Bart Equinox’s shirt had stuck to his back, and he was beginning to wonder what he’d do if the flow of people shuttling past stopped. How many bodies he’d climb over to reach air. His eyes crawled across the on the escalator’s adverts for the thousandth time before a shout made him look up.
‘He yours?’ said Equinox to the woman alongside as he gestured at the kid who’d made the noise. He’d have been ruder, but there was clearly something wrong with the youth tagging the rail. Their legs were so bowed it was a miracle they were standing at all. As Bart watched the kid made another lunge for the stop button and the office worker raised a carefully plucked eyebrow. She shook her head and said, ‘mine are better behaved.’ Before turning her attention back to her phone.
Green light began to wash over the people in front as the steps were swallowed by the machine. But when the kid vanished Bart nearly leapt for the stop button himself. One moment there’d been the familiar flicker as the escalator scanned the crowd like a barcode reader checking products, then nothing.
‘Did you see that?’ said Bart to the woman but her attention barely left her toy.
‘What? Look, stop bothering me, or I’ll call the police,’ the office worker cursed as she hit a wrong key.
‘But the kid…the one I pointed out to you.’
‘What kid?’ This time her eyes flicked over the hurrying backs, ‘there’s no one there.’
A chime from her handset reached their ears.
‘Look…just leave me alone,’ said the woman with a grimace as she clamped it to her ear.
When Bart Equinox got to the foyer he scanned the people around him. But it was like the woman had said. The kid had vanished as surely as if the green line travelling over his body had been a knife cutting him in two. Bart was half way to the exit when he saw a commuter dive for their purse. A man with a briefcase was next, head dipping as he fought for control before it vanished into the throng. Bart Equinox watched the tiny vortex of chaos swirl through the crowd before even that vanished.
When he arrived safely at his destination he went straight for his desk.
‘What’s wrong with you today?’ It was Mrs Cinnamon, an aging spinster who’d been with the bank longer than anyone else.
‘Nothing…I,’ murmured Bart Equinox.
A shout by the door stopped him as what looked like the contents of a filing cabinet erupted into the air; Bart rubbed his eyes. What if he’d been followed?
‘What now?’ said Mrs Cinnamon with a little smile on her face, ‘think we’re being robbed?’
‘I don’t know, there was something on the Tube…’
‘Hush, watch this, Roy’s swinging into action,’ said the spinster.
They watched as the banks weedy security man dove into the queue, and re-appeared a moment later trying to haul a motorcycle courier with him.
‘They’ll have you up for assault if you carry on like that,’ Mrs Cinnamon gestured at the camera’s overlooking the foyer.
‘Thought I saw something, but when I got there they must have gone,’ said Roy with an expression on his face like he was trying to see the whole room at once as he made his apologies to the swearing man.
It was only at the end of the day when Bart was walking out that he thought about the kid again. Roy shouted after him, ‘Be careful it looks like there are thieves working the area. Haven’t caught one yet, but you can see where they’ve been.’
Bart wouldn’t remember the words till a lot later.
‘Single or return sir?’
Bart didn’t normally use the station’s ticket kiosk. When he looked at the neon lit guard behind the glass he could see why.’
‘Errr, return,’ said Bart eyeing the scar across his throat.
‘I’m sorry sir, there are no returns available.’
‘Litter on the track.’
When Bart eventually got to the platform there were so many arms waving from the train’s windows it looked like it was trying to crawl. It wasn’t long before he saw why.
‘Hold on…’ another unfamiliar sign flicked by as the lights went out. Bart Equinox was expecting a panic, but in the flashes when they worked the faces of the passengers were as pale as the ticket inspectors.
‘Hallo…? Anyone? Where’s this headed?’ said Bart with the thump of machinery rising in his ears. Soon he could barely hear the tracks clattering.
When Bart Equinox saw where the Tube had stopped he tried to stay on. But it was no use, not with the crowd flooding past. He stumbled as someone shoved him in the back and nearly fell on the platform.
‘Move along sir. We haven’t got all day.’
A high-viz jacketed figure with those white overalls on you got in the food industry was talking to him.
‘There’s been a mistake. I’m not supposed to be here,’ said Bart.
The operative looked at the list in his hand, ‘Bart…? Bart Equinox?’
‘You are meant to be here. We don’t make mistakes. You’re due for reassignment and regurgitation.’
‘What do you mean…regurgitation?’
‘You’ll find out soon enough, it’s similar to recycling but goes a lot deeper, just follow the rest.’
Soon the machinery was so loud Bart could barely hear a thing, and the floor was sticky and damp with liquids he’d have preferred not to think about. There was a thump and a scream cut short among the people in front. Bart listened for a few seconds before the crowd surged and it came again.
He turned to the nearest commuter, ‘What the hell is that?’
But the man just stared at the back of the person ahead and Bart doubted if he could have said anything anyway. There was spittle on his chin and his eyes were rolled so far round all you could see was white.
Bart wanted to turn back right then, and when he saw the machine that was making all the noise his shouts were as loud as the person who’d disappeared inside its maw.
‘Wait, wait, stop, can’t you see what’s going to happen?’ shouted Bart.
But rant and scream as much as he liked no one was listening. The expressions on his neighbour’s faces were the same as the commuter he’d tried to ask.
This time the scream that echoed through the air was a lot closer and Bart saw a cube the size of a washing machine fall to the floor. There was an arm sticking from one side, and a leg too, although it looked like it had been broken in a dozen places.
‘Form an orderly queue,’ said one of the operatives in a blood spattered apron who’d been lashing the crowd into place. He might as well have not bothered, there were so many you could barely move.
Bart punched, and kicked, and wailed, but there was no stopping the tide. He caught a glimpse of a grin from upside down as he was lifted off his feet, and there was just enough time to count the stitches on the operative’s neck before Bart was shoved into the hopper. Then there was a bang like an anvil being struck and the machine started up.
It was the last sound Bart heard for a while.
When he opened his eyes, Bart was lying on his back on the floor, and he had company. Most of the cubes had split down the middle like die stamps in a factory. Except here the materials were blood and bone. He looked around and saw people trying to pull themselves to their feet and for a moment the world reeled as Bart tried to do the same. When he looked down he could see why. Whatever the machine was it had done its job so thoroughly his legs had bent outward in the middle and he was half his former size. Now he looked like a cowboy who’d spent his life in the saddle. Bart knew where he’d last seen legs like that.
His eyes narrowed as lights flashed on overhead. You couldn’t see who was hidden behind them, but you could hear them clear enough.
‘Will members of the public please line up for registration,’ said a disembodied voice with a clang like an oven door shutting.
By the time registration was over and the smell of scorched flesh had cleared each of the crowd had a barcode seared on their backs like the marks of a whip. Some had even managed to lose the look of indifference they’d had when they arrived and being hosed down soon took care of the rest. Bart stopped trying to think round about then – he didn’t want to know how much worse it was going to get. It was only when he realised they were on the escalator again going up that he decided to notice things again.
‘Hey,’ he nudged the woman next to him, and when her hair fell from her face he got the strangest case of déjà vu. She looked like the twin of the one he’d seen that morning.
‘Are they letting us go?’
Bart was having trouble talking because his face had so many scars it hurt to move his lips, and the woman was the same. What was left of her red smeared mouth cracked into a smile, although it was difficult to tell with so much damage hidden under her makeup.
‘Said they’ve got work for us to do,’ said the office worker.
‘Look,’ said Bart.
Ahead the first commuters were vanishing in green light as the escalator scanned the crowd.
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