No More Empty Faces

Second place story in the Klein Karoo Arts Festival 2001




‘Would you like anything else, sir?’
The android waiter gave a patented smile. Devon Marsh shook his head, keeping his revulsion politely hidden. Martyn had no such peculiarities of taste, ‘What do you have on offer?’
A new menu came up on their table screen, complete with visuals.
‘Care to join me? It all goes down as entertainment allowance.’
Devon gave one of his best vague-but-inoffensive excuses. Martyn's Company was the best offer he’d had, it wouldn't do to offend him. He’d already made it obvious that he thought Devon crazy to have given up his job at Eurotech to work for a laboratory so small that it couldn’t even afford to do it’s own testing.

Martyn shrugged, gave him an accustomed look, and turned his attention to the screen. Devon tried not to look but his eyes kept glancing down compulsively, searching for her face. In the end he gave up and looked. Carefully, slowly, all the way down to the very last. Nothing. He wasn't certain if the cool empty feeling was disappointment or relief.

As a young man he'd had his first encounter with a clone prostitute at a private party. Everyone had laughed at him for trying to chat up a stunning redhead who'd turned out to be TZ327, a very popular model in the Entertainment industry. He was to see her face again a hundred times after that. That had always unnerved him about clones, how the face on the mortician's slab could turn up again a day later at a club or a month later in a lab practical. You were certain to find a variation of it in the Copy shops. The secret clubs where the illegal copies of copies were peddled at bargain prices to compensate for the deformities and aberrations which overcopying produced. He'd heard stories that was the whole attraction, the sales gimmick. He'd never questioned further. Some things were easier to live with when you weren't completely certain they were true.

It had taken a while before world governments had given the go-ahead for comprehensive human cloning. The world didn't want to wake up and find copies of itself on every doorstep. The first human clone experiment results were completely unexpected. Although physically flawless copies of their ‘Blueprint’, the word used for the original donor, they had a distinct absence. A complete mental and emotional emptiness. They could follow simple instructions, but that was about all. They showed no signs of self-awareness or intellectual comprehension. Whilst the scientific world had been bitterly disappointed the commercial world had seen the possibilities immediately.

Clones could take over almost any basic unpleasant job on Earth or neighbouring space stations. Prostitution, hazardous chemical factories... the list grew daily. It was only a step from there to Testing. What better way to prove that your product was safe for humans than to test it on human clones? The Animal Liberation Front rejoiced as the religions went into mourning.

It was finally decided that since being cloned went against so many ideas on human rights it had to be viewed as something only done to the lowest forms of humanity. ‘Life with Cloning’ was introduced as the ultimate punishment for major crimes. such prisoners would know that out there, whilst they saw out their lives in confinement, copies of themselves were growing up in clone farms to be sent out as the world's expendable slaves.

There followed several decades of verbal protests against clone experimentation followed by a smaller but more serious wave of bombings and assassinations. The only surprise had been the negative reaction of the NARCs. The New Age Reformed Christian Church had never been known for its strong views, their whole success had been due to their tolerant progressive Theology. Their concerns about cloning was the first time they spoke out against anything.

But all this had ended years before he'd even been born. When he'd chosen medicine the only person in his family to voice any reservations had been his grandfather. He could still remember how his grandfather had been ridiculed for growing sad spindly vegetables in pots along his unit's window ledge. The family had found it terribly embarrassing - the shame of a foolish old man trying to grow food in a world that had existed on synthesised nutrition for twelve decades. It made him smile now, sitting there waiting for Martyn’s return, was his refusing to pay for sex just another way of trying to grow your own tomatoes?

He'd chosen a life devoted to research, inspired by the horrific outbreak of Ebola-7 in the last year of his studies. The visuals of people dying had made him weep yet every day for years he'd deliberately inflicted the same terrible disease on Lab Clones without feeling a thing. He'd watched them die from behind the surgical suits and protective windows, jotting down notes and already thinking ahead of what he might try the next time.

The next time.

‘Same place, same face.’ his lab partner, Josh, had liked to joke. They'd be busy putting a corpse into the incinerator and Josh would look down and say, ‘See you again tomorrow!’ It had seemed really funny back then.

In a way he supposed that this had always been inevitable. Small things adding up. The way the clone children in the section for childhood diseases made him uneasy with their changeling expressions. He’d chosen adult research. The faces were just as blank, but he found that bearable in the adults. Real people weren't much different. Like those he passed on his way to work each day, all expression worn away by the dreary routine of worry and boredom. So many empty faces.

Then She arrived, early in spring. A new clone was always a thing of interest, they happened so rarely, and she was exceptional. Perfect features and eyes that almost seemed to hold awareness in their smoky depths. Nefertiti reborn. Everyone was curious, the cafeteria buzzed with speculations.

Devon didn't know quite what to do with the latest addition. There was something about her that made him edgy, more than just her beauty. Her customary clone-blank expression seemed serene rather than deficient. He just could not bring himself to inflict any of the usual diseases on her, kept putting off the time when he'd have to sacrifice her to something.

The rumours began to spread that she wasn't to be found anywhere else. Usually clones were grown in batches of twenty, so where were the others? The mystery made her all the more alluring. At times during the day when the pace was slow he'd go and stand by her window and watch her. She was no different to the others. She'd sit the whole day staring at the wall, but with her the effect was eerily enchanting. Sometimes he'd find himself wondering how he would feel if she were ever to show recognition, her perfect lips frame an acknowledging smile.

He thought about trying to trace her Blueprint, fantasised about their meeting where everything was perfect by totally illogical means, but he knew better than to try. The real woman could be old, even dead. The whole idea was insane, but then so was the way he was starting to feel for NC763.

She haunted his thoughts during the daytime and ruled his dreams at night. He knew it was absurd, he knew it was unethical, but he had no more power to stop himself than he could stop the moon from rising. He started to visit her, just to sit or perhaps to talk about his daily business - as if she were capable of understanding.

People began to notice. Josh came straight out with it one lunch.
‘You're going to have to get rid of NC763 before Management get rid of you. Doctors who fall for their patients are a really old cliché, Devon. It could be funny if it wasn't a clone. They'll be sending you for psych-evaluation next if you don't watch it!’

He had her transferred to block V, where he wouldn't have to chart her destruction. A section where he had few acquaintances, no-one who might pass on information he didn't want to hear in casual conversation. Not that it helped. Each morning he'd stop at the junction of passages and think that if he turned left instead of right he'd be directly outside her door.

He put in a request for leave. It was granted with unusual ease. Three weeks as far away as he could get, spending every moment doing something energetic. Trying with all his might to forget why he was there.

He was in his room on the last week of his vacation when the story broke. In an hour he was packed and on a shuttle. One hour more and he was outside the laboratory forcing his way through a screaming mob, the usual scavenger crowd.

A small candle-lit gathering of NARCs wearing black were pressed up against the steps. He knew why they were there. Their presence filled him with a terror so great that he could hardly breath, the words repeating in his head as they had since the moment he’d seen the news. Don't let it be her. If the NARCs had decided to try an Ultimate Protest that was their business, just don't let it be her.

But he knew the answer already in the depth of himself.

No-one had thought it could go this far. The NARCs and their allies with their anachronistic concepts had become invisible, beyond ridiculous. Who believed in God anymore? Who would believe their insane archaic reasoning that clones were dysfunctional because they had no souls?

The NARCs had decided to prove that the humanity had become so desensitised that it couldn’t tell the difference between a real human being and a soulless clone. A Narc posing as a clone had been introduced into a laboratory and no-one had suspected a thing. They had waited until their volunteer’s life was terminal, when there was no way for the laboratory to apply damage control, before going to the media with their statement.

He’d watched Madeleine’s pre-recorded speech a hundred times since then. So beautiful as she stood, calm and determined, before her fate,
‘People will call my death a tragedy and waste, but how is it that we all ignore the deaths of thousands of our reproductions every day? Has our ability to feel empathy and compassion regressed so far? My death cannot be a waste if it makes even one person realise that this has to stop.’

The world would remember her from that moment, but for him it would forever be kneeling beside the narrow lab cot whilst the others stood in silence. Holding her while she struggled to die. Watching her face.

Later, when the darkest months were over, he resigned from the lab and began to pull himself back up into the bleak light of reality. Now he had a new home on a new continent and the certainty of a clone-less job before him.

Devon was relieved to see Martyn returning. It had been a long evening and he would be glad to get back to the solitude of his unit. On the way out they noticed a clone-girl standing in the doorway of a neighbouring club. Behind on the wall, in stark ironic contrast, was a NARC poster with writing superimposed over Madeleine's face. A shudder passed over him like a cold autumn breeze, full of the warnings of winter. Martyn noticed, ‘Damn shame, all the trouble the NARCs have stirred up.’

Devon looked away towards the starless city sky, smiled sadly, ‘Yes… a damned shame.’

----oOo----
copyright the author ~ Michelle Frost 
2001


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