It always starts with pens.
You’re in the office; you’re busy, signing things willy-nilly. At some point in the day, you slip the pen into your pocket. Two hours later, another nigh-insurmountable wave of invoices and receipts of company policies hits. You’ve forgotten all about the pen in your pocket, the one that’s bouncing around against your keys and the first pen you also forgot about. You scramble around the office, looking for another. I mean, it’s a functioning office, right? Where are all the goddamn pens? How does anything get done around here? Just before panic sets in, you notice a bright red novelty pen commemorating the first anniversary of The Republic of California’s independence just laying atop a cubicle wall, foolishly left unattended by Jeanine from accounts receivable. You snatch it, sign the horde of forms, and without thinking, stick the pen in your pocket.
You get home, and get ready to launder your “work outfit.” You’ve been wearing the same outfit for the last three days, hoping no one would notice. You don’t think anyone has. The Sinclair Group is a company where minding one’s own business has been elevated from a simple corporate survival tactic, to an art form worthy of display in any of the world’s great theaters. Except for Radio City, which for the last few years has only shown musicals based on action movies. You throw the shirt and tie in the machine, knowing ties really aren’t supposed to go in the washer, but that doesn’t stop you from dunking the end of it into every manner of beverage and an alarming number of solid foods. Just as you’re about to drop the pants in with its teammates, you feel three hard cylinders inside the pockets. “Shit, the pens” you say out loud. You say everything out loud. It’d be a bit off-putting if anyone were there to hear you, but since no one ever is, you just keep on broadcasting your thoughts to the ether.
After you finish cursing about them, you hold the trio of pens in your open palm, and stare. For the briefest of moments, you contemplate bringing the pens back with you in the morning. “Eh. They’re just pens. No one’s gonna miss them,” you say as you put the three of them on top of the pile of the twenty-six other pens, including seven with “Jake” emblazoned on them that you got specifically to avoid losing them, that no one is gonna miss. Everyone takes supplies home with them, it’s not like I stole them-stole them, you think, but actually don’t say for once. To be fair, you can’t say it, because you’re drinking that gross coffee that you left coagulating in the machine the whole time you were at work. Shit, the other day, Matty took that 3-d printer home that they were gonna throw out. There wasn’t even anything really wrong with it, they just got a new one. He saved something perfectly good from being thrown out. You’ve now convinced yourself that taking home office supplies is not only no big deal, but in some cases, a noble pursuit.
And it’s exactly this kind of specious reasoning that leads you to take home a living, breathing, cloned human from work the next day.
Getting her out of the building isn’t as problematic as you thought it might be. As usual, the ballet of willful ignorance is in full danse ensemble and no one seems to notice you walking briskly with the tall woman in the lab coat. No one, not even the front desk attendant whose sole purpose is to notice and greet people, says goodbye as you shepherd her out the door and into your car. The guard at the gate is engrossed in a phone conversation she’s having and waves you through without scanning your badge. You’re about two hundred yards away from the facility before color starts to creep back into your knuckles. The color vanishes much faster than it appeared when the tall woman asks you the only question worth asking:
“Why am I here?”
“Well,” you start. You stop. Why is she here? You insisted she come with you, because the computer labeled her “for disposition.” It used to just say “defective,” but the nomenclature changed after your group’s last chat session with management. “Defective” sounded too negative, according to seventy-three percent of respondents. A month later, “disposition” arrived. A subtler word for the same harsh act. Units marked for disposition are to be sent to the materials office to be “retrofitted.” That one is less of a euphemism than a flat out lie. They were to be broken down into the basest of human materials, to be fed back into the machines that flash-grew the clones. They were in the same boat as Matty’s printer, so you figured, why not save one. It’s a plan you’re regretting as you fumble around for an appropriate answer.
“It’s– uh, well, I’m trying to help you.”
The shorter the question, the longer the answer. You launch into a rambling monologue about The Sinclair Group, cloning, your job as quality control slash occupational therapist for the newly conscious clones. You tell her about the original Laura, how exceptional she is, the greatest scientist in the Republic, how the somewhat-befuddled-but-still-dealing-with-it-rather-well clone staring at you is also meant to be called Laura, but hey I guess you can pick your own name now, ha-ha.
You tell her about the neural recorder in the original Laura, how the computer codes all of her memories and personality traits. You tell her how the machines upload the coded information into a similar device in the clone, and pow! Now you’ve got a mint-condition genius, with only the traits and memories the Sinclair Group wants. Sometimes, though, you tell her, sometimes the machines make mistakes. Lately, the machines have been making more mistakes than usual. There have been a lot of small physical discrepancies popping up. One was missing her right ring finger from the second knuckle up. One had a thick head of curly black hair, where the original’s is straight blond. Things that normally wouldn’t be a big issue for anyone, but when you need something to be an exact copy, “discrepancy” was the dirtiest word you could imagine. More troubling to you, though, is the amount of mental issues that’ve been popping up. Several units had woken up screaming for Manny, the original’s husband. The Sinclair Group liked the clones to have an attachment they could exploit, some leverage. So, all of the approved clones shared affection for Manny, but these few had been absolutely paralyzed by it. They were marked for disposition last month, along with five others who the computer labeled as having “unspecified personality issues,” one who woke up irrecoverably catatonic, and the one you hustled into your passenger seat.
“So, what’s wrong with me?”
You say nothing, reach across to her side of the vehicle, and flip down the visor mirror. She knows what she should look like, even though she’s never actually seen herself before now. You can hear the slightest gasp, before she reflexively composes herself.
“Heterochromia,” she says, matter-of-factly. The scientist in her overrides the billions of other questions you suspect she has. “How is that possible?”
“Not sure,” you say, “like I said, sometimes the machines just fuck up.”
“And these machines couldn’t tell I had two different colored eyes? Who would design such shitty equipment?”
She says nothing. You’re looking at the rear view mirror, almost rhythmically, checking for a tail. But the road is empty, except for you, and an hours-old grown adult trying to process a story that a toddler would tell you was bullshit. The silence is making you uncomfortable, so you continue your blathering. You tell her that you think there’s been so many errors because of the degradation of the original materials. You recount to her the highlights of the meeting where you brought this up, only to be shouted down by the head of the team that’s in charge of the Jones units. “We’ve noticed no such degradation with our units,” they said. You responded by informing them that their units are way simpler, with no discernible personality. They’re not as dynamic as the Lauras. “They’re just fucking goons,” you shouted, before stomping off in a huff. On your way to the door, you just barely heard someone mutter over the sound of you knocking shit off of desks:
“They do what they are meant to.”
You finish the story. She nods, then turns her head to stare out the window. You continue your mirror check routine, and think about engaging her in a conversation, but don’t. At this point, you really don’t know what to say. You’re not sure why, after dozens of units you personally delivered to the materials office, you decided to save this one. Were you planning on keeping her like a stray dog? You’re not sure. It certainly isn’t a romantic thing, as a string of your polite, yet disappointed ex-boyfriends would attest to. It’s just, well, you couldn’t let a person get thrown away like Matty’s printer, could you?
Even if she was a factory second.
“So,” she finally says, her face so close to the window that her breath fogs it. “What now?”
“Well I was th-” you were going to say thinking, but you’re interrupted by a black sedan crashing into the driver door. Your car is pushed straight across the road, slightly bent around the sedan. The two cars now look like an arrow being driven into a ditch. Your car lands in said ditch with a crunch like a carton of eggs being dropped off a building. Part of the door has broken loose and is now located between two of your ribs, partially inside your lung. You can’t really breathe, but you manage to croak out:
“R-run. Stay low.”
The unit, the brown and blue eyed woman that was meant to be Laura, but can now choose her own name hesitates for a second, kisses you on the forehead, then splits. She’s quiet; you can’t hear her footsteps. “That’s good,” you whisper. You relax the best you can in the seat, knowing one way or another, you’re not going to be there long. A large face enters the vehicle where the window used to be.
“Where is the unit, sir?”
“The unit you removed from the facility. Where is it now?” You recognize the face. It’s one of the Joneses. You can’t see the rest of him, but you know that it’s exactly like all the others. “A brick shithouse” you believe the biblical term is. You’re not too sure, though. You’re starting to fade out. You summon up whatever reserves you have to inform the Jones that “th-the unit’s in the trunk. It’s– it’s fucked up. Totally c-c-omatose.”
Your eyes start to close on their own. You can hear the trunk opening, then you can feel two strong thuds like something being bashed into the trunk floor. The lid closes, then seconds or days later, you hear the Jones’ monotone voice. “Thank you sir,” it says, as it wraps a giant, squeezing hand around your throat. It does what it’s meant to do. You’ll be gone in a matter of seconds, but you manage a smile knowing that you saved one life, at least.
And you got a shitload of free pens.
Shaunn Grulkowski has been compared to Warren Ellis and Phillip K. Dick and was once described as what a baby conceived by Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood would turn out to be. Once he looked all of those people up, he was pleased by the sentiments. Mostly, he’s a regular dude with a regular job that has a knack for writing things that make people laugh. He lives in Glen Burnie, Maryland, with his wife, Megan, three dogs, two cats, and a particularly noisy African Grey parrot. Retcontinuum is his first book.