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, distracted by her search for a guest quarters or a bedroom. A woman lived here with Brackham. She needed clothes for… The clone should have a name of her own. Kath decided on Teresa, her middle name.
Time. She could feel the clock ticking. They must do this fast. She located the main quarters and found female clothing in one closet. Sitting Teresa on the bed, she went into the bathroom, grabbed a towel, and dried Teresa off.
Kath rifled through the wardrobe searching for a skirt and blouse. “Just my luck, this woman is the size of a whale!” Teresa might weigh half what Brackham’s hefty girlfriend did. The girl could swim in the smallest of the woman’s blouses. She tossed aside an armful of dresses. “That and she’s three fashion fads late.”
Kath snatched out the best candidates, and started dressing Teresa. The girl smiled at Kath’s attention and followed every instruction. She seemed to grasp Kath’s desire for speed but obviously didn’t understand why.
After cinching on the skirt with a belt, Kath examined her work. Horrible. Teresa would probably start a new fashion trend in baggy blouses and bunched up skirts.
Teresa saw the frown on Kath’s face. “Bad?”
Kath rubbed her face. “Bad. Best we can do. Don’t move, okay? I’ll come back.”
Her turn. She found one back in the hall that hadn’t been too bloodied. Peeling off the armor was painful, she had to bend and twist to release the segments. The man’s shirt and slacks fit only slightly better than a gunny sack. The shoes were impossible. She’d have to hope the whale’s feet weren’t as big as the rest of her. She checked on Apollo.
Apollo had traded clothes with the big guard, his last AP-6 hung on his belt. He stood near the chambers, the AS-7 slung over his shoulder, fastening the last of the security armor.
The man raised an eyebrow when he saw Kath. “You’re barely in that uniform, soldier.”
“Tell me about it. Brackham’s girlfriend needs a diet bad. Teresa can do the backstroke in her clothes.”
Kath shrugged. “My middle name.” She looked to the cylinder where the clone of her mother lay. She wanted to look, but her feet stayed rooted. “Did you stabilize her?”
“She might pull through. The slug punctured a kidney. If she’d been eating solid food the toxin shock would have killed her right off. She’s been on nutrients so the damage wasn’t too bad.” He looked around. “Now what?”
“Him.” Kath turned her attention to Brackham who sat in the corner, mumbling quietly to himself. “We put him in the clone chamber and fill it. By the time he spits out enough fluid to talk we’ll be long gone. By then he’ll have a lot of other questions to answer.”
She saw that Apollo didn’t agree but he knew they didn’t have time to argue. Together, they stood Brackham up and walked him to the chamber.
“You’re getting off light, buddy,” Apollo told him.
Brackham snickered. “She can’t kill me. I’m her father.”
“Shut up,” Kath growled.
Apollo bent Brackham over the edge of the open chamber.
“Get in,” she ordered.
Mindful of Brackham’s untied feet she assisted Apollo in lifting the man over the edge of the chamber. The man grunted as his butt thumped in the bottom of the troth. Streaks of red ran through the lines of his tan face. His wide eyes glinted like those of a trapped animal. He shifted so he lay on his side.
“This is where we part company,” she told him reaching for the lid.
Brackham’s eyes narrowed. She pulled but the mechanism didn’t move.
“Damn it, there’s a catch bolt on this hinge. Apollo check your end.” Keeping an eye on Brackham, she felt around for the safety release on the back.
“Got it,” Apollo said. “Watch your fingers.” She heard a click.
A grating metal on metal sound came from in the case. Kath didn’t see exactly what happened but she felt the heel of Brackham’s foot jam into her wounded side. Kath yelped and clutched her wound. The lid flew open, the edge caught Apollo and knocked him sprawling. The AS-7 clattered to the floor. Brackham scrambled out of the case and leaped on Apollo.
The big man snarled and threw the smaller man off so that he tumbled across the room.
Apollo started forward as Brackham rolled to his feet.
“Ah ah!” Brackham pointed a finger. He held up the bright yellow block of Apollo’s AP-6 his thumb pressed against the detonator. “You know I’m crazy enough to do it. Out the door.”
Kath looked for an opening. Waves of pain throbbed from her side. Her M22A2 lay on the floor out of reach.
She and Apollo backed into the corridor. Brackham shouldered the gun and kept the AP-6 poised. “You’re right, Kath, this is where we part company.” He backed down the corridor. Fifty paces away, he turned and ran. Kath dove for the hood of her Achilles armor which still lay on the floor where Apollo discarded it.
She pulled it on and activated the cyber. Her heart thrummed. She gave Brackham a chance to live and pay for his crimes. He discarded it.
“Do it!” Apollo yelled.
Kath saw the image of her crippled mother float in her mind. The burned bodies of Rick and Dawn; murdered.
“Goodbye.” She sent the coded comm signal to the AP-6’s radio detonator. A muted roar rumbled down the corridor. She didn’t hear a scream. Kath’s guts twisted. Dead, he must be. Karma, vindication— vengeance. God willing, the twisted copy of her father was gone and hopefully his research with him.
She shuddered and pulled the hood off. Apollo limped to Kath and helped her up.
“We have to jet— now.”
A soft voice came from behind her. “Mother?”
Kath snapped around. Teresa leaned in the doorway to the private suites. The girl’s face glistened with sweat and she was breathing hard. It had been a long trek on those untried legs. She looked down the hall and pointed with a trembling hand.
Kath felt a fluttering in her chest. Those dark eyes were so hungry to understand. Teresa already knew so much but there was many times more she didn’t.
“Gone,” she agreed. “Come on.” Kath took her around the waist and assisted the girl.
Apollo checked his chrono. “Cutting it tight.” He led the way as they limped down the corridor. Kath focused on helping Teresa and staying upright. Her impulse to keep the girl baffled her. The three of them might be dead soon. She’d left her mother’s clone behind to fend for itself.
What use was there in analyzing chaos? Apollo did what he could for Anna Hershel’s clone. She had as much right to live as Teresa did.
They covered their faces and edged through more flame-retardant raining from the ceiling. The floor and walls were blackened. Kath didn’t look for Brackham’s corpse, she simply hurried Teresa through.
They stopped in the lobby near the powerless elevators. Apollo pressed his fingers into the cracks and pried the doors open. Since they were on the top floor, the booth of the elevator waited on the other side. Kath and Teresa slipped inside while he held the doors.
Pounding came from the stairwell. Security probably on its way up. Seconds left. Apollo braced the doors with his body and slid inside letting the doors clamp shut. He went to the ceiling access panel. Opening it, he pulled himself up, then lifted Kath and Teresa out.
The elevator shaft was clammy and dark. It smelled of ozone and mechanical oil. The elevator cables ran up several meters into the winch machinery.
Faced with the closed in space, Teresa clutched Kath’s waist and made whimpering sounds. Kath smoothed the girl’s hair and hugged her trembling body.
Apollo reached into his satchel. “I’d hoped we wouldn’t have to use these. Once the batteries die, I have to buy new ones. Cost fraggin near as much as I’m getting for this run.” He pulled out a thick plastic band with a long cable ending in a clip. “Put your arm next to hers, this one will have to decephalize for both of you.” He wrapped the band around both their wrists and velcroed it down. He clipped the end to the elevator cable, then duplicated the process on himself. He hit the switches on both devices. Green activity lights began blinking.
“A bio-scanner cloaking device?”
“Damn, that’s wiz. So we just wait?”
“Yup. The techs will get this elevator activated eventually. They’ll sweep the building and we wait and jump off on a floor they’ve already secured. If we get caught, we bluff our way out with the security uniforms.”
“Thin, but better than trying to blast our way out.”
Teresa whimpered and Kath pulled her tighter. What was she thinking in keeping this girl? Teresa was a child in a woman’s body. What life could a shadow runner show her? This girl could grow up to be a bigger rebel than Kath.
Self-respect, self-love— could those explain it? Who knew Kath Hershel better than herself? It made her head hurt. Maternal? No one who knew her would ever mention the word in conjunction with her name. There was no time for nurture in the shadows; kill or be killed, evolution through natural selection. Only now, human’s artificially tailored their mutations with cyberware.
They sat in the dark for hours. Kath had ample opportunity to reflect on what she planned to do if they somehow escaped the hornet’s nest of investigators, criminologists, and other security personnel. Using their comm-links, and from what they could hear through the walls, they caught snippets of conversations between arson investigators, government weapons agents, and even military police. Brackham had been under investigation for a long time. Apparently, the words of ‘black-op’ and a hit on Brackham had brought every investigatory service crawling out of the woodwork. The sheer volume of people worked to their advantage, the interdepartmental squabbling was heating relations and preventing effective analysis of the scene.
For three people trapped in an elevator shaft, the less thorough, the better. Teresa began complaining of hunger and it took major effort on Kath’s part to sooth her into silence. The clone had subsisted only on liquid nutrients and not a gram of fat existed on the girl anywhere.
Around midnight the relays in the elevator mechanisms overhead snapped. From the sound of their voices five or six men stepped into the car for the twelve story ride to the bottom floor.
It took several more up and down trips before the car was empty on one of its journeys between ground level and penthouse. They got off on the second floor and took refuge in a lunch room where a vending machine dispensed food for the three of them.
They spent the remainder of the night evading investigatory patrols. Through fragments of comm-traffic Kath learned that Anna Hershel’s clone had been transported to emergency care in critical condition. Brackham’s corpse had been identified along with the permastored original. The authorities were really puzzled by that.
An hour before dawn, Kath, Apollo, and Teresa slipped out a second story window and into the street. Moving furtively, they escaped observation and reached Kath’s van. They headed East. Kath didn’t stop until the city lights were a polychromatic glow in the West.
Together the three of them sat on a dune and looked out across the vast Mojave desert and watched the sun rise on a new day. Kath felt the warmth on her face, and the first stirrings of a Santa Ana breeze. Her mind and body were spent. The wounds of the past would be a long time in healing. Her plans had not been to have a future. The road ahead was a climb no less treacherous than the ascent to Brackham’s sanctum had been. Taking responsiblity for another life committed her to that path and the prospect made her tremble inside.
Days would have to pass before they could safely venture into the city again. It would be a painful time of self-healing and renewal. Before she could truly start anew, she still had things to do.
Karma had been served. She’d paid her final respects to her father, and to the rebellious life as a shadow runner. She must still return to the hospital and her mother. All that remained was to look into her eyes, kiss her on the forehead, and for the last time say—