Chapter One: “The Way of the World”
Twelve Years Ago:
It was another sublime day in the village where all the children lived. The sun rose early, and the children ate breakfast at the usual hour, before journeying to the school at their heart of this vibrant little community and resuming their studies.
Adam, as ever, took the long way to school, around the brook that trailed through the back of all the houses, linking them with this winding vein that rushed with water at all hours. He picked up rogue sticks that had fallen pathetically to the grassy floor below and threw them with a sniper’s eye into the centre of the stream, and half ran to follow them along the way. This was the game he played, to steady his aim, to sharpen his eye. He ran with one eye on the water and one on the ground, concentration flittering from one to the other every other instance. It was when his focus shifted from ground to water that he tripped and fell, falling face first into the dirt. His knees scuffed bloody, his chin dashed at the tip, but he didn’t cry out or yell. The shadow fell over him then. The looming mass shivered in the early morning light. Adam blinked and the shape came into focus: a man, just over six feet tall, clad in a large parka that covered nearly all his body; with a shiver the man took a step forward, and Adam a step back--
“Who are you?” asked the child.
“Who am I?” the man intoned, shakily. “Why are you here?”
The tone of the question was curious to Adam. The sheer incredulous disbelief. ‘Why am I here?’ thought Adam. ‘To live. To learn. To discover the nature of this world and the one beyond?’ Before he could answer, the man collapsed, and the thin layer of arctic snow on his shoulders fell to the ground and started to melt.
The man awoke abruptly, eyes wild at the sudden change in his location. From frozen tundra to picturesque village? And now one step further removed, under a burgundy blanket propped up by a clothes horse to create a rudimentary structure?
‘No,’ he thought, ‘a den, like the ones we used to make as children…’ “Hello? Is anybody--?”
Adam’s head burst through the gap in the blanket and he looked at the man without fear or hesitation, his young grey eyes piercing through his visitor’s character and personality.
“What is this place? Where am I?”
Adam blinked. “Why are you here?” The child mirrored the man’s earlier intonation exactly, and his head bobbed to the side curiously.
“When you appeared. Your words. The exact wording. Your confusion leading to mine. It was a strange way to ask a strange question.” The words coming out of the boy’s mouth weren’t confusing to the man because they were foreign to him, but because of the eloquence, the intelligence—they all belied the child’s age. When did a, what, eight year old? When did eight year olds become so bright?
“I, uh,” the man hesitated. What could he say? “Where are your parents?”
“My what?” The boy looked puzzled. The man felt flush with relief for an instant; he suddenly had a position of power in the conversation.
“Your parents? Your mum and your dad?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” the boy said. “What’s a ‘mum’?”
The man felt something hit him inside. The boy had no accent, just the cold steel voice of pure, unaffected speech. He pronounced his words without heightened intonation, without affectation, he spoke as someone devoid of outside interference.
“Your mum!” said the man, “your mother! Umm, what about your dad? Your father?”
Adam bit his bottom lip. “I still… I don’t know what you mean.”
“The… who do you live with?”
“I live here by myself,” said Adam, not proudly, not as an eager child, but as someone stating a fact. “What are you doing here?”
“I didn’t mean to be here,” said the man, “I was… travelling. Exploring even. I lost touch with my team, and I… I was lost. Out in the snow. I dug in, and then… well, I found my way here. I don’t know, it doesn’t make sense. What do you mean you don’t know what a mum and dad are? What do you mean you live here by yourself?”
“I live here by myself. I go to school along with the other children—they live by themselves as well—it’s not strange, me living like this. Everyone else does.”
The man nodded slowly. “What year is this?”
“Yes, year. What year is this?”
“I don’t know what you mean. Your words… ‘year’? Is that… I don’t know. What’s a mum and a dad?”
The man breathed out slowly. He’d never really considered the question before. “The people who raise you. Look after you. Make you dinner and put you to bed.”
“Do you have a mum and a dad then?” asked Adam.
“Yeah, they’re retired now, but… do you mean there are no grown-ups?” The thought suddenly occurred to him. “None at all? But you said school?”
“Yes, there are teachers, the ones who train us. I’m supposed to be at school now. I’m late. And if I’m late--”
There was a sharp knocking at the door. This was something sinister, decided the man, then and there. The child had no concept of parents? And he went to a school and there were teachers but the children here lived alone? And this place… it made no sense. Mere hours before—he gathered—he was out in the snow, freezing to death because he was lost, and now this? Now this…?
“That’ll be them,” said Adam.
“Don’t tell them I’m here,” said the man. “Don’t.”
“Because something isn’t right, kid, and I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like it. Is there a place I can hide?”
“Adam!” came the shout from behind the front door. “Are you alright? You weren’t at registration this morning!”
“It’s Mister Freund,” said Adam quietly, “my teacher. If we don’t turn up to school they come and see if we’re alright.”
“You’re fine, tell him you’re fine. Tell him, uh, you don’t feel well? I don’t know, shit, shit--”
Adam turned to the door, and then turned back to the man sharply. “Don’t move from here. Don’t make a sound.”
The man nodded, and buried himself deeper into the pillows and cushions that made up the interior of this makeshift shelter. He heard a rustle of movement outside, and the door whine open. He held his breath, and crossed his fingers.
“Are you alright, Adam? You didn’t come to school this morning. We were concerned.”
“I didn’t feel very well,” said the child. Adam. The boy’s name was Adam. The man noted that, and continued to strain his ears. “I’m feeling better now, but I didn’t want to risk making the other children sick.”
“What happened to your chin?”
“I fell,” said Adam. “Scuffed my knees as well.”
The man tensed up. This guy was asking too many questions. And this kind… he was smart, but could he hold up against any kind of intense questioning?
“This morning. Outside. Tried to walk to school but my head went fuzzy. Fell over. Came home and cleaned myself up. Have been trying to sleep it off. Mostly worked.”
“I’m sorry, sir. It won’t happen again.”
“If you’re ill, Adam, then you did the right thing. Do you think you’ll make it to school tomorrow?”
“Yes, I think I will be alright.”
“We’ll see you tomorrow then. Don’t forget to bring your knives.”
“They’re here ready, sir.”
“That they are. Good boy. Get back to sleep, eh?”
“Yes sir.” The door closed, and the man heard small footsteps approach him. He was red in the face, his lung burning for oxygen and when Adam pulled open the sheet that hid him he breathed in hard. “He’s gone now.”
“Good. Good. Yes. God.”
“Are you alright? You seem a bit flustered.”
“I’m nervous, alright?” said the man. “Sorry. I’m sorry. This doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m… you’re Adam, right? I’m Anthony. Tony.”
“Strange,” said Adam, “I’ve never heard the name before.”
“It’s pretty common… where I come from, I guess.” Tony paused. “You’re Adam, right? What are the names of your friends? The other children? Your… neighbours, I guess?”
“Next door there’s
Tony blinked hard, and shook his head. “Annie.
“Or… umm… Brian. Bucky. Bob.”
“What are you talking about?”
“How many children are here, Adam?”
“Twenty-six. Jesus Christ. Right. Umm. How long have you been here?”
“All my life,” said Adam.
“Have you ever left this… this village?”
“No, why would I have to?”
“Holy shit, right, excuse my language. Right. Right. Uh, I’m going to tell you something that might seem completely insane to you, but bear with me, alright? I’m from
“Yes, I do.”
Tony’s brow furrowed. “Where are we now?”
“And where’s the village located?”
“It’s not. It’s here. Nowhere else.”
“Right, but… that’s not right. Because I’m an explorer, right? Always wanted to be one, finally got my wish when I hit twenty, been travelling across the world since… and a few hours ago—it must have been a few hours ago—I was lost in the Arctic wastelands and I kinda gave up and dug myself an ice cave so I could think things through and then tink tink tink--” He mimed hitting something solid with his ice-axe. “I hit metal. And I kept digging. And I found a door. A fucking door, kid. And then I climbed through and you were there… now what the fuck does that mean?”
“There’s a place outside?”
“Exactly. And right now, I think we’re in the middle of some nightmare scenario that just doesn’t lie right with me. Gotta be the government or something. Maybe… I don’t know, the Russians? Or the Iraqis? Fuck, I don’t know, but we got to get you out.”
“And the way out to the place outside is near where I found you?”
“Yeah, mustn’t have been too far.”
“A place outside,” said Adam again. “Another world.”
“No, this world, kid, the right world, and I’m going to get you--” Tony stopped in his tracks. “Uhk.” Something sharp and red in his back screamed out to him. He groped back, but suddenly there was a noise, meat sliced and diced, and he fell to the ground, unable to move. “Uhhk.”
“I’m sorry Tony. But I like it here. For now anyway. And I’ve still got my training to complete. But you’ve given me options! And I like that. I’ll make this quick. You’ve been enlightening to me. Honestly.”
Tony felt the world tumble away and then a moment later he was dead. Adam looked down at the body, and then considered his options, and the open knife case he had removed his bowie knife out of. Last week they’d been taught how to fillet the meat from a man’s bones and dispose of a body. This would be homework.
Ten Years Ago:
Adam was the best student from that day forward. The day that he learned whole new things about the way of the world, and the ways of life on the outside. The outside. The world. Places that weren’t what they were supposed to be, and the idea that this place, the village he called home, the idea that it wasn’t entirely real. A façade. Adam had learnt about masks and misdirection. He could roll a coin from one finger to the next, one to two to three to—and then it would be gone, vanished with a slip and a tuck, and those who saw it, if they weren’t as well versed in the world of distraction, would be wowed and amazed. So what was this place? Was it the coin, or the hand that held the coin? Adam settled on the idea that he was the slice of thin metal, circular and easily obfuscated. In his young heart, the thought unsettled him, and for the first time in ten years, he felt dread. A heavy, weighing emotion, that bucked him in a sea of turmoil. He should have been happy. Contented within himself. He was a pure vessel of intention, but now… doubt. Was that what it was called? Doubt?
Mister Freund was surprised and excited by the way that Adam threw himself into his studies, and the other teachers, Mister Whale and Miss Florey, all agreed with the assessment that this child was borne for greatness. And if they had a part in his training, then they too would become legendary. “Our services will be requested across the world,” said Miss Florey, smiling that paper-thin smile of hers. “And, after all, isn’t that the point of all this?”
They didn’t see Adam at the minutely opened door, his eye blazing the darkest storm of grey through the small gap that had beckoned him forward. ‘And, after all, isn’t that the point of all this?’ He wondered hard about that sentence. He played with it on his tongue. ‘…all this?’
Adam learned about everything they would teach him. He absorbed diligently, and for two years, he knuckled under, became the best of the best. He excelled in every class that was taught. His ability to fight with a knife was incomparable. When Mister Brown slipped—for just a moment—Adam took full advantage of the fumble, and nearly sliced him from ear to ear before he realised numerous things: He’d get bloody for no reason, that the move was unnecessary; and that his teacher did nothing to deserve a blade through his windpipe and glancing his spinal chord. He didn’t deserve it. Then who did?
He asked Mister Freund later that day, after Mister Brown had gone to matron and had his neck stitched back together. Just because Adam had held himself back a tad, just because he’d not delivered the killing stroke, didn’t mean that it wasn’t a bastard of a wound, and the class was dismissed because of it. The other teachers looked at Adam then, and the expressions on their faces… was that pride? He asked Mister Freund the question that had rattled about his head for the past two years now.
“Why am I being trained to kill people?”
Mister Freund was taken aback by this question. The way his bottom lip pouted forward, and back, and forward, as he tried to calculate a response that would not shatter this ten year old’s psyche, that wouldn’t ruin all the work that had been put into this project…
“Because,” he said-- ‘because’ being the best way he could figure to start the most awkward of sentences-- “some people are very bad people, and they need to be killed. To be removed from the slate to keep it clean. If people aren’t killed, then bad things happen to good people, and we wouldn’t want that.”
“Right,” said Adam, nodding. He understood. He understood that by the way Mister Freund fidgeted at the most inopportune moments that he was lying, that his body language had betrayed him because he’d taught Adam too well. The way Mister Freund’s eyes moved, the way his lip shifted, the intonation of the words… Mister Freund had lied to Adam, and that was the final straw. “But what happens, if, say, you kill someone, and it feels wrong? That you regret that decision?”
Freund tilted his head to the side, and leaned forward to Adam, smiling sympathetically. “Whoever you kill deserves it, Adam. Emotions like that don’t matter.
In the proceeding days after Adam had escaped, the teachers, head and all, didn’t know how the child managed it. He was ten. When they stripped the house bare, they found that there was grave beneath the kitchen floorboards containing the decomposed body of someone they didn’t have on their records. And behind a wall, in Adam’s bedroom, were scraps of material and lint. They sealed the house up a week after Adam had left. They never mentioned him again. They didn’t need to. The entrance into the village was sealed, and though they sent thermal imaging drones out across the arctic wasteland to find a trace of the young boy, they eventually resigned themselves to the fact that he was dead. How could a ten year old boy with no equipment survive the trek to civilisation?
How indeed? Tony’s equipment did the deed. The thick overcoat was too big for Adam when he first acquired it, but over the intervening years sine Tony had died, Adam had made some slight adjustments, and it covered his body adeptly. Adam kept rations from dinner for the last three months of his life in the village, and made sure that he bottled enough water to last him for however long he thought he’d need it—he realised, during his hike across the tundra, that he didn’t allow for distance and exertion, a lesson he learned fast, and had to rely on melting chunks of snow in the ice-caves he carved out into the depths of the frost. The exit from the village was still where he had assumed it to be, by the brook, and when he opened it using a key-card he’d palmed from Mister Brown during the throat-cutting incident he was taken aback by the freezing wind that engulfed him.
He was resolute. He’d come this far, planned this far ahead… he trudged out into the snow, and carved a tunnel to get out into the open air. When he emerged, the winds howling and the snow thick and suffocating, he grinned. His face went numb in the cold, but the goggles allowed him to see everything that was visible, and he was ecstatic. He was outside. In the world.
The teachers believed him dead. Mister Freund believed that the fact they didn’t find the body meant that he could still have made it, but the others simply disagreed. “Impossible,” said Mister Whale, “he probably dug himself a snow-cave and died. In a hundred years we’ll find his perfectly preserved corpse, and he’ll be a warning to anyone who comes after him. The frozen failure.”
“The perfect student,” corrected Mister Freund. “If anyone, anyone mind, from the class survived out there, who would you have puts bets on it being?”
Mister Whale ran a hand through his perfectly slicked back hair. Strands clung to his fingers, but he didn’t seem to notice. He was always the one who seemed to have it together most, back in the old days. Now, he had grown fat, and complacent. “No one can survive the outside. No one. That’s that fucking idea.” He craned his neck back, exhaled hard. “We lost one. We write him off.”
“You make it sound so easy,” said Mister Freund, waving him away.
“What?” Mister Whale spun around, and grabbed Freund by the shoulder. “What did you say?”
Freund slapped Whale’s hand away from him, and Red brought his fists up. Freund jerked his wrist forward and back, and a thin, razor sharp blade was now clutched tightly in his hand. “Remember the rules, ‘Mister Whale’,” Freund said slowly. “This here ground we stand on is protected. You throw a punch and I get to kill you fair.”
“Don’t,” started Whale, angrily, “don’t aggravate me, ‘Freund’. It’s not right. We’ve all invested a lot of money, and a lot of time, into this project.”
“We’re still fine,” said Miss Florey, watching the two men still squaring off against one another. “He’s one kid. We’ve got twenty five left. I prefer that number anyway.”
“I prefer…” Freund’s hands rose up next to his head, and the knife slipped back down his cuff. “I prefer it if we moved on. He was a good kid, but there was something…” He paused, and then shook his head. “We move on.”