I’m not sure how long we stood together, me wrapped in my Watcher’s close embrace. It felt like a long time before the messy physiological processes of tears and shaking finally ended. I felt wrung out but clean when we stepped apart. I felt both comfortable and uncomfortable with my Watcher – physical intimacy is a strange thing which we can both relish and be vaguely embarrassed by at the same time. I couldn’t see how I’d failed to notice before that the Watcher was now very clearly me, thankfully clothed. I don’t think it thought that clothes were necessary to hide my reflected nakedness from the world, more that if I thought they were appropriate (thank you social conditioning and a love of extraneous pockets) then they also had to be appropriate for a copy of me. I gave a deep sigh, and felt the new hollow of peace in me. I knew it would be refilled in time, but for now I could appreciate being free of the burden of grief and fear, at least for a while.
I nodded my thanks to the Watcher. Words are redundant when it comes to hugs. The squeezed pressure of bodies, and the electric contact of another person are intense and satisfy some deep craving for contact. That the hug was with a giant silicone muffin tray didn’t seem to make any difference. Standing at arms length I discovered that I had accepted my double as another person. With that acknowledgement came a host of further confusions, some of which floated off in little fear balloons to be dealt with later. The most pressing questions were about what that meant for me. Did the existence of more entities, specifically one that resembled me mean anything? There are literally billions of other people on the planet already; how does one more make any difference? It felt as if it did though. There’s something in our anthropomorphic grasp of existence and sentience that makes it hard to imagine that other forms can contain so wondrous and special a thing as the soul and heart of man, even if he’s a murderer or imbecile.
I’d long accepted cats and dogs as people. As someone who has shared a home with animals for most of my life it would be strange not to confer emotions, intelligence and needs upon them. Just because they aren’t exactly the same needs and feelings and ideas as mine doesn’t matter. So I could hardly refuse person hood to my Watcher, and by extension all Watchers. That last step felt less comfortable. The police Watchers had given a very different impression – of hostility and control. That might have been by association with the police themselves, who were behaving what I thought were unpolicey ways. That didn’t make them less people though, just people I didn’t like. You can’t rob person hood from people because you don’t like them. That’s not so much a slippery slope as a waterslide.
My instinct was to make another cup of tea. My fingers had stopped trembling from the encounter with the police and my sugar high had evened out. I checked the time instead. The microwave blinked a series of zeroes and eights at me. I still hadn’t set it up. Thankfully I still had my expensive telephonic time piece to fall back on. Five forty-five. The afternoon had vanished again, in a blaze of frantic inactivity. I was used to that, and rarely I did have a few things to show for it – a nice book case, a growing bruise just under my rib cage and a tea-stained leaflet. The meeting at the town hall was due to start at six, and with my – our – walking pace it should be easy enough to make it in time. I didn’t want to be either late or early – both involve different kinds of awkwardness. Despite my feelings about this particular Watcher, I’d no desire to stand out as especially interested or tardy. The situation was an unknown, and until it became more known I figured I was right to be experiencing a certain vulnerability.
So I shrugged a jacket on, swung my little rucksack over it and we departed. The front door was in a sad state. It dangled by the lower hinge, its resilient screws letting it hang on. I felt bad for it. I left it resting against the door frame but I didn’t have much hope for its future. Whether the police would foot the bill or not, I’d have to go to the trouble of contacting the landlord. Later. When there were phones. I had no idea where he lived. That’s the problem with blacking out all the communication channels – suddenly you can no longer do quite basic things. It was rare for me to even want to do those things, so it was extra vexing. I was only a ten minute walk from the town hall. The air had started to chill down from the bright highlight of earlier and it was all very pleasant. I felt a lot more relaxed.
As we strode along there were other people who were clearly on their way to the same meeting. I began to pay more attention to the differences between the people and their Watchers. (I still couldn’t instinctively call them people – I’d have no way to distinguish them from other people unless I called them ‘white’ people or ‘hollow’ people, all of which sounded quite bad to my minds ears.) We were all walking in the same direction. I didn’t see a single person, either on foot in a car who wasn’t heading to the town hall. From above it must have looked like an ants’ nest calling its drones. Not a comforting analogy. Some people walked side by side with their Watchers, as I did. We were all taking an at least faint interest in each other, eyeing up Watchers as we might do shoes or facial piercings. I’m not sure what our judging criteria were. If they were the same as me, then I was looking for the similarity between the Watcher and its human. Mine had a well developed resemblance now, but some of the others were still almost blank marionettes.
Those blanks were all following at a short distance, much as my Watcher had initially. Some still seemed to be trying to outrace their Watchers, but most were simply ignoring them, or doing their best to. Maybe they had spent less time together. Or had resisted in a less direct way than my neighbours. It suggested that the less well formed relationships, of trust, acceptance and closeness prevented the Watchers from developing their individuality, even if that individuality was based on replication. The people who walked with their Watchers by their side all looked calmer, more at ease with this new presence in their lives. As I did. Alright, I’ll happily admit that I’d gone through a range of feelings about it through the day, but I could no longer say that I was scared of it – of.. him? My inclination to gender my companion was presumably just because it’s a copy of me, and if I’m male therefore so must he be. But my behaviour isn’t especially male. I imagine half of my gestures and actions can be matched up to a list of gender-typical acts, but those lists are likely the result of stereotyping and prejudice anyway, or so hopelessly generic that matching them up is like reading a horoscope. The Watcher was me, but without words or the physical biological qualities that identify me as male in our culture. So what did that make it? ‘It’ doesn’t seem like a very friendly way to label other genders, but maybe this was an absence of gender, in which case I probably either needed a new word, it’s preference clearly stated or I could continue to use ‘it’ in a more personal way.
Embroiled in such thoughts of identity I found myself at the town hall, joining the queue of attendees. It’s difficult to say how many people were there, because of course everyone was doubled. They are easy to filter out of a visual count, except that the overall volume of shapes was twice the size. Even so, there didn’t seem to be that many people there. It was possible most people were already inside, but I’d already wondered what proportion of the population the town hall could hold. It wasn’t going to be a significant perspective, no matter whether it was standing room only or how strong a draw the free tea and coffee would be. It made me wonder where everyone else was. I’d have arranged a series of time staggered meetings to avoid over-crowding and ensure everyone got in. It was the kind of thought that made me imagine how I’d structure a spreadsheet for such an activity. And that made me think that I should probably stab myself in the leg, or else find anything more interesting to think about. Maybe I should just get out more.
Those thoughts were swept away from me as the tide of the crowd drew us through the entrance. There were four tables with a lady and her Watcher behind each ticking names off attendees. Unless they had the whole electoral roll and then some it would be an absurd exercise. Nonetheless I dutifully joined one of the queues which had formed. I stood behind someone’s Watcher. For the first time I got a good look at the back of one. Even now my Watcher would normally face me, no matter what we were doing. It was much as I’d expected – like looking into the open half of a jelly mould. From behind they were differently translucent. I could see the outline and colour of the man who the Watcher was watching, and see the detailed teeth and moustache in whatever the opposite of ‘relief’ is. It felt uncannily like being given a preview of someone’s insides, invasive and intrusive. I averted my eyes, allowing myself only the odd glance at how the weave of the man’s jacket was traced on his Watcher’s arms.
I’d never been to the town hall before. It was one of those big Victorianish buildings, all big chunks of stone and pointless decorative columns. The carpet could have been nicked from The Shining. The queues moved at a fair clip. It was apparently easier to check people off than I’d anticipated. When I reached the front I could see why. I hadn’t noticed when we came in, but it was the Watchers who determined which queue we were in. Mine had leaned slightly more towards one than the others and I’d accepted the gesture, following it. The list the lady had was only a few pages long. She asked for my name while her Watcher stood patiently behind her, offering the same bland smile as I was ticked off and allowed to proceed.
A few corridors separated the reception from the main hall, or Great Hall as they had it labelled. The other rooms had closed doors and impressive sounding names like ‘The Rotherhyde Suite’ and ‘The Swan Suite’. Quite why a swan would need a meeting room I had no idea. We followed the carpet, its’ psychosis threatening patterns goading us on. The Great Hall (it’s almost impossible to say that without sounding sarcastic – even the greet ‘n’ tickers had lapsed into it) was just a big room with some wooden panelling and huge skylights. A rostrum stood at one end, with a bunch of chairs and tables on it. Most of the room was filled with rows of chairs, largely occupied. Down the side of the great hall was what everyone was looking for – the refreshments. Waiting for a delayed bus or train will enrage us, but we’ll queue forever to get a free cup of tea.
“Right then, time to stock up on biscuits,” I muttered to my Watcher.
This is the other important function that meetings provide: free biscuits of a type I would never buy for myself, like little wrapped pairs of oat cakes and Jammy Dodgers. I like a single Jammy Dodger, but with more than one I remember that it’s not jam, it’s an aggressive red glue and that the biscuits themselves are horrible. I’d still expected some response from my Watcher, and I turned to look at it. It had stopped walking towards the tea and coffee. Gently it patted me on the shoulder and walked away. I’d just picked up a cup (I discard the saucer. I’ve never grasped the point of carrying two fragile objects when one will do) and was carried along with the queue. All of the Watchers were peeling away from their people. Moments of confusion and distress were clear in the faces of the abandoned.
The law of the refreshments table kept us in place and without our partners we continued with the frustrating rigmarole of deciphering the operation of the tea pump-flask units and which ones had tea or coffee in. A generally polite hubbub of ohs and ahs and self-deprecating chuckles surrounded the jugs. I too took my turn at comprehending the disposition of fluids in various vessels and loaded my spare hand up with assorted biscuits. There were stewards at the end of the refreshments table directing suitably tea-laden citizens into the rows of seating. It was clear that some of us wanted to go with our Watchers. Quiet words were had and the directed seats were taken. Our Watchers were assembling at the back of the room, standing behind all of the chairs. It looked like a practical arrangement – there were only so many chairs. Taking half of the attendees out of chairs and making them stand at the back made sense. It’s not like they needed to sit down, whereas the trip to the town hall had clearly taken its toll on some of the older and less fit attendees. There was an annoying degree of puffing from the row behind me, occupied by three broad individuals who might have benefited from cold drinks. I made the usual expression of greeting while drinking, a pair of raised eyebrows and apologetic smile. My immediate neighbours were a very elderly lady, judging from the astonishing texture of her skin, like a topological map beaten into bronze, and a woman of about my own age dressed almost entirely in faded blue denim.
“Do you think it’ll take long?” asked the elderly lady to my left, “I’ve got to show Vanessa how to crochet.”
“I’ve no idea, but they can’t keep us here all night can they?”
“I certainly hope not. I don’t know how they’ve made this tea but it’s not Red Label.”
“You’re absolutely right,” I agreed, grateful that she had identified what was wrong with the tea. I’d suspected semi-skinned milk, which is an abomination, but the lady had it.”Normally I wouldn’t drink anything else, but they do have biscuits. Could I interest you in a chocolate bourbon.”
“I don’t mind if I do. I’d taken just the one custard cream.”
“I’ve learned that it’s worth stocking up in case they won’t stop talking,” we exchanged cynical little collusive smiles, “who is that you’re teaching to crochet?”
“Vanessa. She’s back over there somewhere.” She turned in her seat and gesticulated with her bourbon. That certainly aroused the attention of the hefty gents behind us. I thought one of them was going to take her hand off. “Now where is she? They’re so hard to tell apart when they’re all bunched up aren’t they?”
“Vanessa is… your Watcher?”
“Watcher? No, she’s just Vanessa.”
“Sorry. Um, I mean,” it took me a moment to drag the leaflet’s expression back to mind, “is she your Visitor?”
“Oh yes, she arrived this morning. She’s been a wonderful house guest. Very quiet.”
“I’m sorry if this seems like an odd question, and it sounds strange even asking, but how do you know her name is Vanessa?”
“Well it’s obvious isn’t it? That’s Vanessa. I was just thinking about her the other week. It’s been such a long time. She’s my twin you see, but she moved to America when we were only twenty. I’d missed her such a lot, so it was a wonderful surprise. And she’s quite forgotten how to crochet!”
“Right,” I said.
“It’s not her sister you know,” came from my other side, “you do know that don’t you?”
The denim clad woman had pitched her voice low enough not to carry to Vanessa’s sister, which was likely for the best.
“Sure. I mean, I don’t think they’re our missing relatives or anything.”
“So what do you think they are,” she leaned in closer, her coffee lapping threateningly at the lip of her cup. I shuffled my knee out of the way of the coming spillage, but she tilted the cup back again. It jostled alarmingly with each word, “they’re ghosts right? I mean, it’s obvious. What else could they be? It’s not fucking Google or the next level in creepy Japanese robots.”
“I,” I had to admit that I hadn’t gotten as far as where they had come from, but I felt rather stupid having to say so, “I really don’t know. I mean, I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in ghosts. Don’t they go through walls and stuff?”
“Oh no, ghosts are just projections of our own consciousness into the world,” this came from the big guy behind us, who I thought was going to snap off the old lady’s hand, “they’re not ghosts. If they were, we wouldn’t be able to see each others’.”
He turned to point at the Watchers with his cup. I twisted fully round in my chair to look at the back of the hall where our Watchers were gathered. They weren’t doing anything, not milling around like a group of humans will do when left to their own devices, pointlessly pacing out their containment. They were just standing there, looking vaguely forward. Staring off into the distance.
“I guess they’re the right colour…” I said weakly.
“It’s a military project that wasn’t ready for live deployment. They’re a tactical learning system.”
I blinked at the sheer confidence expressed by the man just beyond the denim woman. He nodded forcefully.
“I’ll bet you they’ve got serial numbers on their feet. Twenty quid.”
The man behind me snapped that up: “you’re on.”
“I’m kind of hoping they might actually tell us in a minute,” I said. The room was almost full. All but a handful of chairs had been filled.
“Not a chance, at best we’ll get the cover story,” declared the man I had already labelled as ‘conspiracy lunatic’.
“Where do you think everybody else is?” asked the denim woman.
An excellent question. There really weren’t very many people here, not for an all town meeting. Maybe four hundred people. I hadn’t counted the chairs and estimating numbers isn’t in my very short list of mathematical skills, but even if I was out by a factor of ten, than was still a very small fraction of the town’s population. I barely had time to think about that because the doors at the head of the room opened and the woman from the leaflet with all the pomp and bling emerged, flanked by a small horde of very serious looking people.
“Looks like we’re on,” I whispered, knowing instinctively that it was time for us to be quiet. The lights dimmed.