[A/N: Hello all. This is actually the sequel to another story I have written, Everest. You could easily read this one without reading the first one and still understand what's going on but, just to make things clearer, here is a prologue containing a re-cap of the first book. If you've read Everest, brilliant! You can go ahead an skip this prologue. Happy reading, Aurora.]
In the year 2022, the world gained a superpower. Of course, at its inception this organisation held no more real political power than a new born baby but as it grew, they took in more and more until they could rule the world, if they wanted to. They called themselves Everest. They governed with a sticky nose but a gentle heart. Everest went unchallenged in their governance for years until the president of France handed over all his real power to one small organisation.
The Aiden Richards Corporation. ARC took France and all that meant with the apparent goal of restoring the atmosphere and reversing climate change. But Aiden Richards was no green warrior. He was just a greedy man. As fear for what would come when the Earth heated rose, so did ARC’s power until Everest was buried and Aiden Richards held the world in the palm of his hand. The world was robbed of anything that might possibly have warmed the planet even a little. It was ARC’s ultimate solution to the problem they had been dealt but it destroyed the people who had to carry it out. Everest members began to disappear in the night, never to return. Democracy disintegrated as ARC dissolved one parliament after another. The world was dark. The world was cold. And so everything remained for ten bitterly long years.
Until London Crawford saved the world.
At the tail end of 2042 a sixteen year old girl, on a mission to retrieve her friends, single-handedly stopped Aiden Richards and returned the power to where it was always meant to be. Everest once again stuck their noses in and guided each government under their wing with a gentle smile.
All was good with the world once again.
March 4th, 2047
I found myself walking down the main corridor of The Cave. The earth walls and oil lamps Heart insisted on using gave the hall a warmth and softness that couldn’t be found in the harsh electric lighting on the lower levels. The shadows they cast up the walls rounded the edges of the tunnel that had been made in a similar way to how we had built the original Cave. Only, down here, the tunnels and the catacomb of chambers that branched off them were carved from rock, not snow, and they didn’t have to make do with wet moss for insulation. Yet, the walls were still lined with clay that seemed to have stolen the setting sun in the half-light of the tunnel.
My mother had remarried in these last four years and I now have a baby sister. She was bouncing on my step-father’s knee when I walked into the meeting-room. In contrast to its soft, clay surroundings, the meeting room was fronted by a wall of glass – hard and crisp and modern in comparison. I knew I was heading here. I wasn’t a member of Heart but I still held some influence over the higher-ups. Mostly that extended only to allowing me entry to some of the least confidential of the governing rooms.
The world had improved in the last four years. We now had running water and electricity again and the economy was slowly lifting off the ground. People were happier now. Some people even smiled in the street. I saw a man the other day say good morning to a stranger in town. Blacksmiths were slightly put out that people no longer wanted to melt down their coins but other than that, business was booming. The manufacturing industry had bloomed again. The medical profession was once again one of the highest paying in the world. Famine was mostly gone except in the most remote corners. People were moving back to the cities. Somehow, we had returned to something that was more or less normal. Occasionally I would meet someone who was still obsessed with the ideas of paranoia and isolation that had dominated the ARC era, but we had done well to return to here.
Victor and London stood face to face as I creaked open the door, both leaning heavily on the round table in the centre of the room. The table was meant to symbolise equality but every Everest member knew that Heart controls the entire organisation and the head of Heart was Victor Blair. He was a small man with lanky limbs and a thin face. His sallow skin always seemed to hint at illness and his quickly thinning, grey hair didn’t add anything to counter that opinion. I had never really thought him the sort of person who was capable of controlling the near one thousand members of Everest.
“You can’t do this!” London was shouting, her face red with rage.
“This is the only way!” Victor shouted in return. “If we do nothing, the planet will die! Islands will go under water. Places will become inhospitable, making the Earth even more crowded!”
There was a gentle murmur as the rest of Heart agreed with their leader.
I squeezed through the door in an attempt to avoid detection by the board members. While they probably wouldn’t kick me out, chances were they were not going to speak nearly as freely nor candidly as they would have if I weren’t there.
“And yet, electricity is fine! Cars are fine! Industry is fine! Everest isn’t going to follow through on these decisions, are they?” London was still shouting.
I slowly inched myself along the wall until I was almost completely hidden among the paintings and tapestries that hung there. A series of ornamental swords hung on the wall, souvenirs from around the world.
I frowned and made myself shift my concentration to the conversation in an attempt to recognize what the issue seemed to be.
“Don’t be stupid, London!” Victor retorted. “If we acted just like the rest of the continent, as you say we should, there would be no one to lead the ordinary civilians. We have given up a great deal to be part of this organisation and we won’t give up what we have gained in return. Besides, if we fell, only anarchy would await the citizens of the world, which would be breaking the 2043 Convention of Unity between the nations of New Europe. You know what sort of consequences that would bring about! The people need a leader!”
The loyal murmur once again raised itself.
“They have a leader! What was the point in re-establishing governments if we’re just going to be this overruling super-power that dictates what is right and what is wrong? Every county has their democratically elected government. The continents even have their own governments. There are plenty of people who can govern. We just need to let them! We don’t have to be a super-power! We can be gentle watchers, like we used to be!”
The Heart members looked away. I could tell they didn’t agree.
“Look, London the world changes and Everest needs to change with it,” said Victor, trying to sound reassuring.
“But not so quickly, surely!” London shouted back. “We can make the changes slower so that the people can acclimatise. Conduct trials! See if this idea of yours actually makes any difference. Evolution doesn’t work unless life has time to adapt. Change the environment too quickly and everything dies!”
“We don’t have time!” Victor dropped all pretence of being understanding. “The last of the people of Tuvalu have just been air lifted off. Their country disappears at high tide! Can’t you see? We have no where to put them and they’re only the beginning. Can’t you see what will happen if we do nothing?”
Heart raised their loyal murmur once more.
London was silent for a moment. She looked as if she was on the verge of tears. Her hazel eyes had filled to tipping point but she resolutely held on. And then:
“Have you forgotten ARC?” she said calmly.
The murmur died.
The only sound was Craig’s chair squeaking as he gently rocked my sister.
“We are turning into them...” I heard someone breathe.
London gave the crowd one last death stare before gathering her coat and storming out of the meeting room.
“London, it must be done...” Victor shouted but the door had already slammed.
I scrambled after her, forgetting at once that I wasn’t supposed to be there. Craig finally noticed me and grabbed my wrist.
“Aaron, tell your mother I’ll be a while,” he said.
I just wanted to go after London so I numbly nodded my head and hurried out the door.
London was a fair way down the corridor by the time I shut the door behind me. I could just make out her form in the half-light. The way she seemed to be intent on creating dents in the polished clay floor with every step gave away the silhouette’s identity.
“London!” I called after her as I started to jog.
She turned around for a moment but kept walking, pulling her coat on as she went.
I called her name again as I got closer. “Can you slow down a bit?” I asked with a grin as I came up next to her.
“I can’t believe they did that!” she exclaimed, not slowing down at all.
I bit my tongue. I shouldn’t ask. In this sort of mood she will certainly have a tantrum.
Best-case scenario: I get hit.
Worst-case scenario: she cries.
“Did what?” I was asking even as I thought this.
She turned her head to give me a glare but continued on at her tremendous pace.
I gave a sigh of relief.
“They‘re splitting up the cities,” she said suddenly as if she were starting another topic altogether.
“What do you mean? How do you split a city?”
“I mean, Aaron, they’re going to bulldoze half the city and make anyone who lived there move somewhere else!”
“Why would they want to do that? What would it achieve?”
“That’s what I want to know! Apparently, it will return us to small self-sufficient communities. Victor is convinced this will limit greenhouse emissions and... Well, you know Victor. He’s got an idea in his head and there’s no shaking it from there.”
I stopped walking.
It was happening again. It might be under another name and performed by a different hand but worldwide destruction of lives was about to begin again. How did we know that Everest wasn’t going to turn into the new ARC?
They had sounded good at the beginning too.
“What?” I shouted so loudly it echoed off the walls.
It took a few minutes before I had enough self-control to say, “Everywhere? Every city, of every country of every continent?”
“Everywhere...” Her tears were coming fast now and, cautiously, I put my arm around her and pulled her into a sheepish hug.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Craig will put it right.”
I felt her whole body stiffen before she pushed me away.
“Can’t you see?” she screamed, tears still streaming down her face. “He’s part of this!”
Then she slammed me against the wall and stormed down the corridor. I opened my mouth to say my mother wouldn’t have married a monster but changed my mind.
“Well, happy birthday anyway!” I called after her instead.
She paused a moment and sighed, as if she had only just remembered what day it was, before continuing to race down the corridor.
Although my bed had several blankets I was cold. It was an icy frost that crept through my family’s chambers and into my bones, chilling me to the core. I got up and found I was no colder without my many layers of insulation. Even if I knew I was the cold. Even if I knew it was actually the same temperature it always was underground, I could feel it in the air.
I crept out of my room and passed the chamber where my mother and step-father were sleeping, passed the small cot where my half-sister, Carolyn, snored ignorantly and out into the corridor. The lamps hissed as if scolding me for interrupting some private conversation although the corridor was as still and empty as I had expected it to be. Soon Ivan would come around to trim the wicks. Although I usually enjoyed his meaningless chatter, today I didn’t feel like standing still and waiting for him to arrive. I wandered down the corridor, naming the people sleeping behind each door in my head. Living on the lower floors had always seemed more social than life on the upper ones. Somehow it seemed the richer you were the less you cared about anything but money.
Up a staircase and along another corridor to the corner of The Cave where the more wealthy members lived. Here, instead of a single door leading into the corridor, houses were carved from the Earth itself to create a street similar to one you would see on the surface. As the boulevard, for that is what it really was, progressed the houses became more and more extravagant. Here was one with two stories, there one with five. There another with a patio and cornices hanging from the roof. One house even had a little hedgerow carved from the stone in its front garden. I wasn’t walking anywhere in particular; I was simply walking because that is what my legs wanted to do, they didn’t want to stay still.
The street stretched on before me as I ambled along. I turned a corner and off the wealthy street. Another staircase and out of the residential levels.
This level held the shops, usually bustling with life as the prices of beef or cotton were shouted from the shop-fronts. They now stood eerily deserted as the keepers slept warm in their beds. Windows looked down silently onto the great opening cavern below.
My legs called and slowly the stores faded away. I couldn’t see now. I didn’t notice the treasury or the trophy room or the doors to chambers that were painted black with their family name a scrawl that had been set in gold, although I knew they must be there. Up another staircase and still onwards. I stopped in front of the meeting room, my dead-pan face reflected back from the cool glass, and suddenly the day’s events came flooding back to mind; broken cities, London’s birthday, Craig, my mother, baby Carolyn, everyone trapped in an organisation that does not care for those who live on the surface and lead normal lives. How had we become like this? How had the once great Everest fallen to such lows?
From London’s description, Everest was providing nowhere for these people to go. That means huge human displacement. Displacement means camps, camps mean slums, slums means famine and disease and every horror the mind can imagine. It was the basest of men who owned slums. What would happen when half the world was in one?
Somehow I was standing on the surface. I had come down from the meeting room, crossed the large cavern at the entrance and climbed the stairs to the outside world, all without noticing. The large domes that were the original Cave – the one Ethan, London and I had built – reached over my head, blue in the cool night air. The domes were the official residence of all the Heart members, although most preferred the wealthy street. London still lived here, though. She was the most emotional of the three of us, or at least the most honestly emotional. Ethan, the idiot, had always had the most twisted way of displaying his emotions. Of course, he wasn’t likely to be showing any emotions at all now. His death had never really surprised me and I would be lying if I said I’d felt any regret or grief. He was an idiot. There was no way around that. And his idiocy had untimely led him to betray the only people who had ever found him useful. Besides, I had my own reasons for not liking him. The bastard had touched London so easily when I can barely bring myself to. I supposed she was in one of the side chambers, probably asleep. Or maybe the state of the world kept her up as well.
I walked towards the door out of the dome but as soon as I turned the handle I froze, the night air slowly streaming in through the tiniest crack that I’d created. I thought for a moment again about what had happened in the meeting room before creeping back over to her door, careful not to make a sound. A bed-spring creaked and I pushed the door open a fraction. Another creak. I flung the door wide to reveal London pulling her backpack out from under the covers. Her head shot towards me, flushed with embarrassment. I glared at her in her most comfortable clothes. Comfortable clothes for a long journey. Jeans tucked into knee-high laced up boots to keep out the bugs. Layers and layers on her top half so that she could take one off or put one on depending on the weather. I noticed her great navy-blue winter coat, a relic of her mother’s that we had found at the old base camp, rolled up and strapped to her bag. It was months until winter. How long was she planning to travel for?
I knew London was hardly the sort of person to take Victor’s decision lying down but it had still been half whim to actually check on her.
“Aaron, please, I need to leave…” She sighed.
She couldn’t leave! I would be less than a man if I let her leave without saying anything. I had promised myself I would tell her how I really felt on her birthday. She wasn’t leaving now.
I don’t know what it was about her that turned me back into a pimply, quivering teen who secretly dreamt of the girl sitting across from him in class, even though he had never spoken to her. I seemed to have no problem with other girls. But that wasn’t the issue.
It was London I wanted.
It couldn’t be explained with words, even if I were a master wordsmith, how much I wanted her. She was the mercury between my fingers and, the faster she slipped through, the more I clutched and wrestled to hold the deadly metal.
I swallowed. “I’m coming too.” I stated, slumping onto her bed, not a hint of the inferiority I felt in my voice.
Because I would follow you anywhere! I wanted to reply.
“This isn’t the organisation I joined.” I lied instead.
“That’s what I thought…” London innocently grumbled.
It was in this way that the next few days passed: I rode and London leaned her cheek against my back as the trees whispered secrets from their lofty positions. The leaves on the forest floor seemed to deaden the sound made by the horses’ hooves. Shadows coated our bodies like molten metal, clinging in the corners of the path and hiding the tiny burrows of animals that I knew must be there.
I had convinced London we ride to wherever it was we were going with little difficulty but I still worried that, even with us taking the back roads and staying out of sight as much as possible, Everest would spring upon us at any second.
Then there was the fact that London couldn’t ride a horse.
It had come as something of a surprise. Partly because she didn’t tell me until we had already bought two horses. I had thought everyone had learnt in the ten years that we didn’t have any other option but it seemed Everest had never thought that to be a crucial part of their ward’s education.
The second problem was that London had never told me what our destination was, no matter how I approached the subject. And the trouble with not knowing where we were heading was that I needed to stir London from her rest every time we came to a fork in the path or when it became so overgrown it was impossible to see the right direction we ought to travel in. Amongst several other things, London had bought a compass in a little town we had passed through along the way and, when any such situation arose, she would take it out and wearily look at it, point out the direction, then go back to dozing on my shoulder. The novelty of having her so close soon wore off and it quickly became frustrating to have such a weight on my back all day. Especially a weight I would not allow myself to touch.
That night, as I tied the horses to a tree and London struck match after match in an attempt to light the fire, I informed her that she was learning how to ride.
“What was the point in buying two horses if one had to be dragged all day?” I said.
We didn’t travel on the next day. Instead, I began to teach London. The sound of the hoof beats echoed around the clearing I had struggled so hard to find and not even the trees could shield the outside world from the shouts she made as she rode. Generally they were shouts of joy but, occasionally, she would slip and call out in fear.
I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Even if I didn’t have to be watching to correct her form and in case she fell, I wouldn’t have wanted to look away. The smile that graced her face was amazing. I’m sure London has never realised how beautiful she actually is. Golden brown hair, like the sun reflected off the surface of a deep lake, and speckled green eyes, while not traditionally beautiful, gave her such an appearance of happy beauty that you can’t help but smile when you see her. And when she did well, she would leap from the horse and rush to embrace me. I know I was a little awkward at those times. I was never entirely sure how long I was allowed to hold her but, if I’d been allowed, I might have forgotten what Everest wanted to do and stayed like that forever.
She learnt quickly. So every second day we didn’t travel on, I would seek out a clearing big enough to ride in and, instead of continuing to our unknown destination, I taught her to ride in more comfort, further, faster. In just a week she could keep up with me as we moved. When she could finally ride all day without a hint of falling off I told her there was no way she was climbing back on my horse. I remember I had grinned as I said it but, secretly, I’d hoped she would take longer to learn.
It was dark.
I had been asleep but I felt something deep in my unconscious and my body forced itself awake. Then I waited motionless for the threat to arrive.
I froze in my blankets; I swear I had just heard a noise.
I had a pistol somewhere in my bag. I stuck one toe out of the blanket, then my foot, then my whole leg, careful to keep my ears straining for any sound and my eyes scanning the darkness. The leg silently crept across the ground to where my bag lay with its contents spilling in the dirt. I wrapped my toes around the handle and pulled it back under the covers. Carefully, I un-buckled the bag, reached inside without making a sound, and felt for the heavy, cold metal that was my gun.
There was the noise again; the clear ‘click’ of a twig being broken under foot. Now I couldn’t afford to hesitate.
I flipped onto my stomach and pulled the pistol from the pack in one fluid movement.
“Don’t shoot!” someone cried.
London stood alone in the clearing. I put the gun down, my heart still racing with adrenaline.
“What were you doing?” I demanded.
London muttered an answer I didn’t hear. I asked her again.
“Nature called…” she said quietly, looking at her feet.
As if to prove the point, London bent to pick up some toilet paper from where she had flung it in surprise. She was blushing so much I had to laugh. Soon, she was laughing too. My face turned red and my whole body shook as, gradually, I forgot what we had found so funny.
Then a bullet hit a tree.
Bark showered onto our faces.
Nothing seemed as if it had ever been funny.
Our eyes widened with surprise but a second later we both grabbed our bags and rolled instinctively behind the relative safety of a tree. The horses were tied in the next clearing so we wouldn’t be kept awake by their snorting. With any luck they wouldn’t find them, whoever they were. I pressed my back to the rough trunk of my tree and gathered my thoughts. Another round of shots came through the clearing. I poked my head around the trunk of my tree while the sound still reverberated through the forest. A small figure in a white uniform was still out of the cover of the trees and seemed to glow in the darkness. I raised my pistol, held my breath, steadied my arm and pulled the trigger. The little man fell to the ground with a faint cry. I closed my heart as he stopped moving. I pulled myself back behind my tree just before another round of bullets sped through the clearing. I glanced over at London. I had insisted both of us be armed so, against her will, she had brought a pistol for herself from The Cave. She sat with her back against the tree, staring down at the weapon in her hands.
I should have known.
I sighed and stuck my head out again.
Raise the gun, steady and shoot.
He toppled backwards as he fell.
I rolled to the tree London was hiding behind. The brush cut my face and arms but I wouldn’t notice for several hours yet. London hadn’t moved. She was trembling slightly but whether that was from fear or disgust, I could never tell. I pulled the gun from her fingers with little effort, before loading it and pushing it against her chest.
“Shoot!” I growled.
Her face was red with unshed tears. I wanted to hold her. With evident effort, she took a deep breath. I looked back to the fight; three men were running in a crouch through the trees. The low-lying shrubs scraped their calves as they ran.
There was silence.
I knew there must have been sound in the clearing but I couldn’t hear anything. My ears had closed. All that was surging through my body at that moment was pure adrenaline and the will to survive. My name. My age. My family. Even London. I had forgotten them all.
The little white men had almost crossed the clearing and were spreading out to surround us. If I left it much longer there would no escape.
Light began to spill into the sky. I turned back to London. She was blinking back those tears that threatened to fall with a look of fearful determination. I raised my gun again.
Steady and shoot, shoot, shoot.
All three little white uniforms fell. The splintered leaves that had unfortunately crossed paths with the speeding metal in their floating descent to the forest floor exploded around the clearing. If it had been me who broke cover, it would just as easily have been my blood now clotting the dirt of the clearing.
I crouched and ran, like they had been doing, back to the safety of my tree. The adrenaline was already fading. The sickness of what I was doing was starting to build in the pit of my stomach.
I swallowed, forcing it back down.
I checked my pistol: One shot left.
Why, oh why, didn’t we bring ammunition with us?
I swallowed again and poked my head around the tree, only to be chased back into safety by another round of bullets. The adrenaline surged through my veins once more and felt that last push to finish this thing.
London appeared to be composing herself. Suddenly she jumped out from behind her tree and fired three wild shots. One man hadn’t ducked behind cover in time and grabbed his leg as he fell. His cry echoed throughout the forest and through my bones. London dropped the gun and fell into a fit of shaking, disgusted at what she’d done. I could see she would be no more help. Never mind. She had given me all the help I needed.
One more bullet, one more man.
I mustn’t miss.
I closed my eyes and cleared my mind, letting instinct take over. The rounds of bullets that had come flying into the clearing only a minute before had reduced to only a single bang every so often. I waited for him shoot. It took a few minutes but it arrived.
As soon as I heard it my head, hand and gun were out from behind the tree. The man was only a tiny white target in the distance.
Raise the gun, steady and…
Mustn’t miss, mustn’t miss, mustn’t miss, mustn’t-
He was so far away I didn’t hear him as he fell.
But fall he did.
My mind was running amok. The adrenaline was fading, leaving me with the realisation that I had just killed five people. Their eyes haunted me. Those three running, crouched, through the trees and that moment just before their end. The moment they realised. I was frowning, I realised, as I tried to force the memory from my mind.
You have killed before, I reminded myself, it’s nothing new and you will soon forget they even existed in the first place. Live on.
I wanted to just lie in the grass and not get up, let my morbid thoughts consume me. But London could not have that. She had stopped shaking by now and just sat quietly with her back resting against the tree. She was still so beautiful. The out of place thought struck me even in this situation. Even with her hair plastered to her face by sweat, her skin thick with dirt, and her eyes red-ringed and wild, she was still the beautiful girl I remembered from four years ago.
After a minute she stood up and stormed over. Any impression of gentleness was immediately forgotten.
“They were Everest!” she shouted, looking down at me in the grass. “Everest, Aaron. Our own organisation sent a kill squad after us!”
I rolled over; maybe if I ignored her she’d go away and I could return to the world of my imagination. A world where I didn’t have to tell London anything, where she would already know how I felt and be happy. But I knew this wasn’t that world. London wouldn’t be glad to lose her ‘best-friend.’
“Aaron?” she yelled at me.
Slowly, I stood up. She was babbling now, twitching and talking so fast I couldn’t understand. This, I couldn’t ignore. I put my arms around her and held her still. She kept talking, each word becoming more and more emotional until she was crying quietly on my shoulder. As we stood in the clearing with the trees nothing but splinters, six bodies cooling in the dust, and devastation all around us, I smiled. I had just made the most satisfying realisation of my life.
This is who I was: I was more than a friend to her.
I was the shoulder to cry on.
That night, we sat around the fire in silence, and then went to bed early. We had hardly talked all day.
London was in shock.
I was exhausted.
After little sleep, less food and the emotionally draining experience with Everest, I had barely been able to stay upright in the saddle that afternoon.
The next morning I rose at dawn but London had risen even earlier. I poked the fire with a stick and it flared back to life, just as London rode into the crop of trees we had stopped in.
“There you are,” I said, pouring some water from a flask into a tin that was to hang over the fire.
“This is too hard,” London said as she dismounted the horse, tied it to a tree, and sat on the other side of the fire.
I raised an eyebrow but remained silent.
“I don’t know which way we’re meant to go,” she said.
“Well, if you told me where we were going, I might be able to help,” I said without looking away from the delicate task of trying to get the tin to balance over the fire again.
London sighed and began to pluck at the grass beside her.
“Everest will have sent a messenger to the capital,” she said eventually, twisting a blade of grass between her fingers.
Slowly it dawned on me what we were attempting to achieve.
The water can slipped from my chopstick-like branches and into the fire where half the flames were extinguished with a hiss.
“Holy shit...” I whispered. “You want us to get there first? London he’s probably driving! And we’ve spent so long teaching you to ride, and so long in towns and, and... We’ve been going so slowly! I mean, I know you said we had to rush but this is impossible!”
“We just need to stop the messenger,” she replied meekly.
“He’s probably there by now!” I screamed back at her.
“I know... I know...” She whined.
I smothered the remaining fire with some earth and began readying the horses.
“Wh-what are you doing?” London asked.
“We need to leave now if we want to get anywhere near close,” I snapped back at her.
I tied the horses together before climbing on. London wanted to know why she wasn’t riding her own horse.
I didn’t answer, I just growled, “Get on,” and held out my hand to pull her onto the horse. Grudgingly, London climbed up.
I kicked my heels into the mare with a grunt and rode away as fast as she would carry us.
Next Update: 06.10.2015