It was time to go. Grace had received word from her friend that ID’s would be waiting on route to help us get into the city undetected. With my new face fully formed, I was ready. I packed up some clothes and cosmetics into a backpack, grabbed my police badge and gun and left the apartment.
We passed Apartment 12B and I thought about saying goodbye to R&R. Who knew when I would see them again or when I would return; my apartment would likely no longer be the safe haven it once had been. But I realised I had nothing to say that would make any sense. Plus knowing I’d never said a final goodbye would give me a reason to come back when this was all over.
“Aren’t you going to wear a disguise?” I asked Grace.
“You have the only Skin 2.0 in existence. But there’s no need for me to use it, they don’t know who I am and a face like this is too good to hide,” she joked.
We left the building and stepped out onto the street. The sun was just rising as I turned my head and took one last look at my home. There was no turning back.
I lived in the small have-nots town of Smyth West. We were far from one of the poorest communities in the UK and everyone worked on a bartering system. I got free rent in return for training to become a police officer to protect the town. Other people worked on farms and traded food for shelter, whilst some people specialised in healthcare, building and more.
When we needed a new skill, someone would train in it to help the community. It helped make Smyth West a town that could sustain itself amongst the broken economy. We lived outside of the Government and away from the large cities. Our town didn’t receive any of their support and as we didn’t sell anything (merely trades) we didn’t have to pay tax. In many ways our town was a regression to the way people lived hundreds of years ago.
It worked but we were always afraid that one bad harvest or not having enough medicine would mean our entire town could be wiped out very quickly. We lived in houses that had been abandoned and we made them our own with whatever items we could find. Our homes were rarely repaired; whilst some of the houses had sunk into their foundations, others had become flooded and some had burnt down. For every house or apartment that was liveable another three were destroyed or boarded up. Despite this we tried to ensure everyone in the city had a place to live.
It wasn’t paradise but we survived day by day.
There was one item I owned that I didn’t trade for or find and that was my motorcycle. A gift from Will, it helped me to explore outside of our town and to make trades with other local villages. Thanks to solar power I never had to pay for fuel, even with the typically dull British weather, so as long as the bike didn’t break I could keep living this ‘free’ existence. If it did break I may have to train to become a mechanic, as Smyth West currently didn’t have one.
Grace and I mounted our motorcycles, left the city and headed up the country towards Birmingham, the biggest city in the UK. London was no longer the once glorious capital it had been before the 20 Day Siege.
The roads were quiet. With most of the UK’s population now living in ten large cities, people rarely travelled and if they did then they would use trains that were far quicker. As Smyth West was far too small a town to have a train station, we used the roads to reach our destination.
What vehicles we did see included old cars that had clearly been previously abandoned and seen better days. They were probably unwanted relics from the rich, who had no need for them in the large cities, which had now been reclaimed by other have-nots.
We also saw duocycles, which always made me laugh. They were designed as a way for twins who liked motorcycles to travel together safely. Motorcycles had been deemed one of the most unsafe ways to travel so an inventor decided they would be safer with two twins together. His logic was that they would both be paying attention to the road and therefore it could prevent accidents.
The bikes were the same as normal motorcycles but with two seats one behind each other. They also had a roll-cage at the top and a plastic dome around the entire bike. They looked awful and had been one of the worst selling inventions of the century.
The inventor’s loss was the have-nots gain. When the product flopped the haves, who were now embarrassed to be seen on a duocycle, had gotten rid of them. Over the years they had worked their way down to our communities. We still thought they looked stupid but if you wanted a free way to get around, they were very effective.
After fifty minutes of riding we approached a service station and Grace signalled to the left for me to come off the motorway. I did and we approached an abandoned petrol station with a few toilets and a greasy burger stand. There also stood a large retail stand which had once housed over one hundred shops but which was now a burnt out building that looked like it could barely support itself.
Ash floated through the air and clogged my lungs. The air stank of death and dampness lingered on. The remaining structure blocked out the sun leaving an echo of darkness blocking us out. The building may have been a shadow of its former self but it was still an imposing structure.
The building was supported by several large concrete pillars that sat around the outside of it. The entire wall in front of us had collapsed to the ground long ago leaving rubble shattered across the car park. Every car was either rusted or had been damaged by an amalgamation of glass, signage and merchandise from the stores. They were useless and a horrific reminder of the people who had no doubt been trapped inside the building when it burnt down.
The main centre itself was a horrific mass of twisted metal that had become warped from the flames. Almost everything I could see was a different shade of grey or black and the damage was absolute. There was no way anything inside had been spared from the flames.
It was easy to tell what had happened here. These places had once been thriving with people who needed to stop on long journeys but with most people now living in large cities and the have-nots having little money to spend, they were now mostly abandoned.
I imagined that the retail store had been looted and burned down, by scavengers or even the owners, and it simply made no sense to rebuild it. The owners probably took the insurance money and retired with no thought for the people they killed. Compared to the 20 Day Siege no one would bat an eyelid at a few hundred deaths especially in a region that wasn’t controlled by the haves.
“I need to go inside,” said Grace.
“Really? It doesn’t look stable at all,” I replied.
“It’s ok; I’ve been here lots before. Why don’t you wait outside and grab us a burger?”
I looked at the greasy fast food stand and figured ‘why not?’ “Who knows how long I’ll be alive anyway?” The owner seemed friendly. I asked him if he would be prepared to trade anything for two burgers and he asked if I could use my motorbike to charge a battery he used to power the heat in his shack. He hooked the battery up to my motorbike and I revved the engine.
I watched as Grace entered the burnt out shopping centre and I wondered exactly what kind of prop designer would want to meet in such a place.
The chaos that had happened years before was all too apparent as Grace kicked her feet through the ash of what had once been one of the UK’s biggest shopping centres.
The inside of the centre was a dangerous walk. The roof had originally been made of glass with metal lines zig-zagging back and forth which held triangular pieces of glass in place. Most of the pieces had shattered and splintered to the floor but a few still lingered in place. It was clear one day they would fall like jagged shards of death. As Grace looked up at them she hoped today was not that day.
The floor was covered in ash, rubble and dirt that had blown its way in from outside. The walkways had become waterlogged from the rain and soaked up the dirt covering the floor turning it into mud which filled cracks in the floor to make an uneven and slippy surface. As Grace carefully traipsed through the mud she could see where it had been dislodged from those who had dared enter this building before.
Each shop had been looted, their surviving products long gone. This had once been a centre full of colour where big brands competed for attention. The fire had destroyed almost all of that vibrant branding and the centre was little more than browns, greys and blacks. Each shop looked almost identical and had returned to their original shells. They were now just burnt out husks of metal architecture, collapsed metal shutters and broken products.
Grace pushed a bike out of her way. It was nothing more than a twisted column of steel and it clattered as she threw it down. She constantly shifted her gaze around the centre as she walked a well memorised route. As she walked a path she knew well she heard the loud rumble of a store collapsing. The damage done to this building would never end and as one of the stores collapsed in on itself the sound of metal on metal shook her ear drums.
Rather than stopping to assess the damage she ran forward and away from the sound. As she saw the mangled face of a burnt out mannequin, she jumped backwards in horror. Its plastic face had almost all melted away leaving his eyes and bright red lips hanging there in mid-air from three twisted coils. She always felt this mannequin was mocking her, especially today.
The grizzly sight of the mannequin was nothing to the horrors this place had held the first time Grace came here. Back then this place had been full of death. Charred remains were scattered across the floor and each face she saw had a look of horror. She could picture the chaos that had emerged that day and could see how they had tried to escape but it hadn’t been enough.
Their bodies were fresh back then; mere weeks after the centre had been burnt down. Yet the smell still lingered. The smell of rotting flesh and decay. It made her sick then and still made her gag every time she walked through this place. She could never forget what she had seen that day.
She had been only eighteen the first time she entered this horrible mausoleum, arriving on a whim thanks to a note from a man called ‘Gabe’. What she saw that day changed her life forever.
The dead bodies had since been removed and buried in a mass grave around the back of the building. The first time she met Gabe, Grace had demanded that they give the bodies a decent burial. He agreed and helped her to dig the grave and carry the bodies out one by one. Through his compassion he and Grace had grown close.
Grace didn’t know any of the survivors but her conscience couldn’t bear the thought of all those people spending eternity strewn across a burnt out building. As she walked down the corridors past a burnt out hut of teddy bears, she hoped those people now had some sort of peace.
At the end of the corridor Grace spied a grey panelled maintenance door located next to some toilets. She entered a code on a digital keypad and the door clicked open.
Walking through the door, she passed down several sets of stairs into a basement area. This section was made of pure concrete that had protected it from the fire. It was the only liveable part of the building and was now protected with a lot of security.
Reaching the bottom of the stairs she reached a fresh set of double doors and entered a different key code this time. This door was far more secure and made of reinforced steel. It had clearly not been part of the original design.
The doors opened up to reveal a large concrete room. By the entrance were smaller rooms that branched off and were sectioned off with temporary panelled walls. The walls were decorated with the symbols of a deck of cards – hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs were scattered across the walls. At the back of the room a walkway branched off to more living areas.
Once inside a man ran up to meet her. “Chris!” Grace said and smiled.
“Great to see the true Grace, I’ll miss the red hair,” replied Chris.
“Can you believe it?” replied Grace. “The technology works! I’m sure we can use it on many more missions and I can’t wait to see Tobias and rub the smile off his face.”
Before he could congratulate Grace on Skin 2.0 Chris pointed to a giant wall of computer monitors. “Grace I have something you need to see,” he played back the news report from last night, showing the team attacking innocent people and their identities being revealed.
Grace could only stare at the events. “You shot an innocent man!?”
“No, the footage is mostly fabricated. We were attacked and Tobias escaped,” said Chris.
“An orange eyed man. He couldn’t be killed and he set the guards free who attacked us.”
“Wait, he couldn’t be killed?”
“I shot him in the head. The medic confirmed him dead and we continued to shoot him when he came back to life. He survived everything,” said Chris. “When he attacked our helicopter we had to retreat to protect the civilians.”
Where’s Gabe? I need to see him!”
“NO!” shouted Grace. “At least tell me he wasn’t hurt?”
Chris looked down at the floor, ashamed by what had happened. “He was shot in the shoulder. I gave him some medical aid but he will bleed out if not given proper care.”
Grace punched a nearby wall in anger. She looked back at her knuckles to see they had reddened and the skin had broken on them. A tiny bit of blood leaked through one of the cuts. She was glad. The pain gave her a moment’s relief from reality.
She went to throw her fist against the wall again, unsure how to cope and Chris quickly grabbed her hand and held it towards his chest. Grace refused to cry, it wasn’t in her nature but she wanted to more than anything.
“So what on Earth do we do now?” she asked. “They showed your face. Nearly everyone’s faces? What can we do?”
“You’ve already done the hard work for us Grace,” said Chris. “Do you have the Skin 2.0 test kit?”
Grace realised she already had the perfect solution for hiding identities in her backpack. “But we only have this one unit. It’s not enough to help everyone.”
“No but you’ve proved it worked. We can now make more disguises. Enough for everyone.”
“Ok. But what should I do about Emmie? She’s determined to go to TethTech.”
“Perfect. You have to take her to Tobias. She’s the best chance we have for answers.”
“Are you insane? I agreed to take her there when I knew Tobias was gone, I don’t want her anywhere near that freak!” Grace knew Chris was right but she didn’t have to like it.
“Boss’s orders,” he stated.
“I see,” Grace knew the orders of the boss hadn’t been wrong before.
“I know it sucks and how close you are to Emmie but she’s the best chance we have now. When we can mobilize the rest of the team we will support you. Until we can create fresh faces for everyone we are stuck here,” said Chris.
“Ok,” she sensed there was no reasoning with him. She had her orders and would see them through.
“Here are the passes you wanted. This will get Emmie and you to Tobias. Remember she can’t know who you really are. It will jeopardise everything.”
“I know,” Grace had wanted to tell Emmie about The Deck many times before but knew it was forbidden. She’d have to keep pretending to be a make-up artist for a little longer. “I have to go; she will be looking for me soon.”
“Good luck and don’t worry we will find Gabe,” said Chris.
Grace left Chris and walked back outside.
She saw Emmie standing next to the burger stand with two greasy cheeseburgers. The owner of the stand now had a brightly lit shack and seemed very happy.
“All good?” asked Emmie.
“Yep, let’s do this,” replied Grace.