Constantly paying attention is very tiring. We were just twitchy, which isn’t quite the same thing. At least we weren’t US fighter pilots hopped up on amphetamines taking pot shots at Canadian tanks. Shadows and distant closing doors made us jump, but did nothing to improve our focus. It’s very hard to keep that up through a seemingly endless maze of identical corridors. I was expecting to find a race of troglodytes descended from retail workers who had gotten lost decades ago.
For all of Narrowmarsh’s modern looking exterior, the bowels of the place were as shitty as you would expect. A constant smell of damp, poorly concealed behind whitish paint and a lack of care, strip lights with a tendency to flicker in the distance whenever you looked around and occasional mystifying signs reinforced the sense of unreality that had begun when Andy got impaled in the office. Being inside what were effectively intelligent jelly moulds whose contact deadened our tactile senses and made our physical actions distant further softened our grasp that the world was real. It must be like what virtual reality gaming will one day be, fully immersive but with a feeling that nothing can really hurt you. It’s dangerous if the situation you’re in is in fact real and danger is literally waiting around the next corner.
We were following the signs that should lead to the ‘central resource warehouse’, whatever that meant. It sounded like a big room and in the absence of usable intel (it’s rare to have the opportunity to put thousands of pages of spy novels to good use) we were following our own special brand of logic, intuition (which is just logic and connection without realising you’ve thought about it) and the unreliable early memories our Watchers had retained through their becoming; their awakening as people. So far it had gotten one person badly injured and left them and two other behind to guard him. We were down to three. Or six, depending on how you looked at it. I was trying hard not to think about what shape Andy might be in by now, and whether the three of them were managing to fend off the attentions of the possessed police. There was little we could do about that. Once more I resented the loss of communications that would have either settled our nerves or sunk us into despondence. This far underground it wasn’t likely mobile phones would even have a signal. So I should have just focussed on what we were doing – if we were successful then Charlie, Annette and Andy would be saved by default.
The grim white corridors gave way through a pair of fire doors to even grimmer breeze block walls and cement flooring. The strip lights were replaced by those wire-guarded lights people put on the backs of their houses or in suspicious mines. Damp traded down to dank. For the first time the sound of voices reached to us, echoing reluctantly down the halls. At least we hadn’t been going in completely the wrong direction. We moved a little quicker, even lighter on our feet, even though we could barely feel them through the connection with our Watchers. Rachael rounded the corner first. She fell suddenly to the ground as a burst of gunfire boomed in the tiny space. Guns? We didn’t expect them to have guns. Why would we? You only see guns in the hands of police around Crown Court, occasional train stations and airports. Rachael wriggled back round the corner. We pulled her up and checked her over. There were no holes in her or her Watcher, but the breeze block wall was looking quite sad.
Guns were a good thing, sort of. It was confirmation that we were in the right place. No one hangs about in an underground corridor with a gun for no reason. Rachael’s Watcher filled us in on the details, having been better placed than Rachael in her understandable panic to remember what they had seen.
“Two men, in green and brown camouflage clothing,” the Watcher began, before being interrupted by Rachael,” which is pointless down here. They should have gone with bureaucratic grey.” Her Watcher continued, “they are guarding another set of double doors. We saw flashing lights through the security glass panels.”
“Okay, so we’ve got no idea what that flashing light is, but if it’s worth guarding then it’s probably where we need to be.” Ellen confirmed my thinking.
“Soldiers are a bit of a step up from the local bobbies. Were they possessed?” I asked.
“No, they appear to be ordinary humans.”
We could hear the very soft tread of at least one of those soldiers sneaking up on us, which is totally unfair. Actual military were another problem. Not only were they presumably much better trained for fighting and guarding than the police but they also weren’t hampered by an imperfect bond with Watchers. That gave us a slight advantage in strength and speed which we would need to optimise. We had no weapons, still. We did have two nearby fire doors and a fire extinguisher. I was fairly sure I remembered the routine from the A-Team, and if it had worked for a completely bloodless action comedy television show, I saw no reason why it wouldn’t work for us.
Rachael and I tore the doors off their hinges and held them up as shields in front of the three of us. Ellen had the fire extinguisher.
The racket we made appeared to have given the creeping soldiers pause, but since we didn’t know exactly where they were we had no choice but to rely on our advantage. It isn’t likely that the two soldiers were expecting us race round the corner in a cloud of carbon dioxide smoke stuff and batter them to the ground with doors. It worked – thanks Hannibal. I don’t know what we must have looked like coming out of the smoke – white warriors with shields taller than we were. The element of surprise remained with us as I slammed into the first soldier, knocking him bodily into the wall where I hit him a few more times until he fell over and didn’t get up. Rachael managed to smack her guy into the ground by jumping forward with the door poised over his head. One of them got a couple of reflex shots off, removing the corner of my fire door and scaring the crap out of me.
We thought about taking the guns, but apart from Rachael’s clay pigeon shooting and my mastery of Duck Hunt on the original Nintendo Entertainment System we had no idea how to use them. It was much more likely that we’d shoot each other by accident than someone we intended to hurt. That was another issue we had avoided talking about. we didn’t know if we were going to have to hurt anyone. Certainly none of us dyed in the wool assassins. I mean, I’ve got a long list of people who I’d cheerfully see on fire or punch in the face, but going beyond a mental list to really hurting someone is another massive leap. If we took the guns we would increase the likelihood of hurting someone without necessarily making it more likely that we would be successful. It had been exciting taking out the soldiers though. Ellen checked that they were still breathing. Their respiration was a relief. We did the next best thing to taking their guns: smashing them. That was also very satisfying.
The doors had worked out very well as combination shield and blunt instrument. Ellen had almost emptied the fire extinguisher, but it still made a handy hunk of metal and should make an amazing thonk as it hit someone, to judge from the films. On we went. Lights were strobing crazily through the doors that the soldiers had been guarding. Someone must have heard the gunshots, but as yet we were unchallenged. Showing a degree more caution than before we pushed the doors open with our own fire doors. Inside it looked like a horrible night club. One of those places where the owners think that the stripped back concrete and visible ventilation system is really cool. It’s not – it looks awful, it’s cheap, oppressive and difficult to keep clean. Idiots. The strobes made it hard to see what was in here with us. The centre of the room held a complicated array of metal gantries and pillars supporting a frame that hung about five feet off the ground. The strobing lights were coming from inside the structure. They seemed to follow a rhythm, exactly as you’d hope for in a better night club. Enormous yellow barrels stood around the edges of the room. They were very much the sort of containers I would expect to find Mafia victims inside.
Slowly we edged into the room, our doors held up in front of our bodies, taking care to shield Ellen as well. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement, though it was terribly confusing in the weird flickering light. There was a whine and a flash of light and suddenly both Ellen and Rachael were dropping their defenses and fell spasming to the ground. I spun round so fast that I clipped the jaw of the man standing to my side with the bottom of corner my door, flinging him across the room. He must have been the one who tasered Ellen and had been after me next. The other man, who I could see now was a regular policeman who was wrapped in his Watcher. The other guy had flown so fast I hadn’t noticed. This one was holding his taser out in front of him. I had no desire to be tasered. I’d seen people volunteering to get tasered on YouTube. It looked like a dreadful idea. Ellen and Rachael with their Watchers appeared to be unconscious after their shocks. I didn’t want to follow them.
I advanced on the possessed policeman with the fire door held high; he retreated slightly, adjusting his grip on the taser. I pounced forwards and he fired. I let go of the fire door and the taser darts bounced off it. As the door fell forward I kicked it as hard as I could at the policeman. The door pounded him into one of the big yellow barrels, which folded under the impact, spewing a gelatinous ooze over the man. It didn’t look like he was going to get up, even with a Watcher on him. Curiosity is a difficult habit to beat, so I gave in to it. We knelt down next to the downed man. I didn’t especially want to touch him but I reached out to prod him anyway. My Watcher flinched as my finger brushed the other Watcher. We backed off, still kneeling. The gunk from the barrel was pooling under him and still poured thickly over his shoulder. Where it touched the Watcher it was beginning to blend. That same weird fuzziness around he edges which I had noticed at the supermarket. The Watcher was dissolving into the gloop. No wonder my Watcher had recoiled. This must be the same stuff they were made out of. There were hundreds of barrels. Assuming they were all full, and adding a made up assumption of how many Watchers you got out of a barrel I could confidently say there were a lot of things in that room.
The strobing light was making it difficult to spot any further movement in the room. I would have retrieved my door, but it had split down the middle when it hit the barrel. I went back to see how Ellen and Rachael were doing. They had stopped twitching and I could see that they were breathing at least. Their Watchers were rippling. Rachael’s face was sliding down her body – all of the features that the Watcher had copied were running across her like a conveyor belt of face, hands and feet. Ellen was much the same, except that her Watcher was rippling sideways, like one of those kids’ toys with three rotating bands with different characters on them so you could mix and match legs, body and heads.
“Are they alright?” I asked my Watcher, “it looks like the shock has messed them up.”
“I don’t know. Perhaps we are susceptible to electricity.” My Watcher sounded concerned, until now I don’t think he had needed to consider what might hurt them, in spite of what happened to my neighbours’ Watchers.
“That’s a bit of a vulnerability.”
“I don’t think humans are any more immune to electric shocks.”
“Well… No, I suppose that’s fair.”
The flux of features seemed to be slowing down. Rachael’s Watcher’s face was pulsing up and down in time with her breathing, like she was inflating it.
“Are they going to recover?” It was a disturbing sight, as if someone had laid a stack of live jellyfish on each of them.
“I don’t know. I hope so.”
I picked up the taser which had struck Rachael and re-wound its prongs. You never know when you might need such a thing. I tucked it into the pocket of my jacket which my Watcher was wearing.
A deep bass note rolled through the floor and the walls. We spun round to see where it could have come from. My first thought was that an enormous explosion had rocked the shopping centre down to its foundations – maybe war had broken out, American fears about the quarantine, human rights protestors storming the town and being taken out, aliens returned to claim their technology. It was none of the things my hyperactive mind had flung in the moment of turning around. The installation that occupied the middle of the room like the progeny of a spider and a bucket who had fallen in love and made a baby out of Meccano- it had been switched on. The deep rumble continued to to make my feet vibrate, even through the Watcher’s soles.
In the middle of the device a man sized frame rotated in the air. It dipped smoothly down out of sight and reappeared dripping with what I assumed was the same ooze in the barrels. Like a bubble being blown, a human shape gently extruded out of the side of the frame facing us. It’s hard to convey how spectacularly creepy this looked under the strobing lights. The frame spun slowly, gobbets and trails of the gooey stuff dripped and fell from it. Shapes glistened and seemed to dance around inside its rubbery flesh, caught and excited by the strobes. Once the first half of a blank mannequin form became fully shaped and stopped dripping, the frame canted forwards allowing the new born Watcher’s weight to pull it out of the frame. The fresh Watcher wobbled on its feet, apparently still hardening and on jellied legs stepped out of the machine entirely and on to the metalwork gantry. It visibly set as it staggered along the walkway and through a darkened doorway I hadn’t even noticed.
“I guess that’s where you came from,” I whispered, driven to a hushed voice as the machine whirled back into action, twisting and dipping once again to produce another hollow half-human figure.
“This is the Source,” he replied, copying my whisper, “this is where we all came from. I remember this place – stretching into existence, becoming shape.”
It was harder to wrest control of my mouth from him than before. Seeing your place of creation can distract a fellow I suppose.
“So what do you think we need to do? We can stop this thing from making more Watchers, but what about all the ones that are already out there, about to be absorbed into all those people?”
I did not feel comfortable about my new heroic role. I’d much preferred it when there were more of us. Rachael and Ellen still hadn’t woken up. I wondered if the taser in my pocket had been amped up a bit, to deliver a larger than required for a mere human shock. If so, we were lucky they hadn’t been fried. Their Watchers’ distortions were still slowing down, but they looked a long way from themselves. I didn’t know what we ought to do with them, but I was particularly worried about the imminence of absorption – would it happen to all of us who were wearing our Watchers, or just the drones? I liked my Watcher, I liked him a lot, but I still didn’t want to be wearing him under my skin.
When did I start calling it a ‘him’ anyway? Thinking back I think we all assumed a gender for our Watchers- they were us after all, even though they didn’t really have any gender at all. Annette had probably started it with her assumption or belief that her Watcher was her long lost twin, Vanessa. Language spreads, ideas are viruses of the mind and we’d all caught it. Maybe it came with regarding them as people, especially people who were already like us and were prepared to do something radical to help people who were even more like us. To have earned gender seemed rather presumptuous. I wasn’t sure that it was better to have a gender identifier or not. Maybe it was just that calling them ‘it’ had come to feel disrespectful, and we had just slapped our own gender assumptions on top of them. It was probably a conversation better had on a different day. Right now we were just watching an endless stream of Watchers being blown into existence by the machine. And we needed to do something about that, and the coming absorption event.
First things first. We had no idea what was going to happen next, so we kicked the other two fire doors off their hinges and laid Ellen and Rachael out on them. Then we dragged them back up the dank cement corridor we’d come from. We took them past the last set of doors we’d broken and round the corner which was marked with bullet holes. I didn’t feel good about leaving them behind, but I’m no doctor.
The best I could do was leave them in a fairly damp environment and hope for the best.
Then we returned to the machine room. Its strobing lights were bothering my eyes, or my brain, or something in between, so my Watcher took over for general looking. I could still sort of see, as if I were sharing someone else’s eyes and viewpoint. Everything looked the same, but I felt as if I were closer than I would normally be, like there was a constant shifting of things in the middle distance. It was better than the flashing lights. Our second step was to disable the machine. My Watcher didn’t seem too concerned about halting the birth of more like him.
“They are not people, they are unbecome. That a thing has potential for life is not the same as having life. Preventing them from entering the world is not an evil thing, especially since they are intended for evil.”
I was reassured to hear it. I had worried, in my head – god forbid I should let a thought out of my head so it can be discussed and dismissed – that he would see it as a kind of genocide. I didn’t know if that was what we were about to do. Seeing how the Watchers came into the world reinforced my sense that they were made, not born. Did that make him less of a person than me? I was made by my parents, through a complex but explicable process of biological engineering. It wasn’t clear that the Watchers were so very different from us. What someone is made of is even less important than their skin colour or gender – they’re people because they behave like people and when you treat them as a person, they respond in kind. What these ‘unbecome’ blanks were I didn’t really know. What I did know was how they were going to be used. If we couldn’t prevent them from being used we could perhaps prevent them at an earlier stage.
All of this bumbled through my head as we readied ourselves to take action. I’m no engineer or mechanic. All we had was a fire door. That’s all it really takes to break something. With a discus-style spin I’d seen in a swords and sandals epic we slung the heavy fire door into the machine. It crashed into the frame as it brought up another Watcher’s-worth of gunk. It set the frame spinning at an alarming rate which tore it from its fastenings. The frame continued spinning as it fell and it tore through the delicate framework that held it in place. The fire door bounced off the top of the frame and crushed the edges of the tank held below. A flood of the Watchers’ substance burst from the machine as it spat and crumbled. Moving faster than we were thinking we leaped onto the walkway above that the new Watchers had wobbled down. The machine continued to tear itself apart and spew its slime everywhere; our demolition work appeared to be done. We went into the darkness of the doorway.