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art by Tim Stewart

Imaginary Enemies

Colum was born and bred in Brummiegum, England, though he does NOT have the accent. He sold his soul to science fiction in the 70's, and has been waiting since then for SF to fulfill its side of the bargain, and for his personal jetpack, robot housekeeper, Venusian girlfriend and Martian holiday-home to appear. He's still waiting.

Sandra Barclay awoke to find a whole day of her life missing. She didn't go looking for it, she was used to missing days. On her bedside table the expected note rested, folded in an inverted "V" on the pad it had been torn from. Upon this page Sandra's eyes met a confident, looping scrawl, a sharp contrast to her own fastidious lettering:
Heya Sis!
Well, I got us to that clinic on time, they say there's nothing to worry about. Spent most of the time with my head in a neural scanner, answering weird questions. I mean really weird questions, like a psych test. Very "Tell me the good things you remember about your mother." They say these questions "illuminate" areas of the brain, so they can check them for tumors. I didn't know about this, must be state-of-the-art.
Anyway, all clear, apparently. You had me worried there, I have had a few headaches myself recently. You know, maybe you're just overworking yourself, us, a bit?
Do I understand that Alain's history? I hope so, I never liked him. You can do better. Have more belief in yourself.
I know this is taking liberties, but Caroline is back in play. We had something of a rapprochement, so, if you should bump into her, be a dear and show willing, please?
Oh, we're out of loo roll. Sorry.
Luv, Ingrid XX
Tonight Sandra would be writing a note back, full of the usual reprimands and requests. But the recent notes were full of something new: lies. Lies about the headaches, the clinic, and the future. Unless, of course, she was the one being lied to. That possibility had occurred to her, she wasn't stupid.
She wasn't stupid, she'd just not had the aptitudes that her parents had wanted. Had they left her alone, Sandra was sure she'd have developed into something, she wasn't sure what, but something. But they were too comfortable with the idea of paying for a technical fix, so they'd put her in for Neural Actuation. The underdeveloped areas of her brain, the bits mummy and daddy deemed important, were technologically massaged into wakefulness. Thus Sandra would be launched upon the career they had mapped out for her.
But Sandra hadn't wanted her life mapped out. She'd wanted to be left alone to find her own path. Maybe her resentment had somehow been the grit in the gears of the plan. Or maybe she was just unlucky. At first Sandra's grades in the approved-of subjects soared, but then something started to change. She could only concentrate on those subjects on certain days. Other days she'd feel a resistance, a revulsion to even thinking about them. Then one day she stared at pages of notes she didn't remember writing, scribbled in a flowing hand that wasn't hers, and as undecipherable as hieroglyphics.
The discovery of that first note had been terror. Foolishly, she'd told her parents. Foolishly, they'd tried to get it fixed. An entry had been made on a database somewhere, and that could never be erased. Then, just to make sure Sandra's life was truly wrecked, someone who'd been vetted and checked by expensive Neural Profiling had gone and done the Chicago bombings. How had they gotten past all the checks? Simple, they were a "Jekyll," like Sandra.
Sandra hadn't seen nor even spoken to her parents in years. Ingrid still did, she couldn't stop that. She doubted they missed her, Ingrid was the daughter they'd always wanted, after all.
But not for much longer. Ingrid had gone in for the brain-scan. Everything could change now. No more lost days. No more waking up next to strangers--strange women--in her bed. No more fallings-out and wars with the invisible person who stole a day whenever she closed her eyes to sleep. No more being marked as a Jekyll, who couldn't be trusted with decent work.
No more notes.
No more Ingrid.
Get up. Kettle on. Wash. Tea. More tea (takes two to get the engine going). Time to get dressed.
The two small, cheap wardrobes crowded the room, glaring disapprovingly at each other across the foot of the bed. The clothes in both were cheap, trying to be something they weren't. They'd both had some better clothes in the past, but a war of tit-for-tat, ending in the burning of possessions, had left them impoverished to the tune of two pairs of jeans, a t-shirt, and a parka jacket. Recovering from that had taken a while, and they'd had to buy cheap.
Sandra went to hers, rustled through its stash of ghostly pastels. Cream, powder-blue, beige, grey. Camouflage. Carefully cut invisibility. The other wardrobe was a chorus of colour: strong reds, blues, greens. T-shirts with desperate-for-attention slogans on them. One actually had the word "Slut" written diagonally across it in diamante pointillism. Sandra had tried it on once, looked at herself, branded and labeled in the mirror, and wondered how anyone could cheerfully wear this rebuke, like a scarlet letter or a yellow star. She frequently worried what trouble Ingrid might get them into, dressing like that. And that was just the start of it: What might be hidden on Ingrid's beaten-up old laptop, that Sandra could only access via a guest account? What might Ingrid let slip to the wrong people? What might she be involved in? Would Sandra go to sleep one night and due to Ingrid's actions, never wake up?
Sandra cast a reproachful glance at the other wardrobe, and thought: Does she stand before the mirror in my clothes, and wonder the same things?
Sandra rode the bus into town. She enjoyed bus-rides, with their sensation of going somewhere without effort. Papers in store windows carried headlines about a politician being outed as a Jekyll. One of the tabloids displayed two images of him, with different expressions, one beatific, one fearsome, montaged together into a two-faced comic-strip villain. "Should we trust this man?" asked the headline.
The DeSoto institute did most of its work in Neural Profiling, vetting prospective prospective employees for business or government; the kind of thing they used to do with handwriting analysis, except Neural Profiling works. It could take weeks of asking probing questions and monitoring which bits of brain lit up, but eventually you had a detailed map of the person. A map of brain activity, something that couldn't be hidden or faked. They could be declared sane and safe for business, high office, as bankers or as airline pilots.
But the DeSoto institute had a new product. One they were offering Sandra for free.
She was early, overeager. At the front desk a thirty-something black woman, pretty and smartly dressed, accent American-posh like her clothes, was in debate with the receptionist. Queuing behind her, Sandra couldn't help but overhear. The American's voice was strained, and her eyes had noticeable bags under them that makeup couldn't hide. "I don't see why it's such an issue," she said, "I just can't make Tuesday."
The receptionist sounded just as weary, "I think you know why it's an issue, Madam."
The American took a breath, smiled, and spoke in tones of extreme reasonableness, "You know full well that today is my day."
"You've not slept," observed the receptionist.
Sandra's skin prickled. Fighting sleep was something she sometimes did to avoid becoming Ingrid. Was this woman a Jekyll too?! How could a Jekyll afford such nice clothes? Had she flown from the States to get treatment? She must be an heiress!
The American denied the accusation: "I only got four hours worth. *She* had to have a night on the town. Didn't get in 'til three. It's stuff like that I'll be glad to see the end of."
"I see," said the receptionist, producing an e-tablet, tapping it a few times, cycling through options. She handed it and the stylus to the American woman. "We'll need a confirming signature," she said.
Maintaining a tight smile the American took it. The receptionist waited until the stylus was poised to write, and then said, "One that matches. It has signature recognition."
The stylus remained hovering above the tablet. The American's smile was gone. She handed the tablet back with a silent, brittle dignity. The receptionist put it away.
God, she's the secondary, realized Sandra, taking a small step away. This woman was the ghost, the Hyde, the Ingrid.
"What I could do for you," said the receptionist, pointedly sliding a hand under her desk, where presumably an alarm button was concealed, "is have your appointment brought forward, to today?"
The other woman's jaw-muscles tightened momentarily. "You can't get away with this," she said.
The receptionist avoided her gaze, staring at her desk "I'm not getting away with anything, Madam. I'm just a receptionist."
The American hovered for a few moments longer, while the receptionist made a big show of moving things about. Then her lower lip began to quiver, and she fled on her sensible heels.
Sandra stepped up to the desk. "Wow. Who was that?" she asked.
"That was nobody," said the receptionist bluntly. "Who are you?"
"Uh, Sandra Barclay. I have an appointment."
The tablet appeared again, the receptionist beat out a sequence of jabs with the stylus, as though she were torturing it. She held the e-tablet out to Sandra. "If you wouldn't mind?"
Sandra took the tablet, saw the name on the screen and said, "I'm Sandra, not Ingrid."
"Just checking," said the receptionist, taking back the tablet and making the change. "You've seen how tricksy they can be."
"Ingrid wouldn't fall for that," said Sandra.
"Can she forge your writing?" The tablet was handed back.
"I hope not," said Sandra, carefully carving her signature in the highlighted box, more concerned than ever to make it neat, right. The device made an approving, melodic sound, and glowed green around its frame.
"So, you're somebody," said the receptionist "Doctor Barton will be out shortly."
"Is that yours?" asked Sandra, pointing to something on the desktop.
The receptionist picked it up, one of those expensively-thin phones, little more than a sliver of metal. "Ugh. She must have run off and left it. Great. That means she'll be back." Her brow furrowed as she looked at it and pressed her thumb to its surface a few times. Eventually the phone gave a beep, and she stashed it somewhere under the desk. "Two more days, and I'm out of this madhouse."
"You're leaving?"
For an answer, the receptionist tapped a notice affixed to the desk. "Wanted, part-time receptionist." Sandra had paid it no attention, because her publicly available details on the Mental Health Register ruled her out for anything other than a government employment scheme. But now, reading it, she realized that in a very few days she'd be able to apply for this job. In a very few days, her whole life would be different.
The receptionist was doing the I'm very busy moving stuff around on my desk thing again. Sandra found a seat and commenced waiting. She watched the receptionist, thinking how much she'd prefer being behind a desk than stacking shelves on shifts no one else wanted to do. Had Ingrid sat here, thinking that too? Had she sat here, thinking all was well, not realizing she was being deceived? But then, thought Sandra, am I sitting here, thinking all is well, not realizing--
"Ms. Barclay, and how are we?"
Sandra stifled a yelp, hands twitching up from her lap. "Doctor Barton," she croaked, "Hello."
"My, my, jumpy today. Is everything well?" Barton asked, smiling his fixed, toothy smile.
Sandra wondered if he spoke to everyone like they were his precocious ten-year-old niece, or just her? "I was just thinking," she said, and before Barton could open his mouth to comment on that, "I think I just saw a secondary, and she knew about the treatment. How would she know?"
"Ah, I know who you mean," said Barton, ruefully. "I can't discuss individual cases, but I can say there are those who think it's clever to let the secondaries know, so they know what's coming."
"But that's kind of cruel and... stupid, isn't it?"
"Indeed it is, Ms. Barclay, indeed it is. But some people are driven by revenge, or spite. They want to feel they've won, so they need "the enemy" to know they've lost. It's not cruel really, they are only at war with, and hurting, themselves. It's all just performance and delusion. Still, it says something about them. Sometimes the make-believes are the nicer people."
Sandra wondered what he might think of her in that regard. "How is that decided, actually? I mean, who's who? Who's real?"
"Oh, it's all very technical, Ms. Barclay. The important thing to know, is that it's very unwise to let your secondary suspect anything."
"But, if they're not real, how can I keep secrets from them?"
"Ms. Barclay, many disorders involve the repression of information, blackouts and forgetfulness. In this case it works to our advantage that, during your delusional phase, you don't have access to the previous day's experience."
"But, if she's not real, what harm can she do?"
"The question is, what harm can you do to yourself, eh? Most people don't do anything, but some very strong cases have to carry the act through to its logical conclusion. Only last week we lost Mr Amington. Twelve-story plunge off a public building."
"Oh!" said Sandra, putting hands over her mouth.
"So, no telling, eh?
"No. No, of course not."
"That-a-girl," Barton beamed "Lets get you strapped into the big machine, eh?"
Two representations of brains rotated slowly on the twin screens. "This is you," Barton said, swirling the mouse pointer about a constellation of coloured lights on one screen "and this is, erm, Imogen?"
"Ingrid," Sandra corrected.
"Ah yes. Ingrid. She's more over in the rational left-brain, eh?"
"Rational? She may be good with computers and read books about quantum... stuff, but anything basic and practical, forget it. She's disorganized, forgetful, frustrating."
"Most secondaries are like that. They're play-people your mind has dreamt up at some point as a coping mechanism, an escape. They're good at a few things, but can't handle the complexities of reality. Hmm... you might have to lose some higher mathematics," Barton wobbled the pointer over a brain area that had lit more strongly for Ingrid than Sandra. "Calculus, Binomial Theorem, stuff like that. No great loss, no one ever uses it. I don't know why they bother to teach it."
"If they're not real, the secondaries, how come they show up on a brain-scan?"
Barton laughed "What a good question! Well, when you dream, or read a fairy tale, that shows up too. It doesn't mean unicorns and trolls and talking goats are real."
"But, I got this through Neural Actuation, having underused bits of my brain exercised. Doesn't that mean she's more than a delusion?"
"You were a single child, Ms. Barclay?"
"Uh, yes."
"Quiet, studious, self-esteem issues?"
"Uh, N--"
"Classic background. They keep changing the name of it, but the condition's been around since we were exorcising demons. Your little friend here," he tapped one of the screens, "isn't real. She's an illness. A game you started playing with yourself, and didn't know when to stop. If, as some people do, you imagined that your friend was a seven foot high pink dragon, would you still be arguing for their reality, eh?"
Sandra considered how much worse it would be to share one's existence with a pink dragon. Or perhaps it would be better. "Well, I admit, it would be harder."
"Well then, Imelda isn't real. She's just a phantasm constructed by your curious little mind."
"Ingrid," Sandra corrected.
"Her too."
Three days later, the usual morning letter was accompanied by a package:
Dearest Sandra,
No letter? You are angry with me. It's about the loo roll. I'm sorry, I should have replaced it, but we both let it run down to the last, it's not all my fault. Still, I know I've been remiss in my responsibilities. You must understand, you've always been more organized than me, I forget things when I'm excited.
Well, as a token of my penitence, please find enclosed chocolates, Belgian.
Your sis, Ingrid
P. S: I'm in love, I'm in love, I'm in love. Caroline, Caroline, Caroline. Just writing her name is a pleasure, I could do it forever, filling rooms with illuminated manuscripts of her name. I will write a computer virus that displays the name of the Goddess on every desktop. I will teach the birds to sing it. I will move stars to write it upon the heavens.
Unfortunately, to get her back, I told. I know you don't like people knowing, but if you care for me, then I'm sure you will understand how important this is. She totally understood (as a Wiccan she has an open mind about such things). We can depend on Caroline to keep a secret.
Be happy for me. Ingrid
The next sheet on the pad had the name "Caroline" doodled all over it in winsome calligraphy, with hearts drawn in red biro. "Oh, grow up," Sandra muttered disgustedly, ripping the page away and crumpling it in her hands. She refused to write a response, only crazy people write letters to imaginary friends. Guilt kept her from touching the chocolates.
Pain-au-chocolat this morning, heated in the microwave. Sandra was feeling a little self-indulgent. Her sleep had been haunted by dreams in which she was the receptionist, but the desk became a court dock, and her hands were bound, and the sentence was read to her from the screen of an e-tablet.
She reached out for the inverted "V" that was resting on the table, larger than usual, and not written on a page from the notepad.
It wasn't a letter, but a print out of an email to ingrid_barclay@gmail.com
Ms. Barclay,
I share with you the dubious honor of being among the 2% diagnosed with Induced Multiple Personality Disorder after Neural Actuation treatment. My other half has recently been approached by a clinic specializing in the treatment of mental disorders. The doctors there have proclaimed her to be the "primary" personality, by which it appears that they mean the "real" one. I have been designated as the "secondary."
They have a radical new means of treating I.M.P.D. It involves the highly focused delivery of X-ray radiation into the cerebral cortex, knocking out isolated chunks of brain cells. They use Neural Profiling to map out which areas of the brain are active when each of the personalities has control. Having established such a map, they can destroy a few of the brain areas related to the "secondary" personality, or personalities.
Apparently this has little effect on the "primary" but the secondary personality collapses.
No, let me call it what it is: The secondary personality DIES.
The name of the clinic is The DeSoto Institute, which I think should be familiar to you, as I saw your alter there five days ago. At some point she will request you attend the clinic for a series of brain scans, if she has not already done so. She will claim terrible headaches and hallucinations, and that the doctor has suggested the possibility of a brain tumor. Once they have the scans, they can go to the next stage of the process. SHE MEANS TO KILL YOU.
Neither the police, nor any other organization will help. The institute receives a fat government grant for every "cure." Everyone is terrified of us since Chicago.
You are in the gravest danger. Please meet me at noon today at Rosa's Cafe on Dungannon street. I will be the Afro-American woman in the red coat and green scarf (a horrible combination, but for just that reason there is unlikely to be anyone else fitting my description). I shall wait there for you until 2 pm.
Yours, Martha Sinclair
There was nothing from Ingrid, just this letter left as accusation. In a panic, Sandra phoned the DeSoto Institute.
"Oh dear," Barton's voice crackled over a bad line. He sounded like he was commiserating with a child who'd lost a favorite toy. "Still, not to worry!"
"Not to worry!" Sandra screeched. "She knows! What if she tries to kill herself?! Me!? Us?!"
"She won't. You won't. Firstly, she's let you know she knows. This tells me she wants dialogue. She doesn't know how much time she has left, but she won't want to throw it away. The best thing you can do is give her dialogue. Write to her and tell her it's not true."
"Why would she believe me?"
"She knows you. She is you. She'll want to believe. She doesn't know Martha Sinclair. Tell her Martha's crazy. Secondaries tend to be gullible. It might work."
"Well, If you don't deny it,that's practically an admission of guilt, isn't it? You've nothing to lose. Meantime, we'll bring your operation forward. We'll have to bump someone of course, but this is an emergency."
At last, he seemed to be taking the matter seriously. "Could you do that? That'd be great!" Sandra enthused. The pathetic gratitude in her own voice disgusted her.
"'Course we can, Ms. Barclay. All part of the service. Meanwhile, write to Imelda, denying everything."
"Ingrid." Sandra corrected. But he'd already hung up.
The pen hovered above the paper as though unsure where to land. Somehow, writing a lying letter seemed worse even than the fate she'd secretly planned for Ingrid. It didn't seem right that she got chocolates and Ingrid got lies.
She forced the pen down onto the paper. It resisted all the way.
Dear Ingrid,
That letter you left confused and scared me. I thought maybe you, we, were going mad, despite the all-clear from the clinic. I phoned them and they tell me this Martha woman actually exists. She's well known for having a head full of crazy conspiracy theories, and has an entry on the Register that says she might be dangerous. She's not even American. She frequently causes trouble at the clinic. Last time I was there, she caused such a scene that the receptionist has quit!
As for the science-fictional aspects of her tale, Doctor Barton says there's no safe way to zap bits of people's brains with X-rays, X-rays go all the way through and all over the place, you can't direct them so accurately. You, of all people, should know stuff like this! Do you think they're going to allow such things after the Neural Actuation scandal? Do you think I would go near anything that involved messing with my brain, given past experience? Really, you are the last person I would have expected to be taken in by such tales!
Speaking of the clinic, they now reckon the headaches are linked to high blood pressure. Looks like you were right that I've just been stressing out. I'm afraid there's a new diet for both of us.
Oh, and you are forgiven about the toilet roll.
Luv, Sandra
Sandra awoke to find herself puffy-eyed. She had a hang-over. In mirrors she saw the dried mascara tear-tracks decorating her face. The bathroom mirror had the word "Bitch" scrawled across it in her most expensive lipstick. The remainder of the lipstick, along with a number of other small possessions (including the old ipod they shared) had been chucked into a saucepan of water, and ritually boiled. All the chocolate in the flat had been consumed.
The letter told her what she'd already guessed:
Dear black-hearted-bitch-from-hell,
Your last letter was the warmest you ever wrote me. That alone made me suspect you were lying. Did you think I couldn't check? Do you think I'm stupid? Martha's story checks out to the last. It's not enough that you want to kill me, you have to lie to me too?!
What did I ever do to deserve this? After all our time together? After all we've been through? I thought we were sisters! How could you?
How could you? HOW COULD YOU?
Fuck you. Ingrid
P.S. Fuck you. Did I say that already? F U C K Y O U.
Panic. What might Ingrid have done? In previous wars Sandra's bank cards had been shredded. Sandra didn't know where Ingrid kept money, though it was probably in Sandra's name as there was no proof-of-identity for "Ingrid Barclay." But Sandra had never found any details of it and this put her at a tactical disadvantage. A check confirmed her cards were untouched. She could start hiding them somewhere, but she couldn't hide her clothes. Ingrid might trash her wardrobe again, just like old times. If so, Sandra decided she wouldn't retaliate (that had been stupid), she'd just dress as Ingrid, in technicolor.
As she entered the flat, there had been something, perhaps a hint of perfume, or some animal sixth-sense of impending danger. Then a voice said "Hello Sandra." The woman who had been hiding behind the door was smaller than her, mousy blonde, one of those hippie braids in her hair, jeans and a brown leather jacket, a ruby nose stud.
She had something in her right hand.
A knife.
Sandra chose to bluff it, saying Caroline's name as she imagined Ingrid would, smiling.
Caroline tilted her head appraisingly. "What's my pet name? What do you call me?"
"This is ridiculous," said Sandra, "You can't hurt me. You'd be--"
That, of course, was the trigger. A kick in the guts sent Sandra to her knees. Her hair was grasped, her head pulled back. Sandra grappled and batted, no better able to deal with violence than she had been in the school playground. Then something cold touched her throat, and she stopped struggling.
"Don't look at me," hissed Caroline. "Don't look at me with her face. How could you? You've lived with her all your life. How could you?"
"She's not real," Sandra protested.
"If she's not real, how come she shows up on a brain scan?"
"If I think about unicorns, that shows up too."
"Then, who says you're real? You're just a pattern of brain activity too. She's as real as you. KEEP YOUR FACE TURNED, BITCH!! Now listen. She doesn't know about this. This is just between you and me. If you go through with the operation, if you cut her out of this body, then I promise you one day I'll find you and do an operation of my own. Mine will take longer, be messier, and have no anesthetic, but the results will be much the same. Do we understand each other?"
"You can't hurt me!" Sandra said rebelliously "If you do you'll hurt... AAAHHH!! Stop! AAAHH SHIT! PLEASE!"
"I can hurt you. What I can't do is cut you, break you, or kill you. Not while she shares this body."
"B-But you're a Wiccan? Uh... 'Do no harm will be the whole of the law,' or... something. Right?"
Caroline's lips curled in disgust. "You little worm. Don't. Even. Go. There. I will do what I must to defend those I care for, and I'll take the consequences. Do we have an understanding?"
Sandra could only nod her head and hope this madwoman took that for the right answer.
"Good. Well, I'll find my own way out. After all, I got in easily enough."
"Very unfortunate," tutted Barton. "This happens sometimes. People become attached to the secondaries, and start thinking of them as real people. Sign here please."
Sandra did as instructed. "What will happen to her?"
"Oh, nothing sinister. She'll spend a little time in police custody, and then be released. All those new police powers come in very useful at times like this."
"But, when she gets out?"
"She'll do nothing. She'd be the instant suspect, and she'll know she's going to be under surveillance for a while. It would be stupid of her to even come near you. If you're really so worried, we can arrange new housing, and even a new identity for you. Don't worry, we've dealt with this kind of thing before."
"Great. After doing all this to be myself, I have to run away and pretend I'm someone else. I was planning on applying for the receptionist position here."
"Oh, I'm afraid that's gone. Pretty Swedish girl took it yesterday. Ilka, I think her name is."
Just my luck, thought Sandra. Still, there would be a thousand such jobs she could apply for, once she was off the Register.
The letters had resumed:
I am very sorry. Obviously, I found the bruises, and Caroline has confessed all. I swear, I didn't put her up to this.
I know this doesn't help my case at all, but I swear, even when we burned each other's clothes, I never intended you any real harm.
Please respond to this letter. I hope we can come to some mutual understanding that will bring us both back from the brink.
Sorry, sorry, sorry,
Sandra didn't respond. She had nothing to say, and feared that re-opening communications might undermine her resolve. The episode with Caroline had settled the matter: she couldn't live like this. Her life was never going to get any better if she couldn't get control of it, and get off the Mental Health Register.
Over the next few days the letters became more pathetic, desperate, and imploring. Eventually she couldn't bear to read these pleadings from her own sick mind. The dreams kept coming, getting worse. One day she awoke to discover two days had passed instead of the usual one, and that she was sleep-deprived and looked like hell. The question of what Ingrid had done with the extra day nagged at her like a mysterious entry on her bank statement.
The bookstore cafe did a nice spiced chai. It was an extravagance, but one of her few, and Sandra knew how to make it last. She enjoyed coming here when she got off work from the early morning shift. She'd people-watch through the cafe's big glass windows, sketching portraits of them, and root through the store's remainder bins for those novels that, like her, deserved better than they'd got.
There was a child crying in the street below the windows. It couldn't be more than six. Sandra watched people stepping around, ignoring it. She should go down and investigate, but she couldn't take the risk. She was on the Mental Health Register, and if she was caught in possession of someone else's child, who knows what would happen? She remembered past headlines from the post-Chicago panic: "The enemy amongst us," tabloids calling for Jekylls to be locked up. There'd be nothing she could say to convince anyone, and when they found out about Ingrid's sexuality, that would just be more fuel to the fire. What might they find on Ingrid's laptop? What secrets might Ingrid have that would come out and besmirch them both? No, there were plenty of people down there who didn't have to worry about incriminating alter-egos, let one of them deal with it.
One of them was. A woman crouched over the child, clearly asking it the usual questions. Sandra leaned towards the window, squinting. The familiar figure produced a thin, gold mobile phone, pressing it to an ear. Sandra had her stuff packed and was out of the cafe, downstairs, and watching through bookstore's doorway in under a minute. It was the American woman from the clinic, the one who had grassed her to Ingrid. Sandra was sure of it. Or, she was sure it was the same body. She couldn't know who was currently in possession of it.
The woman kept a controlling hand on the child, while speaking on her phone. What was she thinking? Being a Jekyll was risky enough, but to be a foreign, black one, and now with someone's child, was practically suicide. Sandra had visions of the American being discovered by the screaming mother, accused of baby-snatching.
The police were impressively swift. Of course they were, they've only to feed the caller's name into a database, see a reference to the Mental Health Register, and they'll be there like a shot. Sandra wouldn't have been surprised if it was an armed response unit. As it was, there were two officers, one woman, one man, apparently on foot patrol, but accompanied by another woman whom Sandra assumed might be a police psychologist. It was only when the child went to her that Sandra realized she was the mother. She and the American shook hands. The cops chatted. The child ceased crying. Smiles all 'round.
If I'd tried that, I'd be wearing handcuffs and bruises now, thought Sandra.
The American broke from the group and strode away. Sandra was sure she
could see smug satisfaction in the woman's stride, I did a good thing. Sandra regretted not doing it herself, in the end it had seemed so easy. She'd often imagined doing a good thing, showing that Jekylls were good citizens too. But you were only a Jekyll when something bad happened, when you did right, you were just a "good citizen." Still, someone had stood up for the team.
But who? Jekyll, or Hyde?
She had to know.
Sandra dived from the bookstore. She set off at a half-trot after the American, weaving through the crowd getting affronted looks from people whose paths she cut. Finally she almost ran into her quarry, who had stopped to study a shop window.
Sandra hovered, but the woman seemed oblivious to her presence, perhaps thinking her a fellow window shopper. "Excuse me," Sandra said at last.
The woman looked up. She still had that glow-of-good-citizen, smug smile, bright eyes. When she saw who had spoken, it drained out of her face like wine from a broken bottle.
"Uh, hi" said Sandra. "You, uh, used your phone to listen in on me at the DeSoto institute? And you told my alter?"
The other woman's eyes were full of doubts, but she didn't scream, run, or attack. She just said "Hello. Sandra, isn't it? I wasn't listening in on you. I was hoping to catch something from that bitch behind the desk, something I could use to save myself."
"So, you're the secondary?"
"The secondary? And what does that mean?"
"Not the primary personality. The, uh, real personality?"
"Do you actually believe that? If I'm not real, who are you talking to?"
"It gets complicated," said Sandra.
"I'm what you would call the primary."
"Uh, right."
"No, I am. I know because I did this to myself. My parents wanted me to be a lawyer or investment banker. Something high flying and... well... white, if you know what I mean."
"So they--"
"No. They didn't have to. Turned out I was rather good at that sort of thing, those subjects. But I didn't want to be. I wanted to be creative, charismatic, loud and sexy; rock-star or author or artist."
Sandra fought to keep her face straight, but must have lost that battle, because the woman, Martha, said, "Yeah, I know how that sounds," looking miserable in her smart suit and sensible shoes. "Instead, I was doing business studies and finance, acing it, and hating every minute. But, if you're good at the things they want, and bad at the things you want to do, you've got no argument. Until Neural Actuation."
"You put yourself in for the treatment?"
"Yes, in my twenties. Lots of people did. I had my own money by then, more than I needed. I thought it was just another makeover, like when I changed my name from Ayesha to Martha because it would look better on job applications. That counted against me too, of course, because it allowed her to establish herself as having been there first, just by picking up the name I'd thrown aside. Now, I've tried and tried, but she won't listen. One of us has to go."
"But, you could prove it. You could do something like take an exam in a subject you were good at as a child? You'd do well, she wouldn't."
Martha gave a bitter laugh. "And the loser gets murdered? Well, I suppose exams always were cruel. But you see, that won't work, because no one cares what I can prove."
"What? The institute--"
"The mail you got from the DeSoto institute. Who was it addressed to?"
"No. It was addressed to "Ms. Barclay." They don't mention first names. They don't care who finds it. They just want one person in one body, everything's more manageable that way. But if Ingrid had found that letter, she'd have torn it up."
"You don't know that."
"But I do. I've met her. She'd never agree to this. What is it that makes you okay with this, Sandra? If you had separate bodies, like twins, but they said there's only room for one of you, because of your carbon footprint; so sit this exam and the loser gets taken outside and shot through the back of the head, would you agree to that too?"
"This is different. Ingrid's not real, I'm just ill."
"Then I'm not real either, because if you see me in two weeks time, I'll be dressed differently. I'll speak differently. I'll answer to another name. This person you're speaking to now will be gone. And you're not real either, because the same can be done to you." She pulled the gold phone from inside her jacket, selecting options on its screen with her thumb. "I think if you met her, if you saw her, you wouldn't be able to tell yourself she's not real." She held out the phone to Sandra.
"What's that?"
"Someone you've never seen."
Scratchy voices started to buzz from the phone. Martha held it out further. "Come on," she said, "what are you afraid of?"
"I--I've got to go."
"Something else about Ingrid," said Martha, "she's not a coward."
The morning was clear, cold and crisp. The diamond-hard start to a
difficult day. She selected a powder blue suit with a white, mandarin-collar blouse: today's disguise. She'd been in disguise for a week already, as Ida, the Finnish secretary. Heavy makeup, height-enhancing heels, Martha's clothes, and using a probably stolen identity supplied by some of Caroline's dodgier friends. Her own computer skills, and the usual poor data-security, had made it easy to access and switch the brain-scans and alter appointment times.
They'd done Martha first, "Ida" overriding the signature recognition on the
e-tablet. She was going in as Sandra today, "Ida" having phoned in sick.
A riskier deception, because the other receptionist might spot the changed appointment times or smell any kind of rat.
She had to cry for a bit, seeing herself in the bathroom mirror (still with traces of the word "Bitch" scrawled across it) dressed in pastels, and with her hair up, an image of a person she'd never met. The acceptance she'd always hoped for was never going to come. She had to cut her losses, pull herself together and go and do what had to be done. In the end, it all came down to survival.
The taxi was late. Glancing at the clock on the beside table, she spotted the letter, standing in its inverted V. There hadn't been one in days, she'd stopped checking for them, resenting the daily disappointment.
Outside, a car-horn signaled the arrival of the taxi.
Ingrid reached for the note.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 4th, 2011

Author Comments

This was the first short story I wrote, back in the day when something like an "e-tablet" was still a glint in the eyes of futurists. Since then it's been hacked and reworked so many times that I doubt a single word of the original remains.

The idea came from one of my many friends-I've-never-met (hello Tiffany!) who was an amateur filmmaker who wanted to collaborate with someone in a different country, but was despairing of the lack of plots suitable for a cast of two actors who could never be in the same frame, because they were distant from each other. The idea of stories where the two main characters communicate, but never meet, resonated with me. This story is one of the results.

- Colum Paget
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