Home > NaNoWriMo 2011, The Serial Box > Day One Hundred and Sixty-seven: Shift

Day One Hundred and Sixty-seven: Shift

Rick sat on the subway as it pulled into the station and watched all the men who got on. His eyes flickered over their features, taking in the shape of their nose, their eyes, looking at their legs and shoulders and trying to see the form beneath the clothes as each one stepped through the doors and sat down or found a place to stand. Most of them weren’t very appealing. They were too old, or they had let their body go to seed. It was one thing that disappointed Rick about having to live in the United States – so few people took care of themselves anymore.

One young man caught Rick’s eye, and he focused his attention on him. Maybe eighteen. Tall, slim-hipped and broad-shouldered. Baggy jeans and a jacket made it hard to get a good idea of what he really looked like, but his face had a kind of delicacy to it that appealed to Rick. He ran his gaze down the young man’s jawline and cheekbones, trying to guess what his hair might be like under that wool cap he was wearing.

Good enough, Rick thought. He took a deep breath, adjusted his focus, and began to steal the young man’s body.

“Steal” wasn’t quite the right word for it, of course. The guy would still have his body when Rick was done, and aside from a slight itching feeling, he’d never know that anything unusual had happened at all. But if he happened to glance over at Rick during just the right moment, a brief second, he would have been startled to see himself sitting there.

Rick’s mind’s eye filled with information about the young man as a body-form built itself. He was clearly in good shape, probably an athlete in either high school or college. The long, muscular legs and broad chest suggested he was a swimmer, which brought a smile to Rick’s face.

Which wasn’t, strictly speaking, his.

He knew what his original face looked like, of course. That was kept safely in his mental gallery, where all the forms he’d copied over the years were stored. His was in the back. If his mind had been a physical place, his body would have been under glass, kept behind great steel doors that never opened. He hadn’t worn his face, or the rest of his original body, since he learned how to copy others, and he wasn’t about to start doing so now.

He settled back in his seat and felt his body shift in tiny, nearly imperceptible ways as he picked and chose which features to change. His fingernails got a little longer, his hair about an inch shorter. The bridge of his nose filled out a little, and his skin color darkened ever so slightly. Other things came along with it – an ache in the knee, a sore back from some injury or another. He erased them quickly and breathed a sigh of relief. His fingers started to twitch, and he suspected that the young man knew how to play the guitar. A useful skill sometimes, but not now. It would fade in a few hours anyway, so there was no reason to think too much about it.

When he got off the subway train, he looked much the same as he had when he got on, but the tiny changes added up. He smiled at his reflection in a store window above-ground and appreciated the white, straight teeth that flashed in the glass. The young man he’d taken from had left him with a sour feeling of anxiety, but he was able to force it off. After a few blocks, he was as cheerful as he’d ever been.

When he got back to his apartment, the excitement had him taking off clothes almost as soon as he was in the door. By the time he got to his living room, he was able to admire his new body in the floor-to-ceiling mirror that he had installed when he moved in. It was a large studio in the middle of the city, which was perfectly fine for him. He got good money from modeling, and used it to fashion a stylish little nest for himself.

He spent a long time admiring himself in the mirror. His skin was a light brown with hints of gold, his eyes bright green and his hair a lustrous black that was almost blue. He had high cheekbones and almond eyes, and a straight and clear jaw.

His body was tightly muscled without being bulky – slender, strong arms, and a broad chest. He rubbed his flat stomach with delicate, long-fingered hands and then glanced down. He grinned again and waggled his hips back and forth a bit. When he’d started to get a hang of his powers, he’d convinced himself that becoming better-hung was part of testing his limits, and to be fair, it did help. He learned that he only had the mass of his body to work with,and that increasing the size of one part – perhaps to ridiculous degrees – would result in losing mass in others. He weighed more than he looked like he should. He’d been shocked when he weighed in at just above three hundred pounds. At the same time he could look like a skinny hipster, and the payoff was that he could make himself – or parts of himself – much bigger than he should be.

It had been an entertaining weekend, to say the least.

He stretched and moved to the opposite comer of the room, where he’d set up a black backdrop and some photography lamps. He set up the camera on a tripod, set the timer, and got pictures, front back and sides. They’d go into his computer for his records. He still didn’t know what he was going to do with those pictures, but he couldn’t bring himself not to take them.

Inspection complete, he started to get dressed again. The day was still young, and he had the weekend to himself. It couldn’t hurt to go out scouting again. There was no end to the beautiful people on Corsair City, after all.

He put on some baggy clothes, which would accommodate any changes he felt like making, and headed back out into the city. He practiced his speed-changing as he turned corners. From November Boulevard to Fifth Street, his skin darkened and he became taller and thinner. A beard sprouted on his face, and he became at least forty years older in a blink. He adjusted his stride to more of a shuffle until he got to October. He turned left, and his hair burst from his head into a long, red mane. Freckles popped out on skin that was now a pale pink, and a gap opened between his teeth. He adjusted to more of a strut for a few blocks. On Eighth, he turned right, this time shrinking down a full foot. His features became more delicate and childlike, and curly ash-brown hair dropped down in front of his eyes. He laughed and ran across the street to Juno Park, where he shifted again into the form he’d built earlier.

He had no idea why he was able to do what he did, and he didn’t care. It was what had saved him from his old life, from his old self, and whatever price he’d have to pay, he would do so gladly.

The cafe in the small park was one of his favorite places in the city. It was small, it was trendy, and it was expensive. The other customers tended towards the Beautiful People, which suited Rick just fine.

He took a seat in the corner where he could see as many people as possible and ordered a latte. A magazine gave him the pretense of reading, and he settled in for an afternoon of people-watching.

One man caught his eye nearly immediately. He was seated a couple of tables away, just within the range of Rick’s senses, and he looked like no one Rick had scanned before. He had a narrow, cleft chin and a nose with a graceful curve to it. His skin was pale to the point of translucence, and thick hair cascaded down to his shoulders, more gold than blonde.

I could use some of that, Rick thought, and reached out to scan him.

The pain that shot through him was enough to not only make him cry out, but he rocked back in his chair hard enough to hit his head. He then fell forward, tears in his eyes and a warm wetness leaking out of his nose.

A waitress came over, wide-eyed and worried. “Are you okay, sir?” She helped him sit up and winced at the blood that was running from his nose. “I’ll just… I’ll just get you some napkins,” she said. Rick rubbed his eyes, which sent another pain through his head, but nowhere near what there had been before. When the waitress came back with a pile of napkins and a large glass of ice water, he thanked her and worked on stopping the bleeding. He could fix it himself, but that would take concentration. He didn’t have a whole lot of that right now.

He’d never felt anything like that. Ever. He’d gotten feedback before, when he tried to copy a woman’s body, and once when he tried to copy an animal. It seemed to be one of the limits of his power – he could only copy men. Human men, at that.

The thought lingered in his mind for a moment as clarity returned to him. He sealed off the bleeding and used the napkins to clean up the blood that covered his mouth and chin.

Human men.

He glanced over, wincing as he did so. The guy was still sitting there, perfectly calm and seemingly unaware of what had just happened. A number of thoughts ran through Rick’s mind, each more ridiculous than the last. He tried to think of reasonable explanations for what had just happened, but kept bumping up against the problem that what he did wasn’t exactly reasonable.

Carefully, very carefully, he extended his senses out towards the blonde man.

The pain this time was slower to hit. Rather than feeling like he’d been shot through the head, Rick felt like he was having a hot wire shoved through his brain by a very slow and very sadistic torturer. He felt the blood vessel in his nose go again and was vaguely aware that he was getting blood on his shirt. His jaw hurt from the effort of clenching his teeth, and he realized that he was making a high-pitched whine when the waitress came over to him again and shook his shoulder. “Oh, sir, you need to get to a hospital!”

He broke off contact and took a deep inhale that turned into a cough. Blood spattered over the table as he doubled over, and finally the blonde man glanced over in his direction. The waitress ran to get some more napkins, and maybe some help. Rick tried to do repair work, settling his lungs and his nose so that he could at least see again, and when she came back, he was already cleaning himself up. He had to thank her several times before she would leave, and that was when he noticed that the blonde man was gone.

Rick stood up like a shot and was halfway out of the restaurant before he dashed back, tore a twenty from his wallet, and ran out again. I must look like a freak, he thought, but the thought didn’t stop him. He dashed about outside until he got a glimpse of gold-blonde hair and went chasing after him.

The man didn’t seem to notice, so Rick slowed down a little. He took some deep, heaving breaths. For all that he had the muscles of an athlete, he really wasn’t in the habit of using them all that often, and made a note to find someone with a really good heart next time he was out. He grabbed some napkins from his pocket and tried to scrub drying blood off his face while the blonde man walked several blocks down September to a subway station. He hopped down the stairs, and Rick went down after him, shifting fluidly as he did so. By the time he got to the bottom of the stairs, he looked like an exhausted businessman on casual day.

He followed the blonde man through a turnstile and shifted again, but when he got to the other side, the platform had changed.

There was no one there. A moment ago, the station had been bustling with afternoon traffic, but now? Now it was utterly empty and silent. He looked around, and no matter where he looked, he was the only one. Then he caught his reflection in one of the public service posters that hung on the wall and started to scream.

He was himself. For the first time in nearly a decade, he was in the body he’d been born into, the one he’d been so happy to be free of. His face was pale and soft, with eyes that looked small and too close together, a nose that sat like a lump in the middle of his face and thin, grayish lips that made his mouth look more like a gash across his face. Under his baggy clothes, he knew what his body looked like. It was pasty and flabby and spotty. It had scars and freckles and moles, and hair where he didn’t want hair and looked nothing like what he always thought he looked like in his head. He desperately tried to change, to shift into any other body but this one, but nothing happened. He was trapped, and beginning to panic.

“Why were you following me?” The voice was deep, and had a slight accent underneath it. Rick turned around to see the blonde man standing on the edge of the platform. He had his hands in his pockets and looked for all the world like he was just having a casual conversation, waiting for the train to come.

“What did you do?” Rick wheezed. He felt weak and leaden.

“I asked you first,” the man said. “Why were you following me?”

“I… I wasn’t,” Rick said. “I just wanted to ride the subway.”

The man shook his head and sighed. “I can leave you here, you know,” he said. “Trapped on this platform, in the body you detest. Is that what you want?” He raised an eyebrow, and Risk said nothing. “Good,” he said. “Now let’s try this again. Why were you following me?”

It took Rick a few moments to decide to tell the truth. He looked down at his nail-bitten hands and said, “I wanted to know who you were.” He looked up at the man, whose expression hadn’t changed. “I wanted to…” He laughed, and it was high and nervous. “God, this is going to sound stupid – I wanted to copy your body.”

The man nodded slowly. “Not stupid,” he said. “I mean, I don’t think I’m the best choice you could have made, but still. Thanks.”

“But,” Rick went on. “But I couldn’t read you,” he said. “And I wanted to know why.” Now that he’d started talking, the panic was giving way to that excited sense of mystery that made him chase the man in the first place. “I mean, I can read any man, you know? It’s easy. But you…”

“Yes,” the man said. “I saw the nosebleed. Looked terrible.”

Rick stared at him for a long while before he said the thing that he’d been thinking ever since the restaurant. “Are you…” He licked his lips. “Are you an alien?”

The man responded by bursting into laughter. He laughed so had that he had to lean over, hands on his knees, and take great heaving breaths before he was able to control himself. His laughs echoed off the tiled walls of the subway platform and finally, after a long while, he wiped tears from his eyes, straightened up, and looked Rick right in the eye with a straight face that seemed to lock in from nowhere: “No,” he said. “I am not an alien.” Then he turned and started to walk towards the turnstile.

“But – wait!” Rick ran up to him and grabbed his sleeve. Another spike of pain, not as bad as in the restaurant, shot through him and he let go. “What…” The pain subsided instantly. “What are you?” he asked.

The man smiled at him, and it actually made Rick feel a little better. “You’ll find out another time,” he said, and the harshness had gone from his voice. “But not now.” A smile flickered across his face and he walked through the turnstile.

As soon as he did, Rick found himself caught in a crowd that came from nowhere. Suddenly, people were all around him, pushing by and cursing him out for getting in everyone’s way. He weaved through the crowd until he got to a bench, sat down, and then – gingerly, carefully – tried to shift.

He felt that familiar feeling of everything changing, and let out a deep sigh as the body he’d built for himself slid into place. He stood up straight, stretching his fingers and his neck and running his hands down his sides just to make sure he was who he thought he was. A young Asian college student walked by and Rick reached out to him. There was no pain, no agony. Just a quick sketch of the young man’s shape and form, and Rick let it go without keeping it.

Everything seemed to be normal, or at least as normal as he got.

Part of him wanted to count his blessings and head back to his apartment. He could order Chinese food and watch TV and go to his gig in the morning and forget that all this had happened. Whoever that blonde man was, he was not someone that Rick wanted to make angry at him. Not. At. All.

And yet… He’d never met anyone like that before. Like him before. Someone who could do things, things that they shouldn’t be able to do.

This would take time. And care. And serious consideration. He sat back down on the bench a a subway train came past and disgorged its passengers, and he watched people go by.

And he thought.

*****

Rick Anders’ page on 30characters.com

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