They called it Kaleidoscope. I called it freedom.
Leaving the grey of New London had never seemed possible before I tasted the fractured colours of K; now I could leave whenever the walls closed in a little too tight, whenever I needed escape. Or whenever I could scrape enough together to pay Dazzle. Beyond the border wall, out from under the canopy of the Iron Sky, they said it was still unsafe, better to stay in here despite the restrictions. There were rumours but no really knew. You’d have to be a long way past desperate to take on the Quarantine Watch anyway. I saw them once, over at Gate 2 near what used to be Marylebone I guess, take down an old man who tried to get out; eventually they let him, in pieces, casually tossed through the gate in a sack after they’d taken turns in hacking his limbs from his body. It was about then that I’d found K. Or Scope. Depends on your dealer. I’d found Dazzle and his “mobile emporium of highs” stashed inside his long, dark trenchcoat. He’d sidled up to me one evening just before curfew, slyly opened his coat to reveal a myriad of coloured stripes and multiple pockets, from one pulling out a small medicine bottle packed with diamond shaped pills.
“Kaleidoscope” he grinned, offering the bottle. “You can call me Dazzle. I might just change your life.”
I knocked on the door of apartment 9732. No response. I was about to turn and walk away when a low hiss from the other side stopped me. “Who sent you ?” Dazzle and the others had warned me that this would be the question and now it was time to discover if they’d been serious about letting me in on Rise or whether the whole thing was just their idea of a K addled joke.
“Over love, over hate” I whispered at the door. There was just a hint of light suddenly visible from the spy hole, as if someone had moved away from it on the other side. The door opened a fraction.
“Give me your hand” ordered the voice on the other side. “I need to be sure you’re not Watch.” Tentatively I placed my hand, fingers outstretched through the narrow space that had opened up next to the frame. Someone grabbed my fingers, closing what felt like their own gloved hand around my wrist as they pulled me in closer to the door.
“Hold still” said the voice. “There’s no other way.” A savage, lancing pain exploded in my index finger as something sharp pierced my nail and the flesh underneath it. The glove gripped tighter on my wrist as I instinctively tried to break free; something was stuck deep through my fingernail.
“Scope him” said a different voice behind the door. A woman. I felt something cold push its way into my finger through what I now realised was a needle. Something cold that set my hand tingling with a sensation that was, by now, very familiar to me. K. The numbers on the apartment door sharpened as my pupils dilated, sharpened and then began to vibrate before appearing to dissolve in melting rainbows of colour. Too fast. I’d never injected before. The rise was usually gentler, a steady climbing of sensory appreciation and heightened awareness. This was like being strapped to a rocket. Too fast. The numbers retreated and elongated faces swam at me from the doorway. I stumbled as the door opened and my hand was released, closing my eyes against the overwhelming explosion in my vision; the drug’s signature fracturing of light into its constituent colours.
“He’s fucked. What’d you dose him ?” asked someone angrily.
“I like to be sure” came the reply.
“He’s clean. Get him inside and get the lights off. Lay him down, he’ll be no good to us now tonight you idiot.”
Someone took my arm, guided me inside the apartment. “Easy now friend. Close your eyes, it’s easier on your visual cortex. Afraid we spiked you pretty good and you’re in for a rough few hours.”
It became almost routine for a while. Two, three times a week making my way across the city, just before curfew, to join up with the others in Rachel’s apartment. Sometimes Dazzle was there, picking up more pills to stash away in the lining of his coat, but most times he was out on the streets, taking the city’s pulse and probing for more Risers.
This evening it was Rachel herself who let me in. She was alone.
“You followed ?” she asked, same as always. I shook my head. I took a different route each time and knew the Watch’s pattern for all of them, they were numerous but usually predictable, content to let the slate grey walls and ceiling of the city contain us.
“I saw something” I started. “Something different.”
Rachel raised an eyebrow quizzically before turning back in to the apartment.
“Over near St Pancras. They’re repairing the Sky.” At this Rachel stopped and span to face me.
“Details” she said urgently. “Tell me everything you saw.” I thought it wouldn’t take long, I’d only noticed the repair drones as I’d slipped past the station at dusk, but she asked me to go over it again and again, squeezing out every drop of the scene as I described it. There are sections of the Sky that look accessible all over the city, several of the remaining taller structures that survived the clearings when they called Quarantine bump against it. They’re guarded, of course, but even if they weren’t why would anyone try to get up there ? The Iron Sky covered the city for its twenty square miles, encasing us all beneath its sleek, frictionless, grey surface. No features, no purchase, no escape. The unpriseable lid on our world.
“How many drones ?” Rachel asked again.
“Three” I repeated. “All repair models. Two weld units and another one I didn’t recognise but it definitely wasn’t armed.”
“Maybe surveillance” mused Rachel.
“No” I said. “It wasn’t a Buzzer. No cameras up there at all. I guess someone must have been remote piloting from inside the tower.”
“How close was the repair ?” she asked.
“To the tower ? Almost immediately above.” I said. “Rachel, you could stand on there and maybe reach out and touch it. There’s a hole in the Sky.”
She was about to ask something else when there was a loud knock on the door. Quickly she put a finger to her lips and mouthed “did you invite anyone” ? I shook my head, I left the recruitment to Dazzle. The knock came again. Beckoning me to follow Rachel approached the door.
“Who sent you ?” she asked as she pushed her eye up against the spy hole. I noticed her body tense as she took in whomever was outside. Without moving from the door or looking away from the spy hole she pointed to her left. My eyes followed the line of her finger to a shelf, at waist height, which was stacked with syringes. All of them were preloaded with K.
“No one sent me” came back the visitor. “It’s Quarantine Watch. Reports of a curfew breaker. Open up.”
“Just me and my husband” called out Rachel. “We haven’t seen any curfew breakers Officer.”
“Open up. This is a direct Watch order. Failure to comply carries the maximum penalty.” The Officer beat out the last three words with a heavy bang on the door. Everything then seemed to happen quickly. Rachel stepped back and picked up two syringes from the shelf next to us and motioned that I should do the same, she nodded at the door and whispered “open it”. I had barely turned the lock before I was forced back into the apartment, temporarily caught against the wall as the weight of the door pushed me back. Rachel defiantly brandished the syringes, one in each hand, at the incoming Officer; she took a step back for each step into the room he took.
“Narcotic use is strictly forbidden in Quarantined cities” said the Watch Officer. He reached down to his leg holster and drew his pistol. “I am authorised to neutralize all users with lethal force.” Rachel looked imploringly at me, panicked. Without anything else to hand I stepped forwards behind the Officer and plunged the needle I was holding into the back of his neck, the only flesh exposed above his black Watch coat. The tip of the syringe snapped off, the skin unbroken, and the Officer turned, bringing his gun round to train on me. I dropped what was left of my needle and raised my hands.
“Keep your eyes on me” barked Rachel suddenly, moving forwards. As the Officer swiveled back to face her he was met with two syringes pushed straight into both eyes. He brought up his arms to try to ward Rachel off but she launched herself at him pushing the twin needles further into his pupils, just managing to depress the plunger on one of them before she was shoved back to the floor. The Officer clawed at the syringes, yanking them from his eyes, and shaking his head violently in pain. Blood ran freely from his face and he blinked furiously to try to regain any kind of vision. Unsteadily he raised his gun back in front of him, waving it blindly. Rachel dived towards me as he fired, missing her by several feet, clearly unable to see. Then he sank to his knees and pressed both hands to either side of his head, his body beginning to shake convulsively.
“It’s the Scope” said Rachel. I watched as he shook, tearing at his own face and head with his hands, screaming now. Finally he pitched forwards and lay still on the apartment floor.
“I tried… I tried…” I stammered.
“Neck’s no good” said Rachel. “They’re all augmented. Titanium weave just beneath the skin, it’ll turn away a blade.” She nodded at the fragments of needle on the floor. “Or a syringe. Some rumours say it’ll stop a bullet but no one’s ever shot one of these bastards to find out.”
“What happened to him ?” I asked.
“K. They can’t tolerate it” said Rachel. “It’s not just their skin that’s augmented, visual cortex too. Enhanced so they can see better in the gloom.” She let out a short, hollow laugh. “The only people that can see beneath the Iron Sky. They’re not called the Watch for nothing.”
“I don’t understand. We can use it. Why can’t they ?” I said.
“I don’t understand either” said Rachel. “Not fully but the K overloads the sensory parts of the brain and seems to interfere with the augmentation – it’s like it just overloads them. That’s why we use K as the test.”
“For Rise potentials ?”
“For anyone that turns up that we don’t know” said Rachel grimly.
“But my syringe bounced right off him ? The test wouldn’t have worked” I protested.
“They’re not perfect” said Rachel. “It’s the nails. Weak spot. For some reason they either don’t know how to work the weave into keratin or figure that it’s tough enough to protect against accidental Scope exposure. There and the eyes – as far as we know they’re the only places to pierce them.” Rachel had been breathing hard as we talked and she’d not been still, first closing the apartment door before then appropriating the Watch Officer’s gun and searching him for anything else that she deemed useful.
“He’ll be missed” she said looking up at me. “We need to get out of here, bunker down somewhere else and work out what to do.”
“It’s curfew” I said quietly. “No one survives out there after dark.”
Rachel knew a place near St Pancras and she wanted to head that way to see the hole in the sky.
“Strip him, put his uniform on” she gestured at the prone, dead Officer on the floor.
“Aren’t I a little short to be a stormtrooper” I muttered as I began to remove his clothes. Rachel didn’t respond but why should she ? The reference didn’t register. Barely anyone remembered things from before Quarantine. Everything had been confiscated – films, books, web access – as they’d covered the cities; closed the skies and closed our minds. I’d hung on to fragments from when I was a kid and recreational use of K had brought some of it rushing back; I think that was how Dazzle saw it, as a key to unlocking those things that Quarantine had taken from us. A revolution in the head he sometimes called it, a phrase I dimly remembered but couldn’t place. That was the thing about living under the Sky: it pressed you down, flattened your horizons, made you accept and forget.
“You set ?” asked Rachel. The uniform didn’t really fit, he’d been a couple of inches taller than me, but I nodded hitching up the regulation black trousers.
“The coat will hide the worst of it” I said.
“It’s maybe forty five minutes to St Pancras” said Rachel. “If the patrols are the same as the day then it’ll be hard to avoid all of them.”
“How do we do this ?” I asked.
“You walk like you belong” she replied. “If we’re seen you rough me up, keep me in front of you – turn the gun on me. Play it like a curfew infringement.”
“What if someone gets up close ? They might just kill you for being out.” Neither of us knew Watch protocol after curfew. No one did because no one was known to have returned from being caught outside once it started.
“We’ve got no choice” insisted Rachel. “There’s a Watch station at Baker Street and another one just past St Pancras, at King’s Cross. If a patrol interferes tell them you’re taking me to one of those, tell them you suspect I’m Scoped and you want to torture me when I come down to find out who deals for me.” I looked skeptical. “I know, I know. It’s the best I’ve got. They’re crazy about cracking down on K so maybe it’ll work.”
“And if it doesn’t…”
“If it doesn’t” said Rachel holding out two loaded syringes, her eyes suddenly flashing in defiance, “then we fight.”
We were lucky. I don’t think either of us had appreciated before how dark the city was with the lights switched off. During what the Watch told us was “day” they illuminated New London from the Sky, thousands of low wattage panels giving off a weak, grey glow, supplemented sporadically by the higher powered lights and search spots on guard towers. Drones buzzed intermittently up and around the surface of the Sky, repairing broken panels or running surveillance, occasionally dispatching a Hunter, their armed, deadly counterparts.
As we picked our way up Marylebone Road it was easy to imagine we were invisible, melting back into doorways, sticking close to the buildings running up the side of the street. We saw no one until, approaching what used to be Madame Tussaud’s, Rachel ducked to a crouch and signaled that I should do the same. We could hear shouting punctuated with gun shots.
Silently, tight to walls and cover, we crept alongside the glass frontage of the University on the opposite side of the street. There was a group of four members of the Watch gathered underneath a small light tower running from a portable generator, its ambient hum loud enough to mask our whispers. They had pulled a number of the old waxworks from inside the long abandoned Madame Tussaud’s and had arranged them across the pavement, statues I didn’t recognise, long dead kings, queens, princes, princesses, and celebrities. The crowned face of someone presumably royal shattered as one of the Watch took pot shots at it, splinters of wax peppering the street beneath the old green dome of the Planetarium. A shout of appreciation followed.
“We need to keep going” hissed Rachel.
“They seem pretty trigger happy” I said. “If they see us I don’t know if they’re going to buy the story.”
“Then don’t let them see us” she shot back. “It’s either that or play musical statues and hope they shoot the dummies and not us.” I held out my shaking hand. “Exactly. We move.”
We were lucky. As we inched forwards the Watch, seemingly bored of taking shots at single targets, began to move their stationary prey, putting together a group as if they were arranging some kind of macabre family photograph. They built their new target directly in front of the dome and, consequently, were facing away from our side of the street. We continued to move forwards as quickly as we could, fading into darkness again as we got further from the remote light source. Just before we ducked down Luxborough Street on the other side of the University I looked back to see all four of the Watch lined up, backs to us as they took aim at their creation. No one had seen the British Royal Family since Quarantine – they were either dead or had been absorbed into the post Quarantine hierarchies of power depending on who you believed – but I watched their glassy eyed, wax replicas explode in a hail of bullets as we hurried on in search of safety.
It was Dazzle that opened the door when we arrived. The rest of our flight across the city had been free of the Watch as we’d crisscrossed the streets south of the Marylebone Road, hugging buildings and embracing the darkness of curfew. There was a brief moment of hesitation as he noted my uniform, quickly overtaken with relief as he recognised both of us.
“Thank fuck” he said. “You knew the pass phrase but when I saw him stood there in all that I thought we must have been compromised or something.”
“We have been” answered Rachel. “Or, at least, I have been.” Quickly she proceeded to fill Dazzle in on the events of the past couple of hours, from my report on the Sky repair through to the execution of the Watch Officer and our escape across the city. Dazzle had lost his customary smile as he took in the news.
“Don’t worry” said Rachel. “I know we can’t stay here for long.”
“You can stay as long as you need to Rachel. You know that” said Dazzle holding her gaze. She shook her head.
“There’s too much at stake. If they trace us here then that’s another Rise safe house gone. And you’re our best recruiter.” She paused and smiled, genuine affection in her eyes. “I won’t risk you Dazzle. Not after everything…”
“She always was stubborn” said Dazzle, winking at me. “Maybe that’s why we’ve survived as long as we have.”
“We wouldn’t have made it across to you without her” I answered.
“I don’t doubt that” he said. “Look at you, worst fucking Watch Officer I’ve ever seen in my life.” His laughter broke the tension and I found it impossible not to join in. Even Rachel, briefly, allowed herself to laugh.
“Get changed and then get some rest” she said finally to me. “There’ll be some spare clothes in the back room. I need to talk to Dazzle, work out what to do next.”
“I might be able to help ?” I offered.
“Rest” she said more firmly. “I need you strong. When curfew breaks we’re going through the Sky.”
I hadn’t intended to sleep but must have drifted off, lulled by the low, whispered exchanges between Dazzle and Rachel. Just before dawn they woke me and told me the plan. They sounded certain but we all knew it was suicide.
As the klaxons sounded across the city signaling the end of curfew we stepped out of Dazzle’s apartment. The streets got busy quickly, anyone that had been designated for work was expected to report to their office promptly; as with everything else punishment for lateness was swift and punitive. We joined the steady flow of people headed towards St Pancras station – there was a large work site there – keeping our heads bowed, not speaking, blending in. Beaten down. We were all beaten down.
As we approached the station we saw the hole.
“Would you look at that ?” said Dazzle.
“Don’t stare” said Rachel. “It’ll draw attention. Look at everyone else.”
“They’re not looking” I said incredulously. “They don’t even see it.” Alongside us the ranks of commuters trudged steadily forwards, eyes down, heads bent.
“The Iron Sky teaches you not to look up” said Dazzle. “There’s nothing up there anymore. Keep your head down and your focus narrow. It’s the great achievement of the Watch – they keep us pliant by covering us over.”
We made our way towards the redbrick clock tower, largely unchanged since its Victorian beginnings save for steel platforms built out from the steeple to give access to the great and terrible iron ceiling that spanned New London. There was a heavy Watch presence on the ground, mingling amongst the throng of people headed for work. Directly beneath the tower, where we hoped we’d find access, stood three guards.
“There’s too many” muttered Dazzle.
“Hey, relax” said Rachel. “Let’s get closer, see if there’s a weakness. Perhaps they’ll change over when a new patrol comes around.”
“No good” he replied. “Then there’ll just be more of them.”
“This was the plan ?” I asked. Rachel sighed.
“We had to come and look” she said. “There was no way to know what kind of presence they were going to put out.”
“The hole’s still open” said Dazzle glancing up. “Repair drones haven’t finished but it’ll be sealed in the next few hours. If you don’t go today you don’t go at all.”
“We” said Rachel. “If we don’t go today we don’t go at all.” But Dazzle was moving. He strode away from us before breaking into a run. That got the Watch’s attention, no one innocent ran underneath the Iron Sky. Pulling up suddenly as space opened up around him, people scattering from the running man that would inevitably bring down the Watch, Dazzle opened his coat and span. The long rainbow stripes in his lining rotated and blurred, streaks of vibrant colour lighting up the morning gloom.
“Don’t waste this” he shouted, not looking at us but we knew where it was directed.
Everyone was staring at the spinning, whirling madman and I pulled Rachel towards the tower, switching my attention between Dazzle and the three guards. They hadn’t moved. Dazzle, slowing, seemed to realise that despite his efforts our path was still blocked. He began to pull bottles of K from the multitude of pockets in his coat, opening them and throwing the pills into the air like confetti. Kaleidoscope rained down on the morning commuters. And then, opening his arms wide, he began to speak.
“To those who can hear me, I say, do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people.”
“What’s he doing ?” Rachel said. “They’ll kill him.”
“He’s recruiting” I answered. “Recruiting and giving us a chance.” The guards had begin to move towards him, hands reaching for holstered pistols.
“And so long as men die, liberty will never perish. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines, you are not cattle, you are men! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful. To make this life a wonderful adventure. Let us use that power! Let us all unite!”
“Those words” said Rachel shaking her head. “Where did he get those words ?”
“Fragments” I answered. “He uses so much K, who knows what he can remember from before Quarantine.” The guards were closing on Dazzle now leaving a clear route in front of us to get beneath the clock tower. Dazzle briefly caught my eye and nodded, I could have sworn he even winked, before he began spinning again, shouting up at the sky.
“We rise ! Into freedom ! Into freedom ! There’s a hole in the sky my people. Raise your eyes and look. Into…”
As we slipped beneath the tower we heard the shots and then there was silence.
The tower was empty until we got to the top. We’d climbed stair after stair before, finally, emerging in a room that gave access to the platforms and, ultimately, the Sky. A drone operator, crouched over his controls, was on the other side of the room, directly at the exposed opening to the platform. Most drones were automated but the hole must have needed repair work necessitating a more precise, human touch.
Rachel pulled the gun that we’d taken from the Watch Officer out from where she’d tucked it under her coat and cautiously stepped into the room. The operator was engrossed in his work and the sound of the weld units just outside masked her approach; he didn’t look round. Rachel took three quick, decisive steps across the room and brought the gun down on the back of his head sharply. He slumped forwards, unconscious.
“Augments ?” I asked, crossing the room to join her.
“He’s not Watch” she said. “Not military at least.”
We made our way out on to the platform and both stopped. There was a great tear in the Sky, a hole about six feet across punched in to the metal. Two weld drones flitted about around it whilst a third drone, clasping a steel plate, hovered alongside, now awaiting instructions that wouldn’t come from its incapacitated operator.
“Look at the hole” said Rachel. “Look at it. Something’s made that from outside. It’s been blown in. Blown in from beyond Quarantine.” I nodded. Both of us were silently weighing the implications, neither of us really understood.
We walked along the platform towards the hole. As we passed the hovering repair drone Rachel paused to run her fingers over the plate it was carrying. The weld units ignored us, programmed only to mend. I didn’t hesitate, the hole was exerting a pull now that I couldn’t deny. It was only when I was directly beneath it, close enough to reach up and grasp the edges, that I stopped.
Suddenly it sounded like a swarm of angry bees had arrived. I looked back towards Rachel to see two Buzzers, the Watch’s primary surveillance device, rise up to the platform next to her. The red lights on the front of the Buzzers were blinking slowly indicating that their cameras were broadcasting.
“Let’s go !” I yelled back at Rachel. “They know we’re here.” She made to move towards me but the drones circled her position, flying around her, tightening their radius on each pass. Again she took a step and this time one of the drones struck her, glancing off her shoulder.
“Come on Rachel” I shouted. The drones were frenzied now, repeatedly flying in and striking. I started back towards her thinking I could drag her along the platform. She’d raised the gun and fired off a shot but they moved too quickly and it had been knocked from her hand, falling from the side of the platform down to the street below. The commuters, already shaken from their usual accepting complacency by Dazzle’s sacrifice, looked up, startled, at the sound of the gun shot from above. I had almost reached Rachel when I saw another drone hove into view over her shoulder. Registering the look of terror on my face she managed to turn to face it: a Hunter. Military grade, armed, and with one purpose: to suppress.
“Run !” she screamed. As the drone opened fire she spread herself, opened her arms as wide as she could like a shield. A fragile flesh shield. Unthinking I ran and leapt for the edge of the hole, grasping its sides with both hands. The jagged metal dug into my palms and I felt blood begin to run over one wrist, down my arm. I heard Rachel drop to the platform and the crowd below shout and scream, final witnesses to her death. I couldn’t hear the Hunter but knew it must be closing in. I was strong enough to hold on to the hole but too weak to pull myself up and so I closed my eyes and waited for the end.
Gunfire rattled out again and I flinched expecting pain. I should have felt it before I heard it. There was a metallic clank behind me and then voices overhead.
“Pull him out” said someone. “I’ve neutralised the Hunter.” Hands grabbed my wrists and I felt myself being lifted. “We’ve got an audience” said the voice. I opened my eyes and looked down at the crowd staring up at someone being pulled through the Sky before I was lifted clear and put down on top of the iron ceiling that had enclosed my world for so long. It was slippery and something was falling on my head. Wet.
“Rain ?” I asked.
“Rain” said the voice. “There’ll be time for that later. We need to move.”
I looked up at him but my eyes looked straight past his face towards a glow on the distant horizon, the first light of the sun rising in the morning, struggling to make itself known amid the rain clouds.
“Where am I ?” I managed. “Who, who are you ?”
“We’re the Risen” came the answer. “And you just left Quarantine.”
This is the seventeenth story in my series of 42 shorts that I’m writing to raise money and awareness for Mind, the mental health charity. Dazzle’s sacrificial speech is from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” – no copyright infringement intended. The story, in part, was inspired by the Paolo Nutini song “Iron Sky”. If you’re interested in donating to a great cause then please visit my fundraising page. https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/