Tenth in the dystopian!verse series.
Fear in A Handful of Dust
This is not what it means to be between the devil and the deep blue sea, this is more than being between a rock and a hard place; this is standing on the edge of all you have ever known, with a gun to your back and a hand around your heart.
When: Pre-Ground Zero
What is your answer?
She had said yes, and had given herself away. A month, they tell her. You have a month. It is her lifetime condensed into a fleeting second of blink-and-you-miss. The Agency is quiet now, all muted activity and noise as the day winds down. Her heart is numb, and her right hand still feels the echo of the sweeping movement of her cursive signature on distinct dotted lines. This, she thinks, this is the way the world ends.
They have loaded a Secret-Keeper sleeper programme onto her Watcher implant, a Catch-22 to ensure her zipped lips. For your safety, they had said. No, she wants to tell them. For yours.
She will die if she gives voice to the two words Little Red, and it doesn’t bother her, not really, because her life is a small, small thing, but she knows they will kill him too. This is not what it means to be between the devil and the deep blue sea, this is more than being between a rock and a hard place; this is standing on the edge of all you have ever known, with a gun to your back and a hand around your heart.
The chrome doors that litter the hallways cast her image back at her, and she feels more like a reflection than anything else. When she closes her eyes, she can feel the quiet hum of The Network, the soothing calm of the collective consciousness of hundreds and thousands and millions of Watchers out there. There is no one else here, but she is not alone.
Her emotions are like a tap that has been turned off, or a box of snakes kept under your bed. Her feelings are like shouts, muffled behind glass fifteen inches thick. They are too far removed from her, and she is hollow, like tin men or scarecrows or cowardly lions. There is no yellow brick road, not here, six levels below ground, or anywhere at all. There are, she amends, no roads at all.
She leaves the Agency, and stumbles-falls out onto the pavement of the world outside. The sky is a vivid blue, a veritable swathe of ocean-in-the-air, and the sun’s rays stab her too-pale skin. The quiet neighbourhood that hides this continent’s most extensive and wanted rebel system is an idyllic place, all neat manicured lawns and tiny windmills that flutter and twirl in silent gardens. She wants to cry, and maybe to laugh. She does neither.
She walks for miles and miles in random directions, slipping down alleys and traversing up lanes as it suits her fancy. There is not much time for things like free will and conscious thought left, so she will take what she can like a dying man at a feast. She ends up somewhere in East London, amidst unfamiliar blocks and people. The banners of The Government drape many a building façade, and she finds herself thinking of curtains and windows, or sheets and corpses.
He finds her, in the end, as he always does. He sits next to her on a park bench, under the dead branches of an oak tree, ravaged and destroyed, as so many other things had been during The Great War. Like errant children, they are all still being punished for the sins of their fathers. As he always does, he reads her too well, and not at all.
“Are you alright?” He asks, and there are so very many answers to that question that she doesn’t know where to begin. It takes a while for her to find a reply, but she does eventually. She always does.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” He is not a top Operative for nothing, and he notes the way she subtly-obviously ducks his question. He doesn’t want her to feel pressured into telling him anything. She wishes he would ask anyway. He nods, but they both know he is far from convinced. They will not pursue the matter, despite the way it hovers and colours and poisons the air around them.
“How are the Watchers?” Ten dead, she remembers, and upbraids herself for being able to forget.
“We’re better. Getting better. The Network is peaceful, at least.” She doesn’t tell him about the ripple of unease that churns beneath the surface, or the echoes of dying screams that she can pick up on, if she concentrates hard enough. She looks up at him, to where he is lounging on the spot next to her, languid and coiled energy and suppressed danger.
A month, she thinks, and jumps from the pan into the searing fire. “Do you have any long assignments coming up?” He is startled by her question, taken aback by her bold step across a line they have never dared pass before. Topics like work and feelings and us are not subjects they talk about.
He stares at her, hard and searching, like he is trying to figure her out. “No,” he replies at length. “Not that I know of.”
She swallows, and turns away to look at the grey dust patches that coat the park. There are stories, she recalls, of parks being green and pretty and colourful. But that is not their story. Not now, maybe not ever. “Can you – will you stay with me, at least for the next month?”
The word is on the tip of his tongue. Why? She has never pressed for so much in their relationship before, and the aura of fragility and steel and lost-in-the-woods that surrounds her frightens him a little. How horrible must it be, he thinks, for something to scare Rose Tyler?
Every second that passes without a reply tightens the noose of the question that hangs in the air, suspended around them. There are cracks in her heart, she knows, and wonders if this will finally break it. The silence stretches, taut and thick between them both.
He digs a hand into the pocket of his coat, and seems to search for something. He pulls out a gleaming silver key, bright and glinting in the harsh sunlight. He makes to speak, but stops, and she watches him with wondering eyes as he struggles to find the words. It is a rare sight to see him speechless, so she takes the moment with both hands and savours it.
“I had this made for you, some time ago.” He holds the key out to her, like a peace offering, or an unspoken promise. She takes it. “It’s a key to – to my place. It’s yours now.” She soaks this in, absorbs the emotions of happiness and joy and overwhelming sadness that threaten to drown and choke her. His unusual ineloquence belies his inner turmoil, and she reaches out for his hand. When he takes it, it is solid and real in hers.
The key rests in her palm, warm from his body and the symbol of everything they are, half-truths and secrets and ghosts locked in glass houses. It is trust and faith and a-feeling-they-cannot-name, siphoned and kept in this tiny, tiny object. It is intricately designed, with looping lines and curling patterns, woven together in a delicate lattice. The design is too ornate, too purposeful to simply be decorative.
“What does it mean?” She traces a finger over the design, trying to burn the metalwork into her memory, before they take it away from her.
“The design?” He is surprised by her question, because he so often forgets that she is a Watcher, and she knows things. He shoves his a hand into a pocket of his slacks and glances away, like a bashful schoolboy or an awkward young love. The other goes up to rub the nape of his neck in a gesture that is so him, so familiar that she wants to hug him and never let go. She nods at his query, and he clears his throat once before answering.
“It’s for luck.”
She smiles a little at this, wants to tell him that she won’t need it, because luck and fortune and favour have already deserted her. She wears an empty chain around her neck, handy for hanging discreet bugging devices or comm links, and she slides the key onto it. The key is a comforting weight between her breasts, a tangible reminder that there is always now, and she drags her mind away from stories-with-no-endings and star-crossed-lovers, because she promises they will not be one of them.
It is, she will realize, much easier to lie to yourself.
His apartment is battered and worn, a little worse-for-wear and swimming in dust. It is a typical bachelor’s pad. She sighs when she sees the neglect and disarray that has befallen the house, and shakes her head at the piles of scrap metal and half-dismembered machinery lying strewn around.
She loves it all. (She loves him, a tiny voice adds, but she quashes it – she will not go there, not today.)
He runs an almost-nervous hand through his hair. “It’s a little messy, I know, sorry about that. The bedroom’s through there, kitchen to your left, and oh, yes, I just realized that we forgot to pick up your stuff from your place. Do you –”
She presses a finger to his lips, smiling slightly, and he locks his gaze on hers as he quiets.
“It’s fine. We’ll be fine. We always are.” He nods, slowly, and wonders at the mysteries and secrets she keeps.
The question leaves his lips before he can stop himself, like sprinters and escaping rabbits and jail-breakers. “How long?”
She pauses, tilting her head, unsure of what he asks. He places his palm against her cheek, and traces the smooth curves and planes of her delicate structure. “How long are you going to stay with me?”
A month, she knows she should tell him, but she is selfish and greedy and so-sadly-human, even if she is a Watcher.