W E L C O M E T O T H E Y E A R 2 5 2 5
In a land far, far away, Christmas no longer exists.
In a land of snow and emptiness, of spies and lies, joy is a forgotten secret.
Love does no longer exist, nor does individual thought.
Welcome to the year 2524.
A soldier is summoned to the North Pole, days before the year changes, told to fix the great Clock for a celebration. He has no idea what to do.
A girl, hunted for the crime of being born, almost dies out on the ice. She is rescued by the last polar bear left alive.
A library waits for them both, a library built over a span of a hundred years, forgotten in the basement of an ice shack.
The world hasn't known hunger or sickness in hundreds of years. It has also forgotten love and beauty.
The year is 2524.
Inspired by the short stories of Ray Bradbury, this futuristic novel is set in a world where Christmas -among other things- is obsolete and a Clock is what keeps the fragile balance of peace.
Written in three installments, this is the breathtaking and sensual story of how two unlikely people change the world, and each other, one book at a time.
Immerse yourself into the icy cold world of this scorching hot new novel.
Start the journey now.
N o O r d i n a r y S t a r b o o k 1
for European buyers (cheapest option)
N o P l a i n R e b e l b o o k 2
for European buyers (cheapest option)
N o V a i n L o s s b o o k 3
(to be released soon)
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Here they are:
In the year 2525
if man is still alive
if woman can survive
they may find…
Zager and Evans
‘In the Year
the desert Is scorching hot outside his goggles. The soldier shoots an uneasy glance over his shoulder, to the rest of his squad. His fellow officers are walking briskly in a mostly straight line, boots sinking in the soft sand, cheeks tanned by the scorching sun.
The one walking in front of him lifts a hand to wipe the sweat from his brow, and the soldier smirks. His highly evolved skin-sculpt goggles prevent sweat, sand and dirt from landing on his eyes and obscuring his vision, making it easier to see.
Or at least they were, up until a few minutes ago.
A few minutes ago, a message cue popped up on his visor. He can see it in front of him now, as he trudges onto the next dune, blinking in the corner of his left eye, driving him crazy.
He can’t open it for a quite a few hours yet; he won’t take a break until tomorrow. They are only allowed a single one-hour break per day, and to do something like pause in the middle of a drill in the Morocco desert to open a message that’s waiting on your personal net, well… Cadets have been court-martialed for less -everyone knows that.
This soldier knows it better than most.
He’s the brightest, the best of the bunch, some say. Some others say he’s just the most obedient, the one less expected to deviate from the rules, that’s all there is to his success in the regiment. The truth is much simpler: he’s just the best at everything.
The soldier thinks that without conceit; it’s just a fact, written in his DNA.
“Ten seconds,” someone growls from the front. They’re supposed to walk a distance of two miles in under fifteen minutes. The soldier is almost done in nine and a half.
He lifts his long legs, hardly breaking a sweat, and pushes forward, quickly overtaking everyone but his General. His thigh muscles feel tense from the exercise and their familiar ache as they stretch numbs his mind pleasantly. A lock of white-blond hair flops to his forehead, and he lifts a gloved hand to push it back. His vision is clear for miles, the sky a sickening blue, the brown sand going on forever. The message cue interrupts the thin clouds, coming in and out of his vision maddeningly.
This is getting boring. When are they going to start some real training? The others are more than ten steps behind.
“Good job, lieutenant,” the General says to him as soon as the rest of the officers line up, snapping to attention.
The soldier -who is really a lieutenant- stands absolutely still, not nodding, not blinking, not acknowledging the General’s praise in any way. He disciplines his long body to stay silent, not a muscle twitching, not one breath out of order. His eyes look straight ahead. He knows that’s the kind of posture that will impress his General the most, after a tough drill like that.
What won’t impress him is how itchy his fingers are getting from wanting to open the message on his goggles. Just five more hours until free time, the soldier thinks. Then you can delete it.
Three hours earlier, in quite another part of the world, the old man everyone calls ‘the Clockmaster’ drags his feet to the green door of his shack and opens it with difficulty. There’s fresh snow behind it, weighing it down, and beads of sweat gather on his wrinkled brow, falling onto his white beard, as he pushes with all his strength into the steel and wood until it gives way. He closes the door behind him, locking it carefully, as he’s done every morning for the past fifteen years or so.
The sky is a dazzling painting of blues and reds and grays -it takes his breath away. The day is crisp and clear, almost like every other morning he’s taken the same walk in the snow, hiking to the forest and back.
Today is a bit different, though.
He has a feeling of finality at the pit of his stomach, as though every step he takes is changing the world. Old age is finally catching up with you, old timer, he thinks. Crystal snowflakes twirl about him, landing on his red cheeks. Every step lifts a cloud of them around his black, heavy boots as he walks towards the dim outline of the fir trees.
It will be Christmas in a week.
Not that anyone will notice.
You’ve lived alone for too long, old man, and you’re beginning to imagine things. Christmas! What a thing to remember at times like these.
He thinks of the huge hollow disc that has to be filled strategically with cogwheels and gears, standing in the middle of his cold little room, but he hasn’t been able to concentrate on his work for days.
The new year simply won’t dawn if his Clock isn’t ready to chime it in. He stops, breathless, lifting his eyes to the skies, and chuckles softly to himself. Will the truth ever be known?
So you say there is no Father Christmas
You say there is no Santa Claus
Reindeer cannot fly, it’s all a grown-up lie…
It’s a song older than time itself -older even than him; what made it suddenly pop into his head?
He murmurs it, prodding himself to keep walking in time with the melody. He doesn’t remember all the words, but the music is sad and nostalgic; it reminds him of a home long gone and sunny days filled with love and the smell of cinnamon. The love lives on.
So you say there is no Father Christmas
The Clockmaster walks on, burying his chin in the thick, fur lapels of his coat. His steps feel heavier today. His large, white head feels light, as though a mere gust of wind could blow it away like a bird. Like the icy powder that drifts from the sky to land on his collar.
He sees the sniper a split second before he shoots.
There’s a deafening sound, and the next minute a sharp pain blossoms in his chest, and he feels himself falling away from sight, sinking into the snow, its crystals parting to welcome his weight.
It takes him a moment to realize that he’s no longer moving. He tries to find his bearings, and buries his sturdy staff into the ground, pushing his weight on its hand-crafted handle so that he can stand, but he falls back on trembling limbs.
The sniper is gone; the Clockmaster he didn’t even have time to see if he was a member of the Guard or a free-shooter. He just appeared out of nowhere, a black silhouette somewhere behind the trees, and shot him. He surely was an easy target, walking in plain sight out in the open, a dark spot in stark contrast to the glowing twilight reflected off the bluish snow.
The pain is numbing but his mind is falling asleep with the cold, too. Something is gnawing at him, a mere sliver of a thought at the edges of his consciousness. What is it?
“So you say there is no Father Christmas…” No it’s not that. “Twenty-five twenty-five,” he mutters.
Two numbers, identical; they remind him of something, but he can’t quite grasp what that is. The numbers hover on the fringes of his tired memory, and still their meaning eludes him. So much information, so many experiences, all of them ticking away like minutes on one of his cuckoo clocks; wars, kisses, celebrations, changes, pain. All of it gone now.
Soon it will be gone forever. Irrevocably.
People used to think he was something like a timekeeper, or at the very least, a memory-keeper. But these memories he’s collected so meticulously over the years -they have been his own personal demons as well.
It’s certainly not his job to keep them -it shouldn’t be anybody’s job.
He’s just another human being.
And he hasn’t been exceptionally good at that, either.
He used to hope that he would be able to pass the flame on to someone else, someone more worthy, more clever and compassionate, but as the cold travels to his extremities, he starts to think he may have no time for that. He wasted all his years, and now it’s too late.
“Constantine,” he whispers, and a lone tear freezes on his cheek. “Twenty-five, twenty-five. Felix, my hope.”
Now he remembers, if just for a second.
It takes less than a minute for the falling snow to cover him like a shroud.
He falls asleep looking at the stars.
And in his dreams comes a fairy, riding an angel clouded in plush white fur, her hair on fire. She looks down on him from atop her perch on the angel’s back.
He feels a smile creeping across his frozen face as her huge brown eyes fill his vision. He hears -in his dream, always- steps crunching on the snow beside him, he feels a warm, trembling hand gently touch his icy grave.
“Father…?” the fairy says, and he is convinced he’s dreaming, if he ever had a doubt, for this is a word he hasn’t heard in years. “Father Christmas?”
He wants to tell her that’s not his name, it was just a song of the Old Ones he was singing, but in the dream his lips are sealed shut and little icicles have begun to drift on his stiff white beard.
“It should have been me,” the fairy says in a trembling voice that sounds like a whispered bell. She starts to weep soundlessly.
If he could speak, he’d warn her about the sniper, he’d yell at her to run. If he could speak, he’d whisper to her the number one more time; maybe she could help avoid disaster.
But he can’t, and so the fairy just sits there beside him, her dirty, torn dress pooling around her on the grey snow, holding his hand and sobbing, in plain sight. There might still be snipers surrounding the plain, eyes peeking behind the snow-capped trees, but she doesn’t move. She holds his cold hand in her bare ones until his breathing gets even.
Until her beautiful dark eyes are the only thing he remembers from this broken, frozen world.
The world falls to pieces with a loud crash a few minutes later. Or maybe it is a few days later, or a few years; it’s all the same for the Clockmaster, who’s still lying in the ice.
The fairy is still crying three days later, crying for a life lost in vain, crying for the things the old man didn’t say as his life was spilled on the snow, soaking her dress red. She’s not a fairy, not really. She’s just a girl, small boned and wild-haired.
She’s a crying girl, a hunted girl. She’s a girl who’s about to become a dead girl. But suddenly, on the third day after the Clockmaster’s death, the girl’s crying turns to screams. There’s a harsh, breaking sound slicing the silence first, then a small splash. Then ice floating in a hole.
That’s when the screams start. At first they’re awful, blood-curling, sharp sounds that make the trees around the old man’s resting place shudder -even though by now she’s left it far behind- and the stars break to a million pieces.
The fairy -who isn’t a fairy- screams and screams and the angel -who, in fact, is something else entirely- takes off towards the horizon. Her screams escalate until they’re unbearable. But there’s no one to hear them.
Even the snipers have gone days ago, mistakenly thinking their job done when they killed the old man instead of the girl -they didn’t think for a minute there would be anybody else out in the vast whiteness, anybody but their prey. The girl screams with all she’s got one last time.
It’s the shortest day of the year tonight. The Arctic is white, as it’s always been, an expanse of icy desert sprinkled with a few clusters of fir trees, star-studded heavens purple with night overhead.
This part of the world used to be called ‘Alaska’ or some such exotic name when there were people here, but it’s been years since human eyes have seen the breathtaking cold beauty of these lands. Traditions of candy-stripe-wrapped presents and a big, fat man who always wore red toiling among his pointy-eared helpers have long since ceased to exist, along with the civilizations which created them.
Change is a good thing, people have always said -and they still do, now, in the dawning of another year of the twenty-sixth century- and so they continue to improve themselves and their lives, driven by that elusive ambition to surpass each other and their own, degrading human needs. Which they have achieved, for the most part.
There is no hunger in the world, no illness, no discomfort. No discord. It’s simply been eliminated. How could the human race, after conquering the lengths of the Solar System, after perfecting the science of the body and the brain, after, in short, outgrowing its own strengths and amazing its own intelligence time and again; how could it fail to eliminate its own weaknesses? It has not. Everything is perfect, which in the case of the vast Arctic land, translates to quiet. Empty.
No need for towns up here, exposed to the cold and darkness and solar winds, so all that’s left is a few Power Towers and the Intergalactic Space Station.
And the Clockmaster’s ice shack.
It’s not really a ‘shack’, Felix thinks as he leans back on the swirly-patterned comforter on the low-back titanium sofa. On the inside it’s pretty much like any of the luxurious apartments piled on top of each other in the home where he grew up with four other children, in New Baghdad, in the European East. He’s seen pictures of how it looks on the outside, but he hasn’t been outside the door.
He imagines it as a sort of wooden structure like the one he’s seen in Visuals and Projections of fairytales from the Old World, half covered in thick eternal snow that never melts, its tin roof the only splotch of color in the endless white.
Truth be told, he couldn’t care less.
He’s been in this godforsaken place for more than two days now and he’s got nothing to show for it. It’s starting to get on his nerves.
The place smells of wood and fresh snow, and he’s not used to things smelling quite so much. His tiny cubicle at school is sterilized, as is every public place. There’s also a lot of unnecessary objects around, and he’s tired of feeling so cluttered and seeing so much color all the time. There’s even a bed in the second room -whoever heard of a home having a second room? But the shack is huge, three rooms in all, one filled with Old World electronics he has no idea how to work, as well as a wooden table, and one with an old-fashioned bed and a tilted roof which gives him a headache every time he looks at it.
He’s spent all of his time so far in this third room, which has only this sofa, the Pod and the Projector, covering a wall from the floor to the ceiling. The standard bathroom cubicle is tucked out of sight in the far-left corner. If he keeps his eyes trained away from the little windows with the frilly red curtains and the huge green door, he can almost concentrate.
He’s concentrating right now on his hunger.
He’s only got two pills left -he didn’t think to take provisions with him-, and he intends to ration them for as long as he can; hopefully he won’t have to stay much longer here, and he can go back before he gets to actually starving. Not that he’s done anything constructive so far. He’s got half a mind to get in the Transport Pod right now and get back to school, where his professors are already wondering what has happened to their star lieutenant.
He heard it on the news last night. It was a live Projection from the Terrestrial Channel, dubbing him ‘the lost prince’. They played it three times during the entire day. Every time it came on, he smirked, thinking that he’d been missing barely two days. He knows, of course, that the Counsil takes very seriously every facility that uses the Planet’s funds, and a military school even more so, and so it was only a matter of hours before he was missed at the half-day head count and hell was raised.
He’s been ‘the prince’ of The New Baghdad Training Military School ever since he aced every test in the try-outs for advanced military positions and made lieutenant just two months ago. His comrades started calling him ‘the prince’ and joke that he was having a much easier time of it, but they all knew that wasn’t true. There were times that he didn’t think he would make it to the next brutal level of training -still, he’s survived.
The Clockmaster’s message arrived almost two days ago now. He let it blink in a corner on the visor of his goggles, intending to watch it in the one free hour between three and four in the morning.
The world has had no sleep in half a century.
There’s no need. It’s always light inside, and the human body can get whatever it needs in a capsule. It gets its food from a red and brown one three times a day, its rest and health maintenance every morning from the green striped Health Discs. So there you have it. One more problem eliminated.
In military school, of course, you need to rest your brain a little from all the yelling and intense exercising and the electrode-transmitted orders that enter your system from the nerve endings on your skin.
So you can walk into the Transport Pod and go for a swim in a beach in Santa Mauricia, in the Tropics. Or maybe pop out for a quick stroll through the stars in one of the daily Shuttles. You can go visit the Virtual Data Bases in Cairo, or you can lay on the floor staring at the narrow strip of ceiling that covers your tiny cubicle. Just as long as you’re back in an hour for the head count.
So that’s when Felix popped the Clockmaster’s message in the Visual and turned the volume way down to listen to it without being overheard.
And that was the start of the end of the world.
Felix has never heard of anyone having a grandfather.
He’s not even sure what a grandfather is.
Felix, just like pretty much every child born after the Second Enlightenment, hasn’t grown up in a family. He simply doesn’t have one. His characteristics, his high IQ, his height and even his personality, they have all been elected by the ES, the Elimination System, which is pretty much the greatest achievement of the twenty-sixth century. Yes, it’s true. Humanity has finally been able to take control of the race, the intelligence and the skills of its own population, and there is no need to leave it at chance: people are created in tubes, not hospitals. They are bred in homes in the care of specifically trained people, and they end up becoming the improved human race man has dreamt of since the dawn of time.
This is pretty much what the Second Enlightenment was all about.
And now, Chairman Kun, a genius of his age, has perfected the system of rebuilding the Planet from its very cradle, with the Revision. People are intentionally created, instead of just happening to be born.
Imperfections are almost eliminated -the Elimination System was created for just this purpose. And it’s worked wonders both in the Planet and the Colonies. To think, people didn’t used to live more than eighty, perhaps a hundred years. And now it’s very much expected that no human being will have a reason to expire before their three-hundredth year. Mankind is well on its way to becoming immortal.
Felix grew up in a home with four other children and a woman named Mother Alex. She isn’t their mother, of course, no one is, but she was kind and clean and didn’t beat them.
Felix was the oldest when he came into the house -eight years old.
It was winter solstice that day, too.
“Are you from the Colonies?” a three-year-old boy, Karim, had asked him.
“Do I look like I’m from the Colonies?” Felix had retorted, angrily. He still had a hard time looking anyone in the face, even if that anyone was a little brown boy chewing on his thumb.
“Your hair ith white,” Karim had persisted, drool dripping from his lower lip.
Now he’s one of his best friends, as well as his right hand torchbearer. He joined the Military three years after Felix.
“It’s not white, it’s yellow,” Felix had pressed his lips together. “Will you go ask the lady to wipe your face?”
He knew well enough that he looked different than anyone else in the house. The other two boys, older than him, had called him ‘a timer freak’ (meaning an Old Timer, only he didn’t know all the slang back then) and had pushed him into the Pod, sending him off to a desert on Mars the first day. He’d had a hell of a time working the Pod to get back again, but he managed it. And he didn’t tell the lady who everyone called ‘Mother’.
He’d already managed to survive eight years of his life in the highest-security prison on the Planet, he wasn’t about to start asking for help now.
“Tho where’d you come from?” Karim persisted, beginning to suck his other thumb.
“Don’t you have any lessons to learn?”
Felix was busy with a Visual that promised it would teach him how to write in ten days maximum, but had so far refused to even start, since Felix hadn’t worked one of the stupid things before.
“You hafta press your palm on it and then scan your eye,” Karim said, proceeding to press his wet little hand on top of his, and moving their joined hands in front of the screen.
Felix felt a jolt of electricity run through him at the little boy’s touch.
He hadn’t been touched in eight years -his entire life, actually. “All right, all right, I’ve got it,” he said quickly, pushing the baby away.
It was there and then he decided to do whatever it took to get his hands on a pair of Hydro gloves that became one with your hand, just like the ones the Guards who escorted him from his cell wore. He received his own pair a few years later, when he passed his first Military test. He hasn’t taken them off since then.
“You a bad boy?” Karim asked, his voice trembling a little.
Felix sighed and turned to look at him. The boy’s eyes, like two shiny black beads, were filling with tears.
“Don’t tell the others, ok?” he said to Karim. “Promise?”
Karim nodded furiously. “Or the Cailman can eat my heart.”
Felix felt a sharp sound escape his lips. The boys turned from the other wall, where they’d been absorbed in their routine Visual tests on two identical screens, and stared at him as he roared with laughter. This shrieking sound coming from his lips was new as well. He didn’t care for it either.
“Don’t say things like that,” he said seriously to the baby. “It takes less than that to stick you in the Box.”
Karim’s eyes widened.
Everyone knew what the ‘Box’ was. It was the high security prison, the biggest one in the Planet. No one came alive out of it -since their crimes were so great as to be a serious danger to humanity. Chairman Kun takes dangers to humanity very seriously indeed.
“You from the Box?” Karim said, taking a shaky step back, his little legs stumbling over the diaper ‘Mother’ had quickly slapped on underneath his Hydro pants.
Everyone was dressed in this grey, elastic material that kept you warm and safe, Felix had quickly discovered. At first he was missing his cotton pants and filthy shirt, but he was already getting used to the luxury of neither freezing nor being hot or dirty or prickly. Hydro didn’t allow dirt particles to latch onto it, plus, as he learned later, it adjusted to his body temperature. Hydro was good, he liked it.
“Yep,” he said, leaning down to stare into Karim’s black eyes with his intense, blue ones. He opened them wide, trying to look as foreign and scary as possible. “And you know why they stuck me in there? I ate a dirty baby, that’s why.”
Karim started screaming and ran for ‘Mother’, who was currently taking a break in the waters of Indonesia. She wasn’t, that was a lie, but Felix didn’t know then what a ‘Mother’ was, so how could he know she was being recharged, her programming checked and her settings updated for the month? He didn’t. He didn’t know a lot of things -still doesn’t.
One of the elder boys took off his earplugs and threatened to throw Karim out the window -they were on the fiftieth floor- and thankfully that shut him up.
Five days later Felix was allowed his first break, and he went straight to the Arctic, to the Perennial Site. It was nothing but ice on a lake yet, but he could already see the Terrestrial trains arriving in the distance from inside the Pod’s glass. He reached out absent-mindedly to push the button and get out, but his hands touched something warm and hairy.
He looked down. Karim’s beady eyes were gleaming hopefully up at him.
That was the first time Felix cursed in the world outside the Box. “What the timers are you doing here?”
Karim’s eyes were already misting. “Why did you want to come here?” he asked, stubbornly, ignoring Felix’s question. “You keep asking for an invitation for the Pernerniry, but only richies are invited.”
“It’s the Perennial,” Felix said, “and you’re not supposed to transport until you’re at least six, or you could die. Or stay like a dwarf forever. You’re going back.”
He started pressing the buttons. He’d learned how to work the Pod and write within five days instead of ten.
“Nooooo!” Karim wailed, looking as though his heart was breaking. “Pleeeeeease let me stay. I want to see the Clockster.”
Felix felt himself grow hot underneath his Hydro suit. Immediately it began to cool him down, and dry his sweat, but he didn’t feel any better inside, where it mattered. “It’s the Clockmaster,” he said quietly to Karim, opening the door and stepping out into the cold, while Karim grabbed on to his knee, scared of the strange sleek surface his little shoes where slipping on the ice. “And he’s the reason I’m out of the Box.”
That was the first and only time he’s been in the cold climate. All his training has taken place in the Tropics or the Ecuador since he joined the Military, but he’s always wearing a full head-gear these days, so he hasn’t felt the poisonous earth air on his face since he was eight years old. Some say it’s not really poisonous, but Felix isn’t taking any chances.
He kept hoping for an invite to the Perennial Celebration, hoping to watch the Clockmaster ringing in the New Year, even from afar, but of course it never happened. Every year, shortly after the Solstice, the Pods to the Arctic close, because the Site is being prepared for the greatest celebration in the Planet.
A huge stadium is built on Site, huge enough to hold hundreds of thousands of spectators, and in the middle a stage, visible by all, where the Clockmaster sets his new Clock to tick the last minute of the old year away.
Then they all cheer and Chairman Kun addresses them, his message broadcasted to every corner of the Planet and the Colonies via the Terrestrial Channel, and that’s it. The party starts in the first moments of the New Year and lasts for a whole fortnight. After that fortnight, the Elite of the Planet, which basically means the caste of educated, wealthy officials, genetic engineers and Counsil members, as well as the thousands of other middle-class guests that were lucky enough to have been invited, go back to their homes to rest and be restored to their pre-alcohol-drinking, shouting-and-dancing and arctic-air-breathing healthy states.
It’s rumored that some of the most eccentric Elites have begun to bring some kind of actual food to the Celebration, illegally of course, and much less poisonous than the timers’ disgusting concoctions. But still, the guests gorge themselves on forbidden fruits and liquids, and reach home in a state almost near sickness, from which no pill could bring them back, so many of them have to be transported to a Health Spot immediately. How embarrassing.
Felix has no idea why all these incandescently rich people wish to degrade themselves by engaging in these Old Time customs.
As for the Clockmaster, well, that’s a different story.
He’s a legend.
Some people say he’s some sort of time-keeper, or a wizard, like the tales of the Old World describe.
What he is to Felix is his savior.
He was to be executed on the day he turned nine, which was about a month after the solstice. Instead, he was let go. Just like that. For no obvious reason.
Felix hasn’t heard of it ever happening on the Planet. Of course, one could argue that he’d been imprisoned just like that, for no obvious reason as well, but he has the uneasy feeling that he’s done a crime bigger than Jupiter and he just can’t remember it because he was either too young, or he’s blocked it out.
He’s sure he was a threat to humanity, and he’s been very careful not to do anything that might hurt the Planet or the Chairman again. He’s always been the first to obey any order, without question, the first to volunteer in the most risky operations, the first to log in for the head count. He hasn’t ever followed Karim or his other friends when they invited him to an obscure opium-maker’s den in Saturn 3.14 -not that it actually existed when they got there, the owner had moved it to the Western Regions, which are still not safely atmosphere-regulated, but why risk it?
He’ll never forget where he began and where he’s ended up, and he’ll never stop being grateful to his rescuer. He’s probably the most law-obedient citizen in the One World.
At least, he was until two days ago.
When the Visual arrived -the Vis, as they call them-, he finally saw the Clockmaster.
He was nothing like he had imagined him to be -if anything, he looked more like an Old Time wizard, like the rumors suggested.
Then he didn’t have time to look anymore, because the old man was speaking.
He fingers the chip he transferred the Vis in before he left school, now in the pocket of his grey Hydro suit, which, among other things, keeps his body temperature level, and protects him from scratches. It’s sculpted to his body, a tunic and a pair of fitted pants with a black line running down the length of his leg, which indicates him as Military. A row of buttons is concealed in the front, each one with its specific use, containing his pills and discs, but he’s taken yesterday’s and he wants to save the rest for later, so he doesn’t need them for now.
“What on earth do you want from me, old man?” Felix mutters.
He can’t help it; he’s starting to get desperate.
He knows he owes a debt much larger than anyone can imagine to this man, and that’s why for the first time in his seventeen years, he’s broken the law for his sake.
But everything has been going the timer’s way since he came here.
Bored out of his mind, he slips the chip in the Visual Projector.
So far, he’s found nothing. He’s pressed his gloved fingers to every surface of the old-fashioned metallic table, the few chairs and the Projector -the PR-, hoping he’d find something concealed somewhere, a clue, anything. There isn’t a clock in sight, which worries him even more. The walls are bare too, except for the timer windows, right by the Transport Pod Portal, but as soon as he came, Felix pressed the button on the wall that flicks open the lights and the next one that shuts the blinds down, because he feels more comfortable in closed spaces.
He’s been outside about ten times in his life, all in deserts and harsh mountaintops, part of his strict military training, and he hates the outdoors with a passion.
‘Hello, my dear boy,’ the Clockmaster’s voice says from the PR.
The Projector is nothing more than an intelligent screen, made of paper-thin glass, and there are no buttons on it, although it is interactive once it’s turned on. The PR screens come in all sizes and capacities, but this one is of the highest quality. For one thing, it’s massive, covering the entire wall next to the green door, and for another it can get feeds from the Terrestrial Channel, but you can also load all sorts of net browsers and message chips on it. Generally, you can do anything via the PR, from contacting someone on the other end of the Planet on a live Vis, to browsing through the Planet’s Common Database for un-restricted information.
Felix has no interest in any of that. He just sits back and gets ready to be confused again by the Clockmaster’s message.
Now that he’s gotten used to seeing it, his face looks a bit wrinkled but kind, his skin weathered, his blue eyes brilliant in contrast to the white halo of hair around his forehead. Felix’s own eyes are the exact same color, his cheekbones pronounced, his hair a brilliant yellow, almost white.
Felix’s mop of wheat-blond hair has a streak at the front dyed permanently black, as of last month when he made lieutenant. His left ear is pierced with a tiny stud which contains a locator chip. Everyone has one of these, usually right beneath the top layer of skin on their left forearm, but the Chairman’s soldiers are pierced with an additional one, in case of a military emergency.
Felix watches the Clockmaster wet his lips with his tongue, and wonders if they will execute him for ripping it off.
Looking for a distraction, he pauses the Vis and traces the Clockmaster’s jaw with a mental finger. He can see it, plain as day: they look the same.
The Clockmaster is not wearing goggles like Felix is, nor is he as tall and lean. He’s got almost no muscles, and he looks as though the last Health Discs he took haven’t worked properly. He’s not wearing a Hydro suit, nor is he wearing his Clockmaster’s official black cloak designed to remind the People of the Old World’s tales. Instead he’s wearing a soft, white garment, with two pointy things around the collar, and a row of buttons down the front, which look plastic and useless.
And yet, no one can deny it.
The brilliant blue eyes are the same, the facial expressions, the dimple in his left cheek as he opens his mouth to speak. Even the gesture he makes with his hand -Felix feels chills run down his spine at the thought of how many times he’s made the exact same gesture when he’s looking for the right words.
‘If you’re watching this, I’m dead,’ the Clockmaster says somberly, his blue eyes crinkling with kindness under his bushy white eyebrows. ‘I’ve scheduled this Visual to reach you, Felix, my precious boy, every morning for the past nine years, in case I don’t return from one of my long walks in the snow.’
The Clockmaster smiles as though at a thought that transports him somewhere the Pods can’t take you.
‘It’s so beautiful, the snow,’ he goes on, and Felix wants to strangle him until he gets to the point, but he sits still, mesmerized by words that sound familiar, but he has no idea what they mean. Beautiful. Snow. My precious boy.
‘I wish you had come here to grow up in this wonderful place, with someone who loves you, instead of…’ the Clockmaster presses his lips together. ‘It feeds your soul in a way no pill ever will,’ he adds and there’s a sadness in his eyes that makes Felix want to cry like Karim used to when he wouldn’t take him in the Pod.
It feeds your soul. Someone who loves you. More foreign words.
‘First things first, my boy,’ the Clockmaster shakes himself out of his reverie and smiles. ‘My name is Ulysses. And I am your grandfather.’
Felix swipes his fingers on the PR and the image freezes again.
Was the old man crazy? he wonders, not for the first time.
He suddenly doesn’t have the heart to listen to any more. He knows it by heart anyway by now, much good it will do him.
‘Now, listen carefully,’ the Clockmaster -Ulysses- will say in a minute, his eyebrows pushing together. ‘You’re a smart boy and I’m sure I can trust you, if anyone in this forsaken planet is to be trusted.’ Ulysses’ voice will take on a bitter tinge here, and Felix, replaying it in his head for the twentieth time in two days, wonders again what that expression means.
He swipes his hand again, fast-forwarding it until he reaches the most important place in the Clockmaster’s Vis.
‘Tell no one that I’m gone. Get in the Pod right now, and transport to my ice shack in the Arctic, and finish my work before the day of the Perennial Celebration. You know what my work is, but I can’t say anything else on here, in case it’s leaked. Nothing is more important than this. Leave your work, your school, your position. Just get on a Pod and go. You’ll find further instructions there. Now, I have loaded the coordinates on this Visual, so if you’ll just load it on there, you’ll be in the Arctic the next second, and once you-’
Felix freezes the PR.
He heard a strange sound coming from the general direction of the windows. He gets up, and stands still in the small room, unsure of what to do.
There are no unexpected sounds in his world -except for when he’s on site for training, of course.
There are all sorts of sounds of exploding guns there, and what reaches his ears right now is nothing like that, but still he does what he’d do if he heard a Slayer .34 going off in the distance: he slams his head gear in place, checks his vitals, and grabs the Protector .44 that was strapped to his thigh. A Protector .44 is a smaller gun than the Slayer .34, but quieter and more deadly in smaller distances. It’s the one thing the soldiers are required to carry on their suits at all times, whether they’re off duty or not. He didn’t expect to be stranded up here for so long, or he would have packed more gear. At least he has a gun with him.
The sound continues, a banging, scratching sound that’s coming from outside, and he locates it at the green door. There’s a key placed in the lock, and Felix looks at it uncertainly, but there’s no other way out, so he decides to try his luck.
He struggles with the rusty hinges until the old-fashioned key has turned once, then twice, then three times, and then, just as the banging has started to shake the entire house, threatening to bring the door down, he swings it open.
And there, standing in front of him, glowing white as it’s silhouetted against the dark, bluish sky, is a huge bear.
Felix Hunter is a Citizen of the Planet, recently a lieutenant of Chairman Kun’s Intergalactic Armies, and a holder of one of the highest Intelligence Rates in the One World. He is almost eighteen years old. He has blue eyes and blond hair with a thick black lock falling on his forehead. He is six feet tall, and his heart beats exactly twenty times a minute.
He hasn’t felt cold or pain; he hasn’t known his parents or even spoken to a girl; and he hasn’t once given the Chairman a cause to be ashamed of the new heights the One World has reached under his leadership.
Yet today, on the evening of the winter solstice of the year 2524, Felix Hunter will do all three.
First comes the cold.
As he opens the door, the bear lowers its paw, only it doesn’t drop it to the ground. Felix feels the great weight of the animal’s warm limb as it pushes on his arm, making him stagger. The animal is warm and its breath billows whitely in front of its face, as it lets out an agonized growl.
A cold wind is blowing cross the empty plains, howling eerily as it blows past him inside the door, but Felix’s suit keeps him warm, and the goggles allow him to see for miles in the descending twilight, unhindered by the icy cold snowflakes that land on his hair.
Then he sees the trees.
He’s seen them before, of course, in Reproductions and Instructional Visuals, he’s even seen some up close in the Sichuan forest, where they took them for training two years ago in the part of Europea that used to be China.
But this is completely different. They’re dark masses, looming in the distance, crowned by an expanse of exquisite purple sky, bursting with yellow, purple, pink and red. It’s so beautiful and so bizarre that his eyes hurt. Sunset, that’s what it is. He’s never seen it happening right in front of his eyes -he has the strange sensation of feeling as though he’s inside an Instructional Vis, but it’s real, no Vis, the sun a big ball of fire sinking behind the trees, and the weird sensation is giving him whiplash.
He feels his mouth drop open and tries to wake up from the strange fascination of watching every little tuft of snowy grass, of trying to distinguish every spruce needle in the fir trees ahead or count the colors of the sky, but he has no time to concentrate on either. He’s pushed violently from behind, and in his surprise, he stumbles and falls face-first into the snow.
He gets up immediately, cursing. “Timer beast,” he mutters under his breath, pulling his Protector .44 and leveling it right between the bear’s eyes.
Now why would he do that? He’s trained to shoot to kill without a moment’s hesitation, and although most of his training has taken place in virtual holographic war sites, this shouldn’t feel so different.
Except through his goggles he can discern the radius of different colors in the bear’s irises, as it regards him somberly. He can smell the snow on its thick white fur, and the earth on its paws. He lowers his gun, feeling unsteady, as though he’s suddenly been transported to one of the Colonies where it takes a moment to get used to the weightlessness of space. No, not even there. To another world.
He feels suddenly dizzy, and shakes his head to clear it, but he can’t move very well with the goggles on. For the first time since putting them on, five years ago, he wishes he could go back to just seeing things with his weak, human eyes. But that’s just stupid, isn’t it?
The bear lets out a growl. Felix snaps his attention back to the white beast, and then, as though satisfied that it’s got his attention, the bear puts its head down and starts running.
“Good riddance,” Felix yells at it and makes for the door.
He lingers a moment, in spite of himself, and his long legs turn by themselves towards the trees, as though they itch to explore their hidden treasures. He takes one step and hears a low growl.
The bear is puffing right behind his elbow.
“What?” Felix screams in frustration. This isn’t real. It can’t be.
This kind of exotic animal has been extinct for years. He studied hard on ancient life-form species for his History exams, he even watched Visuals about the Old Times. How the timers has this beast survived up here? How has it escaped the Researchers? And why does it behave like one of the Army Dogs, who run back and forth when they’ve discovered a hidden uranium crypt or a dead body and they want you to follow them?
Felix starts running. In a second the bear has overtaken him, its great paws kicking up a storm of powdery snow in Felix’s face.
They run for about ten minutes like that, and although Felix has no trouble keeping the pace of the bear, his calve muscles are starting to burn from struggling against the deepening blanket of snow, and his breath comes in white puffs in front of his face. He’s not feeling cold yet, but he’s not wearing his combat uniform, just a regular Hydro suit for everyday chores and light training classes, so he knows it has limitations. It’s not built to protect his body from exposure to such a climate as this. Not to mention that the bottom part of his pants is soaked through.
He’s wearing ankle boots underneath, but now the cold is seeping up higher, creeping up towards his knees, and he’s feeling it penetrate his clothes.
Still he keeps running, his legs pumping the soft snow in a steady beat, his knees a perfect ninety degrees to his straight back, his mind distracted by the colors of the sky. He lifts his eyes to catch a glimpse of it again, although he hates himself for his weakness, and it’s gone.
He didn’t remember that.
The sunset doesn’t last above half an hour, of course, he knew that. Now the sky seems to descend upon the trees, its color dark blue, a few stars and satellites beginning to stud the horizon.
For the second time in a day, Felix feels his chest contract with something solid and falls flat on his face.
The bear has stopped short and it’s growling in an angry, plaintive voice that sounds almost human. Felix has had enough. He gets up, more slowly this time, and swipes the goggles around his neck, flinging them on the ground. Immediately the world around him turns a bit darker, but everything comes into sharp focus. He wipes his brow with the back of his hand, discovering that his hair is damp with sweat.
He opens his mouth to swear again, and that’s when he sees it. The reason the bear has stopped is that the ground gives way at this point. Right beneath Felix’s sodden boots the snow turns to ice. There’s a lake or whatever this kind of large body of water is called, starting right here. It’s frozen, like everything else in this timer place. And there’s a gaping hole in its middle, about twenty feet from where Felix and the bear are standing.
Infinite blue is surrounding him, the calmness caressing his ears and the cold is stinging his uncovered eyes. Behind him the bear huffs and puffs and gets on his nerves.
Then, a splash shatters the silence. A small hand grabs the jagged edge of the broken ice, and promptly slides back in the water with a quiet flop.
Felix feels his eyes try to jump out of his face.
Then he’s running, slipping on the ice, falling on his chest as he’s been taught and crawling on all fours towards the lake. The small hand appears again, struggling to latch on to the ice before it’s submerged again, but Felix was close this time and he saw.
He saw it’s covered in blood.
Felix clambers to the hole, crawling on his stomach across the ice, pushing himself forward with all he’s got. He’s panting a little, but his heart is beating normally -which is hardly at all- so he’s fine. He’s been trained to do these little mental checks on his body’s condition while he’s in a fight, or in extreme survival mode, although he’s forgotten to do them until now.
Then the hand appears once more, waving about in the black water, and he flings himself towards it, grabbing it.
He pulls with all his strength, which is considerable, but the ice is thick and he has to lean down very low, until all the blood rushes to his face and he sees black spots dancing in front of his eyes. His hair flops downward, further obscuring his vision, and it’s damp with sweat, clinging to his brow. He curses himself for not having taken one of the last Discs he has in his suit, but all that takes place in the back of his mind.
The front is busy pulling a girl out of the freezing water.
The dark curls at the top of her head, heavy with water, drip on his sleeve, as her chin just barely breaks the surface. She coughs out a wet, gurgling scream and lifts her white face to his. He only has time to see how huge her eyes are and how blue her lips have turned before she loses her grip on his glove, which has been made sleek with water, and slips soundlessly under once more. A curse escapes his lips.
“No!” he yells.
Without thinking twice about it, he brings his hand to his mouth and grips the glove between his front teeth, tearing it from its strap around his wrist. Then he spits it away from him, not caring where it lands, and leans down once more, his other hand braced on the ground.
The little girl flounders to the surface once more, her mouth opening in a silent gasp, filling with water, and he manages to grab her hair.
“Grab my hand, take it!” he shouts, but the girl doesn’t hear him, or if she does, she can’t move.
Gasping, Felix takes off his other glove in the same way, and sticks both hands in the water, leaning so far down that one false move will land him in the water, right beside her. He finds purchase with his boots on the ice, and leans in, moving his arm carefully in the water, until it meets something solid. He pulls again, this time with a firmer grasp on her sleeve, and feels her weight shift.
He swears and tugs harder.
“Come on, hold on to me,” he says, but nobody is listening.
It takes forever to lift her face clear out of the water, and when he does he notices that she isn’t fighting any longer. Her weight feels dead in his arms, and he drags her upwards once more, absently noticing that his arms are beginning to shake with panic.
The cold is stinging at his fingers, and he practically can’t feel his hands now that he’s taken the gloves off; he doesn’t even know where he threw them. A few days ago, these things would have been all he could think about.
Right now, all he cares more about is how to get a good grip under the girl’s armpits, so that she won’t slide back in as he lifts her to him. He leans her down on the ice, her legs still dangling in the water. The ice below him doesn’t seem to have a mind to start breaking again, so, without taking the time to carry her all the way onto solid land, he leans down to place his palms flat on her chest and starts pumping.
He’s almost sure that she’s dead, but then, just as he’s bending over her face to push her lips apart with his fingers, as he was taught in Health Tech, she jerks upwards and spits out a small trickle of water, hacking and struggling to breathe. She turns those huge eyes towards him and notices his hand still on her chest, his fingers reaching towards her lips.
Then two things happen simultaneously.
One is that she lifts her bleeding arm and slaps him roundly on the left cheek.
The other is that he realizes she’s not a child: she’s a young woman.
A woman, as in, someone who isn’t allowed to be touched by a man, much less a soldier, on penalty of high treason. A woman, like one of the creatures he’s only seen in Projections -apart from ‘Mother’, but she wasn’t a real woman, as he found out later- and who live in Segments in the Lower Quarters and the Working Settlements in the Islands, doing menial labors and donating… whatever it is they donate so that people can be created.
“You…” he says intelligently, feeling the bitter taste of the river water on his lips as it’s dripping from his hair.
“Stupid Drone,” the girl murmurs, turning her face away from him. “You’re all the same.” Then she coughs some more until he’s almost sure she’ll drown right in front of his eyes, on dry land, and tries to pull her legs up from the hole.
He’s only heard that word once before, and it wasn’t directed at him. One of the older soldiers, a bearded dude from Europea, once threatened to kill an entire Settlement during a training session. He had missed one of his pills or something. The boys just stood there, the ‘Mothers’ silent, watching as the kids started cursing at him and throwing bricks that landed dully at their feet.
“Drone!” a little boy, about Karim’s age when he first met him, screamed.
His ‘Mother’ strutted forward to get him inside.
“Freeze!” the bearded soldier had called and she did. “What did you say?” he turned to the boy.
“Drone,” the kid repeated. “You’re all drones, you’ve got no brain in your heads. You just take orders from him. The Chairman eat my heart if it isn’t true.”
Everyone knew that the bearded guy had no choice.
The soldiers have to shoot anyone who speaks treason to the Chairman on sight. That was the price of peace, they all understood it. But when they went back, Felix had been sick right inside the Pod, and had had to spend one week in Infirmary. By the time they let him out, his eyes were hurting.
He didn’t want to even blink once -although that was impossible. But every time there was even a hint of darkness around him, he could see the little boy’s dead eyes staring him in the face. Only it wasn’t just a poor kid in the Hellenic Shores he kept seeing before him. It was Karim. And the soldier with the beard who shot him without a moment’s hesitation was he himself.
“Are you in a gang, Drone?” her voice interrupts his thoughts.
The girl -the woman- grunts and tries to move away from him, only it’s pathetic, because she can’t move an inch, she’s so frozen. He gets up on shaky legs, and furrows deeper into his jacket, trying to dispel the sudden coldness that envelopes him, piercing his very bones. Let her freeze, for all he cares.
He’s already outside of the law, all he needs is a crazy woman he actually touched to add to the pile.
Behind him he can hear her panting, struggling to pull herself up, spitting out water and going nowhere. She’s wearing a dress that’s torn and clinging to her limbs -it’s obviously not made of Hydro. It looks more like the rags they give them in the Desert Pods to wipe their brows with if they get to the point of sweating. He’s never had to use one of these, he thinks with pride, until he realizes that he’s very much in need of something to wipe his dripping hands and hair right now.
The girl seems to have slipped into unconsciousness beside his feet. A ray of the dipping sun slants so that it hits her hair directly. It glistens in the sudden light in a peculiar, false color. Felix was convinced she was a Colonist, but now he’s beginning to think she might have come from the Box. A small pool of blood is beginning to soak the snow under her right arm, where a wound is gaping open.
Her chip. She, or someone else, has taken it out -great. She’s a Felon.
“Oh, merc take it,” he grumbles as he grabs her other arm and starts pulling her behind him. Her body slides easily on the ice, and he walks like that, not glancing once behind him at her, until they reach the bear.
“Be useful for once, stupid beast,” Felix tells it and, as though it understands, it kneels down on all fours so that he can load the girl on its back.
It’s only after they’ve made it to the shack, just as darkness begins to cover the treetops in the distance, making them invisible, that Felix realizes he’s left his goggles out on the lake, along with his gloves.
*end of free sample*
thank you for reading!
photo by the amazing Sophie of @sophiesbookstagram