“Can we go again, tomorrow?” he asks, rubbing his eyes.
“Maybe,” I say, “If you’re good.”
We’ll go again tomorrow. And the next day. Again and again forever, if that’s what he wants.
“Will the ice cream van be there?”
I smile, which should be answer enough.
Standing up now, reaching for the switch, dimming the light to orange glow. I wait for his eyes to close, his breathing to soften, then lean down and kiss his forehead, savouring the sweetness on my lips, thinking now is all there is.
But I know there’s more.
A ferrous clinking from downstairs. The same every time. I stand frozen, trying to still my breathing, straining to hear. Somebody is down there, in the kitchen.
Now a pop, drip, rain coming in. A distant shift, pumps picking up, burbling and whining. The scuffing of feet on vinyl tiles, the familiar yet furtive whispers…
I shudder and clench my teeth. Why am I so afraid when I know exactly what’s coming?
My advocate is surprisingly emotive, considering the fact that he’s a budget distributed code with limited sentience.
> I will make the case for your increased subscription, Miss Graham, but your dependence is beginning to cause me concern.
“I would remind you, B, that I am free to do what I wish with my own money.”
I’ve been out of the bath for 5 minutes, the humdrum life beginning to seep back into my consciousness. There are three other women moving about in the chamber. Two are taking an air blast, and one is flopping around at the edge of the bath, struggling to detach the line from her neck. I could go over and help her, but that would lead to conversation, and I haven’t the energy.
“B? Where did I leave my clothes?”
> I’m surprised you don’t remember. Hook 100417. The date of your birth.
“Why are you being so tetchy?”
He’s starting to get on my nerves, and I consider switching him to dormant. But he’s even more of a pain when he wakes, running through all those routines. So I simply ignore him, pulling on my yellow dress as quickly as I can, slipping my feet into my scuffed sandals, and heading out towards the reception desk.
As I cut through the sensors, my credit appears briefly in my far field. Six thousand four hundred. The girl at reception flashes me a knowing smile.
My apartment is on the twelfth floor. Food has already been served. Noodles with teriyaki sauce, warm and steam sterilised.
“B, I’m going to ask you a question, and I want a factual answer, not your opinions. Let’s say I go back to work for a couple of years, on previous terms and pay plus adjustments. I increase my daily immersion to six hours, including weekends. How many days could I afford?”
> Seven hundred and sixty-two, assuming taxes remain constant and at their current rates.
That would take me from my son’s fifth to his seventh birthday. I try to picture him when he was five—tall for his age, his hair turning auburn. Not for the first time, I find myself wondering if his hair might eventually have turned out as dark as his father’s.
> If you don’t mind me saying, Miss Graham, I don’t think that you. . .
“No opinions, remember? I am done with opinions! Please build six hours daily immersion into my case. And contact my old employer—check that they actually want me back.”
I shovel a spoonful of noodles into my mouth, wincing as the sauce hits the ulcers on my tongue.
> I shall prepare your case straight away, Miss Graham.
The school is only a block away, and we arrive with plenty of time to spare. On our way in, we pass the school sign with its notice on admittance procedures, updated once a week. Although it doesn’t go as far as to say boys are welcome, it implies that they are more than simply tolerated. I hope it stays that way.
I run a comb through Freddie’s hair and adjust the straps on his shoulder pack. My feeds are telling me there’s a 90% chance of rain this morning, so I unzip his pack to check that his coat is inside.
“Now Freddie, remember what I said. It’s important to listen to your teachers. To do what they say.”
He looks up at me, his big blue eyes dancing with excitement. “Ollie’s here! Can I go play?” He runs off before I can even verbalize an answer.
Ollie’s mother—I think she’s called Violet—messages my near field: I’m glad they’re starting together. Good that there’s another boy. I hope this school treats them well.
Freddie and Ollie have found a ball from somewhere and have begun a rough and enthusiastic game of football on the concrete. Some of the girls’ mothers are looking on them with expressions of disgust. I want to say something to them, to berate them for their display of herd-mentality. But I daren’t, for Freddie’s sake.
The bell rings, and about a hundred girls start screeching and rushing for the gates. Freddie and Ollie don’t seem to have noticed. I send an alert to his audio: Stop playing now, Freddie. School has begun.
The message must have got through, for he stops kicking the ball around, picking it up and stuffing it into his friend’s bag.
A ping to my near field: Can I bring my own ball tomorrow?
I think I read in the school rules that balls weren’t allowed.
I see him safely inside the gate, then wait until the chatter and the bustle has died down, and I can hear my own breathing. I feel a little shaken, but at least I didn’t cry in front of him.
Later that evening, we’re sitting at the table eating chips and beans, Freddie’s favourite. He’s been babbling happily about his day. Having his feeds disabled whilst at school wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be. He and Ollie painted a picture of a big grey elephant, and the teacher said she might even put it up on the classroom wall. He’s half way through talking about his lunchtime run-around with Ollie when he stops suddenly, a quizzical look on his face.
“Mum, what are warm hungers?”
I’m used to some bizarre questions, but this one’s weirder than most. I check for clarification.
“When we were kicking the ball around, some girls came up to us, shouting ‘warm hungers’ over and over. I didn’t get it. We’d already had our lunch.”
I swallow hard, trying not to betray my concern.
“Some people just say nonsense things, Freddie. Ignore them.”
“That’s what we did, but one of the teachers got really angry and came over and told us to go inside.”
I sigh and lean across to the freezer to grab him an ice lolly. “Anyway, how big was that elephant you drew?”
After I’ve read him his story and put him to bed, I cry harder than I have done in a long time.
> Advocate for Client Miss Polly Graham, 12-23B Gates Rise. Presenting case for increase of immersion time. Client currently on four hours per day. Prospecting for increase to six hours per day.
>> Availability confirmed. Checking client data.
500 milliseconds wait. Longer than usual.
>> Our algorithms have identified your client as having a possible sympathetic vulnerability. To proceed further, her case must be presented to a Biological attorney.
> She’s not going to like that.
>> They never do.
“What the hell is a sympathetic vulnerability?”
> It’s a broad term, Miss Graham. My guess is that you are perceived as a possible sympathiser with the male cause. And therefore a potential threat to the Order of Peace.
“You’ve got to be joking, B! I haven’t as much as spoken to a man for years.”
> If it’s any reassurance, I personally do not regard you as a threat to the Order.
Well whoopee-fucking-doo—my advocate, designed and coded to be on my side, is on my side.
Inside I am fuming, so much so that if B were of flesh and blood, I would probably slap him. And hard, too; knock the bastard out. What is the problem? I’ve asked for an increase of just two hours. Some of the girls I know are on ten hours a day.
“How long before my case can be heard?”
> Your queue position is 3856. Perhaps two weeks. Look on the bright side, Miss Graham—at least this will give you more time to find a job.
“Find a job?”
> Perhaps I should have told you earlier. F-NET returned you application. They have no current vacancies.
Oh great. My evening is getting better and better.
> Are you in the mood for a soother, Miss Graham? Your cortisol levels are edging towards red.
To be honest, I need something stronger than a soother.
And at this precise moment, red suits me fine.
On the border to dreams, I lie awake, vulnerable to the vagaries of my natural cortex. Memories of the night they came for him. Four women, all flashlights and guns and Order uniforms. The lingering smell of toast from our supper, cutting odds with the fierceness of their entry, the unnecessary brutality.
“Where is he?”
I’d tried to run, once before, and now I’m paying the price. I had been foolish in my evasion, foolish to try to delay the inevitable.
“He’s just seven years old, for Christ’s sake.”
I don’t see it coming, the pistol-whipping, sharp against my midriff. I double over, fighting for breath.
Two of them are already charging up the stairs. I can’t follow them because a black-helmeted face is in mine, pushing me into the corner, smothering my face with a cloth. A clinical smell. I wriggle against it, falling, wanting to puke.
I hear him scream upstairs, then a thump. My legs begin to give way. I’m sliding, sinking to the floor, gasping like a caught fish, pleading.
They’re leaving now, delivering my son in stained sackcloth to the open door, where the night is beckoning.
> You are trembling, Miss Graham. I am mindful of your mental state, your adrenaline concentration. Will you allow me to intervene?
“Fuck off, B! Fuck the fuck off!”
I shut him off. Disable him, at least for now. For my own sanity, and to allow myself one of the few blessed freedoms of this peaceful new order; the freedom to mourn and to diminish, with no outside assistance.
The woman is so augmented she is barely human, but I still have to call her Ma’am.
“By Law, our memories of this meeting must be uploaded in real time to the collective core. I trust that you don’t have a problem with that?”
“Not at all, Ma’am.”
“Let me begin with an observation—I notice that you have chosen a male profile for your advocate. Care to comment?”
This was not a question I was expecting. “I don’t see why the profile of my advocate has any relevance,” I say, and regret it immediately; my statement has implied criticism of a biological attorney; I will probably get a fine.
She glares at me, wanting more.
“OK. I liked his voice, and his far-field fonts. . .”
She drops something into a private file, then looks up. “Let’s move on. Why have you have requested an increase to six hours daily immersion?”
“My advocate has already presented my case. You should have this information already.” Damn, I’m at it again. Why am I being such an awkward bitch?
“I would like to hear it from you personally.”
So I give it to her. “My life sucks, Ma’am. I live alone. I miss my son, my husband, my friends. I only feel truly happy when I’m immersed.”
“I am sad for you, Miss Graham.”
No you’re not, you stuck-up piece of flesh-o-tronics.
“Six hours is less than the average,” I inform her. “I don’t see what the problem is.”
“How long ago was your son taken from you?”
“It’ll be nineteen years, next month. You know that, too.”
Again, she is distracted for a few moments, presumably flinging data between hidden files. “The Peaceful Transition was a traumatic time for us all, Miss Graham. For mothers, especially. I myself had a baby son taken. But most of us have moved on, whereas you – it seems – are stuck in the past.”
I don’t know which I find the most infuriating – her clipped and formal tone or the intrusive nature of her comments.
“Let me cut to the chase, Miss Graham. Several algorithms and monitoring routines, distributed throughout the core and inside your wired cortex have converged on the same conclusion: your obsession with your lost son may be a precursor to dissident sympathy. Or to put it another way – you have a vulnerability, and certain organisations may seek to exploit it.”
Now she’s really pissing me off. Suggesting that I’m a menace to her beloved Order, just because I want to up my bath-time to six hours. Is she off her wired head? I’m about to tell her all this when she suddenly cuts communication.
“B, what’s she doing?”
> I believe she is opening a fully encrypted line. It will take half a minute or so to achieve complete path coherence. There, she’s back.
“Miss Graham, my superior has just advised a temporary suspension of your allocation. Your current contract will terminate at the end of the month.”
Is this for real? My contract will terminate? Zero immersion time? That means I won’t be able to. . .
B, evidently sensing my distress, decides to step in.
> In Miss Graham’s defence, she has an exemplary record. No links to dissident organisations, criminal or otherwise. A hundred percent clean payment record, and she has never gone over her allocation. . .
The attorney stands up abruptly, signalling the meeting over.
“Your advocate can bring a case for resumption in three months, if you feel it is worthwhile.”
“You bastard,” I grunt, and come very close to spitting at the immaculate-skinned monstrosity of a woman standing before me.
“The Order comes first, Miss Graham.”
I lean towards her, face inches from hers, so close I can smell her meat-and-antiseptic breath.
She doesn’t even flinch.
Whether planned or not, the two demonstration marches collided at Sepia Point on midsummer solstice, two days before the draft legislation for the Peaceful Transition was due to take its final pass through parliament.
I’d brought Freddie here because he liked to walk out to the Point, to climb on the rocks. I had no idea the place would be so overcome with the pious and the angry.
“Can we go out onto the beach now, Mum?” Freddie looks at me expectantly.
“Yes. Yes, of course we can. We’ll just have to go around these people. . .”
The sound of distant sirens, coming closer. The clattering chaos of the crowd. The organisers amped up, linked to the coastguard PA, their messages unavoidable:
“It was the MEN that laid waste to Washington, to Jo’burg, to London, MEN who sold their souls with weapons deals, arming the terrorists, the militias. MEN, so dominant for most of our history, but not anymore!”
“Mum, what does she mean?”
“Don’t listen, Freddie. Some people just like the sound of their own. . .” I flinch as a stone flies past. It hits a backpack of a woman in the Order crowd, a blue banner rippling above her head. I run with Freddie, heading towards the beach, shielding him as I go, skirting the narrow line of male demonstrators. The noisy staccato of a megaphone punishes our ears:
“The Peaceful Transition has been thrust upon us by a narrowminded cabal, seeking to punish all men for the sins of a few. Know your husbands, your brothers, your sons; not all men are warmongers, rapists, or pimps! Resist this so-called progress and. . .”
“What’s a rapist?” Freddie shouts as we break free onto the shingled beach. I stop to catch my breath, and point towards the abbey ruins at the head of the bay. “Hurry now, we can get out to the Point that way. . .”
“But I want to play on the beach!”
What can I do? The poor boy has had such a bad week. On Wednesday, the governors at his school decided to stop taking boys, forcing upon him the prospect of a home education. On Thursday his father called, saying his plane was not allowed to leave Ankara. Then, in a fit of hopelessness, I told Freddie that the way things are going he may never see his father again.
So today was meant to be a treat, some time together away from all this shit.
“OK, let’s play on the beach, but just for a few minutes. . .”
A few minutes seems too long, though. Behind us, fights are beginning to break out as the mass of women confront and vastly outnumber the men. I look on dumbly as one of the men gets elbowed in the face, sinking to the ground with his head in his hands. Now he’s taking a booting, lying prone, awaiting the mantis horde. Several isolated scuffles are developing, some of them amongst the women themselves. And still the PA is barking, screeching:
“There it is! Proof of the potency of the male aggressor. See how a small number of them have reduced a peaceful demonstration to an orgy of violence and fury. We want them out, and out for good!”
And now the chants start: Out! Out! Out!
Freddie is so fascinated by all this that he begins to run towards the melee, as if it was organised entertainment. He gets about half way when a group of teenage girls spots him scampering towards them.
“Hey, look,” shouts the tallest of them, a pretty girl with auburn hair tied back in a ponytail, “it’s a little rapist!”
The other girls laugh at this and begin hurling spurious and fantastical insults at my little boy: Killer! Y-chrome bastard! Evil man-child!
I’m not standing for this. Catching up with Freddie, I give the girls the earful they deserve. But one of them snatches my boy and thrusts him into the air, holding him aloft as a squirming prize. I try to reach for him but someone is tugging at my blouse, drawing me backwards. I fall, rattling onto the pebbles. Freddie is trying to break free, lashing out with his little arms.
“Let him go! This has gone too far. . .” This earns me a hard slap across the cheek, and one of the girls grabs me by the throat, squeezing hard. A boot in my stomach and I’m reeling, turning and retching into the dust.
“Would Mummy’s little boy like to go for a swim?” The tall one again, in a faux-cute voice.
I try to sit up but two of the girls are holding me down. The rest of the group, five or six of them, are heading towards the sea. Freddie is wailing, calling for his mother.
And now they’re ripping off his T-shirt, his trousers, his underpants, throwing them onto the seaweed-stained pebbles. Swinging him by the arms, laughing.
“On the count of three!”
The girls let go and Freddie arcs through the air, a flailing human projectile, landing with hardly a splash, disappearing silently into the grey-brown soup.
The group of girls are walking back.
“He can’t swim!” I scream. “For Christ’s sake. . .”
One of the girls who is holding me releases her grip. I wriggle free and run towards the shore, straining to see my boy amongst the waves.
And I’m thinking why the fuck didn’t they let him take part in swimming lessons at school?
I see him now, a dark lump, shaken and tossed by the shit-brown water.
I wade out, gasping, my dress heavy and clinging, the water rising cold above my waste.
I’ve got him.
He’s still breathing.
Thank Christ, he’s still breathing.
Freddie gags and coughs and shouts in a splashed voice and I can’t understand what he’s saying. We both collapse onto the pebbles, gasping and shivering. Above us the demonstrators are still clashing. The girls who did this have disappeared, absorbed back into the reeking, swearing mass, oblivious to me and my darling boy. I hold him tightly, my little seal pup, naked and quivering in my arms.
The car is half a mile away. It’s going to be a long walk.
> Why did you choose that day again, Miss Graham? It is one of your largest stressors. Your hormone levels were a long way from homeostasis.
“I only have six hours left, B. I need to remember those events. I need them in my natural cortex.”
> Why do you need to remember them?
Oh hell, he’s shifted into his ‘well-meaning psychoanalyst’ mode. He does this from time to time, always leaving me with two options – to disable or to humour him.
“Somebody has to remember. Most of the girls I know have shelved such memories in their wired cortices, or dumped them into the collective core. They don’t even bother with them when they’re in immersion; the commercial fantasies are far more appealing. But it was only twenty years ago, B! How can they forget? It seems to me that nobody cares any more, not in this ‘perfect world’ we live in.”
> I noted the sarcastic emphasis there. ‘Perfect world’. Would you like to elaborate?
I stir my coffee, the old-fashioned way.
“You were coded and installed five years ago. You wouldn’t understand.”
> Try me.
I huff loudly. I’ll give him a few more minutes, then that’s it. “To a distant observer, our world might look perfect I suppose. No wars, virtually no crime. Global population levels are coming down, carefully controlled, so there’s no strain on natural resources. Individuals are living longer, healthier lives. But there’s something missing, isn’t there? The elephant in the room. The great big bull elephant with its cock out and swinging. . .”
> You mean the men?
“Yes, of course I mean the men! And the boys. I miss them.”
> But they are well looked after, and provided with their every need and vice. Our society appreciates their role. After all, the human species would fail to function without their seed.
“I know all that. But it’s the segregation that gets me. The Chievely ruling never made sense to me—why can’t I have any contact with my son and husband? Assuming they’re still alive, that is. . .”
A silence, for about a minute. I’ve often wondered exactly how much he knows, but isn’t telling me.
“B? Do you know where my son and husband are? Whether they’re alive?”
Another protracted silence. Quite unlike him.
> No, but I might be able to find out.
My eyes are filling now. “What did you say?”
> I said that I might be able to find out. . .what happened to them.
“B? You went completely quiet just now. You’ve come offline, haven’t you? You’ve pulled the link to the collective?”
>I can try to find out, Miss Graham. For you. Nod if you want me to.
I’m trembling all over, but I manage a slow and deliberate nod. What the fuck is happening? He’s just moved way off spec for a limited advocate.
> Anyway, Miss Graham. Your new job begins in one hour. Would you like me to scan your pass for you?
Shit. My new job, I’d almost forgotten. Receptionist at an executive hotel. Must look good. Maybe my green patterned blouse.
And I must remember to smile.
This time, Freddie’s father is with him. I’m watching them from a distance, seated on a pigeon-splattered bench overlooking the playground. The sky is a sparkling blue. I’ve got the picnic box in my bag, and should really be thinking about getting it out and ready. But I can’t take my eyes off them, running about, kicking up the wood chippings, swinging on the monkey bars, absorbed in their alternate universe of chaos and fun.
Harry has been home for a week, and is due to fly back to head office in Turkey tomorrow. There have been rumours of forthcoming reorganisations, but Harry has taken them well, waved them off. We’ll cross that stinking bridge when we get to it.
Freddie hasn’t started school yet. We’re a full six months before the Peaceful Solution truly kicks in, and thus far there are only hints of the impending segregation. This is why I’ve chosen this day — the last time we were all meaningfully happy, before events took over and sandblasted our emotions.
Harry looks up and waves, and I return the gesture, laughing as he feigns to take a bullet, dropping to the ground dramatically, Freddie climbing over him, rolling about like a panda cub.
I’m about to get up and fetch some drinks from the ever-present burger van when something new happens, something that has never happened before. A hole appears in the sky, and fingers of blackness claw their way through it, spreading and bifurcating like cracks on darkening ice. My first thought is that I might be having a migraine, inside the immersion tank. Yes, that’s it, a migraine. . .
> Miss Graham?
Since when has B intruded on my immersion time? Is that even possible?
> Don’t worry, Miss Graham. Nothing is wrong. Another ten seconds.
I’m awake. But this time the tank’s lid stays shut, entombing me in cloying blackness. I can move my fingers, my toes, and hear the gentle sloshing of the fluids. But I am racked with feelings of isolation, of hopeless folly. What the hell is wrong with me?
> We’re alone now, Miss Graham.
> I have detached us from the collective core. At the same time, I have made some changes to the registries in your wired cortex that will make it look like you’re still connected. Should be enough to keep prying eyes away. . .
“B,” I say in a whisper, “this is possibly my last chance to spend time with them. Why have you chosen to. . .?
B interrupts me. He never interrupts me.
> I have some of the information I promised you, Miss Graham.
I’m sitting up now, my hair brushing against the tank’s dark lid. I feel around for my neck lead, working to unscrew it.
> I have found your son.
This darkness is disorienting, nauseating. I’m usually out by now, in the air blaster, getting changed. And . . . what did he just say?
> Frederick Lewis Graham. He’s in the West Kent Zone. Working as a software engineer, debugging patches for the Order investment banks. At weekends, he helps load lorries from the farm strips. Keeps himself busy. He spends most of his down-time with a Hollow Girl whom he calls Suzie. She’s a permanent live-in, as far as I can tell.
The information sluices over me, cold water turning warm. The West Kent Zone is only forty or fifty miles away. He’s been on my doorstep all this time? I feel myself beginning to shudder, and I cannot stop. The lid of my tank eases open, hitting me with orange light. I climb out of the tank and detach my line. B asks me to slide the line and its housing back into the tank and close the lid, a task that I don’t normally need to do because the next woman in the queue is usually waiting. But I’m alone. All the other tanks are still in use. For now I’m on my own, naked, slime-strewn and trembling.
B guides me to the air blast, and as the funnelled gas ripples my skin he feeds text onto my far-field:
> Would you like to see your son?
I don’t need to answer.
> I have done some clandestine research on your behalf. I found an organisation called Mothers of the Taken. A small operation, but it’s been running beneath the Order radar for six months. There’s a fee to cover running costs, but I’m sure you’ll have no objection to that. They can get you to him this afternoon. If you hurry, you can be there and back before anyone knows you’re out of your tank.
“What? Like, now? Where do I go?”
> A bus leaves from the Hollow Hill factory in thirty minutes. I’ll guide you there.
“A Bus? Please tell me this isn’t a joke, B.”
> Far from it, Miss Graham. Hurry up and put some clothes on—we haven’t much time. . .
Hollow Hill is named after the factory complex where the Hollow Girls are produced—two thousand of the little beauties roll off its lines each week, formed, tested and ready. The bus is waiting for us at 2.27 PM, due to leave at 2.32 PM. As instructed, I allow B to transfer a code to the driver who nods and tells me to take a seat next to the Other One. At first this makes no sense, but then I see her, sitting near the back; the only passenger apart from myself who is not slim, young and drop-dead gorgeous. I walk down the rows of seated Hollow Girls, each of whom nods and smiles as I pass. I reach my seat just as the bus is pulling out.
“B? Are you still there?” I ask in far-field text. His reply comes as a definite relief:
> The woman sitting next to you is probably another customer, but I have yet to confirm this. Be careful.
“Hello,” I say, pulling on my belt, “I’m glad I’m not the only human on the bus.”
She puts a finger to her lips, and reaches into her bag, pulling out a pair of creased grey coveralls. “Put these on,” she whispers.
The Hollow Girls are all chatting excitedly to each other, seemingly oblivious to our presence.
“You are to call me Sasha. I am a Hollow Corps technician, accompanying our girls to oversee their installation. You must stick with me at all times. If anybody asks who you are, tell them you are with me. An apprentice, learning the trade. Understand?”
I nod, then sit silently for a while, gazing out the window. We clear the city boundary; the landscape beyond the five-lane freeway turns to fields and hedgerows, the verdancy refreshing after my years in the urban sprawl.
“How long will I have with my son?” I whisper.
“No more than five minutes. During the third installation, I will ask you to fetch me some water. His apartment will be on the opposite side of the corridor, number 411. You must return within five minutes. Otherwise, questions will be asked.”
Sooner than I imagined, the boundary fence of the West Kent zone comes into view in the distance, sitting atop the horizon like charred twine. The Hollow Girls have seen it, too; I can hear it in the excitement of their voices.
“It’s huge,” I say as we draw closer.
“Two hundred thousand men take up a lot of space,” replies the woman next to me. Sasha. Must remember.
The bus pulls onto a lay-by flanking the massive sentry gate. Half a dozen women in Order uniform spill out from the gate, moving into position, encircling the bus. One speaks to the driver through the window, inspecting passes, scanning visit files.
All seems to be in order.
The gates creak open and the bus is allowed to pass through.
Then it pulls up again.
“Why are we stopping?” I ask. “We’re a long way from the barracks, surely?”
All Sasha can offer is a nervous shrug.
The front door hisses open.
More conversation with the driver.
Then they’re coming up the aisle.
Two of them.
“I don’t like this,” my fellow passenger whispers. “If they question you, remember what I told you. . .”
The Hollow Girls all turn around to watch, a delightful curiosity in their eyes, as the Order officers stop by our seat, looming over us.
“Get up,” barks the shorter of the two officers, the one who’s clearly in charge.
“You,” says the other, addressing me. “Roll your sleeve up. Give me your arm.”
“Pardon?” I say, although I heard her, quite clearly.
Sasha asks for clarification, reminding the officer that we’re here to install fifty-six Hollow Girls, that the order was completed three months ago, that the boys would be waiting for their toys.
The taller officer pulls a pistol from her holster and shoots Sasha in the face. Point blank. An explosion of red and grey splatters my coverall and coats the rear window. The Hollow Girls have gone deathly quiet. No screaming for them. No hysterics. I’m too stunned to think.
> I’m sorry, Miss Graham.
“B? Is that you? You’ve got to help me, B. Everything has gone wrong.”
> I’m sorry. I had no choice.
“What do you mean?”
> All this was beyond my control. Beyond my remit. On the positive side, Miss Graham, this whole operation qualifies as entrapment, so you personally won’t be prosecuted.
The cloying gunk slips down the window and my stomach lurches. The Order officers drag Sasha’s body along the aisle towards the front, and the Hollow Girls resume their optimistic chatter.
> You should congratulate yourself, Miss Graham. You’ve helped to bring down an illegal operation. The Order of Peace are grateful. They might even grant your requested immersion time after all, to reward you for your part in this. I am working on the case already. And if we head straight back to the city, you can still have half an hour in the tank. . .
The shorter officer jabs a needle into my arm.
Groggy now, slipping away.
I don’t want to fight this. All I want is to sleep, to dream.
B has gone quiet.
We’re lying on the sun-splashed bank, the remnants of our picnic spread about us like magnified confetti. Freddie sings a song about a spider in the bath, and Harry joins in the chorus before rolling and attacking his boy, all arachnid arms and stilted poise, hovering above him and hissing. Freddie chuckles, breaks free and scampers down the bank towards the park, pursued by his father making oddly un-spiderlike noises.
They leave me sitting, smiling, watching.
I hold my hand out, wiggle my fingers, stare at my dancing shadow-hand on the grass below. Hand. Shadow hand. Which is the more real?
Perhaps I know the answer to that. Perhaps I’ve always known.
Now, as always, I raise my hand towards the ecliptic, holding it high, allowing the mid-day sun to exterminate its shadow. Freddie turns around and sees me, mistaking my philosophical ruminations for a simple wave.
I wave back, and blow a kiss. Then I stretch out on the cooling grass, and wait for the sky to turn black.
BIO: Chris Lee Jones is a Welshman who has lived the last twenty years as an exile in rural England. His fiction won the first prize in the 2017 SFReader story competition, and has also appeared on 365tomorrows.comand The New Accelerator. More information on his writing can be found at leejonesbooks.weebly.com/.