Escape From Original City

by Mike Koenen

 

The call came in at 6:23 a.m. I usually don’t get up until around 10:00 a.m. and then only with the help of my morning whiskey and a few cigarettes. My mouth was dry and my brain could barely comprehend what he was telling me.

“Is this O’Hara 43?”

“Yes, who is this?”

“My name is Tom Smith 23.”

Only the ones in charge had both a first and last name so I knew this was probably important.

“Yes sir. What can I do for you?”

“One of the originals has escaped,” was all he said.

“OK.”

I wondered why he was calling me. Granted, I was a private investigator and sometime bounty hunter, but something of this magnitude was usually a job for the state police.

“We need your help 43. You will be well compensated,” he added.

I thought of my Honda 4000. Two of its three engines weren’t working and the third was on the brink of dying any day now. I could use the money. Plus, I didn’t really want one of the planners to be angry with me.

“Yes sir, I understand. May I ask why you are trusting something as important as this to me?”

“Because it was your original that escaped.”

I was silent for a few seconds as I tried to comprehend what this meant. When an original escaped it was taken seriously. The originals were our lifeblood. Unfortunately, they were an overly emotional and illogical people. The fact that my original had escaped was especially important to me because he was essentially the road map to my life. I was one of the clones made from him. I was the forty-third clone in the second wave of clones meaning that I wasn’t activated until five years after I was cloned from him at age twenty. A first wave clone would be his exact age.

Only those that have achieved extreme success get approved for second waves. If he were to develop a disease such as cancer in a few years the planners would know to start looking for this same cancer in me immediately. They would have a five-year jump on any heredity diseases that may form and therefore a much higher chance of catching it in its early stage and curing it. So finding the original John O’Hara was important to me.

Tom Smith 23 continued, “Since you were one of the clones made from him we feel that you might have an advantage in tracking him down. You might be able to do it quicker than the Clone City police. After all you think like him. You have his judgment skills.”

I had never agreed with that statement. Yes, I shared his genetic makeup but I had a mind of my own.

“I see,” I said. There was no use arguing this point with one of the planners. It would just get me deactivated. Clones were occasionally deactivated if they were not shown to be productive in Clone City. So this wasn’t so much a request as a command by Tom Smith 23.

“The city police are also looking for him of course. I will send some officers over to your apartment immediately to put the temporary marking across your forehead. This way you won’t be bothered by the police during the manhunt as all of your cloned brothers unfortunately will have to be.”

The marking could only be seen under black light. The law enforcers in both Clone City and Original City carried these lights with their nightsticks.

“Yes sir. I will need his address and the last place he was known to have been. I will also need a printout of all information you have on him including his family, his job, his hobbies, and his friends,” I said.

“You will get all of that. The officers will bring that information with them. Thank you 43.”

“Of course sir, it’s the least I can do.”

I hung up the phone and walked to the cabinet and took out the whiskey, a shot glass, and a bottle of 7-Up. I performed my morning wakeup ritual and lit a cigarette and tried to decide where to begin.

* * * * *

Within ten minutes two officers were at my door. They were of the Jackson clones. Two large, well-built men who were physically alike in all ways stood before me. I was always amused as to how many of the Jackson clones went into law enforcement. I hadn’t ever met one that wasn’t a police officer. The original John T. Jackson, who was now in his sixties, was still the chief of police in Original City. These two men looked to be clones of a third or possibly fourth wave of the original Jackson. Only the very top-rated originals were cloned in four waves. Law enforcement just ran through their blood I supposed.

My original on the other hand was a world-class violinist in Original City. Apparently there was small part of him that had law enforcement dreams though because here I was. I was told on the day that I was activated that almost all of the O’Hara clones were in the arts, but of course there was always free will and it was up to me what I wanted to do. I guessed I was kind of like a recessive gene or something.

The Jacksons put the marking on my forehead. Only they, or another officer, could remove it when this was all over. I was glad Tom 23 suggested it though. I could move quicker this way.

“So if I see one of you super Jacksons coming at me with your gun raised I should just smile and say cheese and point to my forehead right?” I joked.

They didn’t laugh. I had forgotten that most of the Jackson clones didn’t have much of a sense of humor.

I asked the Jacksons if they could drop me off in Original City. They suggested I use one of the city police’s tunnels to avoid the traffic above on the streets and the hassles of the border police. We walked down the corridor of my apartment building and into the street. One of them took out his keys and opened the manhole cover in the street.

He lifted the steel cover to the tunnel to Original City. If I had to drive it would take probably over an hour even though it was only fifteen miles away. Overpopulation was a problem that had not been solved.

I descended the ladder into the tunnel with the Jacksons. In the tunnel I got into the capsule. Jackson 14 set the speed. I lay down.

He closed the top. He gave Jackson 13 the thumbs up. He pushed the button on the capsule and I was off. It was rare that a civilian got to use one of the police tunnels so I enjoyed the brief ride. I imagined I was probably traveling a few hundred miles per hour but there was no way to be sure considering how airtight the capsule was.

Within seconds I was at the edge of Original City. There was a police officer there that let me out of the capsule.

“Hello, O’Hara 43. How are you?” he said as he opened the top of the capsule.

“I’m good.” This one was of the Kasper clones. There were a few of them in other fields but most of them were also in law enforcement. I had found they had a better sense of humor than the Jackson clones.

He patted me down and checked my gun to make sure it was only a stun gun. It was legal to protect yourself if one of the originals attacked you but strictly prohibited to kill one. If a clone killed an original he would be deactivated. Without the originals we would soon cease to exist in one generation. Only they were allowed to procreate which was their purpose on earth. It was forbidden for clones to have children. The planners let the originals be the guinea pigs. If the child didn’t show promise they wouldn’t be cloned. This way only the best became clones. It may seem cruel but it had to be this way.

Before clones ran this world the human race had been at the brink of extinction. There were race wars, crimes of passion and greed, rapes and robberies. This all has been successfully eradicated since the clones have been in charge and does not exist in Clone City today. Years of breeding only the best, most logical originals have contributed to this fact. Occasionally there are still mistakes and these clones are quickly discontinued.

In the early 2000s a sheep was cloned. It took two hundred and fifty years before humans were cloned. Clones originally lived with their originals under their control, which is hard to believe now I realize, but it is true. I have read it in history books. The originals would still be in charge but they got greedy. It wasn’t enough for them to just have one clone—they wanted many clones of themselves. This led to the uprising of 3002. At that point in history there were many more clones than originals.

War broke out between the originals and the clones. The clones won and the originals have been under clone control ever since. Not that it’s that bad for them. They are encouraged to live their lives as they had before the war. This way the clone planners can see which originals become successful and which do not before cloning them. The planners can fill any shortages this way too. If they find we are having a shortage of scientists for instance they will have two brilliant scientists breed in Original City and then clone their offspring when the time comes.

I decided there were three places to look for John—Original City, the rest of Clone City where he might be pretending to be a clone, or there was a slight chance he may have left both cities and gone to the desert that wasn’t protected by the dome. The dome protected the entire city including Original City. The protective dome ended after the Original City. It was guarded by the border patrol but it was rumored that there was a tunnel that led out to the desert that only the originals knew of. If that were the case and he was heading towards the desert it would almost surely be suicide. The sun was too hot and a person without proper UV protective gear would be burned within minutes. There is nothing to eat in the desert except snakes, scorpions, lizards, cockroaches and other shelled creatures. The desert was the great unknown. Some believed there were other cities out there, some didn’t. It was a very big chance to venture into it though.

“OK, you’re good to go,” Kasper said. He opened the last steel door and ushered me out.

I had never actually been in the original’s part of the city before. I walked from the building that looked pretty much like the rest of the buildings I could see on the street. They all looked rundown.

“Originals are messy,” I said to myself as I looked around and kicked a Coke can on the street.

Two originals were in a heated argument at a hot dog stand over the change due to one of them.

I took out the address from my pocket that Tom Smith 23 had given me over the phone. It seemed as good of a place to start as any—41 Pierce Avenue. I took out my pocket computer and logged onto MapQuest 4000. I typed the name of the street I was on—42nd Street and 3rd Avenue as my start point and 41 Pierce Avenue as my end point. A voice from the computer immediately told me that it was twelve blocks away from where I stood and printed out a map for me. I took the map and put the computer back into my pocket.

I could have hailed a cab but I wanted to see the city so I decided to walk. A homeless man huddled in a doorway eating what looked like a thrown away sandwich from the street. Another homeless man warmed his hands with the steam blowing up from a manhole cover. Many of the buildings were boarded up or if they were open iron grilles protected their windows. I hoped my original lived in a better part of town.

Within six blocks the neighborhood started to improve. Within twenty minutes I was standing at the door of a two-story house just like I hoped to have some day. It was even painted the same off-white color that I wanted. He seemed to have the same taste as me only slightly better I had to admit. I knocked on the door. An attractive woman in her mid thirties came to the door. There were tears in her eyes when she saw me.

“John?” she said. I could smell alcohol on her breath through the screen door.

“No ma’am. I’m one of John’s clones. I’m number 43.”

She nodded.

I realized that as a clone I see someone that looks like me probably at least three or four times a week in Clone City. We usually nod at each other and then go about our business. I knew this wasn’t a common occurrence in the Original City although they knew about us. They weren’t allowed to leave the Original City though many of them had read about us. We didn’t visit here unless of course on official business like today.

She invited me in. I watched her walk in front of me. Physically she was exactly the type of woman I would have married if I were the marrying type—long dark hair, a heart shaped mouth, large eyes, a small waist and an expressive smile although she wasn’t showing it right now.

I wondered if she had been cloned and made a mental note to look it up when I returned to Clone City. She sat at the kitchen table and resumed drinking what looked to be a chilled martini.

“What can I do for you… 43 was it?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“I can never get used to the fact that you people don’t have names,” she said as she lit a cigarette.

“It’s easier that way, ma’am,” I replied.

She nodded as she exhaled the smoke.

“You must know your husband is in trouble ma’am.”

“Yes.”

She looked down at her drink.

“Any idea where he might have gone?”

“Oh who knows? He had been very depressed lately. He said he felt like a bird trapped in a cage.”

As she spoke it occurred to me that this was my other life, the life I was created from. A parallel existence if you will. Here I was a tourist in my own life—or was it? Was this anymore how my life could have turned out than any of my clones? I’m sure they had houses and loved ones too. For a moment it made me happy. How many people get to see what their lives could have been if they had made different decisions or what their lives will be if they make these decisions?

It was a way to peek into the land of “what if.”

Then it started to make me sad when I realized I didn’t make these decisions and probably never would.

The thought occurred to me that the original John O’Hara had all this and still ran away. Was it because he felt a captive in Original City or a captive in his own life? Maybe he didn’t like who he had become and had used this as an excuse to leave his family, job and friends. I was determined to find out as gently as I could.

“Why do you think he felt this way, Mrs. O’Hara? After all, he has a nice house, beautifully decorated I must say, a beautiful wife, and from what I have read three children, two of which are very likely to be cloned. What do you think he was depressed about?”

I was playing dumb but I wanted to see her reaction.

Her calm demeanor changed suddenly, “I had heard your people were simple.”

“Simple? In what way?” I asked.

She raised her voice. She was getting emotional, “Just simple. Since you don’t procreate you don’t have any ties to sisters, brothers, fathers, and mothers. You don’t form attachments. You’re not really human!” she said with a sudden anger.

“I’m as human as you are,” I responded.

“No, you’re John’s clone not mine. John wasn’t very human at times so I can just imagine how inhuman you are.” She finished her drink in one gulp. She poured another from the pitcher.

That was what I was looking for, a reason he might have left besides his hatred of this city. She and John were having problems. I wondered if she always drank this heavily or had just started after her husband left her. I knew it would have taken a few different factors to make me leave, not just one. Now I could change the subject.

“OK, Mrs. O’Hara, I see we disagree on certain things, but I am here to do a job so please I need you to tell me any information you might know of his whereabouts.”

She seemed to calm a little.

“I will tell you this, by this time he’s definitely out of the Original City. You don’t have to believe me but you’ll be wasting your time looking for him here. He despised it here. He’s either in Clone City or in the desert by now,” she said.

“Really?” I wasn’t sure if she was trying to cover for him or not. “That is almost surely suicide.”

“Good! I hope he burns to death,” she said defiantly.

We sat and stared at each other for a few moments, neither of us knowing what to say next after her outburst. The silence in the room was enormous.

I decided that it was probably time to leave.

* * * * *

I left the house not knowing a whole lot more than I had before except that he was maybe trying to escape from more than just Original City. I still wanted to look up if Mrs. O’Hara had been cloned. I was sure she wouldn’t be as illogical or as temperamental if she had been cloned. I felt what she said was probably true though. He probably wasn’t still in Original City. I took out the pocket computer and typed in the other address I had. It was his work. I walked for thirty minutes. During this time I was stopped by a police officer as he shined the black light on my forehead and let me go. I passed a couple engaged in an argument. They were yelling obscenities at each other. I longed for the logic of Clone City.

I reached the Original’s symphony. I paid for a ticket to the show that was in progress and took a seat at the back of the theater.

After the performance I went backstage and asked for Charles Wyndam the third, his best friend and the last person to have seen him in Original City.

“Charles?” I asked the balding man in his early fifties.

“John? They’ve been looking for you,” he said.

I held up my hand before he could say any more. It was illegal for a clone to impersonate an original and vice versa. There were strict laws against this even though I probably could have gotten a little more information if I had let the charade go on even for a few moments, but then if it ever went to court and Charles said I hadn’t identified myself… well, it would have been thrown out of court much like if I arrest someone and don’t read them their rights. From many years of doing this type of work I knew when it was the right time to break the rules and when it wasn’t. This wasn’t one of those times.

“No, Charles, I’m 43, one of his clones,” I said.

“Oh.” The man looked disappointed and relieved at the same time.

“It’s uncanny really. John was right,” he said staring at me closely.

“Right about what?” I asked.

“Oh nothing. It’s just that I had never actually seen one of you guys before and John told me it was almost impossible to tell the difference between a clone and an original except for…” he paused for a moment and looked at my arm, “Well I guess there must be some way to tell the difference but I really wouldn’t be able to.”

Clones all had their arms branded with their number. I suspected he knew this though. “Probably not. Believe me it’s hard for us too,” I answered.

“I mean it’s exact. You look slightly younger though.”

He looked like he wanted to reach out and touch my face or something, which I really didn’t want him to do so I motioned towards the seat against the wall.

“Let’s have a seat, Charles. I have a few questions.”

“So you’re a private investigator, huh? Interesting.”

“Why’s that?” I asked. I was probably just fishing here. He probably was just referring to the fact that on the surface a concert violinist and a private investigator didn’t have much in common.

“Well because he loved mystery novels.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes. He probably read one each week.”

“Hmm. That is interesting.” Maybe we had more in common than I thought.

“Oh yes, even though he was a fine musician I sometimes think he longed to be more of a man of action, a man of adventures.”

“I guess he got his wish then,” I laughed.

“Well yes, I suppose so.”

Seemingly out of nowhere a fist hit me. A man in his mid thirties threw me against a wall.

“So you came back you bastard!”

He pulled back his fist. I reached for my stun gun. Thankfully Charles caught his arm. He probably would have hit me once before I had gotten a shot off so I was thankful to Charles for his quick thinking.

“Harry, this isn’t John, it’s a clone,” Charles screamed at the enraged man.

The man looked at me not believing at first. Thankfully Charles still had him by the arm.

“It isn’t him, Harry,” Charles restated.

Harry’s face was inches from mine now. He looked deeply into my eyes.

“That isn’t you, John? Don’t screw with me,” he said spitting his words at me.

Harry was a big man. I unfortunately really wasn’t. I had a violinist’s body.

“No, I’m 43,” I managed to say.

He took his hands off of me and stepped back but kept staring into my eyes. If I feared this man and I didn’t even know him I could just imagine what John O’Hara felt.

“You’re not him huh? So why are you here?” he said staring into my face for any sign of deception.

He was wearing a tuxedo. He was obviously one of the orchestra players. I wondered what instrument this man could possibly play.

I took my hand off of the stun gun and took out my ID badge: Clone 43 of original John O’Hara, 2nd wave, Private investigator/bounty hunter, 82 Cross Avenue, Clone City.

He looked at it and gave it back to me.

“Well I’m sorry then. I guess there’s a reason you guys don’t come here too often. It’s a good way to get killed!”

With that he walked away.

Once again I was reminded of the illogic and emotionality of these people. I also now saw another reason he would have wanted to escape from Original City.

“What the hell was that about?” I asked Charles.

“Well, somehow Harry got the idea that John was seeing his wife.”

“Really? How does a person get that idea?”

“John was somewhat flirtatious with women. I don’t know if anything ever came of it, and if something did I imagine it didn’t last too long.”

“And you’re saying being his best friend, that you don’t know if anything happened with Harry’s wife?”

“I’m saying if something did happen with Harry’s wife that John was the type that got bored easily and that it wouldn’t have lasted too long or been a threat to Harry’s marriage.”

I wasn’t quite agreeing with him that a short affair isn’t damaging to a marriage but I let him go on.

“I think John liked the thrill of the hunt, the game, but when it actually came down to the everyday living with the person in a relationship, albeit a secret relationship, he didn’t have the patience.”

“Hmmm. What did John’s wife think? Did she know?”

“Well like I said, I don’t know if anything really did happen…”

“Oh yes, of course not…” I smiled at my sarcastic remark. It was a funny game of words we were playing.

He continued, “…but John wasn’t the type who liked scenes of emotion, not with his wife or with anyone else. It was funny though.”

“What is funny?”

“Well, he seemed to attract very emotional people to him, but hated dealing with them.”

“Really, so he disliked illogical and overly emotional types you’re saying?”

“Yes, exactly.”

Once again I realized John and I had more in common then I originally thought. What would I have done in his shoes?

* * * * *

Two weeks later:

I’m at a car dealership in Clone City. With the speed that I found the original John O’Hara the clone city mayor gave me a bonus beyond what I was supposed to get. They only wanted to know how I knew where to find him. They had troops out in the desert for the two days it took for me to find him. How did I find him so easily the mayor wanted to know?

It was really quite simple once I gave in to the notion that we thought alike. John had the house I wanted, and the wife I wanted. When I first met Mrs. O’Hara I thought that she was exactly my type but too emotional as originals often are. I had vowed to look up if she had been cloned for a clone would have her physical traits, but also be more logical. As soon as I got back to Clone City I called the police and asked for how many clones of Mrs. O’Hara were out there.

Then I asked how many were single. A list of five names came back. I found him at the third Mrs. O’Hara’s house. As I thought he had an illegal stamp on his arm identifying him as clone #12. I actually had known #12. He was a painter and had died two years ago in a traffic accident.

Once again John and I had thought alike. They both appeared to be sad when I had to take him away and I felt a slight feeling of guilt but it was my job and I couldn’t let those slight feelings get in the way of my job. The police took him back to Original City where he is now under house arrest.

As for Mrs. O’Hara #3, whose maiden name was Sarah Gordon, she has since confided in me that she was secretly happy when he was caught. You see, he was too emotional for her as originals many times are but physically she was attracted to him.

Needless to say it’s a beautiful day and we’re deciding on a car together to go with our new house. And it’s all being done in the most logical way.

 

The Younger Model

by Daniel Tyler Gooden

 

The young model was immaculate. Black hair spiraled down a broad forehead. Her skin was pale as if she had been conceived in moonlight and had never strayed from under the cool beams.

In truth, this was the first time she had sat under the hot sun and the corners of her eyes began to crease behind the dark glasses.

“Stop that! Wrinkles can’t be unmade. Don’t squint, don’t smile, don’t laugh. Just sit still!”

“Yes, mother,” the model answered again. She sat with her hands gently crossed in her lap, often smoothing the red silk gown when her mother wasn’t watching. It felt beautiful under her fingers. She was nervous and excited as she thought of her mother’s promise.

“Everyone in the world will see this. It’s high art, beauty in transition, and you’re doing it in my place, for me.” She tried to imagine how many people filled the world. There were a lot here, the most she had seen yet.

“Come on, come on. Let’s prepare,” said the photographer. His voice sounded funny in her ears, her mother’s bestowed memory summoned the thought, “faux French”. He walked down the lawn and crouched before a long case at the end of the lane.

The model rose with the grace that only a modern god could endow. The grass seemed to rise to her feet, to carry her to her place. Her body glided before her mother, who moved equally beautifully, though tempered by age.

She took her place and removed her glasses, her blue eyes meeting the full light of the world for the first time. She blinked rapidly, fighting the urge to squint and looked down the lane. Rows of cameras formed its boundary before converging to swallow the grass path. She would not have to run that far.

Her eyes drifted up to the sky, a few clouds drifting past the setting sun. The photographer was watching as well.

“One shot. Only one shot, that’s all we have. Make this work,” he bellowed to the assistants manning the equipment.

He looked back up to the sky and watched it take on a slight rose tint. He held up his hand and waited until he found his moment. She took a breath and listened to her mother’s last instructions.

“Don’t mess this up. Just run. Keep your hands to your side. Don’t trip on your dress. And for god’s sake—”

“Now! Run,” the photographer shouted.

She was running. The unspent energy of her day-old life rushed into her sixteen-year-old body. The shutters snapped at her heels and drove her on. She ran frantic, determined, beautiful. This was her one moment; she was built for this one shot. The model was the most beautiful woman they had ever seen.

The small bullet pierced her body, slicing though her heart. Her blood misted out behind, staining her dress a darker shade. Her body leaned forward, but its natural grace carried on. It fell, no less beautiful. The model’s body lay on the grass, her life gone before it touched the earth.

All the cameras had captured her fall, one even trained to catch her blue eyes as the light faded from them. The blood soaked into the grass, and as the sun began to set, the cameras continued to catch the last reflection of the rosy light on her pale skin.

“That was very nice. Vogue will be pleased,” said the mother.

“Yes, she almost did it right,” the photographer responded as he placed his rifle back in its case. “Have the next one ready for the fifth. Have her at fourteen this time.”

The clone was left, sublet for decomposition on the Biology Channel. The mother, and DNA original, would be paid well by both parties. Of course, the channel would keep the identity hidden. After all, she was famous and was, or had been, the most beautiful model of her time. It would not do to soil her image on a cable show where anyone could see.

 

The Broker’s Deal

by Daniel Tyler Gooden

 

John Bishop crouched above the skylight as the sour rain dripped off his dark hair and streamed down the glass. He watched the bright lights and lasers blind the audience below. They jerked and bounced as if hardwired to the erratic rhythm pouring from the speakers. He found the singer, her shadows surrounding her feet like black petals. He watched her dive into the crowd, swimming until they threw her, like a breaking wave, back on stage. She sprawled, still screaming into the mic.

Bishop stood up and crossed the slick plastic roof, searching for the right window. The building washed bright with light and he dove to the floor, sliding under an old vent pipe. A small security scout drifted above him. It shot a picture of the roof and continued up to the adjoining high-rise on its routine pass. Bishop slid out from the shadow, spitting foul water out of his mouth. The taste of oil and acid lingered on his lips. Had he taken his toxin pills today? He couldn’t recall, and it headed the long list of errors that he chalked up later that night.

He wiped the rain from the next skylight and peered in. Costumes were strewn across the floor, vomited out of a large chest in the center of the room. He smiled. This job could be done by a gutterpunk.

“For what she makes, she sure doesn’t value security.”

He could see the hairbrush on the cluttered dresser, clothes left in the open. Makeup masks lay scattered about, one fallen and crushed under the foot of a chair. This was not a careful target, all evidence of her existence collected and destroyed to leave the room sterile and empty. He could do this the easy way, but he had brought the spider, and the spider made him eager. He liked the edge of the close retrieval and its personal touch. Besides blood was the sure thing. Residual samples don’t always cut it, he thought, rationalizing his riskier choice.

He looked closer at the pyramid skylight. The club wasn’t much better, sun panels added, but the window left ignored. Perhaps they add to the decor.

He pulled a small, steel-gray rod from his shoulder holster and adjusted the slide switch. He held it away from him and pressed the button. The rain, passing inches in front of the rod, seemed to evaporate.

“Good, we’re golden.” He’d meant to charge the batteries all week, maybe he had. He angled the rod to meet the windowpane and a darkened corner in the bright window caught his eye. He scrubbed the grime away from the scarred glass and his heart jumped. There was the alarm system. He might as well have punched through, for all the good cutting would have done. The thin panel could feel vibrations even on the molecular level. His finger dropped off the button and the tight sound waves sunk back into the rod. Damn, no easy ride after all. He circled the skylight, scanning the room for another entrance.

There was only one door into the room; a bouncer on that, guaranteed. The walls were force plastic, stronger than steel. The sonics would be useless.

The room seemed sealed tight until he spotted the air duct above the far wall. It was older than the glass windows and just as outdated. He looked over his shoulder at the old piping. If the skylight was rigged for security, the vent work should be, too. But that was the next step.

Bishop crept back through the blowing rain. There wasn’t an alarm panel on the outside. Probably twenty inside, all rigged with explosives.

He decided to take the chance and cut his way in. The sound waves slid out from the rod and tore at the molecules of old aluminum. The metal split apart and fell away at his feet.

Bishop pulled a mirror out of his vest and peered inside the three-foot hole. If he climbed into a motion detector, he could be knocked out by a sound wave, or liquefied if it was an old model. He wouldn’t put that past the club, though older detectors had been deemed “cruel and unnecessary force” by the U.N. East in 2110. They were no longer in production, but they could be found in the right markets. Most had just never been removed, like the skylights, and they were just sitting around waiting. Bishop couldn’t see much of anything in the dim light but climbed in anyway. Nothing moved, no high pitch winding up.

Maybe this won’t be so bad. The wind sucked the stale air out of the new hole. He quickly changed his mind as he inhaled the dank smell of sweat and dead rot. The system wasn’t in working order, but it was still in use, a vault for problems.

The rain had made him cold and wet but it also had made him slick, and he slid through the tunnels until he found the grate. The dressing room below was still vacant and he glanced at his watch. The band was still going; the beats were shaking the tools out of his pockets. Knocking the grate loose from the wall, he threw it into a cluttered corner were he guessed no one would notice it.

Bishop pulled a small tin box out of his breast pocket and opened it. Inside a brown spider, the size of an old one-hundred dollar coin, laid spread out. He rubbed its back like a favorite pet, and it came to life, climbing out of the box and into the open palm of his hand.

He extended his arm over the mess and waited. The spider turned in circles, scanning the area, and then froze.

“All right, you know what you’re looking for.” He tossed the spider toward the makeup table. It fell with its legs spread out to catch the air and slow its fall. Bishop winced, as he watched it hit the large mirror above the table and slid down, landing on its back.

“Sorry about that.” The spider flipped over onto its feet and scurried under the clutter. Bishop sat back to wait. He had uploaded the target’s information into the spider and when the singer entered the room, it would be ready for her.

Almost an hour passed before the music changed to the house techmachine mix. He sat up and peered out. He expected this to go easy, even if the Broker’s brief had neglected the window alarm.

“Stay there,” a raspy voice shouted, “I’ll be out when I’m friggin’ ready.” The door slammed shut and Bishop saw the singer kick her way through the clutter. She stripped off her wire and chains, tossing them into the mess around the chest. Pouncing into the chair before the makeup table, she tore through the mess of containers and clothes.

Bishop looked down at the naked woman. Her body was beaded in sweat from her performance. She was thin and bony, but muscular enough that she was still attractive. Her fingers curled tight around her prize and he saw her body relax as she placed it over her head.

The singer tightened the nodes around her temples, flipped a switch on the side, and immediately fell back in the chair, as her brain clouded over in an electronic orgasm.

Who would be attracted to someone so screwed up? Who ever it was, they would be rich. They had to be to afford the Broker.

The woman seemed almost dead, except for the twitching under the electronic stimuli. Her face went slack in a look of uncaring bliss, as her eyes rolled back into her skull.

Bishop watched for the spider. Before long, it crept out from under the mess and toward the singer’s naked skin. It crouched down at the end of the table, and sprung to the ragged leather chair. The spider crept slow onto the hand and climbed up the arm. Usually it would take blood at first chance, but the spider knew to draw from near the heart if it could. The singer registered near dead under the wire and the spider continued on, crawling across her shoulder. It made the throat, before the singer suddenly sat straight up.

The spider fell between her legs and Bishop pulled back into the shadows of the air duct. The girl searched the room as if each corner hid something in it. Bishop saw the fear on her face, but knew wire stimuli carried some strange shit along with its pleasure. He waited, wondering what the next step would be if she sat on the spider. It was strong, but he would have to retrieve it and do the job manually if she had pinned it underneath her.

The girl collapsed back into the chair, her head rolled back and vacant eyes stared into the air. The spider was already back to work, climbing its way up her thigh. It slowly crossed her slick stomach and stepped up her protruding ribs. It looked as excited as Bishop felt, scurrying between her breasts in a dash to the heart. Bishop saw the spider bear down and bite through the flesh of the girl. She snapped forward, and fell forward on the desk, all but the first of the scream stolen, as the sedative took effect. Bishop started to climb out of the vent, just as the men burst into the room. One looked sculpted from steel, even under his long black coat. The other was almost as gangly as the girl.

Damn, bodyguards. They weren’t in the brief, either. The men pulled the limp singer off the table and back into the chair. They didn’t miss the bite marks.

Bishop pulled the rod back out of its holster and set the side switch for a knockout. He hit the button and nothing happened.

Aftermarket Reds? Bishop adjusted the device back down to its cutting level. The huge guy slammed his fist down on top of the spider, hidden among the junk of the table. He howled in pain as the plastic shards of the broken skeleton impaled his hand. He cried out something that sounded like a cross between babbling water and electricity shorting out through a frying cat. Whatever was said, Bishop caught the word “Cloner” and knew he was made. The monster tore off his jacket, and Bishop also knew he was right on the Red. They were black market soldiers, gene charmed and red hot, while they lasted.

Bishop saw the second set of muscle-bound arms, each gripping an electromagnetic gun. If they found him, the steel would rip through him and the only sound would be his breath slipping through the holes in his lungs.

The smaller soldier was searching the room and Bishop jumped, just as he looked up. He locked his knees, coming down on the thing with a full 240 pounds right between the eyes. The smaller Red fell straight down, bones snapping under Bishop’s weight. He landed in a crouch, just as the larger bodyguard whipped around. Bishop leapt forward, covering the short distance between them, trying to get inside the heavy guns before they came to bear.

Just as the soldier grabbed him out of the air, Bishop rammed the modulator against the large head, sending the concentrated sound waves into the skull.

The giant Red fell backward, pulling Bishop with him, and knocking the unconscious girl out of the chair. Bishop pried himself out of the grip of the spasming muscles and stood up. A group of onlookers had gathered in the door, their holographic passes dangling from their necks.

“Brilliant,” one of them said, his eyes stoned and his mouth grinning. Bishop slammed the door and locked it. He turned back to the desk, looking for the remains of his spider. What was left of her was still pierced through the upper fist of the big guy. He pulled out the small container of blood. He checked it for cracks, that it was enough DNA for the Broker, and placed it into a zippered pocket. He stooped and pulled some hair from the back of her head, hoping the bleach hadn’t hurt it too much to use as a backup specimen.

“Done and done. Out of here,” he said. Bishop turned around just in time to recognize a four-fingered fist meeting his skull. He reeled back, falling over the singer and slumped against the wall. The rod was still in his hand and he pointed it at the slim soldier. It snapped and went quiet, forgot the batteries after all.

The Red knocked the rod out of his hand before he even had a chance to flinch. Smaller than Bishop by half, it still lifted him off the floor, tossing him to the other side of the room. He felt his right leg collapse under him as the femur snapped. Bishop kicked the large chest, what strength he had left draining from his body. The chest slid across the floor, catching the bodyguard off balance as he stepped over the singer. He tumbled back, cracking his head against the wall.

Bishop looked above him. Dim flashing lights streamed through the murky glass, heralding the city security teams. He looked at the Red, back on his feet, and decided the skylight was his best bet.

He pulled out his EMT cuff and slipped his hands through the ring to grab the controller rod. Bishop activated the emergency magtransporter, as the Red jumped. The EMT pushed off the steel undercarriage of the elevated city block and shot him up through the room, through the skylight. The cruisers were climbing from street level as he soared into the sky. Far below, he saw the bodyguard rising after him.

The Red gained speed, rocketing out of the room. He cleared the shattered skylight just as a security car skimmed over the opening in the roof. The car rocked up and flipped over as the Red hit it from beneath. He fell back, twisted and broken onto the rain-soaked roof.

Bishop laughed through the pain at his luck, but said a silent prayer to whatever god was favoring him. Luck was the only thing that had got the job done; he certainly hadn’t been on top of his game.

No one followed, so he slipped through the air toward a brightly lit bus stop on the next elevated block. It was empty as he landed, and far down below he could see the flashing lights of the security teams.

“How long for the bus?” he asked the empty platform. The pain was making his head swim. He knew he had no strength to avoid the cops if they searched here; if they found him, they had him. He probed his pockets and found a syringe.

He pulled his shirt down from the neck and drove the needle it into his chest. The fluid automatically injected into his heart and he felt a wave of ease encompass his body. The pain sliced out at him, but it was far below, like lightening viewed from space. As he looked up, the open door of a bus lay before him and he pulled himself in, collapsing unconscious in the first seat.

* * * * *

When Bishop’s head finally cleared, he was lying sprawled in front of his own apartment. He tried to remember how he arrived, but after the bus stop, his memory slurred. He was still wet from the rain, and his vision was blurry. He brushed dried blood from his face and felt the deep cuts in his head, recalling the crash through the old glass skylight.

Bishop started to stand and his right leg gave out. In a rush of pain he fell back to the ground. Now he knew he had at least laid there long enough for the shot to wear off. He braced himself for the pain and pulled himself back up to the lock. His fingers tapped out the code on the blank door and a blue square of light appeared. Bishop set his eye before the glowing window. The laser shot out and bounced around his cornea as the computer matched his signature. The door clicked open and he fell inside.

“Good morning, John,” a soft voice said. As the light level slowly rose, Bishop saw a young dark-haired woman dressed in 1940s attire, complete with black seamed stockings and a rolled crown of hair. She stood facing Bishop with her patented look of concern and question.

“Hi darlin’,” he replied, and started to drag himself across the front rooms toward the back of the apartment.

“You look hurt,” she said. “Shall I start the medic system?”

“Yes, wind it up.” She turned and walked ahead of him into one of the two back rooms. He pulled himself up on an end table and followed, discarding clothing as he went. Bishop entered the bedroom and sat swaying on the bed. He cut through the leg of his pants, stopping more than once as the pain tore deep into his crotch, crawling up into his gut. He pulled off his shirt and opened its zippered pocket, tossing the plastic vial into an opening in the wall.

“Store that for me would you?” The woman smiled and nodded. The vial disappeared into the storage system.

“Is there anything else, John,” she said?

“No, just put on Holiday and wake me up well done.”

“Sure, doll.” She walked out, and he watched her fade gently out of existence as she left the room and the image returned to the computer’s memory.

Bishop lay back, naked on the bed as Billie’s voice wafted over him. He hummed against the pain as the bed’s surface pulled him down to swallow his body, conforming to its shape. He tensed as he heard the bone snap back into place, but the medical system had already numbed his nerves, and he felt nothing. His face alone stayed above the surface as the bed worked at his wounds. The lights slowly dimmed as Holiday softly sang him to sleep.

* * * * *

Bishop awoke slowly to the motion of his bed opening, raising him to the surface.“Helen?” he called, his mind still folded in sleep.

“Coming, sir,” she replied from the other room. The dark-haired woman entered the room and the lights rose to a dim level.

“Get my robe and turn off the music,” Bishop asked.

“Sure,” Helen said, her lips pursed and her eyebrow setting a dark furrow across her brow. He rubbed his hands over his face, trying to wipe off the pull of sleep. The music faded out. A drawer opened from the wall close to him, revealing a dark blue robe. Bishop wrapped it around himself.

“How long did I sleep?” he asked.

“Four hours,” she replied, “I woke you early because the Broker is here to see you. He asked…”

“…How you are doing,” a voice interrupted from the doorway. Bishop jumped slightly, surprised to see anyone in the apartment, past his own security systems. The Broker stepped into the room. His tall thin frame was dressed in the same business suit. Bishop stood, testing his leg. It was still weak, but the pain was gone.

“What are you doing in here?” Bishop asked.

“I heard there was some trouble at the club last night. I thought I would check in on you and see if you were all right.”

“You’re here for the vial.”

“Two birds, they say. I thought it might save you some time,” said the Broker. The memory of the job, how bad it had gone, came back to Bishop and his temper stepped forward.

“Let’s talk in my study,” Bishop said. He turned, walked to the next room and sat behind his desk.

“Very nice,” the Broker said, looking about at the antique decorations. “1960s?”

“40s and 50s,” Bishop replied. His voice was steady, but his eyes stared hard as if to pin the man to the wall. The Broker rapped his knuckles on the desk.

“Real wood,” he said. “You’ve done well for yourself.”

“What exactly are you here for?” Bishop asked. “I always bring you the samples. That’s the deal.”

“Yes, but the buyer wanted the clone in a hurry, so the company thought I should come and collect.”

“Why would any buyer want this girl?” Bishop asked, “She is not what you call ‘idol’ quality.”

“Who knows?” Grant replied, sitting down in a leather chair. “Some desire their companionship, some lust after them, some like to collect. They all have a reason, but that’s never a requirement. Anyway, the buyer paid in full and wants the clone. So, how about it?”

“I’ve got the sample in storage, but there were a few undisclosed hazards not in your brief,” Bishop said. The Broker shifted in his chair.

“You know your price is always set before the job has begun. There’s no changing it now, besides—”

“Wrong, boyo,” Bishop interrupted. “Your information concerning the building, the target, the security? All of it shit. I almost had to scrap the mission.” He sat forward in his chair, staring hard across the desk. “I want double for my time and hassle, or your client gets nothing. The sample is still my property until handed over.”

“We feel differently about that,” the Broker said. “We feel you should have adapted better. You used to handle surprises fairly well. You wouldn’t even have requested a brief for so simple a job ten years back.” Bishop sat back in his chair, collected his thoughts and tried again.

“I want an extra five percent on my future jobs. I am your best, after all, and I’ve earned it.” The Broker stood up from his chair.

“I sympathize with you, and I believe you are in the right. We should have been paying you more,” he said, looking around at Bishop’s expensive wood furnishings. “However, some think you are past prime. This job may have hardwired their opinion. You seem to be having a hard time of late, not to mention the easy target you missed during the Vid Awards season.”

Bishop’s temper hit the top and simmered at rage, pulling him to his feet. He had contracted with the company for twenty years and always managed to finish the jobs the other collectors couldn’t.

“That job was totally different. You know—”

“Sit down,” said the Broker. Bishop stood there, his anger tightening his gut. “Please?”

Now he saw the sonics rod in the Broker’s palm. His leg suddenly felt weak again, and he sat back on the edge of the chair.

“Thank you,” the Broker said. “Now, one of the security officers was kind enough to turn this in to us, instead of impounding it. Had someone less enterprising found it, we could have lost the sample. I’m afraid the company has decided it would be best to cancel our contracts with you, Bishop. Your Value/Risk ratio has run pretty poor.”

Bad collectors died during a job, the good ones stepped down. Bishop thought he had been far better than good. He looked at the angle of the rod and wondered, though, at the validity of comfortable retirements. Tensing his muscles slow, he prepared to vault from the chair if the Broker’s hand even twitched.

The Broker fired. The sound waves shot invisible out of the newly charged weapon, turning Bishop’s chest into putty. He fell out of the air in the middle of his lunge, and lay bleeding on the wooden desk as his organs collapsed.

The door to the living room opened and in stepped another man. Bishop let his head loll to the side to see him. He wasn’t sure whether he was hallucinating from the pain, or from the loss of blood, but it was himself. It was a younger version, John Bishop—Version 2.0.

“You are right,” said the Broker, leaning down to speak into his ear. “You are the best, though your talent has been spent, or worn down with age. It was a hell of an expense, building your clone with a full life range. He’s one of our greatest, certainly in the top three that we’ve created. You should be honored that they chose you for your own replacement,” the Broker whispered, the words chasing Bishop down into death.

* * * * *

John Bishop stood above the desk. It’s a little awkward watching yourself die. I wonder if I should say something. The Broker turned to face him.

“Did you find the sample?” Bishop handed him the flask he had retrieved from the wall storage. The Broker dropped it in his breast pocket and headed for the front door. “All the data on your last twenty years has been placed in your long term memory. It should be coming back to you in the next couple of days. It won’t come back as firsthand experience, though the subconscious tends to dream up pictures to make them mesh comfortably. Don’t rely on the generated images, just the facts. Anything else, you can find out by asking your secretary.” The Broker headed out the door.

“What about him?” Bishop asked. Grant looked back through the door at the body on the desk.

“You will probably want to get rid of it,” he said and walked out of the apartment, leaving the door hanging open. Bishop closed it behind him. He walked back into the study and looked at himself lying on the desk. The blood had run off the surface and had now soaked into the antique Persian rug.

“Uh… miss,” he said, trying to dig up her name. Helen entered from the bedroom and surveyed the room.

“I suppose you want me to clean this up,” she said, raising one eyebrow to fulfill her exasperated expression.

“If you would. Anything that is stained, go ahead and get rid of it.” He entered the bedroom, lay down, and stared at the ceiling until sleep took hold and the past twenty years began to surface like cartoons traced on thin paper.

 

Meat Bag

Meat Bag

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by James R. Stratton

 

Noise! Raucous, giddy, clamoring noise pulled BoyTen’s mind six ways. He couldn’t think, couldn’t see, couldn’t smell, it was so overwhelming. He stumbled along buffeted by the crowd as his bare feet slapped the wet pavement. His head barely reached the waists of all these big people, so his view was blocked by the fleshy forest. A trail of angry shouts marked his passage. Seeking asylum, BoyTen’s gaze darted about but only found more people, more bewildering sights. The big people loomed over him, generally acting like he wasn’t there. An opening, dark and unpeopled, appeared between a man dressed in bright holiday colors and a gleaming silver cart pushed by a sad, withered woman. The boy leapt, startling the woman, and scrambled into the dark and quiet. Sighing, he crawled between two dumpsters smearing smelly filth on his oversized green coveralls. He hugged his knees to his chest and pulled his knit cap over the blue marks on his forehead.

“I’m a good boy, a very good boy,” he murmured. “But I done a bad thing.” He rocked as his gaze darted about. “KeeperJohn, I’m sorry. I wanna go home. Come find me.”

But how could that happen? He’d gotten so turned around that he had lost track of his turns and twists. How would KeeperJohn, or even ChiefKeeperSimon, unravel the trail if he could not? He’d treaded the path with his own feet!

As his breath slowed and his heart quieted, BoyTen worried at the puzzle. Try to remember the path back? He grunted and grimaced as he tried to remember. But the chaos of his passage defeated him. Follow his own tracks? No, there was no dirt to hold his tracks. He clutched his knees as his eyes burned with tears. There had to be a way!

He sat up and sniffed. Yes! He clasped his hands and sniffed again. The air was rich with exotic scents he’d never smelled. But laced in and through them was his own familiar musk. Normally he ignored it, but not today!

BoyTen stood and padded down the dark alley. If he could follow his own scent-trail back the way he’d come, he could find his way. Hot tears blurred his vision as a sob burst up from his belly. He needed to be home so bad! He missed his pen, the compound with its climbing structures, his fellow boys and girls. Oh, this crowded, dirty, noisy place was terrible!

BoyTen pinched himself. Not now! He needed to be calm if he had any hope. Breathing as he’d been taught, BoyTen stilled his mind and heart. He exhaled and wiped his nose on his sleeve. Sniffing, he smiled. Yes, it was there.

At the entrance, BoyTen stared wide-eyed at the swirling crowd. His trail turned to the right, back the way he’d come. He hugged his sides and took a cleansing breath, then slipped in between two men striding along and marched within the human canyon they formed. Good, a left here and straight ahead.

He walked a good long way, turning left and right, and only lost the scent once. With his eyes half-closed he ignored everything, threading his way through the sea of smells. The further he came, the fainter his scent grew. It was spreading and drowning in the sea of smells. Suddenly a hand grasped his shoulder, jerking him around.

“Got you, ya little bastard!” said a man with a face the color of a looming thunderstorm. “You knock over my table, you break my goods, you pay!”

BoyTen squirmed and pulled, but the man held tight. He twisted his one hand around to gather the loose cloth of BoyTen’s coveralls and punched BoyTen in the head so his knees buckled.

“Stop it! Hold still!” the man shouted. “You wait for the police.” He smacked BoyTen again so he saw sparkling lights before him. A cold breath on his scalp warned him he’d lost his cap. Before he could grab it, the man hoisted BoyTen up and thumped him on the side of the head so that everything blanked out. He returned to gasps and shouts as he spun helpless in the man’s hand.

“Look! He has blue numbers on his forehead.”

“It’s the meat bag! Like on the video. Hold him. There’s big money for him.”

“Yeah, grab him. Call the cops.”

Several of the big ones closed to pull and paw at him until BoyTen thought he would go insane. KeeperJohn had taught him to always mind keeper folk, but this was too much!

He shrieked so that his throat burned. Biting, clawing, kicking and butting, he cleared a space around himself. Several clutched bitten hands or bloody nail-scratched faces. He spun and screamed his outrage so they swayed back, then bounded forward. The fat lady before him fell, and the boy stomped across her belly and bust. His bare feet barely touched the pavement as he hurtled left, then right, under, then over. The pounding feet and angry shouts faded. Soon he huddled in a courtyard surrounded by tall brick buildings.

As he panted, BoyTen’s eyes froze and a sob hiccuped through his teeth. He’d lost them, sure, but he’d also lost his original scent trail! Worse, he couldn’t backtrack to pick it up. These big people were mean. They’d grab him if he went back. So he was truly lost now. Shivering, BoyTen dropped to the ground and wailed. The buildings around him echoed the mournful sounds until the courtyard rang with his sobs.

“Boy? Are you hurt?”

A soft, quavering voice jolted him to his feet. He jumped up and crouched, jaw jutting with teeth bared, hands raised with fingers bent to claw. Growling, he glared defiance at the woman standing in the nearest doorway. She was thin, so her wrinkled skin hung loose from her cheeks and neck. She was pale, so even her hair was the fluffy color of clouds in a blue sky. And frail! BoyTen had no doubt she would shatter into a dozen pieces if he touched her trembling frame. She was unlike any big person he’d ever met.

She called again. “Boy, are you okay? You needn’t worry. I won’t hurt you.”

He rubbed his nose on his sleeve and gulped. “Um, I’m lost. I was trying to go home, but a bunch a people grabbed me and hit me.”

She frowned and glanced at the blue marks on his head. “You can come inside if you want. I’ve got apples and bananas, and some cookies I was baking.” She held out her hand like KeeperSue.

The boy turned to flee, but stopped. Run where? The yearning to be someplace safe with a friendly person ached within him. He crept forward and took her hand. It was softer than any hand he’d ever held, and she smelled of clean and quiet. At the same time, his stomach knotted painfully as odors wafted through her open door. Yes, cookies and fruit like she said, but also bread and meat and fish and veggies, older smells from other days but all good. He shrank against her as he entered the house wide-eyed. The food-smell wrenched his throat until he whined. He grabbed an apple and banana from a bowl as soon as she sat him at a small table and laughed as he rammed first one then the other into his mouth until he cheeks bulged with the gooey fruit mush. Gulping, he cried as his stomach shuddered with pleasure.

The woman set milk and cookies in front of him and sat. “I think I know where you belong. Would you like me to call so your friends can come?”

BoyTen slurped the milk and shoved a warm sweet cookie into his mouth. “Yeth,” he mumbled and picked up another. She nodded and walked to a black phone thing by the door. She murmured at length into it. Smiling she turned back as he sat clutching the last cookie.

“They’ll be here soon. Are you full? You look tired. Would you like to lie down?”

His stomach bulged and his eyes were hot and heavy. He took her hand and she led him to a big couch in the next room like the one in KeeperDoc’s office, but lots softer. He curled up on it and the lady began to sing. KeeperSue sometimes sang, but not this song. It was about all kinds of silly things like babies and cradles and trees. He giggled even as waves of sleepiness washed over him. Soon he was afloat with a dreamy lassitude.

When he awoke, he knew a long time had passed from the way the light came in the window. BoyTen jerked up at the sound of voices. There was the nice lady’s soft quavery one, but whose was that deep booming voice? He smiled as his heart thumped. KeeperJohn! He kicked the blanket that covered him but just got tangled. Rolling, he thumped onto the floor, cutting off the voices. He grabbed the blanket and peeled it away as KeeperJohn filled the doorway.

“Hey, champ! I am so glad to see you.” The man walked over. The boy smiled, but his chin was quivering even as he did. Oh, he hated it when he blubbered and that just made it worse. Tears welled and the boy clutched the man’s heavy green coveralls.

“I’ve been such a bad boy. I snucked out the gate when KeeperBill left and took his hat and clothes, but now I lost his hat and I got lots of people mad at me…”

“It’s okay, sport. It’s all over. I’m not mad.” KeeperJohn rubbed the boy’s back and said this over and over until the tears stopped. Kneeling down, he looked the boy in the eye. “It wasn’t your fault. KeeperBill should have been more careful. You ready to go home?”

BoyTen panted at the thought. The compound, the other boys and girls, his pen! Oh, he couldn’t wait. “Yes! Now, please.”

“I’ll just be a minute. I have to finish talking to Mrs. McCarty.”

He stood holding the boy. “I really can’t tell you how grateful Universal Medical Supplies is, ma’am. This little fellow is worth a small fortune.”

The old woman frowned. “They had his picture posted at the store but the manager there called him a meat bag. I didn’t understand that.”

KeeperJohn frowned and snorted like he did when he was angry. BoyTen clutched tighter. “That’s a nasty word. This young fellow is a donor-clone. One of Universal’s clients paid us to grow a clone from his own tissues for use as an organ donor.”

“But they’re going to take his heart and liver and such someday, aren’t they?”

“Oh, yes. His owner has contracted for the normal array of transplants; organs, corneas, endocrine glands and marrow. But this little guy’s lucky. His owner also asked for a full skin transplant, and he isn’t big enough. We’ll start hormone therapy soon to force him to stretch out, but he still has years yet.”

“Oh, dear,” she sighed with a tremor in her voice.

“Don’t worry, ma’am. He’ll live a wonderful life full of fun and happiness, until one night he’ll go to sleep. And that will be it.”

BoyTen clutched KeeperJohn. There was so much he didn’t understand! And the tone of KeeperJohn’s voice was scary.

“Besides, you’re entitled to a sizable reward. You’ll be getting a call from the main office. Please don’t talk to any media people before then. Universal will pay very well for your discretion.”

The old woman smiled at last, and BoyTen smiled back. “You ready to go home?” KeeperJohn asked.

BoyTen nodded and pushed the big man’s chin around until he faced the door. KeeperJohn laughed and walked out the front door.

“Bye!” the boy called over KeeperJohn’s shoulder and waved to the nice lady.

 

Oops!

Oops!

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by James R. Stratton

 

Bob Burnt swayed as the view outside the matter transmitter booth flickered from the street outside his apartment to his store. Damn, I hate using these things. He squeezed his eyes shut until the dizziness passed. Most people closed their eyes when they transmatted, but that made him nauseous.

Bob stepped out of the booth and walked across the showroom. Ronnie sat at the front desk, looking sexy for the customers, and an aerobics class was in session in the glass-walled gym in the back. Bob smiled when he spotted an older couple fidgeting on the sofa in the waiting area, prime marks from the look of them. He smoothed his carefully groomed hair and patted the wrinkles out of his silk ascot and codpiece. The driving bass from the aerobics class drifted through the room as the couple stared at the hot-pink laser sign in the front window. “New U, Inc.” it flashed. “Never Grow Old!” declared the sign underneath.

Bob felt the pleasant tingle in his gut as he settled into the rhythm and mind-set of his trade. A quick sale would set up the day nicely. If he could sign these two by noon, he’d blow off his afternoon appointments and get in nine holes. Bob strolled to the reception counter.

“Ronnie honey, what have you got for me?”

His receptionist turned and smiled. “Hey Bob, you’re late. You have Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs waiting.” She handed him the computer printout.

Bob glanced over the form. They were the typical, plain-vanilla clients he saw every day here at New U. Old, fairly well off (according to the credit report), and in reasonably good health (according to the on-line medical files). “What’s your reading? Easy sale or hard sale?”

“They’re a couple of old farts, starting to worry about dying. He won’t be hard to sign. He couldn’t keep his eyes off my breasts when I served coffee. Just stick to the young and sexy angle and he’ll buy.”

Bob nodded. The men were rarely difficult. But the wives, they were something else. They came in old, wrinkled and gray, yet they fought the idea of being young again. “And Madame Jacobs? She doesn’t look too happy.”

“Oh, she’s a proper old biddy. Her mouth has been tighter than a bull’s asshole during fly season since she came in the door.” Ronnie made a prune face and giggled. “I bet she needs a crowbar to crack a smile. She’ll be the holdup.”

“Just leave her to me, beautiful. You’re the wrong sex to thaw her out.” Bob glanced across the room at the dreary old woman. “Maybe even the wrong species.” Ronnie giggled again.

Bob considered himself the consummate salesman. Since dropping out of college, he’d successfully sold everything from used family transports to timeshare condos on the Lagrange Point satellite resort. His mentor, Fast Eddie Fullbright, had taught him well. “Opening the sale is as important as closing. First you gotta break their mind-set. If they ain’t throwing money at you when they walk in the door, they ain’t inclined to buy. Shake ’em up and confuse ’em. If you play by their rules, you lose.”

Bob snapped on his 150-watt smile, threw his arms wide and strode across the room as if he’d found a long-lost relative. “Folks!” he boomed. “How are you doing this fine day? I hope you realize this is probably the luckiest day of your lives. Welcome to New U, Incorporated. I’m Bob Burnt, President and Chairman.”

He clasped Mrs. Jacob’s tiny hand in his own, and turned up his smile a notch. The thin, gray-haired woman shifted nervously. “What can I do for you?” he murmured as he brushed his lips across the back of her hand. She blushed furiously.

“Well, Mr. Burnt, we saw your ad on the 3D-vid and decided to stop in,” Mr. Jacobs said. Bob settled on the sofa next to Mrs. Jacobs. “Emma and I are getting up there in years, we certainly wouldn’t mind not growing any older. But is it really possible?”

“That’s a good question, Sam. I can see you’re a bright fellow. But you needn’t worry. Nothing we do here at New U involves experimental technology. The science behind our revolutionary Forever-Young System is well known. You folks used the matter transmitter to get here, right?” Both of the Jacobs nodded.

“The revolutionary Forever-Young System simply takes this basic technology one step further. We’ve developed a method of permanently recording the molecular pattern transmitted by the booth. After that, it’s a simple matter for the Forever-Young equipment to reconfigure your own tissues according to the recorded pattern. In effect, we can stop the hands of time for you.”

Mr. Jacobs frowned. “But why would I want to stay the way I am forever? I’m 67 years old. My joints ache, I get winded walking up stairs, and I’m tired all the time.”

“I understand perfectly, Sam. But the reconfiguration is only part of the Forever-Young System. We have several physical therapists on staff, like Ms. Debbie there in the gym. She’ll get you in the best physical condition you’ve ever been in. You’ll feel younger. We also have several prominent cosmetic surgeons who consult with New U clients. You’ll look younger. And then, when you are at your peak of youthful appearance and vigor, we re-record your pattern. You won’t have to grow a day older after that.”

While Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs whispered together, Bob noticed two blond women speaking urgently to Ronnie. Now that’s odd. Twins.

“It sounds good, but I don’t know,” Mr. Jacobs said.

“No problem, Sam. Talk it over with your lovely spouse. All we need to decide right now is if you’re interested in hearing more. There are a lot of details and paperwork to discuss. I’ll tell you what, if you’ll agree to hear me out I’ll take you to brunch. I’m so confident in our system, I’ll treat.”

This last hook was another of Fast Eddie’s lessons. “I’ll be damned if I understand it, but the marks seem to think that breaking bread with a guy makes some sort of holy seal on the deal. Like I can’t lie my ass off after sharing a pastrami sandwich with somebody. Go figure. But I tell ya, you can sell anything to anybody so long as you feed ’em first.”

Mr. Jacobs whispered to Mrs. Jacobs as she nodded. Bob smiled. He could feel in his gut he’d sign them before lunch. Bob’s reverie was broken by angry shouts from the reception counter. “What the hell!” he mumbled.

The blond twins were standing nose-to-nose yelling while Ronnie shushed them. This just pissed them off more until Bob thought they might attack Ronnie. Any other time, Bob would have enjoyed watching the two blonds fight. But not when he was about to reel in a prospect. “Excuse me folks. I’d better take care of these two before they get out of control.” The Jacobs nodded as Bob stood and walked away.

“Ladies, please! This is a place of business. You’ll have to take this outside.”

“Mr. Burnt, I’m Valerie Johnson,” the lady on the right said. “I bought a Forever-Young System from you six months ago.” Bob glanced at Ronnie, who nodded.

“I’m sorry Mrs. Johnson, I haven’t seen you in a while. What can I do for you? And your sister?”

“That’s not my sister!” Mrs. Johnson snapped. “That is my next-door neighbor, Rosalie Perez. I let her try my Forever-Young booth yesterday, and look what happened! You’ve got to do something.”

Bob felt his heart thump once in his chest as a chill ran up his spine. The engineer who’d sold Bob the designs had assured him the system was foolproof. Even the safety features had safeties. “That’s impossible! The Forever-Young system computer controls prevent the system from operating if you’re not in the booth alone. The computer checks the occupant against six unique traits of the Forever-Young client before operating. If this is a joke, it’s not funny.”

Both of the women flushed and looked at the floor. The lady on the left said, “Well, my son was fooling with the computer last week. He said he’d removed a lot of software we didn’t need. But it worked fine after that!” Bob’s stomach fluttered as he absorbed this. He wasn’t a technician, that’s why he paid the science people big bucks. But he certainly understood that anything could go wrong if some smart ass intentionally messed with the equipment.

“Mrs. Johnson, how could you be that stupid? You’re lucky to be alive! Did you happen to have the system on record mode when your neighbor used the unit?”

“No!” the other woman said. “And don’t talk to her. I’m Valerie Johnson. That’s Mrs. Perez. I told her not to push the button. It’s been a nightmare ever since. She won’t go home! She wanted to climb into bed with my husband last night.”

Visions of lawsuits danced in Bob’s head as he considered this. There were two copies of the man’s wife. Was it bigamy? Polygamy? “Um, what does Mr. Johnson have to say about all this?”

“The bastard thought it was funny,” one said.

“Yeah! I think the creep likes the idea of having two wives to jump into bed with,” the other added.

“Don’t you talk about my Jimmy like that!”

“Your Jimmy? You even think about touching him, and I’ll snatch that bleach-blond head of yours bald.”

“Bitch!” the lady on the left shouted, and pushed the other hard. That one grabbed a handful of hair and cracked her twin in the eye with a left jab. In seconds the two were rolling on the floor, punching and screaming. Bob had a sudden thought. Screw Mr. Johnson, he’d get his jollies one way or another. But what about Mr. Perez, now that there was no Mrs. Perez? She’d gone to the neighbors and disappeared. Had he called the cops?

Bob didn’t take his eyes off the women as he backed across the room. When he felt the door to his office against his back, he jerked it open, stepped through, and slammed the door shut.

Bob could hear the screams of the two women through the heavy door. There was a room full of people in the gym watching the fight plus the Jacobs in the showroom. Someone would call the cops.

Time to go. Rosalie Perez didn’t exist anymore. Was that kidnapping? Murder? No doubt someone’s tenders would be hanging on a meat hook before the day was over and he’d be damned if they would be his.

He glanced at the matter transmitter booth in the corner, a very special booth Bob had ordered when he’d first opened New U. Fast Eddie had taught him one final lesson before sending him out into the world. “I don’t care how legit your operation is. Always, always, always have a getaway plan! You could be selling bibles to monks or ice to Eskimos, and someone will come along and screw it up.”

Bob opened a small safe set in the wall with a five-digit code and pulled out two computer disks. One held Bob’s pattern, recorded the day before he opened the doors to New U. The second executed a special program on the New U computer system.

Bob slid the two disks into the control panel of the booth and stepped inside. Bob smiled and muttered, “It’s really better this way. It’s been nice knowing you, Bob.” He punched the activation button.

* * * * *

“Mr. Schnee, the Court has heard enough on this issue.”

Bob glanced at the harried prosecutor. The man had been arguing with the judge for over an hour. Bob’s attorney sat cool and quiet, smiling slightly.

“But your Honor, the State still has much more to offer to support the charges against Mr. Burnt. Murder and theft by fraud are just the beginning of the list.”

“Do these charges relate to Mr. Burnt’s alleged operation of the New U business?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“Then I’m not interested in hearing any more.” The gray-haired judge paused and glanced over the packed courtroom. Bob followed the judge’s gaze to the reporters in the back row. The papers still didn’t know how to play the case. He’d been billed as everything from a mass murderer to a saint.

The judge cleared his throat and sat up. “This is the preliminary hearing on the fifteen count indictment of the State versus Robert Burnt. For the case to proceed to trial, the State bears the burden of proving that a crime has been committed and that the accused is the person responsible for those acts. Here, we are confronted with a clear conflict which this Court must resolve.”

“With the agreement of all parties, the State conducted a full memory scan on the defendant last week, and it shows that Mr. Burnt has no knowledge of the operation of New U. He admits today that he was involved in the formation of the business, but ended his involvement before the business opened last year. His own memories confirm this. This is significant, as the criminal acts that form the basis for the charges took place after that date.”

“So the Court is left with the anomaly that a number of witnesses have identified Mr. Burnt as the perpetrator, yet the unequivocal evidence of the State’s own expert is that he did not. I’m afraid that the Court finds this expert testimony too compelling to ignore.”

The prosecutor jumped up. “Your Honor! The witnesses. This is unheard of!”

“I heard the testimony, the same as you. But this man has no knowledge of the crimes. And it’s an essential element under criminal statutes of this State that the accused must have criminal intent to be convicted. Here we have no mens rea, no guilty knowledge. Your expert admits this man has no knowledge of the operation of New U and never did. How can he be guilty of criminal acts of which he had no knowledge? Based on that evidence, this Court must dismiss the charges against Mr. Burnt.”

The noise of the audience surged up. In the back of the courtroom, the newsmen scrambled for the door. Bob’s attorney rose and shouted, “Your Honor! There’s one more thing.”

The judge frowned. “Well, what is it, Mr. Jones? Your client is a free man.”

“There’s still the matter of the Motion For Forfeiture filed by the State. Mr. Burnt’s bank accounts and other assets are frozen.”

The prosecutor nodded vigorously. “Yes, and the State asks that the preliminary order of seizure remain in effect. This man has millions of credits in bank accounts and real estate and no evidence of any legitimate source of income.”

The judge shook his head. “Mr. Schnee, forfeiture is a penalty the State uses to recover profits from unlawful activities. That’s reasonable when a person commits a serious criminal offense. I’ve just dismissed the charges involving Mr. Burnt. Does the State have evidence of some other criminal activity to offer?”

The prosecutor grimaced and shook his head. “The funds were shuttled through dozens of accounts just before Mr. Burnt’s arrest. All of the computer records of New U were erased at the same time. It’ll take years for us to unravel the trail.”

“And you ask that this man’s property be held indefinitely in the hopes that you might find a valid reason to seize it? I don’t think so. The court will dismiss the forfeiture proceeding as well. This court stands adjourned!”

The noise of the crowd rose again as the judge walked out. Mr. Jones shook his head and turned to Bob. “I’d love to know how you pulled it off. I mean, I saw you at New U. Is this memory lapse real?”

Bob nodded. “I had no idea what they were talking about when they arrested me. I remember setting up the office one day, and was walking into the lobby of the Rio Hilton the next.” He shrugged.

Mr. Jones laughed. “Well, what are you going to do now? New U’s defunct.”

“Yeah. It’s just as well. Too much heat. But I was thinking of franchising.”