The only people more powerful than those who have been elected to the World Council of Governments, those politicians writing and passing the laws that keep the world in working order, are those who buy each of those elected seats and ensuring the right person is sitting in the right seat, passing the right laws. It’s amazing how once, millions and millions of dollars were spent into lobbying, trying to keep things legal, without any clue as to how much more value you add when something becomes illegal. Take cigarettes. Once, a pack of cigarettes were ten dollars. And that was a pack of twenty-five cigarettes. Ten dollars. You can’t buy a drag from a cigarette anymore for ten dollars. The cigarette manufacturers are happy. They produce less and make more money while at it. And who was it that pushed to see cigarettes banned by the World Council of Governments? Well, a health organization of course. A health organization who receives a great deal of charitable funds from generous philanthropists. Never mind where the philanthropists’ money comes from. It went into something important. It changed the world. Cigarettes are illegal now. People are healthier than ever now, right? And everyone keeps making money.
Shortly after the World Council of Governments banned cigarettes, they looked into the issue of human cloning. It was a hot button issue at the time. The technology and the means were readily available, but an order to halt any research into human cloning came down from the World Council. There were ethical issues to look at. Were we devaluing human life? Did a life mean less because we could replace it with an exact genetic copy?
The fearful rhetoric was written in all the right ways to get public opinion fearful of genetic cloning. Even I was worried. This was the direction genetics research was headed, what was to become of my career if human cloning was banned across the World Union? But anyone who understood how human cloning would actually work knew the rhetoric was coming from a place of ignorance. The clones are exact genetic copies but they’re still their own person. They don’t carry the memories and experiences of the original person. And we don’t even guarantee that they’ll be physically or mentally similar in any way at all. All we can guarantee is that the genetics will be the same. Which begs the question, how much do our genetics dictate our lives?
In my experience, a great deal. In fact, I’ve had a ninety-five per cent success rate with my clones. The exact genetic copies begin thinking and acting like their source human within years of life. For only guaranteeing genetic accuracy, it’s impressive that so many become the very person they’re a copy of. It’s good for business.
Very early on into my business, I was assured that the World Council’s bill to ban human cloning across the World Union was going to be a good thing for me. “Think about cigarettes,” my first client said. I knew what he was saying. I set my price. No one has ever tried to negotiate it down.
Sure, I still run my own genetics health clinic. We’re subsidized by the World Union and provide genetic mapping to patients so they can plan their healthy futures. People are healthier than ever. Living longer than ever. Even the clones have nice, long lives. They grow and age the exact same as any other person. But like all people, they still die. Everyone still dies.
My clients know they’re going to die. They have invested interests in billions and billions of dollars’ worth of assets across the World Union. They don’t want to leave it to just anyone after they die. Good successors are hard to find. They can’t even trust their own children. Most were raised spoiled and left stupid anyways, no amount of education could save those invalids. Like my five per cent of failed clones, those children head to the north once they become adults and they realize that nothing is going to be left to them once their father dies. And it’s always a father. Always an old man with white hair and a belly hanging over their belt in their suit whose jacket can’t quite close. In all my years of cloning, I’ve never had a woman want to copy herself to take over her business. It’s always men.
I’m thinking about opening a second clinic. Keep it in the south where my current clinic is. The weather here is so nice. Great golf courses. Business is great.
The guy lying next to me isn’t breathing. There’s no steam coming out of his mouth. The steam from my mouth hangs in front of me, assures me I’m still alive and I’m still sitting on the cold concrete. I can’t even feel my ass anymore I’ve been sitting here for so long, trying not to freeze to death.
I tap the guy’s shoulder, hoping he just stopped breathing for a second while sleeping. He just toppled over, smacking his head against the frozen concrete. The cold got to him. He was getting old, too. Not a lot of people around this far north with that much grey hair. This was the first time I had ever seen this guy too. I just sat next to him, hoping to get a couple of hours of shut eye. He didn’t look like the type who would try to rob or grope me while I was asleep. You can tell those types really quick. Especially if you’ve been in the north for as long as I have.
It wouldn’t have been the first time I slept next to a dead guy, but for some reason this guy’s really bothering me. Something about the way he was coughing when I sat next to him, then the way he stopped breathing and just toppled over when I tapped him felt off. It didn’t sit right and I didn’t want to keep sitting.
I stand and brush the bit of snow and dust that’s clinging to my pants before reaching down and grabbing my backpack. I step out of the alleyway and back onto the sidewalk and look back and forth, trying to figure out which way is my best route to try and find somewhere to sleep tonight. The nights out here have been bitter cold lately, colder than I ever remember nights here being. I see a couple of people walking together on the other side of the road and duck into another alleyway. There aren’t any tank treads across the road which means they haven’t driven down here while on patrol for a while but might be heading this way soon. They usually don’t bother any of us, but if we’re standing in the middle of the road, they don’t slow down.
The tank’s rumbling can usually be heard for a few blocks and there isn’t a sound around all through the empty streets where I’m standing. I walk across the street and poke into the alleyway, looking around for whoever just ducked in. You never know what kind of people are hanging in the alleyways at night, but one thing’s for sure, everyone right now is looking for warmth and comfort, and if that’s where these two are headed I want to know where that is.
The alleyway looks like most other alleyways. It’s a narrow space between two red-brick buildings about five stories high each. The sides of the walkway are littered with abandoned blankets and the walls are stained with blood. You can’t see the blood so much on the red bricks but the smears are clear when you look at the grey cement between the bricks. Security forces are supposed to prevent violent attacks, that’s why they patrol in tanks, but they don’t do anything to keep anyone around any safer. We would be safer without the patrol. One fewer thing to worry about when you’re running for your life.
I hear whispering behind a dumpster and what sounds to me like a muffled whimper. I peek around the dumpster and see two men holding down a woman, one of the men is holding a knife, and the other is saying something about keeping warm tonight. The woman’s eyes fix on me and the two men notice she’s looking at something. They look in my direction and immediately spot me. The one holding the knife smiles and moves his knife away from the side of her neck and points it at me.
“Looks like we’re both keeping warm tonight,” he says. The other starts laughing and the woman tries to scream, but her mouth is still covered by his hand. They’ve both done this before, I can tell by how confident they are. I fix my eyes on the man with the knife. He’s looking up, not noticing me drop my extendable cattle prod from out of my sleeve. I flick my wrist and it extends, automatically turning on with a couple of crackles coming from the charged tip. He barely has a chance to look down and see it before I hit him in the hip with it. He screams and twitches in pain while I reach back and swing the side of the cattle prod across his head. He drops to the ground like a bag full of body parts. My eyes move from him to the man still holding the woman down.
He stands and starts raising his fists, getting ready to fight. I press my cattle prod against the knocked out man, letting the electric current run through his body, cooking him from the inside out. The man still standing got the message. He turns tail and runs to the back end of the alleyway, I assume back out into the streets.
That’s when my cattle prod died. The crackling of the electric current through the man’s body suddenly stopped. He’s not convulsing anymore and he groans in pain. He’s still alive and I don’t know if these are his last breaths or if he’s about to get back up. I decide not to gamble on that and start walking back out of the alley the way I came in.
“Wait!” a voice from behind me calls out. It’s the woman I helped. Her voice sounds shaky, like she’s terrified to move from behind that dumpster. “Thank you,” she mutters.
I don’t have the heart to tell her I wasn’t trying to save her. If those two didn’t spot me, I would have just left. All I was trying to do was make sure I could get out of this alleyway and find somewhere to sleep. She just happened to be there.
Ignoring her, I keep walking back out into the cold streets. The alleyway is a bit warmer, but if that guy comes back, he won’t be alone. And I need new batteries for my cattle prod. God knows where I’m going to find those.
A hand grabs my arm and I turn, ready to kill whoever’s touching me. It’s the woman. She won’t catch the hint that I’m not here to save her, that I’m not her friend, and that this is where we part ways. I’m not sure how to make it clearer.
“Where did you get that?” she asks.
“I stole it,” I answer. “Patrolman wasn’t looking. Probably still has no clue it’s gone. Probably would have killed me on the spot if he did notice. It’s dead now, though. Totally useless.”
“You hit that guy pretty hard with it,” she says.
“Not hard enough,” I reply and try to walk away. She grips my arm even harder.
“Wait,” she whines. “Wait, you look… You look so familiar.”
She hasn’t notice that we’re standing in front of a darkened window. The lights of the street security lights are reflecting against the darkened window, turning it into a mirror. I’ve noticed, and I know why she thinks I look so familiar. I look exactly like she does.
Rumsfeld Hadderton walks into the clinic. Before I see him and before I hear him, I smell him. His smell is incredibly distinct. He wears half a bottle of cologne to try and mask his body odour. But the man sweats profusely and constantly. So the smell he gives off is a mix between sweat, musk, and whatever sweets or pastries he was just stuffing into his mouth. The way he sweats, the way he eats, and how much weight he carries while he walks must mean his resting heart rate is at 170 beats per minute. He can’t walk five feet without being out of breath.
“I want to see the doctor!” he yells before hacking all over my receptionist. “And now! You little bitch!”
“Rumsfeld!” I call from the entrance to the back of the clinic. I tilt my head, motioning to him to follow me. He glares at my receptionist for a moment before waddling over to me. We walk through the hallway, past all the private patient rooms, and into the back room reserved for these special cases. Neither of us say a word before we’re in the room.
He tries to get a word out, pointing his pudgy sausage finger at me, but I grab him by the shirt with both hands and slam him against the wall. I can feel the blubber giggle as his body’s inertia starts to rest against this wall.
“You never talk to my staff like that again you fat fucking piece of shit,” I say between clenched teeth. “Or so help me god, your next clone will have a heart defect that you’ll know nothing about until he drops dead and your estate will be left to you next of kin.” I let go of his shirt and walk to the sink to wash the sweat and leftover food off of my hands. “How is your son, by the way?”
“Fuck you, Doc,” Rumsfeld says as he plops down onto a chair and pulls a napkin from his pocket, wiping the sweat off of his forehead. “You damn well know he’s in the north. Hopefully fucking froze to death, the useless piece of shit.”
“And I’m sure we want to keep it that way,” I continue. “So, what brings you by, Rumsfeld?”
“I’m checking to see how my next properties are coming along,” he says. “I want to make sure you’re not going to fuck this one up like you did all the others. I have a lot invested in this and it has to be completely right or it’s worthless to me.”
I have a ninety-five per cent success rate with my clones. Rumsfeld makes up most of that last five per cent that haven’t worked out. The clones come out as perfectly fine humans, completely genetically exact to Rumsfeld. But he always finds something wrong. Now he wants to babysit me while I work.
“It’s coming along fine, Rumsfeld,” I explain. “The synthetic-uterine process is exactly on schedule. Your new property, as you put it, should be birthed within a few weeks.”
“Are we running into any of the same problems we’ve run into before?” he asks.
“Impossible to tell,” I answer. “Too early in the growth phase. But we’re monitoring it.”
“Doc, I want you to monitor it very closely,” Rumsfeld pipes up. “And the minute we run into any of these same problems, I want you to genetically modify it so it comes out right. I don’t have the time to deal with these mistakes of yours anymore.”
“Genetic altering while in the synthetic-uterine device is very tricky,” I explain. “I’ve done it before but it carries a massive risk. I have to charge extra for that service.”
Rumsfeld’s face turns even more red and the sweat dripping from his forehead starts pouring. He grips the arms of the chair he’s sitting on and leans forward. “You fucking piece of shit!” he screams. “It was my influence with the World Council of Governments that helped keep human cloning illegal and helped you build your business to what it is today. Your money, your practice, your more than comfortable lifestyle is thanks to me. How dare you speak to me like I’m one of your common genetic mapping clients off of the streets!”
“Don’t give me that shit, Rumsfeld,” I quip. “You kept it illegal to ensure it would be as exclusive of a service as possible. After all, you didn’t want just anyone cloning themselves, right? These common people, as you put it, don’t deserve what you can get. And if you ever dare act like I owe my practice and my research to you ever again, I’ll make sure any clone you walk away with has genetic defects that won’t show until you have one foot in the grave. Then the World Council will have to find your son in the north to take over your business. Is that what you want?”
Rumsfeld got really quiet then leaned back in the chair again, patting the sweat off of his forehead and running his tissue along his face, wiping all the excess moisture. “How much extra,” he says, in a very quiet and low voice.
“We can negotiate prices later,” I say. “For now, just know your successor is in good hands and I’ll make sure he’s perfect this time.”
“Do you have a name?” she asks. She’s trailing a few paces behind me, looking around for any signs of patrols while I keep my eye out for anywhere we can hunker down for the night. It’s only getting colder and the winds are picking up, cutting through the thin jacket and ripped jeans I’m wearing. I can only imagine how she feels. I wrapped her in one of the blankets back in the alleyways where I found her. Most of her clothes are still ripped open. She’d freeze to death without the blanket.
“No,” I tell her. She shouldn’t question that too much. A lot of the people in the north tend not to have names. Sometimes they do have names but don’t tell them to anyone. Sometimes they were left in the north to fend for themselves and whoever they bunked with never gave them a name. I decide she doesn’t need to know my name. I hold back my teeth chattering. I don’t want her to know how cold I am. “How about you?”
“Um,” she stutters. “I get called Blondie a lot. Probably because of my hair colour. I guess that doesn’t help you much. We have the same colour hair.”
I don’t know if she saw what I saw in our reflections. I heard rumours before about this kind of thing. People running into themselves. On the outside at least. Inside, they’re their own people. They grew up in different parts of the north, have been part of different tribes and groups, sometimes even have different voices or scars. But the faces. The faces are always the exact same.
“You’re hair’s a little darker than mine,” Blondie points out. “Mine’s kind of pale, but yours is really pretty and bold. Like gold.”
“Call me Goldie, then,” I say.
“Okay,” she says. I look back and see her smile.
We come up to an intersection in the road and on one of the street corners is an old church with a long cross with one of its arms on the side broken in half. It points high into the grey sky, like a beacon to follow. I know this area. I spent a lot of time in this area. We should be safe here.
“Wait,” Blondie says, holding my arm. “This is tribal territory. I think the ones who paint their faces white with all the black lines live around here. They won’t let us pass through.”
“Yes they will,” I reply. “And we can stay here tonight. We’ll be safe. I promise.”
A low rumble echoes out in the direction we’re heading. I know this rumble all too well. From the look on Blondie’s face, she knows it too. Patrolmen. I rush ahead stop by the church, keeping my back against its outside walls as I slowly start to creep over, looking in the direction the tribe is where we heard the rumbles.
There are patrolmen standing around, talking to one another. I see three tanks and behind that there are a few fires, bigger than any trashcan fire people sometimes light to try and keep warm. Then there are two patrolmen carrying the body of one of the tribesmen. He throws the body on the fire. I understand what I’m looking at now. This is a full on raid. There have been some rumours about patrolmen trying to eliminate all the tribes and groups. I didn’t believe it at first. The tribes tended to have a lot of people in them, more than there are every any patrolmen in the north at any time. The patrols always seemed to avoid the tribes, knowing how outnumbered they always were. I guess they started seeing the tribes as enough of a threat to finally start getting rid of them.
“Can you believe how much extra pay we’re getting for this?” I hear one patrolman say to another. “I might have enough for a clone. Can you believe it?”
“Clone, you know those are illegal,” another patrolman says.
“Sure, but you can still get them, you just need to know where to find them,” the first says.
“And what are you going to do with a clone?” the other continues.
“Teach him baseball,” the first laughs. “I lost a huge scholarship after blowing out my knee. It’s like it’s going to be my second chance. Imagine, all the skill I used to have in baseball and young again. It’s brilliant. I don’t know why cloning is kept illegal. It’s just so brilliant.”
I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s Blondie.
“What’s a clone?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Yeah, can you imagine two of our appetites kicking around on this world?” a third patrolman says. “We would literally have two of you running around. We would run out of food. The south is already predicting food shortages because we have to feed these northern animals. Last thing we need to feed is another one of you.”
The three men laugh, and the meaning of that word starts to come to me. Clone. It’s a copy of a person. It’s why Blondie and I have the exact same face. Are we copies of each other? Copies of another person? For the first time I’m feeling a need to know my own identity. Before my only concern was just surviving. Learning as much as I could so I could be smarter and better than anyone coming after me. Now, I want to know why I’m here. How did I get here? How did Blondie get here? Who are we?
I feel another tug at my arm. “We can’t stay here,” Blondie says. “Where are we going to go?”
“South,” I answer.
I’m grateful Rumsfeld didn’t get a chance to look at his next potential protégé before I finally kicked him out of my office. It’s growing fine, almost already looks like a human. But I always check the readouts whenever I go into the room where the new humans are growing. These readouts didn’t look great, especially for what Rumsfeld wanted.
The readouts show me all the copied genetic code as it forms into a new human. I check it to make sure no genetic defects or mistakes wind up getting copied into the new human. No one wants a defective human and I’m already losing enough money because of this asshole. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to recopy his genetics and try to grow his successor. I feel like I’ve been trying and failing with this guy for decades.
The readouts tell me this new human is running into the same problems all the other ones had. I don’t know how or why, but the cloning process keeps copying an extra X chromosome. This makes no sense because the cloning process involves copying everything, right down to mapping the two chromosomes and ensuring they’re an exact match in the new human. Every time it misses the Y chromosome and copies an extra X.
I finally decide to review Rumsfeld’s mapped genome. Thousands upon thousands of genes I’m reading through, trying to figure out what’s going wrong and how can I fix it to stop this from ever happening again. I’ve had my failures with other clients and the mistakes were sent to the north like they always are, but I can usually spot my mistake right away and adjust it. Somewhere in these more than 20,000 genes mapped out that make up Mr. Rumsfeld Hadderton is the answer as to why his clones never turn out exactly as he wants.
And then I spot it. It’s as clear as day why his chromosomes aren’t cloning right. And it puts into perspective so much about this man. He paid for the extra genetic monitoring and it’s too late to adjust the chromosomes in this new human. She’ll go to the north, like the rest. And I have some bad news for Rumsfeld. Something that was never in his original agreement with me. Something I can charge a lot extra for.
All you have to do is face the south to feel its warmth against your face. The frozen north has its icy tingle that clings to your face, but all you have to do is face south to be reminded that it’s warm somewhere. And we’re going where it’s warm. Even if it kills us.
Blondie is behind me as we approach the border. She did a good job keeping quiet as we snuck around the buildings and streets that make up the north. I’m proud of her. There were some close calls, but we made it through without any patrol noticing us. But the border won’t be so easy.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen the border. When people in the north are arrested, they bring them to the south for a public execution. I’ve never seen one, but I’ve heard the patrolmen talk about it. They laugh about how the northerner they caught squirmed and tried to scream as they were hung. Members of my tribe were taken to the south. I never heard about their execution, but I followed them to the border when they were arrested, hoping there was something I could do to stop it and free the people who raised me and fed me and taught me to survive. I don’t know if I could stand hearing about it. Knowing that ours death gives them entertainment makes me hate them so much more. But it always feels like I can never do anything about it. Maybe making it to the south will change all that.
The border looks the same as it did when they took my tribe. A large stone wall with guard towers lines the border for as far as I can see. Armed patrolmen and their large dogs stand around and keep watch, one hand always on their rifles. Openings small enough for single vehicles to pass through break up bits of the wall and are blocked by thick steel doors that need to be opened by two people. I got us this far but I have no idea how we’re going to pass through here.
Blondie taps me on the shoulder and says, “I think you need this a lot more than I do. I think you have some sort of plan or something and I want you to succeed. You saved my life. It’s time I pay you back.”
I don’t even get a word out when Blondie runs out, both arms waving yelling at the guards. I don’t hear what she says but she has the guards’ attentions. And they’re all smiling. I’m terrified to think what’s going to happen to her, but I don’t want to let her diving out into danger like that to go in vain. Once I see the guard at the nearest gateway run toward Blondie, I sneak out and run and I don’t look back and I don’t look anywhere around me. I’m just gunning for that gate. And I’m praying Blondie’s going to be ok.
Rumsfeld came into my office with his face beat red already and sweat pooling under the thick fleshy fold around his face. He wasn’t even sitting when I finally came into my office. He was pacing back and forth and it felt like every step he took hit the floor harder than the last.
“This better be fucking important,” he spat. “I don’t know why you called me here, but it better be fucking important.”
“Are you familiar with Klinefelter syndrome?” I asked.
“Why the fuck would I know what that is?” Rumsfeld drooled down his chin and quickly wiped it with his hand. “You’re the fucking doctor. What, does one of my products have it or something?”
“Not quite,” I answered. “Actually, you have it.”
“What do you mean I have it?” he furled his brow. “You gave me every fucking medical test known to man before we started this goddamn song and dance. Wouldn’t you have spotted it then?”
“We don’t test for it,” I said. “Since selective genetics came into fashion, it’s become extremely rare. Hell, before selective genetics it was a one in five-hundred chance of being born with it. It wasn’t exactly common before and it’s virtually unheard of now.”
“So how the fuck did I wind up with it?” he slammed his fist onto my desk.
“Your parents must have missed it when they were reviewing your genetics before you were born,” I said. “Even I missed it. Again, this shouldn’t exist anymore.”
“So, how do I get rid of it?” Rumsfeld began pacing again. “You said it yourself, it’s virtually non-existent now. What’s the cure?”
“It doesn’t exactly work like that,” I sighed knowing this would be nearly impossible to explain to a simpleton of this magnitude. “It’s an error in your genetics. Most people have two chromosomes, women have two X chromosomes, men have an X and a Y chromosome –”
“Yeah, old news,” Rumsfeld blurted. “Get to the part where we fix this.”
“There is no fix,” I tell him. “It should have been corrected before you were born, while your genes were still be edited. It should have been easy to spot. It would have come up when the doctor who worked with your parents figured out what sex you are. You’re a man and you should have an X and a Y chromosome. Instead, you have two X chromosomes and a Y chromosome.”
“And that’s affecting my clones?”he asked.
“It’s duplicating both of your X chromosomes,” I explained. “Now that we’ve spotted this, the next one will finally be perfect.”
“I don’t have time for this shit!” Rumsfeld screamed. “Just kill the fucking bitch in the test tube and get the next one going already!”
He turned to leave my office, but before he could leave I called back out to him.
“There are a few other things you should know about your condition,” I said.
“Like what?” he stood in my doorway.
“One symptom is being an insufferable prick,” I felt the corner of my mouth peak into a smirk. “The other major symptom is sterility. I was wondering why it was so easy for you to send your kid to the North.”
“Well, like you just pointed out,” he said. “The bastard isn’t even my fucking kid. So fuck him. I hope he freezes to death and the savages up there use his body for food and warmth. It’s the only good that human waste will ever do anyone. Now get to work. I’m not paying you to tell me how fucked up my life is. I know that already.”
I feel the temperature difference as soon as I cross into the South. It’s warm, like there’s a constant fire going all around and there’s space for everyone to stand next to it.
I’m still shocked as to how easy it was to cross into the South. I ran through the gateway and to the other side without any plan for what I would do once I got across. I didn’t even know what was waiting for me on the other side. It could have been a hundred more guards or patrolling troops. But there’s nothing. It feels emptier than the North does. But I feel the warmth and it draws me in.
There isn’t any frost on the ground and I don’t see any concrete. The grass is trampled though and there is more dirt beneath my feet than there is any plant life. The sky is still grey, just like the North, but there are breaks in the clouds in front of me. It looks close enough to touch but part of me knows it will be hours or even days of walking before I stand underneath where the clouds actually brake.
A single jeep rolls up next to me while I’m walking away from the North. There is a single guard inside, driving the same direction that I’m walking. My first instinct is to run, but I can tell by the way he looks at me he isn’t interested in bringing me back.
“Heading South?” he asks through his smile.
I nod slowly, waiting for him to open his pants or order me to take off my top. But he does neither. He just opens his door and invites me into the jeep. He smiles as I crawled in and that’s when I noticed his smile, his yellowed and chipped teeth, and the blonde stubble growing around his face. The guards never had any facial hair and their teeth were always perfect and as white as the frost that covers the windows of the buildings around the North. He’s not a guard.
“How did you get out?” he asks. I look over to him but didn’t answer. I don’t know how to answer. I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about Blondie yet and what she did. I feel like if I talk about it, I’d want to turn back and try to find her. “Not a complicated question,” he smiles as I realize how long I have been sitting in silence. “For example, I was able to kill a guard and steal his uniform and his jeep. I’m one of the few Northern residents who knows how to drive, I was born a Southerner after all. One of my daddy’s staff taught me to drive. And ever since I’ve been helping folks who’ve escaped the North find their ways to the South. There’s a small shelter accepting Northerners, giving them food and new clothes and place to sleep before folks can start heading further South and making their way in that part of the world –”
“I don’t want to go there,” I interrupt him.
“The shelter, I don’t want to go there.”
“Where are you headed then?”
I hand him the sheet of paper I found. He smiles and nods. “I know this place well enough,” he says. “You might not like what you see. I know I didn’t. Keeps me away from that place. My father too. Been wanting to kill that son of a bitch for a long time now. But that clinic freaks me out.”
“I have to,” I say. “I have to go to this place. It might explain…” I hesitate to continue. I look over and find him staring at me intently, barely keeping an eye on the road. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” he answers. “You just look familiar, that’s all. Funny enough, we very well could be related. Especially if this is where you’re headed, there’s a very good chance of that.”
Getting past Rumsfeld’s little problem is a pretty nasty challenge. I’ve never had to deal with anything like this before. I’ve never doubted myself like this either. I’d be willing to tell him that it’s impossible and turn him away and instead focus on clients I know will be easier money. But he’s paid me already. He’s paid me a lot. And I’m not in any position to pay back that much money. I just have to keep working at it until it’s right.
The sound of gunfire rings out in the clinic’s lobby as I check Rumsfeld’s newest copy. My first thought is that the old bastard has lost his mind and he’s out for blood now. I always knew he was unstable. My gut told me not to take him on as a client the first day I met him. He was so off that day and he hasn’t acted any better since. He’s only been more and more unbearable. I remember him almost being twitchy. He bounced his knee while he sat in my office, drumming against his legs and looking all over the room, like a little boy waiting for his Christmas presents. Only little boys sit in anxious joy and happiness. Rumsfeld sneered the whole time he was in my office. Like he was ready to fight while having a panic attack. To this day I’ve never dealt with anyone like him. Most of my clients are calm and assertive professionals who know what they want and how they intend to get it. Rumsfeld knows what he wants and he’s ready to punch anyone in the face to get it.
My attention stays fixed on my specimen while I hear more shots ringing out, louder this time. He’s getting closer. I better have some good news for him. I can’t afford to have a bullet in me, not while I have this much work to do.
I check all the vitals and everything seems normal. I take a deep breath before I read the gender. I’ve never been this worried reading one of my specimens before. Even my first wasn’t this nerve wracking. And with a long exhale, I read the gender.
Another girl. My mind goes directly to the fact I need to get a hold of my contact for transport to the North and I barely register how loud the shots are getting.
And that’s when the door to my office finally opens.
The jeep pulls up to a building with lights coming out of the windows, which haven’t been boarded up or marked as territory by anyone. The driver smiles at me again, looks at me in a way I haven’t been looked at since my tribe were still alive. It feels good. I can trust him.
“Are you sure you want to go in there?” he asks.
“I think I’m sure,” I answer. “I don’t know what I’m going to do when I go in. I don’t even really know what I’m looking for. I just know that whatever reason I exist is in this place. And I need to know what it is.”
He nods slowly, like he’s appreciating what I’m saying. He might not understand it, I don’t know if he has a tribe or if he knows where he came from or if he’s just sure enough of himself that he just doesn’t need to know any more about himself. “Alright, but don’t go in empty handed,” he says as he hands me a pistol. It feels heavy in my hands. The cold metal tingles through my fingers and I get a shiver along my arms. Like I forgot what one of these feels like.”You ever use one of these things before?”
“My tribe had one,” I say. “It looked different though. It was smaller. I learned how to shoot on it. I shot more can than anyone else in my tribe.”
“Well, this one will probably have some extra kick the one you used before didn’t have,” he says. “But it’s generally the same principals. I think you’ll handle it well.”
“What should I do with it?” I ask. “I mean, is there anyone who I shouldn’t shoot?”
“In my humble opinion,” he smiles. “No. Take it from someone who grew up in the South and was sent to the North against his will. No one in the South deserves to live. They don’t understand what people like you and me have had to go through in the North. And no one down here appreciates anything they have. They throw away food and never know what it’s like to starve. They’ve never felt the cold and the desperation to keep a fire going. They know nothing, especially about the North. They don’t deserve to keep going.”
I let his words absorb into me, like they were made of liquid and seeped into my skin. I feel his words travelling through me, and then they become part of me. My heart races and my hands shake. For the first time in a very long time, I smile.
“Will you be here once I’m done?” I ask.
“I have something to tend to,” he says. “I have a sweaty fat bastard to take care of. But I’ll be back. And I’ll take you back to the camp, you’ll meet some of your fellow escaped Northerners, and we’ll prepare to take the South.”
I get out of the jeep and walk towards the door. I look back one last time, for one last boost of confidence. He isn’t looking at me. He’s driving away already.
I can’t say I would have ever seen this coming. She has blonde hair and her skin is cracked and creased, but she’s not old. These aren’t wrinkles. It’s frost burn deeply embedded into her skin. She stares at me, both of her hands are wrapped around the gun’s handle. It’s pointed directly at me. She’s silent for a long while. I stay frozen in place.
“Who am I?” she finally breaks the silence.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Yes you do!” she shouts. “I know you do. Just because I’m from the North doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I know what you do. I saw another girl who looks exactly like me. She’s dead now. She died so I could get here and find you and find out who I am. Now, who am I?”
“Looks exactly like you?” I smile. “Only one? I’m surprised. Your eyes, your nose, your cheekbones, everything about you is him. It’s uncanny. Even your temper apparently.”
“Who?” she snaps.
“A client who’s been far more trouble than he’s worth,” I explain. “A real fucking nightmare.”
“You don’t know nightmares,” she says, her hands start shaking. “You get to wake up from them. Mine’s never ended.”
“How would you know?” I ask. “I mean, I imagine you don’t know any other life than the North. I know I sent you there even before your incubation was complete. I’m shocked you lived. God knows how many died from the cold –”
“Shut up!” she screams. “How many of me are there? How many times was I cloned?”
“Technically, you weren’t cloned,” I explain. “You are the clone. Guessing by your age, probably one of the first. The first in a long stream of mistakes.”
“Why were we all mistakes?” she asks, tears streaming down her face.
“What’s the one common denominator here?” I say. “You, the other girl who you saw, and, well, I guess this is your sister. I mean, you have a lot in common. But the main thing is that your, well, kind of father but more of a root genetic sample, he wanted a man.”
She looks at the specimen. “What’s going to happen to her?”
“Well, my client thinks you’re all dead, that I kill you once the gender is identified and you’re no good anymore,” I say. “But I don’t kill you. I send you to the North. I let nature take its toll. If you survive, well done. If not, well, you were never really meant for this world.”
The tears streaming down her face drench her cheeks. I’m hoping to keep her distracted enough to make a run for it. I know she’s not interested in any of my equipment, she wouldn’t know what to do with any of it with her savage and primitive brain. If I break her, make her hate herself enough that she’s no longer paying attention to me, I know I’ll be safe.
“Give her to me,” she says.
“I can’t do that,” I say. “She won’t live. She’s incubating still.”
“Then you’ll stay until she’s ready to be born,” she says.
“Ready to be born?” I laugh out loud. “Stop pretending this is a human. It’s human-error.”
Then she opens fire.
I hold onto her tight as I sneak outside. The sun is down now, but it’s still far warmer than any day in the North. The jar that she’s in is hard to grip with only one hand. I drop the gun, I’m out of bullets anyways, and I look up and I see no one waiting for me. The dark streets are empty in front of me and it starts looking like the North all around me.
I wrap both of my arms around her as I continue walking. I feel my body shaking but I hold it in my chest and try not to let my arms shake. My legs can barely hold me up as I keep trying to walk forward. I trip and fall, but use one of my hands to stop me from falling all the way and my other hand holds onto her tight.
I don’t know how far I walk before I feel my legs give out again. I fall on my side, still holding her and trying to protect her. The concrete feels comfortable and I roll onto my back and I feel myself start to drift off.
The sun’s glare wakes me up. As soon as the light cracks from between my eyelids, I shoot awake and check on her. I’m still holding her. She’s still the same as she was last night: tiny and floating in place. I stare at her and start to make out her features: I see her eyes and they’re closed tight like she’s in a deep sleep. I make out her small mouth. Her arms are bunched up around her. She looks comfortable. She looks safe.
“Holy fuck, you’re alive,” I hear a man’s voice. I recognize it. Only it’s not making me feel comfortable or safe this time. “I seriously thought local police would have shot you as soon as you walked out of the building. You didn’t wait at all to start shooting.”
He’s standing outside of the jeep with his arms folded and a smirk across his face. “I’m glad you served your part. I don’t think things could have gone better for me.”
“Why weren’t you there?” I ask.
“Because you were supposed to be dead,” he chuckles. “Do I have to spell it out for you? You were supposed to keep the authorities busy while I took care of my business. You see, I was sent to the North, but it was technically an illegal transfer. The fat prick who called himself my dad paid a few people to take me to the North. I’m still a citizen of the South. And because my transfer was illegal it was easy for me to get past that big scary wall and waltz back to my home. But crime in the South is sparse. One gunshot and the entire local force would be on you before your sweat could run down your cheek. Multiple gunshots, though, like the little party you had? Police would have been so distracted with you that no one would have noticed me popping a few into that tub of lard.”
“But…” I stutter trying to find my words. “But the camp.”
“Doesn’t exist,” he smirks. “No one’s ever escaped the North.”
My stomach twists and I feel like I’m about to throw up. I look down at her and back up to him again. “How did you know I would come out and find you and want to go to that place?”
“Believe it or not, I was lucky,” he says. “I didn’t set anything up. Running into you was a pure fluke. I put the plan together on the fly as soon as you climbed into the jeep and showed me that clinic’s brochure. Honestly, I would have been happy to find anyone and improvised it any which way. I never targeted you hun. You’re simply not that special.”
I stand up and glance behind me and my eyesight draws a path I’ll be walking down, away from him. “Well, it was worth it,” I say as I look down at her. “It was worth it for her.”
“Did you really disconnect that from its life support?” he chuckles. “Hun, I don’t know how to tell you this, but that thing died the minute you grabbed it and walked out of that clinic. You didn’t save anything.”
I don’t believe him. I know she still has to be in there. I know she’s still growing and getting ready to enter the world. My heart beats faster than it did when I was holding the gun. My palms start to sweat and I struggle to keep holding on to her. The tears run down my face and I can’t control them.
“Sorry I had to be the bearer of bad news,” he says. “I know it’s nice to think you’re a hero. But you’re nothing but another piece of human error that should have died in the North.”
I keel over as I start to wretch and I feel my empty stomach push up against me with each heave that escapes my body. I keep holding onto her, though. I’ll die before I drop her.
“Why?!” I cry out.
“Are you actually asking me?” he answers. “Sadly, I wish I had some grand explanation. I almost wish the resistance I convinced you exists was real. It was money. The old piece of shit dies, I get his money and his company. I’ll sell the company, never work again, live the easy life, and never think about any of this again.” I can hear him laugh. “You know, it’s funny. I’m not even actually his son, and I’m more like him than you are and you’re an exact genetic duplicate of him. You have to admit, that’s funny.”
My hand if covered in blood when I wake up. I have two bullet holes in me and I’m bleeding profusely. I lift my shirt and inspect the wounds. Falling asleep is the worst thing I could have done, even if it was involuntary. The wounds have been open for too long. There’s no quick repair. And no paramedic will get here in time. If they haven’t got here yet, they’re not coming. I have to get ready.
I try to stand but it hurts so incredibly much. I’m actually looking forward to finishing out and being done with this shit. But I can’t go quite yet. I have one last thing I need to do.
Pulling myself across the floor, I reach the back of my lab, to my restricted office. I barely reach the door handle, but I open it and crawl in. The four cryogenic chambers have frost covering the outside. But it won’t take long to thaw one. I reach the control of the first one I find and enter the passcode to unlock it. It starts heating up rapidly, and then the airlock releases and the hatch opens. I forgot how awkward I looked when I was this young. Tall, skinny, and the cryogenic chamber hasn’t done much for my skin. Or I guess his skin.
He walks out and the sudden look of horror on his face takes over as he spots my wounds. “You’re hurt!” he says.
“Don’t fucking bother,” I say. “Just save whatever tissue you can and start up the replacement.”
There have always been four in the cryogenic chambers and four in stasis in incubators on the other side of my restricted office. He has the same look on his face as I did when I came out of my cryogenic chamber. Part fear, part exhilaration, part impatience waiting for the old model to finally die. He has that same look on his face. Part of me is glad this will be the last thing I see. Knowing that my work isn’t finished, but the best possible candidate will continue it.
He kneels down next to me, inspects the wounds, and then smiles. “I guess I got some work to do.”
I said the same thing when I came out.