Time for the annual jolly Christmas tale, although these aren’t all that jolly if I’m honest. If you have’t been here before you might want to catch up on the previous tales since this one carries on from them.
And finally, this one is in Anthology 10. And I do mean ‘finally’. These short stories were a prelude to a bigger project called ‘Panoptica’ and this story takes place right in the middle of it. It’s not in the actual novel because the main POV character is asleep for most of this story so doesn’t know about it. So it’s a stand-alone story.
However, it means there can be no more preludes. The novel will be the next instalment and it’s going to be contentious. It’s about where the current insanity of Western society is heading and it’s not going to be pretty. More of that later. For now, here’s a tale for that cold and dark Christmas eve.
Santa is Coming
“Are you sure about this?” Betty regarded the small group in front of her and in particular its leader, Terry.
“No.” Terry looked into her eyes. “But we have to try. We can’t just leave her there. You know what they’ll do to her.”
Betty’s shoulders slumped. They had to move anyway. Since Mary was captured, they’d get the location from her. She sucked at her lip. Being made leader of this group had felt like a great honour at the time but it had become more of a burden. She was responsible for too many life and death decisions.
“We can do it. I think.” Terry glanced at the woman on his left. “Rhian can stop the train and open the doors. We know there are only two in there and there’s no driver and no security on board. We can get her out and if we use the old diesel truck there won’t be enough electronics for them to trace us.”
“You have to be very fast.” Betty lowered her eyebrows. “We leave here in a matter of hours and you know I can’t tell you where we’re going in case they catch you. You have to get back here inside four hours. Can you do it?”
Terry snorted. “If we fail, we’re dead anyway.” He paused. “I think we can do it.”
Phil, Betty’s husband and right-hand man, leaned on the table. “That old truck isn’t reliable and we don’t have much fuel for it. You will need a Faraday cage too, in case Mary’s been implanted. They do love their chips, you know. We can’t afford to lose a cage.” He rubbed his chin and looked at Betty. “That said, I think they should be allowed to try. What will happen to Mary should keep us all awake at night.”
Betty nodded. “I was thinking the same thing. Okay, Terry, go for it, but be back here in four hours. If we leave without you, we can’t even leave a clue as to where we’re going.”
Terry stood. “Thank you. We’ll be back. With Mary.”
Mary let her head rest on the back of the seat and pretended to be asleep, but the idiot in the seat opposite kept talking anyway.
“I’ve been granted early retirement. I’m going to Pensionville. No more work for me. It’s all because I can read barcodes, well it wasn’t hard, I’ve been a camera watcher for so long now, I started to recognise the patterns and how they fit with the numbers. I have a special talent. So I get early retirement.”
You moron. Mary forced her mouth to stay still and avoid a sneer. You showed initiative. That’s why you’re going to die. After they rip out every bit of information on how you developed this skill so they can stop it happening again.
“I can read your code. You’re 71556. So you’re important. I can understand why you don’t want to bother with me.” The idiot’s voice became melancholy.
Mary opened one eye. The idiot really can read barcodes. They were on the onesies they both wore, horizontal stripes from top to bottom. Mary’s was stolen of course, as were the chips she had carried and then lost. That was her downfall – the cameras were now so crap that everyone was required to wear a patterned onesie with their number barcoded on to it, and the RFID detectors in the streets tracked their ID chips. If the data from the cameras and the RFID detectors didn’t match, the system would flag you up. Losing that chip was what got her caught.
She opened the other eye and regarded the idiot. “I can’t read barcodes. Who are you?”
The idiot grinned. “I’m 10538. I’m amazed that a Seven-One can’t do what I do. So did you get retirement too?”
“Same as you.” Mary stared at the passing scenery. She couldn’t bring herself to tell him what really lay in store, even though it should have been obvious to him. Nobody left the cities, at least nobody who did ever came back. If you were on a train out of there you were on a one-way trip.
10538 followed her gaze. “It’s awful out there, isn’t it? Global warming has destroyed the planet.”
Mary snorted. This one, she could not resist. She pointed. “See that tree? The scorched one, twisted over? Look hard at it.”
“I see it.” 10538 shook his head. “What about it?”
“We’ve passed it many times on this trip already.” Mary half-smiled. “You’ll see it again in three minutes.”
“Oh come on.” 10538 leaned back in his seat. “You think we’re just going in circles?”
“Wait three minutes,” Mary said.
“It’s bloody cold.” Rhian rubbed her hands. “I can barely type.”
“This won’t take long. I hope.” Terry looked along the snow-coated rails. “It’ll reach this junction in twelve minutes. We just need that signal turned red. The autopilot in the train will do the rest for us.”
“Okay.” Rhian tapped at her keyboard. “Would have been a lot easier in a few more days, on Earth Day, when most of it shuts down anyway.”
Terry laughed. “We’d be noticed a lot more easily if half the system were shut down. We’re just a blip, a glitch in the system, today.”
Rhian glanced at him. “Yes, I see your point. But Mary is a high profile prisoner. One of us, caught inside the city. If anything goes wrong they’ll react fast.”
“Eleven minutes.” Terry looked along the rails again. “You’re sure you can open the doors too?”
“Once the train stops, the doors are easy to open.” Rhian continued typing. “That’s the signal set. I’ll hit it when we see the train coming. We can’t do it too soon or they’ll have time to see our interference.”
Terry glanced over his shoulder. Derek and Jerry stood by the truck, the door to the Faraday cage lay open. They were ready.
Ten minutes later, they had passed the same tree three times. Mary had also pointed out the decayed badger, the smouldering grass and the five blackened stumps. The same things, over and over.
10538 slumped in his seat. “We are going in circles.”
“No.” Mary felt a pang of pity for the distorted human opposite. “Those are not windows. They are screens, like the ones on your buses and trams. They show you what you are supposed to see, not what’s really out there.”
“So what’s really out there? Something worse?” 10538 seemed close to tears.
“Something better.” Mary caught her breath as the train’s brakes came on and their movement slowed. “Something I might not see again, and something you’ll probably never see. I think we’ve arrived at the end of the line.”
“It’s stopping.” Terry watched the short railcar slow as it approached the junction. “Any response from the tracker bots?”
“They’ve reacted.” Rhian’s fingers flew over her keyboard. “Fastest reaction I’ve ever seen. We’re going to have to move like lightning this time.”
The small train rolled to a halt at the signal. “Doors opening.” Rhian typed so quickly, Terry could barely make out her fingers. “They’re trying to close them and change the signal. I have to constantly re-route around their blocks. In and out. Fast. If they get past me while you’re in there there’s no way to get you out again.”
Derek and Jerry had joined Terry at the trackside. The train doors hissed, moved outwards and slid back against the train body.
“Mary!” Terry called. “Run. This won’t work for very long.”
The signal flickered green, then red. The doors hissed, moved to close, then settled back against the side of the train. In the background, the rattle of Rhian’s fingers on her keyboard filled the air.
Mary froze for a moment. The doors opened but there was no platform, no armed guard, just a blast of cold air with a few flakes of snow.
“Are we there? Is this retirement?” 10538 pulled his onesie tighter at the neck. “They didn’t say it would be cold.”
A voice Mary recognised shouted from the white void beyond the door. Mary. Run. This won’t work for very long.
“That’s Terry.” Mary stood and grabbed 10538’s onesie at the chest. “You want to live? Come on, this is your only chance.”
“There is no bloody retirement. You are an anomaly. You showed initiative and you learned to do something beyond your station. They will take you apart, analyse you, and whatever’s left will go into the power station furnace. If you’re lucky you’ll be dead by then.” Mary pulled 10538 to his feet. “You want to see past those screens you call windows? Come on then, let’s go look.”
“It’s all burned out there. Nobody can live there.” 10538 struggled but Mary pulled him towards the open door. “It’s all blackened and dead and…” They reached the door.
10538’s face turned as white as the scene before him. Green shoots through a white landscape. People, living people, not wearing barcodes. There was no way his mind could process this information. He passed out.
Mary let him fall from the door. Instinctively, Derek caught him and laid him on the ground. Terry helped Mary down from the train and turned to Rhian.
“Let it go, Rhian, and let’s get the hell out of here.”
Rhian tapped a few more keys, shouted “Offline. Four minutes to drone arrival,” then closed the laptop and ran to the truck. The train door closed, the signal turned green and the little train continued on its way.
“Four minutes.” Terry grabbed Mary’s arm. “We have to go.”
“What about him?” Mary indicated the unconscious 10538.
“Well what about him? He, or she or it, is not what we came for.” Terry pulled her towards the truck. Jerry had started the engine.
“He, I think it’s ‘he’, was slated for interrogation and death, He’s an anomaly.” Mary resisted Terry’s pull. “He’s proof there are glitches in their system. We should take him with us.”
“He’s also full of tracking chips. He’s dangerous.” Terry pulled harder.
“Mary has a point.” Derek lifted the limp body of 10538. “We’ll put him in the Faraday cage with Mary. Then they can’t track either of them.”
Terry threw his arms in the air. “Hell, we don’t have time to argue about it. Box them both up and let’s get moving.”
Mary climbed into the cage and helped Derek load the limp form of 10538 in beside her. Derek closed the door and secured it.
Meanwhile, Terry laid a series of chains in the snow, attached to the back of the truck, to obscure their tracks. It wasn’t perfect but it should be enough so that the drone cameras couldn’t follow them.
Terry climbed into the truck. He glanced at Rhian, seated in the back with Derek. “How long?”
“One minute forty.” Rhian’s fingers were interlocked, her knuckles white.
“Floor it, Jerry.” There was just time for Terry to secure his seat belt before the old truck surged forward.
Betty stared into the Faraday cage, hands on hips and a scowl on her face. “What the hell is that?”
Mary avoided eye contact. Betty could be formidable if she was in a bad mood. “It’s one of the workers from the city. He was on the train with me. He’s an anomaly – he can read barcodes – so he was going to be killed. He called it ‘retirement’ but we all know what that means now.”
“He?” Betty’s mouth twisted in a sneer. “That’s a sexless worker drone. It has no concept of gender. Did it give you its designation?”
“10538.” Mary felt her cheeks warming. This is a human being, what was done to him isn’t his fault. “I couldn’t just let him – it – die. Besides, he’s proof that the system isn’t perfect. It still throws up anomalies. That could be to our advantage.”
“Hmm. A one-zero. Low level technician, most likely.” Betty rubbed her chin. “It’s going to be full of chips though, and Faraday cages aren’t perfect. If we get close to an RFID detector it could still spot this thing.”
“He’s not a thing! He’s a human being.” Mary couldn’t stop herself. “They took away his sexuality and they gave him a number instead of a name but he’s still human. He’s not a robot.”
Betty narrowed her eyes for a moment, then her face relaxed. “You’re right. I suppose I’m getting old. We’ve been fighting them so long we’ve dehumanised them.” She half-snorted, half-laughed. “Although they’ve been steadily dehumanising themselves.”
“Not robots, no. Not yet.” The jovial voice of ‘Doc’ Samuel preceded his roly-poly appearance on the scene. Phil walked beside him.
Doc approached the cage and stared inside. “Interesting specimen. What should we do with it?”
“Please.” Mary closed her eyes. “Stop calling him ‘it’. I rescued him from the train. Maybe we can learn something from him.”
“Designation?” Doc poked his finger through the mesh and prodded the prone body.
“10538. It’s not his fault. I keep saying this. He didn’t choose that world.” Mary waved Doc’s hand away.
“Huh. A one-zero won’t know much.” Doc rubbed his chin and looked into Mary’s eyes. “Don’t get too attached. Their world isn’t like ours any more. It’s more like an ant or bee colony. This – ” he indicated 10538 “ – is a worker bee. It’s either born female or surgically rendered female at birth. Either way, it’s sterilised and has been brought up as a worker. ‘He’ and ‘she’ have no relevance here, it cannot understand gender and cannot function without its routine, its designated role in life.”
Doc hoisted himself onto the back of the truck and opened the cage. “I’m going to scan you for chips. No point scanning your friend, he’ll be loaded with them and we don’t have time to operate on him now. He’ll have to stay in the cage.”
“I saved him from that Hell he was born into. There must be something we can do for him?” Mary held her arms out so Doc could scan her.
“Not much.” Doc ran a handheld scanner over her, checking every part of her body. “They don’t see it as Hell, you know. It’s their life, it’s all they know, and they’re happy in it, in their own way.” He switched off the scanner. “You’re clean. They didn’t bother to chip you because they were going to kill you anyway. It would have been a waste of a chip.” He grinned. “They didn’t expect you to escape from the train. Anyway, you’re okay to leave the cage.”
Mary stared at 10538. His breathing was shallow, his body unmoving. “Can you do anything at all?”
Doc grunted and held the scanner a few feet from 10538. He switched on. The scanner gave a loud series of beeps and the needle shot to the end of the scale. “As I said, he’s loaded with electronics. It doesn’t look like they’ve replaced any limbs or vital organs so maybe I can get them out, but the shock could kill him.” He stepped out of the cage and held the door for Mary. “Come on. We’ll have to lift this cage with him in it. It’ll be harder if there are two of you.”
“Shouldn’t someone stay with him?” Mary hesitated.
“Come on. We have to get moving.” Phil waved her forward. “We can’t take this truck, there’s no more fuel, so we have to load the cage onto an electric car. And we have to be out of here before the drones find us.”
“He’s fine.” Doc helped her down from the truck, then closed and locked the cage door. “He’s dormant. Switched off. One of their chips is a brain implant. If it loses signal they go into a state like hibernation until they get found and taken home. As long as he’s in the cage he won’t wake up.”
Betty put her hand on Mary’s shoulder. “He, she or it is lucky to have been on the train with you, Mary. Most of us would have been glad to leave him behind. Don’t worry, Doc will take care of him and maybe he’ll turn out to be as useful as you think.” She turned to leave as Terry, Derek and two others put poles through the cage to lift it off the truck.
“Come on,” Betty called over her shoulder. “We have to move out before they find the remains of the truck’s tracks. This place isn’t safe any more.”
Mary looked through the cracked windows of their new home at the landscape before her. A few windmills stood, most were toppled, buckled and burned. Not one of the standing ones had a full complement of blades and none of them turned in the wind. She became aware of Rhian standing beside her.
“It was a power station of sorts,” Rhian said. “It never worked, but then it was never meant to.”
“Not meant to?” Mary shot her a glance.
Rhian chuckled. “Nope. These things made money, not electricity. They lulled seven billion people into their own genocide. People moved north and south because they believed the earth was getting hotter and they shut down coal and oil for the same reason. It got colder and most of them, unprepared, died.” Rhian shrugged. “It was all part of the plan.”
Mary furrowed her brow. “But we have electricity.”
“Yeah,” Rhian laughed aloud. “We steal it. From the cities’ coal and corpse fired power stations.” Her face became serious. “You know there are only twelve cities worldwide now, with a population of maybe fifty or sixty thousand each? A few thousand more operating a slave existence on farms and in mines. We could vanish into the wilderness but for two reasons. One, we have to be near a city to tap into power and information about what’s coming next. Two, there are heavily armed drones protecting nature reserves such as Africa and South America. We couldn’t last a week in there.”
Mary stared over the rusting windmills. “I knew some of that, not all. Africa though? It’s so big. You can’t get all the people out.”
“Oh the ones who live as they did a thousand years ago get to stay. Any sign of advancement and that tribe will be eradicated. It’s a human zoo, kind of anthropological slavery. But hey, they get to stay male and female.”
“People treated as pets.” Mary shook her head. “It’s horrible.”
“It is.” Rhian said. “It’s worse for the city people though. At least those tribes get to feel as if they’re free.”
There was a long silence as they stared at the bleak landscape with its scattering of snow. Finally, Mary spoke. “Have you heard anything about 10538?”
“Huh?” Rhian’s brow furrowed. “Oh, the worker bee. No, as far as I know Doc is trying to get his implants out without killing him. He’s had some of them since birth. He’s dependent on them.”
“It’s been two days. Has he woken at all?”
“No. Doc won’t let him out of the cage. He’s on a saline drip to keep him hydrated but as long as he has the brain chip, he’s dormant.”
“I should visit him.” Mary looked at her hands. “I feel responsible. I’m the one that pulled him from the train.”
“Heh. If you hadn’t, he’d have gone through an agonising death by now.” Rhian put her arm around Mary. “Even if Doc fails, at least our worker bee will die a peaceful death.”
“Let her through.” Doc waved away the men who barred Mary’s path. “She’s the one who found our patient, she has a right to be here.”
“I still think he’s dangerous.” Derek folded his arms but nodded to his guards to let Mary pass. “The fewer of us who have contact with him the better.”
“Oh he’s dangerous all right.” Doc laughed. “Mostly to himself. When he comes round and finds he’s been disconnected from his world, the shock might kill him.”
“It’s not funny.” Mary shrugged off the hand on her shoulder. “He’s human.”
Doc raised his eyebrows. “He’s a she. Or was, at birth.” He indicated the cloth draped over the otherwise naked 10538. “Check for yourself if you want. She has no ovaries though. No Fallopian tubes, no uterus. Nothing after the cervix. All taken at birth.”
Mary’s head shook. “But he…she… must be about twenty-five or thirty years old.”
Doc smiled a small smile and nodded. “No boobs. That’s what you’re thinking, right?”
“Well…” Mary blushed.
“The medichip takes care of all that. It takes hormones from the bloodstream and deactivates them. Not that there are that many, with no ovaries to produce most of them. I’ve taken the chip out.” Doc looked at the prone body for a moment. “I don’t know what will happen now.”
“Maybe she’ll develop normally?” Mary shook her head at the small pile of chips Doc had already accumulated, and the many small wounds on 10538 where he had removed them.
“Not a chance.” Doc sighed. “Too old now, and anyway she has no ovaries. She might start to act a bit more feminine but she’ll never be normal. And of course, never have children.”
“They never do.” Mary bowed her head. “I didn’t see anyone under the age of about twenty all the time I was in that city. They rarely talk to each other so it was hard to get more than snippets at a time but as far as I can tell, the kids are produced by the elite.” She took a deep breath. “The elite have their own kids and they donate sperm to the creches, where drugged-up women are used as baby farms. They never see their children. The babies are taken away and neutered and raised in creches.” She shuddered. “Abuse—abuse is rife in there.”
“Probably not any more.” Doc poked among the chips he had already removed. “By now they will have replaced all the paedophiles with sexless workers.” He smiled at Mary’s shocked face. “The last download, the one Betty brought home years ago, told us how they kept the creches secret. The used paedos to run them because paedos won’t tell anyone what they’re doing.” He picked up one of the chips. “By now they’ll have all been shipped off to the farms or the power stations and the new staff have no idea what sex is, and no idea where the babies come from.” He held the chip so that Mary could see it. “Take a look at this.”
Mary stared at the twisted, bloodstained metal. A bent ring with a tiny blade attached. “It looks broken. What is it?”
“It was around her aorta. A signal would have sliced it open and she’d have dropped dead. Seems they’ve installed literal kill switches in case one of their workers goes rogue.” He dropped the chip into the metal dish, with the rest of them. “Or gets captured. Took me a while to get that off. I was scared it would trigger while I removed it. Fortunately it didn’t.”
“Is that important?” Mary asked.
“Very.” Betty strode into the room followed by a smug-looking Derek. “but you shouldn’t be interfering while Doc is working. He’s engaged in some very delicate operations.”
“I’m sorry. I just wanted to know how 10538 was doing.” Mary hung her head. “And I’m sorry I didn’t find anything useful in the city. They caught me before I could get very far.”
Betty smiled. “I’m the one who should be apologising. I was furious when you brought home this… thing.” She waved her hand at 10538. “Yet we’ve learned so much already, much more than we ever could from spies and downloads. That implanted kill-switch on the aorta, for example.”
Mary shrugged and shook her head, bewildered.
Betty nodded at Mary’s baffled look. “It shows they are still scared of the population. They have total control, they’ve turned the people into compliant sexless workers, they have destroyed all—almost all—independent thought, and yet they still need that final insurance. The ability to literally kill rebellion with the push of a button.”
Doc waggled his eyebrows. “Which means they think it’s still possible. It’s a weakness we might be able to exploit.”
“We thought they were static. We thought nothing was changing in there.” Betty picked up the bowl of chips. “They are still adding things to their workers. More and more chips. We don’t yet know what most of these are for. Most of them, we haven’t seen before.”
“How many more?” Mary gazed at the prone 10538. “How much more robotic is she?”
“Two more.” Doc rubbed his hands. “There’s a constrictor band around her trachea. I think that’s to limit her breathing if she gets too active so they can slow her down without killing her. Then, the final one in her forehead. I’ll need anaesthetic for that one or she might wake as soon as I detach it. The shock of waking in surgery is almost certain to kill her.”
Mary covered her mouth with her hand. “You’ve done all that without anaesthetic?”
“No need,” Doc said. “The brain implant has her deeper under than any anaesthetic could ever manage.”
“How long?” Betty asked. “Will you be finished tonight?”
“No.” Doc regarded his patient. “Most of the chips were superficial, just under the skin. The aorta implant needed deep surgery, the trachea band I can deal with before I close her up but the brain implant will mean opening the skull. She’s going to need time to heal from this bout of surgery before I can attempt the brain implant. A few days at least, maybe a week or more.”
“You can’t speed it up?” Betty seemed impatient.
“Not if you want her to have any chance of surviving. I’ll also need a feeding tube, she hasn’t had any food for the last few days. And I’ll need some volunteers for blood transfusions.” He sighed. “We’re really not equipped for this kind of surgery.”
“It’s Earth Day’s Eve tomorrow. We’ll have to shut down the power.” Betty looked pensive. “Will that be a problem?”
“We’ll need to keep her warm but otherwise it should be okay.” Doc didn’t look as if he was convinced by his own words. “I hope so. We do need to know how they react to losing all their chips so we really need this one to survive.”
“She’s not an experiment.” Mary struggled to make sense of what she heard.
“Mary.” Betty took her arm. “Come on. Doc’s going to do everything he can. Let’s leave him to work in peace.” She led Mary from the cage. “Doc, let me know what blood type you need. We’ve all been tested so it shouldn’t be any problem finding donors.”
“Thanks.” Doc closed the cage door. “And Mary, don’t worry. I’ll do everything I can to save her.”
“I’m sorry.” Derek took a seat opposite Mary and set his mug of beer on the table. “Betty explained a few things. I’d never seen one of them before and it was a bit of a shock to me.”
Mary glared at him. “Sorry for what? Are you apologising because Betty told you to?”
“No, no, nothing like that.” Derek stared into his beer. “This is just me. Genuine. From the heart. Betty never suggested this, I’m genuinely sorry about being such a hyped-up panicky bastard over you bringing the worker home.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Mary waved her hand. “I was the opposite – way too sensitive and touchy. Almost turned into his—her—mother.” She grinned. “I know, 10538 is just one of thousands who are all exactly the same.”
Derek sipped his beer, his face serious. “They aren’t all the same.” He sighed, deeply. “They still have a hierarchy based on their number designations. Your worker is a one-zero, that’s her rank. Near the bottom of the pile. Below her are zero-nines who work really menial jobs, right down to zero-ones and zero-zeros who work the farms and mines and if they show any resistance, they are lobotomised. Yours only just made it into the comfortable life.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Betty explained it. A lot more too. I can feel a lot more sympathy for your worker bee now I know more about that horrible place.”
Mary shook her head. “I was sent in there and I didn’t know any of this. How come?”
“The same reason the data miners don’t know the layout of our current residence and don’t know where the next one is planned to be. If you were caught, they won’t find out how much we know about them.” Derek stretched his arms and looked around, then leaned in close and spoke softly. “We can’t send you in there again. You might be recognised. I can’t go on another mission either, in case some hidden camera caught my face. So it’s safe for us to know a lot more now.”
The lights went out. Opposite Mary were fumbling and rustling sounds until Derek struck his lighter. He placed a short, thick candle on the table and lit it. Other candles appeared on other tables around them.
“Earth Day’s Eve,” he said. “We have to follow their ridiculous game because they’ll spot our drain on their power supply if we don’t.”
“No heating tonight, then.” Mary pulled her coat around herself. “It’s going to be cold. I hope 10538 makes it.”
“I hope we all do.” Derek half-smiled. “Doc had the room with your worker over-heated all day. He’s hoping the walls will retain heat.” He took a sip of beer. “And you know, if your worker survives all this, you really should think up a name for her. She can’t just be a number, not here.”
Mary allowed herself a smile. Derek wasn’t all hard-man and action-hero. He had a soft side too, a human side. She sat up straight. “Right, let’s get this beer down us and get some sleep. It’s going to be a long, dark and very cold night tonight.”
“Yes it is.” Derek looked as if he was about to say more but he downed his beer, excused himself and left.
Mary bit her lip as she watched him walk away.
“Mary. Wake up.” Harsh words cut through bitter cold and dark dreams.
Mary opened one eye and said “Why?”
“Doc wants you. It’s important.”
The voice resolved in Mary’s mind. Susan. Ah yes, Doc’s usual helper. She forced her eyes open, afraid they might freeze in the chill air.
“What for? It’s cold as hell out there. This had better be life or death.”
“It is.” Susan’s deathly white face showed the truth of her words. “Santa is coming.”
Mary was out of bed and dressed before the cold had a chance to chill her.
“It was one of the chips. We have no idea which. It used a wavelength so small it got through the Faraday cage.” Doc wiped sweat from his brow. “Our worker bee woke up, smiled, said ‘Santa is coming’ and dropped back into hibernation. One of those chips received a message and relayed it to the brain chip. It might have sent another back to base.”
“Send not to ask for whom the bells jingle.” Betty shuddered. “I heard them once, long ago. I hoped never to hear them again.”
“The chips are secure now, other than the brain chip. They are in a solid metal box linked to an earth stake.” Doc giggled, a harsh sound. “We’ve put a tinfoil hat on our patient. The irony is inescapable.”
“I hope, I really hope, we can laugh about this one day. But not today.” Betty turned to Mary. “We need you to guard our patient. Get in the bed with her. Keep her warm. But don’t fall asleep. We want a record of every movement.”
“Why me?” Mary’s brain struggled to think in the cold air.
“If she wakes, which really isn’t likely, she already knows you.” Doc’s eyes softened. “You’re the only one she has really met. If she wakes, it might reduce the shock she is bound to feel if you are the first one she sees.”
“Also.” Betty gave a wry smile. “They will have scanned your face. They are looking for you. Santa will have that scan. We can’t have you out there where you might be seen.”
“Can’t we run? Find a new place?” Mary wondered if the sweat she felt forming would freeze.
“No time.” Betty turned her face away. “It’s Earth Day so if we used any electricity we’d be easy to spot. This time we stand our ground and hope they pass us by.”
“There’s another way.” Derek stood in the doorway. “I can take that box of chips, drive until the batteries die then open the box. They’ll come for the chips.”
“They’ll get you too.” Doc shook his head. “Then they’ll get our location out of you and find us anyway.”
“Doc’s right,” Betty said. “They probably have an image of you from the train cameras. That ties you to Betty and our guest. They’ll get the information from you, no matter what it takes.” She looked away. “I couldn’t ask anyone to face that.”
“If that chip’s sent a message back then they know where we are anyway.” Doc sighed.
“No. They don’t.” Mary lifted her head. “They’re trying to flush us out.”
“What do you mean?” Betty stared at her.
“They never send warnings before raids. That wasn’t a warning. It was meant to scare us, to get us to run. They’re expecting us to break cover and head for a new place, because that’s what we always do.”
“Then they’ll have drones all over the place looking for movement.” Derek patted Mary’s shoulder. “You’re right, I think. And that makes it even more important for me to take those chips and run. They’ll follow the chips as soon as I open the box and let them pick up signals.”
“On the other hand,” Betty said, “if they don’t know where we are, that’s all the more reason for me not to risk letting you get caught.”
“Ah.” Derek looked crestfallen. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
Betty reached into the cage and picked up the box of chips. “Is it safe to disconnect the earth wire from this?”
“It’s a solid metal box. Acts as a Faraday cage itself. The earth wire is just extra insurance.” Doc narrowed his eyes. “What are you planning, Betty?”
“I have to talk to Phil. Derek, I want you to stay here with Mary and Doc. That last chip could still be a problem. As soon as Doc gets it out, seal it in a metal box and put it in a fire. That should finish it off. Just to be sure, put the burned box inside another box and bury it deep. You won’t be able to do it for a few days, but don’t forget to do exactly as I’ve told you.”
“Betty?” Mary touched Betty’s arm. “You’re talking as if you won’t be here.”
“Don’t worry.” Betty smiled as she disconnected the earth wire and took the box. “It’s going to work out fine. I just need to talk to Phil about how we deal with these chips.” She shook Mary’s hand and left the room.
“What do you think she’s up to?” Mary looked into Derek’s face, but he looked away. Doc simply bit his lip and fiddled with his surgical instruments.
“Betty told us to stay with 10538.” Mary thought she should resist Derek’s pull, but she didn’t really want to.
“We will. Doc’s with her now. We’re just going for a beer.” Derek led her towards the canteen. “Come on, it won’t be for long.”
“You’re still pissed off about Betty stomping on your macho-man idea, aren’t you?”
Derek stopped. He took a deep breath before he turned to face her. “No. I’m pissed off that she’s planning to do it herself.”
“What?” Mary’s eyes widened. “What are you talking about?”
“You heard her. She couldn’t ask anyone else to take the risk. Then she took the box of chips. She gave instructions as if she wouldn’t be here to deal with it herself. Come on, you worked out what the ‘Santa is coming’ message meant but you didn’t see the obvious?”
“I can’t believe she’d do that. How would she get back? How were you planning to get back?” Mary’s sight misted with tears.
“I had an idea about using service tunnels, but I had a backup plan in case that didn’t work.” Derek stared at the floor. “I was going to take a gun.”
“A gun? We don’t have many of those.”
“They’re not much use anyway. Not against their weaponry.” Derek sniffed. “They’re only useful to… avoid capture.” He avoided making eye contact. “Come on. We’re going to need a beer.”
“We should stop her.” Mary stood her ground.
“We can’t. It makes a horrible kind of sense. We’re young, she’s old. There aren’t many of us left. Betty won’t risk losing the younger ones, she’d rather risk the old. Herself. It’s cruel, but it’s how we have to live now.”
“Can’t we talk her out of it?”
Derek laughed. “Have you met Betty? Once she’s made a decision, it’s made.”
“We can try.” Mary’s lip trembled.
“No, you can’t.” Rhian appeared in the corridor. “They’ve already gone.”
“They?” Mary blinked.
“Betty and Phil. They went together.” Rhian handed a thick envelope to Derek.
Derek stared at the envelope. “Did they take a gun?”
Rhian nodded. “A pistol. 9mm. Two bullets.”
Derek turned away and rubbed his eyes. He pocketed the envelope.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” Mary put her hand on Derek’s arm.
“I know what it is.” Derek choked on the words. “It contains the passcodes for Betty’s computer. Access to all the safe spaces we can use when we have to move. All the information we have gathered so far on life in the cities.” He drew himself up and blinked away tears. “It’s a handover. They don’t plan to come back, but I’m not going to open it yet just in case they do.”
“You’re in charge now?” Mary let her hand fall to her side.
“Only if they don’t come back!” Derek raised his hands. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound harsh.” He licked his lips. “I need that bloody drink now.”
“So do we all.” Rhian led the way to the canteen.
It was empty, this late at night. Everyone was tucked up and trying to keep warm. A few candles still burned, enough to let Mary find the beers and open three bottles.
No need to chill it, she thought. We’re lucky it isn’t frozen.
The three of them sat in silence, From outside, through the shuttered windows, came a faint and distant sound, the whine of an electric engine fading into the distance.
Then another sound. A rhythmic jingling of bells. Faint, then close, then faint again, as though hunting for a place to settle.
From afar they heard a booming ‘Ho ho ho’, then the jingling increased in frequency and faded away.
Mary stared into her beer. “I think, Derek, you might have to open that envelope after all.”
What happens to 10538? Well, that’ll be in the forthcoming book, ‘Panoptica’.