One-one-seven examined the small toy in his hand. It was to be a castle of plastic red brick, but a piece was missing from one of the square turrets. It occurred to One-one-seven that only when all the parts were brought together was it possible to see a thing was not as whole as assumed. Behind him, he could just make out the muffled voices of family, gathered for the holidays. He shut the door on them. As he made to return the toy castle to the kitchen table a hand on his shoulder caused him to jump. The toy slipped from his grasp, breaking the quiet in the room as it came undone on the cold floor. He twisted his head to meet his wife’s gaze. Heavy silence hovered between them until he looked away, unable to carry the weight of her gaze.
‘I have to,’ he mumbled as if those three words were everything; an apology, an excuse, a cry for help.He waited, hoping she would say something more. When no response came, he instead opened a small kitchen drawer.
A featureless mask lay atop a pile of still-to-be-marked papers and beside that his gun- the weapon’s weight bulky in his hand. He pressed a small button on the bottom of the gun and waited for his ammunition upload to flash onto the weapon’s screen- one. He’d known people to get more than that. Much more. Just one. That was something at least. Holstering the gun in the pocket of his white uniform he lifted the mask to his face, catching his own blurred reflection in its well-polished veneer. He knew he should say something else. But what? He turned and headed for the door. His wife’s stare weighed heavy on his back. An image of fallen red bricks lingered in his head.
Outside the world was empty, shutters and blinds drawn close despite the sun high in a clear sky. Isolated clay Darwinian fish hung above the odd door; lonely decorations marking the eve of Atheist Day. Earlier in the week, someone had sprayed a crude religious symbol on the side of the derelict College of Arts building. One-one-seven found himself trying to recall the symbol- a cross with the southerly facing point noticeably longer than the others. He forgot which religion it had once belonged to. The symbol had soon been painted over; the offensive wall returned the same familiar white as the rest of the city.
He came to a halt as he arrived at a crossroads, glancing up at the sign in front of him. Two arrows, their language written in familiar shorthand: S. Av. Antlo. I. (South Avenue, Anthropological Institute) the other read: PB: Pr. Ed. (The ‘Probity Edition’ of the Patronage building). One-one-seven hesitated. He thought about the route. It would take him across South Avenue, through tightly closed markets and flashing billboard reminders of his duty. He had no wish to go to Probity. He went that way anyway.
Further ahead, on the otherwise empty street, he could just make out a ghostly figure. The person seemed in no rush, but nor was One-one-seven and he slowed his pace. It still seemed only a matter of moments before he reached the crowded checkpoint of the Patronage. He found himself greeted by his own image a hundred times over in the porcelain-like masks of fellow Loyalists. He tried not to think about the faces beneath those makes. Like him, they were merely men and women drawn together on the same subdued pilgrimage. One-one-seven took his place in the pale mass and queued. When his time came, he removed a glove to place his hand on a scanner. Text flashed on the screen:
Patronage Loyalty Number: 000117
Name: Albert C-
He shut his eyes. Today he was One-one-seven. A sharp beep signaled the scan was over and a uniformed guard ushered him through. The Patronage Headquarters was a large block of grey that loomed up out of the ground. Windows were few and small except where the building looked over the city; here their size increased considerably. It gave the building a lop-sided look. He followed the wave of white hoods toward a smaller building; Probity.
The guards here were more numerous; dark uniforms mixing with the sterile Loyalists making the room look like a giant white die, flecked with black. Probity’s tiled corridors were brimming with people, the throng propelling One-one-seven forward. He found himself close enough to the Loyalist in front to make out the small ID number stamped into the person’s uniform.
The crowds began to thin as they reached the Cleansing Grounds. Staff members branched off into various doors until all that was left were the Loyalists and their silent escort. A guard approached One-one-seven and examined his Loyalist number before waving a gloved hand. One-one-seven followed the direction of the wave and stepped up to a small alcove. He looked neither left, nor right. All around him others took their places in similar alcoves, each separated only by a knee-high partition. A Loyalist appeared to One-one-seven’s left, another to his right.
The alcoves looked out over an open grass area. Somewhere to his right, One-one-seven heard the screeching sound of moving metal. A wheeled cage was discharged through an open gate, pulled stutteringly across the rough ground by a motorized chain. Someone let out a muffled sound. He hoped it wasn’t himself. There was movement inside the cage; he could just make out the weak sun bouncing off something bright and red. He pressed his mask firmly into his face. A guard shouted a command. The cage opened.
One-one-seven watched as soldiers poured onto the field, kicking up a cloud of dust. The reds were pulled from the cage by chains hanging from their wrists, which were then attached to metal loops dug into the ground. One-one-seven drew his gun and watched as a small girl was tied in front of him. Her red hair hung wild and she reminded him of a girl in one of his classes. He could feel, though he could not see, the Patronage building leaning over him. The guards returned to their posts, leaving behind them a row of copper-haired mannequins; wild eyed and muted, they looked too sallow to be human.
The girl stared at him and he shuffled on his feet. He wondered if she possessed the emotional cognition to experience fear. For a moment he entertained the idea of climbing over the barricade, removing the girl’s gag and asking her. Someone further down the line cleared their throat before silence reclaimed its place in the air. A voice sounded in the fixed speaker above his head, echoing in a score of identical speakers. When the recorded message stopped, the atmosphere was pierced by the sound of a gunshot; and another; and another. One-one-seven looked neither left, nor right. The girl’s eyes were the colour of seaweed; moist and alive. He lifted his gun until it was in line with them. Another shot. He closed his eyes. ‘I have to.’
One-one-seven opened his eyes. The girl tumbled, red sprawling in the hard mud. He holstered his gun. Not waiting to see the disposal of the bodies, he was first to head for the exit. Those whose ammunition quota read more than one remained in their alcoves, whilst a fresh group of Loyalists were already queuing outside the door. Somewhere, another cage was being prepared. He felt the stares of guards as he left, but he brushed past them, an image of fallen red bricks in his mind.
It was late when Albert was disturbed in the small bed he shared with his wife. He went to the window and hit a switch; the blinds retracted but the darkness hampered his sight. Behind him his wife stirred, but he waved her to silence. The barking of dogs reached him, and he caught sight of movement in the fenced square of land that was his garden. He opened his bedside drawer. Pushing aside an old newspaper and a book of philosophy, he took out a heavy torch and made his slow way downstairs.
The kitchen door creaked as he eased it open, cold night immediately uncomfortable against his skin. Albert momentarily regretted not taking the time to clothe himself. He pushed a button on the bottom of the torch, its beam struck out at the dark. As the light probed his garden, a figure darted in front of him. He lunged, shining the torch on a small face as light became tangled in the boy’s hair.
It was red.
The dogs grew close enough now that Albert could make out the voices of their handlers. He peered up the street into the darkness. No one had yet come into view of the streetlights. Pushing the boy away, Albert turned back towards his home. His hand rested on the still open door when he paused; sat on the table, trapped in torchlight, stood a small red castle.