They stood on the little grass hill, all the carnival rides glistening below them.
“Corrosive!” said Jacynth.
“Tabular!” said Aspen.
Gary and Taryn said nothing. They too were excited that the carnival had arrived on the end of town, but were both of them slow to take part in group exclamations. Gary was a monosexual and he kept quiet most all the time, knowing he was only tolerated as a token of diversity. Taryn had sold the muscles of her throat in 2198, when she was still seventeen. Officially she didn’t regret it, but everybody knew about bad bioplastics, and sometimes she coughed into a red-red kerchief. So they forgave her for not talking, like they forgave Gary for his sexual perversion.
But that didn’t mean it was all right to opt out.
“Come,” said Rachel, looking at the two. “We have ‘corrosive’, and ‘tabular’, and d’you know what I would say? The carnival is here, right on the end of town, and for me that’s ‘regressive’. Gary?”
Gary looked at her, then looked down the hill again before answering. “Sordid.”
There was a ripple of disappointment. Dylan, who had been breathing loudly, closed his mouth with a snap and rubbed himself pointedly.
Rachel felt that this was going too far, so she did not acknowledge. She looked at Taryn instead, and sent an open network ping, so everybody heard.
Taryn smiled. Her jaw worked once, and a word-sound buzzed from the skin of her throat. Simultaneously, all six members of the Rachel Tillersly Adult Social Collective received the send in their mastoid bones.
Victimized! Taryn sent, and they all grinned and nodded at each other. She didn’t talk much but she always got the feel just right. The carnival was here, and the day would be entirely victimized.
All of the rides were different from the last time the carnival had come. Dylan claimed there was a dog torture booth last time too, but they all agreed he was lying.
Jacynth made the first selection, walking up to a shiny scarlet gateway and tilting her head at the carny.
“Organ massage,” he said, “organ massage, organ massage.”
“What is it?” Jacynth asked him. She was the youngest of the group, only 28, and projected the naïveté of an ingenue though she had the most post-graduate degrees of them all.
“Rub your liver,” said the man, “feels like life itself. Rub your lungs, breathe free for weeks. Rub your heart —” he said, and he winked. “Pick your best beloved and I’ll rub her heart for you, miss.”
“Ooh,” said Jacynth, “I choose this one.” The group filed past her, one by one entering into the organ massage ride through the red-red gates. Jacynth tapped the carny three times, just as Taryn went past, and he winked again.
“Swap your senses, swap your senses, swap your senses,” called a tall blonde woman with long glossy braids. She stood in front of a deep purple gate speckled with milky green.
Aspen smiled and moistened her lips. “How many at once?” she asked.
“I can do five in a ring, or you can swap random for the whole group of six.”
“And no duplicates, right, angel?” Aspen slipped a hand onto the blonde carny’s hip. “I don’t want anybody else seeing what I see.”
“Oh no, no,” said Rachel. “If it’s random, you take your chances with duplicates too. None of your own senses, but except that, you get whatever you get.”
Aspen pulled a sulky face, and took back her hand. “So, fine,” she said. She tapped the carny’s lips three times, then took Rachel’s hand and pulled everyone through the entrance.
Dylan picked dog torture, of course. He pretended he was proving his point: “You’ll remember it, and then you’ll be sorry!”
But the group knew Dylan. When he wanted something, he was always angry about it, or about wanting it. Dylan strode up and tapped the carny three times, and the third tap was really more of a slap. “Dog torture,” said the carny, rubbing his cheek as they marched in. “Dog torture, dog torture.”
“Go back in time, go back in time, go back in time!” said the carny at the end of the line. He was shorter than the others and his skin was covered with a tiny red pinprick rash.
Rachel touched his shoulder twice, but not three times. “Truly?” she asked. She looked around at the others. “Go back in time?”
“It’s new, ma’am,” said the carny. The group exchanged network pings at the word. Ma’am. It was funny, except not quite. It was polite, but disrespectful.
Rachel was still looking into the carny’s eyes. “That’s not possible.”
“Johansson,” said the man, and he picked at one of his tiny scabs. “Journal Subatomic Mathematics, June.”
“But Yang and Wilberforce,” Rachel said. She tilted at him. “Not even?”
“They mitigated Yang, by limited derivative, at the Harvard Proceedings Ninth.”
“Truly, ma’am,” said the carny. “Matrix twelve to twenty-one.”
Rachel turned to the Collective, twitching her fingers. “Oh,” she said, “ooh and oh. When I ran a physics gig, this couldn’t be done. Not just now; truly never-done. But so now they solved the math. Those clever clever darlings.”
Aspen hissed. “Get to the thing,” she said. “Is it travel? Or just projection?”
“It’s just —” said the carny.
Jacynth breathed in harshly; Aspen showed her teeth; and Taryn’s throat made an electrical buzz. Even Gary looked up and frowned. Dylan’s creamy post-torture smile slipped, and Rachel spread her arms wide.
“I’ll talk, carny,” she said, and her voice was harsh. “When I’m speaking, I’ll talk. When my group is asking, I’ll answer. Seen?”
“Seen, ma’am,” said the carny. His hands were hidden behind his back.
“It’s just projection,” said Rachel. “We live in the head of a long-ago. Think the thoughts, feel the feels. There’s no driving, right carny? Just riding.”
“Just riding, ma’am.”
“We’ll all do it,” said Rachel, and the Collective began moving through the ride’s plain black gates. “Say it again,” she said, looking into the carny’s eyes. “Say it slow for me.”
“Go back in time,” he said, and brought his hands back to hang by his sides. “Go back in time, go back in time.”
“Good,” Rachel said. “That’s regressive.” She tapped him three times, then pursed her lips and went through the gate.
Marcus knelt by the tree, staring into the street. His ears roared and he couldn’t breathe. The car — what kind of an idiot — by a school — he saw the whole thing again in his head, and tried to stop it, but it wouldn’t stop.
“Wait up,” he had said. “Susie, slow down, just walk, come back please.”
He was carrying the baby, and couldn’t keep up with Susie. She was so quick these days!
Then he saw the red Mustang, a convertible. Too fast — and Susie was still running — “No, don’t,” he said, “Susie, stop. Stop!”
Susie half turned, tripped, fell through the school gates.
Marcus put the baby on the ground, in the middle of the schoolyard, and started to run. The scream of brakes — she was gone, disappeared — a low, hollow thud, like a cardboard box crushed by a baseball bat. A parked car shuddered.
Marcus fell to his knees, and put his hands on the tree. “Oh god,” he said.
His throat convulsed and he tasted vomit. He had let go — he had been holding Susie’s hand and if he hadn’t let go, nothing would have gone wrong. He looked back at the baby, and he was exactly halfway between the two of them, protecting neither one. The Mustang roared, screamed, and was gone.
Marcus knelt by the tree, staring into the street. His ears roared, and he couldn’t breathe.
And Susie jumped up beside the road, unharmed. “Daddy,” she wailed. “I scraped my knee.”
They walked out arm in arm.
“Critique?” said Jacynth.
Dylan tapped his teeth together. “You know,” he said, “it’s a tidy piece of work. That was late twentieth, post-9/11.”
“True fact?” said Rachel. She had never been good with history. “Thought the car was early mid.”
“Good eye,” said Dylan, and everyone chuckled at the pun.
Rachel clenched. She’d made a mistake, lost the ascend to him. She stopped her panic, listened tightly. One degree in film history didn’t make him an expert.
“I saw deliberate anachronism,” Dylan said. “Maybe a symbol of the past? Or misspent youth.”
Or sex, sent Taryn, and they all nodded.
“What,” asked Aspen, “was in that man’s gut?”
“Yes,” Dylan said, “that was the piece of art. So who decided to choose that feel? Not a random headtrip obviously, but not a big studio either. I say an indy label.”
Jacynth wrinkled up. “Yes-yes, so what was the feel?”
“Historical feel,” Dylan said. He grinned, held the moment, waited for their lips to part. Rachel thought he waited several seconds too long. “Parenthood instinct.”
“No,” said Aspen, “That was always social conditioning. Not a real feel.”
Dylan rubbed himself dismissively. “Only some,” he said.
Dylan stopped rubbing. “Sure, maybe. But some had it genuine, if they had the gene.”
“Ten,” Dylan said. “Maybe twelve. We-now wouldn’t feel it strong, not without the gene. I heard that’s how it works. But we all got the feel a little, right?”
The faces were doubtful. Without the gene, the feel was fading.
Rachel snatched back the reins. “The ride was adequate,” she said, and sent a double ping to everyone — except Dylan. “But was it dog torture?”
Aspen whistled thoughtfully. “I liked the organ rubs.”
So victimized, sent Taryn. She coughed into her handkerchief. Jacynth tapped Dylan, just the once, but everyone saw it. And like that, Rachel was in control again.
As the Collective left the old fairgrounds on the end of town, Rachel realized what was missing, and stopped to look for Gary. One by one the group came back to stand beside her, at the top of the little grass hill.
Their eyes went silvery mercury as they focused on the distance.
“There,” said Jacynth. She read out a series of numbers and they all adjusted minutely, looking at him in front of the plain black gates. “He’s in line for Back In Time.”
Gary, sent Rachel.
No, he sent, I’m staying.
But— Rachel didn’t know how else to say it. But we’re leaving.
It doesn’t matter. Your whole thing doesn’t.
You’re snapped, she sent, and tried to close the channel. Gary opened it again, to everyone.
You’ve got the wrong feels. All of you. Didn’t you get it? From that man’s guts from the twentieth? That’s a right thing. That’s — that’s what people are supposed to be like. You people are empty. That’s why you’re dying. That’s the extinction event, that’s the singularity.
They could see him, a tiny figure waiting in a line, waiting to project back in time again, just to experience a genetic anomaly from the inside. He was shuffling forward slowly, head bent. He looked so ordinary, so quiet, not like a raving antisocial.
I’ll save you, he sent, and then the black gate opened and he fell silent and disappeared.
“Oh and ooh,” said Rachel after a few minutes, and started walking toward town. “We’re going.”
“Psychosis situational,” said Dylan. He started to rub himself, then stopped. For a few minutes, the group walked in silence.
Not so victimized, sent Taryn finally, and Aspen snorted. The Rachel Tillersly Adult Social Collective dissolved in laughter and, arm in arm, left the carnival behind without another thought.
Iain Ishbel is a recovering high-school teacher who now prefers the quiet life of a professional writer on Canada’s Pacific coast. He lives in a very small house with one rather small wife and two extremely small daughters. He loves them all very much, except the house.