In the good old days television would revert to a hissing static in times of crisis and then be replaced by the emergency placard – a small girl with a creepy doll. Modern televisions just go black. It’s a real shame. I think we need background indications of emergency – an interruption in the usual services.
The lights were still on, everything sounded normal. And the telly was just a black rectangle squatting in front of the window. It seemed badly at odds with how I felt. I’ve been cut off from the world for a little while now, but I’d never been truly severed from it. The tearful midnight calls to my sister, the careful queries by text message, mainlining Orange Is The New Black and Continuum, buying new books on Amazon – all gone. I was feeling the digital wall more strongly than the physical one being erected around us. I’d had more involvement with the invisible magic stuff than the real. I was also quite shocked by what I’d just seen before the television stopped showing me anything.
Those soldiers had fired on the people approaching the fence. Whether they had been killed, wounded or just warned I had no way of telling. That left it utterly open to the audience to decide what had happened. That’s one of the issues with censorship – it blunts the message and gives free reign to the imagination. A number of possibilities jumped, leaped and clawed their way to prominence in my mind. The soldiers had gunned them down just for getting to close to the fence. Why would that be done? It strongly suggested that the Watchers were beyond strange and mysterious – they were an active threat. Maybe they had manifested some other function when getting near the blockade. I was hard pressed to imagine what that might be. With a few exceptions my Watcher was completely passive, and if anything was capable of being instructed. Hardly a bullet-worthy foe. I’m also quite sceptical of the bias we get through television news, and I had been watching it with just the subtitles, which isn’t exactly the full bandwidth version of events. So I don’t know what I didn’t see and there’s a huge risk of filling in the gaps and believing it’s what we saw. We aren’t that bright, and the least we can do is recognise that and try to combat it. What else could have happened? Maybe the soldiers ordered the group to stop and merely fired warning shots. If so, there wouldn’t be much need to hustle the news crew out of the area, and no need to sever communications for the town.
Okay, so I couldn’t find much positive about what I’d seen. I was also experiencing a powerful sense of rising panic and anxiety. I’m well acquainted with anxiety attacks and can certainly recognise one on its way. Thing is, anxiety attacks for me tend to be in response to internal pressures, not really external pressures. I felt justified in being freaked out by what was happening. I took a quick hit of Salbutamol from one of the inhalers I kept scattered around the flat. For years I’ve failed to remember to transfer inhalers between bags, but when I was twenty they gave me a Diskhaler, which looks awesome with its nautiloid shape. Since then I’ve habitually ordered extra prescriptions so that I have one in every bag I use, one permanently in the bedroom and kitchen plus a couple of spares to cope with my propensity for serial mislaying of any and all useful or important items. It pays off, like when I use bank notes as bookmarks. Sure, it’s an expensive bookmark, but it’s great when you re-read a book and find money in it. I’ll admit that I’ve only found a fiver once and I’m pretty sure there’s about fifty quid distributed between the books on the floor. It’s the principle of the thing. With a fresh hit of asthma drugs and the necessary deep breaths that accompany it I felt a bit calmer, and slightly light headed. I like feeling light headed, it makes the world a dreamier place and lifts me just out of reality for a few seconds. It’s not that great for walking downstairs, but standing or sitting it’s very pleasant.
I swayed in place for a few seconds. My Watcher declined to sway woozily and was still standing alertly in front of the television. I continued the questioning I’d begun.
“So, what are you? I know you’re not some Russian intervention for destabilising the Western regimes. That’s the kind of crap I expect to find on Fox News. You’re not UK military tech, otherwise they wouldn’t be so freaked out. Unless you’re an experiment that got loose and infested a small town that no one cares about. I don’t believe that either. No way have we got the capability to make a rubberised mimic robot.”
It looked at me. I don’t know if it was me looking sceptical, and it copying me but it had an arched eyebrow of disbelief that I normally reserve for meetings at work.
“Alright fine. Well unless you want me to keep guessing, you’re going to have to contribute something.”
Mutely it raised its shoulders in a perfect shrug.
“I’ll give you credit. You’ve nailed denial of responsibility and sarcasm.”
This wasn’t going anywhere. I needed to do something, and do something productive. I’d warded off the anxiety attack, but there was still an entirely reasonable stress binding my stomach and chest. I stretched some more. It helped. What to do? When it’s impossible to make a decision, the worst thing I’ve found that I can do is precisely nothing. The weight of possibility crushes me flat. Eliminating possibilities drags the future and the necessary course of action towards me. It’s also possible to call that ‘delaying the inevitable’. It’s all about how you look at things really. I should finish what I’ve begun.
Katherine’s book case stood freshly assembled and naked. An activity that required zero commitment from me – perfect. I’d stacked Katherine’s books in an unsorted heap of Philippa Gregory, Jasper Fforde and endless hardboiled and other kinds of detective fiction. I don’t know what the sub-genres are called – soft-boiled, bloody, double-yolkers? I don’t know. She loved them all, nearly indiscriminately. I could respect that. I began just stacking them, equally indiscriminately onto the shelves. After a moment my Watcher joined me. It reached out for a book and I slapped its hand aside.
“These are not your books to handle,” I snapped, without thinking. I could feel that massive rush of blood into my chest, panic scrabbling to claim me. I took the book that the Watcher had been about to pick up and hugged it to myself. It was one of the few fantasy books that Katherine had really enjoyed. I guess it was more like steampunk: Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines. A glimpse of the future where municipal Darwinism had moving cities that preyed on each other for survival. It’s bonkers and fun. I’d read it too on her recommendation. It was probably the closest she got to enjoying science fiction and fantasy. Steampunk does have a lot of crossover appeal. It was cool because it was a genre we could talk about and enjoy together rather than just being interested in what the other was reading. I’d liked that. All the Gail Carriger books were there too. Maybe they could all go in together.
My Watcher appeared to accept my refusal of assistance. It still knelt next to me, hands folded in its lap. I relaxed my grip on Mortal Engines and smoothed it out a bit. I had always been impressed by how Katherine had managed to avoid creasing the spines on her books. It intimidated me when I borrowed them. I wasn’t a mad spine snapper or anything – seeing people do that to a book makes me cringe and want to shout at them – but I love reading and part of that it reading while doing anything else: eating, walking, brushing my teeth, sitting in the bath. A certain amount of damage gets added naturally as a result. I do like a nice clean spine on a bookshelf though. Hardbacks usually look good, as long as I’ve been careful with the dustjacket. It’s removed when the book is selected from the ‘ to-read’ heap and as long as I haven’t misplaced it, gets returned at the end and it continues to look beautiful. On the other hand, I made it my business to collect all of John Wyndham’s works about ten years ago and I rather relish the frequently handled state of those books. They’re damn fine stories and I’m proud to have copies which so many other people have enjoyed too.
I was perhaps being over-sensitive. The Watcher had after all helped me put the book case together and it was not unreasonable to help out with filling them. I handed it back the copy of Mortal Engines. The Watcher carefully placed it on the third shelf. I added a handful of other books. It didn’t take long to fill up the five shelves of the book case. It had absorbed a single box of Katherine’s books. The rest of them of course were stacked on the floor around us. I wondered if I ought to put them back in the box until I had sorted out some more shelving. That felt like a backwards step.
I stood up, cursing my knees. I noticed that the Watcher had no such trouble in rising. Newer knees I suppose. I took a couple of steps back on to the cardboard and plastic debris from our assembly so I could appreciate the sight better. The shelves were now filled with a satisfyingly haphazard jumble of authors, genres, book colour, shape and size. It would probably have driven Katherine insane. I allowed myself a smile at the thought. It looked good. It would surely only take another twenty or so book cases to home our books properly. I looked round. Alright, maybe thirty. There was no way they would all fit in here, not even if I filled every inch of wall space. I could divide the living room in two, create a book wall between in it and the kitchen and get another few metres of book cases in. That might work. It would be like living in library stacks. I quite liked the idea.
As I said before, one task at a time. Occupy myself, but not unreasonably. The books were as resolved as they could be for now. Sure, I could tidy the heaps up and reorganise them endlessly, but that was mere prevarication. More usefully I could dispose of the card packaging and bits of plastic. That was something Katherine would have approved of. I tugged my shoes on, selecting one of the many Velcroed pairs, in deference to my Watcher. I couldn’t put it through the lacing process again. The Velcro copying did give it a bit of trouble. Perhaps it hadn’t anticipated that there would be different steps for different shoes. I didn’t know how much it was learning, or how much it was intended to learn. Maybe a single shoe fitting was sufficient, but I had a dozen or so pairs of shoes which all called for some variation in being pulled on. I was kind of curious to see if it would cope if I just tried them all on right now. Focus. Recycling. I bundled up all the cardboard and junk bits together and tried to reach the door handle. There was slightly too much awkwardly shaped card for me to reach. My Watcher leaned past and twisted it for me, pulling it open.
“Cheers. Come on, I’ll show you where the recycling wheelie bin is.”
We all get a wheelie bin each – one per flat. There’s one recycling bin between two of us, which should mean that there are three and a half, but instead there are just three. By common consensus we just filled them all sequentially. That system falls down approximately every other day. Today was that day. The closest one was already full of plastic bottles and cereal boxes. I shoved the bins aside with my hip to get further into the bin corral. Using a well practiced and strengthened index finger I flicked the lid into the air. On a really good day I’d get it to open all the way over, but usually I just got it halfway open and could jam my burden into the gap. Today I got it quite high, up to 90 degrees open I reckon, hanging on the balance of whether it would come down closed or wide open. I didn’t give it the chance to whack me and shoved the cardboard in its maw. I was going to crush it all down when I spotted something odd in the paper waste at the bottom.
It looked like a creepy kids doll. All dolls look creepy. I’ve a particular horror of the ones with the eyes that open and close. I’m baffled by the ones that wet themselves. Porcelain dolls are rightly used in horror to depict that most ghastly breach of innocence. This one though was rubbery, which was disturbing in its own right. Not like a Stretch Armstrong or the weird texture of mid-eighties’ Barbie. It was a pale grubby colour. I laid the recycling on top of one of the other wheelie bins and reached in. As soon as I touched it I knew what it was. The couple on the second floor have a bunch of kids, including a one year old. I’m fairly sure it’s that young, but I do have trouble telling. I’d mostly seen it either red faced and screaming or scrunched up and silent. I plucked the tiny shape out of the bin. It was a tiny Watcher, the sort of size I’d seen in the twin-pram earlier that day. It had been cut in half.
I was horrified. Sure, I’d decapitated and mutilated my sister’s Barbies and Sindys. I never got my hands on Skipper, Sindy’s little sister. Maybe the symbolism of that was striking enough to put me off even as a child. But this was different. The cut was jagged, as if it had been stretched and cut in half with scissors. I was very conscious of my Watcher right behind me. I knew it couldn’t have seen what I was doing. I was concerned about what its reaction to this would be, if it had one, and if it had one that wasn’t just my reaction replicated in its own rubber features. I turned, cradling both halves of the baby Watcher in my hands. My Watcher looked at what I was holding. Earlier I’d noticed that they didn’t watch each other, didn’t really even acknowledge each other when we’d bumped into other people in the street and shops. My Watcher slowly extended its arms. I laid the torn up baby gently in its hands.
The Watcher looked down at the ruined shape it held. It began to vibrate, ripples running through its rubbery substance like ripples in a bowl of jelly when it’s struck with a spoon. The strange blurring of edges I’d observed before resumed, the baby Watcher in its hands wobbling more forcefully. Abruptly the shaking stopped. My Watcher looked directly at then turned, and ran away. I was so surprised that I fell backwards into the cluster of bins. They shifted and gave awkwardly, not quite giving me the support I needed. I slipped amongst them and fell. The Watcher was gone.
I’d no desire to lie in bin juice so I hauled myself back up and ran after the Watcher. I rounded the corner of the at the back of our building and scanned the street in both directions. Nothing. Nothing of my Watcher anyway. Two guys were on the opposite side of the street and stopped to stare at me. Their Watchers turned to face me as well. Further down the road on my side a group of teenagers were doing whatever it is teenagers do now. Wandering around the streets hoping for something interesting to happen. They’d usually be in more luck staying at home and playing video games. I briefly wondered where my PS2 and Wii were. I hadn’t even thought of them since I’d moved here. Maybe I should upgrade at last. That was a thought for later, much later when we could get such things ordered and delivered from online. The teenagers halted as well, their Watchers fanning out around them like a peacock’s feathers. I realised why they were staring. I had no longer had a Watcher.
I waved hesitantly at the men across the road and darted back inside the building. I peered out of the bubbled glass windows. They were useless for detail, but movement drifted across them like a goldfish in its bowl. The men continued on their way and a few heart-racing minutes later the teenagers passed the building too. It seemed like their ghostly white shadows lingered slightly on passing the window, but they didn’t stop for long. This was exactly the kind of excitement I wanted to avoid. And all caused by recycling. I resolved to tidy nothing more that day, and possibly for longer. I’d broken out into the kind of dank sweat that makes your collar greasy and hair feel horrible. I went back into my apartment and locked the door.
I felt alone. The flat was exactly as it had been before, but it was just me in it now. I was still pleased with Katherine’s book case. I even thought about finding a photograph of her and putting it up. A knock at the door scared the life out of me. I froze, while a fresh sheen of sweat broke out. I wasn’t even sure what I was worried about. I hadn’t done anything – I’d been helpful if anything. I wasn’t even sure who I thought I might be in trouble with. The ‘authorities’ obviously, but we were all under their spotlight. There was no reason to single me out. No one had even seen me and my Watcher and the ripped up baby Watcher. I hesitated to say “murdered” even in my head, but I could feel the shape of the word hovering in the background, pressing all the euphemisms forwards, just biding its time. Its time was soon, it crushed simple words like damaged, discarded, broken, lost and emerged in all its blackened iron and blood soaked font, vast and three dimensional. It over powered all the other words and ideas until it stood alone against a red and black sky: murdered.
The thought cast a shadow on everything else. Had I just stumbled upon a murder? Of what? They weren’t people, they were just… shaped like people, on the front anyway, and all they did was watch, and copy. And try to drink tea and help put away books. I realised that at some point I’d flipped around how I saw my Watcher. I’d been treating it like a person. Because that’s what you do – it’s a basic measure of humanity – how we choose to treat others. I’ve been fond of the philosophical puzzles about whether other people are real, or whether they have real feelings or whether they just simulate them to a point where you can’t tell the difference. It’s especially used in arguments about artificial intelligence. What’s the line – when does it become just intelligence? Our superiority complex as humans makes us think that everthing else is not quite as bright or real as we are. It’s obvious bollocks, though that is virtually impossible to prove when your measure is ‘how human is it?’ It’s a stupid standard. What you have to do, morally and ethically if you can’t be sure that the people you speak to are not really unfeeling automata, is treat them as people. If you do, then they’ll respond the way that people do. If it turns out further down the road that they are indeed people, then you’ve granted them some basic respect. If it turns out they’re not real people then you’ve lost nothing because they behaved exactly like people anyway. It’s what beings deserve. I’d begun to apply that same thinking to my Watcher. And now it was gone, fled because I handed it the murdered body of its kin.
The knocking on my door turned into a hammering while I was distracted by thoughts of personhood.
“I know you’re in there. I saw you go in. Come on, open up – I just want to talk.”
It always begins with talking doesn’t it? Those are our stages of interaction: observe, talk, attack. It’s simple. Happens every day. Did I have any way of keeping a confrontation just at talking stage? I didn’t know. How can we – how can we be sure that other people are as rational as ourselves? I realised I was applying the exact opposite logic that I’d just applied for making the dead baby Watcher are murder victim. That was enough to chill me out a little bit. I also recognised the voice. It was my neighbour from the second floor. The one with the children. The one with the baby.
I opened the door.
“Hi,” I tried to avoid both hostility and bland neutrality. It may have been more a squeak than anything else.
“Can I come in?”
She stood in my doorway. I groped for her name. Alison.
“Hi Alison. Um, sure. Come on in.”
I moved out of the way. Alison came in but had to stop almost immediately – because of the books.
“Sorry about the mess. Here,” I shunted a heap of books to one side with my leg, allowing her enough room to high-step into the kitchen. No Watcher followed her. I closed the door and made sure that I locked it. “I’ve been unpacking books.”
Alison looked at me as if I were a slightly hyperactive child, “Yeah, I can see that. It’s a lot of books.”
“They’re not all mine, ” I replied automatically, “well, most of them are. I think. The rest belonged to, um. Katherine.”
“Right.” She said, beautifully noncommittal. An admirable quality.
I couldn’t help looking around for either my Watcher or hers. “So… what can I do for you Alison?”
“I think you know,” she said. This was precisely the kind of conversation I hate. No one making clear what they knew, or suspected, or actually wanted. Just waiting for the other person to make the leap and either clear the gap or fill it with their body. Well, I’m not that person. I waited. It was extremely uncomfortable.
“I saw you in the bin yard,” it might have been the strangest accusation I’ve ever received.
“Fine. Yes. I found it, what do you want?” When pressed I find it difficult not to become defensive. It’s rather like when I’m told I can’t do something. It’s not a trait I would encourage in others and would rather not have myself. But I felt tense, and on the defensive. This was my flat and Alison had invaded it with her words and lack of a Watcher.
“Where’s your Watcher?”
I sighed. “It ran off, after I found the- the baby Watcher in the recyling bin.”
“It’s not a baby,” she snapped, “my baby’s upstairs with my husband and that thing is no longer hovering around him copying everything he does.” She barely suppressed a shiver.
“What about the rest of your Watchers?”
“You only found the smallest,” she stood there, in my kitchen. Defiant but clearly nervous too.
“Jesus fuck, you killed them all?” I blurted, almost shouting. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Her expression flickered between fear and anger. I had no idea which was winning.
“You think it’s normal – to have those things appear in your house, watch your children while they sleep, doing god knows what all night? And then acting like they belong, like it’s okay to just appear and start following people around their home? That’s not normal, that’s not right. We protected ourselves. Who know what they might have been intending to do.”
“So, what. You just cut them up?”
“You can catch them. They’re made of stuff. Who knows what – it’s like soft rubber. It tears easily.” Alison was shaking as she justified herself to me. I didn’t need her to justify herself, but I was judging her. I’d slipped into a peace with my Watcher, a peace she and her husband clearly had not.
“Where are they now?” I couldn’t help but keep asking questions. I don’t think I wanted to know, not really, but it’s like the scary bits in films: I want to hide, but I need to know what’s happened – the horrid jump scare is coming and I’ll hate it, but it’s what the whole damned film is for.
“The bins.” Alison looked at me like I was an idiot. That’s probably fair – where else would they be?
“So why come to me?”
“You don’t have one either – one of those things, and you know what we did.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t kill mine.” I’d crept back through the kitchen as far as I could. I wanted to be as far away from this person as I could be. She’d seemed quite nice before, with her three kids and quiet but smiling husband. I couldn’t remember his name. I wanted to say David, but it seems like a third of all men are called David, so really he could have been called anything. She obviously didn’t know what to do with my statement. I didn’t either. It was awkward. We both clearly felt that something very important, and possibly very serious was happening, and that what each of us had done, or was going to do next would have ramifications.
“Look,” I began, “I’m not blaming you for anything you’ve done. What do I know? I don’t have kids- I’m here on my own. I can totally see how that would be different. I just – I don’t know how long I’m going to be on my own. Do you see what I mean? I don’t know if it’s coming back.”
She attained a paleness that a corpse would have been justly proud of.
“I – I thought you would help.”
“Help? Help with what? We’re all being watched. What do you want me to do?”
“I’m sorry. This was a mistake. I should go.” Alison turned and made for the door.
“Wait – I don’t understand. What’s the mistake?”
“We just wanted to be sure that you wouldn’t tell anyone.” Now she looked terrified.
“I don’t have anybody to tell,” I replied, “I don’t want to tell anyone. I don’t know what it means, that you don’t have Watchers anymore. I don’t want you or your family to be harmed.” I don’t know who I thought would harm them. The Watchers? The government? Who knows. But she was scared. I was scared. I guess everyone was scared – we didn’t know what was going on. All we could do was handle the present, and the people we met in those moments and hope for the best.
“Honestly, really: I won’t tell anyone. I promise.” I was reassuring myself as much as Alison. It felt important that we trust each other. I didn’t know what would happen if I said I was going to tell… someone – the Watcher? I had no way of guessing what the outcome of that would be.
“It’s safer for you, and for me if I say nothing. We can pretend this never happened.” We couldn’t of course – they were upstairs with no Watcher, and who knew what mine was up to. Did they communicate, could they plan, could they act? Why hadn’t I given any of this a thought before?
“I don’t want my children to get hurt,” she began, “I’m frightened. I’m worried that we’ve made a mistake. That we did the wrong thing. It felt like the only thing we could do, but now I don’t know.” I could see why she was scared. They made a decision and went with it. That’s what happens when you commit to action – it gets done, you move forwards. But then you have to deal with what comes next. Making a move without knowing what comes next… well. I’d been avoiding that for weeks.
“I will say nothing – to anyone. Just stay in the flat. If you come out, people will see you have no Watchers. The looks I got standing out front after my Watcher bolted,” I couldn’t repress a shudder, “it’ll be okay.”
I have no idea why I said that. It’s a terrible thing to say. I had no idea if it would be okay. For all I knew the whole town was going to be carpet bombed anyway. I decided not to mention that idea.
“I’m sorry. That’s a stupid thing to say. I hope everything will be okay.”
“Sure,” well, I’d lost her. “I’m going to go now. Thank you, for what you said.”
“I meant it. About not saying anything,” I clarified, keen to prevent further platitudes from escaping my mouth.
She went to open the door, I stopped her. “Look – if you need anything. I don’t know what I can do to help. But if there’s anything I can do – please. Let me know.”
Alison stopped, and turned back to me. It’s awful seeing so much fear in another person’s face. The terrible fear that their whole life was coming apart and could never be the same again. I’d seen it in the mirror after the accident. I couldn’t bear seeing it on someone else’s face. Maybe that’s how we know that we’re all real people – we can see the same pain in each other.
“I, I brought something.” she said, reaching into her pocket. I froze, convinced by a thousand stories that I was about to be shot. She handed me a red ovoid plastic box, decorated in Spider-Man webs, I turned it over to see Spider-Man’s familiar mask. I must have looked sufficiently blank to require an explanation.
“It’s my son’s walkie-talkie. It’s supposed to work over a hundred metres, but that’s rubbish. It works for about twenty feet inside. We’ve got the other one upstairs.”
“If your Watcher comes back, or someone comes into the building please let us know. We’ll have ours on all the time.”
“I can do that.”
She slipped out of the apartment and I locked the door again. I slumped down the back of it and looked at the walkie-talkie she’d given me. Spidey’s cheery face told me that everything was going to be alright.