All change.Jun 26, 2014
Anyone outside the corridor would have found the noise deafening. On each side, as if tangled in the banks of a fast flowing river were groups of two, sometimes three nineteen year-olds talking by doorways, occasionally glancing at a person ducking by in the mainstream. They gave a quick glance if he or she was better than them, a slow look-over if there was attraction that needed emphasising and a disapproving jolt of the neck for the others.
Charlotte got the latter. Head down, arms crossed and coat buttoned up, she occasionally tilted and sidestepped towards a group she could briefly blend into but always rebounded from the invisible boundary and kept going, only taking in the occasional word spluttering over from left or right.
The bell blasted out as she cleared the hallway with a toe tap and deep blink. Within three seconds the groups erupted from the sides, their outbursts echoing wildly before packing into a wave of single indistinguishable white noise and a step soon synchronised to a march. She turned the corner, paused, and watched their perfect legs, bums, breasts, noses and teeth pass by like a victory parade.
As she checked out the rear, Charlotte shuffled her way across to the teaching theatre. In it, row after row, were heads that glowed together like a halo was stretched above them. As they took seats, giggled and formed a single unwelcoming whole her confidence disintegrated and her shuffle flipped to a slow, uneasy reverse.
A tremble ran through her shoulder as the soft hand curled around it, fingers like a city skyline and no blemishes, veins or lines.
“Are you joining us?”
“…ye..ss…” Charlotte found herself reflected in one of her teacher’s gorgeous, giant, symmetrical eyes. In the other she saw rows of identical ones, stunning, beautiful and looking straight through her.
As she sat down, her glance kept drifting away from the presentation on mollusks deep into the hair of the girl in front, across the shining skin to her left, along the outline curves of the body to the right.
Skipping out-breaths she felt herself squeezed narrow and imagined heads turning to look up at her bending awkwardly in their pointing whispers, seconds away from snapping in half.
The class finished and Charlotte filtered out the well-wishing from behind her to flee out of an underused side door. She waited for silence, blew out, and cried.
She couldn’t get this from a pharmacy. That required years of planning, prescriptions and strategy, molds and formulae. But there was another place, stacked under bridges side-lit by neon between the roads and canals. Charlotte had heard stories.
The gateway neighbourhood was familiar from afternoons spent wandering under the heart of the city observing the alternative electrical shops and specialist clothing stalls. She’d even seen some of them there. Overs. Strange bodies, mixtures of coloured skin and solitary unless grouped together in the head of a passer- by like her.
The marketplace brought in just enough of either group and
enough fear going both ways that neither gained prominence over the other, forming an oddly stable crossroads reverberating between the stores and shadows.
Charlotte followed a couple, abnormally tall and triangular passing by a stall selling altered sea-things above the steps to the canal.
One of them, it was hard to gauge gender here, looked back and gave her a slow, gentle smile, eyelashes forming symmetrical patterns on a face like a geometry textbook.
The undersides of the bridges had been lined with steel, reflecting everything and everyone between them and the water. It wasn’t dark but the neon glow of the spiraling lights still stunned more than she’d imagined. Charlotte walked on, not even that terrified.
For some the bridges were home, keyhole shelters carved into their sides. Some sweet, some stacked with art, lamps and wire and some radiating a constant chill, silence and sadness.
The deeper Charlotte moved along the banks the more she found herself looking at the world through the doubly inverted upside down of the steel and surface water. The couple she was following had long disappeared, though she couldn’t recall when or where. The lights crept in as the sky darkened, guiding her along in a hazy stupor.
As she tripped over a long outspread leg by the waterside, reality spun her back to earth in a surprise. She pawed at the air, quick- stepped to find her balance and found herself looking down at a man, arched, mumbling, and peering in over the edge.
His eyes took up far more space than they ought to, pushing a button nose and oblong lips to opposing sides of a small, circular
“I’ll get it back. This isn’t me. It’s going to change. I’ll get there…”
He was stuttering and shaking, looking down and up at what was, to his horror, the same, unchanging reflection.
Half of Charlotte ignored the other half’s “run away” signals and reached forward to help.
The man stopped, snaked slowly round and stared, his oversized eyes keeping the same angle and position while his head bent to the side.
“Not me…I’m not…”
Charlotte watched a tightly muscled hand with elasticated fingers begin to reach out, the reflections and shadows making it warp, enlarge and flicker in the light. Both her halves agreed. “Run”.
Two hundred metres on, the banks widened and rose further above the water. A clearing opened past a lock-side hut, forming a tightly packed city square stemming from a series of stone and steel footbridges. Each arched towards a central platform surrounded by high-rise shops and bars.
This was the place and it buzzed with activity from dozens of people and animals. None of them looked like anything Charlotte had ever seen.
“Enhancements” read the shop sign in squeezed green lettering, befitting the shop itself which seemed to have been built into what was once just a walkway between two others.
As she stepped in and closed the door behind her, the narrow inside offered relief from a need for constant paranoid looks in all directions. There were only two options here. Forward or out.
Ahead, about twenty footsteps in, was a counter with a head bobbing up, down and around behind it. Alongside were detailed charts and diagrams of body parts and at the back an almost endless set of colourful pipes leading to dispensing taps and miniature assembly lines.
Just before was a series of eight lift platforms all at the moment stationary on the ground. Each fed into a room directly above it where small white signs read “Prescription booth”.
Charlotte stepped forward and got her first look at the woman behind the counter. She was holding a touch pad with one hand, smoking a red cigarette in another and reaching out at the computer ahead of her. She had three arms.
Two forked out from one shoulder but moved independently while the third appeared longer and more flexible. She seemed to be engrossed in all three tasks and be paying little attention until Charlotte turned to look back to check if a swift exit was, in fact, a better option.
“Hi you! First time?” … “That’s a yes then… oh ignore the arms, they’re hardly scary. I’m no monster. You’ve seen worse. “A monster called Gillian. Hardly scary. “Shall I show you around? “Who am I kidding? You probably know more about this place than I do. “Been reading the newspapers? Gossip?
“You do talk, right? “Yes… I” Charlotte failed to finish the sentence. “Good, well just push the button to your left. Yes, there. Booth three. Nice and clean. Give me a shout if you want anything. Take as long as you want.”
“Oh, and start small.” she added before taking a puff of the cigarette as the third elevator sealed off in glass and started moving up with a star-struck Charlotte inside it.
It landed within a cylindrical room. Ahead was a panel containing three screens and a holographic projector. To its right a keyboard, microphone and assorted controls. Mostly joysticks, levers and buttons. To the left was a vertical, body-length scanner with illustrated directions ending in an image of a holographic body covered in multi-way arrows.
Charlotte looked down through a window to the shop floor and strayed into eye contact with a gleeful Gillian, waving behind the counter before pushing a button. The window turned opaque and she found herself alone with no noise but the hum of the panel and the sound of her own accelerated breaths.
Realising getting straight into it was the best way to dispel the hesitation going through her head, she pushed her finger to a blood sampling pad on the wall. The tiny, expected pin prick startling her given the silence and circumstances. In moments the screens lit up with biological information and the scanner doors opened. Charlotte took a look around, shed her clothes and stepped inside.
The teaching hall was already filling up before the bell had even
rung. Charlotte stood, coat hung around her arm, in her own separate part of the hallway. She ignored the nested groups and waved at a few head-down passers by.
She checked the time and brushed her finger lightly along a birthmark by her wrist.
The bell rang and she walked to the theatre, sat down and smiled.