Twelfth in the dystopian!verse series.
Folie a Deux
A shared madness, or a world only the two of them can understand. It is, she thinks, a bit of both.
When: Post-Ground Zero
“Can you feel The Network?” He asks one night, when they are both drowsy and sated and far enough from their monsters to pause and take a breath. She is surprised, because they have avoided all talk of Watchers or The Government so far.
The presence of thousands of Watchers is a faint hum at the back of her mind, and she reaches for it for comfort before answering. “Yes. Yes, I can. I always can.”
“What is it like?” It is not a question anyone has ever asked her before, and she has to pause, rolling the question around her tongue and thoughts.
“Life. It’s like life, and wisdom, and the knowledge of the world and beyond at your fingertips. It’s like the information of lifetimes on a silver platter, waiting for you to reach out and feast on it. It’s like a map and a maze, and shifting labyrinths and straight roads, and it’s wonderful and mad and terrifying at once, because you can never know it all.”
“And you can see it? You can see it all?” He traces drawings only he can see onto the blank canvas of her back, and she arches a little into his touch.
“Not – I – not all of it. It was something they couldn’t explain, when I joined The Government.” She presses a kiss to the curve of his shoulder, and her breath is shuddering when she exhales. “I was faulty, they said. They never knew why. He took great interest in me, because of it. The first Watcher who couldn’t watch it all. He found it funny. Poetic justice, he said.” He tenses at her mention of him, his brother-and-enemy, and she brushes light fingers against his jaw. He relaxes, slowly.
“But there are whispers,” she continues. “Whispers of an Operative who left, several years ago. And they made it like he never existed at all. Wiped every record of him from every system.” She pauses, and the tension in his body is like a coiled spring. “That’s you, isn’t it? Whoever it was you worked for – they did that.” He doesn’t answer, but it tells her everything she needs to know.
“What was it like, being an Operative?” He sighs a little, and some tension dissipates.
His voice is faintly bemused when he replies. “You’re the Watcher, why don’t you tell me?”
She shakes her head, and several strands of loose hair tickle his neck. “You know I can’t.”
“Oh?” He answers, and she can hear the amusement in his tone. She huffs a little at this.
“The Operatives were the only class who ever successfully managed to construct a system beyond the gaze of the Watchers. Not as elaborate as The Network, but enough to keep things they wanted buried hidden well away from sight. We never knew why, though. Why the Operatives would want to do that. Everyone knows that the Watchers are force-neutral.”
“Maybe,” he begins, and his voice is quiet, so soft that it is almost like the sigh of the wind, or the voice of the rain crying. “Maybe the Operatives were just protecting those they loved.”
She is puzzled, and maybe a little frightened of horrors-in-a-cage. “From what?”
His reply steals the breath from her lungs, like a thief in the night, or a searing knife.
They pick the conversation up days later, as they slip onto a trans-continental train bound for Americania. Their carriage is deserted, and there is a faint sense of déjà vu.
She sits next to him, pressed up against his side, his arm slung over her shoulders. They are not safe, not by a long stretch, but this is a rare moment of calm between the heart-stopping, breath-wrenching running that they do. The scenery outside the windows changes but stays constant, swathes and lifetimes of oceans as the train glides along the massive tracks that rise out of the water, like gods showing them the way, or vultures circling carrion.
“What do you remember?” He asks. “Now. When you look back and think about your past, what do you remember?”
She is hesitant to answer, because it will give life to the lies that she hasn’t lived. Her memories of her past are not truths, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t – isn’t – real for her. “London – Britannia. I grew up in Britannia, in the Powell Estates with my mother. My father was a salesman, and he died when I was little. He used to sell torchwood, my mum said. Whatever that was. I had a friend – Mickey. Mickey Smith. We grew up together, running around all over the place. I fell once, and got that scar on my torso. When I turned nineteen, I was discovered by Henrik, the guy who ran the local branch of The Government. They said I was a Watcher, and transferred me to The Government permanently when I turned twenty-two.”
He chuckles, broken and flinty and ground-diamond-dust. “POWELL. Torchwood. Mickey. Oh, they’re good.”
She swallows. “I know it – none of it – is real, now. Can you – will you tell me? What my past really is?”
He takes her hand in his, rubbing smooth circles onto the back. “Do you want me to? Do you want to hear about the history of a stranger from me?”
Her hand in his closes into a fist, and he has to gently pry it open. “No. No, you’re right. I don’t.” This, she knows, is something that she has to do herself, the rediscovery of juvenilia and childhood and damaged toys and ripped dolls.
There is a long moment of silence, each of them lost in the mausoleum of their own thoughts.
“The first thing we learn in Watcher training,” she begins, “is a poem. Every Watcher knows this. The Oracle, we call it. The Watcher’s Oracle.”
“The Watchers stand, along the wall
From land to ocean, they see all
The Runners afoot, down below
The Watchers watch, and they know.
The Sins, blood dripping from their hands
The Snits, unraveling best-laid plans
The Sleepers, waiting for their time
The Handlers, snapping, keeping all in line.
And among all these, the Watchers see
All things offered, given and free.”
He nods. “I’ve heard of something like that, but never the full version.”
She hums in assent. “You’re the first non-Watcher who has heard it fully. It was told to us, to reminds us that everyone has a place, and that we guard that.” She pauses. “But the whispers, they – they’ve always said there was more. Something even the Watchers couldn’t see. Something that the Watchers were missing, but that everyone knew.”
His hand strokes her hair lightly, playing with the strands, almost distractedly. “But The System lies beyond their reach/The Operatives keep the breach.” He exhales. “That’s the last two lines, after the Oracle. The Operative’s Diptych.”
“I’ve never –”
“You wouldn’t have. We keep it beyond the sight of the Watchers, in The System. For everyone but the Watchers.”
Realisation dawns in her mind, like crashing waves and breaking tsunamis. “The Hierarchy. That’s why the Operatives are so high up in the Hierarchy. We – the Watchers never knew why. We couldn’t see.”
He turns away, to look out the window at the ash-grey sky and endless-finite blue.
“It was never meant for your eyes.”
Later, the sleeper carriage they occupy is empty, and the two single beds look lonely and battered, tired and overused. They share a single mattress; curled up into each other like lost children or rejected souls.
Déjà vu is a feeling they know well, like the creeping iciness that steals warmth from their skin. “What is it like?” She asks, and this is a conversation they have had before, but is completely new. “The System. What is it like?”
His different reply reminds her that this is not the world-on-a-loop, that this is reality-that-splinters. “It’s not really like anything. There isn’t a feeling – we’re not connected so strongly to it, like you are to The Network.”
She frowns. “It’s not a part of you,” she surmises. His heart is a solid thumping under her hand, beating and working and counting down. To what? She wonders, and doesn’t really want to know the answer.
He nods. “It’s not. The Watchers are part of The Network – in many ways, it is you. But The System –”
“It’s like a machine, something you access when you have to,” she finishes for him. It is all so new to her, these things-she-knows-but-doesn’t. It frightens her, that there are so many things that sift through her fingers, like pixie dust or crushed bones.
“Yes.” He does not elaborate, and she does not ask for more, not now.
When the sky is light again, spilling from inky black into streaking, over-hanging grey, she takes another step forward down the bramble-filled, debris-strewn path they have started on.
“Why?” She asks. “Why create The System? What is the purpose?”
“A warning,” he says. “A message. A Mark.” He rests against the pillows, hand curled around her waist as she sits and stares at the emptiness around them. “To protect,” he continues. “To toe the fine line between life and death, and to keep those we care about on one side of it. On the right side of it.”
“Alive, you mean.” He makes a noise at the back of his throat, and she takes it for agreement, although she thinks it sound like a cry for help, or a plea for forgiveness.
“As far as possible.”
“And does it work?” The look he gives her is all-consuming, a box-of-secrets and a Gordian knot.
“Are you alive?” He asks, and the question is confusing, almost odd and too close to home all at once.
She takes a deep breath as his words sink in, like the Titanic, or the Lusitania, or a folded paper boat. “I am,” she replies. “I think I am.”
He breaks her gaze, and stares at the empty bed on the other side of the train carriage. The emptiness is cold, and all-too-familiar, like an old friend, or the ghost of a dead enemy.
“Then yes,” he breathes out. “Yes, it works.”
Part Eleven - Slow Dancing in a Burning Room; Part Thirteen - The Secret Life of Daydream