Inside Sophia’s brain, the alarm was blaring. The noise was coming from a siren like the ones found on police cars, and was accompanied by a red flashing light.
Gemma, the Head Rationalist, looked up from her desk in the control room of Sophia’s right hemisphere, and scurried out to see what was going on. Another Rationalist by the name of Lily was already on the scene, clipboard in hand, peering at the siren over the top of her designer glasses.
‘What is it? What’s happened?’
‘He’s said something worrying,’ Lily explained. ‘It triggered the alarm.’
‘What did he say?’
‘That you don’t have to find someone attractive in order to sleep with them.’
Gemma placed her hands on her hips and proceeded to shift her weight from foot to foot, as she always did when she was thinking.
‘Let me guess. Now she’s worried about his motivation for sleeping with her.’
‘Yep. Got it in one.’
Gemma sighed. She for one had never approved of Sophia’s decision to start sleeping with her housemate, but she’d been powerless to stop it. No amount of rationality could stand in the way of desire, at least not in Sophia’s case. All Gemma could do was look out through their host’s eyes and mumble advice she would never hear, let alone heed. Advice like, ‘Don’t shit where you eat, for God’s sake,’ and, ‘Whatever you do, do not develop feelings for him.’
It made no difference. Sophia had gone ahead regardless, leaving Gemma and her team of Rationalists to deal with the consequences, whatever they may be.
‘Have you tried turning it off?’
‘Of course I have,’ Lily snapped, shooting Gemma a withering look. ‘I can’t get it to stop. I don’t think this is a job for us.’
Gemma didn’t think so either, much as she hated to admit it. Twenty-three years inside Sophia’s head had given her a great deal of insight into how their host ticked, and this was not a situation in which they could assist.
‘I think you’re right,’ Gemma conceded. ‘Where are they anyway? I wish they’d hurry up so we can stop this racket.’
She peered around at the Conscience Centre, empty except for themselves. It was a circular room with the siren at its heart, the bulb almost as tall as they were. To their left, in the back of Sophia’s head, was a wall made up entirely of complicated dials and switches which they used to moderate her thoughts. To their right was a curved pane of one-way glass which allowed them to look out through Sophia’s eyes and see exactly what she saw.
There were also two control rooms, one in front of them and one behind. The one behind was manned by them, the Rationalists. It was their job to impose logic and order on Sophia’s jumbled and often chaotic thoughts. They were a team of six, although where the others were was anyone’s guess. They could have been anywhere: sifting for meaning in the Dream Realm, or navigating the murky waters of Sophia’s subconscious. Either way they were elsewhere, and therefore unable to help.
‘You know them, they’re always late,’ Lily said with blatant scorn.
The them in question were the Irrationalists. They worked in the control room opposite, and their job, as far as Gemma could tell, was to help Sophia make bad decisions. They were the ones who fanned the flames of her insecurities, ignored warning signs and aided her in her downward spirals. Gemma hated them, but she loved Sophia, and the Irrationalists were an essential part of her.
‘Here they come.’
‘So sorry, what have we missed?’
There were three of them. They came tumbling out of the control room like they were running late for work which, in a way, they were.
‘The alarm’s going off,’ Gemma pointed out, making no attempt to disguise her sarcasm. Her hands had left her hips and were now folded across her chest, right eyebrow cocked as she took in every detail of her rivals’ respective appearances. She had seen them countless times before, and yet it never ceased to affront her.
One was wearing a bright pink party dress studded with silver rhinestones. She had teamed it with white patent high heels and black fishnet tights. Another was sporting a short lime green dress with towering black stilettos, while the third wore a slinky black satin number twinned with glitzy red heels. Their snazzy outfits looked more suited to a night on the town than making serious and informed decisions.
‘Yes, we can see that, thank you,’ quipped the one in the pink, whose name was Charlotte.
‘What’s happened exactly?’
The three Irrationalists listened as Gemma explained the situation, their heads cocked to one side like birds. Far from being concerned, they seemed to visibly relax. The tension went out of their shoulders, and Charlotte even smiled.
‘Is that all?’
Before Gemma or anyone else could speak, Charlotte strode over to the still wailing siren, laid one hand against the side and cooed, ‘Shh. It’s OK, he’s hot.’
Immediately the wailing stopped. Silence was restored. Charlotte stepped back, a look of smug triumph on her face. Her fellow Irrationalists congratulated her, clapping her on the back and gushing praise. As if what she’d done was somehow impressive.
Gemma was not impressed. Gemma was fuming.
‘He’s hot? Really?’
‘Well he is,’ said Charlotte, suddenly defensive.
‘Good calves,’ said Lola in the green dress, and the others nodded their agreement.
Gemma goggled, unable to believe what she was hearing.
‘Have you not noticed?’
‘No, I can’t say I have.’
‘That’s because you don’t look,’ said Kyla, the one in the slinky black dress. ‘You’re always beavering away in that control room. Honestly, you should watch the next time they-’
‘Thanks’ Gemma cut in, ‘I’ll bear it in mind.’
They all knew full well that that was code for no.
‘Honestly, you’d see the appeal,’ Kyla added with a sly smile.
‘You never learn do you? Him being hot is not sufficient justification for ignoring the alarm!’
They had been through this. When Sophia’s ex casually announced that he didn’t believe in marriage, the Irrationalists had argued that she ‘could probably live without it for his sake.’ Besides, he was probably right. It was just a piece of paper, and they didn’t need the government to sanction their relationship. As for him stating that he needed to be able to get out of the relationship if he wanted, they had swept that under the carpet and refused to acknowledge it-a favourite tactic of theirs when they could think of no decent counterpoints.
‘So that’s it, is it?’ Gemma had barked at them. ‘You’re prepared to sacrifice something that’s incredibly important to her, something she’s longed for since she was a little girl, because what? He’s nice to look at? Do you have any idea how ridiculous that is?’
‘Oh come off it,’ Lola protested, ‘You know it isn’t just that.’
‘But it is part of it.’
‘Well yeah, obviously.’
Three years later, here they were again. Gemma knew precisely how this would play out, because it was always the same. Sophia’s doubts would be pushed to one side, swept into one of the many store cupboards that lined the perimeter of the Conscience Centre. There they would remain, out of sight but not quite out of mind, allowing Sophia to continue with the current arrangement for as long as possible. Until the inevitable happened.
Somehow, some day, he would hurt her. This man with the good calves would hurt her beloved Sophia, and there was nothing Gemma and her team could do.
‘You do know how this is going to end.’
It was a statement, not a question.
‘Of course we know,’ Charlotte said, not even bothering to conceal an eye roll. ‘Sophia herself knows. But what would you have her do? End it now? What would be the point? She’s having some well-deserved fun, which she’s entitled to do, especially after her last relationship.’
It was true. Gemma remembered the breakup like it was yesterday. The six months of abject misery that led up to it, all vestiges of intimacy gone. It had been hard, picking Sophia up after that. It had taken her and her team months to put her back together, and she had no wish to see all that hard work undone.
But this was a different situation entirely. This was light and flirty and adventurous, which was exactly what Sophia needed right now. All of the fun without the high emotional stakes. Gemma might not approve, but she couldn’t blame Sophia.
At least, the stakes weren’t as high. Sophia wasn’t in love with him, but she was invested enough. After all, people acquire the power to hurt you long before you love them.
‘She knows the risks,’ Charlotte went on. ‘She knows there’s a good chance she’ll end up getting hurt. But she won’t ever regret having done it, so just leave her be.’
‘But what about what he just said?’ Lily piped up. ‘What if he doesn’t actually like her? What if he’s only sleeping with her because he can?’
The Irrationalists considered this for a few seconds. It was Lola who eventually broke the silence.
‘So what if he is?’
Dumbstruck, the two Rationalists goggled at their rivals. Gemma couldn’t believe her ears. She had expected some kind of deflection, maybe even an attempt at self-delusion, but not this.
‘I mean, does it really matter?’ Lola continued. ‘It’s not like they’re a couple, and either way, she’s still getting what she wants from the situation.’
Being a Rationalist, Gemma always knew when she had been beaten. Unable to think of a compelling counterargument, she pursed her lips and looked at the floor.
‘Perhaps they’re right,’ Lily ventured, laying a conciliatory hand on her boss’s arm. ‘I mean, she has done this before. She got hurt then too, but she doesn’t regret it, and I don’t think she’ll regret this either. Isn’t that the most important thing? Maybe our job isn’t to prevent her ever getting hurt, but to help her process it when it happens. What do you think?’
Against all odds and in spite of herself, Gemma found that she was smiling. Lily was right. The Irrationalists were right, at least on this occasion. Sophia knew what she was doing. She knew the risks, but ultimately, the risks were worth the reward. Gemma looked at the siren, now still and silent, and wondered how long it would be before it sounded again. Gut instinct told her this would not be the last time this man set it off. And when that happened, they would be there. The Rationalists and the Irrationalists, destined to fight it out for the duration of Sophia’s life.
Pleased with their victory, the Irrationalists retreated to the control room in Sophia’s right hemisphere, tottering away on their high heels.
‘Come on, let’s go have a cuppa,’ Lily said. She tucked her clipboard under her arm and beckoned for Gemma to follow her. The Head Rationalist allowed herself to be led away, casting one last look over her shoulder at the siren. It would have been nice to win this one, but the main thing was that the alarm had been silenced and Sophia’s mind appeased, at least for the time being.
‘You win some, you lose some,’ Lily said with a nonchalant shrug, as if she could read Gemma’s mind. ‘Today just wasn’t our day’
She was silent for a few moments, but Gemma could sense that she wasn’t done. There was something else, something more she wanted to say. As she pushed open the control room door, she smiled coyly and said, ‘Besides, you have to admit, he is hot.’