Nigel Harnden’s eyes crawled across the station’s adverts for the thousandth time as sweat streamed down his skin. He looked at the people shuttling past on the escalator and toyed with the idea of climbing over them. Somewhere above was fresh air, and freedom. Nigel’s hands picked ineffectually at his shirt as he tried to peel it from his back.
‘Vermin, aren’t they?’ said the gaunt clerk with hollow cheeks and spectacles near permanently welded on his face to the the woman in front of him as the youth in the ankle length padded black jacket and bandanna finished tagging the rail.
The office worker raised a carefully plucked eyebrow and shook her head, ‘Nothing to do with me. I see them around sometimes. Don’t get involved. People like that will just ruin your life,’ and returned her attention to her phone.
As they began to arrive at the ticket hall Nigel decided enough was enough.
‘Oi you! Why don’t you leave that alone?’
The young scallywag turned his head and Nigel realised what he’d thought was a teenager was older than he’d thought. The bandanna and long jacket had hidden it up until then and as he shifted his stance it became obvious he’d been crippled: one leg was shorter than the other.
‘What did you say to me?’
‘I said leave that alone. You’re defacing public property.’
For a moment narrow eyes stared back at him.
‘I’m working Mr Farnden………………….’
As Nigel watched the vandal made a lunge for the emergency stop button barely missing it as they shuttled past. Instead green light began to wash over the people in front as the steps were swallowed by the machine’s depths and Nigel reminded himself it was none of his business, child or man, a few more minutes and he’d be on the last leg of his journey. But when the ungainly figure vanished Nigel 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 Nigel to the woman but her attention had barely left her device.
‘What? Look, stop bothering me, or I’ll call the police,’ she cursed as she hit a wrong key.
‘But the vandal… the one I pointed out to you.’
‘The kid?’ This time the smartly dressed woman’s eyes flicked over the hurrying backs, ‘there’s no one there.’
A chime from her handset reached their ears and her fingers speeded up.
When Nigel reached the top his eyes swept over the people around him. But it was like the office worker had said: the vandal had vanished as surely as if the green line travelling over them had been a knife cutting him in two. Nigel 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 of his escaping luggage before it vanished into the throng travelling two feet above the ground. Nigel Harnden 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 was happening he wanted nothing to do with it, and he was going to be late. If there was one thing he couldn’t abide it was slackness with timekeeping.
He’d nearly made it too when he spotted another of the strange figures in black lurking by the steps.
A pale face with deep sunken eyes looked back at him and Nigel noticed with distaste the long mark of a scar around there neck. The figure smiled and pointed mouthing words that Nigel could barely hear over the crowd rushing past.
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… it doesn’t matter,’ muttered Bart hurrying to his post.
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 in disbelief. They were five minutes from the station, but the 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…’
‘Wait, watch this, Roy’s swinging into action,’ said the spinster.
They watched as the tiny security man dove into the queue and re-appeared a moment later trying to haul a motorcycle courier in a helmet 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 sharpened as he tried to see the whole room at once.
‘You say it wasn’t you?’ he said to the man 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 courier in tow, but when the CCTV feeds were brought up they showed nothing. The disturbance had moved through the banks foyer like a whirlwind had broken loose. But of a culprit there was no sign.
As the day wore on Bart forgot about the mystery but when the bank finally shut for the night all he could think about was the vanishing act he’d witnessed and the chaos he’d seen afterwards. He scanned the street outside carefully as he stepped from the banks doors and when Roy shouted after him: ‘Whoever’s causing all the trouble might still be in the area,’ he jumped.
‘Single or return sir?’
Bart didn’t normally use the station’s ticket kiosk: the staff behind the glass rarely showed the proper amount of respect.
‘Single,’ said Bart eyeing the grey faced guard with distaste.
‘I’m sorry sir, your preferred route is temporarily closed. You’ll have to change a couple of times.’
‘Litter on the track.’
Bart took the ticket before anything else could go wrong, and headed in the nearest platform’s direction. 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 carriages eventually appeared there were so many people behind their windows Bart thought it would be a miracle if they moved at all. But soon they left the platform and he resumed trying to ignore the fact that he was squeezed so tight he couldn’t help coming into contact with the strangers on either 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 he expected a panic. But, in the flashes when current flowed through the bulbs, 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 it had been abandoned since the last war with it’s dripping pipes and tangled, sparking, wires. But it was no use, not with all the people flooding past like lemmings.
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 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.
‘Bart… Bart Harnden.’
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. 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 on the platform was coming from a large LED readout flashing ‘Exit’ where the crowd had disappeared. He picked himself up and followed the flow.
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 becoming sticky and damp with liquids he’d prefer not to know the origin of. When a thump and a scream that cut short too quickly reached his ears from up ahead his feeling of discomfort grew a thousand times worse. Bart listened for a few seconds before the crowd surged once more, 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 people’s 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 talk to.
This time the wail that echoed through the air was a lot closer and Bart saw a shiny black 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 then there was just enough time to wish he’d never tried to go to work that day before he was shoved into the machine.
A bang like an anvil being struck filled the air and the engine started up.
It was the last sound Bart heard for a while.
When he opened his eyes Bart was shivering on the floor surrounded by the rapidly melting cube. He raised his head ignoring the crackle from his spine. Around him were more of the shiny black blocks. Most of them had split down the middle like china in a furnace and people were trying to pull themselves to their feet from their interiors. Except now everyone who’d been through the machine was a different shape. There were people who’d been elongated, people who’d been flattened, and even people who looked like they were in separate parts, as they emerged from their prisons. 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. Now he was half his former size.
‘The vandal,’ spat Bart and 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 when they spoke you could hear their voice plenty clear enough.
‘Citizens will line up for registration,’ said the disembodied man with a tone like he was itching for someone to refuse.
As they were ordered to strip the lights grew brighter and then brighter still. By the time the brand made contact with his skin Bart could barely see a thing. The rest of the world had dissolved in a glare so bright he shut his eyes to avoid looking at it. Not that that helped the ice pick hammering its way toward his brain.
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 they were cattle at market. Most 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 once more.
‘Hey,’ he nudged the woman next to him, and when her hair fell away 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?’ said Bart.
He was having trouble talking because his journey through the machine had left him hurting in so many places he was surprised there were no visible scars. He wondered if the woman felt the same and he was about to ask her when she smiled.
‘It’ll be alright now. They’ve got work for us to do,’ said the office girl putting away her phone.
‘Hope it’s better than my last job,’ said Bart.
Ahead the first commuters were vanishing in green light.
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