A Subtle Shift of Shadow

Submitted into Contest #102 in response to: Write a story about someone losing faith in an institution.... view prompt


Science Fiction Speculative Fiction

The last time I saw a face was about a month ago. Before that for twenty-two years I don’t remember seeing a real face. I was six months old - too young to remember anything- when they sealed our eyes over with a veil and virtual perfection became our reality. We lived in a curated world from before we were able to form memories; the Custodian Congress allocated experiences, physical attributes, and education. Everyone lived a blissful existence devoid of crime, pain, and anxiety. Life was a film set of beautiful Stepford people and lush landscapes.

The town patrols were our guardians and their voices floated from the strategically placed speakers that lined the paths and recreation areas,

Please stick to the designated areas’ and

Today is Sunday, please remember to show up for your regular drops’.

They convinced everyone of their propaganda. ‘This veil is necessary for your babies,’ the custodian doctors said, ‘necessary for healthy eyesight.’ Parents handed over their babies to the medical experts in the belief that the veil would shield them; that it enhanced vision and protected against the harsh UV light that showed no respect for the now thin ozone layer.

Now remember to bring baby with you when you go for your maintenance eye drops,’ the custodian nurses at reception reminded parents.

Churches became new institutions—drop stations—hubs of activity and social exchanges as each person waited their turn. A weekly ritual. People like a ritual, don’t they? So every week, hundreds of feet marched to the altars of compliance.

They were supportive, though, the town patrols. If you forgot to go, they came to get you, to remind you, to save you from the allegedly devastating effects of missing your dose–blindness, disease, or perhaps something worse? I lingered once at our parish’s boundary, following an illicit curiosity to peer over a fence bearing a virtual sign with the words:



We were told it was the edge of our world. That was when I saw it, in the distance, a bleak stone enclosure that I knew I wasn’t supposed to see. Yet the ghostly image of the insighter labs was believable enough. A veiled image had a dreamlike quality that painted itself in my memory—soft watercolours that belied the bitter reality of a nightmare I did not understand. Highly supervised units contained truth—the actual truth about our world—and the people who perceived this truth.

Inmates, the insighters, lived in dismal cells that were at times brightly lit and other times pitch black. Supervisors escorted them to rooms where scientists placed electrodes on their heads and attached wires from them to other parts of their bodies. White rooms with white floor-to-ceiling shelves were lined with test tubes of coloured liquids which expressionless scientists in white lab coats injected into the inmates’ eyes, ears and skin. Those who were new cried out in pain. Those who had been there longer, had no spirit to cry, but often wept with a haunting despair.

I recoiled at the thought that incarcerated insighters paid the price for knowing, feeling, and seeing what others did not, behind those chilling grey walls. These were people immune to the mind-altering eye drops that entered our bloodstream and affected our senses and perception. We heard rumours of these places in the shadows, yet only a minority—including me—believed in them. We lived under a cloud of unrest knowing the truth of their existence.

Although I couldn’t see the structure clearly, I heard the pain that seeped from within its walls and crawled along my skin like a warning. I heard cries of torture, and something I couldn’t name sat, heavy in my stomach. I knew then that no one else could hear or sense this anguish, that I had the insight, and that I would never speak of this to anyone.

Today, the persistent threat of discovery accompanies me. Although I have left the city precincts far behind, I light fires during the day only, and not for long. I flinch as each crackle from the fire punctuates the stillness with a mix of calm and fear. All I see is grey; lonely, dusty grey that must have been alive with nature once, like the fenced-off areas we saw through our veils—meadows that we could look upon and admire but which were out of bounds. The contradictions continue even now—I hide from them, whilst wanting to be found by you, Nils. It is a loneliness in which I find comfort from the peace and quiet. Isolation is my only companion now, but if it became hungry, I’m certain it would devour me. Do you still exist somewhere, my love? Do I?

Where are you Nils?

When we met at one of these drop stations as children, we became friends and shared the same ice cream; you tasted strawberry whilst I tasted chocolate. The sky beamed blue above our curated lives. That was our virtual reality world, the perfect world until we changed it forever.

We fell in love as planned. Everyone falls in love; that is how it works. Except our love lived beyond the mind-altering parameters of the eye drops. We couldn’t see each other’s true faces but sometimes, in peculiar shifts of shadow, your hair took on a golden hue, and a single freckle rested high on your left cheek. I wondered what to make of that? Could I trust these perceptions? What had you noticed about me? I knew there was something—the quick dart of your eyes as if they too questioned their own evidence; the long penetrative stare when you thought my attention was elsewhere.

As friendship grew into a oneness, I smelled your presence—the distraction, my quickening heartbeat when your breath reached me before you did, and the heat that radiated from my cheeks when you were near. All of it was only the manifestation of a deeper hunger and the anticipation of learning to be whole.

‘After you Annie,’ you said said one day, and gestured towards the door of the drop station. As I turned, your fingers brushed my arm and I flinched, not from a dislike of the sensation, but from the shock of the pleasure it gave me. I fell in love with the shyness of your smile and later, with the boldness of it.

Where are you now?

We wanted to know more: What would you say if you spoke your truth, unhindered by the illusion created by the eye drops? Where did the sun’s sparkle touch your eyes and did you have other birthmarks? What shape were they? I wondered about the fragments of you, hidden by their programming of us through the drops. You wondered how my lips would rest on yours, and what my tongue tasted like.

Did we do wrong to ignore the summons of an indoctrinated habit? To miss the drop gathering? To keep walking hand in hand and pretend we were on our way to a drop station? How did we get to the edge of the boundary unseen? How did you know you could place your fingers in the corners of my eyes and gently pull off the seal? It hurt. But as always, you were my solace. I did the same for you and at that moment we simultaneously came home whilst exposing ourselves to the greatest hell.

It took a few seconds, or maybe even a minute, for our eyes to absorb each other's faces; eventually, as we turned to take in the surrounding scene, our jaws dropped and tears filled our newly opened eyes. As a chilling clarity enveloped us, we grabbed each other and held on to the only thing that felt real—us. The surrounding devastation was palpable, and reality tore down every illusion of a perfect world that had haunted us since we were six months old and under the care of our perfect parents.

Rubble, dilapidated buildings, a mangy mutt foraging in the scrapheaps of discarded lifestyles, and the dying pulse of decay surrounded us. I took in the litter, a dumped fridge with its door swinging open, old burnt-out cars, disposable diapers, and plastic; so much plastic spoke the ugly truth of convenience, profit, and ignorance. Grey, lifeless concrete served as the canvas for this sorry landscape. An incandescent light failed to whitewash the indiscretions of humankind and the stench of its irreverence. But it also failed to blind us as they had said it would. They could not track us without our eye veils, but it would only be a matter of time. We had to go under the radar and split up; soon they would be looking for a young couple who had missed their drops.

‘We can see now, so we can hide and try to escape. Go north and I will find you,’ you said. But your eyes spoke louder than your lips and their message carried more pain, more uncertainty than I could stomach. Still, I didn’t let you know I knew. I kissed you and at that moment I let my heart fly free, away from the flesh and bones that they could catch, punish, torture, erase? I would not let them touch our moment, that essence of me that felt your lips on mine. The experience of you, your smell and touch, was mine and I had to let it go so that it could live. Is that what you did? Did you let me go so that I could live?

Where are you?

When we went our separate ways, I did as you bid, lying low to remain unseen, flitting from the cover of one disused ruin to another, hiding in the shadows of crumbling walls and crawling through the debris of a forgotten past. I avoided the neatly laid paths and areas of cleared land upon which everyone’s lives existed – a stark contrast between what we were allowed to see alongside the unpalatable truth.

I never stopped running; did you? I’d long left the boundaries behind and still I travelled north—the direction of trust—it was all I had. I knew their search would lose momentum this far outside our community, but it would never end, not really. Away from the town, occasional tufts of grass and emerging growth crept through cracks in the ground, lacing the drabness with hope. Sparse clusters of trees dotted the landscape, responding to the call of the rain and sun whilst battling against the poison of pollution; it was, and is, a battle of wills—man versus nature—a battle that will last aeons.

Now I gather scraps of unidentifiable plants for food and hope they don’t poison me. Occasionally I light a small fire from twigs. My home is a cave somewhere north. I do not know how far. Here I wait for you. The heart-shaped locket you pressed into my hand that final day held a compass. It guided me northwards until it broke—spinning wildly in all directions—and now I wait.

The flames flicker and respond to every shift in breeze or breath and I continue to wait. A tear falls onto the locket in my hand; the compass continues to spin haphazardly, and I thrust it to the ground. The insides fall out and immediately I regret my reckless anger and retrieve it. I notice that underneath the now dislodged compass, a message is etched in the metal:

Watch for the shifts of shadow, Nils x

The dancing flames change their rhythm as if a new song is being played. I wonder why heat is rising from my cheeks? Why my heartbeat has quickened? Why I sense that fragment of soul I once set free, and hear its gentle melody dancing on my skin once more? This time I speak out loud,

‘Nils, are you there?'

July 15, 2021 17:57

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