This is a story I read in the early 2000s in Asimov's magazine. Two federal agents are criss-crossing America, finding neighborhoods that are weird - in one, everyone is suddenly a fluent speaker of Chinese, in another, everyone's home is decorated with "Day of the Dead" skeletons, etc. The people in these neighborhoods are unaware that they are acting differently. In each neighborhood, the agents ask about someone who lived in that neighborhood recently - a man who goes by a different unusual name every time (I don't remember the names, but let's say "Mr. Reality" or "Mr. Truth" as examples) - and the neighbors don't recognize the name as unusual either. It becomes clear that the missing man is a former government scientist who escaped with some dangerous technology, with a mysterious motive.

Eventually, I think, it is revealed, that one of the agents is the person who is being sought. He, of course, can use his powers to avoid detection.


1 Answer 1


"A Change of Mind", a novelette by Robert Reed in Asimov's Science Fiction, October-November 2004, available at the Internet Archive.

The residents of an apartment building suddenly start speaking Chinese:

"I heard about some people in one of the Dakotas," she confessed. "South or North? I don.t know much geography — "

"That’s Minnesota," Clark reported. "Did you hear about the apartment building outside San Francisco?"

"What building?"

"Everyone who lived there two winters ago — every last one of them — now speaks a fluent Mandarin brand of Chinese."

"I hadn’t heard that one."

"By tonight, it'll be the lead story everywhere." Clark glanced at the editor, winning an agreeable nod. Then he looked back at Morgan, asking, "Are you worried?"

"A lot of things worry me."

"Someone's spreading memes across the country — "

"That's one speculation," she allowed. "But two, now three places ... I don't know, there could be other explanations."

"Such as?"

She shook her head. "If you want an expert's opinion, I'm going to disappoint you. I haven't read the literature in years. But what I remember . . . there were a lot of mountains between what was possible and what we're seeing today. The most impressive result was a human volunteer who hated broccoli until he was treated with huge doses of one meme, and then he had a mild, temporary fondness for the vegetable." She paused significantly. "In other words, the technology was about as impressive as hypnosis."

"Eighty-nine adults and thirty children," Clark rumbled. "And a little more than a year and a half later, every last one of them suddenly began speaking Chinese as their primary language."

A man goes by different unusual names:

Alabama should have been the next site. Last spring, Mr. Deep Question had moved from Minnesota to another little hamlet of no significance. He had changed his name to The Meme Man, and, after a stay of barely six weeks, he'd left again. It wasn't until some months later that health authorities finally took notice: One hundred and six residents of the little community were digging a hole. With nothing but cupped hands, they had managed to excavate a pit almost thirty feet deep. They couldn't explain why they were doing the work, nor did they wonder why, but they had done their digging with such a single-mindedness that their fingers had worn down to the proverbial bone.

  • 1
    Thank you - should have thought of Reed
    – Andrew
    Aug 26, 2023 at 22:26

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