A short story by Nancy Fulda
Six-year-old Jason stared down the long white hall of the Replication Wing and clutched his father’s hand more tightly. He didn’t like the sterilized walls or the funny smell of chemicals that crept from some of the rooms. He especially didn’t like the hospital gown that scratched and slipped and left him feeling coldly exposed.
“This way, please,” The nurse said, guiding Jason and his parents down the hall. Jason trailed behind his father’s comforting bulk and reached for his mother’s hand, as well.
The nurse glanced at him and smiled. “Is this your first cloning?”
Jason nodded hesitantly and hung back behind his parents. “He’s a little nervous,” his mother said apologetically.
“Well, that’s understandable,” the nurse replied, “although there’s no reason to be concerned. We use top of the line equipment here: the procedure is completely risk-free for the Original.” Her smile faded slightly as she turned and continued leading them down the hall.
Jason studied the nurse. She was a high-quality clone. Her speech was perfect and her left hand trembled only slightly - almost unnoticeably - as it hung by her side. Were it not for the blue ID tattoo on her forehead, Jason might have mistaken her for a real person.
They reached a small waiting room and the nurse motioned for them to be seated. “The doctor will be with you in a moment.” She gave a parting smile and vanished through a white door.
Waiting room chairs were not designed for six-year-olds. If Jason sat against the backrest his legs stuck straight out from the edge of the seat. If he sat forward he could swing his legs, but they still didn’t reach the floor. Neither position was truly comfortable. He fidgeted with the scratchy hospital gown and glanced restlessly around the room.
He did not like the idea of being cloned. His friend Robby said cloning machines were like giant metal mouths that swallowed you whole for hours at a time, and you had to lay perfectly still inside and hope that no one forgot to let you out. Robby said people went crazy in there, scratching their fingers bloody against the blank gray walls. He said the junkyards were full of out-dated replicators, and some of them still had bodies inside.
Jason hadn’t really believed any of Robby’s stories, but he had been concerned enough ask Mother about them anyway. She just laughed and said Robby’s parents couldn’t afford a clone, so how would he know? Then she had told Jason to stop being silly and to straighten the knots on his shoelaces.
Through an open door Jason occasionally saw figures, mostly clones, pushing carts of laundry and cleaning supplies through the back hallways of the hospital. The clones were easy to pick out. They were the kind Mother called “low-quality menial workers,” and they walked with awkward, off-balance steps.
Jason had spoken with a menial worker once, when Mother wasn’t looking. He had been playing soccer with some friends and Robby had kicked the ball clear off the field and into the bushes. Jason ran to get it and nearly toppled over the clone as he darted around the hedge.
“Watch where you’re going!” the worker snapped in a deep voice, and then appended a hastily-composed “… young Sir,” as his eyes uncrossed far enough to observe Jason’s clean forehead.
Jason mumbled a half-formed apology as he retrieved the ball and clutched it to his chest. Mother said it was beneath a human’s dignity to mingle with menials, so he had never seen a low-quality clone up close before. This one was old; old and wrinkled, and few of the lines came from smiling. The left corner of his mouth sagged and created a hollow for spittle to pool in.
Jason felt repulsed and fascinated at the same time. He tried not to stare as he edged with his ball towards the field where the other children were waiting. The clone turned back to his work, which seemed to involve changing the bags in the garbage bins, but was interrupted by a violent thrashing in his left shoulder. He grimaced and clamped a gnarled hand on his upper arm to keep it from flailing about.
Jason, whose curiosity was now overpowering social stigma, hesitated at the edge of the playing field. Children at school loved to make fun of the lurching, pidgeon-footed walk of the clone janitors. Now, standing closer to a low-quality clone than he’d ever been, Jason dared to voice the question that had fluttered, nagging, at the back of his mind for several months.
“Does - does it hurt?”
“Not the way you’re thinking,” the clone said as the thrashing subsided. He was hard to understand because his flaccid lower lip wouldn’t shape the words, but he didn’t babble nonsense like some clones. “It’s a nerve tremor. A defect introduced during replication. You don’t see them so much in the newer clones.”
The clone rubbed his forehead, making his blue ID tattoo ripple on a wave of wrinkles. The registration number was too small for Jason to read, but the letters above it spelled a wobbly NAT-12. So this must be the 12th clone from an Original named Nathan, or maybe Nathaniel.
The clone’s cross-eyed gaze caught Jason staring at the tattoo. “Pretty, isn’t it?” the deep voice said dryly. Jason, embarrassed, edged towards the other children.
“Most people think the difference between a man and his clone is in the body,” the clone said. “That was true once, back when men and clones worked side by side. But the difference isn’t the clone’s body anymore, and it’s not in the ink on his forehead. It’s in the mind.”
“Hey, Jason!” shouted Robby from across the park. “You gonna stand there all day? Let’s play!”
“Coming!” Jason shouted, and trotted towards the field before his friends could notice the clone half-hidden behind the bushes.
Now, sitting in the small hospital room, Jason couldn’t help thinking that the clone he’d met hadn’t looked very happy. Something seemed wrong with that. Jason’s teacher in school said clones were happy doing jobs that most true humans wouldn’t enjoy, like cleaning dust bins or working in factories. She also said clones weren’t smart like real people; that they couldn’t make responsible decisions or act like adults, so they needed humans to take care of them and tell them what to do. But the clone Jason had spoken with had seemed smart enough.
A door opened and a graying woman with glasses entered the waiting room. She consulted her clipboard and then shook hands with Jason’s parents. “Mr. and Mrs. Calloway? I’m Dr. Kessan. And you must be Jason,” she said amiably, shaking his hand. “How are you doing today?”
“Fine,” Jason mumbled, more because he sensed that it was the proper answer than because he really felt that way. Robby’s horror stories about bodies in replicators were creeping out of the corners of his memory.
“Good,” the doctor said. “If you’ll follow me, I’d like to take you to the scanning room.”
Two short hallways later, Jason stood with his parents in front of a massive gray wall punctuated by lights, switches and funny green screens with wiggly lines. “This is a C-class molecular scanner,” Dr. Kessan said. She was looking at Jason, but he had the feeling that her words were spoken for his parents. “It’s a new design that can scan and record the molecular composition of the body without any harmful radiation. When combined with our neural pattern resynthesis algorithms, C-class scanning virtually eliminates post-reconstruction amnesia, learning disabilities, seizure predispositions and other neurological disorders.”
Jason’s father humphed. He had complained long and loudly about the recent increases in replication costs, and as a respected donor to the hospital his opinion could not be easily discounted. Dr. Kessan’s prattle about the new machine seemed to appease him somewhat.
“Yes, that does affect the return on investment,” he said, more to himself than to anyone else. “Why, one clone of Jason’s will bring him as much revenue as three of mine together.” He patted Jason warmly on the shoulder. “With luck, my boy, you’ll never have to work at all!”
Jason stared at the blinking metal wall before him. It looked even more intimidating than it had seemed in the videos at school, and his grip on Father’s hand tightened. He wondered whether this was how the famous professor Jeffreys had felt a few minutes before entering his prototype scanner for the first time.
Cloning was a practice nearly as old as Silica Colony itself. After the first Plague of Amam had passed, those colonists who had survived realized that they could never finish building the city before winter settled over the new home planet. So professor Jeffreys had adapted the manufacturing synthesizers to replicate organic tissue. After several failed attempts he had successfully reconstructed a living, thinking being one molecule at a time.
Cloning had been dangerous in those days, for Original and clone alike. The clones suffered from severe physical and neurological deficiencies - the exacerbated results of small inconsistencies in the scanned data - and the scanning process used harmful radiation and chemicals that poisoned the body. Jeffreys himself had suffered a stroke as a result of the scanning process. After he could no longer work, his duplicates had entered into the first clone service contract to support him.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of, Jason.”
Jason looked to his left and saw that the doctor had crouched beside him and laid a hand on his back. She began explaining that the new scanning procedures did not take very long and were completely safe. Jason listened without hearing, nodding his head at appropriate intervals. How could she be so sure? Even if Robby’s stories weren’t true, wasn’t there always a chance that something might go wrong?
Something else was bothering Jason, too. Something that had nothing to do with the scanning machine itself. The menial worker with the thrashing arm lingered in his memory.
“Do you have any questions, Jason?” the doctor asked when she had finished.
Jason shifted back and forth on his feet. The adults were all watching him expectantly, and he had the feeling they were waiting for him to shake his head so they could get on to business.
“Jason?” Mother prompted.
He looked at their faces; Father’s stern, chiseled features, Mother’s round ones, Dr. Kessan’s angular glasses. They all watched him back.
“Will my clone be happy?” Jason asked finally. Then he blurted, “I don’t want a clone if he’s not going to be happy.”
There was an uncomfortable pause, then Father spoke in his best reassuring-parent voice. “Of course he’ll be happy, Jason.
He’ll have a top-notch education and the best job a clone could hope for.”
“I want to be sure,” Jason said, somewhat petulantly. “I want to ask him.”
Mother was shocked. “Chit-chat with your own clone? Go waltzing into a clone training school as if you belonged there? Most certainly not!” She brushed at her skirt as if the faint wrinkles there were the cause of her displeasure.
“But I want to know,” Jason persisted. “Remember Petie?” Petie was the name of a frog Jason found at the pond and had kept for two days in a jar under his bed.
“Jason, this is completely different!” Mother said in an exasperated tone. She had never liked Petie, but Jason had refused to turn him loose until Father explained that frogs weren’t happy living in plastic jars. They had made it a family outing of sorts, taking Petie back to the pond and watching as he crouched, hesitant, on the lip of the open jar before hopping boldly to his freedom.
To Jason the two events didn’t seem so different at all. If it was wrong to keep a frog that wasn’t happy, then mustn’t it also be wrong to keep a clone who wasn’t?
Dr. Kessan waded into the family conflict before Jason could phrase another objection, once again kneeling so that her face was level with his.
“Jason, it’s really not encouraged for people to meet their own clones,” the doctor said. “It makes most people uncomfortable to see their face on someone else. However, you’ll get duty letters from your clone twice a year once he’s started school. Then you’ll know how he’s doing. And you can help him be happy by choosing a career path he’ll like. Okay?”
Jason wasn’t sure whether that was okay or not, but the look on Mother’s face told him there was no use arguing about it. “Okay,” he said. The doctor held out an electronic document for him to sign and he obediently scribbled his name in the highlighted fields.
The doctor rose to her feet and began flipping switches and adjusting dials on the scanning machine. “I’ll just get Jason settled, Mr. and Mrs. Calloway, and then we can finish the paperwork in my office. Since he’s a minor, I’ll need you to cosign the service contract and the organ donor agreement. Jason, would you step over here please?”
Dr. Kessan helped the boy lie down on a bed-like platform that had ejected itself from the wall. Jason hardly noticed when the nurse reentered the room and placed a plastic face mask over his nose and mouth; his mind was racing forward in time, to the moment he awakened from the scanning procedure. Mother would never let him see his clone; he was certain of that. But if he snuck down the hall to the reconstruction room as soon as he woke up… He just wanted to see his clone. If he looked into its face, Jason was certain, he would know. He would know whether it felt happy.
In Jason’s six-year-old mind, the plan seemed sound. He did not know that the reconstruction rooms were only accessible to authorized employees. He did not know that it would be several days before his scanned data was ready for reconstitution. He knew only that the desire to see and speak with his clone - a drive much stronger than idle curiosity - was burning in his heart.
Warm air flowed from the plastic mask into Jason’s lungs. He felt his arms and legs begin to tingle, then the world grew dark.
* * *
He was cold when he woke up. And hungry, but he didn’t care. Jason wanted to go find his clone.
The room was empty except for the clone nurse. She stood facing away from him, scanning readouts from a big machine on the far wall. The room’s door was ajar.
Jason pushed himself to a sitting position. His limbs and muscles felt clunky, as if they hadn’t been used in a long time. His feet thumped as he slid from the too-high hospital bed onto the tile floor. The nurse glanced up.
She straightened and tapped an intercom switch on the wall. “He’s awake, Doctor.” She lifted him gently back onto the hospital bed.
“I want to see my clone,” Jason told her. His voice sounded funny, as if his tongue didn’t know its way around his mouth.
“I’m sure we can arrange that,” the nurse said. But she wouldn’t meet his eyes, and turned away to make some notes on her clipboard.
Dr. Kessan entered the room and scanned the computer readouts without greeting Jason. She crossed the room, checked his eyes and ears, and listened to his heartbeat. Then she tapped on his knee with a rubber hammer. “Do you hurt anywhere?” Jason shook his head no. “Can you speak to me? Tell me your name.”
“Jason Calloway.” He stumbled over the familiar sounds, trying to make his tongue respond correctly. Jason began to feel afraid.
Dr. Kessan straightened up and took the note pad from the nurse. “He seems to be doing well,” she said, marking something with her pen. “I think he’ll maintain a slight slurring of speech, though. And watch for any tremors or lack of coordination.”
The nurse took the notepad as it was handed back to her. “Will that be all, Doctor?”
“Yes. Take him through the preliminaries, then send him on to the training school.” The nurse nodded and Dr. Kessan left.
Jason remained sitting on the hospital bed, shivering. “Can I see my clone now?” he asked.
The nurse looked at him as though she were recalling a distant pain. Finally she lifted him down from the bed and took his hand. “Come with me.”
She led Jason across the room, then sank to one knee and directed his gaze towards the full-length mirror on the back of the door. He stared at his reflection and reached up to touch his forehead in disbelief. There, emblazoned in blue ink beneath the skin, were the characters JAS-1, followed by a registration number.
Jason tried to rub the letters off, but they wouldn’t come. He rubbed harder. The nurse grabbed his hands and held them by his waist. “It won’t come off,” she told him, “You’ll only hurt yourself trying.”
“B-but I’m not a clone! I’m Jason!”
“Jason Calloway is at home rightnow with his parents. You have all of his memories, but you are not Jason. You’re his first clone, and you must respect and obey him from now on.”
Jason felt as if someone had turned the world inside out and then stepped on it. The nurse was mistaken. She had to be. Because if Jason was a clone, then he’d feel happy. The teacher in school said clones were always happy. Happy, happy, happy! He pounded his head against the mirror until the nurse pulled him away from it.
Later, headed towards the clone school with six other children and a drooling chaperone, Jason felt the first seeds of bitterness. He sat on an unpadded chair in a shabby rail bus that jounced and rattled like it was about to break down. And he was surrounded by clones. His mother would be appalled at these circumstances. His mother would be appalled at him. No wonder people were discouraged from meeting their own clones.
There was no chance, Jason slowly realized, that Mother would let his Original come speak with him. She couldn’t stop Jason’s Original from getting the biannual duty letters - those were private - but would his Original read them? In twelve years, when he was no longer a minor, would he seek out Jason? Yesterday Jason would have felt certain the answer was ‘yes’. Now he was no longer sure.
At the front of the bus, a smiling human spoke to them from a video screen; a recorded, five-minute message that played over and over. The dark-suited man explained that they were headed for a brand new life, with new, exciting challenges, and that they shouldn’t prejudice themselves against it just because it wasn’t the life they’d expected to have. After the ninth repetition, one of the boys threw his shoe at the screen. Mr. Suit Coat vanished in a crackle of static.
The chaperone did not turn him back on.
Guest post by Nancy Fulda