Monday, 21 December 2015

Solstice Question



Verity stepped out into a garden bathed in ridiculously warm air. She could sense the trees and plants still growing: the air didn’t smell of Winter. 2017 had been even hotter than the previous two years, both of which had broken records.

The pale sun, just visible over the hedge, stood still behind its thin patterned veil of clouds. 

She had never before sat out on the lawn in December; it struck her as such an outlandish prospect that she felt compelled to do so. Eighteen degrees. The canopy had blown off the swinging seat in last week’s gales and she still felt too weak to shift it, so she got out a light, folding deckchair. 

She sat and contemplated Solstice. The year turning: what had she done since this time last year..? 

“Thinking about me, lass?”

She felt Mills’ hands on her shoulders. 

“Mills... she turned with difficulty to see him.

go carefully: it’s still a bit delicate there. You know they had to saw through bones.”

“Aye, lass, I can tell.”

He spread out his hands on her shoulders.

“Phases, recall? But it’s healing: your mortal bones, they rebuild themselves, all the time, hmm?” She felt him finding the knots in her shoulders, her neck, complicated by their recent ordeal. He went carefully.

“Now then lass: I came here to ask you a question.”

No Blue Bomber this year. Had she mortally offended him by turning down the offer of his long lifespan?

“No lass, don’t fret.”

“How could you tell_”

“It put you in fear, just for a moment there, that you might have hurt my feelings. But you haven’t. Not now. I understand the reason for your choice last year: perfectly sensible. I regret I didn’t think it through properly at the time. And now, with your heart repaired, you have a long life before you. Long lives, even, what with the extra one my misdemeanour has afforded you.”

Verity mentally rehearsed the words she could use, if in mortal danger, to summon her extra life:

About, that, life, I’m, owed.

“Might you... er... is it even possible..?”

“Aye lass. When the time is right, there will be another offer.”

Silence fell. Silence, except for birdsong. The sort, Verity noticed, that you usually don’t hear until the Spring. 

“I came here this year to ask you a different question altogether.”

“Oh. Fire away.”

“A simple yes or no.”

He paused,

“Would you allow me to take you to, any place of my choosing?”

She didn’t like the tone of those last five words. 

“What... place?”

“Oh I reckon you know, lass.”

“No! You said you’d never make me go there again_”

“Make you go there, no. But the question was, would you let me, allow me, of your own free will, to take you there?”

He lowered his voice and bent towards her.

“Would you trust me there?”

“No. Still no. You yourself said I should never trust you.”

“Aye, that I did. And when I said that, you took that piece of advice, didn’t you?”

He spelled it out slowly:

“You trusted my advice. So you trusted me. Didn’t you?”

“That’s not fair! That’s...sophistry! I...the advice itself was good. Given what you’d just done to me - left me on Blencathra in the sleet, in just a thin robe, barefoot - I’d have taken the same piece of advice from anybody. Heck, I’d have taken it from that bastard former Prime Minister!” she paused before adding finally:

“So there!!”

Mills rubbed his chin. “Hm.”

“Very well. Would you, take it as a challenge? To let me_”

“In my current state? With bones yet to heal and... Mills I’d never recover! Never be... structurally sound again! It’s ridiculous! I wouldn’t be able to lift things...” 

Mills’ silence made her ill-at-ease.

“Aye. You’re in no fit state for the rack, are you lass. But that wasn’t what I had in mind.”

“Mills, stop it!” She got up and turned to face him.

“If you’re going to carry on like that, you can clear off!”

Over three months now without a migraine, since her heart had been repaired. She was not going to let him break that run: the longest in her adult life.

“Aye, lass. You’re thinking what I’m thinking aren’t you?”

She felt his hands in her hair. On her soft spot, her temples...

“Enhanced. With electrodes for the eye sockets. And best of all: virtual. Not a mark.”

Shut up!! I’ve got bloody Sinus Tachycardia! You think this is going to do it any good?” 

Only when she’d finished her outburst did she notice he’d taken his hands from her head. Notice what he held, by their stalks, out towards her. 

“Oh my GOD Mills that really isn’t fair!”

“You’d do it - you’d take a challenge like this - for your family’s County, wouldn’t you?”

He held the white rose out for her.

She stared into the depths of its petals, lost in them. Their roots, she noticed, had a yellow tinge. 

That’s not fair... She glanced across at the red rose Mills held in his other hand: no yellow tinge there.

She was not a coward. She had no yellow fears. She would not be outdone.  

She could feel her heart overdoing it: could practically hear it. Overclocking, as she'd joked to Andrei on his computer.  

Sinus Tachycardia...

Sing, dance; send Fear away.

Would it be possible to sing, or think of dancing, in the virtual head-crusher? If she were there, could she?

Four years ago in May, Andrei’s birthday. Sinus Tachycardia, playing at Manchester Arena. Probably their last tour ever. She'd bought tickets for the two of them: mother and son. She had migraine. Excruciating, even after taking enough painkillers to make her start seeing things. Extra things, in addition to the usual black flashes with their sickening edges. Did she bail? No! She got up, got dressed and went. Beyond pain: sing, dance... 

Yes it was possible. 

She took the white rose.

“Good lass.”

The roses vanished.

She stared at Mills’ face. “What was all that about?”

“I needed to know that you’re up to it, lass.”

“Up to... what?”

“To what happens next.”


Saturday, 28 November 2015

Trigeminy



“No,” said Verity, “It’s ridiculous.”

Sacha sneezed.

“You can’t drive me to Leeds with a temperature of, what was it, nearly forty? You’d be a bloody menace on the roads and then you’d be Typhoid Mary on the ward_”

“I wouldn’t go to the ward.”

 Sacha hadn’t got the point, as usual.

“It wouldn’t do you any good. And it’d make me more likely to catch it too. Imagine sneezing when your ribcage’s held together with bits of wire: no. Stop it. I’m going to get you some elderberry drink and bring you some lunch here and then I’m off.”

“Can’t you go tomorrow instead?”

“No. Tomorrow’s four weeks. Monday. Remember we noticed Rembrandt’s always there on a Sunday evening, talking with her Monday patients? I want to catch her. And I don’t want to catch bloody ‘flu.”

She kissed him, and went to fetch her combat knife and a lighter.


*****


Verity, deep in thought, looked out over the grey, rain-swept fields.

They must be tracking me, I suppose...must be able to tell I’m on the move. Must probably have guessed where I’m heading. Sod it: should’ve let Sacha drive us. But then they might’ve tried to run us off the road, like that bloke did with Kate Adie...Sacha might’ve got injured. And my ribs hurt. You can’t win...

The train pulled up at Leeds station and she headed for the ticket barrier. It swallowed her ticket, unmoved.

Bugger. They’re here! Perfect place to catch me.

She headed for a ticket inspector who looked promisingly British: a black lad with a toothy grin.
 
“Sorry, I...it wouldn’t let me through. I’ve still got the receipt for the ticket if you need proof_”
 
“Oh they often do that when it’s rainin’: wet tickets get stuck.”

He let her through the wide gate, along with the prams and wheeled suitcases.

“Thanks.”

The incident put her on-edge. That bunch of people...is it them? That bloke? No: wonky teeth. She wished she’d had the presence of mind to put on more lip moisturiser before leaving the train. She thought about taking the shuttle bus rather than walking to the Jubilee Building: perhaps less likely to get ambushed. It meant turning right rather than left out of the station, and crossing the_

Looked right: there’s a sodding great S.U.V.! It’s them!

She crossed the road, walking away from it.

A shot rang out.

Someone else took it: not me. Get in that concrete stairwell...

Down the curved stars, out of sight.  

It led to Neville Street and the four-lane underpass with its strange sighing wall: an art installation. And to the Dark Arches

They won’t be able to pick up the signal from there. I can disappear and come out the other side: I bet they don’t even know it exists...

She pushed through the bedraggled metal fence and walked along the deserted former car-park. The arches with their four channels for the river Aire. Designed by her ancestor, Engineer Bennett. She smiled in the dark. The dark that hid her. 

Breaths came sharply: her heartbeat was pegged and unable to rise to the occasion. Had the brakes on.

Brake my heart...

She got to the steps which led down to the fourth of the river culverts, with its concrete walkway. The darkest place, where she’d first encountered the Cocktail Party. The three operatives, who’d now switched sides and deserted her. Difficult to climb over the fence to reach the steps: pains shot up and down her chest where the wires held it together. 

I’m not supposed to be doing this...

Suddenly the car-park flooded with cold white light. She heard the S.U.V. crash through the fence, drive towards where she’d been just a second ago, and park up directly above her. Doors slammed. Footsteps.
 
Other footsteps were coming towards her along the walkway. She ducked round behind the steel steps just as two sets of sparks shot off them. No gunshot, only a whistling sound.

She hoped they couldn’t hear her breathing. Trying to calm her breath, she hoped she wouldn’t pass out. 

Boots on the stairs, heading down over her. Another gunshot: away from her. More tasers, coming back towards the steps. The drive spark lit up a face: a face wearing those N.V.G.s. The optics, invented by Sacha, now in Enemy hands: on Enemy eyes.

Somebody grabbed her from behind. 

Three twists: pull the knife, twist to stab, twist then pull back. 

Thanks, Black Mountain

A dark figure collapsed near her feet. 

A pain shot up her sternum.

More gunshots: more taser sparks. But they didn’t seem to be getting any nearer. If anything they were receding. And concentrating more on each other than on her. 

She clung to the steps. It became difficult to stand. She could tell: whoever had the Remote was at it again.  Denying her the heartbeats that she needed. 

Footsteps, walking, coming slowly towards her. 

This isn’t a good enough place to hide: What if he’s got N.V.G.s on? Or some kind of infra-red camera?

She spotted an iron ladder leading down into the water: into the black Aire, swollen with the rain.

Yes, if I take three steps down that, I’m completely out of sight of whoever this is, and then when they give up looking, and I think all the other ones have gone now, I can just get back up and be on my way...

The chilling water tugged at her legs as she stepped down: she could tell it would drag her away if she lost hold of the ladder’s uprights. She wrapped her arms around them and listened for the footsteps. Nothing. 

Embracing the ladder, she closed her eyes and waited. Time became strange. 

Perhaps it’s safe now. Safe to climb up.

She opened her eyes and looked up.

Golden uprights. Golden rungs: thirteen of them, and they belong to someone called Jacob. Thirteen beats to the bar. Clouds at my feet. Just a perfectly normal day. I’d better get a move on, towards that hand at the top there, help me up. A left hand: and all those twazzocks saying their god’s right-handed... 

She started to climb.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Couplet



“So, gentlemen: this is our first subject. Our pioneer, if you like. Meet Patient Zero.”

Professor Austin addressed his two students. One of whom, Verity noticed, was female. 

The Professor’s voice was lower and more carefully-spoken than Verity remembered: she wondered if he had the ‘flu. She stared blankly at the wall behind his left shoulder. 

There was Jamila in her damask robes, turning her chair round and getting out her little book for morning prayers. She put a shawl over her head. Verity wished she could do the same; she was finding it hard not to smile at her own ingenuity.

*****

“Helen, Jamila,” she had said earlier, over breakfast, “I don’t know if I ever told you, but I volunteer for experiments. As a, er, subject. And I heard yesterday that these guys, the latest lot, they’ve just got their grant money through. They’re psychologists. Or psychiatrists, I can’t remember.”

“Are they coming here, to the ward?”

“Yes.” Verity looked into her empty breakfast bowl. “I’m really sorry_”

“What are they going to do?” asked Jamila.

“Just...look at me and, try and talk with me. It’s like a Turing Test_”

Helen looked up. Verity could tell she’d never heard of such a thing.

“They’ve got, fifty real mental patients, and fifty of us who’ve got nothing wrong with us. And we’ve got to pretend to be, you know, one thing short of a wotnot, and then without doing any physical tests, like brainwaves and stuff, they’ve got to tell the real ones from the, er,”

“Players?”

Verity grinned. “Yeah. Players.”

“So I take it your sponsored silence_”

“Ooh thanks, yes, that’s a point!”

She took down the notice about Amnesty International. “Yes: I’ve not really much choice have I..?”

“You must be mad.” Helen had said.

*****

The Professor came around beside Verity’s bed, pulled up a chair and sat down. He leaned in. 
 
“Hello, Verity.” He spoke slowly and carefully, looking right into her eyes

Verity stared blankly past him and out of the window.

“Do you remember who I am?”

“Judge your honour...” said Verity in a monotone. She noticed the male student snigger.

“Can you hear_”

“Hear...” Verity echoed.

The female student came over. 

“Can you remember your name?”

“My...prayer...” Verity remembered to squint: disconcert them. The female student backed off a little. 

“Yes: Player, that’s right.” said the male student with a smile that even Verity could see was fake. “Verity,” he looked down at his clipboard, “Imelda, Player.” She decided she didn’t like him. She stared straight in his eyes and announced:

“I’ve just cut my good man’s throat.”

She saw Helen grinning and stifling a laugh. Thankfully Jamila was still in deep communion with The Merciful.

The Professor’s right hand flashed up to slap Verity, but her own left arm moved quicker to block: defence. 

“Self-preservation.” said the male student. “Surely getting rid of the drive for self-preservation will prove more difficult than the work done so fa_”

“And what, exactly, would you know about these complex cognitive processes, hmm? Of the statistical calculations involved in analysing and modifying them? Of the search, the screening, the vetting, for the ideal, first subject? Ewan?

Verity noticed ‘Ewan’s ears turn red. 


The Professor turned pale. He got up and left the bay, followed by his two students. Verity watched them out of the ward door until it had closed.

“They’ve gone”, she said.

The Colonel walked in with a coffee. 

“Oh, thank you.” She smiled up at him.

“You were damn good!”

“Thank you, Colonel. Have you met Helen and Jamila, by the way?”

The Colonel’s eyes widened on seeing Jamila.

“Is that a real, y’know, Moslem?”

“Yes. She’s praying.”

“Well, OK. Now, let’s talk about Cassie. Methods: tactics. You ‘member the tone?”

Verity hummed it.

“She ain’t gonna get scared off like your Prof, and she ain’t got a stinkin’ hangover neether_”

“Was he hung over?”

“Sure, couldn’t you tell? ‘Mazed you didn’t get tipsy just sittin’ near the guy.”

“You...weren’t...”

In. No I wasn’t. Trusted ya to do a good job. You play soccer don’tcha? Defense.”

“Used to.”

“One-up at half-time, huh? Whatcha gotta do now?”

“Er...keep my nerve.”

“Sure. Defend good. I can go in and tell if you’re losin’ it, if ya like. If it don’t disconcert ya.”

“What could you do, though? If I_”

“Sit in the lounge there, line o’sight, and give y’a signal. Biofeedback.”

“That might help actually, yes.”

Verity spent the rest of the morning on-edge. Just before lunch she went to the window and looked, once more, at the evil Plant Building. Recalled the lad she had seen in Helen’s chair. Decided not to tell Helen about it: thankfully everybody had slept right through the fracas. 

Hurts. Sicks. 

She grasped the handle to open the window. No infrasound today.

And screamed out loud:

Oh my God!! Infrasound! Hertz! Six!! That lad...Six Hertz!! Bloody hell! Am I thick or what??”

When she turned round to apologise to Helen and Jamila, she slammed straight into Cassie. 

Can love beeee...

She hummed the tone in her head: block Cassie’s signal. 

She couldn’t see the Colonel. She didn’t know how a broken person should walk. She recalled the R.T.I. video she'd watched last year, took its advice about emergency situations and collapsed.

Cassie knelt beside her. Someone's footsteps headed for the Nurses’ Station. 

“Are you OK?” Cassie’s voice. Footsteps headed in towards her.

“All the excitement proving a bit too much for us, is it?” Dr Wheeler’s voice. “General, I think we’d better allow Mrs Player a bit of quiet, hadn't we?”

Cassie wouldn’t budge.

Thud.” said Verity.

Cassie’s footsteps receded.

Dr Wheeler knelt beside Verity, but she could tell his attention lay elsewhere. She heard the ward door close.

“Well done,” said Dr Wheeler, putting down Verity's discharge report and medications so as to offer her a hand up. 

“I think we had her fooled, don’t you?”

Verity couldn’t quite believe her ears.