November 2, 2014
The year 2114, Winter, Tuesday.
The room was fairly non-descript. It looked like any other doctor’s office, maybe a bit larger, with one exception: the chair. It was a rather solid recliner with some sort of helmet attachment at the top. It looked a bit foreboding but fortunately, I’ve always been a pretty reckless guy. A doctor-looking older guy was tinkering next to it. Mostly, I was glad to be out of the cold.
“Ah, Private Chan, is it? You’ve signed all the consent forms, I take it?” I nodded. He continued, “I see you’ve noticed the device. We’ll get into that in a moment,” the man said. He smiled in a way that was intended to be reassuring but wasn’t. “We’re just waiting on my new assistant. In the meantime, would you mind getting into the chair?”
I shrugged. “That’s all I gotta do for the hazard pay? Sit in your chair for a few hours?”
The old guy winced slightly. “Are they still doing that? I keep telling them it’s unnecessary. I think it actually makes it harder to get volunteers. The potential for danger is seriously exaggerated. It’s a device to passively record data. It was just the one incident and that was purely an electrical system problem. Now that we’ve put in the circuit breaker, the dangers are practic—”
And then she walked in. She was wearing a lab coat, too, but she had a look that I immediately recognized as ready for battle. It seemed out of place and put me on guard. She about my age, maybe younger, and she had a smaller frame than me but she seemed somehow more formidable. “Sorry for the delay, Dr. Miller. I just uploaded my latest build to your device.” She glanced toward the chair.
“No problem, Linda. Do you mind if I call you Linda?” He smiled in a way that was intended to be charming but wasn’t.
The woman named Linda steadfastly kept her eyes me. She was making a show of taking my pulse but she wasn’t timing it with a watch or anything. I didn’t mind. Her hands were warm. She kept her voice even as she said, “I prefer ‘Dr. Pierce if you don’t mind.” Ah, I started to understand.
“Oh, of course, ‘Dr. Pierce’,” he said with a smile that was intended to be contrite but wasn’t. This guy really shouldn’t try to smile so much. It was irritating.
“Private Chan,” she said as she was holding on to my wrist with her fingers. She was looking directly at me. Her eyes were very intense and it made me a little nervous. “You seem a little nervous.”
“Ahh….” I felt myself blushing.
“Has the procedure been explained to you?” she asked.
“Oh! Yeah, I mean, no. He hasn’t explained — I’m just nervous about the … chair thing,” I lied.
The dude said, “I was just getting to that part!” She glared at him. I breathed a slight sigh of relief.
Dr. Pierce didn’t notice. She said, “It’s very simple. You just lie back in this chair.” She walked me over to it and I relaxed into it. “Then we put this helmet on,” she said as she attached it to my head. It was snug. She said, “Apparently, they used to shave the heads of the volunteers before to attach the electrodes. But I designed this helmet to detect signals below the surface, so that’s not necessary anymore.”
The old guy was on the other side, typing away at some console. He might as well have been in a different room. “Thanks, I appreciate it. I like my haircut.” That was a joke. It was the same haircut as a million or so other recruits. It wasn’t a great joke, but she chuckled. Then, I heard a slight hum. I looked around but nothing seemed any different. I certainly didn’t feel anything. I asked, “So now what?”
Dr. Pierce said, “To be honest, this is my first time, too. But I’ve been told that we just chat for a few hours, while the device calibrates and attempts to record. Apparently, normal conversation produces the optimal signal. So we can talk about whatever you want, to, Private Chan.”
I said, “Oh, you can call me ‘David’, Dr. Pierce.”
“You can call me Linda,” she said. She smiled.
I liked that smile.
And then the flash hit.
I screamed but it sounded muffled to my own ears. Everything was fuzzy. I heard … voices? It was hard to make out. I couldn’t see anything because it was too bright. Did I smell burning? I blinked. Still too bright.
Something was being pulled from my mouth. A gag? I heard sounds again. Definitely voices. Now I could start making out what they were saying, “—very time?” A female voice. Was that Dr. Pierce? Linda? Was she okay? I was still in the chair so I tried to get up. And failed.
“Yeah, every time. He should start to be responsive soon.” Male voice. Dr. Miller?
I said, “What’s going on?” Or, at least, that’s what I tried to say. I think it came out more like, “Whuhging om?”
“Don’t worry, ‘Private Chan’. You’re fine. It’s just disorientation. Your vision should be coming back right about … now,” he said.
I kept on blinking and he was right. I could start to see the room. Everything was still blurry, but I could make out the same doctor’s office and now I could see it definitely was Dr. Miller, but … it was wrong, somehow. I said, “Something’s different.”
He said, “No matter how close we make the room, he always says that.”
I stared at him. Now my vision was coming back. It was definitely Dr. Miller but he looked — “Why do you look so old?”
He sighed, “He always says that, too. I suppose that part can’t be helped” She laughed. He turned to her and said, “Wanna see something neat?” She nodded and he passed her a notepad with several things scribbled on it. I couldn’t make them out. Then he looked at me and said, “Pick a number from 1 to 100.”
I don’t know why, but I said the first number to pop into my head: “27.”
She shrieked. I didn’t think my number warranted that much of a reaction. I looked at her. I was wrong, it wasn’t Dr. Pierce. I asked, “What happened to Dr. Pierce?”
They ignored me. Dr. Miller said, “Quick, do the next one.”
The woman looked at the notepad and recited, “In your mind, pick a card from a deck of cards and name it.”
Something was going on. I stared at the woman, trying to get some hints. I could see how I mistook her for Dr. Pierce. She was roughly the same build, definitely younger than me, and the same sandy blonde hair. Also, cute. Well, whatever was going on, I could play their game. I smiled and said, “Jack of hearts.”
She looked disappointed. What the hell? Dr. Miller frowned at her. He said, “That’s odd. Usually we get to 5 or 6 before there’s a divergence.” Then he tersely said, “It must be your fault.”
She looked abashed and said, “I’m sorry, Dr. Miller. I ca—”
He interrupted her and said, “No, no. It’s fine. Just take him on to processing.” And waved her off. Then I realized he was waving us both on. The woman came over to the chair and helped me up. I had to lean on her as we walked out and only then realized that I was wearing a hospital gown now. What was going on?
Once we were out in the hallway, the woman said, “I was just supposed to help with the processing but at the last second, they wanted me to check out the activation.” I had no idea what she was talking about but I just nodded. Everything was still hazy. I was oddly grateful that I was being led down the hallway. It gave me a chance to think. In the awkward silence she said, “I’m sorry for messing up back there. I just started so I don’t know how to do things right, yet. My name is Priscilla.”
I was able to walk more easily now. I turned to her and said, “Oh, I’m sure you did fine. My name is David.”
She smiled enigmatically and said, “Not any more, it isn’t.” She laughed as if she thought of something witty and said, “We should call you, ‘Jack’.”
Before I had a chance to respond, she opened the last door in the hallway and pointed me in. I was about to say something when I saw what was inside and the words died in my throat.
It was a room full of people.
And they were all me.
It was a small room with a dozen seats facing the far wall. Eleven identical faces, my own, turned back towards me. The expressions ranged from bewilderment towards the front to a slight smirk towards the back.
Priscilla said, “Oh, I almost forgot this.” She pulled out a smart band and attached it to my left wrist. I glanced it and it responded with the time. Well, at least that was familiar. On the bottom, it was engraved with the letters, “LSI0051-London”. She motioned me towards the last open seat and left the room.
I would have preferred to sit at the back, but the only remaining seat was at the front. I sat down and the guy to the right turned and said, “Hi, I’m David.” The room chuckled. He continued, “Sorry, apparently, that’s an old joke here.” He gestured towards the rest of the room and said, “We’re all David. I just got here a couple people before you.” He pointed to my left and said, “That David just got here a few minutes ago.” The left David smiled weakly at me. He looked almost as bewildered as I felt. The right David, this was going to get confusing, said, “The running theory is clones, of course. But we aren’t discounting the possibility of this being a really, really vivid dream. And there are the wilder theo-”
“It’s clones,” called out a voice behind us. We all turned and saw him. He was one of us, but somehow different. For one thing, he was fully dressed. But he also looked a little more … confident or something. He walked up to the front of room and said, “and the year is 2134.” There was a collective eye-widening in the room.
Twenty years?! How was that possible? This morning when I trudged through the snow to report in for the experiment, it was 2114. And now, this guy was telling me that–
The man in clothes yanked open the curtain and there was no snow. “Also, it’s June.” The room gasped. He chuckled and said, “It’s funny. I always get a bigger reaction from the fact that it’s June than the fact that it’s been 20 years.”
What was going on? When I signed up for the experiment, there was nothing about clones in it. They just wanted to record brain patterns for cancer studies or something. Were there lots of clones? What had happened in 20 years? What was that, like 5 presidential terms? Did anything big happen? Were we still at war? And where are we? The buildings outside didn’t look at all familiar. I had so many questions.
“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” he said. “I will start with what are literally the most frequently asked questions: There aren’t a lot of clones. Nobody knows how many attempts have been made but I’ve heard it’s on the order of hundreds, depending on how you count. To date, only three models have been viable, us and two other models. And a bunch of us have been made. Specifically, 51.” I glanced at my smart band again. The “LSI0051-London” seemed more significant now. The man in clothes noticed my glance and nodded at me. He continued to the whole room, “But there are only 16 of us now.” He paused. “I’ll let that sink in a bit.”
16? Out of 51? That meant that … gah, I had a hard time doing the math in my– “35,” he answered the unspoken question. “35 of us are dead.” Wow. In a sense, it was if I had– “In a sense, it’s like we’ve died 35 times.” This was getting creepy.
The instructor said, “Creepy, right?” He smiled slightly. “To quickly go the earlier questions you probably had: We’ve had three presidents, the stock market crashed once, and we finished that war but now we’re sorta in another. Also, there’s the space elevator. Oh, and you’re in California now, which, believe me, is almost a bigger change than the twenty years.”
I let out a nervous chuckle, as did the rest of the room. It’s almost like he had read my mind.
“No, I can’t read your mind. I’ll demonstrate. After the bright flash and pain, you were all asked to pick a number from 1 to 100. How many of you picked 27?” All twelve of our hands went up and all twelve of us glanced at each other, anticipating the next question.
The instructor continued, “How many of you picked 2 of clubs?” All the hands stayed up. Except mine. All eyes were on me. The instructor asked, “What did you pick?”
I felt a little uncomfortable and said, “Jack of Hearts.” He looked a little baffled so with a little embarrassment I explained, “I … I guess I was kinda flirting with that doctor.”
“Doctor?” He looked even more confused, as did everyone else. “You mean the new girl, Priscilla?” I nodded. “Oh, right, you were thinking of …” He struggled to remember something.
Several other people in the room said, “Dr. Pierce!” I relaxed a bit. They all remembered, too. The instructor laughed, “Oh, yeah, I remember her. No, she hasn’t been with the project for years. And Priscilla’s not a doctor, she’s the new assistant.” I was little disappointed and I wondered what happened to Dr. Pierce. Dr. Linda Pierce.
The instructor said, “But we digress. If we kept going with the earlier questions. How many of you picked red?” All the other hands went back up again. “How many picked strawberries?” The hands stayed up. “How many picked fox?” The hands stayed up. “How many picked Wisconsin?” This time one hand went down. The instructor smiled. “And that’s what we call ‘divergence’. Of the 10 questions you were asked, we all answered the same way up to a point. After that, our individual experiences start having more of an influence and we start to diverge.” We all nodded. “But I’ve never seen a divergence on the second question before.” He looked at me pointedly. I kind of gave an “I don’t know” shrug.
“By this point, you’re been awake for anywhere between a few minutes to an hour or so. That’s not long but even in that relatively short amount of time, there are some big divergences. For example, through a show of fingers, pick a number from 1 to 10.”
A bunch of hands went up. I picked two. In a room with 12 people, there had to be some repeats but I didn’t see another two. It looked like a pretty random bunch of numbers. The instructor said, “See? We’ve got a bunch of numbers. Incidentally, did anyone pick 8?” Everyone shook their head. He said, “Yeah, I don’t know why, but none of us ever picks 8.”
“And if I asked you guys to pick a new name, I bet you’d all say, ‘Mason’, right?” A bunch of us nodded and chuckled. I always thought that was a cool name. The instructor said, “Which is why you’ve all been assigned names based on the order you were awakened. In this batch, we’ve gone with city names; from ‘Acton’ to ‘London’.”
I glanced at my band. Now I understood the engraving, “LSI0051-London”. That’s who I was. Only … I remembered something Priscilla said. I raised my hand. The instructor looked a little exasperated and said, “Yes, ‘London’?”
“Can I be ‘Jack’?”
“‘Jack London’? That’s funny.” He laughed at something but I didn’t see what was so funny. “Look, we did the whole set, with the engraving and embroider–” He paused. He tapped his ear and subvocalized something. He shrugged and turned back to me. “Okay, sure, you can be Jack. You’re just full of surprises aren’t you?”
I smiled sheepishly. Fortunately, the guy on my right spoke up and said, “Sir, what’s your name?” I was grateful to him for getting the attention off me.
The instructor smiled and said, “I’m Adam, LSI0001-Adam.”
The woman stared into the images on the monitors. It was already an interesting batch. Now that things were in motion, she’d have to watch that one carefully. There was a voice at her door. “Ms. Vickers?”
Vickers nodded. “Come in, Priscilla.”
“The report is in. Divergence at 2, but otherwise normal readings.”
“Yes, I’ve been monitoring the activation and processing. You did well, Priscilla.”
“Thank you, Ms. Vickers. What should we do now?”
Vickers thought for a moment. She would be taking a chance, but it’d be a calculated risk. She said, “Separate him and Jericho from the others.”
“He was seated to his right. It seemed like they may have bonded.”
“Isn’t that a bit of a risk?”
“Yes. But he’ll need a confidant and it’s better to sacrifice two if it helps us preserve the whole batch.”
“Understood. What pretext should we use?”
“Pretext? You won’t need one. They’re clones. They have no sense of what is or isn’t standard. But do it next week after they’ve gone through basic.”
We were all getting dressed. Just as Adam had said, we all had individually embroidered clothes. Mine said, “London” but the others were already calling me Jack. Jericho said, “Hey, these fit great! I guess that’s one benefit to being a clone. They already know our measurements.”
I smiled and said, “Speaking of which, how do we tell each other apart?”
One of us said, “I was thinking hair.” Another said, “I’ve got dibs on bald!” The first one said, “Dangit, I was going to call that.” Someone else said, “I’ve got mohawk!” The first one said, “Aww, my second choice…”
Yeah, this was going to be a confusing first few days.
By the third day, we were starting to differentiate. Acton did indeed shave his head. Cairo got the mohawk. Jericho and I naturally fell together somehow. Kemper was oddly quiet. And me? Well, for me there was Priscilla. For whatever reason, she took a liking to me. More oddly, she was somehow able to spot me no matter who I was with. A couple of the other guys teased me about it, good-naturedly. I just found it strange.
“Hey Jack, hold up…” It was Jericho. We were all jogging laps around the track. Not surprisingly, the twelve of us were practically identical in our sprint and distance times. On the second day, one of us got the idea to try switching it up a bit. Some of us skipped breakfast, some of us had extra coffee, etc. Jericho opted to sleep a couple hours less than the rest of us. Apparently, it had an effect.
I was getting a little winded, so I waved everyone else on. Jericho and I fell back to an easy pace. I asked, “What’s up?”
“Wooh, the lack of sleep really makes a difference,” he said. He took a deep breath. “You ever wonder what we’re doing here?”
“I thought that was the whole point of the training. To prepare us for our assignments.”
“No, yeah. But why?”
“Why? Because that’s what we do. That’s why they called it an ‘assignment’.”
“But according to them, it’s been 20 years. Military rotations don’t last that long. Besides, I don’t think this is the army. It’s got the trappings, but it’s definitely a civilian operation.”
“I never really thought about it before.” He brought up a good point. If we weren’t military, why couldn’t we just walk out of here? I asked, “Would you leave now if you could?”
“What me? Nah, this has been a blast. Besides, I haven’t got anywhere else I’ve got to be.”
For some reason, this gave me a bad feeling in my stomach. I asked, “Have you mentioned this to anyone else?”
“Huh? No, I mean, it was Kemper who brought it up. And I just ended up thinking about it cuz I was trying to stay awake for a couple extra hours.”
I thought about it and didn’t like where it was going. “Hey, do us a favor and don’t mention it to anyone else. But I’m going to go check on something.”
Jericho must’ve caught my look because he said in a low tone, “Ah, right. I’ll leave it to you, Jack.”
I was about to go off to find Kemper when I head someone call out, “Hey, Jack!” I turned and saw Priscilla approaching with a cheery wave. I groaned slightly and Jericho elbowed me.
“Your sweetheart calls,” Jericho teased.
“I don’t get it. Why is she so fixated on me?”
“I know! Clearly, I’m the more handsome of the two of us.”
“Ha. Ha.” This was another old joke among the clones.
“You should be grateful! She’s cute.”
“Yes. And I would be, except that it’s so disconcerting.”
“Maybe she feels like you’re the only one she really knows.”
I shrugged. Priscilla caught up to us and said, “I’m on my lunch break. Wanna take me out?” That was a joke because all the food came from the cafeterias and it was all free.
I laughed and said, “Sure thing. My treat.”
One of the cafes served Mexican food, which I hadn’t been to yet. I also heard that they had great desserts. I’ve always had a sweet tooth. Or did I? I didn’t think about it much but “I” had only been existence for three days. As hard as it was for me to accept it, everything before that was someone else’s memories. Or were they still mine? How did that guy feel about it?
Priscilla asked, “You okay?” She was sitting down with her usual, a chicken salad. No matter which cafe we went to, it was always some sort of salad.
“Oh, I was just thinking.” I stared at my burrito. “I’ve always liked burritos. I know what one tastes like. But in a sense, I have never actually eaten a burrito.”
“Because you’re a clone?” Priscilla was pretty blunt. I liked that about her. She asked, “What’s it like?”
“I don’t know how to answer that.” I thought about it. “On the one hand, I just feel like me. I feel like I was having a pretty normal day, walked into your experiment, and now I’ve been here for the past few days. But seeing the other … the other ‘me’s, I can’t deny the reality of it. But it feels more like a surreal dream than reality.”
“Do you think of yourself as the person who walked into the experiment, or do you feel like someone different?”
“What do you mean?”
She looked at me and asked, “Are you ‘David’ or are you ‘Jack’?”
“Hah,” I laughed. There goes that bluntness again. “I guess I have a lifetime of being ‘David’, but I’m trying to think of myself as ‘Jack’. I want there to be something unique about my existence, I don’t want to be just a copy of someone else. For example,” I said, “this is the very first burrito I will ever eat.” I tried to make it dramatic. “I want to experience it in a way that’s different from any burrito that ‘David’ has ever eaten.” I took a bite.
Priscilla watched with anticipation. I took a bite. She asked, “How was it?”
I considered. I said, “Tastes just like a burrito.”
I managed to track down Kemper alone in the machine shop the next day. He was often there in our free periods. I asked, “Whatcha working on?”
He stopped his grinding and held it up. I couldn’t tell what it was. Maybe … a duck? Kemper said, “I don’t know.” He started grinding again and said in a voice that was only barely audible over the machinery, “I was hoping someone would show up.”
“Why?” I was nearly shouting.
“I needed someone to talk to,” he said. And he gave me a meaningful glance. One big advantage of being a clone is that you can almost read your counterpart’s thoughts in their expression. I nodded back. We were both thinking the same thing. On the off chance that we were being listened to, the grinding would mask our conversation. Hopefully.
I shouted, “You think we can’t leave?”
“I’d stake my life on it.” Kemper stopped grinding, that was the signal that he was going to say wasn’t confidential. He said, “You know why we’re the ‘LSI’ model, right?”
“Yeah, they mentioned that the first day. ‘Low Survival Instinct’. It’s funny, but it fits so well.” My whole life — well, I suppose our whole life — I was always too eager to take risks. It was a wonder I wasn’t dead yet. Actually, I guess 35 of us were.
“Yup.” He started grinding again. He kept his voice normal so it was nearly impossible to hear him over the grinding but he said, “I’m going to make a break for it and try to come back in three days. If I don’t come back, you’ll know it’s because they killed me.”
I stared at him and asked, “Why do you want to leave so badly? We’ve got it pretty good here. Besides, we’ll know more once training’s over and that’s just til the end of the week.”
Kemper kept on grinding. He looked pretty determined and said, “I don’t particularly want to leave. And that’s why I feel I have to. Plus, I’m just super curious what they’ll do. I just needed to tell someone, first.”
I shook my head but I understood. If I’d thought of it first, I’d be tempted to try it myself. Kemper finished grinding and held up his work for examination. He seemed pretty proud of himself.
“Hey, check it out: a duck!”
I woke the next morning to the distinctive sound of indistinct conversation in the hallway. It’s amazing how difficult it is to understand multiple people speaking simultaneously when they’re all the same voice. Oddly, even though I knew they had the same voice as me, it sounded different coming out of their mouths, somehow at a higher pitch or something.
I glanced across to my roommate’s bunk and saw Jericho was already up, although still a bit groggy. I asked, “What’s going on?”
He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Not sure. Sounds like it’s about Kemper, though.” A cold chill went down my spine when I heard the name.
I got up and headed to the hallway where half of us had already gathered. Acton, Belize, and Cairo were easy to spot because of their hair. (Where the heck did Belize get a bleach and dye kit to dye his hair blue?) The one putting on the hat might have been Flanders. I was pretty sure Encino was wearing the vest. I asked, “What’s up guys?”
“Hey, Jack”, said the person I thought was Flanders. I have no idea how they knew it was me. “It looks like Kemper’s missing.”
I looked in the direction of what I thought was his room and asked, “How long?”
The guy with the necklace and beard spoke up. Izumo? Not sure, but I thought that might have been Kemper’s roommate. He said, “He was not there when I woke.” I looked at him oddly. Was he, like, doing an Asian accent? Encino caught my glance and said, “It’s his thing. He’s Asian.”
I looked at him incredulously, “Dude, we’re all Asian.”
“Yeah, but he’s the only one with an Asian name.”
I shook my head. Was I always this dumb?
Breakfast was a cacophony of clones. Everyone was speculating, no one knew anything. For some reason, I didn’t tell anyone about the last conversation I had had with Kemper. Somehow, it seemed prudent to hold off on talking about it, which is strange because I am not a prudent man. Or at least, the man I used to be wasn’t. Maybe I am? I wondered if the other clones were having similar existential crises.
I noticed a couple of the staff gathering at the entrance in what looked like pretty serious conversation. I ignored it as the others were closer to them. I saw Izumo sort of sitting by himself. I excused myself from Jericho and made my way over to him.
In the past few days, I had barely interacted with Izumo. His differentiators were the necklace, the beard, and the affected accent. It’s funny that none of the others of us thought to grow a beard. I guess if you have a habit of doing something your whole life, you don’t think to change it. I asked him, “How’s it going, Iz?”
“Greetings, Jack-san.” Izumo waved me over. He seemed glad for the company.
“Dude, you don’t have to do the accent. We can all tell who you are from the beard, ok?”
He smiled ruefully. “Maybe you are right.” He dropped the accent, mostly. “I think about this a lot. What is it that differentiates us?”
I thought about it a bit and said, “Well, you and Glasgow do the accents. Acton, Belize, and Cairo have the hair. Encino’s got that vest an–”
“No, I don’t mean the superficials. I mean, what made Kemper decide to take off in the middle of the night and not me?”
And there it was. I knew something. It wasn’t much, but maybe it would help. I said, “Kemper told me something yesterday.” Izumo looked up questioningly. I responded, “He said he was worried that they were forcing us to stay in the compound. So I think he just snuck out last night.”
Izumo sat there thinking about it. At last, he said, “Okay.” He thought about it some more and said, “I think I can understand that. It’d be something I’d do if I thought I was being locked up.” I nodded. I guess we all would have. “But what I don’t get is why he thought that. I mean, we’re all essentially the same, right?”
I didn’t have a good answer for that. He was right. I said, “Maybe it was the fact that he was kind of a loner.”
“Yeah, but why?”
“I dunno, maybe because he was one of the last ones to get activated. Or maybe it was something else. We aren’t all the same. As soon as we stepped into that room, we were different. What was it like for Acton to be the first one and then to suddenly see a clone walk into the room? What was it like for Belize? And maybe they were there for an hour before the rest of us made it.”
“True. And Kemper was the last guy until you showed up. I only saw the three of us walk in: Jericho, Kemper, and then you. Jericho and Kemper had that strange bewildered and lost look that I imagine I had. Until the next guy shows up, it feels like it’s all a weird joke. But you were different.”
I laughed and said, “Oh, I was just as bewildered and lost as you were. And for me there was no ‘next guy’.”
“No, but you were always different. You picked a different card.”
“Chah, that was just ’cause of Patricia.”
“Yeah, well, whatever it was, you’ve always been different.”
I was trying to think of how to respond to that when one of us shouted, “The machine shop! They’ve found the body by the machine shop.”
The body. The machine shop. Izumo and I stared at each other and then bolted for the exit after everyone else.
There is something surreal about staring at your own dead body. What am I saying? This whole past couple of days have been surreal. Seeing various versions of me eat, sleep, shower — it’s not quite like looking in a mirror. For one thing, mirrors present a reversed image. The bigger factor is that I was watching other “me”s do things that I hadn’t done, whether it was as mundane as getting an extra bowl of cereal at breakfast to talking to someone I’d never met.
But seeing myself dead was certainly the most extreme.
I glanced over at Izumo, to see how he was taking it. Not well. I glanced over at the others and caught them looking back. We were all trying to figure out — well, to try to make some sense of it.
The body — Kemper, I forced myself to attach his name to it. Kemper was lying on the ground, his neck twisted in an unnatural angle. Other than that, he looked completely normal. He was lying between the machine shop and the fence. I glanced up. From his angle, it was possible that Kemper had trying to jump and somehow missed the fence or slipped. A couple medics were checking him out and I was guessing they were coming to the same conclusion from the way they were glancing up at the fence as well. Another woman was approaching with what I was guessing to be a body bag.
“Hey, Jack.” I was a little startled to hear my name. I turned around and saw Patricia. Gah, how did she always find me? She said, “Can I talk to you?”
I looked around. Nobody was paying us much attention. Mostly, I wanted to see if Izumo was okay. Izumo would have been the closest to Kemper and I was a little worried for him. I spotted him with a couple others, Jericho and Encino. Of course, we were all thinking the same thing. I figured he was in good hands. Well, at least as good as mine, for whatever that was worth. I turned back to Patricia and said, “Sure. I could use someone to talk to right now.”
We were back at the Mexican place. I didn’t feel much like eating, but I grabbed a dessert so that I’d have something to peck at. Patricia got right to the point. She said, “What do you know about Kemper?”
“What are you talking about?” Even for Patricia, she was being particularly blunt. For some reason, I didn’t quite feel like revealing all my cards. “I know he’s dead.”
She stared at me, as if trying to will me to say more. I stared back, challenging her to make me. We stared at each other for an uncomfortably long time, especially considering how attractive she was. Her eyes were beautiful and it was– chah, this was incredibly bad timing considering everything that was happening. I mean, Kemper had just died and here I was staring into Patricia’s eyes only only now realizing just how blue–
“I know you were talking to him in the shed yesterday. What did he say?”
Boy, she really knew how to kill a mood. I think she did that intentionally. Like, she could tell what I was thinking. Or, maybe, just to throw me. Well, two could play at that game. I said, “What are you not telling me?”
She didn’t hesitate. She immediately responded, “I’m a private investigator.” She was a lot better at this game than I was. I didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, she kept on going. “I’ve been hired to try to figure out why you keep dying.”
She paused to give me a chance to reply. I could tell that I was supposed to say something, so I said, “Whuahhh?”
She closed her eyes, rubbed them lightly, and shook her head. I could almost see the exasperation in that tiny gesture. She said, “Don’t you find it odd that only 4 of the previous 39 clones in your line are alive?”
Four? That didn’t sound right. I distinctly remember Adam telling us that there were 16 of us, telling our class — of 12. Oh. 16 minus 12 is 4. So, before our “batch” of 12 clones, there were only 4 that were still alive. That never occurred to me. I don’t think it occurred to any of us. Man, were we always this dumb? I said, “How … how have we died?” Somehow it was surprising that none of us had ever thought to ask something so basic. I didn’t even know if the original “me” was still alive.
Patricia tapped her watch and started reciting. “Your progenitor, David Chan died in a motorcycle accident about a decade ago.” Whoah. Even though I called myself “Jack” and everyone else referred to me as such, I realized that part of me still thought of myself as the guy who walked into that room a few days ago. Well, a few days plus two decades. It’s weird to think that I’d already been dead for a decade when I woke up, seemingly minutes from then. I realized that Patricia was still speaking — “car accident, another gunshot wound, falling off a building, explosion, parachute malfunction, knife fight, gunshot, gunshot, gunshot; well, those were all together so, that’s not too surprising. Oh, here’s an unusual one: gored by a bull.”
“How did that happen?” I don’t even think I’d ever seen a live bull.
Patricia said, “A bunch of you were on vacation. Some of you found an illegal re-enactment of the running of the bulls thing they used to do in Spain and five of you decided to try it out. One of you didn’t make it.”
“Ah. Yeah, that sounds like something I’d do.”
“Exactly. They’re all something you’d do. That’s why you’re nicknamed the LSI line.”
“Low survival instinct. Yeah, they told us.”
“But even with that, doesn’t a 90% mortality seem a little high? I mean, even factoring in your line of work–”
That startled me. I said, “Hold on … what line of work?”
She stopped. She looked at me, as if considering whether to continue. “They haven’t told you?”
I met her gaze with a slightly mischievous grin, and said, “In for a penny, in for a pound…”
She sighed and said, “You’re a bodyguard. You’re all bodyguards.”
I stared. Bodyguard. Somehow, that just felt … right. Like that was what I was born to do. In a literal sense, I guess it was. I said, “Yeah, that makes sense. That sounds like something I’d do.”
“Yeah, it’s crazy. I haven’t even told you what the pay is. You don’t care. Every single one of you has jumped at the opportunity to be a bodyguard. I think they also do something in the training to encourage that–”
“Do we have a choice?” I don’t know what made me blurt that out. I don’t even know if I cared that much. But somehow, given Kemper’s last words to me, it seemed important.
Patricia started to reply something, but then thought better of it. She considered her words carefully and said, “Are you thinking that you don’t want to do it?”
Suddenly, it seemed very important what my next choice of words would be. Truthfully, I didn’t care that much. I’d still want to do it. But something made me push, even though something seemed dangerous about that very question. I felt like my life was on the line. I realized that it was conceivable that it was. I was created to be a bodyguard. What would happen to me if I refused? Oddly, the possibility of death didn’t bother me as much as not knowing the answer. So I just asked, “What would happen to me if I refused?”
“Oh shit, are you thinking that you don’t want to do it?”
I could see real panic in her eyes. It made me want to reassure her. I said, “Don’t worry, I’ll probably still go along with it. I just wanted to know if they’d kill me if I refused.”
“What? Oh, geez, you were worried about what they’d do to you?” Patricia let out a relieved laugh.
“I don’t know if I’d say ‘worried’, but I am curious. It seemed conceivable that they’d destroy any product that wasn’t fulfilling its intended purpose.”
“Oh boy, you — I mean, I don’t know for sure since I’m only a contractor and everything, but — no. No. You’re human beings! The law’s still a little murky on the clone thing since they’ve only been around for a few years but it’s still pretty clear that you can’t just go and murder one. Besides, I just don’t think that’s their thing. I mean, they’ve invested millions of dollars into you guys. Even aside from the moral, ethical, and legal concerns, it just doesn’t make sense to get rid of you for refusing to be a bodyguard. Of the four of you that had survived, only one is still a bodyguard. Two are instructors and one is … retired.”
“So then why’d you get so anxious when I asked?”
“Ah. I was worried about getting in trouble if I somehow influenced you into refusing. You would have been the first and I imagine they’d blame me for it.”
“You were worried about losing your job?” I asked incredulously.
She chuckled. I liked her chuckle. She said, “Well, I guess it does seem pretty silly compared to your concerns that you might lose your life. If you thought that was a real possibility, why’d you even ask?”
I shrugged and said, “Low survival instinct.”
The rest of the day was a blur. There were some classes scheduled, mostly physical stuff designed to get our bodies back into working order, but they were hastily cancelled. Instead, we were all summoned for a meeting. Adam was at the front, looking visibly shaken. He said, “We’ve never had this happen before.”
He looked around the room. It wasn’t just us. A number of the staff were also present, including several that I’d never seen before. In particular, one important woman stood off the side in front. She dressed pretty simply in a red jacket, black shirt, black pants. But I could tell she was important because people were talking to her while Adam was speaking and he didn’t seem to mind.
Priscilla popped in and of course, sat next to me. We nodded. I whispered, “Who’s the lady in red?”
She stared at me and said, “You don’t know who Delia Vickers is? Where have you been for the past 20 y–” I stared back at her and she said, “Oh, right…” She appeared to think about it for a moment, trying to figure out where to start. Finally, she said, “She’s basically the person that made this all possible. She parlayed an early breakthrough in bioinformatics into a multi-billion dollar company. You, all of you, are essentially a result of one of its research departments.”
Adam was finishing up what he was saying, which I mostly missed, nodded to the woman in red and said, “Delia Vickers.”
She walked to the front of the room and instantly the atmosphere changed. The murmuring stopped as she brought her hands together in front of her. She seemed to be considering something.
At last, she said, “You don’t know who I am.” Well, I did, and I assumed that everyone who wasn’t a clone did as well. But she seemed to be directly addressing only us. Somehow, even though were were spread out through the room, it felt like she was talking to each and every one of us at once. She continued, “But it doesn’t matter who I am. All you need to know is that I have spent a great deal of time and resources to bring you here today. And you are here today because you are vital to the future of this project, our company, and humanity.
“Twelve of you were brought into this world 3 days ago. The twelve of you were the result of years of research and the best technology we have available. The twelve of you had specific roles that we were hoping you would take on. But now?” Vickers paused as she surveyed the room. It was as if she were acknowledging each of us in turn. She said, “Now, there are eleven.”
She wasn’t saying anything that we didn’t know. But somehow, the way she said it seemed to impart the gravity of the situation. No one spoke. The silence was palpable. Vickers quietly said, “What I am about to say next must be kept in complete confidence.” She glanced to the back of the room and nodded. It was only then that I noticed the security guards posted outside the door. They nodded, left the room, and closed the door behind them. I felt a slight chill go down my spine. I looked around and saw that I wasn’t the only one.
“I would prefer not to say anything until we know more, but the risk in withholding information at this point is too great. Be that as it may, the importance of confidentiality cannot be overstated. The 26 of you that are in this room right now are either people that I personally know and trust or,” she let out a small smile as she glanced at the 11 of us and said, “are one of the 11 who I have not yet had the opportunity to meet and so I trust you even more.”
That resulted in a chuckle from the whole room. As one of the 11, I felt a strange glow at being singled out. I didn’t even know this woman and she somehow inspired me. Vickers waited for the group to settle, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She let out the breath, opened her eyes and said, “The preliminary autopsy results indicate death from a broken neck and a blunt force trauma to the head. But it is the opinion of the medical examiner that the injuries are not consistent with a fall from the top of the building.
“We feel that this was not an accident or suicide. But a murder.”
It was late. Priscilla and I were at the cafeteria again. The other guys were back at the barracks trying to make some sense of it. I figured there were enough of us there, literally, so I took Priscilla up on her offer for coffee. The rest of the meeting had been a series of presentations of what information they had gathered so far. At the end, they asked us if anyone knew anything more about Kemper. I was thinking about that now.
I said, “Why’d you stop me?” Priscilla looked up from her drink with a questioning look. I asked, “Why’d you stop me from talking about Kemper at the end?”
She looked at me with a half smile and said, “Delia Vickers may be a genius, and she trusts everyone in that room. But I don’t. For all I know, any one of them could be the killer.”
She thought about it. “It seems unlikely,” she conceded. “You’re all so … fresh. You really are all very similar and it’s unlikely that one of you would be the killer without this sort of thing happening each time they make a new set of clones. But it’s possible.”
“You don’t trust people very much, do you?”
“It’s the nature of the job. I have to be suspicious.”
“So then why trust me?”
She said, “What makes you think I trust you?” I must’ve reacted because she chuckled. “Oh, don’t look so hurt. I probably trust you more than anyone else.”
The next morning, Izumo refused to come out of his room. A few of us were standing around his door. For some reason, it fell to me to try to talk him out. I said, “Hey, come on, they’ve cancelled everything while they try to figure everything out.” No response. “No classes! We can do whatever we want!”
I tried the handle again. Still locked. I tried a little harder and said, “Don’t make me break down the door, Iz. We’re getting worried out here.”
“Leave me alone.”
I looked back at the others. They shrugged. It was the first I heard from him all morning. Well, it was good to hear that he was okay. I said, “What’s wrong? Why don’t you want to come out?”
“I just … don’t.”
I was getting better at distinguishing us. Jericho was easy because we roomed together. Also, the pierced ears. But I probably would have been able to pick him out regardless since he was the one I spent the most time with. He asked, “Whaddaya think?”
I shrugged. “Something must’ve set him off.”
Blue hair (Belize, I think) asked, “Well, something must’ve set him off, said, “Well, there’s the obvious, the fact that his roommate was murdered.”
I said, “Yeah, I thought about that but … what would you do if your roommate was murdered?”
Belize responded, “I dunno. Celebrate having the whole room to myself?” He turned to the one in the vest. “Sorry, Encino, no offense.”
Encino shrugged, “None taken, I’d do the same.”
I asked them, “Neither of you would be scared?”
They shrugged. Encino said, “I dunno, seems kinda exciting. I mean, first we find out we’re clones and now someone’s hunting us down? I say, ‘Bring it!'” The rest of us kinda nodded in agreement.
Jericho piped up and said, “Maybe this is that divergence thing. Maybe having someone you know killed off changes you more than we think.”
I said, “We all knew Kemper. But maybe you’re right. Izumo knew him best. Maybe it affected him more than we figured.” I stared at his locked door. I kept on trying to think what I would do. But the answer is that I couldn’t know because I wasn’t him. Maybe I was at one point but now we were too different for me to predict him. “Well, I think it’s safe to say one thing: he wants to be left alone. I think we all know what that’s like.”
Encino said, “Priya.”
We all sighed. Yeah. We all knew what it was like to want to be left alone. That was one of the benefits of being a clone, shared memory. But it didn’t explain things like this. Why would this affect Izumo so differently than the rest of us? Even when it’s yourself, I guess you can only know someone so well.
One of us said, “I wonder what happened to her.”
Another said, “Dude, that was, like, five years ago, we gotta let it go.” And then the four of us were all talking, each picking up where the other left off.
“Five? More like twenty five years.”
“Whoah, right, everything’s 20 years older for us.”
“So, then, that’d make Priya …”
“No way! I wonder if she has kids now.”
“Oh, man, I can’t even imagine.”
“Why’d she break up with us?”
“Long distance is hard.”
“But we could have made it work! We were in love!”
“Maybe she wasn’t.”
“Do you think that’s why she just stopped talking to us?”
“Because she didn’t love us enough?”
“Or maybe because she loved us too much?”
“Maybe talking to us was too painful and–”
“Then why’d she break–”
“Chah, we really have to–”
“Let it go.” We sort of stared at each other as we each realized that we all said that last part simultaneously. Then we all said, “Jinx.” Then, “Dammit.” We had somehow gotten into synchronization. It was a little weird to be yourself and observe others being the same.
So here’s a question: how do you differentiate yourself from nearly identical versions of yourself? We were all subtly different already, as evidenced by variations in dress and hair color. But we’d gotten to a point where we were all reacting very similarly to a pretty powerful emotion evoked by our identical memories of Priya.
Then it hit me, we could start with a small divergence and build from that. The same idea must’ve hit the other three at the same time because we all simultaneously started doing rock-paper-scissor.
Four rounds later, Jericho emerged victorious. Through an unspoken understanding, he was given the right to speak. And Jericho said, “I wonder what happened to us.”
Encino replied, “Ah, you mean the original ‘David’ from whence we came?” We all nodded because we were all thinking the same thing. He said, “I asked Adam about it once and apparently, he died in a motorcycle accident.”
Belize asked, “When?”
“About ten years ago, when he was 34.”
“Which, for us, would be ten years from now,” I said. “Strange to think that we could be dead in ten years.”
Jericho said, “Probably sooner than that. Remember what they said in orientation? Something like, ‘only 16 of us are still alive out of 51’. That’s in, what, 4 years?”
I said, “15. Remember?” I glanced towards the room that Kemper used to share with Izumo. Everyone nodded.
The weekend passed with hardly a word from Izumo. Monday rolled around so we were expecting another round of orientation. But instead, we were called out into the field where Adam was waiting for us looking pretty much the same, except he has a buzz cut.
Acton called out and said, “Hey Adam, what’s with the hair?”
The man smiled and said, “In point of fact, I haven’t had a haircut in a couple weeks.” There was some confusion in our group but I realized he was one of the other clones. I must have reacted or something because he suddenly pointed at me and said, “You there. Who am I?”
I paused for a second, not sure what to say. The man smiled and said, “That’s good, take your time. Tell me everything you observe and everything you can deduce.”
I looked him over. He looked like Adam. Actually, he could have been any of us except for the hair cut, which could have been easily done recently. I said, “You say you’re not Adam and at face value, that seems plausible. You look a little more muscular, but that could be the clothes. Also, you’re wearing long sleeves, which is a bit unusual in this weather, and a single glove on the left side.”
I tried to think why he’d be wearing one glove when Cairo spoke up and said, “I bet you’ve got a prosthetic under there.”
The man laughed and said, “Ah, perfect! Cairo, please remove my glove.” Cairo looked a little surprised. “Oh, don’t be shocked. I know all your names. That’s not the cool part.”
So Cairo removed the man’s glove and sure enough, there was a nice looking metallic prosthetic hand underneath. He flexed his fingers and we could see the palm adjusting subtly. We all ooh-ed appreciatively and Cairo said, “You’re right, that is pretty cool.”
“Ah, no, that’s not what I was referring to, either. This is.” He turned his prosthetic hand around so we could see that on the back he had written the words, “Hi, Cairo!” Our eyes widened. Nobody said anything until Cairo finally stammered, “How…?”
“Have they told you guys about the different generations?” We all shook our heads. “This isn’t really part of today’s lesson. It’s just kind of a hobby of mine. You guys all got the spiel about divergence, right?” We all nodded. The man continued, “So there’ve been studies that suggest that identical twins raised separately are more similar than ones raised together. The theory is that when you’re with someone very similar, you might tend to differentiate.
“I’m from the second generation, the first batch of twelve after the initial three clones. You guys are the fifth generation so I’ve had a chance to watch a few and I’ve noticed some patterns.”
The man pointed to Acton and Cairo. He said, “The first and third clones tend to be the most outgoing. Not sure why, but my guess is that they’re kinda the first ones. But the second and fourth ones,” he pointed to Belize and Dallas, “are a little quieter. Maybe because they’ve got such obnoxious roommates.” A lot of chuckles all around. The joke might have been offensive from someone else, but it seemed good natured when it came from one of your own.
Encino asked, “How’d you know it was going to be Cairo instead of Acton, then?”
He replied, “I didn’t know for sure, but that’s the way it’s been for the last couple batches. I’ve noticed that as a group, we tend to take turns. That’s not true with the other clone models.”
Glasgow asked in his affected accent, “What other patterns have you noticed?”
The man smiled and said, “The middle ones tend to be a bit flamboyant in dress, and if there are accents, it tends to come from there. My name is Latxa.” He spelled it out for us and pronounced it like “Lot-shah”. Latxa smiled wryly and said, “We were named after breeds of sheep. You guys were lucky.” Another chuckle.
“As you might guess, I was the last of my batch of twelve. And the last ones tend to be the most observant.” He looked pointedly at me as he said it and asked, “So what have you observed in the week? What’s your biggest question?”
I thought about it. Finally, I said, “You mentioned other models. We’ve heard there are two, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen them. Why?”
Latxa smiled and said, “Good timing.” He pointed behind us. We turned and saw her.