His Special Birthday
By Chet Gottfried
JON HENDERSON WANTED A SPECIAL birthday, one without his wife Marge or daughter Glenda. How he dreaded receiving their typical gifts, socks and slippers. Worse remained ahead: the birthday dinner at his mother-in-law’s.
His ideal birthday involved his next-door neighbor, Alice. She agreed to his proposal after he promised to bring the velvet handcuffs and ostrich feather. That morning, however, Jon couldn’t find them, so he went shopping downtown and bought new ones.
Anticipation and heartbeat increased when he stood in front of Alice’s door and rang the bell. As seconds changed into minutes, Jon started worrying. Why didn’t Alice answer? What could she be doing? Was she home?
Jon sneaked past shrubs and potted plants and reached her backyard. Once there, he broke the golden rule and peeked into Alice’s bedroom window.
Alice was in bed with another man, who Jon immediately recognized.
The man was himself.
Jon slumped to the ground.
“Dear God! What have I done?”
Only what a million others had done after the Zifakians arrived on Earth. Jon had purchased a 3D of himself.
* * *
The refined receptionist, wood paneling, and plush carpeting conspired to intimidate Jon. Nevertheless, the receptionist’s smile made him feel better. Although he had expected the wild and fantastic that characterized Zifakian retail stores, the business office was quite stylish.
“Mr. Brookwaite will see you now. Go straight down the corridor to the second door on your right.”
The Zifakians had come to Earth bringing neither threats nor technological miracles. They established shops and sold novelties. Sure, they had a faster-than-light drive. But why sell the drive? The Zifakians had a monopoly and preferred keeping it that way.
Before Jon could knock, the door slid open, revealing a well-decorated office with a walnut desk and shelves, leather armchairs, and a long row of plants.
A three-eyed, twelve-fingered Zifakian, who was watering a miniature holly, nodded to Jon and smiled pleasantly.
“Please have a seat, Mr. Henderson. I’ll be done in a moment. My assistant is very good, but I can’t trust her with Ilex cornuta. She gives it too much water. I tell her that she’ll drown my darling, but there you are. Local labor.” Instead of going to his desk, Brookwaite sat opposite Jon. “I understand you’re dissatisfied with one of our products.”
Jon started to reply, but Brookwaite cut him off.
“Of course, dissatisfied is the wrong word. Please forgive my error. You’re extremely upset. You’ve seen a living duplicate of yourself, although that’s precisely what a 3D is.”
The 3Ds were the novelty hit of the season, each one a fully fleshed, life-size portrait of a person down to the most minute detail.
“A living duplicate, yes,” Jon said, “but a 3D shouldn’t be capable of taking over my complete identity.”
“I don’t suppose you bought a top-of-the-line model, with remote control and a thousand-word vocabulary?”
Jon shook his head. “I got the basic version. It can walk around a little, sit on chairs, stand up, and speak the essentials.”
The essentials included yes, no, hi, good-bye, how are you, I’m fine, and is it going to rain. Clinical psychologists had conducted studies and concluded the phrases would convince the average human that a 3D was a real person, which explained its popularity. No more boring visits with relatives. Send in the 3D! That’s all most families ever required, a presence and a few words.
“You bought the glossy model,” Brookwaite said. “You expected your 3D to remain sitting at home and fooling your wife, but you didn’t expect your 3D to have an affair with your neighbor, the beautiful Miss Alice.”
“Come, come, Mr. Henderson.” Brookwaite leaned forward and patted Jon on the knee. “We’re men of the galaxy, and affairs are universal. But I must admit that such activity, as you describe, is extreme for a 3D. Are you sure you’re not mistaken? Perhaps Alice’s lover is someone who resembles you?”
“After my initial shock, I had another look. He—or should I say it?—got out of bed and dressed. Before he left Alice’s, I returned home to check whether my 3D was where I had put it.” Jon shook his head. “The 3D wasn’t in the living room, and my wife mentioned that I was coming and going more purposelessly than usual.”
Brookwaite leaned back and tented his twelve fingers. “I’m afraid that leaves only one alternative.” He stood up, walked behind his desk, and pressed a button. “I want Spencer.”
A few minutes later, a gloomy Zifakian dressed in a green robe entered the room. He glanced at Jon.
“Well?” Brookwaite asked.
After answering, Spencer left the office.
“That’s it,” Brookwaite said, “That’s the problem. You’re a latent telepath.”
“I’m a telepath?”
“A latent. It’s an exciting talent.”
Jon stomped on the floor for effect. “I’m more concerned with the problem on hand. There’s a 3D walking around and pretending to be me.”
Brookwaite looked surprised. “I thought I had explained. You’re a latent telepath. Didn’t you read the contract before you bought the 3D? It’s only a few paragraphs.”
“What do you mean a few paragraphs?” Jon shouted. “That contract had over thirty pages of tiny print listing every possible reason why the 3D process wouldn’t work. If you had a runny nose, dandruff, or lips on your face, there was no guarantee of satisfaction! The salesperson said I shouldn’t bother reading the contract. No one did. It was something to keep attorneys employed.”
“Sorry, I had forgotten. The contract became much longer after human lawyers revised it. How did you ever get out of the Stone Age with your lawyers?”
“We didn’t have any in the Stone Age.”
“You see,” Brookwaite said triumphantly. “But please note, in both the short and long versions of our contract, latent telepaths are warned not to indulge in the 3D process. The activation wouldn’t be instantaneous, which is why you could carry your 3D home and suspect nothing. The metabolizing would take several hours to kick in, but once it did, your 3D became a living, breathing you with all your memories. The process is explained in the contract. I can show you the clause. I’ve a magnifying glass somewhere.”
“That isn’t necessary.” Jon stood up. “Thanks for nothing, Mr. Brookwaite.”
“I haven’t finished. Please stay a while longer. Although we do have the warning in print, I feel responsible.”
A glimmer of hope raced through Jon as he sat down.
“You can get rid of the duplicate me?”
“It’s more complicated than that. In another office we have a person claiming to be Jon Henderson. Aside from one detail—his seeing you peeking through Alice’s bedroom window—both your stories match: deciding to have an affair, buying a 3D, placing it in the living room to fool the wife, and going to the lovely Alice. Mr. Henderson. Mr. Henderson?”
Jon stared blankly ahead.
Brookwaite pressed another button. “Bring a glass of water for Mr. Henderson. On second thought, make it something stronger.”
In no time at all, the receptionist brought them a tall bottle of 90 proof vodka, glasses, and a bucket of ice cubes. After Jon had two stiff drinks, Brookwaite asked, “Feeling better?”
The room whirled around Jon and he waved his arms.
“No—yes. I don’t know! How did it happen? What is happening?”
“What we are witnessing is the problem of combining the 3D process with a latent or active telepath. During a normal transfer, we mirror the body exactly. But a telepath causes a mental transfer as well. It’s completely involuntary. It isn’t as if you wanted a new persona—because all you achieve is your old one.” Brookwaite shrugged. “It happens. If only you read the warning.”
“I never knew I was a latent anything.” Jon held out his glass for a refill. “Are you telling me that this—thing—not only has my body but also has my mind?”
“I’m sorry to say but it’s worse than that. How do we know that you are Mr. Henderson? You could be the duplicate. After all, you told me that you left the 3D in your living room; therefore, the real you would be the one who arrived at Alice’s first. Incidentally, both versions of you agree that the 3D was left behind.”
“I had some errands before I went to Alice.”
“Is that how you prove that you’re really you? To say you had a few errands?”
Jon felt the world closing in like a knot around his neck and gulped his drink.
“We’re going to my mother-in-law’s tonight. I don’t want to go—but I have to. It’s my birthday. They give me dinner. It’s a terrible dinner. I get slippers and socks each year. But I have to go. I have to. My wife—Marge—gives me hell if I don’t. I had to do those errands. I didn’t have Alice’s feather.”
Brookwaite nodded. “That’s convincingly incoherent. It proves that whatever you are, you’re human.”
“I am Jon Henderson.”
“Which is what the other Jon Henderson says—with the same heartfelt, sincere conviction. You do see our problem.”
“I’d like to talk to him.”
“And he wants to talk to you.”
Jon froze for a moment. “He does?”
“Yes. He thinks he can convince you that he’s real and you’re the fake.”
“Perhaps. But it’s against our policy to have two virtuals meet.”
“Virtuals?” Jon asked.
“Yes, that’s our term for the result of a telepath confounding the 3D process. Neither virtual can gain any logical advantage, and the result is a resort to violence, often ending in the death of both individuals.”
“Murder?” Jon asked.
“I believe the legal term is suicide.”
The thought staggered Jon. “What am I to do?”
The office lights dimmed, and Jon heard a magnificent drumroll.
“Mr. Henderson, we will make you a special offer, an offer we’ve only made to three other humans.” Brookwaite paused and the drumroll sounded again. “Mr. Henderson, how would you like to work for us?”
“That’s right, a job on one of our satellites, where you’d be with other humanoids. Our pay rate is very competitive, and we have an excellent benefits package. You will become a high-level communicator, passing telepathic messages from one end of the galaxy to the other. Telepathy is the most efficient form of long-distance communication.”
“You mean I’d be a phone operator?”
“We call it a hyperspace biological relay. Your talent is latent, so your duties would be entirely subconscious. That’s the advantage of employing a latent such as you. The messages remain completely private.”
“I don’t think it’s what I’m after, Mr. Brookwaite. Leave a fake Jon with my wife and child?” Not to mention Alice, he thought. “All I want is to get rid of the fake 3D. Hey! Have you offered him the job?”
“Yes, I’ve a copy of his statement on my monitor, and his answer is exactly the same as yours. Quite extraordinary, really. And as we told him, you don’t have to decide right now. You may change your mind as the present situation becomes intolerable. Of course, one or the other of you will do as a biological relay. You’re both identical in all aspects.”
“There must be a way of telling the difference.”
Brookwaite paused before answering. “Come to think of it, we have a procedure capable of throwing light on who the real you is. Unfortunately, the results are speculative, and analysts tend to interpret them differently. Nevertheless, we often discover the actual duplicate.”
“What do I have to do?”
Brookwaite rummaged through his computer, found the necessary file, printed it, and passed the document to Jon, along with a pen.
“Fill out Form 1066ad, which is a request for us to come, remove, and dispose of the 3D in a biodegradable manner.”
Jon suspected the disposal involved becoming a hyperspace relay, not that he cared what happened to the duplicate. He started scribbling.
“I can’t wait.”
“You understand that the other you has also filled out the form, agreeing to the test.”
“It’s a check for certain reversals in your cellular structure. A few cells reverse during the duplication process. As I’ve said, the results are speculative. We have an 86 percent chance of a correct determination. The danger is in having a false positive or a false negative.”
“I’ll risk it. Anything’s better than having another me liable to spring up. When do we begin?”
Brookwaite pressed a button, and the gloomy Spencer walked into the office, daubed Jon’s thumb with alcohol, inserted a needle, and withdrew a little blood. Spencer placed an instrument on Jon’s wrist, turned a dial, removed the gadget, and left.
Jon stared at the eight-pointed star tattooed on his wrist.
“What’s that for?”
“To recognize which of you is you after cellular analysis.”
“What tattoo does my 3D have?”
“A four-pointed star.”
“Why do I have more points on my star than he does?” Jon asked. “Are you saying that I’m the duplicate?”
“We’re completely impartial, Mr. Henderson. Now, instead of worrying about stars, you should work on a story for the two of you. You need an explanation for the presence of the other you in your home. May I suggest something like a long-lost twin or cousin? Twin sounds better because the resemblance is uncanny, but it may be easier to pass one of you off as a cousin. Wives are generally very good with family relationships, so cousin may be more acceptable.”
“You told me that I was never to meet my duplicate. If we did, we’d try to kill each other.”
“True, but that was before you signed 1066ad, which changes everything. Now you have hope. Within two to 72 hours, we’ll tabulate the results and know which one is the 3D—with 86 percent certainty. An end is in sight. Consequently, it eliminates any reason for violence to solve your identity problem. In the meantime, there’s good reason for keeping the two of you together. It makes identification and pickup easier. Not only do we remove the 3D, but the real Jon Henderson knows we remove it. There aren’t any lingering doubts. It’s finished.”
“I’m the real Jon Henderson. I’ve nothing to worry about.”
“You have an 86 percent chance.”
“I’ll risk it.”
“You do have an alternative. You could agree to become our hyperspace biological relay. The job has many advantages. Perhaps you’d like a demonstration?”
“Good-bye, Mr. Brookwaite.”
Jon tried to slam the door on the way out, but the sliding door breezed past him.
* * *
Jon paid off the cab in front of his house. His own car was in the driveway, where he always parked it. Out of the car stepped the 3D. They approached each other cautiously.
“At first I thought someone stole it,” Jon said, indicating the Honda. “Then I figured you left the building first.”
“It’s my car,” his double said. “Why shouldn’t I be using it?”
“Your car! Oh, forget it. Recrimination won’t get us anywhere. The Zifakian blood test will determine who’s who. For the meanwhile, you’re my twin brother.”
“Which would you rather be?” Jon asked.
“I am Jon Henderson, and I’d like to go on being Jon Henderson if you please.”
“Why don’t we flip for it?”
The coin decided that Jon was Jon. “Well, it’s a start. Okay, you’re my cousin Bob, from St. George. We haven’t seen each other since we were kids.”
“It’s never going to work. I mean, how can we fool them? Do you think Marge and Glenda are idiots?”
“I refuse to answer that,” Jon said with dignity. “Keep telling yourself that you’re my cousin and never met them before. Can you handle that? If you can’t, you’ll have to stay hidden in the Honda. We’re supposed to remain together.”
“Wait until the test is processed and the Zifakians act on Form 1066ad,” the 3D said. “Until then I can handle it.”
“I don’t know why you can’t see that I’m the real Jon Henderson.”
“Look why do you persist in thinking that you’re the real me? I’ve news for you: The only way you’re real is if you get lucky and I miss my 86 percent probability.”
They stared at each other until Jon said, “Let’s get it over with. It shouldn’t be more than a few hours until the Zifakians serve one of us with Form 1066ad. Let’s go in.”
“A few hours,” groaned his double. “It could be a few days. And I’ll have to be cousin Bob while you—while you—”
“Don’t think about it.”
“I’ll tell you what I think about,” the 3D hissed. “Dynamite in the car. No body, no teeth, no identification. I’d say that someone stole my Honda.”
“Don’t you realize I’ve also considered alternatives?” Jon asked. “But you know nothing about explosives—that is, if you claim to be me.”
“I can learn.”
While they glared at each other, a dark car screeched to a halt next to them. Three Zifakians jumped out, and before either Henderson could react, each had his left wrist examined.
“It’s him,” a Zifakian said in a husky voice. They clustered around the 3D and hustled him along. Protesting all the way, the 3D was bundled into the dark car, which immediately drove away.
Jon stared at the departing vehicle. After a minute, he sighed. “It’s over. It’s finally over. I can have my life back.” He walked up the flagstone path and stood in front of the door. A fear swept over him: What if he were the 3D? He shook his head. That wasn’t possible. He’d know. Yes, he’d know.
Then he had another worry. What if Marge or his daughter was looking out the window, saw the two of him, and watched the 3D being driven away. What would he tell them?
“I’d have to confess everything.”
But Jon knew that he’d first try to lie his way out of the situation. That had to be easier.
Jon opened the door and walked inside.
“I’m home, Marge.” He hung his jacket in a closet and walked into the living room.
Marge stood next to Glenda. They appeared somewhat downcast.
“Is anything wrong?” he asked.
“Yes,” Marge said. “We bought you the same present.”
Jon smiled in relief. “What? Two pairs of socks? Two pairs of slippers? I don’t mind.”
“We decided to surprise you this year.”
His wife and daughter stepped aside, revealing two Jon 3Ds sitting next to each other on the sofa. They said in unison, “Hi. How are you?”
Both 3Ds winked at him.
Marge and Glenda sang “Happy birthday!” and Jon choked up.
Glenda jumped forward, hugged Jon, kissed him on the cheek, and stepped back.
“Dad? You’re crying?”
“I never expected this.”
“There’s more. Grandma bought you a 3D too.”
Jon raced into the bathroom, where he threw up convulsively. His smartphone rang. Hands trembling, he wiped his mouth and answered the call. It was Alice.
“Happy birthday, Jon. Can you sneak over tonight? You were so wonderful that I decided to give you an extra treat. You’ll never guess what I bought you.”
Chet Gottfried is an active member of SFWA. He writes fantasy, horror, and science fiction stories and novels. His wildlife photography is popular, too. Chet’s previous story for “Perihelion” was “Funny Money” in the 12-JAN-2014 update.