Finding Atlas

Annabelle Tate doesn't remember what life was like before the Colony. All she knows is that life during it is dreadful. When a citizen turns 17 they're automatically tested on their loyalty, agility, intelligence and mental well being. If they fail they go through an elusive process known as "fixing." When Annabelle fails she's whisked into a world of espionage, archery, instinct and brutality to fight and inspire a dying nation she once sought allegiance to.

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            It was the blaring of the alarm that roused me from my sleep. I jolted awake and tore the flimsy cotton blanket off of me. The whole night I had shivered and tossed and turned feverishly in my sleep. In my dreams I saw Ren. He emerged out of the liquid darkness and his eyes penetrated me with a steely glare. His eyes were the color before the storm—a hard flinty gray.

 

            “Arise chosen one,” he roared until my ears rang and I felt my head explode with pain and saw a thousand glittering stars in my vision. The pain was searing white hot and licked at my scalp in a most unforgiving way. I collapsed onto what were cold metal grates on my hands and knees and screamed and screamed. I saw Ellie shot down, the bullet ripping through delicate sinew and bone. Her murderer wielding a plasma rifle, the laser disintegrating through her flesh instantly, her scream was soundless. I couldn’t catch her before she collapsed and when I tore those sheets off my body was caked in cold films of sweat. I trembled and felt my skin: my hand came away with clammy wetness.

 

            I surveyed my room and yawned stretching groggily as my bones and joints ached and popped audibly.

 

            “The slumbering princess awakens,” the girl with the cross cried out jauntily, sitting cross legged on her own cot. She’d already taken to furnishing our “room” with her own personal belongings. There was a yellowed photograph of what I surmised to be her parents. They were both tall and fair haired. She was smiling in between them and throwing some unknown sign with her forefinger and pointer finger extended in a gesture of peace and sovereignty. In another corner there was a pile of books with religious texts no doubt and one of them was a voluminous book which bore the title of “The Holy Bible.” She had an assortment of bracelets and charms and other gleaming jewelry atop a side table.

 

            “How did you get all that stuff?”

           

            “Aidan, I’m Leanne by the way,” she answered elusively. I shook her hand as she introduced herself and I told her my name in return. Her hands were clammy. I pulled on a gray tank top I’d found in one of the drawers of our inornate dresser. I pulled on a pair of hunting pants and brown boots and zipped them up over the pants.

 

            “Good thing you’re dressed like that, Flea says it’s time for us to train today. We’ll be heading to breakfast and then going to the training stations immediately after that so you best be prepared.”

 

            I nodded in reply and thought back to Collin and Diana. I wondered if they were content with their lives, if they missed me as fiercely as I missed them. I thought of James and Miles. I pondered on if my brother was faring well in the mines or had he succumbed to the coal dust and the treacheries found deep within its annals. Lastly I thought of Ellie and my parents and immediately I remembered my dream and that was what compelled me to attend breakfast.

 

            Breakfast was a feast, a buffet of an amalgamation of meats and tarts and other delicacies whose names escaped me. There were simmering broths and some sort of toast covered in a sweet syrupy substance. I had some of that but found the sweetness to be a tad overbearing so I supplanted it with some berries and ripped into an orange and ate that ravenously as my stomach protested piteously.

 

            “Aye the girl can eat!” Jackson commented and everyone erupted into laughter. I slowed down suddenly feeling self conscious and took methodical and tinier bites of my food, chewing thoughtfully. The toast was good.

            “It’s French toast, what you’re eating I mean. It’s a commonality in the Old World but here it’s treated as a delicacy and made with the finest bread: Brioche,” Langston helpfully provided. After breakfast plates were cleared by servants donning the same outfit flea had been seen in except it wasn’t as tight-fitting and flowed more freely like velvet from and around their thin bodies. They were regal and possessed refined features and sharp high cheekbones.

 

            “So good morning ladies and gents, I see you’ve had your fill of breakfast?”

 

            Aidan emerged from the double doors at the far corner of the room. We’d been seated at a long mahogany table that seemed to stretch forever. I was still working on my second helping of the French toast concoction when he’d walked in. I was tempted to sample everything, to have food at the ready, to have warm, filling, comforting, and delicious food at your fingertips to fill your belly—this was something novel to me. I thought of my parents and friends having to beg and barter their way for something as simple as a slab of cooked meat and how here comparatively everything was provided for us without seemingly a second thought.

 

            “Breakfast was astounding!” Jackson cheered.

           

            “Simply splendid,” Devin agreed in satisfaction.

 

            “It was delicious, thank you,” Langston bowed his head quietly, his dreads falling into his honey liquid eyes.

 

            The two girls nodded into their bowls of porridge which was the only dish I recognized except we made ours with raisins and currants and berries—this one was bereft of any of that. The two girls had introduced themselves as Rhea—my roommate with the cross and Bethany—the girl with the rippling corded muscle whose soft voice belied her gentle nature.

 

            “Glad to know that, seems you’ve all stuffed yourselves which is exactly what we intended. Let that digest for a bit because through the set of double doors I just walked through you’ll find a plethora of weapons at your disposal: plasma handguns, rifles, electric bows, flaming arrows, targeting arrows, katanas … you name it it’s there and they’re all ready to be brandished by a hearty and stalwart warrior. So dig deep and pull out that courageousness and anger and sense of betrayal and sense of being opposed and controlled and take out all of that on your wooden and stuffed opponents. Begin!”

 

            We pushed back our chairs and all you could hear was the scraping of metal against metal. I tore through the double doors and reached for the nearest electric bow and quiver of targeting arrows and slung them on my back. They were expectedly hefty. These were the sort of weaponry used by Enforcers and were restricted to anyone from any of the Provinces. Not even the Elite could use these. Langston picked up a pair of handguns while Rhea had went for a pair of katanas—a dual wielder. She expertly sliced through a dummy but the second one proved to be more challenging and her katana got stuck in a chunk of wood. Still I was impressed. I readied my bow and pulled my arrow taut releasing it, aiming for the solar plexus of my target. The faceless stuffed opponent barely flinched as I missed and hit it in the shoulder instead. Accuracy was never my strong point. Leave that to my brother. Still I’d watched him spar enough with my dad to know a thing or two plus an archery class with standard wooden bows and arrows helped. Just because we couldn’t use these standard Enforcer weaponry didn’t mean we hadn’t been provided with our own means of defense at school or at home.

 

            Arrow after arrow I missed repeatedly until I finally hit the solar plexus. I cheered a little too loudly and a peeved Aidan who’d been sitting and watching us go to work on our targets finally sat up a little straighter.

 

            “Train your weapons on each other!” He finally announced and Langston turned to me, his eyes cold, he really looked the part. I drew my arrow back, already notching it into the quiver, steeling myself for his handguns to level with my head. In a second he’d drawn his handguns and leveled it at my eyes.

           

            Boom!

           

            The plasma shots fired one after another in a barrage of electric heat that singed the tips of my hair as I somersaulted and pivoted and sidestepped away from them. I nicked his cheek with my arrows. Aidan smiled appreciatively. He didn’t want us to injure each other; he merely wanted us to playfully and yet seriously too spar with one another. Skill against skill, partner against partner, this is what he’d wordlessly approved of in that smile. And spar we would.

 

            After what seemed like an exhaustive infinite amount of time we were finally declared good enough to stop and we took a break and ate lunch. It was another delectable array of various sandwiches and light finger foods and cookies and sweets. There were salads and various types of dressing and an assortment of condiments. I ate my fill and lay back until Flea materialized in that hazy stream of blue light and it dissipated in fragmented sparks. I thought of how beautiful and amazing their technology was and how much pilfering did they have to do to retrieve it all? And furthermore how much knowledge had they obtained to work this technology in the first place?

           

            “Aidan has a mission for you all, you’re to start tomorrow,” she hands us each a digital tablet. I take mine and don’t even think to begin fiddling it. In class I was always obedient and that rigidity of obedience follows me here—in this foreign place filled with hope and uncertainty.

           

            “You’re to travel to the Great Library and take as much as you can,” she continues as we’re commanded to press the “ON” button for our tablets and it lights up with the same electric blue light that she’d appeared in. We were to steal from The Great Library, no one but the Elite and the Enforcers were permissible to enter its premises. The only reason I’d gone all those years ago with my classmates was because our teacher at the time was an Elite himself and had obtained a pass for “educational purposes.” The tablet didn’t specify what particular texts but as many texts as we could possibly discover and stuff into the provided burlap sacks she’d lain in front of us.

 

            “Now we’re talking!” Leanne exclaimed and Jackson shared a glance with her and they both smiled at the prospect of stealing. This just reminded me of the times I’d snuck into the bakery at the Pavilion with James, my brother and Diana. We’d taken as many pastries as we possibly could fill in our knapsacks. There was a thrill when you knew you could probably be penalized by an Enforcer for getting caught with stolen goods. An adrenaline rush was just as rewarding as sinking your teeth into a delectable poppy cake or an orange tree loaf made with the zest of citrus fruits.

 

            I suppose I could relate to their excitement.

 

            It was nightfall when we were instructed to move out.

 

            Aidan told us to be nimble and safe and had Flea pilot a leviathan airship over to the Great Library in Province 3. I think the only reason we listened to Aidan was because we considered him to be our savior. It was either this or us facing the previous looming possibility of being fixed and purged. And I knew for a fact that none of us wanted to be purged.

 

             Devin was the first to drop to the ground soundlessly as the aircraft hovered ominously like a dark beacon of retribution over the imposing and towering Great Library. I hadn’t seen the palatial building in years and viewing it so close reminded me of just how frightening the task we were attempting really was. If we were caught we’d be punished with death, not just exile. In my world exile was the first step and death or purging was the next and since we’d clearly defied Ren’s expectations we’d sought the taste of metallic blood in our mouths as the next response.

 

            We climbed up the seemingly innumerable steps silently.

 

            “Do you think we’ll be caught? Imagine how exciting it’ll to be to test out these new weapons!” Jackson rambled. I considered telling him to hush as I was already shivering in the cool air and being only garbed in a flimsy tank top I wasn’t exactly comfortable. However I stopped and just “hm’ed” in accordance with him; it would in theory be oddly thrilling to get caught but realistically fear would outweigh the excitement. And that familiar taste of pennies was something I hesitated to experience so I did in fact end up telling him to shut up.

 

            “Shush or we’ll risk getting caught. Just stay on your guard and don’t mess up,” I instructed and I reasoned that we should split into teams of two as we’d cover more ground. We weren’t even told how long we needed to take just to be expedient and mindful of our environment as the place was teeming with security and bugged with numerous cameras. I sweated just thinking about the camera we’d narrowly avoided on our way out, we’d have to disassemble them. Flea, Aidan told us, had already set about disassembling some of them and I wasn’t about to inquire how she’d managed to do just that. I just knew I was thoroughly impressed.

 

            Langston and I teamed up together. He had his handguns from earlier drawn and trained on everything and the slightest movement or sound of ruffled papers unnerved him. I was just as edgy, notching an arrow in my bow and keeping it drawn taut in case an Enforcer decided to bum rush us out of nowhere. My father had told me how our grandfather had been tackled by one forcefully one time for robbing from the Market. However it hadn’t been his fault that our grandmother had been ailing and they hadn’t been fortunate enough to have enough coin to honestly buy her good medicine.

 

             I was telling Langston this rather randomly out of boredom I suppose and to avoid the tedium of sitting cross legged in the dark with a flashlight trained over the pages we perused through. That was when it happened …

 

            “You there girl, the boy too, drop the books!” The helmeted Enforcer roared in his typical uniform of crisp white and gray. We didn’t do as we were told as a second Enforcer, no doubt his partner, trained plasma rifles on us. Instead we stuffed the books in our knapsacks and wordlessly, without any need to communicate to each other, hid behind the bookcases. I was used to hiding. I’d hid behind brick walls and walls made of steel and stone from Enforcers before, my heart thumping wildly in my chest. My every movement was calculated and direct. It was one of the few things my father having been a honed martial artist had taught me—let your opponent make the first move and be calculated and weigh your options. It was very much like chess-very logical based.

            I released the arrow and aimed it directly for the Enforcer’s shoulder, enough to render him useless but the plasma had still ripped a hole into my own shoulder. I grit my teeth as the blood blossomed like red chrysanthemums. The air smelled of pennies. I resisted the urge to retch. I’d always hated the smell of blood and I knew in that moment I wasn’t that capable of an archer or even a combatant. I was just amateurish my brother on the other hand had always been a prodigious pupil with martial arts and hand-to-hand combat. It was Langston who swooped in, pushed me down until I was crouching amongst books by Hawthorne and Hughes. He fired with his guns and caught the first one in the other shoulder. His partner dodged the second plasma blast and fired back repeatedly and I noted that it was a semiautomatic plasma rifle that fire rapidly. Only reason I know that is because Collin’s father had been a gun enthusiast.

 

            “Stay down,” Langston whispered.

           

            “I know, I know just get them off our backs so we can finish this,” I bite out a little more tersely than I mean to. For a split second I wonder how our other team mates are doing and if they’ve amassed an enviable collection of books already. There are an almost infinite amount of bookshelves lining the high vaulted walls of the library, scraping the very beams of the ceiling. I don’t have time to admire the alabaster and marble beauty of the library’s architecture as I’m suddenly wrenched to my feet and pulled along into a breakneck sprint.

           

            “What the hell are you doing?” Curled tendrils of my hair stick to my face as I try to brush them away, my sweaty hand clasping tightly to Langston’s scarred ones. He’s so imperfectly perfect and spontaneous and mysterious and I immediately forget about Collin’s green eyes and his easy smile and his adroitness with his fingers when he plays the violin. Almost ... but not quite entirely. 

           

            “Getting them off our backs like you told me to,” Langston answered back. The Enforcers are hot on our heels, firing and blasting away bits of paper as they sail to the ground gently. The tall rooms of shelves are filled with burning paper and the air smells acrid and like wood pulp and like ash. Through the stained glass windows all I can see are the spattering of stars gleaming like a thousand lights, lighting up the indigo canvas of vast sky. It would be beautiful if I could take a moment to breathe in and realize its beauty. But my survival depends on one action: running. We duck behind another suitcase and Langston tells me to notch another arrow and let it fly and hope it kills one of the Enforcers.

 

            “Kill?!” I start helplessly. I’ve never killed another human being. I’ve never thought to mindlessly maim or even hurt another person. As evil and as ruthless as the Enforcers portray themselves to be they still have wives, husbands, children, parents—you know a family. It pains me to know that I’ll have to rip them out away from them in one hopeful firing of an arrow. I’m not that good of an archer anyway. I only know the rudimentary principles of archery like the positioning of my arm in relation to my body and the tensing of shoulders and neck and head.

 

            “Annabelle!”

 

            And the arrow flies, it soars, it whistles through the air and penetrates the head of the Enforcer in one clean impale. And I cry out and his partner kneels before him completely undone and lowers his/her rifle and piteously bemoans their partner’s name over and over, shaking his bloodied corpse helplessly, cradling his head in the crook of their thighs.

           

            We take a few books from the Hesse section as we’d backtracked to “H”. Every few bookcases are alphabetized and some are placed in this odd system of numbers and letters. The letters and numbers seem to follow some sort of code. My head is muddled. I think of the Enforcer I killed and then I think of how he would’ve ruthlessly murdered Langston and I. And I hear the frenetic pattering of that dead Enforcer’s partner. I see by the sailing hue of auburn hair that it’s a lithely female. She lunged and it was Rhea, the girl with the cross, that wields her katana as effortlessly as the samurai Langston and I had spent hours poring over in the literature we’d obtained that saves me. The Enforcer aims her plasma rifle right at the nape of my neck, intending to paralyze me and then handcuff and kill me, televising it for the whole of the Colony to see. This was the punishment for stealing. I get a heavy boot to the stomach and Langston stops aiming his handguns at her. Fifty or so Enforcers surround us. The place is swarmed at the epicenter of the Library with them. They’re all training various guns and electric bows with targeting arrows at us. Their uniform gleams a cold gray and white with stripes of bright blue and red.

 

            I hold my breath.

 

            Jackson yells a deranged war cry and we spring into action the room a dizzying array and clashing of steel against various metals. Guns blasting and firing and arrows being shot and whizzing past us. We’re somersaulting and diving against bookcases, crashing into voluminous texts of Poe and Lovecraft.

 

            “Fire with everything you have!”

 

            Rhea wields an axe, fitting for a girl of her tall and burly stature. She swings it overhead and cleaves an Enforcer in two before they’re able to shred my head off with a chain flail. These are the barbaric instruments they murder thieves and potential other criminals with. We are now the exiled scum of Province 8 to them. 

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