'Twas the Backspin After Christmas: Citizen Anna and the Price of Freedom
[ Part 2 of a Holiday Trilogy ]
It all started with the disappearance of Carla... and the belief that it was the work of the looming menace of the alter ego of which we dare not speak.
But on the road to a rescue, Citizen Anna revealed that the threat may be even greater than we know.
The Future in Flux
With Tarzan's glowing eyes leading the way through the encroaching darkness, we traveled as far as we could immediately after leaving Gronau. I wanted to keep going until morning, to put as much distance between us and the Minions as possible, but Citizen Anna was surprisingly unconcerned. "The final battle won't be fought here, or now," she said, "but we do need some rest."
Anna found us a suitable campsite for the night, an area partially protected on one side against the wind by a small cluster of fir trees and a large rocky outcropping. A quick hunt -- Anna went out with Tarzan -- produced a pair of snow rabbits for the nourishment of our small group. They were cooked over an open fire, and provided a veritable feast after our already-long trek.
Afterward, we all gather together around the fire. We each tell our scariest Radwanska stories, perhaps as a way to passive-aggressively challenge The Rad, in case It might be listening, but more likely to simply soothe our own jagged nerves. If one didn't know the dire circumstances that led us here, the scene could be mistaken for a gathering of old friends in the belly of Mother Nature on a weekend excursion. Even Anna got in on the act, recounting a rousing tale of her night in a Romanian forest. After having posed as a model during a photoshoot in Bucharest, she'd tracked an international illegal arms dealer, doubling as a world class photographer (as no other kind would be photographing Anna), there as he journeyed to secretly meet with a buyer at a secluded homestead. The entire time, she swore she felt the cold exhalations of The Radwanska breathing down her neck with every step she took through the tree-packed landscape.
After completing her story, Anna stands up and quietly moves away from the group. She makes fleeting eye contact with me, then casually makes her way toward the outcropping. She nods in my direction, then slips behind the rock. After a few seconds, I pour a cup of hot water from the melted snow collected in a pot next to the fire, then make my way toward Anna. I get there just as Zidane begins his story by turning to Sneaky Patty and Diane (and Tarzan, of course), and asking, with a wicked grin on his face, "Have you ever heard of Yuri and Yelena?"
I'll have to ask him to recount his tale for me later, I tell myself.
As I round the corner, the scene behind the rock is only lit by the brilliant stars overhead. And there are many, as you could easily see well enough to read in this light. I see Anna staring off into the sky. With no light on the ground to interfere with the stars' beauty in this part of the world, the sky is particularly distracting. She sees me, then immediately turns from possibly-wistful to serious, and oddly excited. She pulls from her jacket the electronic device she received at Leif's from the now-dead Minion. Getting a closer look at it now, I see that it has something resembling a numbered keypad. Anna hits several buttons. "Coordinates," she says when she sees me watching, "I got them from my contact the last time we met."
She sets the device flat on the ground between us. "Hopefully," Anna tells me with something less than confidence, "this report will be better than the last. We have a theory about The Radwanska's Plan, and if It acquires the power to tra-" Just then, the device springs to life. Within seconds, an flat-screened image is projected directly above it. The transmission is experiencing great interference, and the picture isn't clear. I can tell that there is a person on the other side of the connection, but nothing more. Finally, the image becomes clear.
I immediately recognize who it is -- Sloane Stephens. But she's not the Sloane I'm used to seeing. She still has a youthful face, but she's quite a bit older than I remember, and while she sports a familiar smile when she sees the image of Anna on her end of the transmission, there is worry in her eyes. "Anna... you look cold," Sloane says.
"Yeah, I am. I'm in the middle of nowhere."
"Again?"," she says with a slight chuckle. "Anything to worry about?," she asks.
"No. I don't think so. Just the usual Radwanska tricks," Anna assures her.
"You might have reason to worry, though. You have to stay a step ahead. You don't want your first battle with It to be your last. It has to know by now that you may be our only hope."
"I think It does. It's testing me, trying to determine what my reactions will be. But I have a plan, too."
Sloane smiles. "You always do. Actually, I was getting worried that maybe The Radwanska had found out about your visit here," she says, the audio of her voice being distorted by more and more static. "That can't happen," she implores. "If It finds out you've been here, It'll see you coming. You don't want to end up like Maria. Did you take care of...?"
"Yes, he's been eliminated," Anna responds, giving me a quick look, as if proving a point. "But I'm barely keeping a step ahead."
"You'll have to risk coming here again -- we should have converted the technology soon. You have to get there before It sets It's Plan in motion. We'll only have one shot."
Anna, in a resigned, but unsurprised voice, "Then it's more than just a rumor? We were right?" Sloane shakes her head. "I think we both knew we were."
Suddenly, there is a clamoring nearby, somewhere outside the location from which Sloane is transmitting. Directly behind her, several people run past, looking where they've been and firing weapons at something. One woman yells out to all within earshot, "Breach! Breach! It's the siblings. Retreat!"
Sloane looks into the camera. "I have to go," then takes a step back, and stands in something resembling a salute. "Freedom -- yesterday, today and forever," she says.
Anna does the same. "Freedom -- yesterday, today and forever."
"I'll see you soon," Sloane says, then the transmission abruptly ends. Anna picks up the device and places it back into her pocket.
"What the hell was that?," I ask.
"I think it was fairly self-explanatory."
"Oh, really?," I laugh. "Well, I have a FEW questions."
"Where IS Sloane?"
"It's not a matter of where she is, it's WHEN she is."
"So," I say slowly. "She's... in the future?" I can't believe I'm actually asking such a thing.
"See, like I said, 'self-explanatory.' She looks at me with less patience. "Look, you're going to have to stop being surprised."
"Easy for you to say." Anna starts to walk away. "Wait," I call out." She stops. "Sloane said you'd visited her. In the future?"
"Yes," she says, as if it should be obvious. When the look on my face tells her that she's still being too tight-lipped, she only responds with, "That's a story for another day."
"You have to tell me more than that," I say, more than a bit annoyed. "It's bad enough that you've dragged us out here in the middle of nowhere, as you said, but you're only talking to me -- and you're not even telling me the full story."
Anna sighs. "Fine. I suppose you should know more.," she says, then adds, turning on a touch of her old charm, "Although, to be completely accurate, it's Tarzan that's dragged us out here."
"So you're blaming the cat?"
"No. I'm blaming The Radwanska," Anna corrects me. "Don't you see. The Radwanska has just been toying with us. All the little skirmishes and tricks you've seen so far? It's just practicing. In It's mind, we're ALL melons." She walks a few steps, and takes a deep breath. "One thing that you've all seen over the past year is that The Rad prefers to attack expectations whenever possible. Whether it's through clever misdirection or outright manipulation, the successful end result is to leave an opponent confused, and not knowing which way to turn. To leave them suspicious of good fortune, and to ultimately rob them of their hope."
"Like Sharapova at the Open," I whisper, surprised to realize I might understand Anna's words.
"That's when we believe The Radwanska was born. September 1, 2007. We don't believe Aga even knew what she was doing, what sort of monster she was creating on that day. And it took a few years for It to manifest Itself to a point where It could exist outside her body. We believe that day came last March in Miami."
"Again, Sharapova," I remember.
"Yes," she confirms. "The Rad is stronger when Aga is near... and It's getting stronger every day. But It feeds off the misery of Maria -- that was, and is, It's lifeblood."
"She's the Maria who Sloane was talking about?"
Anna shakes her head. "In Sloane's time, Maria has become something of a myth. She's the one 'who gives power to The Radwanska.' There, she hasn't been seen in ages. All the children grow up being told, 'You don't want to be like Maria.' The Minions have tried to spread the notion -- they think it helps to quell rebellion. The younger generation believes that maybe she never really existed, but Sloane and the others know better. They try to keep her story alive. One day we'll find her, and she'll inspire millions to rise up."
"Did The Radwanska get her?"
"We don't know. But based on how powerful It becomes, we believe It's keeping her very close, causing her to replay her pain over and over again in her head." She begins to pace, remembering what is known of Maria's future history. "We know she survived The Scourge. She escaped to Siberia. It wasn't a smart move. We believe The Rad was there waiting for her. When I visited Sloane, I checked out the most probable site of her abduction, I found many clawed footprints in the snow. They looked exactly like those we saw outside Carl and Carla's home."
"If she's alive, where do you think The Radwanska might be holding her?"
"Maybe at the Abbey. No one's seen the inside for years. It's been fortified in the future, both inside and out, but we don't believe the interior construction has started yet in this time period. A day may come when we'll have to storm the gates, so keep those floor plans I gave you in a safe place."
I pat the jacket pocket in which I'm holding them. Then I remember something else that Sloane said. "What 'technology' were you talking about?"
"Well, ever since we learned about the tech that allowed travel into the future, we've known that The Rad had been using it for years -- it's why It knows everyone's Achilles' heel. Minion double agents provided us with the tech, and each and every one along the line gave their lives rather than reveal it to The Rad, you should know. When we win this battle, they should be honored." Once again, Anna reflexively caresses the scar on her wrist.
"We also surmised that the technology could be reversed, and we could travel in-"
"Into the past," I finish, more than a little astonished. But not as much as I would have been a few minutes ago.
"The Radwanska wins many battles, but It's not undefeated. And Maria can't be used as an energy source forever. So, we've known for quite some time that The Rad had to be looking for a way around that. A way to gain access to a larger, more longer-lasting source of life. We knew the technology gave It an important tool. And then we got wind of the research that was going on behind enemy line's. We didn't know how close The Rad was to being able to reverse-travel, so we started our own separate, 'Philadelphia Project,' if you will."
"What's the status?"
"We're close. But The Radwanska is closer. We believe It'll have the ability to travel back within the year. Thing is, we have to get there first. It's the only way to stop It."
"What do you think It's Plan is?," I ask, more worried than before.
Anna lowers her voice. "Well," she starts, "this is just a theory, mind you. But I think it's a good one. Where do so many of our hopes and dreams originate?" She answers her own question. "In childhood. And when do those hopes spark to life most often? During the holiday season, when wonder and delight seem the most possible in a child's mind. Can you imagine the immense power The Radwanska could attain it could capture the dreams of all sorts of Maria's... during the holiday season. All at once. It might be enough to fuel a lifetime of evil deeds."
"So you think The Rad will strike during Christmastime. But when?"
"We're not sure. That's why I have to do what I do: find a way to hide in plain sight, gain the trust of the right people... err, Minions, and stop The Radwanska before It can complete It's Plan. Or, hopefully, even begin it." She takes a weary deep breath. "What we've seen so far is nothing compared to what I’ve seen that It has in store for us in the future."
"You don't want to know." Anna pauses. "There's a lot of work ahead, and I'm the only one who can do it. But," she pauses, then shrugs, "that's why-"
I interrupt. "...you're Citizen Anna." I shake my head. "No wonder you are the way you are."
"No, I mean-"
"I get it. I do."
Just then, Diane steps around the rock. She may or may not have been listening. It's difficult to tell. "Is something going on that we should all know about?," she asks. I look to Anna.
"We're just planning for tomorrow," she says.
"Oh," Diane responds, sensing she's interrupted something and, rightly, that Anna isn't in the mood to share.
"Tell the others we'll be leaving before daybreak," Anna tells her. As Diane turns to leave, Anna sees me urging her to be less harsh. "And like I promised, we WILL find Carla. She'll be fine." Diane nods, then heads back to the group.
"We're going to have to tell them the whole story," I say.
"One crisis at a time." Just then, Anna has an odd reaction. She looks around our immediate surroundings. I see nothing. But for a moment, her expression changes. I can swear she's almost smiling. "Did you feel that?," she asks.
"I don't know. I felt a strange chill, and then I was warm."
"A chill? Well, look around. I think we're all chilly."
"No, it was more focused. Almost like it was meant for only me."
"Was it as 'good' chill, or a 'bad' one, you think?"
"Good, I think." She looks off into the distance, and after a contemplative pause. "I think maybe I was wrong. It might not just be me who can take down The Radwanska. I think there's another." For the first time since she showed up, Anna seems genuinely, and refreshingly, surprised.
The Final Leg
The next morning, we all follow Tarzan across the vast, snowy expanse. Then, suddenly, up ahead of us, the feline stops in its tracks.
Collectively, our eyes move from the cat to the snowy hill rising out of the approaching landscape. We strain our eyes to see through the blowing snow, and adjust and focus our vision on a distant point. Finally, almost in unison, we see it. The entrance to a cave. We all look at each other, and we know.
We have arrived at our destination.
To be continued...
NEXT WEEK, THE THRILLING "CONCLUSION" OF THIS YEAR'S HOLIDAY TRILOGY: "Twas the Backspin After New Year's: Citizen Anna and the Birth of Hope"