By Will Greenway
Still straddling Brackham, Kath studied herself. Splashed in crimson, she probably looked like some blood-soaked spirit of vengeance. The problem being, the blood was hers.
The incessant tapping on the cylinder become a frantic pounding. She glanced at it. Who or what was in there? A gnawing suspicion churned in her gut. She looked at him and saw the fear in his eyes. He deserved to die and knew it. His words came out in a pleading torrent that pain and indecision made her ignore. The question was could she kill this person so like her father?
Could this be him? True, they never found his body, but this man seemed so different. Killing mother? She didn’t know what to make of that drek about her being some copy of the original. It didn’t make sense.
The pounding from the cylinder intruded on her thoughts again. Part of the answer was in that tube. She put the gun in Brackham’s open mouth to silence him.
He did. Kath glanced out the doorway, that guard would be coming back soon. She must decide fast. With a groan, she stood and looked through the clear window in the cylinder’s top.
Frightened brown eyes stared back at her from a young familiar-looking face of a girl about nineteen. She had angular features surrounded by dark hair that floated in the amniotic fluid filling the tank. Kath blinked. There was a reason that face looked familiar.
It was hers.
The girl inside the tank froze, wide eyes going wider, the mouth dropping open in dismay.
The shock rang through Kath like the blow of sledge hammer. She grabbed the tank to keep herself from falling. Her mind rebelled. Could she actually be a flawed copy of the original?
The room spun and a pounding filled her temples. Footsteps sounded in the corridor. Brackham yelled a warning. She convulsed as the Mortallis tried to accelerate her endorphin drenched body.
The desires of her mind, the limitations of her body, and mechanical instinct of the Mortallis pushed Kath in three directions at once. The result of the multiple impetus put her face down on the tiles as the burly sentry with the AK-98 charged in.
“Get her!” Brackham yelled.
Kath watched in dreamy slow motion as the guard lowered his weapon. Her muscles wouldn’t respond. The air around her seemed to cling to her limbs like jelly.
The crack of the first round striking the small of her back made the world flicker brown. She saw the muzzle flash from the next bullet and felt it hit her calf.
The discharge of bullets increased. Kath felt two more hit her paralyzed body, then heard the shots start whining off the walls and ceiling.
As her vision grayed toward black, she saw that two brilliant red blossoms had appeared on the guard’s chest. Behind his collapsing body stood Apollo, rifle poised to fire again.
Nice try, Apollo, too bad I’m already dead. The word echoed in her mind.
An acrid odor sent a bolt of revulsion shooting through Kath. She shuddered. “Auggh!”
Her mask was off and she lay between the clone cylinders staring at the ceiling. A kaleidoscope of colors played through the bullet riddled square room. Kath shoved away the tube of smelling salts Apollo held under her nose.
“You’re not dying on me yet damn it,” he growled in her ear. The outlines of his face looked fuzzy. Seeing him again sent a wave of warmth running through her. She’d missed that face. “There’s a trauma patch on you, synthotissue on that gunshot.”
Kath’s throat constricted. It took all her concentration to form words. “Let me die.”
“Frag that. What am I supposed to do with Brackham?”
The question hit her. Brackham. Which was the original and which the copy? What about the frightened dark-haired girl trapped in the cylinder? Who was she? Is Kath Hershel really who she thinks she is?
“Not Brackham,” she muttered. “Father.”
“This sicko?” Apollo looked over his shoulder. Kath assumed he looked where her Father was. “Not likely. While you were distracting the guards I cased his inner-sanctum. I found another guy that looks like him on ice in a permastore chamber. I think it’s Brackham.”
How did that track? “What? If that’s—”
“Listen, he’s not your Father, either. He’s—”
“That’s a lie!” came an outburst from across the room. “I’m the real Richard Hershel-Brackham!”
The crazed tone of the man’s voice made the statement seem doubtful. Her father never sounded like that.
“I think Brackham was whacko enough to have followed your Father’s research without controls. I found papers that mentioned tissue from the original experiment. I think the project backfired and bit Brackham. John Hershel’s clone took Brackham’s place and assumed his identity.”
“Not true!” she heard sobbed.
Apollo stood, wobbling on his burned leg. “Either zip it or I gag you.” Apollo knelt by her again. “This guy is schitzo. Not only is he a copy, but a fraggin unstable one. Since I wasted that guard, he’s been comin apart at the seams. Doesn’t know who the drek he is.”
Kath felt a spark of energy. A slight clearing of the rainbows in her vision. She still didn’t know what to do. Not so much in the case of Brackham or whoever he was, but the lives in those three containers. What if the djinni’s in the bottle were as lunatic as the first one?
“Help me sit up.”
The room gyrated as Apollo helped her.
“How much time?”
“City security’s in the lobby now. I blew the stairwells and cut the elevator power. They’ll have called a helo. Minimum fifteen minutes before they move on us.”
“The other three guards?”
Apollo ran a finger across his neck. “Just us and him.” He jerked a thumb in Brackham’s direction.
Kath shook her head. “Them too.” She rocked her head back against the tank.
Apollo frowned and rose. Kath watched his face as he looked in the window as she had done. The runner’s eyes widened and he drew a breath. “What the frag. This one’s alive! She’s—” The man’s whole body rocked back with surprise. “You.”
Kath groaned. Why couldn’t it have been a hallucination? Alive. She was alive and trapped in that chamber; frightened. It pained Kath to consider the confusion and terror that must be assaulting the teenage girl. Was she simply an empty shell with no memories? Or a fully viable human being as Brackham suggested?
She had to know. “Open it.”
Kath swallowed. “I said, open it.”
“What if she’s a space-cadet like him?”
“I am not a space-cadet!” The man hollered.
Apollo pointed his gun at Brackham. “You’ll be a corpse if I hear another word.”
“We can’t tell if she’s sane unless we open the case,” Kath said.
“You’llll regrrrret it,” Brackham cackled.
Kath pinched her temple against the pain. Her head had cleared considerably between the drugs and Mortallis. “Was there any marrow stimulant in the medikit?”
“Used all I had,” he said. “Between that and your cyberware, should be replacing blood like crazy. It’s a drain. I don’t need to tell you to take it easy, do I?”
“No, doctor.” She took his arm. Apollo pulled her upright. She stumbled and caught herself, then looked at the cylinder and the obvious controls that evacuated the fluid.
“You sure you want to do this?”
“No, Apollo, I’m not.” She didn’t add she was supposed to be dead by now. “I’ll deal with the family crisis, okay? You figure a way out of here.”
“Hey.” He gripped her shoulder. “I’m on your side, remember?”
“Sorry.” She collected her thoughts. “My van’s autodrive remote is on channel 67. Check its status and make sure we’ve got a vehicle to bail in. If it’s too hot, I programmed a fallback address in the satnav. It’ll drive itself to the new pick-up.”
The expression on Apollo’s broad face softened. “Check, Boss.” He went over to mask lying on the floor and put it on to use the communicator within.
She turned her attention to the chamber and punched the cycle button with her fist before she could change her mind.
Her gaze fixed on the younger copy of herself as the fluid drained away. Dark eyes exactly like hers. They remained fixed on Kath, unblinking. She found it hard to read the girl’s expression; part fear and part fascination. Behind her Apollo pulled things out of the cabinets.
Are we really the same person separated by time? Is a person at thirty really the same person they were at twenty?
Kath had no time to ponder the other potent questions that rang through her mind. The young woman coughed and choked as the last of the solution filtered away with an slurping noise. The lid latch clicked, and a split opened down the side of the cylinder. Servos hummed and the top half pivoted open.
Spasms wracked the girl’s nude body as she disgorged the clear solution she’d been breathing. A maze of wires attached to an encephalo-harness on the girl’s head rattled as she jerked. Lithe and pale with a bilious red placenta still connecting her belly to the artificial womb she looked helpless.
Kath’s chest tightened. Her heart sped, not with a rush of fear but with an inexplicable excitement. It was as if she were watching herself being born. The girl looked pristine, with skin like cream colored silk, her blue eyes bright. The clear residue made her skin glisten in the fluorescent light.
The girl continued to choke, apparently unable to sit up. Kath hesitantly disconnected the wires tying her into the chamber, then gently assisted her to a sitting position. The young woman seemed to weigh nothing at all. Kath wished she could feel that new skin through her armor gauntlets.
The girl wheezed, spilling clear solution out her nose and mouth. Kath braced her, supporting the weak neck and putting weight against a slim leg. One of the girl’s hands found her arm and gripped it. As she cleared her lungs, there was a shearing noise came from the lid mechanism where the synthetic placenta connected. It sounded like a knife blade cutting down on metal.
The fibrous red mass fell loose and dangled from the girl’s stomach. After a few more wheezes, the woman drew her first breath of real air. Long dark hair lay slick against her skull, back, and chest, a stark contrast to pallid skin that had never been touched by sunlight.
She drew heavy breaths, the liquid still in her lungs a dull rattle in her chest. Her gaze went to Kath’s face, eyes that looked anything but vacant, now seemed to devour every detail. She licked her lips, then opened her mouth as if to speak.
An unintelligible rasp that sounded like phonetics came out. Kath’s heart beat wildly.
The girl swallowed, the muscles in her throat working. Her gaze flicked from side to side. She made an ‘M’ sound.
Kath’s stomach turned to ice.
“Ma,” the girl tried again, her lips exaggerating the syllable. “Oh— er.” She looked to where she clasped Kath’s arm. “Ma-oh-tha-er?”
Standing in the corner, where he’d been using the armor’s cyber Apollo looked over. “What’s she—?”
“Shhh!” Kath hissed.
“Moe— ther.” The girl coughed and closed her eyes. “Mother,” she enunciated. “Mother.” She put her arms around Kath and lay her head against her breast.
“Drek,” Apollo grumbled. “Fraggin great.”
A tremor went through Kath. A wave of confusion. Mother? She looked across the room to where Brackham sat in the corner, hands tied behind his back. He looked like her father, but the demented glee that sparkled in his eyes was nothing like any expression John Hershel had ever worn.
“What have you done?”
He chuckled again. “Like any good scientist I realized my limitations. Bodies are easy to modify or build but personalities are complex. Neural paths can be laid down to guide the development of a person, but only rudimentary data can be preprogrammed. The rest must be learned through the environment and our— parents.” His eyes glinted. “An attachment impulse gives the clone a fixed role model.”
“Kat,” Apollo growled. His face had darkened, a man who planned to say something harsh. “I hate to be practical, but in ten minutes city security will be here. I know what you’re thinking. You can’t do it. We’re both hurt. We’ll be lucky to get ourselves out of here. I’ve got a way,” he fingered the lone AP-6 incendiary hanging on his bandoleer. “But not with a passenger.”
“I can’t leave her to die!”
“Kat, you don’t even know if it’s stable.”
The girl focused on Apollo. “Don’t—” she struggled to speak. “—Want die.“
Kath looked at the girl and her jaw tightened.
Apollo winced. “She’s a parrot, Kath. Brackham messed it up. Don’t you see? She’s not viable.” He rocked his head. “What about the other two? Gonna adopt them too?”
Kath looked at the cases. “Check them.”
Apollo sighed. “Why put yourself through this?”
The girl reached up a trembling hand to the top of Kath’s head. Her fingers probed the stubble. “Mo-ther, you-are hair?”
“Yeah, gone. Maybe it’ll grow back.”
“This one’s dead,” Apollo reported. He pushed his finger through the top of the case in three places. “Must be some molyalloy in the ceiling supports someplace. A few of your quicksilver rounds did an about-face. This one’s fading.” He pointed to the other case.
Brackham blanched. “No! Not Anna!” Blubbering, he tried to get to his feet. “Let me up, I can help her!”
An icy knife twisted in Kath’s guts. She didn’t know if fate was being cruel or kind. What if she allowed copies of her mother and brother to come to life? Somehow, it mocked their memory to try to create people to replace them; a selfish desire to ease her own pain. That’s what Brackham tried to do.
Now the madman may have killed Anna Hershel twice. Kath’s voice was flat. “Cycle the chamber. Slap a hibernation patch on her. Maybe she’ll live long enough for the medics to get up here.”
Apollo limped to the doorway and grabbed his makeshift satchel. He punched the cycle on Anna’s chamber. “What about Brackham? He’ll finger us. Come on, Kat, there’s seven minutes left.”
The girl trembled against Kath, obviously cold. What should she do with Brackham? He was insane and owned a flawed cloning technology he was willing to use.
Anna’s case opened. She heard a whimpering and coughing sound. Kath couldn’t see what Apollo did and didn’t want to. Part of her wanted Anna to live. Another part said it was wrong. Brackham continued to plead with Apollo while the big runner applied emergency first aid to the wounded clone.
“Let’s get you out of this case,” Kath said. She lifted the young woman’s legs and turned her so she could get out. There appeared to be enough muscle mass for the girl to walk but Kath doubted that she possessed the motor control yet to do so.
She put a hand under her arm and buttocks and started lifting her out. A searing pain shot down Kath’s side. She faltered and caught herself against the cylinder.
“Mother?” The girl searched Kath’s face with frightened eyes.
“I’m okay,” she assured. Between trauma drugs, pain killers and the endorphins, she’d almost forgotten the extent of her own wounds. Only the cyberware kept her functioning. “Let’s try again.” Kath switched positions and put the stress on her good side.
The girl weighed barely over forty kilos. She could stand, but her legs trembled so much, Kath knew she’d fall without support. That she could stand at all was more than Kath hoped.
Brackham continued to cry. She wished he’d shut up.
“Apollo, you sure there’s no guards left?”
“Trade armor with the goon.” She pointed to the man who’d used the shotgun. “I’m going to find clothes for Kathryn here, and get myself a security outfit. If we have to, we can try and pass ourselves off as wounded security people. We left enough men alive that it might not be suspected.”
“I follow. You’ve about five minutes before they charge in here.”
“I copy. The building techs think this was a black military op. I told them not to talk which is S.O.P. They’ll spill guts to the first authority who asks. We play on that.”
“Works for me, except for Brackham.”
“I’ll deal with him.”
Kath put an arm around the girl’s waist to assist her in walking. The clone stumbled, but picked up the mechanics of the motion in moments. Kath guessed this must be what Brackham meant about laying down neural paths to guide development.
The young Kath didn’t have the strength or practice to walk, but all the necessary reflexes appeared present. The motions only needed reinforcement through repetition.
Kath assisted the clone into Brackham’s private suites. The man’s pleading faded behind her. She breathed a sigh of relief. The girl concentrated on walking. Trickles of sweat appeared on the glistening sheen already on her skin.
“Walking,” the clone said. “Good?”
“Great,” Kath responded, dist