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By Zelda
Page 1 of 3

Wait until you see him fall, they told me. Then it will be safe for you, they said. Nonsensical instructions, when you think about it. They must have hoped that I wouldn't think about it, would never have the chance; that the purposeful and supposedly satisfying act of watching him fall down dead would distract me, divert my eyes while my hands obediently administered my own death, as practiced to perfection.

Minimize the opportunity to think, to hesitate.

But the result was this: he was still standing as I fell. And my last thought, as I fell, was that I had failed, but that at least it was over.

I had failed completely, and I didn't care, because it was over. The last thing I saw was the shine on his boots standing steady as my eyes closed, so wonderfully weighty, and the last sound I heard was the roar of machines. And then the infinite negation of nirvana.

I am walking up the main road, dressed in my best, and before the sun rises I'm expected to be dead.

The white glow ahead--a second, better sun--would guide me if it happened that I didn't know the road, if I couldn't walk it blindfolded, backward, and still point out every insignificant landmark as I passed it. Or point to where it once was, anyhow, for of late the machines have made rapid progress in the direction of the village. It used to be that you knew you were halfway to the Compound when the screeching and the grinding could be heard. It was thus all my childhood: a landmark of sorts. Now, though, you can hear the machines from the village, and before you're halfway to the heart of the Compound you're among them. Towering fantastic on both sides. Insinuating themselves into your dreams.

We all dream of the machines. I don't know if any of the other dreams are like mine: I dreamed that I rose to investigate an odd sound in the night, in time to see them turning and walking away from the village, even faster than they came. I woke up weeping, terrified. Now I dream I am walking up the main road, dressed to die, bathed in the glow of a second--better--sun.

The first sound I hear is a high steady tone in my ears. The first thing I see is the white light-panel, doubled and unfocused, burning in a dull white ceiling.

My first thought is that it isn't over. That I was wrong. And before the first emotion, which I know must be relief and the desire to survive at any price, I move my hand, prepared to poison myself by the backup method, which was just as well-rehearsed as the rest of the plan. (The syringe, slammed hard into the flesh of his upper arm, should have seen him cold dead on the ground at my feet even as I administered the last sufficient drop to myself.)

But my right hand is held fast, and so is my left. Each bound, by a broad band of unyielding substance, tightly to a smooth cold metal bar.

Stiff-necked, I turn my head to the side. The bed is narrow, and painfully white, and has adjustable railings on either side, let down now. My wrists, at hip level, are fastened to the top rung of either of these. By what means exactly I can't see beneath the sheet, rough and white, drawn up over my bare shoulders. It chafes my nipples, hard in the cold that pervades the room. The part of the room I can see to my right is white, all white.

Kick off the covers, and assess what is holding your wrists, for what good it will do. I would, but my ankles, I'm not terribly surprised to discover, are similarly restrained. The best I could hope to do is pinch cloth between my toes and slowly inch it down, but given my nudity and the chill, and increasing clarity of thought, it really doesn't seem worth the effort. Stare at the ceiling. Take a deep breath. Turn to the left. Assess. On that side I see a plastic tube running down from somewhere above and behind me, feeding clear liquid into my arm: I can feel the needle tug when I flex that muscle. Simultaneously I become aware of another tube crossing warm over my thigh, draining my bladder in a slow steady stream.

I'm certain for a moment that with all they have done--and no knowing how long it has been since I fell--they surely must have found what was under my nail. I can't tell to my own satisfaction if it's still there, for fear of pressing too hard. Fear floods me. And eventually ebbs. I failed. It isn't over, but I have no more say in what happens.

The room is small and white and has a flat white smell to it. The walls, a few paces distant, are lined with cupboards. White. I wonder (don't) what's in them (oh, don't). The whine in my ears has subsided now, or else I have grown too used to it to hear it anymore. The sound of my breath and the creaks and rattles when I move are absorbed all around without echo. I squirm a bit. Shiver. Wrinkle the sheet. Don't think.

I have lived all my life in the village--know this road like the back of my hand. I have lived all my life with the light of the Compound always shining just beyond the horizon. As much a part of the world as anything else. Walk through the village, and tell me if you can, after three generations: of all the things you see, pumps and guns and soap, what did we, the People, invent (or manage to sustain through the long dark that followed the Fall, if that is truly your belief), and what did we steal--conceptually at the very least--from the Compound? What did we earn, with our righteousness, and what was bounty from the heavens?

You can't tell. And I don't care. One generation fought (not very hard, it's said bitterly, frequently, these days, with them being mostly safely in their graves), but two since have coexisted--all bloodshed on a strictly individual basis--trading labour for knowledge, for innovation. But now--

Now the din of the machines drowns out my breathing and any trace of footfall, and in the light they cast I have a dozen shadows. And I ought not think.

Footfalls. The grey metal door beyond the foot of the bed swings open. I nearly scream. In this light there are no shadows. It's one of those women the new soldiers brought with them when they came. I have never been close enough to one until now to see how strange they really are, even by the standards of the Compound.

She wears the uniform it seems they all do, the new soldiers, a flexible black beetle shell, tough and tight and frightening. And looks as though she's being slowly poisoned. As though she's been drained and refilled with poison. They feed on the blood of bad slaves, it is said, and those slaves in their turn, if they're women, become--tales told after a vanishing, easy enough to dismiss until the moment when one of them is leaning over you, the faint scent of her disturbingly reminiscent of metal, of exhaust, and her face as rigidly vacant as that of a corpse. Involuntarily my left arm twitches, hard enough to sting where the needle is.

She presses something cold against the place in my neck where the pulse is, and her dead eyes fix mine for a few heartbeats.

She flips off the sheet--and the restraints, I observe, are of the same tough ubiquitous black stuff as their uniforms are--cursorily examines both my hands, both my feet; then smoothly slides the needle from my arm, and then the catheter from my urethra, and I wince at the pinch and try to choke back the thought that comes like a taunt that that's not the worst, you can't even begin to imagine the worst that will happen.

Then she puts the sheet back, smooth, tight, and leaves me.

The new soldiers arrived last harvest, or less than half a Year ago as they measure time--being exposed to both systems of measurement all my life I can convert without conscious effort. They came as the inevitable next step in a steadily escalating confrontation, the entirely predictable response to Our latest endeavour, which had been the sabotage of one of the newest machines, with bloody and expensive results. Fourteen dead and when I heard the names it took a moment's thought, longer than it takes me to translate cycles into Years, to tally how many of these were Us and how many were Them.

Though the Glorious Revolution rightly maintains than anyone labouring on one of their machines, unless with immediate intent to sabotage, is by definition Them. Even those labouring at gunpoint, as many were by then, even before the new soldiers arrived. In their insect shells and insect masks, and their dull, distant insect mind, unfamiliar and contemptuous.

I've come to kill the queen. Smile. Don't think.

The room is warmer, I think. Don't think. The grey door opens again. Don't think. Another uniform. No mistaking the face, though that was the first time I saw it.

It's the one they told me God said to kill. I didn't believe them in the slightest and I didn't believe in their Cause; nevertheless I did in obedience plunge the syringe through the hard black material of his sleeve into the harder flesh of his arm, up to the hilt, and squeezed, and pulled it out again, and waited with the needle poised, next to my neck, for him to fall, realizing amazed that this thing had been done. But he just looked at me. He didn't even seem surprised.

Then there was a sting like hot fat on the side of my neck that I thought I must have given myself, and I thought it was over. Over, forever, for me.

My fear seems smaller than it ought to be as he approaches, hard face as blank as the woman's was and nearly as pale. He comes and stands close to the bed, to my right; he leans over me, a black masculine silhouette in the blaze of the white rectangular light in the ceiling--an eclipse, a portent (my mind babbles, soothing nonsense).

"I'm sure you were manipulated," he says quietly. I keep my pinprick pupils fixed on the fixture far above him, until he grabs my jaw in his right hand and twists my head to the side away from the light toward the other hand, the black hand, holding the syringe centimeters from my eye, far enough to recognize it. Then closer. "I'm confident you were compelled to behave as you did," he continues, through clenched teeth it sounds like but his voice is still dead calm. "I hope you'll forgive me taking it personally." He brings the tip of the needle so close that my eyelashes brush against it when I blink, blink; fingers and thumb vise-tight on either side of my jawbone as if I would dare to try and move away. The fear is there, yes, now, a jet-scream static. What did it look like, I have the mad impulse to ask him, over the din of my heart--what was the last thing your left eye saw?

I haven't said a word. Not since I set out along the road. In retrospect, should not my cowardly historical needle-thrust have been accompanied at least by a cry of Long Live the Glorious Revolution, or Power to the People?

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