Copyright 1995 Doug Robinson





She saw the fader quickly, almost subliminally, like a wisp of car exhaust after the car has passed, like dust motes in the sun, like a sixfoot eddy of leaves, just before they collided. The fader shifted one way, she the other, choosing opposite directions to step out of each other's way as if in a choreography or a dream. She turned to look, and the fader faded into the crowd as if he or she had never been.

* * * * *

Jon's wife Less was fading. She had first lost definition around the eyes. You'd think the eyes would be the last to go, but no: the distinctive features of the face faded first, leaving a kind of generic person, a beauty queen with everything perfect except that you couldn't quite tell who she was.

In a week she seemed to have no face at all, only a soft-focus oval on top of her neck. With her clothes off she looked twenty years younger, but distracted, like a bored stripper in a bar where the customers are louts who never tip. In a month he only caught the most fleeting glimpses of her, and felt most at home with her in bed with the lights off.

* * * * *

Helge was an offworlder and not supposed to fade. That was the local wisdom: only locals faded. Only if you were born and raised here. Something in the water, maybe. Something in the genes, who knew? The local scientists were baffled. But then science was different here, very experiential, very much a matter of raw feels and intuitive certainties. As far as the scientists were concerned, fading was just something that happened to the people who lived here, lasted two or three months, and passed. Not a big deal, really.

But it was a big deal for Helge, not having been raised to accept the inevitability of losing visibility.

Not that he was certain he was fading. It was just that, some mornings in front of the mirror, he thought he could see ripples of haziness around the eyes and ears and hair. And some days at work, especially after a heavy lunch, his hands looked unreal to him on the keyboard.

* * * * *

Bin walked through the park like a ghost, enjoying the sensation of the spring air on his invisible skin. When it was warm enough to go without clothes, most faders did. There were no hardandfast rules about it, but it was generally understood that at a certain stage of invisibility you shed your clothes, inside and out if the air was warm, inside only in the winter. In the winter workplaces provided closets for fading employees; first thing in the morning you undressed and sat down at your desk. For some reason it was less disconcerting to see papers flying, phones being talked into, than to see a full suit of clothes with no head, hands, or legs.

There were plenty of inconveniences that went along with fading. Over the millennia, society had developed a hundred little accommodations, but they never entirely smoothed a fader's way. Faders would hum as they walked to signal their presence, carry something visible to avoid collisions, but accidents couldn't always be avoided. It's hard to pay attention all the time. It wasn't uncommon for a fader, emerging into visibility, to see the bruises first.

But there were payoffs too. When two faders met they would hug warmly, running their hands up and down each other's naked backsides. Men and women, men and men, women and women, it didn't matter. It was in those moments that a fader felt most real.
But Bin didn't collide with anyone on his stroll through the park. He didn't even see anyone. He just enjoyed the spring air, and imagined himself some ancient primitive god strolling through a garden, smelling smells of his own creation.

* * * * *

Naja, at fourteen, sat on her bed dreaming of her future husband. She couldn't see his features, but knew he would be handsome. She tried to empty her mind, hoping that his face would float into focus, but without much luck. She explored her own face with her fingers, imagining the fingers his; with her eyes closed, it seemed as if her husband was there, and not there, caressing her from across the years.

She had never been invisible, herself. The local wisdom said that it came with puberty, but she had been menstruating for two years, had a woman's figure, and had never faded. Sometimes she worried that there was something wrong with her, and studied the mirror intently, looking for signs that she was starting to fade.

* * * * *

Dr. Red Sana sat up late in his university office, working. Since he was a professor of philosophy, it didn't look like he was working to me, but he was. He was thinking, tapping a pen against his teeth, tipped back in his swivel chair, feet up on the desk. Every so often he would turn quickly, drop his feet to the floor, let his fingers hover over the keyboard for a moment, then type quickly, two lines, three. After staring at the screen, by turns seeing it and not seeing it, he would tip back in his chair and resume tapping his teeth.

What was I doing there? I'm your narrator. Since I'm an omniscient narrator, I'm invisible, so Dr. Sana never knew I was there.

Unlike most faders (and even some narrators) I can also read minds. I knew what Dr. Sana was thinking.

He was rethinking the established philosophical view on Ventu Lhandi that ideas are sensory faders. His first thought was that it must be the other way around: sense perceptions are faders that are starting to regain color and shape and form. But that wasn't it either; somehow ideas and sense perceptions must be cyclically interrelated, the one by turns fading or emerging into the other.

* * * * *

Daen, invisible, walked right past the door to the girls' locker room. He was fifteen, but it never occurred to him to sneak in and watch the girls shower. Nudity is not an emotionally invested state of being on Ventu Lhandi. It's just people with their clothes off.

The person it occurred to was me. I'm not from this world. In some sense I'm not even on it.

I was also the source of the simile for Jon's wife, distracted like a bored stripper. There are no strip joints on Ventu Lhandi.

* * * * *

Atla was studying to be a doctor, and had managed to increase the number of her fadings to four or five a year. Each one only lasted two or three weeks. A good doctor could fade completely in a morning hour and be fully visible again by evening. Sometimes Atla despaired of ever being that good. For one thing, she had no idea how she was doing it. Her teachers couldn't tell her either; they just said fade faster and you'll know it's happening when it happens. But not how. It was happening, and she knew it, but she wished she could figure out what she did to make it happen so she could control it better.

Her other studies involved elaborate imagery exercises: you're a hawk soaring high above the earth, and suddenly you spy a sparrow flitting from tree to tree; you plunge like lightning and seize it.

On Ventu Lhandi it was believed that illness was caused by invisible spirits. Doctors faded in order to help the patient fight the spirits, for example by plunging from a great height to seize an imaginary sparrow. Somehow, in the process of imagining the hawk's plummet, the sperm's upstream swim, the bullet's flight, the horse's gallop across broken ground, the patient became the hawk or the horse and caught the spirit, and was cured.

And it only worked if the doctor was invisible. Then the images seemed to come out of nowhereor out of the patient's own imagination, where their power was most potent.

* * * * *

Soon had always hated fading. He dreaded it like a tax audit, or the death of a loved one. His uneasy anticipation of his next fading was so strong, in fact, that it poisoned his visible life. Unconsciously he held faders responsible for everything that went wrong in his day. He tried not to blame them out loud, since that was considered very bad form, but sometimes his anger surged past the walls he had erected to keep it in. "Get outta my way, goddammit." Everyone around him would freeze in shocked silence, and he would feel like a pariah. That made him mad, too. Why shouldn't a guy get angry when he felt angry?

His fadings had never lasted more than two months. This time he had been completely invisible for seven. The strain was enormous. His wife had packed up the kids and moved out after the third month. "We'll be at my mother's. Give me a call when we can see you again." And he knew he'd been unsufferable, whiny, demanding, domineering, a complete baby. He had tried to control it but just couldn't. The pettiness just burst out of him like an evil spirit. He would watch his eightyearold daughter's face crumple into tears, understanding tears, loving tears, her feelings hurt by his outburst but deep down just wanting daddy to be visible again so he won't yell at us any moreand some part of him would be moved, would want to reach out and hug her, stroke her hair, apologize for being so mean, but he just couldn't. He was a horrible person.

After the fifth month he look sick leave, and would spend his days sitting on a bench at a bus stop downtown, watching the cars go by, imagining himself stepping in front of a truck. Faders became visible in deatha drastic and dramatic way to end this particular fading. But what if it didn't work? What if he killed himself and stayed invisible? What if he was never seen again? Would anyone know? Would anyone care?

* * * * *

One morning Jon woke, turned over sleepily and ran his hand across his wife's warm bare back. Sliding closer, he spooned up behind her and slid his hand around to cup her breast. She stirred in her sleep, and he saw movement, a fleeting glimpse of hair two inches from his eyes. A few more weeks and Less would be visible again. The thought gave him an erection. He smiled as a ghostly hand reached down to squeeze it.

* * * * *

Daen, a smart boy in Naja's thirdperiod history class, stopped her after class to ask her to the dance day after tomorrow. He was shy and nervous, and it made Naja feel kind of squishy inside. He was starting to fade and looked less nerdy than usual. Naja imagined him grown and tall and handsome. For the first time her future husband's face took on definition. She nodded happily yes, she'd love to go.

* * * * *

One morning Atla felt visibility flow out of her with a sudden swoosh. It felt like the opposite of what we on my world call an out of body experience: an out of spirit experience. Her whole body seemed to surge out from between her shoulderblades. What was left, she knew, was a doctor.

* * * * *

When Helge's boss told him he was being transferred back to the home world, he was mostly relieved. He had never felt at home on Ventu Lhandi. But after his boss left he took another close look at his fingers. Are you sure you're not going to fade?

* * * * *

Soon sat on his bench, repeating over and over, what am I going to DO? He held a newspaper in his lap so no one would sit on him. The paper was full of the usual disasters and human interest stories. The people around him came and went, climbing on and off buses, going into stores and coming out. I sat down next to him and tried to strike up a conversation, wanting to tell him to let go, release his anger, let it fly out over the tops of the buildings like a ghostly bird. It's not so bad being invisible, I wanted to say, but it's like anything else, you have to give in to it, you can't keep fighting it, you're going to drive yourself crazy this way, you've already lost your family, next you'll lose your job and your house, and for what? Just because you can't let yourself be a nobody for a while?

Unfortunately, he couldn't hear me. He just sat there glumly, thinking nobody will even TALK to me, it's as if I didn't even EXIST.

* * * * *

If the world is a cyclical fading in and out, Dr. Sana thought, sense perceptions becoming ideas, ideas becoming sense perceptions, then why does reality feel relatively stable? The things around me don't fade; only some of the people.

That's when I reached over and whispered in his ear. To his surprise and mine, he heard me:

"What happens when you fall asleep? What happens when you get caught up in the imaginary reality of a short story?"

* * * * *

Bin waded into the lake, feeling the mud squish between his toes. The water was still cold. His skin tingled. He could feel it going into goose bumps, like a sheet wrinkling in the dryer. Underwater grasses waved around his legs. He gasped as his scrotum slid into the water. Then with a rush he ducked all the way under and pushed off, swimming hard, feeling the blood charge around his body getting warm. He felt exposed, naked, vulnerable, and alive. For ten minutes he completely forgot he was invisible.

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