TEN YEARS HENCE (3)
Seven days passes before absence becomes desertion, and then the charge has to be proven. (If I kept my ID, for example, and proved I'd had every intention of returning eventually, I'd be charged with ‘absence’, a far less serious offence). How long had I been out cold, then?
Everyone in the office was looking at me, like I was a prize exhibit. I guess it was intentional: it had the effect of making me, an apparent malcontent, small, as the disapproving eyes of officialdom glared.
This feeling of inferiority not unnaturally induced me to lower my eyes to collect my faculties - providing I'd not lost them with everything else. I reckon it must've looked like I was repentant too: good effect, that.
A well-polished desk surface. Thereon, my reflection. A sinking sensation in my whole being, unlike anything I'd encountered in the hibernation pods and the space-ways. Somehow, I controlled my hysteria and reckoned I'd better ask one more question. Upon looking up, I had the answer.
On the far wall, beside the mirror, hung a cheesecake calendar, stating quite categorically that I'd awoken from my assault not only poorer in possessions but also in years.
According to the calendar I'd been out of circulation nine years and seven months!
And calendars are seldom that far out.
Steeling myself, knowing I'd have to face the truth eventually, I asked to see the mirror.
I was abruptly cautioned to keep silence while my charge was typed and the Incident Report corroborated. Now they used the terminal; these guys could both read and write at the same time, it seemed.
Whispering ‘Regs be damned’ I flipped up the counter top and barged through. In front of the mirror I stared and though my eyes registered on me, all I could think of was my aghast face. Never had I seen such shock, revulsion, fear, utter despair, disbelief. You name it. And horror. Absolute horror.
I felt my forehead, cheeks and nose; throat and ears. It wouldn't rub off: I was tattooed. Good and proper. Not an overnight job, either...
As I stared dumbfounded at the character writing running down over my forehead and nose and cheeks, chin and throat, no doubt all the way over my body, I wondered what the Chinese pictographs said and, more important, meant.
A restraining pair of powerful hands on my shoulders brought me out of my reverie. With the strength more of a madman than naturally inherent, I shook off the Patrolman's hold, and stormed out of the office.
Passing the Spaceport Gates was a Malay coolie, chatting with a Venusian taxi-driver. Grabbing the coolie, I yelled in Pidgin English, pointing at my forehead, demanding the meaning of the words. In my frenzy and fury I ripped off my Velcro uniform-front to reveal yet more character-writing over chest and belly and continuing towards my lower abdomen...
The coolie jabbered incoherently.
I felt those selfsame hands restraining me again. Game, this Reg! Spinning round, I kicked him off-balance and my fist connected with his nose.
They had to drag me off the poor coolie. He probably didn't read Chinese anyway.
After I'd given my story of amnesia and of only now discovering my tattoos, the Spaceport Admiral personally urged that I be jetted to Whitehall.
Under escort on the RAF Hotol, I had time to reflect. After my expected sentence, any thought of marrying and settling down was out of the question. Who'd marry a freak? The writing's not even in English!
At thought of marrying and settling down I remembered Patricia and her being pregnant. What of her? Nine years - boy or girl?
Eyes now full of remorse, for things and times that could have been. An indescribable feeling passed over me, as though my thoughts, of marrying and settling down with Patricia had occurred before: deja vu?
The Chinese air-hostess was very charming - and helpful! She gave me a slip of paper with my lemon tea.
After re-entry over the Channel I read at long last what at least some of the writing on my skin meant. But not why:
‘The writing on your face -- freely translated means, “When the first leaves fall, you will die to release the soul of another to be reborn.”’
No signature; probably would've signed in Chinese.
On my way in the Patrol wagon I learned I was using my last day alive travelling to Whitehall...
It was spotting on to rain, too.
Bleak all round, you could say.
… to be concluded tomorrow…
Originally published in Nova SF, 1993. Copyright Nik Morton, 2014