February 29th
by DJ Burnham
forum: February 29th
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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February 29th


        The fine misty morning rain enveloped Jiva and her brown overalls—her cleaning shift over—as she made her way out of the office building, past the huge semi-circular steel benches, up the steps, and right down Edward Street. Like a dripping tap, the clerical workers would never notice her labours unless she ceased; then the rubbish would begin to pile up around them. She was a verspertine flower; that was the way it had to be, but not for much longer. It would be her twenty-first birthday the next day—or rather, it wouldn’t. She could only really celebrate the day itself on a leap year, when February 29th actually appeared on the calendar. However, she would be twenty-one at last and she could finally come out of the dark and start her life. Tonight she’d slump in front of the MultiMed Unit vidscreen and passively absorb any of the rubbish that it fed to her, but tomorrow she would put her temporally shifted body clock to good use. She would be legitimate and Saturday night would be hers for the taking.

        Jiva had lived in a State Orphanage since a baby. No one would tell her what had happened to her parents, but she had no memories of them anyway so perhaps it was for the best. Her maternal grandmother was Jiva’s only living relative, but she resided in a nursing home and child-care was out of the question. The institutionalised upbringing left Jiva feeling hollow, displaced and otherworldly. At the age of sixteen she ran away to Brighton. She had pretended to befriend a boy in the year above her at school and, although he was a shady character, he helped her to obtain the false ID that she needed to make her escape. Without ID (false or otherwise) she couldn’t get a job and without a job she would be picked up by the police, and returned to the orphanage, or else she would be sucked into a dark and dangerous world. Nocturnal office cleaning staff were always in demand and she’d needed a job that provided her with as much anonymity as possible, whilst she bided her time. Jiva’s parents’ estate was tied-up in a trust fund, only to be released on her twenty-first birthday. On that day she could use her real name, eschew her alter ego, reenter society and claim what was rightfully hers. Until that time she would continue to live the life of what she termed: An Invisible.

        Jiva smiled to herself as she rounded the corner into John Street, quickly dropping her eyes to the pavement as a few early morning commuters scurried past on their way to work. They didn’t see her. None of them ever did, she was cloaked to them all. Every day she would cross the road to walk in front of the Police Station, getting a perverse thrill from the potential danger, staying in touch with her emotions. Then she saw him. Alone on the other side of the road and walking in the same direction was a strikingly handsome young man, probably not much older than herself, tall and elegantly dressed. There was something about his clothes, his gait, his calm demeanour, and a magnetic charm that compelled her to audaciously cross the road and follow him. Her heartbeat quickened, as did her step, and as she drew close she noticed that his hair (collar-length and blonde like hers) seemed to sparkle like sunlight reflected on the ocean.

        ‘Glitter gel,’ she whispered to herself. ‘How strange for a boy; perhaps he’s been to a party.’

        She was only a few feet away now and could see the source of his cranial display, as tiny bright lights circled about his head. Jiva stopped and drew back, both fascinated and scared. Suddenly he turned to face her. They locked eyes for an instant, then he smiled as if recognising a kindred spirit. She felt an overwhelming surge of clarity, of destiny, of love and... enlightenment. The world swam about her and by the time she had recovered, pulled herself together and refocused on the street, Sparklehead was gone. She was standing by a chest-height brick wall that held back a grassy embankment, at the top of which ran an unbroken railing fence with a hovercar park beyond. Unless he’d broken into a sprint, there was no way he could have reached the road junction in that short space of time. There were no doorways or side passages in the unbroken brick wall, and yet there was no sign of him. Another emotional jolt momentarily took her breath away and she set off for the safety of home, crossing Carlton Hill.

        Something had changed. She started to notice things that she’d never paid any attention to before, small seemingly insignificant details that had previously formed the lacklustre veneer of a hitherto meaningless existence. Seagulls flew over Kingswood and across the small playing field to the right of her. They circled above, swooping and squawking like they’d always done, but with such grace and ease, so at home in the air, the very element that ancient cosmology had considered one of the four fundamentals of the universe, commanded by these creatures through genetically programmed instinct. Jiva was momentarily racked by sickly barbs of jealousy tearing at the frustration of her lot, but soothing waves of admiration quickly smothered her resentment and the birds took up a new place in her heart. Like the gulls, she could taste the subtle salty tang of the coastal air, fresh and untainted, before the traffic started to fill it with its filthy emissions. The birds, that until this morning had previously been no more than a source of mild irritation, inspired a newfound sense of freedom in her.

        (Her synapses fired into new territory as the floodgates opened on under-utilised corridors, her mind making an analogous leap from Megabyte to Gigabyte hard drive)

        She followed the birds’ flight, taking her off her usual route, and climbed up Sussex Street. Walking past the beautiful little gardens in front of the terraced houses opposite the primary school, Jiva was transported by the simple beauty of their contents. The fine rain had abated and even the simplest of flowers were revealed in all their fulgent glory by the dazzling sunlight of dawn. The hue and saturation of the petals bewitched her, nature’s skilful chromatics orchestrated through such magnificent pigmentation. Her boldness knew no bounds as she turned off the pavement and strode into one of the gardens. She was drawn by the perfect veined symmetry of individual leaves, instantly visualising their passage from embryonic cotyledon to photosynthetic masterpiece.

        (Gigabyte became Terabyte)

        A dizzying sensation heralded a vast shift of perspective, as Jiva envisaged a verdant global biomass from the grasslands of Australia to the mangroves of Bangladesh, the Boreal forest of Canada and the taiga in Russia, the steamy tropical Amazonian rainforests, and immense agricultural monocultures. A lush panoply of vegetation burst onto the Earth’s canvas. A gentle breeze stirred the glistening foliage. She drew a sharp breath and ran from the garden. The twinkling reflections of the sun had brought her back down to earth for an instant, reminding her of the moment that her world had altered.

        (Terabyte became Petabyte)

        What was it about that chance meeting with Sparklehead? What had happened to her? Was this what it was like to fall in love? Could it happen that quickly? Would she see him again? What was she doing taking such foolish risks? Why would she risk losing her invisibility? Why did Sparklehead pick her? Why her? Successive grenades of questions exploded in her mind, as she struggled to ignore the persistence of increasingly profound revelations and concentrate on the task of getting home.

        She fled back down the hill, almost tumbling over as she ran down the steep incline, and raced around the turning into Sussex Street. She almost cannoned into someone as he walked off the concrete steps from his house and onto the pavement in front of her. She dashed across the road and into the lobby of Richmond Heights. Arriving at the twelfth floor she rushed from the lift, thrust the keycard into the lock of her front door, almost fell into the dormapod, and leant back on the door to close it with a crash, panting heavily and shaking with a mixture of elation and fear. She’d almost blown it back there; what if someone had seen her and challenged her for trespassing on private property? Shakily she filled a glass from the tap and swallowed the soothing water. Her tongue relayed a complex analysis of tastes—not that she could name them—ranging from chlorine and mineral salts, to nitrates, pesticides and bacteria. She sat down heavily on the purple chaise longue, rested her head on the padded wall cushioning and swung her legs up, kicking off her shoes in the process. She looked around the dormapod. Richmond Heights was one of the last of the old blocks of flats to be updated. It had been totally gutted ten years previously and it had taken five years for the work to be completed, but it had some of the most modern facilities. Jiva’s apartment measured nine by seven feet, but despite its cell-like quality it was home. Her bed was above her on a mezzanine-style space-saving balcony and being on the top floor it had a small window in the ceiling, through which she could watch the stars at night when she wasn’t working. Above her feet was a wall-mounted MultiMed Unit vidscreen, with surround-sound acoustics. There was a tiny kitchenette opposite the door, with a shower cubicle and washbasin adjacent to that. The other wall was covered with ingenious storage units, which, despite easy access and uncanny capacity, still required constant tidying and reorganisation. The simple familiarity of her surroundings helped to calm her down and Jiva programmed the MultiMed Unit with some relaxing mood music, closing her eyes for a moment.

        In Jiva’s brain her neurones were evolving. Action potentials leapt the synaptic clefts in ever-increasing numbers, as neurotransmitter-containing vesicles poured from the pre-synaptic membranes of the axons. As the transmitters detached from the post-synaptic receptors of the target dendrites, each tiny molecule underwent reuptake into the delivering neurone’s axons. Unlike the normal human brain nothing was wasted, there was no enzymatic degradation or diffusion into the surrounding extracellular fluid. Every drop of neurotransmitter was gathered by the proliferating transporter proteins on the axon terminals and repackaged in fresh vesicles ready for the next impulse. Action potentials flowed like never before, as the availability of neurotransmitter rapidly multiplied, boosting her brain activity dramatically.

        (Petabyte became Exabyte)

        Jiva was enveloped by the music, revelling in the tones and harmonics of the individual instruments, the high and low pitch frequencies, the subtly changing standing waves, the blend of captivating notes and melodies. The mastery of the composition filled her with joy, transcending the relatively simple surround-sound speaker system of the MultiMed Unit and lifting her spirits. She was almost twenty-one, her life was about to enter a new and exciting phase, and she could cast off the cloak of her ersatz lifestyle and become a real person at last. She laughed out loud as she tugged off her grubby damp overalls and flung them into a corner in an act of rebellion (against the fastidious weekly ritual of carefully folding them, placing them in her dormapod’s laundry bag and dropping them into the chute at the end of the hallway). She changed the music to a cutting-edge dance groove, turned up the volume and stepped into the shower cubicle. As the narrow-gauge showerhead sent rivulets of warm water cascading over her body, Jiva felt more alive than ever before. Her super-charged mind’s-eye propelled her on an aquatic journey, along streams and rivers, into lakes and oceans. Primordial soup blended with amniotic fluid, as the path of her ancestral evolution was replayed, experiencing embryological development, from cell division to gills and on, down a constantly forking path. The genetic memories of the human race—bequeathed to her at conception—gave way to auto-hypnotic regression and another surprise. A glimpse of two faces, one male, one female, seemingly enormous as they leant over and looked down at her, radiating affection. Her parents. Instinctively, she reached up and bumped the fingers of her outstretched hands on the plastic ceiling of the shower cubicle. Opening her eyes she felt a sense of closure, that the one big question had been answered. She felt neither remorse or loss, nor guilt at the absence of those emotional reactions. As she turned off the shower and bathed in the thermal air jets of its drying system, she kept those images in her mind. ‘Thank you,’ she whispered into the balmy air. ‘Thank you, for giving me life.’

        (Exabyte became Zettabyte)

        Jiva stepped from the shower, shedding the memories like a snakeskin, allowing the face of her new love—her true love—to fill her thoughts. She ached to be with Sparklehead. She threw on her soft dressing gown and flipped down a head-height panel in the storage area. A backlit mirror, with frosted border, illuminated her face as she reached for a jar of liposomic moisturiser. She smiled at her own reflection. For a moment she considered applying some of the other sparse contents of the make-up station, but she had eschewed cosmetics for years, apart from occasional application for fun, and concentrated on the moisturiser. Replacing the jar, she closed the panel and turned to the kitchenette to prepare something to eat.

        A simple meal of steamed rice and vegetables, followed by some fruit, had seemed like a banquet, and a combination of the food, the end of her working week, and the sleepless anticipation of the previous few days, had exhausted her. Jiva climbed the steps up to her balcony bed and closed the skylight against the mid-morning sun. She switched off the MultiMed Unit from a secondary control panel above the bed and glanced at the LED clock mounted in it. She was asleep in seconds.

        (Zettabyte became Zottabyte)

        Her dreams were filled with strange visions. At first she was running, out of breath and terrified, as figures from her childhood chased her with giant butterfly nets through the grey dawn of a spectral city. Then it was night and she was back cleaning the endless offices in infinite, thankless repetition. She found a door that she’d never seen before and succumbed to its irresistible lure. The instant she opened it she was sucked through and catapulted back out into the night, falling from the building, her screams pushed back down her throat by the sudden wind rush. She closed her eyes against the rapidly approaching ground... But was caught. Peering between half-opened eyelids she found herself in the arms of Sparklehead. He smiled, set her down on the ground and brought out a birthday cake from behind his back. She blew out all twenty-one candles in one puff, laughing together as they watched the displaced flames fly off down the road, regroup, and return to circle about her head, emulating her suitor’s cranial display. Sparklehead leant forward and she raised her face to meet his lips. The energy from that kiss sent Jiva flying up above the rooftops and out into space, with Sparklehead at her side.

        Successive dreams spilled onto the screen of her sleeping mind as she travelled the universe, slipping between the confines of time and space. Sparklehead showed her realities beyond imagination. A single lifeform as immense as a galaxy, whose body stretched beyond the horizon, with symbiotic macro-organisms that would play out the millennia of their lives without ever knowing of their host’s existence. A colony composed of a trillion sentient quantum creatures, with an inconceivably short lifespan, suspended high above what they thought of as an immense ocean, but was, in fact, the eye of a Fltachian pygmy mouse, the colony just a speck on its eyelash. Probiotic architecture formed great spiralling towers, feeding on the corrosive acidic gases of a young planet. A catalogue of fantasies played on in Jiva’s head.

        Meanwhile, her synapses formed anastamoses, doing away with neurotransmission, forming an unbroken pathway throughout the fused cerebral hemispheres. The accompanying synaesthesia would have been inconceivably disorientating, but mercifully the energy required by the process maintained her in a state of unbroken sleep.

        (Zottabyte became Brontobyte)

        Jiva awoke, feeling heavy and disorientated. She could hear voices, but they seemed out of place and unrecognisable, sentences disjointed, content personal. At first she thought it was her own MultiMed Unit, and then that she might be hearing someone else’s. It didn’t sound right, though. No! She was hearing her neighbours, several of them, simultaneously. She started to surface a little more, began to concentrate. Not voices, not out loud. Some were getting ready to go out, staccato words and phrases jumping from money, to who they would be meeting, what they would be doing, what they’d done earlier. Others were getting ready for bed, free-forming reflections and ideas about the day that had been and what they’d do tomorrow. Not voices... thoughts!

        As the wave front of consciousness crashed onto the shores of her waking mind, she telekinetically opened the blind on the skylight and moonlight flooded into the dormapod. Jiva was undergoing another metamorphosis. Her DNA was being manipulated into new forms and patterns, biological scaffold that that was converting her organic construct into the molecular equivalent of pixels. Only a few nanometres in diameter, each pixel then set about its own conversion on an atomic level. She was transcending her Earthly eyrie.

        Jiva had slept for over twelve hours. As she lay watching the clouds float in front of the moon, she was unconcerned by the emerald glow on the ceiling; an unearthly light that was emanating from her own body. She now knew that her nature was synonymous with the spaces between conversational sentences, the moments before falling asleep, and the hiatus of a post office queue. That she was living in the free fall of peace at the end of a moving song at a live concert, before the applause broke the spell, like being touched by the passing shadow of an aeroplane.

        She marvelled at the things that form the indiscernible fabric of human life—so taken for granted that their cessation would wreak havoc—and yet given not a moment’s thought, no more so than we might concede our conscious thoughts to be buffeted by the deep, dark machinations of those legions of involuntary reflexes. She saw how we would be overwhelmed by the constantly shifting Venn Diagrams of personal space, as our physical and emotional proximities merge and interact, were it not for the selective titration of that waking deluge, permitting mere droplets to impact on our canvas of awareness. Little wonder that hermits, ascetics, gurus, philosophers and artists, all need a varying amount of respite. To consider, for even a moment, the lack of impact that the average life might have on the greater scale of things—such limitless perspective—would that not surely provide a glimpse of the sweetest madness? It would take courage to got that far. To stop accepting that all is as we are taught to think that it is, to slip sideways, to dodge the raindrops, to step outside of time, to tip-toe between the atoms, to embrace those unseen, unspoken invisibles.

        Jiva reached the obvious conclusion, that she had been sought out by Sparklehead, that she had something more in common with him than nearly everyone else on Earth, that she had always been destined to join him. Her birth on 29th February was no coincidence. It was a consequence of the arcane energy force of her invisible existence exerting itself on both her conception and her birth—already knowing the future-echo of the death of her parents, who themselves were merely earthly conduits for her creation. She understood that the inter-reality lifestyle of the Invisibles was so sub-atomically surreal that their kind could only conceive by seeding on host planets. She realised that she’d spent these past twenty-one years camouflaged in human form, merging day-to-day life, leading an existence of innate uniformity, and leaving not the slightest ripple in her wake. She vaguely became aware of the twinkling particles about her cranial orbit; her peripheral vision broke into crystalline fragmentation and she began to enter space-time foam. Jiva smiled widely and held out her right hand, as if to take another’s.

        As 11.59.59pm on February 28th finally became 00.00.00 on March 1st—Jiva vanished from this world.


copyright 2006 DJ Burnham.

DJ Burnham has had a lifelong love of Science Fiction. Having recently retired from an exciting sideline in concert promotion for the likes of Roy and Nick Harper, he has found time to pen some stories of his own, many of which have appeared in webzines such as Silverthought, Bewildering Stories and Aphelion. With a full-length novel in the pipeline, he also writes poetry and creates original decoupage-style artwork. DJ Burnham lives in Brighton, England with his wife Sue and their cat. He is a Health Service worker by day and a dreamer by night.

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