Underground Railroad (2009)
Splinters and wooddust plumed overhead like raindrop backsplash. The bullets themselves sounded like rain as they thumped into the flimsy wooden barricade. Harriet, pressing her face back into her knees after that daring glance up, had never experienced rain before this week. Already her mind had begun to construct new similes.
The gunfire was terrifying but there was an exhilaration, a thrill in her too. She felt that this place, even at this moment, even under fire from a Harmony patrol, was where she should be.
‘We can’t stay here much longer,’ hissed Bull, his patchy stubble rough against her ear. ‘The pallets won’t hold.’
She shrugged, lacking a verbal response. She felt Bull pull his head back and pat her on her shoulder. She felt more clouds of splinters billowing overheard, settling into her hair and clothes.
‘I’ll think of something,’ he said.
‘It’s what you do,’ Harriet told him, her voice muffled by denim. She slipped a trembling hand into her jacket pocket and wrapped the piece of paper within a sweaty palm. Underground, it said. There was nothing else, just a rough edge where it had been torn. Harriet had already ripped away the map, chewed and swallowed it after committing its details to memory.
There should not have been any patrols here, this far out in the empty shell of the unoccupied city, but she wondered at her surprise. It should have been obvious that Harmony and the Occupation Committee would have kept an eye out for escapees and rebels. Even the official news twitters made the occasional acknowledgement of such things, and if the authorities were occasionally stupid and contradictory in small things they took a firm line when it came to larger actions of dissent.
Harriet heard shouts, and there was a brief lull in gunfire. She waited for a long minute before uncurling slightly. She glanced to her side, saw Bull rapping his fingers nervously against a loose plank. She caught his eye and he shook his head.
The gunfire resumed. Harriet tucked herself back into a ball and whispered soothing platitudes to herself.
It began seven days before with, as so many things do, a transaction. She’d put a thousand down on the table between them, keeping her fingers atop the notes as she met Bull’s gaze.
‘I’ll get you out,’ he said. He didn’t avert his eyes, didn’t look away. She removed her hand. He scooped up the notes, tucked them away without counting them, and nodded.
‘Tonight, then,’ he said. ‘Travel light. Destroy your ID. I’ll deal with our biometrics later.’
She’d left the diner afire with excitement and fear. On the walk home—a long way across the city from the meeting place—she had passed a pair of Harmony patrolman on the far side of the road. Time had seemed to slow as her heart began to race. She felt awkward, limbs moving lumpenly, jerked forwards like a novice’s marionette. It had taken an age to move on and around the safety of a corner. The patrolmen hadn’t looked at her once. Only the ubiquitous eyes of surveillance cameras maintained their silent vigil.
At home, in her tiny apartment, she had begun the process of erasing her official identity. She activated a black market utility, obtained at great risk, that formatted her apartment’s computer systems over and over, and then activated a tiny EMP device to complete the task. For a moment after that she hadn’t dared to breath, expecting to hear shouts of rage from neighbours whose own systems had been disrupted. None came: the device had worked as the underground vendor had claimed.
Next began the process of destroying her documents. At first she burned them one by one in an old wastebin, fearfully glancing up at the smoke detector overhead. It was wired into the city’s mainframe, unaffected by her earlier sabotage, and she had no desire to bring the building’s security detachment running in. Later it occurred to her to burn items in the shower cubicle, washing the ashes away and sucking the smoke out through the little extractor fan.
She had already disposed of most of her possessions, distributing them as gifts to friends and family, or depositing them at Goodwill Stations in distant neighbourhoods. No sense drawing more attention than necessary nearby, she reasoned.
Finally, she was ready: a few nondescript and arphid-free sentimental items she had stowed in a little rucksack, alongside instant food and water for her journey. She had also brought along a water purifier and hunger suppressant pills, as Bull had advised her when they met the second time.
She walked away from her apartment, leaving nothing behind but its faceless furnishings and a decade’s shed skin and hair. Her identity would be obvious after a detailed investigation, she knew, but the intention was that this would never be investigated. The building manager would assume she had been disappeared, or had moved away. He would not pry. No one ever did. Harriet hadn’t even dared ask after her mother.
She met Bull after another nerve-wracking walk through the city, trying hard not to avoid the Harmony patrols that moved in random patterns through the streets. She felt as though everyone were staring at her, at the skinny, awkward-looking woman with the rucksack. Suspicious, she thought to herself. I look suspicious, suspicious, suspicious. She pursed her lips and kept walking, trying not to clench at the bag’s straps, looking here and there at the corporate shopfronts and licensed flyposters. Her eyes were regularly drawn to the illegal stickers slapped over some of the latter, and she felt that each such glance was a betrayal of her treachery.
After several miles’ walk, following an erratic path through the city, moving into different surveillance sectors so as to throw off any automated tracking programs, she reached the metro station where she was to meet Bull. The big man looked relaxed and calm, but the hood of his poncho was up over his head, throwing his face into shadow beneath the station’s glaring strip lighting. It was a calculated risk, daring Harmony intervention under the city’s anti-mask regulations, but the metro was free of patrolmen for the moment.
He nodded at her as she approached, then turned and walked away. She followed at a distance, trying to look around casually, not stare straight at the back of her guide.
They walked down a little service corridor. There was only one camera, and it had been accidentally concealed behind a tall cleaning trolley. Yellow-coated Bull unlocked a side door, held it open as she walked through, and then shut it behind them. The lock snicked closed again, the tiny sound a knell of finality, symbolising the ties that Harriet had now cut.
And that was it: they were into the tunnels. A few steps across the tracks, a few moments of terror that the maglev would choose that moment to pass and smear her along the line, and then the safe darkness of a maintenance tunnel.
Now she just had to walk, and to hide, and to survive.
For a moment, the bullets stopped flying. Harriet looked to her side, to Bull’s comforting figure. She motioned at him with her eyes.
‘Not sure,’ he said. ‘Hold still.’
Then came more shouts, muffled and distant voices with an edge of panic. A few more shots were audible, followed by more calls, more orders.
‘No way,’ said Bull. He took a few deep breaths, swallowed, and risked a quick look around the side of their makeshift bunker. No bullets found him, nor chased him as he yanked his neck back in.
The gunfire rebuilt in intensity, interlocking death rattles of sharp sound. Still more shouts.
‘Some sort of ambush,’ said Bull. ‘Someone’s gunning for the patrol, and they’ve got high ground.’
Harriet stared at him, frowning. ‘How can you tell?’
‘Well, they’re shooting upwards, towards one of the less stable levels up high. We have to move fast. They’ve still got the edge in numbers and firepower, don’t doubt it, and they might even risk high explosives, bring down the whole level.’
‘Just tell me what to do,’ she said. She relaxed her grip on the sweat-sodden slip of paper, drew her hand from her pocket.
‘Over there,’ Bull said, pointing. Harriet followed his finger to a narrow gap in the nearby bullet-pocked wall. Its darkness was not inviting.
‘It’ll lead down into the sewers,’ he said. ‘If we’re lucky they won’t see us going in. They’ll figure it out but it’ll give us time.’
She nodded. ‘Okay.’
‘I’ll go first. When you go just dive through, don’t waste time. I’ll catch you. Trust me.’
‘I trust you,’ she replied. ‘Let’s go.’
She shivered, trying to ignore the ever-present exchanges of fire just a little way beyond their cover as she wasted Bull shoot forwards, rushing in a roadie run towards the hole. In a matter of seconds he was through, swallowed by the black.
She breathed in deep, trying to relax herself a little. She couldn’t, but still stood in a crouch, and began to run.
Her leg caught the rough edges of the gap as she leapt through, and she yelped as she felt her skin lift away and she collided with the warm, wet figure that caught her and helped her back to her feet.
A little light crept through the hole behind her, illuminating Bull’s filth-smeared face and beard. He smiled at her, patting her on the arm.
‘Smells like long-dead shit down here,’ he said.
Time passed. Harriet imagined that it had been a day, though in the boundless darkness and repetitive brickwork of the sewers she had no ability to tell how long it had been since the ambush. Her watch was long gone, deliberately lost back in the city, its twittering arphid too much of a risk to bring along. The only thing breaking the monotony of the sewers tunnels were occasional civic codes painted on the wall in peeling amber: C29 through 46, J3 through 21. Then there was Bull’s back, his long overcoat coated in grime and sewer mulch. Harriet focused on his broad shoulders and on putting foot in front of the other. She tried to ignore the unpleasant sensation of opaque brown water sloshing around her feet and splashing her calves. Here and there they heard the movement and squeaking of rats, colonies subsisting on the insects and worms that long ago claimed these tunnels as their own.
At some point Bull turned, smiled wearily at her. ‘Let’s take a break,’ he said. ‘I don’t think they’re following us.’
Harriet tried to smile back, but her legs wobbled beneath her, protesting against the lack of blood pumping through them during their ceaseless march. Bull caught her by the arms and steadied her.
‘Easy, girl,’ he said. ‘Hungry?’
She nodded, mute.
Bull helped her to the side of the sewer tunnel, sat her on the ancient lichen-pattened concrete. He sat beside her, unshouldering the pack he’d long before taken from her, and retrieved a plastic water bottle and an instameal.
‘Drink slowly in small gulps,’ he said. ‘Don’t flood your stomach.’ He yanked the tag from the side of the mealpouch, shook it, and handed it to her. The warmth of the chemically-heated food hurt her hands, but she clasped it gratefully, welcoming the heat. Balancing the pouch on her lap, she flipped open the bottle and sipped at the water. It had been hours since she drank anything, and her cracked lips complained at the movement.
They ate together in silence, Bull chewing placidly at a protein mealbar like a cow at cud. In her exhaustion Harriet listened to the plips and plops of water falling from the roof of the tunnel. The irregular patterns the drips made took the form of an ambient soundtrack, an avant-garde song from one of the licensed Harmony synth bands. Her head bobbed wearily out of time, and she shut her eyes as she chewed, picturing the psychedelic whirls and swirls of a mediacentre visualiser.
She jerked upright at the touch of a hand on her shoulder, almost spilling the half-empty mealpouch.
‘Easy,’ said Bull. ‘You don’t want to fall asleep here.’
She shook her head, parted lips moistened by saliva and sauce. ‘Just… tired.’
‘I know,’ he said. ‘Me too.’
She mouthed another sporkful of protein and sauce, swallowed. ‘Don’t look it,’ she told him.
He made a little laughing sound, a sharp exhalation of air through his big nostrils. ‘Well. You get used to it, I guess.’
She turned and looked at him. He was smiling, staring vacantly at a random patch on the opposite tunnel wall. The light from Bull’s lantern threw the cracks in the brickwork into bas relief; tendrils of moss and lichen crept out, listening in on their stilted conversation.
‘How many times have you done this?’ she asked, finally.
Bull’s smile vanished, and for a moment melancholy was plain on his face. He shook his head. ‘Too many,’ he said. ‘Too many.’
‘Um… so, what did you do before you ran the underground?’
Bull smiled again, looked at her with a joke in his eyes. ‘“Ran the underground?”’ he said. ‘Listen to you. I used to be a guide back in the city. Sometimes it was rich tourists, sometimes civic officials. When you work for the Committee you do the jobs you’re given.’
He took the last bite of his bar, screwed up the wrapper and slipped it into a pocket. ‘Before that I climbed mountains.’
‘Mountains?’ Harriet asked, made dumb by her surprise.
‘Yeah. Before the Occupation spread and caught me in its nets, I used to climb mountains. I was freelance, then, which was a little like working for the Committee. I used to do whatever jobs I was paid for: helping geologists, wannabe climbers, that sort of thing. The difference was I could choose what I did.’
His hand went to a chipped carabena at his belt. ‘Little enough of that left, these days.’
Harriet smiled, sadly, and looked down at her meal. Her appetite was unsated, but with her stomach shrunken by so many hours without eating she didn’t want to risk gorging herself.
‘So what about you?’ asked Bull. ‘What did you do? And why’d you leave?’
‘I was just a clerk,’ Harriet said. She dropped her spork into the unfinished meal and passed the pouch to Bull, who accepted it silently. ‘I just used to do data entry for one of the corps. My office was reacquired a few times and soon enough I stopped paying attention to who was employing me. It was just a name on a paycheque.’
She paused for a moment, watching Bull methodically lifting the spork between the pouch and his mouth.
‘My mother disappeared a few years ago,’ she said. The spork paused in midair, dripping sauce.
‘Don’t be,’ Harriet said, and was a little surprised to find that she didn’t mean it. ‘Actually… I mean – it’s just I’ve never spoken to anyone about her before. She disappeared, you know? No one ever asks questions. I never knew what happened to her. But it… it must have been the Committee, Harmony. If she’d run away she would have told me. But all I could do was imagine what had happened. The scenarios running through my head every morning, every night.’
‘You miss her.’
‘Of course I miss her. She was the only family I had.’ Harriet tried to blink away the tears that were threatening to form, not wanting to wipe her eyes with her filthy hands or clothes.
Harriet shook her head, forced the tears to recede. ‘Thank you.’
They sat together in silence for a few minutes more, uncomfortably shifting every so often. Eventually Bull put the unfinished mealpouch in a watertight wastebag, triggered the sealing nurdles and put the bag back in Harriet’s backpack.
‘I don’t know why I left the city,’ she said, breaking the silence. Bull looked over at her, a question in his eyes.
‘I just mean that there wasn’t any kind of catalyst,’ she replied. ‘I didn’t see anything happen. I never deliberately looked at any seditious literature. My net connections were pure. I didn’t even know anyone who claimed to be unhappy with the way things were, until you.’
Bull shrugged. ‘Most people think it,’ he said.
‘But no one says it. No, I understand that… I did that for almost three years. But eventually it became too much. My mum’s disappearance never got easier. And everything just felt so pointless: the entertainment on the screens, the music that said nothing, the people that said less. I didn’t know my neighbours. There was just… nothing. I realised one day that my life was empty, and I just wanted to get away from it all.’
‘And now you have,’ Bull said.
Harriet looked over at her companion and smiled. Then she leaned over and hugged him, wrapping her arms around his huge frame. ‘Thanks, Bull.’
After a moment he patted her awkwardly on the back, and said ‘let’s find someplace dry to rest.’
Some time later still, after a few hours of blessed sleep, Harriet awoke. Bull was sat by the door of the maintenance shack they’d found after climbing up from the sewers. He was smoking a thin rolled cigarette, watching the smoke as it rose and dispersed around a broken extractor fan.
‘Morning,’ Harriet said.
Bull nodded. ‘Might be.’
He dropped his cigarette and ground it underfoot. ‘You okay to go?’
Harriet nodded, pulling herself into a sitting position. She pulled her top up toward her nose and sniffed. ‘Ugh. I smell terrible.’
‘Don’t worry. We both just smell like the sewer anyway.’
She smiled. ‘There is that. Okay, let me pack my stuff and we can go.’
‘Okay. I’ll wait for you outside.’
Bull stood, tilted his head from side to side to stretch his neck, and left the shack. Harriet crammed her blanket and water bottle back into her backpack, slipped the straps over her sore and blistered shoulders, and stood with a wince.
‘Just another day,’ she told herself. ‘Freedom isn’t easy.’
She looked at Bull’s dead cigarette, crushed into the dirty cement floor, and despite never smoking in her life decided she wanted to right then.
Instead she left the shack, following Bull outside. There was a little light, filtering through from the abandoned city levels high above, which was just enough to see by. The streets were strewn with rubble and ancient trash. Here and there epaper lay motionless on the ground, its leaves blank from time-erased memory.
‘So where now?’ she asked, adjusting the straps on her backpack.
‘Not far,’ said Bull. ‘There’s a safehouse of sorts just a few miles from here.’
A surge of emotion rushed through Harriet: to be told, at last, that she would soon be safe; soon be among people she might call friend; soon be among the rebels who had yesterday – or the day before – saved herself and Bull from the Harmony patrol; soon be free. She opened her mouth but couldn’t speak, overcome with so many different feelings.
‘I know how you feel,’ said Bull. He looked a little forlorn. Harriet shut her mouth and looked at him, gazing quizzically at Bull’s big, empty eyes. He looked away.
‘Long ago,’ he said. ‘When I made this same run. I felt the same way you must do.’
Harriet’s question betrayed a deeper, more solipsistic curiosity: ‘But you don’t any more?’
‘It’s a different world,’ said Bull. ‘I’m a different person.’
Finally, he met Harriet’s eyes. ‘Let’s move on. Time’s wasting.’
She nodded, and followed him when he turned and began to trudge along near-forgotten road.
It burst, blinding and bright, from every corner of the warehouse. Here and there dots indicated the position of spotlights, but beyond dimly brilliant silhouettes nothing could be made out.
As the lights had flared into life Harriet had first yelped, a quiet sharp yelp that she quickly cut off. She threw up her hands, stepped backwards unsteadily. The glow flooded around her fingers, through her eyelids, illuminating their pinkness.
‘What is this?’ she asked. ‘A safehouse? A test?’
No one replied.
‘Bull?’ asked Harriet, a cold rush of fear drenching her in the promise of sweat.
She lowered her hands gently to the sound of tromping feet, of plastic and resin colliding. She blinked, firmly, trying to clear her eyes, and made out the silhouettes of men made misshapen by helmets, body armour, belts studded with pouches and holsters, and the aloof snub noses of automatic weaponry.
‘Oh no,’ she said. She looked to her left, towards where Bull had walked as they entered the warehouse. He was a few feet distant, his face half-hidden beneath goggles. She took a half step towards him and he held up a palm, shook his head sadly.
‘No,’ she whispered, and looked back at the line of soldiers. They were all here for her: not one paid Bull any heed. Although her eyes, still fighting back against the brilliance, could make out no details, it was clear from their uniformity and silence that these were Harmony patrolmen – or perhaps the paramilitary wing.
‘Take her,’ someone said. ‘Get her away from here.’
It was Bull. Harriet wanted to turn and run, to open her mouth again and scream, scream until her rage was spent, until the walls cracked and tumbled, until the faceless voiceless men before her were blown away like crumbling ashes, until she understood Bull’s betrayal, until everything made sense or until nothing mattered.
Instead she felt fabric-smooth hands seize her roughly and pull her forwards, and she squeezed her eyes shut again, this time squeezing back tears of frustration and bewilderment. Her muscles shot back to life, adrenaline rushing through them, and she tried to flex them, to throw her captors off. But they were strong and they were legion. It was the most she could do as they stretched a gag over her mouth and lowered a bag over her head to turn and catch a glimpse of Bull. He still stood where she had last seen him, thick arms dangling limply by his side, his eyes still hidden behind the goggles.
Through the gag she tried to mouth “why?” Or perhaps it was “bastard!”
Harriet has experienced, is experiencing, an intense process of dehumanisation. She knows it for what it is, recognises it from the horror stories that first sowed in her mind the seeds of dissent. This knowledge, she has found, does not help. In this place, amongst the masked and faceless unmasked personnel in the facility, she is alone and abandoned, leaving her with nothing to fall back on but her inner self… or the seductive tendrils of surrender and acquiescence, of allowing herself to be changed by these new experiences and become a new person, to accept a position in this new and totally regimented community. She recalls her grandfather talking of how his brother enlisted as a soldier to fight in some long-forgotten war, how even after his training he was a subtly different person. She relates, at last, to the subject of this anecdote. She wonders how much more or less she is being subjected to. How long it was before her grand-uncle broke, or if he entered into the metamorphosis willingly.
She continues to resist. She remains silent, gritting her teeth together and squeezing her eyes closed, refusing to drink in the oppressive atmosphere of this place, these half-people. She tries to remember her life of just a few weeks before: the sounds of hundreds of people bustling through streets and subways; the early-morning smells of cafes, bakeries, delicatessens; the shared laughter at weak jokes made grand by familiarity; the comforting hum of television soaps and the banality of everyday fiction.
She feels her resolve crumbling in the face of what is welling up inside her: a desire to cry out, to let herself go, to wail and sob and cry out for someone, anyone to save her and take her away. She desires this more powerfully than anything she has ever felt before, and fights it with more force of will than she has ever known she possessed. She knows that if she falters her captors will rush in to fill the void she has admitted, and that she will be taking the first voluntary step towards subjection.
It is harder than anything she has ever imagined.
First they took her clothes and left her naked and trembling, alone, for what might have been minutes or hours. Then they returned, fed her through a conveyer belt parade of hoses and liquids, vents and gases, blank-faced mirror-glass and the cameras she saw behind every protuberance in the walls and ceilings. Finally she was shaved: first her head, removing what Harriet’s own scissors had left behind a week before. Then her body was shaved. Her tattoo, a memento of some teenage dream, was lasered away.
Curiously, this did not hurt, but somewhere inside she saved a tear for that memory.
When at last she is given clothes they are the same dirty white as the walls and floors. They feel starchy and uncomfortable, and fragile like they might tear if caught against a sharp edge, although there are no sharp edges here. Still they are a comfort, and Harriet’s fingers caress the suit’s cuffs repeatedly, nervously, ceaselessly.
She is shown films. Some of them are obvious propaganda, extolling the virtues of Oversight Committee guidance. It is always “guidance”, and never “rule”, except on the occasions when the films are disarmingly honest. Some of the films are abstract or surreal, composed of swirls of colour or bizarre simulated characters. On one occasion she is left staring at small dots moving from one side of the screen to the other, to the soundtrack of thumps that are just arrhythmic enough to sound like the marching of feet.
Through it all, she fights to remain silent, and stoic, and alive. She tells herself her name: “I am Harriet. I am Harriet.” She tries to ignore the part of her subconscious that insists “You are Student C-78395.” During her weaker moments she feebly retorts “I am not Student C-78395.” Then she swears at herself for allowing herself to frame the argument in such terms. Then she realises that she is becoming delirious, or hysterical, and breathes deep and slow through gritted teeth: “I am Harriet.”
And so she remains silent. Time flows past like a river of tar, slow and sticky and impenetrable. It feels like months. Harriet knows that this is optimistic. It has perhaps been days. Perhaps she is trying to convince herself that it has been longer to allow herself the surrender of surrender, to justify giving in.
Perhaps after a few days, or a few months, a man enters the room. This is unusual because this man stops a few paces from her, and says “he’s sorry.”
Harriet looks up at him with neither rage not hope in her eyes. He is just another object in this place: everything that matters now is inside her.
The man nods, perhaps recognising some part of the war she is waging. He puts a hand into the pocket of his coat. It is long and white and often worn in labs.
“He’s always sorry,” the man continues. “He’s always sorry about the people he brings here.’
“He has me offer them a way out.”
The man takes his hand out of his pocket and holds a tiny razorblade out in front of himself. As he holds it out he says: “Neither of us wishes to make this choice for you, but we know what your options are. The first is to open your veins with this blade and hope you bleed to death before anyone finds you. The second is to ignore the blade, and to find that one day soon your resolve has drained away, and that you will clay to be remade by their hands. Perhaps you will be too empty to be anything but one of their enforcers, or perform manual work somewhere. Perhaps you will retain some fragment of yourself and betray runaways, like your friend.”
Harriet thinks: “this man talks too much.”
“Emptiness, or guilt, or nothingness. I leave it to you.”
He drops the razorblade a few metres in front of where Harriet is shackled to the chair, just close enough that she could shuffle forward and reach it. Then he is gone from the room.
Harriet stares after him, and looks down at the razor.
[‘Underground Railroad’, Shaun Green, 2009. Cover image from HyeForum.]