47 Random Fragments of Unauthorised Hope and Despair


8


OLIVER was twisting and turning in the tunnels, peppering the enemy with bullets as his fuel reserves sank and the probability ratio of encountering the final Riddle of Life set by the Ancient Kings dropped under 1:5 for the first time.

When a missile crept in from the side, he could detect the movement out of the very corner of his eye.

When his scooter took damage from a direct hit, he could smell the burning.

When he collided with a rock face he could feel the jarring pain shoot through his whole body.

This wasn’t just playing, he thought to himself. This was fucking living.

No sooner had this statement taken shape in his brain than everything stopped. Everything. Total darkness. Silence. No physical sensation. Except, wait a second, a faint tingling in his left leg where he may well have connected himself too tightly.

He felt for the door catch, released it and pushed upwards with both arms.

To start with, it seemed to make no difference at all.

But then he found it was not quite pitch black any more and faint shapes and outlines mapped out the room and the VR pod into which he was still very much plugged.

After he’d extricated himself, he tried the light switches, but nothing happened.

The power had clearly gone.

He moved cautiously towards the window and lifted the corner of the blind.

Dark out there, too. No street lights. No glow from any of the other houses.

Oliver had heard about this happening elsewhere. They said it was terrorists.

At this thought, his blood suddenly ran cold. Terrorists? Here? They could be in his street!

He couldn’t stop himself dashing out into the hall to make sure the front door was locked properly. When he pulled on the door, it came open.

His mouth dropped with surprise. It was well past curfew. It must have been the loss of electricity, knocking out the timer or the locking mechanism.

He leant forward gingerly and peered outside into the darkness, not daring to step too close to the threshold in case it was interpreted as an attempt to leave the premises.

To his astonishment, he could see somebody out there. Two people in fact. No, three. At least.

They didn’t seem to be terrorists, either, as he could now see more figures wandering out of their homes from both sides of the street to join them in the middle. Some were leaning back, looking up, pointing. What was up there? What was happening?

He was filled with the desire to go and find out, but was chained back by the knowledge that they’d all be caught infra-red-handed flouting the curfew.

More people! Dozens! Didn’t they care about the cam...

Oliver suddenly grabbed his boots from beside the door, shoved them on without bothering to tie the laces, pulled his jacket from the banister at the foot of the stairs and pushed the front door wide open.

He took a deep long draught of the cold clean air and stepped out onto the pavement.

There was a power cut! The cameras wouldn’t be working!

That’s why there was so many people outside, so many that even he could find the courage to break the law, just this once.

As he wandered into the road, he had the idea that it would be good to go and make contact with some of these neighbours of his that he’d hardly ever seen before, let alone spoken to.

But that notion went right out of his head as soon as he looked up to the sky.

It was not that he was exactly surprised to see the stars there - he’d made out one or two through the usual orange murk in the past.

But what he hadn’t reckoned with was to be suddenly face to face with the universe, to be toppling on the brink of a billion-mile well of infinity into which, it seemed as he involuntarily staggered backwards, he was in danger of plummeting and spinning and sinking and soaring for eternity.

The shock was that it was so real. It had always been there, behind the lights and the fug.

This was the real view from his personal window onto the galaxies amongst which they lived, a window through which he was now looking for the first time in his life.

He looked up at the stars until his neck hurt and then he looked again and some more besides, trying to swallow and digest every last second of this encounter with truth.

And it seemed he had barely started to wonder at it all when, at a stroke, it was gone.

The darkness was illuminated, the black sky turned to an orange-grey mess behind the streetlights and there was nothing to look at anymore.

Simultaneously, he heard the insanely busy whirring of the cameras, as they kicked back in and rotated and zoomed all around him, anxiously trying to lock in on all those who were violating the curfew. Oliver, like his neighbours around him, scampered quickly back indoors.

Everything was bright again in his home and the VR pod flashed a fully functional welcome across the room.

But it looked too much like a coffin and he unplugged it.

Oliver also switched off all the lights in the house.

And then he lay on the floor, eyes shut, trying to return to the place he had just been.


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