He can’t remember exactly when he started running at night. It was sometime after she died. The aftermath was so hazy that it is hard for him to look back at that time with any precision. It’s not important when it started, its only important in that it’s now part of what he does. It's a means of keeping himself in balance, in making sure he is centered. It’s not the only thing he does to stay centered-running at night. There is the strict vegetarian diet, the 20-minute meditation sessions each morning, and the weekend hikes. These keep him in place. They don't allow him to stray too far from his essential point. These practices keep him on track like someone siting a scope hovering around the target until they can lock in, deadeye.
It was the middle of January but that didn’t stop him. He often preferred running in the winter to any other season. First the day was shorter and the night longer so he could start earlier. Second there were fewer people out on the trails. In fact, in the winter he only ever saw one or two other brave souls out each night. Mostly these people were coming home from work or walking their dog, but he wasn’t too concerned with the particulars of their lives. His mind was elsewhere.
He wears the same clothes every night. He washes them once a week, every Saturday morning. He is nothing if not a creature of habit. First part of his wardrobe is his boxer briefs, always black. Next come a pair of plain cotton white socks. Then he puts on his red tights that he has had since he ran cross-country in high school. The only pair of running tights he has ever owned now going on their eighteenth year. The t-shirt he wears is the only piece of his wardrobe that varies. He wears whatever is at the top of his stack of shirts in his closet. Tonight, it’s an old t-shirt from college. One of those many that were given away for signing up for a credit card or going to a football game, it doesn't matter they all come from the same source. After that comes a long-sleeve fleece - also from his high school cross country days, and then a plain black hooded sweatshirt. Next is the outer shell of his winter coat to keep him dry in case it snows and his black beanie. Finally, come his running shoes - a pair of year old Nike cross trainers.
It had snowed the night before. Running in the snow is an extra treat. This was the type of snow where the thick snowflakes slowly descended to earth. They were lazy in their approach. This was a type of snow to be treasured. With no wind, it looks like everything is standing still except the slowly falling snow. Tonight, it is cold. The air is so crisp on these deep winter nights. It can hurt the lungs but it's a good hurt like the burn of hard liquor, each breath was a sharp sting followed by a mellow dulling of the senses.
He starts out jogging down the sidewalk. His steps are heavy tonight. He has had some pain in his left knee lately and has been favoring his left side, which has thrown off his stride. To recalibrate his stride, he starts out very slow and concentrating on a nice even pace. Within only a few yards his mind starts to drift towards her.
As he starts to increase his pace a familiar humming sound starts to fill the air. Emerging from somewhere the hummingbird begins following him. It maintains its distance but its camera is locked in. It is translucent as well, blending it with the sky whether it is morning, noon, or night. One can see distinct traces of them flashing through the sky as the light refracts of their wing at just the right angle, but mostly they are unseen. This one is a newer model- bit smaller than the older version and sleeker and quieter. The older versions were clunky and loud. As a means of appeasing some of their critics they developed a less intrusive version. Of course, the balancers accepted this as a reasonable compromise. Smaller, quieter, and keeps its distance. This was deemed acceptable by some of the feebler minds of this state. Constant surveillance, but at a distance! Let it never be said that there is not a significant proportion of the population who will cede their rights for the veneer of security. This wasn’t on his mind right now, right now he was thinking of her.
It’s now been over a year since she has been gone and therefore it’s been a year since he’s been watched. The surveillance is constant. The hummingbird follows him wherever he goes, to the grocery store, to the library; to the coffee house down the road he goes some Saturday afternoons to read. A small invisible drone about the size of wallet - 2 inches by 2 inches with wings that beat 200 times per second; hence the name - hummingbirds. Their official name was MOPs or Monitoring Operators. A sterilized bureaucratic name. The word drone was banned recently. The balancers argued that the negative connotation of the name was unfair to the necessary work the drones did. They kept us secure, not repressed. They were needed for our protection. Perhaps they were a bit intrusive and annoying but isn’t that small inconvenience worth it to be safe? Besides if you didn’t have anything to hide, what was the big deal? He didn’t really think of these arguments much anymore. It’s funny since they were the animating force in his life for a time, and hers.
He rounds the corner next to the coffee shop. He is now a quarter of the way done, halfway to the turnaround point. For some reason the hummingbird has been getting closer to him than usual. The whole point of this new version was to maintain some distance and be less intrusive. This model, however, has now buzzed five feet above his head two times. He is slightly irritated by this but chalks it up to a partially malfunctioning machine - a glitch. He keeps going and starts to increase his pace. He is not a fast runner. He describes his pace as “slightly above average” Now he is feeling fast. He starts to lengthen his stride. His breath is getting heavy and his feet are hitting the ground harder. The clean crisp air feels good. It burns his lungs to breathe it in but he keeps going hard.
His mind starts to drift back to her. She was the fighter in the relationship. He was more passive. He became active mostly to keep up with her. He always had the ideas and beliefs but she brought him into activism. He is more internal. In another life, he would have made a good professor. He was always jealous of her ability to be in the world. She was not self-conscious like he was. She could interact with others without a problem, without hesitating. He is much more reserved. It is probably why they got along together so well, each wanted what the other was.
His pace has been steadily increasing for the last 10 minutes. He is really pushing himself tonight. His breathing has transitioned from heavy to strained. The cold air is really scraping the back of his throat like a rake on a chalkboard.
The hummingbird is keeping pace. It almost seems surprised at how fast he is moving tonight like it has gotten used to his previous pace and now its struggling to keep up. Of course, it’s just an inanimate machine incapable of learning or remembering. It’s also not the same machine that follows him every night. He knows there is a rotation of machines that watch him every day. They need to get maintenance occasionally.
The hummingbird is a very simple machine. It has three settings: deviant, warning, and danger. It's the last of these that really matters. If the danger setting is triggered then the local Internal Security Force (ISF) is notified. The creation and distribution of the hummingbirds were the result of a law passed by Parliament and signed by the President. That law known as the Freedom from Urban Assault, Conspiracy, and Terrorism Act, or FUCT established many standards, but the hummingbirds were the most prominent. Strategon, a defense and logistics company had developed the hummingbird technology decades earlier. The hummingbirds are meant to monitor “deviants.” That is their default setting. Deviant as a criminal class was adopted well before the FUCT Act but that piece of legislation expanded the category to include those conspiring or “conspiring to conspire” to “bring harm to our nation.” The category originally only included religious subversives, but was quickly expanded to include all manner of domestic discontents. The order to move fellow travelers from “suspect class” to “deviant” was the order that captured him. She was covered much earlier when all “activists” were deemed deviants right after all “religious subversives” were. Being deemed a deviant was not such a serious ordeal they were told. You were being watched for the good of the nation and for your own good. It’s not as if you were under house arrest, it was more like house arrest came with you as you went out. The balancers thought that monitoring by hummingbirds was a good compromise, which balanced liberty with the interests of national security in their minds. This appealed to their reflexive centrism. Any point between the two extremes must be right. They also championed the creation of the ISF to monitor the deviants. The ISF oversaw managing the hummingbirds. So, whenever a deviant left their home they were followed by a small, floating, vibrating hunk of metal and plastic that recorded every moment of their day. “Permanent surveillance is the only means for true security and now we have the technology to accomplish it.” This was the slogan advanced by the industry and the political class justifying the move. It broke her heart how easily most people bought it. She was not naïve. She had seen too much and survived too much to be naïve. She was however an optimist and believed that people were basically good, fearful, but good. It’s when fear overrode the good that bad things started to happen. What dismayed her so much is that fear seemed to have permanently taken over the good of her fellow countrymen.
He starts to remember when he was first put on watch. “If you don’t have anything to hide then what’s the big deal?” It’s amazing how quickly people swallowed that line wholly. She was the first one to alert him to its absurdity. The authoritarians reflexively pushed the line but what do you expect? He was disappointed with how fast the balancers adopted it. He shouldn’t have been. She enlightened him about the balancers. How their desire for appeasement blinded the rational part of their brains. That was for those who had opinions. Most of the balancers adopted their position based on a reflex of “well, if one side disagrees and the other side disagrees, then the truth must be somewhere in the middle.” What most revolted her were those who would call themselves a part of the “radical center.” Mostly she was pissed because they appropriated the word radical from actual radicals such as her. It’s amazing how ignorant he was of all this. He was informed and he didn’t like what was going on. He always identified as a radical, although so did his parents so it’s not like he came to his positions through critical reflection. He adopted the lessons from how he was raised. Radicals also raised her, but she thought through her positions. She had a smoldering intensity about her beliefs. She was driven by something much stronger than he was. It was intoxicating. Just being around someone who lived, felt, and experienced so much. It’s not that he was a closed off person but he never experienced anything the way she did. His disposition was toward passivity, towards not rocking the boat. His nature was more in line with the balancers, but having been raised a radical that is what he was.
Even in his darkest moments he never could have anticipated what happened. It seemed unfathomable. He had read about the horrible things like that, which had happened elsewhere but those events were in history, or things that happened in “third world” countries, not democratic countries. Things like that do not happen in places like this - until they do. It did not surprise him that she was in the first wave. In the abstract he would say if hypothetically something like that could happen then yes, I am sure she would be one of the first to go. He did this all the time. Applied an outside logic to try and examine the things that happened to him. She never liked that. “That’s what balancers do,” she would say and she was right. Nevertheless, it gave him some measure of comfort to detach.
It all happened very quickly, and without a lot of fuss. It was carried out with surprising efficiency. There wasn’t any sentencing or any trial, those having been abandoned a long time ago. “Terrorists don’t deserve a trial!” And “If you don’t have anything to hide, then you have nothing to worry about.” These were the slogans of the new era. He was both shocked and not shocked when it happened. Those last few months and weeks were so tense he started to develop a muscle spasm in his face, above his right eye. This was in addition to grinding his teeth, which he has done for years but which intensified in the weeks leading up to her death. In more brutal moments of honesty he admits that the biggest emotion he felt was relief. This fact leveled him. Sometimes after he got home from his run. After he had showered and tried to drift off to sleep. The terrible thoughts of his relief in the aftermath crept up on him. They send him into alternating fits of remorse and rage. So angry with himself and so desperate to lash out at them. When he applied his cold logic to this situation in made some sense. The time leading up to it was unbearable, knowing it could happen at any time. This was their plan. String you along and let you live in dread for a while. This is a sick place filled with sick people. Then brutally, suddenly, it’s over, gone - a light turned out.
He is sprinting at this point, approaching his turnaround. He has never run this fast for this long before. Tonight, he is not tired, far from it. He is energized. This is the first time he has felt in the red for a long time. His legs are pumping hard and rhythmically. His lungs are heaving but he is not tired. Sweat is starting to pool under his black beanie. His thoughts briefly drift to the pool of water collecting under his hat and he thinks that he must keep this pace to keep warm lest that pool of water on his head turns to ice.
Now he has blown by his normal turnaround. The hummingbird reflexively slows down before the turn anticipating that he will stop and turn around. How can it know that? Does it know that? Is he just projecting onto it? In a perverse way, he has come to rely on the hummingbird for company. Not that he forgives them for what they did, nor has he developed any sympathy for them. It’s just that he has gotten so used to those stupid machines flying around. This was her ultimate nightmare - complacency. Humans adapt, for better or worse. That was her refrain of fear.
The hummingbird monitors body heat, which is how it knows what to track, it’s also how it stays operational. A biometric battery - its human target, powers the hummingbirds. That is a real perverse thing. The damn machine sucks off your body heat to stay energized. Each model is calibrated to its target and is sensitive to the heat it gives off. The hummingbird is meant to trail the deviant by 50 to 100 yards. The deviant is not supposed to know they are being watched but everyone does. It’s not too hard to figure out especially with the older models that were much louder. I guess if you were assigned a newer model it might be possible to not know one was following you, but unlikely. Even though they are invisible they never figured out how to completely get rid of that humming sound. If you are quiet enough and your surroundings are still the sound is unmistakable. A low buzzing sound. For him, now, the low buzzing sound is just background noise; it doesn't even register anymore.
He remembers the first time he heard it. They were out together, running some errands. The sound was unmistakable. They had heard whispers from others of strange humming sounds that they heard whenever they went outside. Supposedly the government didn’t release the hummingbirds before they became public but that was an obvious lie. It was not just the prototypes either; they had been following people for a while before any of the information became public.
It was her choice to go public with the story. He to his eternal shame told her not to, told her to hold back, told her that it was dangerous. Certainly, it was and she paid the ultimate price for it. But what he never got until it was too late was that she was willing to sacrifice, she was willing to stand for her principles, damn the consequences, and damn the cost. This was the fundamental difference between them. She was principled and he was not.
He regrets what he said to her the night before. How it was irresponsible of her. How she put herself at risk, that she put him at risk. Even though he was angry he couldn’t help but admire the work she had done. The story took two years to uncover. She had been very diligent in protecting her sources, checking leads, making sure they were credible. He remembers the first time she told him. The government is spying on people and not just spying on people but also following their every movement. He had assumed, as did everyone else - God he sounds like a balancer now - that the government spied on its own citizens to some degree. What she showed everyone was how extensive it really was.
He starts to slow down now. His breathing is becoming a bit more measured. His feet hit heavy against the snow and pavement slowing down the force that has propelled him at top speed until now. He can now hear the low buzzing sound over his breathing. Now he is walking, hands raised above his head, trying to slow down his breath. He lets his arms drop down to his sides and starts walking with hands on hips. This is where he should turn around and continue his run back home. This is his frontier, the farthest he has ever ventured out of his home. He stops and stands still for a few moments, allowing his breath to appear and disappear into the cold night air. This area is totally dark. The only light is a distant streetlight.
As he begins to turn to go back he bends down to inspect a large rock. It is oddly shaped, flat and long like a deflated football, but solid instead of rubbery. He tosses the rock gently in his hand. It has good weight, about five pounds. In the next instance, he tosses the rock as far and as hard as he can into the pitch-black night towards the low buzzing noise, the one he has heard for so long now that it doesn’t register anymore. That is until tonight.