As On A Darkling Plain
This was the first 'real' story I ever wrote, or at least completed. It came second in a local short story writing contest. The sort of SF I was reading at the time influenced the writing style, which I intended to convey the various viewpoints stylistically as well as through the changing narrative voices. In hindsight, the story is incredibly naive in its arguments, and some of the attitudes expressed and character relationships are, to put it generously, unsophisticated. But I have some affection for it - it was the first and it was hard work! I would be very remiss if I didn't point out that the theme of the story is heavily influenced by the 'future' segments of the 'Days of Future Past' plotline from Marvel's 'X-Men' comics #141 & #142, written by Chris Claremont & John Byrne.
"And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night."
[Mathew Arnold, Dover Beach]
newspaper, shredded, blows silently through littered streets, wind wailing like phantom voices. Darkness, acrid-tasting, sliced by chill drizzle (faint shouts, threshold audible). Splinters of blue light revolve and flash off viscid pools, tarmac-edged. Screech of rubber-burning and shrill sirens in the night. Sweat, cold, twin-trickling down ribs beneath clammy padding. Small of back itches (no time to scratch, bear it) as eye-straining and nervous glances to either side conjure sudden illusions:
Cat (!) yowl brings pin-prickles of tension to raise hair beneath helmet. Tongue-running over teeth brings metallic taste. Wipe goggles - calming. Subliminal voice...
...rrrrrkk...klk...AND ELIMINATE RINGLEADERS...PATROL GROUP NINETEENER BEAR ZERO ONE NINER...MUTE GROUP NUMBERS SIX...IN WAREHOUSING SECTOR FIVE CEE...DISPERSE AND ELIMINATE RINGLEADERS...PATROL GROUP NINETEENER...
...footsteps echo back. Tall buildings; dim canyon with shattered, gaping windows grinning down. Placards, crazy-fallen and half-illegible:
...utants to report to camp by...ain of dea...
...shoot on sigh...
Rain-splash on chrome and corrugated iron. Own footsteps trudge.
Foe(!) Panic-flash. Spin, cock rifle (hollow click sends death-echoes singing round the grey concrete) finger shaking-tense on trigger. Breath hisses. Laugh. Helmet-torch cuts high across crumbling frontages in a swathe of friend-comfy light revealing steel-grey armout - stencilled 'H' on chest - 'H' for human and happy. Grin stretches taut mouth. Control-voice continues...
...UPDATE ON MUTE-GROUP (WAREHOUSING SECTOR) FOR ATTENTION...rrakk...TROL GROUP NINETEENER...CORNERED IN ALLEY BEARING FIVER THREE FOUR...GRID SEARCH...ORDERS STAND...HOLD...rrkk-klk...
pause. Carrier-wave hiss. Shift foot-to-foot, boots squelching slightly. Soreness in shoulder rubbed raw by rifle strap. Prop goggles on forehead, rub eyes gritty with smoke and through-dark peering. Jump! Voice restarts...
...klk...TANTS NOW KNOWN TO BE ARMED...CAUTION ADVISED...ORDERS STAND PLUS UPDATE...SHOOT ON SIGHT IF WEAPONS VISIBLE...PATROL GROUP SEVEN MOVE FOUR BLOCKS WEST ON BEARING EIGHT...
a filtered drone, skull-buzzing. Torch-beams flicker over decayed masonry (rotten flesh imaging with eye-socket windows):
Fan wide, eyes flicking. Bulky figures, torch-helmeted, on either side. Metallic snap-noises sound-gleam through smog as rifles are unslung. Low, threatening whine as charge-chambers ignite. Breathing quickens. Ears are tender-tense. Soft scuff of rubber soles (souls?) through refuse - quiet carnivores swishing and piston-limbing through derelict jungle of litter-leaves. Faded light-sign flashes, lurid red slapping pseudo-blood across helmeted faces. Furry tongue dry-licks lips. Comfort-voice whispers suggestively, painting mind-pictures as pulse hammers faster...
...rrakkk...TANTS NUMBER THREE...BREAKING LEFT...ARMED...MAIN GROUP LIFE READINGS STILL INSIDE...LEFT RANK INTERCEPT ON ONE EIGHT FIVER...INFRA-VISION REQUIRED...ADRENALIN SUPPLEMENT ENTERING BLOODSTREAM IN THREE TWO ONE MARK...
heart-thump sprints as battle-drug seeps into veins. Bear left to intercept...stumble, dizzy, pause and clear. Ready! Flip goggle-switch and threshold hum harmonises with control-mutter. Numbers, green-lined and glowing against red heat-shadows as infra-vision switches in and digital update flickers over scene ahead in tenths of seconds:
Keep moving through awareness of other torch-beams.
Quiet. Low hum and sizzle of charged rifles. Slight ozone smell and sour sweat rising. Drizzle paints an infra-red pointillist nightmare in redglow:
Hell looks like this (irrelevant - reject!)
Automatic...half an ear to...
...klk...CONTACT MADE...TWO ADULT ONE JUVENILE...WEAPONED...SHOOT TO KILL...
three figures reduced by infra-red to limping shades of thermal-red emerge from cold (therefore black) doorway, silhouetted. Green-glow numbers reduce them still further - data only.
In range - raise rifle, cross-hairs grow from centre outwards. Figure tranfixed in blur. Resolution needed, adjustment, image sharpens - running figure. It stops, flings arms up as if aware of ruby bullseye spot of laser-light resting on its heart. If its heart is in the right place - giggle (crazy-thought - reject!) Glint of steel in hand...
Sharp crack past right ear:
Finger tightens. Note: three bolts. FIRE! Three juddering roars from nozzle of plasma-rifle. Flare of crimson light shows heat-flash on figure's chest. Someone screams, high-pitched. The figure. It crumples. Screaming stops. Dead. Harsh voice...
ex-four? Self-recognition! Spin as second figure leaps. Too late!
Hard flesh feel through plastic armour. Whirl, topple. Crack-pain as ground connects to hip-bone. Ripping sound. Me? Goggles torn from face. Rain-sting on eyes. Blind! Squinting in sudden real-vision. Panic as read-out disappears.
Confused grappling. Something wet and pale and slippery. Eyes focus. Female. White skin glowing. Bruised. Brand-burn on chest - 'M' for mutant and misery - between small breasts.
Sinewy arm sweeps down fast, glimpse of (?) in fist. Reflex-roll, bring rifle up. Note: one bolt. FIRE! Blinding flash, heat. Roast pork stench. A thin screaming. Retch scrapes throat already raw with exhertion. Scuffling sound. Stagger, trembly-kneed to feet, rifle limp-held ready. Look down.
Surrealist sculpture. An arm, hand still clenching after dropped pen-knife, reflex only. Calcined flesh at shoulder-stub, shiny-red sliding on soot-black with white bone-fragments glinting.
Distraction. White-blur writhing - glimmering source of constant scream. She sits, tumbled, one hand clutching blackened tatters above armpit, pale fingers (too many, brain notes abstractedly) like a spider. Huge grey eyes ask Why? above the screaming mouth. Pain/terror:
Stop the screaming(!)
Face dissolves in heat-flash. Body slumps, neck-stump smoking. Wraith-smoke (soul-flight?) in the blood-clogged air.
...rraakkk... TANTS TERMINATED...NO-SHOCK ENTERING BLOODSTREAM IN THREE TWO ONE MARK...
...fades as after-battle drug heals ravaged nerves. Faint through rifle-haze comes triumph/hysteria/relief of patrol. Bend to pick up goggles. Broken. Throw away - they hit the woman. Corpse. Soggy thud. Disposable. Like her. Diaphragm heaves as laughter pulses threatenigly in bowels. Laughter?
The mutant woman. Broken doll-shape still whitely-glimmering.
Apart from the phosphorescent skin and the too-many fingers (how many - seven) she's human! Small, thin, dirty. Pretty...?
I don't remember.
DON'T remember! That way madness lies...
MUTANT(!) Not human. Not a woman. A thing! No remorse necessary. Conscience in this case as disposable as...as...her!
STOP(!) She tried to kill...or did she? Cornered rats will bite...
...klk...NO MORE MUTANTS REPORTED WILD IN SECTOR...CLEAN-UP CREW DESPATCHED...PATROL GROUP NINETEENER RETURN TO NORMAL DUTIES...
a shout. Focus tired eyes. Group of grey-armoured forms. Beckoning huddle around the male mutant I shot, Dragging feet towards them, still haunted by huge grey eyes. Laughter. Shower-room obscenities and congratulations. Oh God! So tired and the nettle-rash sting of tears behind the eyes. Don't THEY feel it? Feel what?
The waste. The waste and the brutality and the hurt and the fear and the...
A good shot. He lies there, his chest a charred hole. Emaciated, filthy, ragged coveralls over wasted limbs - the right number but furred in matted patches.
Close his eyes(!)
PLEASE close his eyes, sightless, despairing.
Like the woman's.
I didn't mean it I didn't mean it I had to...you're just a mutant...you haven't the right to stare at me with your dead eyes as if you accused me...
Stumble/run away. He follows, a furred hand clawing at my back...
A coarse laugh. Goggled figure holds up a small bundle.
Oh God! The child!
Limply hanging, revolving. The face, mouth gaping, swings to me. No eyes, just blank skin. It couldn't see, couldn't even have known what was happening as the plasma-bolts burned its heart out! Christ, what have we turned into? Not even the control-voice has an answer...
...rrakk...RETURN TO NORMAL DUTIES...
SNAP(!) Sobs burst, bubbles of bile burning my throat, Turn, stumble blindly away through a salty blur, breath rasping. Questioning shouts die away behind me as the darkness swallows them but the guilt can't be swallowed though the mouth of the city gapes like the child's, a last lunatic scream at the heavens, the death-rattle of a cancer-riddled world. Vomit spills, steaming, into the gutter. Peel armour away like insect sloughing skin, piece by piece, as I go. Rifle drops clattering. Voice phases in...
...klk...rraaaaaakkk...OPERATIVE EX-FOUR...RETURN TO PATROL GROUP...ORDER...ORDER...RETURN TO PATROL GROUP...YOUR BEHAVIOUR IS IRRATIONAL...RETURN TO PATROL GROUP...ORDER...ORDER...
Shut up! Shut up! Shutupshutupshutup...
...rrk...ABERRATION IN OPERATIVE EX-FOUR...LOCATE AND APPREHEND...LOCATE AND APPREHEND...klk...OPERATIVE EX-FOUR...rraaakk...YOU ARE BEING CUT OUT OF THIS CIRCUIT IN THREE TWO ONE MARKklk
the control-voice stops. Silence, but for the faint sigh of the carrier-wave. Alone. Oh my God, I'm alone...
The woman's face, eyes wide and asking Why?
I DON'T KNOW(!)
I don't know why...
"In conclusion, then, this investigative committee finds that there is irrefutable evidence that the number and extent of genetic mutations due to as yet unknown mutagen factors occurring within the gene-pool of the human race is increasing violently...and will continue to rise along the curve of the graph shown above for at least the forseeable future..." [Report of the All-Sector Scientific Committee on Genetic Mutation (2103), p.4067.]
on through the restless last sleep of the streets. A mad maggot ceaselessly burrowing in the bone/masonry of a skull/city. Ad-signs selling goods that the rats have taken long ago flash and spark like corpse-light, gleams of putrescence in the smothering dark.
Spin - nothing. A dagger of the mindless movement to nowhere is home sweet home is the hero from his heroic struggle against three frightened starving...
The woman's questioning eyes...
Hands - my hands - moving of their own volition, bring a thrown-away, long-since-discarded rifle to my chest. Note: one bolt. FIRE!
Agony-spear in chest. Not dead.
How..? No plasma-bolt, just stitch...stitch...in time couldn't put Humpty together again...
Gravel grates on hot cheeks like the kiss of a bullet. Explosion of pain like heat-flash. Is this what the blind child felt? Dawn comes up like thunder...
'Most humiliating to the scientific mind, however, was the vindication of all those, previously regarded as 'cranks', who had believed for so long in 'the powers of the mind'. Psychic phenomena such as telepathy, telekineses, precognition etc. rapidly became proven facts...' [R.S. Blake-Elton, The Fall and Rise of Homo Superior (2197).]
She stepped out of otherwhere as if a door had opened. Her eyes roved restlessly over the blind, gold-limned tenements, suspicious. She had the look of an about-to-be-startled gazelle, all quivering muscle and twitching nerves. She saw the huddled body lying further down the garbage-laden tarmac and for a moment her outline flickered, as if she was about to retreat to otherwhere, but then she stabilised. Alert, she padded down the street, a pale ghost in the luminous dawn-light. Pale hair like spun glass. Dark coverall, torn and dirty, marred above the right breast pocket with the fatal letter, now worn with pride, the 'M', marking her as mutant. Once, she jumped and blinked out of sight as a dog growled low behind her. Desert street. Then she was there again, a yard to the right of the body, nostrils flared as if she could smell his sickness.
She gathered her courage and knelt, sensitive fingers hovering over the still figure. When she saw the 'H' on his chest she drew back and almost snarled, white lips drawn back over her teeth, an old scar wrinkling one hollow cheek. She spun and her body phased, spectrum-edged and suddenly intangible as a mirage. The man on the ground moaned softly and she stopped in mid-transfer, solidifying again. He stirred feebly. She looked at him again, eyes wide, murmuring to herself. He was very young, not much older than herself. But how old was she? She scowled, unable to remember exactly, knowing only that she was young. Beneath the smoke-soot and sweat-streaks he was...what? Pretty? No. What was...? She shook her head in frustration. She forgot so much now. But he was beautiful. That was it. Beautiful.
She knelt again, feeling the roughness of the tarmac through the ragged holes in the knees of her coverall. She gently wiped the dirt from his face, her gaze avoiding the 'H' on his chest and a sharp pang of guilt shooting through her. He was the enemy; she should have killed him. But he was so helpless. Then she should have simply phased away, returned through otherwhere and forgotten she had ever seen him. But he would die alone in the city. The dog-packs or some other death would get him and his blood would be on her hands as if she had killed him. She whispered to herself, biting her nails. How had she got into this situation? What would her teachers do? She was young, inexperienced...she didn't know what to do. He stirred again and she froze. He grunted and his eyes flicked open, unfocussed. They were blue, red-rimmed. His teeth were white against the tan of his face. She glanced down at his arm where it lay limply on the road's surface. It bulged with muscle and was covered in coarse hair, reddish-gold. She compared it wonderingly with her own arm below the rolled-up sleeve of her coverall. Hers was very thin, and pale beneath its coating of dirt, silver hairs stirring in the slight breeze. His eyes wavered across to see her for the first time. She smiled at him and suddenly he was screaming...
'These 'creatures' - we cannot call them human beings - threaten the safety and well-being of all humanity. BEWARE! You next-door-neighbour can READ YOUR MIND!' [Pamphlet distributed by 'The Friends of Humankind' (2136).]
fractured blackness screams like a runover cat as the light rises grinning, merciless, into the canyon of mindlessness. To get back, womb-crawling...back to the warm, primal slime beneath a sky dark as an anaesthetic. Stay warm...away from cold life...and
Death shrieking out of the fog to tear open a blind child while grey eyes ask Why? and a furred hand clutches...v Touch(.)
Eyelids creak open, stuck with acid glue. Medicine taste in mouth. Pain-bright sun and bending silhouette. Shapes take form and meaning. Gaunt face haloed with silver-shining hair and...
GREY eyes(?)v HER eyes(!)
But I killed you I killed you I saw you die God with your neck-stump smoking you can't come back you're dead you're dead you're...v Grey eyes staring, puzzled, afraid.
I couldn't help it I couldn't...
Pain-flash twisting in my neck, constriction...
There are FINGERS IN MY NECK(!)
'ALL MUTES WILL DIE!' MUTIE BASTARDS!' KILL THE MUTES!' [Graffiti on London wall (2137).]
She withdrew her fingers, panicked, feeling them turn solid again. He lay very still, the lingering echoes of his screaming still battering at her. She bit her lip, feeling the ache of a bad tooth. Suppressed fear clawed at her stomach muscles. Had she killed him? She had pinched the vein in his neck to cause unconsciousness, not death. Trembling, she reached into his tunic, her hand carelessly brushing the 'H'. His chest was warm and slick with sweat, and her fingers recoiled from the feel of the wiry hair that curled there. She shook with relief; his heart still beat. Dizzy, she sat back on her heels and wondered what to do next, as the drizzle pattered slantingly around her.
Why had he started screaming when he saw her face? Was she really that horrifying? She bent over a scummy puddle at the edge of the tarmac, seeking hidden horror. Her reflection stared back at her, edged with an aureole of rainbow oil-slicks. She had no colour, as if all the pigment had been washed out of her by the rain that plastered her coverall to her thin body. Pale eyes, huge in dark hollows, stared from a pale face, gaunt and undernourished, the whole framed by pale hair like frozen smoke. Why had he screamed? She was lucky; she at least looked human. Confused, she shook her head, then started, her outline blurring.
A cacophony of snapping growls came from the end of the street, leaping off the concrete. Dark forms moved, slinking, towards her. Dog-pack. She stood, irresolute, as a German Shepherd slunk closer, spittle drooling from its mouth. Its eyes were mad, rabid. Behind it, its pack crawled, belly-scuttling, to cut her off.
She crossed slowly to the body of the human, careful not to make any sudden moves that would cause the dogs to attack. She bent and heaved at the man's body, He was heavy. Could she take him? Phasing took energy, lots of energy. She wasn't sure that she could take both herself and him through otherwhere to safety. She gulped, flickering light-signs daubing her face. Foe a moment she thought she would have to leave him, but then the German Shepherd leaped, its jaws gaping. The sudden vision of a dog-ravaged body she had found once burned her mind and the decision was taken. Her body shimmered as she gripped the human close to her, shimmered and vanished with a faint mutter of imploding air. The dog, twisting in surprise, plunged through the space where they had been, its jaws snapping on emptiness.
Indescribable. Out of human ('H') existence. Black curtain parting as whole fabric of body twists into quasi-existence. Brief consciouness. Vision jerky, grainy, like an old film. Vague shapes of pearly greyness revolve and spin in my ears
while indeterminate sounds flash before my eyes
and grey eyes stare into mine. One word like a flare of summer lightening:
While the physical mutations that appeared were the most obvious signs of the rapidly-growing problem, the most sinister aspect - to most 'normal' people - was the fact of the mutant's MENTAL powers. Can he read my mind? was the question first asked of oneself when meeting a stranger for the first time, despite the fact that Dr.Collinson and others testified time and again that, even in the most advanced telepaths, a sort of 'psychic buffer' prevented the reception of thoughts without the co-operation of the person being read. Facts, however, have rarely been sufficient to counter blind prejudice. All mutants were mind-readers from whom nothing could be hidden. And this was the primary factor in the speed with which the 'New Men' became hated and shunned.' [R.S.Blake-Elton, op.cit.]
...REPORTING...OPERATIVE EX-FOUR TRACED TO GRID REFERENCE EIGHT CEE FIVE NINER...DOG-PACK DISPERSED...NO SIGN OF EX-FOUR...TRACE JUST STOPS...
...NEGATIVE...NO BODY...TRACE JUST STOPS AS IF HE VANISHED INTO THIN AIR...
...TRACES OF...rrkkk...TANT ACTIVITY?...
...?...?...UPDATE...rraaak...RETURN TO DEBRIEF...FULL SCALE SEARCH ORDERED FOR TOMORROW...HOMER ACTIVATED...
'Must I draw the comparison still further? In the development of mutant 'ghettoes' in our cities we can see a direct parallel with previous events in history. We now face the same situation as there was, for instance, in what used to be America, Britain or South Africa in the late twentieth century - the oppressing and ostracising of a minority group. History records the social unrest that was attendant upon such a situation. Must WE now make such a mistake?' [Transcript of speech made to the World Council by Joshua Nbeki, delegate of the Central Equatorial Sector (2139).]
cool hands stroking. Throbbing ache slowly leaving my head. Memory of (?)
The voice...Who? Force eyes open. So tired. Deja vu. The brightness and the bending silhouette. Clearer now...
Not hers. Not the accusing eyes. Different. Younger. Exhaustion peeps from behind these eyes. So sad for eyes so young. Focus...a woman. Thin, dirty, tired. I can smell her, so close. Who? 'M'(?) 'M'(!)
The ENEMY(!) but her hands so soft and gentle. Voice creaks:
"Who...?" She jumps, gasps, frightened.
"I didn't know you were awake. You've been asleep for so long..."
Hands stop their stroking.
"Where...?" Body rusty, too heavy as I try to rise. The soft hands press me back, still gentle. An arm, mine, rises to grab her wrists.
"Where...?" Long fingers, nail-bitten. "Where...?"
"Safe. I brought you here. You're sick. Fever." Voice like rustling paper. Her eyes questioning, worried. What am I doing here? they ask. A human, so far from his patrol. Alone. In the city. I wish I knew. Struggle to explain...
"The killing..." She frowns attentively. "I couldn't..." I don't know how to say it, put it into words, omly...here, with the feel of her fingers, smelling the smell of her, the reality...thought crystallises. "You're human too!"
She nods. "Yes." It is a whisper, surprised.
I was right. The mutants are human. She said so. She helped me. ME, the enemy. Even though I killed her, blew her head off. She...
No, not her. She is dead, her blood staining my hands. But this one...
"Yes," she agrees. "You must sleep. We're safe here. I'll watch."
Sink back, happy, into the soft dark.
"They will follow..." She shakes her head, uncomprehending. "Me. They'll follow me! My tracer! You..." Oh God, she can't understand, doesn't know what I mean, and the dark is pulling me down. But she frowns suddenly, alert.
"They have far to come. I came a long way through otherwhere..."
That word again. What?
"...but even so. This 'tracer'. Where?"
Inside me! Buried in the flesh of my shoulder, accessible only by surgery, broadcasting leaping radio signals for them to home in on. How to explain...
"Here. My shoulder..."
"Look away." Stern now, her voice.
Watch, paralysed, as her fingers sink gently (no pain - only tickling) into my shoulder and...and...
Whirling blackness sucks at me. Fainting!
...and then her fingers are out of my shoulder (no wound - only slight reddening) and holding a small steel sphere, blood-streaked. Her boot heel crushes it in a tangle of circuit-entrails.
"You...you...in my arm..." Giggle. Hysteria lurks, gibbering.
"Ssssssh!" The cool hands, the same hands that poked about in my shoulder, stroke my forehead. "Sleep now. You're very weak and we have to move in the morning."
Too much. Gratefully, I let the tiredness push me down into the
'Following last night's rioting in Mexico City, in which eleven people died, one of them human, allegations that the mutant quarter was invaded by a group of armed humans acting as 'vigilantes' are 'not proven' according to the security officer of the area. Large parts of the mutant quarter were destroyed in the night's violence.' [Report in 'TIMESFAX' (2139)]
She watched his quiet breathing, one hand resting lightly on his forehead. She was afraid. She listened to the steady drumming of the rain on the concrete around them. Deep in the stillness of the walls there was a scratching of rats. Scavengers. Outcasts. Like the mutants, they lived in the wormy woodwork of the city, hunted and hunting. That was how it had always been. But now she had broken the pattern. She had brought a human into the mutant quarter. Others would follow him, even though she had destroyed his tracer. They would come, looking for him, and when the humans came there was killing...
And what of her fellow-mutants? How would they react to his presence? She shivered, anticipating the next day when she returned to the camp. A human had never seen the mutant camps before and lived. They might kill him outright. She could speak for him...explain. But...explain what? And how? How to explain the feelings that dragged at her? They wouldn't understand. He was human, the enemy. They would kill him. And she would be outcast - a pariah. Traitor. She flinched from the word, even in her own mind. Desperately she glanced at the human. She could kill him now, while he was helpless, and no-one would ever know what she had done. She loosened her knife in its sheath...
She could not. Dizzy, she stared at him as he slept, an almost-smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, and she felt a sudden sense of being caught up in events over which she had only the barest control, her own individuality submerged by a turn in the tide of history. In an image-flash of surreal insight she saw herself standing at a crossroads, surrounded by humans and mutants, and she was the only one who knew the way...
The momentary hallucination passed and she shivered, frightened, feeling sparks jumping in her head, out of control. Her muscles writhed. Grimly, she fought down the danderous feeling, cursing herself for her weakness. The future? Her precognitive power was erratic, manifesting itself in strange images dredged from her subconscious, difficult to read. Was this a true foretelling, or, in her exhausted condition, was she just making excuses for herself? Cold now, she turned round and round like a cat about to sleep and lay down, huddled close to the human for warmth. She felt a sort of comfort in his unconscious presence. She was right; she had to be. What was to come tomorrow would come. The decision was out of her hands now; she could only play her part in the events that would...what? Shape the future of the world? Laughing at herself and her grandiose imagination she snuggled closer to the human. He grunted, and his arm curled up and held her. She sighed almost happily, half-asleep. Outside, the rain beat down and the wind whipped emptily around the stone of the city. She slept.
...rrkkk...PATROL GROUP FIVE EIGHT...TO SECTOR SEVENTEEN BEE...BUILDING BY BUILDING SEARCH...klk...OPERATIVE EX-FOUR TO BE APPREHENDED...ANY MUTANTS TO BE TERMINATED AND MUTANT CAMPS FIRED...
...ALL PATROL GROUPS...
...AERIAL SURVEY GROUPS...rrraak...REPORT ANY MOVEMENTS NOT ACCOUNTED FOR...EVEN ON OUTSKIRTS OF CITY...
'In public the government continued to turn a blind eye to the harrassment of mutants, hoping that the problem would eventually resolve itself without the need for complex and probably unpopular legislation...' [R.S.Blake-Elton, op.cit.]
-No. There is a picture in her mind of someone else...she is trying to blank the thought. Why?-
-Christ! It's a human!-
-They must be killed-
-No...she must have a reason...-
-Since when has she needed a reason...you know what she's like...this will mean trouble-
Perhaps. Better double the guards...I cannot believe that she would betray us, even unconsciously...give her a chance to speak...please?-
-...very well...I only hope you know what you're doing...-
-So do I, believe me, so do I...-
'I tell you, Charlie, we've got to have a solution to this [expletive deleted] mutie problem. What it comes down to is them or us...' [Transcript of taped conversation between the World Premiere and Charles Strong, Security Advisor to the World Council (2140)]
gentle nudging. No more pain. My left arm numb from the soft weight of her. She stirs as I move, silver lashes fluttering against the dirt-streaked pallor of her cheeks. A vein, cool-blue, tics in her forehead. The eyes open, fuzzy. She smiles.
I haven't smiled in...
I try one on. It feels...good.
For a moment she lies still, the angles and hollows of her warm and fragile against me. Something deep inside, stirring. What? Not..? She's human too. Soft laugh in my throat.
Tension. Her smile gone. Fear? Worry?
"We must move."
"You must do just as I say. Let me speak to them. You're in more danger now than you were before..."
"Why?" Harsh. Where did all this suspicion come from suddenly...she saved my life! "Where are we going?"
"To my people."
The mutants. The bogeymen. The enemy!
"What will they do?"
"They will want to kill you. They will think I'm a traitor. But I'll...I'll speak for you..." Suddenly fierce. "They won't kill you!"
I believe her. She is a stranger suddenly, wild, dangerous. But human. She...she must have a name.
"What are you called?"
A frown of puzzlement. "T...Tanya?" She seems to try the name on for size, unsure. Tanya.
"We must go." Finality. She doesn't want to know my name. Named, it will be harder for me to die. Shudder. I don't want to die. Not now. I'm on their side and there's ...Tanya. They can't kill me now. Can they? She stares at me, afraid. There's a barrier between us.
"Hold on to me." She stands, tall. Almost as tall as me and I'm tall. Her knees crack as she straightens. "We go through otherwhere."
There it is again. "Otherwhere?"
She is confused. "The place between...Phasing...Tele...Teleporting isn't instantan...an...aneous. It's only a different way of getting from place to place. Quicker. You go through...through..." She shrugs helplessly. "Otherwhere."
Vague memories of greyness, synesthesia, stasis...
She presses close, thin arms wrapped around me. The feel of small breasts, the hard bones of her pelvis, through her coverall. In any other situation it would be sexual. The stirring. Is that what I feel about this mut...woman? Ridiculous(?) Laugh. "This is rid.........................
'...all mutants will be transferred to holding camps within our major cities.
(11) 'HUMAN' shall be held to designate anyone NOT bearing proven or suspected mutated genes.
'MUTANT' shall be held to designate all those who are themselves mutant or who bear mutated genes.
(12) Mutants will be marked upon the chest with the letter 'M' and will bear an identifying code upon the left shoulder. They will also wear the letter 'M' on their clothing for ease of recognition.
(13) Mutants shall remain within the camps at all times, except for authenticated and permissable reasons, and when not in the camps shall be accompnied AT ALL TIMES by two (2) human guards.
(15) Any mutant found impersonating a human shall be executed without the right of trial. Spot-testing of groups and gatherings shall be instigated.
(21) Any mutant found engaged in an illegal or seditious act shall be summarily executed without the right of trial.
(40) The sexes shall be segregated AT ALL TIMES within the holding camps. [Excerpts from the first draft of 'The Declaration of Human Rights' (2141).]
Tension gathers as in the air as the mutants come together. A small group, ragged. Stolen weapons gripped half-ostentatiously, half-hidden as if shameful. Those with pre-cognition know, those without suspect, that today's events are seminal. Hope and fear war on the faces. Most do not want to have to kill the human, nor, indeed, one of their own, but they will if they have to, without mercy. Tanya. A quiet, shy girl, slow, sometimes confused; not unimportant - no-one is unimportant in the mutant community - but perhaps easily overlooked before. Now suddenly, surprisingly, she is the most important member of the group. On her hangs the outcome of the day's events, for better or worse...
...CONCENTRATION OF PEOPLE DISCOVERED ON BEARING THREE NINER TWO...TWO KILOMETERS DISTANT...LIFE READINGS INDICATE ABOUT A DOZEN, INCLUDING JUVENILES...SUSPECT MUTANTS...ORDERS?...
...rrkkkk...CLOSE AND ELIMINATE...
'People are asking questions, Charlie...there are still mutants living wild in the cities, and escapes from the camps were up [expletive deleted] thirty-five percent last year...' [Transcript of taped conversation between the World Premiere and Charles Strong (2143).]
and they are there.
The mutants. The enemy. No! Not the enemy. Not now.
Watching. Waiting. Suspician blanking their eyes.
A series of clicks as safety-catches are eased off. Outside the wind dirge-wails. My mouth dry. Cautiously glance round. Rough wooden walls. Panelling. Rows of benches. Debris on floor, half-covering once-rich blue carpets. Lost in the dimness of the roof, cobweb-shadowed, wooden beams. Stone walls further away, illuminated by coloured glass, stone-smashed. Further still, a table, and on it, crucified, the suffering image of a man with paranormal powers, preaching love and tolerance, persecuted to death for his difference...
A old christian church.
A voice, deep and powerful. Search the faces.
"Why have you brought this human here, Tanya?"
A big man, bare-chested, out-dated bolt-rifle slung across his back. Cartridge bandoliers cris-crossed on his chest. Full beard, grey-streaked. His eyes dark, without whites, unreadable, unhuman.
"Kill him now!"
This from an older man, stoop-shouldered. White stubble beneath blue eyes fierce with hate.
"No!" A woman, black, hairless, in a ragged plastileather jacket. "Let Tanya speak!"
"We promised." A hoarse voice from a shadowed corner. Children sit there, quiet, wide-eyed, solomn, watched by the speaker, albino, a white blur in the dark with pink eyes glowing.
A young man, hate spitting from his eyes. His rifle swinging up at me...POINT-BLANK! The muzzle huge and pitted, his finger white on the trigger, squeezing. NO! A flash and roar! Flinch! The whine of a bullet...
The bullet hanging in mid-air in front of me, spinning quietly...
"No!" The black woman, her eyes fixed on the bullet, eyes flashing cobalt fire. "Move, stupid human!" I take a step to the right. The cobalt fire winks out and with a crack of displaced air the bullet whips past my ear to impact on a wall behind me.
A slight bow to her, cold sweat trickling. Careful. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet, human." Her voice is cold. "We may have to kill you still."
"At least he has manners." The bearded man. The leader? Nervous laughter.
She steps forward, a pale, slight figure. Nervous.
"I...I realise this must be difficult for you to understand..." Her voice is thin, trembling. She is shaking, tense. Something...
"Traitor!" The young man again.
"Let her speak." Another male, middle-aged and gentle-voiced, in a brown robe, his eyes reflecting the light in yellow witch-fire like those of a nocturnal animal.
She starts again:
"I can't explain...exactly...why...why I had to bring him here. But...but..." She loses her thread, stumbling, clutching at her head. Then suddenly she straightens. The fierceness is there:
'It is hoped that the entire population of the camps will have been 'reduced to a minimum' by the end of next year...' [Report to the World Premiere from the Mutant Advisory Board (2144).]
She shook with nerves as she listened to the voices of her friends, once so familiar, friendly and now...distant...cold.
Only Brandt, the leader, seemed to be sympathetic. Old deVille was shouting, his hate too great to be affected by anything she could say; the humans had killed his entire family. Rayna, wanting to listen; albino Sean; Carol...
No! She almost screamed as Ian fired at the human. Stupid, stupid! But Carol stopped the bullet, saved him. She swayed, drunk with reaction. One more impulse like that and they could both be dead.
Her name! She must speak. Her mouth felt numb, juiceless. How could she speak? She hadn't the gift, and she forgot things, stupidly. They laughed at her sometimes when she forgot things, affectionately perhaps, but they still laughed and she felt foolish. But she was the only one who could stop this senseless carnage...she and the human. The only ones who knew, had shared the mutual discovery. She opened her mouth to explain, but she had to pause as her tongue froze, her body beginning to spasm. No! Not now! The exhertion of that last journey through otherwhere must have brought it on. She fought to stay conscious, feeling the muscles of her limbs stiffening. Sparks spat in her brain. NO! DeVille was shouting somewhere very far away, Father Brian stopping him, letting her speak. She didn't know what she was saying. Concentrate! She tried again, feeling the fit locking her muscles. Her head felt as if it would burst as she fought off the attack, growing more and more angry at herself. And then she was furious, her body shaking with rage as the words came, tumbling, and she felt the strength within her:
"Look at yourselves!" Some of them flinched, shocked at her strangeness, at the change in the quiet girl they had known.
"A ragged bunch of outlaws! You're like rats, scuttling in the city's alleys, hiding from every little noise and light. "And what for? We say we want a future when humans and mutants can live together peacefully, a time when the two peoples are united. But we're as much to blame for what's happening now as they are! Oh, they started the war, and everybody has a right to defend themselves if they're attacked. Of course they have. But we do more than that, don't we? Just like they do. When we come across humans we kill them, men, women, children, everyone! Oh, some of them are soldiers and that's at least understandable. Then it's kill or be killed and I'm not shedding tears over the patrols. But what of the others? What about the times when we catch a straggler, caught after dark on the edges? Remember what we do? We kill them. And we leave them where they'll be found. As a warning. As a lesson! We're still strong enough to do this, we say! Come on! Come into the cities if you dare! And so of course they do, and when they find mutants they kill us, all of us, armed or not, dangerous or not, because we are the monsters they believe us to be. We've just proved it, haven't we! And so it goes on, tit for tat, on and on and on...all humans are evil and all mutants are good - is that really what we believe? Because if we do we're as bad as we say they are..."
She paused for breath, scarlet with the effort it took to formulate what she had to say, and then plunged on before her courage gave out.
"It can't go for ever. The pattern has to be broken, someone has to break out of the vicious circle. See, it only takes one to start a war, but it takes two to continue it...I don't mean surrender and let them do what they want with us, but... Ian!"
She rounded on the young man with the rifle who had shot at the human. Her human.
"You'd have killed this man without hearing him...or me; without knowing...or even wanting to know the rights and wrongs of the situation. Why? Because he's killed mutants? How many of his people have you killed...and boasted about? What makes you right and him wrong...?"
"But you must admit that the humans do attack without provocation. We defend ourselves." That was Brandt. She had been watching him closely. As their leader his decision would sway those who were undecided...
"Only because they're trapped in this situation as much as we are! When they started to kill mutants all those years ago it was because they were afraid of us, thought us dangerous, a threat...whatever. And now we are. They justified what they were doing to us as self-defence..."
"Anyway, that's not the point." She rushed on before she lost her way in what she was trying to say, feeling an indefinable sense of deja vu. She shouted suudenly, feeling the uncontrollable electricity lurking and coiling in her head. She would not not go under now...
"We're the same! Don't you see? Mutants are human too!" She couldn't find the words. Then, in a surge of inspiration...
"You!" To the human, standing quiet and pale behind her. "You're a human. Do you hate us?"
A moment of absolute stillness and the lingering reverberations of her question. Beneath the rafters a bird fluttered. Then he spoke. And they listened!
"Once, I hated mutants. Because...because I was told to. I didn't think. I just killed because I was told to. Everyone knew - mutants were dangerous, loathsome, diseased...bogeymen brought to life. I went on patrol and I killed and I laughed about it afterwards..." This was dangerous. There were sharp, angry intakes of breath all round the room. Oh please, please let him finish!
"There was no reason to question what I was told. But...I did, nevertheless. Not openly...I didn't dare...and then I killed and the woman I killed looked up at me and she asked me why...not aloud, with her eyes...and they were human eyes...and she asked me why...and I DIDN'T KNOW! I looked at her and she was human! Another human being. I had killed another human being...and I didn't know why!"
He licked his lips...
...nervous. All those accusing faces. How can I explain? The running. The madness. Haunted by those eyes, hurt, frightened, uncomprehending...
"I think I may have gone mad...I don't know. I...I...I ran...anywhere to get away from that killing, the brutality...away from what I had become. And then I woke up and T...Tanya..." Strange, her name on my tongue.
She looks ill, strained. Her body shuddering...
My worry! For her. She needs me...no...stupid. I'm human. The enemy.
"Tanya was there. Helping me. She saved my life."
The old man, matter of fact: "She should not have done."
"But she did! And I looked at her, felt her...and she...behind the 'M'...she was human. HUMAN! Not a mutant, not a thing - another human being! I know now..."
She interrupts, crossing, staggering, taking my arm...
That's it! What he said. That's the crux! She has to speak now or she'll never have the chance again. Once more the threads of the moment focus themselves through her. She takes his arm for strength, grimly holding on to reality by concentrating on the warm roughness of his tunic-sleeve:
"He knows! That's what I'm trying to say. The other humans don't know! All they know is what they're told - that we're monsters, malignant, lurking in their cities ready to strike and...and...eat their children for all I know! They are frightened of a myth! And those that do see the reality, some of them, see that we're not like that. We're like them! And what do we do? We kill them. Because they're human. Different. Don't you see? By killing them we strengthen the myth, make ourselves into what they think we are. This man has seen! He knows! Knows we're human too! He's on our side. If we kill him we don't destroy an enemy. We lose a friend. Forget he's human! Forget we're mutants! See him as a PERSON! He hates the killing and the fighting as much as we do. This human is ONE OF US!"
Exhausted, she slumps, her defences down, and the epilepsy strikes. The human feels her go rigid. She quivers, screaming foam between clenched teeth, her limbs writhing. For a moment he is shocked into helplessness. Then, in the pause that follows her last words he lays her gently down, straightening her body, holding her head safely until the spasm passes. He checks her breathing, strokes her hair, feather-light, talking quiet nonsense to her until she relaxes into sleep. His eyes are full.
The mutants watch, uneasy, trying to reconcile his humanness with the gentle care of his hands and voice. He removes his tunic and wads it under her head as a pillow. He lightly brushes her lips with his own and then stands to hear their decision.
"Kill him!" The young man with the rifle. He rushes forward, face convulsed.
"No!" The leader, restraining him. His eyes are still unreadable but a hint of some emotion...what?...curls his lips beneath the beard. "Tanya spoke the truth." He has the air of a man who has made a difficult choice and still doesn't know if it was the right one. "He is not like the other humans..."
"That's just it! I AM like other humans. It's just that they don't know, haven't seen, what I have."
"Perhaps." He shakes his head. "You were kind to Tanya. You showed...perhaps more than kindness..."
The black woman speaks. Her voice is quiet, bitter. "To the humans we're freaks. You see us. Our differences. The fit. You saw! To you we are monsters!"
"No. Just different. But you're still human...you're differences, visible or invisible, don't alter the essential person. Humanity is in the mind...the spirit, if you like, regardless of the outside. You're no more monsters than I am. I'm different. You have faculties and gifts - your telekinesis, for instance - that I don't have. They're normal to you. So what's normal? I can't move things without touching them, certainly can't stop a bullet in mid-flight. Doesn't that make me as helpless in one way as you perhaps are in another?
She stares at me for a moment, considering, then nods grudgingly. There is a general mutter of approval. I'm getting through.
"You may live." The leader.
"No." The old man this time. His voice is not unkind. "I'm sorry. You've convinced me - just - that you are indeed a friend. Or at least not an enemy. But you are only one. Your human brethren will follow you. They are not like you. I cannot believe that they will be so easily convinced. Much as I regret it, you must die...for our safety."
NO! Not for my sake...for the sake of the children, the future...oh God, it's a much wider choice! Not just me. Humanity! How can I convince...
...TARGET REACHED...BEARING THREE NINER TWO...PATROL GROUP SEVEN...ATTACK...
Armoured forms crash through the doors, fanning wide.
Whining charge-chambers ignite.
Sudden ozone smell and blind insect-goggles glaring...
No! Not this...not now!
...as heavy boots trudge on inexorably.
Shouts, panic, from the mutant group. The surge of static from helmet radios. Rifles crash, deafening, answered by the mournful crooning roars of plasma bolts. Charred wood stench. Fear-sweat...
God, is this how it felt, all those other times,,,the fear...
The wedge formation halts, recognising me. Blank goggles stare.
"Hold your fire!"
Two echoes, patrol leader and mutant leader: "Hold off!"
Silence, but for the crackle of burning wood and the faint sizzle of plasma-rifles.
God, let me be right.
"Sam?" The voice is hollow. Electronic. Inhuman. Patrol leader.
"Are you OK?"
Patrol leader lifts gloved hands and renoves helmet. Short blonde hair. Karen(!) I know her.
She is puzzled. "Why haven't they killed you?" Suspicion.
How to explain? "Because they're human."
She snorts, incredulous. "They're muties."
"Yes, but they're human."
One of the patrol, rifle up, ready to club, butt downwards.
Tanya! Helpless! Still unconscious...so fragile'. Leap across. He shies away.
Kneel, shielding her. Look up into the gargoyle-goggled face, almost...hating!
"You'll have to kill me first'."
He stops, unsure.
"What's it going to be, soldier?"
He looks to Karen. She shrgs and motions him back. He moves. Slowly. Reluctant.
"H...hey?" A small voice. Tanya. Bend and help her up, hold her close. Kiss her.
"Jesus, Sam!" Karen. Disgusted(?)
"This is Tanya..."
(She's thinking: Muties have names?)
"...she saved my life. These are her people. I...I'm one of them (I hope). I...(Realisation - blinding'.) I love Tanya. I'm going to stay here. With her. With them."
She's looking confused now, amazed, perhaps...scared(?)
"But I have to kill them..."
"Because.. .because.. ."
"They're people, Karen. Not animals. Not monsters. People."
Pause. She nods slowly, as if seeing them for the first time.
"But I have to."
The young mutant, the one who shot at me, runningg...one of the patrol bringing his rifle up...
Run, without thinking...only knowing that io a human kills a mutant now it will all start again, all the killing and the fear and the...
In front of him in lung-bursting effort, covering...
LIGHT/FLAME/HEAT/AGONY.. .Someone screaming....
'For too long we have lived in fear on the fringes of society...We have not fought back, trusting, beyond hope, that eventually good sense would prevail. But with the policy of the World Council now one of open and systematic genocide we cannot remain passive in the face of this threat to our survival. The human race has declared war on us. The war is not of our choosing, but nevertheless, now, we fight back!' [Communication to the World Council from 'The Brotherhood of Free Mutants' (2144)]
"Don't move." Karen's voice, worried. Hot stickiness on the side of my head. My left side numb. Unreality.
"Tanya, is it? Get some clean stuff for bandages." Karen's voice again, a long way off...
Shock(!) She said 'Tanya'(!)
"What else?" The bearded leader.
"Nothing. My med-kit will help. Thank God, I think he'll be all right."
The voices fade and return like static. But Karen...she...working with the mutants. It worked. It must have done. She believes me. She believes her own eyes.
"Sam?" The leader's voice again. "Thank you. I...I had not really believed until I saw... You risked your own life to save one of us..."
The young mutant, helpless, embarrassed: "1'm sorry. You..." No more. Enough. There's something I have to....
'Far from being the short extermination the government had hoped for, the 'mutant purge' became a bloody and drawn out guerilla war, waged in the crumbling urban streets of ruined cities...' [R.S.Blake-Elton, op.cit.]
Tanya helping, I stand. Shaky. I was lucky, The plasma-bolt only grazed me. The burns will heal.
"Well?" To Karen.
"I've known you for a long time." She frowns, glancing to the side. The rest of the patrol standing by, helmets off, TAlKING to the mutants! "I trust you. If you'd give your life for one of these...people, I suppose that...I I don't know. You were right. They are human too. When you know..very human."
Give my life(?) Too heroic, I'm no hero. Just a spur of the moment action, unplanned, stupid. But that's what did it...
Abruptly she turns, glancing back over her shoulder, "It's going to take a long time, Sam."
"You won." Her face is still puzzled, but free somehow. Glad. "I don't know what you won, but you won." She picks up her helmet. "You'll want to hear this." She clicks on the mike, and we all listen as she reports:
...PATROL LEADER GROUP SEVEN REPORTING...
...klk...PROCEED GROUP LEADER...
...REPORT OF MUTANTS ON BEARING THREE NINER TWO A FALSE ALAM...FAULTY LIFE READING...NO TRACE OF MUTANT ACTIVITY IN AREA...OPERATIVE EX-ROUR FOUND...DEAD...LoOKS LIKE A DOG-PACK GOT HIM...REMAINS BURNED...NO REASON TO BELIEVE MUTANT INVOLVEMENT...
...rrakkk...RECIEVED...SEARCH CALLED OFF...klk...RETURN TO DEBRIEFING CENTRE...OUT...klk
She stands, holding his hand, still weak from the attack. But she is happy. She watches as the human woman in the armour finishes speaking and turns to Sam.
"They'll back up my story." She indicates the patrol. "Some of them have got quite friendly with the muti...others." The human woman turns to her.
"Look after him, Tanya. He's..."
She nods, knowing what he is. He squeezes her. He loves her. He said so. And she loves him. And the others will not laugh at her now, not after today.
The humans say their goodbyes and leave, re-assuming their annonymity with their helmets, smiling strangely as if grateful for an hour or two's stolen time. The human woman comes to them.
"Like I said, it'll take time," she says. "It won't be easy. But this areawill be quieter...I'll make sure of that. The patrols will leave you alone if you leave us alone."
She smiles, almost shyly. "In a way, I quite envy you. Goodbye."
Sam smiles oddly. "Au revoir."
And they are gone So soon. No time at all, this first time. Human meets mutant without killing. Tanya holds Sam close as the others surround them, watching the humans go, all with something like wonder in their eyes. She is content.
As the group leave the church a stray shaft of sunlight illuminates the altar. An odd trick of the light makes it look as if the crucified man, perhaps, is smiling...
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