The Tube’s rush hour carriages had been packed as usual, and even now Bart Equinox could feel sweat streaming down his back. He looked up the escalator idly wondering how many bodies he’d climb over to reach freedom as tried in vain to peel his short from his skin. Somewhere up there was fresh air and the busy streets of London if he could only keep his cool as the crowd swirled past.
‘Is he supposed to be doing that?’ said Equinox to the woman alongside. He’d finally found a spot on the ascending steps and his eyes had been crawling across the station’s adverts for the thousandth time when a shout made him look up. He gestured at what he’d at first assumed must be her kid. But now as he watched the diminutive figure it was clear something wrong with the person tagging the rail. The reason for their lack of stature was legs so bowed it was a miracle they were standing at all. As Bart watched they made a lunge for the emergency stop button and the office worker raised a carefully plucked eyebrow. She shook her head and said, ‘Nothing to do with me. 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’s depths and Bart let out a deep breath. The woman was right it was none of his business, child or man, he was nearly there, a few more minutes and he’d be on the last leg of his journey to work. There was no point getting even more flustered now. But when the small figure 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 had 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 vandal…the one I pointed out to you.’
‘The 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 her fingers speeded up.
When Bart Equinox arrived at the foyer his eyes swept over the people around him. But it was like the woman had said; the vandal 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 travelling two feet above the ground. Bart Equinox stared with bug eyes as the tiny vortex of chaos swirled through the crowd before even that vanished. Reluctantly he picked up his pace. Whatever he thought was happening he was going to be late and he’d already had more than one warning about his timekeeping.
When he reached the bank he went straight to his desk.
‘What’s wrong with you today?’ It was Mrs Cinnamon, an aging spinster who’d been with the firm 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; and Bart rubbed his eyes. They were five minutes from the station, but disturbance couldn’t have followed him here, could it?
‘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 way to work…’
‘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 bicycle 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.
Roy’s expression crumpled as he tried to see the whole room at once.
‘You say it wasn’t you?’ he said to the man who he was clutching.
‘Yes, I’m telling you something brushed past me and then all hell broke loose.’
‘We’ll soon see about that.’
Roy walked over to the security desk with the complaining man in tow, but when the CCTV feeds were brought up there was nothing. The disturbance had moved through the banks foyer like a whirlwind had broken loose, but of a culprit there was no sign.
By the end of the day when Bart was walking out all he could think about was the vanishing act he’s witnessed and the chaos he’d seen afterwards. He scanned the street outside very carefully as he stepped from the banks doors and when Roy shouted after him, ‘Be careful, whoever’s causing all the trouble they might still be in the area,’ he jumped.
‘Single or return sir?’
Bart didn’t normally use the station’s ticket kiosk. When he looked at the neon lit grey faced guard behind the glass he could see why.’
‘Errr, single,’ said Bart eyeing the scar across the man’s throat.
‘I’m sorry sir, your preferred route is temporarily closed.’
‘Litter on the track.’
Bart took the ticket before anything else could go wrong, and headed in the direction of the nearest platform. He’d just have to work around it although it meant he’d reach home even more tired and dishevelled than he already was.
When the Tube eventually arrived there were so many people behind it’s windows Bart thought it would be a miracle if it moved at all. But soon it left the platform and he resumed trying to ignore the fact that he was squeezed in so tight he couldn’t help coming into contact with the strangers on each side.
Bart strained to read the unfamiliar platform name as it flashed by, but whatever station it heralded wasn’t one he’d heard of. He spent the next five minutes fidgeting uncomfortably and eyeing the door. When another barely legible sign flicked past and the lights went out Bart Equinox expected a panic. But, in the flashes when current flowed through the bulbs again the faces of the passengers were as pale and tranquil as freshly killed corpses.
‘Excuse me…? Anyone? Where’s this headed?’ said Bart as the thump of machinery began to rise in his ears. Soon he could barely hear the tracks clattering.
When Bart Equinox saw where the Tube had stopped he tried to stay in the carriage. There wasn’t one bit of him that wanted to alight on the dark platform that looked like a bomb had gone off with it’s dripping pipes and tangled, sparking, wires. But it was no use, not with the people flooding past like lemmings on the way to a cliff. He stumbled as someone shoved him in the back, and nearly fell to the floor.
‘Move along sir. We haven’t got all day.’
Bart realised 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 think I’ve got off at the wrong stop,’ said Bart.
The operative stared at him and consulted the forms he was holding.
‘That’s the train from sector seven. What’s your name?’
Bart frowned, but he answered the question anyway. After all the man had an ID tag as large as his fist.
The operative nodded as he reached the relevant section of names
‘You’re meant to be here, just like the rest. We rarely make mistakes, sir. 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. Follow the others, please. This won’t take a moment.’
Bart decided he didn’t have any other options, the Tube had left and the only light left on the platform was coming from a large LED readout flashing ‘Exit’ where the crowd had disappeared. He picked himself up and hurried after the stampede.
Inside the tunnel most of the lights were out and soon the machinery was so loud Bart could barely think. Beneath his feet the floor was going sticky and damp with liquids he’d prefer not to know the origin of. When there was a thump and a scream up ahead that cut short too quickly his feeling of discomfort grew a thousand times worse. 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 in the dim glow from the multitude of mobile devices glowing in peoples hands the man just stared at the back of the person ahead. Bart doubted if he could have said anything anyway. His eyes were rolled so far up all you could see was white.
Bart wanted to scream right then, and he did 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?’ yelled Bart.
But rant and rave 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 wail 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 another white clad operative with a blood spattered apron who’d been shoving the crowd into place. He might as well have not bothered; there were so many people you could barely move.
Bart punched, and kicked, and struggled, 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 man’s neck before Bart was shoved into the machine. Then there was a bang like an anvil being struck and the engine 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 plenty of 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 did the same. 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 bathing the crowd in a cold white glow. 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 back of their necks 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 an escalator again going up that he decided to notice things once more.
‘Hey,’ he nudged the woman behind 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 although her face was much more heavily made up.
‘Are they letting us go?’ said Bart.
He was having trouble talking because after his journey through the machine he had so many scars it hurt to move his lips, and he was sure the woman felt the same. Beneath the lipstick of her red smeared mouth she cracked into a smile, although it was difficult to tell with so much damage hidden under her makeup.
‘It’ll be alright now. 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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