The day turned out to be a hot one, but there was nothing that Blue could do about that. Perspiration was causing her scalp to itch under a wig of light brown curls, but it didn't show on her face. She focused on her destination, a little more than a block away, and on walking properly. High heels were tricky, so she had settled on a pair of stylish low-heeled shoes that went well with her thrift store skirt and jacket. She looked—and felt—like a completely different person.
With blushed cheeks and a bit of lip gloss, she was Sarah Snow, with a picture ID to prove it. She was nondescript, invisible, like any of the other young women who worked in the low-rent office buildings in this district. Her clothes marked her as being well-adjusted to the System, a young woman just glad to have a job, oblivious to city life rapidly deteriorating around her, living on faint hope.
This was one of the few parts of the city where it was still fairly safe to walk on the streets. Except for the cameras that some building owners installed at their own expense, there didn't seem to be much surveillance here. The city centre, covering some 20 square blocks, had cameras everywhere. As soon as you were out of the range of one, you were picked up by another. Everything was instantly fed into a central computer system. Your face and body shape, your distinctive mannerisms, everything, were recognized, categorised and cross-matched. It would be a mistake to think that the rulers didn't know everything they wanted to know. If you were on an active list, other forms of surveillance were brought into play and your life became an open book about living in a goldfish bowl sitting on a Bunsen burner.
Blue had known for a while that she was on a list, even though the cops had let her go without charging her after the raid on the soup kitchen. She'd had an odd feeling about that. It was clear that the loft had been under surveillance, but no one connected with the raid had been arrested in the aftermath, even though they’d hidden a man whose claim for refugee status had been denied and who was under a deportation order. The lack of arrests in itself felt like some kind of intimidation tactic – because it seemed to be having that effect.
Like a few other people who had reason to suspect they were being watched, Blue and the three other women in her collective had disappeared themselves. Soon after the raid, they bought bus tickets to a town about 50km away, where a car was waiting to pick them up and bring them along back roads to the bottom of a trail that wound up at the old woman’s small piece of land. There they waited while the comrade drove into the city to get the old woman. They’d had to carry her over the roughest part of the ascent because she could barely walk. The injury she had suffered in the raid had not healed, but she refused to let them take her to a hospital. She had known some of the homeless people who were taken to hospital and had never returned. She was just happy and grateful to have the company of the four young women on her little piece of land. That the five of them now had a safe home seemed like a sweet turn of destiny. She couldn't have occupied it alone.
She gave the women the key to her post office box and her bank debit card, and let them decide how to spend her government pension cheque. It was only $1,000 a month, but it was enough to meet their basic needs on the land and to continue their work in the city.
Because of the cameras, Blue always accomplished her missions in disguise. She went from being herself to being Sarah Snow to being the old woman, and then reversed the process, all in one day. Everything of Blue’s was left in a garbage bag hidden behind a tree that the bottom of the trail. Sarah Snow emerged from the woods beside a cluster of houses at the edge of town. From there she walked the two blocks to the highway, where she joined a couple of women at the bus stop. They looked the way suburban housewives looked these days, stung by memories of the days of luxury when they drove SUVs to the city to do their grocery shopping, but resigned to the fact that the economy was in ruins and glad they still had someplace to live. They were neatly dressed, but their eyes were downcast. Sarah Snow rode the bus to the edge of the city, where small businesses struggled to stay solvent in low rent, decaying buildings.
She climbed creaky stairs to the courier service, which was run by comrades. At the counter, a woman handed her a zippered bag. Before leaving the building she went to the washroom at the end of the hall. From the bag she took a grey wig, a freshly laundered formless dress with some padding to fill out the waistline, a pair of old shoes and some theatrical makeup. Then she stuffed Sarah Snow’s belongings into the courier bag and emerged from the washroom an old woman. Not the old woman, but close enough. This was a weekly routine.
Once a month she picked up the pension cheque, deposited it in the old woman’s account at an ATM, and then withdrew $200, the daily limit. She hobbled to the park, where she sat on a bench and fed pigeons and eavesdropped on other people’s conversations while she waited for the other women to arrive. Each week another $200 was withdrawn. Each of them got $50 to spend. That way, none of them would be laden down with too many bags. There was $50 to buy food for a few of the comrades who were living underground. $50 went to those who were feeding the few homeless people who still came to the park. $100 was left for their own needs. They took turns with these tasks so that none of them was seen in the same place with any regularity. Each time they got away with it, they were left with a sense of a surprise victory. But they also felt like teenagers lying to their parents about what they were doing after school. It was only matter of time before the game was up. Maybe there was no point in it at all. Maybe the cops were just laughing at their silly little game.
Nothing remained static during their absence from the city. Every week they heard more stories and saw more evidence that, little by little, the movement was being systematically destroyed. Their hopes for its resurgence were fading. Four months had passed since the raid on the soup kitchen, and things were not getting better. The city seemed calm, but depressed. Homeless people continued to disappear from the parks. Suicides were increasing. Businesses continued to close, and people continued to move away from the city. Beyond the occasional firebombing of a government office, which was usually attributed to a disgruntled client, there was no sign of any concerted effort to overthrow or undermine authority, or even to challenge it overtly. Networks were frayed and solidarity was slipping away. Each time it was Blue’s turn to bring food to the comrades in the squat, she took a mental picture of the scene. Even though few words were spoken (and nothing that the police would find helpful in case the squat was wired), she had noticed over the past few weeks that the scene was changing.
A couple of weeks earlier, she’d noticed that one of the comrades had left the squat. Although the food that Blue’s crew (and others) brought them was nutritionally adequate, the young comrade had been driving everyone else crazy with his constant talk of his mother’s cooking scrumptious meals – the kind of food that everyone could remember eating as their usual fare in the time before the raid. Blue had learned about this from a comrade, a member of another squat-support group she met from time to time in the park. He said he didn't know whether the guy had left on his own or had been asked to leave, just that he had become depressed and had moved back home with his parents.
Blue took in the information without comment. She didn’t want to share any thoughts that might weaken the resolve of some comrades to remain underground and others to support them, if that’s what they wanted to do. And maybe what she was feeling was just what the authorities wanted her to feel, and to infect others with. But the truth was that she and the other women were beginning to have serious doubts about where all of this was going. It seemed to have become just a war of attrition against a would-be enemy that showed itself to be no threat at all. Despite their bravado, they were running, hiding, disguising, pretending that what they were doing was something more than maybe just a sideshow for the authorities.
Of course, no one dared to use the internet anymore, and so none of them had any way of knowing for sure what was going on outside their own small sphere, the city – and most of them didn't risk entering its centre because of the cameras. News of what was going on in the rest of the world was brought to them mostly by travellers; and travellers were, themselves, considered suspicious by the authorities, who preferred that people have as narrow an experience of life as possible. The news was often second-hand, or just gossip that was overheard somewhere, interpreted by the traveller to substantiate his own beliefs. One day Blue had listened in as one of them was talking to several homeless men about his travels. According to him, there was a lot going on beyond the confines of the city. There had been an attack on a nuclear facility somewhere; the massacre of an entire community by police in California; oil leaks; gas explosions. There were few details, little context and no analysis. When the guy began relating all these events to the arrival of extraterrestrials, Blue had realised that no information available to them could be trusted anymore.
In her occasional encounters with above-ground comrades and with those in the squat, she was starting to see the effects of the lack of information and the proliferation of bad information. Having not much to go on, formerly close comrades were turning on each other, suspecting one another of disloyalty, forming factions around different anarchist tendencies and basically causing the movement to implode – all without the authorities having to order an arrest or a hit. The most active comrades in the community were under self-imposed house arrest, and the rest seemed to be blaming each other for the fact that nothing was happening.
The day had started on a jarring note. It was pension cheque day and it was Blue’s turn to supply the squat. As the old woman, she picked up the cheque at the post office, made the deposit at the ATM and withdrew $200. Later, as Sarah Snow, she shopped for groceries and delivered them to the squat. The guy who opened the door said, “Hey Sarah.” This was a breach of agreed on rules. What was up? None of the others even acknowledged her presence. As he took the grocery bags from her, he asked, “So Sarah, where are you living these days.” Shaken, she turned and left without saying a word. You don’t ask questions like that, and you don’t mention names, and he knew it. Was he letting her know that the police were onto everything? Or had he turned? Why had the others been so quiet?
On the bus out of the city Blue was preoccupied with these questions. When she alighted, the two housewives got off with her. Another woman was standing at the entrance to the trail. In the gathering darkness, the four disappeared into the woods, speaking in hushed voices as they changed out of their disguises. Blue told them about the guy at the squat. His behaviour didn't bode well and only seemed to confirm what they’d all been feeling – that it was time for a change of scene. Two of the women had spoken with a traveller in the park, a woman, who had told them that there was a group of women living in the Amazon jungle in Bolivia. Maybe it was unrealistic, just traveler talk, dream talk; but what else was there to do now except try to find out if there was any truth to it?
There was no question that they would have to bring the old woman with them. She wouldn't survive on her own on her little piece of land. The question was how would they do it? Blue reminded them that they’d been doing amazing things all along just because they’d believed they could. They would do more of the same. They had no idea where they were going, but they all agreed that the Amazon sounded like a good destination.
Arriving at the land, they found no campfire greeting them. The light from their lanterns fell on the old woman, still in her chair. They all started talking at once, telling her about the latest developments as they gathered firewood and dry tinder. There was no response. Blue shined her lantern light on the old woman’s face. Her eyes were closed. She looked peacefully asleep. Blue touched her hands. They were cold. She was gone.
All through the night they sat around the fire wondering what to do. There were practical issues to resolve. Was it a crime not to report a death? Would they be implicated if they did report it? What if the authorities examined the video data from the post office and the ATM and noticed that the old woman was not the person to whom the government cheque was issued? What would the old woman have wanted them to do?
In the morning they stuffed their few belongings into their backpacks. There was food for a week, and there were still a few dollars left over from grocery shopping. The first border they would have to cross was only a few kilometres away. It seemed that destiny was guiding them, allowing them to see possibilities they had not seen before.
They stood over the old woman and thanked her for being a part of their journey, even for so short a time. It was important that her memories survive, so Blue filled her backpack with the old woman’s notebooks. Silently, without looking back, the four women began to walk towards the Amazon.
"Taking Flight" was originally published in Subversions, Vol. lll