Teamaster: A Syfy Alice Experiment – Part 2

alice_13Instant gratification had been running for a while, but industrialism was like a huge, monstrous machine, devouring the old world. What the Queen called the winds of change were hurricanes of black smoke that left a permanent, filthy fog in the air, clinging to the thousands of new buildings and sinking like cancer into the older ones. The poor, and those without family (people who wouldn’t be missed anyway, the Queen and her architects reasoned), found themselves being removed from their stone and wood dwellings that clung like barnacles to palaces and castles and the like, and forced into others so high they touched the greyness at the top of the sky. The new buildings were tall and spindly, like gigantic knitting needles, and the upper floors swayed in the wind. There was some kind of grey film painted onto the windows that was meant to keep out heat and cold, but attracted them with a vengeance. The Hearts said it was only temporary. The Resistance said it was to get people out of the way.

Hatter lived in a block called Wits’ End, which was in a permanent state of riot. When you walked to the lift in the morning, you’d often find yourself ankle-deep in Resistance and Hearts propaganda that had somehow escaped being papered to the walls. Resistance members gave ‘clandestine’ and very noisy weekly meetings in someone’s flat that would involve fires indoors in winter and stolen fans in summer. Both Hearts supporters and people who were simply interested in a good night’s sleep would often disrupt these gatherings and alternately ask for peace and quiet, make threats, or offer each member of the group a drop of passion if they would only shut up. This sort of thing usually ended disastrously, since each person who wanted peace and quiet was branded a Hearts informant and consequently threatened with death in the name of the great leader Caterpillar. Sometimes things ended so badly that the Resistance would send someone in the local chain of command to tell the idiots to quiet down unless they wanted the Resistance to get a reputation as a gang of hooligans who couldn’t be trusted to run a building, never mind a kingdom. This person would usually scold the culprits and congratulate them afterwards, which didn’t help much. Occasionally, one of the people accused of being a Hearts informant would actually turn out to be a Hearts informant, and the Suits would swoop down on the building like crows. Without consulting their informant, who would in any case be passed out in a state of the blissful tranquility he was paid in, they’d conduct a thorough search of the building that involved much shouting, breaking of furniture and beating/arresting of residents, who would then be escorted back to the palace, which they were now required by law to call ‘the Hearts Casino’ (though nobody knew why) for questioning. None of the people who got out were ever sent back to the building they had come from, but in the bars and teashops you heard stories about lime green coloured rooms in which knives were stabbed into your sides without killing you, and a little man (or was it two?) talked to you till you cried and screamed.

Hatter had learned early on that declaring himself to be neither Hearts nor Resistance usually won the automatic goodwill of all but the most radical Wonderlanders, and that it was a sure way to stay alive for longer, this despite the fact that he had rented his couch to one of Wits’ End’s greatest troublemakers, a bloke called March that he had grown up with out in the tea farms, way back before the Hearts had started their farm invasions. March was guaranteed to be at the center of any raucous Resistance meeting that happened to be taking place when the Hearts came to call, but the Resistance also had him marked down as ‘not to be trusted’ because he was known to smuggle nectar. Thus Hatter would inevitably be drawn into the mess with him, either in shouting at him to calm down while he was being arrested and unwittingly getting arrested himself, or being repeatedly summoned to some prison or other to bail March out (he later learned that March had listed him as his next of kin). On top of this, March had been to the casino and back innumerable times and wasn’t supposed to be back in the block in the first place. But each time, he popped up again with a black eye or a broken leg asking ‘Can I stay here with you for a few days, mate?’ and he’d be sleeping on the sofa and talking in his sleep again before the conversation was over.
One night, the banging and shouting that always heralded the arrival of the Suits began again, and Hatter stumbled out of bed to make sure that the more breakable of his personal effects were in places where they wouldn’t suffer much damage. He sighed when he saw that March was not on the couch and surmised that he wouldn’t see much of him for a few days, or that he might just see him the very next morning when he got out of prison. He tried not to worry. But he did.

He was thus occupied when the door of his flat opened and shut with as little sound as a dormouse drawing breath. He sighed.
‘What, you lot are trying to be stealthy now?’ he shouted at the top of his lungs, ‘Come in! Break the house down! Let me show you where we keep me Mum’s china!’

He stomped through to the entrance hall expecting to be assaulted. Nobody was there. He could hear Suits moving around on the floor below. It suddenly occurred to him that March might be drunk on nectar with those fools in the cocoon down the hall who always took his pearls before denouncing him the next day; and that he might be able to prevent him from getting arrested again if he got him out of that Resistance den of hell and back into the flat before the Suits arrived. As he opened the door, it was flung open from the outside and hit him full in the face, making his head spin kaleidoscopically. Tasting blood in his mouth, he stumbled ungracefully to his feet as the flat filled with Suits, their search conducted with as much noise and their conversation in as many decibels as usual. Content that they seemed to be ignoring him for the moment, he crept into the kitchen to wash out his mouth.

There was a corner cupboard to the right as one entered, and standing pressed against it was a woman. She had all the demeanor of someone accustomed to fear; she glared intently at him but expressed no intention of pleading with him. Her black hair was plastered to her face, and she breathed shallowly through her nose, trying to control the sound of her breathing. Looking at her, he was paralysed by fear: if he was found to be harbouring a fugitive (he had no doubt that that was what she was), it’d be prison for the rest of his life and a good long stint in the casino before he was allowed that luxury, and what would happen to March? Arrested too, probably, tortured again, all his fault…the flat seemed deathly silent as he looked at her: where were the bloody Suits? But he couldn’t give her up: she was a girl. Weren’t you meant to be nice to girls?

Her right fist connected with his face like a sledgehammer. She caught him as he fell, dumped him on the kitchen floor and left the same way she had come, her departure as soundless as her arrival had been.

‘But where are the Suits?’ he thought once again before he passed out, ‘where are the bloody Suits?’

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Teamaster: A Syfy Alice Experiment. Part 1.

Jack had asked him if he wanted a reward. His first impulse was to say no, before years of experience kicked in and his mind restored itself to its previous comforting state of thinking of one person above all others: himself. It was surprisingly effortless.

He asked for the keys to his teashop.

Within a quarter of an hour, the keys were in his pocket and he was fading back into the labyrinth of enormous, empty shells of buildings that defied gravity, steel trees, an iron forest and the gaping holes in the earth, the ‘no go’ areas that promised a quick death to anyone who wandered into them. The news of the Queen’s defeat had not reached these neighbourhoods yet – he heard nothing but the wind, and the silent sound of memory.
‘Alice,’ he had said, and she had pulled her eyes from the abyss and taken his hand. It had been cold; cold like her fear.

Hatter swore to himself as he pushed open the door. The Suits had not even bothered to lock up behind them, so the scavengers had been, and the looters and the vandals. The light bulbs had all been stolen. The ceiling had been completely stripped and also seemed to have been burned, out of spite or a desire for warmth he could not tell. The bar was completely empty – perhaps he should have expected that. Every bottle in the place appeared to have been smashed, broken glass crunching beneath his feet. An assortment of obscenities had been spray-painted onto the walls, ‘traitor’, ‘spy,’ even ‘oyster’.

He chuckled to himself without laughter.
Passing the hat was so profitable!
So to speak.
He climbed the stairs to his office, expecting to find it in a worse state than the shop. Instead, he found the door locked and no sign of a break in.
It was worse than the vandalism.

He slowly approached the desk and chair that stood exactly as he had left them. His silver headphones still hung in their place of honour on the chair, and the contents of a half-finished cup of tea sat eerily on the other end of the desk. A ghost accompanied him everywhere he looked, stood silent and resolute on the rug, her eyes following his every movement, every nerve in her body prepared to fight, or run, her distrust of him, her innocent determination, her stubbornness. ‘How do I get to this casino?’ He still shuddered to think of her there, remembered the fear that had burned the inside of his stomach like acid that morning in the Kingdom of the Knights when he had started awake and realised that that was precisely where she had gone. Even now after everything that had happened; she still didn’t fully understand how reckless she had been, the risk that she had taken, the importance of what she had done.

‘You want me to stay?’ she had asked before disappearing into the looking glass.
Hatter approached the shelves and took down a bottle of pink nectar labeled ‘excitement’.
He’d replied no. He’d said ‘Hell, no.’

He gazed at the pink liquid and wanted more than anything to be outside himself; suddenly the veins on his hands and inner arms appeared to him in sharp relief and they seemed so small and fragile, so easy to break, so easy to puncture, it would be so easy ‘No NO,’ he growled to himself, ‘Please, no’, he pleaded with himself and gripped the bottle in his hand, focusing all his attention on it, seeing the world reduced to that plastic bottle, its little silver screw top and the shiny incandescent contents, the pink, the transparent plastic, salvation, pink, transparent, plastic salvation.

And her face hadn’t changed. That was it. For a second, she had seemed devoid of emotion and then she had smiled, rather sweetly, with something like relief.

He swallowed the entire contents of the bottle. He felt his blood surge as the effects of the drug began to take hold. What was it he’d told Ratty? Something about only taking one drop at a time ‘or the experience might burst your shriveled-up little heart. Gottit?’ The memory was uproarious, and he laughed, beginning to dance and jump about like a child discovering his first fix.

She’d looked over her shoulder at him, for just a second, he liked to think because she knew that he had lied.

Did that mean his heart was going to burst? Did it matter? The sensation defied description. His fists punched the air, and he was whooping, singing, ‘I win! I win! I win!’ along with the fifty oysters who’d been drained till they died so that this feeling could exist, their excitement bursting through his head like an exploding grapefruit. For some reason this thought made him feel sad and guilty: but why? They were singing to him, ‘I win! I win! I win!’ and their song was beautiful.

Then the looking glass had closed, and she was gone.

The adrenaline soaring in his veins began to hurt. He couldn’t see. His body was trapped in a curved mirror, turning in and out of itself, and leaping, and singing ‘I win!’ He tried to jump all the way up to the ceiling and touch it, he wanted to dance and dance and sing, because he had won, but he curled up on the floor, delirious with pain made worse by the signals in his brain telling him it wasn’t there; that nothing was there but excitement.

Why is a raven like a writing desk?
But why does that matter? I’ve won!

He’d once seen a young man die of a heart attack after downing an entire bottle of this stuff. Only it wasn’t the same: what had he taken? Lust? Passion?

He screamed. His heart heaved like something diseased and exhausted, the heart of an old man, not strong enough for anything, as if were made of… what are we made of again?
Alice was studying him, more moved than surprised.
‘I was starting to think you weren’t coming back.’

He was too tired to feel. He lay flat on his back staring at that same ceiling that five minutes ago had seemed so interesting, so unattainable. It doesn’t matter. I’ve won. He looked to the side at his arm, once again examining the tiny blue canals of veins that had terrified him. It doesn’t matter. I’ve won. The song became quieter and quieter, its final notes fading away into the crevasses they’d come from.
You’re mad as a box of frogs, he thought, and you haven’t won a thing.