Fearless, p.13
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       Fearless, p.13
 

           Tim Lott
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  The houses were small and boring again now – all much the same, all quite pleasant. As on her previous two visits, ordinary houses full of ordinary people lined ordinary streets. She thought about knocking on a door. But what was the point? Even if they did believe her, one single ordinary family would not be able to do anything. There was no point if the police weren’t interested, and the Church wasn’t interested, and the City Boss and all the politicians were in cahoots with the Controller, and the rich people wouldn’t let you anywhere near them, protected as they were by fences and dogs, and by servants and machines and security guards.

  Then she saw something that gave her the feeling of what-must-be.

  Through one of the windows of one of the most ordinary of the ordinary houses, she could see yet another ordinary family: a mother, a father, a daughter and a son, all staring at the vast vidscreen that covered an entire wall of their front room.

  The remarkable thing was, Little Fearless recognized the father.

  He had a small scrubby beard and a thin white scar. He was the rubbish-lorry driver – Little Fearless was certain of it, even though she had only ever glimpsed him in the darkness. He had changed out of his work clothes; he must have just finished his shift. If she were Stargazer, she thought, she would be sure that this was a sign. So without hesitation, she marched up the path and rang the bell, which let out a deafening jangle. As it rang, the family’s expressions remained unchanged. Nobody got up.

  Hot-headed as ever, Little Fearless felt a shock of anger rush through her. She had not come all this way just to be ignored for some stupid vidscreen programme. She leaned on the doorbell so it kept on ringing.

  After several minutes, the door finally opened. It was the man with the beard and the scar.

  “Do you know what time it is?” he said sternly, looking disapprovingly at Little Fearless’s filthy clothes.

  “I don’t have a watch,” said Little Fearless sadly, thinking of her father’s silver watch that she had given to Stench.

  “It’s one minute to ten. The big prize quiz has just finished, and the touchball game between the City and the Out of Cityers is about to begin.”

  There was a pause.

  Little Fearless started to speak. “I’ve got something very important—”

  “We are all very upset. We don’t like people ringing on our doorbell at any time, but to ring when we are just home from work is positively bad manners, and to ring when we are watching the vidscreen is almost beyond—”

  “SHUT UP!” bellowed Little Fearless.

  The man looked as if someone had just slapped him. “How … how dare you speak to me like that,” he said, his face darkening, his scar turning crimson. But he didn’t shut the door.

  “My name is Little Fearless, and I have escaped from the Institute.”

  “The Institute?” repeated the man blankly.

  “The City Community Faith School, but it’s not a school. I say ‘escaped’ because it is actually a children’s prison. You don’t know me, but I know you. You drive the rubbish lorry. It’s an awful place, and the Controller keeps us all in rags, and we get sick, and some of the girls have died, and we are like slaves, and it is horrible. I can prove it too.”

  With this she reached into her pocket and drew out the perfume bottle filled with tears. “This bottle is filled with the tears of the children at the Institute. It is the proof of our misery.”

  She held out the bottle. The man looked down at her, clearly shocked. Because, like the policeman and the priest, he was not a bad person, and he loved his own children. But he didn’t understand more than he wanted to about the world, because it made him uncomfortable and unhappy to think about such unsettling things, even if they were true. Especially if they were true.

  “That can’t be the case,” said the man, not taking the bottle.

  “Why?” said Little Fearless. “Because I’m only a child?”

  “No, not at all,” he responded. “I know it isn’t true because if it was I would have seen it on the vidscreen.”

  “That,” said Little Fearless, “is stupid. The vidscreen, from what I’ve seen of it, is like … it’s like a … a pantomime on the edge of a battlefield. It distracts you from seeing what’s important right there in front of your eyes.”

  “What do you mean?” he asked, looking puzzled.

  Some light appeared in the man’s eyes, some light of intelligence and recognition that momentarily gave Little Fearless a flicker of hope.

  “I do think I know you from somewhere…” he said haltingly.

  Then a voice rang out from the front room. “John! It’s starting.”

  The man’s eyes went blank again as he looked down at Little Fearless. “I’m really terribly sorry,” said the man called John. “I have to go now. I really would like to help you, but the touchball game is about to begin.”

  “It’s started, John,” came the voice again.

  A woman appeared by his side. She was tall, pale, thin-lipped, and plainly in a hurry. “Who’s she?”

  “She says her name is Little Frightful, or something. She says she’s from the City Community Faith School.”

  “What’s she doing here then, interrupting our vidscreen?” said the woman crossly.

  “She says it’s not a school at all but a prison.”

  “What nonsense!” The woman made a snorting sound like a horse.

  “She says she can prove it.”

  “Garbage,” said the woman. “I’m calling the school to complain. The cheek of it!” And with that she disappeared.

  The man looked worried and somewhat guilty. “I’m most terribly sorry,” he said. “I really have to go. Thank you so much for stopping by. If I see something about it on the vidscreen, I’ll certainly think about getting in touch with the authorities.”

  Little Fearless gave a sad smile of resignation. She tried one last time to thrust the bottle of tears into his hands. The man hesitated, then shook his head and slowly turned away. He shut the door in her face.

  Little Fearless stood there for what seemed like a very long time staring at the closed door.

  Then she turned and threw the bottle of tears into a rubbish bin beside the front gate. With her heart in her boots, she made her way to Angel Square for what she knew would be the last time.

  When she reached the square a few minutes later, she sat down by the fountain where the angels stood, their lips dry of water, their once beautiful faces worn and decayed. She stared at the angels and spoke to them softly. “Truth, Courage and Compassion. How corny! What a joke!”

  It seemed to her that their blank faces stared back at her, as if trying to communicate some mute, ancient message. In her tiredness and despair, she carried on muttering to them.

  “You don’t know anything – you’re so crumbled down and broken. Where are the fountains that once sprang from your mouths? You’re dumb. You don’t know the answers to any of my questions.”

  Little Fearless was talking loudly now.

  “Why won’t the people see when they have a million eyes? And what about Eidolon? Is there just one god? Are there a hundred gods? Is there no god at all? Are we at the Institute nothing, just because we have no one?”

  Little Fearless picked up a pebble and threw it wildly at the nearest angel. It bounced off a wing and fell into the dry base of the fountain.

  “There are so many whys, and I’m just a poor, stupid girl who’s hot-headed, stubborn and untidy. My head hurts from not understanding. My heart hurts from being alone.”

  Now she stood, a lonely figure in the square, and screamed at the night sky, “Where are your answers?”

  The statues were silent. All she could hear was the wind, which blew just as coldly and as relentlessly as before. Her heart sank still further into her boots. She looked back at the angels and muttered to herself, “Stupid angels. Stupid people. Stupid me for telling stupid stories.”

  Little Fearless turned away from where the angels stood m
utely on their crumbling plinth and inspected the square. This time the holiday coach was not there. Just an empty space.

  She did not care. She no longer believed that there was a place called the Sunlands. Or if there was, it would rain and be cold all the time. Names, she had learned, meant nothing. The Institute called itself a school but was a prison. The people in the City were people the same as she was, had children just like her, but they behaved as if she were an animal because of her appearance and her bad luck to have ended up where she had. Eidolon was meant to look after everyone, but it seemed he only helped people who were neat and tidy and had giant vidscreens and expensive cars.

  She had to go back to the Institute. She knew that if she just disappeared, the other girls would pay the price. She had to go back, admit her failure and take the blame. She assumed the man’s wife had been as good as her word and had telephoned the Controller.

  So it was that less than an hour later, still not afraid, but sad and rather lonely, Little Fearless found herself back in Hall Seven.

  Oroborous Unmasked

  You have no name.

  You have no family.

  You have no past.

  Only when you understand this

  will you have a future.

  The Controller

  The lights were still out, and everything seemed to be quiet. Little Fearless allowed herself a bit of hope. Perhaps the woman had been so absorbed by the vidscreen that she’d forgotten to phone the Institute.

  When she approached her bunk, she sensed that something was wrong but couldn’t work out what. As she began to undress, she saw that her pillows seemed different somehow, but she was too tired to care.

  She crouched down to see if Stargazer was awake. There was just a shape under the blankets. Little Fearless decided that the bad news could wait. She tenderly touched the shape, and blew Stargazer a silent kiss. Wearily she removed the last of her clothes. She couldn’t even be bothered to put on her pyjamas. She took a look around the dormitory. She could hear the slow breathing of the girls from the beds all around her. She felt overcome by exhaustion.

  She pulled back the sheets, yawning. Then her face froze in a mask of horror.

  Lying there, fully dressed in her uniform, was Lady Luck, her marble eyes wide open and her face set in a terrible, triumphant smile.

  “Surprise,” she said, in her fake-sweet voice.

  Little Fearless reeled back. She heard another voice – a man’s.

  “You’re late.”

  She spun round. The Controller had emerged like a phantom out of the shadows. Behind him, the Whistler had her arm round Stargazer’s neck. She pulled back the covers of Stargazer’s bed to reveal a scattering of pillows. Stench and Bellyache stood behind the Whistler. Stench looked like she was about to speak, but Little Fearless gave a little shake of her head. Lady Luck silently rose from the bed and seized Little Fearless fiercely by the shoulders. She did not struggle.

  “So the woman phoned you after all,” said Little Fearless flatly, almost to herself.

  “Woman. What woman?” said the Controller almost cheerfully. “No one has telephoned.”

  “Oh,” said Little Fearless. She looked around, and saw that Tattle was awake in the neighbouring bunk staring at her. “Tattle. I forgive you,” she said softly. “I know you didn’t mean it.”

  But Tattle shook her head violently. “I didn’t tell anyone, Little Fearless,” she said. “I swear.”

  “It’s all right, Tattle. You can’t help who you are. I should never have told you about the plan in the first place. It was my fault.”

  “Actually, she’s telling the truth,” said the Controller.

  “But … but I don’t understand,” said Little Fearless, bewildered. “How did you find out?”

  Now the Controller looked at Stargazer, who was still in the Whistler’s grip. She was holding herself absolutely rigid.

  “She betrayed you,” he said matter-of-factly, nodding at Stargazer. “Your very best friend of all.”

  Little Fearless turned her gaze on Stargazer, whose face now looked anguished and contorted.

  “What is he talking about, Stargazer?”

  At first Stargazer didn’t answer, but simply stared at the floor. But finally, after a long silence, she did speak, her voice cracked and marbled with guilt.

  “It’s true.”

  Little Fearless couldn’t believe what she was hearing. The world seemed to swim before her eyes. Stargazer was welling up with tears. She spoke again, more urgently this time, as if pleading for forgiveness.

  “I told on you. It was never Tattle, always me. I told them about the stories you told us. That’s how the Controller knew about them. If I didn’t spy for them, they threatened to have you taken away.

  “Then you made your plans to escape. After that I decided to keep quiet, and tried to throw the Controller off the scent by making stuff up about it being other girls, not you at all. But in the end, I believed my vision was going to come true. That you were going to die if you kept trying to escape. So I told on you. But not until this final time, when I felt you were in the most danger. That’s why the X girls were waiting for you at the rubbish bins. I tried to talk you out of going, and I thought I could. But you wouldn’t change your mind.”

  Little Fearless was silent.

  “Say something, Little Fearless. Don’t you see – I did it for you. I had to stop you dying. I had to. I betrayed you because I love you, Little Fearless.”

  Stargazer burst into tears. Little Fearless smiled sadly.

  “You see, Z73. No one can be trusted. That is why we need rules. They are the only things you can rely on, in the end,” said the Controller quietly.

  Now Bellyache seized Little Fearless as well. She and Lady Luck stood either side of her, their fingers gripping her hard enough to raise vivid red marks on her skin. She was still undressed and she seized her old tweed jacket to try to cover herself up.

  The Controller made an announcement in a voice loud enough to wake the slumbering girls. “Everyone awake and out of their beds. Right now.”

  And within a few minutes, everyone was up, standing and gaping at the forlorn figure of Little Fearless, naked apart from a ragged jacket. Stargazer was still crying. Stench looked unhappy and puzzled. But the Whistler and Bellyache and Lady Luck seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. The girls stared at the sight in front of them. There was silence. No one moved a muscle. No one, not even Beauty, Soapdish or Tattle, spoke a word of protest.

  “We have caught the child who left the protection of the school,” said the Controller, his voice low and hypnotic. “Look at her carefully. Look at her, naked and pathetic and more lost than ever before. Take your last look. Then forget. Forget everything. It will be better for you all. Only in forgetting is there peace.”

  There was silence and stillness. Then the X girls started to take Little Fearless away. Still nobody moved and nobody said anything. Only Stargazer screamed and shouted.

  “Stop them! It’s Little Fearless, the bravest of the brave! If we lose her, we are all lost. If we forget her, we will all be forgotten. Stand and fight. There are more of us than them. Stand together!”

  But it was just Stargazer, and no one took any notice of her.

  Stargazer alone tried to push away the X girls as they led Little Fearless from the dormitory. Then she threw her arms around Little Fearless’s neck and held on tight. Just before Lady Luck and the Whistler finally prised her away, Stargazer heard Little Fearless whisper something in her ear, something only she could hear.

  Only then did she let go.

  ***

  A few minutes later, Little Fearless found herself in a small darkened room in the Control Block facing the Controller. They were alone. Little Fearless shivered in her jacket. The Controller reached under the table and brought out a large plain woollen blanket. He handed it to Little Fearless. Eagerly she wrapped it around herself. She gazed at the Controller, waiting for what would hap
pen next.

  The Controller himself seemed unsure. After maybe a complete minute of silence had passed, his face resolved itself into a kind of tired resignation. He brought out a large, leather-bound book and let it drop onto the table in front of him with a dull thud.

  “Do you know what this is, Little Fearless?” asked the Controller quietly. His voice sounded different to her. Less harsh, less dry, almost human. And he said her name – not her number, her name – without contempt.

  Little Fearless shook her head and gathered the blanket tighter around her.

  “It is the book of rules,” he said simply.

  “I know them already,” she muttered, not prepared for another lecture about all the things she wasn’t allowed to do in the Institute.

  “You don’t understand,” he continued. “They are not your rules. They are my rules. They are issued to me by the City Boss and the Ten Corporations. Just as you have to follow rules, I also have to do what I am told.”

  There was another pause. The Controller seemed to be struggling with himself. He looked down at the floor. When he looked up again, he almost seemed to be pleading with Little Fearless.

  “I have devoted much of my life to following rules. After many difficult and painful experiences, I have learned that it is for the best, however hard and unfair it may seem. That is what I have tried to teach you in this place, Little Fearless. You are too young to make sense of the world. There are things I know that…” He paused, and seemed to gather himself for a second.

  “There are things you don’t know, and can’t know. But believe me. Believe me. What is about to happen must happen. It must happen because it is in the rules. And without the rules, there is nothing. We are all lost.”

  Little Fearless gazed at him, her eyes wide. “What difficult and painful experiences?” she asked.

  “I beg your pardon?” The Controller looked confused.

  “You said you have had many difficult and painful experiences. What were they?”

  Little Fearless held him in her gaze. Suddenly it was as if he were the captive, and she the one imprisoning him. He wriggled and shifted uncomfortably.

 
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