Ira was struck for a moment at the bluntness of the way the word was communicated silently with just a quick movement of hands. Unnoticed or ignored by those in the crowd, but so plainly visible to her.
The hands had raised from the old man’s sides and the fingers had pulled back like he was pulling the trigger on two pistols aimed at her head. Ira swallowed hard.
Her father’s cold, blue eyes met briefly with her own as his hands returned to his sides. In those wizened eyes were worry. The little wrinkles around them creased together as he blinked hard to stifle the water that was brimming there, threatening to reveal his deception.
Her father returned his gaze to the president’s bald patch on the left side of his hairline as the man responsible for the events that were about to happen continued to address the unsuspecting citizens in the middle of the city square.
Ira glanced at the ancient clock tower behind the group of men gathered on the podium.
Five minutes until midnight.
There were bodies everywhere around her. All gathering for the celebration of a new decade. Ira could see them cheering now, their mouths open wide, their eyes fixed happily on their leader. Not a single flicker of fear widening their pupils. Completely unaware.
She glanced once more at her father and lifting her hands to her chest, she signed the words for “I love you.”
He wasn’t looking directly at her but she could tell by the flicker of a smile that revealed itself near the corner of his lips that he had seen it. Ira ducked under the elbows above her and began to snake her way out to the back of the crowd. Being young and small had its advantages. On her way through she kept her head down, focussing on the spaces between legs. Some of the legs she pushed past were stiff and cold and made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up but she continued onwards nevertheless.
Finally the legs had become less clustered together until she could stretch out her arms without hitting flesh. She took a sharp breath in as she noticed a few of them standing just outside of the crowd near the road that led into the square. They looked the same but different somehow. Like a cheap imitation of life. Accurate in every physical detail but not quite there behind the eyes. The first time she had seen one of them, it had both terrified and intrigued her.
She remembered the man in the grey business suit and bowler hat sitting opposite her on the train when she had visited her father in the city a few years ago. How his deep, brown eyes had stared at the space just above her head, his body stiff and strangely unresponsive to the sways and bumps of the carriage. With her hearing stolen from her at birth by a merciless virus, Ira had developed keen observational skills in order to stay safe in a world that relied heavily on the sense she had lost. As a result, she noticed something in that man she shouldn’t have and when she’d told her father about him his brow had furrowed in worry and his eyes were fearful. He knew of them too.
Four minutes until midnight.
Ira stood momentarily on the outer edge of the crowd. She saw one of them turn a head towards her and quickly ducked behind a man with a backpack who was busy filming the event with a phone. She had to get out somehow, but they were blocking the pathway. On purpose. The realisation quickened her heart’s pace. She crouched down under the guise of tying her shoe laces and scanned the space around her. There was an alleyway to her left that she could try to escape through. The dark hall more comforting to her than the open air and bright sunlight.
Standing back up she began to push her way through the throng of bodies. She didn’t hear the obscenities and protests that were hurled at her receding back. Squeezing between two irritated women, Ira arrived at the alleyway entrance. Two of them stood either side of it, eyes locking with hers as she pretended to dust off her black pants. There was no light behind those eyes, no feeling in the expression. She cursed her luck and turned back to face the podium. Her father was still there, nodding at all the right times but blinking too hard and biting the flesh on the inside of his cheeks like he always used to do when he was anxious about something. Ira wanted to stand there forever and watch him and forget everything. But she couldn’t. She had to act fast or her fate would be sealed.
Three minutes until midnight.
Sliding her hand into her rain jacket, Ira pulled out the small firecracker and lighter her father had given her before coming here today. “Only if needed.” She remembered him signing the words to her. She had asked questions of course but he had only shaken his head. Ira glanced at the people around her. Given her height, they didn’t seem to pay her much attention. With a shaky hand, she clicked the lighter until an orange flame was ignited. Then she watched as it slid like a descending droplet of water along the fuse towards the centre. Before it reached the middle, she jumped as high as she could and threw the object into the middle of the crowd where it burst into an array of colours. She knew it had been loud as everyone’s bodies stiffened and turned in the direction of the sound. The faces of the lifeless ones were turned toward the noise as well. This was her chance.
Two minutes until midnight.
The thump of her heart slamming inside her chest was the only thing she allowed herself to focus on as her feet carried her into the cool alleyway. She ran. Oxygen heaving into her lungs, her legs propelling her forwards in long strides. A sense of hope appeared at the sight of a clear strip of sunlight illuminating the darkness ahead. She could do this!
A pain in her shoulder spun her around involuntarily. She was pulled backwards with excessive force and came face-to-face with one of them. Ira cried out both in pain and shock. She’d been too hasty. They’d seen her. This one was a tall, slender man in corduroy pants and a button-up checkered shirt. He had the same blank expression they all wore. No emotion.
Ira was pushed back towards the crowd by the ominous hand on her shoulder. It was cold and it made her skin recoil. She couldn’t see her father anymore on the podium. Where did he go?
One minute until midnight.
As she scanned the perimeter of the town square, Ira suddenly realised they had gathered in carefully calculated positions around the crowd. An attack formation. The hand on her shoulder suddenly burned white hot against her skin. She needed to get away from it.
The president said something to the citizens gathered in the trap that invoked more happy expressions, fists raising into the sky, and stamping of heavy feet. A large digital countdown appeared on the flatscreen behind him. The bold, red numbers screamed at Ira that she had failed.
She closed her eyes. She couldn’t watch. Her father had told her stories of the artificial intelligence systems that he had assisted in developing for the military and she knew what destruction they would be capable of in the wrong hands. The president’s hands.
She suddenly felt the hand on her shoulder loosen and something heavy hit the back of her calves. She opened her eyes. Her captor was lying on the ground, a bullet in his head but no blood colouring the wound. Her father stood beside her, gun now pointed at the president who was glaring in his direction with a fury so intense, Ira half-expected him to burst into flames.
They began to move in unison. Towards the citizens who now had the appropriate expression of fear on their hapless faces. And towards Ira and her father. Her father’s hands shook as he aimed the gun, his finger softly squeezing the trigger backwards. Run.
The red numbers continued their unbridled march towards the new era.
Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one!