By the time Garth reached the waist-high fence around the enclave it was already dark, and the rain had soaked him to the skin. Through the dimness he saw the shadows of buildings, light flickering in windows.
Finally, he was here.
A cloaked figure emerged from the nearest building. The light from the old lantern she carried illuminated sharp, unsmiling features. And her eyes were uncovered.
The Anchorites wore no Omnis.
Garth tapped the arm of his Omni, and frowned. Her face appeared image-within-image on the glass before his eyes, but there was no data. The fields all read ‘unknown’.
The woman stopped at the fence and folded her arms.
“Hello,” he said. “I…the rain. Sorry. I know it’s late, but…” Water dripped from his nose.
She brought a hand up to her temple and tapped. Garth’s confusion must have shown, because she rolled her eyes, then brought both hands up. She seemed to be…miming.
Eventually Garth understood, even though the request was harsh. “You want me to remove my Omni?”
She nodded, then held out a bag.
He tapped his Omni again. Still no data on the woman, and now all the channels showed only a ‘signal busy’ message. Even the clock, in the top left of his vision, was flashing, unable to update.
The rain plastered his hair to his face. Garth turned, the path behind him lost in darkness.
There was nothing else to do. He eased the Omni off and placed it in her bag. He shuddered, felt naked.
She lifted the gate latch and beckoned him, pointing to the building.
The room was small and spartan; a couple of chairs, a table, and along one wall a shelf holding a few mugs, a couple of dark jars and a large jug. Set in one wall was an open fire, flames casting dancing shadows around the room. Everything seemed unreal. He brought a hand up, touched the side of his face before he remembered where his Omni was, remembered that he couldn’t call up data or alter his vision.
The woman removed her cloak, then touched the lapel of his jacket and pointed to the chair closest to the fire. He understood—did he want to dry his jacket off?
“Thank you.” He placed his pack carefully on the floor, then peeled off his jacket. It started steaming as he hung it over the back of the chair. “I’m Garth, by the way.” He held out a hand, but she ignored it. “So…is this your home?”
She shook her head, her eyes still fixed on him. Then she pointed to his pack, and mimed opening it.
“You want to see what I’ve got in there? Okay.” It seemed a bit invasive, but Anchorite ways were bound to be different. Not wishing to cause offence, he removed the contents and set them on the floor. “Let’s see. A flask—only water. A couple of meal bars. Had more, but these are all I have left. For…for the return journey.”
And that didn’t make sense now. Why had he left so late in the day, when he knew how far he’d be walking? He couldn’t recall even considering packing for an overnight stay.
He returned to the pack. “Emergency aid kit—basically bandages. And a torch.”
When Garth went to put the torch down, the woman shook her head and pulled the bag from her cloak. With a shrug, he put the torch with his Omni.
The woman put the bag down, then took the jug down from the shelf. Water sloshed within, and as she hung it over the fire she gave him a questioning look.
“A hot drink? Please!”
She reached for two mugs and one of the jars. Garth realised she hadn’t spoken a word, and he shuffled. “So…do you get many visitors?” The question made no sense—people sometimes looked from afar, but surely there would be records if anyone had entered the enclave. “I…I needed a break. My last psyche exam, they said I was stressed. Not surprising, I suppose. Being an enforcer, we’re bombarded with data all the time. Should have taken the sabbatical. And now…”
But it had been two sabbaticals he’d turned down. And he’d stopped seeing his friends too. How could he face Anna when his Omni had shown him data on the abortion she had never mentioned, or smile at Harry when he knew about the charges?
The jug steamed, and the woman added boiling water to the mugs. The bitter aroma reminded Garth of nuts.
He held out a hand, but she shook her head, raising her own hand. Wait. She pointed at him, then at the room, and finally raised both hands as she shrugged.
“Why am I here? I needed a break. And…I didn’t really know anything about the enclave. I mean, I know you don’t like tech, and you live simple lives. But…”
She repeated her mime from before, then tapped at her heart. Why are you really here?
He swallowed, realised he’d never asked himself that question, never wondered why he’d set off so late in the day. He’d told himself he wanted some time out, wanted to simply see the enclave, but now he saw how big a lie that was.
Garth took a breath, caught the pleasing aroma from the drinks again. The fire was warm, and the light it gave was soft and comforting.
His mind swirled with words, fragments of sentences, half-formed arguments. But they would never to justice to what he felt.
The woman watched, waiting. And Garth understood.
He pointed to himself, then at the room, then made a mime of sitting down. I want to stay here. Finally, he placed his hands together. Please.
The woman smiled, and handed him the drink.
There’s Always A Choice
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