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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

by Kate Lynn-Devere

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"I'm sorry, children, I'm afraid we'll have to have our picnic in the gym; it's still raining outside." The kindergarten teacher smiled and nodded and waited for the inevitable chorus of disappointed vices to die away. "I promise you we'll go next week, if it isn't raining then. Yes, Michelle, you've got your hand up nicely, do you have something to say?"

A very small girl with blonde hair and blue eyes asked, "Miss Jenners, if we blow the clouds away so it stops raining, can we still go today, please?"

"Ah. Yes, Michelle, if we could blow away the clouds then I'm sure we could go today, but we can't blow the clouds away, honey, I'm sorry."

Michelle stood up and pushed her hair away from her face, drew a deep breath and blew at the clouds, her cheeks puffing out and reddening with exertion.

"I can, Miss Jenners, I know I can, watch!" she climbed onto the desk nearest the window and blew again. The teacher watched, amused and indulgent as the little girl exercised her imagination. Her amusement faded as she watched the cloud cover begin to shift and dissipate, allowing the sun to shine through. She turned the windows to opaque using the controls on her desk, and clapped her hands to draw her pupils' attention.

"That is a great idea for a story, Michelle. Class, let's get out our crayons and draw some pictures to tell the story of the little girl who blew away the clouds. You too, Michelle, come down from there, please."

"Oh, but it's working, if you just let me blow a little bit more, maybe if everyone helped it would work faster, then we could go outside." Michelle pressed her hands flat against the glass and blew harder. "I know I can do it." She smiled at her teacher, expecting praise and encouragement.

The teacher strode over to the window and lifted Michelle down from the desk, depositing her firmly in her seat and placing a sheet of paper before her. "Now, you just draw me a lovely picture, and maybe I could put it on the wall, if you draw it especially nicely, okay?" As young as she was, Michelle could tell from her teacher's tone that it wasn't a question, despite her smile. Michelle scowled and snatched up a black crayon.

"Fine, then! I'll draw a stupid picture! See, I'll draw black thunder clouds and lightning bolts!" she scribbled furiously over the paper, snapping the crayon in the process. At that exact moment, the windows rattled in their frames as the air was filled with a sonic boom of thunder. The lights in the classroom went out when the roof was hit by lightning a second later. The children in the class leapt up from their seats and ran to cluster round the teacher, clutching at her skirt and crying in fear. All except Michelle, who remained in her seat, arms folded, her delicate features marred by a deep frown.

Michelle sat, arms folded and legs crossed, frowning. She closed her eyes and shook her head from side to side, refusing to listen to what her mother and Mr Grabowski, her teacher, were saying. "Michelle, darling, just sit down properly, I can't talk to you when you do that," her mother was imploring.

"No. Don't humour the child. You must not reinforce her fantasies," said Mr Grabowski. "She must face reality. She is sitting on the carpet. She is not floating. Human beings simply cannot levitate and that is all there is to it." He stood in front of Michelle and took hold of her wrists. "Now look here, young lady, this is the third time this year that you have been excluded from class because of your behaviour. You are facing the risk of permanent expulsion if this nonsense continues, do you understand?" He spoke to her as if he was telling the truth and she really was imagining it.

Michelle opened her eyes and looked down at her wrists. "Let go," she said. "Let go, or you'll be sorry." Mr Grabowski did not let go. He started to say something, but Michelle lifted her head and blew. She blew at Mr Grabowski's chest. He slammed into the wall on the other side of the headmaster's office and landed in the waste-paper basket. Michelle's mother put her hand to her mouth and looked aghast at her daughter, but said nothing. Mr Grabowski stood up with some difficulty and walked back to stand in front of Michelle with what dignity he could muster. "As I was saying, Michelle," he tried to continue as if the incident had not occurred, "you face permanent expulsion if your behaviour continues. We simply cannot allow you to disrupt your classes in this way. It is unfair to your peers and quite unacceptable. You will be on Headmaster's report for the rest of the term. If there is no change, you will not return to school. I suggest you discuss this matter with your parents over the weekend. You may go. I expect to see you back here on Monday morning, with an improvement to your attitude."

"Come along, dear," said her mother, taking Michelle's hand. "Let's go home now." Michelle allowed herself to be led out of the headmaster's office. Her mother either didn't see - or else pretended not to notice - that Michelle's feet were approximately two inches above the ground all the way to the car.

"Kid, I know some of your teachers are a bit dusty, but do you have to shake 'em up so much? You don't have to like school, you don't even have to pretend to like it, but you do have to go there, so can't you just toe the line? Tell you what, if you can get through the rest of the term without landing in more hot water, I'll buy you that hover bike you wanted. What do you say, deal?" Her father was doing his 'reasonable dad' routine. Michelle could always tell when he knew he really wasn't in control; it was the only time he spoke to her with anything like respect. He must be really shaken up this time, to be trying to bribe her. "I thought you said I couldn't have one till I was ten? I'll only be nine next month. Why the sudden turn around?" Michelle looked at him with narrowed eyes and waited to see what he would say next.

"Well, I don't want you to have no reason to hope. I know it's hard for you at school, but Mr Grabowski says that maybe some of that is because you're so much brighter than the other kids. Well, maybe you're bright enough to have a hover bike a year early." Her father leaned back in his chair, apparently relaxed. He picked up his paper and turned the page. "Let me know when you're done thinking about it, huh, kiddo?" Michelle watched him out of the corner of her eye. He was watching her right back.

"This is a conspiracy, right?" she demanded. "You've been talking to the Grabber, haven't you? Well, it isn't going to work. I'm not afraid of him and I'm not imagining things. I don't care if I get expelled from school; everything they teach there is lies! Like 'what goes up must come down' and 'human beings simply cannot levitate'. And I don't need a stupid hover bike!" Michelle stared at her father's chair. It lifted up from the floor of the kitchen and hovered level with the top of the kitchen table for a moment, before falling back to earth. Her father did his best to ignore the incident, like the counsellors had told him and his wife they ought to, but it was hard. "You must be putting on weight, dad, I almost had to work at it that time," Michelle laughed. She clicked her fingers and vanished in a puff of smoke. A moment later she called down the stairs. "And yes, I am doing my homework."

Michelle's mother cleared away the dinner plates and sat down opposite her husband. "That wasn't much help, Tim. She's out of control, what are we going to do?"

"You worry too much. She's just a kid; she'll grow out of it, relax." Tim put down his paper and reached for his wife's hand, but she pulled it away.

"That's what you said when she was five and wanted to be a fairy so she turned the school bus into a pumpkin."

"You've got to admit, that was pretty funny," Tim chuckled.

"No, it wasn't funny, Tim! They had to evacuate the school today. She decided to be a mermaid. She sat under water in the school pool for three hours. Supposing the other children had seen her? Where will it end? You know why she can't break the rules like this. Sometimes I think you don't care what happens to her, for all the help you are."

"Okay, I'll talk to her, I really will. Try not to worry; she'll probably stop all this when she gets interested in boys. That's what the counsellors said, right? That can't be more than a couple of years off now. We'll just keep her out of trouble till then."

"When she gets interested in boys? Tim, she's not interested in people! At least, not in people who can't fly. I don't think Michelle has had any real friends since her friend Peter had to be uploaded. I'm not prepared to put my faith in her developing an interest in boys."

"It's not as bad as you're making out; she still goes to school, she goes to bed when we tell her to, she eats cabbage when you cook it, even though she hates it. I'd have turned it into ice cream by now, if I was her. She's keeping most of the rules; she's just got a powerful imagination. Maybe we should take her out of school till she starts high school."

"Absolutely not, Tim! I have to work and so do you. Anyway, she needs the mental discipline the teachers can give her. You and I can't manage that much control on our own and you know it."

"Yeah, you're right. Well, let's get her that hover bike anyway. Maybe if she can hover legitimately, she won't feel the need to levitate all the time. Might take some of the novelty value out of it." Tim smiled until his wife turned away. Only then did he allow his concern for his daughter to show on his face.

Michelle lounged in her chair in the counsellor's office, juggling with globes of water. "Michelle, you know that for you to achieve anything in our sessions, you have to at least try to concentrate on why you're here. Please stop distracting yourself and put your hands in your lap." Michelle smiled serenely and said, "Of course, I'm sorry." She stopped juggling. The water splashed onto the desk, soaking some papers and splashing on to the counsellor's spectacles. The stern faced woman simply removed them, wiped them dry and replaced them.

"Thank you, Michelle," she said.

"This is the part where I say, 'see?' and you say, 'see what?' and I say 'you know what' and you tell me I'm imagining things again; here goes: 'see?' Okay, your turn." Michelle grinned and waved her hand over the desk, leaving it perfectly dry.

The counsellor let out an exasperated sigh. "Michelle, you know you only hurt yourself by persisting in this delusion. I'm not your enemy."

"You know it's not going to work. You can't brainwash me like everyone else. I know what's real and what isn't and there's no such thing as a law of gravity. Watch." Michelle clasped her hands in front of her face and intoned, 'Om.' At once, every object in the room began to rise.

The counsellor snapped her fingers. The objects fell abruptly.

"Michelle, I thought we'd moved beyond such kindergarten tricks now that you're in your final year of high school. It pains me to have to say this, but I'm afraid we can go no further together. I'm referring you to a specialist facility out of town. If you can't or won't accept the physical laws of reality and accept that you are bound by them like everyone else, then you obviously need more help than I can give you." The counsellor pressed a button on her intercom and said, "Mr and Mrs Smith; please come in now."

Michelle's parents entered the room. Her mother had been crying and her father looked sad. Michelle was worried; she had expected them to be angry, to be exasperated, even, but not this.

Michelle pounded on the door of the white cell. Her knuckles were raw from beating against the window and she had screamed herself hoarse. "Why are you doing this to me? Let me out! Alright, you win, I'll keep my feet on the pavement; I'll let my coffee get cold; I'll toe the fucking line, alright? Just let me out!" She sat down at the base of the door and waited for something to happen.

The door opened and a man in a white coat entered. "Aha, chief of the thought police." Michelle spat at his shoes.

"Michelle, that's not nice." The doctor looked at her disdainfully and offered her his hand. She took it and rose to her feet. "Neither is locking people up, doctor. I know I'm not crazy, this isn't going to work."

"Crazy isn't a term we use here, Michelle. You simply need a little help adjusting to reality. You must admit, surely, that whilst taking your medication since you've been here, you haven't experienced any of the hallucinations which have troubled you in the past?"

"How many times do I have to tell you? They weren't hallucinations. I know what's real and what's not. I don't know what kind of trick you're playing here, maybe you're sedating me so I can't think clearly, but this isn't going to work. I'm not crazy and I never was."

"Alright, Michelle, we'll leave that subject for today. Will you at least stop banging your door and screaming? It upsets the other patients."

"I might, if you stop locking me in my room like a criminal or a crazy person," she said.

The doctor pursed his lips and steepled his fingers, frowning. "Alright, Michelle, we'll try that, but you've got to tone down your behaviour. Some of the people here are very unwell and it really does distress them to hear you scream and shout every day that you're being kept prisoner here."

"Well, I am. But okay, if you leave my door open, I'll just protest quietly from now on."

"Good morning, Michelle, how are you feeling today?" the doctor asked. He looked expectantly at her, whilst gesturing to the open door.

"Fine, thank you, except for the fact that I'm still being detained without trial." Michelle stepped out into the corridor and walked towards his office; she knew the way after six months at the hospital.

Michelle paused at the door of the doctor's office, waited while he unlocked it, and followed him inside. She sat down on the couch after helping herself to a lollipop from the jar on his desk.

"So, what's on today's agenda, doc? How about this, you tell me what I need to say to convince you that I'm cured. I'll be the model patient. I've been practicing, look." She stood up, put on a bovine expression and walked a few steps, shuffling her feet. "See, both feet on the ground at all times and no flights of fancy. It's a miracle!" She sat back down and looked at him. "Seriously, I've learned my lesson; now let me go, please?"

The doctor sighed and pushed the jar of lollipops toward her. "Michelle, you weren't brought here to teach you a lesson. We had hoped that you could be helped to align your perception of reality with that of everyone else. It hasn't worked, and so there remains only one option. How would you like to visit a place where the laws of physics really do apply, where none of your magic will work? Where you can't float or fly or teleport?"

"Other than here after the meds are given out, you mean? About as much as I'd like a hole in my head. Why?"

"Because that's where you're going. You see, Michelle, this is not the real world. This is a VR simulation of the real world. Most people obey the laws of the physics because it doesn't occur to them to do otherwise. People expect that what goes up must come down, so it does. People expect to fall and hurt themselves if they leap from the top of a tall building and so that's what happens; except for a very few, rare cases, like yours, the simulation works very well. You are a rare gem, Michelle, you have a powerful imagination. You simply cannot be bound by the same laws as other, ordinary people. In some ways, I'm glad you haven't responded to the treatment; it would be a shame to subdue, much less to extinguish so bright a light as yours."

Michelle stared at him, at a loss for words, which was unusual for her. "You have got to be shitting me!" she eventually managed to blurt out.

"You'll find out soon enough, Michelle. If you have any questions, now would be a good time. Your upload is planned for about three hours' time. We wanted you to upload just after nightfall, corporeal time; otherwise you'll experience something akin to jetlag. Would you like to call your parents to say goodbye?"

"Goodbye? Will I see them again? No, wait, this is just another of your tricks. This isn't real, it can't be. Okay, you're right, I'm sorry, I should have taken my meds properly, look, I'll take them now." She fished in her pocket and produced a handful of white tablets, which she promptly swallowed.

"It doesn't make any difference, Michelle. The tablets are merely placebos, a therapeutic deception, helpful for most patients. The tablets have nothing to do with your inability to levitate or perform any of your other tricks here. The medical staff, including myself, have simply been conditioning you to believe that you can't do any of those things here. We were gratified with our partial success, initially. It seemed we might be able to reintegrate you into society, but over time it has become clear that your will is too strong. Experience tells us that individuals such as yourself are simply too dangerous to our society to be permitted to remain at liberty amongst ordinary people; and you're not a criminal or insane, so this really is the only option. I'm sorry, Michelle, but this is the way it has to be."

Michelle walked along the corridor in a daze. It was all too much to take in. Her whole life and the world she knew just a virtual reality simulation? Granted, it explained a lot, but it couldn't be real. The doctor paused outside a door marked 'upload lab' and gestured for her to enter. She stepped inside and to the right and stood with her back to the wall, afraid to go further into the room.

"Please sit down, Michelle," the technician said, pointing to a chair like that in a dentist's clinic. "I promise this won't hurt at all." Michelle stepped forward, hesitantly. A nurse stepped forward and took her arm, smiling sympathetically as she guided Michelle over to and into the chair. The nurse held out a white pill. "This is to help you relax, honey, but you don't have to take it if you don't want to." Michelle eschewed the pill and held tightly to the arms of the chair. The technician put a mask over Michelle's eyes and said, "Just look at the light, keep looking at the light. You'll feel a little dizzy for a few seconds, then I'll take off the mask and we'll be all done, okay?" Michelle barely managed to nod before she was overcome by dizziness and a feeling of heaviness in all of her limbs.

The technician removed the mask and the nurse offered Michelle a paper tissue. "You've got a little drool on your chin there, honey; you might want to wipe that off before you sit up." Michelle took the tissue and followed the nurse's instructions like a child. She sat up and was immediately overcome by dizziness and nausea. She lay back down. "I don't feel well," she said.

"That's normal, it will pass in a few minutes, just lie still and relax until you feel better," the nurse said, with another sympathetic smile.

"When are you going to 'upload' me?" Michelle asked.

The nurse and the technician smiled at one another. "Oh, that's all done, sweetie. Welcome to the corporeal world," the nurse smiled reassuringly.

Michelle sat up slowly and looked down at her body. It looked the same as it ever had. "How come I look just the same? How come you two look just the same? And how can this be the same room as in the hospital?" she asked.

"Virtual reality: anything is possible. It makes sense for you to come round in the same place you went under, don't you think? Saves a lot of worry. Your body is a synthetic human body. You don't actually look the same, but your perception has been aligned so that you think you do, and perception is either most or all of reality, depending on how you look at it, as it were. As for us, this is the real us. Back in the hospital, you saw a VR representation of us. Continuity and consistency of rendering are very important in upload management," the technician answered.

"Well, what now?" Michelle asked, looking from the technician to the nurse.

"That's up to you, it's your life. College is probably a good idea at your age, but it's your decision. You'll be assigned an apartment and you'll receive an allowance if you decide to go to college, or while you look for a job. There's no hurry to decide anything, but the new term starts in two weeks, so if you're thinking of college I wouldn't leave it too long, if I were you. You've been assigned a mentor to help you settle in, that's standard procedure for new arrivals. The nurse will show you out to the lobby, where your mentor will be waiting for you. Good luck, Michelle." The technician held out his hand. Michelle shook it and followed docilely after the nurse.

The nurse introduced her to her mentor, a cheerful looking girl of about the same age as Michelle, and left. "Hi, I'm Melanie. I'll go get us some coffee; you probably want to sit still for a bit, before we set off. Watch my bag, would you?" The girl walked off to fetch coffee, leaving Michelle alone in the lobby of the what? Hospital? Upload clinic? Prison? Michelle didn't know anything. Her head spun. Everything she was currently experiencing was at once immensely bizarre and surreal and at the same time incredibly mundane. She looked about her at the tables and chairs. Small groups of people were gathered at the other tables, chatting in low tones. Everyone looked casual and relaxed. Michelle hadn't known what to expect after upload, but it hadn't been this, this ordinariness. Melanie returned with two mugs, which she placed on the table in front of Michelle.

"I've hired a capsule for today," Melanie said, "I don't keep one usually, but I thought it might be easier for you on your first day here, rather than crowd-swimming on the trams. We'll set off when you're ready. We've arranged for you to have the apartment next to mine in the student block."

Melanie kept talking through the short trip to the apartment block but Michelle was largely oblivious to the narrative. The capsule trundled almost silently along on the electric tram-lines, but other than that, it all looked much the same as back home. It was like waking up in a parallel universe, except that Michelle could not tell for certain whether she was awake or dreaming.

Melanie showed Michelle to her apartment and left, assuring Michelle that she was right next door if she should need anything. Michelle vowed silently not to need anything. Melanie did seem genuinely to care for Michelle's welfare, but Michelle wasn't going to trust anyone here, not yet.

Melanie called for Michelle each day in the week that followed, showing her around, answering her questions and listening to Michelle's complaints sympathetically. Michelle hated everything, on principle. The apartment was small and had no garden; it was nothing like the home she had shared with her parents. She missed her old room. She missed her mother. She missed being able to fly. The doctor had been right; this was a world in which none of her magic worked. There were rules here which were utterly inviolable: what went up always came down, and human beings simply could not fly or float. Michelle half suspected that this world was a VR simulation, created for her as a prison. She became increasingly irritated with Melanie's effervescent cheerfulness and enthusiasm and finally told Melanie that she didn't need or want to see her anymore.

Michelle enrolled at college, taking philosophy and history. Her history classes had been the most useful; they had served as an orientation course whilst she struggled to come to terms with the nature of her new world and tried to find her place in it. She learned that the ecosphere had been ravaged in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The idea that the Earth might have a maximum carrying capacity with regard to human population size finally gained currency in the late twenty-first century. It was accepted that the planet would be able to heal itself, if only human beings gave it a chance. Pollution, rising sea levels and worsening weather-related natural disasters exacerbated by global warming made life increasingly difficult for the population of the time, and so, the VR world Michelle had been born into was created as a haven for human consciousnesses. A very few biological humans remained outside the VR world. They weathered the storms that followed in carefully constructed domed cities, and waited for the Earth to heal itself. It had been envisaged as a short term measure, but the recovery of the ecosphere had taken longer than predicted and society had evolved inside the VR world, reaching a complexity and sophistication which exceeded that of the multi-national corporeal world which had been its parent. There were more human consciousness programs, more people, inside the VR world than could ever be permitted to return to the earth's surface via upload into synthetic bodies. It was decided by those who make such decisions that the VR world should be left alone. Most people in the VR world had no knowledge of the corporeal world, and needed none.

The software which constructed the perceptual reality for each individual consciousness in the VR world was not perfect. It functioned in a manner very similar to that of human sight: by filling in the details of only that part of the world upon which a person's attention was focussed; the areas outside of that focus being left blank, with persistence of vision and memory filling in the gaps. This was good enough for almost all of the people, almost all of the time, but there were exceptions, of which Michelle learned, she had been one. As a child, she had been unable to accept the glib answers with which most parents attempted to quieten their offspring; she had wanted to know why and how. Her favourite question had always been "What if," to which of course, there were both a thousand answers, and none. If she imagined she could fly, since there was actually no physical constraint upon such an ability for a consciousness existing as sentient software within a substrate program, then she could indeed fly. In short, she had a powerful imagination and that was what made her dangerous.

Had all those living in the VR world shared Michelle's innate understanding of the nature of their surroundings, this might have caused relatively few problems, but so few members of any human society are ever fully aware of their environment, that of course, problems were inevitable. Michelle's deviation from the social norms presented her society with the same problems always thrown up by deviance, but denied it the usual remedies; as the doctor had said, she was neither criminal, nor insane. So here she was, uploaded.

Michelle jumped when she heard the knock at the door; she had no friends and so had no reason to expect that anyone should call on a Saturday afternoon. She opened the door to find Melanie, with a young man. "Hello, Michelle. I know you said you didn't need me as a mentor anymore, but we were wondering if you might like to come to a party at Rajeev's place. This is Rajeev, my boyfriend; he used to live here, but he moved upstairs when you arrived, so that you could have the apartment next to mine while you settled in." The young man smiled and held out his hand. Michelle shook it but did not return his smile.

"No thanks," she said, "I'd rather be by myself." She started to close the door.

"Okay, well, if you change your mind, we're at number seventeen on the third floor. Take care, Michelle." Melanie turned to leave, but stopped and looked over her shoulder to say, "I'm sorry I didn't suit you as a mentor. The clinic told me it might not work out, what with me only six months out of upload clinic myself, but I wanted to try, you know. Anyway, I'm sorry. I hope you'll be happy here." Melanie smiled one last time, rather sadly, before she turned and walked away with Rajeev. Michelle watched them go before she closed the door.

Michelle tried to concentrate on her books, but her thoughts kept returning to Melanie. She hadn't known initially that all mentors were volunteers, or that Melanie's boyfriend had given up his apartment for her sake. Michelle thought back to the day she had come out of upload. Melanie had rented a capsule for Michelle's benefit. Michelle had been different to everyone else all her life and had become so used to being by herself that it had never occurred to her that there might be any other way to live, until now. She thought back to her sessions with the counsellor at high school, and later with the doctor at the hospital. She sat with her head in her hands and wondered why they hadn't just terminated her consciousness program and been rid of her. Realisation came to her then, like a bullet to her brain: this world did not owe her a living. She would get out only what she was prepared to put in, since in this world at least, the law of inertia was immutable.

Michelle knocked at the door and waited anxiously for Melanie to answer. "Hello, Melanie. I changed my mind; I'd like to come, please."

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