Tonally, this is pretty grim. I wouldn’t read too much into it, if you read it at all…
Hugo was a copyist grade two, which put him several leagues about those grasping, groping and rather pathetic copyist grade threes. Not for Hugo the steam-belching, finger-snapping POM that they had to struggle with; he and those of his band got to work with the latest in galvanically powered technology, as suited their rank. While initially jolly good fun, this had rapidly been the cause of a problem for Hugo. His natural talents – the ones that led him to quickly to that coveted grade two – coupled with the sort of raw power that came with the wonder-tech that was galvanism meant that he often finished his work long before the next portion was delivered.
This left him with time on his idle hands, and quite often at that. Never one to sit and twiddle his thumbs or draw out his work artificially, Hugo quickly found a way to keep himself occupied. Namely, he wrote poems. Only little ones, largely for himself, mostly to keep himself from going mad. He did not think much of them but maintained a low-level, quiet pride. Not the best, not the worse, that was what he thought. Of course, such flagrant misuse of official property was highly illegal and morally questionable and if he was ever caught he would suffer a most abrupt fate indeed. That considered, it did add a tantalizing touch of danger to his otherwise routine days and, to be fair, abrupt fates were fairly common anyway, life being what it was.
When he wasn’t surreptitiously wasting precious galvanic energy on the drab mewlings of his brain, Hugo also liked to while away his downtime by exchanging shy grins with Layla. Layla was also a copyist grade two, and thanks to a rather fortunate collapse in the building they had a clear line of sight to one another. Fortunate in this case of course for Hugo and Layla, not for the dozen other copyists who now had a clear line of sight of no-one, and never would again. Not that Hugo or Layla could remember their names.
This comfortingly predictable pace of life can to a screeching halt one day however, and Hugo did not see it coming. He was actually, properly working at the time, busily transcribing something he wasn’t bothering to really take in consciously when his machine burst. A searing arc galvanic energy lashed out and caught Hugo clean across the face and after a split-second of the most agonizing whiteness everything went starkly black.
Everything eventually came back, and Hugo found himself in a bed. Bandages were wrapped about his chest and covering maybe half of his head, and he could tell he was meant to be in pain from the sheer amount of numbness he was experiencing. Before he could spend much time contemplating this he received visitors. The Line Manager for all grade two copyists came in, flanked by two burly Overseers, each wearing the stout and ugly pistol of their rank proudly on their hips. Hugo immediately felt very uncomfortable, doubly so when the Line Manager smiled before sitting down, but he hid his discomfort well. The drugs helped.
It was explained to Hugo that his workstation had suffered a completely random and unexpected technical issue that was is no-way a well-known and possibly intentional design feature. As he was a grade two copyist he was allowed time to recuperate from his wounds (which were reasonable, though not crippling) before returning to work, as opposed to any bands lower than himself, who would have been liquefied. Hugo was grateful for this, but felt an increasing sense of unease as the prospect of his workstation being damaged sank into him. Clearing his throat he asked – as delicately as he could – what was going to happen to it. It was, he was told, due to be repaired in due course. This was exactly what he had been afraid of.
All of his poems that he had printed off he had stashed away inside a hollow compartment inside that workstation. What the compartment was actually for was unclear, but it served very well as a hiding place as, when closed, it was almost perfectly flush with the housing of the machine and very easy to overlook if you weren’t looking. If technicians came to repair it they were sure to find them, assuming they’d survived, and even if they hadn’t the merest evidence he’d tampered with the workstation to hide anything would be damning enough. Hugo smiled and nodded at the Line Manager’s happy reassurances that he’d be back to work in no-time while inside his organs were turned to ice. They remained icy and his thoughts remained increasingly frantic until, much to his surprise, he had another visitor. Layla.
Had he been able to scrape together enough words to speak he wouldn’t have had the chance, as Layla immediately held forth at great speed. In a flurry of things that Hugo was told he would just have to accept, she said that she knew about his poetry, knew about him hiding it and knew that he had very little time before he was rumbled. However – she went on to say – she had a way out for both of them. If Hugo hadn’t been all ears before he certainly was now.
She knew some people, she said; people who could help creative, lively people such as herself and Hugo get away and disappear. This prospect intrigued Hugo, though perhaps not as much as having Layla say that he was creative, which made subsequent facts a little hard to pay attention to. The gist, which he could grasp, was that he needed to grab his poems before the station was fixed, and then meet Layla down one of the more disused canals where she would swing by on a hijacked slime-barge, pick him up and steer them both away.
With this in mind, Hugo proceeded. Layla went off to do whatever it was she was going to be doing for her part of the plan, while Hugo, still numb, dragged himself from the infirmary and made his way to his workstation as casually as he could manage while wincing and limping the whole way. To his delight it was yet to be repaired and there were no technicians in sight. His delight increased when, popping open his secret panel, he found his collected body of work totally unharmed by whatever disaster had put him out of commission. Checking over his shoulder he tucked the sheaf of papers into his copyist robes and shuffled his way off. Again, with complete casualness.
The canals were numerous but Layla had been quite specific about which one he should go down. It wasn’t an area of town he had much familiarity with, but his occasional allotted outside time had given him a vague picture of the back ways and it didn’t take him too long to find the narrow little strip of water and the rickety wooden pier sticking out into it on which he stood and waited.
Hugo would have been lying if he’d said he wasn’t nervous. He was dreadfully nervous. Not full of the sinking, inevitable sense of doom he had had before when being rumbled had been a grim certainty. Now, he was instead filled with the heady, daring thrill of knowing he was actively avoiding the wrath of the authorities he had obeyed all his life. Even know, it was likely they would have noticed he left the infirmary and, on finding that he had filed no paperwork saying he was allowed to do so, would be hunting him down to punish him appropriately. Nervously glancing around Hugo waited, heart in his throat, as the sun started to set.
He did think – as his mind wandered – that maybe it was some elaborate trap just to catch him out, and Layla was some long-con double-agent sent to trick him. Or maybe it was a simple trap where she had just lied to him and left him to twist in the wind. As it turned out, it was neither, as her slime-barge quietly puttered its way around a bend and into view. Hugo could not help but grin.
How she’d managed to co-opt the integrated punter into deviating from its hard-wired route Hugo did not know, but she’d obviously been able to do it. Its dull, grey face stared blankly ahead as it slowed the barge to a crawl, inching towards the pier.
Standing on the side of the filthy vessel Layla said in hushed tones that the plan was simple. Hugo was to hand over his poems – so as not to drop them, which no-one wanted – and then she would help him over. This was simple, Hugo had to admit. Pulling the sheaf out from his robes and waiting until Layla was within arms reach he held them out to her.
As he handed them over, a shaft of moonlight fell across the pages and Layla paused. Squinting, she looked down at what he’d written and a frown slowly started to creep across her face. As she read more, flipping through the pages one after another, the frown deepened. Hugo wasn’t sure what this was about, and while acutely aware of the way the barge was ever-so-slowly inching its way past his little pier, he had no real desire to interrupt whatever train of thought Layla was engaged in. It looked occupying.
“Oh,” Layla said, now holding the papers somewhat more gingerly than she had been before, nose upturned as though to avoid a particular odour “this isn’t what I expected at all.”
All of his printed work was held between her forefinger and thumb, dangling over the ever-increasing gap between the barge and Hugo. It wasn’t a lot, but the weight of it was enough to slip, and after a moment or so of twisting in front of Layla’s rather disappointed face the whole bundle dropped into the water. There wasn’t much fanfare, not even a splash. Hugo still had his hand held out, but Layla no longer did. The barge picked up speed, engine puttering a touch louder than before as it disappeared off up the canal and into the night. Eventually, Hugo’s hand dropped to his side from sheer exhaustion but other than that he remained utterly motionless on the end of the little pier. He didn’t know what else he could do.
He was still standing there when the Overseers caught up with him. This was fortunate for them, as it gave them a very easy time of coming up from behind and shooting him in the back of the head. With a significant portion of his brain sprayed across the water, the rest of Hugo flopped backwards onto the planks like a sack of potatoes. There it was left by the Overseers, who had homes to go to. It remained there, bleeding gently, until it was discovered some days later by a much-overworked sanitation worker named Daphne who, checking no-one was looking, unceremoniously pushed him into the canal with her multibroom.
Coincidentally, his body eventually bumped into the very same – now abandoned – barge that Layla had used to make her getaway. She, of course, was long gone, but that hardly mattered now.