Cora had slept through the journey to Matther’s clinic. She woke briefly when they patched in the intravenous nutrition, and stayed lucid long enough to notice Sarah was still around, but she fell back to sleep once she was swaddled in the warmth of a soft cot and thick blankets.
Sarah pulled up a chair to wait. There were a lot of questions that she wanted to ask. Until Cora rested enough, Sarah read a book. Two, in fact, in that time. One was a brief overview of fiber optic communication. The other was an urban fantasy in space. Neither seemed very memorable.
Sarah had just powered down the screen when Cora opened her eyes. She flinched. “Hello, Cora.”
“Hello, Sarah.” Cora spoke slowly; she was tired, not under sedation. “Where am I?”
“You’re at a clinic that a friend of mine runs.”
“You didn’t kill me.”
“I know. I couldn’t. Sorry.” The screen slid out of Sarah’s hands and into her lap. “I couldn’t burn down the building, either. Maybe that’s for the best.” Sarah sighed gently.
“Well, Namba Genetic Industries is in a lot of hot water, and there was probably a lot of data that could be used against them. Or for them. Depends on the side you take on the matter.” Noticing Cora’s blank stare, she thought it best to explain. “See, there is kind of a problem with the… researchers who… worked with you. And we’re trying to figure it out. ‘We’ means the Big Four and the FilterNines. Although we’re not working together, necessarily…” Sarah wasn’t sure how to break it down further. So she asked what Cora already knew.
“They said I’m sick and they’re trying to cure me.”
“The doctors from the room.”
Sarah thought about that. It was obviously a lie. Although many of the researchers probably held doctorate degrees, Cora was a clone. She was raised in a tube so that she wouldn’t get sick. The explanation was very fragile; it was enough to answer a child’s questions, but not enough to keep a child satisfied when they matured. It didn’t seem that Cora had, yet. “You never left the room, did you?”
“I could leave the room?” Cora seemed surprised. “How?”
“Well, the researchers could move you to another tank if they needed to. From what we’ve found so far about about their operation, there was a cell of compassionate researchers who sometimes moved clones to mobile units and let them see the city sometimes. I suppose they weren’t in your room, then.”
“Oh.” Cora was quiet. For a moment, Sarah wondered if she was going too fast. Then Cora asked, “What’s a clone?”
“A clone is an exact copy of another object or person.”
The definition escaped Sarah’s mouth before she realized it. She was about to attempt to rephrase it when Cora asked, “What’s a copy?”
Sarah was quiet. She hadn’t expected that question. How could she explain? “Well, you’re Cora, right? 46-A?”
“Well, your tank was in the corner, sixth from the door in a clockwise fashion, farthest from it. There was a girl in the tank at your right. What was her name?”
“47-A. The girl to the left was 45-A.”
Sarah thought to tread lightly on the subject. She still didn’t know the fullest extent of Cora’s knowledge, and she didn’t want to misspeak. “Let’s talk about 45-A. What did she look like?”
Cora thought for a moment. “She was pale, like me. And she had brown eyes, with black hair.”
“She looked… She looked the same.”
Sarah nodded. “Say, Cora… Have you ever seen a mirror?”
Cora shook her head. “No. Why?”
Sarah briefly wondered if she was lying, before realizing that the researchers would purposefully avoid the concept of deception. That is, they wouldn’t teach her to lie, so that she would always give them accurate data. However, she must have seen herself at one point. How did she know what a mirror was? She would’ve asked if she didn’t, in the same way she asked what a clone was. She had mentioned that the researchers had taught them things, and learning involved asking questions. So, she must not have seen herself. Or, she had forgotten the experience. When life consisted of the same routine every day, it wasn’t impossible.
Whatever way was the case, Sarah decided to show Cora a reflection of herself. Then, she might understand exactly what she was. What a copy was. A clone. She reached into her pack and withdrew a compact mirror. She flipped it open, closed it, and held it out to Cora. “You’ve seen a mirror before, right? You know how it shows what ever is placed in front of it?”
“Yes. But you can’t look at it, or you’ll die.” Cora didn’t take the mirror, and was quiet when she said that. Sarah scrunched her brow. Cora explained, “A mirror only works on inorganic objects, like clipboards and databoards. Organic matter doesn’t reflect because of the way light permeates carbon lattices. It’s what Box said.”
“Box Pollock. One of the doctors.”
Sarah found Cora’s explanation bizarrely humorous. The stream of techno-babble was at odds with her calm demeanor and earlier brevity. She didn’t laugh, though; it was obvious that Cora completely believed what she said. It was also obvious that she had no idea what she was talking about. If Matther had said the same thing, Sarah would think him daft. But Cora wasn’t daft. She was just taught incorrectly, and her teachings colored her perception. So, how could Sarah show her the reality?
“Cora, I want to show you something. But you can’t be scared, okay?”
“Alright. Here goes.” Sarah slowly opened the compact, facing herself. Cora started to move, but Sarah held up a hand and kept the mirror moving. She raised the mirror completely, so that she could see herself, then glanced at Cora. “Am I dead, Cora?”
“Why aren’t I dead?”
“I… I don’t know.” Sarah half expected Cora to call her a wizard, but she didn’t. Maybe she wasn’t taught magic.
“Cora, I’m going to tell you something. But you have to believe me, okay?”
Sarah was about to explain, but the stopped herself. Cora probably didn’t know what a lie was. How would she react to being told that Pollock had lied to her? What began as a simple explanation of why Cora was in Matther’s clinic became a lesson in basic communication and concepts. Sarah knew then that she could never become a teacher. But she went on. “Box told you a lie. That means, he wanted you to believe something that wasn’t true. He wanted you to learn one thing, when the reality showed evidence of another. You know what evidence is, right? Lies? Truth?”
Cora’s eyes were on her hands, lying peacefully in her lap. “I think I get it.” She paused. “He didn’t want me to look in a mirror, did he?”
Sarah couldn’t help the raise of an eyebrow. “Yes, that’s exactly it.” How did Cora form the connection so quickly? Was she re-evaluating their conversation with every new sentence? Weighing the data with every addition? Sarah found herself fascinated. Might Cora perhaps answer her next question intuitively, too? “Do you know why he didn’t want that?”
Cora thought for a moment. “It’s because 45-A and 47-A and I look alike, don’t we?”
“See for yourself.” As Sarah held the mirror out to Cora, she wondered how she knew the word “alike.” Maybe Pollock, or another researcher, had shown them similar data sets and therefore the relationship of “likeness.” She wanted to think of more scenarios, but she noticed that Cora couldn’t seem to take the mirror. Cora’s hands raised to her own, but her fingers couldn’t solidly close around the compact. What was that about?
It her suddenly, coldly. Cora had lived her entire life in a tank. She had never really learned how to use her hands. A wave of pity and empathy washed over Sarah, and she scooted her chair closer to Cora’s cot. “I’m so, so sorry, Cora.”
“You can’t.. I mean, you’ve never…” She didn’t even want to explain. Instead, she put the mirror down. She placed her hand next to Cora’s, flat. “Okay, look at this.” She clenched her hand into a fist. “Now you do the same.”
Cora’s hand closed, but it wasn’t tight. The muscles weren’t well developed, and the nerves likely weren’t, either. Sarah gently placed her had over Cora’s, and gently opened her fist. “I shouldn’t be able to move your fingers so easily.”
“I’m just tired, Sarah.”
“I’m sure you are. But look at this.” With both of their hands flat, Sarah spread her fingers into a fan. Cora tried the same, but couldn’t reach the same. “That test might be a bit unfair, since I type on a keyboard a lot of the time, but you get the idea, right? There’s a problem here. We’ll have to worry about that later. For now, thought, let’s return to the mirror.” Sarah picked up the compact. “Now, don’t be afraid of the mirror. As we talked about, you aren’t going to die.”
“But I’m organic. How am I going to see myself?”
“Organic stuff reflects just as well as inorganic stuff. Check it out.” Sarah showed the mirror to Cora. And for the first time, Cora saw herself.
“I do look like them.”
“Yes. And that’s what a copy is; something that looks like something else. Or, in your case, someone who looks like someone else. That’s what a clone is.”
“So we’re all clones? 45-A and 47-A and I?”
“Yes. And while you’re all very innocent and good people, this is a very bad thing.”
Cora flinched. “Why? What did we do?”
“No, no, it’s not you. It’s Namba Genetic Industries.”
“You said that name before.”
“Right. They’re the ones who built you. And, they’re the ones who killed your sisters, 45-A and 47-A. And, all the other clones in the room. And, all the other clones in the building.”
“And they didn’t kill me.”
Sarah sighed. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out, too.”
Cora returned to her baseline; quietness. Sarah watched her think for a while. She watched her stretch, too. And yawn. It was obvious that she wasn’t used to such an extended conversation. Maybe her lessons from the researchers were shorter. Maybe they stopped teaching her at some point. Or, maybe she was just tired. She had been moved around a lot recently.
Sarah felt someone looking at her. She glanced up, at the glass door across the room. Outside stood Matther and Ava; unobtrusive, but present.
“Well, that’s all I have to tell you for right now. Go ahead and get some sleep. I need to go talk with Matther for a moment, but I’ll be back when you wake up.” Sarah started to rise from her chair when Cora’s hand slid out to touch her.
“Wait, Sarah.” Cora yawned again, but there was something she needed to know. “Since I’m a clone, are they going to come back and kill me, too?”
Sarah frowned. “Do you want to die?”
“I wanted to when I was back with the other… clones. But I don’t know right now. If everyone else is dead, shouldn’t I be, too? Since we’re all the same? Since we’re all copies?”
Sarah felt so hurt at heart that she didn’t know what to say. So she just talked. “Well, you might all be copies, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be like each other. I mean, when you copy a piece of paper… Well, those are the flat, flexible things that Box had on his clipboard. When you copy one of those, there are two. But the first one can be changed. You can write on it, or tear it… You’ve seen writing, right? Where a researcher would put this thing on the paper and…. well, anyway, there are two papers. Two sheets of paper. Paper comes in sheets. Anyway, there are two of them, right? And they’re similar. But they can be changed independently. That is, they don’t have to be the same.” Sarah inhaled. Exhaled. “What I mean is… Okay, did you ever see 45-A fall asleep?”
“Yes. A lot.”
“I can imagine. I mean, right. You saw her fall asleep, which means you were awake. She was sleep while you were awake. So you weren’t the same, if only for that moment. She woke up eventually, and you fell asleep, so you were different then, too. And…” Sarah swallowed. “And 45-A is dead now. But you are still alive. You don’t have to die. You aren’t dead. You’re different. And… And when you asked me to kill you, when we first met, you said that it would be better than where you were. But this is better, right? I mean, you’re in a warm bed, talking to someone who cares about you. I mean, you’re literally talking. Exchanging thoughts with someone completely different, who wants to understand you. Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that worth living?
“Anyway, I just think that dying isn’t a good idea. What about you? How do you feel right now, at this moment?”
Cora was quieter than ever, if such a thing were possible. If a pin dropped, neither girl would hear it because the silence was so powerful; so commanding of attention; so deafening. So Sarah flinched when Cora said, “I don’t want to die.”
And after she replied, “Good,” she exhaled heavily and brushed Cora’s hair back from her face. “Good night, Cora. I’ll see you soon.”
“Good night, Sarah.” Her eyes fluttered shut.
Sarah knew the words were routine, but she glanced anyway at the diagnostic screen above Cora’s cot. If her life were a novel, it would be the perfect time to see a flatline. But her life was real, and so Sarah relaxed, and Cora slept silently, with her pulse steady, and her breathing rhythmic. Sarah took a moment to ponder the depth of the few topics they had discussed. Then she walked across the room, palmed the pad next to the glass door, and walked through after it slid open.
Outside the room, Matther stood, typing idly on his Aarm. Ava was next to him as usual, holding a screen with a love feed of Nask working below them. Matther glanced up, then noted, “Took you long enough.”
“We had a lot to talk about. Still do, in fact.”
“I expect as much. She’s like a blank slate, isn’t she?”
“She didn’t even know she was a clone.”
“Yikes. Usually they grow up knowing. In fact, the lab that was busted a couple of years ago allowed routine visits with their DNA doners.”
“Yeah…” Sarah stared at Cora through the glass door. “By the way, Ava, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
Her eyes were glued to her screen, but she wiggled her ears. “Fire away, yeah?”
“Well, if constructs are people built from edited DNA, why do people make clones? Couldn’t they just use constructs for organs?”
Matther smiled, but there was no mirth to it. “People need clones for more than just organs with a low rejection rate. Some people want someone just like them. They might have an ego complex and want to see their own face when they wake up, or maybe they want to give themselves the childhood they never had. Some people want someone just like someone else. They want the celebrity they will never date. They want the ex-lover they just can’t get over. And some people want people who are not legally people, but are not constructs, either. They want to do things to people who do not exist. There is no such thing as DNA evidence when it is your own DNA, after all. So, there are a variety of reasons why clones are still contracted. None of the reasons change the fact that clones are illegal. They certainly do not help, either.”
It was a typical Matther answer; informative, drawn out, and slightly dark. It also wasn’t over yet. “When you need a worker, you call a maid. When you need a worker who can balance your bank accounts, you hire a construct. And when you need a worker who you can torture for the rest of their life, you make a clone. That’s how the saying goes in the corporate world, at least.”
“What kind of CEO makes a joke that long?” asked Ava.
“The kind you want to avoid.” Matther didn’t elaborate; neither Ava nor Sarah really wanted him to. “By the way, Sarah: now that you have rescued this girl, what do you plan to do?”
Sarah continued to look through the glass. “I need to fix her up, of course. But I also need to find out who the DNA donor is.”
“You know that the Enforcement will discover her. They are cleaning up the aftermath and will notice a missing body.”
“I don’t think so. There were other bodies missing, and the creeps who run the farms have been known to take clones with them when the heat turns up.”
Matther was silent for a moment. “True, true. So now the question is, what will you do when she heals up? She cannot stay here forever. No offense meant, of course.”
“None taken. But yeah, I’ll figure something out. If I can manage to live alone in this city, I can manage to take care of Cora, with or without your help. No offense..”
“Even if she’s as old as you?”
“Totally. Although she doesn’t look it, does she? She’s rather small.”
“It is just a side effect of the tanks. You know how goldfish are. No offense.”
Sarah glanced at him, then resumed her gaze on Cora. “Offense taken, That’s not nice. Cora may have lived in a tank all her life, but she has a new one now.”
Matther smiled. “Of course.” Then he frowned. “However, we will need to debrief her quite a bit.”
Both Ava and Sarah scrunched their brows. “She hasn’t been on a mission,” replied Ava.
“No. But she has watched a roomful of Namba Genetic researchers for maybe 14, 15 years. She might not remember much of that time, but I’m sure that anything she can remember will help. After all, she had given us a list of names so far. She must know other things as well.”
Sarah sighed. “She’s not a tape recorder, Matther.”
“No. But the more that I think about it, the more I wonder why she memorized the names of the researchers. True, they’re the only people she has known, but… They taught her things. To speak, at the least. And to learn. To make connections.” He, too, watched Cora through the glass. “By the way, I did not say ‘No offense.’ I do not consider her a tape recorder. Just a valuable source of data.”
“And…” prompted Sarah.
“And a valuable person. Much like yourself.” He grinned.
“Don’t flatter her, Matther,” said Ava. “She’ll think she’s actually doing her job right and not daydreaming for once.” Her words were harsh, but her tone was mild; she was paying Sarah a compliment. Sarah smiled back at her. “Oh, that reminds me. Here is your assignment for our coming mission.” Ava handed her a folded screen and a datachip. “Read carefully, and begin. We’ll see you in a few hours.” Ava turned on her heel, then walked towards the elevator with Matther beside her.
“Thanks,” grumbled Sarah. She shook open the screen, scanned it, then looked through the glass again. “Say, Ava…”
Ava turned. “Yeah?”
“Do you mind if I… stay in here, while I work on this?” She nodded towards Cora.
Ava smiled. “Go for it, kiddo. Just do… what?”
“Attagirl.” And then she joined Matther in the lift, and the doors slid shut, removing her face from Sarah’s vision. Sarah exhaled. She palmed the pad beside the glass; the door slid open quietly. And then she was sitting in the same chair, reading again, glancing every once in a while at Cora. Waiting for her to wake up.