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V for Vendetta
By Steve Moore
Pocket StarCopyright © 2006 Steve Moore
All right reserved.
A strange, shadowy room, somewhere deep beneath the streets of London.
Of old, old London that had seen so much, in two thousand years, of war and terror and despair. Founded by the conquering legions of imperial Rome and, within twenty years, reduced to ash by raging Boadicea, who, in her fury, killed eighty thousand of her own countrymen and hardly touched the Roman lords at all. Abandoned to the Saxons, decimated by the Black Death, erased once more in the Great Fire, shattered yet again by Hermann Goring's Luftwaffe.
Always falling, rising up, then falling still again...fallen now once more, and yet to foes more strange than plague, or fire, or war.
For London, now, most famous city in the world, had fallen to its own.
Yet in that strange and shadowy room, a tall and equally shadowy figure moved with a slow and confident step, dressed in a long, Puritan tunic of deep, undecorated black. Almost without thought, he flicked on a television set as he passed, then instantly turned his back. After all, he knew exactly what would be broadcasting at that time, and when the show was called The Voice of London, it hardly needed to be watched at all.
But then, anyone looking round the man's home might wonder why he would be interested in such a program anyway.
The room itself was but one of a number of interconnected chambers, their stone walls windowless and each surmounted by a vaulted roof that gave the place an ancient, medieval look, like the crypt of some vast church or cathedral, or perhaps the wine cellar of some Renaissance millionaire. But no hallowed bodies were interred here, no barrels or bottles either. Rather there were treasures of another sort: books, paintings, sculptures, and various other artworks, some specially displayed and picked out by subdued lights that made them glow like gilded icons amidst their dark surroundings, yet did nothing to dispel the air of mysterious and all-pervading gloom. Others were merely stacked to take up as little room as possible, held in storage against a future time when they could be properly exhibited or restored to their original homes. A vast collection of rescued objets d'art, of literary flights of fancy, of histories and anecdotes and thoughts; rescued from oblivion, from destruction, from vandals...and, most of all, from the government.
Passing by a bookcase packed with curious political visions, from Thomas More's Utopia and Campanella's City of the Sun through Karl Marx's Das Kapital to Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf (some banned now, and some required reading), the man made his way toward a dressing table, settling himself before a large mirror surrounded with little electric bulbs, brought here from some theater changing room; a relic of the times when theaters still showed plays, not mere burlesques or propagandist farces. And as the canned audience applause track died on The Voice of London, the introductions over, he pulled on black, close-fitting leather gloves. Then, as the deep, plummy, oh-so-English voice of Lewis Prothero, the show's host and eponymous "Voice of London" (not because he was, but because someone too high up to argue with had said that this was so), bade his audience welcome to the evening's program, those same gloved hands reached out and switched on the makeup mirror's lights.
As the feeble radiance spread out into the shadowed room, it showed a wall behind the dresser, plastered over with ancient movie posters from back before the Second World War; for this underground gallery gathered more than the art that most would call "eternal." Here too were the artifacts and ephemera of popular culture, of television shows long vanished from the screen, of games that none had played for years, of songs no longer sung. And as the light flickered, the power supply being nothing like the way it used to be, the man's eyes lit upon Bela Lugosi in Son of Frankenstein, and a faint ironic smile quirked his lips as Prothero started to speak.
"I say," began the Voice of London, "I read today that the formerly 'United' States are so desperate for medical supplies that they've allegedly sent us several containers filled with wheat and tobacco. A gesture, they said, of goodwill..."
The light came up a little then, revealing a shoulder-length, black wig upon its own head-shaped stand, and with it a mask. As the gloved hands reached toward the latter, Lewis Prothero asked, "Would you like to know what I think?"
Was that the slightest shake of the head as the mask was raised toward the man's face? Hardly worth asking, perhaps, for once the mask was strapped in place, all trace of its owner's expression, of his thoughts and very feelings, disappeared; and all that remained was that of the mask. For to wear a mask is to give up who we really are and to become, perhaps for just a little while, perhaps for rather longer, that persona that the mask itself appears to represent.
The mask. The masquerade...
Almost white this mask, with something of a debonair and Harlequin look, the cheeks a little rouged, the lower lip a little pink, the eyes a little more than slits that seemed to smile at times, at other times to squint, yet always having something of the vulpine. The ebony-painted goatee, the inky-black mustachios forever curling upward at the ends. The smile forever fixed.
A Guy Fawkes mask.
"Would you like to know what I think?" Lewis Prothero was asking on another television screen, in a room about as high above the ground as the previ-ous one was far below. A far more poorly decorated room this, the rent alone consuming too much of the occupant's monthly paycheck to allow for fripperies or frills, in a run-down backstreet not far from Paddington Station. Here too a figure sat before a mirror, putting on disguise.
Not a mask this time, but the disguise that women wear, of lipstick, eye shadow, powder, and mascara, that says, "My eyes are dark with mystery, my lips are red with passion, my skin is young and smooth." Not that there was anything about this particular woman that needed such disguise; and frankly there was something about Gordon Deitrich, the prospective target of these wiles, that made Evey Hammond wonder why she was bothering in the first place. But she knew the answer to that question anyway. If she wanted to get on and up that damnable career ladder, this could be the most important date in her life. That was the way things worked these days. So gild the lily, then, and take whatever's offered.
Besides, more money and better career prospects might enable her to get a place in one of those new condominiums they were building, safe behind their own security fences, entrances protected by their own armed guards. Where, even if the food and fuel and other necessities of life were still to be had only with the appropriate ration coupons, at least one could live with a little less fear.
And Evey Hammond so very much wished to live without the fear that haunted all her days...and more, and worse, her dreams.
"You're watching my show," the Voice of London continued, though Evey was really doing this no more than a certain other of the program's audience, not so very far away, "so I'll assume you do. I think it's high time we let the colonies know what we really think of them. I think it's high time we paid them back for a little 'Tea Party' they threw for us a few hundred years ago."
With an apparent mastery of the dramatic pause, Prothero stopped while the technicians cranked up the canned applause once more.
Her makeup finished, Evey slipped into her best dress and smoothed it over her hips as she checked herself in the mirror. Full lips, high forehead, brown eyes, and straightish golden hair that fell and spread across her shoulders; a lithe figure that filled out in just the right places. Yes, she liked the way she looked, and if Deitrich didn't...well, actually, if he didn't, what did it really matter? Either she'd get in his good books, which might eventually lead to a promotion, or she'd just stay where she was and carry on the same as usual until another opportunity came up.
And if the worse came to the worse, she could always try to find another job. There were plenty around these days. Or, more to the point, there were far fewer people around than there used to be to fill the same number of vacancies. People of a certain type...
Actually, she thought, biting her lip nervously, a promotion would mean quite a lot, for the way the Party organized things these days, promotions brought more status as well as money. And that would mean more food coupons, for a start.
"What I say," Prothero's voice came again, when the applause had died down, "is that we go down to the docks tonight and dump that colonial crap where everything from the Ulcered Sphincter of Asserica belongs!"
A pause, but this time not long enough for the applause to start again.
"Who's with me?"
Then a further silence, until the dramatic tension seemed almost unbearable. Finally, in his best rabble-rousing voice: "Who's bloody well with me!"
And only then did the applause crash in, as the entirely fictitious audience went wild with apparently hysterical approbation.
Evey shrugged. She knew the show like the back of her hand after all, with all its tricks, all its prompts. She even knew who wrote Prothero's stuff and wrote his "ad-libs" too. And heaven knows she knew the message it was trying to get across. What she didn't know was why anyone swallowed it.
But they did. They did, and they had done so for more than ten years now.
And it looked as if they always would.
Of course, no one was really going to dump wheat and tobacco in the docks. They might make a show of it for the cameras, throwing a few empty boxes into the water, but the wheat and tobacco would simply be spirited away to feed and soothe the Party elite. If there was ever any there at all, that was, and the whole thing wasn't just another propaganda fraud to prop up British notions of superiority.
These days she knew, as an insider working at Jordan Tower, you couldn't believe anything the government said apart from death threats and prohibitions.
The applause storm having died down once again, Lewis Prothero continued in a much calmer, more intimate voice...a lighter, knowing voice that suggested sharing a joke with his viewers, and a common point of view.
"Did you like that? USA? The Ulcered Sphincter of Asserica? I mean, honestly, what else can you say? There was a country that had everything, and now, twenty years later...is what? The world's biggest leper colony. Why?"
Now the Voice gained in confidence once again, became more emphatic, began to sound hectoring. Demagogic. And loud.
"Godlessness. Let me say that again. Godlessness. It wasn't the war they started. It wasn't the plague they created. It was...Judgment."
More applause, while Evey could only think about how perceptions changed. When she was a little girl, after all, the USA had been regarded as one of the most Christian countries in the world, with right-wing Christian Republicans governing the place for year after year, with American Protestant missionaries taking their unwanted Bibles to all the other parts of the happily unredeemed world; and then there'd been the war. After that, the only things anyone remembered about the old America were its militarism and its conspicuous consumption, and what had been the Promised Land became nothing more than Rome and Babylon. And now no one cared about the state of the American soul, not here in England anyway. Because now it was England that God smiled upon, and nowhere else at all.
By then Prothero was really beginning to get into his stride: "No one escapes their past. No one escapes Judgment. You think He is not up there? You think He is not watching over this country? How else can you explain it? He tested us, but we came through!"
Her expression souring by the moment, Evey clipped on her earrings and began brushing out her hair. She knew perfectly well what was coming next, and Prothero delivered exactly what she expected. The building rant, the reddening face that went with the words, the rising blood pressure, and, eventually, the shouting.
"We did what we had to do! Islington. Enfield. I was there. I saw it all. Immigrants. Muslims. Homo-sexuals. Terrorists. Disease-ridden degenerates. They had to go!"
And now the punch line, same as ever: " 'Strength through Unity, Unity through Faith!' I am a God-fearing Englishman, and I am goddamned proud of it!"
"And that's quite enough of that, thank you very much," said Evey, twisting round to turn off the television, just as Prothero began to give the goddamned salute. And then she turned back to the mirror to check her appearance one more time. Yes, she did look good, and she knew it, no matter what that nervy little voice in the back of her head might say.
But perhaps just one last look in the mirror. The mirror with the photos tucked all round the frame. Her friends. Her workmates. Her parents. And it was that last one that always brought the same old lump to her throat. And on a night like this, perhaps that wasn't one to linger over.
"Listen," she said, though whether to herself or to the photos or the empty air she really didn't know. "He's a very nice man. He makes me laugh. But I'm just going to be honest with him, and if that costs me a job...well, that'll suck, but I've dealt with worse, haven't I? A lot worse."
And then her eye lit once again on the picture of Mum and Dad, and she had to look away. And as she did so, her glance took in the clock.
It said one minute after eleven o'clock.
"Oh, shit," exclaimed Evey with sudden desperation.
With sudden fear.
And with that she grabbed a small piece of paper with an address scribbled on it from the mirror frame and dashed toward the door.
And out into a night more dark than any she had ever known...
Back in that room of shadows and illusions, of literary dreams and cinematic fantasies, the dark-dressed man had, by now, completed his theatrical attire. The mask strapped on, the wig in place, long and soft black leather boots upon his feet that ran up above his knees, an inky cloak about his shoulders, and on his head, a tall and tapering Jacobean hat, its round brim wide enough to add another layer of mysterious shadow to his already enigmatic, grinning features.
Something of the dandy, something of the scarecrow. Something of the night.
Checking his appearance one last time in the mirror, he turned off the dressing-table lights and turned toward a nearby bust of Shakespeare. Then, striking a pose, he began to declaim, in a rolling, oratorical tone, to his audience of solitary stone.
" 'Nor Mars his sword, nor war's quick fire, shall burn the living record of your memory...' "
A bow, a swirl of the cloak, and then, in a much lighter, more mischievous voice: "Don't wait up for me, Will. I intend to enjoy myself tonight."
And with that he was gone, and the lights were all extinguished.
And all that then remained were galleries of shadow.
Copyright © 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.
Excerpted from V for Vendetta by Steve Moore Copyright © 2006 by Steve Moore.
Excerpted by permission.
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