Authors: Chris Ord
For Brian Hannaford
Copyright © 2016 Chris Ord
All rights reserved.
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All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
‘The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth. Now is the time of monsters.’
Gaia was desperate to escape, but there were the creatures. At night there were often noises, chilling, high-pitched shrieks that curdled the blood. Shadows moved, the glimmer of a tail, or the arch of a back as something swept through the waves. They were black, the merest hint, a flicker, never more. There was something in the water. She looked out over the sea, and across to the mainland. It was inviting her. The journey was not far, the stretch of water was narrow, maybe a mile. The waters were not deep, but the currents were treacherous, and the dark shadows were waiting. The creatures and the narrow stretch of water were all that lay between her and a new future, of answers and truth, her answers and truth, not the community’s.
Gaia crouched on the beach, combing the grey sand with her blue marble eyes and soft fingertips. Caressing the sand, her long, red plaited hair swept over her shoulder, piercing eyes looking for the beads. The small, fossilised shells, that had washed up on this beach on the island for centuries. This beach alone. Each had a distinct conical shape, flat not pointed, a small hole ran through the centre. She collected them, and had throughout her time on the island, threading them with fishing line, making necklaces and bracelets. This was strictly forbidden. It was wasteful, only constructive tasks allowed. She would be punished if caught, and that meant isolation at the far end of the island. Locked in the space beyond the walls where few went, and even fewer returned. Those that did never spoke of what they saw, or what they endured. No-one spoke of what they had experienced. The past meant nothing to the community. There was only their present and their future, designed by them, determined by them, for the greater good. The individual was nothing, the community was everything.
She had heard whispers of the fossils, once called ‘St Cuthbert’s beads’. A name from the old religion, the old ways, those none spoke of anymore. Only the whispers remained. The ruins of the abbey stood not far from the shoreline, dominating the skyline. They were an echo of what may have been before, a question, not a reminder, there was nothing to be reminded of. All history of the abbey had been destroyed. The bold, imposing castle watched over them from the mount of rock at the southernmost point of the island. It was still intact, well preserved, but deserted. Some spoke of spirits there, ghosts, voices heard, and shadows seen. There’d been no attempt to destroy it, only to demolish all memory of its past. It was there, but no longer existed.
Both the abbey and castle had been built by Holy People. They had settled on the island many years ago, seeking sanctuary from those that looked to persecute them. Those that would destroy simply for who they were and what they believed. The island had provided safety, a haven. It was a place to build a new community around the old ways. St. Cuthbert was one of the Holy People, one of the founders of that religion. The island had once been named ‘Holy Island’ or ‘Lindisfarne.’
This was all before her, and the time of the new community. The island still provided sanctuary, but now it was for the new ways, after the poison.
The beach was Gaia’s refuge, the place she came to be alone, to wonder and question, to collect and create. Much of her free time was spent making the necklaces and bracelets. Once finished they would be concealed in a hole at the far end of the beach, a secret only she knew, the place of her findings, her treasure, her rebellion. These were her links to the past, one imagined but never known.
The beads were her oldest objects. She did not know what they were, but suspected they were ancient. There were other things too: ornate shells; shimmering stones; shards of frosted glass smooth from decades of churning waves. There were also fragments of the recent past: splinters of wood; flotsam; gnarled pieces of rope; junk; chunks of plastic decorated with letters and words. There were her magical finds, her special treasures like her yellow, plastic duck which squeaked when squeezed. Where had it come from? How had it found its way to her? There was also the small, bright orange ball, made of rubber, soft and squishy like sponge. There was her prized possession, bobbing in the water by the shoreline, nodding, waiting to be rescued. It was an old, brown bottle with a cork in, a piece of paper concealed within. On it was a hand-written message, faded, short and simple:
‘All is not what it seems. Seek the truth.’
Gaia would often sit and read the blurred words and wonder who had written them, feeling sure she was meant to find it. If not her, someone like her, someone who questioned, who wanted to know more. Escape would be difficult, though there were rumours of those that had made it. No-one knew for sure. Gaia was determined she would be the one, and this is what drove her, kept her alive. Escape was her reason for being, and it was only a matter of time. When the moment was right. She would know when. The bottle and the message were a sign, telling her, calling her to find the truth.
A bell clanged. Free time was over, and it was time to return. Gaia stood, shook herself down, and removed the sand from her canvas trousers and navy shirt. Looking across the water one more time, the waves rolling and tumbling she saw it. It could have been a mistake, but no, there it was again. This was no trick of light or wave. It was real, a flash of something moving just below the surface. It left a splash in its wake. It was a considerable size, and it was fast. She scoured the waters, but it was gone, a shiver running down her spine. Composing herself, Gaia made her way back up the dunes towards the Dome. Others were emerging and making their way from their own private refuges. Scurrying from their own special places with their own thoughts and treasures, and making their own secrets. The bell rang for a second time, and she picked up her pace. From the dunes beyond the beach something stirred, someone. They were watching.
The dome was a huge green marquee. Never intended as permanent, it was the best they could do. It was all they would allow given the limited resources, and the lessons they had learnt from before. Inside the floor had been lined with a fixed wooden base. A central pole towered overhead around which stood a raised platform with stairs leading to it. There were large cushions everywhere, each grey and numbered. Every member of the community had a number and a cushion. They were known by that number. Names were tolerated and used, but only amongst the young.
On the platform more cushions encircled the central pole. This was where the twenty leaders sat. They had names not numbers. They were meant to be equal, no single leader dominant. The community knew different though. There were those that had more power and presence, and one at the very top, the leader of leaders.
The young filed in and sat in their places. The leaders watched over them as they assembled. Once they were assured all were there the bell rang three times in quick succession. There was silence, and everyone waited. All the leaders sat bar one. She stood at the head of the platform as the other leaders sat and waited.
Kali paced around the edge of the platform, her head bowed and hands clasped behind her back. She wore green canvas trousers, and a navy shirt. On her feet were light sandals, no socks. Her hair was short, almost shaven to her skull, her eyes the brightest blue. Her skin was light, not yet wrinkled, but scarred and worn. Kali was one of the elders, maybe in her forties. No-one knew for sure. All the leaders were fit and agile, at their physical and mental peak. Every now and then a leader would disappear and be replaced. No-one knew why. Being a leader was a privilege and a position of note. All contributions to the community were deemed equal, but everyone knew the leaders were special and held above all else. At the end of your becoming you were designated a role, and being a leader was the pinnacle. All the young wanted to be leaders. All except Gaia. Kali addressed the group.
‘Community. Welcome. Once again we gather together to share our reflections, learn from each other, and discuss how we can progress. This is an important time for us all, as the time of your becoming will soon be here. In a few weeks you’ll ascend to the next phase of your journey where you’ll make your greatest contribution, and be given your role. This will determine how you help to shape the community. It’ll give you the opportunity to apply all you’ve learned so far, all your specialist knowledge and skills. You’ll leave the island and move to new settlements, some of you to the haven. These are exciting times.
In a moment you’ll break into your groups and go to your areas to share and discuss your reflections. But first I’d like to invite one of you to join me on the platform to give today’s reading.’
The tension in the room mounted as they waited for the announcement. Most heads were bowed, hoping to avoid eye contact. Not that it mattered, as the decision had been made. Kali was silent as she paced back and forth, her hands still behind her back. She stopped and stared straight at Gaia. There was a pause as their eyes locked, Kali uttered the dreaded words.
Gaia sighed. This was her seventh occasion. It confirmed to her she was being singled out. Making her way between the others towards the steps, there was relief as their anticipation and fear dissolved. This would soon be replaced by glazed eyes and creeping boredom. For Gaia this was all part of the game, being who they wanted and expected. Painting her face with the appropriate expression, she would deliver what was asked.
Gaia climbed the steps, and neared Kali who was waiting, her arms held forward holding an open book. Gaia kept her head bowed, and did not notice the wry smile on Kali’s face, or the brief flash in her eye and flare of the nostrils. Taking the book she turned to face the others. It was a circular room, and the drill was to move around the platform, ensuring all members of the community saw you. Everyone had to feel as though they were being addressed, that the words were meant for them all.
Gaia examined the page, and scanned the words laid out before her. Each was waiting to be brought to life by the caress of her voice, to sail through the air, leap from ear to ear, and worm into their minds. Every letter had a function, every word a meaning, something to open and absorb, to poke, prod and unpick. Every paragraph could be played with, given new light and twisted interpretations. Every page could illuminate, inspire, and enthuse. There before her were the still and lifeless words. She focused on them, and spoke, her voice crisp and clear.
‘The stag story. One day a hunter hears a knock at the door. He opens it to find another hunter.
‘Today I’m going to hunt a stag,’ the hunter at the door says.
’I cannot do it on my own, but together we may be successful.’
‘What is in this for me?’ The other hunter asks.
‘An equal share of the deer,’ he replies.
‘On your own you are only likely to catch a far smaller animal, but a deer is a large catch with fine meat. It will last us both through the winter.’
The hunter thinks about it and they agree to work together as a team.’
Gaia moved around the platform, absorbing the words and projecting them, reaching out to each section of audience. Her words washed over them, some listened, but most let them drift past, their minds shutting down. She continued.
‘The hunters go out together into the forest and separate, watching and waiting for any sign of a deer. Suddenly, one of the hunters sees a hare run past him. It is close by and would be easy prey. However, he doesn’t want to divert from the task of hunting the deer. Killing the hare would break the deal, and it would let the other hunter down. The hunter is torn. Here is an easy kill, and there is no guarantee they will find a deer. They could waste the day and find nothing. The deer would be a better catch, but it is a big risk. The hunter has a dilemma. Why work together when there is an opportunity to work alone? What should he do?’
Gaia stopped, closed the book and looked up. Kali approached and took the book from her.
‘Thank you thirty seven. Please return to your place.’
Gaia climbed down the steps and made her way to her cushion while Kali watched and waited, and addressed them all.
‘You’ve heard the story of the stag hunters. It’s a simple story, but within it lies a powerful dilemma, one we all face. It is about a contract between people, a social contract, something that binds them to work together for the greater good, something powerful, a sense of obligation, a realisation that you are stronger together than alone.’
From beyond the dome the clanging bell sounded again. This time it rang repeatedly in a wild frenzy. This was the alarm. They were under attack. It was the rats. Everyone sprung to their feet. They were calm, assured, showing no signs of outward panic. They had been here many times before. Everyone was trained and well drilled, all forming into orderly lines. The leaders brought large wooden boxes from the central platform, and made their way to the head of each line. They opened the boxes and handed out weapons: spears; daggers; scythes; small axes. All simple, but effective in the right hands, and all of the young knew how to use them. Some, like Gaia, were expert killers and fighters. This was their specialism. Each line now had a leader, and they all took their weapons and made their way to one of the exits.
The warning from those on lookout always gave plenty time to gather, to prepare, and wait. The numbers of rats varied, and of late the attacks had been heavy, brutal, and the numbers had risen. They were large, the size of a dog, quick, and ferocious. They hunted in packs, and were savage killers. They roamed the island, most often sticking to more remote parts away from the community. They were the products of what came before, of the poison. At first they were a myth. Then there were sightings and as they grew in numbers they were seen much more. For a long time they had been satisfied with feeding on scraps and hunting other animals. When they were desperate they would feed on the weak within their own. At first the attacks were random, isolated, always on lone community members. A body would be found, mauled and shredded, the distinctive tooth offering a clue. Then came the offerings. The community began to collect waste food and dump it on the far side of the island, to satisfy their hunger, to keep them at bay, and alleviate the attacks. It worked for a while, but they came again, and grew in number and ferocity. The island was limited, prey was becoming scarce. The rats were now more desperate and there were far more of them, too many. The island was a place of finite resources. From scavenger they became hunter. They adapted and became more organised. They attacked in larger packs, more and more, wave upon wave, growing in confidence, fueled by hunger and desire. It was hunt and kill or starve and perish, and the community was now their prime target.
Everyone filed out and moved towards their sections, each headed by a leader. Gaia’s group was led by Kali. They took a position to the far left of the dome, on the edge of the dwellings, in the dunes. It was a raised position, protected by the long sharp grass sprouting from the sand. Their role was to wait until the rats moved towards the front line of defence, they would then sweep down and attack them from behind. There would be the element of surprise. The rats would be sandwiched, having to attack two lines front and rear.
Gaia crouched low in the grass, well hidden, a good vantage point with a clear view of their attackers as they swarmed forward. They would see their numbers, the ferocity of the onslaught, and have time to prepare. It was worse for the front-line, as they saw them much later, often only as they were upon them. They had to be instinctive and make the right calls. The front line tended to be the older and better trained. Gaia was never part of the frontline which puzzled her and others. She excelled in combat and was one of the most effective killers, yet was always in a rearguard position, and led by Kali.
Everyone waited and listened. They always heard them first. There was the scurrying sound, like the rattle of snare drum, faint at first, but growing louder and louder. As the rats approached and sensed their prey drawing near they would screech. It was a jarring, high pitched noise that pierced the ears, clawed at the skin, and gnawed at the bones. That was when the heart raced, when the adrenalin shot through the veins, when each felt the urge to jump up and pounce, to scream, to attack. They had to resist though, as it could be fatal. The community were trained to be composed, to contain the electricity, the wave of excitement, to harness it. To react and bolt would mean death.
There was silence. The bell had stopped. All that could be heard was the whispering of the wind between the dune grass. Gaia listened, but still there was nothing. To her right was a young girl, about six feet away hugging the sandy floor. She was shaking, beads of sweat dripping from her forehead. Her face was white and her eyes flared with terror. Gaia shuffled across and held her. Looking down at her, Gaia smiled and whispered.
‘Don’t worry. I know it’s scary, but remember your training. Try to stay calm. I’m here if anything goes wrong. I’ll watch your back.’
The shivering eased, and the girl looked at Gaia, a smile crept on her lips, but it was awkward and forced. She still looked petrified.
‘Thanks. This is my first attack. I’m scared.’
‘It’s OK. Stay focused and you’ll get through it.’
They lay together, waiting. Gaia could feel the girl’s tension, her stiff body gripped with fear, her frantic breathing. Then it came, the sound of the low rattle, rising as they neared. There was something different to the sound though. It was broader, more intense than usual. It could mean only one thing. The shrieking came, like none Gaia had heard before. It was deafening, chilling, blood curdling. The girl began to shake. She was curled into a ball and covering her ears, pushing Gaia, fighting her, struggling to break free. Gaia held her tight, wrestled with her, pinned her to the floor. Breaking ranks would make her prey. The rats would see her, sense the vulnerability, weakness, and would attack. Gaia whispered.
‘Try to be calm.’
The girl began to scream, a loud, wailing cry, a siren. Gaia placed her hand over the girl’s mouth and tried to muffle the cries, but she continued to wail, fight and kick. The moment came, the trigger, the turning point. The girl bit Gaia’s hand. Gaia pulled her arm away in shock as the girl flung her off, jumped to her feet, and hurtled down the dune towards the beach. Gaia lurched forward, and went to make after her, but something clicked, took over, stopping and composing herself. Gaia wanted to follow her, save her, but something prevented her. She froze, as though a switch had been flipped. Her mind was racing, willing her to move, but she could not. Everything told her to stay with the others, focus on the task. A voice inside was barking at her. They were a team. They were stronger together. It pounded like a drum inside, the rhythm of all their training, their programming. This voice, the belief, it was the difference between living or dying. If Gaia tried to save the girl, she would die. Heroes were noble fools. They died. That is what defined them. Gaia ducked back down in the grassy dunes, and watched as the girl fled alone.
The rats were lightning quick. In a split second a group saw their victim, broke out, pursued her, and pounced. The leader lunged towards her jugular like an arrow. Its dripping jaws, and razor sharp teeth exposed. Ready to plunge into the neck and rip her throat. The rats’ jaws hit their target, and with one flick of the neck severed the artery and tore away a chunk of flesh. Blood spurted from the wound, the shock rendering the girl helpless. She fell to the ground, writhing in agony. The rat was upon her. Its long, fleshy tail flapping. Its head ripping and wrestling with her throat.