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The Beginning of the End.

“The People cannot find out about this. We have to remain loyal and most importantly, quiet.”

The two men shuffled up the hallway, having closed the red door slowly and firmly behind them. The first of the unlikely looking pair was tall, too tall for his build, and had wild, chestnut hair. He was young, but his face was peppered with worry lines and his constantly furrowed eyebrows had left permanent wrinkles etched into his forehead. The second man, slightly older and considerably shorter than the first, struggled to keep up.

Slightly out of breath and stricken with panic, the second man responded. “How will we explain where she is? It’s been almost 24 hours since anyone’s last seen her. What will we say – ‘oh Victoria, she’s just off on holiday!’ She hasn’t taken a vacation since the day I met her – almost 20 years ago!”

“Honestly, George, I don’t have a clue. We need to tell the rest of the Council. We’ll go from there”, the taller man responded.

The rest of the walk took place in silence. George’s heart beat frantically in his ear drums, the panic and anxiety threatening to render him a useless, bumbling mess on the floor. He couldn’t pull himself together as Isaac had. Cool, at least relatively calm and somewhat collected given the circumstances. Given that their leader – the only leader they had had for the last two decades – had just been consumed by the Heart of the planet, he did at least expect Isaac to break out in a sweat.

They had discovered the truth of her disappearance by accident. They’d assumed she had gone for a nap, or had simply gotten bored of her daily tasks and had decided to take the rest of the day off – unheard of really, but still more logical than the truth that now confronted them. Isaac had been walking down the Long Hallway when he felt a cool breeze and smelt the unmistakeable scent of earthiness. He had followed it curiously, knowing full well where the smell would lead him. As he approached the red door, his furrowed brow deepened and was matched by his growing level of concern. The door stood slightly ajar, a warm, pulsing orange glow creeping through the inch thick gap between the red painted timber and the door frame. He had been in the Heart only once, a few years ago when curiosity led him to follow Victoria. She didn’t seem to mind his morbid intrigue and allowed him entry, being sure to warn him of the magnetic effect that the hollow centre of the planet held over its onlookers.

Isaac had followed the fresh, familiar scent of earth into the room and frozen just feet inside the doorway. He strained his eyes to adjust to the poor lighting and squinted to see each corner of the space he was standing in. George had remained behind him, cowering behind the door frame, nerves disallowing him entry. The light from the hallway gently spilled into the room falling eerily on the rocking chair. It was then that Isaac saw it. The silvery-grey shimmer of the expensive fabric, the harsh black crease of the lapel – Victoria’s jacket, slung over the back of the chair.

“Should we take a closer look?” whispered George into the room.

“No. The glow of the Heart has a strong magnetic pull. Unless you fancy following Victoria, I’d stay where you are”.

“Following? What do you mean, Isaac? You couldn’t possibly think that Victoria has gone over the edge?” George found Isaac’s conclusion hard to believe, difficult to stomach. Victoria was impeccably powerful and no amount of pressure would have led her to jump into the Heart of Erewon.

Isaac knew exactly what George was thinking.

“I don’t think she jumped, George.”

The weight of Isaac’s last statement settled on the dust in the air and drifted around the atmosphere, refusing to dissipate. Who wanted Victoria gone that badly? George had never come across anyone who did. Everyone he knew worshipped her, they wouldn’t dare threaten the stability of the planet. There were few who held differing views to her and they were silenced when James sacrificed his passions to work underneath her.

Realisation often surprises you. Sometimes it takes a long time to reach your conscience, but when it does it’s incredibly hard to imagine not having had that realisation. It’s like a cog that suddenly turns into place to fit the rest of the pieces in your mind at precisely the right moment. That is exactly how it occurred to Isaac.

“Where is James?” He turned to George as he posed the question, not giving him anytime to answer.

“James hasn’t been seen since dawn, about the same time that Victoria disappeared. You don’t think --? The question hung, unfinished and unanswered.

The two men approached the main meeting room at a marching pace, their bodies propelling them forward to begin a discussion their minds would rather not have accepted to be necessary. Isaac had gathered his thoughts during the walk. He was perfectly aware that logically he would be the next in command, tutored by Victoria herself, having studied closely behind her for years. He was also aware that taking the power, even if only temporarily, would not be an easy task – there were others on the Council that would try to grasp it for their own gains. Isaac was passionate about Erewon and about the planet’s survival and so knew he could be as meticulous and rational as Victoria if the situation called for it.

He marched forward, forcing the heavy wooden doors to the meeting room open with both hands. The doors swung inwards to reveal the eight other members of the council sat in silence, in trepidation waiting for some kind of explanation from Isaac or George, who had followed in behind him in his usual nervous manner.

The room was a mixed bunch of wealthy men and women who were almost considered the elders of the planet, or at least the wiser, more knowledgeable individuals of Erewon. They were sat like stiff, regimental soldiers around a large, heavily polished mahogany oval table. None of them were talking to each other – instead, they all remained silent and still, statues awaiting their orders. The largest man sat at the foot of the table, his hands crossed over forming a steeple in front of his chest. His face mirrored smooth granite and offered no form of expression or window to what he was thinking or feeling. As Isaac and George entered the room, he lifted his gaze from his finger tips and stared, waiting for news that would break the silence.

Isaac’s confidence seemed to dissolve as he entered the room. The words that he needed to say refused to form in his gullet, and instead of taking control of the situation like he had hoped to do, he instead stood, dumbfounded and stunned in the doorway.

“Well?” bellowed the largest man, removing his steepled hands from under his chin and laying them gently on the table in front of him. “Do you come with news?”

The silence became expectant, waiting for the new information from Isaac to fill the void.

“She’s gone, we think. Her jacket was on the rocking chair, and she’s nowhere to be seen. I know we can’t really confirm it, we’ll never truly know, but she’s gone.” Nerves did not suit Isaac. He wore them awkwardly and they didn’t fit him nearly as well as his usual confident demeanour.

The Council began to fidget, shuffling paperwork and exchanging concerned glances and whispers. The idea that Victoria was gone did not make any sense to them – it was totally incomprehensible.

“Gone – as in, not coming back?” The question came from an incredibly elderly gentleman, one of the oldest living members of the Council and the Leader of the Forest Sector. He was almost entirely blind and his eyes had glazed over with a misty, milky white haze. His hearing was almost at a stage that contended with his sight, but his knowledge of Erewon and the running of the council was unsurpassable. He was sat nearer the front of the room and was quite noticeably straining to hear and understand the situation. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to give us quite a lot more information than that young man.”

The old man’s comment had a rallying effect on the rest of the members of the Council. They began to talk over each other anxiously, frantically repeating each other’s questions of Victoria’s safety.

“So we haven’t seen Victoria for how long? She must have just – I don’t know…gone for a walk?” one of the youngest members of the Council said frantically. Isaac could hear the pleading in her voice. Chaos was not something that this group were much accustomed to.

“Gone for a walk? Be serious, Isobel, Victoria takes her role far too seriously to slack off”, roared the largest gentleman to the rear of the room. As he finished bellowing across the table, he sat up straighter, demonstrating his true height and colossal build. Stephen was the Leader of the Manufacturing segment and also the Council Guard. His immense frame took up the majority of the end of the table and the volume of his voice echoed off the four walls. “What evidence do you have Isaac? How are we investigating this?”

The volume of the room rapidly increased to the point where no singular voice could be heard amidst the drone of Stephen’s roars and the panicked squeaks of the other Council members.

Isaac quickly came to realise that he had lost all control of the other members of the Council. He desperately tried to regain some kind of hold on the room.

“Everyone, if you’ll just – please. If you’ll just listen to me for a minute”, he said desperately, willing the others to quieten down.

“George and I found Victoria’s jacket, the one she was wearing yesterday, slung across the back of her mother’s armchair. She’s gone. I know there’s no way we can confirm this for sure, but right now all we know is that she is gone. And she’s never gone. We need to work on the assumption that she is not coming back, so as to prepare ourselves for any possible…issues that may arise. Are we clear?” By the end of his statement, Isaac had regained some of his confidence and the Council members began looking to him again for reassurance.

One woman remained silent for the majority of the discussions that had taken place so far. She sat, aloof to the disruption, with her head held high and her nose pulled up to the ceiling. “Have we even looked elsewhere, Isaac? What if she left the building at some point? Aren’t we jumping to some quite serious conclusions?”

“Thank you, Elena. I do appreciate what you are saying and I wish the evidence pointed us in a different direction, I really do. We have had all security footage checked thoroughly from the last 24 hours to see if she left the building. Nothing. The last time she was seen on the cameras was around midday yesterday, walking down the Long Corridor”, Isaac paused anxiously, took a deep breath in and said “with James”.

The room erupted again in a wave of frantic questions and comments. Words and phrases of anger, confusion, panic and nerves began to fly out of the conversations uncontrollably, causing further alarm. Within seconds some members of the council were discussing the possibility of war, the notion of betrayal, tactics and propaganda and fabricating some farfetched lies regarding Victoria’s – and now James’ - disappearance.

Stephen reared up again and continued to roar across the table. “James? I told you we should have tightened our security with that man. Is he responsible for this? I’ll have the Guard ready to bring his family in. We need to prepare ourselves, Isaac. This is an act of war. When did you learn of this information? I’m furious you didn’t come to me sooner. Are you sure you’re fit to lead?”

Multiple members of the Council began mirroring Stephen’s cries until the volume in the room became almost painful.

“Are you strong enough to lead us through this, Isaac?” yelled Isobel, motioning towards Stephen whilst saying “don’t you think other Councillors in this room have… more experience?”

“Yes, young man. Maybe young blood is not what Erewon needs right now”, the old man toward the front of the table exclaimed.

If only you knew how wrong you are, thought Isaac, who had frozen with panic. He hadn’t expected this reaction, not from everyone in the room. He knew that Victoria had lent some form of stability to the planet but he never imagined that her disappearance would lead to a full-scale meltdown. The room had become completely uncontrollable. Isaac’s panic had left him staring across the table, unable to speak, unable to regain any form of control. George grabbed the shoulder of Isaac’s shirt, desperately trying to shake him from his gaze.

“Isaac. Do something! Anything!” He gasped.

Isaac took a few seconds to steal his breath and squared off his shoulders. His heart was beating frantically in his ear drums, drowning out any thought process he may have been attempting. He wasn’t ready to lead, not by a long shot and the idea of people following him and actually taking what he said seriously terrified him. A few deep breaths in and he knew he would have to try to take control of the chaos that was unravelling in front of him. Erewon depended on it.

“Everyone!” He bellowed into the room. A few people stirred but soon returned to their shouts of concern. “Everyone, will you please calm down!” Isaac roared, louder this time into the gaggle of individuals.

The frenzied shouts and hollers of the council gradually died down, until each member, considerably further on in years than Isaac, looked up at him and waited, eagerly.

“Everyone – just give me a chance to speak. If the people of Erewon saw how we were reacting to this, what do you think would happen?” He was desperate for them to understand where he was coming from – if the leaders, those chosen to represent the people and those sitting in positions of power were breaking down and fraying at the seams, the population would no doubt follow.

“We have to remain strong. And if not strong, at least calm enough to look strong. No one can find out about Victoria’s disappearance – not yet. Not until we have come up with a good enough cover that will convince the people living down there. They might be blissfully unaware and blinded by most things in their lives, but they are not stupid. They will sense something isn’t right, and we can’t give off even the slightest notion that there is something to be worried about”.

Isaac turned his back on the Council, reached down into a bag that he had placed earlier at his feet and slotted a small, silvery disk into the projector in front of him.

“I think it is time you all saw this”.

The machine whirred to life with a gentle hum, the spinning of the disc easily audible in the now noiseless room. Silently, ten people sat and became witness to the actions of Victoria from a mere 24 hours prior. They witnessed her questioning James, they saw her walk him towards the drop into the Heart. They heard her suggest younger sacrifices and finally, they sat and they observed James tumble into the core of the planet, pulling Victoria behind him at the very last second.

The room witnessed everything that had happened the day before, and for the first time in hours remained utterly speechless.

Isaac stood, letting the evidence sink in. The idea of leading Erewon petrified him. But the idea of standing by and watching his planet disintegrate and fall into anarchy was far worse.

The room of ten sat in silence, comprehending their future.

He felt utterly at peace. The gentle rise and fall of his chest, the smooth inhalation of air and gentle expulsion through his nostrils. The delicate hum of the fluorescent tube lights overhead, flickering as if struggling to stay awake as the rest of the world slept peacefully. Perfectly meditative, perfectly quiet. He wasn’t ready to come-to, not ready to re-join the conscious, animated planet. Just a few more minutes of sinking into the soft, luxurious sleep that had taken mercy on his overburdened brain. His chest continued to rise and fall repetitively until his conscience began to re-awaken. Gradually, the feeling in his limbs began to prickle to life. He swallowed deeply, releasing his tongue from the roof of his mouth, unsure of how long he had been out, and rubbed his fists into his eyes as if encouraging life to return to them.

He placed his hands behind him and pushed himself up out of the wing back chair that he had fallen asleep in. Struggling to lift his ankles off the mahogany desk in front of him, Isaac’s mind returned to the chaos that he had so readily left behind just hours ago. The truth of what had been happening slowly and steadily dawned on him. He remembered, and he had never wished to forget more than now.

He scrunched his toes up inside his dark leather boots and dug his knuckles into the tops of his thighs, wincing through the pins and needles that were trickling up his limbs and behind his knee caps. It was still dark out and he couldn’t hear any movement in the halls of Erewon’s government building. He had fallen asleep in the Great Library, which sat directly next to Victoria’s office. Exhaustion had driven him to collapse in an armchair, not even making the effort to return home.

Isaac felt his mind and thoughts gather speed until the constant state of nervous worry that he found himself in earlier that day returned. He dragged his hands through his shaggy hair and walked out of the library, not bothering to turn on any lights on his way. As he stepped out into the hallway, he saw a few more equally nervous faces peer out of the corridors. He couldn’t bring himself to say anything to the other members of the council who were also camping out in the various rooms that trailed off the corridors in the Council Building. He nodded at the elderly member and turned away towards Victoria’s office.

The door to her room was heavy and stained so dark it was almost black. Isaac hadn’t been in her office in a while, but it was only as he entered that he realised how devoted to Erewon she truly was. Victoria had never managed to develop any kind of meaningful relationship with another human being, and left herself relatively alone. She was not a sociable individual – she had no family, no loved ones and no true friends. None of this ever seemed to bother her as she was so caught up in the survival and prosperity of her planet, which she truly saw as her responsibility.

A sickly, acidic feeling began to rise in Isaac’s stomach. He couldn’t remain in the office for long, and soon he had turned to leave for the Observatory.

The Observatory sat between the two highest points of Erewon. It was a long, empty space, encased in glass and was one of the only spaces to not house a single relic from Victoria’s collection. It was the quietest place in the Council Buildings and overlooked the biggest waterfall on the planet. Isaac walked to the centre of the room and lowered himself slowly onto the floor. He sat cross-legged, facing out into the vast planes of the ground below, and rested his forehead gently onto the glass. It truly was beautiful. Perfectly designed by the Council that perched confidently above it. No poverty, no pollution, no unhappiness. Of course, this all came at a price. But the population of Erewon knew that – the Council had never kept them in the dark about their destiny. It wasn’t like you weren’t given plenty of opportunity to live your life to its full potential before the great sacrifice.

As he stared out into the farming lands of the planet, he let his mind cast back to earlier conversations with the Councillors. He was still unsure of the decision the room had drawn, but he knew that democracy was more important now than it had ever been. He needed every one of those individuals behind him if control was going to be maintained on the planet.

After hours of discussion and relentless arguing, the decision that had been made still shocked him now. Some of the Council were suggesting that the population were simply told that Victoria had retired and that someone new was due to step in. Others had had quite different ideas – Victoria had gone AWOL, she’d had a breakdown, she’d started a family (possibly the most ridiculous and unbelievable concept in Isaac’s opinion). It was the security footage that had made the decision that bit easier to make. As the council sat in silence, witnessing the occurrences of the previous day, the threatening, murderous actions of Victoria, the idea that she wanted to sacrifice young adults, the attempt to kill James and the end result of both of them falling to their deaths, it was decided.

Isaac stood behind the lectern. He hadn’t imagined he would ever stand here, in Victoria’s place and the circumstances of him reaching this position so young were ones he would rather not comprehend any further. His clammy hands gripped the sides of the podium, all of his wait leaning into his wrists and forearms. He hadn’t written any kind of formal speech and was now regretting his premature confidence of the previous day. It had been decided almost unanimously that he would take over, much to his surprise, as temporary leader. Every great planet needs a leader and this one was no exception.

He turned his gaze out into the crowd of eager, waiting individuals that stood expectantly in front of him. It was time to tell the people of Erewon what had really happened. He hoped beyond all hope that they would understand and continue to have faith in their Council to lead them.

He flicked on the microphone, straightened the cuffs of his suit jacket and took a deep breath in.

“It is with great sadness that I stand in front of you all today. This is not how I imagined my first address and I am truly saddened to have to be delivering this news to you.” The first lines of speech rang out across the crowd, echoing around the vast space in front of the podium.

“I’m not going to try to flower this up to protect you from the information I am about to give you. I have far more respect for you all than that. Three days ago, at about midday, our great leader Victoria passed away.”

He paused to let the reality of what he had said settle over the mass. He had suspected that many of the population had speculated this already, as 3 days absence was previously unheard of.

“Victoria was pushed into the Heart of this planet by one of our own. She was murdered, her life taken far too early. She was pulled into the pit of this planet by her advisor, James.”

As his words filtered into the corners of the spaces around him, the crowd began to react to his accusations. Victoria was respected, but the population loved James. The betrayal had confused and upset many instantaneously.

“I wish to tell you all of the details that we know. Security footage shows James attempting to push Victoria into the pit. Now, we know of his previous radical ways but we have all been duped as much as you – we trusted James as if he were family and welcomed him into the Council fold to advise and work alongside Victoria. We know now what a mistake that was, we know now of his plans to restore terror to this planet and to the minds of us all. And Victoria knew this – at the very last minute she managed to drag James into the pit after her. She has saved us from his radical ways and sacrificed herself to protect us”.

The final words of Isaac’s speech rang through the public address system. Thousands of eyes continued to stare up at him, glistening with tears to reflect the loss of both Victoria and James. He hoped beyond all hope that they understood.

He felt sick at the thought that he had to lie to so many people that he truly respected. But he knew the reasons for his fabrication of the truth and agreed that the end result would benefit the planet. If the population had known the whole truth, it would have descended into chaos. The population had been lied to since day one, to protect it from itself and to nurse it to prosperity. He knew that as much as any other member of the Council. He just prayed that the population didn’t.

“Do you think they believed you?” George asked as he walked alongside Isaac down the hallways of the Council Building.

“Honestly? I don’t know. I hope so.” Isaac’s voice was lacking the confidence that George was eagerly listening for.

The relics and antiques that littered the halls now mocked Isaac and George as they made their way to the main meeting room. They clung to the walls as a harsh reminder of their lost leader, the leader that they were unable to save.

“Do you think she was right?”

That was a question that Isaac was neither ready for or prepared to answer straight away. The truth was, Isaac believed Victoria was probably right. The Heart was dimming, he had seen it himself. And no one knew what happened when the light dimmed to nothing – what would become of the planet, of their population? That was something else he was certainly not prepared to find out.

Isaac’s patience was wearing thin. Every meeting he had with the Council started in the same way. He began in total control, calm and ready to lead. By the end of the discussions, he had lost all respect and was being spoken over by 8 other members of the Council. This particular meeting was to be no different. He wasn’t prepared for the questions he knew they were going to ask – the question that George posed to him earlier.

It terrified him. The idea that the Council, those in charge to protect the population of Erewon, would be responsible for sentencing the younger population to death to allow the Heart to continue to burn. Who would decide what age was young enough? Would he have to sacrifice himself as an example to the rest of the population that this is what needed to be done? The thought of it made him feel physically sick.

“35. Once they reach 35, we’ll test how valuable they are to Erewon and its survival. If they are deemed expendable, then so be it. They will be early sacrifices”.

Stephen’s bold suggestion got much the reaction Isaac had expected. Isobel was disgusted at the idea whereas the Leader of the Forest Lands, Josiah, was not so opposed to it.

“It’s all a matter of productiveness. I agree with Stephen – if we still have a use for them past the age of 35, they can be allowed to live. We can review it yearly, perhaps, from then onwards?”

“35 is far too young. My sector runs on that age bracket. How will Erewon have families, how will our population sustain itself if we begin to cull it? This is nonsense – nonsense that I wish not to be a part of”. The final word came from the Leader of the Coal Sector, Jackson. His words were definitive and were only met from disagreement from Josiah and Stephen. The Council majority decided that putting an age limit on the population could only end badly and the idea was scrapped as quickly as it was suggested.

As yet another the meeting drew to yet another unsteady close, the Council were no closer to an answer. They were too scared to make a decision, a decision they knew Victoria had already made but they were not willing to follow through. “To continue as we always have” was the only answer any of them were willing to stomach, yet they knew it was only a matter of time until that would no longer suffice.

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