The streets are more full of snow than people tonight, lending everything an enjoyably deserted, apocalyptic air. Isabel smiles as she walks home, humming happily to herself. Getting stood up never fails to put her in a good mood.
She always goes on the dates her mother sets up, but she much prefers it when the other person doesn’t show. That way, Isabel still gets credit for trying, while also getting to skip straight to the part where she doesn’t have to go on a second date.
Sexual relationships are a minefield Isabel would rather not have to navigate. She works as a copy-editor for a publisher that specialises in erotic science fiction, and real life never stands up to the sex in the books. She also worries about her left breast being a slightly different shape from the right—her last boyfriend was an artist, and his preoccupation with proportion gave her a bit of a complex. All things considered, it simply doesn’t seem worth it.
One day, she’ll explain that to her mother. Just not today.
As if Isabel’s thoughts have conjured her up, Barbara walks around the corner. She’s got Mattie with her, which probably means they’ve been to church. Barbara drags Isabel’s sister to churches a lot, hoping that one of them will eventually agree to exorcise her.
“You’re back early,” Mattie says. “Another no-show?”
Isabel nods and tries to look disappointed, while Mattie grins and gives her a thumbs-up over Barbara’s shoulder.
“If you didn’t get any dinner,” Mattie says, “shall we pick up a take-away? How about—”
Barbara holds up a hand. “Mattie. Let your sister choose.”
“It’s okay,” Isabel says. “I don’t mind.”
“Isabel, we’ve talked about this,” Barbara says, sternly. “Make a decision. Pizza? Fish and chips? Curry? Come on, that’s only three options.”
Isabel shakes her head, because it’s not. It’s mushroom and olive, and rocket and goat’s cheese, and stuffed crust pepperoni. It’s battered cod, halibut, plaice, steaming onion rings and minced steak pies. Saveloys. Are saveloys actually food? Then there’s Korma, Balti, Rogan Josh, Madras—all in different varieties of meat, fish and vegetables. Duck, sometimes. And that’s without even considering the uncountable combinations of bread, rice, and side dishes.
How can you know what’s going to be best? How can you know the King Prawn Jalfrezi will be nicer than the Chicken Tikka? How can you possibly know?
‘Isabel,’ Mattie says. ‘Breathe.’
Mattie chooses things without even looking at a menu. Isabel has no idea how she does that. Perhaps Barbara’s right, and she really does have occult powers.
‘Just a second,’ Isabel says. She activates her Feed and sends a request for analysis on the satisfaction index of her doppels’ recent dinner options.
‘Oh, Isabel,’ Barbara says, looking disappointed. ‘That’s cheating.’
‘It’s all right,’ Mattie says. ‘We’ll just make a sandwich when we get in.’ She squeezes Isabel’s hand. ‘You worry too much. You do know that, don’t you?’
Isabel sighs. Above her, a tree dumps a branchful of snow on her head. ‘I do,’ she says. It’s something she worries about a lot.
Mattie is the woman who invented the DoppelFeed. Although invented isn’t really the right word. Invented suggests the scientific method and a mind of disciplined genius, and while genius could be in the right conceptual neighbourhood when it comes to Mattie, discipline definitely isn’t. Discipline lives in a different part of the world altogether. Or a different part of the multiverse, to be more on point.
So maybe discovered is a better way to put it. Or facilitated. Or, as Barbara says, created through the power of a sinister, demonic pact.
Isabel doesn’t actually believe Mattie did any such thing, but she still can’t help occasionally worrying about it. (She’s read the books; there’s always a price.)
Barbara also insists that Mattie is a changeling, a child of some dark, faerie realm who was swapped with her own one night when nobody was looking. Isabel has tried to explain how unlikely this is, given that she’s contacted 321,734 parallel universe Isabels through the Feed so far, and only a handful have reported the existence of supernatural beings of any kind (unicorns, hyper-intelligent spiders and three different species of sea monster, none of which have ever snatched any babies) but her mother refuses to be reassured.
By the time the response from Isabel’s survey comes back with cod and chips as the highest-rated option, they’re already back at the house.
Mattie makes the sandwiches while Barbara puts the kettle on, and Isabel gets back to her latest project. Her ebook publisher has brought out a new line of erotic sci-fi/horror novels, and the alien languages need careful attention; identifying the wrong tentacle in the text could completely change the tone of a story.
Barbara lays down a tray of tea and biscuits. “Make sure you take the cup on the left,” she whispers.
Mattie helps herself to a custard cream. “I’m right here, Mum. I can hear you.” She sniffs the tea. “What have you put in it this time? More anti-psychotics?”
“Holy water,” Barbara says, a note of excited anticipation in her voice. “From the Vatican.”
Mattie shrugs and takes a sip. “Nice. Very clean-tasting.”
Barbara gives her a brief look of disappointment, then turns to Isabel. “I’ve decided what I’m getting you for your birthday,” she announces. “A holiday.”
Isabel blinks at her. “A what?”
“I’m going to take you on holiday. Anywhere in the world you want to go. Spain, America, Dubai, Japan…”
“Wow,” Isabel says. “I, um. That’s, absolutely, yes. Wow.”
Barbara smiles. If she noticed that wasn’t actually a complete sentence, she doesn’t say so.
Isabel has never been to Dubai, or Japan, or anywhere overseas. In fact, she’s never been further than Bognor Regis. It’s not that she doesn’t like the idea of travel, it’s just that the reality involves so much unpredictability. Just last month, 281 went on a cruise around the Norwegian fjords and the whole ship went down with a particularly virulent strain of Norovirus. Isabel is still having nightmares.
“So?” Barbara says. “Where do you want to go?”
Isabel dunks a custard cream in her tea. It breaks in half and sinks. “I’ll need to think about it,” she says. “Do some research. Let me get back to you.”
“Of course,” Barbara says. “Take as long as you like. As long as it’s by Monday morning, because I’ve got to book the time off work.” She pats Isabel on the head and pours herself some more tea.
“I’d better be off,” Mattie says, “I’ve got a lot to do.” She puts on her coat and stuffs the rest of the biscuits in one of its voluminous pockets. “I’m working on the next phase of the Feed.”
Isabel looks up. “What’s the next phase of the Feed?”
Barbara mutters something that sounds like devilry.
“I’m not certain, yet,” Mattie says. “I haven’t sacrificed enough goats on my black altar.”
Barbara shivers and starts drawing a series of protective runes in the air.
Mattie rolls her eyes. “Kidding. I promise that no farm animals have ever been harmed during any stage of the Feed.”
Barbara bares her teeth and carries on drawing her runes.
Isabel gives up on trying to get any more work done—a sex scene featuring sentient alien risotto is a fundamentally flawed concept that’s never going to be fixed at the sentence level—and walks Mattie to the door.
“You know you can always come and live with me, right?” Mattie says. “If she gets too much?”
Isabel nods and gives her sister a swift, hard hug. “Thanks,” she says. “I know.”
The idea does have appeal, but Mattie’s house is like something out of the books that terrified Isabel as a child; the kind of place that has secret passageways, more staircases than any respectable three-story house has a right to, and wardrobes that you daren’t open for fear of finding yourself in some strange magical kingdom. Isabel doesn’t know how she would manage. Where would she put her clothes?
Mattie hugs her back, then slips out the door.
When Isabel signs back into the Feed, 3259 is talking to 62 about the controversial use of the third person plural pronoun with a singular antecedent in the case of indeterminate gender. It’s been a hot topic among them all for a while.
According to Isabel’s database, 97% of her doppels are authors, journalists, screenwriters, editors, columnists, copywriters, script doctors, essayists, creative writing teachers, or poets. Even 281, who’s a charity fundraiser (currently, at least: 281 has previously been a sous chef, a scaffolder, a belly-dancing instructor, and a legionella risk assessor), writes Harry/Draco fanfiction. Isabel finds this comforting. Whoever said familiarity breeds contempt clearly never suffered from chronic free-floating anxiety.
Isabel explains her situation and asks for suggestions: holidays that would be entertaining for Barbara without also being fatally terrifying.
“That’s a tough one,” 62 says, and there’s a flurry of agreement.
“We’ll have to think about it,” 3259 says. “Do some research. We’ll get back to you.”
“By Monday?” Isabel asks, but the Feed’s gone silent.
The only one who does actually get back to Isabel is 281. She makes a list:
New York, for the shopping.
Las Vegas, for the gambling.
Cancun, for the heat.
New Zealand, for the scenery.
It goes on for another five pages, but Isabel stops reading there. Shopping takes her long enough in Primark; she can’t begin to imagine the kind of paralysing choice available in the department stores of Fifth Avenue. Risking money on the random turn of a card makes her feel nauseous, as does too much sun. And don’t they have snakes in New Zealand?
She closes the list and asks if anyone has any idea what the next phase of the Feed might be.
“Could be an expansion,” muses 7003. “Meaning that we’ll be able to sign in to other people’s Feeds, too. That could be interesting.”
“Or maybe it’ll be a temporal connection,” 11520 suggests. “So that we could contact our future selves, ask them what they did, and how it turned out.”
There’s a collective “Ooh,” and they all take a moment to process what a glorious thing that would be.
281 signs in then, and asks if Isabel liked any of her holiday suggestions, and whether they helped her decide where to go.
“Um,” Isabel says. “No, not really.”
She expects 281 to sound disappointed, but she doesn’t. “There you go then,” 281 says. “There’s your decision: nowhere. Tell Barbara thanks, but you don’t want to go. And while you’re at it, tell her to back off and stop trying to make you into someone you’re not.”
Isabel tries to imagine herself saying this. She fails.
Barbara, no doubt, would say 281 is a changeling. This time, Isabel’s not so sure she’d disagree.
It snows again overnight, the fresh layer erasing all the evidence that yesterday ever happened. Isabel gets up early and goes to see Mattie, laying down a fresh new trail of footprints over the ghosts of the old ones.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Mattie says, when she opens the door. “I’ve got some people I want you to meet.”
She ushers Isabel into the kitchen. “Isabel, meet Mattie, Mattie, Mattie, and Mattie. Welcome to the next phase of the Feed.”
Isabel knows it’s rude to stare, but she can’t help it. The four woman are all wearing black yoga pants and black t-shirts, which is Mattie’s customary choice (“If you buy everything in black it always matches, and never shows the bloodstains”) but their hair is different lengths: two very short and spiky, two very long and pulled back in ponytails. Isabel supposes both are as easy to deal with, in their own ways. Very Mattie.
“‘Wow,” Isabel says. She thinks that might be her new favourite word. It’s very all-purpose.
“Hello, Isabel, it’s nice to meet you,” the Matties all say in unison. Then they grin and high-five each other. “We’ve been practising that,” one of them says. “We think it will freak people out.”
“I think you’re right,” Isabel says faintly. She stares at the Matties some more, while they take it in turns to grin at her.
An idea begins to take shape in Isabel’s head. ‘Could you do this with my Feed, too?’ she asks. “Bring my doppels here?”
The Matties look at one another and pull thoughtful faces.
“It’s still in the experimental stage, but…”
“If we could reformulate the equations during the appropriate natal moon phase…”
“Recalibrate the neutrino oscillation matrices…”
“And add some toenail clippings to the sodium hydroxide…”
“While playing the right heavy metal records backwards…”
They break off and grin at each other again.
“Then yes,” Mattie finishes, “it’s within the current parameters of theoretical possibility. But as I’m sure you’ve noticed, we Matties are all pathologically curious, and far more interested in validating a hypothesis than ensuring our personal safety. So sure, it might work—but are there going to be any Isabels prepared to take the chance?”
“I think I might know one,” Isabel says.
Most of Isabel’s doppels have sisters, most of those sisters are younger, and most of those younger sisters are Matties. 281, not unexpectedly, is one of the exceptions: she’s an only child. She almost had a twin, but the other baby was stillborn.
Mattie is fascinated by this. “So maybe the twin would have been a Mattie, but this Isabel absorbed her soul at birth, so she grew up to be an amalgamation of the two. That would explain a lot of the statistically anomalous development.”
Isabel thinks so too, but 281 refuses to let Mattie attempt to validate this hypothesis through a process she calls psychic vivisection.
“Temporary psychic vivisection,” Mattie amends. “We’d put you back together again afterwards.”
“No,” 281 says, firmly.
“Damn,” Mattie says, wonderingly. “I just can’t get used to that. Do it again. Go on, say no.”
281 just raises an eyebrow.
“Damn,” Mattie says. “She’s good.”
When they hear Barbara’s key in the door, Mattie brushes an invisible speck off 281’s shirt, then stands back and smiles like a proud parent. ‘Okay. Here we go.’
She and 281 take up positions in the kitchen, while Isabel sneaks into her bedroom and peers out from behind the door.
Barbara takes a stack of DVDs out of her bag and puts them on the table. “I borrowed these from Sue at work, I thought we could watch one of them tonight. You can choose which one, Isabel.”
281 doesn’t look at them. She’s a massive fan of a TV show written by 3259, that stars Gina Torres as a crime-fighting robot ninja, and was devastated to discover it doesn’t exist in Isabel’s world. She’s cut herself off from the rest of the Feed to avoid spoilers.
“No,” she says. “I’d rather read a book.”
“Oh,” Barbara says, a little uncertainly. “Well, okay.” She puts the DVDs away, then brightens up. “Oh, and Sue was telling me about her nephew, who’s just moved up here. He seems like a very nice young man. I said you’d meet him at—”
“No,” 281 says.
Mattie covers an approving smile with her hand. Behind the door, Isabel holds her breath.
“If I want to go out with someone,” 281 goes on, “I’ll ask them myself.”
Barbara blinks rapidly, casts a brief, suspicious glance at Mattie, then goes back to staring at 281. “I see.”
“And while we’re on the subject, if I’d wanted a holiday as a birthday present, I would have asked for one. So thank you—it was a nice gesture and I appreciate it—but no, thank you. I don’t want to go.”
281 takes a deep breath. “Mum, I know you mean well, but you have to start trusting me to know how to live my own life. I don’t want to expand my horizons, come out of my shell or learn the colour of my parachute. It doesn’t strengthen my character to do things that scare me, it just makes me throw up. I don’t need to change, because I’m not missing out on anything that I actually want. I’m not miserable and I’m not defective—I’m just different. And you know what? I’m okay with it. I’m sorry if it disappoints you, but the truth is that I’d rather be happy than normal. And you’re just going to have to learn to live with that.”
Isabel’s eyes fill with tears, and she has the urge to applaud. Mattie actually does.
Barbara says nothing for a long time. Then she turns around, stomps down the hall and yanks open the door to Isabel’s bedroom.
“Oh, Isabel,” she says, shaking her head. “Didn’t I tell you that was cheating?”
“Sorry it didn’t work out,” 281 says, later. They’ve gone out to get fish and chips, since Barbara says she feels too betrayed to cook.
Isabel waves it off. “It wasn’t your fault. You were great.”
“You were,” 3259 says. “It was an excellent speech that really nailed the salient points. But it was never going to work. One of the first rules of drama is that people aren’t persuaded by rational arguments. Nobody ever changed their mind because someone pointed out they were wrong.”
“Then what can you do?” Isabel asks.
“In my experience, sending a robot ninja to threaten people with homicidal violence usually encourages them to see the error of their ways. You want to aim for their intestines, not their sense of reason. It’s a lot more motivating.”
“Thanks,” Isabel says. “I’ll bear that in mind.”
281 looks thoughtful. “Bet Mattie could build a robot ninja,” she says.
In the end, 281 decides to stay on for a while. “I came all this way,” she says. “I might as well see the sights while I’m here.” (The sights include St Paul’s Cathedral, Wales, shrimp, and the Loch Ness Monster, none of which exist in her world.)
It’s a bit cramped in the house at first, but a large contingent of Matties are working on the third phase of the Feed—inanimate objects—and manage to bring across 281’s bedroom. It sulks for a couple of days, but soon comes round.
Barbara does likewise, although it takes a little longer for her to satisfy herself that 281 isn’t an illusion, evil spirit, shapeshifter, vampire, demon, golem, or other malevolent entity. She does, however, declare that 281 is “a feisty one” who would undoubtedly benefit from learning a little more respect for her elders and betters. Altruistically, she decides to dedicate herself to the task.
281 takes it all surprisingly well. “My Barbara spends eighteen hours a day meditating,” she says. “The novelty’s kind of refreshing.”
Isabel takes advantage of the freedom to catch up on her latest editing project, which is a novelisation of 3259’s TV show. 3259 popped over and submitted it to Isabel’s publisher under a pseudonym, which—once she’d revised it to feature a crime-fighting ninja sexbot—they snapped up.
Barbara wanders over while she’s waiting for 281. They’re off to the travel agent, to discuss New York shopping breaks. It is 281’s birthday the same time as Isabel’s, after all.
Barbara leans over Isabel’s shoulder and peers at the manuscript page she’s working on. “Hallucinatory cyborg sex needs a hyphen. Otherwise you can’t tell if it’s the cyborg or the sex that’s hallucinatory.”
Isabel nods, but she doesn’t uncap her pen. “Maybe that’s the point,’ she says.