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Shift: Chapter One

       Last updated: Sunday, February 26, 2006 14:46 EST



    He came out of the darkness in a rush; lights appearing - above, below, to the side - sweeping past him in streaky blurs. He was flying - fast - racing across fields and hedgerows a few feet above the grass. No wind in his hair, no sound, no car beneath him, no plane. Nothing between him and the ground except the blur of speed.

    What was happening? Where…

    A building appeared. A white speck ballooning in size. He was flying straight towards it. Turn! Stop! Pull up!

    He couldn’t! The walls, the concrete, growing and beckoning. Impact imminent. He tried to raise his hands to protect his face. But he had no hands.

    Panic. Time-stretching, gut-wrenching terror. A flash of white as he hit the wall then…

    He passed straight through, into a corridor, a room, another corridor. Still flying, disorientated by the speed, the blurs, the impossibility. He was flying a few inches above the floor tiles, zigzagging along corridors, a tumbling eyeball with no limbs, no body, no…

    A sound! Far off and muted but the first sound he’d heard since what seemed like forever. A voice, strange and elongated, slowed down and slurred. And light, suddenly all around him, bright and dazzling. He was falling, falling and then…

    "Now, Peter, tell me what you see."

    A room crystallised around him, needle sharp in its clarity: stark white walls, concrete floor, no door that he could see. A solitary light shone from a featureless ceiling. A face stared back at him, questioning. A face haloed in light. A man he’d never seen before.

    "It's Christmas,” said the stranger, his voice soft and emotionless, his accent unexpectedly English. "You're four years old, sitting beneath a Christmas tree, opening presents. What do you see?"

    "What do I see?"

    Was the man crazy? And who the hell was Peter? He tried to move but felt the immediate tug of restraints. Straps? He was strapped to a chair. His arms and legs bound. His head too. He could hardly move.

    "What's the matter, Peter? What can you see?"

    He strained at his ties, pulling, arching his body, pushing with his feet against the bare concrete floor.

    "What have you done to me? Why am I tied up like this?"

    "It's for your own safety, Peter. You know that."

    "I am not Peter! What’s the matter with you?” He spat the words out. Disbelief and anger. "My name's John, John Bruce. Don’t you recognise me?”

    His interrogator didn’t reply. He just watched - impassive, unconcerned - looking down at a clipboard every few seconds to jot down a note.

    "Who's in charge around here? I want to see someone in authority. Now!"

    He was shouting, desperation welling up inside. What were they doing to him? He was John Bruce. The astronaut. The first man chosen to fly to the stars. His last real memory, strapped inside the Pegasus, waiting for the countdown to stop, for the dimension shift engine to engage and send him hurtling into the unknown, spiralling into the higher dimensions. And then? What had happened to him after that? Dim recollections of an all-encompassing blackness, timeless drifting, that weird flight along fields and floor tiles and now here; strapped into another chair. But where? He’d never seen this room before in his life.

    And who the hell was Peter?

    "It's all right, Peter. Calm down."

    "I am not Peter! How many times do I have to tell you? I'm John Bruce. The astronaut."

    He was very close to losing control; arms, head and legs straining against the ties. Like a four-year-old denied a treat, caught in the throes of a temper tantrum, he thrashed and screamed.

    "It's OK, John. I'll get the nurse to untie you. You can watch HV if you like. Everything's going to be fine. We'll talk again tomorrow."




    Doctor Paul Bazley, senior psychologist at the Upper Heywood Secure Psychiatric Unit, was not a happy man. But unlike most unhappy men, Paul Bazley knew both the reason and the remedy for his state of mind; Peter Pendennis and the killing of Peter Pendennis. Unfortunately, the Hippocratic Oath frowned upon murdering one’s patients - however justifiable.

    He sighed, leaned back in his chair and tried to relax. His office stared back at him, sparse and impersonal, like everything else at Upper Heywood - institutionally furnished by a distant bureaucrat on a tight budget; white-painted walls, generic prints, cheap furniture.

    The door opened and Anders Ziegler, Bazley’s young colleague, bounced into the room. "You’ll never believe it!" he said. "Peter’s found a new personality."

    Peter. It was always Peter. You’d think he was the only patient in the unit. Peter this, Peter that. Why didn’t Ziegler see he was being used? Anything Pendennis said was suspect from the moment it left his twisted little brain. He was a liar, a manipulator, a fantasist.

    And a killer. As sick as they come.

    But to Ziegler - young, enthusiastic Ziegler - he was still a challenge. Something new and exciting, an enigma who hid behind madness and layers of multiple personalities, peeling off one after the other but never showing anything but a glimpse of the monster that dwelt inside.

    "I said, 'Peter's found a new personality.'"

    "I heard you the first time," snapped Bazley, watching his colleague walk over to the small table in the far corner and pour himself a coffee. A conversation was imminent. A long conversation if Ziegler had his way.

    Bazley felt the tic above his left eye flicker into overdrive.

    "Yes," said Ziegler, stirring in the last of the milk substitute. "Personality number thirteen. John Bruce. The John Bruce."

    "Who’s John Bruce?"

    "You know. The astronaut running for President." Ziegler pulled up a chair and placed his coffee on the edge of Bazley’s desk. "If Peter thinks he’s someone else is that a delusion or another personality?"

    Ziegler smiled. Bazley did not. Pendennis was not a subject to be joked about.

    "I wonder if any of his other personalities are based upon real people? An interesting line of research, don't you think? But why suddenly latch onto Bruce? You'd have thought that if he were going to, he would have done so two years ago when Bruce first hit the headlines. So why now?"

    "Probably fed up inventing his own."

    Ziegler took a few tentative sips of coffee. "You don't believe a word he says, do you?"

    "Not one."

    "Even though he passes every test there is? Hypnosis, drugs, every lie detector we can find. His stories always check out and they’re always consistent."

    "He’s clever."

    "Clever enough to keep twelve or thirteen personalities on the go? Separate family histories, separate memories, mannerisms, ways of talking. He even sounded like an American this morning."

    "I told you, he’s clever."

    "But he’s not! Look at his old school reports, his IQ tests. He’s average to below average. He shouldn’t know half the things he does. Let alone express himself the way he can at times."

    Bazley was ready to explode. Didn’t Ziegler ever listen? He’d told him so many times. Pendennis had never been interested in school or tests. And as for lie detection, that assumed you had some concept of truth. Pendennis didn’t. He had no heart, no conscience, no concept of right or wrong. Just a hollow core wrapped in layers of sham multiple personalities. An empty box in a shiny package, reflecting whatever it was he wanted you to see.

    That was Pendennis. A manipulator who craved to be at the centre of every universe, pushing and prodding until he achieved a reaction. Provoking warders - what did he care if he spent a few weeks in hospital recovering from a beating? He'd won, hadn't he? Sent a warder over the edge, a warder who'd have to be disciplined, a warder who’d never forget the man responsible.

    And there might be an inquiry - a chance to widen Peter’s circle, suck in a few more people into his expanding world. Social workers, liberal lawyers, nurses at the hospital. Sympathetic ears to soak up harrowing stories, he'd feed them whatever they wanted to hear. Beatings, victimisation, a hint that he might be innocent.

    He’d crawl inside their heads, pushing everything else aside like a cuckoo in a man’s soul. He’d be a puzzle, a victim, a friend. A source of stories that insinuated into your dreams. Stories that beguiled, terrified, made you search beneath your bed before you could sleep, made you stare at shadows in the middle of the night.

    And if he got bored, he’d attack - without warning, without reason - 130 pounds of feral energy, clawing, biting, gouging with whatever came to hand.

    And back Peter would go into solitary confinement and a month or two later it would start all over again. Different victim, different story. The man was so plausible, so persistent, he could cry wolf a dozen times and still find a receptive ear. He had a personality for every occasion, one that he could hide behind later and shout - it wasn’t me! I don’t even know what you’re talking about!

    "You all right?"

    "What?" Bazley looked up to see Ziegler staring at him across the desk. Concern in his eyes, maybe a hint of pity. "I’m fine," lied Bazley, uncurling whitened fingers from the arms of his chair.

    "Anyway," continued Ziegler, "I was regressing him back to that Christmas when he was four years old. To the time before the first manifestation of multiple personalities. You remember the story he told me of how he found the knives - the set of kitchen knives - meant for his mother and thought they were his?"

    Bazley bit his lip. He’d told Ziegler…

    "I thought it would be interesting to pursue that line. A four-year-old associates brightly wrapped packages with presents for himself. He can't discriminate between gifts for himself and gifts for the rest of the family. He finds a pile of presents and begins to open them all. One of the presents contains a set of kitchen knives, all bright and shiny. Later he believes it to be a sign, a message from God instructing him to use the knives."

    Unbelievable! "Can’t you see he’s playing you?"

    "He might be. But if he is, isn’t it better to draw him out? The more he talks the more likely he is to reveal something that’s actually true. It’s got to be better than ignoring him."

    Bazley shook his head. Ignoring him was the only answer. If it wasn’t for the EU and prisoner’s rights, he’d have had Pendennis locked away in permanent isolation. Bricked up in a wall cavity, if he could have gotten away with it.

    A knock on the door interrupted their conversation. A head peered around the door.

    "Sorry to disturb you Doctor Bazley, Doctor Ziegler, but it’s Peter. I think you’d better take a look."

    "Why, what’s happened?"

    "He caught sight of himself in the mirror and went berserk. He's shouting and screaming for a whole bunch of people I've never heard of and we don't know what to do with him."

    "He went berserk at his mirror?"

    "Yeah. He totally lost it."

    Bazley couldn’t believe it. His mirror? The one calming influence in Peter’s life. The only reason they allowed one in his cell. He’d spend hours staring into it, smiling, nodding, carrying on strange one-sided conversations with his reflection.

    Why the sudden change?

    Bazley could feel the curiosity surge inside him, just like old times, the rush, the desire to know. Was that what Peter had planned? The whole episode designed to lure him back into Peter’s world?

    "No," he shook his head. Not again. He’d stayed clear of Pendennis for four months. He couldn’t get involved again now.

    The warder looked confused. "Doc?"

    Ziegler stood up. "I’ll come immediately," he said.

    Bazley didn’t move. He looked down at his desk and tightened his grip on the arms of his chair.




    Peter stood in front of the cell mirror clutching his face.

    "What's happened to me! My face! What have you done to my face?"

    "We haven't done anything to you, Peter," said Ziegler, standing in the doorway.

    "I told you! My name isn't Peter, it's John Bruce. Get SHIFT control in here. I want to talk to Harrington. I want explanations."

    "OK, John. Calm down. Let's start from the beginning. What's SHIFT control?"

    "You know!" His anger burned. Then turned to surprise. "Isn't this SHIFT medical centre?"

    "No. This is the Upper Heywood Secure Psychiatric Unit."

    A long pause in which Peter’s - or John’s - eyes traced the small, sparsely furnished cell as if seeing it for the first time.

    "A prison?"

    "We prefer to call it a psychiatric unit."

    Peter looked away, opened his mouth as if to speak then shook his head. He took a deep breath. "In England? Upper Heywood’s near Oxford, right? Where the old air base was?"

    "That’s right."

    "Then what am I doing here?"

    Ziegler paused. What should he say? Confront Peter with the truth and risk a negative reaction or let the scene play out? Both had their dangers.

    He tried a middle way. "You were committed eight years ago."

    "What!" Peter's mouth opened and closed in confusion. "But ... What year’s this?"


    "2056! But that's..." He shook his head, turned away, the fingers of both hands flexing then balling into fists. "No," he said, swinging back to face Ziegler, spitting out the words as he fought to keep control. "I can remember August '54 like it was yesterday. And I sure as hell wasn't here. What the hell is going on?"

    Ziegler didn’t answer. He didn’t want to guide the conversation.

    "You must have seen me on HV." Peter waved his arms in exasperation. "Everyone did. The space launch, John Bruce the astronaut, the SHIFT project, you must know who I am!"

    There was a pleading look in his eye. "We've heard of John Bruce," said Ziegler. "And the space launch, but that was eighteen months ago and you've been here eight years. How do you explain that?"

    "I … I don't know." He looked confused. And increasingly desperate. He looked from Ziegler to the warders and back again.

    "But I can prove I'm John Bruce. Ask me a question, any question. I was born on September 28th, 2024 in Denver, Colorado. My father's Daniel John, my mother's Michelle. Bring them here, they'll recognise me!"

    The words came out in a rush and then trailed off as he glanced at the face in the mirror. Ziegler could imagine what he saw. John Bruce had the face and physique of a chisel-jawed superhero. Peter Pendennis did not. Even in his mid-twenties, he still looked like a slightly built adolescent. Sallow complexion, large child-like eyes, scrawny limbs.

    "What have you done to my face? Plastic surgery? Was there a fire? Is that it? The launch went wrong and I got burned up bad?"

    Ziegler was unsure how to proceed. Peter was becoming agitated again. Was this the moment to tell him the truth? That John Bruce was alive and well and running for the Republican nomination? Or could he deflect him with questions about the SHIFT mission? Test Peter’s knowledge, maybe find a reason for Peter’s sudden interest.


    Ziegler still wasn’t sure. Peter was unpredictable and capable of extreme violence in all his guises. And at the moment he wasn’t restrained.

    And Ziegler was between Peter and the warders.

    Ziegler shuffled - imperceptibly, he hoped - back towards the cell door.

    Peter advanced towards him, his hands rising towards Ziegler's shoulders. A pleading look in his eye. Or was that an act?

    "Tell me!" he shouted.

    And then froze. His arms locked in space, stretching towards Ziegler’s collar. His face rigid. His lower jaw … slowly beginning to twitch. Then his head shot back, his back arched and his chest pitched forward.

    Ziegler threw himself back against the door. He’d seen this before. So had the warders. They rushed past him into the room.

    Peter staggered in front of them, legs buckling, eyes bulging, a gurgling sound bubbling up from his throat.

    Experienced hands grabbed hold of his shoulders, took his weight. After a few seconds the straining body relaxed and Peter smiled.

    "You don't wanna believe a word that Yank says. He's madder than I am."

    Then came the laugh. A forced laugh that gradually increased in energy, building and surging until it took control of his entire body, shaking it, shaking the arms of the warders who struggled to keep their grip. Jack was back. Jack enjoyed a good laugh. Trouble was he couldn't stop. Laugh himself into a convulsion would our Jack. And then they'd have to tie him down again. Until Peter, or one of his friends, returned and Jack could go home.

    Wherever that was.

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