It was a lethargic summer. The air swam around my heavy head, weighing me down, creating sweat without movement. Not the kind of season you want to spend doing Lethal Technique training, but there you go. There’s never a right time, not for that kind of work. You can’t just wait till you feel like training – you never will. Seize the day, that’s what they say, isn’t it?
Between training sessions, I used to lie outside and dream of water. Cool, quiet pools lapping gently against my bronze legs. Rain drops spotting my dress, each one a tiny refreshment. Water was filthy now. Red said it was probably contaminated. All we had were carbonated substitutes, black and fizzy and unsatisfying in the cloying, possessive heat. Red told me that people used to drink the black stuff out of choice. He told me that people used to have drinkable water that flowed endlessly from taps right inside their homes but spent fortunes on this black carbonated crap instead; but I’m pretty sure he’s making that first part up – water in the home? Such luxury is unthinkable, the potential for waste too great. People cannot be trusted. Especially the Travellers. We know that now.
When The Travellers came, it wasn’t out of choice. Why would anybody go backwards in time, to a less developed age? All they wanted was to save themselves. They call themselves our children and yet they are older and wiser than we will ever be, here on this desolate planet. They expect us to look after them but they robbed us of any chance we had to thrive. The planet was drying up already, before they even got here, so I don’t know why they came back to this particular moment in time. About fifty years too late, says Red, but even he doesn’t know the truth. Nobody does. Only the planet knows when her moment of no return was, and she maintains her silence on the subject, even in her death throes. The Travellers say they came back to warn us, that their intention was to sacrifice themselves so that we could all live on, but they were greedy; like we all are deep inside. They arrived in numbers too great and accelerated the overpopulation until the virus of humanity stripped the planet of her every resource in just a few short years.
This was all years ago now and nobody talks about it much. People don’t like thinking about what cannot be changed. All we can do now is find out how to escape or get rid of them. The Travellers are here, whether we like it or not, but unlike the majority of the remaining population, I was raised differently. I was raised believing that we all deserve to live without persecution. Without the Travellers we would still be living with curable diseases like cancer, that’s what my mother told me. She was a big fan of The Travellers, my mother. She was kinder to them than most, in their fallen celebrity status. Often, I would come home from school and find a raggedy little Traveller kid sharing our table for dinner. There would be less food for me and my brother, but we still got by. The kid was always really grateful, so I suppose that’s something. They stole from us, of course, but that’s just their nature. Scavenging and thievery is where our race is headed. Was headed? I can never remember now, the Time Rift still boggles my mind. It’s a shame that our glorious Leaders don’t take as kind a view to our futuristic guests as my mother did, when she was here.
“Uh, hello? Are you dead or something?”
Red had caught me dreaming again. Languidly, I stretched and rose to my feet. He eyed me warily, afraid of my indifference and apparent laziness. If you are not outraged, then you are not paying attention was the motto of our time. It was originally supposed to be a reflection on the state of the nation and how the super rich were using all the resources that were left while punishing the poor, effectively starving them to death for existing. That was all over now, though. The rich, the poor, wealth, government. Now, ironically, we were all in it together. New battle lines had been drawn: now it was between us and the Travellers. I found it silly that people used to go to war over pieces of barren land instead of moments in time, like we did.
Personally, I was sick of all the fighting, even though it was all I had ever known. Perhaps it was my mother’s influence, she’d have been distraught if she’d known I was training to eliminate the Travellers. Sometimes, in the quiet of the night, there was a yearning in me for a different time, one I had never experienced. One where military training wasn’t mandatory and literary education wasn’t extravagant. It made me angry. Even if we did win the war and get what we wanted, learn the secret of time travel from the Travellers, then what would we do, except ravage the earth even earlier? We were growing stupid and dull and increasingly violent. Everybody knew it. You could see it in people’s eyes. Outraged was now a watchword used by our maniacal Leaders as a form of control: if you weren’t outraged then you weren’t paying attention. Working hard enough. Training hard enough. Sacrificing enough. Hating enough.
“Let’s go.” I nudged him in the side, feeling his ribs far too prominently through his thin polyester shirt. “Cheer up, we aren’t going to the slaughter.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Red, it’s just training, jesus. We do it every day. All day, every day, in fact. What’s gotten into you?”
“This is our Final Test. You know why I’m nervous. If we don’t pass then we are recycled. If we do then we’re agents in the field.”
“Yeah. It’s a thrilling choice. I know. Kill or be killed. There’s always the third way.”
“Will you shut up about that?!? Come on, we’re going to be late.”
With a sigh, I followed him to the Centre. I didn’t much feel like beating a Traveller to death today either, if I was being completely honest. I never did. Admittedly, they did lay it on a bit thick by calling themselves our “children”, but in reality they could be, if you think about it. Or our grandchildren, more likely. I hated it when my Sample looked like me. Those sessions were always when I got the lowest marks. I just couldn’t concentrate on Optimum Points of Contact if I was distracted because the Sample had my mother’s eyes.
Red was even worse. He had a full ten years on me, but he was still in training because of the slow response to the Traveller threat. People of his age used to be given grants to study the Travellers, historians and psychologists and anthropologists and the like. But in the end, they were drafted like the rest of us, when there was only one objective left: Kill them all or make them tell us how to escape this desolate time.
So, when Red has to get rid of his Sample, he can tell exactly when they came from, what their lifestyle was like, how hard they found it to adjust. His knowledge of time and the Travellers themselves were the original reason I befriended him. I found it all fascinating, but now what little knowledge I do have hinders my training. I’d leave Red behind – stop being friends and Arena Partners; but he’s definitely struggling enough to be recycled, and the truth is I feel too sorry for him now. I hear him crying at night, sobs escaping his parched throat like an animal in distress. It takes all my strength to refrain from putting him out of his misery.
I remember being shocked at how warm it was inside the Centre on our last day there. At the time, I didn’t know about the mandate to cut all electricity during daylight hours that had only come into effect that day. They were always cutting things, our beloved Leaders. Electricity, rations, water, travel passes. They hated giving out travel passes now, actually. When I was a kid, anyone could get their hands on one, and you could pretty much travel for the sake of it as long as you jumped through the correct hoops. But by the time I reached adulthood, the only way to travel was with a Leader; and the only reason a Leader would be travelling would be for an execution. Some holiday. I always thought the travel restriction was their cleverest trick. Stop the plebeians from sharing ideas and talking to one another, and they wouldn’t be able to join together and go the Third Way. I voiced this opinion to my mother once and she had laughed and called me left wing, whatever that means. It was probably in one of her books that I foolishly never took the time to read while such things were still permitted within individual freedom. Now the only freedom was the freedom of violence. Kill or be killed.
“I’m sweating like a Traveller in the sun,” breathed Red as we awaited our instructions. I glanced at him, raising one eyebrow. It wasn’t like him to use that saying. It was a derogatory phrase; a reference to how much the Earth cooled in the Travellers time after global warming reached it’s sweaty, uncomfortable peak during our time. They say the unexpected heat is what drove the Travellers to ravish our lands, they were driven mad by the heat they’d never had to cope with and lost sight of their original purpose. I think it was basic survival instinct. In any case, they do sweat a lot.
“Just concentrate on clearing our Samples, okay? Clean and quick and easy. You know it’s less cruel that way.”
“RUTH CLEARWATER AND REDMOND BAKER.”
We were up. I shot Red what I hoped was an encouraging glance and stepped into the Arena, then almost turned and stepped right back out again despite myself.
Two Traveller children, grubby and underfed, were huddled together at one end of the enclosure. They were visibly shaking with fear, and it looked like the younger one had wet himself. I faltered in my step, cursing under my breath, praying the Leaders hadn’t seen. Children? This was the final test? Could we kill innocent children? There was a large part of me that wanted to give myself up to recycling, but that wouldn’t do. The children would die either way – it wasn’t a contest. They had been sold to the centre by their greedy, starving parents, who in return were given food and shelter for six months. I’d heard stories of Travellers nominating their children, or even stealing other Travellers’ children in an attempt to sell them at the Arena to get more resources for themselves, but I’d written it all off as propaganda. Looks like I was wrong.
Red was whimpering beside me. He was lucky that the Arena was mostly soundproof. The Leaders didn’t want to hear the screams of the dying Travellers if one of us messed up and gave them a messy death. They weren’t watching for pleasure, they were assessing our confidence and suitability to be agents in the field. Soldiers at the front line. All that jazz. They turned off the soundproofing if things went wrong, though. Apparently they could even communicate to candidates, but I’d never met anyone who’d survived that particular ordeal.
Out of the corner of my mouth, I hissed “Quick and painless” at Red, hoping he would recognise that the most effective way to eliminate them was to wring their little necks. We had all been taught how to break necks in one movement, and it was a priceless part of my arsenal. I cracked my knuckles in preparation of the kill.
As we stepped closer to the children, Red began to lag behind. Fear gripped my heart with the sudden realisation that Red had finally reached his limit – he would never kill children, even if they would die anyway. Even if it meant being recycled. His hesitation was as good as holding up a big sign saying NO WAY, SORRY. He was as good as gone now, and with a strange tingling sensation on the back of my neck I sensed all eyes swivelling to me, including the eyes of the two little ones.
“Ruth, no,” whispered Red, but I knew he wouldn’t take any further action to stop me. He wasn’t willing to get me killed if I didn’t want to be.
“Mama?” said a little voice, coming from my prey. With a heart-stopping shock I realized that this little girl didn’t just have my eyes, or the same colour of hair as me, she looked exactly like me. My soul recognized her soul.
“Dada?” she directed this at Red. I choked on my own saliva, covering up my hesitation as a coughing fit. Realistically, it was likely that the Leaders had chosen these child Samples for the sole purpose of discovering what we would do if we were forced to hesitate, and weren’t merely carrying out reflexive actions. So I was safe for now, and Red too, potentially, was back in the game.
“Ruth? Ruth, who are these kids? Are these our… children?” Red was incredulous and I could understand why. Although Red and I were friends, it was less than romantic. And anyway, why would our future selves have sent our children through the Time Rift alone, knowing that they’d be sent to the Arena?
“We are your children,” sobbed the small boy, but that didn’t mean anything. It was a standard Traveller slogan. We are your children.
“Are you going to save us now?” said the girl who looked so like me. My heart broke just looking at her, and I knew she was mine.
“Ruth, this is just Traveller tactics. They can’t really be our children,” said Red, concern colouring his tone. It was true that the Travellers trained in how to appeal to our softer sides, appealing to old-fashioned morality. A lot of these tactics involved children, but I’d never heard of anything like this. Could I chance a glance at the Leaders? If I could just see their calculating faces, I would know if they were trying to trick us.
“What are you doing? Don’t look!” pleaded Red, who by now could read my body language like an open book. Looking at the Leaders during an Arena session was high treason – they thought it was the highest form of disrespect. There was a part of me that thought they just couldn’t handle our reproachful gazes day in day out. But I had to know. If I killed these children, I would wonder forever if I had murdered my own family. If I had to die, I would rather die in possession of the truth. So I did the unthinkable and looked up.
Above the Arena, in their glass spectator’s box, the Leaders were, unexpectedly, in chaos. Their mouths were moving in such a fashion that I could tell they were barking orders at their assistants. A couple of them had their faces right up to the glass, horror on their faces. Something had gone wrong.
“Uh oh,” I whispered. “A failed experiment.”
It looked like these were our children, our real, future children, mine and Red’s. If they weren’t, the Leaders would be observing calmly as usual, so I had no choice but to believe it. Beyond that, my heart yearned for these little people so much that they couldn’t be anything else except my babies. I had to save them.
That meant that this particular Arena experiment had failed, it was a Bad Match. Rumour had it that Bad Matches resulted in death for all parties – they couldn’t very well allow relatives or people who happened to know each other to go wandering around telling people about their Arena experience. This was top secret stuff.
“Ruth! If you’re going to kill them, do it now, before their patience runs out!” hissed Red, afraid for me.
“They’re ours, Red. I know it. The Leaders are panicking. Look.”
“I will not look!” He looked at the children instead, not daring to believe.
“Why would we send them here?” he wondered aloud, admittedly echoing my own sentiments.
“Mama!” said my little girl. “You said we had to go back now! I’ll show you how!”
My mouth fell open. Were we about to discover the secret to Time Travel? Would my daughter manage to tell me about it before we were all killed? The Leaders were certainly preparing to eliminate us. The girl, to my utter amazement, took out a dangerous looking blade from beneath the skin of her tiny wrist, but before she could go any further, the Leaders took action.
“RUTH CLEARWATER AND REDMOND BAKER. YOU HAVE HESITATED IN YOUR FINAL TASK, WHICH WE CAN ONLY TAKE AS REFUSAL TO ELIMINATE OUR ENEMY. TAKE ACTION NOW OR BE RECYCLED.”
Hoping that the children would play along and make the Leaders think that they were sharing the secret of Time Travel with us and not escaping I stepped forward, my overburdened heart thudding in my chest.
“Travellers!” I yelled, nice and clear so that they could all hear. “Will you share your secrets of Time Travel with us, or do you choose death?”
“Ruth, what are you doing?” moaned Red, not catching on to my plan. But she did, my precious little daughter. Maybe my future self had taught her what to do. She smiled and cleared her throat. Her brother, much younger, was hanging onto the bottom of her dress, his huge eyes sad and unsure.
“I will share my secrets with you, Native.” she enunciated perfectly, and a deadly stillness fell over the entire Arena. I stole another look at the spectator box, and the Leaders were amazed. Several were filming.
“Ruth, wait…” began Red, and I knew the tone he was using. He was coming to a realisation – that they were our children after all, I presumed. For a former academic, he could sometimes be slow on the uptake. This time, I couldn’t wait on him. Our lives depended on immediate action.
“Then show us, Traveller.” I was shaking terribly, adrenaline and fear and an onslaught of new information racing through my veins. The Leaders could kill me any minute now, or I could witness Time Travel for myself and escape. I was a mother, and I would not kill these children. Red would be my husband. The future stretched out in front of me, an improbable promise.
“Let me go first,” interrupted Red, his hand on my arm, much to my surprise. He had gone from wringing his hands in despair to boy scout keen in about thirty seconds.
“I’m their father, aren’t I? Let me go first.” He squeezed my hand, a backwards echo of our relationship to come, but he wouldn’t meet my gaze.
It was so unlike him to be proactive, or to take responsibility for anything, that I stood there and let him go first. The girl didn’t seem to mind. She smiled up at him, an adorable cherub with what I guessed was a time cutting blade, and he gazed back at her, his expression unreadable.
“Go on, Traveller,” he said solemnly, bending down so that he could see what she was doing.
The little girl slit his throat with one, practiced movement. I felt my knees buckle beneath me. No. Red. He fell, blood pooling around him with alarming speed. The children looked at his body for a few moments, interested and curious in the way that only children can be. Then they began advancing towards me.
It was obvious to me by now that these children were Traveller spies, planted as Samples to fight back against the Natives. Not our children after all. Red was dead, so the children would cease to exist if they had really been our offspring. They lied, used their tactics to fool us all. Poor Red must have realised this just in time, and known that the only way to save me was to sacrifice himself, proving the children’s parental claims to be false.
“ELIMINATE THE SAMPLE,” echoed the Leader over the Arena speakers. Even his distorted voice betrayed hints of panic. No Sample had ever killed a candidate. None had even made it into the Arena with a weapon. And now there were two of them and one of me, and they had a knife. All I had were echoes of sentimentality from a future that had been snatched away from me and a side portion of crushing grief over the loss of my Arena Partner.
I looked up at the children from where I had fallen to my knees. My Arena Training niggled at me: get up, wring their necks, one movement, quick and painless. I didn’t know what my fate would be, if I would still pass the test after messing up so royally, but it was surely important to eliminate these Travellers, dangerous and armed with futuristic blades in their skin.
“C’mere… Mama,” said the girl, her brown eyes glinting in the sun.
The sudden realisation that I couldn’t bring myself to kill these children, despite what they had done, despite the fact that it meant certain death, hit me like a physical blow. However, once I absorbed that information, everything was easy. I knew what I had to do. I stood up in one fluid movement, too quick for the children to grab hold of me or cut me. I grabbed their hair and knocked their heads together, hard, a grisly echo of an empty threat from parents to children since the beginning of time. I knocked them out easily – they were light and young and I was a trained killer. It was only my sentimentality that had gotten Red killed. The child wasn’t to blame for his death; only me. I knew that. I could have eliminated them at any time. Once I was sure the children were unconscious, I stood up and addressed the Leaders; trying not to look at Red lying in his crimson pool.
“I refuse to eliminate my Sample.”
“Then you choose to be recycled, Candidate.”
I didn’t reply. The guards were coming for me, armed and armoured. They would take me to the recycling plant, where I would be killed and my organs donated. Or so they thought. I slid the knife into the folds of my dress, demurely bowing my head and vowing to Red’s corpse that his sacrifice would not be in vain. There was always the third way.