Only The Anacrusis.

Bovey later, in retrospect, regretted his decision to avoid the precinct, trying to shave a few precious minutes from his schedule, a decision that cost him time in the long run, yet introduced to him the man the media had since dubbed a terrorist, but whom Bovey knew as Milo Anacrusis, and had liked.

Bovey was a data-input operative who lived alone in a simple three room apartment on the Bradbury Arm of the Argyre Planitia, a flat, mountain-ringed settlement in the southern hemisphere of Mars. He spent all of his days watching a bank of monitors as they registered various figures of little import or meaning to anyone other than Bovey or his superiors, and his nights reading his book logs, or watching archives of old Earth programming. Once in a while, at his job, Bovey would notice an irregularity in the streams of data he was watching and he would press a button to alert somebody who worked elsewhere in the facility, and they would perform some remedial action for which Bovey was not qualified, and to which he was not privy. Other than that, Bovey’s day was entirely uneventful and without incident.

This day, however, he had failed to accrue enough time credits to gain a lunch break, so was forced to make use of the Time-Slip in order to get a delayed and much needed haircut. If it weren’t for the fact that the Martian day lasted twenty four and a half hours – and that the Martian Interim Government had decreed that it was far simpler for everyone, rather than recalibrate their entire system of time-keeping, to stop the clocks and have a half hour break at twelve midnight, after which everyone went back to their business at twelve midnight (except for the majority who were sleeping at the time) – Bovey wouldn’t have managed a break at all. Luckily, Bovey’s barber was of traditional working class stock, and didn’t believe in wasting time if it could be helped.

The disadvantage of the Time-Slip, however, was that it meant that large numbers of people – people like Bovey, who had little free time to themselves otherwise – used it to rush around trying to get things done: chores and errands that could not be put off any longer, and secret trysts that they imagined didn’t really count if time didn’t pass, and other pointless, luxurious wastings of time (justified for much the same reason).

Which is how Bovey found that getting to the barber’s shop took far longer than he had anticipated. The precinct, albeit wide and with automatic walkways and with four further balconies above it, thronged with people. Bovey jostled and was jostled in turn, found that he was diverted from his path by simple weight of numbers, and eventually took the path of least resistance and found himself at the entrance to the Old Town. Here the shiny and neon-lit shops gave way to cheaper, darker stores; the conglomerates and chains didn’t venture here, and small independent shops selling strange items like hand-made clothes and paper books thrived amongst the boarded-up frontages and dingy alleys. Even the dome above Old Town was filthy, as the lower rents and unreliable tenants meant that the automatic wash systems that operated many times a day in the precinct here only worked perhaps once a week. The severe Martian winds scoured the transparent dome, and the minute particles of dust lodged there, eventually accruing into small dunes and shifting patterns that swirled in the available light, causing patterns of shadows to shimmer onto the buildings below.

Bovey hunched his shoulders and attempted to make himself invisible, and walked with determination into Old Town. He knew that it was the quickest way to the barber’s shop, which was situated almost at the farthest end, where this street opened back out to the precinct. The trip to the barber’s was one of Bovey’s only real indulgences; rather than accepting a DNA stamp that kept his hair at the same length, Bovey preferred to feel the pressure of a barber’s fingers working with skill and precision on his skull, loved the snip-snap sound of the scissors about his ears, and enjoyed the inconsequential banter of the barber as they chatted like old friends. It was an antique service worth paying for.

Except, for today, that Bovey was accosted in his travels by Milo Anacrusis, with one hand full of pamphlets and the other holding down the pressure trigger connected to the twenty two kilograms of quantum-packed explosives which were strapped around his chest.

“Hello, sir,” he said to Bovey, stepping lightly and expertly in his path, “might I have a moment of your time?”

Bovey looked up and only saw the packages of explosives. He stopped sharply and was trying to think of the words he would use to ask the question he was having some trouble formulating. His mouth flopped open and stayed that way.

“My name is Milo Anacrusis,” the man said, pronouncing it Meelo, “and I’m here today to protest about the Earth Government’s refusal to grant full independence to the Martian Colonies. Would you be interested to hear what I have to say? It will only take a moment of your time.”

Bovey looked up into Milo’s excellent smile. “Ahhhh…” he managed. He raised a hand to point at the other man’s chest. “You, ah… is that a bomb?”

Milo managed to smile all the harder. “Yes.” He pressed a leaflet into Bovey’s limp grasp. “Yes. I’m a suicide bomber. Or, rather, I will be in a few minutes.” He glanced at his wristwatch which, like everyone else’s, had automatically switched at midnight from time-keeping to counting down the half hour of the Time-Slip. “Within the next twenty minutes, I should say. I need to finish up here within the Time-Slip, you see – part of the point is that we take back what is rightfully ours, and the extra thirty minutes is an inalienable Martian right (no pun intended), so it all works out rather well, symbolically speaking.”

“I see,” said Bovey. He wasn’t sure that he saw at all. He could almost feel his hair growing, untidily. “I’m actually in something of a hurry – I need to get to the barber’s.”

“Okay. I’m sorry to have kept you. Please keep and read that leaflet. It’s information you should know.”

“Thank you. I really have to go now.” Bovey glanced at the paper in his hand and shuffled away. As he began to read, he slowed to a stop.

Milo Anacrusis was approaching a pedestrian who was pointedly taking pains to avoid him when Bovey came back and spoke to him.

“I’m sorry – Milo, was it?”

The pedestrian circled both of them warily and strode away as Milo turned around. “Yes, that’s right,” he said.

Bovey waved the leaflet at Milo’s chest. “That’s a bomb?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re going to set it off in twenty minutes?”

“Slightly less than, to be precise – before midnight resumes, at any rate.”

Bovey held the leaflet up as if he were reading from it. “You’re going to kill yourself and all these people, destroy all these buildings, as a protest?”

“Yes.”

“Right. It’s just… well, it’s a bit barbaric and… old-fashioned, isn’t it?”

“Yes!” Milo’s face grew bright and animated. “It’s precisely that. That’s our point.”

“But, surely this – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – isn’t the best place. Wouldn’t destroying the precinct make a bigger impact?”

“It would,” Milo conceded, “but we couldn’t get permission.”

“Permission? I don’t… who gives permission?”

“The Municipal Offices. This whole area,” he indicated the length of Old Town with a sweep of his arm, “is scheduled for demolition within the month. We applied for the demolition rights and beat the other companies’ quotes, so we have the contract.” He looked quickly behind himself and then swung back around, stooping conspiratorially towards Bovey, who leaned back ever so slightly. “Actually, it’s a subcontract, because we’ll need a clean-up crew to come in after I’ve demolished everything, but the outcome’s much the same.”

Milo turned Bovey around and pushed him gently down the street. “I’m sorry, sir, but I have to get on. I need to clear all of the people out of here before I blow it up, otherwise there’ll be hell to pay.”

“But I need to visit the barber…”

“Oh. The one at the end of the street?”

“Yes. I need a haircut.”

“Well,” said Milo, “there’s no time left, I’m afraid. That barber’s shop won’t be here for much longer.” He looked at Bovey’s hair and frowned. “You know you can get a DNA stamp that -”

“Yes! I know. I don’t want one. I want a haircut. From a barber.”

Milo tucked the sheaf of leaflets under his other arm and reached into a pocket, indicating that Bovey hold up the leaflet he had been given. He scribbled on it one-handed, pressing against Bovey’s palm. It was a little uncomfortable, and it tickled, but Bovey barely felt it, staring instead at Milo’s other hand, and hoping that the thumb holding the pressure trigger down was capable of working independently of Milo’s other hand, and that the pressure of holding the leaflets wasn’t affecting his strength at all.

“Here, call this number later today,” Milo said when he’d finished. “Actually, no, give it a week or so, considering. This is a cousin of mine; he gets his hair cut by someone, they should be able to sort something out for you.”

Bovey looked at the number on the leaflet – Milo had written it so that it neatly circled the picture of Mars that was in the centre – and mumbled a thank you.

“Not at all. Now please move along. There’s not much time left.”

“Okay. Goodbye then. And thanks again.”

“Not at all,” said Milo, already moving off towards other pedestrians. “And tell my cousin that I sent you; he’ll make sure you’re okay. His hair always looks pretty good.”

Bovey watched as Milo wandered away, handing out his leaflets. After a few minutes, pedestrians with leaflets began to give warnings to those without and Bovey followed the massing crowd of evacuees down the darkened streets of the Old Town and towards the precinct. As he passed the barber’s shop, he saw that it was closed, with a hastily handwritten sign in the window thanking the customers for their patronage over the years.

There was a throng of onlookers gathered in the precinct, and security personnel were herding them behind barriers. Bovey moved with them and found himself placed with a view back down the way he had come, where he could see through the dark tunnel of Old Town all the way to the bright lights of the precinct at its far end. Milo Anacrusis was silhouetted in the light, standing in the middle of the abandoned street, the darkness of his shape merging with the shadows. As Bovey watched, he saw Milo raise one arm in the air and wave.

Bovey looked around himself, and then back towards Milo. He lifted his arm to wave in response and said, slowly and to himself, “But…” and then the explosion tore away his words and ruffled his hair, and the light forced him to close his eyes and turn his head. A ripple of dust bloomed outwards and he coughed, staggering backwards with the movement of the crowd. Instantly, the sirens of emergency services ripped the air, and the dull thump of collapsing buildings made the floor tremble beneath him. He felt himself moved with the tide of people and the leaflet that Milo had given to him was lost as he fought with both hands to keep his balance.

He coughed dust out of his throat, and wiped with a dirty sleeve to clear the grit from his eyes. The sirens continued to wail, competing with the shouting of the people, and Bovey’s watch alarm sounded at the same time as everyone else’s, as the clocks in the precinct announced that it was midnight again.

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Andrew Cheverton
Andrew Cheverton is currently the writer of the western comic West (drawn by Tim Keable) and the science fiction comic The End (drawn by FH Navarro), and the writer - and soon-to-be illustrator - of horror comic The Whale House. Thank you for reading.
Andrew Cheverton

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