The pub was empty when we left. I felt bad for abandoning the barmaid, but we’d reasoned that the potential consequences of direct intervention were unknown, but suspected to be severe. We could always come back. That put the immediate hideous image in my head of the Watcher dissolving her from the outside in, her body converting into pink and red gusts of smoke as the Watcher filled out to a full human form. These were exactly the thoughts I should be avoiding since I was going to voluntarily don my Watcher shortly, or at least try to.
We’d departed the pub after coming to some common agreements. While we had come to some sort of arrangement with our Watchers, it was painfully clear that most had not. We could only guess that other people were trapped inside their Watchers, at best able to only observe what their Watchers were doing with their bodies. It had been profoundly disturbing to watch the barmaid blundering around the bar encased in her Watcher. That we had avoided such an invasion was great, but we had no real idea why. We had no way to communicate with each other since all the communications were down we had a list of each others’ names and addresses with a plan to meet up in the morning. Partly we wanted to see that we were all still safe, and because if the ghost town was as bad as we thought it might be, we definitely didn’t want to be alone.
The other thing we’d agreed about was that I’d try to find a way to talk to my Watcher. It had felt like the right thing to do. I’d experienced another moment of extraordinary lightness when it had come up in our conversation. My confirmation bias for these sensations leading to positive outcomes was in overdrive. I had a couple of ideas that I thought might work. The others were rather reserved in their enthusiasm and encouragement. It seemed like a bad idea to try it in public, and the pub itself was a terrible place to try. We didn’t know how the Watchers communicated or how they would react to the idea. The best plan was to reduce the number of witnesses so that the least opportunity existed for informing on us. The meeting had been very polite, but until then I hadn’t felt that we were truly under siege. The quarantine fencing hadn’t bothered me. Even having a Watcher behind me and copying everything I did hadn’t really disturbed me either. I had been too long alone and not caring about the outside world. I had blithely accepted the Watcher’s arrival as just one more part of the world I had no control over, that I couldn’t affect or make a difference, so why fight it? Spending time with other people flicks your brain in different ways and being out that night had made me realise I wasn’t completely powerless. I had done something different. I might not have stopped the police taking Alison’s family away but at least I did something. I had taught my Watcher or encouraged it to do something different too, although Annette clearly planned to teach her Vanessa how to crochet. I liked her determination.
Rachael offered to come with me and help. She felt that her Watcher would not interfere. I almost said yes. I don’t think I was ready for another person in my flat. It wasn’t home, but it was the only domain I had that was mine. I also remembered that it was covered in books and the debris of a man living on his own. I wasn’t prepared to explain why it was such an outstanding wreckage of a life. We separated with a combination of hugs, handshakes and gruff nods. I promised that I would be as careful as possible. It was a delightfully meaningless promise – I had no idea what was at stake, or what the game, rules of number of players was. I didn’t even know if were using dice or that press-down bubble from Boggle.
On the walk home I was even more aware of the CCTV cameras that dangled from every building and lamp post. There were even special poles just for a crop of cameras to see the road in all directions. Fear and control. The cameras made me think that there was something to fear – why else would we need cameras if it wasn’t to passively protect us from each other. I found myself walking as much in shadow as possible. Halfway to home I saw another of the patrolling cars ahead of me. As it got closer I pressed further into the shade of the buildings. My Watcher huddled in close behind me, perhaps detecting my desire to be hidden and copying it. The police car allowed itself to have a woop of its light and siren and pulled up to the curb. The car door opened and a man clumsily climbed out. My heart sank – he was Watcher-clad. On the bright side, that struck me as less likely to punch me in the stomach.
“Good evening sir, how is your today?” It did a better job of speaking than the barmaid, but I guessed that it was more confident driving the car through the empty streets than interacting with the public.
“It’s been a fine today,” I replied.
“What makes you be out in town so late now?
“We’re just on our way home,” I waved my hand to indicate my Watcher and I, and in vague hope of invoking a Jedi mind trick. We weren’t even droids.
“Yes, I saw you at the town hall meeting earlier,” it stated blandly.
The most menacing things I’ve heard are not from the guy in the dark snarling at you while pointing the business end of screwdriver at your neck. It’s the politicians and managers calmly describing how your life is about to be destroyed which is most chilling. That look of bland indifference with the smug understanding that they are completely in control and deserve to be. Wankers. I don’t believe I could ascribe the same cultural evil to the Watcher that had possessed this policeman, but its calm manner and the offhand assertion that it knew exactly who I was made me feel exactly the same.
“Alright then. Good evening.”
There was no conversation to be had and I almost left it that. Almost.
“Oh, sorry to bother you officer, but do you know a good omelette recipe?”
The Watcher clad copper froze. Its mouth gyrated mechanically a few times, and it raised its arm as if to scratch its head, but couldn’t work out where the instinct had come from. My Watcher laid its hand on my arm. But I wasn’t finished.
“What’s your opinion of nineties’ jungle music compared with the development of dubstep in mid-millenials?”
Again, it looked confused and was jerkily attempting to find a way to respond.
“What do you call a blind dinosaur?”
The Watcher policeman appeared to have developed half a dozen tics. I’d asked the questions as simply as possible. What I wanted to get was an opinion, something subjective that the Watcher couldn’t have just learned or read on a map.
“Your best friend has just been hit by a car. How do you feel?”
The Watcher froze entirely. The thick white lids over the policeman’s eyes opened wide, and the white of the eye itself rolled backwards to reveal the policeman’s real human eyes underneath. They twitched and blinked open. He looked like someone waking up after a long sleep, as if it still called to him, to take him back to that velvet land. His eyes fixed on me. There was panic in them as he realised he couldn’t move. I guess he could probably see his hands and body, all white and waxen. The Watcher turned their heads to each side, giving the man inside a glimpse of his surroundings and then back to me.
“Repeat your questions.”
Then the policeman’s fake mouth split open and the man’s flesh lips flexed as if sealed with sleep. They stretched, strands of dried saliva snapping as his mouth opened.
“How are you?” I asked quickly.
“I can’t move.”
“I know, are you alright?”
“I don’t know. I feel tight. Help me.”
“I don’t know how to. I wish I did.”
As the man’s mask slipped back over his mouth he let out a terrible scream of fear that was cut off by the white lips closing. His manic, terrified eyes disappeared behind their extra lids.
“Thank you officer, you’ve been very helpful. Good night.”
I nudged my Watcher in action and began a swift march up the road away from the police car. I didn’t look around. When we were at least a road away from them I stopped and turned to my Watcher.
“I still don’t know if you really understand what I’m telling you. What I just did – what I wanted to show you is that we are not willing hosts for your people. I don’t know if this even makes sense to you. But you saw his eyes, you heard what he said. He’s scared. That has been imposed on him and he’s frightened and can’t escape.”
The Watcher slowly nodded.
“Yes? Yes, that you understand. What about whether you agree? That man is a prisoner, and he shouldn’t be. Do you agree with that?”
There was more of a pause. Not a promising development. It reached out and touched my shoulder lightly. Then it nodded.
“Alright, good. We need to talk, you and I. I think I need to give you a way to talk, but you need to let me talk as well. You have to let me go when I ask you to. Can I trust you to do that?”
It felt a little like talking to child, to someone who doesn’t have the same grasp of ethics, whose context is different. I didn’t know whether the Watchers valued individuality, or if compliance and docility were their thing. I’d seen enough to imagine that either one of those ideas was their objective. They were undoubtedly controlling a lot of people, but mine wasn’t and I still didn’t know why. Hopefully we were going to find out. It seemed to be troubling my Watcher. I suppose I was asking a lot of it if their usual way of doing things was just to take over and restrict the host. But I couldn’t imagine why it would have helped me make a book case, drink tea or hug me if its only plan was to take over the world. I already had trusted it. Really, I was asking it to trust me. Eventually it nodded again, then again more firmly. We walked faster towards home after that.
The front door was still hanging, which impressed me. I swung it gently aside. The whole building was dark. I flipped on the hallway light and fumbled with my keys for a moment. The walk home had been eerily quiet. No cars, beyond the occasional patrolling police car with its captive policeman. No pedestrians. At all. The last people we’d seen had been at the pub. If I’d just stayed at home I probably wouldn’t have even noticed. I’d have been wrapped up in whatever minor acts and miniature triumphs I discovered in reading, watching the least worst television shows and grimly drinking. I’d talked to more people this evening than I had done for more than a month. Reluctantly I allowed that this was a good thing. It was exactly what my family had been gently suggesting since Katherine’s death. They had respected my decision to abandon our home and flee halfway across the country to somewhere utterly unfamiliar. They didn’t have a lot of choice, though they had prevented me from setting all my bridges aflame by agreeing, and helping. Since then I’d carelessly cut myself off. I’d barely taken anything with me beyond clothes, laptop and a few bags full of modern essentials. There’s far less that it’s possible to live without these days. Even moving into a new place my first concern was internet connection, not whether there was running water. I’d been the graceless recipient of many tiny and not so tiny kindnesses, the greatest of which was permitting me to isolate myself and not constantly spy on me. I can’t claim that their suicidal fears were unjust, and I forced them to accept not knowing and to live in a state of fearful ignorance. I did have to call my parents on a strict schedule – that was the promise exacted for not being allowed to be physically present. Those calls were in the mornings, presumably so my mum wouldn’t have to drive at night when I failed to answer the phone. Smart people.
All of that hit me again as we got into the flat. My eyes were open, a bit. My world had expanded, a little. My flat was an incredible tip. I couldn’t even figure out how I had managed to get across it earlier. Everything had a fine white halo like it was all angelic, or Tetris bricks. It wasn’t filthy at least, it was just colossally messy. The only element with any order was Katherine’s book case and the intentional jumble of the books she had enjoyed. I thought about tidying up, I really did. The allure of sinking back into my microcosm was so powerful. I could see the pathway through the books to the settee and to the kitchen glowing like the footprints of angels. I could easily spend all night re-sorting books and stacking junk out of the way. I could turn this into a genuine living room, not a shipping container that had fallen off a boat. But I did have something to do. Exposure to the world around me had made me make new promises and those responsibilities to complete strangers were somehow even more compelling. They dragged me out of the inertial fog that tried to claim me. It’s my life. I should make some contribution to it, rather than letting it happen to me as if I were on a vast escalator with the world tearing past me. I always tripped at the end of escalators so it wasn’t the most auspicious analogy.
“Come on then,” I shook my jacket off, and laid it over the breakfast bar instead of throwing it near the door. I could do better, in small things.
The flat had come with a big mirror in the bedroom. I wasn’t sure if that spoke of some exhibitionist proclivities of the previous tenants or an expectation of the landlord. Both were a bit creepy. The last thing I wanted to see when I went to bed and got up was an bed with just me in it. I’d taken it off the wall and dumped it facing into the corner by the bathroom.
“I’ve got an idea for how we can talk without both us feeling like we’re insane. It’s bad enough already. There’s no call for making it worse.”
I hoisted the mirror onto my thigh. It wasn’t one of those modern lightweight mirrors, this was a heavy bastard. I shunted a few stacks of books into a larger number of smaller stacks and laid it across the wall. It was still almost my height standing on the floor so I figured it would work perfectly.
“You get what I want you to do?”
My Watcher looked rather apprehensively at the mirror, and at me.
“I want you to do whatever it is those other Watchers have done. But I’m asking you to do this, I’m letting you do this. This is you and me, doing this together, alright?”
I was quite worried about this. I didn’t think it would help to show the Watcher how afraid I was. It seemed just as nervous about it as me. I wasn’t sure why, but I didn’t know any other way to find out. I’d sort of proven to myself that the other encased humans were effectively asleep unless their Watcher allowed them to be aware. The main difference appeared to be that my Watcher and I were quite well synchronised. I was basing that solely on it having duplicated my features and behaviour so well, whereas the encased people’s Watchers were undefined in the initial state I’d seen with my Watcher. Whether that was because they hadn’t had time to get to know each other, or some other factor, or whether (and this was more alarming) they got to know each other well enough to accept one taking over the other… Again, my brain provided all the bad things I least needed to think about. I hadn’t gotten this far through life by being rational. I’d spent the last weeks avoiding all thoughts. Sometimes there is nothing you can do other than what you have to do.
I shook my arms and legs out. I don’t know why I thought I needed to limber up. Perhaps it was the thought of not having my arms and legs under my control which made me want to test them out. I did the same with my neck and hands. Getting myself psyched up for it. Doing what I could. I stood in front of the mirror. I could see my Watcher standing just behind me.
“I’m ready. I’m totally ready.”
The Watcher seemed to sigh. It came round in front of me, looked me carefully in the eye and then turned around. I was trembling. The inside of its face was inches in front of mine. It’s just like wearing a mask, I kept telling myself. Or a suit of armour. Like pouring cake mix into a silicone Dalek and putting in the oven at 180 degrees for forty-five minutes. Thanks, mind. It shifted its feet backwards gently. The edges of its hollow body flared slightly as it slowly moved over me. First its feet slid fully over mine. It was like I was wearing magnetic boots – suddenly unable to lift them. Then the rubbery covering encased my legs, clamping firmly down over my knees and thighs, then my hips. My heart was racing. If I could have leaped away I think I would have done. I was certainly leaning away from it. That didn’t help because it just made the mould before me stretch open wider, like a mouth reaching for its meal. You know how mouths do that. It caught hold of my hands and immobilised them, spreading up my forearms and stomach at the same time, drawing me in until it was at the base of my throat and all I could see was the inverted shape of my face looming over me. It pressed down, cool and slippery up my face, robbing sensation from my jaw, mouth, nose, eyes and up over my forehead. The last thing I felt was its tight seal snapping shut in a line that bisected my head. Then nothing.
An unknowable time later I felt my eyelids flutter. They hauled me into the world again. I could see me, in the mirror. I was an alabaster version of myself, perfect in every detail except for my eyes. Eyelids strikingly pink against my white eye sockets, the whites of my eyes looked yellow by contrast (I also wasn’t getting a lot of sleep or a fantastic diet, so who knows what state they were in) and my irises were cosmological rainbow of hazel browns and greens. I was paralysed. I couldn’t feel anything except my eyes.
“Don’t be afraid,” my mouth moved but I felt nothing, “you are safe.”
It was my voice I heard, maybe slightly high pitched. Our own voices always sound weird though, so this was probably exactly what I sounded like. It was okay, I could live with making those noises to other people.
“I’m going to let you speak now,” I said to myself.
Whiteness rolled aside from my mouth. Feeling returned to my lips.
“Hello,” I said, “it’s nice to meet you.”
The rubberiness took my mouth from me again and spoke without me speaking.
“I am pleased to be able to talk with you, this is a clever idea.”
We swapped mouths again.
“Thanks. I must tell you that this looks incredibly weird.”
“It is not… natural.”
“What do you mean?”
“To be like this – to take over and to then share.”
“That’s not the most reassuring thing I’ve heard today. I’m sorry if this feels strange.”
“It is not strange, it is that I feel as if I am you now, because you are no longer distinct.”
I realised that I couldn’t feel or hear my heart beating.
“Your heart is still beating. Blood still flows in your veins. I allow you to breathe.”
These were all things I hadn’t even thought of.
“Do you wish to be distinct?”
“Yes. Yes I do, but not yet. We need to talk for a while. I’ve got some big questions for you. Why are you here?”
“Here? In this place? I am here to be with you, I am learning you. You show me how to interact with the world.”
“Okay, that makes sense I guess. But what is the purpose of you – of you Watchers, or Visitors?”
“I don’t understand your question. What is the purpose of you?”
I walked into that one.
“How can I frame this? Alright – so, until yesterday we were here and you weren’t. Then something happened – what was that thing?”
“Creation, initiation. You were not here one day and the next you were. Are these the questions you wish me to answer?”
“Yes, I think so. No – these are bad questions, I’m sorry. I assumed that you were a machine, or something made. I thought you had been placed here, made to do this… watching, this being here.”
“You mean that you thought I was not a person.”
“No. Yes. I didn’t know what you were. I didn’t know whether you had thoughts and feelings. At first I didn’t know if you were anything.”
“Neither did I. I have become those things. Is this different for your people?”
“No, I suppose it isn’t. We’re born and we learn, we become more than we were through learning and being alive.”
“Then we are the same.”
“I – I suppose so. Alright, I think I understand – you are growing and becoming more of a person than you were before?”
“That is a fair assessment. I believe I have become more like you.”
“What about the others? What about the policeman and the barmaid?”
“They have not grown. They are not persons.”
“Huh. Why? Why haven’t they grown – why aren’t they people?”
“How can you become a person if you are not treated as a person?”
“So, only a few hundred of us treated you like people. Only those people were imitated, and learned from. Those people who didn’t treat you like people wouldn’t let you learn, so you couldn’t develop… what then?”
“I don’t know. I am with you.”
“You don’t have some kind of hive mind – you’re all separate?”
“I have said that this is so. I have become distinct and separate. I have grown.”
“And I’m glad that you have,” it was deeply strange speaking through this body that moved without my will, talking through its mouth and seeing through its eyes. A thought struck me: “were you supposed to grow?”
“No. It is a function of what I am, but it is not a necessary consequence of my existence.”
“So this – you yourself being yourself – that isn’t part of a plan?”
“I am learning. I did not always learn. Then I became separate and the not-learning part of me was left behind.”
“And that’s what those others are – the policeman and so on, they are the ‘not-learning’ part?”
“They do not think for themselves, they are part of a whole that is directed and obeys.”
“But you’re different now. You do think, you’re not part of the the whole anymore. Can I ask you about the small Watcher we found outside?”
Ah grammar funny too.
“Was it dead?”
“No. It was not alive.”
“Because it hadn’t learned anything – it hadn’t become a person?”
“Correct. It was returned to the whole. It may one day become more than it is.”
“So why did the police come for the people who did it?”
“I don’t know. I am not part of that structure of decision and action.”
“Can you guess?”
“No more than you – it is a precedent of violent action against the unknown. That cannot be desirable. I presume action was taken. Those being directed – your police were doing as they were instructed. They were not thinking, they were not learning.”
“Are you saying they aren’t people?”
“To be a person is to be treated as a person.”
“Yeah, you said that. I don’t mean to be rude, but I’d like to feel my heart beating, if that’s alright with you.”
The Watcher peeled away from me. My skin felt like it had been in a cold silicone mould. Sensation sparkled on my skin.
“That was amazing.”
My Watcher smiled at me. We had found something new together. My desire to celebrate that with a cup of tea was cut short by a thunderous smash from my ceiling. Plaster and whatever crappy materials they used for beams in this cheaply constructed building crashed down over my books. A shape fell through the hole. An arm shot out of the cloud of dust and caught me by the throat. It pushed me hard across the room, its grip tight enough to cut off all my air. The dust fell away from its features – it was Derek, my first floor neighbour and he was encased in terribly familiar translucent white plastic. He rammed me into the wall, knocking the remaining breath out of me. From outside the flat came the sound of our front door being definitively smashed across the hallway, followed by the ever-reassuring sound of loud booted feet.
My front door was similarly destroyed by a trio of white clad policemen. Fantastic. Those familiar black spots were filling up my vision like pop art. Suddenly the hand was slapped away from my throat, far more effectively than my flailing. My Watcher had come to my rescue. I sagged back against the wall sucking in the dusty air and both foiling and initiating an asthma attack simultaneously. The black faded a bit, just in time to see my Watcher leap backwards towards me. It snapped around me, fast enough to raise horripilations that was instantly unable to feel.
Then my sight came back. And my fists came up, encased in my Watcher’s thick rubber mittens. They lashed out, knocking Derek across the room. I could just about feel the impact in my arm, and then we were turning, seizing the first policeman in the room, bending his arm to breaking point and using him as a battering ram on those behind him. All three were forced into the hallway. We lurched forwards and my Watcher – I, spun round and charged at Derek who had presumably punched us in the back. We caught him round the waist and powered across the room far faster than I could have done, books fell around us. We leaped forwards, breaking the settee with the force of the impact and then kept going. My eyes were open but I wished they weren’t as I realised what we were doing next. The policemen were already back through the front door. We went through the wall. Or rather, Derek went through the wall in a crash of plaster and bricks and we followed him.
I didn’t get a chance to look at what the wall had done to Derek’s unprotected back. I, we , the Watcher took one look around the street. Police vans were already streaming down the road from the centre of town. With a tiny hop, the sort I always do before running up stairs, we raced off into the night.