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.
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.
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.’
'Debut author McDermott offers a sweeping dystopian novel about a repressive regime and those who rebel against it ... Readers will find themselves invested in what happens when the lives of the characters collide. A futuristic tale that’s heavy on worldbuilding but still races to its inevitably violent conclusion.'
'McDermott’s ambitious, sprawling epic debut novel … begins by tearing into a dystopian world like a bat out of hell. Your only option is to grab a hold of something and come along for the ride.'
'Be aware: this book could easily be a prediction of future societal direction … The author gives us a dramatic view of how easily we could be led into following and voting in new ideas and fads that can lock us into a lifestyle of divisiveness and also fearful for our families and the future. This book is a must-read exciting thriller to the end.'
'This is a huge book! If you happen to be in quarantine, this is the book that will see you through ... A very well-written book that makes you think and question. One that will leave you suspended in this world, never knowing if what you believe is real or propaganda.'
'To me, this book is ultimately about the human experience … this is a dark world, a dangerous place. What happens when a people in and around a place like this are told they aren’t allowed to believe in anything? The result is inspiring … A beautiful story with a big heart.'
'I just wish it was less believable.'
'Set in a dystopian future, the novel raises interesting questions surrounding the pitfalls of democracy and the place of religion in society — without taking a distinct stance on either side of the equation.'
'A masterful plot … For much of the book I felt that the author was deliberately leaving the reader to ponder on the big questions. What place does faith and spirituality have in a modern society? What forms of government work best? What does it really mean to be free? What are the virtues and follies of our own modern society? I heard recently that great art doesn’t answer questions, it asks them.'
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