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Shift: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Friday, April 28, 2006 22:16 EDT



    Nick tossed his car key onto the dining room table and switched on the HV. It was all he could think about on the drive over. Go home, call up every John Bruce holocast you can find and see if there’s a change.

    One that nobody had noticed.

    It would have to be something subtle. Maybe a slight loss of motor skills - was that why he’d left NASA? Or gaps in his memory, or…

    The HV prompt light came on. All he needed now was the remote which, as usual, was hiding - probably buried beneath last night’s Indian take-away. Or was that the night before’s?

    Someday he really had to find the trigger to his tidy gene.

    He found the remote, wiped off the red sauce and switched to voice input.

    "John Bruce," he said and selected ‘news.’

    A news anchor materialised in the corner of the room - the image, half life-size and floating two feet off the ground. She smiled at Nick and spoke in a soft southern drawl.

    "John Bruce will be leaving the campaign trail today to attend a SHIFT reunion in Florida. The thirty-one year-old former spaceman is currently trailing third in the polls in New Hampshire but…"

    Nick froze the image and asked for a list of every John Bruce appearance, with titles and dates. The news anchor disappeared to be replaced by columns of text scrolling through the air. Nick selected a handful either side of the launch date and flipped between them. Did Bruce show a discernible change?

    He walked around each image, flipping between the slightly nervous but always smiling spaceman and the relieved hero. All the interviews looked staged and undoubtedly were. NASA was fixated on image, paying as much attention to public perception as they did to their programs. John Bruce would have been coached from day one. 

    Nick extended the search into entertainment, documentaries and beyond. There had to be some candid shots surely, some unguarded moment away from his NASA minders?

    Text scrolled and faded. Images flashed. There were a few extended interviews, some passing appearances on live documentaries. But Bruce always appeared guarded. Impeccably polite, quick to smile, friendly … but he never really opened up.

    Even when he talked about his religious experience…

    Nick felt like slapping himself. How could he have forgotten! John Bruce had one of those religious born-again experiences during the SHIFT flight.

    He froze the image. "New search. John Bruce. Born again."

    He tapped at the remote, extended the search into the God channels. A new list appeared. Shorter. He selected the first. No good. The second … the third.

    John Bruce materialised in front of him. He was sitting in a chair, on a stage somewhere, being interviewed. He looked dumbstruck - eyes wide open, mouth slightly parted. 

    "It was incredible," began Bruce, his voice slow and wavering slightly. "I saw this white light, brighter than anything you can ever imagine."

    The holocameras zoomed in on his face, ballooning John Bruce’s head to twice normal size. Nick could see the spaceman’s eyes tearing up; the slow bemused shake of his giant head, the faraway look.

    "And suddenly I felt this rush. So much joy, so much peace. It was like I was bathed in light. All my sins, all my worries being washed away. It was then that I knew I wasn’t alone in the Pegasus. God was with me."

    "Hallelujah," shouted a disembodied voice from the studio audience.

    Nick agreed. Hallelujah, indeed, and froze the image. White lights, feelings of euphoria. Everything you’d expect to see if the brain came under stress during the flight. Distortions of the visual cortex, a massive release of endorphins. Was this the proof he’d been looking for?

    He bounced to his feet and paced around the frozen image. He so wanted it to be true. Just thinking about the possibility made his brain salivate. There were so many ramifications. Not just for John Bruce, but for science. If a fragment of Bruce’s memory could become detached and find its way into another person eighteen months later, then where had it been in the meantime? Had it been preserved in the higher dimensions? Had it drifted on hitherto undreamed of upper dimensional currents? Had it snapped back to Earth immediately and spent eighteen months trapped inside Pendennis’s head?

      And was it more than just memory? How much of John Bruce’s personality had gone with it? A vestigial remnant? Louise said he talked like John. Could a complete sub-personality have ripped away?

    Or was the great Nick Stubbs deluding himself?

    Every week thousands of people saw bright white lights. Near death experience, anaesthetics, drugs. Why should this one be any different? John’s brain had come under stress. So what? He was being shot through new space. Everyone expected his brain to come under stress. He saw a white light as he started to pass out then came to. End of story. Pendennis was a con-man who'd tapped Louise’s mind and John Bruce was as whole as the day he'd joined NASA.

    Nick slumped back onto the sofa. Why did rational explanations always have to be so boring? Why couldn’t he live in a universe where the simple answer was invariably wrong, a Heath Robinson universe of elegant complication, magic and imagination?

    He grabbed the remote and pressed ‘play.’ Maybe the interviewer would ask about Bruce’s childhood and the spaceman wouldn't be able to answer.

    John Bruce stuttered back to life.

    "And when I returned to Earth, I was amazed at how beautiful everything was. It was like I’d been wearing dark glasses all my life. Suddenly everything was brighter, the colours deeper, the sounds sweeter. Life was beautiful. It still is. If only people would take time out and look around."

    Nick froze the image and leaned forward. How long had it taken Pegasus to return to Earth? Two days? The white light effect doesn’t last that long. If Bruce was still experiencing a disturbance in his visual cortex two days later…

    He jumped to his feet.  

    Not the primary visual cortex - that was at the back of the brain, too far away. But the temporal cortex. Right place, right function. It handled some of the visual processing and it was close to long-term memory and hearing. A single localised rupture there and…

    He was off again, spiralling into the wonderful world of conjecture. He could see it all. A section of higher dimensional matter ripped away. Not enough to kill or critically impair, just enough to mildly distort some of Bruce’s sensory functions.

    He paced as he thought, kindling his brain, greasing his synapses. Think, think, think. If only he had a scan of Bruce’s brain, he could prove it. He could generate a map, work out exactly what would have been lost and…



    He needed that scan. He grabbed the remote, zapped John Bruce, called up a list of his SHIFT contacts and then tried to calm down, taking deep breaths. He had to sound relaxed. A casual voice mail enquiry to a fellow scientist across the pond. Do you still have the full spectrum brain scans from before and after John Bruce’s flight? Did that sound innocent enough? What if there really had been a cover up? What if they knew he’d been damaged?

    He tapped his fingers nervously on the remote. What choice did he have? He needed those scans. If SHIFT knew there were problems with the neural shielding then no concocted cover story would convince them to give up the data.

    He voiced in his request and played it back. Then recorded it again, bringing the timbre of his voice down from slightly manic to somewhere around borderline normal. Happy, he appended his contact details and pressed ‘send.’

    Then another thought hit him. What if Pendennis didn’t need to be telepathic? What if John Bruce had talked about Louise in an interview and everything Pendennis had told Louise was in the public domain?

    "New search," he asked. "All areas. John Bruce and Louise Callander."

    He waited, feeling stupid. Shouldn’t this have been his first search? Had he lost the ability to see the obvious?

    The search took in the whole net: the holocasts, the web, the groups, the boards, homespace. Several hundred hits; but nothing linking the astronaut John Bruce to his Oxfordshire sweetheart.

    Which was a relief.

    He tried Pendennis next. There was something familiar about that name.

    "New search. Peter Pendennis. Upper Heywood."

    A list of titles filled the viewing area. Angel-faced killer gets life. The Butcher sent down. Butcher guilty.

    Nick stared at the list. Now he remembered. He’d been out of the country at the time but had caught some of the Spanish-language holocasts. It had been big news world-wide. For a month or two.

    He selected the first entry to refresh his memory. Back came the friendly news anchor.

    "The angel-faced killer, Peter Pendennis, was sentenced to life imprisonment today for the murder of eleven people."

    Eleven people in two months. Nick listened to the litany, watched the images of each victim flash and fade. Wedding pictures, holiday snaps, smiling moments from happier times.

    Then the horror. Cold words delivered off camera while pictures of grim-faced policemen stood guard outside people’s homes. Five houses around Oxford broken into, the owners drugged, killed and dissected.

    Tearful neighbours came into shot, friends, family members - ashen-faced accounts of how the bodies had been discovered. Not bodies, corrected one of the witnesses, pieces. Then he broke down.

    Nick swallowed hard. Pieces. Strewn over carpeted floors. No attempt to hide or conceal, just left where they fell like cuts of meat. Except for their noses, which were always missing - bitten off, presumed eaten.

    Nick looked away. This was the man he was going to see?

    Did Louise know? Should he tell her?

    He looked at his phone.

    What if she pulled out?



    Anders Ziegler was standing by the window staring out at the car park. They’d be arriving soon.

    Big mistake.

    But what else could he have done?

    Twice he’d rung to cancel and twice he’d changed his mind in mid-call. What if there was a higher dimensional component to Peter’s condition? Could he risk not finding out? Could he risk discovering later - maybe many years later - that he’d had the answer within his grasp but had turned the opportunity down because of theoretical differences?

    Straw grabbing. The day was going to be a disaster and everyone knew it. Bazley had washed his hands of the whole affair and Security were obsessed with the equipment Stubbs was bringing with him. Not only had they insisted on a detailed specification of each item coming in but they were going to scan the lot for drugs and explosives.

    "Why’s he need all those tripods?" the Chief Warder had asked. "Bet they’re hollow. You know how much contraband you can fit in one of those extendable legs?"

    He did now.

    The day couldn’t end soon enough.



    Louise watched as Nick set up the last of his equipment, completing the circle of tripods and black boxes. It was the same room she’d been taken to before. A bleak room with what looked like a dentist’s chair at its centre. Except this chair had straps.

    She shivered. Everything about this room was cold. The bare white walls, the concrete floor. It felt like a larder. One of those old farmhouse cold rooms, lined with slate and facing north to keep the food fresh.

    And the atmosphere didn’t help. The two men weren’t speaking. Ziegler kept looking towards the door and checking his watch while Nick stomped around his equipment and glared.

    And any second now a lunatic was going to walk into the room.

    Could the day get any better?

    Louise looked towards the door. Perhaps she should just leave? Reschedule for another day, another year…

    The door opened.

    Pendennis shuffled through. Dressed in a red track suit, chained hand and foot, smiling, confident, flanked by two warders, he looked like a boxer on his way to the ring, nodding to invisible supporters, smiling at invisible friends.

    Louise stepped back. The room had grown colder.

    The warders sat Pendennis in the chair and strapped him in. He looked so small. A tiny red figure, pinned to the centre of the room.

    The lights dimmed then went out. On came a new light, a pencil-thin beam that played across Pendennis's forehead. A few adjustments, the whirr of a projector motor and the beam changed shape. It pulsed, slow and rhythmic, sucking the consciousness from Pendennis's brain. Ziegler's voice - monotonous, droning, persuading - worked in harmony with the light. Sight and sound, prising resistance apart; penetrating, probing, smoothing and calming.

    "John? Can you hear me?"

    Only the electric motor replied, humming to itself from its housing above the door. Louise could feel her heart thumping in the foreground, waiting … waiting for something to happen.



    And then John arrived, pushing into the darkness, unsure … afraid. The light caught the wildness in his eyes. His red suit wriggled in the chair like a maggot on a palm.

    "What's the matter, John?" asked Ziegler.

    John struggled to speak. His teeth clenched. "Lou," he grunted. "Where is she?"

    "She’s here, John," said Ziegler beckoning her forward.

    Louise shuffled closer until she was alongside Ziegler. A few feet away, John struggled against his ties, the webbing digging into his forehead, the skin on either side white with the strain.

    "What's the matter, John?" Ziegler asked again.

    "Got to warn her." The words came out in a rush. He grimaced as if in pain, writhed, threw his head from side to side. "He’s coming. He knows we’re here."

    "Who knows we’re here?" asked Ziegler.

    John’s eyes bulged, his face was blotched. He threw his head far over to one side, as far as the ties would allow, as if trying to bury his face in the back of the chair.

    He mumbled something into the fabric.

    "I'm sorry, John, I can't hear."

    John’s head snapped back. Louise jumped. He was staring right at her, eyes imploring, breathing hard, his lips moving silently against clenched teeth.

    Ziegler adjusted the light.

    "I’m taking you to a safer place, John. Back to your childhood. Do you remember a place where you felt safe?"

    John shook his head and shouted. "No! Can’t leave. He’s everywhere. Don’t have much time." His head jerked back to face Louise. "Tell now. Must."

    He strained to move closer, his eyes watering, sweat beading his forehead. His teeth clenched in a rictus grin.

    "Listen," he said, his voice almost incomprehensible.

    Louise edged closer. He looked terrified. She reached out to touch his shoulder. "It’s all right, John."

    It was the gentlest of touches. She half expected him to flinch, but he didn’t. He closed his eyes, stopped straining and took a deep breath.

    "You’re real," he said. "I wasn’t sure." For the first time he sounded like John.

    "What message do you have for Louise, John?" asked Ziegler.

    John looked into Louise’s eyes and smiled. "It’s for her, doc. Only her. Come closer. He can’t hear if I whisper."

    "Who can’t hear?" asked Ziegler.

    John turned to look at the doctor. "You know, doc. He says you’ve always known."

    "Peter? Have you been talking to Peter?" Ziegler’s voice lost its emotionless edge. It quickened and rose a few notes.

    John shook his head. "No, the other one."

    "Which other one?"

    John ignored him and turned back to Louise. "I saw her, you know. On the Pegasus. She was waiting for me by the bright white light."

    "Who?" Louise and Ziegler spoke at the same time.

    "Your mother. She told me to tell you…"

    Louise felt like she was going to collapse. Her mother had died five years ago. The memory still raw. The chemo, the weight loss, the helplessness.

    "What did she say? What…"

    John’s mouth formed as if to speak but nothing came out. He looked drained, his face streaked with sweat. His eyelids began to droop.

    "John, what did she tell you?" Louise felt like shaking him. She’d driven through the night to get to her mother’s bedside. Ran from the house the moment her father had called from the hospital. Driven through the rain and the tears only to miss her by a few minutes. One lousy red light that should have been green. She’d never been able to say goodbye. Never been…

    John said something. Barely audible. Louise leaned forward, straining to hear, her ear bathed in a gentle exhalation of his breath.

    And then her world shattered.

    Teeth clamped around her left ear. The pain excruciating. A wild animal growling beneath her, throwing its head from side to side like a crocodile, trying to rip the ear from her face, tear it to shreds, kill, destroy, maim.

    She screamed, grabbed hold of something - the chair, Pendennis, she couldn’t tell. Shock. Disorientation. Liquid running down her neck. Blood and saliva coagulating together, piercing pain ripping at her insides. Pain piled upon more pain piled upon panic and fear and hatred and … why couldn't she faint? Why couldn't she close her eyes and disappear into some other world where all pain had been abolished and…

    Time dilated. Reality rolled up inside a long dark tube with Louise at one end and all manner of hells at the other. Guttural sounds, shrieks and shouts.

    And then darkness.



    Mike Harris - warder, blue shift - ran into the room. The main lights flashed on. Confusion. A woman was screaming. Doc Ziegler was standing over her, trying to drag her off. There was someone in the chair…

    Recognition. He saw the red-clad legs. Peter Pendennis! He should have known. It was always Peter Pendennis. If ever someone should have been 'lost' out of an upstairs window - it was Peter bloody Pendennis.

    He ran over, looked for a glimpse of red torso in a gap between the writhing bodies and hit it hard. And kept on hitting it. For Sarah and Siobhan, the Jacksons, little Tracey and all the others. For everyone who'd ever had the misfortune to come into contact with that sick murdering bastard.

    More warders, more shouting, running feet amongst the cries. Someone prised Pendennis’s jaws apart and pulled the woman off. Blood everywhere. Pendennis laughing, looking right at him, shrieking, the woman’s blood running down his cheek.

    "Bastard!" The warder swung a crunching left into Pendennis’s face. Then another. An arm grabbed his from behind, pulled him back and away. He wrestled free, charged forward again. Pendennis still laughing at him, spitting blood in his direction.

    He swung and missed. Knocked off balance from behind, he almost fell on Pendennis. A brief hope surged. If he could crack his forehead against the bridge of Pendennis’s nose? He brought his head back ready. But was pulled sideways, rolling across the chair and onto the floor.

    Why didn't they let him finish the little bugger off?

    He struggled. Two, three men on top of him, arms and legs locked. Everyone breathing hard. And Pendennis shrieking from the chair. Laughing, mocking.

    Another lunge, desperate and futile.

    "Leave it out, Mick," said someone. "He’s not worth it."

    Mick was on his feet now, straining against his fellow warders, the group moving crab-like towards the door. 

    He saw the woman, ashen-faced, her hand pressing something white against her ear. She was leaning against the corridor wall, Ziegler supporting her elbow.

    Pendennis screamed at her from behind. "So much for your Yank boyfriend, whore! You'll never see him again now, will you? Peter's killed him! Peter's killed him!"

    A red mist descended. Like all the previous red mists. Mick struggled to break free. Why didn’t someone shut the bastard up! Just one more shot. Just one. Maybe he’d get lucky and break the bugger’s jaw.

    Force of numbers bundled him into the corridor. Behind him, a door slammed shut.

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