The pale girl with the gold earrings like the crescent moon rubbed a hand through her hair and looked out of the window. Even with the creaking radiator turned all the way up she was surprised she couldn’t see her breath fog the air. Kata was beginning to forget what it had been like when the kitchen table groaned with food, drink, light, and laughter. She sighed and watched snowflakes beat uselessly against the glass. Past them, in the street, people were scurrying about like ants desperate to get back into the warm.
“Something’s got them excited.”
Keys rattled in the lock before a crash heralded her boyfriend’s return. Kata rolled her eyes. Twenty-eight years old, a grown man, and still Hannibal couldn’t open a door properly. No doubt the six-foot giant unfolding in the hallway had left a new imprint in the wall for the landlady to moan about.
“Any luck? You’ve been gone a while.”
“Same old story,” said her sweetheart as he strode into the room shaking snow from his favourite denims, the ones that looked they were held together by band patches. “But there might be something in this.”
He shoved his phone forward so Kata could read the screen.
“Maintenance? You’re a roadie. You push speakers about. Don’t tell me you know how to look after a building.”
“How hard can it be?” Hannibal shrugged. “Besides there’s nothing going on anymore. State says all performances cancelled for the crisis’ duration.”
Kata glared at him.
“The crisis? Is that what they’re calling it now?”
But Hannibal put his finger to his lips.
“Careful honey. You don’t know who might be listening, even here.” He glanced at the flat’s propaganda screen and the security camera bulging from its top. “We should go. They say it’s better in the sticks, and there’s something else.”
“It’s back in our old manor. Should be easy to get on our feet again.”
Kata’s skin prickled. It had been a hard struggle to escape that trap before it ground them into submission, but she knew what he meant. The city was a black hole where the only work left was for the privileged with connections high up. She watched as the ants at the end of the street formed a line. A soup kitchen had opened its doors.
“I suppose it can’t be any worse than here.”
Two weeks later Hannibal and Kata were getting off a bus. As the big man retrieved their bags she shivered and examined the station with its smashed windows and weeds growing through the cracks.
“Home sweet home lover. How long since we left now d’you think?”
“Ten years.” Hannibal glanced up and fixed his eyes on her. “We got out when we still had a chance.”
“Remind me why we’re here again then?”
“Because it’s better than a slow death in the city.”
Kata looked at the rest of the buildings off the wide square, high, and institutional, they looked in equally bad shape.
“Hope you’re sure about that.”
But she kept her voice to a whisper. It wouldn’t be long before the city was the same, and with way more desperate people. They just had to hope the rumours they’d heard were right and the hicks were siphoning off the countryside’s food supplies for themselves.
“Wonder if there’s any of the old crowd left?”
“I doubt it,” said Hannibal swinging their bags over his shoulder. “Not the way they were carrying on before we got out.”
When Kata had met Hannibal he’d still been living with his aunt, and her own parents had disappeared not long after as if they felt the job of child rearing was done now their daughter had found a man. Kata had cried a little at first, but as far as she’d been concerned life without the constant fighting and drunken declarations of love had been a relief even if she’d temporarily lost the roof over her head. Hannibal and her hadn’t stayed in town much longer after that.
“The clerk on the phone said report to the school for work and they’ll show us the house we’ve been allocated,” said her boyfriend as he reached her side.
“Looks even worse than I remember it.”
“Yeah… I’d forgotten. Where do you think everyone is?”
Kata was opening her mouth to reply when a scarecrow dressed in a ragged trench coat emerged from a nearby alley and blocked their path.
“The kids have come back.” A huge unkempt beard thrust itself in their direction. “No, not kids anymore. All grown up.”
There were eyes in there too, black, and beady, and filled with a feverish light.
“You remember me? Jim Devereux? Nah, you wouldn’t, too young, I expect.”
Hannibal and Kata examined the figure in front of them doing their best to strip away the dirt. It was Kata who figured it out first.
“I know you.” She shook her head and slowly a smile travelled across her face. “You were a copper. What happened to you?”
Devereux tapped a finger against his nose and gave them a wink.
“I’m undercover. This place is rotten, but I’m gonna clean it up. You’ll see. Drag each and every one of them to jail and throw away the key.” He backed away still staring at them with that bright light in his eyes. “Got to go now. People to see. Places to be. You know how it is.”
“I remember him chasing us all over town.” Hannibal watched the man shuffle up the street. “Doesn’t look like much now.”
“Yeah, but what’s replaced him?”
They’d been back a month before Kata began to suspect something was wrong, a month of checking who was alive and who was dead amongst their old friends. A month of calm reassurances that they’d made the right decision. Residential Sector Twelve was safe, dull, but safe.
The only problem was she was tired with the sort of bone aching weariness that had her dragging herself out of bed like an old woman, and Hannibal was worse. Kata stared at the pitted ceiling over her head. She should get up and start preparing the evening meal, but after a day spent with one of the sector’s volunteer militias lethargy sat in her bones like lead.
“At least we’re alive.”
That was no small thing since the fighting started. She frowned as the doorbell disturbed her thoughts.
“Yes? Who is it?” Her voice was barely a croak as she activated the grimy vidscreen and grabbed a clear plastic bladder from the pack that arrived on their doorstep every morning along with instructions for the day. As she squeezed the water down her throat the stamp of the company that ran the town caught her eye. Another quirk that kept the area secure was the presence of so much decaying heavy industry that the groundwater had long since been contaminated.
“Jesca I… what’s wrong?”
The woman on the video screen was Hannibal’s supervisor and her eyes were darting from side to side as she leaned closer to the speaker.
“Let me in Kata, please.”
Kata had never seen the teacher in such a state. Normally Jesca’s smile was a permanent feature and she brightened up a room just by being in it, but now she looked like a hunted animal. As Kata watched she pulled her daughter into view.
“Please Kata, for my kid’s sake. I don’t have long.”
There was no one in the street outside when Kata looked but she double bolted the door just to be on the safe side as soon as she’d let them in. There was something about seeing the only person in town who’d seemed to have a pulse in such a state that was a little unnerving.
“Shouldn’t you be at the school? Has something happened? Is Hannibal Ok?”
“I don’t know. I ran.”
“What do you mean you ran?”
Jesca gripped Kata’s hands so hard her nails dug into the flesh and stared into her eyes.
“Believe me I’d have gone elsewhere, but you’re still new. You’re not hooked.”
“Hooked on what?”
Jesca pointed at the water.
“Riot control honey. The answer to the civil war. What made you think coming to a pharma town was a good idea? This place is one big laboratory.”
“You should see the city. Besides, I was born in this sector. Nothing ever happens here.”
“Nothing happens for a reason. They’ve been feeding the population sedatives for years, constantly upping the dose to see what they can get away with and still have a productive labour force. But they’ve gone too far now. They want to start on the kids.”
Kata fought to think clearly through the lethargy filling her mind.
“How come you don’t seem affected? What makes you so special?”
Jesca looked down.
“I oversee distribution. I’m trusted.”
“Not by me. Her maybe, but not me.”
Kata pointed at where Jesca’s daughter had wandered into the living room. She was already slipping a pair of rubber nodes onto her temples so she could glue herself into her screen.
“You’re missing the point Kata. It doesn’t matter if you trust me or not. They’ll know I’ve come here. You can’t avoid the surveillance. I just need you to get my daughter out. Take her anywhere you like. I’ll give you money. Just take her far away from here.”
“Why don’t you do it?”
For the first time since the woman had started her story Kata felt a twinge of pity. The look Jesca was giving her was the same as a convict who’d been locked up all their life.
“They’ll never let me go. Not with what I know. Your parents were the same. Look where trying to fight the town’s board got them.”
“You knew my parents?”
“We were friends a long time ago before they were designated high risk and gotten rid of.”
Kata’s head suddenly felt as though a storm was blowing through it. She wasn’t sure whether to tear the teacher’s eyes out or start crying.
“No, I had nothing to do with it. I told you. I’m distribution, but not anymore. If they want to turn the kids into drones too, I’m out. My daughter deserves a chance at a decent life.”
“Is still at the school,” once again Jesca was finding it hard to meet Kata’s eyes. “You don’t understand. They’d never let me leave and I wasn’t sure you’d agree to help me. They’ve only just made the decision, but it won’t be long till they put this place into lockdown in case there’s any trouble from the parents.”
Kata felt her stomach lurch.
“What is it? What have you done Jesca?”
“You’re not the only ones with connections in the movement. I left certain things where they’ll find them in case you said no. But there’s still time to do something about it. I’ll tell you where they are if you agree to help… please.”
The crack as Kata’s hand met Jesca’s cheek and snapped her head round sounded loud in the narrow corridor.
Kata glared at the teacher.
“Alright, then I better go get him.”
The school was a huge concrete block at the town’s centre. Once someone had tried painting colourful murals along it, but generations of kids had covered them with graffiti until only the odd splash of colour remained where even the oldest couldn’t reach. As Kata drew nearer she saw the lights were out. She pulled out her phone and tried another call listening to the ringtone before it was replaced by the flat whine of a disconnected service.
“You better be in there Hannibal.”
The wind howling down the street stole the words from her mouth with ease and she glanced at the lowering snow laden clouds gathering overhead. If they were going to make a run for it tonight they’d have a storm to cover their tracks.
“If we make a run for it tonight.”
Kata headed up the stairs. The entrance was open, but crossing its threshold felt like stepping into an abyss, and some deep primal part of her was screaming to get out before it was too late.
Kata’s voice bounced through the gloomy building. There were lights on she realised just not the main ones. Instead, only the cabinets and their ranks of cheap trophies shone in the dark.
Kata’s foot met a bucket and water sloshed onto the floor. With her next step she found the mop, and something went cold and hard inside her.
Hannibal was hanging from a knotted cord tied to the railing of a balcony. It looked like he was trying to see something on his shoes.
As she tried to hoist him free Kata’s feet slid on the photos scattered on the floor like the leaves of a tree in autumn. She knew what they’d be without even looking and as she finally gave up and began to cry with her face buried against his legs the grainy images of a much younger Hannibal with even longer hair stared back from under a banner with the revolutions slogan. Once upon a time the movement had played a large part in both their lives; although she doubted their lack of activity recently would matter. The association was enough, and the town’s runaway had been caught and punished at last for his escape. Hannibal would have known what was waiting for him in one of the crumbling state-run gulags. Politicals rarely made it to old age.
When Devereux found her she was curled in a ball staring at the love of her life’s fingers, the ones that would never touch her again, never caress her face.
“Come on get up.”
She felt herself being dragged to her feet.
“You can’t stay here. They’ll be coming before dawn to clear away the body. Probably already know you’ve found it.”
“The board’s servants; they’ve plenty of those in this town.”
“Jesca,” hissed Kata, the name spitting from her tongue like an insult. “She’s at my house.”
“With her child Kata. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have done the same yourself. That kid stays here she’ll be a drone just like everyone else.”
“You’re not like them. Everyone else… their eyes. They look like you could walk right up and shoot them, and they wouldn’t care.”
“Trust me it’s been done. They’re the perfect docile population. All the board wants now is to see if it can get the same result with the kids.”
“So, what’s your secret? Why aren’t you like them?”
Glass clinked in the man’s pocket as he pulled something free.
“I don’t drink the water sweetheart… prost.”
Devereux replaced the bottle.
“Come on now let’s get you out of here. You gonna take the kid?”
Kata’s heart felt crushed and sour, and she could feel the tracks of tears freeze on her cheeks as they stepped into the rising storm, but she knew she had no choice.
“Yes… but the mother.”
Devereux stared back at her and she was surprised at the kindness hidden in the look.
“Thought you might feel like that.”
When they got back the house was empty except for Jesca’s daughter and no amount of raging from Kata could change it. The note that Jesca had left almost stayed unread, but if it wasn’t Kata that killed the woman for what she’d done her superiors surely would. Kata unfolded the paper and thought of the thousand things she’d like to do to the person who’d written it.
She thrust it in Devereux’s direction. One word had been enough.
“I can’t read this. Tell me what she’s got to say… briefly.”
The ex-policeman hunched over the paper as thunder rumbled in the distance.
“She says to leave now. She says they’ll be busy with her and what she’s going to do to their hardware round here. She says you won’t see her again, neither of you.”
“She’s lucky then,” hissed Kata. But as she looked at where Jesca’s daughter was still sat her jaw softened and some of the wildness left her face. She realised she didn’t even know the kid’s name.
“What are you going to do Devereux?”
The man took a long drink from his bottle and grinned. “They might not pay me anymore but I’ve a responsibility to this town. Well, what’s left of it. The people here were my friends.”
“Won’t you be in trouble for helping me?”
“Probably, but I think they like having me around. It reminds them of how untouchable they are. But I have this.”
Devereux pulled his coat aside and Kata saw the pistol slung around his hip.
“If I ever see one of the board I’m going to let rip. But they’re careful and they don’t like to get too close to the herd. Normally they just send their servants to do their work for them. This time though I’m not sure. This thing with the kids is a big deal for them. It’s the culmination of their program; the final hurdle. Afterwards, if it works, they’ll start rolling their product out to the cities.”
Kata stared into the night pressing against the window. She felt empty, used up, and it had nothing to do with what they were putting into the water. She’d no idea where she would go, just that it had to be away from here.
“Then I’ll say goodbye.”
“Goodbye Kata. I’m sorry about Hannibal. He was a good kid.”
Just for a moment Kata thought she might cry, but she was damned if she’d let him see her weakness.
“Come on,” she called instead as she went into the next room. “We have to get going.”
“Where’s my Mum?”
The girl stared up at her with wide blue eyes. She was a lot younger than Kata had been when her own parents had disappeared, but she still knew something was wrong.
“Your Mummy’s told me to look after you until she can join us.” Kata stretched a smile across her face she didn’t feel and took the kid’s hand. “Let’s get you wrapped up warm. We’re going for a walk.”
The storm had died down a little by the time they made their move, and the moon was visible sailing through the ragged clouds.
“At least we can see where we’re going.”
Fresh snow lay everywhere un-marked and un-disturbed and for a moment the town at the heart of Sector Twelve almost looked beautiful. Kata and the girl hurried through the streets crossing the open spaces at a run. Kata pretended it was a game and she was glad of the weather because it made it too cold to talk much. It was only when they reached the suburbs pressing up against the forest that she allowed herself to breathe a little easier.
“Mummy’s in there. In the forest. Shall we go see her?”
“No. It’s cold. I want to go home.”
“Listen,” Kata crouched until she was level with the girl’s face. “What’s your name?”
“Listen Adele, we’re going on an adventure. That’s how you have to think of this. Don’t you want to see if there’s elves in the woods? I bet there are.”
Adele squinted suspiciously at the dark looming trees.
“What sort of elves?”
“Good ones, with tons of candy, and warm fires. That’s who your Mum’s with.”
Kata was hoping that the part about warm fires was true at least. She knew she was storing up trouble for later, but she’d do anything to put a million miles between her and Sector Twelve right then.
They were halfway to the nearest trees when the first figure stepped from between their trunks.
Kata veered through the drifts. She couldn’t tell if the man had seen them. Maybe they’d been lucky. Her hope died a miserable death when the next black clad figure emerged, and the next, and the next.
Soon there was almost as many people as trees spread in a semicircle around them.
“Who are they?” said Adele.
“Nobody we want to know.”
Kata began to step backwards dragging the child with her. They’d gotten about twenty paces before the crowd appeared from between the buildings. All that was missing were torches thought Kata with a bitter smile.
“Run kid. Your mother’s waiting for you.”
A narrow rapidly closing path led to the nearest clump of woodland on her left and Kata shoved the kid in that direction.
Adele’s face crumpled and Kata waited for her to burst into tears. But the kid was tough. When she gave her another, harder, shove she didn’t fall to the ground or lose control. She just stared back at Kata with a puzzled frown.
“Move, these people are killers. They’ll eat you up and chew on your bones and they’re coming now.”
Kata thought fast.
“Move, you’re a horrible little stray I wish I’d never met.”
She glanced at the forest hoping the kid can’t tell she’s faking it.
“I think I see your mother now. I wish she was dead too.”
At least the last part is true and with a sound midway between a sob and a gasp the little figure was running through the thickening snow. Kata had no idea how far it was to the nearest settlement. No idea if she’d live, but as her back disappeared between the trees and the crowd drew in she was glad the kid had a chance.
“Never come back sweetheart. It’s true what they say. Going back will be the death of you.”
Kata turned to face the nearest grey faced figures with their deadly blank eyes. They were drawing knives.
Kilmo writes. He brought it from squatting in Bristol to a van in a pub car park, to “Dark Fire Magazine,” “CC&D Magazine,” “Feed Your Monster Magazine,” “Blood Moon Rising,” “Aphelion,” “The Wyrd,” “One Hundred Voices,” and now here.