The Other Me

by

Ken Honeywell

 

I was in the middle of my backswing on the tenth fairway when I got the call about the other me.  The phone implant tingled in my ear and nearly caused me to shank my shot. That by itself wouldn't have been horrible; after all, this was client golf, and my client, Gordon Ridgeway, was up only a stroke or two, even though I'd set my clubs to hit fifteen yards shorter than usual.

Tingle means trouble.  My implant is set to accept only priority one calls, so the news had to be very good or very bad.  Jillian St. Claire was my only priority one.  In the thirteen years we've been partners, I've never known her to make a priority one call with good news.

I squeezed my earlobe to make the connection.  "This had better be serious, Jillian."  Jillian and I have our differences, but we also have our understandings.  Business is business, and interrupting client golf is bad form.

"Oh, it's serious, Andrew," Jillian said.  "But first, I'm just dying to know: does our fat friend Ridgeway modify his body for VR, or is he still just as disgusting in there?"

I was in no mood to spar with Jillian today.  I had a golf match to lose.  "The point, Jillian?" I asked.

"The point, my dear Andrew, is that Ridgeway is just a fat little runt compared to Rilandt Technologies, and this is Wednesday.  Remember?" Jillian said.

"The point, Jillian?"  I knew damn well what day it was.

"The point is that we have yet to see anything out of the office of J. Andrew Conklin.  The programmers are waiting for concepts.  Accounting is waiting to run the numbers.  But we're at a standstill until you deliver the proposal, and right now we have nothing."

"What do you mean, 'nothing?'" I asked.

"What do you think I mean, Andrew?  Nothing.  Not a section heading.  Not a line of concept.  Nothing."

"Did you check with--"

"Your door is locked, my darling.  No one can get in but you," Jillian said.

Shit.  The Rilandt presentation was less than forty-eight hours away.  And nothing was done?  I'd spent three years trying to get a foothold at Rilandt--three years of sucking up and lunches at Sarno's and basketball tickets and Virtualinks.  Now the other me was going to piss it all away.  God, sometimes I hate myself.

To make matters worse, business wasn't the greatest right then.  We'd just lost the Camden account after screwing up one selling module too many.  And with Wattsetera having trouble freeing up cash for promotions and almost certain budget reductions at Fargo Industries, we needed Rilandt Technologies.  This was not a good time for a doppelganger breakdown.

Overhead, a virtual finch trilled and darted into a virtual sycamore.  Off in the distance, the virtual sprinklers chattered and spun and discharged their data, keeping the virtual fairways green and lush.  I sighed.  Just at that moment, it didn't matter that the blue sky and the birds and the bent grass were figments of the imaginations of the programmers at Virtualinks.  A beautiful day is a beautiful day, and I did not want to abandon it for a confrontation with my doppelganger.  But I knew I'd have to handle the situation in person.

"Don't let the other me leave the building," I said resignedly.  "Meet me in the lobby in twenty minutes.  Bring a wire."

"Run, Andrew," said Jillian.

#

I took the crosstown express tube to the office. The damn thing's acceleration nauseates me, but the alternative is the local, a grim affair that winds through the steel towers, the crumbling concrete housing units and stops every few blocks, exchanging streetpeople for college students, students for shopkeepers, shopkeepers for accounting clerks, trundling them uptown to professional level and back down to their midtown homes.  The express is professional-level and skyview only, never descending past gaming level.  The city is a colorful blur in the window, mottled and vibrant, not at all like it really is.

When I arrived, Jillian met me in the lobby. She wore a short red dress that fit her like a snarl.

"Andrew," she said, throwing me a look that was either seductive or condescending or both.  "How good of you to come."

I often wonder how Jillian and I became partners, and question whether I'd go into business with her again.  I suppose I would.  She has a good marketing head, and her client service skills are considerable, in part because, unlike me, she has no conscience to wrestle, another character trait I find both repulsive and attractive.  I've slept with her--or her doppelganger--only once.  Right then, looking into her green eyes, I wondered whether she or the doppelganger looked back.  But I supposed it didn't matter.  Jillian was Jillian.

She leaned into me and pressed the wire into my hand.  "Get a grip on yourself, Andrew.  And try not to make a mess."  She whirled on her spike heels and swaggered away down the corridor.

A mess was not going to be easy to avoid.  When the other me gets this way, the situation is already a mess.  I walked slowly toward my office, turning the wire in my hand.  It was so simple, so powerful, just a black plastic casing and one little button.  Press the button, and a receiver implanted in the doppelganger's head shoots an electrical charge through the brain.  Instant termination.

I certainly didn't want it to come to that.  If I fried the other me, I'd have to file a termination report with the American Doppelganger Organization, renew my permit, sit for the brain download and the DNA sculptor.  Most distressing of all, it meant three weeks without a doppelganger.  Three weeks of doing everything myself.  Handling everything at the office.  Canceling my cruise.  Spending actual fleshtime with Jenna.  Or her doppelganger.  One can never be certain these days, even with one's own wife.

My office door was closed and code-protected.  I pressed my palm against the sensor and felt the lock slide back into the door.  I walked into my office, wire in my coat pocket, my finger on the button, just in case.

I needn't have worried.  The situation was exactly as I'd anticipated, and it made me angry and more than a little nauseated.  The other me sat behind my desk, feet up, staring out the window, not bothering to turn around when I came in.  It wasn't necessary.  I couldn't have been anyone else.

"Working hard?" I asked.

The other me smiled.  "Yes, actually.  I've been doing a lot of thinking."

"Of course. That's what I do best, isn't it?" I said, coating every word with a thick layer of sarcasm, hoping to shame the other me into reality.  "In fact, that's what I get paid to do: have productive thoughts about marketing and promotion for great, big companies that make little plastic discs.  And, speaking of getting paid, where's that Rilandt proposal upon which so many future paychecks depend?"

"I can't do it," said the other me.

"Won't do it," I corrected.

"No," said the other me, "I really can't.  I've given too much of myself to this kind of bullshit, and I just can't do it anymore."

I reached into my jacket pocket again and folded my hand around the wire.  I wasn't ready to dispose of the other me quite yet, but the situation wasn't too encouraging.

"This can get very messy," I said, "or not.  But I have a good thing going here, and I'm not about to compromise it."

The other me turned and smiled.  "Good thing going.  Big-paying job.  Nice suits.  Memberships at all the hottest VR clubs.  A beautiful wife.  An adoring mistress."

I flushed with embarrassment.  For some reason, I have trouble admitting my marital indiscretions, even to myself.  I really have no reason to feel ashamed.  Jenna and I have grown apart over the years, and I refuse to live my life in celibacy.  I do not have to justify Angelique to anyone.  But, still. . .

"I never pretended to be a saint," I said, regaining my composure.  "Jenna has a doppelganger, too."

"That doesn't make it right," the other me said.

"No, it doesn't," I agreed.  "But that's the way it is.  Nobody said everything had to be right."

The other me stared out the window.  "I just can't do this any more.  I'm wasting my life with this stuff.  And I feel so goddamn trapped in here."

"Oh, God save me from puking," I said.  The other me twitched and looked ashamedly at the floor.  "It's the tree surgeon dream again, isn't it?  What are there, three, four trees left in Detroit?"

"What I mean is--"

"I know very well," I said.  "Tree surgeon.  Jesus H. Christ.  I've been down this road ten thousand times.  But, the fact is, this is reality.  I'm a businessman.  Is that so bad?  So much to deal with?"

The other me shook my head.  "Let me go, then.  Let me just try it.  No one would have to know."

I smiled as I sat on the corner of the desk.  I picked up my smooth black globe, a gift from Angelique, and rolled it in my hands.  "I can't do that.  It's against the law.  One person, one doppelganger, one job."

"Nobody said everything had to be right," said the other me, spitting my words right back at me.

"I'm not going to prison," I said.

"But I could--"

"No."

And that was it.  I knew right then I'd have to use the wire, send my doppelganger back to the meat vat and order a new one.  I didn't want to write the Rilandt proposal or have dinner with Jenna or handle all that doppelganger crap.  But I realized long ago that sometimes you have to make decisions you don't like.  Sometimes, all your options suck.

I pulled the wire out of my pocket.  I raised my thumb to push the button.

"I wouldn't do that," the other me said.

"And why not?" I laughed.  "Have we had a sudden change of heart?"

"No.  But think carefully.  What happened the last time this 'tree surgeon dream' came up?"

What happened?  "The same thing happens every time.  I try reasoning.  I try taunting.  I see the situation is hopeless.  I press the button, and poof!  The job is done."

"Think carefully."

"And why in the hell should I?" I asked.  I was beginning to feel even more put out with the whole situation.

"When that button is pushed, exactly who is going to get zapped?  Think carefully.  What happened last time?"

I froze.   I could tell by the expression on the other me's face that this was not a joke, not a trap.  And suddenly, I understood: the other me was implying that maybe I wasn't exactly who I thought I was.

What if the other me was really me?  What if, somehow, everything got mixed up and turned around?  What if the other me had been playing golf with Gordon Ridgeway and the real Andy Conklin had agreed to do the Rilandt proposal, because it was just so damn important, so critical to the future of Conklin St. Claire, to my own financial security?

What if, when I pushed that button, it was my own brain that fried?

But that was ridiculous!  I'd never let my doppelganger enjoy my life while I did the work.  Never!  And yet. . .

I couldn't remember when I'd had my last brain download.

My hands started shaking.  I couldn't focus, couldn't think straight.

This was just what the other me hoped would happen.  "Put the wire down," the other me said, with a touch of gentleness.  Then I saw the gun.

A gun.  The other me held an old-fashioned, gunpowder bullet gun, the kind you see in old action flicks.  I looked like goddamn Indiana Jones holding that thing.

"Where in the hell did that come from?" I asked.

"A pawn shop down on Third Street.  I found it in the desk here.  But I didn't buy it.  That is, I bought it, but I didn't buy it, although I remember buying it because I have all of J. Andrew Conklin's memories.  That's why I'm saying 'think carefully.'  What happened last time?"

"I don't remember!  Just tell me!" I yelled.

The other me smiled my sad, ironic smile.  "This happened, of course.  Two Andy Conklins.  One with a wire.  One with a gun.  Which Andy Conklin won?  I don't know.  All I know is, I didn't buy the gun and my doppelganger obviously doesn't remember buying it."

The other me aimed the gun at my chest.  Cold sweat tingled along my upper lip.  I still held my thumb over the button on the wire, the button that could resolve this problem here and now.  But how?  I didn't know.  I couldn't risk it.

"Drop it," said the other me.  "I'm serious.  I won't do this anymore."

I took one step toward the desk and carefully put down the wire.  "Okay.  You have the wire.  Now get out of here," I said, trying to regain my composure, to let the other me know who was in charge here.  "Go to Virtualinks and finish my match with Gordon.  Have a drink.  I'll finish the proposal."

"You know I can't do that," said the other me.

I dove for the floor as the first shot blew a hole in my side chair.

The wire was my only chance.  I threw myself against the desk, hoping the jolt might knock the wire to the floor.  Pens and books and the black globe tumbled past my head.  I felt something give and heard a crash on the other side of the desk.  The push had knocked the other me backward, into my credenza.

The wire lay on the carpet, next to my shattered globe.  I lunged for it and closed my hand around it.

Just for a second, I hesitated.  Just for a split second, I considered the consequences.  No matter what happened, J. Andrew Conklin would live.  But what about me?

Too late.

As I came around the desk, I saw the other me lunge for the wire.  There was no time to waste.  "I'm sorry," I said.

I fired.

The other me died instantly, to my relief; I always find it profoundly unsettling to watch myself die.  It took only one shot, a bullet to the temple that induced a small geyser of blood.  I called security to retrieve the body and maintenance to fix my chair.  A bullet hole in your office furniture makes a bad impression.

I'd have to order a new doppelganger, of course.  But first, I had to jump on that Rilandt proposal.  And--hadn't there been something about golf with Gordon Ridgeway?  I thought his access number and engaged it with my fingers.

"Gordon," I said.  "Listen, I have kind of a mess down here.  Hired hands not getting the job done, and a deadline biting our ankles.  You know how it is. . ."

He understood completely.  We rescheduled for a couple of weeks later.  I'd have the new doppelganger by then.

Someone knocked on my door.  I opened it to find two security men, one with a body bag, the other with a cart.  I showed them the body.  Then I remembered something.

"Wait," I said.  I knelt in front of the other me.  Reaching into the jacket pocket, I grabbed my wallet.  I flipped through the contents: moneycards, creditcards, Virtualinks passcard, housekey, apartmentkey, everything I needed.

"Call ADO and have them send a meat wagon," I said.  "Then clean up this mess and get out."

They lifted the body into the bag and blotted the carpet clean with some sort of spot remover.  I went back to my desk and brought up the Rilandt files on the computer.  Nothing done--nothing at all.  I stared at the blank screen, dreading the task ahead of me.  Just for a moment, I thought about chucking it all, pushing the computer off the desk and marching into Jillian's office and resigning, telling her the agency was hers, not caring about the money or anything.  I could walk out the door and wander the streets until dawn, feel the wind on my face, touch the walls of the city, alone, no Jenna, no Angelique, no doppelganger, no virtual anything, just reality.  But it was not reality, I realized.  This desk, this blank screen begging for a Rilandt proposal--that was reality.

I'd have plenty of time for whatever I wanted when the new doppelganger arrived, I told myself.  Now I had work to do.

END

 
 
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Ken Honeywell is a full-time freelance writer. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous science fiction, mainstream, and literary publications, including Chronogram, Arts Indiana, Future Orbits, Ideomancer, Byline, Country Feedback, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. He is also the author of InterneXt, an audiobook about the future of the Internet (www.drive2learn.com) and several other non-fiction books.
 
 
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