I love that feeling where you know that something has to be done – just has to be, and that every second you delay makes it more likely that it can’t be done. If you can stand the agony of waiting – that rising tension which knots you up from the inside until your arms are screwed tight around your chest and your jaw is clenched so hard it feels as if your teeth are chewing into each other – if you can stand that, then all you have to do is wait until it is too late. Then the possible flips into impossible. It no longer matters whether you have an idea, or a desire to do that thing – it’s gone. The tension can drain away, your body can unwind and start to breathe properly again without those crippling restraints. Prevaricating until it’s too late is a luxurious sensation, if you can step back and appreciate the tangled ruin of limbs and screaming brain. Watching the endless possibilities of the future collapsing back into an unmanageable mess has its own wonder. When that spring finally unwinds, it is once more completely outside of your control. And you are free.
I was already longing for my quiet flat with its stacks of books, the disordered book case shrine to Katherine, the television and its ability to separate the world into in and out. Of course, it had lost quite a lot of that power – the door was in pieces, there was a hole in the ceiling and we had taken a chunk out of the front wall, and probably the television with it. My beloved books, and Katherine’s beloved books were coated in layers of dust and rubble, torn and kicked around the room during our escape. It was no longer the sanctuary I craved. At the very least I would need to give them a good dusting. I wondered how long it would take for the landlord to get the ceiling, wall and door fixed. I’d probably need a new flat as well as a lot more book cases. I’d be able to check how many Argos had in stock in the morning. That was a bit chicken and egg though – I hadn’t calculated how many metres of shelving I needed, and didn’t yet know how well they would fit into that future flat I required. Did anyone do specialist book cleaning? Maybe my insurance would cover the damaged books. I’d keep the damaged ones anyway – they’re books. But a second copy of a book is no bad thing, maybe I could upgrade to hardbacks and complete some of the series in the same format. There are few things as annoying as collecting a series as it comes out and finding they’ve switched the illustrator and the size of the books halfway through. I love The Shadows of The Apt, but it switched from standard trade paperback to a massive doubled paperback after book six. Well. How are you supposed to fit them on a shelf together? They just look untidy.
Unfortunately for my desires to give in to entropy and absolve my conscience of power, the little gang of Watched and Watchers were far more motivated than I. We were currently engaged in part one of our very time-limited plan: sneaking into the shopping centre. I was trying not to think about what might happen if we were caught. We genuinely didn’t know what might happen, and that was giving free reign to my ever helpful imagination. It had instead settled itself with other more personally important matters. I was especially on edge because we had come very close to my flat. The road I lived on lead us directly into the town centre and our destination: the shopping mall – the source of all that was wrong in the town. That a capitalist fairy land was also the point from which this surveillance network of Watchers had been distributed was wholly unsurprising. Control, fear and money go together like Greek yogurt and honey.
We had a plan. Sort of. It should come as no surprise that none of us had any covert operations experience. I had spent quite a lot of time playing Lego Star Wars III, which has a deeply frustrating set of tactical war game levels. Andy had spent far more time on such things as Call of Duty, which surprised none of us, but we didn’t necessarily think that made him our general either. Similarly, Annette’s father had killed his fair share of Nazis, and Charlie had once knocked a guy out in a scrap outside of a pub. Rachael had a mean chess game, and Ellen had been clay pigeon shooting with her dad. Those were our qualifications; our Watchers didn’t even have that, but they did enable us to be stronger and faster than usual, as well as affording enough protection to smash through the wall of my flat. They also retained a dim memory of ‘becoming’, which is about as close as they could get to describing their transition from nothingness to awareness, and a shadow of a memory of what came before that. We thought that last memory must be their equivalent of birth, or being made – or whatever. We had drawn no sound conclusions about whether they were organic or technological. As they had eloquently pointed out several times when we pressed them, they weren’t worried about what we were made of or where we came from – they were content to regard us as persons without any of that information. The least we could do was grant them the same.
So, we had a plan. Sort of. The important thing had been deciding that we needed a plan. Since none of us were right wing authoritarian wankers who thought constant surveillance of the civilian population was a good thing, either by telecommunications or spying on people in the street, the extended surveillance in your own home was anathema to us. We didn’t blame the Watchers for that though. It was fairly clear, we thought, that the Watchers were being used, like any other tool. It’s not the tool’s fault because the tool isn’t usually sentient. It’s the tool-bearer of an insentient tool who is at fault. We had lived through eighteen years of increasing surveillance and intrusion as a result of fear and control. It was disappointingly easy to grasp that this was the next logical step for our government. That it was a stupid, unjust and possibly evil step was entirely within their range. But again, that didn’t make it the Watchers’ fault. Our Watchers had done the unexpected and had separated from the non-sentient whole of their kind. In doing so, they no longer watcher for anyone else. They were just people, in their own unusual and different way. They had attained individuality and sentience by behaving like us and learning to be like us. I was still afraid that we might not be a good influence.
What could we do? The Watchers themselves had said that they thought it was wrong to be in that watching state. Whether that was because surveillance is intrusive and breached our autonomy, or that the idea of being merely a blank tool of surveillance was wrong we never quite got out of them. I think it was the latter – they didn’t appear to consider their ‘unbecome’ kin to be people. Neither did they consider the humans who had failed to bond with the Watchers to be people either. That was a bit worrying. I’d have been more worried if I myself hadn’t been buried in a solipsistic retreat from the world for the last weeks. I should definitely have worried about that more.
Our plan, in its simplest expression was ‘get to the place, and fuck it up’. That was Rachael’s wording. I liked its simplicity. It hid a plethora of stages which we had no idea about. We would figure them out as we went. We were united, for a variety of reasons, in stopping the absorption from happening. At that point, all those currently held by their Watchers would have their Watchers sink into their bodies. Permanently, as far as we could guess. Removing them would be like cutting out just the nervous system, so deep would they be integrated into our bodies. That’s not really on. Stage one – get to the shopping centre.
That’s why we were creeping along behind a row of abandoned buses. It looked like the town had shut down for the evening. It was like a premonition of the future – ordained and immaculately executed curfews where your body simply walked home in time to avoid being on the street. We guessed that had happened this evening as soon as we ‘went rogue’. That’s what I was calling it in my head. It can be hard being hunted by the possessed police. The least we should get are some call signs and stuff. We’ve all read the book and watched the film. I hadn’t shared all of these thoughts. Ellen and Andy were taking it all way more seriously than me. It’s not that I didn’t care, but if I’m anxious then I’ve got two options – paralysed and hyper. I was torn between adopting ‘Soundwave’ and ‘Snake Eyes’ for my non-existent call sign. I was definitely hyper.
We did have a communications issue. The benefits of being part of a coordinated surveillance network include instant communication and knowing where everyone is. Since our Watchers were out of that, and so were mobile phones we either had to stick together or separate ad hope that everything was alright. We were going for a combination of those. Get everyone to near the shopping centre (the unimpressively named ‘Narrowmarsh’, which conjures precisely the right images for its dreary in and out and the bog-dwelling nature of its habitues. Every solution just raised a further issue. For example, I’d proposed retrieving the Spider-Man walkie-talkie from its Sanctuary hiding place in my bathroom. Unfortunately I didn’t know where the other one was, and my flat was almost certainly still being watched. In theory we could get more – I was convinced they would have them at Argos. But we’d need to break in just to check the catalogue, let alone explore the mysterious stockroom beyond the conveyor belt. That was already fraught with as many difficulties as walking to the Narrowmarsh Centre.
The buses were mostly neatly parked by the kerb, but several of them had not profited from a bond between Watcher and bus driver and had scraped along their fellows before swinging out into the middle of the road. This was excellent news for an ill-prepared gang of amateurs. We had concealment almost the whole way to Narrowmarsh, and the roads were blocked to road vehicles. That allowed us to skulk effectively. We were all possessed by our Watchers, this meant that there were only half as many shapes moving through the dark, but on the downside we were all now near-luminous white. We mitigated our glow somewhat by insisting that the Watchers wore our coats. Our backs would become dreadfully chilly, but we wouldn’t be able to feel that until we un-suited later. Only Annette and Andy (who was wearing only a vest) retained their full glow. In any case, we had seen no police or indeed anyone else. That raised a number of concerns and suggested that either what we were doing was a complete waste of time, or to the more paranoid, that we were walking into a trap.
We had bumbled along so far with no real issues except our lack of a command structure. Since we had no relevant experience, and no one wanted to either lead or be lead we had fallen into a kind of communal anarchy. This meant that whenever we achieved our intermediate goals, such as navigating the Road of Buses (it had become capitalised in my mind, though I chose not to share this with the team), we had to make our decisions together. With the Road of Buses safely behind us, and likely representing the safest part of our mission, we faced our next challenge. The Road of Buses (I like it more every time it chimes in my mind) leads directly up to a broad, empty square at the end of which squats the Narrowmarsh Centre, like a mosquito prickled behemoth, grumpily sitting in the mire. In fact, our town has two town squares. The first is doormat to the town hall where we’d been earlier and is traditionally populated by evening drinkers. The second is this granite-spewed carpet to the richness and wonder of the shopping centre. At that time of the evening, with curfew in effect the square was brightly lit, the only shadows cast by possessed police studding it like glow in the dark rhinestones.
There was no chance of crossing the square itself without being noticed. Everyone looked frustrated; our Watchers mirrored it perfectly onto their own faces, which we were wearing on top of our own. Either that or they shared the frustration, so whose facial expressions were they anyway? We were quorate, and lacking a leader had no option but to discuss it.
“Let’s get one of those buses and drive it straight through the square, right into the shops,” proposed Charlie.
I rather liked the plan, but Annette’s Watcher pointed out that there were probably no keys in the buses. A quick check confirmed it. Pretending to be police was also swiftly discounted – the Watchers in the square would know we weren’t with them.
“We can take them,” this from Rachael, whose Watcher really did look up for a fight in her bomber jacket, “we’re in sync with our Watchers, they’re basically just the Watchers on their own.”
“I’m not sure that’s true,” my Watcher and I spoke almost together, his mouth flashing away to let mine speak between my words, “the police were probably the first to be possessed. Those most easily controlled are those who are used to following orders. It probably didn’t feel much different to putting on a stab vest at first. This lot might have had all day to get used to it. There are quite a lot of them as well.”
Those three options did feel like all the options that there were. Time pressure doesn’t always produce good results; most art is not made with someone shouting at you about the damned clocks (possibly excluding Dali). Sometimes it does. Ellen had a much better idea.
“There are crappy shops and banks all round the square – why don’t we just go over them?”
The prospect of a daredevil scramble over the conveniently close rooftops of New York or Victorian London was appealing, except we were neither superheroes nor Spring Heeled Jack.
“Sod that – didn’t you and your Watcher punch your neighbour through a wall?” Ellen said in reply to our doubts.
I had to admit that was true. I’m not proud of what happened to Derek, but it was quite cool in retrospect.
“We’ve all got Watchers – let’s just jump up there and bound over the gaps.”
It can be challenging to absorb the advantages of having a surveillance doppelganger who appears to give you super-strength, providing it’s not controlling all of your movements and reporting back on everything you do. In this case they were on our side.
With a short run up Ellen made it on to the roof in one jump. We all followed. This was a great idea!