My footsteps echoed in the concrete corridor, the yellow cross-hatched square on the floor the only break from the pale grey surrounding me. It marked out a single booth set into the wall before the doors at the end, with a widow facing out. I stepped up to it, eager to be onward.
Inside was a guard, peaked cap low over his brow, grey uniform matching the surrounding walls.
“Hello.” I said. “I’m uh, I’m getting out! I’m here for my things.”
He slid a terminal through a hole in the glass in reply, and placed a small metal box on the desk in front of him. He watched me, waiting, silent. I looked at it, and a list presented itself to be confirmed.
‘One keyring, with four keys and a bottle opener attached. Two pens. One notebook, bleached. One wallet, with twenty six cards, one photo, one coupon, and one identification chip registered to a Mr Robert Ells Pender. One AllComm, secured. One tube ticket, expired.’ A black box at the bottom beckoned my thumb.
The guard slid the box containing the last of my belongings under the slot, his face impassive behind the reinforced glass.
“Ah, right here?” I asked, gesturing to the terminal, prompting a reply. He nodded. My jaw tightened. Reply, damn it! Say it out loud! I pressed my thumb on the screen, and it gave a curt beep to confirm my identity.
“Well! That’s all of it, is it?”
His eyes watched me in silence. He’s doing it on purpose, I thought. He won’t reply and the bastard probably gets some sort of sick pleasure out of it. I snatched my things from the side and began stuffing them into my pockets, each item feeling its way back to my side to its remembered place. I half turned back to him. “Where to?”
He paused, a little smirk creeping along the side of his face. He raised his hand and gestured towards the door at the end of the hall. Bastard.
I pushed through the doors and shielded my eyes against the glow. Floodlights stared down in disapproval, lighting the cold tarmac carved through the dirt to the gate. Two guards, padded and armed, flanked it, one on either side. The inner guard stepped forward, thrusting a terminal into my face. “ID.”
I pressed my thumb to the screen, and he glanced at it before nodding to the other. He prodded a code into the keypad, and I watched the gate clatter back along its rails.
“Must be a long shift, out here.” They ignored me, uncaring eyes watching me as I hesitantly stepped towards the opening. “Nothin’ much to look at! Cold, too!”
No reply. They must all be in on it. Just because you’re officially free, doesn’t mean they have to stop. I stepped past the gate, and heard it begin its journey closed. There was a single car in the rows of spaces, silver and ageing, a dent prominently displayed above it’s front left wheel. The darkened glass returned my gaze. I turned back to the outer guard. “That my ride, then?” His only reply was a cool, uninterested glare. I trudged over, and opened the passenger side door.
“Welcome back, Pen.”
My first reply, spoken through a half-smile and tired eyes, was the sweetest sound I’d heard in what felt like years. I closed the door behind me and the air conditioning sucked away the chill of the night air.
“How come you’re here? How did you know it was today? What’ve I missed, no, no I mean how’re you? Where’s the others are they alright? How’s–”
Jill fanned my questions away as she started the car, shaking her head. “Stop, stop, too many questions, slow down. Jeez they said you wouldn’t be that bad, it’s barely been a year. One at a time, Pen.”
“Right, sorry. I just… uhm. How did you know it was today? I only found out about, uh, a week ago I think. It’s hard to tell in there.”
“We keep an eye out for you. Don’t want you taking the tube, you’ll only get yourself arrested again, so Luck figured you’d better have someone to pick you up.”
She slowed as we approached the checkpoint, and I felt the hair on my arms prickle as the car was scanned. I felt my reply waste away before it reached my lips, as if it could detect me talking and, if it did, I’d be thrown back in. The light in our path flicked from red to green, and the rows of spikes along the road ahead retracted into the floor. The hum of the motor intensified as we continued along the road, and barren scrub-land followed us past the gate. I let out a breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding. I was out. I was free. I could be heard.
“You know I’m surprised.” She kept her eyes on the bare road ahead.
“Why? About what?”
“Well, you haven’t slurred once. Remember when Gin got out? Couldn’t understand a damn word he said. Took him a month to get used to talking again. You’re clear as day, I don’t get it.”
“I still talked. Every day I talked. To myself, to the radio, everything I could. Kept me sane. Gin didn’t and how long did he last? A month? The guy was off his rocker. You gotta talk, Jill. You gotta talk or you start to go nuts.”
“Sure, ’cause talkin’ to yourself is real stable.”
I felt my jaw clench, my fingers pushing into my palms as if to hold in the anger sliding up out of a deep pit inside. My words spat a venom I didn’t know I had.
“You don’t know!”
She glanced from the road. “Yeah. You’re right. Sorry Pen. I… I don’t know. I’m just glad you’re alright.” Her hand left the wheel, settling on my arm for a moment “I volunteered. If you came out bad, I wanted to be the first to know, ya know? We were a team, right?”
I swallowed my sudden fury, and nodded as I fought for calm.
“Yeah. Yeah, we were a team.”
Silence drifted in with the memories, and I watched as the past unearthed itself in my head. The N.I.D.D. protest, the march against police privatisation, the storage and rerouteing of “illegal” information before it was wiped from the net, the open boarders movement, the fight against national curfew, we’d been at them all. Not that it’d made a difference, but it had been important that somebody fought, just to show we still could.
“How’s the others? Luck and Ember, they’re alright, right?”
“Yeah, they’re fine. Lookin’ forward to seeing you, if you still want to.”
“What? Of course I want to! Why would I not?”
“Well you just got out! You’re free now, right? You remember Farl, he got out and didn’t want back in. We’re wondering if, well, maybe you’re the same. You look like you did okay in there, mostly, but there’s always the chance Pen. If you get caught…”
Fourteen months in the Mute. Fourteen months of being unable to talk to anyone, without conversation or words of any kind. The radio tinkled away, musically bereft noise trickling from the speakers to stop you going mad. Some did anyway. Sometimes the radio is worse than the silence. Its lack of substance, its repetition without ever being the same, starts to scratch at your mind. I shouted. I sang. I talked to myself and the world outside. I told myself stories of the past and the future and of things fresh from imagination. The care free, wordless, inoffensive music was my only reply. The refusal to let them win was my only grasp to sanity.
Such was the punishment for groups like ours. Speak out against the government and they take away your ability to speak. It’s to remind you that your contact with the world is a gift, a freedom they can take away if you misuse it. Use your voice in the wrong way and they snatch it from you, for a time. When most get out, they’re so desperate for human contact they don’t dare speak out again. Maybe I was the same. The thought of another stay in the Mute was terrifying. I wanted to talk, I wanted to discuss, to hear others and to be replied to. I wasn’t sure if I could take that chance. I didn’t know if I could risk my voice all over again.
“What? Pen I can’t understand you.”
“You’re muttering. I can’t hear what you’re saying.”
“I was? Sorry, sorry it’s just habit. I didn’t even realise.” I glanced out, back at the prison across the abandoned runway. Hard to imagine Heathrow as an airport these days. Sometimes I thought England was just the biggest prison of them all. No-one in or out, since the quarantine. Now I was free, it seemed endless. An island was huge after so long in a box. “I… I’m gonna have to think about it, Jill.”
“Really.” I frowned at my old jeans. “Sorry.”
Silence filled the car for a moment, before Jill nodded. “When’s your first date with your P.O.?”
“Tomorrow. Supposed to be finding out what job they’re giving me.”
“Yeah. New flat, new job, seems like they’re giving me a whole new life, eh?”
She nodded again, eyes fixed on the road as we turned off towards the first stretch of the city. Other cars appeared alongside us. People. Civilization. Life. It was good to be free.
Jill accelerated down the motorway, the sensors in the road stopping the engine going past the speed limit, regulating the electricity it gave the vehicle.
“Just don’t forget they took it away in the first place.”