All entries about Nanowrimo
November 12, 2004
It was obvious that the van was not designed to carry a ton of explosives, and eight rebels. If any evidence was required, it could be seen in the disturbing tilt it took on when taking a corner, and the cramped conditions on board which left sardine cans to shame. Wedged as they were, it was impossible to move the slightest bit, even to wriggle a toe, and air came in a tiny whistle, though a nail-sized hole in the the vehicle's bodywork.
But it was not as though they expected any real luxury. Perhaps, it was even intended that the ride be as uncomfortable as it was, to dissuade any potential searchers from suspecting what lay within. Halting a little, its engines struggling, they made their way haphazardly to the rendezvous point, just next to the Wall, trying not to get killed in the process.
Kyra, squeezed between two drums, was next to him, separated from him only by some piping, some sheets of cloth, some other detritus. Risking a scraped limb, he had reached towards here, and she had reached back, so that their hands touched somewhere in the middle. When the van rocked, the forces involved would near rip their arms from their sockets. But at least they were together.
“You think it will work?” he asked. The question was addressed to Kyra, but in the cramped interior, noises travelled far, and each of the other passengers heard him too, realised that this was the question they had on their minds, that they dared not ask.
“Yes,” she said. “Of course it will work. We've tried to hard, made so many plans. It can't possibly fail now. What we have done can't possibly be worth nothing. You've help us set the schedule yourself. You know how much effort came into this.”
“But do you think people really want to be freed?”
A long silence followed. He was sure she didn't hear the question, was about to repeat it when she answered.
“Yes. Don't you prefer to be free than enslaved, now that the IH is off? Everyone here has taken the choice, and no one ever chooses anything else. That's because freedom is something that is valuable beyond all else, even life itself. Everyone wants to be freed, once they are given the choice.”
Well recited, he thought suddenly. But she had not finished.
“It is a matter of hope, if there is any hope for the world, then people will see the truth the moment they can. And then they will embrace reality, embrace the values and rights we gift them, because they are what is right, and what is right is obvious to everyone. Today is going to be a historic day. It would be the making of a new world.”
“But what if it is dangerous? What if whatever is behind the Wall really belongs there?”
“You trust the government about that? The fact they say it is so is evidence of the opposite. We must get over that Wall, precisely because they don't want us to.”
The tyres screeched as the van skidded a little across wet ground, and in the back, they swayed and fought and wrestled to stay upright.
“That doesn't make any sense,” he said.
“Don't be stupid.”
“How can you expect things to be stable, if you are just going to do this for no real reason at all? Isn't it better than we live in peace than for some concept that we don't really need? The vast majority of people find life fine as it is.”
“Sacrifices must be made. Whose side are you on, anyways?”
He snapped to full attention. Their voices had grown loud indeed, and he feared for a moment that they may be heard, that their plans would be revealed too early. But he was afraid too of what he heard in her voice. Afraid that the next time she said 'Don't try to find me', she would mean it.
“Oh, oh, on your side of course. I'm just talking. You know, just to liven up the day.”
A pause, and he heard her laughter like peals of tiny bells.
“You're incorrigible, Frank.”
He decided to say nothing further, but another thought crossed his mind.
“Kyra, do you remember when we first met?” he said, casually.
“Not really. We were what? Ten? Six?”
“I'm sorry,” she said. “I can't remember that far back. It all goes kinda hazy. It's not something I think about often. Why? Why are you so suddenly interested in ancient history? Has our revival of good old fashioned values finally gotten to you?”
“No, I mean… yes. I mean… Whatever. It's just something just came to me. Some parallels, or something.”
“So you were a student revolutionary, eh?”
He quietened. She did not remember, did not even care. But he did, and for some reason it became clearer even as the other scattered memories faded back into their places. That with every metre they drove, the sense of remembrance grew stronger. Vague thoughts, a startled concept. Something was going to happen. Soon.
He walked back up the overgrown edging, the fence to his right side, a feeling of emptiness in his mind. Words had been said, events decided, and they were great, too great for him to understand without further thought. The world seemed a little different with each passing step, such that the school felt now to be a mere veneer on a real world, a dream overwriting a vision. He paused, wondering if he could wake up, but did not.
He climbed again through the hole in the fence, back into the safety of the playground, the bounded zone of his past existence. Somehow, it seemed to be false, now, that the squabbles and struggles of his life so far appeared so much a mere game, and a game he could no longer understand. Somewhere somehow, that connection had been lost, and he wished to remake it.
There was something, yes, a small thing. An appointment the headmaster had made for him, half in jest. But in this world, appointments must still be kept. So, he sauntered off, casting his eyes around in inexplicable wonder.
The van shook again, and something solid in front of him smashed backwards into his face. He rubbed the spot of impact ruefully. A micro sleep, then. It did not seem to have lasted long, and the sound outside remained the same. He resisted the urge to ask where they were. They further they went, the more dangerous it was. 'Are we there yet' in the middle of a routine check would be catastrophic. They had planned the mission to happen at the low point in each soldier's day, at that stage when they only worked because of the forcing pressure of the IH. But there was no reason to take unnecessary risks.
The van stopped.
He tensed himself, ready to leap out. He had not expected to arrive so quickly. Outside, the click as the cab door opened. Crunching gravel, moving slowly from front to back. Fumbling, the clatter of keys on a chain. Tinny clicks as it was inserted. And then the scraping noise as the door opened, as a field of light moved across their faces.
“We are there,” the driver said.
Aaron jumped out, landing outside.
“Hurry up, kids. We need to get this stuff unpacked and set up now. We have no time to waste.”
Kyra loosened her hand from Frank's, tugging, struggling to get free. But he did not relinquish his grip, but grabbed her hardly, pulling her towards him.
“Hey, that hurts!” she protested.
“Then relax and listen to me.”
“When you leave the van, get as far away from here as you can. I don't think it is safe for you to be here.”
“But why? Do you think we will fail?” she accused.
“No. But I am scared for you. I care about you, and don't want anything to happen.”
“It's a moment of history. Some of us had worked our whole lives, just for this moment. I can't walk away now.”
The pressure on his was loosening. The other rogues, bustling, were unloading the cargo rapidly. Out of a corner of his eye, he could see them moved onto pushcarts, and wheeled towards the wall. There were no guards, no security activity at all. Things were going to plan.
“Please,” he said. “Do it for me. Do it, if you trust me, and trust my love for you. I just have a feeling about this. Get away from here, please.”
The hand was suddenly wrenched from his grasp. Listening intently, he thought he could just here her voice.
“Try to find me later, then.”
With a colossal effort, the box which had held him in place was removed. Trying to limber up his arms, he walked uncertainly off the back of the van, jumped down unto the gravel floor of the parking area.
The Wall was just in front of him, its black mass reaching up into the infinite sky. It never changed, it was almost burned into his sense of perception. But today, the clouds atop it was black, inky black like the smoke of hell. He suppressed an involuntary shudder, took the opportunity for a look around. Kyra was nowhere to be seen. He sighed a little in relief and sadness.
Aaron was staring at the Wall. Frank could guess why. He must be trying to imagine the Wall, imagining what the world would be like when it was gone, when the borders were unsealed. A frown crossed the man's face.
He must be finding it difficult, Frank decided. He couldn't imagine it, either.
November 11, 2004
It was cold. Not the blunt passive cold Frank was used to, the sort of cold which may buffet him, but would leave him unmoved. This was a sharp, cutting cold, a cold which seeped into his very flesh, turning his blood in his ice. He almost dared not shiver, lest his bones crack and split. Even with the blankets they provided, the coldness wove its way through. Kyra, her warmth, had long gone. It gladdened him that she was close, that she would not be easily lost, but the pain was not so easily dissuaded. He curled up, huddling into a foetal position, cursed quietly to himself.
There were no walls in this place, and the windows had been left open. In his mind's eye, he show himself confronting them, calling them to close the window, to stop the warmth from fleeing. But these were not people he knew or could understand. They liked the cold. They loved the way it made their feeble candlelight flutter, throwing out webs of darkness. They delighted in how it took their breath away, how it made them have to shout to be heard. And they were joyous, almost to the point of jumping, of how the Arctic draft swept amongst they, how it picked up their hair, loose cloth, ribbons and straps, and flung it aloft. Then, for a brief moment, it seemed as though the inanimate had slipped their bounds and gained life.
He twisted further in his bed, trying to gather up the tangled, twisted bed linen that seemed always to be trying to flee him. He tried too to gather his thoughts, to fold them up in some sort of structure, to encase and protect and delay and constrain them. But he did not know how. Once, the IH would then be his oracle, but that was gone, and if once it had been alive with him, within him, it was now truly dead. Reason was dead.
And if the sleep of reason produces nightmares, what fate would result from sanity's death?
But he did not feel insane. Not even a bit. Even as he wanted to scream, wanted to plunge himself in despair, he felt an odd calmness descend upon him. Even as he shivered, the cold grew dull, until it was cold no more, only the feeling of expanse stretching out in all directions. If he had hallucinations, they were too mundane to be even detected. A fear filled him, and he tried to shut his eyes, tried to sleep it all away.
He woke. He slept. He woke again. A wave of sleepiness and wakefulness, a cycle of frantic repetition. When he dreamed, when it did not all simply pass in a flash of restless oblivion, he found only the snatches of fantasies, particles of memories trying to unite. Somewhere, in there, the corpse of the Inhibitor lay, and he felt the remnants of its compulsions like incomplete sentences. And then he woke in a start, wondered if his dream were truth, wondered if his dreams had always been truth, or perhaps his truth was merely dreams. In the terror and the confusion, he closed his eyes again, letting time and space fade into irrelevance, and went back to sleep.
But he could find no solace, in the company of such people. He found that he could not hide from their glances, the way that even as their heads turned, as they engaged each other in conversation, their gazes would remain locked upon him. Turn, and he would find another pair, another watcher. When they left the room, they would flicker back at the last instant, so that he felt sure that even through the walls, they kept up their vigil. When he closed down his own eyelids, forced his face into the pillow, he could feel the prickle of attention on the back. There was nothing, now, to shut off the feelings within him, and he moaned in his misery at what he had done, at what he would do, at the endless list of events that made up life.
But who were these people? Revelations dogged him with intermittent steps. There, a women he had bumped into once, lugging implausible baggage on a tiny tubular steel cart. And there, the man who owned a shop in the local market, the one in which people went to gawk and whisper, never to buy. And there, the girl he had seen once by the river, picking smooth pebbles from between rusted cans. He had waved to her over the wire and plastic fencing. She had waved back. For a while, it seemed as though the whole world had followed him into the room, each carrying a bag, each dropping it and leaving for more.
But then he realised how few they were. That as they entered and left, as the parade moved across his line of sight, the faces began to repeat, and repeat, and repeat. That though he could look them each deep in their eyes, there was no width, no broad grouping, no spread across the land. They were bulwarks not trenches, strongholds, not nations. How easily could the walls they had escaped from descend, chop and isolate. If they only knew…
But still, the pile of parcels grew. Grew in dribs and drabs, grew as a mountain from clods of dry earth. Curious, stupefied, he saw in the heart of the pile a small box, a tiny box. His box.
And still they worked. And still the pile grew. Day came, and he felt the burn of sunlight through the skylight. He looked up and saw the purity of the sky, a sapphire unclouded, filled with the fires of creation, and knew that he could dally no more. With effort, he pulled his eyes open, held them there, unblinking. Digging his hands into the matress either side of him, he managed to hoist himself up onto a sitting position, pulling backwards to that his back rested against the wall.
They stared at him. All of them, but for one. Aaron. He, dressed in the same military jacket he had always worn, knelt a ways back from the others, poking through the assembled supplied with a stick, a silent communion, a blessing whisper into invisible ears. Frank, twisted his body, brought his legs down across the bed, disentangled himself from the blanket which had suddenly became substantial instead of thin, a twisted tentacle wound around his torso. He was astonished, as he dropped down from the bed, that his legs could support his weight, amazed that he did not tremble, his vision did not wander. With unbelievable step after unbelievable step, he advanced, noted how the rogues – other rogues, now that he was one of them – drew back, made way. To them, he decided, he was a leper. Or a saint.
Yet Aaron did not move. Did not even appear to register his existence. Slowly, methodically, the man moved from one package to another, reading off the contents against a thick, printed list. Only when Frank was almost on top of him did he turn, abruptly.
"So, you're awake. About time too. We were damn near bored to death. I was half afraid that all I managed to recruit was an over-expensive, high maintenance, snoring machine. So, how do you feel?"
Frank barely caught the question.
"Well… what? Oh… Fine. I'm fine."
"Fine? Just fine? For the first time in your life, you are able to see things without having them politicised, exorcised, sanitised, pre-digested and then excreted onto your brain! For the first time, you can be sure that what you remember is not a lie. For the first time, the entirety of possibility is open to you! And you call things 'fine'!"
He found it hard not to laugh as Aaron did, found it impossible not to be captivated by his very presence. A sweep of the rogue's arm took in the dust which shone like gold, the stains which acted as murals against plaster walls. His smile blazed, and Frank found that for once, the enigma about it was gone, that looking at his companion now he could at last see snatches of understanding, touch on a little of the fearsome complexity that was his very being. There were strange things there, a naïve look of heroism coupled with a ruthless mind.
"Who are you?" He asked.
"My name is still Aaron. I see no reason to hide it. I suppose, in a way, I lead this little group, though we are no real army, more people with common goals and shared… let us say… circumstances."
"So where do I come in?"
"I met Kyra shortly after you left here, and she told me about you. Now, I turn out to be the person here with the most knowledge about Defence and the way they behave, so I volunteered to hack myself in. And guess what, I found you! And you were very useful to us."
He felt a mixture of pride and outrage.
"You helped us acquire the control chip from the secure area on the second floor. If I had tried, they would immediately have captured me. But you… they didn't know you, and were too confused to act. But most importantly, you helped us to kill a Defence special agent who had been dogging us for months, even when the two skilled agents I sent for the job failed. With Sean dead, we can afford to greatly expand our operations."
Sean… he remembered. He remembered the guilt, the blood. Anger rose, and he forced it down.
Aaron fixed him with a critical eye, sadness written in furrows on his brow. "Are you sure you are ready? Times are not safe, now. Only just now, Pritchard, your contact has disappeared. I don't know if he is telling them anything. He shouldn't be… yet. But…"
"I take full responsibility for him, and anything that happens to him. But it's that a reason for me to do something? If I lie around any longer, I'll only be more of a burden to you, and more of a failure for those for sacrificed to free me. I need to get out of here, to do what I need to do. Now, what is my mission?"
Aaron nodded slowly. "Know this. You are the first person we have managed to recruit for a decade. And though I am afraid to lose you so quickly, you are right. We cannot afford to wait. We can win this, soon, now. And we can't afford to waste this chance."
But Aaron was too excited to speak. He paced, instead, and at last, pointed a finger out of the window.
"What do you see, there?"
A few trees, a small house, the dip of a low hill. The bustle of normal life, the oblivious cycle. Soon there would be patrols, out to find them. For now, there was peace, framed, bordered by the…
"Yes, the Wall!"
"IHs do not just happen to break. Someone must have founded our order, someone without an Inhibitor!"
A low chant began to arise around him. Quiet, a jam of voices, meanings he could not quite recognise.
"And where could such a person have come from, when all we know is controlled and shackled?"
The chant grew clearer, and he could catch the barest fragments.
"And where shall freedom come from? Where shall we release it?"
He picked up one of the packets on the ground near his feet. A soft substance, in wrapped bricks. There must be a ton of it here, with his control chip in the middle…
He heard the chant, as Aaron joined it, fists punching the air.
"Down with the Wall!"
"Down with the Wall!"
"Down with the Wall!
November 10, 2004
The walls of the cave were smooth as glass, slick with a slightest signs of water. In the middle, a pool, and the sunlight, painfully bright, dove through the aperture behind him, split by the rippling liquid, clothed the roof in a shimmering veil of bright lacing. Lacing which moved as Frank did, lacing which tangled his masking body, flowing over them like soft caresses. The floor was dusty, but the dust did not stick to him, and the myriad of small, emerald-green plants which he could not help but tread on merely bounced back into full life as his feet lifted. The whistle of wind past the cave entrance, the bubbling of hidden water, the gentle harshness of their breaths. It was music.
“Come closer,” the man said.
The room was packed. Benches, roughly made, barely varnished lay in haphazard fashion. Crates, bags, men and women were jammed together, barely all squeezing into their niches. A plethora of masked and hooded faces, focused on him, a spread of eyes all widened at his presence. It stunk of sweat and blood, or struggle and despair. A Valhalla for the living, a warrior’s room. He felt small, and pounded by the restless reality of it, lowered his head, cheeks hot with shame.
They had fallen quiet too. A radio, by the corner of the room had been quickly switched off, and there was only the chorus of murmurs as fanfare to his coming. Unbidden, and yet feeling duty bound, he walked in amidst them, to surround himself by them, an act of surrender. The black clothes of the masked ones weaved around him, a dancing melee of flitting shadows. The candles by which the room was lit flickered too, so that he saw only flashes, the disjointed image of chaos.
There was a pressure behind him. Hands, pushing. Glancing to his rear, he noted with amazement the crowd that had formed, a fat wedge with him at the tip. Ahead of him, the way opened, people got up, and he could see across the room to where the machine lay.
He walked forwards a step. The pressure lessened as those behind fell back, and then resumed as they caught up. Another step, and again he heard the agitation as they took their own collective steps, as the shaft chased the spearhead. There can be no return, now, no steps back. Without mercy, he had to cut into the flesh of his own terror. The hand, the hands behind him which wielded him allowed nothing else.
He saw now that the man was old. His skin was rough as old tree bark, his mouth, dry, thin, his eyes a pale murkiness, clouded. Yet his gaze was clear as scientific glass, penetrated him fully. On that chair, even blind, the old man could see him.
“Do you want freedom, Collins? I can remove your Inhibitor with a wave of my hand, and your thoughts would be free. Do you want it?”
He felt Kyra’s warm hand in his, looked up to see her smile. He felt a sudden heat fill him, moved him close to tears.
There could be no doubt, what the machine is for. The rogues around him spun off, wove vortices around it, shielded it and flaunted it. But nothing could defuse the repulsion he felt, the struggle he made with each step.
A simple thing, a box from which sprouted a jungle of cables, studded with LEDs and dials that shifted. A box pulled out of another age. Placed on top, like a crown, a silvered hemisphere. He expected it to crackle with electricity, to burn with powers unholy, forces man should not dare touch. The LEDs blinked at him, winked with arrogant promises. It was the machine they thought could make him free. Damnation, ecstasy, madness, all at the drop of a hat. And in front, a basic, tall pine-wood chair.
What now? He commanded himself to take another step forwards, despaired even has the limbs moved in fervent obedience. The screaming of his Inhibitor rose, as though it was alive and he was slowly, surely, cutting its throat. Yet another step, and he could almost hear the gurgling.
And yet, the mission. He told himself it was the mission which drove him on to the spikes of doom. He told himself it was all right to feel disgust, to hate himself for what he did, to curse the action but still reach for the results. But he was afraid too, for he felt no disgust, and despite his best effort, he was still. His heart beat slowly, rapidly. He wanted to look stupid, to throw laughter into it all. But there was nothing to laugh at, and the dignity came to him, stuck to him like gum in the crevices of his shoes.
And the room widened around him. He could no longer pant deeply for breath, could no longer detect the panic in his raspy respiration. The air was cool, not hot, and the golden speckles in dying sunlight did not choke him as he expected it to, as he wanted it to.
He reached out, and touched it. The metal cap felt icily cold, and the he could hear the transformers, the cooling fans throbbing within its casing, a low, angry growl.
He sat, placing the cap atop his head, straightened himself out. The chair was high, too high, and his feet could not quite reach the ground. Instead, he look over down his nose at heads of the crowd who assembled in front of him, saw that none dared stare him in the eyes. A wave of restlessness swept through them, and he clamped his teeth together, to fend off the quivering weakness that was so treacherously absent.
A voice, whispered in his ear. He could not turn to see who it was.
“Do you want this?”
He felt a warm thing, a thing with fingers, a warm hand prise open his clenched fist, press its palm against his palm.
“Yes,” he said. The girl smiled, and the man nodded, rose ponderously, coughing, choking, from his chair.
“Yes,” he said. The heat of a breath brushed against his chin.
“Yes?” they asked, leaning forwards.
A dull clunk as a switch was pulled. The crushing feeling of tension mounting. The crowd lifted their eyes. The throbbing of the machine became a drone, than an ear-splitting screech. His head burned, and he grabbed onto the frame of his until his knuckles bulged and were white. Spots danced in his eyes.
He wondered why there was no warning, no countdown to the end. Wondered the world would change in a whimper not a…
With the clash of a thousand gods, the rage of a million years, the world shattered. Frozen, wrenched out of the river of time, he watched the pieces settle to the ground.
The woman in the prison. A forlorn, unjust existence. She should not been there, an innocent kept without her will. His arm drew back, gathered strength, power. And forward! A smashing strike, the wood splinters and she was free. Tugging on her arm, they moved through the base. The soldiers moved to stop their exit, but they were too fast. Their minds were already free, and no one could stop them. Into the car he put her, and they were off. She was happy, and her eyes were full of tears.
The bullet passed over the soldier’s head, thudded with into rock in the far distance. Sean blinked, dropped the gun, holding aloft outstretched arms. The boy, afraid, ran, pulling the girl behind him. They receded, diminished, and were lost in the shadows. Frank turned to Sean, and told him about compassion, about the value of life. Sean agreed, and leaning against each other, laughing at each other’s jokes, they turned back towards base.
The house was full, filled with welcome. The lights were on, and before he entered he could hear a song that was joyful, that broke all the rules, played with the idea of music itself. And she was there, there to answer his greeting. She leapt forward to hug him, and he collapsed into her arms. As she tried to be close, so close, the wetness of her lips on his own, he encircled his arms around the small of her back, gripping her firmly, promising never to let her go. A smile on her face, she dragged him up the staircase to the bedroom, wrestled him onto the bed. Kneeling, legs clamped around his, she began to unbutton his shirt…
Kyra… Oh Kyra…
But he had lost her. Her hand had slipped from his, and before his eyes she faded, colours draining out, seeping into the barren earth where it was lost. The room faded, too, the light turned sickly, then dark and grey. He glanced at his hands, watched the pinkness of it disappear, until it became white, and then darker. In the blackness, as the blackness, he died.
The Inhibitor had run out of lies. Its fantasy had been exhausted. Now, it was time to wake, to open his eyes, to smell the free air.
He forced his eyes open. Aaron was beside him, one hand clasped to his shoulder, a look of pride upon his face. And in Frank’s sweat-filled hand was another, and following the thin arm which grew from him, tracing with his gaze the tanned figure, he found her.
“Welcome,” Kyra said.
“Welcome,” they said. Bowed now, in respect, their masks removed.
“You are one of us, now,” Aaron said. “Your mission, which I gave you, is now over. It simply does not matter anymore. From now on, there are no more orders to be followed, only your own ideas, your only principles. Your only restraints are your own determination. Infinity is in your hands.”
“You were a rogue all along…”
“Yes. We needed you, you see. And we needed what you did for us. You have done us great services, and this is your reward. Rest now, for it cannot be taken from you.”
Still clasping Kyra’s hand, he dropped down from the high chair, feet failing to support him as he landed. So, he fell further, until he sat, sprawled against the ground, pulling his beloved down with him. There, in full view of the others, he began to cry.
Nothing told him to stop. Not even her kiss.
November 09, 2004
There was little adventure on the other side of the fence. He expected that the world would change, but it did not. He expected freedom to lift him, but it seemed he had carried his slavery along in his head.
But when his eyes adjusted to the darkness, there was the trail, leading to the left. On hands and shins, he could trace the form of the footprints, and follow them, nose almost to the ground. He had still time, too, it was long until night, and in the thickets bent so low, there was no chance of anyone catching him, even just knowing that he was there. He imagined that he was getting muddy, but it did not occur to him to care.
So he crawled on a little further, and then a little more, until the green leaves were dispersed enough that he could see them standing up. He was relieved, too, that they were just footprints. There was no drag marks to suggest a corpse. But then again, Kyra could always be carried.
But there wasn't anything to do but soldier on, strutting with something like determination, something like stubbornness. He couldn't possibly stop, now. He had to march on, lifting his feet high into the air, swinging his arms as though he wanted to club something to death.
"So you found me."
Kyra was smiling, crouching in something like a cave. There was a man, too, strangely dressed, sitting deep within on a wicker chair, and tobacco scents came from inside. But the man beckoned him, and so, stupefied, he walked in.
Frank woke up in a stupor, glued by a layer of sweat to his seat. Things had been going too fast, he thought. He had been too driven by the purposes of others, relentlessly heading towards this goal or that goal. He had no real time to think, to wait, to sit around a little, and was only sent on one mission after another, by one telephone conversation or another. He had forgotten how to wait. He only knew how to panic.
The booklet was beneath his feet. He pulled it up, mud stained, tried to uncrease it with his hands. In vain. Now, here, he had little time to think on what it meant or represented. No time, again! Stuffing it into a trouser pocket, he tried to concentrate.
Perhaps, he ought also to prepare.
The plastic clock on the wall sounded its tinny chime. It need not be there at all – the IHs kept people punctual – but someone, sometime, thought that it lightened the mood. It did not. He tapped his feet a little, banged his fingers against his knee. Two hours had passed now, and Aaron would be ready. Everyone, everything waited for him. He was the small pebble which was to spawn the avalanche. How does one prepare for a thing like this? Eat? Meditate? Pray to the gods the IH-wielders had slain? He consulted the oracle of the IH, but it was silent. And would be even more silent, soon. There would be no applause, he thought. No recognition for what he would do.
He stood up. He walked. Damn, the wrong way, and turning, he started walking again. Staircase, forward, a turn to the left. Upwards, he made the climb, holding his hand firmly against the banister, spotting the stains on the walls, the worn flooring.
"Hey, how are you, sir?" A female soldier passed around the corner. He could not remember her name.
"Well, you seem very preoccupied recently. Some of the other people thing you need to take a rest."
In her eyes was genuine concern. But genuine was not trustworthy, these days.
"I'll think about it." He shrugged her off, and continued on.
Soon, he had reached the second floor, and reluctantly let go of the railing that held up. While in theory he was authorised for this floor, he had never really been here. It never entered his daily schedules, and there was no encouragement to explore. Whenever he was previously intent on climbing beyond the first floor, something had always happened, something to take his mind off it. He took a few more precious moments standing on the top step of the staircase, and noticing nothing conveniently unusually, stepped off.
The décor, it seemed, changed as one climbed further up in the base. Not towards the extravagant, though, not like the kings of old who, he had learned, looked down from on high, seated on golden thrones. If anything, the Spartan utilitarianism of the lower levels became more pronounced. There were no pictures against the walls. The lights were fluorescent tube-lamps. Everything had a thin covering of whitish dust. It was, he realised, as though the higher and greater had transcended the delusion of those beneath, had purified themselves to their basic uses.
But there was perfume in the air. A thick, clotting scent, that hung lazily like smog. It gave him a headache just to be in that miasma, and to hear the squeaks, which came with every step he made.
Now where was that package? He paused, to the read the signs. Nothing particularly stood out. The labelling was cryptic, to say the least, a smattering of letters and number, Greek and Latin and Hebrew, a tangle of colour-coded lines.
He hadn't moved. He didn't move.
It did not sound like squeaking the last time. It was softer, more drawn out, a plaintive whimper, filtering through the corridors. Following it, he came to a door. There were more doors within, doors with windows. Doors which were locked, behind one of which was a woman, thin and bedraggled. She looked up as he entered, desperation and despair struggled across her face.
"Help me," she whispered.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"I'm just a woman! Just a woman they picked up off the street. They thought I was acting strangely so they thought I am a rogue! Please help me!"
There was surprising energy in her words. He decided that she was hiding her strength, biding her time.
"Perhaps if you can help me. There is a package on this floor. Have you heard of anything? From the guards perhaps?"
But she was clearly confused.
"The guards, they hurt me. They say they want to find out what is wrong so they can help me, but they hurt me! Please get me out of here!"
"If you tell me something useful, maybe I will get you out."
A look of delight, followed by incredulity flooded across her face.
"Why should I help… Okay, then… Just a while ago, a few men came up, and they carried something into the corridor on the left, there, and then left rather briskly. Now, hurry! Before someone comes!"
But he had turned his back on her, and was already leaving the room.
"Thank you for you aid. I will speak to the administration about a change in your accommodations."
She was quiet, and there was no squeaking to be heard anymore. Finally able to think clearly, he quickly located the place she had mentioned. Pushing open finger-print sensitive doors, he located a large, box, painted yellow in a dark, windowless room. On the box was stencilled explosives symbols, marks for danger, deep warnings against unauthorised removal. Giving it all barely a thought, he hoisted the package onto his back, and leaning forward to balance the weight of it, hurried down the stairs.
Chris was waiting for him at the foot of the stairs, but by then he was walking too fast. He had barely the chance to turn and hear him, caught only briefly a vision of the man talking into a radio. And he was away, outside through the back door, jabbing the key into the boot of his car, opening the boot, dumping the bag in the boot, closing the boot and getting in the car, all in one motion. Before he sat down, he had already started dialling on his phone.
Outside the window, Chris had followed him out. Frank waved at him, and Chris waved back. All one big happy family. He didn't hear what Chris said, but his smile told him all he needed to know.
The traffic was heavy that day. He was not sure why. It was not his calling to determine what sort of collective insanity could suddenly strike, could summon up cars onto a road that had been so recently empty. A holiday, perhaps? A plague, maybe? Or their inhibitors could just have a sense of humour, could just have wanted to give him a victory parade. Cruising, he set his driving to automatic, detached his mind from the slow, grinding pace and the hot, irritated asphalt.
The phone rang. Number withheld. It could only be Aaron.
"Where are you?" Aaron asked, sounding breathless.
"Just set off twenty minutes ago. And around ten more till arrival."
A ten ton truck blared its horn as it sped past him. He wondered why his lane seemed the slowest, and wondered why he liked it that way.
"Well, good. I just called to give some words of encouragement, to keep you going in case you want to chicken out."
"I will not 'chicken out'," Frank said. "I will not disobey an order. I must defend the welfare of the government, of the Defence department, and of the ordinary citizens."
"Well, yeah. Just remember about being willing for the removal. Oh, and I have good news."
"We've found her. We've found Kyra."
He slammed on the brakes, jittered within the car as the engine stalled. A moment of surprised silence, and then the world took note, as the cars behind him began to blow their horns. But there was no car which had suddenly stopped in front of him, no vehicle which had suddenly swerved into his path. He must have seen wrong, a defect of the eyes. He hung up the phone.
The destination was so close too; it was too stupidly close to have an accident. The building was already in sight, and the moment he finally parked, he was torn from his seat and thrown inside, the oak door shutting behind them.
In the orange dusk-light that had sneaked between the Venetian blinds, they were waiting for him.
November 08, 2004
(Most rough around the corners yet…)
Chris Pritchard was his friend since the first year of high school. In almost every memory, he was there, a joyous, scruffy face, skulking near the edges of vision and framed by disorder and long grass. He was there on the nights they were drunk, and Frank had to lead him home, trying not to fall over himself. He was there to steal his homework, and rephrase it as borrowing. When, at the end of the last year, they made up the supposedly humorous lists of predictions, Frank had put him down as the most likely to get killed doing something stupid. It was only natural, then, that he would meet him again in the Wall service.
But Chris seemed a little wary these days. People were always on edge, but Frank could barely remember any conversation they had from recent times. He only skulked now, a passive watching, light brushes when they passed corridors from opposite directions. Frank shrugged and sat down by his desk.
Someone had placed an envelope on it. But for the bit code, which stopped anyone else from opening, it, the front was entirely blank. Bemused, he opened it, tipped out its contents, and started to read.
“To: F. C.
Chris is not your friend…”
His hand trembled. But there, on the wall! An array of photographs from his childhood to the present day. Chris was in half of them – how could he not be his friend? There, that same scruffy face he could always remember. The age had weighed heavily on him, perhaps. The nose had grown a little in this one; the bad light had made his skin appear dark in that… He stopped.
The photographs were different. The faces on them were not the same. Chris was not his friend. He read the letter again.
“To: F. C.
Chris is not your friend. He has only arrived yesterday. They hacked into the base’s computer the day before, and installed him on the most recent update. I don’t know what his mission is, but it most likely includes recruiting you. You are to accept this, and to accept any trials he proposes.
He stuffed the note back in its envelope, and burned it with his cigarette lighter until it crumbled and the ashes drifted lightly around his room.
Chris was wasting no time. He was all over the base in a matter of hours, poking his nose in every office, sneaking a snack in every canteen. Frank’s memory told him that Chris had a good ear for gossip. Logic told him that made Chris a good spy.
But he couldn’t report him, of course. He had to protect him from having his cover blown, until he receives orders to the contrary. So instead he waved cheerfully, planned his walks to cross over with the innocence of common coincidence, lest it be thought he was following someone. And Chris talked, smiled at him, and patted his back as old friends they weren’t.
When it became unbearable, he formulated a test. A simple one. He wrote a name on a sheet of paper. His friend was at the bar again, chatting about guns. Quietly, he stalked up, and slapped him in between his shoulder blades.
Chris cast a genial expression, slightly flushed. “Hello, Frank.”
“Here you are again. Always at the bar. It’s not healthy, man. I mean, what would Mrs… what’s her name?”
“You know, our school doctor.”
Chris thought for a moment. “Albright. Dr. Albright.”
“Well, she wouldn’t be happy, would she?”
He walked off, not bothering to listen to his friend’s reply. Chris was right! Aaron must be wrong. His school doctor was called Dr. Albright. There was no way a stranger could have known that. It was even written on his piece of paper, which no one could have seen, which no one could have changed. ALBRIGHT. There, written clearly, in text large and unmistakable.
He followed Chris for much of the rest of the day, trying to divine patterns in his movements. From noon, his paths had changed. No longer did he move amongst the social areas. He had gained a sudden purpose, striding without question into the more restricted areas, the more empty places, where doors had bolts, blast protection, soundproofed rooms. More than once, he had to run to keep up, and the scatter of detritus across the floors made navigation hard, kept his attention from what lay ahead.
He had dashed halfway across a disused ammunition storeroom when the iron gate shut behind him and the room fell dark. He could not see his feet, let alone what lay around him.
“Don’t try to shout. No one can hear you in here.”
The voice came from nearby but the echoes made it hard to pinpoint where. He felt against the walls a little, finding only jagged steel that scratched at his fingers, and rods and buttons his hand jerked away from, afraid to touch.
“When are they coming to get us out of here?” he asked, feeling inane at his pretence. “We are locked in here, aren’t we?”
“No we aren’t.”
“Then would you please open the door to let some light in? I can’t see a freaking thing in here!”
The voice was closer, more localised. He trying to approach it, and felt a chunk of something heavy and sharp bump up against his feet. Too dangerous. There was no such thing as a minor mishap in here.
“But surely keeping things nice and dark is quieter, more dramatic… Perhaps a little romantic, even?” Chris said almost in his ear.
“Who are you?” Frank asked.
“We are no-one. You have helped us, and we want you to help us again. Do you want to help us again?”
He did not speak, suddenly torn. The IH had built in coding. He could not aid the rogues, only bring them to justice. Any aid he offers could have huge consequences. Yet he had received orders to aid them, to pass any trial.
“Of course, not help us. Just doing things different from what you would do normally, things that would, entirely accidentally, aid us. You understand, yes?”
In the opaque darkness of the room, he nodded his head, still afraid, still compelled not to communicate too clearly, to make his opinion easily known.
“As an example, if you were to get lost and walk into one of those areas on the second floor only officers can enter. If you were to accidentally pick up a package from within that area. If you were to dump that package, just happening to leave it within our line of sight, who can blame you? You haven’t really done anything wrong, only fell a little prey to random fortune.”
“You know it when you see it. It is not exactly easy to miss. As for where we will be, well, there is a very good party we can recommend, and we like parties. Perhaps you would like an invitation?”
A card was pressed into his hand.
The lights went back on. Chris smiled at him absent-mindedly, and rushed out from the now-open door, as though nothing had happened at all. Frank walked about a little until he was sure Chris was nowhere near, and picked up a phone.
“I’ve made contact.”
“Great!” Aaron sounded almost ecstatic.
He waited for a moment for Aaron to calm down.
“So, how did it go?”
“He wants me to pick up a package from one of the places which stretch my clearance a little. On the second floor.”
“Well, there is nothing to worry there. We’ll move and replace anything important in there in an hour’s time. Keep away from the area, and then go fetch it then. Any clue as to what it is?”
“He didn’t say.”
“Well, then, don’t try to find out, then. If they don’t tell you, it means you shouldn’t know, and if you do know, you might let something slip that will make them suspect you. Just pick up the bag, and go, and don’t look at it, or at anyone. Just go to where they want you to go.”
“But there is something I do not understand.”
“Why are they falling for it? I mean, no normal person would aid them, whatever ruse they try to play, because the IH would stop them. The only reason why they would help them is because they have been ordered to pretend to help them, so they can betray the rogues eventually. I mean, if you were a rogue, would you trust an inhibited person? Can this be a trap?”
There was a long silence across the phone, barely pierced by the scratching of a pen.
“Hello?” He asked in case the connection was lost.
“Ah well,” Aaron said hastily. “How should I know? It may be a trap, and it may be not. It is hard to tell. But is it likely to be a trap? Surely if it was a trap, it would have been sprung earlier.”
It was not entirely convincing. “But…”
“And there are stories, you know. Stories of how they recruit their agents. The IH isn’t all powerful, you know. People can bend the rules, if they try and are strong enough. Thoughts can sneak through the control web. So what they do is that they look for people who can bend the rule anyways, because these people are good for them since they are strong and intrinsically predisposed to join their rampage. They probably have you flagged since childhood, and most likely flag you even more heavily now because of the recent stuff you did. Yes, that must be it.”
He did not even manage a word before Aaron interrupted him again.
“Also, you’ll need some facts, so you can portray the right image to them. Firstly, and most importantly, the government of today is riding roughshod over the thoughts of its constituent citizens. It is ignoring the most fundamental right of man, the right to freedom of thought.”
It did not seem very funny, but still he laughed. The more he laughed, the more he felt the ridiculousness of it. But Aaron was quiet.
“Don’t laugh. They actually believe this.”
“They are utterly stupid, then. Everyone knows the government only does what the people want them to do. It’s not like they are forcing anyone, or torturing anyone like the old governments did.” He chuckled again, involuntarily. These rebuttals were old and succinct, written deep in the fissures of the brain. The rogue’s denunciations were stale and trite, having long ago lost any of their power.
Aaron was quiet, and he had to listen carefully to sense his playfulness. “Well, they believe that altering opinions with the IH is wrong.”
“They think that once the IHs are removed, people will stop agreeing with the government and the government would fall.”
Frank banged his head against the wall as he burst into uproarious mirth. He stamped his feet on the hard, cold floor. He slapped the table where the phone book stood. Aaron laughed too, a soft laughter. But that was to be expected. At length, he paused, people were turning to look at him, and he disliked their un-asked-for attention.
“Well, all this and more are available in some material I am sending to you.” Aaron said. “But there is something else you need to know, Frank. They are going to do something to you. They are going to remove your Inhibitor.”
A dense horror swept over him. He was too outraged to protest, too terrified to scream. He merely listened as Aaron continued talking.
“Don’t be afraid. We will reinstall it the moment we find you. But remember this. In the moment they remove it, you have to be willing to have it removed. Or else damage will be caused, and you will no longer be useful to anyone. I’ll send you some material, then, so that you are good at pretending to be one of them.”
The dial tone sounded in Frank’s ear. He hung up slowly, savouring what he had heard. His IH had descended into an unending scream, now, lashing him with pain for every slight thought. A dark tide of pain ran within him, and it was only through his greatest effort than he could wrestle it back into control. He had to do it, he told himself. To fulfil the mission, his mission.
A sharp click, and a thin leaflet fell through the slot next to the communications machine. He whistled as he saw the cover, a simple one of light blue card, on which was written:
“The Uninhibited Declaration”
Followed by, in small, neat, black print.
“This document does not exist.”
Turning the page, he read:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that…”
He closed the booklet, moving to a stainless steal seat where he could read it more comfortably, as something to pass the time. It was not a laugh-a-minute, but it came close enough to keep him amused.
November 07, 2004
"Have you found her, yet?"
"Are you even looking, these days?"
"We can assure you that we are. But this is none of your concern. Keep up with your work, and we'll keep up our end. The rogues will contact you again, some day, and you need to be ready for it."
"Sometimes I wonder if you are all the same…"
"Then I know you aren't. And I know I am doing the right thing. I never wonder for long."
"Very good, soldier. Very good, indeed."
Frank couldn't find Kyra anywhere. Only thirty of them, but the girl was gone. The moment the button was pressed, the moment the group of them simultaneously woke, cast their eyes around with the typical surprise and shock, she was awake. Perhaps she had the genius to run when the small and painful electric shock jolted through their collective minds, while the adults were busy celebrating their only chance to exact revenge. The door was open, and any fleeing body would have been lost in the glare of the mid-day sun.
Don't try to find me, she had said.
He couldn't let that stop him. Rather, he considered it to be a challenge. He had not often an opportunity to play hide and seek, and rarely the inclination either – the searcher could always simply stand and call for help until the compulsion for civic duty became irresistible, and game would be rapidly over in a flurry of accusations and tame insults. But this was different.
Yet she was gone, well and truly gone. Their classes were kept too diffuse for any real familiarity, but that did not prevent him looking, searching. Within days, he had tried to sign up for every optional class and club available. But always only to null result. Some classes, he found, were empty. Others he could not join, as a wave of irritation washed over him at even the slightest thought. But most, when he entered, gave only the usual knot of bored boys and girls. He not visualise Kyra as amongst them, and she never was. He quit, and thus, they pumped his brain full and empty, wiped and fouled, so that he learnt nothing. And that was nothing he did not expect.
On the third night, he woke in a cold and shivering sweat which made him throw open the windows. There, bathed in moonlight and feeling the frigid air on his goosepimpled limbs, he worried. What if something had happened to Kyra? What if she had been taken by kidnappers, murderers and other monsters?
The books he read, the networked resources he consulted gave only reassurances. It was reassuring, too, that he could not remember either any such case, any person disappearing. But he could not remember any person who could possibly disappear, either. Dimly, he tried to recall Kyra's words. There was something there about memory, about forgetting, and dreams, that confused him. He remembered being afraid.
In any case, things had happened without precedent before. There was no reason to presume that there were no creatures on the prowl, no reason, even with the Inhibitors, not to invoke the powers of fear. By the morning, after a night of tossing and turning, he had enough resolve to seek out authority.
Authority wore gold rimmed glasses. Peeking from outside the door, Frank saw that the headmistress was pacing even before he entered. As he walked in, he found that her routine was to pause just long enough to show that she noticed, and then to carry on pacing at the same rate as before. Her motion was hypnotic, if unintelligible, and he found himself unable to compose an appropriate greeting.
He didn't have to.
"Ah, Frank Collins, I presume. The one who seems to have been fast-tracking all our courses, these few days. Very curious strategy. How I help you? Hope not fast-tracking school as well. Quitting very bad stain on character."
She watched him intently, and he found it suddenly hard to stand still, suddenly easy to be unbalanced and fall towards the door. It took several seconds of precarious footwork for him to realise that she really expected him to be quitting school, and was doing his best to dissuade him for even trying to talk to here.
"No, no!" He pleaded, hastily. "I'm not here for that!"
He felt steady on his feet again. The headmistress shrugged.
"Good. Since you are one of my… better students," she said, and then murmured. "Crying shame mind reading is only open to Defence – imagine the work we can do with it."
"I just wonder if you can give me any information about a friend of mine. A fellow student here."
She frowned. "It doesn't matter how friendly she is. Such information is confidential."
"Even where to find her?"
"Especially where to find her."
"But I'm scared she might be in trouble," he blurted out. "Because I haven't seen her for a while, and stuff. I'm scared for her."
"Well, that I can do. Registration lists are public domain," she beamed, pulling up a console. "Just let me do a quick look-up… Her name?"
"Yes. I mean… well, she probably has a surname, but I don't know it."
"Ok, that widens it a bit."
Tapping a few keys, lines of numbers streamed down her screen. And then, it flashed red. She frowned, and tapped a few more
"That's funny. No entries for this area under Kira, Kyra, Kera, or anything. Are you sure that's what you heard?"
"Well, she did say Kyra. I am sure of it."
"I'll try a wider search."
She tapped again at the key board, and again it flashed red. At this, she stood, scratching her head.
"I don't understand it. She isn't in the General, or even the Special databases. No birth certificate, no registration for translocation, no vaccination history, no nothing. There is no Kyra aged under 15 within 100 miles of this location. Such a person just does not exist."
She turned towards him. "Perhaps all that learning and unlearning has addled your brain then. I'll schedule an Inhibitor check up soon. Just go now, make some friends, and pester them with this crazy stuff. OK?"
He was pushed out, and the door shut behind him.
Frank wouldn't give up that easily, either. Little evidence given by others can be strong enough to overrule the evidence of his own eyes and memories. By the time he ventured from within the main school building, the ideas were already running wild in his head. There must be a way to find her, or else she would not have told him not to.
A sick fear filled him. What if her last words were of grave portent? What if she had seen her own doom, and didn't want him to follow her?
Then her corpse must be somewhere, hidden around the school. Frantically, he started digging small trenches with available sticks, wherever the cracks in the concrete was wide enough for something to be hidden. It didn't take very long before he felt ridiculous with the whole futility of it.
No, of course. A murderer wouldn't bury a corpse in the middle of the school. That would be way to easy to find. He'd (and the archives made it clear that it would always be a he) be caught before he could even get away. No, it was obvious that he would hide the corpse somewhere that no one usually goes, somewhere on the edges of the place, like near the fence.
So, that afternoon, with a long stick to defend himself, he shuffled up to the little line of wire fencing which enclosed the playground. There, as clear as it could be, was the hole. A small tear, just large enough for a child, fringed by verdant green grasses, and a light tangle of thorns.
Feeling no IH compulsion to stop him, he crawled through into the path-edging undergrowth on the other side.
Aaron sounded busy over the phone. Music ran loud, overflowed its containing, dribbled and poured down the wire. Conversation was all but drowned.
"How are you?" He screamed.
"Fine," Frank said.
"Good, keep watching out for the rogues! The damned rogues! They are gonna contact you soon!"
"How will they contact me?"
"We aren't sure. Look for changes."
"Changes?" A chill ran down his back.
"Changes. Stuff being different from what you remembered. What you remembered being different from what you remembered. Something like that."
"I don't understand."
"The IH can alter memories. That's one of the ways it works. It does it very well, so usually you can't see the join, and there isn't any physiological damage, or anything. We in Defence do it all the time. Whenever it is convenient. Its usually healthy for the person in question."
"But…" But nothing. There was nothing appropriate to say about it, he told himself.
"Anyways, the rogues have found a way to hack the system, bypassing the central control systems. So they use it to mess us up, or to insert their own people. The former we can detect and fix before people wake up – and you'd be surprised at the number of weird dreams this causes. The latter… is harder. The latter is what I am warning you about."
"It's something that is rather secret. If you tell anyone, I will know about it. Don't tell anyone."
"I'll place notes about to warn you, if I hear of anything. Bye."
He gripped the telephone hard in his hand, and brought it down to the receiver. On the TV, the news, and it seemed as though the human interest stories, the random stock market bounces were new and original. The weather outside was unpredictable, erratic. The pictures on the wall each had stories, experiences recallable from the vault of the mind.
Normally, he would forget almost immediately, he realised. But now that he had to keep the secret, and the IH would make him remember, so that he would remind himself of it constantly.
He looked at the pictures, the weather, the TV. On how many of these was he utterly wrong?
November 05, 2004
"...Be truthful. Have you been in contact with anyone since we last spoke? Any phone calls? Letters? Anything that can be categorised as out of the ordinary?"
"No, only some trivial conversations. Hello Mr Collins, goodbye Mr Collins. How was your dinner, Mr Collins? Nothing important in any way."
"Good. A watchful eye I can trust is very helpful. There has been a lot of apparent activity in your area, recently. People disappearing. Equipment stolen, things like that. Things we keep out of the general awareness. One way, or another."
"What should I do?"
"Well, there are two individuals I want you to watch out for…"
"Where should I bring them in?"
"Don't! That will mess up my entire operation. I do not want them to know that I am watching them. That would screw things up so majorly… Approach them, but be wary. Solicit their trust. Cast a blind eye on their actions. Aid them, if the consequences are not too serious. Remember, you work for me, and any information you acquire comes to me, and me only. That's the only way you are going to find this woman of yours."
"Understood. What does this couple look like?"
"The description may be a little unclear. Write this down…"
A young couple, ages 18–25. A male, short, with short blond hair, stiff and possibly bleached. The female, tall and thin, brown hair worn long. Faces, both dark from exposure. The boy was dressed in tan shorts, even in the cold, juxtaposed with a blue and green knitted jumper, and dragged a huge canvas sack. The girl wore a dress of brightest red, which flowed in the wind like fire.
"Tourists." Sean snorted.
There were not many tourists who would think to visit the Wall. There was little to see, little hope to receive from miles and miles of desolate darkness. No landmarks placed one stretch as distinct from any other; no guides marked the transient trails. Guns and bullets discouraged any sudden urge for closeness, and the patrols that wandered the land in the shade were sullen, and made for poor conversation. There was no reason to praise those who defied expectation, only the occasional smirk acknowledged their humanity, pinpoint dots in the bland landscape of suspicion and dislike. And now, enlightened, he saw how justified that suspicion was.
The IH said the same.
He looked down at the other soldier, who lay sprawled across a broad, flat-toped rock, one arm, hand clutching a cigarette stub, hung against his chest, the other caressing his little gun. Frank's own weapon drooped from his side, pulling him down. There were only the two of them on patrol.
Still a distance away, the couple paused, arm in arm, gazing at the blankness of the Wall. The girl crouched and removed a camera from her pouch. The flash lit up for an instant – cragged features, indistinct shapes, and forms in silhouette. Revealed, he felt affronted, as though he had seen something obscene. And then the darkness swallowed the light once more, and the Wall stood still, clothed, guarded.
He waved. But they stood still, looking with something almost akin to wonder. He stood up and waved harder, swinging his arms frantically. And yet the communion they held with the Wall continued. He thought for a moment, wildly, of firing a shot, just to claim their attention. But in that moment they had turned, and now walked towards him.
Sean scrambled to his feet, cursing. "Why on Earth did you do that? Now they're going to pester us with their pointless questions…"
"Because I wanted to."
He regretted it even as he said it. What sort of reason was that? It was a reason that raised questions and provided no answers, an answer a man like Sean would never be satisfied with. Now he would ask, now he would intrude, and soon…
"Fine." Sean said. There was calmness in his voice, a metallic smoothness. "Whatever you say, I shall obey."
"Shut up. They are here."
And indeed, they were. With hasty steps, they had clambered over the shale in front of the two soldiers, and now stood, wide grins drawn across their faces. Frank stared into their eyes, and found to his disappointment nothing but brightness and enthusiasm, no trace of wildness or insanity.
"Hey, sirs. Can you tell me a little about the Wall?"
"Not if we can't help it," Sean said.
"Sure. What do you want to know?" Frank replied.
The couple looked across, reading each of their faces in turn. Frank clenched his fist tightly, frowned, eyes darting away in sudden directions. Sean stood coolly, rolling his jaw, chewing again and again and again.
"Is there a way over the Wall?"
"Is there a way under the Wall?"
"Is there a way through the Wall?"
The answers came by instinct. They had been asked again and again, always in fear, lest something sneak through. The response was always to be a repeated no, a gesture of reassurance, like the beat of the heart. But the couple did not look reassured, and for a brief flicker of time, he caught something like disappointment passing through their stance.
"I think you are wrong." The girl said.
He stared at her. Her partner said nothing, and she too had fallen into silence. Their faces were unreadable as ever, but he saw now how readily they held themselves, the hidden strength in those dark, pink limbs. He walked backwards a step in sudden awe, and they walked forwards, closing in.
"You took some photos. Show them to me." Sean snapped, just behind.
The boy spoke softly, barely audibly, over shiny teeth.
"Who the hell do you think you are?"
There was a click. Glancing over his shoulder, he could see that Sean had cocked his gun, and held it raised, barrel lined up against his eye. Rain fell, soft moisture in the air, an ache in the bones. Squinting, he tried to shout.
"Lower that weapon! Lower that weapon, Private!"
But when he turned again, there was a knife in the boy's hands.
Sean shouted, indistinct, unintelligible. The boy screamed – a sharp, jolting, primal cry. And then he had moved past him, charging feet, swinging arms, a blur of dazzling motion. Before Frank could turn, the first shot had ran out, a report permeating his senses, and as he dropped to hands and feet, the second skimmed past, impacting just beside his head. The world shattered in a shower of broken stone.
No time to cry out, to look, to think. He leapt.
Forward, a body, thrust off balance, falling, the red dress against his hands. The moment frozen.
Physics interceded – unbalanced, she fell. The Inhibitor – a scream between his ears, mind pumping with rage. A third shot, a whisper of death, a sudden pain as it grazed him.
He had her. A hand clasped around her wrist, a twist in his motion, knee, stumbling, stabbed by daggers of pointing rock. And turning, he saw.
That Sean was still firing.
Fully automatic, the bullets hailed across the world, slicing the feeble air where Frank and the girl had stood. But the boy was moving, was too close, and Sean could not aim.
The knife spun, sliced, and cut, a trajectory plotted in blood. Blood leapt into the air, and Sean screamed in pain. Moving slower, seeming weaker, he was backing off under the furious assault, seemingly in vain. The boy was pressing his assault, his eyes ablaze, filled with something akin to delight, the exhaltation of victory.
And then Sean punched him.
It was over quickly. Sean stood, his back facing Frank, while the boy lay against the ground, stunning, trying and failing to get up, trying to reach the knife that had fallen from his hands. The girl struggled beneath him. A thin rivulet of blood trickled from the standing man's hands. The blood was red.
"Call for backup," Sean said.
The girl was silent. The blood was red. The boy still grinned. Frank looked about him, and saw that his gun was still in his hand, that it was silver and grey and plastic. And the blood was red.
"Call for backup!" Sean shouted.
But Frank was still staring at the blood, the blood which was red, redder than anything he saw. The red that burned and steamed, which pooled and gathered before him.
"Help me out here!"
He could not help, he told himself. He had orders to fulfil, orders which would be failed if he allowed one of his contacts to be captured or killed. So he looked on as Sean screamed at him. The screams grew shriller as he watched, and then silent. The other soldier looked at him, and Frank saw the savage understanding form in Sean's mind.
He knew too much.
Frank pulled the trigger, and Sean fell.
He ran forward even before he heard the shot. He didn't mean to hit him. He was just trying to give a warning shot, to stop him from being a threat. But at the last minute, something had moved within him. No, his hand had slipped. It had slipped, his aim was off. He put his hand on the gaping wound in Sean's chest, and the blood flowed between his finger, covering his fingers, so that he was deep in a crimson and growing pool.
The couple, standing now together, joined him, waiting for minute after minute. The blood stained ground turned a darker red, and finally the cremated black that it had always looked. Why did it he take so long to die, Frank wondered. Why couldn't he just stop breathing, stop spewing that crimson blood. The vigil ended, and the night beneath the Wall was darker than the blackness it was before.
The boy offered a hand. Frank did not move.
"My name is Martin." The boy said.
"And my name is Jenny." The girl said.
"Thank you." They said.
Frank listened to the flatness of their voices, and blinked at the wetness and tautness on his face. The couple shuffled their feet, somehow apologetic. They put plaintive expression on their faces. They spoke, murmured to each other. They did not dare leave.
He would forget, he knew. The IH unit would delete all trace. Sean would never have lived. But when he came here again, as always he would, there would be a dark patch on the ground, a patch that, if he looked carefully, was red.
Aaron was waiting for him when he returned. Sitting now not in the guards' mess, but in a small park outside, he drank from a glass of pale liquid, and stood to shake Frank's hand, in vain.
"The rogues trust you now. I have something now our side never had – an agent in their midst. Pretty soon, we can unravel their entire operation, and take them out piece by piece. Expect them to contact you again soon, and be ready to help out when they do. Your little stunt worked wonders."
His fist had clenched, and he did not understand why. He could remember no contact, no stunt, nothing had happened.
"I can't remember a thing."
Aaron smiled, a slight, wise smile.
"Don't worry. The IH unit told me everything there is to know. Just remember that in the future, the mission is paramount and any resources may be expended to achieve its goal. Use that principle when indecisive, next time."
And suddenly, Frank felt the burn of anger within him. There was something maddening about this, something he could not understand. A car, parked in the parking lot which should not be there. A stain, a smell about his hands. The pain of a cut in his shoulder. A cry on the wind.
He turned, and strode away. The rage lingered, but it was fading. There was something about it he had to cling onto, had to protect.
Halfway to the Wall, he stopped. Behind him, engineers were removing a car from the parking lot. A black bag was being carted into a truck. The coming night was calm, the sky without clouds, adorned by the cool light of the moon. A fine, peaceful, night.
He started to hum. But there was something discordant about the tune, and with a shrug, he walked the rest of the way home in silence.
November 04, 2004
When he was twelve, his school was in an old corner of town, where a river ran bubbling and clear, flanked by tall grass and leaning trees. Just behind a metal fence, covered with barbed wire, and a small walkway, where strangers passed to stare. Dropped off each morning by car from next to the front gates, they would while away the days in study, or in mindless attempts to invent pointless games. Safe games, games of show-fighting and loud shouting. Games that kept them from the fences, kept them living by the rules.
Across the cracked concrete playground, they marched, clustering into little cliques, talking gibberish, eating candy, leaving short trails of brightly coloured debris. Every short while, a retinue of cleaners would emerge, backs bent over heavy sweepers entered, running a dense track through the area until it was clear again, as though the children were never there. And then the littering would resume. Now and then, an act of unavoidable misfortune would strike, and a child would be pulled out by a quick-witted supervisor, leaving a trail of little tears.
It was different during lesson-time, when the ringing of the school bell led them sullenly indoors. Wasting time, they squeezed through the various doors, bunched up, stumbled. When the corridor turned, the flow clotted, froze solid as in a pipe, and it took many minutes for the teachers to drag them free, to propel them onto the destination. They kept quiet during this, bound by the coded laws of politeness and decency, suppressing the mildest of smiles and they made accidental mistake after accidental mistake, listening to the squeak of feet on vinyl floor tiles, and classical music from an upstairs radio.
But they made progress, anyway. The distance was long, the journey more a progression of random walks and spontaneous catastrophes. But the destination was inevitable – there were soon simply no more places to go, no more diversions to seek out. That was a lesson in itself, a lesson they quietly acknowledged. There would be only delay, and no escape. But everything was worth a try.
So they sat, loosely, limbs spread-eagled, heads either tilted back or forwards, trying defiantly, vainly to sleep. Their teacher, who was always male, always bald, always bespectacled and dusty with age, gesticulated and pointed in front of them.
“The perceived threat of social exclusionism was resolved by Goldstein by redefining the boundaries of…”
“Compare and contrast: The crude physical/chemical interferers of early contraception with the IH unit intrinsic facilities…”
“Theorem: If a sequence is convergent, then it is…”
They listened. The IHs said it in their heads anyways. Sometimes, they looked and saw that their teachers was not talking at all, but sitting, resting, perhaps listening to his own little voice. After a while, they were given small sheets with questions, as a simple test. They did not fail. Even when they tried.
Then, it was naptime. Sporadically, they were herded through the labyrinthine corridors once more, into the gym hall. Without prompting, they, all thirty of them, lay in their assigned places on soft mats, heads turned sideways towards the front wall, watching dispassionately as the curtains were drawn, and the room plunged into darkness. Beneath the gazes of the adult supervisors, they whispered, told each other rumours, and then fell silent as one by one an uncontrollable weariness told hold of them, and so they slept.
Once, Frank did not.
They must have forgotten him. He knew well enough how it all worked, how each teacher carried a small panel by which they could access each child’s IH. How, when naptime was decreed, they were reduced to simple switches, pushed one by one.
Catherine Walker. A small, black button marked with a ‘1’.
Graham Kent. A small, black button marked with a ‘2’.
Benjamin Carey. A small, black button marked with a ‘3’.
With each press, a soft thud as raised head suddenly collapsed to the ground. Until at last, the process finished. Only he was still awake.
He shook in terror and indecision. The inhibitor offered no support – it had received no instructions, and would act as though all was normal. But there he was alone, an aberrance in a crowd that was synchronous, even down to the rhythmic snoring. Should he raise his hand, declare his presence, and risk punishment?
No, he could not. He shut his eyes as hard as he could, trying his best to muster any sense of fatigue. But it was still early. He did not want to sleep. And even as he sought stillness, to lose himself in oblivion, he was roused again and again by the effortless slumber of the others. He swore to himself, tried to match their breathing, tried to emulate their stiff forms. Hot tears of guilt rolled down his face, tracing a little path across his cheeks, pooling next to his right eye.
Suddenly he felt that there were feet moving amongst them, attached to bodies that towered and swayed. Clumsily, they strode through the ranks of children, bending down now and then, hands cradling a small machine, a small torch attached to their wrists. A soft beep, and then they moved on, leaving the sleepers to murmur silently in themselves. Methodically, the patches of light which preceded them scanned the lines, and Frank froze as he felt one pause directly behind.
He breathed in. He breathed out. He screwed his eyes as shut as they could be. Wished fervently that his heart would calm, as the man began to lean over.
He could not think, only tremble as he felt the breath ruffle his hair, permeate his being. Mingled within was the small of garlic and herbs, the slight whiff of alcohol, perhaps long past. There too, cologne, the expensive perfume from the man’s wife, the metallic essence of blood. He moved closer still, his knee crushing the mat, and Frank felt a hard object prod into the back of his head.
There was a beep.
“Hmm. No update required.”
The sleeping mat rose up again as the man raised himself behind him. A squeak of leather boots, and he was gone, and he heard only the occasional beeps, which receded, and were gone.
The curtains opened. Sunlight, so unexpectedly unleashed, flooded across the room, pushing in between his eyelids so that it burned and hurt and felt good. He remembered, and breathed in.
A whisper, next to him, soft as the rustle of leaves outside the window.
“You awake, too?”
There was another! He could only nod.
“Kinda stupid of them to go wrong twice.”
Turning, he could see it was a girl. Experimentally, he began to whisper back, terrified that it would be too loud.
“What did they do to us?”
“I don’t know. Try not to think about it. In a few hours, our IHs will have deleted it all from our memories.”
“But I don’t want to forget!”
She was quiet. Thinking.
“Then stop believing this happened. Don’t think about it. The IH won’t do anything, if you think like you forgot yourself. Remember it as a fantasy, a dream.”
“Who are you?”
“I’ll see you around, then.”
“Please don’t try to find me.”
He woke up. His curtains were drawn – he must have been too tired to deal with them when he went to bed. Across against the wall, digital clocks told him it was still too early for work, but… With a sigh, he pushed away the white bedcovering that lay already in a creased and folded clutter. Rubbing at his eyes, he slid down from the bed, feet trying to find clear ground on a floor that was covered with old foot, clothing, books and worse. He was hungry, and creeping slowly for fear of accident, he moved towards the kitchen.
In the fridge was some milk, a sandwich long overgrown with mould, and objects that he assumed were food once, but were mostly no longer even recognizable. Taking what he could sufficiently trust, he moved further on into the living room, eyeing critically the pile of mail.
Junk mostly. A special subscriptions rate for The Magazine. How electric cars were still the way ahead. Holidays in Colorado, the Former United Kingdom, the French Riviera. New cameras, drugs, even thoughts, downloaded direct via IH-link.
But something made him stop. Riviera. Vera. Era. Where had he heard that before? He felt dullness again, but there was something closer, more immediate. A person, yes, in a dream. But what was the name… Yes, Kyra.
Don’t try to find me, she said.
She said that he shouldn’t try to find her.
Was that once? Twice? An infinity of times, an infinity of girls, a hill which he had just started to climb? He tapped his fingertips against the tabletop, but nothing further came out.
But there was the card, which Aaron gave him. A small white card, with a name and a phone number printed in black. Nothing else. He mused for a moment, weighing up the possibilities. Suppose he made a deal – would the colonel accept it? How far did a favour go?
He picked up the phone and started dialling.
November 03, 2004
(Note: Please don't complain. I haven't really reread to edit it. And I doubt I'll have the time for quite some days.)
Eight o'clock in the morning, and the sun had not yet risen. In the mess hall of the barracks where they were stationed, most drank desperately, those from the night patrol heavy-lidded with lethargy, those of the day patrol glancing intermittently at the wall-hung clock. A large man tilted back his head and drank, then whipped himself forwards, quaking with prodigious laughter. He slapped a fat hand onto the bar, finger like sausages against the chrome surface, heavy blows that dented and bent.
"So she says… so she says… That's not my monkey!"
The table, though made of welded steel and bolted to the concrete wall, quivered with panicked urgency. The windows rattled in their frames, and the other drinkers' glasses wandered randomly, jittered against each other with the noise of ringing bells. They stared at him.
"So she says, that's not my monkey!"
The light bulb above them flickered. Someone in the labyrinth of cabling, there had been a fault, a fault which produced a soft buzz, just at the edge of detection, just under the man's heavy breath. He shot them each a meaningful glance, squeezing together a meaty fist, galvanised with bone-white knuckles.
"Gee, that's so funny."
"Yeah, Sean, you make the funniest jokes."
Slowly, the patrol started laughing. Sean grinned with unrestrained glee – eyes alight with triumph, huge mouth open in delight. Even across the room, along the tiled floor and through the dense clouds of blue-white cigarette smoke, they turned and took notice.
"I don't see how that is funny."
A small weasel of a man raised his head from folded arms, and lowered it again. With a thin arm, he scratched at his black-haired scalp idly. Turning slowly to survey the room, a pale face with a wrinkled nose dipped in and out of shadow. He sat at a table, alone, feet dangling from the tall silver-upholstered chair, a small glass of water his only companion. Noticing at last the eyes staring at him, he sat up, slid a small notebook into a trouser pocket, and clipped his pen to his green Defence-issue jacket.
"Pardon, dipshit?" Sean said. His jaw ground a little, and his eyes were wide with incomprehension.
"I said: It's a crummy joke. Adding a monkey to a farcical tale of marital unbliss does not make it any better. Especially if it is blatantly obvious that said beast was merely soldered in to a scenario that was, in fact, not funny but deeply depressing, if rather unoriginal. All in all, the result is simply offensive to our collective intellects. You should be ashamed of yourself, and your clear and observable ignorance."
The giant stood up. With a spread of his arm, the chairs near him tumbled to the ground with a crash. Next to him, his fellow guards leapt to their feet, retreated quickly in search of cover. As the reverb dissipated away, the room fell silent. Sean strode toward the small man at his small table, thrusting furniture and bystanders out of his path. When he was but an arms length away, he halted, breathed in and yelled with a full blast from the lungs.
"Care to repeat that, asshole?"
"I said: It's a crummy…"
"Who the hell are you, to call me ignorant, you freaking smart ass? You dare call me ignorant you fregging smartass… You know what I do to assholes who call me shit? I'll show you know is ignorant, you ignorant little bastard!"
"Technically, ignorance is not a word that can be applied as a generic insult…"
With a cry of rage, Sean lunged. Arms spread, hands open, his face filled with terrible intent. His shadow smothered the smaller man as he bored down at him, crashed down towards him, battered and crushed through the empty air. He was unstoppable, a battering ram of a torso. His eyes glared, pinned to the other's face, seeking out his throat.
He hung momentarily, impossibly suspended, covered in a look of utter bewilderment. And shrunk away, almost falling back upon his feet. Beaten, he bent almost into a crouch, clutched at his forehead, staggered backwards. Swaying a little, he stumbled against a fallen chair, grabbing onto a table for support, sending bottles and cups flying in a storm of shattered glass. He panted, and panted, and panted.
"Screw you! You're not worth it!"
And with that, he pulled open the exit door, and strode off, slamming the door behind him. The bang slowly melted, and the murmurs of conversation began again. Smiling with satisfaction, the little man retrieved the notebook again, and started writing. But he had to stop again, for one of the other drinkers had approached, stood uncertainly in front. The new man's dress was the same uniform as the other, but neatly pressed, sharply lined, which was noted with approval.
"Guess I was saved by the IH again, eh?"
"I'm wondering whether your Inhibitor is set properly. Do you make a habit of crazy stuff like that?"
"More or less. You suppose that man was really trying to kill me?"
"That's Private Sean Baileys, sir. He strangled a rabbit at the age of five, with the Inhibitor on full. I think they had to invent a new power setting, just for him, and usually I wonder if that is enough. You were lucky, extremely lucky. I didn't think the damn thing would response nearly strong enough to prevent it. Sean could have destroyed you, obliterated you utterly with his bare hands."
"More than luck."
He flashed a badge. Colonel Aaron Walters. Defence inspector.
"And you are, I presume, Captain Frank Collins. In charge of this outfit, at least in theory."
Frank straightened up, determined rigidly to be nonplussed.
"Well, captain, it is somewhat stuffy in here. Isn't a winter morning the perfect time for a walk? Don't you agree?"
"Let's go on a walk, captain."
The wind blew strangely at the foot of the Wall. Out amongst the plains, or at the edges of cities, wind was air flowing from cold to heat, logical consequences of law. But at the feet of the wall, there was no light, no warmth, only the eternal night of the unending shade. The patch of darkness stretched out for a few hundred yards, marked by sickly trees and bare, grassless earth. The only wind came from the great ventilation fans beneath the ground, and the rare vortices that spun off the Wall-top, pulling and tugging on clothing like clamorous children. But despite this, Aaron hummed as he walked, and the sound, mangled by turbulence, sounded to Frank to be exquisitely exotic, like the last shallow laments of a lost world.
He hated it.
And hating it, he clambered across the half-frozen mud. Hating it, he slipped and slid over slime-wet boulders. Hating it, he watched the clouds overhead glow, the fields in the distance become radiant as day broke – in all places but here. Aaron looked at him with a quizzical expression, with the barest flicker of a smile. With a single finger, he gestured that it was time for them to sit.
"I expect you have questions to ask. Go ahead."
The words almost burst out of Frank. He had wanted, tried to ask before, but there was always the dull drone of the IH which reminded him of the proper etiquette. Now he felt like a cripple who had been given legs.
"What are you doing here? I mean, that thing with Private Baileys…"
"... Was just an accident, yes. Albeit an entertaining one. As for your other question… what do you expect? I am an inspector, so I am here to inspect!"
There was the smile, again. In the soft light of the non-dawn, Frank examined his companion carefully. The man was young, he could see. He never expected such an important position to be given to one so young, and thus so vulnerable to error. And yet he seemed capable enough, confident, his gait holding an intangible quality of success, a vein of gold in barren rock. His eyes were a bright green, a shocking green in a face that the light made pallid.
"Please… specifically what are you looking for? Is my patrol under inspection?"
"Hah! Now you are crafty! You know I can't tell you any confidential details like that, but you phrase the question so that even a refusal to answer would tell you what you want to know. But fortunately all of this is irrelevant to my purpose. Well, have you heard of the Rogues?"
A glimmer of recognition emerged and died. He shook his head.
"Well… Let's put it another way. How did you end up working in this place?"
Frank froze. There was a sudden vision of heat, a horrible fear. He managed to stammer out a response.
"There was an incident."
"An incident with the Inhibitor Unit, right? An incident with the removal of the IH unit, maybe? I've read the file."
"It was an accident! It's over now. Behind. It can't affect me anymore. I can't, won't remember it anymore."
Aaron shook his head.
"It was no accident. All more recent IHs are coded very carefully to resist any attempts to remove them, and to make no attempt to remove another individual's IH. Do you understand? Someone else, with a non-working Inhibitor, purposefully removed yours. Perhaps they expected you to share their particular form of madness, to join their group. Only you turned out wrong, so they rejected you."
"The Rogues. That's what we call them, though no doubt they consider themselves freedom fighters or so on. Truth be told, they are terrorists, simple terrorists. They travel the country, committing acts of horrific murder and recruiting other maniacs to their cause. They say their manifesto is to blast people with the truth, to expose lies. And so they remove IHs and kill certain people, to destroy society as we know it."
Entranced, Frank found himself leaning forwards, overpowered by a sudden curiosity, overwhelmed with an urge to find out about these mysterious terrifying people. But Aaron had stopped speaking, and now stared directly into his eyes.
"What does this have to do with me?" Frank asked.
"They contacted you once, and so they may contact you again. They seem also to be obsessively interested in the Wall, especially here, and we have never found out why. So you are very important to us, as an informant. Can you help us to stop them?"
A request, not an order. Frank felt the conflicting urges inside him, and the coldness as the Inhibitor tried to resolve them.
"I'll think about it."
Aaron formed a final smile, and tossed a card at him.
"If you help us, you will have my gratitude, which is rewarding. Here's my number. If you are ever interested, call me. And if you ever see anything out of the ordinary, contact me directly. The police and so on may be corrupt. Trust no one unless you have to. People aren't always as you know them."
And with that, the colonel was gone.
Frank sat for a little longer, and lit a cigarette, shielding it with one hand from the drizzle which now gently fell. Back at the barracks, the patrol would be getting ready. He had already notified them that they would meet at the Wall.
All of a sudden he felt alone, more alone than he could possibly be, as though blocked off not just from unreason but the whole world, suffocated and unable to breathe. And in time too, there was a barrier of glass. There were things he could not remember, could barely think of. In agony, he dug, tunnelled deep. There was something there. Just out of his reach.
November 02, 2004
It was, on reflection, not the perfect day to die. Certain not the perfect day for everybody in the whole world to die, and he had to work hard with his unInhibited mind to keep on the reflective aspect, to avoid the blatant philosophical fallacy of focusing on the transient now, or the non-existent tomorrow.
That is not to say it had not been a fun day. Far from it! It was not everyday that one can discover the universe of possibilities opened the moment you pop off that little band. It is decidedly unusual too to uncover one's latent prophetic powers. And it was totally unexpected to be gifted with the vision of coming judgement by angels in white latex.
He had certainly taken advantage of things however he could. By late morning he had bedded his wife, expressing a sense of total devotion that felt more genuine that for decades. And then he had toured the brothels of the crimson light districts, happily putting off payment until 'tomorrow'. By noon, he had eaten supper at the most expensive restaurants in town, announcing his retirement in no uncertain terms over crunchy lobster. And now, in a winter's afternoon just before the fall of night, he had the perfect view of the coming apocalypse. It did not pique him that he had not delivered any warning – his confidence was absolute that nothing could be done, so he might as well enjoy himself.
Ultimately, nothing mattered any more. But he had expected something a little more portentous, perhaps. A little rain, some earnest gloom. But instead, it was merely a sunny pre-dusk in the park he lay in, and the children around him were mindless in their play. A little birdsong from gnarled foliage, and the rustling of wind on long grass. A football flew past, rebounded, and rolled beneath him.
He kicked it back. An act of altruism, and he was filled with the immense pleasure of exemption from an infinity of possible hells. Something to look forward to, perhaps, when it is all done. For now, he tried to lie back, orientating himself across the damp boards so that he was cradled between the two armrests. It took a fair bit of squirming before he was almost comfortable, and the blueness of the sky was really too bright to be healthy. But squeezing his tear-filled eyes, he could just see the Wall and he watched the clouds skip around its heights. Some caught alight, torched briefly by the afternoon sun, whilst others vanished into the shade-collected night. He realised that he had never seen the Wall in this way, never watched its barrier transgressed by things that simply did not care.
What would become of the Wall, when the end comes? Would it still stand, guarding one barren devastation from another? Would it be shattered too, its mission finally aborted, the horrors it hid unleashed for one last infinitesimal moment of triumph? He shook, terrified by the possible absence of its familiar shadow, saw the monsters that dwelt on the Other Side as though the mile high length of dark opaqueness had become suddenly transparent. No, he told himself, the Wall must hold. Sanity was too precious to be so exposed.
It was quieter now. The park had emptied, and he was alone. He waited. Any moment now.
There was no time now to consult a watch, only to breathe slowly and wait. Any moment and he should see the little white and red line begin, the start of the trajectory that led to terminus. Driven by the sword hand of gravity, any moment and it would slide between the scrapped hulk of ancient satellites, and plunge into the atmosphere. A missile of iron and rock, it would burn like a new star, and the Earth, wounded, would bleed sparks of fire. It would be silent, surpassing the fanfares which heralded its arrival, without voice and without reason. Birds it would vaporise, and the mighty winds would be ripped aside like a veil. Perhaps, across the nation, men would see their doom. Perhaps they would point, scream a little, and shed those few last liquid tears, grieving for the future which will not come. It's unfair, they would complain. Should not they have been told? Should not they have been given time to prepare?
He laughed a little at this. They would have known themselves, if only they had listened to him, if only they had not dumped him into a dead-end job, with a wife for whom it was always "not tonight, honey." They would have known if they had the wisdom, nay, the genius as he had to remove the little cranial bands which regulated thought. But instead, they had whimpered, predicted insanity as a result. He shook his head and laughed harder. Was this insanity? No, only thought too broad, too golden in its profundity for their worthless little minds.
He had stood up. He was shaking with wordless rage. He kicked at the bench until the wood splintered and broke, until there was only left the metal frames, the skeleton of an inanimate object killed. A way off, he could see figures moving. Perhaps they would fine him. Perhaps, they would ask him to go to court, tomorrow. Suppressing the giggles, he bent down and sat upon the grass.
Which way would the asteroid come? South, from behind the Wall, appearing only at the last minute, so that he would only feel the heat of the blast and the cold of death, the boom of its arrival coming an instant too late? No, it must come from the North, from amongst the jungle of glass and coffee machines. So that at last, the swathe of dead land in the shade would see a new day, so that at last he could see the dark bulk of the Wall in unrelenting red. Perhaps there is truth, hidden in that darkness. Perhaps God had written his word there, where none had thought to look.
But boy did cataclysm take its time! He paced impatiently, stamping, humming, glancing constantly upwards. A quick watch check assured him that he had gotten it right, but the line of red was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps his clock ran slow. Perhaps this moment was frozen forever, so that the end approached and never arrived. He groaned, and someone shouted behind him.
"I'm sorry about the bench!" He shouted back.
But it seemed they were not so easily discouraged. Without prompting, they had charged towards him through the grassy lawn. Closer, he could see how they wore uniforms, how they carried batons and sprays in their hands. He began to understand their voices.
"Calm down, Mr Collins…"
"We are here to help…"
He backed away, moving behind the bench, wishing for the heavens to hurry up, to smite it all and be finished with it.
But it did not come, and the sky remained as clear as ever. Quietly, one of the men shifted to his side, preparing to flank him. He turned and moved to maintain the distance, but the men simply moved faster, mumbling still their nonsensical chants.
"Frank, you are very confused… I know this is very confusing for you, but you need to come with us…"
"You've been off the Inhibitor, Mr Collins. Your mind is not working right. Listen to us, Mr Collins."
"... We don't want a hurt you."
And then they charged.
He was lying on a bed, lights streaming backward in front of him, his eyes burning from the incapacitating spray. Around him, the busy buzz of a hospital, the beeping of life support machines and padding of feet on cold tiles. His body ached, but he was strapped down. The weight of the world pressed down on him, the end had finally come. He felt an urge to scream.
Someone barked a rapid order, and all was dark again.
He rubbed at his head, but that did not remove the numbness he felt within. He blinked, but that did not change the muted lights of the room, where the woman dressed in grey looked at him with cold disapproval.
"Welcome back, Frank Collins."
"I don't understand." He felt like someone else was speaking, and had to touch his face to realise it has his mouth which was moving.
"Just teething troubles," she said, reassuringly. "My name is Janice Pennington."
"Do I know you?"
"Not really. I am here to evaluate certain factors and provide advice. Some guidance. You are aware, perhaps, that you have been off the inhibitor for 24 hours. And not for the first time. I have on record an incident from 30 years ago, when you were twelve years of age. But that is not relevant. What I must communicate to you is the seriousness of the current predicament."
He understood, of course. But a quiet, reasonable voice inside his head told him that he didn't. Since after all, he had lapsed only so recently, and so sat in this chair, cradling his head in his hand and looking afraid.
Janice continued. "The inhibitor, Frank, is what holds our society together. It is a matter of fact that humans, in their natural states, cannot live together. Their emotions, whilst beautiful in its way, lead to destruction. War, religion, oppression and hatred: all are results. The inhibitor is what facilitates our freedom. It is the voice of reason in the chaos; it lets us see the logic where it may be hard to grasp. This is life; this is our Inhibited, liberated society. There has not been a murder for eight decades, a theft for sixty years. No, the Inhibitor does not control the mind. It is more than that."
It is part of the mind. A person without an inhibitor is not sane. Cannot be sane.
"I hope you learned your lesson," she said. "We were all greatly entertained by your antics, but we hope we do not have to deal with you again. Understood?"
He nodded. She smiled.
"We've found you a new job too. Apparently, you are paranoid and volatile, perfect for Wall duty. It's well paid, and pretty secure as a job. We will after all always need someone to defend our freedom. Do you want to take it?"
He nodded again.
The cream door creaked softly, and swung open. He stood in the doorway, noting the darkness and silence within.
"I'm home," he announced.
A large step and he stood in the pine floorboard of the landing, half treading on the pile of unread mail. It was the 2nd, he was gone almost a month, and his wife had not been processing the post. A sullen weight moved over him, and he shrugged it off. Stretching tired limbs, he put his coat onto a waiting hook, and kicked his shoes into a corner.
Through the door, and he was in the living room. Flicking on the lights, he saw the potted plant which had died, whose leaves were pale yellow, so dry that they crumbled when he touched them, falling into dust which gather on the ground with the rest. Each step brought up a little of the grey, and he resisted the urge to cough. Against the wall were dark patches from where furniture had gone. On the glass coffee table, he found a letter.
I've had enough. I really can't take it any more. The neighbours look at us as though we are mad, and I'm always afraid that you'll lapse and do it all again. I'm sorry, it isn't that I don't love you, but it just can't work. So I have left. Please don't try to find me.
He would not try to find her, he told himself. He did not care.
He switched off the lights.