On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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The building had been beautiful once, but was no longer so. Its grandeur was unmistakeable and defiant, but it had long ago lost the battle with time and neglect.

Every window was boarded or shuttered, graffiti was omnipresent, and a prominent notice bearing the word Condemned seemed to convey deeper meanings than any mere assessment of structural safety.

It had been a theatre, but the last performance was held there decades ago. Garrick actually remembered attending a pantomime there as a very young boy, with his mother and father. He couldn’t recall what the pantomime was; only that he’d found it both thrilling and a little frightening. Looking back, he longed for the simplicity of those times before he really understood what fear was.

The people gathered in the darkness of the dilapidated, damp, and darkened building all looked furtive and on edge. They barely glanced at each other, all facing in different directions as they waited. They wore dark coats, none of them new, and the women had their hair covered as was required these days.

Things had changed quickly, but the signs had been there for a long time. It was the eternal cycle: injustice, protest, and repression. Tonight’s covert meeting was one that had been held all throughout human history, its purpose being to foment and set in the motion the fourth phase of the ancient cycle.

Rebellion, Garrick thought, clenching his fists within his own coat’s deep pockets.

He was cold and he was hungry, but so was everyone else. The government to the far south had decided, not for the first time, that these northern territories were to be left to a form of managed decline, starved of resources and funds and work and opportunities. The country was a police state now, ruled by the entrenched right-wing party which had gradually shifted to become an autocracy.

There were curfews and detainments, travel bans and mysterious quarantines, and ever-expanding police powers. The laws had proliferated too, creating dozens of new crimes of dissent and trouble-making. People disappeared with a regularity that was no longer alarming.

Curricula became propaganda, and freedoms were eroded month by month. Everyone knew about it, and most dared not speak. But there was hope.

The man that Garrick had come to listen to was known only as Aaron, and it was universally assumed to be a pseudonym. Early and scattered demonstrations against the government had invoked the old symbol for anarchy, and the figurehead who later emerged had wisely co-opted the letterform. No-one had ever seen his whole face, but hijacked broadcasts ensured that the entire country knew his burning eyes.

There was a sound from the decayed wings of the old stage, and two young men came out, one holding a stool and the other a laptop. They set the stool at the front of the stage in the middle, tapped a key, and walked away. A few moments later, the screen lit up, showing the face of Aaron.

He was in his customary dark hooded coat, with a black mask covering his mouth and nose. Emblazoned upon the mask in vivid red was the symbol that had become his own.

“Friends,” Aaron said, on the screen, “thank you for being here. You’ve risked your freedom and your lives. This was an invitation and also a test, and you’ve passed.”

A few glances were exchanged now in the crowd, but the silence remained unbroken. Garrick drew his coat tighter around him, mentally reminding himself where the exits were.

“I want to talk to you tonight about this,” Aaron said, and his face was replaced by the flag of the nation.

Now there were a few rumbles of discontent, and one woman spat on the floor. The image was red, and blue, and white, and more than anything it resembled a barrier; a gate or a cell door. It flew in every classroom, and atop every town hall and government office.

“Flags are uniforms,” Aaron continued. “For buildings, for military vehicles, for suit lapels, and anywhere else. Oppressors love flags, especially when they tell you that they’re symbols of the freedom they’re quietly taking away from you.”

Nods from all around. Garrick felt himself being drawn in by the speech, and he willingly allowed it to happen. Aaron was talking again.

“The problem with flags is that, when you put enough of them together, they hide the people underneath and make them all look the same. Just like uniforms.”

The screen now showed a rapid sequence of still images, each one a scene from a riot or a clash with the police or the army. Demonstrators being tear-gassed, or attacked with water cannon or rubber bullets. The focus was always on the faces of the demonstrators, some masked but most not. Anger and pain and fear and outrage.

“But we are not all the same,” Aaron said. “It’s a façade. A dangerous one. Some of us are different, like the people standing in this room. Some of us have a special purpose, to take action for all the others.”

The two young men returned from the sides of the stage, carrying a heavy, reinforced piece of metal luggage between them. They set it down with some difficulty, clearly being careful to do so gently, then one of them unlatched the lid and opened it. There was some vapour released, and Garrick wondered if whatever was inside had to be kept at a low temperature.

One of the young men reached into the case and brought out an object which was recognisable enough. Garrick felt his heart rate pick up. The injector gun had an ampoule attached, holding a very small quantity of a colourless liquid. He saw some of the others in the crowd backing away.

“You’ve already inhaled the agent,” Aaron said, his face visible on the screen again. “Nothing can stop it from spreading now. But these injectors contain the antidote which will grant you immunity to the effects. If you want to leave now, go in peace, and spend one final night with your families because you’ll be dead alongside them by morning.”

Those burning eyes came closer to the camera, filling the screen.

“But if you want to end this tyranny, then take the needle and become my disciple. The death rate for secondary infection is thirty percent, which is more than enough to destabilise a society, and the agent will become totally inactive twelve hours from now. All you need to do is take a long walk tonight through the city, anywhere you like. Breathe the night air. Avoid your own homes. Be the change that we all need.”

A man at the front of the crowd was already moving towards the stage, gesturing to one of the young men there to give him an injector.

Garrick’s heart was still beating quickly, but it wasn’t accelerating any more. The risk assessment seemed clear enough. Become a typhoid Mary, or die alongside many others. He had come here tonight for a reason, after all.

He pulled the collar of his coat away from his neck, exposing the veins there, and he began to walk forward.

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