Characters

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Heath

Heath was born and raised in Grey Zone Sector 11 outside of the Republic. He spent his childhood exploring the Sector with Ozzie, his best friend, but their adventures were always restricted by the electric fences that cut them off at various locations.

Heath learned more about the fences, the Republican Guards patrolling them, and the oppressive nature of Republican power as he got older. His parents taught him about freedom, and raised him to resist the Republic once he was old enough to understand it.

But then Heath’s parents were killed. He was left to raise and care for his younger brother, Jake, with the occasional help of his tutor in the Grey Zone, Margie.

Inspired to make a difference, Heath joined a rebel group focusing on incursions through the fences and into the Republic to source supplies for his community — food, medication, and technological equipment. Despite making progress with his friends and comrades, he knows that his fight for freedom and salvation is a perpetual one and perhaps impossible.

In 2196, Heath divides his time between planning and taking part in new operations into the Republic, playing soccer with Jake in the manufacturing precinct of Sector 11, visiting Margie and her two young children, and spending time with Ozzie.

READ ON FOR ONE OF HEATH'S EXCERPTS FROM THE BOOK …

10.01pm

Heath crept out from the building’s edge with his AK-47 aimed at the red-haired Republican Guard in no-man’s land at the bottom of the hill. He hurried down the first part of the descent towards the charcoaled skeleton of a vehicle that waited as cover. He dropped behind what had once been the front bonnet.

A few seconds later, Ozzie arrived, crouching down behind the mangled door beside him.

Heath looked over to his left and found Derrick at the edge of the building that Hayley occupied, flat against the wall, concealed from the Republican Guard’s angle of view. When Heath looked up he saw the faintest and smallest of silhouettes against the night sky — the thin barrel of Hayley’s tranquiliser rifle hanging over the edge of the rooftop.

The barrel grew in length; Hayley shifting to perhaps account for a change in distance.

Heath snapped his gaze towards no-man’s land again, peering over the deformed bonnet. Out to the left, the RG was strolling southwards — rightwards in his field of vision — with her attention focused on the Grey Zone side of the boundary. He ducked back down.

‘Waiting for her to look east,’ Hayley whispered. ‘I want a clean shot into the neck.’

‘If you don’t get that clean shot,’ Vincent replied through the earpiece, ‘take whatever you can get. The clock is ticking.’

‘Who’s the sniper here?’ Hayley said sarcastically.

Heath looked out over the bonnet once more. The RG was back parallel with Hayley’s position on the rooftop, aligned with the corner of the building. The Guard swung her gaze eastwards, towards the far, Republican side of the boundary, exposing the side of her neck.

Click!

The lightest of sounds accompanied the discharge of the tranquiliser rifle. A few seconds passed before the Guard recoiled, grabbing at her neck furiously. Her weapon fell from her grasp and then her shoulder. She stumbled, swayed, and fell forward like dead weight onto the dust, at the mercy of the anaesthetic.

‘Target hit,’ Hayley announced.

‘She’s out,’ Derrick confirmed.

‘Good job,’ Vincent said through the headphone. ‘No time to waste, people. Get going.’

Despite the heat trapped inside Heath’s neoprene suit, the sweat at the rim of his hood was cool. He pulled the hood to the side and wiped away some of the perspiration, but he could do nothing to alleviate the hammering of his heart.

On Heath’s left, Derrick moved out from behind the corner of the building with his weapon sweeping the line of the boundary.

Usually, each Republican Guard patrolling no-man’s land on foot covered a section on their own, but there was always the possibility of company, especially if the victim had called something in on the network before falling unconscious.

‘Okay, Oz, let’s go,’ Heath said. He rose from behind the skeleton of the vehicle with Ozzie flanking him.

They joined up with Derrick and descended the decline. When they emerged into the dim clouds of light spouting from the lamps, Heath felt naked, utterly exposed, as he always did so close to the boundary. He ignored the feeling and rushed forward to the first fence.

The horizontal wires reached upwards — taut silver lines. Above the highest wire, a horizontal insulating pole met rolls of barbed wire that curled into the air overhead.

Heath dropped his pack next to Derrick’s. He rummaged through the contents and located the cable cutters. His gloves found a good grip around the handles. As he heaved the heavy tool and rotated it vertically so that the pincers could clasp the first wire, the familiar thought struck him: what if the wires were still live? He sucked air, his hands tremoring a little as the cable cutters closed in.

‘If the power was still on,’ Derrick said, finally fishing the cable cutters from his own backpack, ‘the electricity would have already jumped for us.’

Heath lifted his arm to his forehead and wiped the slick again. He leaned forward with the cutters and found the wire with the pincers.

The wire was dead. They had until 11pm.

Relief washed over Heath, but only briefly, because it was quickly replaced by a shuddering that crackled through him in place of the electricity. It dawned on him that they were yet again about to cross into Republican Territory. The rush of fear and adrenalin never got old, no matter how many times he did it.

He squeezed on the handles, weakening the wire with every strained effort, splintering it, until eventually it snapped completely. The broken ends caressed the lower wires as they crashed to the ground. Almost at the same time, Derrick finished with the second wire as the ends followed their counterparts to the dust.

Hayley joined them. ‘Still no movement behind us,’ she said.

‘Vincent,’ Ozzie said through her mic, ‘we’re almost through. Two wires down, two to go.’

‘Good work,’ he replied. ‘We’ll speak to you when you’re back over our side.’

Once they went beyond the first fence, the channel of the Republicanet they used to communicate through their earpieces would no longer work. Heath, Ozzie, Derrick and Hayley would be on their own, and not just on their own, but unable to communicate with each other via the channel either. Their earpieces and mics would be useless in the Republican Territory.

Heath and Derrick worked on the two wires below the small gap they had created, while Ozzie and Hayley covered them with their weapons. In synchronisation, the wires broke, careering to the ground.

‘First fence cut,’ Ozzie said.

‘Good luck,’ Vincent said.

Ozzie swung her pack through their makeshift passageway and then ducked through after it, brushing harmlessly against the still-intact wire above her. Hayley quickly followed. Heath and Derrick tossed their packs in and then squeezed through, keeping their cable cutters in hand.

Ozzie and Hayley scampered across no-man’s land, scanning both sides with their AK-47s. Heath and Derrick went past them, hurrying ahead.

Heath glanced at the sleeping Republican Guard, who was facedown on the dirt with her pack pointing at the sky, her rifle lodged under the grey uniform hugging her torso. He was less than five paces from her, but beneath the vibrancy of her red hair he saw the paleness of her face, the freckles that spotted her cheek behind the mic of her earpiece.

Like all Republican Guards, this one had a story.

Heath scuttled past her towards the second fence, leaving her in her slumber. Derrick went to cut first. Heath joined him and they began snipping away.

Shit.’

Their earpieces were already dead, but Hayley’s voice had been sudden and clear over Heath’s shoulder.

He dared to take his gaze off the wires and look up. At the top of the rise of the first Republican street that ran in a straight line between the shadows of the buildings, headlights had appeared. The vehicle was perhaps two to three hundred metres away and closing.

Alarm pinched Heath’s throat.

‘What do we do?’ Ozzie said. ‘Is it a patrol?’

Hurriedly finishing off the last wire, Derrick said, ‘Has to be. Too rare for a citizen to be driving this close to the boundary so late.’

‘Should we go back?’ Ozzie said.

Heath stashed the cable cutters back in his pack, swung the thing over his shoulder. Like Ozzie and Hayley, he aimed his AK-47 at the vehicle. He flicked the safety off and racked the slide to load the first round from the magazine into the chamber. He tried to swallow but his mouth was too dry. He glanced at Derrick just as the final wire broke in two and dropped.

Ozzie threw her pack through the fence, and then ducked, with Hayley close behind. Derrick kept his AK hanging from his shoulder and the cable cutters in his hands as he pushed his pack through and dived in after it.

Heath glanced up. The headlights were descending the street, heading for their position. He swung his backpack off his shoulders, through the makeshift manhole, and stepped through after it.

‘Split up!’ Derrick shouted, following Hayley rightwards, rushing for the sanctuary of the shadows.

Heath and Ozzie scampered forward, thirty paces or so, to find the edge of the lamplights, then the gloom. They hurried leftwards, putting the Republican structure that cornered the street between them and the vehicle that was descending. They ran for the partially unhinged door to the building.

Ozzie got there first and barged into it with her shoulder. She crossed into the building and grabbed the door as it rebounded, holding it open for Heath. He rushed through and emerged into the gloom of a huge chamber. He helped Ozzie push the door shut, but the broken hinges meant that the result was imperfect.

Though the medical facility was close to the edge of the Republican Territory, most buildings lining the actual boundary were abandoned and deteriorating, just like those at the very edge of the Grey Zone on the other side of the fences. This one appeared to be no different.

As Heath’s eyes adjusted, a foul, musty odour slapped him in the face. He pinched his nose as they began navigating their way through the darkness, careful to find the steps in the floor that ascended the hill. They headed for the wall on their right, the one flanking the street. They found a window that overlooked it just as a golden shaft of light flickered through the glass and then washed over the area outside.

Heath and Ozzie ducked below the sill. The engine of the vehicle whirred eerily as it crept past, taking the headlights with it, but that major shaft was followed by smaller blue beams, which swung through the windows of the building at various angles: the tell-tale sign of Republican Guards scanning the area from the bed of the truck with the mounted flashlights of their AK-47s.

Heath’s muscles stiffened as the full extent of their plight dawned on him. If the Guards noticed the broken fence and the slumped figure sleeping in the middle of no-man’s land before he and his comrades broke away from their entry point, the Republicans would likely have them surrounded within minutes. If that happened, and a gunfight followed, he didn’t like their chances of getting away alive.

When the pointed beams of the flashlights moved on with the vehicle, Heath peered over the sill once again. On his right, a little way down the slope, two Republican Guards were riding on the bed of the truck with their AKs sweeping the street, but it was the third rider who seized his attention.

Ozzie whispered, ‘What the f—’

‘I know.’

‘What’s a Republican Agent doing riding on a normal patrol?’

‘You’re asking me?’

Heath was fully aware that Republican Agents in the field usually commanded three to four Republican Guards each, but he’d rarely seen them ride along on standard patrols. He knew that orders could be given and received via the Republicanet; any actions taken by the Guards dictated from afar.

A Guard was one thing, but an Agent was an entirely different matter.

Heath took another look at the back of the truck.

The Agent turned full circle behind his Guards to look uphill, in Heath and Ozzie’s direction. The pulsations of the flashlights flickered across the Republican logo crested to the breast of his uniform. Suddenly he shifted his head and his gaze seemed to land on the window. He lifted large goggles to his eyes.

‘Get down!’ Heath yelled.

BACK TO THE CHARACTERS

Treasurer Henry Erskine

Henry Erskine is the Treasurer of the Republic and one of the Ministers in the General Assembly.

As a youngster Henry rose quickly in the ranks of the Republican Ministry and built a team around him made up of only the best advisors — led by his perpetual protector, Agent O’Brien. Among other things, Henry now charges his team with recruiting and instilling puppets at various levels of the Republican establishment, knowing that the citizens rely on him more than anyone else.

Henry finds that his motivations stem from the one truth that has remained unchanged since time immemorial. He knows that if he wants to make a difference and have an impact on the world, he needs two things: power and control. They are vital parts of one another, like light and darkness.

Henry has worked hard over the years for his share of power and control. He intends to keep building it by perfecting one thing: his personal brand. He has an unorthodox leadership style — one that inspires loyalty and awe. He relishes leading by example.

In 2196 Henry spends most of his time at the Republican Ministry, working with his advisors and other Ministers to govern the Republic. His plans for clamping down on the rebels in the Grey Zone — who he sees as the ultimate pretenders, the worst type of phonies — are in response to the growing threat of resistance across the border.

Yet when Henry catches an unexpected break, he sees not only a chance to make the Republic safer, but an opportunity to expand his influence …

READ ON FOR ONE OF HENRY'S EXCERPTS FROM THE BOOK …

9.59am

Treasurer Henry Erskine bounded forward through the Hall of the Republican Ministry. The familiar sound of his shoes clapping against the polish echoed around the dome like it was the soundtrack to what was happening above him. He was reminded that, at a distance, gunshots and explosions sounded a bit like this.

Halfway across the Hall, Henry halted and turned his gaze upwards. The huge space seemed to reach for the sky. The ceiling of the Hall — the underside of the dome — was deceptively high, like it belonged in the clouds. Instead of rain, a scene of desolation and ruin rained down upon him.

The End of Time never failed to amaze him in its imagery. Each time he examined it, he found new details he hadn’t seen before, new images he hadn’t yet appreciated. The layers of meaning behind the artwork were infinite. Just when he thought he’d dissected all of it, a new image jumped out of the shapes at him and screamed to be acknowledged.

The Hall of the Ministry spanned fifty metres long and wide. The fresco covered the entire ceiling and therefore the entire Hall, from one side to the other, like the sky covering the earth. The masterpiece had been completed by one of the Republic’s Founding Ministers — Angel Staniano — a man revered for his work as one of the first Republicans when the old world was becoming the new. Above all, Staniano seemed to ask one thing of Republicans through the painting: never forget. They could move forward, evolve — as much as the Law would allow them to — but they must never forget.

In the Hall of the Republican Ministry, Henry always felt at home.

The End of Time, at first glance, depicted the scenes of annihilation throughout the world at the conclusion of the Last War. On face value, the painting was a collage of recreated photographs taken from satellites. This first layer of the painting offered a bird’s-eye view of many of the old world’s major cities lying in ruins.

The shapes of skyscrapers were broken into jagged jigsaw pieces beneath veils of smoke and fire that shrouded the earth. The collage was eerie in the way one fallen city blended into the next, giving the feel that despite the obvious distances between the cities, the destruction had been total and final, obliterating everything in between as well.

The first take of the painting was deceiving in itself in that the viewer looked up to view it, yet in doing so, looked down upon the world. Moreover, with the ceiling of the Hall being concave, the surface of the shattered world above was concave too — the opposite to an actual view from space, which would obviously show a convex surface. This play on surface gave the impression that the world was inside out, upside down, not as it should be, all wrong.

It was a brilliant way to portray the despair and confusion felt at the turn of the era. This layer of imagery alone was enough to justify the fresco as a masterwork.

But there was much more to The End of Time than this.

Beneath this first layer of broken cities, the shapes blended into other images, the bleak colours and lines twisting into a completely different picture. Here, a mother cradling her dead children in her arms. There, body bags lined up to infinity and further. Over this way, soldiers carrying the wounded. And over here, clouds of explosions.

It was all there, confronting the viewer, forcing them to face the horrors of the Religious War and the Last War. The second layer of The End of Time defined human suffering. It was a much more personal view of the tragedy of the old world’s downfall.

Once more, Henry refocused his eyes on the world above him, and the shapes of death spiralled yet again into something new, the painting’s grey shades blending together. Beyond the destruction of the cities in the first layer and the human suffering depicted in the second, the third layer formed a far simpler image.

The Republican flag with its logo was the one undying and everlasting constant amid the chaos. In a world defined by destruction and human suffering, in a world where the world had lost its way, the Republic had stood firm, the only state to endure, saved from the end of time by the First Father, the Founding Ministers and the new Law.

The logo flew high above the rest. Over everything else, they had to always remember that through the carnage of the apocalypse, the Republic had saved them all.

‘In the name of the Father.’

Henry’s attention shifted away from the fresco and he locked eyes with the person who had approached him. ‘In the name of the Father,’ he replied.

‘Never gets old, does it, sir?’ Frederick Gustav gazed up at The End of Time and shook his head in obvious awe. ‘He was an incredible Minister, a peerless artist.’

‘They say possibly the best Minister ever,’ Henry said. ‘Four under his management went on to win seats in the Assembly later on. Four.

‘An astonishing man,’ Gustav said.

‘He painted this in his sixties,’ Henry reminded the advisor. ‘Took him six years to finish.’

‘Possibly the greatest artwork of all time.’

‘Without a doubt the greatest artwork of all time. The thing about Staniano was that he was a realist; there’s no fantasy here, no fiction or invention.’ Henry swept the fresco with his gaze once again. He’d had similar conversations in the Hall many times before. It was commonplace to talk about Staniano’s work when standing under it, almost disrespectful if you didn’t, such was its significance. ‘Many of the artworks in the old world were based on mythical themes,’ Henry said. ‘But Staniano shows us that you don’t need myth to find meaning. There’s no otherworldly implication in this, no speculation. It’s realism and truth acknowledged through beauty.’

‘I still find it amazing that a man of his age could paint this ceiling on his own, harnessed in the air, and for so long, without the use of laser equipment or technology,’ Gustav said.

A final paradox was that Staniano had gone about his work in a very old-fashioned way, a way that belonged in the old world, perhaps. This was the only thing that peeved Henry about Staniano, yet it wasn’t enough to stain the overall symbolism of the work.

‘His determination inspires me,’ Gustav said.

Turning his attention to the advisor once more, Henry noticed how Gustav was continuously stroking his goatee as he stood contemplating the masterwork. The curl of the ginger whiskers reminded Henry of curly caterpillars, and he couldn’t help but think the facial hair was crawling as it grew. ‘The fact Staniano died a week after he finished,’ Henry said, ‘shows how determined he was. To fight off cancer like that for so long to complete the work, to make sure there was a lasting reminder of what happened; that’s dedication we can all learn from.’

Even as Henry retold the official account of Staniano’s cause of death, he struggled to repress the rumours that leapt at him in his mind. For as long as he could remember, there had been whispers in the upper ranks of the Ministry that Staniano had not actually died of cancer, and instead had been found hanged in his Executive Suite.

There was an uncomfortable pause before Gustav nodded.

Perhaps even someone as low as an advisor was aware of the rumours. Either way, it would be political suicide at best for either of them to mention anything about it so openly here, and actual suicide at worst.

‘Walk with me,’ Henry said.

Frederick Gustav was a plump man, round at just about every angle of his body. He was much shorter than Henry, younger too, and the goatee partially hid his baby face. His hands were streaked by thick tangles of red hairs, which sometimes drew gags from Henry. Henry was always loath to shake hands with the advisor, even at the best of times. He preferred to touch humans, over stunted red bears.

Whether Gustav was a bear in disguise or not, Henry had been using him as one of his key advisors for some time now. He’d once proved himself to be a decent analyst, capable of dissecting complex problems. You needed that trait in an advisor, even if it meant that you had to put up with shaking a furry palm every so often, and the occasional gag reflex. That had been why Henry had originally allowed him into his team.

The one thing Gustav had never been able to analyse was his own potential. Henry was aware that the advisor had aspirations to go on to bigger and better things, that he even flirted with the dream of one day becoming a Minister. But he’d always known Gustav would never hold a seat in the General Assembly. The advisor didn’t have the personality or the character for that, even if his looks had been more appealing. Henry had often been tempted to tell him that he should focus on getting the basics right before getting lost in delusions.

Henry resumed pacing towards the eastern end of the Hall, in the direction of the House of the Ministry, where the General Assembly would soon gather for a conference session. Gustav waddled next to him, holding an electronic tablet in one of his hands, using his thumb to swipe on a cell phone in the other, as though he was unsure of which device to use.

The indecision was clearly symptomatic. Henry wondered how long it had been going on.

‘Schedule set to commence at 10.15,’ Gustav confirmed.

‘Have you got the agenda?’

‘Border protection, the aid program, the clean-up of G11,’ Gustav replied.

Henry locked his fingers together behind his back, thinking about how he would word the order. ‘When you get back to my chambers,’ he said, ‘get in touch with Agent O’Brien.’

‘Certainly. Do you want him to call you?’

‘I need to see O’Brien in person,’ Henry asserted. ‘Actually, I need him to see something in person.’

Gustav’s caterpillars wiggled as he processed the instruction. Eventually he nodded. ‘Yes, sir.’

They got to the eastern end of the Hall. Ahead, a long, straight corridor reached out from the Hall to the House of the Ministry.

Henry glanced at the sculptures of the Fathers who had ruled the Republic since its foundation. They were stationed on either side of the corridor, in chronological order, with the First Father on the left, the Second Father on the right, and so on down the passage. Marble, exquisite; each one had been commissioned by the Assembly upon the Fathers’ appointments. The sculpture of the First Father nearest to Henry was over one hundred years old, but it hadn’t lost its polish.

Henry’s eyes found the sculpture of the current Father at the end of the corridor, on the right, at the side of the threshold that led to the House of the Ministry. It was an astounding recreation of their leader, from the sharpness of the eyebrows through to the strands of the moustache.

Henry turned to Gustav. He held out his hand instinctively but then realised his mistake and went to withdraw it. Gustav was too eager. They shook. Thankfully, no gag reflex this time.

‘I’ll find you in the office when I’m ready,’ Henry said.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘I’ll expect O’Brien to be waiting for me.’

‘I’ll make sure of it.’

‘In the name of the Father,’ the Treasurer said.

‘In the name of the Father.’

The advisor waddled away.

BACK TO THE CHARACTERS

Timothy Dawkins

Timothy Dawkins was born in Territory 1 of the Republic and lives in a house with his mother. As a ten-year-old, he has big aspirations for his future born out of his own unique situation.

Timothy is a high academic performer in the Republic. He wants to achieve as much as he can so that he can make the Republican Agent Program when he grows up. The only thing that holds him back is his physical condition, which hinders him when it comes to the physical component of his training at the Father’s Campus. Despite occasionally being taunted about this by his rival and archenemy, Paul, it doesn’t bother him too much. He finds that he is usually clever enough to outwit anyone who tries to tease him, and shuts them down quickly.

In 2196 Timothy spends half his time at the Father’s Campus learning with his classmates. He spends the other half of his time with Tutor Aurelius, his passionate mentor, who tutors him on various topics, including in Timothy’s favourite subject: history. With Aurelius, Timothy loves learning about the Religious War, the Last War, the Republic, the Grey Zone, and why the fences exist. He also enjoys discussing the old world and why it failed: the weaknesses of democracy and its role in causing fatal divisions in society, the irrationality of religion, the necessity of keeping rising powers subdued.

Through his learnings with Aurelius, Timothy learns about the old world’s downfall, and why the Republic is structured the way it is to avoid the mistakes of the past …

READ ON FOR ONE OF TIMOTHY'S EXCERPTS FROM THE BOOK …

10.00am

Timothy looked at the questions Tutor Aurelius had set for him at the end of their last session. If it was up to him, he would have chosen to read ahead and get a head start on the next topic so he could impress Aurelius in their next discussion or embarrass the other students at the Campus.

But he knew that respect for authority was just as important as an appetite for excellence, so he had to follow Aurelius’ instructions. Besides, homework was an important part of preparing for assessments. It was in his interest to tackle the questions.

Since finishing his pancakes, Timothy had logged onto the student portal of the Republicanet and revisited the chapter of the history syllabus titled: ‘The Origins of the Religious War’. Now his fingers were primed over the keys.

WHAT WERE THE MAJOR FACTORS THAT LED TO THE RELIGIOUS WAR?

WHAT ROLE DID RELIGION PLAY IN THE RELIGIOUS WAR?

Timothy could have typed all day in response, but Aurelius always implored him to keep his written answers succinct and his language simple, at least until he got older. ‘Short and sweet,’ Mama had said, echoing that advice. He began typing his short and sweet summary below the questions.

Just as Timothy was putting the final touches on his responses, Aurelius’ familiar voice echoed through the house, down the hallway. Timothy smiled and spun in his seat towards the closed door of the study.

The door opened. ‘Good morning, Timothy.’

Aurelius seemed to string together every sentence harmoniously; a perpetual air of encouragement and patience to his voice. Whenever Timothy heard it, he knew another captivating session awaited him, and the blood pumped a little quicker around his body, even if his heart struggled at the effort. ‘Good morning, Aurelius.’

Aurelius lowered his pack as he took his place at the desk next to Timothy. His silvery hair matched his grey uniform, as though he was camouflaging himself against … well, himself. ‘How are you today? Ready to talk about war?’ he said.

‘Better to talk about war than be at war.’

‘That’s true.’ Aurelius pulled his laptop out of his pack and opened it up on the desk next to Timothy’s monitor. ‘The Republic has its challenges now, we all know that, but we must remind ourselves of how fortunate we are. Thanks to the Father and the Law, we are free of many of the historical burdens that plagued the old world. This doesn’t mean we don’t have our struggle. We do. That struggle is real and undeniable. But no matter how many rebels from the Grey Zone attempt to invade, or how much trouble they cause, we must always remember that we are much better off now compared to the people of the old world.’

Timothy glanced at the logo on the front of Aurelius’ uniform. The logo seemed to both shield and be Aurelius’ heart. It struck Timothy that perhaps his heart was the one that needed shielding, not his Tutor’s.

‘If we think about it deeply, though,’ Aurelius said, ‘war in itself is never good, but it’s good to have learnt from it, correct?’

Timothy nodded. ‘If it wasn’t for war in the old world, the Republic wouldn’t exist.’

‘Exactly. The wars of the old world were the ultimate instigators of change here. Despite the dreadful costs, if it wasn’t for war, we would not have progressed the way we have.’

Aurelius was kind enough to Timothy. He was strict though — no doubt about it — and a serious guy. Timothy had known from a very young age that Aurelius did more than believe in what he taught. He lived in what he taught — in history and the other subjects, in the lessons of the past and the challenges of the present, in rationality and reason, and in the existence of the Republic and of civilisation living on into the future.

‘Tell me, what have you learnt about the origins of the Religious War?’ Aurelius said. He logged onto the Republicanet. ‘If you had to name one factor alone that was responsible for the War, what would you choose?’

‘The Religious War is not meant to be a puzzling title,’ Timothy said sarcastically. ‘But I’ll answer your question. According to the chapter: religion.’

‘What about according to you?

Timothy scratched his nose. He brushed the strands of his fringe from his forehead. ‘Well … I haven’t made my mind up yet.’

‘And why is that?’

‘There were a number of different reasons the Religious War broke out. It wasn’t just down to religion, although that was a factor.’ Timothy skimmed through the chapter on his monitor once again.

‘Multiple reasons. Well done, Timothy. But let’s think about this. In choosing one issue that we could call the decisive factor … let’s go back to the beginning. In the early twenty-first century, how was the world divided?’

‘Three distinct groups,’ Timothy said.

‘And what were they?’

‘The Western democracies, the religious East, and rising powers,’ Timothy said, reciting the syllabus.

‘Rising authoritarian powers, mainly,’ Aurelius clarified. ‘When it comes to the Religious War, which two groups are we primarily concerned with?’

‘The Western democracies and the religious East,’ Timothy answered.

‘And what defined these two groups?’

‘Two different cultures.’

‘What’s a better way to describe it?’

‘Mm,’ Timothy said, scrunching his eyes.

‘Two ideologies,’ Aurelius said.

‘That’s right,’ Timothy said, a little frustrated with himself. ‘I knew that word.’

‘Can you tell me what an ideology is?’

‘Yes,’ Timothy answered confidently, ‘it’s a belief system.’

‘A set of beliefs that form the bedrock of a society and the way its political systems operate to govern its people,’ Aurelius added. ‘So, Timothy, you were saying?’

‘Two different i-de-ol-o-gies,’ Timothy said. Sometimes, his mouth couldn’t keep up with his vocabulary. It frustrated him, a bit like the other students at the Campus sometimes frustrated him. ‘Western sec-u-lar-is-m, which was based on equality, democracy and the rights of the individual,’ he started.

‘And what was the other?’

‘An i-de-ol-o-gy based on religion.’

‘The extremes of religion,’ Aurelius said.

‘Sorry, I meant the extremes of religion,’ Timothy said.

‘And why would we use that term: “the extremes of religion”?’

‘I think I saw it in the chapter,’ Timothy replied. ‘Is it because any form of religion is stupid?’

‘It’s because we know now that any form of religion is extremism, in one way or another. It can only lead to regression. By the way, regression means to go backwards.’

‘I know,’ Timothy said. He noticed a bit of smugness in his tone and wondered whether Aurelius would pick up on it.

Aurelius seemed to let the pause linger a while, but he didn’t reprimand Timothy for his attitude. ‘And what about the rising authoritarian powers? Did they play any role in the Religious War?’

‘A little bit, but they were mostly involved in the Last War. It’s confusing for some kids,’ Timothy said with a chuckle, ‘but I get it.’ He winked at his Tutor.

‘Very good,’ Aurelius said. ‘So, to understand the Religious War, we need to understand the Western democracies and the religious East. Let’s start with the democracies. What was the West based upon?’

‘Well, obviously democracy,’ Timothy answered, ‘but also freedom. Freedom of the individual as opposed to the group.’

Freedom,’ Aurelius said. ‘An interesting word.’ The Tutor shifted his attention from the monitor to Timothy. Their eyes locked.

Timothy noticed his palms were clammy. He blotted his hands on his shirt and realised he could hear his heart beating.

‘Freedom, as they called it, was their most boasted strength,’ Aurelius continued. He lifted his eyebrows. His compellingly dark eyes seemed to suggest depths of ominous knowledge, burdens hidden in layers beneath the surface. ‘Yet it was freedom, as the West defined it, that brought the world down.’

When Timothy had his breath back, he said, ‘So it was freedom that was the main factor responsible?’

‘Timothy,’ Aurelius said, ‘you’re a clever boy, but you missed my point. Freedom still exists today. We have it right here in the Republic. You enjoy it. I enjoy it. The difference between our freedom and the freedom that the West of the old world claimed to live by, is that ours is not irresponsible, nor does it revolve entirely around the individual. Let me give you an example. What do you know about order and control?

‘One sounds good and one sounds bad.’

‘But in reality, is one good and one bad?’

‘No. They are the same thing,’ Timothy said, smiling.

‘Think about laws,’ Aurelius said. ‘What do they do?’

‘They control behaviour.’

‘Excellent. What we need to understand here is that one of the key issues for any kind of collective society has always been the challenge of balancing freedom against control. Do you think the West got this right in the long run?’

No,’ Timothy said.

‘The West of the old world was preoccupied with the freedom of the individual, obsessed with it. The truth they couldn’t see at the time is that when the individual is put above the group, the group is in jeopardy.’

‘Hmm,’ Timothy said. He mulled over that idea and decided that it made sense.

‘The West ignored two crucial facts from history. One: the individual without the group is worth nothing. Humans are social people; they flourish in groups. And they do their best work when they are part of a united group that shares the same values.’

Timothy nodded. Again it made perfect sense to him. ‘What’s the second fact?’

‘Two: every great civilisation of the past has collapsed. This is a hard fact, but it’s one that must be acknowledged at any and every point in time. If you don’t acknowledge it, you will think you have become supremely enlightened, and you arrogantly start to think that your form of civilisation will be the last the world will see. As a result, you become fatally hostile to adaptation. At the start of the twenty-first century, the West’s glory had lasted for a mere glimmer of time compared to previous civilisations; why did they think they’d found the system that would last forever?’

Timothy placed his finger over his mouth, contemplating what he had learnt. ‘If freedom is based entirely on the individual,’ he said, ‘the individual will eventually think they are above the rules that keep the social orders functioning. They’ll think they are above control, above the laws.’

‘Good work, Timothy,’ Aurelius said. The Tutor’s smile seemed to go sideways rather than up, but Timothy could always tell when it was there. ‘Let’s look at the second question I set for you.’

Timothy glanced at the answers he’d typed.

‘When we look at religion, the first thing we should identify is that it is incompatible with secular law,’ Aurelius said. ‘Any set of rules or ideas that could be held in higher regard than a state’s laws are rules or ideas that breed disloyalty and disunity. For a group to flourish — and let’s remember that history tells us progress is achieved most significantly when groups are united — the people of that group must be bound by the same set of rules, the same set of values.’

Timothy read from his answer, saying, ‘Religious ideas are a direct threat to any civilisation that wants its people to be bound by its own set of rules.’

Aurelius nodded. ‘Separation of religion and state is simply not enough. In the Republic, any form of religion — no matter how harmless or insignificant it might seem — is a direct threat to the sanctity of the Law, the sovereignty of the General Assembly, the authority of the Father, and the security of our citizens.’

‘It doesn’t seem harmless to me,’ Timothy said. If he was honest with himself, just thinking about religion and all the crazy things that went with it made him gulp.

‘Religion breeds irrationality. When you look at history, that fact becomes crystal clear. The idea of a higher power, an invisible and completely undetectable thing to which someone could hold allegiance, is just so irrational it beggars belief. One of the West’s greatest failures was assuming that economic progress and science would suppress the threat religion had traditionally posed to various groups throughout history, because the uncomfortable truth was that the permanence of religious conflicts in the world had never been broken.’ Aurelius paused. He lifted a finger. ‘Unfortunately, the West’s own perspective blinded it, because while religion may have been fading in Western societies at the time, religion certainly hadn’t been fading in the East. In that part of the world, it was actually as significant as ever.’

‘But it wasn’t just the East that had religion,’ Timothy said, picking up on what Aurelius had alluded to.

‘No, religion was a universal concept. It had played an enormous role in the history of the West, too. Ironic, isn’t it? The people of the old world strove to understand and explain their existence on Earth.’

‘They weren’t happy?’ Timothy asked. He struggled to comprehend a civilisation like the West of the old world, with all of its achievements, where the people needed some other reason to live.

‘Evolution is as confronting as it is undeniable,’ Aurelius replied. ‘People found some meaning back then through religion. Besides, they were a product of their ancestors. They were usually born into religion.’

‘But even if they were born into it, they still found meaning?’ Timothy checked, frowning.

‘It usually gave them a set of guidelines to live by,’ Aurelius explained. ‘The problem with these religious guidelines was that they could be bent. There are countless examples throughout history where religion was used as a weapon.’

‘It was the most damaging weapon of all,’ Timothy said, recalling what the chapter had outlined.

Aurelius nodded. ‘You see, Timothy, the secular societies of the West had essentially moved on from religious zeal, and they couldn’t quite believe that it was still powerful enough to reshape the world. The truth was that its power had been so extraordinary that it had been shaping and reshaping the world for thousands of years; how could they have ever possibly thought their one hundred years or so of democratic prosperity would suppress this power?’

‘That’s the thing,’ Timothy said excitedly, ‘it was never going to happen while they still allowed religion to be practised.’

‘In the West, religion eventually became just one aspect of life, if at all. In the East, religion wasn’t just one aspect of life, it was life.’

‘I believe the word is “contrast”?’ Timothy said, grinning.

‘Do you remember your first lesson at the Campus in your very first year? The topic you first studied?’

‘Of course,’ Timothy answered.

‘What was it?’

‘The first topic: good and evil.’

‘So tell me, Timothy, what do you know about good and evil? What do you remember from your first days at the Campus?’

Good and evil are just words. They’re defined by other words. You can only judge what fits into one definition and what fits into the other by referring to some other source, like a set of rules, or a set of laws.’

‘So what about when you have two sets of laws — one from the state, and one from a religion?’

‘What’s good and evil depends on which set of laws you’re referring to,’ Timothy said.

‘Exactly. And what do we learn from this realisation?’

‘That neither good nor evil exists.’

‘Perfect. In the Republic, there is only what is allowed, and what is not. The Law governs us to protect us from the mistakes of the old world, to keep us united, and to ensure our civilisation continues to exist into the future.’

Timothy gazed up at Aurelius’ pale lips, and it occurred to him that they too matched the colour of the uniform and the wiry strands of his hair. ‘So,’ Timothy said, squinting at his Tutor, ‘what did democracy have to do with it then? What part of democracy was wrong?’

‘Ultimately,’ Aurelius said, his tone lifting, ‘democracy was weak. The Religious War revealed the vulnerabilities of democracy as a system.’

Timothy nodded. He had read in the chapter that most of the democracies in the old world had granted people the freedom to practise religion, even when it was clear from the history books that wherever religion had gone, violence had gone with it. He wondered if that too had been a symptom of democracy’s weaknesses.

‘The Religious War revealed a startling truth that until that time had gone largely unacknowledged by the West,’ Aurelius said, lifting another finger.

Timothy leaned forward. ‘Which truth?’

‘Democratic processes open a society up to attack by its enemies.’ Aurelius paused, which gave Timothy time to think on the point. ‘You can’t defend a democracy from catastrophic threats and at the same time stay true to all of the principles that define it. How would it ever be possible to force your values on others when such enforcement is contrary to the democratic values of independence and autonomy?’

‘It contradicts itself,’ Timothy said, delighted with his contribution.

‘Very good. The fundamental flaw of a democratic society is that it can be infiltrated from within; the values that underpin it end up being exploited and used against it. Its very approach, in the way it champions the individual, in the way it empowers the individual — no, encourages the individual — to challenge it, leads inevitably to division within the group. Instead of having a team, a unified group, you have a group of individuals, always looking out for themselves first.’

Aurelius became silent while Timothy was thinking about the implications. One of the first principles Timothy had been taught at the Campus was that all of the students were on a learning and development journey together. Fitting into the group was just as important as your own performance. One couldn’t happen without the other.

‘There’s a lot of irony in this,’ Aurelius continued, ‘because while individualism was a trait the proponents of democracy in the old world were very proud of, they didn’t realise that humans largely cannot find purpose just in themselves as individuals. The desire for unity and to be a member of a group is a desire that is no less vital than anything else necessary for survival.’

‘It’s a basic need,’ Timothy added. ‘Like food, water, sleeping.’

‘Humans need a purpose that ties in with a group,’ Aurelius said. ‘Without one, they just get lost. The evidence in the West was plain to see in the twenty-first century; the younger generations were swept by waves of personal depression like no others that had come before. Humans without a purpose, without a tribe, are humans who are dying.’

‘They didn’t realise it, but their natural longing for unity, their wish to belong, was going completely unfulfilled,’ Timothy said, again remembering what was in the chapter.

‘I mentioned how religion had played an important role in the development of the West in the old world …’

Timothy recalled how they’d touched on it. ‘Yes,’ he said.

‘Well, the younger generations turned away from the religion that had largely defined their tribe and given them purpose for two thousand years. In the end, as just individuals, what did they believe in?’

‘Hmm,’ Timothy said.

‘Individual freedom alone?’ Aurelius said with the familiar lift to his tone. ‘When it’s not linked strongly to a group, a community, a tribe — and let’s remember that humans by nature long to be part of some kind of tribe — or a grander purpose, individual freedom ends up feeling pretty meaningless.’

‘But in the Republic we have a purpose,’ Timothy said.

‘Indeed, we do. Here, everyone has a purpose and believes in it. We all live and work under the Law, for the Father, under the guidance of the General Assembly, for the continuity of our civilisation. The Founding Ministers and the First Father knew how badly religion had held back science and rationality across the course of history, how it had encouraged delusions and division, but they also realised that if they were going to finally purge it from the world they needed to replace it with a belief system that overrides individual interests, to ensure everyone remains part of the same tribe.’

Timothy nodded.

‘We are all united under our flag — no division, no fracture, no conflicting values; unlike the West of the old world,’ Aurelius said.

Timothy looked back at his written answers. His final sentence linked in well with what Aurelius had just talked about. As he read from the screen, he caught another glimpse of the Republican logo affixed across his Tutor’s heart, and a great tide of comfort rushed through him. ‘In the Republic, we are all in this together.’

BACK TO THE CHARACTERS

Slinky

Slinky is a Republican Agent and the leader of a unit of Freedom Fighters.

Slinky doesn’t remember much about her childhood, but she knows she had a happy one learning at the Father’s Campus. Early on in her life she learnt that the world had once been a ticking time bomb. When that bomb had gone off, the explosion had brought society’s costume of harmony down. It was at that moment Slinky realised that if the old world had been a garden, it had been one with bad soil. To cleanse the world, you had to start with a brand new bed of soil. To keep it healthy, you had to weed every single abnormal growth.

Since then Slinky has always wanted to hunt the insane and do the weeding. Having moved on from her days scouring the border of rebels, she now has responsibility for hunting the traitors. Her purpose is to find them, weed them out, and ultimately rid the world of them. Exceptionally beautiful and effective as a leader, yet ruthless in the way she carries out her purpose, she presents management challenges to her superiors.

In 2196 Slinky leads Agent Jacob Kellyway, Agent Abraham Jones and her four Republican Guards with the intention of making her Freedom Fighter unit the most efficient in the land. She does this by using a unique strategy she has come to trust: incentivise, motivate, reward, and control.

The only thing is: sometimes incentivisation comes at a cost that sees others pay the price …

READ ON FOR ONE OF SLINKY'S EXCERPTS FROM THE BOOK …

10.00pm

Slinky rode in the SUV as it weaved along the avenue. Adjusting in her seat, she glanced at the residences immersed in the streetlights. The houses in this part of the Territory were architectural masterpieces of multiple storeys. Many of them boasted views of the water.

It never failed to amaze Slinky how sometimes the wealthiest citizens — and usually the most educated — were the ones who made the leap into the sea of madness. Growing up, she had always thought about things in a rational way. Rationally speaking, it would have made more sense to her if there was some kind of predictable correlation between wealth, education, and madness. But when she’d risen in the ranks and been appointed to her current role, she’d learnt more about madness.

Madness didn’t discriminate. The wealthy and the educated were just as susceptible to it as anyone else. That fact both disturbed and angered her.

The SUV surged. Despite the sharp acceleration, the whir of the electric engine barely breached the windows. The wheels gripped the tarmac at another turn in response to the instructions of the driverless system, and Slinky found herself a little loose in her seat, but she steadied herself easily. She was aware of their route.

Facing her in the seats opposite, Agents Abraham Jones and Jacob Kellyway were also sitting without their seatbelts fastened. They were both strong men, large and bound by muscle. Their bulletproof vests bulged under their grey uniforms, adding extra bulk. It didn’t seem to ever slow them down.

Slinky’s vest was likewise wrapped around her body, pressing her breasts flat. She lifted her hand and traced the outline of it under her uniform. Though the vest was almost always unnecessary during these raids, it was protocol for all Agents to wear one in the field.

She looked up again at Jones and Kellyway. Their eyes seemed fixed on the floating air before them that filled the cabin of the SUV. There was no need to talk, no need to look. The Freedom Fighters were accustomed to their role. They’d conducted these raids and done what was necessary, countless times before.

When the SUV reached the bottom of the hill and tracked around the corner, Slinky glanced back and saw the patrol vehicle shadowing them, not far behind. She located the dark shapes of her Republican Guards sitting on the bed of the truck and caught a glimpse of the Republican logo emblazoned on the side in the glint of the streetlights before the vehicle’s arc put it out of sight. The emblem could draw various feelings from her, depending on the context. She couldn’t put her finger on which one swelled in her this time, but she didn’t have time to muse on it. Her pack was too close to her targets.

Together, Slinky and the members of her FF unit were a pack. Together, they were hunting.

Hunting.

Slinky was a hunter. For a long while now, she had been responsible for hunting the traitors. Her purpose was to find them, weed them out, and ultimately rid the world of them.

She had learnt throughout her days that, of all things, rationality and reason had to rule. To abandon rationality and to ignore reason, to disregard evidence, was to take the first step towards insanity. If you believed in something you couldn’t explain or prove, you had jumped off the boat of sanity, you were threatening to take everyone overboard with you, and you could not be trusted.

Degrees of insanity did not exist. One was either insane or one was not. It was as simple as that.

Of all the people in the world, the insane were the most dangerous. People who didn’t think rationally or listen to logic were people you couldn’t negotiate or reason with. Above all, you certainly couldn’t control them or the threat they posed.

Insanity had to be extinguished, utterly obliterated. Every threat had to be quashed.

Even though Slinky couldn’t pinpoint why, whenever she conducted a raid, she thought of her childhood. She was sure she’d had a happy childhood, but she didn’t remember much about it apart from the time she spent at the Father’s Campus. There, she had learnt how the world worked and how the Republic worked.

There was a big difference between the two.

Early on, when she’d been a very young girl, she’d learnt that the world had once been a ticking time bomb. When that bomb had gone off, the explosion had brought society’s costume of harmony down. Without the costume, society’s flawed foundations had been shockingly exposed.

If the old world had been a garden, it had been one with bad soil. To cleanse the world, you had to start with a brand-new bed of soil. To keep it healthy, you had to weed every single abnormal growth.

Slinky wanted to hunt the insane. She wanted to do the weeding. It had been her vision, ever since she’d been a young girl learning these things about the world. Now it was her reality.

The truth was: the people of the old world had been insane. Ancient concepts that had no grounding in reality had wreaked destruction. Even as science had taken off, people had dismissed evidence that clearly rendered those concepts redundant.

One of the earliest lessons Slinky could remember from her days at the Campus was that insane people were the kind who refused to give up old beliefs in the face of evidence that overwhelmingly proved those beliefs impossible. She knew that lesson was still as true as it had been back then.

In the old world, the Religious War had pulled apart the fragile jigsaw puzzle of civilisation until it had become unrecognisable. When the worst weapons had eventually been used, one piece of the world after another had come crashing down. The Last War had then destroyed nearly everything that was left.

Slinky was glad a lot of those people died. She would never have wanted to live in a world infested with insanity. The contemplation made her stomach bend.

And that was why her work was so important. If just one person was allowed to indulge in an idea unsupported by reason, unproven by evidence, however large or small that indulgence might be, the door to insanity was opening. To open the door to insanity was to open the door to a world filled with fools, with idiots.

The Republic would never allow its citizens to repeat the mistakes of the old world. Insanity had flourished back then, but it would never flourish again.

That was what drove the Freedom Fighters. That was why Slinky was a hunter.

When the SUV straightened into the road that harboured the targets, the driverless software revved the engine and the vehicle heaved forward. Agents Jones and Kellyway drew their pistols. From the pouches of their pants they fished their silencers. They clacked the silencers into place and twisted them onto the barrels.

Slinky’s pistol was holstered to her hip, but she left it where it was. She was the leader of her FF unit. She would stay back and survey the scene as her men did what they did best.

Suddenly, their destination loomed beside them. The SUV veered sharply into the driveway and braked; the patrol truck pulling in beside it. Jones and Kellyway opened the doors on either side and catapulted themselves out.

Two of the Republican Guards followed Jones to the front door with their AK-47s raised out in front of them. The other two Guards moved urgently with Kellyway around the side of the house. Slinky watched as they came to a gate in the gloom and snipped the lock before passing through. She alighted from the SUV and walked in the wake of Jones’ men, towards the front door.

Jones raised his hand and his Guards nodded. He pointed at the door. One of the RGs dropped the pack he was carrying. He took the small explosive charge and rushed forward. He stuck the charge to the door, near the lock, before retreating a few paces to where Jones and the other Guard were hunched with their shoulders against the wall.

Jones pressed the button on the remote. The device applied to the door exploded with the dullest of pops. A brief flash preceded a smoke cloud, and a small chunk of the door fell into the house. The remainder of the door swung inward from the force.

The RGs swooped in through the cloud with their weapons raised. Jones followed.

Slinky held back for a moment, pricking her ears. The house remained quiet, so a few seconds later she trailed Jones and broke through the smoke at the threshold into the brightly illuminated hallway. When one of the RGs moved through a doorway ahead, Slinky heard a woman’s scream from a distant room. It was quickly followed by a man’s voice — raised and panicked — coming from upstairs. She heard fast footfalls at the staircase. The RGs suddenly yelled at the back of the house, ‘Don’t move! Do NOT move!’

Instead of following Jones, Slinky headed towards the trampling at the stairs and intercepted the man as he reached the ground floor. ‘Stop there,’ she said. She raised her hand. She knew who this man was. His name was Stanley Roberts. He was an official from the science and technology department of the Republican Ministry — forty-five years old, married to Cecilia Roberts. They had one child. Stanley was shorter than he appeared in the photos on file and in the surveillance footage, but it was definitely him.

Roberts halted. Fear simmered in his eyes as he looked in the direction of the back of the house, where Cecilia’s frantic cries were bouncing off the walls. It was possible that he knew what was happening — at the very least he’d have his suspicions about who Slinky and her men were — and the crinkles of dread on his face gave away his terror. But he wouldn’t know for sure what would happen to him and his family next.

Slinky called out to Jones, her voice only slightly raised, ‘Here, near the stairs.’

Jones immediately appeared from the doorway behind her, trailed by two of the Guards. ‘Stay there,’ Jones said to Roberts, ‘hands up.’

Roberts’ eyes flitted to Jones and then snapped back to Slinky. His rapid breaths were shallow.

Slinky thought it was laughable how they all acted so innocent. FF raids were always conducted after surveillance operations. The common façade never failed to humour and disgust her.

Roberts eventually raised his trembling hands. Agent Jones approached the little runt, turned him around, and handcuffed him.

The commotion had quietened at the back of the house. Clearly, Cecilia Roberts had been subdued too.

Jones shoved Stanley Roberts through the hallway, flanked by the two Guards. Slinky followed. When she got to the living room out the back, she found Cecilia Roberts handcuffed like her husband.

‘Stan!’ Cecilia said.

Slinky wished she could authorise one of the Guards to strike the bitch, but protocol forbade her from doing so in front of the minor.

Kurt Roberts was thirteen years old. In this critical moment, the boy was a lot quieter than other children Slinky had seen go through this ordeal.

As Slinky approached, Kurt put his arm around his mother’s shoulders and gave her what seemed to be a reassuring squeeze. Immediately finding the behaviour peculiar, Slinky studied the expression on his face. In almost every case she’d seen, it was the parents who consoled and reassured the minor, not the other way around.

All of a sudden the boy’s eyes drew her gaze. They were extraordinarily green, large. She expected the eyes to roll around and look at her, but they remained locked in their sockets, planted on Cecilia, as if offering wordless reassurance.

Peculiar, indeed.

Agent Jones pushed Stanley towards his wife and son until the three of them were side by side. Stanley kissed Cecilia on the forehead, as though everything would be okay as long as they were together.

Slinky shook her head and scoffed.

Process dictated that they couldn’t handcuff the minor unless he showed resistance, so when Kurt embraced his parents, there was nothing Slinky could do to stop it.

‘Don’t worry, I’m going to be all right,’ the boy uttered to them quietly.

His voice was gentle, with a soft tone. Slinky could tell that he was not far into puberty, but he was tall for his age and his face bore bold features better suited to a young man.

Less interested in the parents, now, Slinky looked the boy up and down. He finally met her gaze but didn’t seem to flinch or shy away. The green of his eyes drew her in again. ‘Get to it,’ she eventually said to the others.

Two of the RGs guarded the family, while the other two and the Agents began tearing the place apart. They started in the kitchen, ripping out the drawers, throwing the utensils around the room. They smashed glass and cracked porcelain. They pulled the microwave out of its socket and launched it. Once finished there, they moved on to the next room.

Slinky settled into the couch and allowed her eyes to wander.

It was rare for people to keep bookshelves. Most content was kept on cell phones, electronic tablets or computers, or on the Republicanet. Even more unusual in this case was that the bookshelf was mostly filled with volumes related to Stanley’s field of work: science. Books on classical physics, chemistry, quantum mechanics and mathematics dominated the columns.

Slinky couldn’t help but chuckle. The irony.

Eventually her attention shifted again to the boy, Kurt. He had moved behind Stanley and Cecilia and was now embracing both of them. Slinky anchored her gaze to him as the RGs turned the bookshelf inside out. When they headed towards the stairs to continue the search on the upper level, the boy fixed her with a sharp stare once more.

Slinky leaned forward and said, ‘Your parents have done very bad things, Kurt. They have put you in a very bad place.’

He turned his head towards his mother, who held onto him even harder than before. It was a common reaction for detainees to stick together in these moments, but some minors came around eventually. They were sometimes young enough to be brought back to sanity.

‘We’ll look after you,’ Slinky said, searching the boy’s striking eyes. ‘Don’t fret.’

Cecilia whimpered. Her jet-black hair was streaked across her face and wet from the tears, her eyes swollen and bloodshot. Her lip was trembling.

Bang. Bang. Bang! BANG!

It was coming from the second floor. Louder, faster. As the vibrations travelled down the stairwell, Cecilia’s whimpers morphed into frantic wails. Stanley tried to hush his wife. Kurt pulled them closer.

Jones returned from the second floor. ‘Ma’am,’ he said. ‘Upstairs.’

Slinky rose from the couch and followed Jones up. They headed to the master bedroom, where the Guards were standing with Kellyway. They had moved the bed away to the side of the room and stood over a crater in the floorboards. Evidently, one of them had butted away a weak part of the timber to reveal a hidden compartment.

Slinky crossed under the chandelier, which silvered the room, and crouched down to peer into the hole.

There was a book, but not just any book.

She smiled, reached down and picked the book up. She opened it to find handwritten notes on the pages, underlines and commentary among the printed text that had survived the years and still appeared faintly on the fragile paper. She closed the book. ‘The Holy Bible,’ she said. She looked at Kellyway and Jones. ‘It seems we’ve found what we were looking for, boys.’

BACK TO THE CHARACTERS

The woman and the two boys

The woman had been raising her two boys with her man in the Homeland. They had lived peacefully there, their tribe living mostly off fish cooked on the fire. Yet the other tribes had not been like theirs. The red of death was always lingering just around the corner.

The woman had known that one day the other tribes would come for them. And then … they had.

So the woman has run away with her two boys, coming over the sea on a beast that rolls on water, to the land of all lands, to the land where people go and live among the magic. She hopes only for safety and security. She hopes only for her boys.

In 2196, the woman arrives in the ancient place that lives on with her two boys. Her eldest boy is wise beyond his years and wants to protect her and his brother now that her man is no longer with them. Her eldest bears the birthmark of their ancestors on his forehead. The woman knows he has the strength of the ancestors in him. Her youngest boy, on the other hand, is still too young to fully understand why they have come to this new place. No matter how frightened he is, he still wants to look at the world with the wonder any child should have for it.

Yet in this new place across the ocean, the woman realises that while there are no other violent tribes who pose a threat to her boys, there is a new danger, a new threat; it is one that is all the more terrifying because it works in terrible and impossible ways she doesn’t understand …

READ ON FOR ONE OF THEIR EXCERPTS FROM THE BOOK …

10.20am

The woman and her boys have been ushered into a large cave, though it isn’t like the caves they knew in the Homeland. It is made of something similar to rock, yet it clearly isn’t rock. It is like nothing else the woman has seen, but it has to be a cave, because it is capable of providing shelter like any other cave.

She looks around again. The cave is crowded with people from all sorts of tribes. She searches the faces and recognises a couple of people from her own tribe, but she stops herself from calling out to them, because she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself or her boys.

She quickly glances at the big men and women, who seem to watch their every move. They are still carrying the things that may be weapons. She thinks they might be clubs. The thought makes her mouth dry and sets the red of death pumping quickly through her body. She is scared for her boys, so she decides that no matter what she will stay well away from the big furred people carrying the clubs. She pulls her boys close and keeps her head down.

This is meant to be the place of magic, where the ancient place lives on. Safety and opportunity are meant to reign here.

For this, she has taken a monumental risk for her boys, but she has already started to worry about whether they have a future here at all. In this crowded place there is not much room, and they have been forced to stay here, in this exact spot, for a very long time. The big people with the clubs have stopped them from going anywhere else.

She doesn’t know why.

She is thirsty, hungry. Her legs and muscles hurt. She knows her boys must feel this way too. Whatever her discomfort, it’s nothing compared to the shame that swallows her whenever she acknowledges this painful reality.

Her eyes suddenly land on a couple of the men from the tribes as they try to speak to the big furred people who are watching them. A moment later, a furred man shouts at them in a language the woman doesn’t understand, before other furred people push the men who are trying to speak back into the crowded group.

Trembling, the woman hugs her boys. They shiver the way she does and they bury their heads in her embrace. She knows that they are very frightened. But they don’t say anything. They stay quiet, like she told them to. Her heart swells with pride that they are being so brave.

She looks over her shoulder. Now that the real sun blazes outside, dim threads of light breach the cave; however, she can’t see more of what’s back there, because it’s too gloomy. The only opening to the outside world is at the front of the cave. The old air she and her boys are breathing is warm and stale.

She desperately wants her boys to go outside, the way they would back in the Homeland, to feel the sun on their skin and breathe in the pure air, but she thinks that maybe they won’t be allowed to do that for some time.

All of a sudden, one of the men from the tribes breaks free of the group and tries to run to the front opening of the cave. A startled murmur builds among the crowd as everyone watches the man scamper desperately towards the light.

A furred man with a club shouts at him. His voice is loud, hostile.

The woman’s boys look up at her, their eyes wide with fear. A crawling chill travels her back. ‘Don’t worry,’ she tells them in her native tongue, ‘I’m here. We are all together.’

The furred man steps towards the running man and lifts the thing that may be a club.

The woman’s breath catches in her throat. She’s hardly able to watch what she thinks she’s already figured out.

The thing comes down.

The crowd gasps.

The man falls to the ground.

Even though the din of voices in the cave morphs into fearful mutterings and then cries, the woman doesn’t gasp, doesn’t make any noise — she just closes her eyes and wishes it isn’t true.

But it is. The things she initially thought were arms are weapons. More than ever now, she hopes her boys will stay silent. She starts whispering to them as quietly as she can, repeating her words. ‘I’m here. We are all together.’

The big furred man with the club — the one who struck down the tribesman — crosses the cave and stands closer to the crowd. He shouts at everyone again. He points at the man on the ground and yells incoherent noises, or words, that the woman can’t comprehend. An eerie hush falls over the group of tribespeople, the silence echoing strangely in the cave, and suddenly she realises it is too quiet for her to whisper to her boys without being heard.

More men with clubs come closer. They stand around the crowd, at the walls of the cave and at the opening, watching everyone. When the woman looks at one of them, he meets her eyes with his, and she is struck by a desperate sense of danger.

She quickly looks away.

Unexpectedly, the tribesman who was struck to the ground stumbles to his feet. He is hurt, wailing, and holds his head where the red of death has appeared. He appears distressed, confused. The waters of grief mix with the red of death on his face.

The woman is aware that in many of the tribes from the Homeland, if ever a man is struck by another, he can’t ignore it. He must fight back to defend his honour.

Stumbling, off balance, the tribesman falls towards the big man with the club and lashes out at him with his fist, trying to strike him. He lands only a glancing blow.

Even before anything happens, the woman knows the contact is enough. It’s enough.

A chorus of gasps from the crowd ring out as the tribesman loses his balance completely and falls to the ground a second time.

The big man’s face reddens, bright, like a reddened dawn — like the sky the woman often woke to with her man and her boys in the Homeland — but this time the colour isn’t beautiful. The big man with the club wipes his hand on his fur, where the red of death has marked him, and then inspects the red on his hand. She can tell that he is disgusted, perhaps even insulted, by the sight.

Silence echoes once more in the cave as the big man turns towards the tribesman on the ground. In an instant, he holds his club towards him, as though he is thinking about whether or not to strike him again.

POP!

The woman sees the fire and instinctively ducks as a noise like no other she has heard before splits through the cave, from the club. It is so loud, so unexpected, that fleeting screams pass through the tribespeople around her. With her boys gripping her tightly, quiet, still quiet, she pulls them in to shelter them from the fire, from whatever has happened, from the terrible noise. She looks down at them and sees that their eyes are closed.

When she finally feels others around her lifting themselves up again, she summons the courage to raise her head. She looks back at the tribesman on the ground.

Somehow, there is now much more of the red of death. It is pooling around the man; the puddle is growing around his head.

The woman’s heart sinks and her insides churn. Somehow, even though the club never struck the tribesman, she knows that he is dead, that he has been killed.

The sound of death has killed him.

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