I am lying in the dark deep underground. There is cold stone beneath me, jagged in places, and damp. I have become strangely comforted by the pain it causes as its ridges knead my near naked flesh. I am here against my will — what remains of it at least — forced into servitude, along with everyone else in this subterranean complex. I don’t recall exactly how I came to be here. I have only vague memories of a life before. Perhaps they are dreams. If ever there was a reality other than this, I know it now only as an idealistic yearning. If somehow I got from there to here, well, I think I probably just slipped and fell.
I’m not alone. The Tyrant — original, I know, but how else am I to think of him? — has enslaved many of us here. Mostly those imprisoned are children and young adults it seems. Now I come to it, I see very few actual adults. When I see anything at all that is. Some of these others serve him. Some, it seems, even do so willingly. I knew myself that if ever I was to find a way out then I must become one of those that serve. So I did. I have learned to play the game.
I can hear laboured breathing nearby, and an occasional suppressed cough. I wish those others were closer so that I might share the warmth of human contact. Many lay around the cavern floor as I do. Those less fortunate are locked in drawers held under large beds upon which none may sleep. More still are confined in cupboards. Of the transgressors, these are the lucky ones.
A heavy door scrapes open, followed by the widening glare of a harsh light. When my eyes adjust I am staring at a pair of booted feet, their dark shine just an inch from my face. They crunch on the gravelly stone floor. I can smell leather, and in my thoughts I equate it with power.
“Get up!” The voice is young, and lacks the authority I had conjured in my mind.
I strain my neck and let my eyes absorb the stark beauty of the crisp red and black uniform, and of the boy within struggling to invoke the presence it requires. I do as I am commanded. Afflicted by a dull ache in my joints, I wince. The boy needles me with a scornful glare, visible even in the gloom. Beyond his outline, I see the huddled shapes of the others scattered about the room. The boy in the uniform must only be fourteen or thereabouts. Lying here with this child stood over me it all seems so ridiculous. I could overpower him easily. But then I know there are more like him waiting outside the room – child soldiers, with guns, and other more frightening weapons.
I too have a uniform of red and black. The boy offers it to me now, a command in his eyes. I nod assent, stand, and take it from him. He watches me intently but impassively as I dress myself, then when I’m done he nods and points at the door behind.
Mostly I perform a dull routine of sentry duty watching over others in the same position I myself had occupied only a little while previously. Others who have fallen through a similar gap and who have disappeared from view. On account of my service I have been given access to new areas. Mostly corridors of metal – part of a facility that adjoins the more natural cavern network I was already familiar with, and where I still spend my nights. There are many places I’m not allowed access to, of course. I’m new and not yet fully trusted. I still have a way to go to prove my worth. To earn my metaphorical spurs.
I stand in front of a locker in a corridor walled by them, thinking of spurs for my boots. I recall the smell of leather and polish from the boy’s shiny footwear a moment ago. These days I have become accustomed to the smell of my own boots. But not today it seems. Today for some reason I cannot find them. I was certain I had placed them in my locker.
An alarm sounds. The metallic sheen of this part of the complex is suddenly bathed in a pulsating red glow, the rows of lockers all reflecting it eagerly. Have I forgotten my intention to escape this place? I am reminded now that I have to find a way out, even though I wonder if such a way exists. And now something has caused alarms to sound and there is a flurry of activity. Red and black clad men, adult men it seems, surprisingly, running to and fro in a panic. I should join them, but I can’t find my boots.
“What are you doing? Get moving,” he shouts, spraying spittle in my face.
“I can’t find my boots,” I say, and suddenly it seems like the most profound thing I’ve ever said. As if somehow it explains all my lack of agency, all my meandering, all my despair. He glares at me and I can feel the disgust with which he regards me, as if my very existence blights his world.
“Then hurry up and find them,” he says, finally.
I don’t find them. I don’t even bother looking for them. I decide to make use of the commotion to search for a way out. I pause to gather my thoughts, standing barefoot on the hard floor of that long corridor, with its unmarked metallic walls and metal ceiling tiles, and I bathe in the red glow of the sentry lights that abound within it like so many angry pulsing stars.
The place is a maze. I’m not sure where to even begin looking for a way out. I’ve also noticed that the red lights aren’t the only things embedded in the ceiling, several little black turrets have appeared in places, and they rotate silently in line with my movements. Unsurprisingly they make me nervous.
I have no idea where to go. Uncertain what else to do I try to find the centre of the complex. Or a centre. I figure if I follow the direction from which the captain came I may at least find a barracks or something. It may seem strange to seek out the centre, but then the sentries have dispersed to… actually, I don’t know. Outside? The periphery? I could be wrong but I’m thinking probably not the centre. Maybe I’ll learn something important. If it comes to it I can say I’m lost.
Eventually I find myself in a long corridor, wider than the others, but otherwise just as featureless. It terminates at a set of double steel doors. Closed. No obvious sign of how to open them. I push. Nothing. What now? I lean with my back against the doors and sink a little towards the cold floor. It is silent in this section apart from the alarm. I place my ear to the door, half expecting the doors to swing open and dump me unceremoniously at the feet of some angry general or perhaps even The Tyrant himself. Nothing. Perhaps it would have been better to follow the others to the source of the disruption. A little way back in the direction from which I have just come another corridor leads off from the one I’m in, not as wide by the look of it, nor as brightly lit. I hadn’t noticed it until now. I take it. Not a huge amount of options otherwise. It is significantly darker, actually, and it opens out after a tense fumbling trek that seems to last an age, into a room. A very large room. Although somehow smaller for the presence that resides within.
“I’m sorry it has taken a little time for us to become acquainted,” says the presence. “The nature of the operation here requires a certain level of discretion. I’m sure you understand. Honestly, not many find their way to me. And it’s not necessary for the day to day running of things for my person to be made known to all. In fact it would be a great hindrance. But I recognised from the start that you and I would meet. Every now and then someone finds a way, and I sense them when they draw near. I think of it as a gift of intuition,” she says, tucking errant hair into a purple turban.
A pause. The woman removes a cigarette from somewhere inside the scarlet dress (robes?) that drapes her ample form, and ignites it on a nearby candle. One of the many candles that adorn the room. Odd that this room in the centre of a facility of cold metal and tracking turrets should be decked with candles. Odd as well that the candle is placed upon what looks like a cash register. And now I see that the room is full of those too, of different designs and styles from modern to vintage, each with a candle on top. The woman continues, “I won’t offer you a smoke, I don’t want to encourage you.” Then she winks at me, and behind an issuing cloud I catch sight of a smile. I really wish that I had not. The woman takes another drag of her cigarette, and as she does gold bangles, baubles, and bracelets of various kinds jangle on her wrist and arm. In her left hand she has what looks like a wine goblet, also of gold. She sips from it and it seems to darken the rouge of her lips.
“So, getting back to the advent of this encounter, what usually happens now in these situations is we agree on a way forward. There are always roles to fill for the willing.”
My mind is turning with questions, but I can’t gather enough cohesion to formulate any that would make sense. I am hovering on the precipice of a profound revelation, grasping mentally to secure it, but I am confronted by shadow, and fear, and inertia.
“I can’t find my boots,” I say.
“I know, honey. It’s okay. That’s not important now,” she says. And the cigarette flares once more.
I have apparently been given special privileges. There is a house – an understatement, a sprawling mansion – and I have been given permission to leave the subterranean complex to serve in this house under the charge of the most trusted servants. I am now being shown the run down and poorly lit living quarters by a pack of ragged looking young men. No sharp uniforms here I note. Several of them have taken hold of chunky iron rings and are straining to pull out a large wooden pallet like box to which the rings are attached from under a massive, and what I assume must be communal, bed. The servants lift the lid off the box and inside among some straw, and some unpleasant smelling detritus of indeterminable nature, are three young men bound hand and foot. They are also gagged, and apparently unconscious.
“They are kept stored like this throughout the house,” says one of the pack. “If the ones in your section have been taken out for any reason then you need to make sure they are put away before you sleep. Depending on what they’ve been used for you may need to clean them up. Most likely you will. Don’t worry too much if they are missing parts, but if any perish, there are rules regarding disposal which you’ll be told about later. Make sure you obey those, because people get them wrong all the time and it causes untold problems. In the meantime just remember to keep your section tidy. You’ll be paired up with Scotland who will show you the ropes.” His words barely register. I nod.
“Why do they call you Scotland?” I ask.
“How come dae ye think?”
“They said you’ll show me the ropes.”
He’s thin and pale. His hair is short and dark. Handsome. I feel oddly comfortable in his presence. He has a look in his eyes. An alive look. A rarity among those I’ve encountered in this place. It stirs me in ways I should probably find troubling, but don’t.
“Stay here until I come back. And get some kip,” he says. Sounding a lot less Scottish than a moment ago.
I feel like I’ve been asleep for a very long time, but in reality it was only a few hours. The house is quiet. A warm body sleeps next to me on one side, but on the other side is the edge of the bed. Below me there are thumps and muffled groans. It is dark, but not completely. I cannot tell the source of the ambient light, but I can spot the outline of a door. The one I came in by. That will do. I gather myself together.
Corridors. My existence is blighted by corridors. From the one I’m standing in I can see into a room, a kitchen by the looks of it, in which a young girl stands washing pans. She hasn’t noticed me. It occurs to me that this is the first girl I’ve seen in… I’m suddenly not sure if I’ve seen one before. Here. I mean. I must have seen a girl before. There was the woman only a few hours earlier. The woman at the centre of the underground complex with the cigarette and the smile. The woman in charge. But here now is a girl. Looking wretched. I move on. Probably best if I’m not seen.
The arm that grabs me from behind is lean and strong. A hand muffles my mouth. My right arm is pinned behind me and an elbow pushes into the small of my back, hard, but only enough to drive me forward. I’m led to a landing at the top of some stairs. The arm releases me, and spins me around. Scotland.
“Usually when a person has been given special privileges it is enough for them to settle down. At least for a while. But not you. You have curiosity. A dangerous thing.”
“I need to find a way out. I don’t belong here. I was somewhere else before. I remember. Vaguely, but I remember.” My voice finds some forcefulness, some vim. “I remember,” I say again.
“I don’t doubt you. And neither does she. But you have forgotten one thing. The alarms? Earlier? You found your way out of the routine assigned to you because there was commotion and alarms going off – right?” He does a little bobbing thing with his head.
“Yes, there were alarms and I was supposed to help but I couldn’t find my boots,” I say.
“They weren’t really your boots were they?”
“No.” I look at my bare feet.
“Okay. In brief. You’re not the first one to remember. But, you do seem to have triggered a particularly strong set of reactions. The alarms have been going in the underground for some time. And outside it has been storming relentlessly. She moved you here to placate you, as she always does, she is very accommodating like that. I’m guessing this time it hasn’t worked.”
“How do you know this? You don’t seem particularly placid to me. How is it that you don’t trigger alarms, and storms?”
“I did. I’ve been responsible for some pretty memorable storms. But somehow it wasn’t enough. The timing wasn’t right. And I learned to abide by the rules. I reigned in my nature,” he shrugged.
“She must be pretty stupid if she assigned you to me as a mentor. She must have known there was a risk?” I say.
“It’s been a long time. And who said there was a risk? I’m telling you this, but you have no idea what I’m going to do now I’ve caught you wandering the corridors at night when you should have been sleeping.”
At the top of the next flight of stairs, on a landing there, I catch sight of movement. A prowler. On four legs. I can just about see it, but I don’t believe what I’m seeing. It looks like a large cat. And then it roars.
“Shit,” I say, and make to run. Scotland grabs me by the arm.
“Relax. I told you there were storms. The leopard and the storms they are allied. Its presence is not unfamiliar to us. Whenever the storms appear so does the leopard. Whatever its purpose, it apparently has no intention of harming us.”
“And you?” I say, forcibly jerking my arm out of his grip. “What exactly is your intention?”
“Isn’t it obvious? I intend to claim my freedom.”
The sound of crashing and running echoes up the stairs from below. Something has woken the servants. I can hear shouts, and doors slamming. I look first at Scotland and then back up towards where the leopard was a moment ago. It has gone. I turn again to Scotland, and I see a young face wearied by years of compliance and servitude. But I see fire. Burning still.
“It’s your time too. Or soon will be.” I blurt at him. “This isn’t just about me. And somehow she knows. It’s no coincidence she placed us together. She was probably expecting things to calm down for a while. That you’d placate me long enough for her to figure out what was happening. She hasn’t forgotten the storms of the past, but she doesn’t know what is unfolding around her now. What we remember is outside of her power. This is bigger than her.” I’ve no idea where this stuff is coming from. My brain, like the storm I too can now hear raging outside, is super-charged.
“You think there aren’t rebels in the house? Would-be revolutionaries and factions of every stripe occupy the many levels of this place. It’s not all calm. Controlled. But not calm. None of them know what is really going on or what they would do if their efforts yielded notable success, but they push at things regardless. She obviously knows a lot more than we think. And she laughs at these rebels, who I’m fairly certain serve her, just in a different way. So maybe you are right, but she sees a bigger picture than we do right now,” he says.
“If those rebels serve her then it is probably because she uses them to create confusion. What is real? What is not? Those others don’t remember. We do. And that’s why she is afraid.”
“You didn’t even know about the storms or any rebels until just now and suddenly you can determine what is true in all this? Wow! I’m impressed.”
“No need for sarcasm.” I say, the force of my conviction lost.
“And you’re a better man than me, because honestly, I’ve just got far enough to recognise some of the surprising forms that the lies can take,” he continued, ignoring me.
Scotland let me go. I knew he would. I’m outside, the cold biting against me. My feet, still naked, pound wet earth. Behind me is the mansion. And rising above the walls beyond it I can now see that it is just one of many. I imagine there to be a vast open plain full of these buildings each encircled within their own walled perimeter but linked by an endless network of underground catacombs and tunnels. I stay focused ahead where I can see a crowd of adults gathering in what looks like a driveway. There are double automatic doors positioned across it. They are open but slowly closing. There are servants and guards rushing towards the crowd of people gathered there. Those people look relaxed, indifferent to the frantic and near hysterical behaviour of the young servants, and not to have noticed the guards or the storm. I push on. I can see the leopard is sitting out in the open now. The dark raindrops falling on its fur look as though they are the cause of its spots. The leopard is the storm and the storm is the leopard. In this place the most surreal abstractions make a kind of twisted sense.
Shots are fired. The guards are shooting at the people gathered in front of the double doors. But the bullets are passing though them. And I realise those people aren’t really here. I get it now in one of those eureka type moments as if the lightning has struck me, and contained not surging currents of potentially lethal voltage, but divine inspiration. The storm. The alarms. The outside is crashing in. The wider outside beyond the walls of this place. And I am the reason. But so too is Scotland. In the past perhaps it wasn’t enough when just one remembered. But now there is more than one. Maybe there are others still that I don’t know about.
More bullets. One very close by. I need to be careful. I am still here in this world of the child soldiers with their red and black uniforms. I doubt their bullets will pass through me without harm. But I have nowhere to go. Only forward. My feet are slapping a sodden rhythm. My head is charged by the storm, and thoughts of Scotland, and leopards, and children bound under beds.
A lad rushes past me. He’s making a full-on dash for the gates. He’s from here — young and dressed in the tattered clothing of a slave. I am stirred from my mesmerism by his sudden appearance and bolt after him at full pelt. My mind doesn’t have time to question the whys or hows of his sudden appearance. We both run straight at the assembled crowd of newcomers and panicked servants. The crowd parts, but I suspect they needn’t have. We drive on through, this lad and I, and out of the gates as they are about to close.
In the streets beyond there are many puzzled faces. A few have stopped to look at the gates of the complex as they close, as though noticing them for the first time. A sign on the gates, made of red lettering enclosed within a red circle, reads: Cult II. From this side the gates look like they belong to an abandoned warehouse. I am in the outside world. Home? Free? I realise immediately and instinctively that the existence of The Tyrant and the world I have just left is completely obscured from sight here. The people going about their business are ignorant, but they are not unaffected. These worlds connect. One creates the other and vice versa.
The lad who came through the door with me is lying outside of the gates on the pavement, apparently asleep. In his soiled and ruined clothing he looks like any of the young homeless people you see on the streets in the big city. And in that I have perhaps the first truly lucid moment of recognition regarding my own life. Few pay the lad any mind. Although a small crowd are standing around looking disoriented and vague as if afflicted for a brief moment by spirit possession or alien interference. I wonder if when he awakens the boy will remember as I do. His was a lucky escape it would seem. A desperate last minute dash that thankfully aided my own liberation. Something that strikes me as a little convenient. Or at the very least bound by more than chance.
I walk on with no idea of where to head. Placing one foot in front of the other, I think of the servants in the mansion, the perverted caricature of some warped fable that is their reality, and I even wonder about returning. But I’m fairly certain if I opened the gates, if I could open the gates, I would find only an abandoned warehouse on the other side. I still have more to remember. I don’t even know how I got there the first time or who I actually am in this world. And there is certainly something very strange about the way I have come back. Very little makes sense. It is like my mind has replaced detail and logic with sign and suggestion. But I’m confident it’s just a matter of time. I’m getting the hang of this memory thing. And I at least know my feet are now encased in a comfortable, if exceptionally well worn, pair of boots. My own boots. If I have learned anything from that place, it is that these symbolic details matter.
I won’t question how the boots have come to suddenly appear since my leaving. I guess I’ll need to get the hang of these new rules in time. Like the way certain things are connected by threads that are not always obvious. That is something I feel I have also come to know. In my head I have this fuzzy sense of a multitude of interconnected life and environmental strands. I can almost see them. They completely elude the dulled sense of the crowd I now walk among, but they are webbed by them just as strongly. More, I might say. If I concentrate I sense that even the external world of seemingly fixed matter and form can be altered by plucking at the right situational thread; as though the apparently solid material world takes its shape according to a vast network of hidden thought lines. Of course my own mind could just be unravelling. Maybe I should seek help. I know I need to find a way to help those others. Especially that Scottish lad. With the fire in his eyes. Who desires above all else to be free. And whose time I feel certain is soon to come.