Disclaimer.

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
This is an original fictional novel by the author and is subject to copyright laws and bylaws of the United Kingdom.

Keeping

A Novel by Philippa Cooper.

Chapter 5.

His name is Jack Bennet and he is the sort of man for who sad is just a three letter word rather than a feeling. Not anymore, atleast. Whatever has happened to him in his life has pushed him beyond grief that when I share my journey with him, he relishes in each event as if it I am the hero in a fairytale he is hearing for the first time. He listens so intently and with an excited smile and I almost forget that the story I am telling with blood, dread and Pickers and pain is, infact, my own.

He enjoys hearing about the baby that sits in my crossed legs. Her hands are gripping my fingers like a vice and I never want her to let go. I look at her in the folds of fresh canvas and wool that Jack has given me. And she gazes up, her puffy eyelids blinking serenely.

"She is the only thing driving me," I whisper this secret for the first time. "I look at her and things have a- I have a purpose."

"They do tend to change the world, don't they?" Jack nudges Martha playfully and she smiles, crookedly up at him. I notice for the first time, the matching glint in their eyes twinkle under the creatures hooded lids. It is an idea beyond my thinking but looking at Martha even if she did look like a monster, she was undeniably human. Only she is a sort of human I have never laid eyes on. Two ears, one nose, ten fingers, ten toes. And two eyes, twinkling and alive with thought. The only real different is that she has been squashed. If every person in the world was moulded out of clay then some cruel, heavy hand had pushed her into the floor.

But the way the mouth opens into a smile and how her face comes alive when the little one wriggles, she is unmistakably a woman.

"Did the Pickers come for you, Martha?"

The crooked eyes cast me a wanton glare but it softens the longer I hold her eyes. Her mouth turns up slightly and she scoffs, returning to her menial task of sorting the rubble at our feet.

"Only once," Jack answers darkly. "You see, Replen doesn't consider Martha a…person. If that is truly how they see anyone. She's dangerous."

"Dangerous?" I repeat, smiling gently at Martha. "What? To a whole city? But you're lovely! And with the baby-"

Martha looks up and gives me an appraising look.

"But- Replen isn't just a city," she mutters, raising and eyebrow at her father. They share a quiet moment and I look on feeling foolish, as if I have missed something again that only this place understands.

"Martha, darling! I think you should take the baby for a wander?" It sounds like a suggestion but by the way the girl rises to her feet and lumbers over, I know it is an order. I find it easier to hand the bundle to Martha than it was to leave her after her feed. I press one delicate kiss to her fire tipped forehead, one of many I plan to give to her when she returns. Martha cradles her and ambles away, chattering nonsence.

"She is awfully good with little ones." The old man sighs, watching after his daughter. I can see a sad longing in his gaze and somehow I know he can see more than just one person walking away. A mother I will never meet and I don't dare to ask because he turns to face me, all business.

"Truth be told, Annabell, we all had a feeling you weren't aware of what you were running from and-"

"Pickers," I interject, matter-of-factly. "They would have taken her."

"Yes," the old man mused. "But do you know why? Where? Do you truly know who you are running from?"

I recall the times I was shut in a latrine hut or buried under coats, my minders running scared from the men in black. The night I was veiled by the curtain until I was caught and forced to stare into the desolate panes of the Pickers mask. Then I became part of the secret keeping; stashing Asha and the twins away like a theif.

"Because I was hidden," I reply. "Every little one is until they stop chasing."

The Pickers and their howling, barking beasts chase you through the Toh, snapping at your heals if you stay too long. They are a living nightmare; the real boogieman. You are safe if you hide under the covers and never make a sound.

"Children are hidden from them because they're henchmen to Replen. It is Replen that wants them."

"It's a City though." I look at him, bewildered. All of these people are afraid of a city? Replen is a beautiful forest of white spires and glowing lights. It hovers above our desolate world like a beacon of aspiration and hope. It is free of the muck and rain and hunger and the people live there and have skin that is clear and clean like fresh water.

"Annabell, Replen is more than just a city," he replies, firmly. "It's a system. Bigger than that city. Bigger than the city and the whole of Gettlum combined! And it's terrible."

"I don't- I'm sorry, I don't understand. It's not the city?"

Jacks eyes seem hollow and his voice is weighted with the truth when he next speaks again. And what he says stuns me into silence.

"Replen is the enemy to human kind. It sends a collection squad, the Pickers, out from their headquarters with a single order. Defend the Replen system at all costs."

"And they take the children?"

"Yes."

There was a world beyond this hell once, Annabell. It was vast. They used to show it when my father was young, on the Broadcast Screens. You've seen them; the huge cracked panels on the side of each Toh? It was a world bigger than your imagination. Colours everywhere and water cascaded from great heights heavier than rain. I don't know if you have ever heard of trees? No. No we didn't have them when I was young either. But they grew taller than the Tohs; Taller than the City spires. And their leaves were greener than any green! There were birds, Annabell! Beautiful with wings that spanned my arms and coloured like oil spills in puddles. And they flew free. Humans flew free! It is anyone's guess but that, in itself, was the problem.

We were everywhere on the earth. And with every touch, we burned it. Burned the earth and torched the sky. Oh, we started slow. We drilled to find oil and coal, destroyed the trees and killed the birds and beasts for wood. Some tried to stop it. Everyone knew the danger. We would run out, they said. We had to find another way! Then while we were warring between ourselves, threatening to wipe each other off the face of the planet. Nature fought back so silently. Rumblings under the earth causing massive failures in any replacement fuel system and ruptures in the earth spewing fire. The humans were afraid. And we should have been.

The rains came, the ice of the world was melting. I didn't see it. It was before, even my father's time. So long ago. Nature took back the earth from us, swallowed her into the oceans. The broadcast screens filled with the people running from the waters, families- refugees just looking to survive. The Toh's came first. Springing up across the globe on any remaining land that the water had spared, squashing people in so everyone could have a place. But there were too many!

More and more people were filling the rooms, the staircases. You couldn't move for them and couldn't breathe for the smell. There wasn't enough food or fresh water. You fought over fresh air and disease was inescapable. You could be slaughtered for coughing in a crowded room. The world was in turmoil. And then Replen came.

A small government of men inside one of the remaining cities decided something had to be done. It started with shutting off the borders and monitoring the oceans. They stopped the screenings believing that images of the outside world would aggravate the situation. And while the people cowered in fear that they had been left alone, they implemented a system; it would provide a solution to everything.

Teams were formed, issued with protective gear; Gas masks, hazmat suits; protection from the diseases ravaging the earth. They were sent out to implement a monitoring system in the Toh: Cameras, movement sensors, a census to be filled in for every man, woman and child.

There was a final Broadcast screening on the day the Pickers came to town. Some picture reel of sunshine and rainbows promising a better life at all costs. Disease free, hunger free and, most importantly, room for everyone. All they had to do is what they were told and Replen would deliver them life.

After the initial implementation of the system there was a lull over everyone as they waited for something to happen. But I don't think anyone was prepared for what came. It began with the Pickers rounding up the sick or, indeed, the "sick"; People who would inherently "Infect the progression." They were never seen again. And then the dying; old and infirm who could have happily lived on until they passed naturally, they disappeared too. That was when everyone began to feel that what Replen had promised what coming at a higher price that they were willing to pay.

They fought and the Pickers fought back, unfairly to say the least. They didn't stand a chance against the electro guns. Any resistance and they would take the person in. And when they had a good few, they lined them up in the street declaring them as "traitors to the progression". They killed them in cold blood. And the more they did it, the less people fought.

And after that-

"The children-" I interrupt him. There is a desperate void in my stomach that no amount of breath is filling. I imagine in front of my eyes a line of people convulsing with blood gushing from their faces and I feel tears prickle at the corners of my eyes.

"But how could anyone-"

"You would be surprised what anyone will do when there is hell on earth and someone promises you Paradise."

"Vile," I whisper in horror.

"It was freedom." Jack sounds disappointed in the world or me, I don't know or care.

"So, what? Nothing answered for. No questions asked? Here have my baby, thank you very much!?" I am shaking with anger, my hands balled into fists.

"Annabell." The old man reaches over and pats one of my fists with a gentle, soothing touch. "I am not saying it was just. But you have to know." His eyes are sad and it looks abnormal for him but they hold me with a meaningful stare. "We had never been so many. We'd never been so alone. People thought-"

"How much lonlier can it get." I finish the sentence quietly, the truth of the words weighing me down.

"Exactly," Jack was strident. The difficult part seemed to be over now and the rest was simply matter-of-fact.

Children fresh out the womb were lifted out of mothers arms in into Replen. And no, no one stood in their way. Not after the everyday shooting gallery in the streets. People felt there had been enough bloodshed to stain the memory of the Tohs for the rest of time. And so everything operated like clockwork, monitored closely. If a person fell sick, the area was immunised. The dead and dying were removed just the same. When children were born they waited for the Picking selection.

There didn't seem to be any real process for the choice of which baby was taken and which wasn't. The Pickers simply came.

"What do they do with them?"

"You want to know?"

"Of course I do! What if they catch her?!" I protest, tears spilling onto my cheeks. There is a whole world existing outside of my knowledge. I had thought it was nightmare men in masks chasing the children like a hungry beast, driven by instinct and hunger. But here Jack is telling me that it is bigger than them all and I can try and run. But now I know that it will never be far enough.

They advised anyone who asked that is was extensive medical research, advancements in fighting diseases and genetic defects. Apparently only newborns held the key. The masses were assured that it was drafted randomly by birthday; a system from the ancients used to select their warriors for battle. And no one questioned it; out of fear, acceptance or maybe even pride- their children,in some way, being soldiers for mankind- I don't know. But for centuries the Tohs children were taken and the surge of humanity receeded. People could live comfortably and it appeared the scheme had worked.

Then there was a shift. Insiders making waves.

"Someone in Replen? One of the people in charge?"

"Ha! They're long gone now," he laughes bitterly. "No, Replen is working according to protocol now. All rules and regulation but with absolutely no purpose. And some didn't want to toe the line anymore."

"What happened?" I see a smug smile stretch across his face, smoothing out the deep frown.

"A divide. The resistance!" He cries, triumphantly. " A network that allowed us to infiltrate the inner workings of the system. We knew when and where the Pickers would strike next. We began to smuggle the little ones under the radar."

"But why?" I am confused. It doesn't make sense that one day there was a massive Picker uprising for no reason.

"Does it matter?" Jack beams at me. "We knew there was a better solution. We saw the future being, litrally, torn at its birth and we knew it was wrong. And we knew we had to stop it."

He continues with his eyes dancing, eagerly.

"The people were living in fear just sitting around waiting for the day Pickers would come to them. We gave them something to believe in!"

I wonder why I have never heard of this resistance. It would have been amazing to grow up in a world where there were hero's in hiding. Vigilanties bravely laying down their lives to save us from the Pickers. But Children were still being taken from their beds, never to be seen again.

"But it's not working," I say hesitantly, expecting the light in his jewelled eyes to fade but it only glows brighter and he leans forward, taking my hands in his.

"But it will. You see- now we have you! You and the baby are the key stone in all of this!"

I stare at him completely perplexed. Me, a girl with the imperfect name and a baby with no name at all, and we are the worlds saving grace.

I see his eyes dart over my shoulder and his eyes soften into a wistful smile.

"See…we all need something to live for, Annabell; a person, a cause…even just a story on the wind. But it gives us something. That little spark!"

I hear Martha stumble over a patch of rubble behind me and she sits, as gingerly as she can manage, at my side. The world is brighter when I see her red hair and I feel my purpose in life return full force as Martha places her in my arms. The lick of flame glows against her ivory skin with the intensity of the Spire beacon, red in the dense fog. The gravity of the past sinks into me but she is there, shining in my eyes and I know that Jack Bennett is right.

"Hope." I whisper it softy to her. A single word carried on my heartbeat.

"It suits her," Martha says.