He didn’t know why he was assigned to the monastery at first. It wasn't punishment, he was the best cleric in the year, the one who had come closest to perfecting the gun kata, who scored the highest on every exam that they took. Yet he was shifted to serve time there. Afterwards he realized that this was the final test.
In the state the children are monitored from the age of three. Before that, Prozium being considered harmful to infants, they are not dosed and they are cared for by specialists. Errol before he went off the interval had felt what he now realised was distaste at the idea. They are grubby and messy; when they fall they cry, and it mingles with their hurt, blaring out like an eternal broadcast. The screens tell them, always tell them that children are a warning. Look at the children, they say. Look at how they squeal and revolt against order and discipline, throw themselves onto the ground and cause harm to themselves and to others. Now imagine a world where adults, not unlike these children, ruled. Now he thinks of it with horror.
The most frequently played on the communal screens for a time was the video, dark grained and tinted of Illya. One plump forearm bared and waiting for the needle, he cries and jerks and shouts with hoarse cries. He is disgusting to the right-minded. Then the injector plunges in, the tiny dose going to work with surprising speed, and within moments, his face calms, and he understands that if you knock bricks down then you must be prepared to build them back up again.
Illya now works in Central. He is a round faced, plump young man, lacking in self control, but placid. He smiled once, but Errol knows a nervous twitch when he sees one. He has seen them enough after all. They raised the age after that. Now children are four when they receive their first dose. Any younger and they're damaged, neurons running wild in a way that Prozium can only half suppress. Preston had done it for his children of course.
The children were... distressing, though this is not something he understands until later. He saw the technician three times (any irregularity was corrected in an instant with the judicious application of another hundredth of a milligram of an active component within their golden capsules) and each time she adjusted him upwards, until he finally stopped going. It was logical he told himself at first, firmly. A higher dosage than the one he was receiving would attract comments. Would force an inquiry, and that was not the best use of that state's time and money. So he ignored the uncomfortable edge, the mild leap of something within his stomach, that he could not name or understand.
It's not an accident when he stops taking his interval. He's told afterwards that it is for most people. It's rather a regular occurrence in fact - people smash them, injectors fail to operate, there are defective doses very occasionally, the tiny vials are fragile, not built to withstand anything more than the most cursory of touches. The difference is that most people will held straight to Libria to be issued with another (or go straight to the technicians to be fixed up). There are minor doses of Libria held in the first-aid boxes of most buildings as well, no-one need ever go without.
He chose to stop taking it. He knows now that it was because he was straying rapidly into the dangerously high levels, that he's the one of the people who are built to withstand and throw off the drug relatively easily. That his body processes were abnormally fast, absorbed it without ill effect. That his training with the clerics had helped and prepared this. Remembers long meditation sessions as they were taught, not to clear feelings for there were none, but to clear even thoughts from your head, until you were a blank slate to be written on, clean clay to be moulded into what the state needed.
So he'd been on the verge for a long time. His training helped suppress this; and he tried not to think of the time he'd leaned his head against the mirror, saw his reflection stare back at him, and felt something move in his chest. Feeling is failure. Feeling is for the weak, the wrong, and he is neither. Then one morning, his injector is lying there and he fails to take it. Just doesn't pick it up. Lies there and watches the sun creep up over the horizon, mind idly cataloguing the warmth, the quality of the sunlight. His windows are open to the coolness of the air, he prefers it that way.
He dresses, he eats, he goes without touching the injector like it's something he's outgrown. The wave of feeling doesn't hit until the middle of the day, and it's like his synapses have gone completely mad. His brain is firing wildly, doesn't understand what the hell is happening to it, can't cope with the sheer quantity of emotions that are being flung at him. Things that he has no idea how to name, how to deal with.
He fumbles for the injector in his pocket, stares at it, at his deliverer, and everything about the new thing which is his body, whispers 'no.' He puts it back in, and heads straight for the bathroom. Stares at himself for the space of a long moment in the mirror. Sees the face of someone else staring back at him. Breathing deep, he chants the words they've been taught to induce the perfect practice kata state, and his face smoothes back into it's accustomed lines, the mask drops over his face. He thinks there is something different about his eyes, but he can't tell. The small quiet instincts of a cleric have been overwhelmed by this immense flood of emotion. He can't hear or react as he should, can't tell if he's wrong or right. Trusts to habit to carry him through.
The ultimate test is Preston, of course, who greets him with a brief nod when he returns. Asks him if he is operating at an optimal level. He replies in the affirmative, has to stop his eyes tracing Preston's cleanly cut emotionless face. Do I look like that? he wonders. Suspects the answer is yes, if only because Preston doesn't think there is anything wrong. He leads the way out to the truck. Today is a slow day. There's a cache of EC-8 content that's been discovered. Not as dangerous as EC-10, but dangerous enough.
He and Preston are supposed to catalogue the quantity of pieces discovered, sweep the house and see if they can find more. It's done in minute; and they exchange brief businesslike nods, and split up to search. Errol finds one first. The child was huddling under the bed, eyes so bright and fearful.
When they had trained, they had been given lists of words to learn. Undergone facial recognition training to spot the minutiae of facial expressions. Had been taught to distinguish between the different types to the best of his abilities. He can't name or quantity the emotions that are roiling through him, but he can see them written on the face of this child.
Here there is fear, there is terror, there is a mute acceptance of death. He drags the child out by one firm hand, and delivers him to the Regulators. He is only a child. He will be taken to the monastery, injected with Prozium, and subjected to reconditioning, but he will not be harmed. Of this he is sure. Once a long time ago, he'd been taken on a tour with the rest of his section to the reconditioning facilities. Had it explained to them in great depth how much it took to overcome each child's initial resistance to letting emotions fade.
He can't remember being a child himself. He wonders if he'd struggled. It had been so new back then after all. He'd have been old enough to feel, he knows that much, but when he tries to glimpse those old old memories, they're gone. He focuses on his job, hears the shrill cry of a woman from the top of the house, moves swiftly and surely up to stand at the right of his partner. Preston is staring at her curiously, his hand curled around his gun so loosely and yet so ready to strike. They drag her down with the rest of them. She'll be taken to sentencing.
He thinks the feeling in his chest might be grief. Might be guilt, but he can't be sure. He thinks again of the face of the child, taken to a fate that Errol is avoiding, and he wants to vomit on the clean white steps of the Judicial Hall.
He's not been a cleric for years for nothing. He knows there is a resistance, that they live in the Outers, living and hiding like rats, darting from one place to another, stealing to survive, raiding the storehouses and the armouries. The authorities mount a monthly drive through to sweep them out, it always yields some stragglers after all. Next time Partridge is assigned to the duty, he slips in through the warehouses, tracking easily, every one of his instincts as a cleric full blown and in perfect working condition. He slips so easily back into it, that it's almost a surprise when he finds a woman armed with an AK-47 keeping watch. There's a radio clutched to her ear, and she's relaying her findings down in it in a harsh cracked whisper. "Everyone's out," she tells the radio. "I'm going soon."
When she hears his deliberate footsteps, she whips round, hope already dying in her eyes as she takes in his uniform, the black regulation clothes of the cleric, his rank insignia emblazoned in silver, his twin guns ready and drawn. She doesn't panic. Just shuts off the radio with a small click, and Errol realises what she's doing. She doesn't want whoever is on the other end of the radio to hear what is going to happen.
He lowers the gun deliberately, and takes the biggest risk he's ever taken. Steps forward so she can see his eyes, lets his shields fall, strips off the disguise and hopes she can see what he's feeling. She winces, turns away like it's too much. Tells him, he's falling out all over the place. He steps back, and she stares at him like he's the cornered one here.
Two nights later, there’s a knock on his door. He had done as she said. Entered a request for a Match, used the number she’d given him. A man who introduces himself as Jurgen walks in. Much later he’ll understand the risk Jurgen took, how badly he wanted a cleric on their side. Enough to walk into their den. They talk, Errol doesn’t know how to convince Jurgen that he is not a spy, but Jurgen doesn’t ask anything of the sort, just stares at him, eyes penetrating as though he can see everything beneath Errol’s surface, everything that makes him tick.
And just like that, he’s in. He finds himself in the Hallows night after night, almost an addiction, like he can’t stop himself no matter what the cost of discovery. He needs what Jurgen can give him. Needs it all.
He finds it hard to distinguish now what he feels. It had been acid clear in the beginning, when he had no words to describe it. There had been the light rising floating sensation of his heart, the slow sneaking crawl of a grey creature worming its way around him. Later, Jurgen tells him with flashcards what he needs to know. Shows him the picture of a beaten dog cowering. There's a sudden rush of emotion inside him, and Jurgen tells him this means <i>pity.</i> Then there is anger, fear, and happiness. He does not know what they mean in anything other than the abstract. He has the names, and he has the feelings, but connecting to them is rather more difficult.
He learns and he listens and gradually, so gradually, a plan is formed.
In all of the time he's been off Prozium, the thing he is most grateful for is not being Matched. He'd filled in the forms like everyone else, sat the correct tests, looked at thousands of flickering images, let the sensors and monitors do their work. Filled in every line- what his job was, where he lived, whether he desired to put in for a state permit for children. A special dispensation. The answers had been simple, he'd had them slotted back to him, with the images of suitable people.
He had been surprised though when John Preston came up for rematching. It took six months before the rematching started, six months to adjust to the loss of the routine of having a partner within the home. Preston declined all matches though with the press of a button. Didn't look twice at them, and even under his own low sleepy dose of Prozium Errol is surprised. It wasn't romance or love or faithfulness that kept John from finding a new partner, he knew that much. There must be a reason, but he can’t imagine what.
It's less pressing now for them both. Errol has passed the optimal age for Matching, was relegated to taking what he could get where he could find it. Prozium eliminated emotion, not physical desire or the body's needs. Once there had been places, he'd heard, with loud music and men and women who ground up on each other and imbibed alcohol to damaging extents. Now there are the clean, clinical Connectors. Punch in your number and wait. There is no hoping, but nor is there disappointment. If today fails, then you may try again tomorrow.
Errol has been lucky he supposes. His face is aesthetic enough in proportion, and his body is strong. These are factors that he knows from the vids are acceptable indicators of attraction. He does not lack for those who are equally solitary, men and women alike who come to his door, and do not go.
Falling is not a bad way to describe it he supposes. Angels had once fallen after all, in the stories of old. Fallen from the bright cleansed bleached purity of heaven into the dirty, messy thriving earth he supposes, for he knows no more than that they fell, that was where Jurgen’s stories stopped. Now when he Connects as he is supposed to, he stares in each face and hopes that this time, there will be something different.
It's mostly the same though. They come with blank faces, and fall apart under his hands, neurons shivering and sparking, muscles contracting and twitching, the lifeless pleasant glow of a full body tremor running through them. It's rarely different. Once a woman lets out a pleased little sigh, and there's something so warm in the sound that something flickers through them both. He doesn't dare look her in the eyes though, he's afraid of what he might see, or what might not be there.
He hadn't expected to Connect with Preston. His number and face flash up on the small digital display, and Partridge presses yes without much thought. He presses yes to most people, because while he's fucking he's not alone. Not completely. When he's only half on Prozium that's what he finds the hardest. It's not much easier being skin-close with somebody, and so distant in mind, but it's so much better than anything else he has. Or rather anything else he's allowed. When Preston stands before him, his eyes are blank and Partridge lets himself chase his thoughts, imprint them on those features, make him a living breathing walking person, not an automaton.
John is hesitant, and surely it is dangerous to think of him as John but Errol does not care. "It has been a long time," John says, but there is no apology or embarrassment in his voice. Why should there be? He is merely stating a fact after all, he has nothing to be ashamed of. He strips with enviable careless ease, and Partridge remembers that they are here in his cube, because John has children. Two children even. One as a reward for his service, one as Viviana’s reward. It is frowned upon to Connect within the primary domicile if you have children. The state understands the need for this, but the primary model is not functionable without the stability of a partnership.
There is very little he can do except stare as John casually climbs onto the bed, the cotton white and bare against his skin. He moves numbly over, keeps functioning as though this is anything else. He's reminded again of the differences between those who feel and those who do not. Errol is reminded here and now of John, of the thrill of watching John take out the men and women who should be his allies. Sometimes he hates himself for it, for watching beautiful deadly John finish off anyone who gets in his way, without ever stepping in and stopping the slaughter.
Now John is here, and already that smooth face is betraying the faintest hints of perplexity. It isn't logical that Errol isn't already engaging in sexual congress with him. After all they had Connected, this was agreed. He climbs on the bed as well, and words tumble out. "Are you ready for the departmental evaluation on Monday?"
John gazes at him and there is a definite look of what for a sensie would be concern, and Errol wonders how high the dose Preston is on goes. "I am prepared," he answers, and long fingers skim up Errol's chest. Of course he is prepared. John has never failed a test in the time he has been with the department. He has failed, never faltered, except on one occasion. Errol pushes, sees how far he can go. Viviana used to smile. He remembers that. She'd worked on one of the renovation projects, designing sustainable living from the dereliction of the past. He'd met her more than once, known instantly what she was.
And she had known him. And she had smiled at John, squeezed his hand, and he’d swung round like always, and asked her if she was sufficiently warm. He seemed to connect her touch with the need for heat. It was a dangerous game she played, but John was oblivious, and Errol was fascinated with the bright beauty of her, the dangerous flickering living gleam of fire.
He saw her only once outside of picking up Preston from his home. She blended in perfectly with the crowds, dark hair pinned up on her head, face solemn and empty as she is carried along in the flow. He walks beside her, wonders if she notices. Of course she does, and gives him a nod. He's been doing this job for a long time, he was raised to do this job, and he couldn't spot her, not like that. It makes sense that when the time comes it’s a tip-off that ruins her.
He tries not to think of Viviana as he does this. John is cool all over, and Errol takes his time, ducks his head between John's legs and lets himself taste, suck on the hard flesh. John does not protest, a hand makes its way into his hair. Suitable, laughs his mind. No emotion needed, though he knows John is not at ease about this. Sucking is not a necessary prelude to what they plan to do, not very much is. Errol touches him as lovers have done for centuries, and hides beneath the quiet shield of silence. Spreads John's legs a little wider, glides his fingers in easily with the regulation lubricant he is issued each month with his toiletries and necessities. John shudders against him, and there is silence in the room, bar the heavy gasps into the thickness of the air. Errol sucks harder, presses deeper, feels John respond around him, like there's nothing he wants more than this, nothing that he can imagine feeling better. It's not enough, it's never enough but it's more than he usually gets. It's more than he wants on occasion.
Afterwards he watches John sleep, perfectly relaxed, eyes shut, lashes on his cheek. He doesn't stir from his natural position, lying straight out. His hands are loose and unclenched at his side, and suddenly Errol wants to touch all over again. His hair has hardly been rustled, and he fights the sudden feeling of sickness and emptiness.
Jurgen had warned him about this, he remembered. Had told him that the worst thing he could possibly do was have any sort of feeling for someone under Prozium. They weren't real, not really. It was twisted into something it could never be. He remembers Mary, warm and vital as she binds back her gleaming hair, and chucks him under the chin. Remembers her read to him from a book that he could barely understand. That's how love should feel, not this mutated twisted half formed affection.
He's been given half of what he wanted, and he thinks that it should be enough, enough for any man, but man was not born to want or ask for half measures. Better no bread than half a loaf sometimes. Mary had taught him that a private smile lurking on her lips. She'd been off grid for half a year. Faked her death in a televised accident. Sunk beneath the waters like Ophelia, never been found. Now she looks after the new recruits into Jurgen's cause. She walks the streets daily, looks for people like him. She knows the signs, as well as any cleric, sometimes even better, because so much of what they look for is hidden from them by their own lack of understanding.
He watches John beside him, and thinks about it. He plays with the idea, lets the heat of the other man sink through him, lies there and indulges in a way that's far too dangerous to do while John is awake.
He wonders what will happen to John if the world that Jurgen wants to build comes to pass. Prozium is addictive after all. It seeped into every pore, stained every molecule. Withdrawal is swift, sudden and painful. Most people off their interval, went straight to the medical centre got themselves fixed up in minutes. Some, all too few, could shake it off as though it were no more than a headache. He'd done it, Viviana had done it, Jurgen had. But they're the anomalies not the rule, and the thought of what would happen if the world went without it makes his head spin. He thinks John would be fine, just has a feeling on that one, but even so he finds himself hopelessly intrigued by the idea of a John with feelings.
As he lies there, he lets his thoughts drift back to Jurgen. The other man was determined that his plan of action was the right one. Errol was the missing piece he kept saying. They had needed a cleric high up enough in the hierarchy that they could have a chance to get within striking distance of Father. Now was the time. Now was the time to initiate their plan of sacrifice, to blow up the factories and the supply depots. To plunge people into need.
They had argued about it time and time again. You could die coming off Prozium cold turkey if you weren’t one of the lucky ones. He reminded Jurgen that the people dying on the floor the day after his grand plan might not be so impressed at at least dying with their emotional functionality restored, and Jurgen had looked at him with those clear blue eyes, that were as set and level as Preston’s on a case, and told him that every war had casualties. Better to save most people, free them from Prozium, than to hesitate and delay because you couldn’t save everyone.
Errol delays and delays. Can’t take that sort of burden on his shoulders. Jurgen grows impatient, even fearful. They need to move fast he tells Errol. There are rumours from the few sources he has inside Central, that there is something big coming, there is something being planned. Yet still he can’t move, can’t decided. For the first time since he ceased his interval he understands how emotion can cripple, hinder and destroy you. He is caught in a paralysing web from which he has no escape.
It’s almost a relief when Prest- no John,( if these are the last moments of his life then he wants to be honest) catches him. The choice has been taken out of his hands, and he can feel the solid weight of the book in his hands reminding of that there is beauty in the world that he will be leaving, and in the other there is the solid cold weight of his gun. In front of him stands the man he has called partner in most ways for most of his working life, since the day he picked him as a training cadet. He is beautiful, almost as beautiful as the words in the book he’s reading, and perhaps Errol had always known it would come to this. It was a price he paid gladly he thinks, and his mind flits back to Jurgen, regrets that he had let new-born sentimentality get in the way of what must be done. Almost welcomes what comes next.