"You have nothing to lose but your chains"
-Karl Marx, Pre Philosopher
Left or right?
The path divided into two. Left, and right. Should she turn left, or turn right? She paused, looked at her watch, checked her shoelaces, anything to buy a little time. They were everywhere, testing, searching for those who escaped. Which way would they expect her to go?
Right was the shorter route. People would turn right here. The principle of least action. Humans, following mechanical laws would do the minimum, do the efficient thing, hurry along to their destination as fast as possible. She should turn left.
Left was the paved route. People would turn left here. To minimise cost, to minimise wear on their shoes. The road was paved with stone, so naturally this was the official route. And official meant mandatory in these days of command and inhibition. She should turn left.
What was that ancient saying? All roads lead to Rome? No, that isn't useful. She scratched her head in irritation at her problem, at the insane thoughts that passed for good ideas. And then she was angry, angry at her indecision.
All roads lead to Rome. Right. Then it doesn't matter what road she takes, for all destinations were the same. If they were watching her so closely, then she would already be dead. Dead from the moment the flash filled the sky. Dead from the moment when instead of cowering she had ran, ran back to the Wall, jumping up, hopping. Hopping joyful, skipping, like a damn kid. Until she saw the helicopter, and the uniformed men, and the corpses…
She ran forward, turning left because it was more clearly lit, so that her eyes would not adjust enough to check for what lay in the sky above her, so that she would not have to fear that final moment of horror when they come for her, come with their sticks and prods and hands and guns.
Oh the hilarity, the hilarity of it all. The game is over, and now they are totalling up the score, taking the bets that were placed, the gambles which they had lost. They had staked it all on one, and though the roulette ball had bounced close, slowed so painfully near, it had missed, and they had lost. They always lost, because the house made the game. The house always wins.
Nothing changes. Nothing ever changes.
And nothing has changed. Things were no different from the way they were. She could not betray what she believed. A defeat could not make her follow their codes, run their instructions like a stupid machine. She must not flaunt herself, yes, but to lie with her actions would be worth than being caught, it would be a betrayal of all those who had suffered and died. No, nothing would make her be who she is not. Only death can do that.
She shook her head. Heroism in the mind was all right and fine, but so much introspection, and she would forget to watch where she was…
"Can I help you?" the man said.
"No," she snapped, and broke into a run.
A mistake, a terrible mistake. Now he would puzzle over why and his IH may well flag it up, preparing one of those measures it loved so much. When her appearance seemed to be that of someone lost, someone in need of aid, she should accept help where it is given.
A lady, middle-to-old aged. Pushing an empty cart, wheels rocking over the uneven floor paving, the handlebar juddering so that her arms barely just held on. Her dark green scarf weaved through the slight rain. This one would be safe, surely…
The lady saw her stares, and did not wait for her to approach.
"I wonder if you can help me. I…"
I, what, she wondered. What would be a good reason, a normal reason…
"I lost the keys to my house. I wonder if…"
"Pardon?" the old lady asked.
She started to repeat her words, but stopped as soon as her mouth opened. What a stupid cover. Who would want to help her, over that? If someone else came to her with talk like that, she would tell them to go find a locksmith. Or perhaps to smash in a window and just jump through it. There had to be something else, something closer to the truth, so that only a razor like mind could divide reality from sweet fantasy. And then it came to her. Why was this old lady even here? Here, with the others who shuffled in the midnight darkness, faces blank.
"I'm sorry," she began haltingly, gesticulating where she could not come up with the words. "It's just the Wall, the explosion, the bomb or whatever it was…"
The smoke had not yet cleared. But the helicopters were already taking off, punching holes through low cloud, and the black haze from the still blazing small fires. Fires like so many funeral pyres. She fought to wrest her attention back to the task at hand.
"It's just that… I don't know… It's so overwhelming."
The sobs were coming easily.
"I… don't know what to do. I'm so scared, and I don't know what to do."
Her body shook, and she leaned forward, arms outstretched. The old lady embraced her, held her while she cried. Could people with IHs really do that? But she was too deep in it now, and there was no way she could order those tears, once shed, to return.
"What's your name?" the old lady asked.
"Sandy Olsen," she said.
"My name is Constance Hamilton. Now don't worry, dear. If they did manage to breach the Wall, we would not help but know about it. We would all be dead right now. Right? Here, take a handkerchief."
Sandy dabbed at her eyes with the small slip of cloth, wishing that her face did not seem so tight and swollen. Constance patted her back, trying to sooth her. She ventured a smile, though she did not feel like it.
"See, things are looking up already. Now let's get you cleaned up a bit, dear, and then… Well, do you want some money to take you to your place?"
"Well, there's a problem with that," Sandy replied, sniffing. "You see, I was just visiting the city, and I never met the person who was supposed to meet me here in the train station, so I was just wandering about, when there was a terrible bang and people were all just…"
She allowed the sobs to return.
"Shh, shh, dear. Don't you worry about that any more, I know what, we'll just go to my place, then. How about that?"
She nodded, strongly.
"Yes, and you can stay the night there in my spare room – after you take a nice bath first of course, since you smell terrible! And then, in the morning, we can go and call up on all the hotels and so on, so that we can find out where you were supposed to be, and explain why you weren't there and everything. And everything will be sorted out, and you will be happy and safe. Sounds good to you?"
"Then I have a car waiting near here. Come on then…"
They drove safely along the rain-slick roads, skirting the cars which had stopped, avoiding the people who wandered from one side to the next, faces filled with a combination of shock and awe and horror and affront. Constance switched the radio on to hear the newscast, but Sandy quickly flipped it off again.
"I don't want to hear about it," she said.
Her companion nodded in understanding. Not hearing about bad things was part of doctrine, part of the right way to think.
The house they arrived at was a small one, rented out, it seems, barely more than a flat. The porch door was unlocked, and pulling it, they marched in, Sandy helping the old lady with her cart. The atmosphere inside was heavy and claustrophobic, smelling of old tea and mothballs. Helped off with her coat, she sat in stony silence on the floral-print sofa, watching the fake-fire effect of the heating unit flutter. Outside the slightly open window, a half-hearted commotion. Tired, so tired, a dreadful sense of fatigue, somewhere around about the heart.
Constance appeared from the kitchen, carrying a tray.
"See, aren't things better once you are nice and warm and inside?"
She put down the tray on the coffee table, moved over to the window. Fumbling with the lace veil, she managed to close the window, draw the curtain, and sit back in a broad chair, satisfied as the room dropped into silence.
The room must be old, perhaps almost as old as Constance. Sandy took in the old certificates on the Wall above, the old photos of the lady, alone. Younger, here, there. Small photos, narrow photos, photos just not fitting their frames. Photos with backs, torsos, legs, bodies cropped and unidentifiable. An empty mantelpiece, covered with dust. She could see the footprints of absent greeting cards.
"Those your son's?" she asked, pointing at a framed letter which declared someone to be the Junior Footballer of the Year.
Constance frowned. "No. I just happen to collect them. They have excellent caligraphy on them on them, don't you think?"
Sandy nodded slowly, mournfully.
"No, I never had a son. Never been married. Though I would have wanted to. Get married and start a family, I mean."
Sandy gazed sadly at her. What that means, Constance, was that you really were married. That you had a son, a beautiful son. And that they decided your son wasn't right for you any more. Maybe he was stupid, and did something bad despite his IH. Maybe he was too good, and they needed him somewhere higher up. Maybe he just died, died in a horrible, tragic accident. So they made him disappear. And they started digging, digging in his mind. Maybe you husband was already dead. Or maybe one night they came, opened your door with their keys which can open any door, and told him to go away. And the next morning, you woke up, and it was a dream, your life just a dream, a dream which was over and forgetting even as you made your tea, thought about the empty bleeding hole in your heart, and tried to shut the door that you forgot you left open.
Damn them, Sandy thought. Damn them to hell for things like this. Death was too good for them.
"Would you like something to eat? You can just help yourself, you know."
Sandy quivered a little at the thoughts she came up with, and tried to snap to her senses.
"Well, thank you. But I really can't…"
"Oh but I insist!"
Sandy picked up a mug of tea, and sipped at it in case it was hot. It was not. Time had passed enough to make it merely lukewarm, and the drink itself felt weak, limp. She drank it down slowly, trying to savour its slight bitterness, composed grateful smiles to cheer her host.
Encouraged, Constance continued to attempt to make conversation.
"So where do you come from? You said you just arrived here."
"Aberdeen, in England, by ferry." A place remote enough, surely, not to be familiar to the lady.
"Ooh… How exciting!" she crooned. "Did you get to see the Sea Wall? They say it is truly magnificent, and they let you take boats right up to it, to the big valves which let water through, generate power, and keep the outside out."
Sandy shook her head.
"Can I go straight to bed now, please? I'm really tired…" she pleaded.
"Fine, go ahead. It's upstairs, the second door on your right. And the bathroom is the door on the end of the corridor. Shall I come with you to show you where to go?"
An eager look.
"No, thank you. I can manage myself."
She climbed the stairs with soft, unsteady steps. Halfway up, she heard the television switched on in the living room. A news report was just ending.
"Collins himself was unavailable for comment. However, his close friends have revealed exclusively that he has taken a rest break. Technical experts have expressed an opinion that after a downtime of 48 hours, it may be now impossible for full IH operation to be restored."
It couldn't really be him, could it? She couldn't believe it, wouldn't believe it. But that didn't stop her from running the rest of the way up the stairs, from throwing herself on the bed of the spare room. From groaning the groan of despair and anger that she had contained for these last, long hours.
Staring the window, she wondered what would happen if she was to jump from it. To tie the curtains around her neck, and lean until the knot became tight. But she felt too drained, too hopeless to think about it, and before she could wonder further, she fell asleep.