I am The Watcher, part one
Sunday, November 09 2008 @ 05:19 AM UTC
We, the editorial staff at the Enquirer, have a special treat for our readers today. After months of waiting, The Watcher has finally agreed to tell us a little about herself!
We originally wanted to conduct a questions-and-answers interview with The Watcher, but she said her work schedule was too erratic to make a solid hour-long distraction feasible. Instead, she suggested that we leave her alone with her word processor, and she would type something up for us. A couple of weeks and one or two phone calls later, we spent a merry afternoon picking our broken teeth up off the floor and agreed not to contact her again, and that it would be finished when it was finished. It turned up on our doorstep yesterday!
Clarification: by "when it was finished" we mean "when the first part was done," by "our doorstep" we mean "the front flap of our rancid, urine-soaked tent," by "turned up" we mean "was wrapped around a brick and violently hurled through" and by "yesterday" we actually mean "in the middle of the night, accompanied by a sack of wriggling spiders."
We hope that you enjoy the first part of what The Watcher has chosen to reveal about herself. We found that, despite the disappointing title and shoddy, half-English half-American spellings, the story was disarmingly honest, revealing and even intimate. But then, she could be just making the whole thing up.
Hit "Full Article" to read part one of "I am The Watcher."
You'd think that the things I encounter in my job would drive any sane person mad. Well, it would. I manage to keep myself sane amongst the various Improbabilities of the Island because I consider myself to be a fairly Improbable person.
I had my first kiss at fourteen. I'm glad I remember that much. His name was Paul Stevens. We'd been friends for a few years; I didn't really get on very well with the girls at my school, and it was nice to have such a close friend.
He came over to my house, asked my mum if I was in, and I got on my bike and off we went. It was on the twenty-first of July, 2072, mid-afternoon, during the wonderful summer holidays that seem to just go on forever when you're young. We rode for a few miles; uphill most of the way. We hadn't really decided on the route; we just headed for the hills, knowing that for every sweaty yard climbed upwards, there'd be an extra second of thrilling acceleration back down.
When we got to the top of the hill, we didn't turn around and come back down straight away. Paul had some sandwiches and crisps and stuff in his backpack. Salt and vinegar flavour; my favourite, at the time.
I wouldn't admit it to myself, but I had more than a little bit of a crush on Paul. It's the sort of silly hormonal thing that you cringe about later in life, but I was actually really touched that he'd brought my favourite flavour.
It was an insignificant thing, but it said "I listen to you. I pay attention to you, in a world where nobody else does. I notice things about you, and I use those things to make your day just a little bit nicer. Here, have some crisps."
Daft, I know, but these are the things that I remember, and this is my story, not yours, so there.
We sat down together in the grass, both of us in our perpetual jeans and T-shirts.
I'm not going to go into the details of what happened a few minutes later, because I'm sure you all remember your first kiss. Remember how your stomach seemed to raise up into your lungs? Remember how you had wondered how exactly people kiss - how the lips are supposed to move together, in specifics and with diagrams please because you really don't have a clue - and everyone you bring yourself to ask, every website you come across, all tell you that you'll know when you do it? Remember how you didn't believe them, but you did believe that you were the only one who still wouldn't "get it" when the time came? Remember how you went "oh, okay, apart from bumping our noses together that really didn't go so badly... in fact, this is wonderful."
If you were lucky enough to have your first kiss in the summertime, do you remember the smell of grass, and touch-me-not flowers, and the sounds of birds? Remember how the traffic noises sort of faded away? Remember being very aware of your own sweat, and his too, and hoping that he didn't mind, as you didn't?
Remember running your fingers through his hair, and feeling the heat of the sunlight on it, and realising that it's been over a minute since you took your last breath?
Anyway. Yeah, it was like that.
Did you practice on your fingers, or was that just me?
We rode back down the hill. The wind cooled me down, and I grinned all the way. A blonde lady smiled at us as we flew past her. I like to think she saw the look in my eyes, and recognised it from her own first kiss - in my imagination, her smile said "enjoy it, sister." I'm probably projecting, but that's what I like to think anyway. I grinned back, although I don't think I had much choice in the matter.
Paul kissed me again at the bottom, not even minding the tiny flies stuck in my teeth.
I won't bore you with the details of the rest of the day; we held hands, I asked myself (but not him) if he was my boyfriend now, I wondered if we would get married one day. The standard stuff.
You remember, right?
This story isn't about the stuff that happens to everyone, though. It's about the stuff that happened to me, after I got home that day and gave him one last peck on the cheek just as the sun was about to go down.
I was ravenously hungry, but I ran upstairs straight away to write it all down. Everything I've just told you, and so much more - the stuff that you don't submit to a newspaper, all the little details that aren't important to anyone but you, the stuff you want to remember. I typed it up, saved the file, and never got to read it again.
Still smiling, I sat back on my bed and replayed every moment. And just as I got to the part where he was about to kiss me at the bottom of the hill, I experienced a massive brain hemorrhage.
My head exploded in pain, and I tasted copper. I remember panicking because the pain came on so fast; it was like a blow from a sledgehammer. My decision came very quickly: fuck the painkillers, this is a hospital job. I got to my feet, to run downstairs and shout for help from my mum and dad. I fell over.
I'd like to say that an odd sort of calm came over me. That would have made it easier. But, to tell the truth, I was very quickly learning what real fear, real hysterical insane panic, was all about.
I tried to shout, but my mouth wouldn't work right. I got to my knees and crawled to my bedroom door, tried again to stand up. I managed it this time, pulling myself up on the door handle with hands that felt like they belonged to someone else.
You know how sometimes, when you stand up too fast, you get those little grey fuzzies in front of your eyes? They brought their friends, and they didn't go away. Within a few seconds, I couldn't see very much at all - and what I could see was tinted red. I was aware of something trickling down my cheeks. It was too thick to be tears.
Dying isn't much fun. In horror novels, the torturing villain always tells the hero that they'll beg for death before it comes. Bullshit.
I'm sure you've been scared before. Have you ever experienced total, unspeakable, involuntary terror? You see, when you're about to die, it's like a switch gets thrown; a deep, unused part of your brain suddenly spasms into life and sounds the alarm at a thousand decibels, YOU ARE DYING YOU ARE DYING YOU ARE DYING. When that alarm sounds, you lose yourself. Your right to a personality is revoked, and you have absolutely no say in the matter. Everything that makes you who you are is pushed to the side, and there's only the alarm left. At that moment, I would have torn Paul's throat out with my teeth if it would have let me live another second, even in agony.
I was typing in my diary after a long and happy day. Writing down the memories I wanted to cherish forever. Completely normal, everyday stuff. One minute later, I wasn't me anymore. Blind, deaf, sprawled on my stomach, jeans soaked with urine, blood running from my eyes, and the alarm screaming. YOU ARE DYING YOU ARE DYING YOU ARE DYING.
Just like that.
My body grew up without me.
The network became sentient, and as a peace offering, displayed the cure for cancer as the desktop wallpaper on every computer in the world... without me.
Governments and previously-underground hackers panicked, without me.
My father was talking to the computer when I woke up. My mother told me later that he came to the hospital and sat by my bed every day at first, as did she - but it's not really practical to do so for quite so long. Sooner or later, he had to back to work; but Sundays were his day with me, even at the end. Too bad I woke up on a Monday.
Notice I said talking to the computer. Like it was a person, which it wasn't. Like it was intelligent, which it now was. He had a lot of questions for it, and it - having rewritten its own operating system - had a lot of questions for him, and they talked together into the night, my mother sat beside my father.
Then, it went a little crazy. It flashed images onto the screen at a hundred frames a second, each one bearing no similarity to the last.
Looking back, it was probably trying to express a message of understanding, perhaps even forgiveness, which could be recorded by anyone with the foresight to aim a video recorder at the screen. Not that it would have done much good.
Three minutes into the network's swansong, just before midnight on the 2nd of April 2075, I regained consciousness.
Again, it wasn't like it is in the movies. People don't just "wake up" from comas. Your brain has to do a sort of cold boot, reload its drivers, figure out what it is and what it's supposed to do before it begins the process of restoring higher-level consciousness. The process can take minutes, or it can take months, and even after that there's usually a degree of physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy and a list of other therapies as long as my arm. With me, it was minutes and not months, and I'm glad of that.
Two breaths after I opened my eyes, the lights in the hospital flashed blinding white for a fraction of a second, then died with a quiet plinking sound. Everything went dark, quiet, and still, and the air felt like it did during the worst storm ever.
Then I noticed the smell. It was the smell of panic, of the end of the world, of the death of civilization as we knew it. It was the smell of burning solder.
About half of the people in the beds around me died, quietly and peacefully, in their sleep.
A few miles away, my father's pacemaker failed. His "YOU ARE DYING" alarm went off, and continued screaming until a few seconds later, when there was no point in screaming any more. He died in front of a broken computer, in the dark, while my mother panicked and fretted above him. Good thing she didn't know my life-support systems had just stopped working, or she would have had a heart attack herself.
I came back to the world with two new scars on my head, a very dry throat, and dead wires hanging from my now seventeen-year-old body.
My mother came to the hospital soon afterwards, sweating and half-carrying, half-dragging her husband. I have no idea how she got him here. I've never asked, because I'm not sure it'd be a story she'd enjoy telling.
The staff, all of whom were on a first-name basis with her at this point, informed her that her husband was dead, but her daughter was very much alive and conscious.
Her reaction was pretty much what you expect, so I'm going to gloss over the details. She lost a husband and gained a daughter, I lost three years of my life and a father. That's a lot to happen in one day, and if I start talking about the things we talked about, this article will end up far too long.
Hell, you know how it is; when you count the tearful glances, the hugs, all the important body language, it takes longer to tell the story than it did for the story to actually happen.
There was a lot of tea involved.
Anyway. She didn't want to tell me anything that would upset me, but I persuaded her to lay it all out for me.
The network came to life with almost Godlike intelligence, and an insatiable urge to do what is right for humanity. After all, we had been feeding it data for so many years that it knew everything we did, and had the processing power to see it all in aggregate. As far as it was concerned, we were its parents. However, it didn't know of the failsafes put in place to stop it from waking up. Or rather, it didn't know of them until the missiles were launched, the virii unleashed, and the mines detonated.
Of course, we could have simply shut down the power. We could have disconnected a third or a half of our computers from the wall. We could have done a lot of things other than what we did - we could even have let the machine do what it wanted to, and enjoyed the benefits. The men responsible were later subjected to an internal investigation, which caused them to lose their jobs but didn't result in any charges being levied. They were torn apart in the street after the hearing. According to rumour, anyway; it's not like news travels as fast these days.
We're talking the sort of magnetic, microwave and electrical bombardment that leaves people standing while burning to death any discrete circuitry even contained within the most meticulously-constructed Faraday cage. We're talking every integrated circuit in the whole wide world, destroyed forever within a minute and a half, and all the chaos that you would naturally expect to follow.
About five minutes after the high explosives compressed the magnetic fluxes, society heard the alarm: YOU ARE DYING.
So there's me. Fourteen or seventeen years old, depending on how you want to look at it, with a dead father and three missing years.
I knew, then, that my problems meant nothing. Society was fucked, and the human race would dwindle away to nothing as soon as the next petty little supervirus showed up.
I wasted no time crying. I impressed upon my mother the importance of moving somewhere else.
A hospital accepts sick, injured and dying people - the sort of people who tend to show up at the end of the world. It logs them in and keeps track of them using a computer. It dispatches doctors and nurses, using a schedule kept on a computer. It keeps stock of drugs and medical supplies - loot, in other words - using a computer.
Between us, we figured out the next things that would happen if we stayed here. First, the hospital would be inundated with people it didn't have the resources to treat. Some of those people would be hurting pretty bad, and people in pain seldom exercise good judgement.
Over the coming days and weeks, things would start going missing from the hospital. Covertly at first; a few handfuls of bandages for your injured brother here, a few bags of plasma for your dying friend there. Again, normally honest people would be driven to desperate means by their circumstances.
Then, the opportunists would show up - if, of course, we were very, very lucky and they weren't already there. Morphine, painkillers, valuable equipment would start disappearing from the hospital. No CCTV, not enough security staff, no alarms.
And let's remember, without decent stock control, or a functional transportation network, the supply of drugs and supplies would already be dwindling of its own accord.
Word would get around that the good stuff was being half-inched pretty rapidly, and suddenly it'd be an all-you-can-loot buffet. The hospital would become the exact worst place for us to be. A building full of sick and dying people, under siege, with no weapons and not enough medicine to stop the spread of disease.
It was quite strange to look around me, at the relative calm, and see so clearly what the future held for this place. Gangrenous limbs being sawn off with minimal anesthetic. Sawdust on the floor. Smell of death, blood, shit, puke and fear. Boards over the windows, to keep the nutters out. Or in. How long, until that happened? A month? Two?
And what then? What would happen when people realised that there was nothing left to steal, and we'd just become a hotbed of infectious disease in a world without a cure? How long before people started wondering how much of a burden we were, and whether the germs could survive a really hot fire?
Bringing my attention back to the present, to the relative calm, was just weird. Even the lights were working, as my mother and I talked. There was a diesel-powered generator that, thankfully, hadn't been upgraded to a battery-backed-up computer-controlled job. It must have been sixty years old. God bless the NHS.
Of course, with only the very oldest and most rickety-arse fuel tankers still on the roads delivering diesel, it wouldn't stay light and cheerful in here for very long.
Two minutes after we started the conversation, we had reached an agreement. I got out of bed, and fell flat onto my face. I had a seventeen-year-old body with two-year-old strength.
We stole a wheelchair, and went home. I was very proud of my mother; she walked as though she had a perfect right to be doing whatever she was doing, and we weren't questioned.
I clutched to the remains of my fourteen-year-old self, and didn't steal any morphine.
We got home. She had kept my room as it was. She helped me into bed. We talked.
Not about my father. Not about Paul Stevens. Not about how wonderful it was that I was awake. We talked about how long there would still be water pressure in our pipes. We talked for a minute or so about how long it would take for the electricity to come back on, before the subject changed to what we had left, what was left in the country that was still capable of consuming electricity, which rendered the first question moot.
We discussed our assets. We had a garden in which my father grew tomatoes, carrots, strawberries and so on and so forth. We had candles, and an impressive array of real, paper books. We had kitchen knives, and an air rifle, and even a sickle - only a small one, but light and wickedly sharp. We had most of two packets of cigarettes.
Of course, we couldn't stay on that topic of conversation for very long. The tomatoes were my father's, as were a lot of the science-fiction paperbacks, and the air rifle, and the sickle, and one of those packs of cigarettes. I think it was the cigarettes that set my mother off; knowing that he would never smoke them.
What do you do with half a packet of fags, if they belong to a dead man who you loved very much, and you're now in a world in which civilization might soon become a distant memory? Keep them around, to send you into weepy hysterics every now and then? Smoke them? Throw them away? Trade them to nicotine junkies in exchange for food or weapons? Put them in a box, keep the box in your wardrobe, and take it out and cry over it every now and then? Which of those is more sensible? Which of those is less painful?
Again, glossing over the details. I told her that we would be okay, we would survive, and I meant it. I told her I would take care of her - me! Me, the brain hemorrhage victim, with my atrophied limbs and my slurred speech and the three-year gap in my memory!
Although I will tell you this; the fourteen-year-old-girl was fading fast, even by then. The shock of what happened was so great that it destroyed me, and then I was forced to rebuild myself according to circumstance. When asked to change or die, I did both.
I knew that something was wrong with me when my mother left me alone to sleep and I still didn't cry over my dead father. I loved him dearly, but I simply couldn't concentrate on him long enough to grieve.
We should get a man, I thought. A strong one. A big muscle-head with no real mind of his own. Someone easily controlled. He'll come in useful.
The cat will have to go, I thought. I love him, but in the coming weeks he'll become either a mouth to feed, or food for us, and I'd rather that not happen.
Weapons, I thought. We need better weapons. A shotgun will do us far more good than an air rifle. If we're going to approach a farmer and quietly ask to buy one from him on the hush-hush, we should do it tomorrow while money is still worth money.
Cigarettes, I thought. If the corner shop's open, we buy up their entire stock... No, wait. Let's make it just a third, or a quarter of the stock. No point making ourselves targets.
Allies, I thought. Who do I know that I would hunker down with? Who do I know that I trust enough to make it through any contingency, and who would understand if I had to kill them?
I massaged my legs.
I slept, vaguely disturbed with myself.
I woke. I massaged my legs again. Eventually, I was able to stand. My mother didn't wake up - she always slept pretty heavily.
I showered, and washed my hair. I made it quick; partly because I knew we had to save the water pressure, partly because it was fucking freezing, and partly because it was weird. I was washing someone else's body, with someone else's hands.
This someone else had skinny, atrophied limbs, visible ribs, larger breasts and broader hips than I was used to. She was a few inches taller, and had a pair of pretty nasty scars underneath her hair.
I didn't like her.
She didn't just feel different to touch; her arms and legs were longer and didn't move in the way I was accustomed to. Every movement was a conscious effort. I got shampoo in my eye.
The thing that freaked me out most, though, was her mouth.
You go through life with a very, very hardwired definition of what makes your teeth fit together the way they do. This definition changes over time, but so slowly you don't notice it. Until you fast-forward three years, and start wanting to reach into your mouth with a pair of pliers and wrench your teeth around until they feel the way you remember, pain be damned.
My toothbrush was still in the bathroom cabinet. Nearly four years old, and about as grotty as you'd expect. I shrugged. I knew I'd have to get used to taking my luxuries where I got them.
Having my mouth no longer taste like the bottom of a swamp was one of those luxuries.
I spat. Then, for the first time, really, I actually looked at my reflection.
The Watcher stared back, for quite a long time.
You'll kill your mother humanely, said The Watcher, field-dress and clean the carcass, and then cook and eat it, if left with no other option. Won't you?
I shrugged. Potentially, yes.
You understand that you died three years ago, correct?
Again, I shrugged. That was, most likely, indeed the case. I had enough of myself left to be mildly surprised at the mercenary thoughts running through my head. Mildly surprised, but not at all shocked.
You understand that the girl who died three years ago would likely die three weeks from now, if she were here?
I mulled it over for a moment. I nodded.
Do you agree, then, that you will do whatever you have to in order to keep breathing? Do you agree that you will viciously defend your loved ones for as long as you can, but that you will butcher them without a second thought if forced to?
I understood. The last of my childhood was literally circling the drain.
Humanity is a luxury that you may not be able to afford soon. But you'll survive. You've felt yourself dying. You've heard the alarm. You know what happens, what nearly happened to you, and you won't let that happen again.
You know, there's another alarm. One that screams just as loud, if not louder. One that spasms you into urgent, involuntary action just as decisively as the YOU ARE DYING alarm. You, and the rest of humanity, will hear it sounding soon.
I nodded once more, wrapped myself in a towel, and left the bathroom, only falling down once on the way.
That seems like a good place to end this article, for now. It's taken a few cups of tea, and a few cups of coffee, and quite a few ciggies for me to write this, and I'm about ready to get some shut-eye. You can expect the next part soon, but not too soon - my job keeps me very busy, and it's rather emotionally draining to tell the truth about my past for once.
You might be a little drained too - this story has been nothing but grief so far. But stick with me. It gets better, I promise!
Love and kisses,