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The Changeling Puzzle

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     It's not easy, having two lives in your head. Especially when one of them is blatantly untrue. My life, the real one, is one in which I am an only child, my father is still alive, I am romantically unattached at the moment, and my closest friend (against all odds) is an American named Craig Stirling. In my other life, the one They put inside my head, my father and brother, my fiancée, and my closest friend, were all brutally murdered by a man named Craig Stirling.
I haven't told Craig or Sharron about this other life, but they know I have nightmares - there's no stopping it, what with our empathic connection - but so far I have been able to hide that other life. The life where I would murder Craig for murdering my family. My changeling family.
     The nights between missions are the worst, when I'm all alone, no reminders that the other life isn't real. Sometimes, when the nightmares are so strong I go against regulations and ring my father; not to talk to, just to hear his voice say 'hello' and then curse when I don't answer, and know he's still alive and that other life is a lie.
     Tonight the nightmares are worse than usual. Tonight that other Craig Stirling tied me to a chair and made me watch as he tortured them. I was helpless to do anything. My enhanced strength was no help when it was my mind that made me prisoner. Then the dream changed, briefly, to the reality of what happened. I didn't remember, in waking life, what had happened when I was abducted and subjected to the drugs and brainwashing techniques that gave me this second life in my head, but I had pieced it together and sometimes I dreamed it. I was stuck with needles, drugged again and again, struck, subjected to mind altering stimuli. But that wasn't the worst part of that piece of that dream, the worst of what happened in real life. What happened was that I had tried to kill Craig, had struck Sharron, and in the dream I killed both of them.
     I sit up in the chair in which I had fallen asleep, holding my head in my hands as though trying to keep it in one piece.
     I said Craig is my closest friend, and once that had been true, and once I would have just walked into his flat and suggested playing poker till the nightmares faded and real life was my only life. But since The Interrogation he had become... unfriendly towards me - not that I could blame him. NEMESIS had become suspicious of us because of our high success rate and the holes in our reports where we had to gloss over where we had used our special abilities. Craig had paid the price for my promise of silence to the people who had saved us. While I was forced to watch and be silent, he was subjected to NEMESIS' interrogation and torture. I had done nothing to save him, not staged a daring rescue as he would have done for me. Just stood and watched. While it had been the most rational thing to do, neither he nor I could forgive my inaction, my inability to find a third option, and I, on top of that, live with the imp of that other self that was glad when I saw Craig tortured.
I lean over and grab my glass of wine, but my shaking hands clench too hard and the glass shatters, wine and blood spoiling the crossword sitting also on the side table and spilling onto the carpet. The crossword hangs in my head, indelibly stamped there thanks to my photographic memory, and I automatically fill them in with letters of glowing red, solving it in moments. I have always loved puzzles of every kind; mathematics has always been one great playground to me, and code-breaking for MI-5 had been as much an intellectual indulgence as serving my country. However, finding the answer for my own mental state and relations between Craig and I are two puzzles I can't solve.
     I don't bother to clear up the mess even though I know I'll curse myself for it in the morning. I just watch my hand bleed, picking at the glass imbedded in it, watching as my accelerated regenerative powers go about their work.
     A buzzing from the doorbell startles me from my macabre reverie.
     I get up and open the door. It was Craig, a slight, awkward smile touching his face.
     "Hey, Richard. Mind if I come in?"
     Rage rushes through my blood, flashes of loved ones left broken and dead on the floor while this man stood over them replaying over and over and over in my mind. I shut it down, shoving it deep down inside myself and weighing down that cellar door with guilt. I gestured for him to come inside, recovering myself with, "If you're looking for Cinderella, you've got the wrong house."
     "Yeah, I thought you were a bit ugly even for an ugly stepsister," he said, taking in the room with a quick, sharp glance.
     "And I had doubts as to why they call you Prince Charming," I commented lightly, closing the door behind him.
     "You were setting me up for that quip, weren't you?"
     "If the monkey takes the bait…"
     "And that one."
     I smile, but my insides are writhing. I'm waiting for him to blow up at me again. Sometimes we'd talk like this, like the old times, but it felt almost like accidental and things usually turned hostile quickly enough.
     "Whadidja do to your hand?" He pointed at my still bleeding hand.
     "Bare-handed shark fishing; new hobby of mine." I gestured for him to sit while I washed my hand at the tap in the kitchen.
      He didn't sit. He loitered in the living room for a moment before blurting out, "I saw your dream, Richard. What they did to you."
     I waved it away, "It was just a dream, Craig."
     "And that's just your hand all bloody."
     I wiped my hand on a towel and held it up, as unblemished as a newborn's. "Nothing our regenerative powers can't handle."
     "Yeah? Well there's something our powers can't handle: the hells that happened to us."
      There it was, the accusations. "I can't say that if I had another chance I would charge in to rescue you, but I wish I had been able to find another option."
     "Dammit, Richard, I wasn't trying to bring that up." Craig turns away a moment, rubbing his face, then turns back to me with surprising restraint, "I'm saying what happened, happened. We both went through hell, stuff our enlightened friends who gave us our powers couldn't have imagined. And if we don't go through this together, we're gonna fall apart. You know what happened yesterday? I walked in on Sharron at her apartment, bawling her eyes out; she hid it quickly enough, what with her scientific jargon, but she couldn't even put the test-tubes back on the rack her hands were shaking so much. She avoids both of us like the plague, and you shoulda seen her when Tremayne made a visit when I was there; she bolted for the exit at the slightest excuse."
     "I didn't know that," I said quietly.
     "'Course you didn't; she's even better than you at locking the rest of us out when she wants to. Why do you think we never feel her grieve for her husband?"
     "I suppose I hadn't thought about it."
     We stood in silence for a time.
     Craig broke it with a question, "You still think we were given these powers for a reason?"
     "I do, Craig. For a purpose."
     "What if it wasn't for serving NEMESIS?"
     "What are you saying, Craig?"
     "You're looking at me like I'm saying we go over to the Reds."
     "Is that what you're saying?"
     "Whadda you take me for? Course not!" Craig paced my flat. "But what if- what if we struck out on our own? No orders, no reports, nobody looking over our shoulders, just us deciding what to do with the powers we've been given."
     "Our own side would hunt us, Craig, and there wouldn't be any reprieves, just the swift, cold execution given to deserters and traitors."
     "Our own side tortured me! They betrayed me. They betrayed everything we've fought for; everything I've fought for, anyway."
     I ignored the barb; there were more pressing worries. "Have you talked to Sharron about this?"
     "'Course I have!"
     "And what does she think?"
     "Gee, she doesn't know what to think without a blue-eyed, silver-tongued creep whispering in her ear." Craig glared at me, then sighed again, the fire of anger dying down. "I didn't mean that. She wants to be out of it. This isn't what she was expecting. Hell, I don't think this was what any of us expected."
     "Will you consider it? Leaving NEMESIS?"
     "I can't."
     "You can't? Mr. Run-off-and-do-missions-on-his-own can't conceive of doing it permanently?"
     "I made a promise, Craig, when I joined NEMESIS. I can't break that."
     "And yet it's fine to break yours to me? Again, Richard?"
     "And what promise was that, Craig?"
     "When you said you were my friend, Richard, that was a promise; when you say you're someone's friend, that's a promise to have their back, to stick with 'em through hell. That's the promise I made when I called you 'friend.'"
     "We're not all that idealistic, Craig."
     "Then the Reds are better than you are; least they've got loyalty." Craig's arm pulled back in the compulsive emotional response I knew his hot-headed nature would eventually resort to when pushed too far, then his fist shot out at me. His loathing for me was only surpassed by my own. I took the punch. I didn't even try to avoid it. I deserved it. The punch threw me across the room, slamming me into the wall, pain blossoming but gone all too soon as my regenerative powers kicked in. It had never escaped my thoughts about what new heights of horror someone could wreak on myself due to this gift if they discovered it - recently it had been with some longing.
     Craig shuddered, loathing dropping away to be replaced by remorse for his action and a sort of horrified pity. "My god, Richard, you can't believe you really deserve that?"
     He wasn't referring to the punch. I looked away.
     "Death ain't the next best option."
     "When they were torturing you, there was a part of me that wanted that to happen to you," I said slowly, hollowly. "There was a part of me that was glad. Do you understand, Craig? I was glad to see my best friend tortured. With the life they put in my head, I've fantasized about torturing you myself. To that, death would be a mercy."
     Craig flung himself down next to me where I sat slumped against the wall. I refused to look at him.
     Suddenly Craig laughed.
     "What?" I asked.
     "With all our powers, with all the connection they gave us, we've still managed to fall apart and hide secrets from each other. Normally - ha! What a laugh that is! - we'd have known what trouble you were in and that you were trying to protect me from this changeling you, you'd have known Sharron is scared and confused, you'd have known I felt trapped and alone. Maybe that's humanity's greatest talent: hiding ourselves from each other."
     "But what if, Richard, what if we don't have to?"
     "Craig, as long as I have these thoughts in my head, I'm your enemy."
     "Be logical, Richard." I would have chuckled about that in any other circumstance; him telling me to be logical was a new one. He continued, "They aren't your thoughts. They were put there by some goon."
     "They're mine enough to feel satisfaction at your torture."
     "Richard, look at y'self! Would someone want to punish himself for thinking about killing an enemy?"
     "A man of certain moral principle might-"
     "I'm not talking about some hypothetical guy, I'm talking about you. Have you ever wanted to punish yourself for wanting to kill an enemy?"
     "Not if I thought him reprehensible or-"
     "In your head, that other head, am I reprehensible?"
     I shuddered in response, visions of terrible acts of cruelty flashing before my eyes.
     "I guess so," Craig's voice came through the images. "Then what's stopping you from trying to kill me now? Why were you talking to me in a more civilized manner than I was you?"
     "I'm English," I hazarded at a joke.
     "Very funny, wiseguy. You're clever enough, you're strong enough; why aren't I dead yet?"
     Because you're my friend and I don't want you dead, was the answer that I wanted to say, but I didn't think it was true enough because there was a part of me that did. "Craig, I'm dangerous. Unpredictable."
     "I think that's in your file." Now it was his turn to hazard a joke.
     "I don't know how deep this other self goes; I could unconsciously betray or endanger you."
     "That doesn't matter. It's what you want, not what that other self wants that matters. If I end up dead, it won't matter. If I have you and Sharron at my back again, I don't care what happens."
     "Even if I stab you in the back?"
     "You won't."
     "I wish I shared your optimism."
     "You can't put me through worse than you already did, and I'm sorry, but that's the brutal truth, Richard."
     I took a deep breath and nodded.
     He jostled me with his elbow, giving me a lopsided grin. "This changeling life of yours, Richard, it don't stand a chance against the three of us."
     I smiled back, and for the first time in a long time I really felt him in my mind again, all fire and dogged determination. And then Sharron's mind, sharp and bright as a ray of sunlight and just as warm.
The puzzle wasn't solved, but maybe we had the key.