Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Marcher

“So . . . um . . . What do you do for a living?” the young woman asked.

(Well, it is difficult to think of original questions to ask people at parties.)

The young man braced himself.

“I am an immigration officer.”

“Oh, I . . .”

He laughed a little bitterly.

“Be honest. Not what you expect to meet at a party of leftish twenty- and thirty-somethings!”

“No, I suppose . . .”

“You thought a teacher perhaps, or maybe a software engineer, not someone who chucks out illegal immigrants and shoves weeping asylum seekers back onto planes.”

The man checked himself. (His name incidentally was Huw.)

“Sorry,” he said. “That must have sounded a bit aggressive. The truth is I like to see myself as a leftish twenty-something and I sometimes feel like some kind of pariah among my peers.”

“I can imagine. In fact . . .”

She was going to say that she sympathised, that her own job also often attracted negative comment. But she decided to ask another question instead. He was an interesting young man: well dressed in a nicely understated way, quite poised, attractively reserved.

“So, why did you become an immigration officer? Did the pariah status appeal in some way? Or . . .”

“It seemed to me that it was too easy to disparage jobs of that kind. Mickey over there, for example . . .” (Huw pointed to a university lecturer with tousled hair), “or Susan there. They are always having a go at me about the iniquities of forcing people to go home when they want to stay here. ‘No-one leaves their own country except for a very good reason,’ Mickey always says. But what I always ask him is this: Is he saying that there should be no immigration controls at all? Is he saying people should come into this country entirely as they please, even if that meant taking in a million people a year? He will never answer my question. He waffles about how a million wouldn’t come and so on, but he never answers my question.”

“I can imagine,” said the young woman, who knew Mickey slightly.

“A country does need a boundary of some sort,” Huw went on. “An entity of any kind needs a boundary. And if a country has a boundary, it inevitably means that some people who want to come in will be turned away, by force if persuasion doesn’t work. It seems to me that people like Mickey don’t really offer any kind of alternative. So really what their position amounts to is: Let someone else do the dirty work, so I can keep my hands clean.”

He smiled.

“Right. Now I’ll shut up.”

“No, please don’t. I’m interested. And you haven’t answered my question. Why did you become an immigration officer?”

“For the reasons I’ve just explained! Because keeping boundaries is necessary and somebody has to do it. People like Mickey and Sue say the service is full of racists and reactionaries. Well, unless liberal-minded people are prepared to join, it would be, wouldn’t it?”

The young woman laughed.

“Yes, but that still doesn’t explain why you joined. The world needs liberal-minded doctors, too, no doubt, and teachers and . . . police officers . . . all sorts of things. So why this in particular? Why this for you?”

“I . . . um . . .”

Huw was genuinely bewildered. He could dimly perceive that this was indeed a different kind of question, but it wasn’t one he’d ever asked himself. It was like a glimpse through a door into what might be another room, or might more disturbingly be another entire world. He found himself noticing the young woman, not in a sexual way particularly, as far as he could tell, but just noticing her. She had made a connection.

“I don’t really know,” said Huw. “Why do you think?”

She laughed and for some reason blushed, which made him blush, too.

“Well, I don’t know you!” she exclaimed. “How could I say?”

“I just thought you sounded as if you might have a theory.”

She looked away, a movement that he found graceful and sweet (so now he was aware of sex). Then she shrugged and turned back to him.

“Well, I don’t know you. But since you ask, my guess would be that there must be a reason within yourself that you are preoccupied with defending boundaries. Perhaps there is something inside that disturbs you and that you are trying to keep in, or something outside that frightens you. Perhaps you are afraid that if you get too close to anyone, they will invade you and gobble you up.”

She saw the discomfort in Huw’s face.

“Sorry,” she said, “that came out rather . . .”

“Not at all. I did ask. A bit deep for me, I’m afraid, though.”

“I’ve upset you,” she said, “and I really didn’t mean to.”

“Don’t be silly,” he said.

But he changed the subject abruptly, jaggedly, uttering some banalities about turning thirty (this was Susan’s thirtieth) and how (help!) the next big leap after that would be forty. There was no connection between them now. The conversation petered out. She said she was going to try some of that delicious-looking food and it was nice to meet him. He hurried for another glass of wine.

“Damn,” he thought. “Why did I let that shake me? Why did I let her see it shook me?”

Later, he thought, “I’m so self-absorbed. I didn’t ask her name or what she did or anything.”

He went to look for her, but it seemed she had eaten her food and left.

• • • •

Back at his flat after the party, Huw needed somehow to collect himself before he could rest. As he sometimes did at times like this, he took a notebook out of a drawer and tried to write something down. He tried to define himself in some way.

Marcher,” he wrote at the top of the page.

Sometimes old words help. “Marcher” had more of a ring to it than “immigration officer.”

Let us put on armour, (he wrote)
Let us wear breastplates of polished bronze
And cover our faces with ferocious masks.
Let us be pure. Let us accept the cold.
Let us foreswear the search for love.
Let us ride in the bare places where the ground is clinker
And the towers are steel . . .”

And so on. He was rather pleased with it. (But then, it was late at night and he had taken a fair quantity of wine). Feeling he had somehow redeemed himself, he undressed, went to bed and was soon asleep.

• • • •

The phone rang at seven o’clock in the morning. It was Huw’s boss, Roger, to tell him a new case had surfaced in a Special Category estate to the south of town. Everyone else in the Section was tied up with other cases. Could he go straight there and make a start on the investigation?

At half past eight, slightly the worse for last night’s wine, Huw was waiting in his car to go through the estate checkpoint. There were two vehicles ahead of him. In front of the checkpoint was a large sign:

Department for Special Category Administration
Worcester District
Welcome to Perry Meadows

This is a Special Category estate within the meaning of the
Welfare Administration Act
You may be required to produce identification

DeSCA
Let’s tackle this together!

The other cars passed through and Huw handed up his ID to the DeSCA Constabulary officer. This was the border between the wider world and the world of the welfare claimants, the “dreggies,” as they were known.

The officer swiped Huw’s card in front of a reader.

“Immigration Service, eh?” he observed with a knowing grin. “Nothing to do with these rumours about appearances and disappearances, by any chance?”

Huw reluctantly returned the smile. He disliked this sort of game.

“Sorry, mate. No comment.”

“Of course,” said the officer, “quite correct. Welcome to Perry Meadows.”

Huw had visited a fair few such places. Not that his agency had anything to do with the administration of Special Category estates, but the kinds of cases that he dealt with often cropped up in them (as well as in prisons, mental hospitals, and private boarding schools).

Some estates were old concrete jungles, former “council estates” from the sixties and seventies of the last century. But Perry Meadows was an estate of the new kind. It had trees and shrubs and artificial hills to screen off homes from the sight and sound of traffic. It had well-equipped playgrounds and shining community centres. It had attractive houses in at least ten quite different designs, with playful features like round windows and the occasional clock tower or weather vane, all brightly painted in cheerful nursery colours.

“These are not ‘sink estates,’” the Secretary of State for Special Category Administration had recently declared, “and they are not ‘dreg’ estates. They are decent dwelling places for human beings: fellow-citizens in our society who find themselves, for whatever reason, outside of the economy and who require the special, focussed, concentrated help that my department can offer, to find their way back inside it . . .”

But for all the clock towers and weather vanes, Perry Meadows seemed to Huw to be a kind of modern zoo, providing its inhabitants with living conditions that resembled the natural habitat of their species, yet denying them somehow the opportunity to really be themselves.

He was slightly discomforted by these thoughts, but his attention was elsewhere. He was keeping a lookout for certain telltale signs.

And sure enough, there they were. On one wall a slogan sprayed in day-glo pink. “Endless Worlds,” it read. On another, in silver, the symbol of a many-branched tree.

Yes, and here again, look, on a high brick wall at one end of a low-rise block of flats: an enormous tangled tree-form in luminous yellow with a single word splattered over it in red:

Igga!

Inside the entrance of the DeSCA office there was a kind of carpeted airlock arrangement where Huw was required to show his card to a reader again and wait for clearance. A recorded message played while his details were being checked.

“Welcome to Perry Meadows Administration,” said a sonorous male voice. “May we remind you that DeSCA and its partner agencies are committed to combating racism, sexism, homophobia, and discrimination in all its forms and our staff will challenge offensive or discriminatory language.”

The inner door slid open and he was admitted to the Visitor Reception Area. (There was a separate reception area for Estate Residents.)

“Good morning, Mr. Davis,” said the receptionist. “Ms. Rogers is on her way down to meet you. Can I get you a cup of coffee or anything?”

Ms. Rogers was the Executive Director of the Perry Meadows estate. She was brisk and expensively dressed, with elegant short grey hair. Huw had met her kind before. They were mini-prime ministers of their own little kingdoms, with their own little governments of agency managers (police, social services, health, education, benefits, housing . . .) But in exchange for their empires, they had made a kind of Faustian bargain. They had to keep the lid on things. If an estate child was battered to death by a parent, or there was a riot of some sort, or if too much drugs and crime seeped out from the estate into the normal world outside, then Ms. Rogers’ head would be on the block. Unless she could find someone else to blame, she would be the sacrificial victim when the world bayed “Something must be done!”

So today she was anxious. She would not normally have had much time for this young immigration officer, junior to herself both in age and in status, but now she badly needed his help. Huw savoured the situation.

“Mr. Davis, I’m Janet Rogers, so good of you to have come here so quickly,” she enthused as she ushered him into a spacious office fitted with pale, polished furniture. “As you’ll have gathered, this chap was picked up last night who sounds like one of your sort of cases. And a young girl disappeared a couple of days ago in a way that now looks as though it might be connected.”

“Ms. Rogers . . .”

“Oh, call me Janet, please . . .”

“Janet, I’d be pleased to talk later, but my first priority has got to be to interview this man you’ve got in detention. These people have a way of disappearing.”

“Yes, of course, I’ll take you down to the police wing myself. Ah, here’s your coffee. Did you want to drink it first? It would perhaps be an opportunity very briefly to . . .”

She was torn between her desire that Huw should deal with the matter quickly and her desire to hear his assessment of the situation.

“I’ll take it with me, if you don’t mind.”

“Yes, of course.”

She led him along a corridor and into a lift.

“We’ve never had any sign of this sort of thing before,” she said. “It’s completely out of the blue.”

“Actually,” said Huw (they were emerging from the lift and heading along another corridor), “for future reference, the signs were there to be seen. The graffiti. Have you not noticed that big yellow tree? Igga? You can see it from the car park of this building.”

“The tree? Yes. I suppose I felt that a lot of young people have cottoned onto that tree thing. A sort of cult. Not necessarily an indication of actual . . . um . . .”

“Actually, the appearance of tree graffiti is thought to be a pretty reliable predictor of appearances or disappearances,” Huw said. “As you’ll have no doubt read in the recent Home Office circular,” he added innocently.

Janet Rogers pursed her lips slightly and said nothing. They had entered another airlock-like security door that led to the DeSCA Constabulary wing and were waiting for a policeman to come and let them through.

“Igga,” said Ms. Rogers. “Remind me, what is it supposed to be?”

“It’s a representation of the multiverse. It’s thought the word comes from Yggdrasil, the tree which contained the various worlds in Norse mythology. One theory is that there is a universe out there where the old Norse polytheistic religion never got supplanted by Christianity and continued into modern times, rather like Hinduism . . .”

But here the custody sergeant opened the door.

• • • •

The prisoner had been picked up as the result of a drunken brawl. He was a thickset man with close-shaven red hair, about thirty years old. He possessed an ID card of sorts, with a photograph of himself and giving his name as Wayne Furnish. But, though the card purported to have been issued in the last six months, it was quite different in design from the cards used either by special category citizens or by the population at large. The address it gave was local but non-existent, as was The Central Population Register, which (according to the card) was the issuing agency. And Wayne’s fingerprints did not correspond to any in the national databank.

Yet he spoke English not only fluently but also with the characteristic slightly rustic version of a Brummie accent that was spoken in the Worcester dreg estates. This was no foreigner.

“Ah!” he said, as Wayne was introduced to him. “The Ickies, eh? I thought you boys would be showing up soon.”

Ickies! Huw could have clapped his hands with professional pleasure. This was classic stuff: a local accent but a word or a phrase that locals never used.

He settled down into the chair opposite Wayne Furnish. The officer who had shown him in waited by the door.

“Ickies? You’ll have to explain that to me, Wayne.”

“Ickies! Incomer Control. That’s what you are, yeah?”

“Incomer Control? No, the Immigration Service we call it.”

“Ah. Well, I don’t come from round here.”

“You don’t come from Worcester?”

Wayne narrowed his eyes and regarded Huw for a moment.

“Not from this Worcester. You know I don’t, mate, or you wouldn’t be here, would you?”

“So how did you get here?”

“Shifter pills, of course. Seeds, as we call them.”

“These, yes?”

Huw held out a small plastic bag which the police had confiscated from Wayne when they arrested him. It contained two dull-red capsules.

“Yup. I ain’t bothered, mate. I swallowed one when the old bill knocked on the door. I’ve got a seed in my blood.”

“Do you mind telling me a bit more about where you come from?”

The shifter shrugged.

“The place I come from is shit. This place is just as bad. But it don’t matter. Know what I mean? A couple of hours and I won’t be here any more, mate. This’ll be an empty room and I’ll be somewhere where you won’t never find me.”

Huw nodded. He took out the standard checklist and started to go through it. What was the Prime Minister’s name where Wayne came from? Was there a Perry Meadows there? (No, but there was an estate on the same site called Daisyfields.) What was currently in the news there? Who were the top football teams? . . . and so on. The idea was to accumulate a sort of map of the different worlds, the gradients of difference, the routes along which the shifters moved.

“None of this matters to me,” Wayne said, after a few minutes. “Know what I mean? I’m a warrior of Dunner, I am. That’s why I got this hammer on my arm. No one can shut me up in dreg estates no more. I’m a warrior of Dunner and my home is the Big Tree.”

He grunted.

“And if you want me to answer any more questions, mate, I need a cup of tea and packet of cigs.”

• • • •

Janet Rogers seemed to have been hovering over her phone for the three hours that Huw spent with the shifter. As soon as he emerged, she was there to meet him and take him back to her office, where members of her management team were also waiting (C.I. Thomas, “my police chief,” Dave Ricketts, “my senior registration manager,” Val Hollowby, “my head of welfare” . . .)

“How did you get on?” they all wanted to know, as they plied Huw eagerly with coffee and sandwiches. “Has he been here long? Do you think this is an isolated case?”

“He’s been here a month or so,” Huw said. “Living in hiding, trading on the glamour of coming from another world. There are others, I would guess, though Wayne wouldn’t say so. The ones who follow Dunner like to shift in groups, we’ve noticed as a rule.”

“But if it’s a drug which they each take separately, how could they all end up in the same place?” asked Mr. Ricketts.

Huw smiled, concealing his irritation. He could tell that these people had been stewing here all morning, rationalising, minimising, trying to persuade themselves that there wasn’t a reason to panic. There was a fug of fear in the room. And what was it they were afraid of? The universe itself had sprung a leak in their backyard—the universe!—but that wasn’t what bothered them. No, what they were worried about was being told off for not noticing it quickly enough.

“People often ask how they cross over together,” he said to Mr. Ricketts. “The other question people ask is how can a drug bring over the clothes they wear and the things they have in their pockets? Well, the truth is we still have absolutely no idea how the ‘seeds’ work. But the scientists reckon that we’re all still asking the wrong questions. Trying to understand the seeds by comparing them to other drugs is like trying to understand a magnet by weighing it or testing its hardness. There is some force involved which is fundamentally different from the ones we know about and feel we understand.”

“You say he’s a follower of Dunner?” asked C.I. Thomas, “Dunner is a pagan god, yes?”

“That’s right,” said Huw, “the thunder god: Donner, Dunar, Thor . . .” He repeated a piece of doggerel that another shifter had once taught him:

Wotty wiv ’is one eye
Dunner wiv ’is cock
Frija wiv ’er big tits
And two-faced Lok.

The assembled managers laughed uncomfortably.

“Does that mean he comes from a society which is still pagan?” asked Janet Rogers.

“No, he doesn’t. He comes from a society very much like this, with a few minor differences (what we call the DeSCA is known as the DoSCA there, for example). The pagan cult must originate in a world that diverged much longer ago. But it seems to have spread very rapidly across many worlds with the shifters, just as the shifter pills themselves—the seeds—have done.”

He finished his sandwiches.

“Now I need to look into this disappearance. This young girl . . .”

Val Hollowby, the gaunt-looking Head of Welfare, told him the story.

“Yes, this was a girl called Tammy Blows, fifteen years old. She’s got a lot of problems. Physical abuse. Sexual abuse. Been in the care system for four years. Lots of problems there. Placements breaking down. Absconding. Drugs. For the last two months, she’s been living in our Residential Assessment Unit. She’s been talking a lot recently, so I now gather, about shifters, and seeds and Dunner and all that. I suppose we should have taken more notice.”

Suddenly she leaned forward, looking into Huw’s face with cavernous, urgent eyes:

“But, you know, Mr. Davis, they all do. It’s easy enough with hindsight to say we could have seen the signs!”

Huw nodded, noncommittally.

“Who was the last person to see her?”

“Her social worker, Jazamine Bright. Two days ago. Took her out to talk to her about some of her recent problems. Tammy felt got at. When Jaz dropped her off at the unit, she announced that she was going to disappear and Jaz would never see her again. It seems she never actually went inside after Jaz drove off. We assumed she’d just absconded, something she’s done many times before. But of course when Janet told me about this shifter chap showing up, I realised there might be a connection. Too late, of course, as will doubtless be said at the enquiry.”

Ms. Hollowby gave a bitter little snort. “Though even if we had made the connection, I can’t see there’s much we could have done.”

Huw made no comment on this.

“Well, my next job is to interview Jazamine Bright,” he said.

“She’s standing by,” cried Janet Rogers. “We’ve booked an interview room for you. Would you like any more coffee? Or perhaps a cup of tea?”

• • • •

“Hello!” Jazamine exclaimed as Huw stood up to greet her. “I know you. The frontiersman! But you said you were an immigration officer, putting weeping refugees back on planes!”

She was the young woman from Susan’s party. The one who had unsettled him by asking him why he did his job.

“Well, I am an immigration officer. It’s just that I’ve moved on from dealing with the national boundary, to . . .”

“. . . to guarding the universe itself,” she interrupted. “Wow!”

She had seen right through him. Huw found himself reddening not just with embarrassment but with real shame. He remembered the poem he’d written last night.

“I’ll tear it up and burn it as soon as I get home!” he vowed to himself.

But out loud he stubbornly defended his ground.

“It’s important,” he said. “Imagine if everyone could escape at will from the consequences of their actions. Imagine what it would do to the idea of responsibility and accountability and right and wrong!”

No one seemed to get it, the real enormity of it! No one! Not even the other members of his own Section.

“Tammy Blows wasn’t escaping from the consequences of her actions,” protested Jazamine Bright. “She was trying to escape from a world in which she was of no consequence at all. In fact, it must be hard for Tammy to believe that she ought to be here at all. For a start, she was conceived in a rape. Her father went to prison as a result.”

“God!” breathed Huw. “Imagine that. Your very existence the result of a terrible transgression.”

“‘Transgression,’” observed Jazamine. “That’s an interesting choice of word.”

She smiled.

“But you’re right,” she went on, “there is something terribly contradictory about it: existing only because of a crime against your mother. And, now I think about it that way, Tammy’s whole life is full of contradictions. She craves for love, but she always rejects affection and support; she’s a tenacious fighter, but she always anticipates defeat; she’s clever, but she’s barely literate . . .”

Jazamine considered for a moment.

“Yes,” she added, “and Tammy’s very pretty, but she loathes her own body so much that she attacks it with knives and razor blades.”

She told Huw that Tammy had talked on and off about Dunner and Igga and “seeds” for some weeks and had several times before talked of disappearing “into the Tree.” But in the past, the disappearances that had followed such talk had gone no further than empty garages and paper recycling dumps, where Tammy and various friends had holed up for a few nights before being picked up by the police.

Yesterday morning, Jazamine had been up to the Residential Assessment Centre to go through Tammy’s things and look for clues to her whereabouts. There had been a diary with several mentions of someone called Wayne who was going to “sort things” for her (for what price, it wasn’t clear).

“Anyway, these are Tammy’s files,” Jazamine said, pushing a large pile of manila folders across the desk. “Val tells me you may need to see them. Here’s a photo of Tammy in this one, look. A really beautiful girl, I always think.”

She was. But Huw was noticing Jazamine. He was appreciating the fact that she showed none of the fear that had so irritated him in the estate management team. In her work with Tammy, Jazamine had certainly failed to notice things which in hindsight were significant. But “Well, these things happen” seemed to be her attitude.

“Thanks,” said Huw, “I’ll have a quick look at them. Then I’ll go and have a word with the staff at the residential centre. Nice to meet you again.”

Jazamine stood up.

“Yes, listen, I was rude about your job just now. I’m sorry. I was just nervous, that’s all—and upset for Tammy. Please don’t be offended. You seem very nice. I like the way you’re passionate about what you do.”

He smiled. “Well, thank you. I found it interesting what you asked me at the party. About why do I do this. I’ve never stopped to think about it like that before.”

“Oh, well, good.” She hesitated. “You don’t fancy meeting up sometime, socially, I mean, for a drink or something?”

“Well, I’d like to, but I’m not really supposed to . . .”

“. . . to socialise with people who are involved in your investigations? I see. Another boundary, eh?”

“Boundaries are important,” Huw insisted.

“So they are,” she replied, “but they aren’t the only important thing.”

He laughed.

“No. You’re right. And I’d like to have a drink with you. How about at the weekend?”

• • • •

So then there was Huw alone looking at the file and feeling—what?—slightly dazed in a not unpleasant kind of way. How sweet that Jazamine had taken a liking to him. How strange.

He turned his attention to the files. Yes, she was a pretty girl, this Tammy Blows, a pretty, blonde little waif looking out from a blurry photo taken on some institutional outing to Barry Island. Poor child. Where was she now? Young shifters were very vulnerable in a new world, because they had to depend on adults to hide them from the authorities. Underage prostitutes picked up by the police, for example, had more than once turned out to be shifters from other worlds.

Well, may Dunner protect you, Tammy, Huw thought.

It was odd. He had never met this girl. He was twice her age. He came from a completely different kind of background. Yet as he looked at the photo, he felt strangely close to her. As if they shared something in common.

And then he thought: Yes, that’s it! It’s like poachers and gamekeepers. It’s set a thief to catch a thief. I am in this work because I feel like a shifter myself—a shifter or a refugee. That’s why I chose to patrol the border. So I could look over at the other side.

He became suddenly very aware of the two “seeds” that the police had handed over, now in his briefcase right in front of him.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” he said aloud, shaking himself.

There was a knock at the door. It was a police officer from the custody suite.

“Sorry to disturb you, Mr. Davis. I’ve been asked to let you know. That Wayne Furnish has disappeared. Vanished from a locked cell. Could you spare a moment to come down and talk to the officers on duty?”

• • • •

Back in the police wing, the duty sergeant and another officer were waiting. They showed Huw the empty cell and watched him while he went in. The smell in there was unmistakable: a burnt, electrical, ozone tang.

“Yes, he’s done a shift, all right,” Huw said. “Don’t worry. There was absolutely nothing you or anyone could have done.”

He looked at the stunned faces of the sergeant and the two young officers.

“A bit disturbing for you, yes?”

“Nothing like this has ever happened to any of us,” said the sergeant. “We’re a bit spooked by it, to be honest with you.”

Huw turned back into the room and sniffed the hot, burnt smell.

“It is uncomfortable, I know. One of them disappeared right in front of me once. Just a kind of popping sound as the air rushed into the vacuum where he had been. Then nothing. There’s something violent about it, isn’t there? Something violent and shocking.”

“Violent I can cope with,” the sergeant said, “shocking I can cope with. But this . . .”

Huw nodded.

“Listen. There’s one thing I should warn you about. We don’t really know how the seeds work, but it’s something more like a force field than a drug. You can get some side effects if you’ve been near a shifter, especially if you’ve been near him when he crosses over: strange dreams, vivid images, unfamiliar impulses . . .”

The three policemen waited expectantly. They wanted something more from him. They wanted him to take the nightmare away. He was the expert. It was his job. Again he felt angry, though he would have found difficult to say exactly why. But he managed a reassuring tone.

“Don’t worry. These things do pass. But you may not sleep very well tonight.”

• • • •

Huw interviewed all the staff and residents at the Assessment Unit, as well as two young men picked up by the police at the same time as Wayne Furnish. When he got back to his flat at just before 10 p.m., he phoned his supervisor, Roger, to report back.

“No leads to other shifters at all, I’m afraid. It’s possible that Wayne really was the only one here. Anyway, you’ll have my written report in the morning.”

Roger told him that it had been a busy day for the whole Section. A group of three shifters had been picked up in a Shropshire public school, and as many as eight missing persons were now thought to be linked to their arrival.

“That’s why I couldn’t give you any back-up. It’s getting silly. Whitehall’s going to have to get its head out of the sand and give us some real support with this or we may as well throw in the towel.”

“The police took two seeds off this Furnish man. I should have brought them back to the office for safekeeping, but I didn’t get round to it. Sorry. They’re locked in my briefcase. I’ll bring them in first thing.”

“That’s fine. And there you are, look, Huw, we’ve achieved something. That’s two less new shifters!”

Huw said nothing.

“Huw? Are you still there?”

“Yes, sorry. Attention wandered. Tired I suppose. Two less shifters, you said? I don’t quite . . .”

“A good day’s work, Huw. Now forget all about it and get some sleep.”

Roger had only recently transferred from general immigration work at Heathrow, and was not personally familiar with the effects of dealing with shifters. Otherwise he might have realised that wishing Huw a good night’s sleep was a little unkind.

Huw put down the phone. He felt vertiginous and slightly nauseous. It was the same each time. It didn’t diminish with experience.

He made himself heat a small meal in the microwave. Then he poured himself a drink and sat down to draft the report of the day’s investigations.

It was after one in the morning when he finished work—and then the sudden absence of a task left him feeling disturbingly empty, as if busyness had been a kind of screen. He remembered the insight that had come to him as he looked at the picture of Tammy Blows.

“I am a shifter, too,” he thought, “or worse that that: I am the shifter equivalent of a voyeur. I like to watch. At least Tammy and Wayne have the guts to really do it.”

And again he felt that alarmingly powerful urge to take the seeds from his briefcase and swallow one himself. It would be like suicide, as a shifter had once said to him, “like suicide, but without the drawbacks.”

“Come on,” he tried to tell himself. “Don’t be silly. This is just . . .”

But he was too tired. He exhausted himself daily trying to defend a frontier which lay wide open all around him and which nobody else seemed to really see. It was too much to keep on fighting now when it had opened up inside his own head.

“I will go to bed and wait until morning,” he said out loud. “And if I feel the same way then, I will do it.”

He was amazed to hear what had emerged from his own mouth.

• • • •

All night, his mind divided in the darkness, fecund as Igga, like bacteria multiplying in a Petri dish.

He walked along dim corridors with many doors; he climbed enormous flights of stairs with missing steps and broken banisters. He teetered on the top of a precarious pinnacle above an ocean that seethed with fish and whales. He glimpsed Wayne Furnish on a headland in the distance, brandishing Dunner’s hammer. He saw Janet Rogers and all her management team round a table in the middle of the sea. Many times he felt himself falling. Once Jazamine appeared and whispered to him, so clearly that he was jolted awake by the shock.

“I could love you,” she whispered.

Another time she held out a seed to him.

Towards dawn, with extraordinary clarity, he had a vision of Tammy Blows, alone in one of the neat, grassy spaces of Perry Meadows. She was standing still, but the houses were dancing around her, appearing and disappearing again, changing in shape and size as the worlds passed her by. Once a block of flats six storeys high appeared right in front of Tammy’s face. A few seconds later, a lorry honked and swerved as she appeared, fleetingly, in the middle of a road. Tammy was green with nausea.

A mean little shopping precinct appeared around her. Startled faces turned in her direction, then vanished. For just a moment, she was standing in the pouring rain. There was another shopping precinct, then another. Some sort of grey civic sculpture began to skip and jump around her, changing shape from a man to a bird to a cube of welded girders . . . Then it vanished. The buildings vanished too. The dance had reached an end.

It was a sunny day. She was in a wide meadow full of buttercups. A lark sang high above her. A mild breeze blew in her face. Tammy dropped to her knees and was violently sick.

In the distance was a wire perimeter fence with cranes and bulldozers parked alongside it. It was the same in every direction. The wide meadow was a building site. They were about to build a new estate.

• • • •

As Huw’s alarm bleeped, the universe split into three.

In one universe, he jumped out of bed and swallowed the seeds in his briefcase, following Tammy Blows before he had time to consider the warning in his dream.

In another, he renounced not only the shifter pills, but also Jazamine Bright.

“I will phone her from the office today and cancel the drink,” he decided, foreswearing love and friendship for his lonely and thankless calling.

And in a third universe, he made a different choice again.

“No. No seeds,” he told his reflection in the shaving mirror “But I will see Jazamine. Boundaries are important, but they’re not the only important thing.”

He smiled. He had a pleasant smile, when he took off his marcher’s helmet and laid down his marcher’s shield.

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Chris Beckett

Chris Beckett

Chris Beckett has published dozens of short stories, five novels, and two short story collections. In addition to writing science fiction, he works part time as a social worker and has written several textbooks on that subject. His latest novel is Daughter of Eden, the third book in the Dark Eden series. America City, his next novel, is forthcoming from Corvus in late 2017. Corvus will also be publishing Spring Tide, a collection of all-new short fiction, in 2018.