Although this is strictly a Blog about Equality and Diversity topics I am prepared to interpret that brief liberally and, from time to time, include items that are distinctly out of the ordinary. So why not a Science Fiction short story if it touches on issues of difference and alienation?
Jane felt it as she crossed the floor of her motel room. A grinding vibration in her knee joint; like metal against metal. She needed only five steps from the ensuite bathroom to the bed. Yet, within four, her left leg had seized entirely.
She fell heavily onto the bed, face down. As she struggled to turn and draw herself into a resting position, with her head on the pillow, the radio emitted a loud whine. The station's signal was completely drowned by the interference. Her interference.
Jane reached over and switched off the radio. In the silence she regarded the room and took stock of her situation.
For the last week she had been on the move, following a routine that she had followed fifty times before. Sloughing off one identity and preparing for another.
It was a routine that she found she needed to follow at least once every ten years. Sometimes sooner if people grew suspicious. And these days the intervals were getting shorter. Since the middle of the twentieth century it had become increasingly difficult to keep her difference concealed. Now it was becoming harder to run away and start again too.
Reaching over to the bedside table Jane grasped a vanity mirror. Her intention was to examine her knee. But, for a moment, she paused to look at her face first.
Her face was undeniably pretty – elfin like. Just as it had always been. Nowadays her pale skin was framed by a short auburn bob. That was new. Changing her hairstyle was the quickest and easiest way of changing her appearance.
She smiled at how the process so reminded her of one of those Barbie Dolls. The only difference was that she didn't have a key to go in her back. Yet what woman wouldn't sometimes wish for Jane's very special capability to wind her hair out and back at will?
Yes, she could change her hair in a moment. Even change the colour. With practice she had learned that she could pull the same trick with the shape of her brows and the colour of her eyes.
Yet people notice when they've known you for a while and see that you haven't shown any signs of ageing. And that's when it became time to move on.
Harder to disappear
Jane could remember the times when moving on was so much easier than it was now. In the days when nobody travelled far you could just move a few miles and start again.
Oh yes, there were always questions and looks. People always notice a pretty young stranger. But she'd had plenty of practice at fitting in.
The first time it had been a problem was during the Second World War. People were much more suspicious of strangers. You needed an ID card.
She learned to adapt. She learned how to acquire the identity of dead women. Women her age and build. Women with no living relatives. And, ironically, she found that the need to carry an ID document was a blessing rather than a curse. She had balked at first before taking the dead land girl's purse from her still warm hand. Yet that was one of the easiest ID switches she'd ever had to do.
Jane had learned from early on that it was crucial to find ways of fitting in. To "pass" as just another face in whichever community she settled in next.
Fitting-in had been most problematic in the days when a lone woman really stood out. She made a speciality out of marrying men who were literally on their last legs. Easy with her perfect young figure and beguiling looks. Yet, far from benefitting when her husbands passed away, Jane had been through the times when a woman could not directly inherit her dead husband's estate. More often than not it was just another cue to move on.
More recently she taught History until the time came when you needed qualifications. That had been such a doddle. A subject she didn't really need to learn. Well, you don't when you've lived through it, do you? She just had to be careful not to correct the mistakes made by the historians – and to use that perfect memory of hers prudently.
But, since the war, it had been much harder to just walk into another teaching job. She had to work with whatever she had in the next identity she took over.
Lots of things had become much harder in the last half century. Take medicine. Her biggest nightmare was medical examination.
Superficially, apart from the inability to show any visible signs of ageing, Jane's body looked perfectly normal – just as it had done before her encounter with the visitors almost 500 years ago.
Her flesh was warm to the touch. It stretched and changed colour with pressure and temperature changes just like normal. There were fine hairs on most of her body just as you'd expect, and coarser hairs beneath her armpits and around her genitals. They had even copied the birthmark on her left buttock.
Yet tear or burn the skin – as she had done in countless ways over the years – and the illusion of normality ended. Beneath her flesh, before it healed back without a scar, there lay a hard, smooth, dark reddy-brown surface, quite alien from what you would expect. The hard outer shell of whatever the visitors had given her in place of flesh and blood. This, and her inability to fake a heartbeat or blood pressure reading, meant she had to avoid modern day doctors at all costs.
Perhaps, back in the 16th Century, the visitors had not anticipated this being a problem?
Jane's thoughts were suddenly interrupted. In an instant the sky outside her motel room window appeared to go from light to dusk. She had blacked out again.
This wasn't the first time. Her first surprise blackout had been more than a year ago and lasted only a few moments. Lately it had been happening more frequently, and for longer.
She checked the alarm clock on the bedside table and estimated that she had been unconscious for three quarters of an hour.
These were all signs that something was desperately wrong. And the signs were accumulating. 500 years they told her. And 500 years was nearly up.
Faultless as her memory was, some parts of Jane's recollections of her genesis had evidently been edited away.
She could remember that once she had been a 25 year old woman of flesh and blood. Normal. Like everyone around her.
She had no memory of exactly when and how she had encountered the visitors. All they had left her with was an implanted knowledge of her transformation.
They wanted her human body. In return they provided a copy. Visually identical. Physically superior in some obvious ways. But totally artificial. And they implanted the knowledge that her artificial body would self-repair and have the power to sustain itself for 500 years. She knew too that her makers weren't planning to return on any kind of service mission.
In retrospect Jane had come to realise that implanting the knowledge of her difference from others had been a deliberate necessity on the part of the visitors who had made off with her corporeal self.
That self knowledge had been an essential attribute for survival. She needed to know she was different, in order to know how to prevent others from discovering that fact.
As flesh and blood Jane had been a simple peasant. She had no education. Yet she had good reasoning abilities. And time. Lots of time.
Time meant she was able to learn the disciplines to begin to examine her position intellectually. This was how she evolved her coping strategies. This is how she obtained the skills to fit in wherever she went. She had had to manipulate others to accept her into their communities. She had even had to refine the skills to lead men to fall in love and marry her. It was all about learning and adapting to survive.
Some things she had come to understand through the accumulation of knowledge. In the last fifty years, in particular, advancement in technology meant she had a model for understanding and describing what she was. Physically she could understand her body as some kind of very sophisticated robot; a near perfect replica of a human body from the outside. Who knows what inside?
In the same way she could envisage that her mind was perhaps some kind of computer. A computer running a program that in some way emulated her waking thoughts.
But this was the sticking point. It seemed as though the mind that had once inhabited her flesh and blood body had been copied or transferred in some way into this one.
Transferred or copied though? The difference was significant.
This was the most chilling thought. If her mind had been copied into this vessel then that meant that perhaps the original had continued to think on independently in the flesh and blood brain.
Jane could have no way of knowing if she was a copy or the real thing. In her frame of reference she had simply continued an apparently unbroken train of thought, in just the same way as she had no sense of interruption in her blackouts.
Blackouts were only detectable because in that 'instant' the world outside would appear to change. If a computer was self aware then this must be what it would be like to be stopped and rebooted.
A computer owner could make a complete copy of the machine's memory between stopping and restarting. The self aware computer would never know.
In the same way, perhaps, from the moment of inception for this consciousness the thoughts of Jane#1 and Jane#2 would have diverged. What had become of her original self?
The whole idea of worrying for her parallel self... the idea of worrying about that Jane's fear... of pain... of ultimate death... All those ideas lie outside the frame of reference for a being who is evolved to associate body and mind as singular and inseparable.
And if the intelligence that had her cleaved her mind and body was capable of making one copy, was it conceivable they could have made more? Could there be several versions of herself abroad on the earth? Would each have evolved by now into distinct people because of their different experiences?
Could they all claim to be Jane? Or were they (and herself) only explicable by reasoning that none of them was the real Jane?
Had she, through this rationale, found a theorem to disprove her own reality? Did that say that, although she thought and felt the way that she fancied her 'human' self had been, this was all just a distorted perception of the emulation taking place inside the alien box of tricks where those thoughts took place?
Jane's thoughts were interrupted again. The same way as before. This time the blackout was about 90 minutes. It was like trying to listen to an iPod with a dying battery. Maybe the source of her body's energy was dying, like a worn out battery. Maybe, like a battery, the charge was able to restore itself a little when her mind was temporarily offline. Maybe, indeed, this was her body's way of coping with an energy crisis – just like a human body cuts off the supply of warm blood to the extremities when cold.
The difference for a human body, of course ... she corrected herself ... The difference with a flesh and blood body was that the energy conservation process was designed to maintain consciousness and avoid brain death at all costs. Maybe the designers of her body had a different idea of priorities.
Human or Alien?
She thought about her Freudian slip. Or, rather, she tried not to think about it. All these years, whilst conscious of her concealed difference, Jane had striven to think of herself as still human.
Her mind had come from a human, "flesh and blood" body. Admittedly, her way of thinking might have been tweaked in some way when being copied. She would have no way of knowing that. Yet, as far as she could tell, she appeared to think and act as other human beings behaved. She fitted in without any sense of playing a part. She was never conscious of having to think about her reactions. She laughed at the same things others laughed about. She knew fear in common with those around her. Except... perhaps the fear of pain... or the fear of dying. Till now.
Yet the experiences she was now having were serving to remind her of her non-human qualities. And with that realisation came a wholly alien set of fears.
Do simulated souls go to heaven?
It seemed by now apparent that her body was failing fast. The blackouts were getting longer and more frequent. Her leg had seized. Unless she could get out of this motel room she faced certain discovery of her secret when management called for medical aid.
The prospect of discovery that she was not human, but mechanoid, filled her with terror. It must not be allowed to happen. She must find a way to get away.
Yet, even if she could get away, what fate lay beyond?
If her conscious sense of self was really no more than a clever simulation of a human mind and soul running in an alien computer... If she was artificial to the extent of being able to be stopped and started like one pauses a computer program... Did death have a different meaning? ...Or any meaning at all?
Could her soul be released from her body when it existed (as it appeared to do) in some kind of non volatile memory? If her conscious mind could be summoned back to resume by plugging in the alien equivalent of new batteries could it ever be said to have gone away?
Jane realised that there was no point in going over these questions again in her head. By her best estimation she had perhaps another hour before her mind would cut out again. And less than twelve hours before the motel staff would be expecting her to checkout. She must be out of the room and away before the housekeeping staff arrived. She needed an action plan... and some sort of goal.
Getting out should be easy enough, in spite of her seized knee joint. Fortunately the failure seemed to have locked her knee in a way that meant the leg was both straight and rigid. It would mean limping, but she was nevertheless mobile.
There was a risk, of course, that moving around would deplete her power faster than if she remained still. She had no way of knowing how the energy generation and distribution in her body worked.
She considered the evidence. Until today she had been very mobile... on the run in fact. Walking 30 miles the previous day hadn't drastically altered the rate at which her blackouts occurred. Perhaps that meant that her mind and mobility power sources were separate. Maybe it was only the power for her consciousness that was failing.
Nowhere to go
OK. So getting out should be simple enough. She could wait till after midnight and use the fire exit. She knew this chain of motels well enough to know that the fire doors weren't connected to any alarm system.
Behind the motel lay a ripening cornfield. She remembered that from when she arrived. It would probably be cold and wet getting across the field but that didn't matter. One advantage of her body's design was that she was untroubled by cold. She could literally turn it off.
What lay beyond the copse of trees she could see in the distance was a mystery. She would have to adapt the plan once she got there. That didn't matter though. The biggest priority was simply to get away at all costs.
Besides, Jane knew in the back of her mind that really there was ultimately nowhere to go. Her strategy was about finding a place where her body and mind could fail in safety. Far from any fear of detection. Away from the terror of being probed and dismantled by curious technologists. Men who would never be able to see her as anything other than a machine. A machine devoid of rights; without any presumption of dignity.
Jane resolved that she would spend the next few hours planning for what she knew to be her final journey.
Whatever you called it – death or system failure – the end was inevitable. More to the point she could make a fair guess at how it would play out. The interval between blackouts was slowly getting shorter. The length of each interruption to her consciousness was rapidly getting longer though. Before long the two would merge.
She estimated that she had another hour before the next blackout, and guessed that it was going to be two hours or more when it happened. That would take her up to almost midnight. She would spend the time before the next blackout getting ready.
Raising herself to a seated position on the bed, Jane tried her luck at standing.
Getting to her feet wasn't too difficult. Thinking about it she realised that her position was very little different to someone with a plaster cast on their leg. Sadly she couldn't see anything that she could press into service as a crutch. Her seized up leg appeared to have no difficulty bearing her weight though. She practiced moving around the room, using the dead leg as a pivot, rather than falling into the trap of dragging it behind. Soon she had the knack.
Next she needed to change. Her present attire – a sundress and sandals – had been fine for getting here. Now she needed something more rugged though. She antipated needing to get over (and probably go through or under) fences and hedges. She was travelling light; yet she never travelled without clothes suitable for roughing it. She quickly donned jeans, a T-shirt and jacket – only struggling when the time came to fasten her trainers. A leg that won't bend makes it difficult to reach your own feet.
She did not finish a moment too soon. Fortunately she was sitting back on the bed when the next blackout arrived, on cue just before 10pm.
The thing that most surprised Jane was that she was sitting in exactly the same position when consciousness returned. Flesh and blood people fall over when they lose consciousness. Geriatric Cyborgs just stop where they are.
But Jane's biggest shock was the time. Instead of Midnight it was now 1am. She had been unconscious for about three hours; twice as long as before. Maybe the exertion had affected things.
No time to reflect though. At this point in the summer it gets light shortly after 4am. There was very little time to get away without risk of someone spotting a woman limping across a cornfield.
She decided to take her belongings. The room was prepaid so nobody would think it out of the ordinary that the room was vacant in the morning. If she left anything there was the likelihood that people might think she had been abducted. They would search. And they would inevitably find her body.
Ten minutes later Jane balanced precariously on the edge of the cornfield behind the motel. Leaving via the fire escape door was easier than she could have hoped, as someone had left it propped open for the night. Getting down the spiral escape stair was hard without making a noise but nobody had been roused.
She hadn't bargained on the rusty barbed wire fence at the far end of the car park. Her jeans were torn, as was the flesh on her hands and thighs. Yet there was no blood. Just some scratches in the tough dark material from which her body shell was made.
She felt a sensation which you could call pain. This was a feeling designed to help avoid harming herself in normal circumstances. Yet she had also learned how to turn the sense off when it had served its purpose and became a distraction. She knew she was wounded. Nothing was served by a constant reminder.
But Jane did not linger. She made her way around the edge of the field, in the area which farmers cannot reach with machines to plant seeds. Going across the field would have left a track. There was less likelihood of that this way.
Progress was hard going with one rigid leg. Jane also needed to keep a careful eye on the time. After 45 minutes she had not only cleared the field but added further distance in the fallow field beyond. Judging she had little time before the next blackout she found a space beneath the hedge and did her best to conceal herself before then next inevitable blackout.
The next time Jane was conscious the sun was up. She calculated that her blackout this time had lasted 6 hours. It was doubling each time.
She lay for a moment savouring the beauty of the countryside in high summer, and reflected that soon – one way or another – she would be a part of it forever.
The next hour got her as far as the copse of trees that she had seen from the motel. Again she concealed herself. And again the period of blackout was double. 12 hours. Early evening again.
Travel in this way was clearly not going to get her very far. Soon she was likely to be down to an hour or less of progress every few days or weeks. Maybe it was time to stop trying to run.
In a corner of a field that is forever...
And so it was that Jane resolved to go no further. She discovered that the copse of trees had grown around a ditch at a low point in the terrain, where the water table was high enough to make the soil constantly soft and moist.
She cleared last autumn's fallen leaves from the ground at the lowest point and, oblivious to the shredding of the flesh on her hands, she used her time to excavate a shallow grave. Her final resting place.
It took several blackouts, and hence several days, to dig as far as she judged to be right. Even longer to settle into the hole and draw the earth carefully over her limbs and body. Reaching out, she repositioned the leaves so that, by the end of the week, she had covered everything but her face.
And there, two miles from the M40 Motorway, Jane waited calmly for the inevitable. And the unknown.
She was not uncomfortable. She need not feel the cold and was not aware of the damp creeping into the joints of her body to seize the mechanism in her other leg and then both arms.
The fresh crop of autumn leaves covered her face. But by then her sight had failed in any case. Without light and movement she was even less aware of the transitions from consciousness into blackout and back.
Her thoughts simply ran on as though interrupted, as her perfect memory enabled her to recall the extraordinary experience of a life that spanned 500 years.
Her body did not decay, nor rust. Yet gradually the roots of the trees that guarded her wove their way around her limbs and gently prised apart her joints.