It was a warm day but not unusually warm for the time of year. It was perfectly pleasant. In the field across from my front door I saw the tortoises gambolling through the long stalks of beer wheat, their undulating, high-pitched songs carrying across on the gentlest of breezes. From the higher elevation on the porch the field appeared as a near-still, golden honey sea with the barest of waves broken only occasionally by a shell or happy prehistoric head surfacing to snap at a thrill-seeking insect, real or imagined.
A wind chime nailed to the underside of the porch roof (probably long overdue a repainting) – it must have been five years or more now that it had hung there – turned slowly in my eyeline but never quite enough to cause any of its components to come together and add to the soothing white noise of nature.
I might have drifted off to sleep on some other, near-identical day but for the constant attention from the house rabbit who was busy waxing my tertiary head. It needed doing; the quills were coming back through and I’d noticed some small rips in the pillow case that same morning. There was a time when I might have given it no thought, thrown out the bedding, and replaced it with a higher grade steel wool, but that would have been in the early days of working for the government. Money wasn’t quite an issue yet but I wasn’t foolish enough to fail to realise it would be, and the days passed so much quicker during the final third of the year when the twins sped up to cross orbit.
I had a book, open and laying flat across my stomach, that I’d long given up trying to read. The tranquility of the surroundings had been surprisingly more distracting than they should have been and now that Mr Fluffsibobs was busying himself, running across my head – that reminded me; he needed declawing too – , dragging the strips in his mouth, patting them down, then tearing them off with a leap to the porch boards, the simple act of catching up with some light war poetry had become too much of an effort entirely. I suppose I was more alert then and I heard the airship when it was still far off.
I angled both of my free heads to determine from which direction the low-level whump-whump-whump was coming from and realised that the trees on the barrow behind the water storage cube in the southwest corner of the farm were probably obscuring the approach of the – listen, listen – MA305 zeppelin? Yes! There it was.
It reminded me of a programme I’d seen on telenet about the giant land salmon – they had a fancy name but I could never remember things like that – that lay on the surface of the great dunes in the southern deserts and lifted themselves up slowly when snakes or sand-owls came near, luring them in with the promise of shade only to crush them under their weight. The airship was an MA305; wide, flat, two great propellers at the rear, and a series of steering spikes arranged seemingly at random in between the three gondolas underneath. As it crested the trees I saw finally that the transport ropes were retracted. I felt my stomach tighten.
In case you don’t know how the public transport system in the colonies works let me fill you in on some details: we’re taxed heavily from income – well, who isn’t? – but everything is cheap and plentiful and transportation is entirely free. The trains float along their routes and stop at their stations frequently and often on time too and, when it’s impractical to run a semicon track somewhere, the airships are the alternative. There are no stations in the sky, of course, and no reason for the airships to stop anyway so they simply drift roughly along their predetermined routes, their transport ropes extended for anyone to clamber up or down as and when they please. For the extremely elderly, the very young, or the physically disabled there’s always a chimp aide on board but, honestly, I can’t remember more than a couple of times when I actually saw one carrying somebody.
Retracted transport ropes meant that this wasn’t a public vehicle and since nobody could own a private airship – nobody who wasn’t a billionaire anyway, and I didn’t know any of them – that just left the army. And I knew people in the army.
Back during the war our department had become closely integrated with Playaway, the military strategic and advanced weaponry division. I don’t think anything we did really had much of an effect; it was all mainly theoretical with whatever prototypes we did develop underperforming almost universally. The only exception was a biologic we grew from first principles that looked like a cat, acted like a cat, and would pass all medical and technological scrutiny (we thought) to show that it was a cat. But it wasn’t a cat. An undetectable, deliberate subgenetic mutation triggered by specific harmonies of radiation would transform our biologic into a dog. As far as tactical advantages to be gained on the battlefield were concerned a cat that changed into a dog was of no use but it was to be the basis of a new breed of covert operative in the theatre of war. At least until peace smothered everything and we were broken up.
I let the airship start to drop its ropes, something it did only once it was over the boundary of what constituted my land, before I stretched my arm back to touch Mr Fluffsibobs’ ear. He had not yet placed another wax strip on my head and so simply jumped down lightly and disappeared behind me into the house. I ran my hand over my dome; a few bristles remained but a vast improvement nonetheless. I stood, pulled down my shirt to de-crease it as much as possible, and stepped off the porch onto the grass, looking up at the silhouette of the airship as it passed in front of the gas sun-planet. A figure was already halfway down the transport rope using the fast-descent, heads-first, loose-leg-loop sliding method. Definitely military. At the bottom of the rope my visitor rolled and came to his feet gracefully and immediately started striding across the hundred or so feet that separated us. Above, the propellers and steering spikes of the airship snapped into position and the airship began to circle tightly.
His name did not spring to mind but I did, at least, recognise him. He was not the sort of person you really forgot; how many people do you know who wear a patch over where the eyes on the second head should be? Still, he was only one of nearly fifty of us, it was a stressful time, and it was over a decade earlier. There was no real social mingling between the governmental and military personnel and it could have been that I never knew his name anyway. I hoped that was true.
He nodded at me with his primary and pointed towards the house at my back. I nodded back and stepped to one side, gesturing that he should go first. He didn’t hesitate and strode past and I followed behind him, only not too close. His tertiary head turned slightly to make sure I was actually coming along and I noticed how smooth it was. That was no house rabbit handiwork. Slugs, daily, or possibly the quills had even been removed surgically.
A shadow from the airship engulfed the house as we stepped from the porch into the living room. I made as if to head towards the kitchen but he held up a hand.
"I won’t be long Doctor," he said. His raspy voice jogged a memory: his throats had been damaged in some sort of chemical attack in Early War. And – that’s right! – he’d given up two of his eyes to help synthesise a new voicebox. I still couldn’t think what his name was though. "You remember Gennifa?" he asked.
Of course I did. Gennifa was the project name we had assigned to our one and only success: our cat-dog. I nodded and sat down. My unexpected guest remained where he was. Did I imagine my stomach knotting?
"We kept Gennifa running after the armistice talks."
Well, – damn! what was his name? – he wasn’t a procrastinator.
"There have been some notable advances, many of which we achieved through cooperation with our former enemy. For instance, it is no longer necessary to grow a designed biologic; we can effect the mutation and trigger it in the same radiation burst."
He stopped as a movement from the side of the room caught the attention of both of us. It was Tam, my wallfrog, simply shifting position. He was old and could happily remain motionless for half a day at a time these days and, with his colouring, he was nearly invisible on the panelling. I used the distraction to shift my weight in the chair. I had a backache. The springs were worn. The chairs needed replacing. Everything needed replacing.
"We have used Gennifa and replaced some undesirables among the various terrorist organisations. Gennifa has even been used to return missing limbs to wounded veterans or repair their internal organs."
He smiled slightly as he caught my glance at his eyespatch.
"There are still some limitations," he admitted with a subtle shrug. "Certain genetic markers must already be present in the body. If you’re interested then the KC pair of 22309 and 22339 must be on. That equates to somewhat less than one percent of the population and I’m not included. You, however, are."
My chest felt tight.
"We can give you back your speech. And we can remove the addiction."
I sat forward. My mouths and eyes were watering. To be able to speak again, to not have to inject daily? I was shaking. I don’t know if it was fear, whether it was adrenalin from anticipation of a return to a normal life, or even if some of the old anger had come back.
"Your modifications were a necessary precaution in wartime. Everybody made a sacrifice somehow. You got through relatively well as I recall."
I closed my eyes. It felt like a pressure headache. Yes, he was right. Nobody I cared for had suffered in the war. Everyone I loved had lived through it with hardly a tale of terror or interest worthy of retelling between them. But afterwards? The friend who sat in a silence more deep than mere muteness should create, who never smiled, whose depression was like an infection; the addict husband who kept his rage bottled until it became too much and then broke anything within reach including, once, a wrist. They couldn’t cope but they could escape. I’d stopped blaming them a few years ago.
"We want something from you, though."
I opened my eyes and looked up sharply. I made no effort to hide any flash of venom that might have been there. I didn’t want to disappoint him. I’d gotten used to relaxing on my porch day after day, month after month. For a second I surprised myself at how easy the old emotions had returned and also, strangely, how comforting it was that they, at least, were not worn out, in need of repair or replacement.
My nameless guest carried on: "The twins will cross in thirty days and, for a short time, the conditions will be right to create a twist to a world that both we and our new comrades have had our eyes on for some time."
I looked, obviously, at his second head as he said this. I hoped he realised why. I hoped he was hurt by it. But he continued as if he hadn’t noticed and I looked down at my hands as he spoke, clenching my fists, almost noticing how the bones and scales bent and flexed for the very first time.
"We want to check this world out but we need altered operatives to do so and that’s where you – and some others – come in. You’ll live among their predominant sentient group gathering intelligence and next year, during the next crossing, we’ll twist you back. No more loyalty drugs."
Anger had made an unwelcome return and already I’d tried being vindictive. Now what was I feeling? Persecution? And some belligerence. Was I about to refuse? I could almost hear the thinking, calmer side of my brains commentate on my own emotions even as I felt them surface. If I refused would they stop the drugs? Would they? Think! Is one year too much? Thirty thousand days would fly by. A new world. Bastards!
"You are being changed right now."
I felt my heart punch at my ribs and I was breathing heavily. My stomach felt as if it was the size of an orange and still being squeezed.
He looked up at the ceiling, through the ceiling. "The airship," he said simply, explaining. "You can debate inside your head whether you’d agree to do this or not while Gennifa does its work. We’re confident you’ll go. The alternative is, let’s see, how does a freak show sound?"
He pulled a sheet of plastic from his overcoat pocket and threw it at me. At the same time there was a soft padding sound from the direction of the kitchen.
"Don’t worry about your animals," he said. "They’ll be looked after."
Mr Fluffsibobs loped into the room with his leash in his mouth. Was it that time already? I picked up the plastic sheet. Multilingual world, similar environment, marginally lower gravity, many equivalent species. My God! One head. Would I even be me any more? Mr Fluffsibobs sprang onto my lap, looking up at me curiously even as I looked down at him with tears forming in my eyes. I scratched under his left chin.
"Doctor Mark, you should make preparations for leaving now so that we can monitor your transformation prior to your departure for Earth."
I looked back up and noticed the gold crescents on his coat collar. I suddenly remembered: his name was Major Howard Cuntheads.