The Unwinding

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Into The Sewer

‘How the hell are we going to get it?’ Ben asked, his voice rising above a whisper for this first time since they had entered the park.

It was the first definite sign that Mark was in some kind of trouble and yet strangely Kiri felt angry with him for dragging her in to this. Angry that he had left her. It was the first proof he had not been taken but had chosen to leave. He might have been forced to leave in a hurry but still he should have said more, given her some sign before fleeing from the café.

‘Damn, this isn’t good is it,’ Ben muttered, scratching his head. ‘We’re going to need time but maybe we can access the sewers.’

‘We’ll never get into the maintenance tracts,’ Kiri sighed. ‘You know its totally off limits. How many times did we try in middle-ager school?’

Ben sighed, nodding his head agreement. It was a common hobby for nearly all middle-ager kids to try and get into areas of the city that were deemed ‘off limits’ – maintenance shafts, access routes, cleaning or mechanical units.

To the active imagination of the average middle-ager, the hidden world occupied by the various machines and drones that serviced the city seemed like an ideal place to play but, unfortunately, as everyone found out it was impossible to gain access.

Despite the numerous myths and half-whispered rumours that somebody, just a few years older, had once broken in to this or that area neither Kiri or anyone she knew had ever been successful.

‘Well, you are a major now,’ Ben said, trying to inject some enthusiasm.

‘That doesn’t make any difference does it?’ Kiri felt like flopping in a heap where she sat.

‘The main thing is they don’t find its here,’ Ben said looking up with a look of worry.

‘Its the middle of the night,’ Kiri said desperately.

‘Still,’ Ben said and jumped up. In a moment he dashed to the edge of the clearing where the woods started and seconds later returned his hands full of earth.

‘What are you doing?’ Kiri cried.

‘Look, we know where it is right?’ Ben said. ‘If anyone finds out that we came here and opened this drain the main thing is that they don’t see the phone down there.’

Leaning over the opening he tipped the earth down on top of the phone, half-obscuring it. After a couple more trips it was completely hidden from view.

‘Let’s go,’ he continued. ‘Get some rest, pretend we couldn’t find anything and in the morning we can work out how to get in there and get it.’

Despite her reluctance to leave the phone Kiri had to concede that Ben made sense. There was no way they were going to achieve anything till the morning.

‘I’ll walk back to mine,’ Ben said. ‘If you walk back now it’s just about believable that we’ve just been out walking. I’ll give you a call when I get back in. Let’s meet at ten at Westbury Road but when I phone lets agree somewhere else just to throw them off the scent.’

Kiri nodded, a wave of tiredness sweeping over her. She had forgotten about the subterfuge of walking Ben back to his apartment and had been half-expecting him to come back with her to her own apartment.

Now the thought of returning on her own felt dismal and she could hardly reply to Ben. As best as they could the two of them covered over the drain with the gravel trying to leave it as they had found it.

On the way back they walked quicker and were able to jump the fence easily thanks to a wide root next to the gate. On the street once more Ben gave Kiri a hug and then disappeared in the opposite direction, staying close to the building fronts.

The next morning Kiri woke early from troubled dreams. She had imagined that she was a giant bug and had managed to sneak into the sewers. At first she was pleased at her transformation as it meant she was able to travel easily through the slime and would be able to find Mark’s phone quickly but the longer she travelled through the sewer pipes the more lost she became.

Every turning looked just like the last and the further she went the greater the distance there was between her and the outside world. Although there was no light down there she was slowly becoming accustomed to her bug body and found that she could see quite adequately in the gloom of the sewer.

After hours walking through the effluent she grew hungrier and hungrier but there was no sign of any food down there at all. She plodded on determined not to give up, not to forget Mark, but the pain in her stomach grew more and more acute.

Eventually she chanced upon what appeared to be an apple. Bending close she used her feelers to probe it but soon discovered it was rotten all the way through. As she touched it a fetid stench filled her senses but rather than stopping her hunger it actually made her more ravenous.

She eyed the apple greedily even though she knew it was utterly repulsive. Maggots and worms oozed in and out of its rotten flesh as it lay there in amongst the human sewage at the bottom of the pipe but she could not ignore the hunger gnawing at her stomach. In spite of her best will she found herself bending closer to nibble at its pustulant flesh.

It was delicious.

She couldn’t help herself. In one swift move she swooped her pincer-like jaws down and scooped up the apple, sewage and all, and swallowed the whole mouthful down.

Almost instantly her hunger disappeared but at the same time an awful realisation hit her that by eating the apple it meant she would stay a bug forever and that even if she found Mark’s phone he would never take her back, seeing as she had now turned into a monstrous insect.

She woke up with a start, staring at the roof of her room.

As she collected her thoughts the taste of the apple remained in her throat and she couldn’t concentrate. It was already ten past nine, which meant she would have to leave soon if she wanted to meet Ben.

She checked her phone and saw another message from Rachel, her old roomie, this time inviting her to go out for a drink at a friend’s house the following night. Normally she would have gone - she knew a lot of Rachel’s friend – but her old group of friends already seemed distant.

Each day was suddenly precious, not least because she felt she had a niggling feeling that she had wasted so much already. As the last whispers of her dream dissipated she made a coffee and slowly found her thoughts clearing.

The descriptions of T. Bramen that she had read in the files were the first sign she had ever seen that it might be possible for a person to live on beyond the unwinding. What sort of life that was she couldn’t tell but the descriptions did not match up with someone living as a vegetable.

She felt she could picture this person as well if not better than some friends she had known for years. The idea of the GAAPs had always intrigued her but now it seemed something more than a mere medical curiosity.

Did the GAAPs hide some dark secret that was too painful to tell people about? She tried to imagine what it might be like to live to be forty years old. How much baggage one person would have to carry around if they lived to that age? Over twice as long as a natural lifetime.

But what did ‘natural’ really mean? She had grown up accepting that things had always run the same way but could things have been different in the past? Where had the city come from for example? She had taken it for granted but now she thought about it wasn’t clear where anything really came from.

She knew how the systems worked, in middle-ager school she had visited the factory where agricultural drones were fabricated by robots before being sent out to work in the fields outside the city. She had learnt how each one was put together, where the components came from, how demand for food was automatically monitored to determine how many new drones to build. They were told they had always been there, looking after everyone, but where had the first drone come from?

She had an image of people living on an island growing food themselves, building their own homes, caring for animals. She wasn’t sure if it was an image she had seen in a vid or something from a dream but the idea, however ridiculous it was on a practical level, suddenly seemed real to her.

It wasn’t something that could happen overnight, obviously, but with enough years was it possible that such a place could exist? How long would everyone last if they had to fend for themselves.

It was strange but as she asked herself these questions she felt like her brain was reforming itself, changing from a child’s brain into something else, something more grown up. It was as if she could suddenly see clearly, could understand what things were real and what things were imaginary.

Still, her insight was not enough to untangle what was really going on. Was it possible that the city was hiding something from them all? The city was not a person, it just was. It couldn’t hide anything, it only ran the drones, monitored systems, ordered repairs, everything automatically, the only role people had was occasional minor maintenance work. How could the system cover anything up?

Draining the last dregs of her coffee, Kiri shook her head with dissatisfaction and went to find her coat. The journey to Westbury Road took her twenty minutes.

‘I think I can get us in,’ Ben said with a grin as he met her.

Kiri had forgotten the issue at hand, lost in her own thoughts of GAAPs and unwinding but now he reminded her she didn’t want to waste a second.

‘Great, have you found a back way in to the sewer,’ she asked.

‘Better than that,’ he continued, ‘The front way in. I tried the pass I used to get us into the game at the water facility on Bridge Street and it works!’

‘What, we can just walk in?’ Kiri said incredulously.

‘Well almost, the sewer is out of bounds for everyone, including Civic, only drones can go inside to clean but I saw where they go. Once we get into the treatment facility we can sneak inside with one of the drones and it will take us inside. First though let’s turn off our phones in case anyone has ideas of tracking us.’

Taking their phones out they both shut them down, experiencing a momentary pang as they watched the screen blip off. Then taking Kiri by the hand, Ben set off down the street, a spring in his step.

The Water Treatment facility was a grand stone building, with carvings on its front. Several of these sorts of buildings dotted the city and always struck Kiri as odd. The carvings on the front often looked like writing but the letters were not proper letters and the words were not proper words.

Instead the letters were clumped in random order as if somebody had once seen writing and tried to copy it without ever understanding the real meaning of the words themselves.

These inscriptions were made more mysterious by the fact that the buildings themselves were invariably grand in style. Although they were shorter than the skyscrapers that surrounded them they always looked more solid.

In some strange way the ancient, stone walls reminded Kiri of the style of building in some of the Adil vids she had watched, although it was obviously impossible that any of these vids would feature real places.

The main entrance was at the top of a flight of wide stone steps where a row of glass doors entered into a lobby. Entering the building, they found an utterly deserted foyer, polished marble floors echoed each footstep.

In front of them some twenty metres away a grand staircase swept majestically up towards the upper floors, about ten metres from the ground it branched into two smaller staircases one curving back to the left and one to the right.

‘Now what?’ Kiri asked, amazed at the grandeur of this treatment facility that had probably been seen by no more than a handful of people in the last five years.

‘We need to find maintenance,’ Ben said, pointing to a stand with a brightly coloured map that stood near the foot of the staircase.

After puzzling over the key for several moments, they decided the most promising area was a space marked ‘Maintenance Section D/x2’. It was near the far end of the building along a corridor that stretched behind the main staircase.

An ornate wooden door marked the way. As they passed through Kiri let her hand linger on its surface, marvelling at its texture. It felt different from the usual doors and surfaces in apartment blocks.

Six leather pads formed panels on either side and each panel was surrounded by trims of some metal, similar to brass. Large gold handles were covered in engravings of leaves with a small hole underneath each grip that led through from one side of the door to the other.

‘Who made this?’ Kiri asked herself, involuntarily. Luckily she didn’t ask the question out loud, stupid as it was, but once it had formed in her mind she couldn’t shake it.

Everyone knew that Fabricon machines were responsible for constructing new buildings, when and where they were needed. The idea that a person could make a building was of course ridiculous but still the idea that this door might have been made by a human hand floated in Kiri’s thoughts.

It looked so alien compared to the surfaces and construction she was used to, unfinished and yet human. It reminded her of the sketches she had seen her friends make in art classes, somehow careless and artful at the same time.

She followed Ben as they walked down several lengths of corridor that snaked passed room upon room until they came to the space marked ‘Maintenance Section D/x2’.

The place was empty save for some large banks of machinery and some small service drones that scurried around. At the far end of the chamber was a giant metal hatch with a wheel bolt across it that was twice the size of Kiri.

‘I think that’s it,’ Ben said pointing to the hatch. ‘The hatch that leads into the sewer.’

Kiri eyed it nervously. Whatever was down there could not be as bad as her imagination and although she longed to run screaming all the way back to her bed, the thought of Mark out there somewhere waiting on her, steeled her will.

‘Let’s go,’ she said, gripping Ben’s arm.

Huddling close to each other they had to jump to reach the shaft of the wheel bolt. Dangling from the metal bar they did their best to tug it downwards, putting their combined weight and strength into the motion in a bid to turn the metal disc that locked the entrance, but the mechanism did not as much as budge.

‘Damn its tough isn’t it,’ Ben said, out of breath after several attempts had ended in vain.

‘We need more weight on it,’ Kiri said looking around for any objects they could use from the maintenance zone but there was nothing that wasn’t bolted to the ground. The machinery that surrounded them looked like parts of some kind of giant pump system.

Each unit was around twenty feet tall and hummed industriously but there was no obvious way to open them. Here and there, pipes and valves protruded from the ceramic cladding that housed each unit but they all looked well protected.

‘Come on, I’ll climb up,’ Ben said.

With a nimble leap he grabbed the bar and flipped his legs up so he was first straddling the bar then standing on top of it.

‘HEUYAHAHAHA,’ he screamed and jumped up and down repeatedly but it barely seemed to register. If anything the bar moved about a millimetre but by the time Ben stepped down exhausted and panting the wheel felt just as firmly stuck in position.

‘We’re never going to get in there,’ Kiri sighed. ‘Is there not another way in?’

‘I don’t know,’ Ben replied dejectedly. ‘Probably, but it’s going to be locked up just the same. It is off limits after all.’

They both sank down on the ground underneath the giant wheel lock. Although the lock had clearly been there for many years, Kiri couldn’t shake the frustrating feeling that someone had put it there on purpose to thwart her.

She had grown up safe in the knowledge that the city was designed to cater to her needs. Had never had any reason to suspect otherwise, or to suspect anyone might have a motive to control how things happened amongst the various machines that serviced the housing blocks. Everything was designed to make human life as comfortable as possible after all.

Now however the sinister thought struck Kiri that there could be some person or group of people somewhere out there, controlling the apparatus of the city.

It was only one locked door but suddenly Kiri realised the awesome power someone could wield if they could lock or unlock doors at will, if they controlled every machine in the city. It tipped everything she knew on her head.

While it was such a simple thought, it shook the very foundations of what she understood about how the city worked and chilled Kiri to the bone. From the earliest age, she had grown up believing that the machines were only there to ensure that people could go about their lives, that they were an essential part of the world, unthinking servants designed to help you, whereas now she realised she knew nothing about their real purpose.

Staring at the humming pumps she saw that each and every drone was a part of a giant web of machinery that organized life in the city, and in a sense, made life in the city. She had been taught that the city had always been there but what if there had been something different once before. What if it had all been put there by someone?

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