Howard Richter was only 8 years old when he was diagnosed with Offset. This came as particularly disturbing news to his parents, Rita and Matthew. Of more concern still was the treatment that had been prescribed, which for acute cases such as Howard's involved regular doses of Nervjelie, a vile reality-altering substance with unsettling side effects.
Many years later, as he reflected back at his his strict upbringing and education, his success and distinguished career, Howard would always reminisce about his pre-pubescent years, and particularly of those times when his mother would strap him down over the protective plastic bed covers and bring the loaded spoonful of Nervjelie to his mouth.
Unlike most people Howard was not nostalgic for his childhood. His oldest memories were in black and white. Old songs would play through one-speaker transistor radios in the background and there would be no friends; just dusty unpaved country roads and the sprawling flat shadows of leaves rustling in the hot wind. In all of Howard's memories his mother would always be afraid. Her eyes would always dart left and right while talking, her head would be slightly bowed and she would often add laughs at the end of sentences that didn't belong there. His father would always be angry. Always. He would be so angry that sometimes he would smash things up and storm out of the house, banging the door behind him so hard that it made the furniture rattle.
But what his father did most was shout, loudly. He would shout so loudly, and for so long, that little Howard would find it hard to breathe. He would feel his father's ire gripping his terrified heart, squeezing tighter and tighter as the intensity of the shouts would rise and rise, building to a terrible crescendo in which his father's fury would boil out in incoherent, livid screams of hellish rage that twisted and rattled like howling demons in Howard's young head.
Yet, for all the unpleasant atmosphere at home and the constant fights between his parents, Howard had never been treated badly by either of them. On the contrary, Rita and Matthew would take extra care of him, pay attention to him and talk to him, helping Howard to develop a healthy curiosity about the world around him. It was obvious from an early age that Howard possessed both a high intelligence quotient and an excellent memory. He developed speech skills faster than most boys of his age, and was very adept at visually replicating complex shapes, such as the gate of the family estate or the statues in their garden.
Then came the Offset. One early afternoon Rita and Matthew received a concerned call from the school. Apparently, Howard's books had spontaneously caught fire. Even though his clothes and some of his hair had been scorched, Howard had been left mostly unharmed. The school doctor had brought in an expert, who had diagnosed Class One Offset, the most severe kind. Offset was a disease of which little was officially known, but most physicians would insist -reluctantly, and off the record- that it was somehow linked to use of tele-gates. This was not altogether unthinkable in Howard's case, since Rita had in fact undergone an emergency teleport to the city hospital during the early days of her pregnancy.
Offset caused a flash-like reality distortion in the space around the sufferer. Ever since he could notice things, Howard had noticed small flashes and things breaking around him, but he never told his parents about this. He may have been very young, but he instinctively knew that this would make his mother more frightened and his father angrier. So when they found out from the school, that is exactly what happened. And it only got worse: Howard would be sitting in the bedroom, when the air around him would thicken and make a sound like a soda fizzle. Then everything would flash white and before he knew it, his pillows and blanket would be in flames. One day he was petting a cat in the garden lawn when the flash occurred, and the cat stopped having a skin, while the grass around him had turned yellow and flat. Once he was standing next to a brick wall when the flash came: a large oval area of the wall around him turned into a fine white ash that crumpled into a heap, raising a cloud of dust that smelled like gunpowder.
So the treatments began. The ritual would take place once a week, every week, for nearly five years. His bed would be covered in thick milky plastic sheets to try and keep things tidy, and restraining belts were added. Rita would walk in timidly, and feed Howard the loaded spoonful of Nervjelie, which he would swallow in many small, grimacing, gulps. The first time Howard had tasted it, he had expected it to be sweet -it looked like mango jam- but it was terribly salty instead. It would take some time for the effects to begin, and once the straps holding him had been tightened his mother would excuse herself, guiltily and shamefully, so that she could be spared the unsettling sights of the Reset Procedure.
Howard would lie alone in the room, staring up at the thick top cover of his old-fashioned oak poster bed, focusing on the ticking of the clock on the wall and the rustle of the leaves outside his window. In the background he could hear his father shout and scream about some issue or another and his mother sobbing as she walked down the corridor. Sometimes their fight would flare up - and the usual terror would begin to fill the corridors of the house, flowing into each room like a toxic mist, looking to grip Howard's tortured heart in its claws for one more time... and then, like magic, the feeling would stop as if his heart and his soul had been covered by a warm, soft, soundproof coat. Howard came to understand that he only had a few seconds left to prepare himself when this happened, because this meant that the Nervjelie was about to have its way with him.
And then his entire body would snap into a tense rigid arc, as if someone had attached electrodes to his toes and forehead. He would feel a physical flutter inside his head, and his eyes would begin to swell out of their sockets. Pain would dully begin to throb and intensify from the end of each finger and toe, until it became an agonizing, searing sensation in his extremities. Then the flesh there would split, and thick black needles would slowly pierce their way out. His arms and legs would crease and rustle as if they were filled with thrashing eels. His mouth would begin to bleed as his teeth became transparent, soft and gelatinous, and his nose would melt into his face. After a few minutes, his arms and legs would begin to shorten and thicken as they withdrew into his body, and his neck would swell and join with his torso. After about ten minutes, a long gray snake tongue would shoot out of the remnants of his mouth and flap up and down, slapping his forehead and chest with its forked end in turn.
After that point his brain probably began to physically distort, because he had difficulty remembering what was real and what was his imagination, but he was pretty sure that whatever followed was not a pleasant sight at all...
When he grew older, he would leaf through medical documents on the network to find out details about the old Nervjelie Reset Procedure, its terminology, and its effect on patients. He saw pictures of glistening red elongated rolls of flesh, like bacon rolls dipped in ketchup, lying on top of thick wet blankets of veins and arteries that spread out under them like dense roots of a tree, hugging and drilling into whatever surface they were lying on. From the top and bottom of each roll an urchin-like bunch of thick black spikes would jut out. In the case of a patient being male, their Reset Form (as it was labeled) would feature blue and violet splotches in various places along its length, while females would exhibit a network of scabby ridges that looked like burnt egg yolk.
And as he lay in this state, little Howard's mind would fly away, traveling far from his frightened and angry parents. He would visit a place that was hard to describe. In his normal waking mind he always pictured it like a giant tree with one root and one branch that ended in one leaf, pointing straight up into a white burning sun. He called it The Command and he would be inside it, melt into resin and stretch like a drop from the edge of the tree's solitary leaf, stretching into an impossibly thin thread, stretching and stretching through space towards the sun, and then he would touch it and snap back like lightning, shooting back into the leaf and boring a hole through the center of the giant branch, through the root of The Command, turning it all inside out as he bore into the middle of an Earth that would tear and burst like a balloon filled with warm thick syrup, and he would be back on the bed, slowly becoming human once again.
Gradually his features would re-emerge along with voluntary control of his body. The whole ordeal would last about an hour from start to finish and would leave the bed covered by a mess of blood and filmy pieces of shed skin. His mother would always be waiting to hear his voice and would rush into the room with some orange juice to help him regain his strength enough so that he could get up and have a shower. As he washed, she would clean up the bed for him, so he could come back and sleep for the rest of the day.
He would never confess to anyone how much he had secretly loved those Resets.