This is a scifi short story that I wrote last month. I’m posting it to go along with some upcoming writing tips. It’s a departure from my usual narrative style, and it came out of nowhere. I didn’t use my usual pre-writing methods either, so it’s very experimental, but I like the way it came out.
Boone was made to be a soldier…
Boone Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
by Rose B. Fischer
©2014, All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reprinted or shared without the written consent of the author and clear direction to the original content.
Everyone is outside today. There are lawn chairs and sprinklers in the yards as my truck rolls past. The neighbors look up and wave to me. No one knows yet. Good.
I raise my fingers off the wheel, wave, and smile to them. The air smells of charcoal and cut grass. Mr. Mason is outside with his old gray head bent under the hood of his latest patient. His yard is still an overgrown mess, but no one is complaining today. I guess they must’ve had trouble with the water pump recently and he’s gone out to fix it. I tap my horn as I round the corner, and he raises his head. I see him wave back in my side view mirror, smile, and head on up to the duplex where I used to live.
May Beth is on the front porch playing with her toy cars and plastic horses. She’s dressed in pink and blue overalls and the old baseball cap I gave her when I sold my half of the place. She doesn’t notice me at first. She’s too busy with the conversation her toys are having.
I cut my engine, pick up my gun off of the seat and slide it inside my waistband under my sweatshirt. I don’t want to bring it in there, but I don’t want to be caught without it if I need it in a hurry. I never wanted to bring this part of myself here. My chest is starting to ache from tears I don’t want to cry. I close my eyes, breathe a little until I’m sure that my breath is steady, and open the door.
May Beth scrambles to her feet, and her dirty sneakers pound down the porch steps as I drop out of the truck. I cross the driveway. She reaches up to me, and I kneel down to let her hug my shoulders. She feels so small as my arms enfold her. Tears prick my closed eyelids. I take a breath.
“Those men were looking for you,” she says. “Momma is supposed to call if you come back.”
“It’s all right. I already talked to the men. I wanted to come see you before I go away,” I manage a smile and touch her hair with the tips of my fingers.
“Are you going to forget us?”
I shake my head.
“We learned in school that the soldiers forget everything. They get a shot and the new stuff fills up their heads so they can do their job the right way, and they forget everything that was in there before.”
“We don’t have to forget everything. That only happens sometimes. It won’t happen to me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Is it true you’re not a real person?”
I feel myself suck in a sharp breath. I’ve heard things like that for years, but I never expected it here. Not from one of these kids. I know she doesn’t mean it to hurt me, so I force a smile.
“Sure I am,” I tell her. I climb to my feet again, offer her my hand, and head up to the porch. She takes my hand and the whole issue is dismissed in her mind. She opens the door at the top of the steps, goes in ahead of me, and screams out an announcement.
“Boone’s here! Everybody, Boone’s here!”
Doors open and close in the back hallway. I hear pounding feet and the squeak of more sneakers on wood floors. I can’t tell if I want to smile or cry, so I force the smile and hope it holds.
There are more hugs and jabbering and questions about the news. They want to know where I’ve been. They want to know what it means that synthetic units all over the Commonwealth are being recalled to active duty. They want to know what it means that so many are going AWOL instead. They want to show me their report cards and the school projects I missed seeing at the end of the school year.
I tell them I don’t have much time, but I let them pull me into their rooms and show me what they want anyway. After a little while, we hear the ice cream truck outside. I fish through my wallet for spare cash and send May Beth and the boys up the street to get what they want.
When they’re gone, the older girl, Bobby Jean, bites her lip and gives me a long look. I shouldn’t really call her a girl anymore. She’s a young woman. She’s got her hair done up, and she’s traded in my baseball caps and cast off boots for soft makeup and a pretty orange and yellow sundress. She moves to sit down on the couch and I go with her.
Her eyes are filling up with tears. Her lip’s trembling, and her face is all contorted. My breath is going shaky again, and I touch her cheek. She isn’t my daughter, but she might as well be. I’ve known her since she was two years old.
“I need to put something in your keepsake box,” I say.
“What is it?”
“Me. Everything that’s happened since I came here. Everything that’s Boone.”
She inhales sharply and grabs my hand. I close my eyes and squeeze her fingers.
“They are going to take you away aren’t they. They’re going to make you forget.”
“I’m going to try to keep that from happening. I don’t know if I’ll succeed. That’s why I got memory extracts done. That’s where I’ve been. I don’t want to lose myself. I don’t want to lose all of you.”
“But — if you forget, how will you know where the memories are?”
“I guess I won’t. But you hold them for me anyway, all right?”
Bobby squeezes my hand. I can tell that she wants to argue, but she doesn’t. She gets up, and I follow her into her bedroom, where she takes the painted wooden box out from underneath her bed, puts her thumb in the lock scanner and waits for it to pop open. Inside of it are small stones, feathers, gradeschool ribbons, small amusement park prizes and keepsakes from all the trips we took over the summer vacations when she was growing up.
I take another, smaller box out of my sweatshirt pocket. It doesn’t look like much, just a cardboard box with Styrofoam padding packed around the inside, protecting a ceramic statue, but my life is in there too. I’m in there.
“There’s a statue inside. The extracts are hidden in the figurine. If anyone asks where you got it, you can just say I gave it to you.”
She grabs my wrist as I lay the box inside.
“Boone, why are you letting them do this to you?”
“I’m a soldier, honey. I was made to be a soldier and keep you safe. I can’t do anything else.”
“Lots of the others are doing something else!”
“I ain’t them, Bobby.”
“I don’t understand! Why do they need to take away everything? You haven’t even been on active duty since before I was born!”
“They say our brains start to give out if we’re not wiped. Things get all jumbled from each time they change us.”
“Then why change you at all?”
“They used to fight wars with guns and bombs. They had whole armies. Thousands of people would die. Now they use changers. One changer in the right place, at the right time, gets the right intel, kills the right…” I stop and sigh. “I’m sorry hon. But I HAVE to go. “
She throws her arms around me, presses her face in my shoulder, and if I could stay, if I thought for one moment that I could keep them safe another way…
I give her hair a kiss, hold her for a minute, and we hear the other kids coming back inside.
I tell them all I love them. I give them my pocket knives, my hat, my watch, and anything else I can think of by way of a keepsake. I kiss their heads, leave a note for their mother on the kitchen table, and walk back to my truck.
Before I pull out of the driveway, I open the glove compartment, take out a case of contraband medical syringes, and give myself a shot in the arm. I’ve never had a transformative shot while I was awake before. At the plant, they give them to us when we’re unconscious, about to get new orders. I expect the injection to hurt, but all I feel is a slight burn.
I wrap up the empty syringe and put it away, start my truck, and drive away without looking back.
By the time I reach the plant, my skin is burning. It feels like I’m cooking — bubbling up like a pizza pie in a brick oven. My heart is racing, my palms are wet, and part of me wants to turn tail and run.
I’ve been afraid before. I’ve worked in pain before, but never with so much at stake. I wish I could shut the feelings off, but I don’t have the right shot for that. All I’ve got is a handful of vials of transformative, and that alone cost me two thirds of what I’d made from selling my duplex.
I drive up to the security checkpoint, smile at the guard, and hold my ID card out the window for her to scan. It takes a minute for my record to come up. When it does, the guard puts the scanner down, and waves me around to park.
I pull the truck over to an empty spot and step out. The guard has a portable metal detector in her hand, but I’m not worried about the gun now. I pull out my revolver, smile again, and offer it to her.
“I can get this back, right? It’s an antique.”
Her eyes widen, and she smiles. I’d have asked her for a date under other circumstances. I feel a little twinge of guilt, but I push it aside. I think of Bobby and May Beth and the boys. If I don’t pull this off, I’ll lose them.
“Sure, Major. I’ll keep it in the booth for you,” she says.
She’s careful not to touch my skin as she takes it from me. Damn. I should have figured that none of the guards here would be careless about touching a changer. They know just enough about what we are to be careful, but not enough about us to realize that we can only shift if we have the right shots. Well, I’ll have to improvise. It’ll be different upstairs. They know about the shots up there, but no one could imagine a changer getting a hold of one on the outside.
I take the elevator from the parking garage up to the 14th floor where my old unit used to live. It’s eerily empty now. No one in the gym or the rec room, no young changers running through the halls.
Ruthie, the cleaning lady, is still there. She’s got a Roomba now instead of the old push vac she had the last time I was here. Her hair has gone white, and she’s moving a little slower, but her eyes are still sharp. Too sharp.
“Why, Major Boone! I was afraid you weren’t going to report in! So many of the others have gone AWOL now, I don’t know what to make of it…”
She leaves her vacuum and moves to hug me. I have to force myself not to pull back. I didn’t want it to be her. Not a noncombatant. Not Ruth. For years, she has smuggled her phone into the plant to take pictures and video of the young changers so that we don’t completely forget ourselves. The few scraps of memory I have are connected to her. But I probably won’t get a better opportunity, and there isn’t much time. Professor Jamieson’s office is at the end of the hall, and the door might open any minute.
I smile, put my arms around her, and rub her back. My hand moves up to touch the hair on the back of the head.
“A lot of us have families now, Ruth. We don’t want to lose them,” I say as we pull apart.
“Well, I can understand that, Major Boone, but surely there’s another way. The world needs the changers too… Oh… Oh, my…I feel a little dizzy.”
I put my arm back around her shoulders, frowning, the picture of concern. I hate myself right now, but I guide the old woman into one of the empty dorm rooms. We had a modicum of privacy when we lived here. There aren’t surveillance cameras in those rooms.
My skin has gone from bubbling heat to raging, screaming agony. My flesh feels like it’s tearing away from my bones, but when I look down at my hands, they are only smoothing out a little, glowing. I want to scream. That can’t be all that is happening. I’m dying. It isn’t going to work. I’m dying…
It’s over in less than a minute. The pain recedes, returning to the relatively mild level I had experienced before. The human part of my mind is reeling. My body is panting hard and wants to curl up in the corner. The other part of me, the part that was created in the basement of this building, is calm, curious and detached. That part of me looks down at the unconscious body of the cleaning lady and feels only morbid fascination. That part of me knows it’s only been seconds.
Still panting, I force my body to undress us and switch clothes. It’s more difficult than I expected. I’m not used to the old woman’s fingers, and I’m fumbling. I’m unsteady. The hardest part is getting my clothes on to her. I’m trying to do it with my eyes closed, or at least not looking, my clothes don’t fit her right, she’s flapping and flopping all over the place, and I keep having small panic attacks when she makes a noise that sounds like she’s going to wake up. As my body works, my brain is dissecting and analyzing.
It feels as if my brain has flipped a railroad switch and funnelled Ruth’s life onto a track parallel with mine. I can see her life, touch it, draw on it to make myself believable in her identity, but still remain myself.
I had expected to be more confused than this. I’ve never taken another person’s whole identity before. There’s no onslaught of confusing, overlapping memories, no question of where “Boone” ends and “Ruth” begins.
When they give us new orders in the lab, we’re unconscious. First, they extract all of the skills and job specific personality traits from the previous mission. Then they give us a bunch of shots that manipulate our sleeping bodies into new shapes. Once the bodies are ready, they “clean”our memories, reset our personalities, and give us new material that fits our orders. All of that stuff is put together in composites built from donated bits of memory and knowledge. We’re told that this keeps our brains functioning properly, that the data has to be tailored to our brains, and memory-clutter from different jobs, different lives will cause malfunctions.
Here I am.
Ruth Taylor is here too. I can step into her, the same way I had always stepped into my composite identities. I can be her, but I am still Boone, and I’m not even slightly confused by the memories of her dead husband, her trip to Greece, her vegetable garden. They aren’t mine at all. How odd.
“I’m sorry, Ruth,” I say, getting to my feet. “I didn’t want to do this.”
She’s still unconscious. She doesn’t hear me. If I’m quick, she won’t remember anything anyway. But I will this time. Permanent guilt is a strange weight. No wonder it bothers people so much. I like it.
“Professor Jamieson!” I rasp, genuinely out of breath from trying to run up the hall on Ruthie’s legs. I rap on the closed door, and I’m conscious of how much it hurts my swollen knuckles. How can anyone have this many aches and pains and never have been a soldier?
I hear his footsteps moving in my direction. I remind myself that I have to be Ruthie. I can’t hate him openly in this body.
The door slides open.
“What is it, Ruth?”
“It’s Major Boone, sir. Something is wrong!”
“We were talking by the elevator, but I felt dizzy, so Boone took me into one of the empty rooms to sit down. Then — then — I don’t know what happened, sir. Boone started to shake and passed out.”
“Are you all right?” Jamieson frowns.
“Yes, sir, I think so. Maybe I could sit in your office for a minute or two?”
Jamieson gives a short nod, touches my shoulder in a reassuring gesture and slips past me out the door. I hurry into his office. At his desk, I pull back the chair and begin to tap search commands on his keyboard. When I find what I need, I pull my special flash drives of Ruth’s pocket. One of the drives is empty. The second has a self extracting virus that will wipe out the plant’s data files. If I’m lucky, it will eat their cloud files tomorrow morning after the automatic backup runs. Either way, there’s only one plant. It will be a long time before they can follow me, before they realize what I’m doing, and before they can track down any of the other changers who went AWOL. They’ll be too busy scrambling to recover.
The data I want — the personality and skill components, database files with all the identities, fake documenst, orders, and last known locations for the active changers — is password-protected, and probably encrypted, but I don’t need to decode it here. I can just transfer it onto the empty drive.
While I wait for the transfer, I turn on the picture-in-picture security feeds and watch Jamieson enter the dorm room where Ruthie is lying in my clothes.
“Boone? Boone, are you all right, son?” he’s asking.
Son makes my fist clench. I had never liked it when he called me that. I didn’t like him, and even if I had liked him, changers aren’t male or female. We’re changers. I hate hearing it now for completely a different reason. After living so long with Hallie and her kids, I know what real parents are. I force myself to unclench my fingers and breathe normally.
Jamieson is listening to Ruthie’s breathing, trying to wake her up. When she doesn’t respond, he sits back on his heels, unbuttons his cuffs, and pulls his sleeve down over his hand to feel for a pulse rate.
Why is he worried about skin contact? He thinks Ruthie is me, and he knows how the shifting works. He knows I can’t change my form unless I’ve had a shot. Does he suspect that I gave myself one? No, if he suspected, he wouldn’t be calling Ruthie “Boone” just because she looks like me. It doesn’t make any sense.
Is he a changer? Not one like me, made in the lab from fabricated DNA, but one of the originals? The natural changers whose DNA had been the models for ours? Rumor has it that the originals don’t need the shots to change. Rumor has it that they don’t have much control, though. They can’t touch one of us initiating a change. Side effect of our creation.
Jamieson goes to the intercom by the wall and calls down for a medic. . My download is at 82%.
“Come on, come on…”
85, 89, 92…
And it stalls.
Is it frozen? Oh, gods, it can’t be frozen.
I take a deep breath. Fifty years ago, a download like this would have taken hours. I’d had to sit through more than enough of those. Why was I being so jumpy?
Traitor, part of my mind whispers. It’s not the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
No. I’m still a soldier. I’m still going to protect the Commonwealth.
I hold on to Bobby and May Beth and the boys.
I pick up the second flash drive, find another USB port, and hover my hand near it.
The elevator door opens in the hallway. I hear medics bustling out. I don’t know if or how long it will be before they figure out that Ruthie isn’t me.
Sweating, I plug the drive with the virus into the open port. The self extractor starts, and I’m watching a race between red and green progress bars.
I hear Jamieson talking to the medics.
“He’s destabilized. He touched the cleaning woman and it triggered a spontaneous transformation. How did this happen? He’s been a fully functioning operative for decades! This unit was supposed to be free of the destabilization problems!”
What? What destabilization problems?
93%! My transfer starts again.
The virus extraction is at 69%.
My mind is spinning. What the hell is Jamieson talking about?
“I don’t know, Professor. We’ll have to get it down to the lab and deconstruct it. With any luck, it’s a problem with the body and not the brain tissue.”
“I don’t want to lose another one!” Jamieson shouts. “I don’t want to lose Boone!”
Is it genuine concern for me or does he just not want to write off a valuable investment?Deconstructed. What did they think they were they going to do? Just take my body apart, recycle the organs and other usable parts, and stick my brain back in a vat?
I rub my eyes.
It isn’t my body they’re taking down to the med lab. That guilt is starting to feel like a 300 pound boa constrictor wrapped around my body. Is there a way to make sure they won’t hurt Ruthie too? I check my screens again.
The virus extraction is at 94%. Professor Jamieson is finished berating the hapless medical staff and is stomping his way back up the hall. My transfer is still crawling.
The virus is at 96… 97… 98…
Jamieson’s hand is on the door.
I leave the drives and scurry over to the couch on the far side of the office. I’m standing next to it when the door opens, and my heart is racing, but Jamieson doesn’t even look at me. He turns his back to shut the door, stands there for a few seconds, and…
Is he wiping tears away from his face?
My eyes dart to the computer screen again.
“Ruth?” Jamieson asks.
I look up too fast. Jamieson’s quizzical look darkens into a frown, and gaze shifts to the monitor I was just looking at. He sweeps over to the computer, finds the thumb drives, and finally makes the connection.
“Boone! What the hell have you done?”
Relief, confusion, and horror flash across his face in such a quick succession that it’s almost comical. Then, suddenly, his hand starts toward the intercom button on his desk.
I seize on an idea. I don’t know what the destabilization issue is, but I’m sure I can use his guilt. Just a little more improvisation.
“Wait, Professor, please. You know I wouldn’t hurt Ruth. You know I wouldn’t do anything to you. I just… We needed help. We needed answers. We knew that if we turned ourselves in, you’d recycle us. We have families. The Commonwealth let us have families and now it just wants to take them away from us again. Take us away from them.”
The old woman’s warbling, unsteady voice works to my advantage. He stops, looks at me, and runs a hand over his face. He sits down on the edge of the desk and sighs, shoulders drooping.
“Gods, Boone, you sound like one of those crazy activists. You think that makes it all right to abandon the Commonwealth? To sneak in here, attack an old woman —”
“I didn’t attack her! I — I went to hug her, and something happened. It’s been happening to all of us. I didn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t going to be her!”
I cut my gaze away from his and stare at the floor.
“Really,” he sighs.
“I wasn’t going to hurt you, Professor period I would never do that! I just wanted to switch with you, get the files, and get out again. Ruthie got in my way. I didn’t want her to get hurt!” I move closer as I speak, stretching out my hands in an imploring gesture.
“Why didn’t you just come to me?”
“You wouldn’t have helped us. You’d just cart us all back here and recycle us like garbage.”
“Of course I wouldn’t. You say this is happening to everyone? Is that why you haven’t reported for duty?”
“I don’t know about the other units. I don’t know about anyone outside of the province,” I tell him, then conveniently stagger forward, flail my hands, and grab for his wrist. He reaches for me, trying to avoid my hands and grab me by the shoulders.
This body just doesn’t have the reflexes. He’s faster, and he’s used to avoiding skin contact with changers. I stagger in closer, plant my hands on the desk on either side of him, and smile. Our faces are almost touching.
“You know, I never noticed this before. At least, I don’t remember noticing. You’re cute for a jackass.”
“Wha — what?”
I let myself fall forward and press my lips to his. He shudders, tries to shove me away, and then his revulsion is subsumed by the agony of the change.
“It’s Boone,” I tell the guards. “The person downstairs in the medical lab is Ruth Taylor. Boone came in here pretending to be Ruth, tried to jump me, initiated a change, and I knocked him out while the change was progressing.”
Jamieson is lying on the floor, unconscious. Our features are identical, but I’ve stuffed him into the old woman’s skirt and blouse. The change ruined Ruthie’s pantyhose and popped all the buttons on the blouse. He looks like a cross-dressing train wreck. The guards are too shocked to question me. After all, I’m the one wearing the professor’s dress pants, shirt, and tie. I’m the one who has his ID card neatly clipped to my waist. I’m not the one wearing high heels and a beard at the same time.
“What… Um… What do we do with Boone, sir?” one of the guards asks.
“Take him downstairs, have his memories cleaned, and tell the doctors to give him his new orders. And please make sure that Ruth is all right”
I grab my syringes, but I have to take Jamieson’s car when I leave the plant. I don’t know if he made it to the cleaning tanks or if someone figured out what I had done before he got that far, but I can’t take the chance of anyone wondering why Jamieson is driving off in Boone’s truck.
The sun is setting, and I’m tempted to turn and head for Halley’s, to see her and the kids, but I have orders. It doesn’t matter if I’m an outlaw now. Whatever else I am, whatever I’ve done, I’m still a soldier of the Commonwealth, and there is a war on.
The first couple of missions are unremarkable. My targets are aliens masquerading as a corporate businessman and an actress. I take them out quick and quiet, in a matter of weeks, and then fade away again. There’s nothing on the news about a renegade changer, but then, I guess there wouldn’t be. It might cause a panic. I don’t sense any feds following me around though, so I think I may be okay. I buy some postcards, write them out to the kids, and pay an old timer to drive a few towns out and mail them for me while I board a plane for the African continent.
That’s when things start to go bad. I miss my targets twice, local news feeds go down, so I can’t keep an ear out for government chatter or enemy movements. I use up two vials of the transformative and break a third one in the car chase. I had figured on being back in the Commonwealth before I needed more shots. I don’t have an underground contact out here.
I’m holed up in a ratty hotel with electricity that works every other day if we’re lucky. I have No idea what I’m going to do next. I buy some more postcards in the lobby and sweet talk one of the girls who work on my floor into mailing them next week. I figure I’ll have to head out one way or another by then.
When I unlock my door, there’s a box waiting for me on the table. It’s wrapped in brown paper, with no postmarks or anything. Just the name of my cover identity, room number, and a couple of stamps that say “fragile.”
Frowning, I shut the door, take out my pocket knife and walk over to it. I check it over before I touch it, then cut the paper away from the top as carefully as I can. Then I give it another check and open up the top of the box.
My revolver is inside. Underneath it, packed in peanuts and surrounded by plastic bubbles are insulated cases marked “Transformative,” “Cleaner,” and “Desensitizer.”
I lift them out carefully, one of the time and check them over for damage. Underneath the cases, I find another layer of peanuts and a briefcase. When I open it up, I find layers of plastic DVD sleeves and file folders. There’s an envelope taped to the inside cover. I take that off, open it up, and I can’t decide whether I’m disappointed or relieved.
“Ruth is all right. This is everything we know about the destabilization problem. And more. Be careful, and stay in touch. — Jamieson.”