As a child, Jay would lie in bed and wait for the deafening sound to come rushing into her room in the early hours of the morning. Her hands would automatically cover her ears when it hit. She couldn’t convince her parents to sound proof the room, without telling them about the creatures. Jay wondered if she was like the cursed girls in her mum’s stories. According to her, they could hear and see impossible things because of unnatural senses which bloomed over time.. Jay kept silent about her hazy visions of shape-shifting creatures which drifted across the forest in her sleep deprived mind.
At midnight, like clockwork, her feet would find their way back to her parent’s room. Her mother’s arm would be stretched over her eyes. Jay would climb over the bed to be near the comfort of another steady heartbeat. The strange sound would disappear under the lull of a deep voice – bringing Jay down into the rabbit hole of another life. She listened to her mother’s different stories about the Dome where the loud creatures lived. When Jay was being punished again, the tale would somehow twist itself into a knot and the kids exploring the jungle of the silver city would find themselves fed to the invisible creatures inside the sealed Dome.
As she grew up, the loud creatures’ call dulled to a lullaby pitch which enabled her to sleep. In the morning, she began to draw her own images of them. The pictures were of mythic creatures stuck in between changes like shape shifting chimeras. Sometimes, they were giant shadows walking around a field without people to create them. They became mixed up with other stories she read. She devoured time in that imaginary world and the night creatures became more familiar to her in the process.
Her mother’s stories stopped coming as the ‘Chameleon’ epidemic on the screen grew over time. At its height, the media tried to cover up the stories about the hazard of genetically altered creatures living inside the closed city of the Dome near the Border of their city. On the night of her seventeenth birthday, Jay made her first move towards capturing an actual image of the Chameleons. However, she was interrogated and suspended from school after being caught alone at the silver barrier which surrounded the Dome.
When she returned, Jay’s face was bare without the required virtual lens for class. Her father had suspended her from accessing online research about the Dome for longer than her official one month suspension.
During the forced break, she had realised that being directly hooked into the virtual world was a way for her to avoid the recent broad casted reality of their lagging, underdeveloped city. The major political parties were torn over the potential cost of updating the city to become environmentally sustainable and technologically up to date. There was a vocal movement from a major party (which her friend and virtual supporter Iris detested) to cut down access to virtual portals and worlds as part of a package to fully experience the physical environment again. These public broadcasts were the only things Jay could watch for a month through the screens at home.
Jay slumped in a seat next to Iris. She was consumed by an online adventure game. Jay tugged the virtual lens off her face. Iris winced as her brown eyes focused slowly on Jay’s own.
‘Give it back.’
‘I saw one,’ Jay said. Their recent verbal exchanges tended to be short ever since high school started. Iris scrabbled to grab her lens back.
‘A chameleon,’ Jay clarified.
Iris leaned forward and breathed a soft noise – her implant forgotten. They had lost contact for a month because Iris lived almost virtually online and preferred communicating in that quick space. However, Jay knew Iris shared her obsession over the Chameleons. They were like a mystery to unlock in a game to Iris. Jay could hear her eavesdropping classmates disconnect their own virtual lens as she finally told Iris the full story behind her suspension.
Jay had taken everything that made her invisible to the metal eyes of the Security cams with her; a pair of thermal goggles and a chameleon filter device from her dad’s office before heading out to see the silver barrier in the night. She leaned on the desk as her classmates bated her for evidence.The thermal goggles and photographs had been confiscated when Jay had been caught. After a moment, Jay pulled out the old disconnected tablet she’d be given as part of her punishment. She traced a picture of a chameleon on the screen – slowly filling the body in the black rectangle with red, orange and green swirls to create a psychedelic movement of heat. It was nothing like what the media had showed them on the screens. Jay smiled like it was a joke afterwards. A head, two long arms and legs. It looked human.
Jay signaled with her hand to move closer. Iris seemed stuck behind the first gate – second thoughts freezing her legs in a game, which held the tangible risk of being caught. After months of planning, they had agreed to take a second shot at photographing the Chameleons beyond the barrier.
The night air felt cool on Jay’s skin. She wondered if the cameras could catch their warm clouds of breath despite the cloaking devices she’d stolen for them. Jay moved stealthily towards the wall – leaving Iris behind after she received a wave back to move forward. Jay stopped in front of the marked panels of the silver barrier. With a copy of her dad’s new security card, Jay brought that section of the fake metal filter down. It was like peeling away a circle in the metal facade. She didn’t let herself cross the open space because she knew from Iris’ research, that an invisible electric fence was still in place.
Beyond the concrete was an open field that stretched for a mile before giving way to a forest. The trees cradled a hybrid city where the metal fixtures were balanced with energy conservation mechanisms in the form of twisted green spires and bridges. It was so quiet. Jay had never seen a hybrid city so close to her before. She had been caught too quickly the first time to see it. It was beautiful. Jay could imagine the sustainable havens the government talked about building for their own city. She went still like a cat as she gazed through the porthole into the green eye of that world – trying to fix the image in her mind. She soon shifted her focus to the human shaped creature in the night, which emitted a slow humming sound. A vision of the trees and the creatures from her childhood flickered through her mind as she listened to its familiar song. Iris heard the click of the thermal camera when Jay finally pressed the button. She couldn’t believe her eyes when Jay sent her the thermal image.
Abruptly, the metal filter reappeared – shutting out the night creature’s world. The metallic sound of the alarm drowned out the creature’s song. Jay and Iris found themselves surrounded by a small circle of guards in the grey uniform of the Border.
Jay glanced at the guards’ faces as they were patted down but the thermal visors blocked their eyes. They were escorted to see her father in Security. He held out an unexpected ultimatum. The alternative was a memory wipe or an educational placement elsewhere. Iris faced the same choice in another room. Without hesitating, they both took the main offer. Iris wanted to know more rather than less about the creatures. Jay reasoned ‘Security training’ would bring her closer to the Chameleons.
After an accelerated five year period of training, Jay tightened the headset in the middle of a Security office. Iris kept a constant monitor through the thermal imaging screens. The Chameleons’ forms drifted across them. Jay had learned over time that they were almost like jail guards to prisoners in watching the Chameleons – no-one could enter and no-one could come out.
Security had given them a small bite of uncensored history which explained the mixed tales of the media. A hundred years ago, the cities exchanged everything freely between them until the citizens of the Dome developed the ability to mimic their surroundings. The monitoring system was set up when the fear grew over what weaponry the Chameleons could develop inside the Dome.
‘Jay – can you check your quarter – mine is acting up pretty weird – there’s a whole flock moving south at a steady pace.’
She touched her screen to see a similar phenomena heading towards the wall closest to the south-east track route near their city. Jay had also grown to felt protective of the Chameleons over time. She felt the instinctive need to go out alone to meet them but it was too late to stop Iris reporting the breach to the higher ranking officers.
The outbreak came quickly. Ten minutes after Iris had reported the disappearance of the Chameleon’s heat signatures, they reappeared on their other side of the barrier. The electric barrier which mimicked a silver wall had been disabled by the Chameleons for the first time. Jay was immediately sent outside with a security team. Iris also passed on a message to warn any trains approaching the South-East pass.
Jay still remembered the way they overtook the train carriages. At first, no-none could see them without the thermal goggles. They revealed themselves with their own technology. A small device in their palms lit up their flickering midnight blue skins in a silver webbed pattern. They were like walking constellations to her eyes.
After years of losing herself in drawing and rendering images of the chameleons and studying the biology of their invisible skins, Jay froze. Her eyes began to move up and down them with an artist’s gaze – scanning their human-like proportions to replicate them later. It was beautiful and paralysing. She had found the creation of her daydreams but it was not what she had imagined at all.
One of them stared at her with silver eyes as if it were studying her. An image of the silver wall breaking flickered through her mind like a dart. Jay broke her gaze away from the Chameleon. She’d seen a similar vision in the dreams of her childhood.
The head security team soon stepped in to neutralize them with their tranquilizers and guns but nothing worked against their protective skin device. One of them spoke the common tongue in a deep voice.
‘We are seeking asylum from our city. We have been treated like prisoners and not people inside the city we once called Paradise. I desire to know the world outside of Paradise without being hunted for disagreeing with our government’s views. Leaving the city by force was the only way we could pursue this action.’
Under the chameleon’s gaze, Jay glimpsed another vision of being chased down an ivy green hallway in a city – the creature’s heart beating out of control as it ran. The vision was cut short as Jay was pushed and ordered out of the area when the head security teams started to take over negotiations.
The fallout of the breach couldn’t be controlled when the media reported it. The news flew quickly through the virtual portals. However, the singing sound the creatures made was at a pitch most humans couldn’t hear. Jay had quietly researched this quirk. Her unusual ability to hear them helped pushed her to wrangle for the interview with a Chameleon as they continued to seek legitimate asylum and attention from the media.
It had chosen to be visible again. Lit up under the artificial light of the office, the chameleon stood like a male human near a steel chair. One grey hand rested on the chair’s back – naturally camouflaging against it. Perhaps, it was unaccustomed to using chairs, Jay observed.
She sat down in the opposite chair. The silver eyes watched her before mimicking her movement to sit in a fluid motion. Jay saw it shift in the chair as if uncomfortable with the hard surface. She wanted to offer a smile but wasn’t sure if that would be read as an aggressive or welcoming act. Jay settled with a poker face despite her heart beating fast. Perhaps, she’d just imagined the hallucinations being passed from the chameleon to her.
‘Thank you for accepting our request for an interview. I am Jamie Serapha.’
‘I am called Cyrus.’
Jay noted that there were no childhood visions that accompanied the chameleon’s gaze this time. ‘How did you learn our language?’ Her curiousity deviated from the set questions.
‘We have places that teach the words inside Paradise. It is written on the tablet.’
On the table between them, a testimony about the Dome as written by Cyrus rested on the screen. It was to be released to the media in the afternoon by a supportive human activist party.
‘May I?’ Cyrus carefully pulled the screen tablet to her side.
A testimony by a former citizen of Paradise:
When I saw it through the looking glass, I almost didn’t recognize it. The green eye belonged to a human wearing dark clothes as in the pictures of our ancestors that hung in the great library -museum in Paradise.
Jay’s own memories of that night flickered across her mind. Cyrus smiled. He began to hum the song that had haunted Jay’s childhood as she read.
I’d practiced using a camera to take pictures of my world – none of our people showed up in a complete way like our ancestors. There were always fragments of our bodies taken in the images. A head or an arm or someone’s crossed leg showed in certain shades of light as we grew up – before the chameleon skin took over and that human skin disappeared.
Jay glanced down at the attached images – the people in the photographs were indeed growing and disappearing over time in a forest. Her memories of similar visions from her childhood passed over them.
In Paradise, no-one could judge each other based on the exterior. Our eyes became accustomed to recognizing each other’s heat signatures at night. ‘Paradise’ was the slogan that remained since our government had been set up but I knew there were others like us who wanted to see elsewhere.
My brother had the same hunger to know which had brought him to this side of the barrier years ago. He had given up on waiting for someone to break the barrier. It was a sin to get to close to it but I saw him in the distance – his body lit up like fire did before disappearing once more in the sunlight. He’d just reached out – one hand against the wall. The elders say he was punished. They found the electrified wall to be a useful deterrence for us.
Cyrus’ memories flashed through her mind as he sang quietly. In one of his memories, Jay could sense a warm hand waving her forward in the summer night of the hybrid forest city of Paradise. She almost stopped reading again but Cyrus pushed the screen back to her after the vision ended.
My people had grown accustomed to the silence around the barrier. I had been singing quietly for all those who had approached it. Their bodies were cold when we dragged them away from it.
His song died. Cyrus opened his hand unconsciously – the way his brother had in the memory of the forest he had passed to her. Jay had listened to the mourning song for so long but she wasn’t sure if she could answer it. She took the silver hand into her own. His skin was warm.
The Dome had become a model environmental example for Jay’s city but the strict government policies of Paradise to preserve an elite genetically altered race had suffocated citizens like Cyrus. He had wanted to connect to their ancestors – to other humans.
After leaving Security, Jay began to study the genetic links between humans and Chameleons which she discovered, gave rise to her unusual visions. She also began following Cyrus’ story as an activist – specialising in reporting and conducting documentaries to introduce the public to the reality of the Chameleons as people like and unlike themselves. They found their own images to expose the world where the invisible people came from.