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The Shift

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The Shift

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Author: George Foy
Publisher: Bantam Spectra, 1996

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Alex Munn works in Manhattan's "Television City" as head writer for an ordinary soap opera. But when his TV bosses decide to use brand-new virtual reality technology to produce the most involving drama series ever, Munn signs on to revolutionize the TV industry. In his spare time, though, he creates another virtual world: "Munn's World." It's set in gaslit 1850s New York City, where a vicious serial killer called the Fishman is disemboweling victims in the Bowery. But now, something has gone terribly wrong. It's unscripted, it's terrifying, but the Fishman has somehow escaped from Munn's World--and followed Alex into the present.


You know the street well enough you get to recognize how people are going to cap you.

The Asians use autos like modified Tech-9s or Bullpups and they'll smoke the guy next door and miss you and have to clean up with blades later. The Rastas use cheap trey-eights with generic soft-nosed slugs but they'll off both of you the first time with no mistakes given the size and quantity of the holes.

The Colombians take out the neighborhood in a happy carnival of Uzis. The Albanians carve your brother's throat with a carpet-cutter. The Italians smoke you with a .22 caliber and precision, mostly because they don't pull the trigger on the jammy till it's touching the back of your neck.

The Asians tend to stalk you first; which is why I have a feeling the guy behind me might be Asian.

It isn't a great piece of turf, from a victim's point of view; a frosthumped string of subgrade asphalt lined with cattails and trashed Plymouths and the kind of smell you get only after twenty years of burying with a front-end loader some of the nastier chemicals known to man.

In the distance you can see the burn of cars as they rush the long iron leapfrog of the Pulaski Skyway, honking and backfiring in their anxiety to get across, like nervous schoolgirls trying not to trail the hem of their dress in the shit of the Jersey marshes.

In the distance, behind me, you can see the spotlit bulk of a video-server, not one of XTV's. To my right, the sullen Gothic piles of the few corporations remaining in Newark quail under the flight paths of 777s; to my left, the icy money-spires of Manhattan glint against the smoky night.

That's the trouble with this road. Everything is farther in the distance and in different directions except the bullrushes and the stink of organo-chlorines and the black mobster-ridden depths of the Hackensack River to one side.

That, and the mincing, feminine trip of footsteps behind me; footsteps that sound softly whenever I move, and stop whenever I do, and retreat when I come after.

I walk faster. I think I hear the footsteps speeding up but I can't be sure because of the noise of my own feet. Behind me it's a strange soft rhythm, a silky "slip-slap," feminine as I said because it's light and quick; binary in the sense that there's two sounds in each step, like you'd get from platform heels and leather soles and the way a city woman leans forward from the hip as she walks, holding off the jackals with momentum.

Slip-slap... slip-slap.

Despite the feminine undertone I have no doubt it's a man shadowing me. Maybe it's the weight of the tread.

I stop abruptly, turn around. The footsteps continue for a pace, and halt in turn. For an instant, against the horizon of cattails, through the darkness that seems to rise like a lousy dream from the mud and water around, I think I can make out a tall figure, its outlines blurred by something long and black like a coat.

I blink, and the figure is gone. The rushes are blighted and dark and resemble men in the vertical. The temperature is just below freezing and sound travels well in the chilly air.

I walk back in the direction I came; the footsteps recede. Whoever's making those footsteps is staying behind that last bend in the road.

"Fuckin' idiot," I mutter to myself I mean this is not the city but it's only six miles in a straight line from Tenth Avenue and it's no trick at all for the violence to overflow that far.

My heart pumps so hard it hurts my ribs. I've had maybe one or two gin-and-tonics over the limit back at the Fish House Grill. If the booze boosts my confidence in one way, it also makes me more apt than usual to dream up horror stories.

I immediately start to visualize what might be trailing me. I mean, visualization is my specialty; and Asians seem too mundane, and I've never heard of the tongs venturing so far west of Mulberry Street. This abandoned ground, with its combination of mutated marine life and the vast vomit of the city, seems more apt to spawn something correspond-ingly huge and vicious out of the rats and PCBs that inhabit it. A dead Gambino sottorapo maybe, black water gurgling from the .22 hole in his spine, rotted flesh dripping off his bones but his brain sparking green as foxfire from the chemicals he was buried among--squelching through the swamp muck with both arms outstretched...

The hairs on the back of my neck take on ohms. I start walking again, faster. Behind me, ever faithful, my shadow starts up to follow.

And, this once, he gets the timing wrong. Now I can easily hear his feet in the clipped spaces between my own steps--like bad audio, echoes lagged behind the visual in one of the new productions I'm setting up for work.

I come to an abrupt halt, and hear one offset "slip-slap" before he mimicks my stopping. This part of the road curves like a soap queen's curls but I think it straightens out beyond the next bend. A hundred yards after that there's another boatyard or marina similar to the one beside the bar I left behind me only fifteen minutes ago.

I start to run. I'm no jock but I am wearing my usual light Burmese hiking boots with star-cut Kevlar soles and they grip the cracked asphalt like the tigers in those old Goodyear commercials. Soon my breath is making storm noises in my windpipe and I don't hear anything behind me and I don't look. I can see the line of cattails and a black heap of something broken that marks the turn in the road.

I'm summoning new strength, new speed, and I pound around the tight curve like a Tanzanian hurdler five yards from the finish tape; and my heart, which I was sure couldn't beat any rougher or faster, starts slamming triple time. I brake so fast I nearly pitch forward on my nose, skidding like Moe Howard avoiding the law. For a fraction of a second a sound like crying squeaks out of my throat.

Three black shapes in cheap jackets are filing out of the rusts on one side, lining up across the road twenty feet ahead of me.

Behind, the footsteps slow to a walk, then--nothing.

The wind rattles the dead stalks of the marsh.

I turn around. The son of a bitch behind me still doesn't show. I turn back.

They are men, not very tall. Besides the ersatz-leather jackets, two wear stonewashed shifta-rapper trousers and the third has a baseball cap. All three hold in one hand something that glints in the meager light coming off the Pulaski a mile or so away.

In panic, part of the human brain clicks into cliche and refusal. At least that's what mine does now, making reassuring noises like, this is all a mistake, something I made up. This really ought to work since I spend my days imagining problems much like this one, fake situations I put away and forget about by logging off the terminal when I go home at night.

The other lobe, the one where cliches don't work, can tell exactly what's going on from the way these men move silently and in coordination without even looking at each other. They hold the weapons comfortably forward, and the opposite hand is held ahead too in both protection and decoy. These are no Five-ohs and they are not Jersey punks looking for beer money and they are looking to put a real hurtin' on someone and since no one else is around that someone has to be me.

And suddenly my brain pulls the switch on all the cool analysis. It seems to both drop revs and speed up, like a sports car reaching overdrive. I hurtle off the road into bullrushes on the left with nothing in my head now but the deafening noise of a mind screaming silently in panic.

I literally don't know how long I run like that. The cattails are tall as buses; they are woody and you have to lean into them until they snap to get through. My world is made up of massive visual deprivation and the sound of breaking rushes and crunching ice and the total effort necessary to keep from snapping my fool ankles in the frozen mud and cattail stalks and junk metal.

I run. I slam into something hollow and tinny and fall elbows first into a thin scab of ice covering four inches of brackish water and rotted grass. Suddenly the smell is a thousand times more foul than before. My hands are lubricated with slime as I stumble to my feet again.

I run. I detect bulk ahead and scramble around the hulk of a car.

I run. High over the fractal horizon of cattails I see light, more to the left, and I turn in that direction. The mud gets softer. My lungs cannot feed enough oxygen to my legs and both bronchi and muscle tissues are screaming for air, lactic acid, a Funship Cruise, anything besides this kind of struggle. I have to slow down, there's no way not to, but I'm still moving at a fair pace when the footing grows hard and the sky opens up around me.

Copyright © 1996 by George Foy


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