“You are now entering a potential flashpoint as recognised by the department of traffic-related incidents. Use of this road is therefore restricted to stable-A to C users, subject to status update and seasonal adjustment. Any journeys made should be under medical advisement and only when necessary. Thank you for travelling kindly. Please travel kindly again.”
There had been a crash on the main road on the way to work. Derwent knew that because the beige-and-grey barriers were up, erected by the Censorians to block off any unnecessary scenes of a distressing nature. Christ, he was even thinking in health and safespeak now. He rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath, urging his rising ire back down again to stop the stress pads on the steering wheel from cutting the engine out. Driving under the influence of stress was a detainable offence after all. That was why his radio only played soothing music, comfortably MOR with little to irritate or interest.
Even so, each programme carried the statutory government warning informing listeners of the effects and consequences of listening to music while operating heavy machinery, carrying out complex tasks, working on legally pertinent or binding documents or driving. The warnings grew longer on a daily basis and it was the work of Derwent and others like him to update, upgrade and re-record these warnings as wily paralegals found new and more intriguing loopholes to exploit for litigation purposes. It was tedious and frustrating, an astronomical unit from the industry he had entered as a voice actor, but he couldn’t get angry; not if he wanted to get to work at all. And today was especially important, as today he was going to call that number. He took another deep breath, this time to curb his excitement: that could cut the engine too.
Frankly, Derwent’s morning had not started well. His e-medical report referenced to his smartphone’s built-in manscan had come back saying that he could no longer eat chocolate. Seeing as tobacco and alcohol were highly controlled substances and only available to those with tip top medical reports (ironic, seeing as they would not even consider using such dangerous products and if they did, they’d be busted down to D-rating) or the extremely privileged, chocolate was his only pleasure outside of the SexEye (which he was allowed to use as a recognised form of exercise), so a life without it was going to be pretty dull. The alternative to chocolate was the government issued naturally flavoured fruit-n-bran bars that had the consistency and natural flavouring of soggy cardboard. His six foot three inch stature lost another fragment of an inch, his hairline retreated just a fraction further backward, his complexion greyed just a little more. He’d consider suicide, if it was possible. Thanks to the ‘dangerous implements in the household and possible lethal substances’ directive brought in two years previously, there wasn’t anything sharp or toxic enough to do him any harm. His sub dermal anti-depressant nodule kept him perky about it though, even though his car was informing him that he had been dropped a category, traffic wise, due to his medical status and would have to take a slower, ‘less stress inducing’ (more convoluted) route to work. He would also be twenty minutes late and liable for tardiness e-training at the weekend. All this and an e-home health and safety audit, brought forward two weeks to, yes, the same weekend. He wished his home and car computer would communicate sometimes, but that contravened network security directives one through six. Only that enigmatic contact number gave him any kind of hope… whatever it was.
Due to the accident, Derwent was not twenty minutes late; he was forty minutes late. Office security warned him on entering: “your lateness has been registered and your personal forecast amended. Please be available for tardiness e-training this weekend. Remember, lateness not only harms your prospects but harms the company and your colleagues. Be considerate; be prompt...”
“Behave,” he muttered to himself.
The atrium of Mediacom Enterprises was deserted. Pale green walls glowed softly as gentle flute and waterfall music filled the ionised air. Two faux-marble staircases curved round a mock fountain, soaring in a double-helix towards the chief executives suite on a balcony below the plastiglass ceiling that provided most of the buildings light through photopipes and prismatics. Only it was overcast, so most of Mediacom’s employees would have to put up with the same strip lighting that office drones had been putting up with for decades. Same shit, different day, he thought, because swearing in the workplace was strictly prohibited under the Dignity At Work amendment made three years ago. A single verbal ‘bugger’ could result in immediate dismissal. Bastardfuckwankcunts he thought to himself, a mantra to remind himself that they still couldn’t touch his thoughts. Yet.
“You’re late,” said Henry, Derwent’s helpful and amenable work mate who had managed to get plants banned from the office even though they had been proved to be beneficial on account of the hay fever issue. He wasn’t even a sufferer. He was just a weasly-looking obsequious little prick who wanted a position at the Health and Safety Executive and would annoy anyone to get there. In fact, Derwent wasn’t sure if he even wanted the job; he just seemed to get a kink out of pissing people off. Today, his statute haircut, tucked tie and hypo allergenic suit emanated an air of irritation, which was consciously ironic. “Yes Henry,” sighed Derwent, “and yes I already realise I will require tardiness retraining this weekend. But thank you for your concern.” Derwent sat at his desktop at the correct distance, turned on the monitor set at the correct brightness, switched on the argon-free base unit and rested his head on the ergonomically designed keyboard. “Just five minutes without someone minding my... business.” That was bloody close. He sat back up and slowly opened his eyes. Someone had affixed a post-it to his screen advising him that a wireless mouse left on standby overnight could shorten the internal batteries life span by two hours. “Five minutes too much to ask,” he muttered.
His email calendar contained his schedule for the day: two five minute ‘subject to status’ conditions to re-record, eight government warnings and a non standard disclaimer. Each one would have to be word perfect or he could be liable for a heavy fine (it was company policy to make all employees responsible for their own legislative errors yet intellectual property remained the sole property of the company. If you had an idea in work time it was theirs; if you made a mistake, it was yours. Derwent had learned, like many others before him, not to think at work) so there would be takes a plenty involving multiple re-reads, re-stresses, remixes and regrets. Though the latter would only involve him. He’d have half his workload completed by lunchtime, or nutritionally related midday respite as it was officially referred to; half an hour when he would call that number. His excitement carried him through the first half of that long, tedious day, though he tried desperately to mask it. Too much excitement might register as anxiety.
As his allotted break time approached, he began to feel nervous despite himself. Who’s number was this? He’d found it on his desk one morning, a number and the words ‘something different’ written below it. How did he get into this? An unmonitored nutritionally related midday respite when the sun was shining just below the statutory dangerous ultraviolet emissions rating, beside a river that was at 75% safe status (the highest you could get for any body of moving water) where he had his 100% biodegradable non-polluting, non-hazardous sustainably sourced nutritional respite when he mentioned casually that he’d like to have something... different. At least that’s what he thought it might have been. Why was he doing this? Because anything was better than this... life? He wasn’t sure if he could call it that. It was existence; a safe, moderated, monitored existence. But the fear, the fear – was it a set up? A trap? Who would want to trap him? Why didn’t they think he was a trap? All this wasn’t making the call, and... well, they had all but banned curiosity on account of the feline mortality rate, but he had to know.
“Hello? How did you get this number?” The voice was distorted, scrambled and obviously as processed as a no-fat bean burger.
“It was left for me? I don’t know who left it.” Derwent wasn’t surprised by the paranoid nature of the anonymous callee, but he was still taken at a disadvantage by the abrupt manner with which the man (or woman – he had no idea) responded.
“Good. We don’t do names. Where are you?” Derwent had taken himself down to the river. It was overcast, so though it might be considered odd, it would not be unlawful. Besides he could always claim statutory mild exercise allowance if questioned. He was about to reveal his location when caution made him pause. “I... I’d rather not say.”
“Good,” said the voice, “We don’t want to know, but if we assume that someone may be monitoring you, you should keep your responses to yes and no. Do you understand?”
“Are you familiar with the disused land beside the Morribury Superstore and Recycling Exchangory?” It was around the corner from where he lived.
“Meet there tonight. Seven thirty. Behind the third billboard. Come alone. Any questions?”
He hesitated. “No.”
“Good.” The line went dead. Derwent tried the number again. It was already ‘not recognised’. A text came up on his screen, unlisted, with a number attached and the instruction ‘something different’. His heart was beating like it hadn’t done since he was a teenager, pre HSE. He hadn’t even met anyone or done anything yet, but he still felt more alive than he had done in decades.
The rest of the day sped past like a montage. Derwent went through the motions, read the scripts and re-recorded the edits, but he wasn’t really concentrating - dangerous in a profession like his. Henry was watching him intently, his own personal CCTV, recording any infraction for later reference or to be used in evidence against him. He didn’t care. Tonight promised either satisfaction or incarceration, he suspected. The idea of such extreme consequences made him bristle with excitement. Inwardly, of course.
When it was time to leave, he swept up his coat and swung it across his shoulders in one fluid movement, oblivious to any passing colleagues who may have been injured by his cavalier action. “Very prompt,” sneered Henry, “I see you do have a sense of good timekeeping. Very encouraging.” Fuck you, he thought, which came out as “thank you for your concern, Henry. I shall not be as tardy tomorrow, be sure of that.” With a similar flourish, he turned and walked out of the office, a smile threatening to curl his face into something resembling happy. He trotted jauntily past the HSE monument where two tireless sign writers continually updated the directive, a sisyphan task, crossed the atrium with a skip, his spirits spiralling upward like that great double staircase and left the building, jogging down the steps and only just stopping before reaching the edge of the pavement. Lucky too, as crossing with undue care and attention was a punishable offence. It was only as he began crossing the car park that the paranoia returned. He nibbled his lip slightly, something he hadn’t done since he was a child and only when he knew he was found out. That was how he felt now, that someone was tracking him, knew what he had done, was planning to do. “Ridiculous,” he said out loud, then wished he hadn’t. His heart beat its way into his throat as he remote unlocked his car.
And nothing happened. He got in, sat down and waited until his pulse slowed sufficiently to allow him to drive. He closed his eyes, pressing down on one of them with the palm of his hand and began to laugh. He sounded alien to him, but he kept on until it felt natural again.
As he pulled into his drive, the radio played some kind of bland androgynous love pop. He would give himself half an hour on the SexEye, email his possible partner on MatchPoint.com (he always wrote better when feeling even slightly aroused, and since he’d had his butt-stim upgraded after completing twenty levels, he almost felt sexy after a session on the SexEye) then shower, dress in something dangerously low vis (another punishable offence after sundown) and go to the bill board. He checked his watch. Ten past six – an hour since he had left work, six miles away. Just enough time to work off his exercise debt, affection debt, dirt debt and life debt. He didn’t want to eat; he was so excited that he was sure he’d throw up. Seeing as drinking, loud music, rich foods and big crowds were virtually forbidden, even the prospect of meeting someone else out of office hours in an unauthorised social activity was a thrill. Thinking on this, he closed the curtains, stripped and plugged himself into his SexEye.
He got to the billboard at seven twenty-five. The sun was just starting to dip, an orange purple explosion in the west. Even with this stunning sunset, the lot behind the billboard was a bleak place; huge slabs of concrete divided by even lines of scrubby survivalist grasses. Oily and turgid looking puddles were scattered here and there and the whole was surrounded by road and billboards on two sides, wood scrub on one and industrial parks on the remaining. He looked across to towards the estate, uniform featureless blocks that sat abandoned like some juvenile deity’s building blocks. Nothing moving there, nothing crossing the lot – if they came, they’d probably come straight from the road between the billboards, the same route he took. He knew that was the most likely, but he still didn’t like taking his eyes off the bulk of the lot. He shuddered and turned up the collar of his regrettably light coat to protect his bare neck and psychologically exposed back.
He waited more than an hour, standing rapt, in a state somewhere between paranoia and fantasy; paranoia because he expected to be apprehended any minute, fantasy because he imagined all the illicit things that would be made available to him: beer, sugar, cigarettes, violent films, casual sex, peanuts. Sometimes he imagined doing them all together, a glutton for sensation stuffing peanuts (salted) into his mouth, washing them down with beer whilst entering some complete stranger from behind as helicopters exploded on a fatscreen TV, finishing with a post coital cigarette and a cup of tea: two sugars. He amazed himself by becoming quite aroused at the prospect of sweet tea, sweet milky tea. In this heightened tumescent mood, he saw something flapping on the back of one of the billboards; he hadn’t noticed it before. Curiosity piqued, he walked over to see what it was. It turned out to be a note, unnamed but he assumed addressed to him.
“Can’t explain – too many variables. Need to re-arrange. Come tomorrow, 20.00, Old Brewery Flats, communal openspace. Come alone.”
That was it. He looked around again, swivelling his head each way to get the best overall coverage. No-one there. He was disappointed, but for some reason this didn’t make him any less excited. It just made him more anxious for tomorrow to come.
That night his sleep was fragmented, disturbed and stitched together with bizarre dreams. He was chasing a naked woman across a landscape of hamburgers dotted gun trees blooming with bright fireballs under a purple veined sky. Then he was chasing hamburgers across naked women, becoming more wired with each subsequent waking. It reminded him of when he was still allowed to drink coffee before it was deemed too stimulating for his rating. He lapsed in and out of consciousness until he was uncertain which was which, his thoughts fizzing, his body priapic.
Morning came as a surprise. Sunshine leaked through gaps in his curtain and he awoke to one of his own warning spiels on the radio. He rubbed his swollen eyes, scratched his aching balls and levered himself out of bed. It was later than he’d anticipated, so he’d have to go in stubbled and scruffy. Fuck the dress and self-respect code.
The traffic was appalling, the radio particularly turgid and his levels of tolerance virtually zero. He tripped the engine cut out twice in the first two hundred yards. “Driving under the influence of stress is a common cause of accidents. Your engine has been stopped for your own protection. Please proceed cautiously once your Edmond readings are at reasonable levels.” He screamed like a canned banshee at the dashboard until he was hoarse then...
Nothing. Absolute calm. The storm had passed leaving a placid lake of a being in its place. He breathed deeply, turned the key and continued on his way.
The glutinous traffic deposited him at Mediacom a full hour late. Henry was apoplectic when he got in. Derwent smiled, watching Henry inwardly lose it. It would probably mean an official warning leading to status demotion (whatever that meant) and HSE re-education. He was unafraid... but exhausted. He yawned his way through a staff meeting, snoozed his way through a re-re-edit and finally slumped over his desk at twelve.
Next thing he knew, he was surrounded by security, headed by Henry. He looked indignant but pleased to the point of stimulation. “Oh dear, Derwent,” he said, barely preventing himself from sneering This will not look good on your personal record, but I must do this, not just for your good but all our good.”
“Wouldn’t have happened if you let me have coffee,” mumbled Derwent, still not fully aware. “Why’d you take my coffee?” He swung his chair around the semi circle. “What you have against coffee?”
“It over stimulates,” leered Henry, “and that’s the last thing you need.”
“Fuck off,” said Derwent, dropping the bomb. He was out the door in time it took henry to draw an indignant breath.
As he sat behind the wheel of his car, too angry to drive, Derwent considered what a fucking idiot he was. His career was dead; his nemesis was probably ‘over stimulating’ himself with joy at this victory; he was tired; and his career was dead. That was a real important one, so it bore repeating. “Ah well,” he murmured, “at least I can get some sleep.” And he still had the prospect of tonight, though considering what didn’t happen last night and its consequential effect on today, perhaps it wasn’t the best idea. Then again...
If anywhere could be more different from the original meeting point, the communal openspace was that place. Hemmed in on all sides by identikit flats, this concrete slab was alive with bustling bodies, murmuring below the sound limits but creating a buzz that dwelt on the edge of hearing like tinnitus. A huge piece of corporate art representing the goodness of the whole grain stood in the midst and a busy spa and relaxatorium pumped classic new age music into the humming melee (he imagined that getting a licence for public music must have taken a bureaucratic genius months to obtain). Looking around at the people bustling about in a non-aggressive manner, he noticed that every face was a picture of detached fear – terrified at looking too engaged yet not trying to look too terrified. He was living in the age of the unspoken worry. Whoever he was meeting couldn’t possibly have such a face.
He did not notice the anonymous figure in the crowd slip a note into his back pocket. He didn’t even know it was there until he got home, furious at being stood up again. “Can’t meet here. Discrete but too obvious,” it said, followed by another address and another time. Derwent bellowed in frustration, then called up his MatchPoint mate and insisted on a meet up for something more than unsatisfactory cyberflirting. “If they can’t give me my kicks, I’m gonna get them myself,” he muttered, vowing to himself not to return. He knew he would though; he needed to know. Especially when he got blocked on MatchPoint.
This process repeated itself for weeks, months as Derwent went into a low stress role – smart roadsign programmer, coming up with new ways of saying ‘tiredness kills’, only he’d started deliberately putting in amusing and irritating spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. In the meantime, kept going to the rendezvous points and kept getting stood up.Perhaps this was a test? Maybe if he kept on kicking against the system, they’d deem him worthy. Due to a stroke of sheer luck, he would not have to wait any longer.
It was his thirteenth or forenthth ‘appointment’. The setting was some random shopping precinct on the edge of town that sold safe and dull furnishings predominantly but also did a side line in nutritious yet ultimately unsatisfying food stuffs of a vaguely continental ilk. He was to meet in the soothingly green vinyl-clad restaurant. To not look out of place, he ordered a plate of pasta green, sat down to pick at it with a mauve plastic spork and waited for the inevitable enigmatic rescheduling. In a moment of absentminded spork twirling, he dropped his implement on to the floor, littered unusually with the detritus of dropped low salt low sugar sauces and abandoned cutlery, a cafeteria Sargasso. As he scrambled around under the table, trying to find his implement of digestion, he saw a crisply pressed pair of trousers and over shiny shoes stop at his table. The heel of one shoe crushed a tomato paste sachet and whoever owned that pair of trousers and shoes swore briefly but sincerely before walking away. Derwent held his breath, sensing that his contact had just left him a very traceable trail. If he could track this guy, he was in.
Tracking him was easy; keeping his distance was the tricky part. He knew he couldn’t get too close or he would have been rumbled, but if he let him get too far ahead in this crowd he’d lose him for sure. It was lucky he still had the ersatz blood trail to follow or else the crowd would have closed around and engulfed him like quicksand. Unsurprisingly, the man headed to the car park and got into his car, a blue cityhatch. By another stroke of luck, it just happened to be on the same floor as his own car, so following him would be a lot easier. This is just like one of those chase films they banned, he thought, any minute now I’ll be thrusting handfuls of Euros at a taxi driver asking them to follow that car. Only he had a car and was, he thought, perfectly capable of following another car.
In a strictly regimented society based on safety for all, a high speed chase is an impossibility, so Derwent had to just satisfy himself with making aggressive car noises behind the wheel of his slow yet economical car. Agent X, as he had taken to thinking of him as, was a cautious driver and gave timely signals. He might as well give me a map, thought Derwent. The uncertainty of their destination was enough to keep him going though, and even when the destination in question appeared to be a non-descript warehouse on a generic industrial estate in a part of town Derwent was not familiar with, his car was dangerously close to shutting down due to over excitement.
He parked a little way off and watched Agent X enter the building. Bloody amateur, thought Derwent, he didn’t even check to see if he was being followed. Just to make a point, he got out of his car, looked over both shoulders, grimaced and walked determinedly over to where the suited man had gone.
The door was not locked, which surprised and disappointed him. He had looked forward to kicking the door in, thereby ignoring excessive activity in the workplace directives. The cavernous and musty interior of the warehouse was dark apart from columns of light that poured through Perspex skylights, glancing off rusted beams and supports, the skeleton of this bargain basement behemoth.
“Ah, Derwent. So glad we could finally meet up like this.” The snide whine was instantly recognisable. Derwent screwed his eyes tight and thought fuckfuckfuck to himself before turning, hoping that this wasn’t the monumental set up he knew it now was.
“Henry. How nice to see you outside of work. We really should have fulfilled our mutual social obligations sooner.”
“Fuck that,” said Henry, “I’m a complete wanker at work and we both know it.” Derwent wasn’t sure what surprised him more, the obscenity or the fact that Henry was a bigger fraud than he was. Before he could comment, the facade of Henry slid neatly back into place. “Now, I take it that you have not come accompanied by unwelcome guests?” He shook his head. “Good. We have only prepared entertainment for one. Welcome to the... shall we say, Underground?”
‘The Underground’, as Henry put it, consisted of eight men and women, discussing ways of getting back at the HSE.
“... we could sabotage the breathing apparatus at the HSE administration department. Next person who uses a highlighter gets a face full of nitrous oxide and it’s happy times all round...”
“... our initiative with regards to breaking paving stones is progressing well. Several people have tripped up in very public places and not expressed any kind of distress apart from mild annoyance. If we can show more people that tripping in the street isn’t fatal...”
“... most office workers will be unsuspectingly drinking our caffeine laced water. Multi middle management structures have been fragmenting all over town...”
“Ladies, gentlemen,” said Henry, exuding a level of assured authority Derwent had not suspected before, “may I introduce our latest recruit?” He looked hopeful at this. Derwent nodded, too bemused to do otherwise. “For the intents and purposes of security, we shall call him... tetanus.”
“Tetanus?” exclaimed Derwent.
“We all have codenames with an anti-safety theme,” said an amused looking young woman with a nebula of red hair and a supernova of freckles across her nose. “Mine’s salmonella,” she waved to a serious looking man with a thin face, badly cropped hair and a hooked nose over a thick black moustache, “this is lunchtime drinking and the rest... well, they can speak for themselves.”
Unsupervised play, tire swing, le parkour... the names were absurd, like some kind of perverted version of the seven dwarves or a pantheon of new small gods, but their intentions were serious: to restore risk without assessment; to bring back life to the living.
“We’re not alone,” said Henry, “but as you will probably understand our strength lies in retaining our independence and anonymity. If one falls, the rest continue. We share the same goal though our means may differ, may even be counterproductive. Sometimes this works to our advantage. Chaos and disruption of any kind is still counter to the HSE.”
“But Henry,” said Derwent, noticing he didn’t flinch when he used his name, “I know you, you know me. That’s hardly anonymous.” Henry smiled.
“I do indeed know your name.” He waved his hand expansively, “I know all your names. But you don’t know mine.”
“Henry. That’s my codename. After the friendly vacuum cleaner.”
The following weeks were magical for Derwent. He had a cause, he had a reason to get up in the morning and work the signs. He sabotaged speed limiters on roads, changed sign programmes, even amended road ratings. Every little bit helped towards the cause. He felt good.
He shouldn’t have let himself get too comfortable.
The final meeting was spirited affair – Salmonella had brought some illegal booze to celebrate their third year of operation. Henry frowned on such frivolity – he was too into his persona to really let his hair down – but didn’t begrudge his cell this opportunity to let their collective hair down. They were just putting the finishing touches to a particularly audacious raid on central alcohol and sugar records when a loudspeaker announced that they were surrounded and had ten minutes to leave the building. Derwent felt his heart sink. He should have known that Henry was just playing them for advancement, betraying a bunch of dissidents for brownie points.
“Sorry guys,” said Lunchtime Drinking, flourishing his HSE badge, “but I tell you I have had just enough of this stupid moustache.” Salmonella punched him hard in the face, grabbed Derwent and Henry and dashed to the middle of the warehouse. “Been keeping this a secret just in case something like this happened,” she said, “you don’t want to know where it goes, but it’s better than here in the next ten minutes.” The rest of the cell didn’t notice the rapid departure of three of their number as they were putting Lunchtime Drinking out of action with their boots. The three escapees vanished through a hatch in the floor and had it sealed before the warehouse was filled with noise and light as the HSE officers broke in to retrieve what remained of the cell and Lunchtime Drinking.
“Fuck,” said Salmonella as they ran down a narrowing tunnel that stank of piss, “should have seen that coming. Should have sniffed that bureaubugger out ages ago. Fuck. Next right.”
“Why should you have sniffed him out?” panted Derwent.
“Because it’s my party, my cell,” she said, “you thought Henry was in charge, didn’t you? That’s the idea. Too late for clever ideas now though. Second left then up through the hatch. Sorry about the mess.”
They emerged from the hatch into a dimly lit room filled with huge vats; it stank like a thousand backed up toilets gone from bad to worse. “Human Waste Processing, vat room six,” explained Salmonella, “just be glad we don’t have to get in it. The smell should keep any dogs off our trail though.” Derwent prevented himself from gagging and followed after Salmonella. Henry wasn’t so lucky and spewed half digested rice down his shirt before going on. “So what do we do now?” asked Derwent as they dashed seemingly randomly between bubbling vats of putrifying ordure. He wasn’t sure which worried him most, the fact that he was getting used to the stench or that he had asked such a stupid question. Behind him, Henry was retching every few steps, suggesting that he was not getting used to the smell. “I’m going to warn my adjacent cells – if one of us has been infiltrated, the whole lot could go down. It might even be too late now, though if I know HSE half of their stings will probably still be tied up in outstanding risk assessments.” That figured, thought Derwent. “They’ll probably hit a few cells then hope that the others break up through fear of being discovered.” She stopped at what looked like a maintenance exit for the building. “Right, we walk away as nonchalantly as possible. Don’t run. Oh, and put these on.” She threw over a couple of one size fits none hygienic coveralls. “Better keep up appearances.” With a loud clunk, the doors swung open as Derwent and Henry struggled into the giant plastic body gloves. No searchlights picked them out; no siren blared or loud hailers barked. They had assumedly got away with it.
Derwent was finding it hard not to run with the amount of adrenalin kicking around his body. He was twitchy and edgy and every instinct in his body was telling him to get out and quick, but Sal projected an illusion of calm that kept him from breaking rank. She talked quietly about meeting the adjacents, getting a car, looking out for HSE... he was having trouble registering it, breaking it down to a series of clichés that were now horribly pertinent. “I would normally recommend breaking up, but that way they can just pick us off as and when. If we stay lost together, we stay free longer. We might not have long...”
“Isn’t this all just a bit too paranoid?” said Derwent, trying to calm things down. “I need to be paranoid,” said Sal, just the right side of losing it, “expect the worse and it won’t come as a surprise.”
Car obtained, messages sent, rendezvous organised, Derwent, Sal and Henry all went to meet with the remnants of the adjacent. They’d been hit hard, with only a couple of members making it out. Smoking Room was a short, stocky man with thinning blonde hair and a nervous sniff. Opening Windows was a middle aged woman, smartly dressed with short grey hair and the sort of clipped accent you only heard in archive news programmes. “They must have been onto us for months,” sniffed Smoking Room, “our other adjacent got bagged outright. I only got out from taking a shit when they busted in.”
Opening Windows looked at him disapprovingly, but only as a matter of image. “No one fucks with a matron,” she said, shocking Derwent and Henry, “so I walked out of there without a word. There are advantages to looking like an HSE bitch. Essentially though our numbers are down and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d got Social Responsibility. In other words, we’re fucked.”
“Social Responsibility?” asked Derwent.
“He started it all,” said Sal, “former HSE officer, saw too much legislation. Went underground. Took a few people with him but kept it low key. If he’s gone... that’s it, the organisation is gone.”
“So, it’s all been... for nothing?” asked Henry, “I’ve been playing an HSE arse for the last two years just to be told go home, forget about it? Don’t tell me there’s nothing we can do?”
“There’s something we can do,” said Derwent, hit by sudden realisation, “we can stop trying to make things better... and make them a whole lot worse.”
“So what you’re saying is we go out in one blaze of inglory?” said Sal, not quite believing what Derwent was suggesting. “We go out and do something that will make living under HSE more draconian than ever?”
Derwent nodded. “The only reason any of us joined this organisation was because we got fed up of being molly coddled, being wrapped up in cotton wool forever. But that was just us. A few concerned individuals doing a few insignificant things that effect... not many people. It makes us feel better, I won’t deny it, but only we really care. This way, everyone will care. We make it inevitable that they take this away, this one last freedom, then everyone will be out against the HSE. It won’t be the underground any more – it’ll be the foundation.”
“You think it will work?” asked Henry pensively. Derwent shrugged.
“It’s just an idea. If the other cells are still functioning, then there’s no reason to do this, but if they start to go down like us... we’ve got to do something drastic.”
Opening and Smoking started texting their associates, knowing that they might have already been compromised. Responses started coming in from all quarters telling the same story. Crackdown; capture; divide and conquer. Sal considered the news grimly. “Okay,” she said steadily and quietly, “we do this. We do this now.”
Fifteen hundred HSE liabilities from the underground; another three thousand trusted self-destructs from the general populace who had been given a chance to turn self-loathing into definite action. Derwent, Sal, Henry and the other two plus another eight souls all took their places throughout the city and waited until zero hour; rush hour. Positioned at speed points, ready to cause maximum disruption. It was extreme, it was desperate, but the underground had done its job, or rather it was about to do its job. Truth be told, Derwent didn’t want to do this, but if someone didn’t do something, things would fail to fall apart; no-one would do anything and everything would just spiral down into a nicely ordered, terminally boring world that would die of complacency and apathy. Not with a bang but a sigh. Too late to get philosophical, thought Derwent. He took a deep breath and looked at his watch. If this goes right, he thought, HSE will have to legislate transport to within an inch of its life. The populace will be driven like cattle; there should be an almighty demonstration because it’s all they, we, have left. Personal transportation. The road workers were right; they were given leeway because people needed this, the freedom to move, even if it was at a snail’s pace in a vehicle that would stop if you even begun to enjoy it. God, it’s so much to hope for, he thought, but in the end you just have to dare to depend on other people to do right. And that’s what HSE couldn’t, wouldn’t do. When four and a half thousand people threw themselves into the path of oncoming traffic...
Derwent took one last deep breath, smiled the last smile of his life, shouted “now this is fucking living, fuckers,” and stepped into the road.