Nineteenth in the dystopian!verse series.
Hello, Alice. We will want your head, but not yet. Not just yet.
When: Ground Zero (Part I)
The man next to her is foreign-familiar, her past shrouded in mists and shadows. There are questions, so very many of them, but there is hardly enough time to breathe, let alone find answers. When they run, it is like opening childhood books left dusty and forgotten in abandoned libraries. When he takes her hand, it is like rediscovering a lifeline once lost. It puzzles her. He, she amends, puzzles her.
When he tells her to run, it is like a hand from the past reaching out to shake her, out of her life-limbo, out of her breathing-purgatory. He takes her breath away, in more ways than one. The street that they are on is deserted as it draws close to nineteen, and the sky above them is a swathe of inky black. They have been journeying for hours, down crowded alleys and debris-strewn lanes, up roaring motorways and silent roads.
She catches him watching her sometimes, and the expression that she finds on his face is indecipherable. It makes her think of drowning men and desperate souls, and lost children and broken-living men. He touches her in little ways; his hand firm in hers as they sprint, his hand on the small of her back in crowds, the soft brush of his body when they walk and bump. He appeared in her life a scant twenty-seven hours ago, and he feels like eternities and lifetimes on her soul.
She knows him, and doesn’t know how.
The street leads to a dead end, a mishmash and hodgepodge of filthy run-down houses clustered together like escaping refugees. The stench of poverty and want and need is strong in the stale night air. This is the truth about Glorious Britannia, the cracks papered up by the Government. This is their life, and she thinks it is not much better than walking-death.
She turns to him, to tell him that this is no path for them, no road for them to tread. He shakes his head at her unspoken statement, and leads her to a peeling and fading door in the corner. He knocks four times, each one resonating and resounding, echoing like swinging pendulums. The sound of bolts been drawn is heard, and the door swings open reluctantly, creaking and whining on the rusting hinges. Her breath comes in puffs, white swirls that dance around her, proof that she is alive, that she is breathing, that she is real, because sometimes she just doesn’t know anymore.
It is like journeying down a rabbit hole, and with the Mad Hatter as her tour guide. But she is no Alice, no innocent curious girl, and she tries to convince herself that there is no Jabberwocky. The open doorway beckons, and his hand is light between her shoulder blades.
She steps in.
The room she enters is messy, with papers and books and maps and charts strewn about, across huge tables and over chairs. The door shuts behind her, and the snap of the locks being engaged is jolting. She shoots him a nervous glance, and is simultaneously assured and unnerved by the intensity of his gaze, dark and brooding and so, so sad on hers.
“Smith.” The man who opened the door for them is curt and brief, almost reluctant to spit out that single syllable in acknowledgement of the other man in the room and his guest.
The Doctor nods, a jerky move that tells her more about the relationship between these two men that he could have ever told her in words. “Operative Harper,” he acknowledges.
She keeps to the shadows, half-hidden behind the Doctor, watching the interaction with curious eyes. Harper sends her a brief glance and turns back to address him before he freezes, words dying in his throat as he swivels back to face her.
“Bloody hell.” He whirls on the Doctor, his eyes never once leaving her. “What’s going on? Everyone said she was –”
“We’re tired, Harper. Not now.” She knows his cut-off was intentional, that he had prevented her from obtaining more pieces of this puzzle she cannot solve. She is too exhausted to summon anger at him for it.
Harper’s eyes never leave hers. “You can take the room downstairs. It’s the only spare we have, so you’ll have to bunk up.”
The Doctor shifts, obviously impatient. “Yeah, sure. Can I also get the blueprints?”
Harper hands the Doctor a long roll of paper, and points to an adjacent door as he heads out another doorway. He pauses just before the threshold, hesitation and uncertainty and doubt filling this brief stop. He turns back to them. “Smith?” he calls, and the Doctor looks up from the blueprints he has unfurled.
“Yeah, what is it?”
Harper’s eyes are judging and weighing on hers, and she averts her gaze, forcing her eyes to the fireplace, where flames dance and flit, like gaily dancing birds who die after leaving the warmth of their nest.
“I’m sure you know that something’s wrong. This is wrong.” The Doctor’s knuckles, she notes, are white where he grips the table next to her. Harper continues, a foolish or too-cognizant move.
“She is wrong.”
When she exhales, her breath is no longer visible in the air.
The room that the Doctor leads her to is bare and sparse, like a skeleton left out to dry. There are two single beds against opposite walls, like enemies on either side of a battlefield, or lovers on different sides of the world. She goes to the one on the right, for no reason other than the fact that sides must be picked. They always must be.
She slides her duffel bag under the rusting bed frame, and settles onto the mattress as she tugs off her shoes. He continues standing at the door, silhouetted as the incandescent bulbs from the hallway darken and hide his face from her view. She cannot see him, this man-she-barely-knows, and she wonders if she talks in metaphors or dances in reality.
Her shoes slide off easily, like water under bridges that have been too-easily burned, or forests that have been blazed.
“You know,” she begins, because this silence that crushes them both is too deadly, too lethal, and she will not let this ruin her, not when she has come so far. “I had an assignment, some time back.”
He steps into the room, and his profile is revealed in the moonlight that steals through the tiny window high above them. He cocks his head, a slight leftward tilt, and she takes it as a sign to continue.
“We had to catch this rogue Handler. We were after him for months, and there were over twenty people on the job.” He has unzipped his pack, and is rifling through it, but the slight turn of his head towards her tells her that he is still listening.
“But we couldn’t find him. It was as if he had just dropped off the grid.” She sits now, legs crossed and arms clasped together like a lounging Buddha. “Reports surfaced a few weeks after that, and we were told that he had slipped off to hide in a forest - Ashdown Forest - in DMZ* 1-Alpha-Tango.”
She rubs her interlocking thumbs together, and frowns slightly when some dried, dead skin comes off. “There were massive hunts. Several hundreds were called in, but we never did find him. There was no trace, not even on the Network. It was like -” She pauses, and looks up to find his eyes on hers. “It was like he was a ghost.”
Her hands unclasp, and her right hand travels down to twist and pick at the threadbare sheets beneath her. She holds his gaze. “You’re an Operative, right? So tell me, what would you have done?”
He lowers himself onto the bed opposite her, sitting with his arms folded, legs sprawled, back against the wall. “Simple,” he tells her, and the left corner of his lips quirk upwards. “Just burn the forest down.”
She cannot tell if he is joking, but she smiles and laughs anyway.
He tells her to stay in the room the next morning, and he leaves for several hours at daybreak. Harper brings in some rations for her breakfast, and she eats the stale bread and hard cheese gratefully.
Now, she waits, and listens to the faint noises of the world outside the window and beyond the door. She is a tiny Alice now, a small stranger among these giants, a voluntary prisoner in a vast foreign landscape that extends beyond anything she has ever known.
Because even if there are no locks on the doors, and even if she can leave at any time, how can she go back now? This is the aftermath of crossing the Rubicon, this is an era lost. Just because you close your eyes doesn’t mean you can forget the things you have seen.
She is a part of this now, even if she isn’t, not really, not yet. She cannot go back to her world, pretending to be oblivious to the currents and eddies that rock and churn beneath the lacquered, pretty surface.
She is unaware that her hand grips and plays with the key that hangs around her neck, and continues to do so when the door swings open.
The Doctor enters, dragging a table behind him. Blueprints and maps and layouts lie strewn across it, and her hands subconsciously lift to her mouth when she realises that these inked drawings that lie before her are that of the Government’s Headquarters. She opens her mouth to ask how they managed to obtain such high-level classified documents, but her words die in her throat when she sees the cautioning light in his eyes. She swallows, and moves to stand nearer to the table.
“We need your help,” he tells her. “We don’t know the accuracy of these blueprints, and you are the only one that has been inside the Headquarters recently. We need you to tell us if there have been any changes, what they are, the current layout, and any altered access points. Will you help us?”
She chastises herself. This here is the board before her, this is the dice she has been given to roll. The Rubicon has not yet been crossed; the bridge lies before her now, mocking-calling-beckoning.
“I will,” she replies, and when he grins at her, the whispers of the bygone era of her yesterdays fade away into the annals of time. Alea iacta est. The die has now been cast. This is a path that has now been taken, and there is no going back.
(Welcome to Wonderland, Alice. Enjoy your stay.)
They work late into the night, bending over the table and crossing out demolished rooms and mapping new pathways. When they finally stop, they push the table into a corner and collapse onto their respective beds.
They are still opposite, but she finds herself thinking that maybe that is a good thing. They complement each other in little ways; perfectly synchronised, like two dancers performing a long-rehearsed routine. It exhilarates and scares her. She will hand him a pencil just as he reaches out to take one, he will tuck a lock of her hair behind her ear just as it falls to obscure her eyes.
They have done this before, she is sure, someplace and sometime else. Echoes of another life trail faintly along the edges of her mind.
She can feel his gaze on her, intense and heavy and warm, and she shifts on the bed, turning to face him more fully.
“That forest,” she begins, and he rolls his eyes in mock exasperation. “Isn’t that excessive? You said you would burn it down. Why?”
His tone is light, but the words are anything but, and she wonders who this half-stranger is, and what made him so tired, so bitter, so cynical. She cannot help but be drawn to him. “Oh, you know,” he stalls, hands gesturing broadly. “Sometimes the end justifies the means, don’t you think?”
She frowns, and wants to tell him no, no, not always, what about collateral?, but he continues, and his words freeze her thoughts.
“Some men,” he says, “some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Her mind flashes to Level Eighty-Nine and floors bathed in sunlight and devils-in-the-sky. No, she thinks, no,. The man before her is broken and chipped and frayed at the edges, but he isn’t one of them, and she will not believe it, no matter what he thinks or says.
She reaches out across the gulf that separates their two beds, and takes his hand.
“Not you,” she tells him, and is sure she doesn’t imagine the brief tightening of his fingers on hers.
*DMZ - Demilitarised Zone
Part Eighteen - Devastation and Reform; Part Twenty - Hard-boiled Vindication