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by E. Catherine Tobler
There were seven before you. You’re number eight, perfect in every way, because they rooted out each imperfection across the seven who came before.
But they left you, your makers. They left you without a hint as to where they’d gone. You were old enough, smart enough, built well enough to withstand anything that might come, so they left you, and you—you hunt. If you’re perfection, the others cannot stand.
You find the first in the lab where your makers left you. She hangs suspended in a floor to ceiling tank, pale like she’s never seen sunlight. Of course, she never has. Her skin is milk, shot through with veins so blue, they don’t look like rivers, but rather cords of rope.
She sleeps floating in the amniotic fluid that’s as clear as water. You thought it would have gone gray, but you don’t know how to mark the passage of time, and it’s hard to say how much time has passed. She was the first, and you were the last and are grown, so it seems like a good deal of time would have come and gone, but you’ve not spent much time under the sun yet, either.
You drain the tank and she floats to the bottom like a jellyfish, curled in on herself, noodle-like. The bottom of the tank detaches into a narrow saucer shaped vessel and in the cool lab air, she smells like hot custard. You just don’t want her to move, because if she unfurls, she’s big enough to slide right out of the tank.
Number One stretches like she’s never been allowed to stretch, though you know from the lab logs, she has. But her bones never solidified and her muscles don’t know what to do in the gravity you’ve imposed on her. So she stretches, legs and arms flopping over the edge of the saucer. Her eyes crack open but they’re not eyes—not formed in any case. You wonder if she can see you, if she’s aware of her surroundings, and that everyone who made her also abandoned her.
A low mewl escapes her toothless mouth. She tries to move, but lacks coordination. She cannot move well outside her tank, a jellyfish out of water.
You tell yourself the spike through the back of her soft skull is a mercy, that when her eyes close, she sees you and she smiles to be released.
You find the second in an alley, huddled in a collapsing cardboard box that calls to mind Number One. Two isn’t anything like One; she’s strong enough to stand and walk, but not smart enough to have acquired a job. She’s homeless, but tells you in a broken language that the box is her home. She shows you the canned food, the can opener, the window cut into the box’s side. She doesn’t recognize you.
Her hair is plastered to her skull and cheeks, thin and brown but already going grey at the roots. It’s like a line of silver has been painted down her scalp, right where her hair parts. It’s almost pretty, glinting in the weak sunlight that comes through the box’s window. She wishes she had curtains; she holds up her thin hand to shade her eyes from the sun.
She asks if you know the alley cat, and you say no. Number Two tells you the cat is wandering the streets, that she needs a place to stay. Number Two’s box isn’t big enough for a roommate, and Number Two was thinking if your box was bigger…
You tell her you don’t have a box and she looks at you like she can’t understand. But you can see from the fear in her cloudy eyes that she does. Life without a box, she says, is not life. It is wandering, it is lost. Not lost, you assure her, but the lab was no proper home and she won’t be kept like that, in the confines of four walls, be they cardboard or plaster.
Number Two is asleep when you do your work. She’s tired—it’s hard to sleep on this street, so many people coming and going. So she curls up in the clothing she has wrangled from passersby and falls into an exhausted slumber. You watch her a long time, the uneven up and down of her chest as she tries to draw the rainy spring air in. The day warms, and Number Two’s breathing eases, the air humid like the lab could be.
You cover her mouth and nose with your hand, a broad hand made for such work. Number Two thrashes, but only a little. She’s ready to go, just like all the others. You tell yourself they know themselves unworthy, that they’re ready to leave this world to her and her alone.
Number Three lives in a five-story walkup, and you’re quietly amazed as you walk up the stairs. She doesn’t own the apartment, but rents one room of it. She has a job at the university cafeteria, washing dishes with water so hot, she thinks her skin will peel off.
But the hot water reminds her of another place, the lab’s forming tanks, so she never really minds it. Part of her wants to crawl into the dishwashers and just sleep for a while, but when she tells others about this fantasy, they laugh, saying she really is a college student. She’s taking one class, three credits, Intro to Biology.
There’s no elevator, only stairs, and the stairwell has seen some use. Its wallpaper is scuffed in places and missing in others, but you can see it used to have a pattern. High on the walls, it still does: tiny white diamonds filled with tiny black diamonds filled with tiny white diamonds into infinity. You feel yourself falling if you look at the paper too long.
Number Three lives in 504, and is always home from eleven to one; after that, it’s class, then the late lunch and dinner shifts at the cafeteria. 504 is a corner apartment with three bedrooms; her roommates are never home from eleven to one, but today the door hangs open, like one of them forgot to close it. Probably Kate, you think; Kate’s too preoccupied for life, going in four directions at once all the time.
You step inside and it’s quiet; Number Three isn’t at the breakfast table though a rented laptop is, its screen glowing with pretty young women—three of them, naked but for each other’s arms. You stand captivated for a long moment, these young women radiating an appeal you cannot entirely explain. You want to touch their skins—not flawless, because you can see the sprinkling of freckles and scars; you can see stretch marks and the faint lingering mark of a sunburn. But perhaps these things are why they compel you. Your own skin is without flaw, without even fingerprint; flawless is all you have ever known.
The bedrooms each prove empty, Number Three’s bed made perfectly. A strand of dark hair clings to the pillow and you admire the way it looks in the sunlight flooding through the curtained window. If you grew yours out, it would look like this, brown with red and gold besides.
You return to the front rooms where there is a soft hiss from the kitchen. The roommates do not have a cat, though Number Three has wanted to get one; you’ve watched her at the weekend pet fairs, roaming the cages. But Kate is allergic and won’t see her couch destroyed by claws sharper than her own.
The kitchen stands still, but for the blinking green light on the dishwasher. You move toward it, the dishwasher door radiating heat, steam escaping from the vents. You move the latch and pull the door open, finding Number Three curled inside on the bottom level, glowing pink, cooked from the hot water. Her skin did peel right off and she looks like a shell, fresh and smooth from the sea, her skull a polished pearl.
Number Four was purchased by a wealthy family and lives outside the city. You have to take a train to reach her and you spend three nights sleeping in a sunflower field, waiting for her to be alone. She’s rarely alone—she’s fucking the pool boy. (He thinks he’s fucking her, but you can tell. You know.)
Number Four doesn’t clean pools but tends to the lady of the house, rising before her mistress to ensure her bath is ready, with warmed towels and warmer coffee. The bathroom tiles are heated and Number Four finds a memory in all this warmth, the cocoons she was nestled in when she was newly made.
When she’s finally alone, you hesitate. This hesitation is new and you don’t understand it, but there’s something about the way Number Four walks, about the way she looks at herself in the mirror and applies her mistress’ perfume before she walks outside barefoot to find the pool boy scooping leaves from the water. He’s happy to see her but she’s not happy to see him. She’s hungry.
You let her consume him because you wonder what it is, what it feels like, to have another’s hands on you in that way. Your work is so sterile and you never attempt to get to know anyone outside it. There’s no point. You are the only body that should exist. All others should be purged by your hand because the makers made you perfect. All that came before was a failure.
They told you this, the maker gazing down on you as she wiped the hot amniotic fluid from your cheeks. Perfect, she whispered. This was the first word you knew, the first word you in turn spoke. Number Four is not perfect. Hidden within her strong slim body, you know there is a flaw. She would not have been sold had it been otherwise, so when she is full of the pool boy’s hot ejaculate, you follow her.
Number Four walks inside, into her mistress’ heated bathroom, and stretches naked on the warm tiles as the bath fills. You watch her from the doorway and she is so certain in her forbidden routine that she does not see you; there is never anyone there, so no need to look. She slips into the bath, the bubbles high and vaguely purple.
The scissors are meant for cutting hair, but they’re so precise and sharp, you know they will cut flesh. You slip them from the vanity and come to the edge of the tub, where you sit, looking down at an earlier version of yourself. She stares back, more curious than alarmed. You let her look upon your perfection, the way they made you as they could never make her.
“You,” she breathes, and she looks more, finally lifting a wet hand and pressing her fingers against your skin. She’s wearing one of the mistress’ rings, a gaudy stone that you cannot name.
It’s shocking, her touch. She is warm in a way you have never been, thrumming with a pulse that is somehow satisfied. She comes to her knees in the water—water and soap streaming down her breasts and belly. You think of the tangled women on Number Three’s laptop and when Number Four’s fingers tighten against your neck, you understand a little more. Too much, maybe, because something changes inside of you. You were not made for change, because you are already perfect.
The scissors cut neatly into Number Four’s wrist and she is not surprised at the action. She knows because she’s you, and you have always known. Number Four is not the perfect iteration; number eight is. You are twice her number and she knows.
Her head tips back but her eyes never leave you. As the scissors cut upward from wrist to elbow and the soap begins to run pink and then red (blushing, you think), Four smiles at you. She smiles and rocks her body closer, and you know. She wants to know perfection before she dies.
You don’t let her, but you linger long enough to pull the ring from her wet finger before allowing her to slide boneless into the tub.
Returning to the city, you find Number Five on the train. You didn’t expect this and given that the train is packed, aren’t quite sure what to do. You remain in your seat, watching.
Number Five looks like a boy, hair rough cut and hanging slantways across the sharply angled face. He’s wearing eyeliner and lipstick, both blue-black like a thunderstorm, and you are captivated. As much as Number Four was in your arms only two hours before, you feel yourself wanting to sink against him and understand the color of his lips.
The hands are yours though, fine-boned and strong, but for the one finger that sits crooked against his leather-clad thigh. It looks like it was broken, and you find yourself remembering the sharp edges in the lab, how if in the early days one wasn’t careful, one might get injured. Number Seven was injured—no one much talks about that though.
You don’t know much about Number Five; you thought she lived above a bodega, that she didn’t know anyone outside the city, but here he is on a train, coming back from the outskirts like he does it all the time. You wonder which stop he’ll get off at and you watch, rising from your seat when he does. He lingers by the door and you slide up behind, so close you can see the sprinkling of black stars tattooed along the back of his neck. One is larger than the others, but most are so small they remind you of scattered sand.
In the metallic night air that blows up from the tracks, Number Five smells like leather. You probably smell like bubble bath and blood but you don’t linger on it. You follow Number Five off the train amid a jostle of other bodies.
He’s not in a hurry. He slips headphones on, feet moving to the beat of unheard music as he walks away from the train station. You follow him down all the metal stairs and while other people peel off, heading toward cars, restaurants, loved ones, you and he continue up the dusk dark road along the city’s edge. You can see the bodega in the distance, its canopy glowing orange.
Although the two of you seemingly walk alone, there are still too many people in the street. Windows are bright and some doorways hang open. Cars whisper past and alley cats yowl. If Number Five reaches the bodega, you aren’t certain you’ll have an opportunity to do your work. The bodega is open 24/7, and you thought she worked a day shift, but here it is night, and he’s pulling an apron from his jacket.
One glance behind is all it takes. You look, wondering exactly how you can angle him down a darkened alley, and when you look forward again, he’s gone.
You stop walking, only your eyes moving as you scan the street. The doorways, the windows, the distant bodega. Another alley cat calls out, but otherwise the street begins to grow quiet. Did he see you, did he know he was being followed? You watch the bodega, but don’t see him enter. You don’t see him at all, not within the bright windows or under the orange canopy, not even when you walk down and buy a soda you will never drink.
Number Six lies dead in her bed—her full-sized bed that is made with sheets that sport tiny blue flowers. Forget-me-nots, you think.
You sit at her bedside a long time, trying to work it out. It’s not like Number Three; there is no sign of suicide or foul play. You still aren’t sure which Number Three was—but seeing Number Six like this, with her hands crossed over her unmoving chest, you begin to wonder.
It bothers you, that you didn’t consider it when you found Number Three cooked clean. But finding her that way fit with what you knew of her. It wasn’t entirely a surprise—and besides, she was broken. Physically, mentally, in some way, she was not perfection, so of course she could have taken her own life in an extremely foolish way.
She could not have, however, turned the dishwasher on from the inside.
This revelation bothers you, too. You sit and watch Number Six and she’s not breathing at all, posed so perfectly beneath the shadow of the cross that once hung on her wall. You see the cross nowhere; it’s not even in her bedside drawer when you peer inside. (Lotion, a rolled up towel, the second oldest Murikami novel, dog-eared.)
What you see does not fit with what you know of her, but given Number Six is already dead, you are willing to throw what you know out the window. When you open her wallet and look at her ID card, you wonder. She gave herself a name: Tricia.
You realize that Number Three also would have had a name. She was a student, she was employed, and a low shudder runs through you. You feel sick, though you never have before. You turn away from the dresser where the wallet rests and look at the body in the bed. It is you, but it is also not.
You remind yourself she was broken in some way. Maybe her name was where she broke—you are not human and therefore not in need of a name. And yet—she gave herself one. In an effort to become part of the larger world, she named herself.
“You were not made for this world,” you whisper, once again at Number Six’s bedside. “You were made so I could inhabit this world.”
She does not move, even when you give the bed a little shove. You leave her—she is dead and does not matter—but you rifle through her bathroom, searching for drugs, prescription or otherwise, or anything else that might have harmed her. But there’s nothing—she was made well enough she doesn’t need such nonsense, so as you step into the night, you wonder what killed her.
The list is still entirely too long.
Number Seven is also owned, the property of a Mr. and Mrs. Doyle who live in Penthouse 2 near the theater. But Number Seven is also dead and the police have been alerted, because Number Seven appears to have taken a header out the living room window. Number Seven is splattered on the pavement. And the sidewalk. And the park benches.
You were closest to Seven, given she came right before you, and she was closest to you, given you came right after. You remember sharing your earliest days with her, bundled under a blanket in the crèche as she tried to teach you the difference between shadow and light. You never minded the fingers she was missing on her left hand, not until the makers told you it invalidated her entire being, made her flawed and useless to them. Until that moment, you loved her like you loved nothing else. Seven smelled like flowers sometimes, though never again.
The Doyles look as anxious as you feel, but you know there won’t be enough of the body left for it to be identified in any way. Cloned flesh is only a disturbing bedtime story for children, clones don’t actually exist, and the idea that an upright couple such as the Doyles would own one? Absurd.
It’s the death that bothers you and the shadowy form you thought you saw leaving the scene as you approached. You tell yourself you made it up—Seven liked stories, so sometimes, you like stories too. And even if it was true, it could have been literally anyone; residents still ring the site, behind the fluttering yellow tape that will imprint every single one of them, just in case a person of interest happened by.
The person that interests you, however, is dead, nothing more than ground meat in the street.
Beneath the blanket, back at the lab, you place your hand over Seven’s, allowing your fingers to fill in the spaces where hers once were. “There,” you whisper. “Just like that, perfect,” and in the shadow, one can’t tell you from her or her from you.
You should be relieved, because Seven’s death almost completes your list. You will return to the bodega and take care of Number Five. You will be the only remaining body, for this is how it should be, how it was always meant to be. No matter your affection for Seven, she was never perfection. Your long and thankless task is at its end and you wonder: what the fuck do I do now?
You go to the all-night café, because Number Three did this a lot. She liked the low lights and the way the staff doesn’t care how long a person sits in one place, no matter how little they tip. They’re used to students, after all. You used to watch her through the window some nights.
Once, a businessman bought Number Two a hot coffee here, so you order hot coffee, no cream no sugar, and you hold the cup in your hands. It’s the warmth that is compelling, that reminds you of the artificial womb, of the way steam beaded on Number One’s boneless arms, of Number Four’s hand on your neck. The heat makes everything run together.
You’ve never had coffee before and it’s bitter against your tongue. You can’t fathom why people drink it, until you swallow more and find that it warms you like nothing else, and makes you a little more alert. You ask the waitress for cream and sugar after all, and you drink the cream straight before adding some to the coffee. You think you could watch it bloom through the black all night, but this is not what you were made for.
Your makers created you to kill, built you as a weapon none would suspect. You can walk among them, can get through security gates when automatic weapons cannot. You are death made flesh, and used to understand your purpose flawlessly. But now the makers have gone and you are drinking coffee in an all-night café where the lights burn like red-shifted stars. Everything is cold and distant around you, so you sit, wondering what it all means.
Find the makers, you think. Go back to the lab.
You tip all the cash you have in your pocket because you’ve been at the table all night—Marcela has two kids and four sisters and you’ve taken money from two versions of yourself recently. You leave the ring, too, shining bright and blue under the café lights. You wait across the street for Marcela to find it and she sits weeping at the table when she does. There is a pawn shop two doors down.
As the sun rises, splitting with solstice precision between the high rises, you aren’t thinking about Number Five; you’re heading for the lab.
You find the makers where you never thought to look before, in the deepest part of the lab where the freezers line the corridors. They did not leave; they were butchered. They have been stacked like meat, careful and precise, and you stare at them, longing stupidly for the warmth of the coffee you knew only an hour before.
Every single maker is dead; thirteen in total and once you’ve accounted for them all, you start to search the rest of the lab. Your hands are shaking, which is ridiculous, because perfection does not allow space for fear or doubt or sorrow. Perfection acts, and so you act, but every computer you interface with tells you the same thing: all of the files have been destroyed.
In the basement, there is another walk-in freezer where the makers kept the food because it was close to the kitchens, and it’s there you find Number Five, slumped against a wall, fine-boned hands folded in his lap. You stare, disturbed by the idea that you forgot about him. You meant to go back to the bodega, but now you’re here, in the lab, looking at a dead Five, wedged between stacks of ground beef and green beans.
And then, you’re looking at the ceiling. It could use a defrost you think as the face wavers into view above you. She has your face , and you blink, reaching a hand out. Her fingers twine with your fingers, and she’s warm in a way you never were, despite the ice around you.
Her face is as sharp as Five’s, but soft gold in the hollows like Four. She has the jellyfish grace of One and the stature of Six. She has your swiftness and Two’s cunning. She is warmly pink like Three, and more fit than Seven ever hoped to be. She is all things.
“Nine,” you whisper.
There were seven before you. And one after.
About the Author
E. Catherine Tobler has never been cloned–that she knows of. Among others, her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and on the Sturgeon Award ballot.
About the Narrator
Jen Zink is a stay at home parent and podcaster with a love of all things science fiction and fantasy. Jen is the Executive Producer and a co-host of The Skiffy and Fanty Show, an audio editor for Nightlight Podcast, and she blogs at The Homepunks. The Skiffy and Fanty Show is a weekly podcast and active blog featuring anything and everything related to the science fiction and fantasy genres, with commentary on controversial topics and news in literature, film, and interviews with authors, scientists, and filmmakers.