The air had a strange quality. I hated it, and it hated me. It pressed its disquieting form against my body. The cold in it had wormed long thin fingers into me. It knew my every movement as I knew its. We had been intimate for so long now.
A thin sheen of light-throwing slime coated the road and the buildings that grew squalid around me. Water had seeped through the cheap cloth of my boots and wrapped tight hands around my feet. I could feel the water climbing slowly up the legs of my pants, pulling the fabric against my skin and impeding my walking. The gentle ping of falling rain and my ringing footsteps on cobble set my teeth on edge, not that I could tell since the cold meant my teeth were chattering anyway.
There was something else here too, a more ambiguous hatred than that I shared with the cold. A hatred that had been with me for most of my life and a hatred most of me suspected was just there so I couldn’t tell how scared I was. It had grown closer recently as the sound from the city drew nearer. A systematic boom that shook the world until my heart pounded with it. It was so pervasive that I thought I might never move to different beat again.
The decrepit half-light from somewhere above was deferred through the white fog painting the world in greys. Ha! Nothing was black and white anymore. Textured darkness gave way a little to my left as the street curved and finally I saw my goal.
I hadn’t expected it to be so tall. It rose black against the night sky. While also seeming to hunch at the end of its cul-de-sac, as though it was trying to remain inconspicuous. There were no signs of life, though I suspected that was intentional. I knocked quietly. Shit, maybe too quietly.
I heard the booming pound three times before the door rattled and opened a crack. All I could see was one stern grey eye. There was a vacuous silence that I longed to fill. Pride fought with desperation for a split second before crumbling to nothing. I found the words I needed. I had run them through my mind again and again since leaving home.
“Rosa and Samantha hope you are well.”
For a second nothing, then a gruff whisper.
“Do they just?”
The eye disappeared for a second and a chain scraped against wood. The door was thrown wide and the dim light spilled onto the street. After the darkness, the light was harsh enough to make me squint. Now far more formally the doorman spoke clearly to the street at large.
“Welcome friend to my hearth and warmth.”
The shadow of a strict teacher straightened my back and I replied stiffly.
“Thank you. May we now both be warm.”
I was swept forward, extricated finally from the cold. I was completely engulfed in the warm gold of the hallway. Rough hands gripped my shoulders and steel eyes locked onto me. For a moment the gaunt face of the doorman flickered with a half remembered face from my childhood. Younger and more brown from days spent in the sun. Framed with long brown hair and an earring in one ear. Now the hair was more grey than brown and cropped short. Stubble defined a jaw line that looked as though it didn’t get as many square meals anymore. When he spoke, his voice was hushed and tired. He had never spoken much, from what I remembered, but when he had, there had been a warm singsong nature to his voice. All that was gone now.
“Sam and Rosa’s girl.” His gaze was so intently appraising that I longed to squirm from his grip and hide. I forced myself to stay still and meet his gaze.
“Well, Gail will be pleased; she has spoken of the three of you often.”
The phrase fell stark across the wall behind me. Though George seemed intent on me, his words seemed disconnected. He turned slowly and headed towards a set of stairs at the end of the corridor. Even the walls were trying to hide. ‘We’re nothing special’ their chipped paint and flaking wallpaper whispered. I followed George’s broad shoulders down the stairs and through a small door. The sounds and smells of a kitchen crashed against me, smashing some of the cold from me. Several people’s gaze turned to meet me. Many looked away immediately. I would have. One face however drifted towards me through the warmth. Again, flickering recollections flashed superimposed on her face. Dark eyes and skin lit by laughter. Her hair was always in her eyes and a slight overbite made her smile seem the size of the room.
“Is it?” her whisper was not as gruff and broken as George’s. Instead, it was laced with hope. “Erin?”
Behind me, George must have nodded because her hand took the place of her husband’s and she led me to a large table in the middle of the room. My back was to the large fire that was the room’s main light source. I felt its warmth follow paths the cold had carved through to my core. I felt the tyrannical cold’s grip melt and my muscles relax slightly.
Soup sloshed in a bowl that scrapped across wood. I don’t know why I remember the scrap so clearly; maybe it was the promise of food. Gail sat beside me, I remember the weight of her presence on my left arm. For a moment, I was swept up in the food. After weeks of cold stale bread and cheese so dry it could plaster walls, freshly made mushroom soup with hints of chicken stock was the most incredible meal I would ever eat. Gail asked a soft, quiet and very fearful question.
“Sam and Rosa are well?” I know she would hate me to say so but the intentions of hope and fear in her voice broke my heart. I had little recourse but to answer her.
“They are… well enough. Things with the Resistance are always a little complicated… They are safe from it all.” The thuds from the city grew louder for a moment as I sat uncomfortable in this shadowy half speak. I had always, since childhood, wished I could have spoken about things bluntly. The soft weight of Gail against me stiffened at mention of the Resistance “They didn't want me to come….” Internally I gasped and cut myself off. Frozen for a moment, stewing in fear and self-beratement. Why did I say that? Idiot, giving her a space to ask difficult questions that I could not answer.
It seemed like we didn’t really talk much after that. I was tired I guess. Besides, there never seemed to be anything left to talk about.
She didn’t ask me how my journey had been.
She didn’t ask me why I had left my mothers’.
We didn’t talk about the big thing.
I guess you’d call everything post soup dreamlike. I was lead to a small crowded room on the first floor. Three other women slept there too. The walls and beds were saturated in untold stories; thick and grey like a layer of grim. The room was built from shadows. What became my bed was wedged in a corner. It seemed to burn white, through the maelstrom; cleaned of the last set of stories that had slept there. Fear failed in the face of fatigue and with a worn smile to Gail, I fell onto the bed and was swallowed by sleep.
Gail smiled. It was soft and familiar like a song from my childhood. There was no coldness there. I hadn’t seen a warm smile since leaving my home. She took my hand and asked a question no one had cared to ask me for far too long.
“How was your sleep?”
I stared at her eyes and considered the question. My first night in the house had been the best night I had had in a while. There was a roof and food. In the creaking and soft hubbub of the half-sleeping house, it was easier to forget the thumping away across the hill.
“I slept like a baby.”
I gripped her hand for a moment then the pragmatic took over. Gail moved over to the stove, where porridge was bubbling tantalisingly. And I began to pull on my gloves and jacket, still a little damp from the night before. Gail turned back to face me, a biting expression of concern and confusion laced with suspicion.
I froze, the desperate deliberations from the days passed pounded for a moment in my mind. I had run over and over what I needed to do to get this far safely, but I had never been able to decide how to do this part. The leaving part. I had known Gail was going to question my desire to keep moving, why I was in such a rush. And I knew that if I told her she would not like my answer.
“I...” words failed and faulted, fucking say something Erin! “I…”
The same appraising gleam George had had the previous night now entered Gail’s eyes.
“You know perfectly well you could stay here with us as long as you like. We would be glad to have you.”
The package buried deep in my rucksack welled into my mind's eye despite my efforts. Unbidden but unavoidable I remembered my mothers back home. I remembered the deep and long friendship they had both shared with George and Gail. In the quiet kitchen I whispered the truth. Taking its heavy weight from my gut and dumping it before me, so I might float away from it.
"There isn’t a lot of time, otherwise I wouldn’t... I'm on a mission, for the Resistance."
The kitchen was suddenly no longer quiet. The porridge pot slipped in Gail's hand and clanged against the stove. George slammed the table and for the first time to my memory he yelled.
“They got to you too! I had hoped…it was bad enough when Samantha started lending her healing hands to their bloody cause. But… they can not save us!” rage broke his sentence in two then grief was left. “All the Resistance does is get people killed.”
Such a quiet, softly spoken man now boiling over in futile anger.
“I know they have some radical methods…” In that moment, I felt an uncomfortable embarrassment as I remembered how a younger me had thought about the Resistance. Freedom fighters building a better world.
A better world in blood and ash. My mouth was suddenly dry. I tried to ignore my ticking conscience, helping people die for a revolution that would never end. No! I had to keep my parent’s safe. I’d deal with the rest later.
“Look, I don’t get to care about all that anymore. This time it isn’t some grandiose violent gesture, I’m not killing anyone… long story short within the next twenty-four hours the Global Protection Committee is going to have the names of every member of the resistance... Both Mum and Ma are on that list. I found a way to stop it. So I… I have to.”
I wished I could keep the doubt out of my voice but the claxon calls of both my mothers’ voices rang too loudly for that. In that warm gold room I questioned my choices, their descent an uncomfortable stone cloak pulling at my resolve. George's face was a winter storm, cold and surly but Gail held my gaze a little more kindly.
“Ok. What is this way you've found?” Her voice took up very little of the room, it was almost a whisper, but her gaze was steady and sharp.
I couldn’t keep anything from them anymore.
“A computer virus. It just formats everything. It’ll wipe their servers, taking the intel including everyone’s names with it. We-” I shuddered, We! “Had no way to remotely deliver it. So I’m doing a hard install.”
Hearing the words laid out into the world it seemed so simple.
A change had come over George he was watching his wife with quiet fear.
“How long do Sam and Rosa have?” Gail’s whisper had a strange edge to it now.
“The Resistance reckons it will take the G.P.C ninety-six hours to crack their encryptions. We have about twenty-five hours left before that estimate runs out, after that I don’t know.”
A battle seemed to be waging behind Gail’s thoughtful exterior. Finally she mused, more to herself than anyone else.
“Sam and Rose will not like this. But I’d rather they be angry and alive, in whatever world we get, better than the alternative...” Then her whisper suddenly ended. She met and held my gaze. All emotion had been usurped by pragmatism. “You shouldn’t go alone.” clipped and efficient now.
A low, soft, sad sigh leaked from George’s frayed edges. Husband and wife turned to face each other and I felt the air between them grow thick with communication. George seemed to seethe with ideas, with pleads, with cries of grief. For a moment, they made up everything he was. Finally, they receded and he nodded. Gail briefly squeezed his hand then bustled out of the room. George and I were frozen in slices of pale sunlight through high windows wedged near the ceiling. For a moment gelatinous time swelled around us. Finally George shrugged and moved over to the stove. As he moved he threw words gruffly over his shoulder.
“You should get some food into you kid, you have a long walk ahead of you.”
Slowly and disjointedly I sat down. The enormity of what Gail had so straightforwardly offered me chipped at the stone cloak of my doubts. I could not believe what she was risking for me. Even though I knew she wasn’t only doing it for me, but for Mum and Ma and the years they had shared, but traveling with her and having someone there in the cold hours of the night as I reached the city would mean more to me than I could ever say.
It seemed like time didn’t quite pass properly then. It bloated and stretched but also passed in blink. I stood facing the front door. Part of me hoping that I could stay there in the safe warmth for a little longer. The air behind me shifted. George was leaning on the banister down to the kitchen. The stormy eyes seemed to clear for a moment and he said.
“Stay safe.” The words were so small in the space between us. Until he moved forward, they fitted a little better then. Other words danced in his eyes but those words were too big for any space. Instead, he pulled me into a firm hug. For a moment the hug hung, distilled in the pounding beat away over the hills
I turned away as Gail moved onto the landing and they embraced. A conversation built itself in whispered as I tried in vain not to listen. Then Gail’s thin fingers wrapped around the door handle and broke open a world of cold mist. With a quiet sigh I pushed into the billowing outside and began to walk.
The town was deathly silent. Any rustling of people or creature was eaten by the mist. Even with the sun climbing to midday the mist cloaked the world in half-truths and houses grew like beasts in my vision. I shivered. Gail gently passed me, ducking into the fold of a building she placed a nervous question into the fog.
“We don’t have time to avoid the road, we’ll never make it in time if we try to hide in the bush. Are you prepared to walk along the highway?”
Walk along the highway. Never knowing what was more than three metres in either direction. The prospect was enough to stop my heart in my chest, but I had known it would come. Solemnly I nodded.
“I knew I’d have to. I’d hoped but...”
A sad smile of reassurance broke over Gail’s dark face. She kindly took my hand.
“We won’t be completely exposed. In a patrol car, we will almost certainly hear them coming before they see us. Come.” her hand holding mine she pulled me onwards. Her hollow reassurance wrapped around me like a blanket. It would not keep me safe but it was a help.
A low grumble suddenly broke through thick air. A patrol car a street away. Gail grabbed my arm and ducked back into a shambling door. Every muscle in my body was ridged with fear. My fear grew to fill my head. In three days of walking alone they had never gotten this close. The fear blotted out the world. Until I noticed another sound, under the rumble, under the booming. A whispered count. I glanced at Gail. She was staring intently at the swirling mist. She muttered a count that seemed as alien to me as it seemed familiar to her. Finally as she counted to sixty-four the grumble was swallowed by fog.
We had painted hours of ponderous foot falls through empty streets. Four more times we had heard the low grumble play off the booming. Each time was the same, duck, hide, count. By the third time I was counting with her. “Twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine…” My heart rattled against my ribs until we reached sixty-four. And each time once the count was up we kept walking, straining for the next sound.
Gail’s gait ahead of me changed. She slowed and turned to look at me over her shoulder. We had reached the highway. I could see its face of shops climbing away to my left and its empty curve stretching away to my right. The cracked and decaying tar giving way to farmland I knew was there but could not see. Gail’s hand found its way back to mine and in a moment of stillness held it tightly.
“We will stop a moment in Thropney Ally.” she whispered “we could get all the way to the city and it will mean nothing if we’re exhausted.”
I nodded and turned into Thropney Ally. It was small and dark, the buildings seemed to grow wider as they grew taller, arching over us like an ancient forest. I pulled the weight of my pack off my shoulders and slammed the shoulder against a wall. I followed the path of the building to the ground. Everything was saturated with wet, but so was I so it hardly mattered. I took a deep breath through the motion and the weight of Gail coming to rest beside me. She was warm against my arm and shoulder. The breath I drew pulled calmness into my muscles. I let my head tip back. For a moment I closed my eyes to the glare of the mist now catching a hidden afternoon sun. I was adrift in a world of wriggling darkness, aching muscles and of course that booming. Then a soft weight on my shoulders opened my eyes. Gail had leaned into me, her head on my shoulder. Her arm wrapped around mine. And it occurred to me in that shivering alleyway that maybe Gail was afraid. Maybe she always had been and I was so consumed by my own fear I hadn’t noticed. I reached up a pale hand and rested it on her shoulder. I felt the warm solidness of her, the tug of her jacket catching on my glove. I leant my head on hers. Frizzy hair brushing my cheek, the curve of her skull against my face. We didn’t move for nearly a minute. Then Gail squeezed my arm and straightened up. She smiled a small smile at me and pulled her pack towards her. Food and water right. We ate and drank. Gail had filled my bag with nuts and dried fruit, sweet and crunchy. Then all too quickly we were moving again.
Soon the hulking mass of ponderous creatures that made up Gale’s home town had faded long into obscurity. I could do little more than watch Gail's shoulders or my own feet. My eyes grew unimportant, all my attention was funnelled to my ears. Strained desperately in silence listening for the slightest indication of a patrol car. Then in a world of white I heard a sound outside myself. At first it was at the edge of hearing. A low whine. Fuck. The whine moved in the air, growing ever closer.
“Gail.” my whisper came out fraught and stretched tight with fear.
Gail turned in her cloak of mist. Her eyes were bright and scared. She reached out for me. We both staggered to the edge of the road. Gail lead the charge into the gutter. We lay, faces pressed against freezing concrete, waiting for the glaring fog lights and shuddering car. But then my fear changed as the sound grew closer. It wasn't a car, it didn't sound right. It was too close and still too quiet.
“I don't think…” I began before the mist relented enough for us to see its shape. A panther, nearly a metre long and half as tall. Shivering and atrophied, it's matted fur adorned it back like ship wrecking rocks on a dangerous coast. No longer was it sleek and clean under a zookeepers hand. It's whine became a hiss, dripping with desperate hunger and slime. It's cold yellow eyes were mad with starvation. My fear had sent roots deep into the ground around me, binding me to the spot. But Gail scrambled to her feet. She stood as a mountain beside me, staring down the beast.
The panther watched her, it's muscles moving, reading to strike. She had nothing to fight with but guile. Finally I managed to pull myself free of fear. I scrambled on the ground for something, anything. My desperate fingers grazed tar and small stones until finally they wrapped around a stick. On my feet now, I drew the stick up over my head. It tugged at me, throwing me to the right. Pulling against its tug I swung the stick through the air. It began to build up speed, whooshing around and around my head. The air buzzed with its motion. Tattered fog swirled in unearthly slices. The panther hunched close to the road, transfixed. I felt a scream boil through my throat and spill from my mouth. The stick was twice as tall as I was and almost too heavy to lift, adrenaline got it over my head.
The bleached bush limb struck the side of the Panther’s head. The built up motion transformed to energy with the strike. It shuddered up my arm and through the thing's skull. I know if it hadn't been half starved we would have been dead. But the thing barely had enough energy to drag itself up from my strike. So as I dragged the stick once more up, up, up, the thing hunched low and scampered, littering the air with a final hiss.
We both stood, our breath staggering from us as the mist returned to its previous lazy swirling. At first I stared into space and then I stared at Gail. With the danger passed my fear began to leak from me in the form of frigid laughter. It took Gail a moment longer but soon she joined me, her quiet laugh sliding under and around my raucous cackle.
“I hope I never have to stare down that glare. I reckon it did as much as the stick did.”
Tiredness and cold were tapping at my bones as the last of the darkness of night became absolute. We had spent nearly three hours scurrying through the city. Unlike Gail's home town these hulking creatures were vicious slashes of darkness, climbing high into a murky sky. Most buildings throughout the city were dark and crumbling through inactivity. I felt the cold sickly feeling of an uncomfortable thought skulk through my mind. Just further signs of a dwindling world, and the G.P.C’s strictest regulations, making a world without siblings.
We huddled in the shadow of a service door. Winding corridors painted our way back in half seen walls. We had avoided patrols this far through nail biting counting. Now there were no more patrols, we were in too deep for that. In our wake an unconscious guard slumbered under flickering fluorescent lights. We had maybe half an hour before she was found. My hands shaking I pressed her stolen key card to the scanner beside the door. The door hissed as it opened, texturing the buzzing silence of twenty servers.
Twenty pillars of technology each giving off its own whirring and glow. Huge pipes punctuated them, keeping the humming things cool enough to work. My fear showing through my hesitant steps I lead us to the main operation system. A small keyboard was wedged under a flickering screen. A pillar of different ports climbed in the shadows beside it. I dropped to my knees, pulling my pack off as I fell. Deep, buried under nuts and dried fruit, under clothes and a small tattered copy of Othello I found the bundle. Wrapped first in packing paper then an old blue shirt it was dull and small, I almost felt it should be grand and glowing. Fear still shaking me I tugged at the wrappings until I was holding a small black USB drive. I swung my pack back onto my shoulders.
I jabbed the USB at the machine but my hands were too unsteady, when I didn't miss I was shaking too much to clear the plug. Then I felt Gail's hand on mine.
“Easy, even I know that's no way to plug in a flash drive.” Her voice was hushed but had a metallic, jovial nature. It was as pretend as a child's imagined world but her whisper and the feeling of her hand on mine meant my grip steadied.
The install took nearly five minutes. Fear swirled in my gut as Gail and I fell through time in a world made of soft sounds. Both of us always watching the slowly climbing blue bar, dragging itself across the screen. Finally one question in chilling blue, etched forever into my mind's eye.
Format and restart?
And that was it. In a world of half-darkness, ignoring any niggling doubts I had, I wiped the most powerful computer in the world. There was a soft whirr as each server picked up the virus and shut down.
For a moment the darkness became absolute, leaving only sounds and the soft pressure of air to tell me anything of the world. Then a violent red glow broke over the room. Pulsating alarms screeched. In the distance feet pounded across hard floors.
We scrambled to our feet, moving desperately together. The tiny service door we'd snuck in via clicked shut behind us. Through its wood we heard the door on the other side of the server room slam open.
I guess we got lucky then. We ran for nearly twenty minutes following the path we'd come in by. Our thunderous feet fell beside the lolling heads of unconscious guards below the red glare of the claxon call. In moments we were out into the frigid night. Wind whipped around my shoulders and through my hair. My heart carved itself a new home at the base of my throat. And each shuddering connection of my running feet passed through me like a summer storm. Finally the mist would be our friend. We would slipped into it like a rabbit into a bush, wrapped in invisibility. After running for an age we staggered into one of the hulking, shadowy, abandoned buildings, cowering between crumbling walls and hole riddled rooves.
In the cold, pearly whiteness a voice echoed. It was cool and dispassionate, a calm dissertation on the suffering to come.
“Citizens. Militant action against you government is punishable by death. If you are found to have performed any militant action you will be persecuted. If you have any information your government urges you to come forward. Do not let this virus grow.”
“Do not let this virus grow.” Those words had rung in my mind first three years ago in that cold misty hovel and now in a glaring room filled with sunlight. It had started small, rumours.
A bullet ricochet off the doorway behind me, I felt the splinters sprinkle along my neck.
Then the rumours became more than stories. The fabled Resistance, saviours of The People; cutting up children to see how they worked. Killing kids for going to school, just because the school was a government school.
Another bullet struck the door frame.
It wasn't until I saw a six year old boy face down in the dirt, red shirt damp with blood that I realised the depth of my mistake. My parents had seen this coming, so had George and Gail. Gail, like me, had decided my parents’ lives meant more.
I pushed up against the door frame, and keeping my head low I ducked toward an upturned table.
They meant more than a clandestine end of the Resistance, that would have built martyrs of stone in the minds of the people. This war could have ended.
I kicked the table hard, it slid across the wooden floor and collided with a dark shape moving against the sun.
Now we have two evils. Now so many people have died. Ma says it doesn’t do to double guess. But what else am I to do in a world of blood if I do not wish to be a monster?
I pushed my way through the door out into the blinding sun, and ran for my fucking life.