by Kim Z. Dale
“It may take some getting used to.” That’s what management said when they told us we’d return to the office in a hybrid mode. The new policy was a purgatorial blend of working from home and working on site. The employees didn’t like it because we wanted to keep working remotely full time. Management didn’t like it because they wanted us in back the office full time, but after two years of everyone working from home, our leadership could no longer pretend that 40-plus hours in the office was a requirement for getting things done.
With the new hybrid schedules, it was hard to keep track of who was in the office and who was at home, so we kept doing video calls regardless of whether the person on the other end was across the country or across the hall. All the calls blurred together. I barely paid attention to my calendar. If a meeting notification popped up, I clicked on it. When another notification came up, I clicked on that. The person whose face appeared on the screen after I connected could be just about anyone, but it was surprising the first time I clicked a meeting link and the person I saw there was me.
I assumed I must be early to the call and the system was showing my camera-view while waiting for someone else to join. Then, I realized the person I was looking at was not a mirror image of myself. I was in the office, but the image showed me at home. The me on the screen was wearing a different shirt than the one I had on. I was in a virtual meeting with someone who looked like me but was not me. This was disconcerting.
“I wanted to touch base,” said the me on the screen who was not really me.
I let out a panicked squeak and closed the meeting window. I rushed down the hall to my boss’s office. He was casually sipping a smoothie while scrolling through his email.
“I need to go home,” I told him.
“Today is your in-the-office day. We can’t have people switching days willy-nilly. Won’t whatever it is wait until tomorrow?”
“I think someone broke into my house. I was just on a video call with them. They are in my house pretending to be me.”
“They are you. Sort of.”
“It’s part of the new hybrid work arrangement. We realized that with a hybrid schedule your home workspace isn’t in use when you are in the office and your office workspace isn’t in use when you are home. It’s very inefficient. Luckily, we found a way to maximize the available resources. We simply split your soul from your body, so part of you could be in each place at the same time. Neither workspace sits empty, and twice the work can be done. It’s a win-win.”
“Which part am I? The body or the soul?”
“Employee health records are confidential. You’ll have to ask Human Resources. Now, if you don’t mind, I have work to do.”
Disoriented, I shuffled back to my cubicle. As I passed other desks, I noticed many of my co-workers were on video calls with other versions of themselves as well. When I arrived at my workspace I sat down, took a deep breath, and called myself back.
Talking to myself was not as strange as I expected. The two of us think the same way and agree about everything, so we work well together. Perhaps management was onto something. After a few days it became routine, talking to him at home when I was in the office and talking to him in the office when I was at home. It only got weird again when I noticed the bandages. His arms were covered with them. I asked what happened.
“Don’t you remember?” he asked.
What I remembered was a recurring nightmare I’d been having. In it I was cutting myself and sucking the blood out of the wounds, but it wasn’t really my own body. It was a copy of me. And the copy of me was simultaneously cutting me and drinking my blood like I was to him. Realizing it may not have been a dream, I rolled up my sleeve. I saw my own arm was bandaged like his.
“Why did we do this?”
“We feed off each other. It’s how we stay connected. At least that’s how it started. The sensation can be a bit addictive.”
I watched as my doppelganger cut a stripe on his arm and sucked on the warm red liquid oozing from it. Even though I was repulsed by what I was seeing, I felt myself salivating.
This was insane. I disconnected from the call with my bloodthirsty twin and went to talk to my boss again. Seeing him drinking one of his ever-present dark red smoothies gave me a disturbing realization.
“It’s a blend.”
“A blend of what?”
“My blood, the blood of some well-vetted donors, and pomegranate juice.”
“Oh,” I said.
I wanted to be disgusted by my boss’s concoction, but what I felt was hungry. I went to the restroom and hid in one of the stalls. I was having a mild panic attack, sweating and breathing heavily. I needed something to calm me down, and I was afraid I knew what would work.
I pulled off one of the bandages on my arm. The cut beneath it was freshly scabbed. I used the pen knife on my keychain to reopen a small slit at one end of the wound. I squeezed my skin until a drop of blood emerged. I inhaled, trying to block out the acrid smell of disinfectants and urinal cakes to focus on my own sanguine scent. Then, I licked it.
I liked it. The warm metallic ooze tingled on my tongue, but I had cut too timidly. The few drops from my tiny incision were not enough to satiate my newly realized bloodlust. I prepared to enlarge the wound but stopped because I heard something. Someone was moving in another stall. I was not alone in the restroom. Then, I heard slurping. Not only wasn’t I alone in the restroom, I wasn’t alone in what I was doing there. With my panic eased by this strange sense of comradery, I continued to feed.
Those were the early days. We soon stopped hiding our bloodletting once we realized we were all doing it. Now people exsanguinate at their desks or sitting beside each other at the long tables in the cafeteria. Our insurance even started covering the medical tubes you can get put in your arm so you can open the valve and suck the blood through like a straw without having to constantly cut yourself. Some people still prefer the cutting.
There were some employees, of course, who weren’t comfortable with this “new normal” and quit. I’m not sure where they expected to get other jobs though. Everything that’s happening here is rapidly becoming industry best practice. All the best places do it.
I stayed, but I won’t say I love the arrangement. Between me and the other me, we are doing twice the work I used to do alone. Despite being split in two, I feel every minute of my double-loaded workweek. I’m exhausted. My twin is too. We are literally sucking the life out of each other.
My boss asked me to help interview candidates to fill the roles of people who left. The woman I liked best didn’t have much experience, but I believe it’s important to give people an opportunity to grow. Besides, she was wearing a short-sleeve shirt during the interview, and I could see she has good veins. She’ll be a great fit. My twin agrees.
I never asked HR if I’m the body part of me or the soul part. I have my suspicions, but I think it’s better not to know.
Kim Z. Dale is a writer and resiliency manager in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Her science-fiction and horror stories have been published in Nightmare Sky from Death Knell Press, GrimDark2 from Black Hare Press, and After Dinner Conversation magazine. Her other writing has been published in anthologies from Belt Publishing, O’Reilly Media, Kendall Hunt Publishing, Aschehoug Undervisning, and Helbling.
What happens when a part of us never disconnects from work? Will we eat ourselves alive? In “Care and Feeding of a Hybrid Workforce,” corporations deploy dark technology that fully blurs the lines between work and home in the name of increased productivity. This story was inspired by my time as a return to office project planner in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. (It does not reflect any policies or technologies used by my employer!)