The Sentry and the Centaur

Vincent approached the Sentry.

Bob, who was the guard on duty that day, stared straight ahead. He was very good at this. In fact he’d excelled in that particular unit of basic training.

Vincent smiled a smile that he’d be incapable of in a few years’ time. The sort of smile that suggests innocence in a boy, but arrogance in a man.

‘I was just wondering… Well hoping, really…’ Vincent stuttered.
‘Can you come in?’ Bob said.
‘Yes.’
‘I honestly don’t know.’

They weighed each other up.

On the colossal pane adjacent to the sign, a team of workers were hurriedly removing some graffiti. It read:
AIR FOR EVERYONE, NOT JUST

‘You see,’ said Bob, stalling for time while he thought the situation through, ‘The sign. It says no cycling.’
‘I know,’ said Vincent, still demonstrating the disarming smile, ‘But I’m not sure that I am cycling.’
‘Hmmm,’ was the long noise that Bob made, while reflecting on this, ‘I thought you might say that.’
‘You see,’ continued Vincent, ‘It depends how you define cycling.’
‘A dictionary is not part of a Sentry’s standard equipment.’
‘No, I realise that,’ Vincent held one finger in the air, ‘But I looked it up before coming here… And well, most dictionaries seem to define it as the act of travelling on a bicycle, or tricycle. Perhaps even a unicycle… Although unicycles weren’t specifically mentioned in any of the dictionaries I read…’
‘Yes,’ said Bob, waiting for something he could find a hole in.
‘And I’d suggest that none of those cases describe my,’ Vincent looked down, ‘Situation.’

Vincent reversed a little and took in the majesty of the Dome.
The only clean place in The City open to the public. It was beautiful…

Bob pointed at the sign. ‘If you’ll notice, sir – the sign also forbids skating, skateboarding and scootering. Which would suggest –’
Vincent smiled through all of this. It’s worth noting that while most smiles can become unnerving after anything more than a few moments, this smile was definitely endearing.

‘Yes?’ Vincent said.
‘That it’s more the travelling upon wheels that is forbidden within these walls rather than any specific mode of transport.’
‘But wheelchairs are allowed?’
‘Yes, but that, I think we can both agree, is no wheelchair.’
‘True.’

‘It’s been so long since I breathed real, fresh air,’ Vincent said after a short while, ‘I was born in the city, you see, so I had no idea that this crap around us isn’t real. Real air.’

Bob nodded, knowing precisely what the boy meant.
But remained stern.

‘On my tenth birthday,’ Vincent began again, ‘My uncle took me on the Sky Wheel. I couldn’t believe it. It went so high. Far above the clouds that men make. You could actually touch the roof of the world.’

Bob found that he was still nodding in agreement.
Vincent continued.

‘About two thirds of the way around I became conscious of something. I could breath. I suddenly knew that what I’d been doing all my life couldn’t be described as breathing -’

Bob’s mind was elsewhere.
‘I know,’ he said.
‘I remember,’ he said.
And he meant it.

‘This recycled, manufactured muck I’d been filling my lungs with all of my life, hadn’t been air at all. I became obsessed – any opportunity to learn about the Wheel, I snatched. And then when I was old enough to work, every penny I earned was spent on journeys on the Sky Wheel. I loved it so much. Just to feel the electricity of natural oxygen in my body… Energy, flowing through my every muscle -’

‘I only went on it once,’ Bob said, his eyes focussed on a moment far in his past, ‘With my wife. Wedding anniversary. She loved it. She’s gone now, Go’ bless her.’

Vincent looked down at the pair of wheels they’d given him when he lost his legs. ‘I was on it, when it came down. Damn terrorists. Damned damn terrorists.’
‘I just realised who you are, boy. I remember reading in the briefsheets – only one survivor. You’re him, aren’t you?’
‘Yes,’ Vincent said, ‘Yes I am.’
‘God damn indeed, son. They done a job on you. Took your legs. And that’s what they gave you in their place?’

Vincent stood there like a modern day centaur – the top half of him was human, the bottom looked more like a bicycle than anything else you could name.
‘It’s what I could afford.’

Bob scratched at one of the deep creases in his forehead, his Sentry’s cap shifting an inch.

‘Since that day,’ Vincent said, ‘I’ve inhaled this revolting, recycled concoction of gasses and resented every breath. The Dome is probably the closest I’ll come to feeling fresh air in my lungs ever again.’
‘The air in there is clear,’ Bob said, still miles away, ‘Not like the Sky Wheel, but a damn sight nicer than this,’ he gestured at the brown, cloudy atmosphere surrounding them and everyone else who could not afford to enter the Dome.

Vincent smiled. ‘I’ve been saving my disability benefit payments for the last year… For one ticket…’

The sentry stood to one side and let Vincent trundle through the door into the gigantic glass geodesic dome. He watched him pay his money and then sweep past the café in the foyer. Gracefully, the boy’s prosthetic wheels navigated through the gaps between the other visitors, then out of sight between two enormous shrubs.

An hour later when an explosive device was detonated on the far wall, shattering the Dome into millions of pieces, Bob wondered if perhaps he’d done the wrong thing. With the enclosure destroyed it was impossible to tell how many survived, but Vincent’s body was not among the dead.

Three months later Bob saw that the graffiti had appeared on the walls of the last place in The City where the privileged few could breath non-polluted air. He said nothing.

The House Of Parliament was an ugly building anyway.

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David Baillie is a freelance writer and artist. Born almost thirty years ago in Scotland, he now lives and works in the East End of London.

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