Twentieth in the dystopian!verse series.
Keep up, keep up - all aboard the Collision Express; don't forget your ticket.
When: Post-Ground Zero
Silence is familiar. It is an old friend of theirs, a constant presence between the maelstrom of action and sound and movement that ticker-tapes their lives. Sometimes she resents Silence, other times she is grateful for it, and most of the time she breaks it. But not today. Not now. She has had enough of breaking and being broken.
“Let me ask you a question,” Mickey begins. “When you run, is it away from or towards something?”
She watches the two men before her, each standing apart, but in this together. They cannot see her, not when she is shrouded in the shadows of the dark hallway. Let’s take a break, Mickey had told her, and she had agreed, leaving to catch her breath and regain herself in the hallway.
Too many secrets are being unveiled today. It is almost too much. They slam into her like freight trains, weighty and solid-deadly. They leave her gasping, with the bitter aftertaste of salt and bile and blood on her tongue.
There is a pause, and breaths and clock ticks are hasty eternities before Mickey receives a reply. “I don’t know,” the Doctor sighs. “What does it matter?”
“It always matters, in the end.”
The Doctor clears his throat, a harsh sound, like a final gunshot, or a crack of a whip. “Maybe,” he starts, “just maybe, it’s the journey that’s more important.”
She has heard it being said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Once, she might have been inclined to agree. But the person she was, the person she thought she was and she person she is now are all very different people, so she cannot say for certain.
A single step is fatal. When you are on the precipice, on the edge of the world you know, one step takes you out into the darkness. And to survive, you must believe that you have either something solid to walk on, or that you will learn to fly.
She believes neither. She is fresh out of faith and belief and conviction.
She steps into the room anyway, because even if she does not believe, she has nothing left to lose.
Maybe there is something to be learnt in falling.
“You ready?” Mickey asks her.
No, she wants to tell him. No, she wants to scream. How can anyone be ready for this? The soothing words and calm tones are well-intended, she knows, but she cannot help but want to throw them back in his face.
The Watcher implant in her wrist glows faintly, pulsing and flaring, like a beacon or lighthouse for those lost at sea.
Her heart thrums a staccato rhythm, pounding-knocking-pushing.
Your traumatic disseverance from the Network left you with a broken link when they reuploaded you to it. We need to repair that. From there, we can begin to patch your memories back together. We can fix you.
She wishes Mickey wouldn’t put it like that. Fix you. It is like she is broken, like a discarded toy from an errant, irresponsible child, like a factory cast-off. Maybe the person she is now isn’t who she was before; must she go back to the way she was?
She has always thought that growing involved moving forward, not back.
They tell her, this is not who you are. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe she’s fine with that. The ghosts of her past non-life are like the rasp of dry leaves hitting the autumn ground, like bloody sunset skies, like frozen-dead bodies in winter. There is dichotomy in her now; Paradoxes. Oxymorons. Two people.
She is not who She is because She is not Herself, but She is not Herself because She is not who She is.
(philosophy has little place in the real world, darling. don’t confuse yourself.)
When she was a girl (or not really, no, this is not real, none of this happened, truly), she used to play a game. Marco Polo. Louis Stevenson, the boy in apartment thirteen, would wear a blindfold, and all the neighbourhood kids would head to the open field just off Shelby Park. He’d call, Marco! And they’d all answer, Polo! And he would try to find them, blindly and feelingly.
But this, now, this is not a game. This is no child’s play, no gleeful dash-in-the-park. This is her life, her, before and after, history and future.
(Marco. Marco. Marco.)
Her fists are clenched, and her nails dig painfully into her palms. The Doctor stands off to one side of the room, a thousand miles away. She can see hope and frustration and concern and love and anger and sadness and hesitation in his eyes.
“Are you ready?” Mickey repeats.
No. No. No. “Yes.”
There is a platform, and there is a station. There is a blinding white. There is a bench, there is a woman, and there is a woman on the bench.
There are, however, no trains.
There are no people, and that is the first thing she notices. When she looks around, she sees a clock, but that clock has no hands. The platform boards are empty beneath the DESTINATION header.
She wonders if she could stay here. It is quiet. It is calm. It is peaceful. And lonely? No. No, this is not loneliness. She has known loneliness, hated it and loved it and fought with it like a tenacious, possessive lover. This is loneliness, but the good kind. Solitude.
She cannot remember how she got here, or why she is here. But that doesn’t matter anymore, she is sure. There is a station, and there is her, and that is that.
The bench beneath her is firm. The wood is faded and slightly marred, but that is alright, she deems, because she likes the texture. She slides a palm over the roughened surface, over and over, like a sculptor sanding down his finest work.
She hears the slap, slap of sneakers hitting hard concrete pavements behind her. She turns, because she has always been too curious for her own good. Not this time, though. This time, she is just too curious.
“Hi,” he says, and smiles when she looks at him, mouth agape. He takes a seat on the bench next to her.
“How did you get here?” She asks, because that is the most important question of all. You cannot get somewhere if you don’t know where you are going, or if you don’t know where this is. She is confident he knows neither.
He laughs. “I’m just a figment of your imagination, you know.” He spreads his hands, waves them around for effect. “Your mind made me up. I’m not real.” He looks around, quick side-to-side glances. “Well, not here, at least. I’m up there.” He jerks his thumb upwards, towards the endless expanse of the white, white sky.
With dispassionate interest, she observes that there is no roof. She nods at him, almost absent-mindedly, and returns to tracing the scarred bench surface. She hears him sigh.
“Aren’t you going to ask me where up there is?”
She shakes her head. Here is good. Here, there is no confusion. No frustration. No feeling. No pain. She distantly recalls somewhere, a place where she bled and laughed and cried, where she smiled, where she lived like sparking switchblades; like edging madness; like falling dreams; like it hurt.
She does not want to go back.
“The story’s not finished, you know.”
She knows this, of course she knows this, how could she not? She is the main protagonist, the key character. Of course she knows that it is far from over.
“Doctor,” she begins. “We’ve had our once-upon-a-time, haven’t we?”
He nods slowly. Neither of them look at each other, both staring out onto the empty platform, waiting for trains that may never come.
“And that happily-ever-after,” she continues. “We never did get that, did we?”
She doesn’t look at him, but she can feel the tension in his shoulders, the clench of his jaw, the tightening of his fists.
“The story’s not over,” he echoes.
She closes her eyes.
“Is it?” She breathes. “Is it really?”
She wakes up.
(Welcome back, Princess.)
Reality is cold. Harsh. The room is sterile and corpse-white, littered with the cold floor of her horrors.
Information and Knowledge and Everything floods into her at once. Things like pecan pie recipes and Heliotrope-7 schematics and criminal procedure code, section v addendum 4.5 and the best haircuts for round-faced women! and homeostasis is the maintenance of optimal body conditions and xanthosic acid is the yellowish acid commonly found in tumours and pi equals 3.14159265...
It is Everything. The Network opens to her, like the sought-after gates of paradise, like the collapse of the fabled walls of Troy. It is too much.
Mickey is at the bank of monitors across the room, watching her neural readings and implant transmissions. The Doctor is at her bedside, eyes focused on her with rapt attention.
Mickey bounds up to her, face split in a grin. “We did it. Well, one part of it, anyway. You’re back online in the Network. Fully online.”
She cannot bring herself to smile, so she squeezes his hand, and quirks her lips upwards. “What next?” She asks, and does not miss the way he shoots the Doctor a careful glance.
She fears his next words, and the urge to run away is strong. The person she is now slips further and further from her grasp, leaving her scrabbling and stranded with the ghost of who she once was. She avoids the Doctor’s eyes.
I love you, he said. Love who? She wants to ask him, wants to shake him. Rose Before and Rose Now are two different people, even if they look and sound and seem alike.
The chair beneath her is smooth, polished synthetic leather in muted grey. When her hand slips off her lap to touch it, the smoothness is like the searing lick of white-hot flames; like icicles in empty caves; like slamming doors on chilly days.
“Next?” Mickey parrots. “We’ll have to link you up again, and from there we’ll work on getting your memory back. We’ll try to wipe the wipe, so to speak - to find out if they erased it for good, or if everything’s merely boxed and stored somewhere in your mind.”
“Mmm,” she lets out, non-committal and more than a little afraid. Mickey takes her vitals again, and heads back to the wall of monitors.
“Let’s take a break, shall we?” The sound of the Doctor’s voice jars her, and her mind barely registers Mickey nodding and muttering about getting a cup of tea. The Doctor has been too quiet, too reserved, too silent.
“I remember,” she tells him, “I remember waking one morning and finding everything smeared with the colour of forgotten love.”
He hums in acknowledgement of her words, but silence follows, like the world on mute, like a bird shot out of air.
“How did you know,” he picks up, “at that time, that it was forgotten love?”
“I didn’t. But it hurt, and everything was empty, and I thought: this, this is what sadness feels like. Later, when I met you, there was happiness, calamity, high noon - and beneath everything, there was that colour. And I knew.”
He sighs. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m drowning, with no land in sight.”
“And is that a bad thing?”
He reaches out to take her hand, and the feel of it in hers is better than scarred benches and smooth chairs and the granite-hard chips of diamond-dust. How, she wonders, how can you feel like you’re falling and standing still at the same time?
“I don’t know,” he replies. “Should it be?”
She bites her lip, and fists her free hand in her lap. This here is the million-dollar question, the crux of it all, almost.
“Only if you want it to.”
He takes her answer and ponders over it, and she sees the way he rolls it around his tongue, moulds and shapes it in his mind. She is not privy to the conclusion he comes to, but when Mickey reenters the lab, he squeezes her hand once and presses a quick kiss to her wrist before moving to stand in the corner of the room near the window.
“So, Rose,” Mickey approaches, medical equipment in tow. “You up for this now?”
She swallows once, twice.
She nods. “The story’s not over, after all.”
Part Nineteen - Cyanide Wonderland; Part Twenty-One - Jasmine, Gunpowder, Assam