Piper in Hazmat: Part One

Busy here, now five full books going through the process and also the Christmas anthology. Still I managed to get started on a tale for Christmas myself. This one will form part of Panoptica and fits between ‘For Whom the Bells Jingle‘ and ‘23-David and 81-Mohammed‘.

This isn’t the whole thing. Just the first half. It’ll probably get some editing too, once it’s complete. It’s being rushed out now because of something that’s happening in Liverpool.

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The story is set in the future of course – I had hoped in the far future, but it seems the future is coming faster than I anticipated. Well, here we go…

Piper in Hazmat

Dawn wiped away her tears before they could freeze. It had been three years and yet the pain burned as bright as ever. She stifled a sob and kept her head bowed. Tree respect was nearly over and she would return home alone, to spend this Earth Day’s Eve night in darkness.

This year, again, she considered ending it. It would be so easy. Refuse to turn off the house. Keep a tablet or phone open. Wait for the bells and let Santa take her as he had taken Willow, and a year before that, Martin. She would be with them in spirit, somewhere, if the old religions replaced by the Green God still had any power. At least the pain would stop.

That’s what the old religions promised. The Green God promised nothing but despair, the burning of this planet now deep in snow and ice. The trees were dormant, having shed their leaves for their long winter sleep and yet the news declared that the planet was warming by the hour.

Dawn gasped when the klaxon sounded. Relieved, she turned and headed for home. Maybe she could simply not bother with her preparations and let the cold take her this year, as it took so many others. Mostly the old, but then it did also take some of the young, even some of those younger than Dawn’s thirty years.

Lost in her depression, she didn’t notice June draw alongside her as she walked. Normally the families maintained social distance and respectful silence on Earth Day’s Eve. Everyone was too intent on getting home for one last hot meal before turning all the power off to be bothered with any idle chit-chat anyway. June’s whisper startled her.

“Dawn. We need to talk.”

Dawn shook her head and whispered back. “Do you want us both on the Naughty List? We have to maintain tree respect this day.” She kept her eyes firmly ahead.

June’s breathing was harsh. “They’ve made something worse than Green Santa. The Piper. They plan to take all the children.”

Dawn curled her lip. “They’ve taken my husband and my child. Why would this be any of my business?”

June stayed silent until they were nearly at Dawn’s house. Then she took a breath. “I’m sorry, Dawn. I know you’re going through a living hell but we need you.” She pressed something into Dawn’s hand. Something that ticked. “It’s not electronic so Santa won’t see it. It’s mechanical. Watch it after you turn off the house. When the thick long hand has moved halfway around the dial, and if you want to help us, open your front door and put a LEDlight outside.”

Dawn turned, but June was already receding into the growing darkness. She opened her door and dashed inside.

The door closed, her back pressed against it, Dawn stared at the small metal disc in her hand. Behind its flattened clear dome were three pointed sticks, radiating from the centre. A long one, a short one and a very thin one that rotated around the centre as she watched. There were numbers, one to twelve, around the outside of the dial.

It moves. Is it really not electronic? Is this a trap?

Dawn chuckled, a harsh and desolate sound. It really didn’t matter. She wanted an end to her personal hell anyway so if it was a trap she’d gladly walk into it. It took the decision to end it from her hands, it meant she didn’t have to choose.

In the kitchen, Dawn placed the disc thing on the table and switched on the kettle. She’d try, although she didn’t really want to, to fill enough hot water flasks to last the twenty-four hours of Earth Day. She set the soup on the hob, the last hot meal until sunset tomorrow, and remembered how she had taken the tepid leftovers when Willow was still here. Now the hot soup was all hers and it tasted of loss and despair.

Dawn filled two hot water bottles and three Thermos flasks with hot water before the brown-out started. She filled the fourth with half of the soup and sat to eat the rest at the table. Through the kitchen window, she saw the sun touch the horizon. She ate faster, soon it would be time to shut down the house and wrap up as well as she could for the long dark hours ahead.

Her gaze fell to the strange disc June had given her. It had protrusions either side, as if it was once fixed to something. As she ate, Dawn wondered where it had come from. It looked old, tarnished and scratched and yet whatever mechanism lay inside still worked. The thin stick in the dial moved in jerky steps, round and round. She was to wait until the long thick one moved halfway round the dial, after she turned off the house.

It’s a time measuring device of some kind. Dawn blinked a few times. A memory tried to resurface. Had her grandfather had one of these, or something like it, strapped to his wrist? The Great Cull had taken him while she was still a child, the viral plague that had wiped out many of the elderly. She sniffed and took another spoonful of soup. The four-digit clocks were so much easier to read, this little time measuring thing looked like hard work.

The soup finished, Dawn checked on the sun. Only a tiny arc of its disc now showed on the horizon. She sighed and rose. Time to turn off the house. Technically she had a few more minutes but what was the point? The electricity was now so low that the ceiling light seemed to suck light out of the room rather than illuminate it. She switched on a LEDlight and opened the panel for the power.

This was control. Martin had told her. They could turn off the power remotely through the smart meters but that wasn’t real control. Making everyone turn off their own power, that was real control. Dawn reached into the space behind the panel and pulled down the handle. The house fell silent. The pale bluish glow of the LEDlight was all that remained.

Dawn sat at the kitchen table and considered the tiny device June had given her. She was to wait until the ‘thick long hand’ had moved halfway around the dial then put a LEDlight outside her door. Well, assuming she gave enough of a shit to find out what this was all about.

What do I have to lose? Nothing.

The thin stick continued its rotations. The short fat one didn’t seem to have moved much. It pointed at just below the three. The one she was to watch pointed at the six. So she was to put out a LEDlight when it pointed at twelve. Dawn wondered how long that would take. The hell with it. I have to get some layers of clothing on. It’s already getting cold. She placed the little dial on the table and went off to the bedroom with the LEDlight.

Wrapped in multiple layers of clothing against the growing cold, with one hot water bottle in her bed and the other under her clothing, Dawn returned to the kitchen. She carried three extra LEDlights since her first one was already fading. There was not enough sunlight to charge them at this time of year. Should she really waste one by putting it outside her door?

The long fat stick pointed at eight. So she hadn’t missed whatever awaited her this night. Dawn tried to care, she tried very hard, but three years of being alone weighed heavy on her. If it was to end tonight, let it end.

Why twelve? There were twenty hours in a day, a hundred minutes in an hour and fifty seconds in a minute. Dawn had a vague recollection that it had been different and harder to understand when she was small but it was so easy to calculate now. Hardly any thought required. What was this little dial measuring? Transfixed, she watched the movements within the little dial, tracking the motion of the one that led to a decision. Would she agree to June’s request or ignore it?

Nine. Halfway to twelve. Dawn walked to the window and shivered at the moonlit whiteness outside. Every house, well, every box-shaped dwelling, all identical, all dark… it looked dead out there. She held her breath and listened but could hear no bells. Nobody around here was on the naughty list tonight, so far. Dawn glanced back at the table. So June had told her the truth. The tiny dial wasn’t electronic or she’d be hearing sleigh bells by now. The Green Santa wasted no time when dealing with the naughty ones.

Dawn hugged herself and returned to the table. The LEDlight was almost dead. She switched on another. These tiny solar-charged lights were the only electronics permissible on this night. Dawn picked up the little dial. Its ticking seemed louder now that all other sound was silenced.

Ten. Getting close to decision time. Was she going to put a light outside or just ignore June’s hinted rebellion and go to bed? The short stick had moved a little closer to four. That one must measure hours, June thought, although it seemed a little off. Still, it was hardly bedtime but what else was there to do now?

What was it June had said? The Piper will come for the children? Dawn closed her eyes. There was a tiny hint of childhood memory trying to get through, something about a piper who took children away. Vague, fleeting memories of a story one of her grandparents – she couldn’t remember which one – had read to her when she was small. Something about Hamlet… no, that was a white supremacy thing she had learned about in school. Piper of Hammering? Piper with a Pie? Dawn shook her head. It was too long ago, far too long. Even so, she was sure she remembered a story about a piper who took away children.

She opened her eyes and stared at the dial in her hand.

Eleven. Not much time left to decide. Should she base her future, or possible lack of it, on a vague memory of a children’s story? Dawn pursed her lips. They had corrupted Santa. Changed him from the old jolly fat smoking and drinking guy who gave away presents into the New Green Santa, who was lithe and fast and Pure, and who gave nothing but took away the Naughty Ones. It was not so much of a stretch to believe they had found another childhood icon to corrupt.

June was right about the little dial. It moved without electronics. Mechanical, she called it. Dawn turned it in her fingers and wondered what was inside, what powered it. It was certainly very old. Did the ancients have some knowledge that was now lost to the modern world? Or was it an elaborate trick? Dawn placed it on the table and watched as the thin stick made a complete revolution and the long fat one clicked one notch further. It can’t be electronic or Green Santa would be here now. June had told the truth, even if Dawn couldn’t work out why it was true.

So maybe June also told the truth about the Piper. The long fat stick was close to the twelve. Dawn took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

She had lost her husband and only child. Now this Piper thing was coming for other children. Should she care? Should she help? Or should she continue her slide into despair and let the rest of the world suffer as she had?

Dawn pushed her seat away from the table and stood. “What the Hell do I have left to lose?” she said aloud. “I can wither away and die or go down in a blaze. Maybe I won’t be any use but I can face whatever god there might be and say that I tried.”

The hand was still one minute from twelve when she put the LEDlight outside her door.

***

The rest of it will be in the Christmas anthology.

6 thoughts on “Piper in Hazmat: Part One

  1. If that letter from Broadgreen International School is genuine then they appear to have had an abrupt change of mind. Maybe some of the parents voiced a smidgen of concern.

    “Update 8.11.20
    We are awaiting updated information about the plans for Covid-19 testing of students in Liverpool Schools.
    Consent will be explicitly sought from parents.
    At this point in time, we are uncertain of the start date for this.
    Details will be shared as soon as possible
    https://www.broadgreeninternationalschool.com/our-school/whilst-school-is-closed

    Liked by 1 person

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