The Man Who Was Not Himself

“The Man Who Was Not Himself”

Philip Brian Hall

How can I describe this weird business? Just the way it happened? But if I begin Alex appeared at my restaurant table, you’ll think some guy I know wanders in, catches sight of me and comes over.  So what?

Let me explain. I’d filed my story, eaten lunch, and my flight home wasn’t until six. Relaxing over coffee, idly browsing the newspaper, in a little diner in Greenwich Village,  I was contemplating a couple of quiet hours doing nothing stressful before heading out to the airport. Then Alex appeared. And I mean what I say—he just appeared out of thin air.

I guess, by rights, a theatrical illusion should be preceded by a drum-roll, a flash of light and a puff of smoke; there was nothing but an odd smell. No scrape of a chair, no words, no nothing. Except Alex, sitting opposite me, looking as bemused as I felt.

Now, the futuristic sleuths I write about would have spotted the clue right away. But no. I can’t claim any intuitive grasp of this case. It involved a tortuous grind that took me all of a month.  So okay, it turns out there’s a discrepancy between what I expect my fictional detectives to notice and what I can observe in real life.

My excuse is, I wasn’t thinking straight. To begin with, there were the improbable circumstances: I was the only customer in the place. And I was the only person in New York who’d recognize Alex. We were friends from San Francisco, both wannabe authors, neither of us rich or the sort of person who’d done remarkable things. So far.

When I’d recovered the use of my voice, I tried to say something calming. “Alex, where did you spring from? I didn’t know you were in New York.” We’re urbane, we reporters, I like to think.

Alex looked pale and frightened. His eyes flickered around searching for something familiar. There was only me.

“Henry? What the hell just happened?”

“Funnily enough, Alex, I was about to ask you.”

“I… I don’t understand. Seconds ago I’m in Fernando’s having breakfast with Mike and Julie. Next thing, I’m sitting here. New York, you said? This is crazy. It can’t be real!”

“Relax, Alex, there’s probably quite a simple explanation.”

I said that, yes. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? It’s the sort of thing you say when you’re trying to calm someone. Even when it’s bullshit.

Did any simple explanation spring to mind? No. Nothing about the diner qualified it as a location for exotic events. A little backstreet place, it had a wooden counter with half a dozen unoccupied stools in front of it, five other tables and a plate glass window looking out on to an empty street. The barista was a monosyllabic, long-haired, bearded hippie wearing dark-pink shades and a Hawaiian shirt. He vaguely reminded me of someone. Everything about the joint was normal, or as normal as things get in The Village.

Common sense suggested Alex’s apparent materialization was an optical illusion. Maybe my attention had been momentarily distracted. And his wild story? Perhaps a practical joke? Very unlike him. Or maybe he’d traveled to New York, suffered an accident and lost his short-term memory?

Go easy on the clichés, Henry, you say? Hey, I write the sort of detective science fiction that sits for months on end in publishers’ slush piles. Who better to come up with clichés? Amnesia seemed a reasonably substantial straw so, rather than drown, I clutched at it.

“I’m going to call Mike right now,” I said, looking as reassuring as I could. “Don’t worry, we’ll soon get to the bottom of this.”

But when Mike answered my call he sounded like a man choking on his breakfast.  As you would, if you’d been casually watching the news while you ate and you half-heard something absurd. Like maybe a TV reality star had been elected president.

“Henry! You still in New York? You aren’t going to believe this. Damnedest thing! Julie and I are just sitting here in Fernando’s having breakfast with Alex and what do you think happens?”

“Uh-oh. I get the nastiest feeling you’re going to tell me he vanished into thin air.”

“What the hell?” Mike shouted. He almost didn’t need the phone. “How did you know?”

I needn’t record the subsequent exchange of mutual astonishment. We quickly determined Alex’s disappearance in San Francisco and reappearance in New York had been simultaneous.

“This is some sort of stunt,” Mike growled, “but it’s a damned good one. It’s got me.”

“Me too, Mike. I’ll be in touch.” I rang off.

During the whole of my brief phone conversation, Alex looked ready to explode,  elevated eyebrows almost merging with the ginger hair flopping untidily over his forehead. His freckled complexion seemed even more pallid than usual. He didn’t let me get the phone back in my pocket.

“What did he say? I was with him just now, right? And he’s in San Francisco.”

“Well, he says he is.” I frowned. “I suppose the two of you haven’t got up a really unfunny hoax? He’s not around the corner, is he, waiting to walk in the door?”

“Henry, you know me. As if I would! I’ve no idea how this happened. You’ve got to believe me. I’m freaked out, man!”

Alex never possessed much talent for hiding his feelings. He was trembling,  looking as near a heart attack as a twenty-five-year-old can plausibly look. One of us had to get a grip. Reluctantly I decided to accept the evidence of my eyes and my ears.

“All right Alex, I don’t understand, but I believe you.”

First things first; we should get Alex checked out in a hospital. We’d say he’d been in an accident. And he should ring his office and say he was sick. Whatever was going on, it wouldn’t be helped by him losing his job.

On the plane home, Alex’s mental state was still fragile.

“Look at it this way,” I said, “you’re going to be able to write one helluva great sci-fi story.”

“Oh yeah,” he groaned, “like teleportation doesn’t feature in every episode of Star Trek.”

“But teleportation technology exists in their universe. In ours, it doesn’t.”


He was right, of course. Written down, it doesn’t sound as shocking as it did when it actually happened. The fact he’d no idea how it happened, had no control over it and didn’t actually want to go to New York were all incidental. Some mad scientist would as usual make an appearance in a book. It’s only in the real world such things make no sense.

“You don’t by any chance have super-powers?” I suggested helpfully, still rolling with the possible fictional explanations.

Alex looked at me as though I were the one going crazy. “Henry, my boss already thinks I’m coming unglued. When I called to say I was sick, he said it was good of me to go sick in my own time. Seems I’d taken the day off and forgotten about it.”

By the time Mike met us at the airport, he’d gotten angry. Leaning forward aggressively, his chunky frame resembled a Niners linebacker poised to make a tackle and his red face, thrust out towards us, glared at Alex, daring him to offer the slightest justification for his unacceptable behavior.

“A conjuring trick!” he asserted fiercely, as we rode back to the city together. “I don’t know how it was done but I’m sure as hell gonna figure it out. An instantaneous trip across the country’s a physical impossibility. Therefore it didn’t happen. This is not Alex. This is Alex’s twin brother and for some reason, the pair of them are hoaxing us.”

“I don’t have a twin brother!” Alex protested.

“You would say that, wouldn’t you?”

“Ask me anything! Ask me what we were talking about a moment before I disappeared.”

“Huh! You had a webcam feed from your twin. You’ll know everything we saw and heard.”

Alex put his hands on his head and growled.

“But a cam doesn’t know what you touched, tasted or smelled,” I intervened hastily. “Anything non-audio-visual you remember, Alex?”

“Come to think of it, there was something,” he brightened. “A bad smell; as though somebody spilled a whole load of trash outside in the street.”

“Any bad smells, Mike?” I asked.

“Dammit,” said Mike, “there was.” He was reluctant to give up. “But maybe it was cover for the conjuring trick. You know, a distraction designed to make us look the wrong way.”

“For God’s sake, Mike!” Alex exclaimed.

“Well, all right. When I went outside to look, I found an overturned garbage truck. I don’t suppose you did that. Funny thing though. Not a soul around. No cops, no driver, no nothing.”

Since no other Alex deigned to put in an appearance in subsequent days, that was pretty well the last serious objection. Absurd though the whole business was, we accepted the person who’d appeared so mysteriously in New York was Alex rather than an impostor. Well, what would you have done? What alternatives did we have? But we were no nearer working out how it had happened. I was all for consulting some scientific institution, but Alex was afraid of ridicule.

“And if you guys say you witnessed everything, they’ll put you in an asylum too!” he warned.

“All the same,” said Julie when we met with her in Fernando’s, “it was pretty cool this teleportation thingy only took Alex. We were just feet away from him; even Star Trek teleports groups when they’re that close.”

Unlike Mike, Julie was cheerful and inquisitive. Her straight black hair framed an intelligent face with over-sized spectacles perched on an aquiline nose. She looked more like an enthusiastic librarian than the budding sci-fi artist she was.

“It seems to have been very precise at both ends,” I agreed. “Did someone maybe want witnesses who knew Alex?”

“You’re suggesting some person was responsible rather than a freak of nature,” said Julie. She began ticking off points on her fingers. “Okay. I’ll buy that hypothesis. So who?”

“More important, how?” added Mike grumpily.

“No idea. Not a clue in either case.” I shook my head.

Julie smiled. “You know what they say—If it were easy it wouldn’t be fun. Right?”

Well, we could tell Alex didn’t exactly see it as fun. Nevertheless, we had to start somewhere.

“Mike says this can’t be done,” Julie began pragmatically. “On the other hand, it has been done. This really is Alex; he really did disappear in one place and reappear in another. Therefore, following your hypothesis, someone possesses the technology. Are we quite sure there’s no secret research into teleportation going on?”

“If we knew about it, it wouldn’t be secret,” Mike objected. “Let’s accept the theoretical possibility.”

“Then the problem is, why Alex?” Julie said.

I was dubious. Julie’s reasoning was good as far as it went, but you don’t conduct secret experiments in public; you do it in labs. You begin by teleporting a guy to the next room or at most the next building. You don’t send him clear across the country to his only friend in New York. Too accurate by far. If the process had been developed to that extent, it would have been going on for years and something would have leaked.

We couldn’t get any further. Julie, Alex and I speculated in a circular sort of way about mad scientists. Mike blamed the government; his standard explanation for every mystery including unexpected losses by the Giants and bad weather during his vacation in Hawaii. We just had nothing to get a grip on, like when you’re climbing the greasy pole at a fair.

A couple of weeks later all four of us were together again in Fernando’s. It was our favorite diner, conveniently located close to The Wharf so we could stroll out and look over the Bay for a few minutes, breathing in the sights and sounds of the harbor before going back to work. We regarded Fernando as a friend, his prices were cheap and we’d no intention of becoming superstitious about his place.

Julie was on top of the world because her artwork had just made the cover of a big magazine for the first time. She’d suffered the starving-in-a-garret lifestyle for too long. The celebratory pancakes with maple syrup had arrived at the table when a strong fishy smell wafted across the diner. It had nothing to do with the pancakes.

“That’s it!” Mike exclaimed. “There’s that same smell again, just like when… Oh my God!”

“What’s up?” asked Alex. Only it didn’t sound like Alex. The voice had risen an octave or so. We all stared at the seat where Alex had been sitting. He wasn’t sitting there anymore. Wearing similar clothes but filling them out in seriously-different places, was an attractive young woman. There was a strange resemblance to our male friend, including freckles and auburn hair, but the girl was much better looking.

“Why are you all staring at me?” she asked. “And what’s happened to my voice? Has someone been messing around with helium or something?”

Mike and I were as goggle-eyed as a pair of codfish on a fishmonger’s slab.

“Take a look at your hands,” said Julie, recovering first out of the three of us. The woman looked down at small, neat hands with manicured, lacquered nails. She said nothing, but her face drained of color and her eyes half-glazed.

“What’s happened to me?” she croaked, like some desert traveler for whom water is a distant memory.

“That might depend on who you are,” said Julie, pushing back the glasses that had slipped down her nose.

“What do you mean? I’m me. I’ve been sitting here with you for ten minutes.”

“Alex?” I said slowly, disbelief in each syllable.

“Of course I’m Alex!”

“Come with me, you,” said Julie, getting up from her chair and taking charge with brisk efficiency. “We’re going to the ladies’ room. I don’t think you want to go to the men’s room looking like that. Even though there’s no-one else here.”

In a daze, the woman allowed herself to be led away. When the bathroom door closed behind the two of them, Mike could contain his astonishment no longer.

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” he said, “but this is San Francisco in the 21st century, not The Enterprise on some star-date or other. This time I’m sure it’s a conjuring trick and you, Henry, you’re in on it.”

“I most certainly am not!” I protested.

“Defying the laws of physics I can just about stomach,” Mike raged. “Defying the laws of biology? No, I’m not buying that. Whoever this dame is, she’s not Alex.”

I took a deep breath. “Well, she’s a good three inches shorter. And her hair’s about a foot longer. But if she’s not Alex, then how did they change places?”

“Then there’s the smell,” said Mike. “Wait here while I check the street.” He got up and left the diner through the back door. By the time he returned, Julie and the woman were also coming back to the table.

“Damnedest thing!” Mike reported. “Fishmonger’s van hit the hydrant out back. Same place as the accident last time. And would you believe everyone involved has fled the scene? Again!

“Well now,” nodded Julie. “And whoever our friend here is, she’s definitely all female. Nothing artificial here, folks.”

The woman sat down, put both elbows on the plastic tabletop and buried her face in her hands. “I told you already,” she sobbed, “I’m Alex. I can’t explain. I must be going mad. I’ve got a clear memory of standing up when I last went to the john! I can remember shaving this morning, dammit! I opened a new can of foam.”

“That’s all right,” said Julie, ever-practical, “you can use it for your legs. On the other hand, I don’t think you’re going to manage too well with Alex’s wardrobe.”

“This is not a joke!” the woman snapped.

“No? Well, in that case, young lady, we’re going to have to go shopping. Meanwhile, since we’re about the same size, come round to my place and we’ll fix you up with a couple of outfits to be going on with.”

“I can’t go around dressed as a woman!” the woman wailed.

“I think you might have to, dear. If you go around dressed as a man you’ll get odd looks.”

“You actually think she’s Alex,” Mike asked Julie aggressively.

“She says she is.”

“Okay, you,” he turned to the woman, “what’s the square root of 121?”

“Eleven,” the woman replied instantly.

“Six cubed,” snapped Mike.

“Two hundred sixteen,” was the immediate response.

“Her math is as fast as Alex,” nodded Julie.

“Who followed Joe Montana as the Niners’ quarterback?” Mike pressed.

“Steve Young,” said the woman.

“Are you going to go on like this?” demanded Julie, staring down Mike’s angry look. “What does it prove? What if they have the same DNA? What that be enough”

“Everything can be faked,” Mike snorted.

Julie appealed to the umpire. “Henry, what do you say?”

“I’m doing my best to be logical,” I replied.  “Let’s just examine the facts. I think we can rule out multiple hallucinations. That means two scientific impossibilities have now occurred. Both happened to Alex; both happened here in Fernando’s; both were witnessed by you two; both were preceded by bad smells. Have I missed anything?”

“Both on a Thursday,” said Julie.

“So it’s a unique mystery…”

“Or a dumb hoax,” Mike interjected.

“But if it’s a hoax, what’s the point?” I asked. “Nobody’s laughing. Nobody else even knows about it. The four of us aren’t famous.  Nobody listens to us; none of us will even be believed if we try to tell the tale.”

“It’s true,” said Mike, “if I were going to all this trouble for a hoax, I’d want a bigger audience; get it on TV; make some money… I don’t know… something! There’s no pay-off here… just a few anonymous people with a weird puzzle to solve.”

“Who’s anonymous?” Julie objected. “I just got me a cover spread.”

“You know what he means,” I said. “We’re just not worth it.”

“That makes me feel a whole lot better,” said the woman sardonically.

“Well, I think it should,” I said. “Eliminating a hoax leaves us with a scientific mystery. We know about those; we write about them. So let’s set our minds to solving this one.”

Five clues we’d counted. More than you get in your average TV detective story. If I’d only realized, there was a sixth.

“And while you’re amusing yourself, how am I supposed to cope with being a woman?” the woman demanded.

“Lots of us do,” said Julie sagely. “Relax. It could be worse. Your job’s safe. You have every right to become a woman if you want to. And I know it’s a shock now, but you could look on it as a kind of blessing. How many authors get to spend time as a member of the opposite sex? When this is all over you’ll be able to write with real insight.”

When all this is over?” the woman groaned.

“Yes, when. Look, Alex, someone knows how this thing was done. Chances are it’s reversible. All we have to do is figure it out.”

Yes indeed. Julie was quite right of course. Figure it out; that was all we needed to do.

I’d been researching newspaper archives for more than an hour, getting more and more frustrated, when I got a call from Mike.

“Henry? You’re not going to believe this. You remember the traffic accident that caused the bad smell outside Fernando’s two weeks ago? Well, I tried police records; I tried social media; nothing. Nobody reported so much as falling off a bicycle.”

“But you saw the accident yourself, Mike. How can it not have happened?”

“Beats me. But, since there was no record, I went back to Fernando’s and asked the man himself. Now brace yourself. Fernando claims not to remember it. Do you want to know why this is strange, Henry?”

“I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”

“Two weeks ago Fernando was complaining the smell was driving away his customers. That’s why there was no-one in the place, he said.”

“That’s very interesting,” I observed.

Mike didn’t have the monopoly on strange news. “I had trouble accessing the right files at the paper,” I told him. “As though they’d changed the records system without telling me. So I’ve just checked something I was certain of: the article I filed from New York the day Alex appeared there.”


“I didn’t file an article from New York that day.”

“That’s nonsense, I met you at the airport myself. You brought Alex back with you.”

“Yes, yes, I was in New York, but it seems I’d only stopped over for a day on my way back from Europe. I filed from Davos. Turns out I always cover the world economic symposium. Now that’s way out of my league, Mike. I’ve never even been to Davos. But the paper has two thousand words, quite clearly in my style, which I’ve no recollection of writing.”

“Now you’re beginning to worry me, Henry.”

“Worry you? You’re just coping with a diner owner who’s lost his memory. I seem to have mislaid my own. And Alex forgot taking time-off on the day he’d appeared in New York. Three cases of memory loss in the same case? I don’t care for coincidences like that.”

Mike and I agreed to meet back at Fernando’s.

Bubba Jenkins was there with Frankie. “Hey, you guys,” he waved cheerfully.

Bubba was a regular at Candlestick; the sort of noisy companion who gets through three hot dogs and two beers to your one of each and has the belly to prove it. Now he was excited and even louder than normal.

“I was just telling Frankie, I got my tickets for the Rams game at the start of the regular season. You wanna get yours right away. They’re selling fast.”

“There’s no rush,” Mike shrugged his broad shoulders. “They’re never gonna to sell out. Who wants to watch the Rams?”

“Nobody wants to watch the Rams, dummy,” crowed Bubba scornfully. “But the first game of the season Larson breaks the Niners’ record for consecutive appearances at quarterback. I’ll be able to tell my kids I was there, but if you don’t get a move on and get tickets, you won’t.”

He checked his watch. “Speaking of getting a move on, I’m outta here. Gotta meet Mary for lunch.” Bubba breezed out of the door with a bellowed goodbye, on the way to meet the putative mother of his hypothetical offspring.

“Henry,” Mike said quietly, turning to me, “if this is a conspiracy, it just got a whole lot weirder.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah! You, Alex and Fernando may forget things but there’s nothing wrong with my memory. Larson hasn’t played for the Niners in six years. He was the starting QB briefly, but we were doing an awful lot of losing at the time and he was traded to the Bucks.”

“Why would Bubba say different?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Mike shook his head. He turned to Frankie who was still finishing his coffee. “Hey Frankie, settle a bet for us. Who’s the Niners’ QB? Henry here says it’s Bob Schenck.”

“You’re joking,” laughed Frankie. “That guy backed up Larson for two seasons and never got a start. Then they traded him to the Bucks. Come on Mikey, everybody in the country knows Larson. How many quarterbacks do you know who’ve been MVP three Super Bowls running?”

“I told him that,” grinned Mike. “You owe me, Henry.” He hustled me out of the diner with several jocular slaps on the back. When we were a few yards down the street I stopped his act while I could still breathe.

“Mike, I’m not their biggest fan but I think even I would’ve noticed if the Niners had won three Super Bowls in a row.”

“No shit! I haven’t missed a game in five seasons, Henry. I think I might’ve noticed too. What the hell is going on?”

As it happened I didn’t get a chance to speculate because we caught sight of Julie and the new Alex hurrying toward us. Alex had changed into women’s clothes though he didn’t look too comfortable . They both seemed in some agitation.

“Am I glad to see you!” Julie exclaimed. “Everything’s gone crazy!”

“We kind of know that,” I said.

“How do you know?” Julie demanded.

“Never mind right now,” I replied. “Tell us what’s happened.”

“Well, first off,” said Julie, “we went back to my place. Only it isn’t my place any more. I haven’t lived there for three months.”

“You don’t say!”

“I do say. Well, I covered my tracks as best I could, blaming absent-mindedness, you know, force of habit, and the doorman said it was some strange habit brought me all the way down from Nob Hill.”

“Nob Hill?”

“Yeah. I looked myself up in the telephone book. Turns out I have a penthouse in a real-fashionable condo. You want to know what’s weirder?  I find I’ve got the key to this penthouse in my bag! The doorman there knows me. So we let ourselves in and guess what? The place is full of my work. Only it isn’t my work, because I’ve no memory of doing it. And trust me, I’d remember! A dozen framed covers from big magazines, covers from top-selling sci-fi novels, film posters, you name it. I’m apparently one of the most popular illustrators on the planet. The only person who’s got no idea how famous I am is me!”

“This is why,” explained Alex, still visibly embarrassed, “we’re wearing what I am reliably informed is designer-label gear. Julie has cupboards full of the stuff.”

“Yeah,” Julie gave a shrewd smile, “fame has its compensations.”

“Come and have another coffee,” I said. “We’ve some serious thinking to do.”

The fourth and  fifth memory losses were just absurd. Forgetting you’d arranged to take a day off? Plausible. Forgetting about a nearby road accident that damaged your business? Unlikely. Forgetting you’d been to Switzerland? Very unlikely. Forgetting several years of stellar performances by a team you follow avidly? Really stretching credibility. And forgetting you’re famous? I mean, come on.

We tried some smartphone research. Kennedy and Elvis were still dead. Shame. On the other hand, after a constitutional amendment, the German-born Willy Koenig was leading the race for the Republican nomination. President Mary Marcuse was still favorite to be re-elected though.

“This is all wrong,” Mike shook his head in bewilderment. “Mary Marcuse? What happened to President Nyeri?”

“Still an Idaho Senator. Lost out in the primaries.” Julie had a satisfied smile on her face. “Tell you what, guys, whoever organizes the world is doing a better job at the second attempt.”

“What second attempt?” Mike was frustrated. “I don’t understand this. I started out supposing we were looking into a simple conspiracy. Now the whole world’s gone mad.”

“Not exactly mad!” Julie countered. “I always said my stuff was better than half a dozen graphic designers making big money; seems I was right. And I voted for Marcuse when she lost in the primaries. But I like Koenig too.”

“And you always said all Larson needed was a decent offensive line,” I looked at Mike. “Seems he got one.”

“Pardon me, but I don’t recall wishing I’d been born female,” Alex scowled. “So before you go all Mr. Pangloss and conclude this is the best of all possible worlds, kindly include me out!”

“Easy does it, Alex. We’ll probably find plenty more things we don’t like here,” I said.

Don’t like here. For a moment I thought my tongue had outpaced my brain again, but then I considered.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “We’ve got this all wrong We’ve been thinking it’s just about Alex, but it isn’t.”

“Come again?” said Mike.

“Look, it makes no sense to think all these changes could have been made by conspirators. It’s far more reasonable to suppose, in this world, things were always this way.”

“A multiverse?” Alex regarded me acutely. “You think we’ve switched dimensions?”

“Twice,” I said. “I think the first shift happened two weeks ago. What’s the simplest explanation for you being at my table in a New York restaurant?

“We went in together?”

“Right! You didn’t move in the blink of an eye from San Francisco to New York.” I looked at the others. “We all moved from a world where Alex was in San Francisco with you to a world where he was in New York with me.”

“Maybe there was a sci-fi convention in The Big Apple, that would explain me taking the day off,” Alex said.

“There might have been other differences between worlds even back then, but your apparent teleportation was such a big deal we didn’t notice the rest. This second time the other changes are so big we can’t ignore them.”

“How the hell could the government send us to another dimension?” Mike shook his head wonderingly.

At that moment Fernando saved the reputation of the Marcuse administration by coming over with a tray to collect our cups. “Well, my friends,” he smiled, “are you going to introduce me to this smartly dressed young lady?”

“Don’t you recognize Alex, Fernando?” I asked.

“Of course, Senor Henry.” He smiled uncomfortably. “But I’m not used to seeing her in women’s clothes.”

“Fashions change, Fernando,” I said.

“But friendships don’t,” Julie added.

“Very good. Quite right, Miss Julie,” Fernando nodded. ”And you’re doing so well yourself now, too?”

“I’ve been playing in the big leagues for a while now, haven’t I?”

“Of course, of course.” Fernando collected the cups, clattering them roughly on to his tray. “But remember, even when you’re going up in the world, you still come here for coffee, yes?”

“Sure, Fernando,” I said.

He went back to the counter.

“So,” said Julie, “we really are in a different dimension and in this one our latest-model Alex was a cross-dresser. It all seems to fit. Anybody got any more questions?”

“Damn right!” snapped Mike. “How did we get here and how do we get back?”

“Who wants to go back?” Julie grinned.

“I do for one!” Alex thumped the table with her small fist. “I’m not a woman. I just have a woman’s body. Neither of these dimensional changes changed my memories or my feelings.”

“For now, you can treat it as research, like Julie said,” I suggested. “I’m still only at first base with my idea. But if we’re going to change things back, we’ll need more data. All we know so far is it affects the four of us. What if there are others? Who else might have moved with us?”

“Wait a minute,” Mike said. “If this isn’t the same Fernando, it explains why he can’t remember the first accident, doesn’t it?”

I nodded.

“I’ve read stories about whole towns being displaced,” said Alex morosely.

“We were alone in Fernando’s,” Julie said.

“Both times,” added Mike.

“But maybe it happened in other places as well,” said Alex. “We could advertise,”

“And attract every crank for miles around?” I objected.

“No. Not if we do it right,” Mike mused.

“How’s that?” asked Julie. “You want Alex to pose in my bikini?” For some reason, the practical Julie I knew had become frivolous. After years of privation, fame had gone straight to her head like neat scotch

“These guys are writers,” Mike said thoughtfully. “You’re a famous artist. Let them write a story about people who come to an alternative universe. You can illustrate it.”

“But we don’t know how it happened.” I objected.

Mike insisted. “No matter. We don’t need a best-seller; we just have to reach the right people.”

“Okay, but a book would take forever,” Alex said. “What if we build our own website?”

“Good thinking!” Mike replied. “That’s a quick job. I can trawl it on social media too. You never know, we might even persuade whoever did this to engage in a dialogue.”

“Why would he give himself away?” Julie asked.

“To taunt us? It has to be worth a try.” Mike was all fired up. “Maybe I’ll build us a virtual community. We can filter out all this world’s regular inhabitants so we only leave exiles like ourselves. Give me a few days and I’ll figure out a hundred questions that have different answers in our world.”

As it turned out, I didn’t write a word. Whatever had happened to Alex bodily was no barrier to his or her inner wordsmith. I had to admit his story Iron-pyritesgate would have moved anyone with the most vestigial empathy. The artwork and web design took a few days. Then Mike posted the whole thing online and we waited.

There was more to do, of course. We did have normal lives to lead, if they could be described as normal. I had a massive back catalog of newspapers to read. There’s nothing quite so useless as a political reporter with no idea what’s going on in the world. By comparison, Julie had the pleasant problem of discovering just how much her work was in demand. Only, the more she learned, the less enthusiastic she was for returning to the breadline.

A week after the website went live, we met again in Fernando’s to review progress. Alex seemed to have got over the initial shock of the sex change. She’d gone into work. Everyone there expected her to be a woman, they were only surprised she’d started to dress like one.

“She’s having trouble fighting off guys asking for dates,” confided Julie with a grin. “Apparently since she started dressing as a woman they aren’t so intimidated.”

Alex groaned. “You’ve no idea how corny some chat-up lines are. You could call this experience educational, I  suppose.”

Mike’s website-filter seemed to be working well. With his mixture of questions, he’d targeted a fifty percent score for genuine locals of our current dimension.

“It’s still early days to expect a lot of hits, but I’m excited about one response,” he said.

“Somebody did a lot better than 50%?” I asked.

“You could say that,” he grinned. “Every attempt was below 55% except one, and that one scored 100%.”

“Wow!” Alex exhaled slowly. “There’s someone else. It has to be someone like us.”

“Or a G-man,” said Mike.

“Or our mad scientist,” I said. “What’s the guy calling himself?”

“The user id’s Red Farnon,” replied Mike. “I guess it’s a pseudonym. But he logged on via a service provider in San Francisco. He says: I’ve been through this with you. Smells fishy.”

“That’s all?” Julie inquired. “Not exactly a lot of help. I was kinda expecting more.”

“What about the last two words?” I said.

“Smells fishy? Oh, wait a minute, the smells outside? What a dummy I am!”

“What’s the link between smells and world switches?” Mike asked.

I should have thought of it weeks earlier, of course, but a light bulb finally went on in my brain. At the time of the first switch, even though I hadn’t been in Fernando’s, I’d still smelled the smell. Like a logic-dam breaking, the clues burst through. There’d been no-one else in Fernando’s both times; there been no-one else in the restaurant in The Village; the scene of both street accidents had been deserted too.

Cleared areas and bad smells reminded me of high school science classes. That reminded me of lab rules. Always take careful notes of the environment. Note also the absence of things you might have expected to be present.

“Those accidents outside!” I blurted out. “You remember I said big shocks distract us from small details? Well, here’s a small detail. We smelled the latest traffic accident but we never heard it. No screech of tires; no crash; no sound at all. It was just outside in the street. What are the chances it took place in total silence?”

“Damnedest thing!” said Mike. “And, now you mention it, it was the same two weeks ago.”

“But when you went outside to look, both times you saw an accident. So naturally, you assumed the accident was the cause of the smell. What if that’s what we were meant to think?”

“You mean there was another cause?” Mike asked.

“That’s it,” I said. “The smell. Somehow the smell’s crucial. Not the accidents; the accidents were camouflage for the smell. Now, why do you camouflage something?”

“Because you can’t hide it any better way,” Mike replied. “You’d prefer to move it or make it invisible but you can’t, so you make it blend in with its surroundings as best you can.”

I felt like one of my fictional sleuths at last. “We know there’s no record of the first accident,” I said. “What if there isn’t a record of the second?”

“But I saw it,” Mike objected.

“You saw the first one too.”

Fernando was standing behind the counter, studiously polishing glasses. “Fernando,” I called, “the accident outside a while back; a fish truck, wasn’t it?”

“Accident, Senor Henry? What accident?”

“There you are,” I said, turning back to Mike. “Now why don’t you try looking for an official record of the latest accident? If I’m right, there won’t be one.”

“Surely other people must have seen it?”

“Just take a look where you looked before, will you?”

“I don’t know where you’re going with this, Henry,” Mike said, “but I’ll get right on it.”

Our meeting broke up with some enthusiasm. I knew I was almost there.

I soon got a call from Mike.

“Henry, you were right. No accident report anywhere. Now, are you going to enlighten me about what this means?”

“I’m not entirely sure yet, Mike. Tell me, have you had a chance to check today’s responses on the website?”

“Half a dozen no-hopers and one more score of 100%. Not long ago. A different IP address from the last one, but it’s also in San Francisco.”

“And the user-id?”

“Don Fearn – that’s F-E-A-R-N. It doesn’t have to be his real name, I suppose.”

“It certainly doesn’t. How about the message?”

“It’s posted on the site. Have a look for yourself. Call me back when you’ve read it. I’m dying to know your theory, Henry.”

I checked the site. Don Fearn had written: Perhaps not everyone’s in a hurry to go back.

I typed furiously: I’m quite sure we all are. And you don’t want the sort of trouble  a famous newspaper reporter like me could cause you, do you? Out back outside 9. – Rhyne

In the dusk at nine o’clock, I stood under a street light on the far side of the hydrant behind Fernando’s diner. Strands of mist were beginning to gather and an onshore breeze carried the odor of the Bay. I wore a trench-coat with the collar turned up and a hat with the brim pulled forward. I probably looked like a gumshoe, but all I was thinking about was surveillance cameras. The Henry of this world didn’t need trouble any more than I did.

The service door of the diner opened and a dark figure walked slowly towards me. His approach seemed to take ages. As he came within range of the street light, Fernando paused.

“Hello, Henry. I like the outfit. Very Philip Marlowe.”

“Yeah right. And I thought you were my friend, Fernando, if that’s your real name. I know everything. I’ve already written a report and set it for automatic delivery to my editor if I don’t stop it. It includes a suggestion that he should check whether I’ve gone missing. If I have, that will only make things worse for you. It will be your fault; your superiors won’t like that. You gave me credibility. You brought me from a world where my reports are hardly read to one where top people hang on my every word. ”

“I see,” he said calmly. “You seem to have the upper hand here, Henry. There wasn’t really any need to go to such lengths, but I appreciate a crime writer’s thoroughness. To be honest, I was already regretting the harm we were doing. It was supposed to be a psychological experiment, not mental torture.”

“Alex? He’s coping.”

“No, not Alex. In the long run, he’ll benefit. It’s Julie.”

“Our Julie? She’s loving it. You mean another Julie.”

Instinctively, our Julie might not want to go back. But she wasn’t a thief. She’d understand when I explained.

“Yes, “ said Fernando, “the Julie from this dimension worked hard for recognition. Now she’s back where she started. Remember, where she is, she hasn’t even sold her first cover yet. She’s not holding up too well. I’m worried about her.”

“A bit late to discover empathy, you smug bastard,” I snarled.  “I guess you know about her because you can communicate with the other dimensions?”

I expected him to say he had contacts. The whole experiment couldn’t work without some system for evaluating comparative data from different universes.

“My people are pan-dimensional beings, Henry.”

My jaw must have dropped open.

“I’m monitoring all the Julies. And all the instances of all the rest of you.”

“Dammit! So we are lab rats?”

“I’m sorry, yes. Please understand; that’s how you originally appeared to us. You humans regard rats as lesser creatures, don’t you?  Because they lack several of the faculties you possess? That’s why you feel okay about using them in labs?”

I took a deep breath. A part of me wished I’d not been right.

“What was the experiment?”

“We were studying how humans recognized each other. We wanted to know if you’d accept Alex as the same person if we varied his circumstances in ways you’d conceive impossible.”

“And you did this by swapping the four of us with our counterparts in other dimensions where things were increasingly different from our own. Is it just the four of us?”

“It is, yes. That’s twelve individuals in all so far.”

“And although you can be in more than one dimension at once, we can’t. So you built portals disguised as cafes. You were the hippy barman I almost recognized in New York.”

“That’s right.”

“Why did you transfer consciousness between bodies rather than transfer bodies between dimensions? That has to be how Alex became a girl.”

“Yes. That’s how our portals work. Switching matter between universes is too dangerous. There have been some nasty explosions. It’s still safest to clear the area, even using our system.”

“As I thought. You set up an exclusion zone around the diner when you’re opening a portal. That’s how you arrange street accidents nobody knows about. Nobody sees them but us.”

“It was clever of you to work that out.”

“But what I don’t understand is why you go to such lengths to camouflage the source of the smell. What’s the real source?”

He looked at me and smiled.

“We don’t experience the smell, Henry. For you, it seems, stepping from one dimension into another’s a bit like disembarking an airliner in a different climate to your own; you know how the thing you always notice first about the new place is how it smells?”

It was as simple as that. In the end, the key clue, the one I’d overlooked for so long, was a part of the process the experimenters couldn’t control. I shook my head and grimaced. “Right. So, now you’re going to put us all back where we belong, right?”

“Of course. An experiment ceases to be useful once the lab rats discover they’re lab rats. But I’m also going to recommend we stop experimenting on humans. You’re too intelligent; it’s not right.”

“You don’t expect me to thank you for finally realizing the damned obvious.”

“Just make sure all four of you come in for coffee tomorrow. I’ll take care of everything else.”

“No. One more thing. We all have to remember this. No interference with our memories.”

“I agree you’ll have to remember, Henry. Otherwise, you’d go mad trying to cope with the things your counterparts did in your world while you’ve been away. As I said, there’s been enough damage.”

He paused. “You worked it out,” he said. “That’s the point. That’s how I realized you’re too intelligent to be used as lab rats. I’m actually impressed.”

“Oh really? You want me to say that makes it all worthwhile?”

“No, but look at it this way,” he said. “No-one will believe it, but you’ll be able to write a really good story.”


Yorkshireman Philip Brian Hall is a graduate of Oxford University. A former diplomat and teacher, at one time or another he’s stood for parliament, sung solos in amateur operettas, rowed at Henley Royal Regatta, completed a 40-mile cross-country walk in under 12 hours and ridden in over one hundred steeplechase horse races. He lives on a very small farm in Scotland.

Philip’s had short stories published in the UK and Canada as well as The USA. His work has appeared in several anthologies, including All Hail Our Robot Conquerors, Strange Beasties (Third Flatiron) and five volumes of the Flame Tree Gothic series, among others, as well as online publications. His novels, The Prophets of Baal and The Family Demon are available in e-book and in paperback.

He blogs at



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One Response to The Man Who Was Not Himself

  1. Cate Covert says:

    What a romp! Suggestive of “Forgotten,” with a feel of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Ending was fun, too: “what if?” Fun stuff! Great job.

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