It didn’t take long for someone to sell out.
Just three weeks after we meet the girls, they start raiding doctors’ surgeries in the middle of the night. Each time, all that is taken is a copy of the pregnancy records, but only of the women who are between four and six months. We know they’re looking for women whose records say they haven’t been injected, but all our GPs are lying on the forms. We hope.
They work East to West like a hurricane, ransacking up to five practices in a night. It’s an obvious intimidation tactic - the meetings are very much legal so they can’t stop those, and they could have easily pulled those records online or got some kind of warrant, but that would hardly be visible or aggressive enough. This way, everyone’s panicked about where they’ll strike next and who the informant is. People are retreating into the comfort of the shadows.
It must have been someone at a meeting who tipped them off - we’ve been so careful to keep any trace of our plans off the site and have it purely as a place of information. A radical encyclopaedia, if you will. It’s only at the meetings we vocalise our plans of refusal and ask doctors to lie, and it’s only to the doctors who agree we send the women to. Even then, there’s only a few in each Zone.
When we first get news of the raids, Alice and Art had want to shut the meetings down completely and go underground for a time until it’s safe enough to emerge. Although we all argue against it, it’s Hunter’s nine-tails tongue that is most vehement.
‘Are you fucking joking? You want to put everything on hold and come out when the coast is clear after we’ve convinced almost twenty girls to stick their necks and their babies’ necks on the line? They can’t undo that. It’s done, they’re all past the twenty-one week mark. What do you expect them to do? Spend their entire lives in hiding? Or maybe you think they can disappear for a bit whenever people start sniffing a little too close to home and then pop back up when the coast is clear every time?
‘You do whatever you want but I ain’t standing the fuck down just because I can when the people that really matter in this don’t have that fucking option.’
The thunder in her eyes silences the group and fills the room with an incomparable passion. The girl’s fierce aptitude and guts of steel has made her indispensable and, by this point, she’s technically a Zero after quitting her job to commit to whatever the hell it is we’re doing. She’s been sleeping on Will’s sofa whenever her parents throw her out which, despite being often, is desperately painful each time. Sometimes, I stand at Will’s window and watch her smoke her cigarettes and drink a quick beer before she comes in for the night, and I wonder whether it’s her this pain that drives her out in the pouring rain at 4am for a story, or spend ten hours straight going through our growing inbox with the same energy and discipline as a soldier; having no one to care for her, she’s determined to care for everyone else.
Instead of going underground, Mags wipes any trace of the meetings from the site and now we’re relying on word of mouth to keep people coming, changing location each week and only revealing at the end of one meeting where the next will be. The big monthly one is much harder to plan considering that even despite our dropped numbers we’re expecting almost three hundred to show.
The answer hits me like a snowball pitched from the hyperactive arm of a schoolboy on the first day of winter. I’d been dreaming of Kilgore Trout, standing over him dressed in armour as he slept on a luxurious bed of cotton and raspberries, clutching the vodka like a teddy bear. The trees had loomed like sentinels in the background.
‘Hackney Marshes,’ I gasp at Will as I rear up, sweating.
‘The meeting - we should have it in Hackney Marshes.’
‘Ok,’ he yawns, looking at the alarm clock on the side. ‘We’ll get up at seven and check it out.’ Then he wraps himself around me and tucks the stubble of my crown under the stubble of his chin so that I’m breathing into the hollow of his collarbone with my bundled arms tucked between our chests. We do this every night I wake, even though it’s been weeks since I cried.
The strangest thing about what we’re doing - all of us, from me to Will to the expecting mothers to the bus drivers and teachers and everyone else we stand beside - is the silence we are fought with. Every morning I search through the news and the old annals of the internet I once used as an upstanding citizen (if such a thing exists) of the Inner Zones, but not a single thing we’re doing is being written about - even mentioned. Not even ridiculed. I hope it means we’re doing something right, that they’re scared to advertise us because we threaten them, that there’s something in the paintings and our injection-theory that threatens to scratch away the leather on their briefcases to reveal empty, plastic shells inside.
‘I think we’re in a black-out,’ I say to Mags as she fiddles with our server to keep it safe from any potential attacks. The site’s been crashing on and off and, although we don’t stand a chance if they really try and tear it down, it’s worth putting up a couple of road-blocks to trip them up and waste their precious time.
‘A fuckin’ what?’
‘A black-out. A media black-out.’
‘What’s that then?’ Her fingers dance over the screen as she sticks her tongue out of the side her mouth, its blemished point wiggling with concentration.
‘It’s something they do with serial killer reports.’ Mags looks up quickly. ‘The press agree to a black-out of certain details so as not to...inspire copycats. Or say a branch of intelligence or something is going overseas to track down a terrorist group or whatever the press might have a total black-out of what’s going on so the enemy aren’t clued in to the operation, see?’
Mags nods. ‘You fink it’s deliberate, then, that there’s not been any reports on the raids or meetings or anyfing?’
‘Yeah. I think they’ve blacked us out - trying to keep us to the Outer Zones.’
‘What do ya fink we’re classed as? Murderers or terrorists?’ Mags grins as Will walks into the living room shaking rain from his blonde hair. He slowed his freelance trade recently to focus on the Five news section, living off of his cash savings. I know he’s been out taking pictures of a group of guys who were just evicted from a squat they’d set up in an abandoned office.
‘How was it?’
‘Well, they’re back on the streets, now.’ He shakes his head grimly. ‘Fucking down and out on their luck. They don’t get it - the building wasn’t being used for anything. How’re they meant to get work now it’s fucking obvious they’re Zeroes? No-one will touch them in a few days.’ There’s stiffness in his joints I haven’t seen before and he seems to be drowning in his own reflection as he looks out of the window into the misty night.
His hands sag from his hips and he gulps back a sigh. Slowly, he lifts his right hand and mimes plunging a needle into the crook of his left elbow.
‘Pretty close to home,’ he mutters. ‘I need a shower.’
Maybe a blackout works against those afraid of the dark, but we’ve been living in the shadows long enough for our eyes to adjust.
It’s close to 5am, nine hours after the meeting on the Marshes. Will and I are jogging through the pissing rain that had fizzed and steamed on the feverish skin of the two hundred and fifty odd who were present. It was fucking hard to get them there but the blanket black made everyone feel large and safe like oak trees, and their burning rage burned brighter than a forest fire. We told them about our blackout theory and they roared, sick of being silenced and ignored, demanding we rip it apart and the Inner Zones sprayed with their stories.
‘But we have to protect the site and the girls until we’ve made this film,’ Hunter had hissed afterwards.
‘That doesn’t mean we can’t get people talking, though,’ Art had said slowly, looking at me.
Now, Will and I keep to the shadows in Four looking for a stretch of sheltered brick or concrete that I can use my newest batch of spray paint on. The cans are jostling in my rucksack while Will has a camera shoved deep inside a pocket. Neither of us has spoken since we strolled across the boundary between Five and Four, but together we picked up the pace, both feeling the acute pressure of the beads of sweat pricking our necks despite the cold. Although the ground is in far better condition here, it feels looser as if it might crack apart to swallow us up. The deeper we go, the quicker our pace, desperate to turn around.
Once in Barking, we pull on our balaclavas and pull up our hoods, praying for empty streets. For all my love of the moon, she mercifully keeps herself cloaked tonight as we pick our way around the hollow pools cast by streetlamps. The roads are quiet, save for the odd pack of youths on the brink of a comedown. Some of them chase us when we pass, demanding to buy drugs. It’s almost funny watching their legs spin underneath their bodies like noodles as they try to catch us. Almost.
After twenty minutes of weaving through the wide main streets fronted by shops with flats stacked above them we see a large enough expanse at a crossroads. It’s far from ideal but our time is stolen and, although CCTV blinks above us, the building is residential and so we pray the cameras aren’t manned. I figure I have about twenty-five minutes maximum as long as no police come by in their striped cars.
I run at the wall, throwing the bag down and wrenching out a can in each hand. Behind me, Will steps back to film everything, but although the camera is pointed at me his eyes scan up and down the road constantly. The traffic lights above my head change from grey to white to grey and back again.
Eighteen minutes later, the wall is covered by an infant locked in a cage with its high DV stamped on a price tag wrapped around its neck. In the background, the child’s mother is being dragged through a door, only her face and an arm visible upon which is tattooed her own lower DV. Rainbows run from the child’s fearful eyes.
Will’s voice crashes through the maisonette like a war hammer. In seconds, I’m scrambling out of bed and run into the living room just in time to see him put his fist through the kitchen door with another ’FUCK!’
‘Will? Will! What the fuck is going on?!’ Will spins around, lids peeled back over his eyes, and I instinctively take a step back from his flushed face and heaving shoulders. Spittle flecks his chin and behind his glare I see the hole in the door gaping into the kitchen match his shadowed irises. My knees tremble slightly as the image of Will the drug addict flashes over him like a mirage, tearing apart the human so that only the beast is left before me.
‘Will…’ The single syllable quakes like a leaf before a storm.
‘They found you. They fucking found you!’
He lunges for a laptop lying on the floor and forces it open, shoving the screen towards me. My heart stops when I read the Daily Mail headline and the image of my face taking up the rest of the page. It’s from last night.
‘But I was wearing the balaclava - how did they-’
‘It’s not about the painting. There’s no mention of the fucking painting!’
‘I don’t understand,’ I say, taking the screen from him and holding it to my face.
‘You’ve gone from missing to wanted. For fraud,’ he spits. ‘They’re claiming that’s why you skipped out on your DV - they’re trying to criminalise you as the old you, not as Red. It’s nothing to do with Red.’ His growl knocks me back onto the sofa. I gape up at him, my heart beating as loudly as my thoughts.
‘Everyone’s going to see this,’ I whisper. ‘We have to convince them it’s not true. Where’s the story about the painting?’ I gabble, punching at the screen with shaking fingers. ‘They must have covered that, too, even separately. We can show everyone-’
‘I just got a call from Hunter. It’s already been painted over. It must’ve been found in the morning - they got to it before the public had a chance to see it. They got your face for fucking nothing.’ His hands are in fists again, shaking with the effort to stay by his side.
‘But we have our photos and film - put them up.’
‘I already have. But it’s not going to stop people accusing you of lying, of hiding from the law instead of fighting it.’
’Fuck! I should have told everyone I was the fucking broker.’ The panic rises with the same force as bile. ‘Everyone in One to Four is going to think I’m a thief and everyone else is going to think I’m a liar!’ I throw the laptop to my side and claw at my scalp wildly, erratically bouncing my heels off the floor.
‘This is so big no-one’s going to be talking about your paintings.’
’Where did they get that image?!’ I yell, pointing at the screen.
‘East Ham. Your hood fell back when we were running after we’d taken the balaclavas off. You looked up because the rain stopped.’
’Idiot. Fucking fool.’ I pull my knees up to my chest and press my eye sockets into my kneecaps as if to pop them out the back of my skull.
’They do know who you are. They know who Red is. They’re trying to delete Red and make you… that woman again.’ I don’t want to look up and see my old name in the headline, the curling letters matching his lips.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ I sob. Will’s heavy paces march to the window.
‘It’s time to go public,’ he grunts. ’They’re coming after you, anyway. It’s time to tell people you’ve always been Red.’
‘We’ve spoken about this, Will,’ I snap lifting my heavy head to hiss at him. ‘I don’t want to be a symbol-’
‘You don’t have a fucking choice now,’ he barks, whirling round to face me. ‘Besides, you won’t be after the first birth. The child will be.’
My tongue thrashes in my mouth and I break his stare, looking to the wall opposite me for any other option, wishing the answer would pop through the bones of my kneecaps like a jack-in-the-box, a toy even the nurses despised in Ramsgate.
‘First due date?’ I ask eventually, despite knowing the answer. I want to hear him say it.
‘Then we’re using our best weapon seven weeks premature.’
‘We have to get our side out now and in the papers or we won’t have anyone on side in seven weeks.’
I shake my head, dragging my palms along my scalp trying to find comfort in the harsh rasp. Then I remember they have reclaimed my shaved head as some false identifier and drop my hands to hold my aching stomach.
‘I know you’re right,’ I say, defeat whispering in my bones, ’but we need something else then, something bigger than this when we put the video out. This was our guarantee to get people watching.’
‘We’ll think of something else. Right now, it’s our only chance of keeping some kind of hope out here. Of keeping Red out here.’ He turns back to face the window, dragging a hand over his face.
‘I am not hope.’
‘No. But you’ll have to do for now.’
‘I’ve fucked this, haven’t I?’ Will stands and walks over to me, picking up the laptop to drop on my knees.
‘Get writing. You might as well give all the facts now everyone knows you’re the broker anyway. It’s as good a springboard as any to expose all the corruption you saw.’
‘We don’t have time for evidence. Just get them onsite and get them reading about Red.’
He walks out and slams the door behind him, taking my stomach with him when I realise he didn’t say ‘you’.