We had run out of fire doors. They’d proven to be highly effective defensive and offensive weapons. I’m a little surprised they don’t see more use in Jackie Chan films. I’d broken one with a policeman, smashed a machine with another and used the last two as stretchers. We were, I suspect, feeling rather too cocky as we clambered onto the metal walkway to follow the slightly sticky footprints.
Seeing the freshly setting Watchers wobble from the machine and off into the dark had demystified their existence for me. The whole set up was evocative of a crude birth canal metaphor and that appeared to have hatched some odd simplicity in my mind. There was no reason why I should have felt content – I still knew nothing about how they had come into being, who had made them or where they had come from. Just watching them pop out of a machine really told me nothing. It’s like being perfectly content to understand popcorn only as the final buttered product and forgetting about the growing on trees thing, or wherever they come from. I was glad that we had wrecked the Watcher-blowing machine. Its combination of child’s bubble blowing toy and stretchy giant cupcake mould people was disturbing in ways that I didn’t want to think about. At the very least we had tempered the flow of these surveillance drones, perhaps permanently. That was overly optimistic and I did feel foolish for even thinking it.
With the strobe lights gone, and replaced with the dull yellow of emergency lighting the big room with its stacks of yellow barrels seemed more like the hold of a ship, all grimy with salty rust and a sad smell. We, or rather the Watcher cast a last regretful look at the damaged machine and then turned back to the walkway. We carefully stepped between the moist footprints. Having seen the policeman’s Watcher dissolve in the split barrel’s pool of jelly we were keen to avoid meeting the same fate.
“What happens when a Watcher dissolves?”
“I don’t know, remember I do not know much more than you, only what I am-” he searched for a suitable word, “-primed with. I can tell you what it feels like to come close to it.”
“It felt like loss.”
“Self. Individuality; my self being drawn into the whole, overwhelmed. I felt like a thread being pulled, fraying away into nothingness.”
“You’d go back to that unbecome state?”
“I would be nothing again.”
“Like being unborn.”
I was even more keen to avoid the damp patches of unbecome Watcher fluid. The walkway lead out of the machine room into a short dark corridor. The last Watcher was well ahead of us and we could hear no footsteps as we followed it. I was trying not to worry about my Watcher. His voice was sad, filled with fear of ending – afraid of never being again, of a change too radical to come back from. Does the world keep going once you’re out of it? You’ll never know. It’s oddly comforting to think that everything just stops, so there’s nothing for us to miss. Everyone should lose everything all at the same time. But we know it doesn’t work that way. The truly heartbreaking part is seeing someone else just stop, and finding that your life just keeps on going. Even if I couldn’t believe that my life could continue alone, it did. That was worse than anything. When Katherine died she was gone. A huge empty space in everything around me. The settee was twice the size, our bed a vast cold wasteland. My hands were empty and my arms ached from hugging my own chest too tightly. Losing her was like losing myself – a shared identity sheared in half, lurching on with no heart or legs, scraping at existence, ever sliding past it. The horror of realising that I did have to keep going, that I wouldn’t simply vanish into quiet oblivion wore me down to a ghost, haunting my own life.
Now I had received a ghost of my own, a ghost I could watch moving the way I did, pausing while drinking a cup of tea to stare blankly into the distance. That heavy sigh, emptying the body of vital breath and grief to see it immediately fill up again. An endless aquifer of sorrow. I’d seen my Watcher being me all day, and all day I had thought he had been just copying me, those same gestures and face that I saw in the mirror and reflected from across the street. But it had been different, because he wasn’t my mirror image – the only image of ourselves that we see every day, excepting the astonishing narcissism that mobile phones have blessed us all with. He was me, but the right way round. I could see how others saw me, and I was not surprised that I had found myself alone. I had made myself alone.
After Katherine’s death I stayed in our home for a month. I could take no more than that. The emptiness, the house was like a painting where someone had erased everything important, leaving a man standing alone – no tree to shelter under, no sky or sun to illuminate the world, no colour, no smiles. So I fled. Left that house, asking for it to be sold and the contents boxed and stored. I have a good family. I went somewhere that Katherine had never been, so she couldn’t be missing. It hadn’t been entirely successful, but I hadn’t realised how unsuccessful I had been until my Watcher arrived. There’s no time limit on grief, but it has to change. We move through the well identified stages of grief in strange order and in days or years. I was carrying on life of a kind, but it was a half life without enjoyment or, well – anything. That was the life I had shared with my Watcher, that he had emulated and used to forge his own identity, arising out of the learning process. I’d never thought myself a particularly sympathetic person but it saddened me to see to another version of myself spun into person hood when I had so little to offer, to myself or to others.
I hadn’t given much thought to what the consequences of our night of action might be. We were intent of preventing the absorption event, the point where the Watchers permanently fuse into their hosts . When we stopped that, what would happen to those Watchers? Neither he or I had any answers to that at the moment. While my life might well be in danger, I mean, I’d been shot at and everything, my Watcher was a brand new life. I didn’t know what the stakes were for him, or the other Watchers who had ‘become’ over the course of the day. But he seemed resolute, even though his greatest fear was unbecoming, losing that sense of self. I had to hope that there was some way to exclude he and the others from whatever we were going to do. Once again I found myself flailing for a suitable word to describe what we hoped to achieve – ‘the stoppening’ perhaps. It’s hard to think of the future when you don’t know what’s in it, or when you don’t know what you want. I needed a word for ‘hoping at victory’. With a proper word I could focus on it, change it from a nebula of confusion and fear into an achievable something that I could actually hope for, instead of dreading. I wanted my new friend to persist in this world. I didn’t want him to fade away. I didn’t want to be left alone again either.
We high-stepped over those wet foot prints. There was a light ahead of us. Presumably all the usual lighting had been removed, or more prosaically simply switched off. We couldn’t see the light switch, but we didn’t look for it very hard. Cautiously we entered the light. This was an even larger room, filled with tiered steps running all the way round the walls, like a basketball court without ridiculously tall people to offer ball-based entertainment. The steps, or benches were filled with row after row of Watchers. I felt like I’d walked into a massive and bleak shop window. There must have been thousands of them. At the far end of the hall was a big set of double doors – big enough to drive a fire engine through, should that take your fancy. Right in front of them was another huge construction. This time it took the general shape of an arch, but it was studded with glass and plastic tubes, spheres and toroids enclosing every side of the arch. It looked like a futuristic portcullis, the gate itself was composed of a grid of bright blue and green lasers. I assume they were lasers because they resembled the fancy moving webs of red lasers that apparently protected famous works of art. It took us a few moments to realise that the assembled Watchers were very slowly shifting around the room. It was a slow motion whirlpool effect, leading them to the portcullis. The line was moving slowly because it took a few seconds for each Watcher to pass through the archway. As another Watcher stepped into the arch it glowed brightly with the laser beams passing through it. It trembled in their web. A light above the Watcher blinked green and it moved on, our of the hall. Another Watcher stepped up to take its place.
No humans appeared to be in the room. Just Watchers, those blank drones waiting to be lased and then, we guessed, were ready to be sent out to possess other people . Since there was no one in the room, we had no way to tell if the carnage we left behind had yet been felt. At the speed the Watchers passed through the arch it would be hours before this room ran out of them. Since the whole town was already subdued, these ones had to be intended for elsewhere, beyond the quarantine. I’ve seen public service pilots of new ideas before. They’re mostly just token efforts, since the grand new idea was already slated to commence. It didn’t really matter whether the pilot showed success or failure. Maybe this had been successful. There had only been a few hundred people who had met up at the town hall. We were the exceptions – the ones who resisted this kind of in your face surveillance. That’s a low enough error rate for government. Those failures can be easily swept into a closed file and ignored or denied in the advent of Freedom Of Information requests. It didn’t bode terribly well for anyone who the possessed police had nabbed earlier. I was still worried about Andy, Charlie and Annette back in the office building, and about Alison’s family. Maybe they were all stashed down here somewhere, awaiting a more aggressive possession than had been attempted during the day.
We wandered towards the fantastical arch, mindful of the thousands of bodies around us. When we reached the archway, without being too freaked out by the long line of Watchers being drawn slowly towards it we could observe the lasing process in more detail. As the next Watcher stepped into the grid of lasers we could see that specific portions of the Watcher’s insides were being struck by the lasers, glowing for a moment as each beam of light hit them. It was like running down one of those musical keyboard mats that were popular in Christmas family films in the nineties. I wondered what tune they were playing inside.
“They are being programmed,” said my Watcher abruptly.
“How can you tell?”
“Where those lights touch – I can feel them in my body too.”
We moved closer and my Watcher reached out our hand to intercept one of the beams. I snatched it back, an instinct born of far too many computer games and science fiction films.
“Hey, that could just cut our hands straight off!”
“I want to know what it is that we are instructed to do,” he said, sounding a little put out.
“They are being told to locate, identify, subdue and submerge.” This new voice cut through our conversation.
On the other side of the gateway stood the mayor, flanked by her military cohort who we had seen at the town hall earlier. They were pointing rifles at us, which is very hostile. The army looking man reached out and touched something that we couldn’t see. The laser grid vanished. A small squad of soldiers darted through the arch. I don’t know how many people are normally in a squad, it’s probably a technical term, but in this case it was six men. They surrounded us in a ring of rifles.
“Move.” ordered one of the men.
I’ve seen a lot of films and this is exactly how it’s supposed to be done. It’s not very helpful though. I respond best to a detailed instruction, like what direction to move in, and I take the twitch of a rifle barrel personally. While my inner reluctance to do what I was told was jabbing my common sense in the ribs, I do have some sense. My back felt especially vulnerable, free of my Watcher’s grip even though I couldn’t really feel it. We moved with our armed ring through the arch. The faces of the soldiers were grim, but their eyes flickered with the same kind of fear I was feeling at the end of their guns. It made you wonder which of us had a weapon pointed at us. None of them wore Watchers, and neither did the mayor and her gang. As we’d noted earlier, there’s no point being in charge if you submit to the same controls and restrictions as all the ordinary people. It kept me thinking. If the soldiers didn’t have Watchers then that meant on some level the technology or whatever they were was not trusted – not enough to give a gun too at any rate. If this was a pilot, or a test of them then there had to be a core of people who were unWatched, not just the soldiers keeping the town in quarantine, but here in the town supervising or controlling the spread of the Watchers.
The mayor and her mob walked ahead of us without a backward glance. Another squad, or squads of soldiers poured into the gap behind us. No doubt they would shortly discover the carnage we’d left in the machine room. I wondered how much trouble we would be in then. I felt we were already in quite a lot of trouble anyway. With luck I’d left Rachael and Ellen far enough away to escape immediate notice. This whole operation looked quite well established and planned, which made an obvious lie out of the talk of Visitors at the town meeting. We were being lead through a series of rooms which held shipping containers, stacked to the high ceiling. We caught a glimpse of great big heavy goods vehicles lurking in the shadows farther off. A swarm of soldiers crawled over the containers, sealing them and checking lists in a great show of military efficiency. Before one of the container doors swung shot I could see it was crammed full of Watchers, just like those who had been waiting to go through the laser grid. I had no way to even guess how many were currently being held, awaiting shipping out to the next town in the roll out. We left the huge storage areas behind and up a short flight of stairs. These were the rooms where the real work was being done. Nasty bland office suites packed full of computers, massive server stacks, blinking lights and widescreen monitors filled with incomprehensible oscillating images. Several of the rooms were separated with glass partitions. As we swept past I could see a huge sphere suspended in the air, dangling cables with what looked like water running freely over it. I tried hard not to jerk my head backwards when I noticed it – it felt like something I shouldn’t have seen. My Watcher had seized up for a split second as we’d spotted it. I guessed that we had found what we were looking for.
We passed through the humming rooms and their attentive, twitchy technical attendants. Our armed cohort had relaxed not a jot. I was a little worried about how twitchy their trigger fingers might be. I had no desire to be filled with holes. At last we came to a wider office suite with a long table down the middle of the room. The mayor and her companions spread out around the table, taking what appeared to be their accustomed seats. Our escort drove us into the single office chair at the opposite end of the table. They relaxed slightly, drawing back to the edges of the room. Their rifles did not dip. Even though my Watcher was almost certainly holding the same facial expressions that I was, the sense that I was wearing a mask still separated me from the world around us. It felt like an advantage. I was quite sure we would be needing one soon. My hosts were observing me with a frightening mixture of disdain and a keen penetrating stare. They glanced at each other, making some decision or other.
The mayor spoke: “do you know that you are special?”