by T. D. Edge | 2855 words
Jennifer straightened her rain coat and marched towards the border with Shuffle Town, determined to save her daughter’s life.
Rain lent some romance to the light blazing from the psycho-change tower above Reception but her heart trembled like a hamster away from its cage, even though she’d expected that.
Once inside, she’d be cut off from the real world because the towers not only constantly broadcast signals the Shufflers used to jump personality, they also cut off telecommunications either in or out of town. Except for the highly secure, and expensive, frequencies used by the TV companies, of course. And the occasional black market emergency message.
The guard behind the glass studied her lazily. “So, what can I do for you, ma’am?”
“I’m here to find my daughter,” she said. “She’s in trouble.”
She waited for him to adjust to her distinguished appearance, for his shoulders to straighten a little, his expression to lose some of its sarcasm.
“A lot of people in Shuffle are in trouble. They like it that way.”
“I need to go in, please.”
He sighed. “Are you aware of the unpredictable conditions you’ll face in there?”
“I was a nurse in A and E for forty-three years. I know about people’s conditions.”
He was young and not unintelligent, under the burden of his boring job.
“It won’t be easy to find her.”
“I’m relying on a mother’s instinct.”
He took the details off her ID card, produced a pass and handed it to her. “Help number’s on the back,” he said. “But I expect you know that.”
She put the pass in her handbag. “Thank you.”
He opened the heavy steel door and as she walked through said, “What kind of trouble?”
She turned. “She’s been with this man for a long time now. An abusive man, whatever personality he takes.”
“Are you sure?”
She didn’t reply, just walked on, into Shuffle Town.
At first, despite her anxiety, she was enchanted. The cobbled streets, Victorian lamp posts, leaning-together shops and houses with Tudor style black beams, all reminded her of her childhood in Whitechapel. Only a few people walked the streets, looking not so different to those who’d be leaving work in the unshuffling London behind her.
A corner shop carried the same mix of groceries, liquor and newspapers as the outside world. Yet something was unusual: the advertisements playing across the store’s signboard. Instead of cosmetics, insurance and holidays, there was a bewildering montage of faces–no, the same face, a Shuffler’s, contorting through a dozen disturbingly different expressions. She had no idea what it advertised, and no time to worry about it.
She moved on, the street leading down to a harbour with boats knocking together in the evening breeze. She decided to enter a busy pub by the water but a movement caught her eye in an alleyway to her right.
In the gloom, she saw a man punch a woman in the stomach then push her to the ground. She appeared to be unconscious as he fumbled with his trouser fly.
Jennifer reached into her bag, removed the mace and alarm. The man knelt between the woman’s legs, but just before Jennifer pressed her finger to the activate button, everything changed. The prone woman brought up her knee, hard into the man’s groin. He roared in pain, stumbled backwards and fell. The woman sprang to her feet, ran a step, kicked him in the head, then again.
Jennifer ran towards the woman. “Stop! You’ll kill him! Then you’ll be arrested, not him.”
Both the woman and the man frowned at her. The man climbed to his feet. “Crazy bitch; what are you gabbing about?”
His face lacked bruises, his voice unimpeded by broken teeth. Then she remembered where she was. The town where folks’ blood swarmed with rapid-healing mites.
“I didn’t mean to . . . ”
She looked up to see three hovering cameras, two turned her way, tiny red pilot lights flashing like bats’ eyes.
She walked quickly from the alley, face burning, trying not to listen to the resumed sounds of punched meat and ripped clothes behind her.
At the waterfront, she stopped, let the sliding shards of reflected lamplight on the night waves steady her thoughts. Amanda needed her help but she couldn’t offer much until she understood more about Shuffle Town.
Despite reservations, she decided to talk to some residents for possible clues. First, she tried a busy pub on the waterfront. Inside, the volume of noise actually hurt her ears, the conversations striking into the atmosphere, sharp with declaration. It reminded her of a party she’d gone to, back in the Seventies, full of actors who could not stop posing for invisible cameras, enunciating for invisible microphones, even when apparently having a heart-to-heart with a friend. Except that here, of course, the cameras were real–tiny, flitting everywhere like origami shadows of the voyeur.
She bought a gin and tonic from the barman who’d clearly never worked in a pub before, then sat at a corner table. The decor reflected pubs of a century or more ago: wooden chairs and tables, sawdust on the floor.
She observed the couple at the next table, he in a plain black T-shirt, she in a tight, low-cut dress like a tart’s.
“Look, I’m a priest, I’m celibate,” he said.
The woman pouted, brought her shoulders together, breasts threatening to pop out of her dress.
“Well, I’m thinking of becoming a nun,” she said. “Literally.”
The man breathed deeply, put his hand under the table, found her knee then slid upwards. She groaned, moved into his hand. He leaned forward, kissed her.
But then the woman broke the kiss, slapped him on the face. “What are you doing: kissing your own sister!”
The mock-sulky girl had been replaced by a furiously indignant woman. The man by contrast now looked like a mortified boy, shrinking into his chair, yet already his eyes glistened with incest.
Jennifer looked away.
“Mind if I join you?”
A young man stood before her, one hand on the chair next to hers, the other holding a pint of beer.
She searched his eyes, trying to identify his propensity to shuffle.
“No, please do. I’m Jennifer. I need to talk to someone about this place.”
Thick black hair, strands falling across one side of his face, inquisitive eyes, slightly dreamy–reminded her of her son Jamie before he’d decided to be a pratt in a bank.
“But for how long?”
“Actually, I’ve chosen not to shuffle for about three days now.”
“I’m Jennifer, always. Can you really resist the change signals?”
He shrugged. “Whatever I say can’t be trusted, can it?”
“I’m looking for my daughter,” she said.
“Parents come here sometimes,” he said; “those that haven’t given up.”
“I had given up, pretty much. I knew enough about Shuffle to know she would never leave it, to come home. But then she got a message to me this morning, said she was terrified for her life.”
“And you knew it wasn’t just a change?”
“Don’t give me that look; I’m not a fool. I let her come here originally, even though it broke her father’s heart and her brother wants nothing more to do with her. But she called me because she knew I’d come.”
He took a long swallow of beer. “I thought about paying to get a message to my folks once, when I’d shuffled by chance into my old self. It’s rare but it happens. I discovered that my old self, by the way, was still a masochistic wimp, and very soon this Nazi-sado guy was regularly ramming my arse for kicks. So I decided to look for a call-shark, but we shuffled and suddenly my hands were round his throat and boy did that feel good.”
“But it isn’t really violence, is it; it isn’t really sex?”
He frowned. “We get hurt when we’re hit and turned on when we’re screwed. It’s just that the mechmites in our blood are more effective than yours.”
“That’s the price we pay for always.”
“I guess. The price we pay is that we remember our changes but not the details. Like, I only wanted to contact my folks when I was in my old, stuck self. Even if I still wanted to, I couldn’t now, and I don’t care about them anyway.”
“Which is why I’m hoping Amanda hasn’t changed again yet.”
He stood. “Can I get you another drink?
How would she ever find Amanda, in a place where no one owned property or even a permanent name?
“Gin and tonic, please.”
When he returned, his eyes had changed.
“Who are you now?” she said.
“It doesn’t matter. You want to know what your problem is?”
“No, but you’re going to tell me anyway.”
“You make the same mistake all the stuck do: you think that shuffling means we don’t really understand life. You believe reality only comes from stability, from sticking it out, keeping a stiff upper lip, grinning and bearing it. But you’re wrong: reality is change. Being a hundred or more different people in a year or a week means you understand every angle of life. You know, for instance, why a killer sees others as fair game; why sometimes they actually are fair game–oh, I recognise that expression on your face right now: it’s the moral sphincter of a self that only knows its programming. It’s–hey, where are you going?”
She’d stood, put on her coat. “Thank you for the sermon. I’d be a lot more convinced if you actually chose the changes you make. Do you even know who does?”
His gaze flicked to the nearest camera before he nodded towards the window, she guessed to the four change towers that surrounded Shuffle Town. “Actually, it’s entirely random.”
“Are you sure?”
He grinned. “Do you really think we haven’t thought of that? With all the money we make from the reality shows you people gorge on, we bought the towers and the mites from the government ten years ago. So, yes, it’s random.”
She walked towards the door.
He shouted after her, “You really don’t want to find her, Jennifer.”
She stood at the harbour wall, watching the black Thames water and the lights from Rotherhithe on the opposite bank flicker across it, changing at random, the rain breaking it into myriad versions. Despite the buildings and the boats looking so real and comforting, their solidity wavered within the ether created by the monsters who lived there. Nothing for nobody but themselves. Change as a religion; consequences removed by simply making everything in the town belong to whoever’s shuffle required it, and by the extra powerful mites in their blood that instantly repaired them after their excesses, even if they might also be shortening their lives.
‘Bill’ was probably right. The constantly changing passages of violence and sexual extremes, rare if not punishable in her world, would have removed what remained of her daughter’s natural conscience. Which had started to erode, she realised now, when Amanda had felt totally alone after her father died and Jamie moved to Switzerland.
Alone? But what about . . . her head throbbed with pain as she lost the thought before it could fully form.
Up to now, she’d believed her daughter’s distress call had been made by her real self temporarily resisting the change broadcasts and screaming to be ‘always’ again. But perhaps it was after all just another random change, this one by chance taking her into her old personality, providing an opportunity for the cameras to film her torturing her mother with hope, before callously changing again.
Jennifer’s mind travelled over her years as a nurse; observing the miracles of a surgeon’s hands augmented by miniature tools give way to new micro tools that replaced the surgeons. Nurses still had work, administering surgical mites to patients, helping them convalesce, programming their recovery mites, but hospitals had become quiet, effective places by the time she’d retired.
Guilt nudged her thoughts back to bringing up Amanda. How could someone who’d gone naked and smoked dope at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970, who’d lived with two men for several months, be so hard on a daughter who’d shown similar signs of rebellion?
Because, said her familiar inner policeman, you were still a nurse, and only a part-time hippy. You didn’t throw your life away.
Amanda simply hadn’t wanted to do anything the world offered her. Not like Jamie. He always knew exactly what he wanted to do. You never had to try with him.
But she’d never really loved him, either. She loved Amanda, yet she’d pushed her into this world where–
Chest tight with hope, she turned to see Amanda’s face running with tears and rain. Her dark, wet, blonde hair plastered to her head reminded Jennifer that she was wet too.
“How did you find me?” she said, reaching out to touch, then withdrawing her hand again.
Amanda put her arms around Jennifer, squeezing so tightly that she wanted to believe. “A daughter has instincts,” she said. “I remembered you always loved boats and rain. Oh, Mum, I’m so glad to find you.”
She didn’t want to break the embrace, but if she didn’t check her daughter’s eyes soon, she’d be lost forever.
“It’s really you, Amanda?”
“Of course. Let’s get out of the rain. What about that cafe over there?”
She let her daughter lead her into the warm room and the welcoming smell of fresh coffee.
They sat at a small table near a window smeared with harbour lights. She didn’t say anything at first. Amanda’s frank, curious gaze reassured her, even if it might change at any moment. She had to hold on to the hope that the real Amanda had called her. All she needed to do was be patient, let her daughter beg to leave this awful place.
“I’ve missed you so much, Mum.”
She couldn’t help notice two cameras check their direction, as if sensing the unusual nature of this mother and daughter scene, then take up position close by.
“I’ve missed you too.”
“You have? Really?”
She risked taking Amanda’s hand in hers.
Oh, God, let it be all right. Let her agree to go through the terrible mechmite withdrawal symptoms, to be herself again.
“It was really brave of you, Mum.”
“To come here?”
Amanda frowned, her fingers stiffening slightly. “No, to step outside Shuffle Town, like you must have done to call me.”
Jennifer felt it again, the turning in her blood.
She began to resist it, staying with the last change that had randomly taken her back to being Jennifer, that had led to the deal she’d made with the TV company. They’d let her walk outside Shuffle in order that the break from the change towers’ transmissions could activate her decision to go blind with it, to remove any awareness of it being a change; to forget what she was. So she could create some real family drama for the viewers. Now, though, her mind flooded with new energy, mites meshing lustily with the change towers’ broadcasts so it was all she could do to hold off a new personality, a new high.
She squeezed her daughter’s hand. “Why don’t you join me, love? Shuffle is so much more fun than that boring job and husband you’re stuck with. You can be anybody; do anything without punishment; live forever.”
But Amanda withdrew her hand, reached into her bag, took out a gun.
“I’m taking you back, Mum.”
“You wouldn’t kill your own mother, darling.”
“This doesn’t fire bullets.”
Jennifer’s gaze flicked to what was now a cluster of cameras overhead.
“Oh, Amanda–you let them pay you?”
“Not in cash. In mite accelerators. I’m sorry; the doctor said this will hurt, but it’s the only way.”
A yellow flash billowed from the gun. Her skin crawled as if covered by a million insects, burrowing under the surface, into her blood.
Jennifer’s psyche buckled and flared, threw hooks into her mind, pulled out the new, the old, the preferred, the feared, in violently rapid succession.
–a baby bawling at the clash between her mother’s soft words and the snapping, black shadows in her aura–a brilliantly deluded boy, pulling out the eyes of a puppy–a teenage girl in the bath, feeling herself for the first time, flowing up the amazing highs–a drunk soldier kicking the head of a rival, joyous at the sound of cracking bone–a rapist, a virgin, a movie star, an autistic, an author, a loser, a saint . . .
“Make it stop!” she screamed. “Please!”
Amanda stood off, arms folded, shaking her head, cheeks silver with new tears.
“Why did you really leave us and join Shuffle, Mum?”
The moon, the stars, the fucking street lamps–all that light cutting into every one of her nerves like razor shards of broken selves.
She dropped to her knees, her blood dead at last.
“Because I was bored,” she said.
— — — — —
T. D. Edge’s short fiction has appeared in various anthologies and magazines, including End of an Aeon, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Flash Fiction Online and Realms of Fantasy. Earlier this year, edge won the New Scientist/Arc Magazine SF short fiction competition and the story appears in Arc 1.2. T. D. Edge is a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop.
© T. D. Edge 2012