of chalk filled the room as he asked questions in rapid fire, coaxing Mark into his trap as he’d done a thousand times before.
Mark watched and answered, stepping back when his eyes fell on the center of the board and the cryptic symbol therein. “Professor, what does the ‘X’ stand for?”