by Marina J. Lostetter
“Hellooooo,” said Jamal in his small, sing-song voice. “Convoy computer, helloooo.” The eight-year-old bounced a soccer ball on his knee in front of the access panel. He was supposed to be in class.
“Hello, Jamal,” said the ship’s AI.
“Do I get a new baby brother today?”
“My records indicate that your parents will jointly travel to Hippocrates during their lunch hour to retrieve the next available, fully-gestated clone.”
The boy tossed his ball at the panel and deftly caught it on the rebound. “But is it a brother?” Computers could be so dumb. He’d make them smarter when he grew up.
“The next available clone is that of Nakamura Akane. Her original earned a doctorate in engineering and ship design from the university of--”
“A sister?” Jamal kicked the ball down the hallway. “You’re giving me a sister?” He knocked his forehead against the wall and scrunched his eyes shut in frustration. “Why, computer? What did I ever do to you?”
“I am not in control of the growth patterns. And I had no influence over when your parents submitted their request.”
“Ah, great,” Jamal grumbled. Through the hall came Dr. Seal, his teacher, carrying the scuffed soccer ball. “You had to tattle on me, too?”
“I do not tattle,” said I.C.C. “Dr. Seal inquired as to your location. You are here. I related such.”
“Not cool, man. Not cool.”
“The temperature is seventy one degrees Fahrenheit, twenty one point seven degrees Celsius.”
“No, cool, like neat, or awesome, or stellar.”
“Those words are not synonyms.”
“Mr. Kaeden,” Dr. Seal reiterated, standing over the boy. “You are supposed to be in class.”
“You are too,” he mumbled.
“Jamal will have to cohabitate with a sibling soon,” the computer explained. “The fact that he was not consulted on its gender seems to have caused him distress.”
“I’m getting a sister,” Jamal said with a pout.
“Sisters are people too,” said Dr. Seal as he took Jamal by the hand and led him away from the access panel.
* * *
Nobody understood. The other kids just made fun of the poopy diapers in his future, and all the grownups either waved aside the problem or seemed mad that he was mad.
“But it’s a girl,” he tried to explain.
The botanist that had come to give a lecture on their classroom air garden scrunched up her face. “I’m a girl.”
His ears turned from dark chocolate to strawberry chocolate. He didn’t mean... Ugh. “Yeah, whatever,” he mumbled. “You’re not a sister.” Even if you are, you’re not my sister.
When class finally got out he knew where he'd have to go to find a sympathetic ear. If anybody in the convoy could understand, it would be Diego.
When he arrived at his family's quarters he was surprised to see his aðon and pabbi--mother and father--there by themselves. No baby. His hopes rose for a moment. Maybe they’d changed their minds. Maybe they weren’t going to get a baby after all.
His pabbi kicked that fantasy out from under him. “We thought you’d like to come,” he explained. “We rescheduled for tomorrow and excused you from class.”
“We didn’t want you to feel left out,” said his aðon from the bedroom. She was changing out of her work jumper.
Well wasn’t that just... He didn’t feel left out, but he wanted to be left out. If he never had to see his sister it would be too soon. They were making a big, fat, ugly mistake. Why’d they want to go and ruin their perfect family with a sister, huh? Weren’t the three of them enough?
He dropped his pack in the entryway and slumped over to the dining table. “Can I go visit Diego when he gets off work?” he asked after he sat down, picking at his fingers and swinging his feet.
“Sure,” said Pabbi. “As long as he says it’s ok. If he’s busy you come right home.”
Diego was Jamal’s afi’s--his granddad’s--best friend. Jamal would never say so out loud, but he liked Diego better than Afi. Afi only liked old people things, and more importantly, only things right in front of him. He had no imagination.
Diego, though...Diego knew how to dream while still awake.
Jamal impatiently watched the minutes tick away. Diego’s shift was officially over at 1600, which meant he should be back at his cabin no later than 1630. As soon as the last minute rolled over, Jamal was out the door and down the hall to the nearest lift.
He had to wait a whole ‘nother five minutes before Diego got there. Jamal sat in front of the old man’s door, knees up to his chin, feet squirming in his shoes.
“Que pasa?” Diego squinted at Jamal when he got close. “Someone have a bad day?” He was dressed in the corn-yellow of most foodstuff workers. His ruddy wrinkles made him look like he’d been basking in the sun all day, though he hadn’t been anywhere near the artificial Sol of a communal garden.
Jamal shrugged, suddenly aware that his complaint might come off as whiny. “How was your day?” he asked politely. Something about being around Diego always made him feel more polite.
“Fine. Figured how to make the soy processing more efficient. My original designed the system, you know. I just made it better.” Diego opened the door. “I was going to watch a movie this evening,” he said as the lights came on. “You might find it amusing. Coming in?”
Diego’s quarters didn’t have as many rooms as Jamal’s. He’d said it was because he didn’t need them. “Only one of me. Can’t take up a family cabin any more. Wouldn’t be right.”
The place smelled like beans and cheese. Diego checked his slow-cooker in the kitchenette, then came back to the main sitting and sleeping area. “How’s the new baby? Problems already? If you liked it you wouldn’t be here.”
“No baby yet,” said Jamal, crossing his arms. “They’re gonna take me with when they get her.”
“Ah. That’s nice.”
“No, it’s not.”
Jamal shrugged. “Decided I don’t want a sib. ‘Specially a sister.” Diego laughed lightly and Jamal took immediate offense. “You too? You don’t get it. Why doesn’t anyone get it?”
“I’m not laughing at you, amigo. I’m enjoying the simplicity of your problem, not that it is a problem.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ve figured out how to live in space and investigate cosmic phenomena up close. But we still haven’t figured out how to make a new brother appreciate his sister. I had a sister, you know.”
“You did? But, you were born on Earth. Was it another clone?”
The old man shook his head and gestured for Jamal to have a seat. “Nope. My sister was born the old fashioned way. She did not accompany me on the mission.”
“What’s ‘the old fashion way’?”
Diego’s face went blank for a moment, then he waved the question aside. “Never you mind. My point is, I felt the same as you, or at least similar, when I was told I’d be sharing my parents with a girl. Anita. Oh, I hated the idea. I considered running away and abandoning my duties if my mother went through with this whole giving birth thing.”
Jamal gasped. Abandoning your duty was about the lowest thing a convoy member could do. The thought of it made him sick inside. “You did?”
“Considered, I said, considered. I didn’t, of course. I stuck it out. The baby was born, came home, and then...guess what?”
Jamal pursed his lips. “What?”
“I was just as upset with the baby there as I was when she hadn’t been around yet. But I got over it, eventually. You’ll learn to like being a big brother. You’ll get excited when she learns to walk, and talk. But you should never hold her gender against her.”
“Why would you hold anything against someone that they can’t help? You know what that’s called? Prejudice.”
“It is stupid. Very stupid. But, there was a time and place where your friend Lewis might not have liked you because of the color of your skin, and where someone like my late wife might never have looked twice at a man who spoke a different language than she did.”
“Everyone on board speaks the same language.”
“I’ll give you that. What I’m saying is we’re explorers, Jamal. Astronauts. You’d understand how wonderful that is if you’d been born on Earth... Point is, if we can’t leave all that other bull pucky behind us, well what’s it all for? And how do we honor our unique position in humanity’s history?”
“Through loyalty, efficiency, and dedication,” Jamal recited.
“Yes, but also through understanding. Living in a convoy means we’re rubbing elbows left and right. We have to look at what ties us together. As soon as we start disliking each other for our little differences it’ll all go to pot. There’s nowhere to run, you see? You’re stuck with everyone on board. Might as well be nice to them, might as well appreciate them. So, don’t be mad that you’ve got a sister. Don’t be blinded by that thing you call ‘stupid.’”
“Yeah, alright,” Jamal conceded. “I’ll try ‘n’ like her. Can I not like her if she’s annoying?”
Diego considered for a moment. “Yes. But I still suggest you try.”
“So what’s the movie you were gonna watch?”
“It’s old, I have to warn you.”
Oh no. Not like Afi old, he hoped.
“It’s about space travel. Before they’d had much space travel.” Diego dimmed the lights and accessed the computer.
Before they’d had much space travel? Jamal couldn’t even imagine such a time. “Like a million years ago?”
“No, not quite,” Diego chuckled. “You sit right there. This is the best of the series--classic lines in this one. You’ll like it; there’s a bold captain, a first officer with pointy ears, and a villain you’ll love to hate.”
* * *
“That was awesome!” Jamal said when the credits rolled. “They were so--weird. They really thought you could chop people into tiny little bits and send them through space? And get a person on the other side, not a pile of guts?”
Diego nodded as though he weren’t really listening. “Glad you enjoyed it. Better run along home. Your parents will probably want to head down to the mess soon.”
Jamal prepared to leave. Diego stopped him just before he went out the door. “Jamal, do you know what your sister’s serial number is?”
“It’s her production number. It’s how we keep track of how many babies are being born. Can you ask your padre--your pabbi for me?”
What’d he want that for? “Ok,” he said slowly. “I’ll ask.”
“Don’t forget. It’s important.”
“Ok. I won’t forget.”
* * *
Hippocrates loomed before their shuttle, the second biggest ship in the convoy. It looked...intimidating. Especially with all of its arms sticking out all over the place. Pabbi explained that the 'arms' were umbilical; they could dock with the other ships during emergencies.
The ship reminded Jamal of a dead bug. Or the prickly shell of a nut. Maybe a sea creature--they had an aquarium on Eden. Sea urchins were supposedly high in protein. How much protein did he need every day? Well, he was only four foot eleven, so...
He tried to keep up the wandering train of thought. He wanted his mind to stay away from the pending sister-assault for as long as possible. Figures and calculations for calorie intake swarmed through his brain.
Diego had made him feel a little better about the idea of having a sister, but not much.
Other shuttles zipped by outside, white and silvery against the blackness of space. Light from external LEDs bounced off hulls and windows, producing a glare that kept all natural starlight at bay. The ships and shuttles were bright objects in a dark cocoon. When Jamal touched one corner of the shuttle side-shield, graphics popped up to label the hidden nebulae and galaxies and systems. But even the star charts couldn't hold his attention for long.
His thoughts shifted. The classroom butterflies would be free of their cocoons soon. Then the class would take a trip to Mira's communal garden and release the bugs. Butterflies helped pollinate the plants. Plants were a good source of fiber...
The spiny ship swelled before the shuttle and soon blotted out the rest of the convoy. Near its bottom a bay door opened, ready to gulp up their little shuttle--and Jamal’s dreams of being an only child.
His family was greeted inside by a lady who wore a sea-foam green jumpsuit wrapped in a white smock. A paper mask, held on by bands around her ears, rested awkwardly beneath her chin; she looked like she had a bulbous, snowy beard.
“Hello,” she said warmly, “I’m Sailuk Okpik. You’re here to pick up an infant who’s come to term?” His parents indicated they had. “This way,” she directed.
Jamal had visited Hippocrates only once, on an inter-convoy field trip. His yearly physicals, mental checkups, and even his broken leg had all been attended to in Mira's med bay. But there were a few things done on Hippocrates that took place on no other ship: cloning, for one. Jamal had never been to the growing rooms or the birthing chambers before.
The kids told all types of stories about the spooky tubes. About the half-grown babies with their guts hanging out, and the two-headed flukes they had to discard in secret. Some said the accidental deformities got ground up and put in kids' lunches. Others said they grew them to adults and had them work in secret. Still others said the doctors tried to kill the mistakes, but that they lived and formed their own society in the ships’ walls. There they lurked, watching, waiting, ready to strangle healthy crewmembers in their sleep whenever they got their chance.
Jamal didn’t believe those stories. Not really.
“Would you like a full tour?” asked Sailuk. “You probably took it when you picked up your son, but some second-timers like to see it again. Though, I have to warn you, some children don’t react well.” She turned her round face towards Jamal. “Do you scare easy?”
“I don’t know,” said his aðon, “The fetus tanks were a bit much for me when I first saw them, and I was twelve.”
“I think he can handle it,” said his pabbi, “What do you think, Jamal? Are you up for learning where babies come from?”
“Is it gross?” he asked, turning to Sailuk.
“Sure is,” she said frankly.
What would the other kids say, if they found out he’d gone all wimpyfied? “I can take it,” he said, puffing out his chest.
“Are you sure?” Moms could be so stuffy sometimes.
“Yes, Aðon,” he said in a tone that conveyed how tiresome her question was. “I’m not a baby.”
That settled that.
A wide lift at the end of a long hall took them to the very top deck level. When the doors opened Jamal was immediately surprised by the lighting. Instead of a cold white, everything was bathed in pinkish-purple.
“The lighting helps protect the babies’ skin,” said Sailuk. “In most fetal stages it can’t handle the rays included in our normal lighting. Most of the convoy lights were developed to mimic actual sunlight as closely as possible, to prevent problems like seasonal affective disorder. But these lights screen out anything that would be harmful to the undeveloped infant. They work like an old fashioned dark room for developing photographs--or, of course, a mother’s womb.”
The first room they went into was bright again. White, normal light.
“Here we do the actual cloning. It’s slightly different than traditional Earth cloning, in that instead of using DNA from the original, we build DNA identical to the original and then insert it into a healthy ovum. So over here,” she led them to the left, “you can see Anatoly analyzing a newly formed molecule chain to make sure it is identical to the original pattern.”
A man in a clean-room bent over a microscope and manipulated something on the slide before him.
This was boring so far. Not scary. If Jamal wanted to watch people play with molecules he could just go back to class.
Sailuk ran them through the rest of the first stages, using weird, gibberish words like histone and zygote. Jamal didn’t understand how goats had anything to do with making babies.
They moved on to another purple room. This one was lined with tubes behind a glass window. In each tube sat one worm, suspended in some strange, snot-like solution. Jamal and his parents had entered a viewing cubicle.
“Those are babies,” his aðon said. “They’re only a few weeks old.”
“Ew,” he said curtly. “But they don’t look anything like a baby. Look, this one has legs and a tail.” It was more like a smooth, rubbery lizard than a human. “Ach, this one has big glassy eyeballs, too.” No way these were people.
On they went, through more rooms with viewing cubicles, and he began to see the connection. The more the worms came to look like the thing with legs, the more the thing with legs came to look like a salamander, the more the salamander came to look like a wrinkly naked thing...the more creeped out Jamal got.
Babies weren’t just annoying, they were freaky. Like aliens. And here they were displayed in jars like specimens of dead animals. The whole thing felt...unnatural.
“What’s ‘the old fashioned way’?” he asked suddenly.
His parents stopped scrutinizing a tube that held a baby with head-stubble. “What?”
“Diego said his sister was born the old fashioned way, but he wouldn’t say what that was.”
The adults shared a look. “People used to be born and die a little different than on board,” said his mother. “I suppose that’s the way they still do it on Earth. It was messier, and less efficient.”
“Moms carried the babies in their bellies,” Pabbi said, patting Aðon’s stomach.
“Uh...” was all Jamal could say. That would be even weirder than all this. “Oh, and he wanted me to ask what the baby’s number is.”
His parents eyeballed each other again. What was all this look-passing and eyebrow raising about?
“He must be close,” said Pabbi. “I wonder how many more he has.”
“Far fewer than your dad,” said Aðon.
Annoyingly, they let the matter drop without explaining their cryptic chatter to Jamal.
Finally, the bulk of the freak show was over. Time to get the baby and head home.
“We’d like to attend the birthing,” insisted Pabbi. “We were there for Jamal’s first breath. We’d like to be there for Akane’s.”
“We’re going to watch her come out of the tube and get all cleaned up,” Jamal’s aðon said to him, overly perky. “Look, there she is.” They entered one last room, this one with normal light again. One tube occupied the space, surrounded by four technicians. This baby looked like the ones in the previous room--you know, actually like a baby. Like a real little person instead of a funky slimy thing. She had hair and eyelashes and fingernails and everything.
Two of the technicians held the tube in place while the other two unhooked it from its wires and apparatuses. Eventually they popped the top off and tipped it over. The baby came spilling out onto a thick, foam-looking pad that sucked up most of the liquid.
A man came at the baby with a hose, the tip of which looked like the plastic vacuum the dentist used. The man pushed it up the baby’s nose and in her mouth and soon she was crying. A hoarse, squeaky cry that didn’t sound anything like the crying Jamal had expected.
She looked a lot smaller now that she was out of the tube, wiggling and naked on a table under the lights. She looked vulnerable.
Jamal felt a pang of protectiveness. “Can’t they get her a blanket or something?”
“They will,” Sailuk assured him. “They have to clean her up first.”
After the baby was prepped and swaddled, Sailuk went into the room to retrieve her.
When the crying Akane was brought before her new family, Sailuk asked, “Who would like to hold her first?”
Jamal tentatively raised his hand. “Can I?”
* * *
“Not so bad as you feared, eh?” asked Diego, packing a trowel and a small shovel in his bag.
“No, guess not. She’s kind of nice. Except when she cries while I’m trying to sleep.”
“Did you get the number?” he asked casually, opening the door to his quarters and ushering Jamal out. They were going to work in Mira's communal garden.
“Oh, yeah, here.” Jamal pulled a small ‘flex-sheet out of his pocket. “She’s S8-F94-3-16008.”
“Five more until I get my notice,” Diego said.
“I’ll tell you about it when we get to the garden. I’ll feel more comfortable with some dirt under my nails.”
The artificial sun sat high overhead, and the cows mooed in a bored sort of way. The weather-planners were pretending it was hot today. The thermostat must have read at least thirty one degrees Celsius. Luckily a large part of the garden sat in the shade of a big tree. A few butterflies flitted by, and Jamal thought he recognized one from his classroom.
The air smelled sweet here. But he was pretty sure the scent wasn’t emanating from the flowers or the grass--it was one more illusion. They pumped in the smell to make the space seem bigger and more open than it was.
Diego dug right in. Only a few minutes passed before his hands, forearms, and boots were caked with enriched soil. “That’s better. Get a bit of this mud on you, it’s nice and cool.” He drew a dirty line down the arch of Jamal’s nose. “Good war paint,” he said with a wink.
Getting into the spirit, Jamal put a dirty handprint on Diego’s cheek. “Looks like I whacked you one.”
“Let me return the favor.” Jamal’s face now sported two handprints that mirrored each other. The dirt might as well have been face paint, and the handprints butterfly wings. “Can’t forget to wash that off before you go home. Otherwise your madre will have my hide. With a new baby to think about she doesn’t need to be giving you extra baths as well.”
“What were you saying before?” Jamal asked, looking over a bowl of seeds they’d picked up at the entrance to the field. “About Akane’s number?”
“I should probably make you ask your parents,” said Diego. He dug a small hole and gestured for Jamal to sprinkle in a few seeds. “But that would be for their sake, not yours. Jamal, I’m going to retire soon.”
The smile slumped off the boy’s face. “What?” He stood up straight. “Why?”
No. No. No. Diego wasn’t old enough to retire. Only really old people retired. And it wasn’t something you talked about. It just happened, they disappeared one day. Said good bye and left for...somewhere.
“What does Akane’s number have to do with that?” he added.
“Sit back down so we can talk about this rationally,” Diego ordered, patting the ground.
Jamal narrowed his eyes. Anything Diego said from this moment on would be held under the highest scrutiny. Sick people retired, frail people retired, incapable people retired--Diego was none of those things.
“You’re eight. You’re big enough to understand about retirement. On Earth I learned about it a whole lot sooner than eight. And we didn’t have that nice euphemism for it. We just called it what it was.”
No one ever said, but Jamal wasn’t stupid. He knew where retirees went. He knew. He just didn’t like to think about it. If no one ever talked about the truth, if everyone always glossed over the facts, why couldn’t he? “I do understand,” he said.
“Then sit down. You know I’m going to die, but you don’t understand the how or why of it. So let me tell you.”
Jamal finally sat and said in a small voice, “Did the doctors find something?”
“No. Nothing like that. I’m as healthy as a, as one of those bovine over there. But my number is about to come up, quite literally. You see, everything on the convoy’s got to balance. All that’s ever here is all there ever will be. Even if we find an asteroid to mine, we can only carry so much. We’re a closed environment. We have to scrimp and save and control and manage. So, we have to pick and choose when it comes to some things. Where do we put our resources?”
Jamal picked at a strand of grass and it gave him a thin cut--it didn’t bleed but it smarted. What did this mumbo jumbo about management have to do with Diego dying?
“Are you listening?”
“Yes,” Jamal mumbled.
“To conserve our resources, birthing can never get out of synch with dying. We can’t have more babies born than people who die. So, everyone on board has numbers. Two numbers--a number that corresponds to their birth and one that corresponds to their death. When the 16013th baby of the third generation is born, I’ll get my notice. It’ll let me know that after another three clones are brought to term I’ll be scheduled for official retirement. They’ll set a date, and I’ll go over to Hippocrates and they’ll--”
Jamal’s hands flew to his ears. “Shut up. I don’t want to hear about it. I don’t want to know how they’ll kill you.”
“Oh, stop it now.” Diego pried Jamal’s hands from his head.
Fire and water surged inside Jamal’s brain. His face grew hot and swollen. “But why? You’re still a perfectly good person. There’s nothing wrong with you. Retirement is for people who have problems that can’t be reversed.”
“Yes, I know. And a lot of people go that way. They get some sort of terminal or chronic problem and never see their end-number. But I’m lucky, Jamal. I got to live my full life.”
“It’s all Akane’s fault,” Jamal realized. “If parents stopped asking for babies then they wouldn’t have to kill you. It’s not fair! Why grow a new person when you have to kill a perfectly good person to get it? It’s not right!”
“Now don’t go blaming your parents or your sister. Babies can’t be blamed for anything.”
“This is stupid.” The boy stood and pulled at his hair. “You have to fight, you can’t let them take you.”
“They’re not carrying me away kicking and screaming. This is how things work. This is how they’re supposed to be. The old die off, leaving resources for the young. We just make it a little neater and a little tidier. The exact same thing happens on Earth. It’s a natural cycle.”
“Watch your language.”
“I won’t let this happen. They can take the baby back.”
“Now you’re just being childish. Listen to me. I’m ok with this. I knew it was coming. I’m happy to give my resources over. It makes me proud to do so. I’m helping the mission. I’m assuring the convoy remains balanced and healthy. To prolong my life after retirement age would be selfish. Wrong. Disloyal.” He pushed himself up and took Jamal by the shoulders. “I would be abandoning my responsibilities. It would be the worst thing I could do, you know that.”
Jamal threw his arms around Diego’s waist. “I don’t want you to go. I don’t want them to take you away.”
“I know, boy. But it’s for you and your generation. I die so you can live.”
* * *
Jamal put on a brave face--even if it was wet and puffy--when he went home. No amount of reassurance from Diego could convince him the old man’s retirement was a good thing, though. No one wanted to die.
Why would they want to exchange Diego--he’d just fixed that bean processer or something, hadn’t he?--for a useless baby. How did that make any sense?
This was wrong. He might only be eight, but there was no way he would sit by while they hauled off his favorite person in all of space.
That night he lay wide awake while Akane cried out in the communal space. His parents were trying to sooth her, but the she just wouldn’t shut up.
Since he couldn’t sleep he worked on a plan. Diego wasn’t going anywhere without a fight.
The next day was group-play day. Not really school, and not really a day off. Someone-- someone’s grandma, if he remembered right--called it daycare. If your mom and dad didn’t have the day off when you did, you went to group-play.
Several halls merged to form the communal play space. It wasn’t a room, and it wasn’t a passage either. It was a strange space on Mira, meant for mingling but rarely used by anyone other than children. Chairs and tables popped out from cubbies in the walls. Hidden closets held extra dishes and celebratory items. The area could be turned into a fort with a few re-appropriated bed sheets and a little squinting.
When Jamal saw that the group-play guardian’s back was turned, it was time to initiate Plan Diego. He shoved his hands in his pockets and side-stepped down the hall, away from the communal area. He found an access panel and dropped to his knees. From his pocket he produced a screwdriver taken from his parent’s emergency tool kit.
Carefully, Jamal unscrewed the fasteners that secure the panel, then crawled inside. There were all kinds of rumors about the access tunnels. Sure, sure, the wrongly-grown freaks were supposed to live in them, but that wasn’t all. Alligators, giant bugs, ghosts, and even alien egg-sacks were supposed to call the convoy ducts home.
Several times he had to stop and fight off the willies--especially when the motion-sensing work lights failed to flick on as fast as he’d hoped.
Cramped, dusty, and sweltering, the tunnels were not the stuff of play-time fantasy. It was slow going, pulling himself up flimsy ladders, shuffling through tight shafts, and squeezing around awkward corners. No one was meant to travel from one end of the ship to the other this way, but that was the idea. If someone found Jamal wandering the hallways they’d stop him, turn him around, and escort his butt right back to daycare.
Twenty minutes later he kicked his way out of another access panel. Only a moment passed before he regained his bearings and confirmed he was where he wanted to be: Outside I.C.C.’s main server room.
He pounded ferociously on the door.
“Yeah, just a sec,” came a man’s voice from inside. A moment later the door slid to the side, revealing a tall, well-built, middle-aged black man.
“I need your help,” Jamal said.
The man considered the boy for a second longer before realizing, “Hey, you’re my replacement, aren’t you?”
* * *
There were two primary clones for each job--cycle mates. Clone A would be in charge while Clone B apprenticed--all while another Clone A was educated and another Clone B was born. The staggered growth was meant to add some normalcy--so that no one was forced into the surreal situation of having to train a genetic mirror of themselves. Subsequently, no fewer than two versions of a clone were alive at any one time.
Jamal seeking out his predecessor was unusual, but not unprecedented. It was natural to be curious about your genetic twin. But cornering them at their place of work was discouraged, because it was rude. Young Jamal was acutely--though not fully--aware of this when the older Jamal invited him into the server room. The space was dark. Ghostly lights formed rows and columns down the sides of the big, black servers, which in turn had been laid out in the room on a grid.
“Something tells me you shouldn’t be here, little man,” said the older clone. He sat down at his work station near the rear of the room. He swiveled his chair to face Jamal, and did not offer the boy a seat.
Jamal realized for the first time why it was important to have the third slapped on the end of his name. “I need your help, uh, sir. It’s important. Something terrible is happening on board, and we’ve got to stop it.”
“What? And you came to me because you thought, heck, I’m you and I’ll understand your problem immediately through, what, a mind-meld? Do they not explain what a clone is to you kids?”
That wasn’t it at all. “You’re not me,” Jamal said, indignant. “I came here because you’ve got access to I.C.C. I want to change some records and you can do it best.”
Older Jamal considered this for a moment. He nodded once. “Ok. Spill.”
Jamal explained, went on and on about Diego’s multitude of virtues, then presented his solution. “I just want you to change the babies’ numbers. Make it so fifty--no, a hundred babies have to be born before Diego retires. Or, you know, just change Diego’s other number--his death number.”
“I cannot allow tampering with the convoy’s inventory system,” said I.C.C.
“What it said.” Older Jamal sniffed and wiped his nose on his eggplant-colored jumpsuit sleeve.
“Inventory?” said Jamal, “You mean like when we have to count all of our quarter’s spoons and forks and stuff to make sure it’s all there? You do that with people?”
“Of course. What did you think the numbers were for?” The computer sounded confused, though its inflections were even.
“Look, kid,” said Older Jamal. A work-cap sat on his terminal. He picked it up and twirled it between his hands. “You’ve got to face it. We’re all spoons, ok? If you want a brand new spoon, you have to get rid of the bent one. Get it?”
“But there’s nothing wrong with this spoon,” Jamal insisted. “And he’s not a spoon, he’s a person. He’s my friend.”
“Yeah, well, we all lose friends. This is just how things work. We’re all on a time table, all set up to rotate. You were born at the precise time you needed to be so that you could replace me when I start to get slow. It’ll be the same for the Jamal after you. It’s part of life. I suggest you accept it and run back to school.”
“But why is it a part of life?”
“Because some guy back on Earth looked at all the numbers and decided this way was best for the mission.”
Jamal squeezed the screwdriver in his pocket, looking for something to hold onto. Something to use as a touchstone. His whole world seemed to be sliding off its blocks. “Is it?”
Older Jamal placed his cap on his head. “Is it what?”
“Best?” Jamal turned toward a blinking red light and camera lens mounted in the back of the room. “Is it, I.C.C.?”
“I do not currently have a holistic comprehension of the idea: Best. Please clarify.”
His little hands did a dance in the air as he tried to explain. “Best, you know, the, uh goodest way to do stuff. Like, brushing your teeth is better than not brushing your teeth, otherwise you’ve got to see the dentist with the drill.”
“I think the word he’s looking for,” said Older Jamal, repositioning himself in front of a monitor at his work station, “is efficient. Is our current grow-and-recycle system the most efficient use of personnel in accordance with the mission?”
“It is a system in which the failsafes create inefficiencies, but ensure the greatest chance of overall success,” responded I.C.C. in its cold, mechanical way.
Older Jamal shrugged, “There you have it.”
There you have what? “I don’t understand.”
The computer began again, “The system is reliant on--”
“Let me put it in laymen’s terms, I.C.C.” Older Jamal waved a hand in dismissal. I.C.C. thanked him, and it almost sounded relieved. Jamal knew it wasn’t used to answering to a child. “Look, little man. Sure, our system isn’t the best in the sense that we don’t squeeze every last drop of productivity out of a person before they croak. We work them ‘til death, but we don’t work them to death. Come here.”
Flicking a finger at the boy, he simultaneously stiff-armed ‘flex-sheets, a half-eaten sandwich, and a coffee cup aside on his console. With a sliver of trepidation, Jamal came forward and let the man pick him up and place him on the now-clean surface.
Jamal looked his older, biological twin in the eye. The expression he found was stern, but not unkind. There were flecks of gray in the hair nearest the man’s temples, and Jamal found himself wondering just how many years into his future he was looking.
“Everything in service to the mission, correct?” the man asked.
“Yes,” Jamal agreed.
“And what is that mission?”
“To make it to the interstellar anomaly, designation LKpyx, and discover...discover whatever we can.”
“Who has to make it?”
Twisting his lips, Jamal thought for a moment before answering. “We do.”
“Who do? You and me? No, kid. It’s not a who, it’s a what. The convoy. Everything we do is in service to the convoy, and it’s the convoy’s mission to get to the star and figure out if we're really seeing what we think we're seeing: a giant, artificial construct. Whether it's a Dyson sphere or not doesn't matter. What matters is the life--the intelligence, greater than ours. Where did they come from? Where are they now? Why haven't they contacted us? Huh? Inquiring minds want to know. You and I, we'll never get to see the answers. But the convoy will.” He patted Jamal’s head. “We’re just parts. Cogs in a machine. Pieces in I.C.C’s system. You’ve got to decide you’re ok with that, or be miserable. It is what it is. Life’s always been what it is. It’s whether you accept that or not that makes it good or bad, right or wrong, upsetting or not.”
Jamal sighed. Why was everyone he talked to so...what was the word for it? It was a good word, he’d just learned it...Rational. That was it. They were like the computer. Didn’t they ever listen to their feelings instead of their brains? Or was that what being grown up was all about: learning to be logical?
But wasn’t ignoring your feelings illogical? Why was his gut so insistent if he was supposed to ignore it?
“What if there’s a better way?” he asked.
“A bunch of big-wigged, scientific mucky-mucks back on Earth couldn’t figure out a better way, but sure, you’re what, nine? I have complete faith that a nine-year-old can figure out a better way.”
“I know what sarcasm is.”
Jamal pouted. “Why don’t we just try my way? An experiment with Diego, to see if maybe I’m right and this is wrong.”
Red and blue lights began flashing down one of the server rows, and Older Jamal went to check on them. “Think it’s best if you went home now, kid,” he called.
I.C.C. opened the server room door.
“That’s it? Just no?”
Older Jamal sniffed again, loud enough to be heard over the humming of the servers. “Just no. Believe me kid, they thought of everything when it came to the mission. If you want to change the system you’ll have to shirk the mission.”
Again, Jamal felt sick at the idea. The convoy was his home, the mission filled him with pride and wonder. They were explorers, boldly going...somewhere. He was proud to be a part of it.
But not proud of how they were going about it.
He went back to daycare the same way he’d come, and wasn’t surprised to find that none of the adults had realized he was missing.
Nothing he did or said seemed to matter to anyone.
* * *
The day came far too soon. Jamal had wracked his brain for weeks, trying to find a suitable solution, and at every turn Diego tried to discourage him.
“You don’t have to defend me, boy. Someone died for all of us. Someone died so your pabbi could be born, someone died so you could be born.”
That just made him more upset.
“I want to come with you, over to Hippocrates,” Jamal declared that morning. His parents had excused him from class so that he could say his goodbyes.
“Your Afi is coming with me. I don’t want you there, Jamal. It’d be too hard.” He was packing a bag. It was tradition to pack up your quarters before you retired. The most important things went in a black duffle bag, to be handed out to your loved ones as mementos. This the retiree would keep with them until the end. Everything else went back into surplus. Supplies to be used again, by someone new.
Bleary-eyed, Jamal hugged Diego around the middle and refused to let go for a full three minutes.
“I know it’s hard. You cry if you want to, let it all out. I’ll miss you, too. But you’ve got to know I’m doing the right thing. It’s for the greater good.”
Jamal wanted to puke on the greater good. The greater good could get sucked out an airlock for all he cared.
“Now, I’m going to take a nice, soothing bath before I go. Would you mind putting my bag by the door on your way out?” He kissed Jamal on the top of the head, said one last goodbye, and went to his bathroom with a smile on his face.
Desiring nothing more than to run down the hall wailing, Jamal took a deep breath and retrieved the bag from the table. He couldn’t deny Diego his last request.
The bag was heavy. Way too heavy for Jamal to lift. He had to drag it all the way across the room. And then it hit him. It was heavy like a person--a small person. Like a Jamal-sized person.
He would go to Hippocrates after all, and stop this terrible mistake.
* * *
Few sounds came through the fabric un-garbled. Light was totally absent, and the tight space forced him into the fetal position. It was a deadly combination of comfort and sensory deprivation that lead to an impromptu nap.
There was no telling how much time had passed before a jarring woke him. Someone had picked up the bag. Afi, if his ears weren’t lying. It must be time to go.
Hold still, he told himself. If he’d stayed asleep he probably wouldn’t have had anything to worry about.
He could tell when they’d entered the shuttle bay, and again when they’d boarded a shuttle. He was thrown unceremoniously into an empty seat, and it took all of his will power not to let out an oomph.
What would he actually do once they arrived? He hadn’t thought that far ahead. Surely he would make a grand speech. Something like in the movies, where the hero dashes in and convinces everyone he’s right through the power of words.
But what then? If Diego said he didn’t want to retire would everyone else just let it happen?
He never got a chance to find out. He never even got to make his speech, grand or otherwise.
He was picked up and plopped down several more times before he decided they’d reached the end of the line. This was it, the place he was supposed to be. Time to make his grand entrance.
Jamal deftly unzipped himself, jumped up, and cried, “Stop!”
Everyone stared. There were five other people in the pristine, white room--but none of them were Afi or Diego.
Nearby stood a door, and without missing a beat Jamal threw it open. On the other side lay a glass cubicle--an observation station, like all the clone-growing rooms had.
A place from which to watch someone retire, should you feel the need.
On the other side of the pane, Diego reclined in a dentist’s chair. On one side was a lady wearing one of those medical masks and a hair net, and on the other sat Afi, holding Diego’s hand. They’d wrapped Diego in a long, white fluffy robe that folded down around his feet. He’d been swaddled, like Akane. His eyes were closed.
Clear plastic tubing stuck out of Diego’s right arm and extended up to a bag of foggy, slightly blue liquid. The lady pumped something into the bag with a needle, and the solution turned pale yellow.
“No!” shouted Jamal. He banged on the glass with both fists. “Stop it! Stopit stopit stopit!”
Diego’s eyes flew open as Afi and the technician’s heads both snapped in Jamal’s direction.
“Please,” Jamal pleaded. “Please don’t take him away.” His vision blurred, and he had to take huge gulps of air as his lungs stuttered. “Please.” His voice cracked and he turned away.
As he hid his face there was a commotion on the other side of the glass. Furniture squeaked across the floor, metal rattled, three voices argued and one yelped. When Jamal looked up and rubbed his eyes, Diego stood before him, palms pressed to the window.
“It’s ok, Jamal. You have to let me go. It’s time for you to learn new things and meet new people. You can’t hang around an old fool forever.” Diego sounded muffled, but the words were clear. So was the meaning.
“I don’t want to let you go.” He knew how selfish it sounded. He pressed his palm against the glass as if pressing it to Diego’s hand.
“Go back out that door, now,” said Diego. “It’s time to say goodbye.” With that he returned to the chair, lay back down, and shut his eyes.
* * *
Jamal had never been in more trouble in his life. Apparently hitching a ride to the retirement wing was almost as bad as abandoning the mission. Almost.
No one cared about his excuses. No one cared he’d done it for a noble cause. All they cared about was teaching him never to do it again. They gave him a week to grieve, then enacted his penalty.
As punishment they made him clean the access ducts without the aid of bots. Ironically, the same ducts he’d high-jacked as a short cut to the server room.
Gleaming before him now was a plate that read:
Here interned are the ashes of Dr. Leonard McCloud.
May the convoy carry him in death to the stars he only dreamed of in life.
It marked the final resting place of some guy from Earth--some guy who had helped build the mission, but never saw it launch. Guess there really are dead people in the walls, Jamal thought.
Viscous cleaning solution ran down through the words, obscuring them. He mopped the orange-scented cleaner up with a rag.
There would be no plaques for Diego. Spoons only get remembered by other spoons.
The boy rubbed a hand across his eyes. The fumes stung. “Does it hurt when you die?”
“I have not experienced death, and do not have enough information to extrapolate--”
A burning rimmed his eyes. What strong cleaner.
No, he couldn’t fool himself. He wasn’t crying because of the chemicals. “That’s not what I meant,” he said. “Never mind.”
A stiff silence followed. Jamal continued to polish the nameplate long after it was clean.
Though he was angry for Diego for leaving, Jamal realized he was also proud of the old man. He'd done something he believed in, no matter the personal cost. He'd done it for Jamal and Akane and all the other children. That could be good--should be good. But Jamal knew it was ok to be sad, too.
Akane. Diego was gone, and Akane was here. She is cute, Jamal admitted to himself. And gurgley.
That day, before he'd gone off to attend to his punishment, she'd grabbed his finger for the first time. She'd held it and smiled, and he had smiled, too.
He didn't want her to go back to Hippocrates anymore, or to disappear altogether. He didn't even want her to be a boy. Now he just wanted to be a good big brother. Like Diego had been for Anita.
“Diego...he was your friend?” I.C.C. eventually asked. It was a cautious question, asked micro seconds slower than usual questions from the AI.
“Yes,” Jamal croaked.
“I don’t comprehend what that means.”
Wiping the snot from his nose, Jamal cleared his throat. “I know,” he said, and patted the wall as if I.C.C. could feel the gesture. “I’ll teach you.”
Copyright © 2014 Marina J. Lostetter
Marina J. Lostetter's short fiction has appeared in venues such as InterGalactic Medicine Show, Galaxy’s Edge, and Lightspeed. Originally from Oregon, Marina now lives in Arkansas with her husband, Alex. She tweets as @MarinaLostetter. Please visit her homepage at www.lostetter.net.