Special? I can’t hear someone told that they’re special without thinking of two things – the first is the common everyday school use of special to mean different, difficult, abnormal. Other. The other is the one from the best work of Pixar, The Incredibles which I horribly misquote all the time in my head: ‘if everyone’s special that just means no one is’. Those two ideas circle in my head like an anti-mantra. No one is special, this universe cared nothing for us. Any seemingly rare quality is diluted by the enormity of forever into insignificance. And yet… it’s nice to get a compliment, even if it is from a gold-bedecked woman in a subterranean command centre. Inside a shopping mall.
I didn’t know how to respond. The choices may seem obvious – there’s sarcasm of course, which probably suited the occasion but the audience looked spectacularly humourless and my efforts would likely be wasted on them. Politeness is a way to go, though it is much less satisfying and shows far too much deference and implies respect. I went with option three: mumbling.
“Okay,” I drew it out just long enough to give the impression of politeness with a touch of sarcastic up-speak.
“You really are, we’ve never seen such a successful integration between host and flesh-suit.”
Of all the different terms I’d heard throughout the day, ‘flesh-suit’ was by far the worst.
“Is that why your police have been after me?”
“I’m afraid you’re a disruptive element at this stage of the programme. You, and your friends.”
“Are they alright?”
“The three you left in the office block have been subdued and are presently receiving medical treatment.”
“You’d better not have hurt them.”
“Before you get all indignant, may I remind you that all resisted arrest, evaded capture and will likely be charged for a range of criminal damage offences and an array of assault offences.”
Well that would be annoying. I hadn’t considered any of our actions especially criminal, though I could see how they might be seen in that light. Could I be charged for wrecking my own flat? I hoped not. It sounded a lot like they had only picked up Andy, Charlie and Annette. That was good news.
“You’ve given us quite the run around this evening. Despite the seriousness of your offences we’re prepared to make you an offer.”
“Is this going to be one of those offers I can’t refuse?”
“As you have capably demonstrated today it’s unlikely that we can make you do anything, except disappear you under the Terrorism Act.”
I was both frightened and increasingly angry. I was fairly sure that I wasn’t the bad guy here, I was the one doing the right thing. We had all been doing the right thing.
“Look, Madame Mayor – I don’t know if that’s how you’re supposed to address a mayor, and beyond a causal curiousity I really don’t care. You’ve got men pointing guns at me, which is very hostile and makes me uncomfortable. I don’t get why the mayor of a crappy little town is in charge of this kind of operation, but I’ll be fucked if I’m going to do what you want, Madame Mayor.”
That hadn’t come out exactly as I’d intended, but the general message had been conveyed. The mayor looked amused.
“Fair enough. I’m obviously not the real mayor. That would be ridiculous. You can be quite confident that I have rank appropriate to this operation, as do my colleagues here.”
They all gave me impressively hard looks.
“I’ve got some questions.” I said.
“We have an offer to discuss.”
“Alright. You can go first.”
“Let me make it clear that we know who you are, we know who your friends are. We know where you come from and why you appeared seven weeks ago in this town that you have no personal connection to. We know all about the death of your partner. It’s one of the reasons we think you might be special.”
“You seemed pretty sure of that a minute ago,” I had become petulant, to match the headmasterly tone of the mayor, or whoever she was.
“All things change. As I said, you have as they say lead us a merry chase this evening. We believe that you have integrated with your flesh-suit to an unusual degree. While this operation will most certainly proceed, we would like to study your integration more fully. It is believed that your consent will make this simpler, but is by no means essential. That is your choice – to assist us in our development, either voluntarily or compulsorily.”
“I’m not even convinced that ‘compulsorily’ is a word. That sounds a lot like disappearing into a lab and being dissected. Funnily enough I’m not attracted to it.”
“You are a British citizen and you will be afforded all your rights and comforts. You will also receive financial compensation and protection from prosecution for your short evening of criminal activity.”
“You keep making it sound like I’m the one who has been doing something bad – what the fuck do you people think you’re doing?”
“These would be your questions then? I’ll answer your questions as I see fit, and then we will return to your response to our offer. Acceptable?”
“Okay – so you lot have sicced these ‘flesh-suit’ things on everybody and are using them to spy on and control everyone in town, right?”
“Yes. Your description is naive, but sums up the essentials. These are tactical surveillance and espionage tools. Surveillance and control. These are necessary, before you get into a rant about liberties and freedoms. We are long past the stage where we can just wait for the enemy to come to us. This technology enables us to take preventative action before further incidents and atrocities occur.”
“Oh, I see. This is for our safety. Got it. You need to see everything I do, say and feel so you can protect me? And that’s not like a million times way too fucking intrusive?”
“You won’t even know it exists. Quite soon the flesh-suits will be absorbed into their hosts and no evidence will remain of their surveiling twin.”
“I think they might remember such a fucked up day as this.”
“You aren’t aware of the full functionality of what you are currently wearing,” she replied, in a tone just shy of patronising.
“And what about the suits themselves – the Watchers -what happens to them?”
“Ah, your integrative success may well be in part due to your misplaced compassion. We realise that the priming process you have experienced is disorienting. They will continue to perform their functions, undetectable and constantly active and alert.”
“So why am I special again?” I knew I was only getting slivers of the truth, but so far it had fitted with what our Watchers had known and we had figured out in the pub and the park.
“You and your friends dropped out of the network. We were unable to monitor you and we would like to fully understand why.”
It seemed possible that these wankers didn’t understand what had been happening. They were focussed on their command and control games. They didn’t even know that our Watchers were capable of sentience. Or worse, they did but they didn’t care. Both possibilities were quite frightening – the whole plan reeked of contempt for freedom and people. It wasn’t a massive leap to think that they would enslave someone just to make them a spy. That meant it wasn’t just myself (and all those people too, sure, I was totally thinking about them as well) who was being exploited here, it was the Watchers too, those who had ‘fully integrated’ at least.
“Right, so you’re in control of the whole thing – constantly watching everything?”
“Yes, we call it the Omnopticon. The totality of the network continually updates itself and synchronises with the Omnopticon.”
“What happens if you break the Omnopticon?”
That was possibly too bald a question, but she was just dancing around me. There was no reason why she should tell me the secret flaw to their plan and show me where it was. Thing is, I was pretty sure I’d already seen it in one of the rooms we’d passed. I just wanted to be sure I was right before I figured out what to do next.
The mayor laughed at me. “I’m not going to tell you the technical specifications or show you the big red self-destruct button. Now, I have answered your questions. Now you need to answer mine – will you submit willingly?”
“Can I ask just one more question?”
She sighed. I was surprised I hadn’t already exhausted her patience.
“Seriously, just one more. I promise.”
The mayor nodded, with a ‘carry on’ gesture.
“Where did they come from?”
The mayor smiled. It looked like a proper smile, as if I’d finally asked a good question, or had continued to amuse her with my naivete. I think she might have been about to answer but she was interrupted by a crackle and squawk from the walkie-talkie radio box in one of her companions belts. He took the call. Walkie-talkies seem to be like fax machines. They’re a good idea but surely they should have been replaced by something which conveyed clear conversation by now. It sounded like the other end was underwater or at Cylon high command. They obviously understood it though because they were instantly alert, and glaring balefully at me. I gulped. It looked like the havoc we had wrought in the machine room had been found. This might become awkward.
“We’ll be adding treason to your list of offences,” the mayor coldly informed me, “but don’t imagine that your interference will pose a serious issue for deployment. The facility is easily replicated, if costly, and we will assure the safety of every British citizen, you can be quite confident of that.”
I hate bullshit. I hate listening to managers and leaders spouting their self-grooming business metaphors and painfully empty vision statements and the blandly obvious aims and objectives stated proudly as if they are innovative or impressive. I recognise it when someone is over-egging it and the mayor looked far too pissed off to be unconcerned. The soldiers around me had attained an even greater degree of threatening attentiveness. It was surprising they hadn’t snapped their own tendons with such compressed tension. It reminded me again that I was just one small guy and his Watcher and they had six guns on me. If I were really a trifling problem they would either have already dealt with me or just cuffed me to a chair. There are moments of empowerment we receive. It’s like the veil is blown aside by an accidental breeze and we catch a glimpse of that sad guy tugging at stops and levers. It’s the sensation of lightness that takes me over. It was rising in me again, like a bar of sunlight. A moment of infinite possibility – my next action would be the right one, and it would be spectacular. My confirmation bias for this feeling was still in full effect. My fingertips were buzzing with anticipation.
“Get him out of here,” commanded the mayor, turning back immediately to her little cohort who were engaged in a hushed discussion while I experienced my rising tide of perfection.
A series of crashes, a burst of gunfire, glass hitting the floor and a further prolonged crunch snapped everyone in the room to full alert. This was going to be my moment.
I whispered to my Watcher, “on my mark,” the militaryish jargon gets to you after a while, but it does feel appropriate – makes it all feel legitimate, like you’re always doing the right thing.
I was about to act when a huge laser printer and a cinder block flew into the room. The cinder block smacked one of my guards in the head and the printer destroyed itself in a plume of coloured carbon as it knocked down another two. Three on one seemed okay to me. I grabbed the end of table with both hands and swung it in a fast circle around me. That flattened the rest of my guard and I finished by hurling it at the mayor and her shocked looking gang. It hit with agreeable force, splintering on contact and knocking them all to the ground.
Ellen peered into the room, another cinder block dangling from her fingers.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, brilliant. Thanks for that.”
“You’re welcome. There are quite a few more soldiers out here and they’re not happy.”
Rachael also ducked into the room.
“Hey, how are you?” I asked.
“We’re both fine. We need to go.”
“I think I know what we need to do first,” I went with them out of the room after stamping on a few rifles, “about the absorption. There’s a thing here, they called it the Omnopticon. It’s the nerve centre, you know, like in a spy movie.”
“Alright, well let’s get going.” I lead the way back through the offices. Ellen and Rachael had done a fine job. Everything was broken. “looks like you two have been busy.”
“We woke up in that horrible corridor and came looking for you. We met the first bunch of soldiers in that room where we got tasered. Bastards. So we just followed your example and broke everything we could find.” Rachael said with a dangerous grin.
The offices really were wrecked. Soldiers lay in the smashed up furniture and computers, hanging out of walls and generally taking up floor space. Ellen grabbed the fire door she had left resting against what was left of a stud partition between offices.
“Those doors are brilliant aren’t they?” I said.
Rachael had reacquired hers and I felt a little left out.
“Okay – I saw it somewhere down here – there’s a glass wall. Or at least there was before you guys got here.”
“Yup, that’s over here,” Ellen pointed through a tangle of cables and dangling ceiling tiles.
The window was still remarkably intact and beyond it was what had to be the Omnopticon. It was too freaky looking a thing to be anything else, except a prop from a film and that seemed unlikely given how our day had gone. I stepped over a scree of server parts and kicked the wall in. The glass wobbled impressively, but didn’t break. I gave the wall another kick. Still the glass didn’t break, but the wall did. The glass fell slowly out of the wall fully intact.
“The absorption has already begun,” my Watcher said suddenly.
“What? Wait – what does that mean? Can we still stop it? Why didn’t you say something before?” I spluttered.
“You were busy.”
As proud as I was that I had taught him sarcasm, he hadn’t yet learned there was a time and a place for it. Scratch that – this was a perfect time for sarcasm. I’d have been sarcastic if I had anything to say.
“Our Watchers already told us,” Rachael said, “when we woke up we were still wearing our Watchers, but it took a minute for them to come round. Can’t you see that it’s different now?”
She was right, but I hadn’t noticed. Both Rachael and Ellen were more visible through their Watchers. The white rubbery skin had become either thinner or more transparent, or both. The Watchers were already being absorbed into their bodies.
“You’re the same too. I reckon they kept you talking long enough for it to begin. Now we can’t stop it.”
“Says who?” I asked, “they didn’t really tell me anything, but they were crazy scared of me.” And then I hit them with a table, so they had been right, “but I think they’re full of shit. They don’t know how we got out of their little network – they don’t know that our Watchers are people too. They’re slaves, just being used as tools by this lot. And it’s going to keep happening. They’re going to wake up and find that they’re trapped in this stupid spying on people crap. Even if we can’t stop it happening to us, we can stop it from happening to anyone else.”
“Makes sense,” said Ellen, “let’s keep doing what we’re doing.”
We seemed to be in agreement. Through the empty windowframe we finally got a good look at the Onmopticon. It was more hot air balloon shaped than I’d thought – I’d only seen the top half of the sphere through the window. It was sweating, a thick resiny wetness ran constantly around it. It was a murky gold colour and the liquid that ran off it pooled in a system of tubes underneath it which looked like they ran round and re-deposited it on top. Some kind of coolant perhaps. It was freezing in there anyway. I was starting to feel the cold again, which felt like it confirmed that I no longer had the full insulation of my Watcher to rely on. The sort of ovoid was attached to massive bank of plugs and ports, each cable running back to that collection matrix below it.
“I don’t know what the fuck it is, but smashing it can’t make anything worse,” Ellen summed up my thoughts exactly.
“Wait,” interrupted Rachael. She addressed her Watcher, “what’s going to happen to you?”
“I don’t know. I am already separated from the network.”
“This close we can feel it though,” my Watcher chipped in, “it’s listening to them all, to all the unbecome out there.”
“We are out of the network, but we are being absorbed into your bodies too. Perhaps we are not as disconnected as we believe.”
“Or the trigger is internal, natural. It doesn’t mean we follow the Omnopticon’s directives.”
“That is possible.”
“Right – we don’t have enough answers. We don’t even have the questions we need. But, there are a load more soldiers down in the loading bays and it sounds like they’re on their way up here.”
Decision time. I was still tripping on that lightness – everything was still possible and the universe demanded an answer. The stamp of running feet was clear. We had little time left.
“Let’s do it,” said my Watcher.
Soldiers swarmed into the room. They held their rifles but I doubted they could fire them in here, not unless we gave them no choice. I’d have put money on their having strict orders not to risk the Omnopticon. It looked expensive. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as breaking something very expensive. Rachael spun round with her door and holding it in front of her approached the soldiers who had fanned out by the doorway and broken furniture. Ellen and I hopped into the freezing room.
“Stop what you are doing!” It was the damn mayor again. She and her pals had obviously recovered from their table experience. She was standing in the doorway pointing a pistol at me. I stepped behind the Omnopticon. Duh.
“You’ll kill them all – every person who has a flesh-suit on will die if you stop that machine.”
It was plausible. It was possible. But it sounded like a lie. I can’t pretend I wasn’t more than a bit worried that it might be true. It gave me pause. It did not give our Watchers pause. I had become used to us acting as one. We had become so well synchronised that we felt like the same person anyway – half the time I couldn’t realy tell if it was me speaking and walking or him. It didn’t matter – we were still doing the things that I think I would have done anyway. But this time it felt different. It was more like when I’d first been possessed in my flat, that I was moving involuntarily, paralysed to sensation. I could see Ellen’s expression inside her Watcher’s skin. She looked how I felt, terrified that were about to make an awful mistake. Everything happened so very quickly after that.
Ellen’s Watcher had a savage grin on its face, masking Ellen’s concern. It winked at me, then raised the fire door and brought it down on the Omnopticon. And then I was back with the programme. I re-synced with my Watcher, strength and sensation flooding into me simultaneously. as we seized the cables at the bottom of the Omnopticon and tore them loose. Ellen’s blow sheared the ovoid open in a spray of golden effluvia. Between us we ripped it in half. A series of shots rang out in the same brief seconds, flinging Ellen across the room. I was dimly aware of Rachael surging towards the soldiers and mayor with her fire door held horizontally in front of her. I continued my intent destruction, snatching up the fire door that Ellen had dropped and battering the Omnopticon and its attendant plugs, sockets and ports. I finshed by hurling the door into the wall of connections. A huge, jagged sword of golden flame erupted from the shattered Omnopticon. I dived to the ground as it slashed in a horizontal circle, cleanly slicing through the walls, control panels and anything unfortunate enough to be standing around four feet off the ground. That flaming circle hung in the air, pulsed once and expanded massively, racing through the ring-shaped gap it had already created, cutting savagely through everything it touched.
“Fuck,” commented Rachael from her position of safety on the floor.
Explosions reached us as the circle of flame lashed through the substructure and foundations of the shopping centre. Presumably gas mains and substations blowing up. Several of the soldiers had been cut in half by the fiery ring. I didn’t feel good about that.
“You know, we should leave,” I said.
Then I turned back to Ellen. She was lying in the corner. She’d fallen safely away from the final destruction of the Omnopticon but had clearly taken at least a couple of the mayor’s bullets. She was bleeding everywhere.
“We’ve got to get her out,” more explosions and very worrying creaks and groans echoed through the building, “we should get everyone out.”
On cue a series of fire alarms and other klaxons went off which made the whole place far less pleasant. The mayor had already vanished, as had the remaining soldiers.
“Reckon they’re sorting themselves out,” Rachael said.
I scooped up Ellen. Her Watcher was slick with blood, but I could see that it was partly clogging the entry wounds. She was pale, white as if the Watcher was freshly on instead of almost completely transparent. I awkwardly shuffled her so I could cradle her and hopefully run. I’d never have been strong enough to do it without my Watcher’s support.
“You’re still here then?” I asked him.
“Free,” was all he would say.
“Um, now…?” prompted Rachael.
We legged it. The damage Ellen and Rachael had done was outdone by the expanding wave of golden flame. The ceiling was tilting alarmingly as we ducked and ran through the last of the office spaces. The big room filled with shipping containers and trucks was on fire. The firey ring had gone through the lorries at about engine level. It was already filling up with smoke. There had to be a way for them to be driven in and out, and that had to be easier than navigating the labyrinth of service corridors. The smoke was being pulled out of the space, presumably by the exit – all we had to do was follow the smoke and not breathe. I remembered what else was here.
“Wait – one sec Rachael, I need to see that other room.”
She knew which one I meant. I shifted Ellen’s weight in my arms and ran towards the doorway we had originally come through. The big complicated archway had also been cut through. It was sparking crazily and its lasers were firing erratically into the giant auditorium. Row upon row of Watcher blanks were spasming on the steps. They jerked in a half walk, half dance, shaking like evangelists. We stood and stared. Those very closest to us lurched in our direction, awkwardly falling to their knees as the lasers shone through them. They were melting like candles. A crack opened in the ceiling above and approximately half a shopping centre fell into the room. We had seen enough. We turned tail and fled the rising cloud of dust and ran into the smoke.
Our Watchers protected us from the worst of the smoke inhalation. I’d almost gotten used to not feeling myself breathe and it was most unpleasant to regain it through choking and coughing. We couldn’t see the walls of the tunnel we followed, we just kept going. It felt like forever, before we finally burst out into the night. We had the wit to keep running until we couldn’t anymore. We fell into the square in front of the shopping centre, the granite slabs ice cold against our knees. Narrowmarsh was on fire in a dozen places. Abruptly there was a series of awesome cracks and booms and the building sagged in the middle, then folded, collapsing in on itself. It hadn’t done badly considering what had happened below it. We woudn’t be shopping in there for a while. Then the buildings adjoining the shopping centre collapsed as well. Oops.
We stripped off our coats and laid Ellen on top of them. Her Watcher was scarcely visible at all; it was no more than a sheen of sweat on her skin. Sounds that had been missing all day filled the night air. Emergency service sirens screamed. We may have gotten the outside world’s attention… I noticed then that the possessed policemen who had haunted the square earlier were lying scattered across the flagstones too. Were they dead? Had we killed everyone? I didn’t want to find out, but it seemed like this was the best place to stay and wait for an ambulance. The sirens were converging on the square, their glorious lights scattering in welcome. They stopped in the Road of Buses. Our convenient cover was now an obstacle. Thankfully it isn’t the only road that opens onto the square. Ambulances and fire engines raced in first, nimbly avoiding the prone policemen. The fire engines went to do their thing, but it looked like a lost cause; I hoped it was a lost cause. An ambulance swung up before us.
“Help, she’s been shot,” I yelled at the rather harassed looking paramedic. He took over with typical calm efficiency and confidence.
Rachael and I retreated until another ambulance showed up and we were ushered under blankets and given oxygen masks and all manner of attention. I hadn’t noticed that we were coughing. We sat on the edge of the back of the ambulance enjoying this novel breathing thing and having our collection of burns and grazes dabbed. They helpfully had a spare inhaler which I abused until my lungs felt close to normal. We had to stay and talk to real police, but we couldn’t say much other than that there were soldiers and an explosion. Our subterfuge was pitiful but given the scale of the Event they were happy enough to let us go after taking names and addresses.
The square looked surreal. It was lit up like Christmas, only with firemen instead of angels. It was quite a spectacle. Ellen was whisked off to a hospital. They had described her as critical, but stable. I don’t really know what that is supposed to mean. Her paramedic didn’t look too freaked out though, so we guessed it meant she was going to be alright. They probably have anti-panic training of course. I felt quite calm. I suspect that is called ‘shock’. We declined a trip to the hospital and were politely ejected from our ambulance seat.
“I wonder where Charlie and the others are,” said Rachael.
“I think the mayor said they had been detained and were receiving medical attention. I need to stop calling her the mayor.”
“Who was she?”
“I don’t know, some military MOD thing or other.”
“May as well call her the mayor then.”
A sheet of glass fell to the ground, shattering loudly, followed by the crash of a desk and pedestal drawers hitting the paving slabs. It startled us upright and set half the emergency services running. We were already looking at that unsightly and overly tall office building while thinking about Andy with the spear of metal through his shoulder. Charlie was standing in the now open window waving at the emergency services, calling for help.
“Those lying twats,” I said.
We ambled over. The fire and ambulance folk were there ahead of us, and there was no way we’d be able to get in close to them for a while. I waved and Rachael gave him a whoop and a thumbs up. We are super subtle. We had stopped out of the way next to an open ambulance. Inside was one of the policemen who had been scooped up off the floor. He was unattended so we did our civic duty of looking around guiltily and hopping in. The cop looked fine, in that he was unconscious and slightly bruised around the face. He was sweating profusely, a thick oily sweat which pooled in his clothes without making them wet until it overflowed and ran down the legs of the stretcher and spilled out of the ambulance. We got out again, with even guiltier circumspection.
“So that’s it then,” I sighed, “they’re not dead. Thank fuck for that.”
Rachael’s face still held a faint sheen of her Watcher, like a thin skein of clingfilm taut across her skin and hair. “I don’t think our Watchers are gone yet,” she said, closely inspecting my face too.
“I can’t feel him,” I replied.
“But we’re not sweating. Yet,” she pointed out.
We watched Charlie and Annette get helped out of the building. Annette was immediately put in a neat folding wheelchair despite her protestations. Andy was carried out a few minutes later on a stretcher, the jag of metal sticking up from his shoulder. They were all hustled into ambulances and whisked away. It looked like being in an office was more hazardous to your health than having a shopping centre fall on you. I felt very tired.
“I think I’m going to go home,” I said to Rachael.
She nodded a few times, punch drunk with the evening.
“Are you going to be alright?” she asked.
“Sure. We should all catch up tomorrow. See if we can find Charlie. You’ve got the name of the hospital they’ve taken Ellen too, right?”
“Cool. Looks like this is all over. Bet we get phones back tomorrow.”
Rachael’s pocket chimed. So did mine. A day’s worth of missed calls and text messages were demanding our attention. The phones were early. Distracted by the wealth of failed communications we separated, phones re-glued to our hands. We had the sense to exchange numbers, now that they were worth something again. I said I’d text her tomorrow.
I made my way back down the Road of Buses. Fire service guys had been busy clearing the way. I passed the shattered shop signs and headed for home. The roads were still free from civilian life, but ambulances and police cars were still darting hither and thither. Despite their haste the town felt relaxed, like it had just enjoyed a long slow exhale and was waiting to breathe all its people back to life again. Like Bagpuss. I imagined that the rest of the town was busy sweating out their Watchers like the policeman in the ambulance, and after that they would wake up. The town would look like everything was still the same, except for the lack of a shopping centre and the other buildings we had broken. I felt confident we could scratch that up as a win. It had been one of the most nightmarishly awful places in the world to spend a Saturday. Maybe they would be grateful.
I wondered a little if we should be expecting any consequences. I had only seen emergency vehicles, and no military vehicles. The mayor and her gang had cleared out with impressive speed once we’d wrecked the Omnopticon. I knew that they knew who I was, but I found it hard to imagine I could be a serious threat. We had destroyed all the surveillance flesh-suits that could show us being there. Is that ironic? It sounds ironic, but I’m not sure what the specific irony is. There was always the usual CCTV. That would show us jumping across rooftops and escaping from the shopping centre. It didn’t sound like a credible case. I was too tired to care. I hadn’t seen any of the news vans and gawkers I would expect to be rubber necking and exploiting human misery at a big firey explosion. The quarantine was most likely still in force. That should give us a little peace.
It isn’t a long walk home and it was pleasantly cool after the smoky rage underground. I was feeling naked. I had full sensation back again, and I could barely feel more than a slightly plastic texture to my skin. My clothes were soft, smoke stained and damp but there was no trace of my Watcher on them. I shoved my phone back in my pocket instead of figuring out in what order I should be replying to messages. That seemed like a lot of work.
It wasn’t until I got home that I remembered it had a number of quite troubling structural issues. I ignored the splintered mess of the front door and walked round to the side of the building, where my living room window used to be. Derek was gone. That probably meant he was fine. I didn’t know the guy, but I didn’t wish him any particular harm. No more than the rest of humanity anyway. I climbed over the pile of bricks and glass and into my flat. The hole really wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t much wider than a person, and the window had been the majority of it. I didn’t expect my television to offer much in the way of diversion though. I pushed it fully through the hole into the street. The gash in the ceiling was pretty bad. The room looked even worse than I’d thought. I stood the flat’s door back up in its place. I remembered Alison’s flat upstairs and their idea with the duct tape. I had duct tape. Everyone should have duct tape. If you can’t fix it with tape and a staple gun you need to buy a new one.
I taped the door into place. That felt better. I need my little sanctuary and I’ll accept a bit of illusion to make it so. Then I broke down most of the cardboard boxes my books had come in, flattened them out and taped and stapled them over the window and hole in the wall. It was starting to look more homely, and it cut the draught off well. After that I dragged the somewhat poorly settee into the middle of the room and balanced precariously on its back and a kitchen chair while I repeated my DIY exploits on the ceiling hole. I ran out of tape so just punched the crap out of it with staples. It looked… good. My books were covered in dust and plaster. That really would have to be a job for the morrow. I noticed that Katherine’s book case had survived intact. That made me smile. It was about the only whole object in the room. My breakfast bar had been broken in half and there was a big dent in the fridge door. The book case had handled itself well. We had done a good job of assembling it. I ran my fingers over the spines of the books, trying to remember which of them I had seen Katherine reading. I’d probably seen her reading most of them, but only a couple raised genuine memories of her intent on the pages, frowning slightly, trying not to break the spines.
There was still a bit of Kentucky Bourbon by the sink, so I sloshed it into a glass. It and I slumped on the not quite so broken end of the settee staring at Katherine’s books. I must have dozed off. Well, I know I did because I jerked awake, tossing my drink on the floor. It didn’t seem worth worrying about. I couldn’t figure out what had woken me up. I’m used to be hauled out of sleep by bad dreams, even with the meds but I didn’t think I had been dreaming. I couldn’t see straight. It was like I was looking through a rain-battered car windscreen. I pulled myself up and lurched to the bathroom, kicking my drink further across the room in the process. I slid the door aside and it made a noise like it was underwater. I staggered into the sink and rested my hands on it. I looked in the mirror.
Sweat was streaming down my face and neck. It rose up from under my hair, noticeably lifting it which is an eeries feeling – goosebumps being forced up from below. It sloshed into the sink. I stuck the plug into the plug hole and watched the sink slowly fill up. I stared at myself. My reflection was rippling, and it wasn’t just the thick Watcher sweat pouring out of me. That stuff was filling the sink and pooling on the floor around my feet. The flow down my face slowed and for a moment I could see my own face superimposed again on top of mine. A pulse of images invaded my vision. I saw myself stacking books in the corner of my living room, my own face terribly close up, a book flung across the room. Then I saw me asleep clutching a mug in my hands. Then a succession of images of me gazing at books, making tea. I saw the awful default expression I’d developed – a reserved, frozen sadness that permeated the kaleidoscope of views of myself I was receiving from my Watcher. I felt as if I were seeing its life flash before my eyes. A day spent with me. I watched us go to the supermarket and Argos. I watched myself pull the dead baby Watcher out of the recycling bin and then the road bouncing in front of me and trees, and grass and hands stretched out clawing back the earth, laying the torn Watcher inside and covering it up. That was the only part I hadn’t seen before in some way. Then there came police and the town hall meeting. A profound anxiety as I watched myself taking a seat in the town hall, and a great relief as I rejoined myself on leaving. The pub. Myself, ourself in the mirror. The grief on my own face, not that copied by my Watcher. His own sadness at my sadness. Then it sped up as we merged when Derek crashed through my ceiling. All our shared activity – acting as one, in sync and harmony in thought and deed. A wave of comfort washed through me as we destroyed the Omnopticon. Overwhelming relief at being free of the network and then all sight beginning to fade while we ran out of the service garage. And then nothing for a moment. All was black. All was white. I blinked, unsure whose eyes it was that weren’t working.
Dizzy from the swell of images I hung on tighter to the sink and looked down. I could see again. The sink was filled with the substance of the Watcher than had flooded out through my pores. My face formed in the clockwise swirl of the fluid. It smiled sadly at me. I reached out to touch it, but he had filled the sink too far. The level reached the overflow and he slid smoothly, completely through the hole and disappeared.
He was gone. All that remained were my tears hitting the smooth porcelain where he had been.
I held the picture of me and Katherine which lives on my bedside table.
I woke up again. I got up, I showered. I answered a few text messages on my phone and reassured my family that everything had been very weird but I was fine. Then I dug a tape measure out of the kitchen drawer where it had been mixing with forks, cocktail sticks and spare keys for doors and windows I didn’t have. I reckoned I could get another ten, maybe eleven book cases in the living room.