Sensitive Content: Story contains references to violence, suicide, and sex work.
I knew as soon as I woke up that I would have to kill myself. I couldn’t stand at first and my eyes would hardly focus even in the dim blue light. It was all I could do to cast a cross-eyed glance across the lab. He was already gone. He must have woken up from the procedure first and fled.
I tried to blink the fuzziness from my eyes. What possessed me to do this? Initially, even I didn’t think it could be done. After years of research, I convinced myself that a successful attempt would be worth the risk. It would launch me to stratospheric heights unknown to any neuro-scientist. A complete, functional recreation of my brain copied to an android replica of my body. No sleight of hand here but real magic. I imagined million dollar research grants and talk show appearances. Surveying the destroyed lab, I came to realize I had committed a tragic error.
I had no time to waste. I stumbled through the lab following the path of destruction left by my clone. I don’t know why I needed to kill the other me but I knew that if I was thinking it, so was he. After all, we had the same brain. He must be having the same thoughts I was having now. But why didn’t he kill me while I was still under? Undoubtedly his lack of coordination played a factor. Even now I crashed through stainless steel trays of medical equipment and knocked robotic parts to the floor with my jerky movements. I gripped a workbench to keep from toppling over. I tried to focus my eyes on a replica of an antique red sports car on my desk. He must have realized his own lack of coordination and made the decision to run before I awoke. This was his one advantage over me: time.
We were more similar than twins. My brain copied into another body. He would know how to avoid me and I would know how to find him. Even if we fought, and I am no fighter, could we do anything more than battle to a draw? His cheaply made body would hardly be more robust than my own. Perhaps I could crush some weakly built piece of machinery and damage an arm or leg enough to give me an advantage. Maybe we could negotiate? But negotiate what? Could both of us really ignore this instinct to kill the other? We would always live knowing the other may someday decide unilaterally to change the terms of our deal. We would always be at risk.
By the time I reached the door of my lab, I was regaining my faculties. I hobbled down the hallway and exited through the door to the street. He would undoubtedly have gone to the undercity. It was where I would have gone. I hadn’t been there in years but I knew my way around well enough to stay out of trouble and out of sight. No one would recognize me there.
The nearest tram platform was only a few blocks away and my legs were quickly regaining strength. I waited with my back to a graffiti covered wall. The paranoia was really starting to kick in now. Every hooded stranger making their way down the platform was the other me for a brief second. I held my breath, trying not to panic and watched them slowly shift back to being anonymous strangers. My only solace was the knowledge that he was feeling just as much fear as I was. Wherever he was.
I was fortunate there were only a few other passengers on the tram. I regained some composure riding in a car with a uniformed utility worker and a young woman in a clear pastel rain jacket. Neither could easily be confused with my bald head and knit jumper. But what was he wearing? He must have taken some clothes from the lab. Damn it! I should have checked. He wouldn’t have fled in the surgical gown he had been in for the procedure. I hadn’t thought about dressing him before the procedure. I was preoccupied with the careful manipulation of nano-chips in the artificial brain I had constructed.
The under-city seemed little changed by the years since my last visit. Dirtier perhaps, bigger piles of trash, more elaborate graffiti decorating the wall space above the crowded streets. I made my way to a bar I had frequented as a student. Violet neon reflected off the damp pavement outside. The under-city was always damp. Rain never reached it directly, blocked by the layers of concrete and glass above, but the water never stopped dripping down. An endless cold, wet nighttime. That was the under-city.
I entered the bar on high alert. If I were here my clone would be too. I inspected each patron looking for the other me. A pretty young woman, too pretty, she was a pleasure bot to be sure. A bruiser with a cybernetic arm, those were more common now than when I was a student. This bar was rougher than I remembered. Or maybe I was softer. No sign of myself. Could he have gone to a different bar? Nobulis? Decker’s? Those would have been my second and third choices. Maybe he knew I would come here and avoided the place?
“Can I… help you?” The bartender was looking at me with some trepidation. I no longer belonged here and I was sweaty and nervous.
“Just give me a double ethanol. Uh, make it a triple.”
I was taking a risk here. Anything I did to put myself at a disadvantage against my clone could give him an opening to take me down. On the other hand, if I was having a drink, wouldn’t he be doing the same? Maybe he was doing exactly the same at Nobulis right now, waiting for me to ambush him there. I downed the drink and ordered another.
The bartender slid the second triple ethanol my way. “Don’t use it all in one place, old-timer” she said with a half-hearted chuckle. How many times had she used that line?
The ethanol was hitting me now. Maybe I could beat the other me. We were the same but one of us would have to get lucky. If I procured some weapons, laid a trap, did just enough to gain the upper hand, I could win.
“Do you know where I can buy some guns?”
“What kind of place do you think this is?” The bartender shot me a dirty look from the other end of the bar and turned away. Okay, maybe it wasn’t as rough as I thought.
I turned back to find myself face to face with a huge pair of eyes and nearly fell out of my seat. It was the pleasure bot. She slid silently into the seat next to mine. Her sensors could read my blood alcohol content and she was probably seeing me as an easy mark by now.
“Hey pops, want to buy me a drink?” she gently touched my arm with her perfectly manicured hand and smiled looking up into my eyes. Her voice, such a youthful chirp as to be almost irresistible.
“Where can I buy a gun?”
She furrowed her brow as if she was making an earnest effort to consider my question. Finally her face relaxed and she smiled. “Don’t worry about that. How about we get out of here? I have a place nearby we could go to.”
Get out of here, yes! That was what I should be doing. But I couldn’t do it with this pleasure bot. Her corporate-owned apartment would be far too easy to track. I would be a sitting duck spending the night there. A fusion implosion device up or laser-targeted railgun would be the end of me.
I staggered back out into the glowing street lights of the under-city. I had to go deeper to stay hidden. I picked my way over piles of wet trash and slid down wet pavement until the city’s grumble grew faint. I made it to a neighborhood that was nearly deserted. So quiet I could hear the buzzing of electrical transformers overhead. Rows of vacant tenements. Boarded up hopes and dreams of the poor residents who moved on long ago.
I pried my way into one of these abandoned homes and huddled on a dusty floor. Would the other me find me here, drunk, dirty, and alone? Would he even look for me here? Even if he did, he would have to search thousands of abandoned apartments. I had picked this one drunkenly and at random, that had to help cement the secrecy of my spot. I slept.
The next morning was one of the unbroken, infinite string of gloomy, wet under-city days. The uppers dripping their endless wetness down on the lower-class denizens. I barely ventured out the first day, instead spending my time within the building. I smashed my way into other apartments scrounging for food. Days passed as I made my way between a dust-covered can of bio-fish here and a pouch of synth-milk there.
I had the misfortune to pull the boards off an occupied unit more than once. “Don’t hurt us!” Residents huddled in the corner clothed in rags shielded themselves from me. I threw up my hands to show I meant no harm and backed slowly away. Fortunately for me, people at this level of destitution had long ago stopped trying to defend themselves from bandits and thieves. These were the only times I would become aware of my own appearance. I realized how gruesome my appearance must be, covered in a scavenger’s filth.
I considered returning to my lab. After some weeks the thought of returning to my old life seemed increasingly possible but the risk was simply too great. He would undoubtedly have staked out the lab after his search of the undercity failed to turn up any results. I continued my meager existence by collecting and selling scrap in a small market well outside the main thoroughfares of the undercity. I made enough money to buy ethanol and I drank, comforting myself with the knowledge that my clone was likely doing the same.
I searched for news about myself in the market’s holos for the first few months. They discussed the strange circumstances surrounding my disappearance for a while. Eventually everyone else lost interest. I hadn’t been found. Neither of me.
After months of this destitution, I had established my routine as a scavenger. I was dragging my cart of scrap along a quiet road in the tenements when the air was pierced with the rare sound of an internal combustion engine. I turned back to see an aggressive looking muscle car turning onto the otherwise deserted street.
For a moment I was in the thrall of the rare antique, the shiny red paint, the perfectly symmetrical twin chrome exhausts running the length of the chassis, the black metal bumper looking ready to push automated vehicles out of the way of the human operator. The sound of the revving engine brought me back to reality just as the car jumped the curb and I lunged out of the way. The black bumper smashing through my cart launching scrap in every direction. The vehicle came screeching to a halt in a swirl of rubber and engine smoke.
At first I couldn’t believe I’d dodged the antique machine. Its red frame sat rumbling on the street in front of me. It was a classic vehicle. But why had it nearly crushed a poor scavenger like me on this abandoned road? I lay frozen watching the exhaust belch from the back of the car. Finally the door opened.
A beautiful woman emerged from the passenger side first. She crossed the street cocking a massive black gun that she leveled on my head. It may as well have been a rocket launcher for all I knew, it looked big enough to me. I raised my hands to cover my face for all the good it would do me. She looked down at me with her huge eyes.
“Don’t fucking move, pops.” A youthful chirp. Her voice was familiar through my drunken haze.
I didn’t dare move and remained frozen. Surely this was the end. The driver emerged second and crouched in front of me. He removed a pair of expensive sunglasses to examine me.
The driver started laughing. It was a familiar laugh, even more familiar than the woman’s voice. Black leather shoes, pinstripe pants, a jacket with an outrageous fuchsia fur collar. The driver looked like a pop-megastar rather than a hitman. He grabbed my wrist and pulled my hand away from my face. He was still laughing. I sat up. Trying to ignore the woman’s gun, I looked at the driver.
It was me, laughing hysterically, and dressed like an idiot. And driving an antique sports car. And marauding around the undercity with a heavily armed pleasure bot. How did he pull that off? Pleasure bots are programmed never to threaten or harm anyone. And he had all his hair? I guess I could do that too if I stopped investing my time on neuro-replication.
He finally collected himself and stopped laughing. “I’m not going to kill you… god, you smell like booze,” he said, waving a hand in front of my face to ward off the smell of ethanol.
“I knew I would have to reinvent myself to stay hidden and avoid a confrontation before I was ready but I never imagined you’d go so far in the opposite direction.” He looked at me with something intersecting pity, disgust, and humor.
He looked at his companion with a knowing glance. She shot back a smile.
With a nod of his head, they both returned to the car. With a roar and blast of soot, they were gone. I was free.