Eighteenth in the dystopian!verse series.
Devastation and Reform
As with all things now, the going is slow; and irony, he learns, is a bitter pill. You never treasure what you have until you lose it. He only wishes it wouldn't hurt so much.
When: Post-Ground Zero
Something is interfering with her link to the Network. We need to restart the subject.
Check the readings. Is she offline? What do you – we need her offline to initiate the wipe. Try again. Cut the life support.
The subject’s vitals are failing; we can only do this once more. Ready the programme. Restarting subject in three – two – one –
Mickey returns at a quarter past nine, and finds the Doctor slumped on a chair, head resting on his forearms on the bed as he sleeps. Rose is awake, sitting up under the covers, hand lightly playing with the Doctor’s hair. It is a moment almost too private for him to intrude, and he finds himself backing out of the lab before he stops, shakes his head, and reenters. There are things that have to be said and done.
Rose looks up at his entrance, and places a finger to her lips in indication that they should remain silent, or speak softly. He nods.
“So what did you find?” He pauses at her question, and is unsure how he should answer. She presses on. “Why is my connection to the Network faulty?” She takes in Mickey, biting his lower lip, and takes in his darting eyes, and her breath hitches violently. “Tell me. What did you find? I need to know.”
Maybe she should take this slow. Maybe, she thinks, she should ease into the subject. Maybe she should let them break it to her slowly, because some part of her knows that the things that hang-just-out-of-reach are terrifying and horrifying and devastating. But when you fall from such dizzying heights, and the ground rushes up to meet you so very fast, what use are precautions?
“You died,” he tells-whispers to her, and this is not something new, but it makes her heart falter all the same. “Three times.”
Three, she knows, is the magic number, the holy triumvirate. Three is the number of times she was murdered, the number of times she stopped breathing. Good things come in threes, and it is a lie told to children to make them believe that there is better. There are no words to describe the numbing horror that she feels, choking-pressing-solid on her lungs and mind and heart. You died, three times.
The four words beat a rhythm across her thoughts, over and over and again and again, like a broken recorder on loop.
“How,” she murmurs as she swallows down fear and bile and terror and horror, “How did I survive? How am I still here?”
Mickey doesn’t answer, not for a long while, and the Doctor sleeps on peacefully next to her, her personal jailer-jailbreaker. He knows so many things, so many secrets and truths and answers that he keeps from her, like a jealous lover. (And oh, don’t think the irony is lost on her.)
“It isn’t something that you should hear from me,” Mickey sighs, and the words are plangent and loud in the vastness of the lab. He turns, and when he walks, his white lab coat flutters about him slightly, like descending angels or grim-reapers-gone-wrong.
He pauses at the doorway, just before he exits. “Ask him about the Mark,” he tells her, and then he is gone, the door shutting softly-resoundingly behind him.
She strokes the Doctor’s chestnut locks, letting the silkiness of the strands run through her fingers. Their world is changing, tilting-whirling-breaking.
He sleeps on.
Blood. There is blood on her hands, staining-dripping her nails and palms and fingers. Everywhere is white. Snow white. Blood red. There is no –
Home. Come home. Come back. He is waiting. Follow the path, little girl. We will lead you home.
Black. It is black now, a swathe of ink that blots out the sun. So black. Black, black, she cannot see. Where is –
Listen to the bells. They ring, once, twice, thrice. Follow the sound. He is searching.
Pain. There is so much of it. It fires through her body, branding-searing-flaming, like a thousand stabs or a dozen gunshots. It hurts so much, and why? Someone please –
Light. There is light now. It comforts her, kisses her, loves her. She will take its hand.
He steals back into wakefulness, like a seasoned thief making his escape, or a killer creeping away after a murder. He jumps straight from sleep to alertness, skipping out on the stages in between. There are no slow stretches or stifled yawns that mark the gradual progress to wakefulness, not for runners and murderers like them. He goes directly from off to on.
The process is so quick, so click-of-the-fingers that the words are only half-formed at the back of her throat, her thoughts whirling faster than she can hope to cohere and give voice to. She tries anyway, and the effect is like that of a stuttering gun.
“Tell me,” she begins, before she has to pause, just to breathe. “Tell me about – Mickey said I should…” She trails off. There are things she knows and things she knows she doesn’t, and the overlap is slight. She tries again. “The Mark. It saved me. I need to know. What is it?”
Her sentences are short, hesitant, but the meaning cannot be mistaken. He has risen to sit upright in the chair, and she is sure that the straightness of his back is not solely the result of the hard backrest. He links his fingers together, resting his arms on his thighs. He looks, she thinks, like a thinker, or a praying man.
It is a long time before he begins, but the fact that he does eases the ache in her heart a little. He sighs, a long exhale of breath that stretches on into eternities of regret and guilt and weights-of-the-world. There are no paths around, none save for the one they are on, and even that is bramble-filled and dark. The way is shut, and there is no other way but forward.
“The Mark,” he says, and the hard consonants of the word reverberate off the wall, “is within the System. It is…” He tries to find the words, because it cannot really be explained, but she means too much for him not to try. “It is an agreement of sorts. An understanding.”
She opens her mouth, questions flooding the tip of her tongue, but a sharp sideways jerk of his head keeps her silent. He wants to do this, to do this alone, because he owes her that much. His eyes are dark on hers. “An understanding,” he continues, “between the Operatives and all other Classes.”
“But not the Watchers,” she adds, and his nod is curt, almost harsh. He leans back in his chair.
“We couldn’t risk the Watchers knowing, not with their ties to the Government, the Agency, and the Administrators. The force-neutrality of the Watchers makes them dangerous. You have no side, and so you won’t fight for any side. You won’t keep our secrets.”
“We fight –”
“You take orders, and fight and Watch where you’re told, but the Watchers as an organisation have no political alliances or affiliations. That, I think, makes you all the more dangerous. More deadly, even if that is your best asset. But you can’t deny it: the Watchers are little more than glorified hired intellectual eyes and guns.”
She bristles, offended and hurt and wounded, even if the words ring hollow and true. He shakes his head, almost resignedly. Tiredly.
“I don’t mean to offend you, and I have nothing against the Watchers. But it is the truth, and the truth must be faced.” He runs tired hands over his face. He has been betrayed by more rogue Watchers than she would care to know. She is so fragile and strong, and he doesn’t want to break her heart. Not again. “It must always be faced.” She nods, because even if she doesn’t like it, she knows this all too well.
He turns away, to stare out the window. His eyes are distant, and she wonders what he sees. If, she amends, he sees anything at all. He looks lost, even if he has all her answers. He, she knows, doesn’t have his, and she wishes she could give them to him.
“The Operatives are third in the Hierarchy. We keep our position because we’re good at what we do, because the System makes us powerful, because the world still needs us. But we’re hated, you see, because of that.” What he tells her isn’t anything new, but the way he says it conveys libraries and chapters and tomes of weariness and tiredness and sadness that she can only glimpse, even if she shares it.
“And because we’re hated, the ones we –” He stops, abruptly, and she wonders what he was going to say. She could guess at it, hope and wish and pine, but she is older now, and far sadder, so she will not. Dreams and wishes are for the young and innocent, and she is neither of those now. They are both neither of those things. The world is a harsh and cruel place, and those like them will not be given a reprieve. The boat has sailed a long time ago, and they are well aware that they have been left behind. There is no place for them in the land of redemption and mercy.
“The ones we care about are never safe. So we made the Mark, to reach an agreement. We resurrected honour and respect and a code of ethics,” He chuckles, broken and sad. “A code of ethics for killing, imagine that. But we did, so we could keep those precious to us safe.”
It puzzles her, how this has anything to do with her, how this has anything to do with what has been done to her. He is tense, a taut wire-string about to snap, and the whiplash, she knows, will be fatal. But she pushes anyway, because she is a drawn bow, and the arrow must be let fly, or the string will cut her hands.
“How?” The question is short, three letters and a question mark, but the answer, she is sure, is a long one.
It doesn’t matter. They have time. They have too much time. She repeats. “How does the Mark work?”
The chair scrapes back, a halting, jerky motion as he stands and walks over to the window. The brighter lights of the city cast his profile in shadow, and she finds herself wondering why she is perennially unable to see him fully. She wonders why he never lets her.
“It’s hard to explain, because it isn’t a step-by-step process, not like keying in instructions to a machine or a comm device. It’s like how you Watchers access the Network. It’s inherent, something we Operatives all know how to do, like breathing and sleeping and running. We place the Mark on –” He swallows, and it is audible. “On whoever it is that is important to us, and everyone who has access to the System – Snits, Sins, Runners, Sleepers, Handlers – knows to back off.” His knuckles whiten on the windowsill, a chilling white against the inky sky.
“It’s a good process, in theory. The Operative who places the Mark remains anonymous, but the Marked is kept safe. Off-limits, in a little safe bubble. That’s how it’s supposed to work.”
She takes in his sad eyes, the stubble on his jaw, the world’s weight on his shoulders. “But it doesn’t,” she adds, and the lilt at the end of the phrase almost turns it into a question, although they both know that it isn’t.
“It doesn’t,” he agrees. The knowledge hangs suspended between them, a personal Fury come to wreck vengeance. “It only works,” he begins again, “when the other Classes remember to check the System. Sometimes, Sins and the others forget, and they kill or take a Marked person anyway.”
“What happens then?” She wants to know, but the dark anger and swirling secrets behind his eyes mostly confirm her suspicions.
“We cry havoc,” he tells her. “And let slip the dogs of war.”
She understands this, and understands the ruthlessness and mercilessness and his mercurial nature. She does not blame him for it, because she understands it all too well. They tell you, forgive and forget. Forgive, she understands. But what right do they have to tell you to forget?
Did you hear? They took a Marked, several days ago.
No way. Who? Which one was it?
Tyler, I think. That Watcher. The one that no one knows who placed the Mark on.
But I mean it’s not as if –
Don’t be daft. We all know who that Saxon girl is Marked by, don’t we? And that Japanese girl. Tohimo or Toshiko or something. But this Watcher, no one knows a thing.
So she’s just gone? Just like that?
Yeah. But they said –
The Watchtower cried, and it’s all over the System now. You can go check if you want.
Right, I’ll just – oh.
You see that?
Yeah, I see it. RUN. Who you think that’s for?
I don’t know, mate. But just be glad that it’s not us, because whoever Marked her is angry. Very angry. I think –
I think that all hell’s going to break loose.
Silence is loud. It is louder than gunfire, and deadlier too. It deafens them both, as they face each other in the lab.
She sighs, and stretches a hand out to him. He stares at it, for long moments, and the fear that he will not take it is crushing. She does not remember, not much and not yet, but she knows that she gave him everything, and he had kept pieces of himself from her. He is a not-quite-stranger, her lover-in-the-dark. She knows him well and not at all. She loves him, she knows, then and now, but now is different, because she doesn’t know herself. How can she love someone if she doesn’t even know her past?
It is a question she does not dare to begin to answer.
He takes her hand, and it is a gesture so familiar, so right, that she almost throws all caution and perspective to the wind. She has always belonged to him and with him, but she cannot know for certain if he has always been hers. Insecurity and the lack of faith, she is aware, are not new feelings when it comes to him. She has faith that he will save her life, that he will back her up in a tight spot, that he will make her laugh and be happy when he is with her. But she doesn’t trust that he will be there with her every step of the way. Missing ties from drawers and empty beds in the morning echo in the emptiness of her memory, and the feeling is not foreign.
She loves him, but she has to do this slowly, because even if she cannot remember, her heart is broken-mending, and though it belongs to him, she doesn’t know that he will not drop it on the way to his next thrilling adventure, running off to save the day, leaving her in his wake.
He runs fingers along the back of her hand, light caresses that remind her that he is here.
“Why?” Her questions are short today, but they demand the longest answers. “Why did you place the Mark on me?”
“I told you, we place it on the ones we ca –”
She shakes her head, a violent motion that has her seeing fireworks behind her eyelids. She cuts him off, because she is so very tired of his dodging and running and keeping secrets. She deserves, she thinks, to know. “Why?”
“Because –” The words are heavy in his throat, like stones that keep sinking to the bottom of the ocean. His cowardice and fear rear their ugly heads and he falters, unable to bear the quiet wisdom and knowledge in her eyes. But he tries anyway, because it is her, and she means the world to him, even if it is hard for him to say it.
“Because,” he tries again, and her hand tightens a fraction in his. “Because I loved – love – you.”
Her intake of breath is sharp, slicing the silence that has enveloped them. His hand has fisted in hers, knuckles white, and she gently pries it open. She places a kiss to its centre, and curls his fingers back into a fist, as if asking him to keep it.
But she does not, he notes bitterly, give him that three-word, eight-lettered reply.
She takes his other hand, fisted in the pocket of his slacks. She traces the shape of a tiny heart onto his palm, and her eyes are pleading on his. She cannot give him the words, not yet.
Irony, he thinks, is a funny thing.
Part Seventeen/Outtake - The Ghosts of Christmas; Part Nineteen - Cyanide Wonderland