“And what if they are?” A loud voice emerged from among the crowd. A hefty man with muscles bulging stepped forward. Anna recognised him. He was also at the crash site.
“Arthur…” Sylax whispered to himself, but loud enough for Anna to hear.
“What if they are heroes, here on a noble quest?” Arthur said as he walked towards Sylax.
“Arthur?” Regus said, “I didn’t think the great Arthur, leader of our valiant army, was one to believe in fairy tales!”
“I’m not,” he replied, “but I believe in staying true to our guide and standing by our brother, Sylax. They are noble people who would lay down their lives for the Northern Sector. And although I am not sure about the woman or her baby, I will stand with them and protect her and her baby, if that is what they wish.”
“Then you also are—”
“I would choose your next words carefully,” Arthur interrupted, “As they may be your last!”
Regus remained silent. And judging by the expression on Arthur’s face, that was probably the wisest response. Regus gazed across the crowd and then to where Anna was stood, he gave one last scowling look, and the stormed off into the distance.
“There you go again,” Arthur said, “upsetting Regus.”
“Regus is a snake!” Sylax said.
“He is just scared,” Lamron remarked as he approached them. “But he has a lot of influence over the community. He is a politician who is not afraid to speak his mind. And people trust him.”
“I don’t trust him!” Sylax said.
“But he does care about the people of our Sector. His heart is in the right place.”
“I am not convinced that he has a heart.”
“Well gentlemen,” Arthur interrupted, he then glanced at Anna and Mary, “and ladies. I would love to stay and continue this wonderful battle of egos, but some of us have got work to do.”
Sylax put his hand on Arthur’s shoulder, “Thank you, brother.” Arthur nodded but didn’t respond. He then went to join the small army of men who looked like they had waited for him.
“I… I don’t understand what’s going on here,” Anna said. “Why does that man hate me so much? And what is LOTR?”
“My dear, all will become clear to you soon,” Aldon smiled. “But not now, and not here.”
This didn’t help Anna’s nerves. These people were obviously deluded. They believed her and Zane to be something they were clearly not. She felt as though she was falling down a dark hole that didn’t have an end. She may have saved her baby from the false mechanical deity in the city but who is to save them now?
“Aldon, Sylax,” Anna spoke quietly as they ambled back towards the building she awoke in. “I know that you have saved my life and my baby’s, and I am grateful for that, I really am. But I think you are making a mistake. We are not who you think we are.” Anna was not sure whether she should say any more, for it may be this very fallacy that is keeping them alive. But she decided she had to, “We are actually fugitives. The city has a system, an intelligent system, Selective, they call it. It uses complex algorithms to predict who is likely to be a good member of society and who will be bad, at birth.” Anna paused.
Aldon stopped walking, “And then?”
“And then it determines whether the baby should be kept alive or terminated.”
Judging by the horrified looks on Aldon’s and Sylax’s faces, they didn’t know about Selective.
“And people let this happen?” Sylax asked.
“The system is ninety-nine-percent accurate.”
“And you believe this?” Aldon asked, “That it is ninety-nine-percent accurate?”
“Probably.” Anna Shrugged.
“So why not let the machine take your baby? I am assuming that’s why you escaped the city.” Aldon raised his brows, “Zane failed the test, right?”
“No, I don’t think he failed anything,” Anna responded in a defensive voice.
“I think…” She paused. “I know he is the one-percent. The system is ninety-nine-percent accurate. He is the one-percent, I know he is. The machine was wrong about him.” She bowed her head and buried her face into the cloth wrapped around Zane. This was something she had spent a long time convincing herself was true. But deep down she knew it had nothing to do with him being anything except her son. It didn’t matter to her whether he was one percent or fifty percent, he was her baby, her son – and no one could take him away from her. Not Selective and not these people – no one.
She then raised her head, her eyes filled. “Selective assumes my baby is some evil monster that should be terminated, you people think he is a… a LOTR, whatever that is! I wish everyone would just back off and just accept that he is just a baby. My baby. He has the right to live… he is just a normal baby.”
Aldon smiled. His expression was sympathetic. “He is your baby. He has the right to live, but he is not normal. He is quite extraordinary actually.”
“What do you think he is?” She asked, still wishing she could just vanish without a trace.
“Come inside, and I will tell you.”
They walked inside the building. Anna, Aldon and Sylax sat on wooden chairs silently. Mary had disappeared upstairs. Anna was now desperate to hear what a LOTR was. So, each moment of silence became more and more frustrating. She noticed a couple of dead leaves on the floor. They must have floated in when they opened the door. They were goldenly and quite beautiful, but they frustrated her as well. She had the sudden urge to pick them up and throw them out and search for a broom and sweep the rest of the floor. She fought the temptation. Instead, she rocked back and forward as if she were comforting her baby. But he was fine, fast asleep and didn’t need the rocking. Perhaps it was to comfort herself or to stop herself from biting her nails. Either way, she kept doing it.
“What is a LOTR?” Anna said impatiently. “Please tell me. And tell me what that means to us. Are we in danger?” She peered to the exit. Another habit she had adopted from very young – when in a room, always look for the exit.
“You are not in danger – no more danger than everyone else is anyway,” Aldon said. “For many years we have lived out here in a free world and in harmony. Yes, we broke away from the city, and things were, at first, strange and even violent, but eventually, we brought about order. What started a as large group of rebellious people became an entire civilisation. We expanded to different areas and called them Sectors. This is the Northern Sector. Each Sector has a leader, an army and a guide. At first, the Sectors were all familiar with one another and worked in unity, but now most have broken ties and look out for only their own. The philosophy of staying true to nature and forbidding the use of evil technology, however, has remained throughout all the Free World. So, maybe in some small way, we are still united. But over the years, there have been a fair few bloody conflicts between Sectors. Most completely unnecessary. But aren’t all conflicts?”
“I appreciate the History lesson, but you still haven’t answered my question,” Anna said.
“A LOTR,” Sylax jumped in, “is The Leader of the Resistance!”
Anna coughed as if she had just choked on air. “Leader of the Resistance? My baby?” Anna stood up and walked to the back of the room, and spoke with her back facing Aldon and Sylax, “I really appreciate you saving our lives, and you have been very kind to me, so I am sorry if this offends you, but I think you’re deluded. This fantasy of a baby, my baby, being the leader of some Resistance is insane.”
“I know it seems insane,” Aldon said, “but we have ancient scriptures that verify his coming.”
“Ancient scriptures?” Anna turned around. “Are you for real? Is this some kind of joke?” Because we have been through a lot, and this isn’t funny!”
“Anna, listen, I know it all sounds crazy, but it is true,” Aldon said.
“Even if there was a LOTR coming, how can you be so certain that this is him? I mean, surely I would know if he was some… some amazing being, right?”
“Anna, you do know he is. That’s why you believed in him. You risked your life for him.”
“That’s different. I am a mother – he is my son – every son is an amazing being for his mother. That doesn’t make him unique.”
“But he is unique, you said it yourself: he is the one-percent.”
Anna sat back down and lay Zane on her lap. Her shoulders sunk, and she buried her face in her hands. Tears that she had fought to suppress now began to seep from her eyes.
“I wanted to save him more than anything… and in doing so, I lost my husband, Zane’s father. He helped us escape, but he was killed. And it’s all my fault.” She sobbed.
“I am so sorry for your loss, Anna.” Aldon said, “I truly am… but know that none of this is your fault – none of it. Not that you believed your baby had the right to live – not that you did whatever you could to save him – and not that his courageous, noble father became a martyr in doing so! None of it.”
“But he is dead because of me!”
“No,” Sylax said, “He is a true father and true husband.” He spoke with admiration, “He obviously loved you and loved his son – enough to give his life to make sure that you live. You should be proud of him. He fought against an oppressive order, this Selective. From what you say, it is evil and has no place on Earth.”
Anna knew they were right. Not about Zane being the LOTR but about David. He did love them, and he was a sincere father and husband, and she was damn proud of him – but he was gone, and she could never forgive herself – never.
She believed Zane was the LOTR as much as she believed he was a fairy. And she didn’t want to hear any more about it – it was too absurd.
“Anna, you are not a prisoner here nor are you obliged to believe what we believe. You are free to leave whenever you like, but you are welcome to stay. We have a spare house close by that you are welcome to – its right next to Mary’s, so that could be helpful.”
Anna thought of Mary, and she felt herself smile. Mary was a gentle soul and now become her happy thought. But it was difficult to trust anyone. The place that she grew up in, the place she called home had betrayed her – or perhaps she betrayed it; either way, for her, it was no more. And this place was strange. Not sure whether she was in the Gardens of Eden or the lair of the wolf. But for now, she and her baby were alive – that had to count for something.
“You are very kind, “Anna finally spoke, “I… I would like to stay… thank you.”
“Great!” Aldon cheered.
“But there are two conditions,” Anna said.
Aldon nodded, “Please, name your terms.”
“I know you think that we are something amazing and have dropped from the heavens, but we don’t want to be treated differently. I want work, earn my keep. I want to help with whatever I can.”
“As you wish.” Aldon nodded in agreement. “Technically you did drop from the heavens… but anyway, the second condition?”
Anna rolled her eyes, “You can’t make me eat that repulsive, disgusting lamb!”
Both Aldon and Sylax laughed, “Never!” Aldon said.
Anna liked the house she was staying in. It was a lot warmer than the guest room she recovered in – mainly due to the nice fireplace in the main room. A few small logs burned and kept the place warm for the best part of a day. It only had one floor, and a brown carpet ran throughout the place – it wasn’t much to look at but felt wonderful under her feet.
She was still getting used to using the hole in the ground as a lavatory and water instead of toilet roll. The water she could get used to, the hole she would probably never get used to. The awful smell of the ancient sewage system sometimes came up through the hole and made her sick. But she and Zane were safe, and that was the important thing.
She had been desperate to wash – she smelt like a decaying animal. The bucket filled with warm water and a wooden cup was heavenly. Simple yet effective.
The living room had a window that faced the street, and she often stared out of it and observed this weird new world. A colourful world without progressive technology ruling it. Everything moved at a steady pace. A manageable pace. It wasn’t quiet, but it was indeed peaceful.
Mary had painted some delightful abstract patterns on the walls – she was a gifted artist, though she never, till today, told anyone about her exceptional, hidden talent. The patterns were mesmerising and brought the entire place to life.
Mary would come over every day, and although Anna no longer needed help, she loved her company. They would go on long walks in the town and sometimes around the hills. Anna would sit cradling Zane in her arms and enjoying the air and the view, while Mary would sit and draw.
They would talk for hours every day. Mary was fascinated by life in Arcadiapolis and loved hearing about all the advancements that the city had made.
“It wasn’t that great,” Anna said, as they sat on a large hill that overlooked the entire Northern Sector.
“Are you kidding,” Mary said, putting her canvas down. “It sounds amazing! You had devices that could capture an entire scene. So, instead of spending hours painting this view,” She pointed in the air, “you just point and press a button, and you have it. You had carts that didn’t require anything to pull them along, and some could even fly! Like a bird without wings. And you can talk to someone thousands of miles away using a communication device… This is mind-blowing! I can see where all the stories of wizardry came from now.”
“Yeah, but the last three weeks, since I have been here, have taught me a lot.”
“Like what? That our most advanced communication device is a large bell that someone must bash to alert the town of trouble. Or the recently developed, small area filled with windmills that generate a bit of electricity. Electricity that no one knows how to use properly.”
Anna could sense the disappointment in her voice, or maybe it was unfulfillment.
“The worst thing with living in the city was time.” Anna said, “I realise it now, being here, where things are slow—”
“Really slow.” Mary interrupted and rolled her eyes.
“I mean slow in a good way. Slow, as in normal speed. It gives you time to reflect. I mean, yes, in Arcadiapolis, the communication methods are convenient, but they are a little too convenient.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s strange, but the convenience made us lazy, and although we could talk, we hardly did. Life in the city was all about rules and fitting in. A family unit was not like the way it is here.”
“The government pushed everyone into work. It was almost like children were not allowed to be raised by their parents. The Government always made out like people were not good enough to do so, not qualified to. Instead, parents must work, and all children must attend institutions. Institutions that made them perfect products of a perfect society. You had to be exactly what the government stated you should be. Like a robot.”
“Oh, robot – the thing you mentioned earlier. The remarkable machine that runs itself and uses electricity instead of food?”
“Yes, that. But I think you’re missing my point.”
“I get it. A robot that doesn’t need food, runs itself and serves your every command. Sounds like bliss.”
Anna laughed and ruffled Mary’s hair. “Something like that, I guess.”
“We’d better get back,” Mary said, “or Aldon will be sending out a search party. He’s like a government all on his own.” They both chuckled and began walking back.
The sun was sinking below the horizon, emitting rays of golden hue behind silhouettes of birds flying in formation.
It was the first day that Anna had seen the sun since she had been here. Before this, the sun had been overpowered by gloomy grey clouds that frequently expressed their wrath.
“You haven’t told me much about you?” Anna asked Mary as they walked down the muddy track leading back into the town.
“Me? Oh, not much to talk about. Pretty boring in comparison.”
“Nonsense. What about the wonderful art that you do. I mean those patterns that you painted on the wall were breath-taking.”
“Thank you.” Mary blushed, “Do you mind if I hold Zane?”
“Of course not.” Anna was a little relieved that she offered as her arms were burning carrying him.
“Growing up, I spent a lot of time on my own,” Mary said, exchanging Zane for her canvas. “I loved coming out here and getting lost in the views. There was something about observing things from different perspectives. And eventually, I began drawing them. Imitating what I saw. And often what I saw was accurate to what was there.”
“This is just beautiful…” Anna said looking at the drawing. It was of the view that they were just admiring. “It’s perfect.”
“It’s beautiful,” Mary said, “but not perfect. That is perfect,” she pointed in the distance. “It’s something I realised over the years – the more I drew and painted, the more I realised that it is impossible to replicate it exactly. And any alteration, no matter how small, would make it imperfect. It makes you appreciate the original artist.”
“You mean… God?”
“Such beauty, such perfection doesn’t come from nothing.”
“I suppose, you have a point.” Anna didn’t believe in God, though she prayed to him endlessly.
“Anyway,” Anna thought of changing the subject, “You live alone, what about family, mother and father? Where do they live?”
Mary fell silent. Anna immediately realised that she might have put her foot in it. Typical Anna, talk too much, don’t think before you speak. Idiot!
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry. We don’t need to talk about that.”
“No, it’s fine.” Mary sunk her chin into the cloth wrapped around Zane. “I was told that my parents died when I was very young. I don’t remember them.”
Anna sensed scepticism in her tone but didn’t prompt her to say anymore.
“I was raised by Aldon. He is a lovely man who protected me, cared for me and made sure I had everything I needed. But he was always busy, and I often found myself alone. I didn’t mind that much, I quite liked being alone, gave me a chance to get to know myself and I guess that’s why I become so observant. But…” She then paused for a moment, “But there were lots of rumours about my parents. People used to talk very highly of them. They were engineers of some sort. And people used to say that one day they just disappeared. Vanished without a trace.”
Anna noticed Mary’s cheeks glowing red, and her eyes were glued to the ground.
“When I asked Aldon about this he said it was untrue, and that my mother had died giving birth to me and my father died in some freak accident.”
“You didn’t believe him?” Anna asked.
“I knew he was lying. I even went to the cemetery looking for where they would have been buried. There was no sign of them.”
“Why would he lie to you?”
“I don’t know. But knowing Aldon, there was some wisdom behind it. Anyway, some of the town’s people said that my parents had been eaten by Grethonians!”
“What on earth is a Grethonian?” Anna asked, trying to pronounce the unusual word as best as she could.
Mary’s eyes opened wider, and she moved closer to Anna and whispered, “The Grethonians are a hideous and dangerous species.” She then pointed to the left, into the distance, “About fifty miles west from here, there is a place called Grethonia. People don’t even say the name of the place – that is how afraid they are of the Grethonians. They are monsters that are five or six times the size of a normal person and each one has the strength of ten men.”
Anna could sense fear radiating from her as she described the beasts.
“Their skin is hard like wood and their eyes emanate a haunting yellow glow at night. They can see better at night. And that’s when they go out hunting for food.”
“Have you ever seen one?” Anna asked, now sucked in.
“I haven’t, but many in the town claimed they had. Many years ago, a few brave men decided to journey into the layer of the monsters in a bid to learn about them. But they never returned. After that the town forbade anyone from going within twenty miles of Grethonia, and no one talks about them, but everyone knows they exist. They’re out there, lurking in the darkness.”
They both subconsciously picked up their pace back to the town. Anna, like most people in Arcadiapolis, had never seen wild animals. She heard stories of them. Animals used to live among humans, but after scientists in the Selective program had discovered that so many diseases were spread through animals, all animals were to be executed. The government claimed that was the best thing to preserve Human life. Anna had believed this.
When they arrived back into the town, they noticed a huge crowd of people in the town centre. There were roars of excitement and laughter.
“What’s going on?” Anna asked.
“Come on…” Mary grabbed Anna’s hand, and they rushed towards the crowd. They pushed through the heard and got to the front. The crowd had circled around two men who were slugging it out with swords and shields. Both men were hidden behind steel body armour and face guards – with only their brawny arms and grimacing eyes exposed.
Anna observed in shock as the men went at each other, swinging and defending until one man was on the floor. He lay helplessly on his back with the other man towering over him, with his sword pointing at his neck. The man then put his sword back on his belt and raised out his hand. The man on the ground grabbed it and got his feet.
“What is this?” Anna asked, still unable to take her eyes off the spectacle.
“It’s an audition. You know, for the army. Anyone that wants to join the army must fight Arthur, and if they can put up a good enough fight, they can join – no one has ever defeated Arthur. He is just… just something else. Strong and mighty and…”
“OK…” Anna remarked, noticing the way that Mary was looking at Arthur as he removed his mask.
“You like him?” Anna said.
“What?” she responded, cheeks blushing. “Of course not.”
“Sure,” Anna smirked.
“There’s just something about big strong men that… I don’t know. He just makes me feel protected, I guess.”
“We are looking for someone who can fight,” Arthur said, his voice echoed. “Someone with courage and heart. But we are not looking for someone to join the ranks just yet; we seek someone to train our young boys. We need them to learn to fight and defend themselves from a younger age.” He gazed around the crowd. “Is there no one else?”
Anna fell into deep thought. She had vowed that she would pull her own weight and not just sit there treated like royalty.
“I will do it,” Anna shouted. People began to look around at her. Arthur stared at her in shock. Muttering started from the crowd. A few laughs and a few cheers.
Mary grabbed her arm, “What are you doing?”
“Applying for a job!”
“You… You can’t do that it’s—”
But Anna didn’t wait for her to finish and walked out in front of Arthur.
“Is there no one else?” Arthur repeated looking over Anna. Trying not to make eye contact.
“I said I would do it!” Anna said.
Arthur began to laugh. “Listen, little girl; we are not looking for a babysitter. We need a warrior, someone that can fight, someone to train our children.”
Anna noticed that Sylax and Aldon were among the crowd. Aldon smiled and then nodded.
“I can fight!” Anna said.
“Don’t be ridiculous. The battleground is no place for a… for a woman. Stop wasting my time and move aside.”
Anna took a few steps back and then smiled. “Surely, if there were to a be a war, you would need all the help you could get. Why train just the boys? Women are strong and courageous. We too can fight and defend the land.” There was a loud cheer from the crowd.
“As I said, this is not for a woman,” Arthur said.
Anna walked up to a sword laying on the floor and used her foot to kick up into the air and caught it. She faced Arthur, “Don’t worry, I promise I will take it easy on you.”
There were bursts of laughter and more cheers from the crowd. Anna noticed the combination of excitement and nerves in Mary’s face.
“Is this a wind-up?” Arthur said. He raised his sword in anger, “Because everyone knows about my good sense of humour!”
“Let her fight!” A voice emerged from deep within the crowd. More cheers more laughter.
Arthur stepped forward and stood right in front of Anna’s face. “This is a serious and noble search that you are turning into a mockery.”
Anna’s grin disappeared. “I am sorry if it seems I am mocking – but I mock you not.”
Arthur sighed and then smiled. He faced the cheering crowd, “Silence!” Everyone began to quieten down. “It seems that we have an unusual contender. One that obviously does not know how things work around her. She is not from around here and knows not her role.”
“And what is my role?” Anna asked. Her head tilted to the side. She didn’t know where this sudden urge to speak up came from. She began reminding herself of her old self. The valiant, head-strong woman she once was.
“Everyone knows that the woman is the home keeper and the man is the—”
“Is that because the woman is weaker than the man? Or is it the man is scared that the woman has mind and might, unlike the man who possesses only one.”
The crowd began to laugh. She could see Aldon grinning; it seemed like he was fighting to stop himself from laughing. Arthur, on the other hand, was like a burning star – ready to explode.
“Fine!” Arthur shouted, “But don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
“I won’t hold a grudge, I promise,” Anna said, only making him more infuriated.
“Get her armoured!” Arthur shouted. A couple of men carrying a heavy armour came running towards her. She looked at it and shook her head. “I don’t need that,” she said, “It’ll only slow me down.”
Anna could see Aldon and Sylax talking. She didn’t know what they were saying, but Sylax was shaking his head the entire time. Mary was stood next to them but then came to Anna.
“What are doing?” Mary said. Still cradling Zane in her arms. “I mean, it was funny, damn funny… but seriously, fighting Arthur? Come on let’s go.” Mary grabbed her hand.
“I’ll be fine,” Anna said and let go of Mary’s hand. “What’s going on over there?” Anna used her eyes and head to gesture at Aldon and Sylax who were still deep in their conversation.
“Sylax is worried about you getting hurt and is shocked that Aldon is not stopping you.”
Anna had figured as much. She was no lip reader, but she could read people’s body language.
“Is it true? You know…” Mary said. “It’s just that I overheard them speaking. Is it true that you’re here to bring about change?”
“I guess we’re about to find out.” She stretched her arms, loosening her muscles.
“At least put the armour on!” Mary said.
“It took two men to carry it to me. Not sure I can even lift it.” She smiled.
“And you’re about to fight Arthur?”
“I see your concern—”
“Well, let’s get this over and done with!” Arthur said, holding his sword loosely in his hand and shaking his head.
Mary walked briskly back to the crowd.
“Remember your training!” Anna said to herself. All those years of combat and hand-to-hand training. Gruelling hours in the gym and years of learning the science behind fighting. She looked at the giant opposite her and took a deep breath. She could do this. Size didn’t matter. She could use that against him. He was huge and presumably very heavy. His body weight combined with that armour, he would be sluggish. All she had to do was stay light on her feet. Outpace him, wear him out. She could do this.
Well, that’s what she hoped anyway.