One step ahead
Another story written in response to a prompt over at Black Ship Books. Hope you enjoy!
It started out as such an ordinary day. I was sitting by the window gazing out over the little communal garden whilst I tried to compose a reply to Preeti's email. She was one of my favourite correspondents; I'm going to miss her. The nine o'clock news bulletin had just finished on the radio when the doorbell rang.
I got to my feet and shuffled down the passage from the kitchen to the front door. The old move at a slower pace, taking their time, making sure everything is done just right. But time hurtles by making the days blur into one if you are not careful, if you do not make a point of doing something different every day. A trip to the park becomes a marker in time that you can use to distinguish the days before and the ones after.
“Tuesday? Oh, yes, that was two days before Elsie and I bought ice creams at the little cafe in the park.”
The doorbell went again when I was only half-way along the passage. Whoever was at the door was an impatient sort. Unusual to find impatience in the retirement village. That should have put me on my guard, I suppose, but I thought nothing of it. Instead I called, “I'm coming!” and continued on my take-it-easy shuffle.
As soon as I opened the door I knew who they were, of course, but I think I took them a little off guard. I've had more practice at shaping the facial features so that they do not look like a clever 3D painting, and at making my clothes appear separate from my body. I cursed myself for becoming lazy, complacent, for thinking an old woman's body would hide me forever. But I kept those thoughts to myself. Let them think their disguise as good as mine while they wonder if there is any chance that they have made a mistake and that I am no more than I appear.
“Yes, dears? Can I help you?” I asked, peering at them through the thick lenses of my pink-rimmed spectacles.
The man recovered first. “Good morning, Mrs... er...” he glanced at the clipboard he was supposed to be holding but which did not quite fit his hand, “Simpkin. My colleague and I have been sent by the management of the retirement village to carry out a short survey on your experience of living at Mannerley.” His suit was carefully designed to look cheap and well-worn, his shoes were scuffed in just the right places, but they were no more real than my slippers.
“May we come in?” asked the woman. 'Ah, the impatient one,' I thought. She appeared to be wearing a rather severe white blouse buttoned right up to the neck, a tight black pencil skirt and black patent shoes with 4”heels, as though a child had been asked to pick clothes for someone for 'the office' who had only ever dressed a Barbie doll and seen trailers for Boston Legal.
Overall, they reminded me of the models used in a WWE game for the PSOne that I had played about fifteen years ago. Their heads were like painted balloons and their clothes were clearly part of themselves. If I had not been so frightened I would have laughed in their faces.
“You want to come in?” I asked vaguely, playing for time.
“Yes!” snapped the woman but the man put a hand on her arm and she pressed her strangely perfect-but-flat lips together.
“If you wouldn't mind, Mrs Simpkin. The survey has several questions; it would be much easier to carry out if we were all sitting down enjoying a nice cup of... teen.” The pause was almost imperceptible and I chose to ignore it and the slip of the tongue.
“A cup of tea? Oh, well, why didn't you say so! I'll go and get the kettle on. Come in, come in,” and I stepped back just like a real human would do to let them go past me down the passage. Their control over their new bodies was not quite so adept and they almost surged in, legs moving back and forth but feet never quite touching the floor.
“Just go through that door on the left,” I called from behind them, “and make yourselves comfortable! I'll go and make that tea.”
As soon as they were in the sitting room, I set up the force field with a flick of my fingers as I walked past the door. I might have become complacent but I was not unprepared. In the kitchen, I made a great deal of noise filling the kettle and putting cups and saucers on a tray but I had already changed from the tottering old woman who had let them in to a girl in her twenties dressed as one of the groundstaff. I switched the kettle on, set the auto-destruct sequence on the laptop that sat on the kitchen table, still waiting for me to reply to Preeti, grabbed the backpack that lay ready by the back door and slipped outside.
As I crossed the communal garden, I was aware that I was in full view of several of the bungalows that made up Mannerley Retirement Village. I walked briskly, a busy person with somewhere to be, but I could not risk running, not yet. The kettle would have finished boiling by now and the badly-disguised cops from my home world would be getting suspicious. My little force field would hold them for a few minutes, mostly whilst they worked out how simple it was to turn off, and I needed to be long gone before they got out.
How long had I been on the run, now? How many worlds, how many different shapes and forms. Perhaps it was time to go home, to take on my own form at last. For a moment, the thought of letting go of the intense concentration needed to keep my nose in the middle of my face and my hair in its neat ponytail swept over me so strongly that I almost did stop holding myself together. The hand holding the backpack flickered and the bag fell to the ground. At once, the beguiling sense of relief was swept away by the nausea of panic. I gave myself a mental shake, reformed my hand and grabbed the backpack.
I knew what going home meant. It meant being rubbed out of existence, the ultimate punishment for crimes committed against the state. They say that one person's freedom fighter was another's terrorist. Apparently, my government still regarded me as the latter, sending its best agents all the way to this obscure blue-green dot at the edge of a forgotten backwater of a galaxy. And so it was time to move on, again.
At the cabin used by the groundstaff to store their gear, drink tea and watch daytime television, I stopped long enough to grab a set of keys to one of their vehicles. I waved to the man on the desk and called out something about needing weed killer. He did not even look up from the Jeremy Kyle Show playing on his smartphone. Outside, I pressed the button on the remote control for the alarm and noted which vehicle responded. I climbed in and drove away.
It was not only Preeti that I was going to miss, I reflected as I made my way to where my ship was hidden in a nearby long-stay carpark disguised as a plain white van. I was going to miss Elsie and her endless romance novels, and playing chess with Stan who was the only one who not only gave me a good game but occasionally beat me.
But there was no time for sentiment. Only time to make my escape and stay one step ahead of my pursuers a little longer.
One step ahead
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