It had cooled down even more as we came down the steps from the town hall, our Watchers keeping pace with us. So we were the special ones, this few hundred of us, somehow chosen by the alien Visitors to teach them about our world. At least, that’s what they had told us. I certainly felt that I was at peak scepticism and distrust, and suspected that my little gang felt the same way.
The emerging crowd’s mood was more subdued than I reckoned the mayor would have expected. It’s one of the consequences of surveillance. I was keenly aware that we weren’t just being observed by our Watchers, or Visitors or whatever you felt like calling them. Every other lamp post has sprouted cameras some time in the last fifteen years. We were being watched as much by unseen eyes as those we could see. Paranoia is easily fanned by being under scrutiny all day, and justified by the worryingly short list of names that they had prepared. It made me wonder how many houses they had really needed to visit to deliver the flyers. If they already knew who was coming, why the pretence that they were going to deliver them upstairs? It only increased my sense that I, that we were under specific and personal surveillance. The purpose of that surveillance was not clear, but it kept the anxiety about Spider-Man’s dismantled walkie-talkie bobbing in moisturiser bubbling in my stomach. It would be a good idea to get rid of it as soon as possible. I was keen to find out whether the others felt the same. A bit of perspective might make me feel better.
The crowd dispersed quickly. If we were the only people up and about it would be a lonely walk home for most of them. Our little group turned left, and then right.
“This pub,” I began, “is it going to be open?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, if the mobile chunk of the population were all at the town hall this evening, and the rest are basically under home curfew, then who will be running the bar?”
If the landlord or whoever runs it was at the town hall this evening, then it looked like we were going to beat them there. If not, presumably it would be closed.
“That’s a good question. How are all the shops and businesses going to be open if only about five hundred of us are running around? I drive a truck and can’t even drive it anywhere with the fence up.”
“Even if everyone else worked in the shops that’s still nowhere near enough people for a town to run on.”
The meeting had achieved the opposite result to its stated intention. All we had were more questions, doubts and niggling fears. The walk had give us a chance to eye up each other and our Watchers, and to begin getting to know each other. We were going fairly slowly in deference to Annette, and her Watcher Vanessa. It was still a damn sight faster than most people moved in a supermarket though, so I wasn’t about to complain. We had established names by the time we reached the pub. Annette was gratefully retired, but lived alone since her husband had passed away. Vanessa seemed to be a genuine comfort to her and they walked together arm in arm. The denim woman was Rachael, most definitely spelled with the extra ‘a’. She was clear about that, which I liked. There is nothing more irritating than people spelling or saying your name wrong. Rachael worked in the marketing team for the triad of connected theatres and events venues in town. Our conspiracy theorist was an Andy. There’s always an Andy; there is no group of people so small that it cannot contain an approximation of an Andrew. This Andy was cheerfully unemployed, spending a distressing amount of time online and taking plenty of cash in hand computer fixing and web work. The big trucker guy who was sitting behind us was called Charlie, a perfect name for a heavyset middle aged man with a somehow friendly beard. He didn’t seem too upset that he wouldn’t be driving much in the immediate future. The woman with the striking green eyes was Ellen. She didn’t even live in the town, she was just here for a couple of days project managing some tedious sounding IT project. Just bad timing. The arrival of a Watcher in her tiny hotel room had been an improvement on its bland and worn decor.
The pub appeared as we rounded the next corner. The lights were on at least, and the door stood half open, inviting our business. The streets were deserted. Since we had left the rest of the crowd behind I had seen just one police car slowly cruising past in the distance.
“Alright then, ” said Charlie as we all paused hesitantly by the open door, “who’s buying the first round?”
Social graces incited a brief argument about who should get the drinks in, combined with a number of dissenters who just wanted to get their own drink. I resolved the good natured debate.
“I’ll get them. It’s the first time I’ve been out in quite a while and I’m sure I have a Karmic debt of drinks to repay. It’s no problem.”
The others mock-reluctantly accepted my offer. The pub was dead. There were no customers. At first there didn’t appear to be a bar person either. I was quite prepared to pour my own pint. Those summers working in bars as a student still had a chance of coming in handy.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. Why don’t you guys find a table.”
I marched up to the bar, with Ellen and Charlie. As we reached the bar, a woman lurched out of a door that stood between racks of optics and lead into whatever exciting secret spaces lay beyond. I was about to speak to her, but all my words fell away through a hole in the back of my head. We all stopped, Charlie spreading a protective arm in front of Ellen and I. The woman was not walking in a natural way. She was, well – lurching is still the best word for it, as if her body’s movement was forcing her legs to swing underneath her. It was disturbing. She had a weird thick shiny glaze, not the full on Oompa Loompa of someone at a makeup counter in Boots, but as if she had been slathered in Vaseline. As if all of her had been covered in a layer of wax. She rolled up to the bar and leaned over it towards us. We took a tiny step back. Her mouth stretched open and closed a couple of times, creating the shapes of words but not the sounds.
After a moment, she did speak, “what’ll it be then folks?”
It sounded slurred, like someone had dragged those words across a thousand miles to bring them to us. We were all staring at her.
“She’s wearing her fucking Visitor,” Ellen whispered, not nearly quietly enough for my tastes.
“Yes, well, you certainly can have cider,” I said, with huge contortions of my eyebrows at Ellen. She did not come as close to the bar as I stepped up and gave the bar lady our order.
“I’d like a pint of Dashingly Dark, a Tuborg, a pint of any cider that isn’t Strongbow, a vodka and cranberry – double the vodka, a sherry and… make that two pint of Dashingly Dark. Thanks.”
The barmaid stared at me before lurching to the right to find a pint glass. One tumbled to the floor but she managed to hold onto the next one and slammed it onto the tray beneath the pump. She was moving how I think I move when I’m hungover – through treacle with a lag between thought and action. In fairness, the Watcher-clad woman didn’t do a bad job with our order.
I turned to look at my Watcher inquiringly, only to find that it wasn’t by my side anymore. All of our Watchers had congregated a small distance away from Annette’s chosen table. They were clustered around a fruit machine. They showed no interest in the barmaid. Whether that suggested they were expecting it, or understood it I couldn’t tell. To my mind my Watcher looked faintly embarrassed, but when looking at my own face it’s difficult to tell what it might be thinking, if it really thought much of anything. The mayor had talked of them learning and developing a relationship with us. I could see that in my time with a Watcher, and suspected similar feelings in my new friends. Notably all of their Watchers had become distinct, like mine had, with clear and fine facial details, even down to freckles. Charlie’s Watcher had copied his width and beard – it was instantly recognisable. But the Watcher who was on the barmaid (I don’t even know to describe how they were joined) had none of that fine detailing, it was more like it had just been squashed onto her face and body, taking that shape only because the real one was forcing it from within. I had to wonder if this was the fate of those who had resisted – was everyone who hadn’t been at the town hall going to be like this? Enclosed and forced to continue their routine and work. I watched the barmaid through her mask. Her eyes were open behind the Watcher, I could just about make out their colour and shape under the waxy coating. She looked frightened.
The drinks eventually arrived, having suffered a number of glass fatalities. I paid and between the three of us we carried the round to the table. It was in a corner, which I firmly approved of. I hate having my back to a room or worse, a door. It’s unnerving. Especially with the Watchers around. In a corner they almost certainly couldn’t get behind you. That seemed important now, having had both the lack of reassurance from the mayor and now seeing what I thought was the result of non-compliance with whatever was really happening.
Glasses clinked and were attacked with the vigour and intent of people lost in the desert. No one said much until we were halfway through our drinks. Our eyes were on our Watchers and on the Watcher/barmaid who had taken to rubbing at the bar with a cloth.
“So, why are our Watchers all over there then?” I asked.
“Watchers? Is that what you’re calling them?”
“It seemed reasonable. You’ve got to give things names, otherwise you can’t talk about them.”
“‘Visitor’ sounds wrong, it implies some kind of guest or someone who’s here with permission. That wasn’t how I first met mine.”
“I like it. It’s what they do, or at least what I’ve seen them do so far.”
“Yeah, well I think we’re seeing a certain agenda in how the mayor’s lot were describing them. When did anyone invite them in? The mayor was talking as if they knew the Visitors or Watchers were coming but were just surprised it was last night. That sound strange to anyone else?” Andy appeared to be on the same page I was.
“Of course it sounds like bollocks. Doesn’t anyone want to talk about her?” Ellen demanded, pointing with her head at the barmaid.
“That’s fucked up,” said Charlie, “sorry Annette.”
“Good guests don’t do things like that,” replied the elderly lady, “and if they do, then you politely ask them to leave.”
“Yes. Do you think she’s awake in there?” Ellen was still watching the barmaid.
“Well she’s walking around and talking, so presumably yes.”
“You’re assuming the Watchers need the person to be awake to move, but they’re quite strong. Mine built a book case with me…” I tailed off as the group was giving me looks that made me think I might be crazy.
“Um, it helped me to assemble a flat pack from Argos. And it, er, it drank a cup of tea and ate a Pop Tart. Look – I know that sounds a bit odd, but it’s been an odd sort of day.”
“You might need to explain that.”
“It tried to copy drinking a cup of tea earlier on and it just spilled it everywhere. When it tried again later it had a proper mouth and teeth and everything. The tea just – look. Hang on, I’ll get another pint.”
I went back to the bar. The barmaid struggled back over to serve me and I got to see it from behind when it went for another glass to possibly smash. The waxy front gave way to a real person. The jelly mould like shape did only wrap the front half of her body, but it tightly encased all of her joints. Maybe it was clumsy because she was resisting, or because it had never had a full opportunity to watch her do her job. At what point must they have decided there was no point or need to further watch her, and just encased her instead. There were far too many questions. She brought me the second pint. Again, I tried to look into her eyes and see if she really was awake or if I’d just imagined in, but the Watcher was a blunt mask obscuring her.
I took the pint over to where the Watchers were standing. They shifted as I approached, subtly jostling my Watcher to the front. There was none of the diffusion of shape that I’d noticed outside the supermarket – their forms were distinct and clean. They were our forms and looked as unlikely to blend together as we would. It was strange to see them all clumped together as they had at the town hall. I suppose there wasn’t enough space for them to fit with us around the table, and I felt somewhat guilty about excluding them.
“Here you are,” I said, extending the glass towards my Watcher, “I thought you might like one too.”
It took the glass from me, its rubbery arms looked even more solid than they had earlier. My own slight build was replicated in it, and the shapes of my fingers wrapped around the glass I would have. The Watcher regarded the glass with apparent confusion.
“It’s okay. Hang on a sec.” I went back to the table and fetched my drink. I clinked my glass against the Watchers, “cheers.”
It followed my lead, tilting the glass and letting the beer flow into its mouth. The liquid sank into its skin as a black flurry of smoke- it was a dark ale after all. I turned back to the table and raised my glass to them.
“Thanks, ” I told the Watcher, “I hope you enjoyed it too.”
I left the Watcher with the glass in its hand, perdiodically taking a sip from it.
“That’s just weird,” commented Rachael, “mine hasn’t done anything like that.”
“I don’t know why mine has. I mean, I took it shopping because I was going anyway and it seemed much weirder and rude to just ignore it, so we’ve been doing things together all day.”
“So if yours can do that, then these people like the barmaid who have been taken over by their Watchers might not even be awake. Don’t you think we should try to get them out?”
There was a general consensus around the table that something ought to be done, though who ought to be doing it was tricky. It wasn’t likely that the police or council would be very interested in assisting. It seemed much more likely that they were involved, especially since the mayor and her chums hadn’t even had Watchers. Perhaps that meant they weren’t even in the town at three AM and so avoided the connection. And that would mean they certainly knew in advance.
“Come on, we can’t just let her be like that,” pleaded Charlie.
“I, I don’t think it would be wise to do anything drastic,” I said, “I found something this afternoon, with my Watcher.”
I didn’t want to talk too loud. There was no one else in the bar except us and the barmaid, and our Watchers. Even so, the feeling of being watched is pervasive. I told the others about the dead baby Watcher I’d found. I got a mixture of reactions to calling it a baby, but when I described my Watcher’s reaction the others had a little more time for the idea.
“The important thing is what happened afterwards,” I decided to skip the part about talking to Alison, and the walkie-talkie. I was not yet convinced that the Watchers knew everything that happened, and I wasn’t feeling cocky enough to clue them in on everything.
“About an hour later a load of police turned up and dragged the family out of the second floor flat – wife and husband, three kids including a baby. I think they killed their Watchers, and our police turned up to enforce whatever laws now exist. That’s what the mayor was darkly hinting at about not interfering with the Watchers. They’ll lock you, and your children up. They almost arrested me, but my Watcher stood up for me and they left.”
That cheered no one up.
“I think we need to find out what’s going on from someone who is involved,” said Rachael, “we know we’re not getting the full story from meetings like that one. We need to talk to a Watcher.”
“But they don’t talk, not a peep. I don’t think they can. They don’t have the internal bits you need, and they aren’t machines with speakers.” Andy objected.
“I think Ellen’s right – I don’t think the barmaid is conscious, I think the Watcher is borrowing functions like speech when it needs them. It can do almost everything else but it’s wearing them for control and utility.”
“That’s what surveillance is: a tool for instilling fear and control. They take control when they can’t get compliance. Fear is what the mayor and her military pals are using to keep us under control. For some reason we’re interesting enough to the Watchers to not be controlled directly. I doon’t think the mayor is in control. I think the Watchers like us, and they’re willing to protect us, at least to some extent, like they did you with the police.”
“So what’s your suggestion?”
“One of us needs to get inside their Watcher, so we can talk to the Watcher and find out what’s going on.”
Everyone else went quiet. Rachael was wearing a ‘what?’ expression. I smiled.
“Does anyone have a better idea?”
“If we’re going to do this, and I’m in no way saying that I’m prepared to do it, I don’t think we should do it here.”
“No, we don’t know if they talk to each other, or what they’d make of us doing this.”
Tentatively I raised my hand, “I’ll do it.”