On the count of

”I think it’s time for the next number”, I heard Ava murmur to Emmy.
The three of us had been cornered and her words broke the silence that always came with horrifying realizations. By now I’d fought with them long enough to know the meaning of their numbers, but I remembered how curious I’d been before I learnt of it.

The first time I overheard them talk about it was when I had just found out they were a couple. I’d been placed in the same platoon but had kept to myself, as was my style. The benefits of such behavior being that it doesn’t take long to get to know the people around you, or map out the informal hierarchies that shape any group, without them talking to you and telling you different. I could see that there was something special with the two of them, and how they at times held rank over every commanding officer that set foot on our base, without ever carrying the necessary insignia. They earned my respect long before I went into the field with them, and it only grew when I did.
The dynamics between the two took longer to understand, fluid as it was. At first glance, Ava seemed the authoritarian one, but once we’d been fired upon together enough times for them to relax around me, there was a playfulness they let show that told me differently. In such times, Emmy was the leader of the two, Ava glad to follow. Not that they flaunted any of it, but my unobtrusive manners gave me an insight to more than others would ever notice.
Still, many were they that looked. The two women were remarkably good looking, in ways that they themselves seemed uncaring about. Ava dark and compact, muscles moving like those on a panther, not leaving anyone in doubt what that body could do to you in close combat. Emmy in ways her antithesis, slim and tall, a light cheetah to Ava’s black panther. But having seen her move, no one would underestimate her either.
Initially I was surprised they didn’t receive rude propositions, or crude jokes, like so many other beautiful people suffered in surroundings such as ours, but with time I understood that their skills and their experience earned them more than enough respect. And also I witnessed the result of such commentary that one time a new guy tried it. They set the bar high for the whole compound, I saw my fellow soldiers rise to it, and enjoyed living with a more respectful congregation than I had ever participated in before. But you couldn’t stop people looking, nor speculating by camp fires what their numbers meant.
Many of us had by then been in situations where panic and agony were close at hand, maybe pressed into a corner with fewer bullets left than enemies. I remember that being in one such situation with both Ava and Emmy was the first time I heard them mention the numbers. We had been under fire but had found a shelter good enough to breathe in momentarily. Emmy was pacing the room, distraught, and I could see her edging close to breaking apart. I didn’t blame her cause I was close behind. Suddenly Ava called out.
“Emmy”, her voice ordered, somewhere between a soldier and a lover, eyes not moving from targets yet not hit. “What’s number eight?”
I was crouching behind a door, clinging to my weapon for comfort, able to look at them both. I could see Emmy glare at Ava, but also how the question stopped her pacing. She was thinking, looking unwilling to answer, but attempting to anyway.
“Number eight”, she said, closing her eyes. “Is the forests outside Tunisia.”
“Correct”, Ava smiled, and fired a shot, which turned out to be the game changing one.
At another time, an uncharacteristically relaxed evening by the fire, I heard them whisper a similar question, but that time it was Emmy asking Ava for number twelve. Which turned out to be the Eiffel tower. Speculation was constant in regards to the numbers, and the most popular theory was that it was the most effective kills, or most dramatic attacks they had survived. No one dared ask, since no one dared confess to having listened in so closely.
The moment I learnt the meaning was on yet another mission. The three of us had been ambushed, wounded to various degrees, but had retaliated with enough force to clear an undisturbed path back to base. Halfway home however, Ava collapsed from blood loss, having underestimated the distance to walk combined with the effect of a bullet to the thigh. We stayed the night outdoors, having patched her up best we could and let her sleep. Emmy confided in me that it was not the first time it had happened.
“She tends to downplay her bullet wounds if I also have one”, she muttered, subconsciously clutching her left arm where she also had taken a shot. “It’s the only time I know her to be stupid.”
I could see the worry, and how she overrode it with the authority of being in charge of getting the three of us home. I tried to argue for her to get some sleep, promising I would wake her if Ava’s condition worsened, but she wouldn’t have it. And in the morning, I woke to them whispering, but remained motionless so as not to interrupt them.
“Don’t do that ever again”, Emmy was scolding Ava.
“I survived, didn’t I?” was the weak but teasing answer.
“Only just, you idiot.”
A silence fell, but just as I was about to move and showcase that I was awake, I heard Ava continue.
“Do you think this is the time for number seventeen?”
“Only if you promise not to do that again.”
Ava must have nodded her reply, because I heard none, and when I opened my eyes to look they were kissing. That in itself was not unusual, I had seen them kiss many times before, since even though they didn’t flaunt their relationship they certainly didn’t hide it either, but there was something about this one that was different. When they moved apart I pressed my eyes shut again, pretending their privacy hadn’t been intruded upon.
“So will you remember this one?” Ava whispered.
“Number seventeen”, Emmy replied. “On your near death bed in the jungle.”

So when Ava broke the silence with that suggestion I wasn’t surprised that it caused Emmy to shout at her, to back away from Ava, pushing at the arms that tried to reach around her. I would’ve have offered to stay behind to hold the oncoming off, but one of my eyes had been rendered useless with a cut and I could no longer fire with any accuracy. And we all knew who the best shooter was, who would give the remaining two the biggest head start. I looked the other way, but couldn’t give them any more privacy than that as I heard Emmy cry. Ava spoke with a calm strength, the decision was already made, unavoidable as it was. I knew she was trying to keep the urgency from her voice, since we didn’t have long. I was amazed at how well she managed.
“Emmy. Please. Let me hold you.”
The frantic sound of Emmy resisting quieted at that plea, and after a while I heard her broken voice, muffled in an embrace.
“But you promised me we’d get to a hundred.”

Extract from Project 2 (3)

I fall, and it feels like the longest time but it mustn’t be since all I have time to think is ‘I hope I don’t make it’, wishing myself to land on something hard and fatal, and for my mind to stop, forever. But I land in water, and against my will my arms and legs react so that I break the surface and inhale deep. I try to stop moving, to sink, but the current is strong and I get tossed around so much that I can’t help myself. If I were to try and look back to where I fell from, to see if Damon came running, I wouldn’t be able to – I am already far down the river – but I wouldn’t anyway. Suddenly the water stills a little, and my thoughts catch up, willing me once more to stop fighting for survival, reminding me of its pointlessness. But when I stop swimming, I float instead. And when I bump against a rock protruding from the side of the stream I cling to it, but at least I don’t climb it. I remain, shivering, in the cold water which is still moving strong enough to tug at me. I look back to where I came from, the cliffs on either side of the water looking harsh and eager to kill, and I marvel, unfeeling, at the fact that I survived the fall. I turn and look where I would go, were I to let go of my hold. It is more of the same, rocky constellations overseeing the flow from each side, which looks to be getting more violent further down. I am fairly certain that even if my body would instinctively swim, it would not be able to stay above the surface for long. I close my eyes and try to maneuver the thoughts. The feelings that were still taking my body hostage before I stepped over the edge all fell away when I did, and now I have none. If grabbing a hold of the rock I am clinging to was instinctive, I now find myself at a point where a conscious choice must be made. In descending order I can tell my body to move; lift itself out of the water and search for shelter, or I can tell only my hands to act; to let go of the hold they’ve saved me with and end it, admittedly with more pain than I hoped for when falling, but with the same result. Or I can do neither. Dwell in the apathy that the inner void I am experiencing comes with, until my body fails or someone – Damon or Hannah being the only likely candidates – finds me. My thoughts find their way back to the first option, and instantly want to back away again since it is not just those steps – getting my body out of the water and then finding shelter – rather, it paves the way for an endless line of actions and decisions. Which seems to me unbelievably tiring. And running the risk of much more pain along the way than is waiting for me down the stream, should I go with option two. Both require effort though, and for a long while I remain motionless, letting my thoughts quiet down slowly, until I only occasionally give the sensation of cold attention. Then from nowhere words that Hannah once said to me appear in my head.
“The alternative bores me.”
They are what get me out, in the end.

Leap of faith

”Did you hear everything I just said?” I ask, and she nods.
She has at least stepped away from the ledge, but has found something else to balance on. I try to control my breathing, make it slower, as I observe her putting one step in front of the other on the plank of wood that for some reason has found its way to the roof of the building. Her arms flail a little, and even though a misstep from where she is right now wouldn’t hurt her, I try to address her endeavor as if it would.
“Keep your eyes straight ahead”, I advice her, since she’s looking straight down.
“But then I wouldn’t see where I’m putting my feet”, she objects, moving closer to the middle of the plank. “I’d fall for sure.”
“Alright”, I surrender. “If you’re certain that’s the best way for you to do it, it’s fine. But you mustn’t do it anywhere nearer the edge, can we agree on that?”
She nods again.
“Are you nodding just because you know I want you to?”
She doesn’t reply, but I wait. When she reaches the end of the plank she stops and looks up, stares at the horizon, then replies to me.
“Yes. I think we want different things.”
I want to shout at her, but manage not to. I try to find solace in her honesty.
“How do you mean?”
She does a little jump off the plank, which causes it to clatter and my heart to jump.
“Well”, she ponders, still not looking at me. “Maybe it’s different ways of seeing the things we want. But I do trust you, I trust you want what’s best for me.”
“I do”, I interject, which causes her to face me with a smile, as she continues.
“And I love you for it. It means a lot to me.”
She is still too far away from me for comfort, but the warmth in that smile reaches me full force. As long as we’re talking I can accept the fact that I can’t move closer, relying on my words to be enough to steer her movements.
“It means a lot to me too”, I tell her. “And I don’t think we see things that differently at all.”
“Oh but we do”, she objects, and the certainty with which she says it terrifies me.
Or if it is the glint in her eyes.
“Even if we did”, I try, not wanting to carry on down the path she seems intent on. “I think we should be careful and listen very closely to each other before doing anything rash.”
She pouts her lips, seemingly giving what I’m saying some thought.
“It wouldn’t be rash”, she then informs me. “If you knew what I knew.”
She looks at me with a knowing smile, willing me to question her about it, but something inside is screaming for me not to and I desperately try to find something else to say. Anything that will engage her. But before I get a chance to she tells me anyway.
“That I can fly.”
And she runs straight out into the air.

 

Borders within

There is no only me today, nor will there be tomorrow
Once there was naught but I, it led the world to sorrow
A world of islands ‘fore they came, and helped us all to see
that you and I are truly one, the world is border free

Reciting the morning hymn to the Union, even though it is also aimed at myself, leaves me with the same discomfort as always. I have felt it for as long as I remember, and have grown so used to it now that it wouldn’t feel right saying it without that slight tingle of unease. When I was younger I used to try to get out of reciting it, moving my lips in sync with the bodies around me, but not uttering the words and therefore keeping my voice from joining the choir. The symbolism gave me a small sense of perverted joy that I was too young to fully understand, at how I appeared to be part of the group joined together in speech, but in reality stood out, in my silence. It became a way for me to calm those feelings I didn’t comprehend, placate them with an unknown act of rebellion. Until that time when the reciting happened in too small a group for my silence to go unnoticed, and my apartness was quelled. Much to the embarrassment of my then Practical Family. I still remember my frustration at the person who had birthed me, when I saw the disappointment in her eyes as the events were related to her. Much later I understood that I got so angry because I saw her disappointment being aimed equally at herself, and at those who shared our home and routines, as it was being aimed at me.
“It’s only me!” I wanted to scream. “You have no role in this, I did this myself!”
But instead I promised to say the words out loud from that day on. And I settled with the uneasiness, which lingers still as I sit back down to keep working. My fingers connect to the keys before me, only milliseconds on each one, but still there is constantly a part of me touching the computer, and together we create code. I am one of many coders serving the Union and it is impossible in the end product for me to point to what I have created, and what someone else has. If a mistake gets made, it soon gets rectified, without fault and without blame. I try not to take more pleasure in creating new code than I do in controlling existing code, but it is a struggle. Once, in the early days of working here, I wrote a solution that I was actually so proud of that I couldn’t help but ask if my colleagues had noticed it. Three of us were standing by the coffee machine discussing the taste of its output, when I brought it up.
“Did any of you see this morning’s latest array on project RF7723c?”
“I did!” one of them enthused, and I felt the pride grow inside me.
“I haven’t seen it”, said the other.
“Check it out”, prompted the first. “It is a nice example as to why we are such a good code group.”
At those last words I felt another emotion take the place of pride, and I left them to return to my desk, trying to keep the resentment from showing. I felt it had been my solution, and that it had nothing to do with the rest of the group, and so the idea that it gave all of them credit irked me. I knew these feelings were misplaced, I had like everyone else recited the truth upon joining the coders; that a chain is no stronger than its weakest link. I too believed in team work, in pooling together to reach goals an individual could not hope to aspire to on their own. But still I felt the need for affirmation on a personal level. More so, it seemed, than everyone else. I have not worked as hard to think up clever solutions since then. But of course, clever solutions keep being created, and I am continuously congratulated on being part of making them happen, however little I want to be.

As I reach the end of my shift I stop in the middle of a sentence, knowing it won’t be there to pick up when I return since whoever takes my place when I leave will carry it on. I now feel nothing about this, whereas I used to have to balance feelings of worry about not measuring up and about the other person messing up my code. I know the feeling I am supposed to have is confidence in both myself and the others that share this desk, as we together make up one coder resource, and I should feel a certain safety in our number. But I feel nothing. I check to make sure the desk looks the way it did when I arrived, and I put the picture of Lect, my Living Partner, in my pocket as I leave. It is unusual to keep pictures, and I had to argue to even get to take it in the first place. Still I can’t bring myself to not display it during my working hours.

In the evenings at home, we have the joint routine of reading. I am, as so often, leaning on Lect, absentmindedly letting my fingers connect to whatever bare skin is available, which has turned out to be part of a leg, exposed by pants sliding up when cuddled together on a sofa. I enjoy our mutual silence, and from time to time I stop reading and pretend there is only us in the world. Once, during our first year as Living Partners, I told Lect this. It sparked an argument.
“You mustn’t say such things!” was the upset reaction I got to what I had earnestly meant to be a declaration of love. “We are but one of many, no more valuable, no less, but endlessly so.”
At the recitation of the hymn sung when two or more people declare they are becoming Living Partners I recoiled, for a moment perceiving Lect as someone I couldn’t possibly love. It terrified me, and I kept talking, more for my own sake than for Lect’s, to find my way back to a special place I felt I was about to lose.
“But don’t you think what we have is unique?” I asked, unable to keep my voice from sounding accusatory. “I love you, I don’t want to live with anyone else. What we have is special.”
I kept pressing on, and my doing so made Lect more uncomfortable, and after a while I realized that I had to back track, the same way I had done with the morning hymn when I was younger, in order to keep from ruining everything. Since then I never single our relationship out, nor do I voice how special it really is to me. I agree to it being but another living partnership, and the picture I managed to coax my way into taking stays hidden, by Lect undoubtedly forgotten. I return to my reading, but get only as far as two sentences before Lect moves from underneath my fingers, and the connection is lost. I pout and make a disgruntled noise at this, which earns me a laugh, and then a look which I know to mean that we will shortly become one in a manner much more carnal than uniting in silent contemplation on a sofa.

The next day I’ve taken up where the one before me left off, reviewing and rewriting code, noticing that some of my work from the day before has been rewritten, but that most of it remains. I can’t help but feel a sense of victory from this, and as I go to get my first cup of coffee I don’t instantly return to my desk as usual, but rather joyfully join in the discussion on its taste instead. One of the others changes the topic with a question.
“What did you think of my take on the issue with project KU8009?”
It’s met by silence, and I can sense my other two colleagues get uncomfortable at the blunt, self-centered question. I sip my coffee, intrigued, and the colleague who asked the question presses on. I realize I don’t recognize her, and figure she must be new.
“It was a pretty good solve, don’t you think?” she smiles, raising her paper cup in what looks like a toast. “It took some work, but I’m really pleased with the result.”
The other two avoid meeting her eyes, but she doesn’t seem bothered. Nor does she seem to notice when they both excuse themselves and return to their desks. Instead she refills her cup and looks at me with a cheerful smile, and I think I can see some insolence in her eyes.
“I saw it”, I acknowledge, offering a half smile to her full one. “You did good.”
“Thank you!” she exclaims poignantly and my smile grows.
We stand in silence drinking our coffee, and I even refill my cup in order to remain a while longer, but then she moves to return to her desk. I nod back as she nods goodbye, and go back to work myself. I don’t see her for the rest of the day, nor the rest of the week, even though I go for coffee more often than usual.

The upcoming week however, as I am leaving the building, she catches up to me, surprising me completely by grabbing a hold of my arm to catch my attention. When I see it’s her I smile.
“The master coder!” I greet, which she laughs at.
“Indeed! Or Iuris, which I also am known as.”
She holds out her hand and I take it.
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Sui.”
“The pleasure is mine” she replies, and I can’t hide my surprise at her phrasing.
She sees this, and adds with a conspiratorial smile and a theatrical glance over her shoulder.
“’Ours’, I mean. The pleasure is obviously ours, as we are all one.”
I smile at the joking tone in her voice, realizing I haven’t heard anyone use the individualistic greeting for years.
“Obviously”, I agree.
I don’t know what more to expect, so I’m about to wish her a good evening, but before I get a chance to she leans in closer, still conspiratorial, and I find that I’m enjoying it.
“Do you wanna go somewhere for a drink?” she asks.
“Sure”, I manage, caught a little of guard. “There’s a Drinkers Gathering just around the corner from here.”
“I know some place much better”, she says, and I wonder what other options to drink there are, but want nothing more than to find out.

Iuri leads me to an anonymous looking venue that is similar to that of a Drinkers Gathering, but instead of rows of tables where everyone joins together there are lots of little booths, with two to four seats in each. Here and there people are sitting, some even on their own, with a glass in front of them. I’ve never seen anything like it, and Iuri grins at my wonder.
“Sometimes you just want to be on your own”, she comments, before leaving me in a booth to go get drinks for us.
I try to maneuver the mixed feelings of guilt and recognition her parting words induce in me, and when she gets back I take a deep gulp of the beer. It helps.
“I get the feeling you’re not like the others”, she smiles when I put my drink back down on the table, already a third gone.
“I’m unsure of what you mean”, I reply, a little warily. “We’re all the same.”
“Reciting Union propaganda now, are we?”
However jokingly her comment is made to sound, I can’t help but get more uncomfortable, and I lean back in my chair. Her smile disappears and instead she suddenly looks apologetic.
“I’m sorry”, she urges. “I don’t mean to scare you. It’s just…”
She pauses, and I find myself leaning back onto the table.
“I feel like you’re also questioning the way of the world”, she continues, more carefully now. “That this whole set up, where each individual practically gets eradicated, is hurting us. I mean, of course there’s strength in numbers, and of course we are all of equal value. But I can’t help but feel that we are all also unique. That each one of us is special, and deserves to be acknowledged as such.”
She quietens and takes her first sip from her drink, not looking at me. I clear my throat to get her eyes on me as I respond.
“I think you’re right.”

Iuri and I take to having weekly drinks. It goes unnoticed by everyone else, as I time it with when Lect is volunteering at the hospital after work, and I am already known among the rest of those I socialize with – my previous Practical Family, certain colleagues – to spend many evenings at home on my own, reading. Iuri and I speak of ourselves, our thoughts and ideas, our accomplishments at work. I talk a lot about my love for Lect, and how I have to hide it when really my whole body wants to shout it out to the world, about how I want to brag about our uniqueness. Iuri understands, and agrees.
“It’s the same with work”, she muses. “I want to excel at what I do. I want to be challenged and work hard, for the good of everyone, of course, but most of all I want to work hard for ME. I know for a fact not everyone is as good as I am at coding. I don’t want the credit of my hard work to fall to that dope on the third floor, who never does anything of value.”
We drink to what we think are reasonable demands, then we part ways and spend the week until next time pretending we are fine with the way things are.

One day, halfway through our second glass, Iuri tells me someone is joining us for a drink. I have a moment’s panic, thinking it has all been some sort of setup, trying to think back on what I’ve been saying these past few months. But I quickly calm myself, reminding myself that most often it is Iuri that does the talking, even if what she says could have been directly picked from my mind.
“It’s a guy I know from my last place of work”, she explains. “He thinks like we do. And he wants to do something about it.”
“Like what?” I ask, but before she has time to reply someone sits down next to us.
Olum turns out to be even better at quoting my thoughts back to me than Iuri, and the three of us remain until they’re closing, and for the first time I have to tell Lect about my new friend from work, since I come home way after midnight, when I am usually asleep. Next week, Olum joins us from the start, and I have to really struggle to leave in time to be home before Lect. I don’t know why I’m so eager to keep my ventures hidden, but I do.

“I have this feeling”, Olum starts, during our fourth or fifth meeting. “That there are loads more of us out there. That they’re just scared of speaking up.”
“Probably”, I agree, signaling for another round of drinks. “But how would we reach them? The Union has us reciting hymns until we’re brain washed, and if you bring up individuals as a concept people freak out.”
“We need to poke a hole in the armor of the Union”, Iuri smiles, and quiets as the full glasses are being placed on our table. “Then everyone would know they don’t actually have the strength to make people think and feel according to their wishes.”
“And how do we do that?” I ask.
“I have an idea”, says Olum.

“What would you do if something happened to me?” I ask, putting my jacket on, officially to go for an evening walk, but in reality to join Iuri and Olum.
Lect looks up from the book of the evening, with a confused expression.
“If I… I don’t know”, I continue. “If I died, or left you? Would you be upset?”
Lect gets up from the sofa and walks over to me, amused at what seems to be preposterous.
“Of course I would. Why would you ever think I wouldn’t be?”
I want to bring back earlier words of me not being allowed to think we’re special, or to point out that living partnerships are quite easy to come by, and that I haven’t dared say ‘I love you’ since that time we fought, but I shrug instead.
“I’ll see you later”, I smile, and we kiss.
I try to make it last longer than usual, and Lect breaks it first, ushering me out the door.
“The sooner you go for your walk, the sooner you’ll be back. We love and we are loved.”

Olum has taken full responsibility of the planning. Iuri and I are to follow his instructions, and the result will be that all the people who head to the late night shift at the Education Unity, coming up out of the subway station at the North-East Union Square, will be met by a billboard previously showcasing the educational hymn, now questioning the Union in a mock verse we’ve written together with the help of many beers. The reason that we target these specific workers, during this specific shift, is that according to Olum it holds the chance of reaching as many likeminded people as possible. Both Iuri and Olum used to work at the Education Unity, and so I trust his judgement. We are to climb the billboard, cover it in our version of the hymn that we have painted on a huge sheet, then make our escape through the back alleys. At this time of night members of the Policing should be both scarce and elsewhere, Olum has reassured us. Yet we are halfway through getting our message in place when we hear an order to freeze. I instinctively obey, trying to think of ways of convincingly dismiss our drunken rhymes as harmless. But then Iuri darts into the night and without thinking my body reacts and I follow. A shot is fired and I hear someone take up chase. Iuri is fast and I struggle to keep up with her, my pulse and my already heavy breathing blocking out all other sounds around me. We get to the unlit back streets, and their darkness feels like it will save us. But that feeling shatters from another fired shot, and there is an explosion of pain I’ve never known in my side. I manage to run a few more steps after Iuri, biting down the scream and following her example by sinking down behind a garbage bin. She clamps one hand over my panting mouth, another over hers, and through the pain that’s ringing in my ears I think I can hear our chaser’s footsteps subsiding. Iuri seems to think so too, she removes her hands and starts getting back up on her feet.
“Get ready to run”, she hisses, and I realize she’s not noticed that I can’t.
I still want to scream, but somehow I manage to whisper instead.
“Can you tell Lect I love him?”
She mistakes my plea for misplaced worry, and replies in an annoyed voice as she takes a last hurried look around us.
“Tell him yourself.”
She runs, and I am left alone.

Extract from A breathe away

He was surprised at the vast difference in his feelings towards being alone. It used to be his most preferred state, the constant better choice than spending time with someone who didn’t understand him, didn’t see him. Being together with people that made him feel lonely had been a constant throughout his life, it had always just been a question of how lonely it got. Some had managed to keep those feelings to sparse glimpses throughout a day, whereas others hadn’t been able to shatter them in the slightest, however hard they’d tried. He’d gotten used to it, accepted it as a simple fact of life, though it had taken him many years to get to such a point.

In his youth he had sought faults within himself, looking for reasons for this inability to connect with other living souls so completely – a behavior he knew existed and could see in others around him all the time. A couple of times he’d thought that he’d gotten close, that he’d cracked the code and that the person standing in front of him, offering him everything, had also seen through it all and yet accepted him. But something had always kept him from diving head first into any sea of intimacy, and in the end all the offers made had always been retracted, or proven to be worthless, leaving him thirsting.

So as he grew older, he grew into the acceptance that life was a lonely state of affairs, and that time was best spent learning how to care for oneself, and to make sure that the company of one’s own thoughts and feelings was something to long for, to thrive in. He’d considered himself successful in that endeavor. But now he had reason to reevaluate that judgement.

Extract from Project 2 (2)

“Hey”, she whispers, patiently. “Where did you go?”
I give her a joyless smile, out of politeness.
“It doesn’t matter”, I reply. “It will pass. It’s stupid of me to rely on you.”
“Why is it?”
“Cause if I do, I will start to need you. And when you disappear…”
“If I disappear”, she interrupts.
“When you disappear”, I persevere. “I won’t know what to do.”
She looks at me, a small smile hiding behind a solemn expression, which I realize I can sense. It tells me how well I’m getting to know her, and that realization both pleases me and gives me panic, calms me and urges me to back away. Just as I’m about to take her silence as defeat, and use that to bring myself to leave the bed, she speaks.
“You’ve misunderstood the purpose of getting close to someone. It is about finding someone that you can let past the innermost defenses, to trust that person to see you, to really know you. For them to prove that they have your best interests at heart, and to help you towards a place where your needs are as tended to as possible. To help you evolve, face your demons, grow stronger. And for you to do the same for them in return. True, it will then feel like there is no way you could survive without them, cause it will be such a difference from how the world was before they came into your life, and the idea of going back is terrifying. But the real beauty lies in what comes next.”
I realize she’s luring me back, as I can feel hope spur from her words. I try to shield myself, to remind myself that it makes sense to keep a distance. Still I want nothing else than for her to continue.
“If you get to that point, where you know without a doubt that the other person will guide you, put the world to right when it has tilted, it won’t be long before you know what they would have you do in any situation. When you are faced with a challenge, with something that hurts, you will be able to listen to advice that hasn’t even been uttered out loud.”
She pauses, needlessly, to make sure I am listening closely.
“Eventually you will be close enough to know what I would say to you in every moment you hesitate, and that knowledge will be what gets you through.”
“Surely”, I object, voice weak. “I should be able to do that myself.”
She lets the small smile that I already knew of come forward.
“What do you think I would say to that?”
I don’t reply. But I allow myself to move closer to her.

The handing over

Nor the driver or the police man answered any of my questions. As I looked at the people we drove past on our way to what no one would tell me about I toyed with the idea of screaming for help, banging on the window to make someone realize I was being held captive. But my hands were cuffed and it would only look as if I was an insane woman in a police car. Also, it was not my style to get hysterical, I prided myself at being level headed in pretty much every situation. Still I could not ignore the growing fear in the pit of my stomach, telling me this was something else entirely. Having spent almost a week in jail, stripped of all possessions but the clothes I wore when they came to pick me up at my home, I had settled into the waiting game, seeing as none of the staff at the station was answering any questions either. The other people in the cells with me, all women, had helped me raise more questions, but also helped raise suspicion as to what was happening. None of us were married. None of us had fathers or brothers. And when men starting showing up to collect us, one after the other, those suspicions were all but confirmed. We were being distributed. And now I was on my way to whoever had claimed me. I wondered how the decision had been made. Women without male governance had belonged to the state up until now, leaving us limited in certain ways, but free in other. I hadn’t minded enough to secure a marriage with someone I could tolerate, figuring the politics would change to more favorable tones soon enough, and so instead I had settled with the idea of being monitored a little extra. I liked my job, and I had gotten to keep it, so other than the principle of not owning my flat, and my money being put in a state governed account rather than the one I had before, the changes were not affecting me that much. Until now.

The car was driving past parts of town I hadn’t before set foot in. I tried to remember if I knew someone who lived around here, hoping that whoever had agreed to take responsibility for this particular woman was an old friend. The women I had seen being picked up from prison had not always looked happy upon seeing who their collector was. I already knew that whoever it was, they had not renamed me, which apparently was within their right to do, so I was prepared to put that down to a good sign. Yet, I knew several men from my past whom I would not appreciate the chance of seeing again, and especially not under these circumstances. I tried to relax as much as I could, watching unfamiliar streets guide me further into unknown territory.

As we reached our end destination I wasn’t any wiser in regards as to whom I belonged. Theirs was an enormous house, with guarded gates that opened for us only after several questions had been answered by the driver. At the door we were met by a house keeper who without looking at me confirmed that they were waiting for me. He then led the police man and me through the house, through beautifully furnished rooms which I didn’t get much chance to look at as the harsh grip around my arm had me keep the high pace the two men had settled into. Reaching a door on the fourth floor a key was produced, which for some reason scared me more than being in prison, being handcuffed or not having any of my questions acknowledged had done. The door was unlocked, revealing a small corridor and yet another door, unlocked, through which we stepped. A room, sparsely decorated, but nicer than my own home, was before me. I looked around as the police man started removing my handcuffs, noticing a big bed, a desk with a chair and a bench by a window overlooking quite pretty grounds. If the situation surrounding it hadn’t troubled me so, I would’ve looked at this room with an appreciative smile. Instead I turned to the house keeper, rubbing my wrists.
“Who lives here?”
The police man chuckled as he made his way to the door.
“She’s quite an inquisitive one.”
The house keeper nodded a response to him, but ignored me completely, and the two men left the room, closing the door after themselves. Hesitantly I followed, but as I opened the door, they were already through the second one, and I heard the sound of it locking behind them. Rushing to it I jerked the handle a few times, banging the door to make them come back, but already knew that they would continue to pretend I wasn’t worthy of attention. Returning to the other room, in lack of better options, I sat down on the bed trying to keep calm. The room still looked comfortable, and the bed was probably the nicest bed I’d ever seen, but the fear at the bottom of my stomach was growing. For a moment I had an idea to climb out the window, but opening it I realized I was too far up for that escape to be anything but final. In connection to the room was a small bathroom, strangely mirrorless, but with a shower and a chest of drawers with toiletries and sanitary products telling me that it had been stocked with a woman in mind. In the main room was another set of drawers containing several sets of clothes, seemingly picked out for a woman my size, but a little too reminiscent of prison attire for me to appreciate it – black or white shirts, black or gray sweatpants and underwear. For some reason the plainness of the underwear calmed me a little, as I realized that finding lace would had signaled something else. Still I refused to accept any of it as mine, and decided that I must just have been placed here momentarily. That whoever was coming would send for my clothes and belongings from my flat, if I for some reason would not be able to return to it. I went and sat down by the window, looking at the view, intent on awaiting more information before worrying further.

After what felt like a few hours, and after I’d realized that the watch I’d been stripped of upon being arrested had not been returned to me, the door opened and had me jump. A woman, dressed in a maid’s uniform, stepped through it, carrying a tray with food. I stood up to greet her, but instead of acknowledging me she merely placed the tray on the desk and went to leave.
“Hey”, I tried, which had her jump a little, but at least she paused. “What’s going on? Who lives here?”
“I’m sure your questions will be answered soon”, she responded. “Please excuse me.”
She started walking again, and I got up to follow her. Noticing this she hurried on her steps as she stepped out of my room, and in order to catch up with her I had to run. Reaching the door, she knocked on it and I heard it being unlocked.
“Wait!” I pleaded, but the fear with which she looked at me made me realize she was as afraid of me as of what would happen if she talked, so when the door opened and the man standing guard outside let her out with a glare at me, I raised my hands and took a few steps back to show that I was no threat to her.
The door locked again and I swallowed down an impulse to kick it, and returned to the delivered dinner instead.

Even later, after having eaten a tastier meal than I had had in months, I succumbed to the possibility of a proper shower. I didn’t need a mirror to know that my time in the prison cell had left me looking a little worse for wear, not to say smelling accordingly. After showering it felt impossible to get back into my dirty clothes, and so reluctantly I tried out what was on offer. Which fitted quite well, and I pushed the discomfort of wearing someone else’s clothes far from my mind. Evening was setting outside, and although I had decided to stay awake until whoever owned this house turned up, I was fast realizing that I would not be able to fend of sleep much longer. Having succumbed to both a shower and clean clothes I decided that lying down on the bed would not be that much worse, and within moments I was unconscious.

The bed was indeed the most comfortable I’d ever slept in, and undoubtedly the poor sleep I’d gotten in the prison bunk bed did its part, cause when I woke up it was already late morning, and a breakfast tray had replaced the one from the night before. The unease I felt at having slept through someone being in the room grew when I realized my own clothes had vanished, and I had to calm the panic when I realized that was the last of what I owned gone with the reassurance that it had most probably been taken away to be cleaned, and that it would be returned to me, together with the rest of my things. I managed to eat breakfast, which was generous and tasty, and then I returned to the bench by the window, already my favorite place in the room. I had not been there very long when the door opened, and I got up to see someone I recognized step through it.
“Hugo!” I exclaimed with a relieved smile, but couldn’t stop from frowning from surprise at the same time.
He was an old friend, in a way, though we had never really been very friendly towards each other. I’d known him since school, we’d gone to the same class at one point, and then worked in similar fields.
“Indeed”, he smiled, but there was victory rather than warmth in it. “Surprised?”
I chuckled, trying to remember when I’d last seen him, and trying to ignore that the fear wasn’t diminishing upon seeing him.
“Well yeah. I haven’t seen you since…”
“Since that job interview”, he filled in. “That you got.”
I grinned, shrugging, suddenly falling easily into the way we’d interacted in the past.
“Well obviously. I turned it down though, not enough money. I could’ve recommended you as a decent second choice.”
His smile stayed in place as he shook his head.
“No need. I got what I wanted in the end.”
I looked around, choosing not to interpret the implication to mean anything but this house and whatever position he now held.
“So I see”, I smiled. “Well done.”
He didn’t reply, and to keep the silence from growing I continued.
“How does this work then? I take it you’ve signed some sort of release form for me, thank you for that. Do I owe you any money? Can I get a taxi to my flat? Someone took my clothes, if they’re already in the wash maybe I can send for them?”
As I went silent he didn’t answer straight away, and for the first time since knowing him I reflected on how much taller than me he was. Still I kept my eyes on him, smile light, showing him nothing but an expectance for answers. He drew a deep breath, still smiling.
“I think you already know the answers to those questions. You’re not going anywhere.”
My light smile vanished and I frowned.
“What are you talking about?”
“You belong to me.”
At those words I laughed, with contempt.
“Are you kidding me?” I then snapped, managing to convey both insult, disbelief and mockery at the same time. “Who even talks like that?”
Hugo’s calm angered me further as he replied.
“There was a bidding war. I won it.”
“This is a joke”, I replied as I started pacing the room. “So what, I live here now? How will my stuff fit in here? How do I get to work? Will that guard outside the door escort me there?”
Hugo laughed, which had me freeze.
“You really don’t get it, do you?” he grinned, as he started walking towards me. “You have no ‘stuff’. You have no job. You have no rights.”
He stopped in front of me.
“You do what I want you to do.”
I glared at him, expecting him to admit the utter nonsense of what he was saying, to break out of character and confess to it all being a joke. When he didn’t I decided to play along, and straightened up.
“And if I don’t?”
A backhand hit me so hard across the face that it sent me to my knees.
“Try it and see.”
With those words he turned and left the room, and me on the floor, hand cradling my burning cheek and eyes stinging as I realized I’d lived my whole life up until then without ever having been struck.

Extract from Project 2

“Stop walking!” Damon’s voice cuts into my ear, and his face appears before me.
If I weren’t so well trained I’d jump, but I just smile, not pausing to think about the curious fact that I can’t remember accepting his call. Not bothering with a glance around me, as I’m nearing my hideout, I reply.
“What a way to greet someone. Hello to you too.”
Damon is frowning, a rare occasion to see that face less than playful.
“That wasn’t my greeting, we’ve been talking for some time. You keep zoning out.”
I ponder what he’s saying, but can’t find it in me to worry, even if it is true.
“You must’ve been boring me”, I shrug. “What’s up?”
“Stop walking right now! And tell me where to find you, something’s wrong.”
I laugh.
“Nice try, you know it’s a secret.”
“Tess, I’m not even…-“
He cuts off, disappears, and for just a moment I halt, rationale telling me I should react to this. But then it’s gone, and I wonder why I’m standing still. I’m obviously almost home. I smile to myself since my mind just referred to my hideout as ‘home’. I start walking again, it’s getting dark out, and even though this part of the woods never holds any humans save me, I am keen to get indoors. Suddenly Damon’s face appears in front of me, and I’m surprised at his being able to reach me without me accepting his call.
“Well hello there, handsome!” I grin, uncharacteristically incautious, but then I’ve not spoken to him for a good few days. “How nice to hear from you.”
“You’re in danger!” he hisses, voice low and urgent. “My calls keep being blocked. You need to get away from there.”
I’ve never seen him so serious, but still I laugh at his words.
“I’m fine. I’m almost home.”
Damon starts to protest, but I look through him to focus on the small building I am approaching. The one I apparently have started considering home. For a split second a feeling registers in me as panic, as I see a body step out through the door, but then I’m calm again.
“That’s odd”, I murmur, still smiling.
“What?” Damon asks, voice filled with all the feelings I would expect myself to feel, but don’t.
“There’s someone here.”
“Run!” he yells, but instead he gets to see me smile wider at the person that is advancing towards me, then he cuts off.
A woman steps up to me with a blank expression on her face. I find myself thinking that she is pretty, that I could probably take her in a fight and that I’ve never seen her before, but I feel nothing but a faint curiosity. She holds out her hand, and I take it.
“I’m Hannah”, she offers.
I nod, but do not speak. I know better than to give my name to strangers.
“And you’re Tess”, she continues. “I’ve got someone controlling your brain, I hope you don’t mind.”
At this she smiles a little, to herself, turning from pretty to beautiful as she does so, and I consider it.
“It would appear not”, I reply after a while, and her smile grows as it’s aimed at me.

Needs of a woman

”You’ve been shot!”
His powers of observation did little to impress me as I pushed past him into the flat, locking the door behind me. He continued with the commentary.
“You’re bleeding!”
In order to get him away from the door and any possible bullets following me into his home, I engaged in conversation as I ushered him in front of me.
“That is correct.”
“What can I do?”
“Oh nothing much”, I reassured him, pushing him into the bedroom, foolishly hoping yet another door would serve as something of an obstacle. “As a matter of fact I’m used to it. I bleed regularly, being a woman.”
“But surely you’re hurting!” he protested, standing back up from where my quite careless shove had landed him on the floor next to the bed. “Let me get the first aid kit.”
Hearing loud thuds confirming that the front door would not long stand its ground I blocked his way.
“No need!” I interrupted, scanning the room. “I’m fine. I get period pain worse than this. Now is there a way out of here other than this door?”
He hesitated, frowning with concern.
“Sure, there’s a window behind those curtains which leads out onto the back garden. But are you sure you don’t at least want an aspirin or something? Maybe some chocolate? I can pop down to the shops.”
“Let’s both go!” I proclaimed, already halfway through the window, which I had smashed since it wouldn’t open.
“We’ll pick up some plasters as well”, he agreed, as he noticed me cutting my hands open on the shards on the sill, before following suit.
The blood from the bullet wound was still pumping out of me at a high and heartfelt pace, and I realized that even if the front door would miraculously hold for long enough for me to disappear into the back streets, I was leaving a red, body temperature trail to follow. Limping through the garden I started tearing off the bottom part of my shirt.
“Do you need a bandana or something?” he asked, seeing me tie the piece of cloth around my thigh. “I’ve got a nice red one back in the house, do you want me to get it?”
“This’ll be red soon enough”, I replied through gritted teeth as I pulled it tight, cursing at the pain and at the fact that it merely slowed the flow rather than stopping it.
Just as we’d both climbed the fence surrounding the garden I heard the unmistakable sound of a door being kicked down and I pushed him in front of me out into the streets.
“Which shop do you want to go to?” he asked as he regained his balance. “The corner shop is just down there, so that’s closer, but it’ll be more expensive and they may not have that big of a selection to choose from. There’s a bigger one down the other way, but it’s obviously a bit further to walk.”
“Thanks, I’ll head this way”, I replied, setting out along the street with the most cars parked down it, which would make for decent cover when the time came for ducking.
My leg wouldn’t allow me to run, instead I limped along as fast as I could, leaning on lamp posts and vehicles to keep upright, all the while casting glances behind me. He had no problem keeping up by just strolling next to me, eyeing me worriedly.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go to the corner shop?”
Hearing gun shots I stopped and dived in behind a van. He stepped up next to me.
“It really is much closer.”
“I prefer a wide range”, I replied, pulling my gun from the hem of my jeans and turning the safety off.
“That’s fair”, he agreed as I managed to take aim via the side view mirror of the van and fire two shots that hit right where I wanted them to.
Having bought some time I smashed the passenger window of the car next to us, unlocked it and climbed in. As I managed to get into the driver seat he sat down next to me as I fumbled to hotwire it.
“Why didn’t I think of that!” he laughed, slapping his forehead. “And if we’re driving, there’s an even bigger store down towards the motorway. If you want range, that is.”
Ignoring him I got the car running just as new bullets started flying, smashing the remaining windows around us.
“Should we take my car?” he asked, frowning. “It’s quite chilly today.”
“This is fine”, I snapped, accelerating so hard that blood ran up my leg rather than down. “I like the wind in my hair.”
As I kept watch in the rearview mirror I noticed him going through the glove compartment, digging out maps and cds.
“I’ll tell you if I need directions”, I muttered, making a sharp turn to follow a sign towards the motorway.
“Oh you don’t have to tell me”, he replied with a knowing smile, reaching to put a cd into the stereo. “I’m quite good at sussing out what a woman needs.”