The alley was one of the filthiest she’d seen in recent months. Looking down, it seemed as though every inch of her boots was plastered with trash, like a gruesome collage. There was soggy food and cheap liquor and bottles, endless wrappers and disintegrating magazines, pieces of plastic and metal that once belonged to full mechanisms of one kind or another, floating in the filthy rain water. It was almost 3:30pm and nearly pitch black out on account of the pollution. Above her head the TVs blared, screaming and cackling and hissing through their usual program of advertisements and reality shows and trivial news pieces. The most dramatic thing she’d seen shared by a newscaster in likely a year was a story about a small girl who’d gotten lost running through the streets, pressing her face to each store window, looking for a newly released doll. The story ended when her mother found her outside of the most popular department store in a neighborhood of department stores (somehow caught on high definition camera) and the general manager offered her the gleaming new toy for free. The mother and daughter cried and hugged, the doll between them, while the camera lingered on the smiling manager’s face. It was an advertisement. Otherwise their knowledge of current affairs, goings on in the city, injustices or triumphs, progress or forceful pushes toward oblivion, was as dark as the afternoon sky.
Someone slammed into her shoulder so hard that she yelped and hurried on without apology. She became nervous that she’d forgotten the address number. She usually had no trouble remembering things but the televisions had recently had their volume raised by 7 decibels city-wide and key information threatened to fall into the cracks of her maddening headache. That was likely the point. The general manager’s smiling face plastered over the details of her destination, but she knew she couldn’t check the paper now. The rain had plastered her bangs to her face and her black jacket felt like it weighed thirty pounds. From beneath her dripping uncut hair she saw her surroundings in slits. An alley not dissimilar from the others, every inch of building covered in advertisements – the brick or concrete that comprised the structure visible only where a corner had been pulled back by the weather. They’d be fixed tomorrow. The trash was smashed to the ground in what, to the seeking eye, looked like a path. She saw the bottom half of the three numbers she’d been searching for and struggled with a door that bulged in it’s frame before tearing it open and clumsily slipping inside.
The air was so moist it felt like stepping out of a shower and into a steam room. It smelled like cheap poultry and drops of moisture glistened on the metal countertops, chairs, and tables. Chefs in clothes covered in weeks worth of grease yelled over the racket of cooking utensils and the wall to wall flatscreen televisions in a language that sounded like a mixture of Chinese, Italian and English. She attempted to look inconspicuous while her eyes scanned for a second door and, failing, was directed by the sideways nod of a stern faced diner. Back into darkness. The stairs were nearly as filthy as the alley outside and the railings just as wet. She held on so tightly she felt splinters digging into her palms and let out a breath when her feet reached the uneven concrete of the basement floor.
Nearly everyone was wearing black jackets, hair covering their eyes, arms crossed, faces down though she caught another pair of eyes every now and then before settling into a small space against the wall and letting her head droop as well. For a moment she closed her eyes and inhaled the foul air, feeling some semblance of peace away from the televisions. They were still audible, both those indoors and out, but muffled. She became aware of the sound of chalk scratching across a board somewhere in front of her. They hadn’t been asked to look yet and no one was speaking so she continued to revel in the moderate warmth and quiet of the moment.
“Ok.” A woman drawled.
It was always someone different. Always someone with a dark hood and a tangle of hair like the rest of them, avoiding eye contact. They looked up now, not completely but enough to see what she’d written and glance around warily at one another. Everyone looked tired and hard. The board had a diagram on it. They were usually complicated but this one was simple. It was simple because they were close. Closer than anyone had ever been. Closer because they were defeated enough to keep quiet, tired enough to avoid any accidental displays of energy, hopeless enough to truly look complicit and apathetic as they went about their short, ignorant days and unbearably loud nights. But crazy enough to organize, to try. And so they were closer than anyone had ever been.
The path depicted clearly began at the lab. The lab was not underground, it was hardly hidden. It was just in an area with fewer stores and more abandoned factories and more wanderers than consumers. They had equipped it, gathered all of its contents and arranged them, independently of one another. No two people had ever been there at the same time. They had constructed the charges in just the same way: alone but together, picking up where the last person had left off, correcting any visible errors in engineering, likely the result of the headaches and the noise versus a lack of skill or a careless hand. No one was allowed to work for more than an hour at a time. After that it would be impossible for even the most talented stimuli blockers to do a decent job and big mistakes were dangerous.
The path began at the lab and they all knew where it ended. Was it possible? They knew next to nothing about the infrastructure they existed within. They’d never seen the faces of officials and hardly those of their neighbors. What would happen if it worked? There must be some kind of plan, some kind of organization, that would respond to such a thing. But no one knew how things were responded to. No one knew how the people who benefited lived, or how they protected themselves. No one knew where they were, or how they kept it quiet there. They just knew they were blowing the fuse.