Forever and ever

by Ed Wilson

Image for cover of Ed Wilson's book Drums

Anna Bradley came awake in a moment, staring wide-eyed into the gathering light. She caught herself thanking something nameless for granting her one more day.

"Work to do," she hissed, kicking off the covers to feel on the floor for her slip-ons. It was warm - why let the air control deny it was September? - and she needed a shower. But not yet. David was coming this morning, and there would be time enough. She stood up, slicing the shards of light which lanced through the ceiling blinds - more than enough to show herself in the mirror on the opposite wall.

The wake-up ritual had developed over the weeks. She pushed her shoulders back one at a time, smoothed the satin pyjamas down over her stomach, ran a hand through her short, chestnut hair. The movements varied, but the rapid perusal of her body in the glass - short, slim and graceful still, she thought - was the same every day, as was the approach to the mirror to look herself in the eye.

"Good body, Bradley. Why don't you keep it?" Swallowing a yawn, she turned to leave the bedroom. "Screen on!"

A picture lit up in the wall - deserted lawns in early morning sunlight, empty and unassuming driveways reaching out between the trees. "Not that! News!" she shouted, cursing her weakness, unprepared for what she knew she would see. She was fighting this thing and she was going to win, but she had no desire to follow the cameras as they scanned the area around her home. In case they found something out there which was planning to suck the life out of her. Irritated, she shivered.

There were few surprises in the news, but it was her own selection and some would have called it parochial. There were items about three business projects in which she had an interest, and a long analysis of the pros and cons of a new financial centre in Edinburgh. Since she lived within easy reach of that city and made her living by dealing in money, the appeal was obvious, predictable.

Her feed was also programmed to seek out even the most trivial stories about people she knew, and whatever it might discover about the Semper Corporation, which wanted her dead. But when a piece about Semper did appear from time to time, it was either the driest of business coverage or the smiling face of the corporation's latest happy, rejuvenated client.

Anna watched these news-ads eagerly, listening hard, searching for a crack in the armour, following up promising leads on the wires while she held the news on pause. And yet, despite the concentration, she would often fail to take in a single word, her foolish brain trying to protect her from something she had to face up to. And then she would be really angry.

As she moved on to select her breakfast, one particular head in the holo-tank nibbled away in the corner of her eye. It took a couple of seconds to recognise the man, but then she laughed out loud.

"Roger, you old goat." His thin face grew, deep contours lighting up on either side of a sharp nose as the edit brought him out towards the audience. The image gained in depth as well as size, and eyes as big as hands followed her into the kitchen. The tank sat in the partition between bedroom, kitchen, and the main room of the house, her beloved observatory, and gave a full-depth view from just about anywhere in the building.

Roger was talking as he always did - about his latest film - playfully fending off questions about his relationships with its young stars. It was thirty years since Anna's path had first crossed his, and he'd been single-minded in his pursuit of pleasure then. Nowadays the stories were wilder every time.

"That's the way he defies his age...." The words came suddenly and hung in the air, their bitterness surprising her. She stopped, breakfast half selected, her eyes pricking with unwanted tears. She gulped a big mouthful of orange juice and cancelled the rest. A woman with news of the latest trends in cross-border finance had replaced Roger in the tank, but whoever the eyes belonged to, they followed Anna round and down the two steps onto the long pine floor of the observatory. She turned her back and walked away from the picture.

"I should do what he does," she whispered at the big window. "Make do with a new lover every week." The glass was three metres high and fifteen from end to end, uninterrupted, and the world outside was bright. It should have been appealing. "But I chose immortality, and now I have to defy that!"

Each building on the settlement was set apart from the others, and this one stood on a rocky outcrop - just a pimple on the mountainside, but enough to give her a magnificent view of the slope above and around, and the patches of dark green, tended forest clinging to it. It was a view to make you stare for minutes at a time, but this morning she couldn't quite remember how to feel about it.

"Screen: exercise!" At her words the tank changed again - a grinning man in sweat-patched leotard, a dozen similar figures of both sexes following his every move and his every shouted instruction as the music boomed and buzzed. "Restart!" The image faded to black, then those perfect thighs and pectorals reappeared, still gleaming but not yet sweaty.

The electronic drums picked up the beat and Anna put herself in the centre of the sprung floor. It wasn't difficult to follow the routines - they hardly changed from session to session on this channel. And five minutes of exercise was quite enough - especially in loose night clothes - so she called "Screen: off!" and strode back to the kitchen, a bigger orange juice in mind.

Then she stood again at the long window, cool tumbler in hand, gazing out at the world. The rest of the settlement - fifteen exclusive dwellings, fifteen people or sets of people she had almost no contact with - extended down the road towards the distant valley. From her little ridge she could construct a scene which went right up to the dark, tree-covered slopes, so that she could believe her money had bought her a whole mountain, not just the best view of it.

Anna felt her pulse returning to normal, and the sweat turning cold on her back. Like an icy finger, she thought, and almost shouted out loud when she stole a quick glance around the room.

"Get a grip," she told herself. "Nobody comes in here without my say-so." And no soul-hungry slip of a girl was going to get the word. Reassured, or at least distracted, by her own bluster, Anna returned to the bedroom. She took out clothes for the day, checked the mobility of the bracelet on her wrist then, walking slowly from room to room, she waited.

****

I'm hungry. When I'm outside the building, which is the way to the dining room? And there's nobody here to invite me to eat. It's cold, but it feels better if I hug myself. There's light from somewhere, and noises...

What's wrong with noises? Back home, the noises never stop. But they never come near to me either. Talking's not a noise, not with the people I know. You hear them, but they're not noise.

Should I go home? I don't know where that is. Or should I go and seek my fortune? That sounds like a good thing to do, but where do I start?

It's just like a normal morning, when I wake up. The light spreads and it's a new day. But today the light is so far away and there are no walls. I can stand up and walk three steps, four, five, six, and there's still a long way to go.

A man down there, running across the grass. I don't know him - better wait behind this tree and watch. He's not coming this way, and I don't know whether I want him to. Would he know me?

Further on, across the grass but always further up - the mountain is there - there's a little bench. It's hard, metal, with holes in the seat, and it's uncomfortable - just a moment sitting there and I want to move on. The world is too big to look at, but I can't turn away.

The bench wasn't all bad, though. I can think that, now I'm back in the shelter of the trees. There was a candy bar waiting for me on the metal seat - somebody opened it for me. It tastes very good.

****

The sun was everywhere now, and Anna was content for a moment to let the tank show her pictures from the security cameras. Perhaps a shower would be OK now, but again and again she selected the view of the road up from the gate, up from Edinburgh. Nearly eight o'clock now and, sure enough, a classic vehicle was moving silently up the hill. She relaxed and allowed the system to choose its own vantage points, tracking his progress onto her plot.

David was still a handsome man, she thought, as she watched him step out of his car. He looked up at the house and already his brow was creased with concern. He would know she was watching - he would hope she was watching - but it wasn't just for the camera. He pushed the heavy black hair off his forehead, then adjusted his position with a hand on the vehicle's roof.

She watched him perform the little rituals - checking that he's taken everything he needs from the locker, putting the key in his pocket, then taking it out again because it's still needed. He'd been wearing a jacket as he drove up, but now he looked around at the bright hillside and leant in again to threw it onto the back seat.

"Screen: off." When it was all over, she would give David and Clara the best meal she could find and a hundred times more, but for now it wasn't fair to watch him, even if he knew he might be watched, even if everyone in the whole damned world knew they were in memory almost everywhere they went. Anna forced herself to sit, in her robe and the sweaty night clothes she had worn for her exerciss, until her visitor actually got to the door and triggered the annunciator.

"Hello?" She kept up the pretence a moment longer. David would know she was expecting him. After a moment's thought he would probably tell her off for not supervising his every step to the door, but it was worth it for the few seconds when she could pretend she really was safe and secure and ordinary.

"It's David," the air announced unnecessarily. The tank was back on - automatically - to verify whoever was standing at her door. He looked agitated and she had no reason to delay him further. The brief, pointless experiment was over.

"Door: open," she intoned, standing automatically to greet him. He held her shoulders for a moment, kissing her cheek, then stood back.

"You're looking good this morning."

"Don't tease me David. I need a shower and some time to finish off."

"No, I mean it. You look relaxed. It's good to see you." She felt a momentary blossoming, the state of being flattered, liking it, but the smile in his eyes was faltering.

"There's something wrong..." She wanted him to deny it but he walked past her, stood staring through the inescapable big window, up towards the peak, getting something out of it. He spoke without turning.

"She's loose."

"Who?" But Anna knew, and suddenly she felt the weight of every one of her fifty-nine years.

"She got out some time last night. I had a message from my contact in Semper."

"And where is it now?" Anna refused to personify this threat to her being, but she was the only one who made the distinction.

"They're not sure, but my information is that she's tagged, so they'll catch up with her soon."

Anna had simply wanted to take a shower, just a moment of abandon guaranteed by David's presence, but now, in her mind's eye, she piled on layer upon layer - clothes, walls, the hillside itself. Anything to conceal her from what might be stalking out there.

****

There's a mountain up there. I know that's what it is - rocks and trees and snow sometimes. Jack says I'll be living there some time soon, but it's a long way. I'm not sure I want to go up the mountain. Would it be a good place to live? I want to go home.

"Good morning." Somebody's behind me, creeping up on me. It's a man with a red face, rubbing the back of his neck with a towel. His hair is short and grey, and his clothes are all green, and I don't know him. Will he hurt me? Perhaps he's the man I saw running just before.

"Hello." I said that. Back home, my voice is like every other voice. Out here it seems to be swallowed up in the air.

"Beautiful morning," he says, and he presses the towel into his face with both hands. His eyes are covered, just for a moment, and I can think again. I've spoken to men before - Jack of course, and some others that Veronica introduced to me - but who is this? "Hey, I'm sorry. I'll leave you alone with your thoughts."

He stares at me, and I want him to go, quickly. He knows. He tucks the towel into the neck of his shirt and runs off gently down the hill. There's a white stripe down the side of his trousers. I want to call him back, but I'm still frightened of him, and it's too late.

"Hello..." My voice again. The sound disappears immediately, but the memory stays with me. I heard myself, but I'm the only one.

I'm alone again and I don't know the way home. The only thing I can recognise is the mountain. It looks as if it's a long way away. Will it be grassy all the way there? What kind of home will I find?

****

As she removed her clothes, Anna's skin prickled, but she stood up straight and took her breaths as long and slow and shallow as she could make them, determined to push the fear into the background. The shower door seemed to beckon her to her doom, but she told herself not to be stupid.

Usually, even now, a shower was a chance to shut her eyes and drift away, the needles of water a wall between her consciousness and the rest of the world. Over the years, she'd had some of her best ideas in the shower because of that mental separation, but today it was as if she was being towed, naked, into the city centre and hosed down in front of the gibbering masses.

Willpower took her through it, and she forced herself to do it properly. But when it was time to step out and pull a clean towel from the slot in the wall, Anna stared at the featureless bathroom door. What was waiting on the other side? Barely dry, she bundled herself into another big robe, took a long breath and threw the door open.

None of the house alarms had sounded, of course, but it wasn't until she actually saw David's face - the short, black beard and patrician nose masking the expression in his mouth, but those hazel eyes shining through with love and reassurance - that she could tell her heart that it not only should, but would, return to a sensible beat rate.

"Y'O.K?" he asked, putting down the handbook he must have been working at, oblivious to her fears. Anna sat down primly, under control, on the nearest chair arm.

"I feel clean," she started quietly, "and ready to face the day. But not the day you've just told me might be out there."

"Come on, they've probably got her already. She's inadequate. She'll never get anywhere."

"I don't want to hear another word about that thing!" Anna said with venom. "Except that it's back behind bars. Or dead, better." Her eyes stayed hard, but her lips curled into a dreamy smile.

"Ease off, Anna. They'll have it sorted out today. They're not going to risk losing their investment."

"If you say so."

****

"Anna..." Somebody calling my name. Somebody behind me. And I'm not frightened any more because it sounds like Jack. Thankyou for coming. I've walked a long way and I'm still walking.

He's behind me, but I don't want to turn and look. I'm not excited any more, not like I was on the grass, not now the mountain has disappeared. There are people, all around, now and then, and I've run out of time to think about how to be frightened. They just walk past me, or hiss down the hill in their cars, or slowly on those funny things with animals pulling them. No more grass, just hard stone. No more mountain, just walking up hill, but no more fear either. I feel dizzy.

"Anna..." He's calling again, and my feet stand still. I wanted to see the mountain up close, but how can I tell it's still there? There are trees between the houses - all these houses - and I can't see where I'm going.

"Anna..." What am I doing here? Why am I walking towards something I can't see? It might not even be the right mountain. "Veronica wants to talk to you." It must be Jack. I'll have to turn round and see that it is.

They've brought a car, and I get to ride home. Jack's sitting in the back with me, and there's another man in the front - somebody I don't know, somebody Veronica hasn't introduced me to. The man is quiet, and Jack never even asked how I'm feeling this morning.

I can feel myself pulling away from him, clasping my hands tight. The night, this morning, it was an adventure, and Jack's ignoring it. I'm happy to be home. Here are the gates, and the flat grass, the small trees, all familiar again. But they're pretending that nothing has happened.

"I'm hungry." My voice again. Does it fade away like it did on the hill? Maybe not, but Jack's holding my arm, taking me to the front door. I'm angry he's ignoring me, and Veronica said men shouldn't pull me about. Not even Jack. But I'm home.

And I'm going to get better.