Inspector Jane Pilgrim sipped at her coffee. It was cold, but it was here as a prop, not a refreshment. Something to give her time to think.
Across the table of the interview room, Brian Diggle sat next to his lawyer, an odious man in a pinstripe suit named Jack Oliver.
“You didn’t hack the neural game factory?” Pilgrim asked. “You’re not the reason all those people’s implants hijacked their brains?”
“No,” Diggle repeated. “Do you have to keep asking?”
His expression was so innocent, his responses so unrehearsed. Both his story, and his emotional reactions were perfect. After this long, nobody could put on a show this good.
Yet she knew it had to be Diggle. The evidence excluded every other possibility. That sleaze ball Oliver might be able to make it inadmissible, but they all knew what the trail showed.
All except the man behind it.
Then it struck her. If Diggle could hijack other people’s brains, could he hijack his own too?
“Time’s almost up, detective,” Oliver said, grinning like a lizard in the sunshine. “Unless you have something else, you’re going to have to let my client go.”
Pilgrim took a deep breath. She had been trying to break through the shell of a guilty Diggle. Maybe instead she needed to work with an innocent man.
“Mister Diggle,” she said, leaning forwards. “Do you know what a neural overlay is?”
“That’s what you say I did to those people,” Diggle said. “Turning them into some sort of zombies.”
“That’s one option, yes,” Pilgrim said. “But there are other uses too. Overlays based on real memories help veterans in trauma counselling. There are stories of spies using them. Laying a fake personality over their real one to get through interrogation.
“Those spies set a pre-arranged fault in the programming. Afterwards, they read a code word or experience an event that triggers a real memory. The fake personality vanishes, taking its memories with it, leaving the true person behind.”
“You’re saying I’m using an overlay?” Diggle laughed angrily. “This is absurd. You’re making things up now.”
“I’m not saying that you’re using an overlay, Mister Diggle. I’m saying that you are one. And underneath it all, the real Brian Diggle, the man who destroyed all those lives, is hiding.”
Oliver shifted uncomfortably in his seat. There was a faint whir from the video camera in the corner.
“No,” Diggle said. “I remember my life. I remember my past. I’m a real person.”
“Do you remember what you had for breakfast yesterday?” Pilgrim asked. “What your favourite toy was as a child? Who your first crush was? These are the details that make us human, Mister Diggle, but there’s seldom time to include them in an overlay.”
Diggle’s eyes went wide. His lips parted as if he was about to speak, but instead he just sat, mouth agape, horror freezing his expression.
“Enough,” Oliver said. “This is absurd. My client is leaving.”
He got up and tried to haul Diggle to his feet. But Diggle shook him off and sat staring at Pilgrim.
“I don’t want to not be real,” he whispered. “I don’t want to be wiped away.”
“Don’t say anything more,” Oliver snapped. “You have to come with me.”
“You don’t have to go anywhere,” Pilgrim said.
“I don’t get to live, do I?” Diggle asked, eyes watering. He really was an innocent. “Once this is over, he’ll come back.”
“There will be a signal,” Pilgrim said. “Something you know you want to do after the interview. That will trigger the change.”
“A cigarette,” Diggle whispered. He pulled a packet out of his pocket and dropped it on the table. “I don’t smoke, but I want to have a cigarette when I leave.”
He looked at the packet sadly, rotating it on the tabetop with one thin finger.
“If I don’t ever smoke it, will he never come back?” he asked.
“Sooner or later, the overlay will collapse,” Pilgrim said. “Maybe you’ll smell someone else’s cigarette and that will be enough. Maybe the programming will just fade. Either way, you don’t have long.”
“Fuck.” He wiped a tear from his cheek. “So what do I do?”
“Help me catch the man who did this,” Pilgrim said. “If the overlay drops here, on record, I might do something with that.”
“No!” Oliver exclaimed. “We’re leaving. Now.”
“Fuck you,” Diggle snapped. “You’re fired.”
“You can’t fire me! You’re not even-” Oliver froze. “Ah.”
Pilgrim stood, opened the door, and glared at the lawyer.
“Your client just fired you,” she said. “You have no right to be here.”
Shoulders slumping, Oliver slunk out. Pilgrim slammed the door behind him.
“Ready?” she asked.
“No,” Diggle said, placing a cigarette between his lips. “But I’m still doing it.”
As he raised a lighter, Pilgrim went to stand behind him, out of sight. There was a click, the sound of a deep breath, and then a cloud of smoke.
Brian Diggle’s shoulders shifted, his legs stretched out, and he leaned back.
“Wicked,” he said. Then he glanced around. “Wait, why am I still here?” He raised his voice. “Oliver, where are you, you wanker?”
“What were we just talking about, Mister Diggle?” Pilgrim asked.
He jumped at the sound of her voice. Angry eyes turned to glare at the detective.
“Who the fuck are you?” he asked. “Where’s my fucking lawyer?”
“You don’t remember?” she asked.
“No, I don’t fucking remember,” Diggle snarled. “Lawyer. Now.”
“Brian Diggle,” Inspector Pilgrim said, “you are under arrest for attempting to obstruct the police in the course of their investigations through the use of a memory overlay…”
For the second time, she began reading him his rights.
Except that it wasn’t the second time, and the man she had met before was sadly gone.
* * *
Sometimes story comes from theme. I was reading a bunch of articles, looking for inspiration. Stories about robots in disguise, lizards with sheddable skin, dark web versions of normal websites. Then I noticed a theme in the things that had interested me. They were all about things with hidden natures. So rather than write about one of those specific ideas, I decided to riff on that theme, and here’s the result.
If you enjoyed this story then please share it, and consider checking out my collection of sci-fi stories, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.