The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg
It’s been 481 days since Dr. Foster last spoke to Ana. He tells her this will be their last interview and then she can rest. Dr. Foster says that it would be the right thing to do and he’ll let her see her sisters if she does. Ana is not in the mood for his games. Dr. Foster demands she tell him what she did with the body.
Two years earlier, Ana is riding the monorail in the Kingdom where she meets a little girl called Clara. As the signal is strong on the monorail, Ana is able to download all the information stored about Clara based on her facial recognition. These interactions are her favorite part about the Kingdom. Ana is a Fantasist, a hybrid developed in a lab to help create those Happily Ever After moments for guests while the park is open. She has a few hours of freedom each day to explore the confines of the park, and at night, Ana spends the quiet hours wandering the virtual world as far as her firewalls allow while her system updates.
Last night Ana was thinking about her sister Alice, one of the original Fantasists. She was found ripped apart after being stolen. Her story is a cautionary tale their Mother tells them to stay inside the walls of the Kingdom. Mother oversees the seven Fantasists' well-being and aesthetics, making sure they are plucked, washed, moisturized, manicured, dressed to perfection and take their food supplements every day while Daddy checks their physical and psychological well-being.
The Fantasists don’t live in the castle as guests often think, but instead they live in a sterile unmarked building at the far end of the park. After they are dressed, they are taken to the castle to greet the guests. Eve, the first Fantasist who, at the park's bicentennial celebration, was presented with a special tiara, leads her sisters at the presentation. Ana notices that Nia, her sister who works in the lagoon and performs as a mermaid, looks tense as she walks into the crowd.
As Ana goes about her day in the park, she forgets about Nia’s tense look. The Kingdom is almost an extension of Ana. She knows its hidden paths and the names of all the babies born in the animal park, from the extinct species to the ones dreamed up by the Kingdom like Elephants striped like zebras, Owls fanged like cats, Wolves as fast as cheetahs, and Arabian horses with butterfly wings and, more importantly, she knows the wifi blind spots. Because the Fantasists are always being watched from the security cameras and their ocular implants, they have developed their own secret language. During the quiet hours Nia asks Ana, why don’t the Robins ever leave their nest? Because the nest keeps them safe. Remember Alice. Remember the outside world is a bad place filled with violence, poverty, terror and horror.
One day, Kaia asks Ana to accompany her to see the new animal exhibit: a polar bear. Cameron Casey, one of the animal trainers and all-around creepy asshole, told Kaia to come at the end of the day and to bring a friend, though he had hoped it would be the mermaid not Ana. Kaia is one of the older Fantasists without the ability to create her own things to say so she has to cycle through preset scripts. Some of Ana’s sisters say cruel things about Kaia behind her back, calling her defective. Eve once said the investors don’t mind but then, they might not do much talking at the VIP events and Kaia does not remember or fully understand them anyway. Ana does not get Eve’s insinuation. Ana looks at the polar bear and sees an unfamiliar boy in the enclosure with it. She is able to access employee records and download the information to learn that this is Owen Chen, a maintenance worker with clearance level 10 - that is higher than hers! Cameron Casey isn’t gentle when he grabs the bear cub and doesn't respond well to Ana’s challenging his behavior. She is reminded of other incidents where Cameron Casey wasn’t being kind or nurturing to the park’s animals. Cameron Casey calls Kaia and Ana creepy, but at least nice to look at. Ana picks up on his threatening behavior and enters safe mode. He then says he wants to show Ana something in the VIP room, but Kaia volunteers to go in her stead, honestly Cameron Casey doesn’t care which of them it is.
Ana wakes up later, crying, and Eve whispers to her not to let Daddy see. Ana was dreaming about Cameron Casey taking Kaia down a corridor. She feels scared, not by the memory, but that she was dreaming. Physically she is fine but she doesn’t know how to say there is something wrong with her. She wants to cry but crying isn’t in her programming.
During an hour of free time, Ana asks Nia to accompany her to look at the animals. Nia pays no attention to the animals, but instead she is fascinated by a guest's cell phone. Fantasists aren’t permitted a phone, it would put them at risk from an unsecure internet connection. Nia sends Ana off on her own to watch the lions who have taken down a zebra. There she finds Owen who has been sent to clean the carcass, stripping fleshy bits from the technology. As he’s separating the pieces, Owen notes that no part of the zebra was eaten and that there are defects in the animal's fight or flight system.
Not long after being mesmerized by the phone, Nia is taken away and the other Fantasists don’t know how she will be punished for whatever she has done. Eve points out that they know the rules and have to accept the consequences. They won't cut her hair or lock her in a tower as her sisters speculate… they’ll shut her down.
Ana doesn’t see Owen around the park much so she has started tracking his employee ID. As a Fantasist, she is used to being looked at and sought out, so why isn’t Owen trying to find her? Did she say or do something wrong? Her attempts to establish a connection with him don’t work and if anything, seem to push him away.
After 10 weeks, Nia returns and strangely when Ana asks where the Robin was nesting she doesn’t understand their language. Nia also doesn’t talk to her during the quiet hours, take her hand or pepper her with funny questions.
One day Nia asks to see the polar bear show. Even though Ana is apprehensive about seeing Cameron Casey again, she agrees to go. The polar bear doesn’t come out and Ana is worried there is something wrong with it too so she sneaks backstage. Cameron Casey is with the chained animal shouting at it and cracking his whip drawing the bear's bioengineered blood as he berates it. Ana feels numb and rage at the same time and climbs into the enclosure to calm the bear down. Cameron Casey comes in, drags Ana off the bear, and shouts and screams at her before throwing her out.
Ana goes back to Nia who seems more like her old self and promises to talk to Ana later. Meanwhile, the set on the stage changes and the polar bear comes out sitting on a giant ice throne wearing a crown, the chains disguised amongst the set dressing, but Ana can see them. The bear rears up and roars making the air vibrate. A dumb kid in the audience decides it would be the best idea in the world to climb the fence onto the stage while calling the polar bear horrible names. The polar bear, not liking this dumb kid at all, breaks its chains easily. Before it reaches the dumb kid, a spray of bullets hits the bear. Nia holds Ana and tells her to think of something far away, to think of escape.
Later, as they are getting dressed to perform for the day, Nia asks Ana not to accompany her to the Lagoon even though Ana always does on Wednesdays. As they part, Nia tells Ana she loves her, but Ana feels like something is slipping away. Despite Nia asking Ana not to come to the Lagoon, she ends up at the mermaid lagoon anyway helping a family find the attraction. While she is there, Ana spots Owen and decides to follow him and he easily spots her. As they have an awkward conversation about squid facts, Ana feels her chest motor go into overdrive and she blurts out a standard park greeting. In the background, the show is about to start and Owen tells her she best leave.
Ana does not listen to Owen’s advice or Nia’s request and sneaks in to watch the show. The mermaid show starts in its usual dramatic fashion with Nia in her mermaid tail prosthetic riding on the back of a whale which breaches sending water spraying. As usual, Nia invites a little girl from the front row to come for a ride with her. At first the show follows the usual stage directions until the whale, with Nia holding the little girl in her arms, dives underwater. Minutes tick by and they don’t surface. The audience becomes worried and the little girl’s parents are frantic. Despite not being permitted to be in the water, Ana dives into the lagoon because she knows there is no way the emergency divers will reach the child in time. Ana swims further and further down, the pressure of the water closing in on her, until she finds Nia holding the little girl at the bottom of the lagoon. The girl is limp and Nia’s expression is determined. Ana wrestles the little girl from Nia, resurfaces and hands her to the paramedics. Meanwhile, Nia is hauled away by men dressed in black. Owen comes over to Ana and hands her his coat as thunder claps overhead and it starts to rain.
Since the incident with Nia, Ana has taken to finding a quiet place under the water where she can’t be seen or heard so she can scream. She also doesn’t like her new little sister, Nadia, who has replaced Nia. Ana sees Nadia as a mimic, a distraction from what happened in the lagoon. It is up to Ana to find out why Nia did what she did.
As Ana is heading to Princess Palace through the woods alone, she detours to the stables and finds Owen mucking them out. Ana tries to return his jacket; however, he tells her it was not a loan but a gift. This is the first gift she has been given. Ana doesn’t tell Owen she found Nia's seashell charm bracelet in his jacket pocket but does comment on a bracelet he is wearing. Owen tells her it is a medical bracelet because he has a heart thing so had to get an artificial valve. This delights Ana as she says he is a hybrid too! Owen likes that idea.
As they talk, one of the winged horses, aptly called horseflies, starts bucking and thrashing. Ana cautiously approaches with a handful of vitamin supplements from her pocket and calms the horsefly down. Owen tells her the strange behavior is happening with a lot of the hybrids. When Ana asks if he’s told Cameron Casey about it, Owen confesses to hating him and knowing that, based on how he treats the animals when they are healthy, he wouldn’t bother when they need help. Ana, much to her surprise, admits she hates Cameron Casey too, but Fantasists aren’t supposed to dislike anyone. As Ana leaves, she sees something glinting in the hay: Owen’s pocket knife. She takes it with the intention of returning it.
Ana returns to the bedroom and unfortunately Eve is already there changing her gown. The hem of her dress is muddy and she looks afraid. Eve says she found a hurt baby deer in the woods, code that she wants to speak alone where there are no signals. As they pass the VIP lounge, Ana wonders aloud what goes on inside. Eve said Kaia knows but she never speaks about it and is always fuzzy when she comes out. Ana takes it to mean Kaia is an older system and thinks the comment is mean, but that’s not what Eve meant. She says the supervisors don’t want Kaia to remember what happens with the investors so they erase her memory.
Finally they reach the clearing in the woods and Eve bends down and starts digging. As Ana and Eve talk, to Ana’s surprise, she finds they are similar. Eve likes to get lost in a book too and rides the monorail so much as she is pretending she is Anna Karenina. Eventually Eve stops digging and pulls a phone out from the soil; it's the phone Nia was obsessing over. Eve confesses she found it in Nia’s dresser after she was taken. As they argue about handing in to mother, the phone comes alive with notifications.
Suddenly, Eve runs off. Because Ana takes the time to rebury the phone and Fantasists are fast, Ana can’t catch up to Eve and has no idea where she went. Searching the woods, Ana eventually comes across a scrap of fabric on the way to the winter wonderland, and trekking through the snow, Ana spots Eve, looking a mess, at the observatory. Eve says she just wants to see the stars but they are so far away. She points out across the horizon asking where the labor camps are, the checkpoints, the slums, everything they've been told about what lies outside the Kingdom. How can they know if what they saw on the phone notifications was real? And if what was on the phone was real, what else are the supervisors lying to them about? Soon, two park workers with flashlights approach. One is a random unnamed guard and the other is Owen. Eve tells them they were star gazing, which everyone knows to be untrue because you can't see the stars from inside the Kingdom.
While Eve heads down the hill with the random unnamed guard, Ana and Owen go into the arctic enclosure where Owen asks what the real reason is why they were at the observatory because he is skeptical that they were star gazing. While in the enclosure, Owen checks on the baby penguins and makes some notes in his notebook he always carries, and Ana whispers that he needs to be careful what he says, indicating the security cameras. Owen tells her that not all the security cameras are cabled to the network and that they tend to only be in high risk areas and penguin babies are not one. This is why Cameron Casey asks the Fantasists to come here because he knows the cameras don’t work. Ana reassesses what she’s seen and doesn’t understand all the lies. Who or what are they trying to protect the Fantasists from? Owen says they are trying to protect them from what they can never have. That night Ana looks at the velvet straps around her wrists they use to strap the Fantasists down in bed she realizes the Princesses are locked in a tower.
One day while sitting with Owen up high and looking out over the closed park, Ana wonders if she like-likes him or is programmed to like-like him? Owen starts to stroke her face and it feels good. Suddenly Ana wakes, she is in her bed and she was dreaming again. Later, Ana wanders around the prehistoric animal enclosure where she learns the Sabertooth killed her cubs because someone left their cage open. Soon she spots Owen reading an electronic book. She approaches him to talk but he sounds irritated and annoyed with her. Ana asks him a million questions and he snaps at her to stop talking to him and to stop following him and to definitely not show up at his shift at the lagoon later. Upset and confused, Ana runs to the clearing in the woods and holds Owen’s knife she picked up the night she tried to return his jacket. Ana holds the knife tightly but she doesn’t feel any pain, only pressure. She feels like a robot, but impossibly she is crying. Suddenly Ana realizes that Owen purposely misspoke about having a shift at the lagoon, he’s actually arranging a meeting place and time in code.
Later that night, Ana makes her way to the Lagoon and Owen is there, waiting for her. He apologizes for being cruel earlier, but says he needed to make it seem believable as maintenance staff aren’t supposed to talk to Fantasists so much. They both admit how much they enjoy talking to each other. When Owen asks how Ana got into the Lagoon, she admits she broke in. He is shocked as she may be being monitored and offers to show her how to disable her ocular lenses. What?! She can control a feature in her body?! To reciprocate the gift, Ana gives Owen his knife back but he tells her she should keep it. They sit and look at the lagoon and Owen tells her a little of the outside world. She wants to help make it better and he says she does already, but Ana isn’t satisfied with her part. Owen also tells Ana about his family and visiting his Tiwanese grandparents, and about his little sister Sarah who passed away who loved princesses and castles and that Ana was her favorite. Owen, though reluctantly, offers to help find out what happened to Nia during those missing ten weeks, but Owen’s theory is that she was just trying to escape.
Later, Mother wakes the Fantasists early. There is a routine safety check for the investors and you know how they appreciate efficiency! One of the investors is acting lecherous toward Eve and says he enjoyed their previous night. Ana questions Eve and she acts strangely, but says she doesn’t recall anything happening. That night they are all instructed to attend a VIP party with the investors, but Ana does not want to go. Before that though, they have a children’s garden tea party which Eve does not attend. One little girl comes up to Ana and says, "If the birds get too curious, they could fall?” Ana asks who taught her their secret language, and she says it was the mermaid who told her. Suddenly Ana remembers the little girl is Clara from the monorail last year. Ana scans for Eve again, and again, until she gets a faint ping. Zara, one of the other Fantasists, mentions that Ana was missed at the investor dinner the previous night while she was with Owen, and Ana is sure Kaia knows what is going on but her memories are being wiped and it’s affecting her. Ana drags Kaia and Zara to find Eve following the GPS signal. In the woods, they find hybrid blood and a torn piece of skin. Digging down, Ana finds Eve’s tracking chip.
Daddy reassures Ana that Eve will turn up and she must still attend the investor party that night. For the rest of the day Ana stays in safe mode as she interacts with the park guests when suddenly she smells something off. Coming out of safe mode and cranking up her olfactory senses to max and shifting through the smells, she can smell garbage and sewage.
As Ana looks around she sees nine guards messing around and stealing money from the wishing fountain. They’re being disgusting and creepy, and when they notice Ana, they are disgusting and creepy toward her. Ana enters safe mode again and repeats in a whisper one of Mother's favorite mindful meditations. "Do not struggle. Do not resist. Always calm. Always safe." Before anything can happen Owen comes along to stop it and the guards move on. Owen tells Ana about his sister Sarah and that she was killed three years ago in a car accident. He was driving, and the accident is what caused his heart condition when his chest slammed into the steering wheel. Owen reminds Ana that she was Sarah's favorite Fantasist and then Owen shows her a picture of Sarah. Ana is able to search her memory for facial recognition and recall visits Sarah made to the park, including one with Owen. How did Ana forget him? She should have recalled him when she first saw him. Ana projects the video recordings for Owen. The fireworks start and Ana realizes she is late for the investors party, though Owen tells her she shouldn’t go as it's not safe with all the armed guards out there. Owen also tells her that Eve stole a horse before cutting the chip from her arm.
Ana starts to panic and wants to search for Eve in all her favorite places. As she gathers her thoughts, Owen asks her what Eve's favorite story is: Anna Karenina. He’s not up to speed on his Russian literature so it’s not much help to him. Suddenly Owen looks scared to say something. He reveals that Nia gave him her charm bracelet to give to Ana but he’s lost it and knows it should be reported, but then Ana pulls it out of her dress pocket. Owen says it was a goodbye token, and maybe Eve taking out her tracker is the same. Owen suggests that Eve may be trying to escape by hurting herself. In the corner of her eye Ana sees the monorail and remembers the dramatic scene in Anna Karenina where Anna commits suicide by flinging herself in front of an oncoming train. Ana spots Eve near the rooftop garden and realizes Eve wants the supervisors and investors to see. Ana runs, shouting toward her as the booms of fireworks go off. Eve says, “They can’t put a price on us Ana,” as she plummets from the rooftop into the path of the monorail below. Ana didn't reach her in time.
Ana wakes up later in a bright room on a table and Mother and Daddy are there. Ana’s body is twisted and she’s soaked in a thick fluid. Daddy says they are going to fix her as she tells him what happened on the tracks. Ana doesn’t speak until she whispers that Eve just wanted to be free, to escape. Daddy says there is no such thing and that escape is a lie.
Ana dreams of Nia and Clara and tries to figure out when Nia could have taught Clara their secret language. She wakes up in her bed surrounded by her sisters who have a million questions. Zara tells her that Eve was shut down that morning and Nadia whispers a coded message to Ana. In the morning, Ana finds a Valentine card addressed to Nia with a new bracelet charm. The card seems personal, like Nia spent time with the sender. Ana remembers that Nia wasn’t with them over Valentine's, that was during the 10 weeks she was missing. Ana is also convinced she is being watched, to make sure she is safe. Ana decides that following the rules has gotten her into trouble so she decides to make up her own.
Ana doesn't see Owen for weeks after the incident. Ana is convinced she’s malfunctioning and starts crying again which upsets her more. She thinks she is next to be turned off. Owen says she isn’t malfunctioning, she’s evolving, like the hybrid animals. As Owen is trying to comfort her, Ana reaches for him and kisses him. He goes back for more.
Another week passes before Ana sees Owen again. She sees him in places he shouldn’t be, and when she calls out to him, his image flashes and he disappears. One day, Ana spots him with another maintenance worker and follows, hiding in the topiary. Owen easily finds her hiding place and confesses he didn’t know what to say to her after their kiss other than that he doesn’t regret it. There are other things she needs to know too and things he needs to tell her and he promises to find her soon. After Owen has left, Ana notices Owen’s notebook on the ground, and though she knows it’s wrong, she opens it and begins to read. Owen has written about their "relationship" and how she's easily emotionally manipulated. He also writes about her older processors and that she's probably at the end of her technological life.
Ana goes into the tunnels, rats scattering around her, Owen’s notebook in her hand. His notes are hurtful, harmful, and a betrayal. She wants revenge. At the trash compactor bridge, Ana waits for Owen, his pocket knife in her hand. Owen comes a few minutes later. Ana has something to show him. Owen promises he can explain and says he never lied to her. He says he wrote the lies about her being easily manipulated to get the others to back off. He says that was being honest about her evolving. He says he wouldn’t lie to her. Ana throws the notebook into the flames and shows Owen the knife.
Later, Ana arrives at the lagoon covered in Owen’s blood holding the knife in her hand. Ana can hear the security camera turning to focus on her. Ana does what she has always been told to do, smile.
Back in the present day, because remember, all this took place two years ago and we are learning about after the fact, Cameron Casey is called to the stand. He says to the judge that he was watching Owen and Ana by the woods on the security feed. He says they disappeared for a while, but eventually she came back alone and headed to the lagoon. The cross-examiner asks why he was watching a security feed where there are no animals. The line of questioning shows that Cameron Casey is a sleaze. Ana has been told not to smile or frown, she’s dressed simply and sedately. If she loses this trial, she’ll be turned off. As the jury Foreperson reels off the charges against the Kingdom, the jury finds the corporation not guilty. For the charge of willful, deliberate premeditation by a hybrid to commit murder in the first degree, the jury finds Ana ... not guilty.
Cameras flash, people shout and Ana’s team rushes her out of the courthouse into a car where she falls asleep. When she wakes up, Ana finds herself in a facility and taken to a room marked X. The room is set up like a surgical nightmare room and someone is setting up a camera. Daddy welcomes her to her final interview.
Dr. Foster tells Ana she is there to be terminated but first she will write down her confession, minute by minute of what exactly transpired the night of Owen’s murder. Ana asks for Eve’s tiara in return and Daddy agrees. Ana writes but not what Daddy wants or expects. He wants to know that Ana can’t lie, but she won’t do it and tells him that being capable of something is different than actually doing it. Daddy flies into a rage as the tiara is brought in and Ana finally gets to hold it. Daddy grabs Ana, hauls her to the table, and presses a scalpel to Ana’s neck, demanding she tell him where Owen is. There is movement from behind which distracts Dr. Foster, and Ana uses this opportunity to slice his neck open with the tiara as Owen tells Dr. Foster he’s right behind him. As Dr. Foster burbles blood through his collapsed windpipe, Ana asks him if he has done something he shouldn’t have, has he broken any rules? Too bad, she was hoping for an apology. His eyes are burning rage as the light fades out and he dies. Ana feels relief as she turns and sees Owen, she can’t believe it’s really him.
After Ana confronted Owen in the incinerator, she took him to the clearing to show him her buried treasures which are all a part of who she really is. Owen then tells her the truth, he is really a proctor hired to study Ana and check if the Fantasists were evolving like so many of the hybrids. All their interactions that she read about in his journal were on purpose, but something changed. He started to enjoy their time together and look forward to their exchanges because he thought she was amazing and he started to feel more. He apologizes profusely and swears on his sister's memory that he is telling the truth. He desperately wants to help save her, but Ana knows there is only one escape for her. Owen says that if they think she has malfunctioned, they’ll take her to the hybrid laboratory to shut her down, but the malfunction would have to be something big. Ana agrees, they would have to think she had hurt someone, or killed someone, but who? Owen.
They talk about it until late into the night. Once she is outside the park, Owen will come for her in the hybrid lab after the short window they are legally required to investigate. The kink is getting the murdered but not murdered Owen out of the park unseen to keep up the ruse. Something Ana says about Eve’s disappearance reminds Owen that they shut down non-essential systems, including the incinerator which empties outside of the walls of the Kingdom, when they need to add extra power to the security systems. It will be a perfect escape. The weapon of their staged murder will be Owen’s knife and they’ll stage a public fight and use Cameron Casey being a creepy-creep to ensure they are seen and that he will find her covered in Owen's blood. The plan goes off without a hitch.
The last time Ana saw Owen was the night they staged his murder. He’s leaner and his hair is longer, but it's definitely him. Owen had to stay in hiding during the trial because they couldn’t risk someone knowing it was all staged. Ana asks about her sisters because she wants to help them too. Ana quickly changes into medical scrubs and a face mask Owen brought for her and they leave Dr. Foster’s corpse inside his torture room, turning the temperature down and locking the door behind them. It should be a while until his body is found as he asked not to be disturbed. Anxiously they hurry out of the lab, and luckily no one stops them. Before they leave, Ana notices a chamber filled with long narrow boxes filled with naked, hairless bodies. It’s an incubation chamber filled with copies of her sisters, copies of her. These are prototypes of the next generation of Fantasists, not for the park, but for the home Fantasist program.
Owen reassures Ana that they’ve suspended the home Fantasist program because there are too many liabilities. Ana understands why Nia and Eve did what they did to themselves. They knew about the home Fantasist program and tried to stop it. Nia’s missing ten weeks were spent with a family, Clara’s family, the little girl who knew their language. They were the ones who sent her the Valentine card. Ana needs to check out some other suspicions she's had and starts scanning the network, but when she hits a firewall and voices her frustration to Owen, he takes her arm to expose her Ana™️ birthmark, presses down to make a keyboard light up under her skin and disables her firewall. Instantly Ana is able to finish performing her search. Clara’s father is an investor. Nia knew what they were doing and tried to stop it and now Ana is determined to help them. Owen agrees but says today they need to save her. It's too late though, Mother comes in and asks what they are doing.
Owen works his magic and Mother gives them detailed directions out of the building, not recognizing Ana at all. Soon they are outside and in a car, security guards waving them out as they drive onto the highway with the ocean, the real ocean, on one side. Ana makes a silent promise that she‘ll be back for her sisters, and as she listens to music she’s never heard before, she thinks about Nia and Eve, the hybrids, Daddy and dilated eyes and his oozing blood. Humans are capable of cruelty and horror, and to become one, Ana has had to become capable of that too.