Keep It Simple
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Fling"
Originally featured on 06-27-2008
As part of our series "Summer Indulgence"

Static had a lot to tell. Ellen Lansdown first came to know static intimately at the age of six, during weekends at her father’s when she would tiptoe downstairs at night, pour herself a glass of water with a single ice cube and sit in front of the television. She had trouble falling asleep because of the flickers of orange light on her bed. Her father said it was the fireflies outside trying to tell her secrets. Ellen later speculated that the flickers had more to do with humidity and electric charge. Nobody told Ellen secrets.

She was allowed to watch one hour of television per day. In order to make the most advantageous use of her sixty minutes, she would always find two shows airing simultaneously and alternate between the two channels to eliminate commercials. Whichever show she started watching first took priority. Although sometimes the secondary show would capture her interest and she would stay glued to the characters, wishing that she had chosen that channel initially. Then sometimes when she flipped back to the first show, she would change her mind and regret having missed essential plot developments due to a confusion of devotions. More and more, it became a battle. That was when she started watching static.

When she could not sleep at night, she would invent personalities, stories and laughter in the gray sand that cast a continuous boxy flicker on the couch, and drift off to the oceanic rush and ebb of sound. One night when she was seven, her father woke up to use the bathroom and found her passed out in her habitual position. He told her never to fall asleep with the television on because the radiation would seep into her dreams and congeal into a disgusting monster made entirely out of mucus and chase her around. To her, that sounded less plausible than fireflies.

Ellen was an only child who had never had a particular desire to be two in places at once.

A career as a bandwidth analyst for a specialized branch of the Army dealing with covert radio communications unfolded before her like a highway. As she described it to her boyfriend Brock in their first getting-to-know-each-other conversation over sushi, “No, it’s not exciting, really. It’s just there. You know how when you’re on a road trip and you’ve been driving alone for a really long time, you get those random flash floods of awareness where it’s like you just woke up from some other world, and you know exactly where you are and where you’ve been, but your body doesn’t remember any of it—you see the road beneath you but, viscerally it’s like you can’t convince your skin that any of it was there before you blinked, but it’s totally always been there and always will be there stretching to infinity whether you show up or not, and it’s all sort of eerie like that. Inappropriate, in a way. That’s what my job feels like. I can tell you a pretty linear story of how interest led to this led to that, thesis project on fractal analysis of radar signals led to job offers falling from the ceiling like chunks of debris, I look up and say, shit, did I mean to do that? Well, gosh, looks like I’ll have job security for the next twenty years.” As Brock watched her mouth talk, she could not determine at which word it was that he fell in love with her, but it was a love that had always been there, independent of her arrival, and was not particularly exciting.

In the initial job interview, she was asked if she would be opposed to traveling. The next question they asked her was if she was willing to undergo AFLING duplication. Her response—although it was in the affirmative—surprised them; she was the first applicant whose eyes did not light up at the mention of all-expenses-paid duplication.

 

Ellen still felt noticeably queasy as she shuffled to the back of the line at Lippi’s Luv Burger. She hated fast food, and even more she hated the phone call she was about to make. She knew exactly what to expect; two rings followed by a few seconds of rustling.

The female voice on the other end said, "What’s up, perfect?"

"It’s eleven forty-four and thirty nine seconds," said Ellen.

"Did you think I’d be late? I’m in the parking lot right now."

"Well hustle those perfect buns so that I can get some deep fried poison into my system," said Ellen.

"My mouth is watering. Whatever shall I order?"

"Listen," said Ellen, "Let’s ax the sarcasm. Dishing it out and eating it at the same time makes me…"

"-want to hurl my head against a brick."

"And do not, ever, finish my sentences," said Ellen.

"So we agree to be pleasant?"

After a pause, they both laughed. Ellen shivered, thinking back on her first debriefing on the basics of duplication technology the previous week.

 

AFLING stood for Atom Farming in Liquid Isolation under Nerve Guidance. Knowing that much made Ellen more knowledgeable about the technology than most people on the street, whose familiarity with AFLING Corporation extended only so far as the ability to quote the famous comedy routine that concluded with comedian Ken Bunyan saying to the guy in the lab coat, yeah, yeah, I know, it’s got sumptin’ to do wit moleculah spin. In the context, “spin” referred to some earlier content of the dialogue, most likely something explicitly sexual—Ellen surmised—hence the catchphrase was immortalized in popular culture. Ellen did not much care for catchphrases. What interested Ellen was the fact that a duplicate living organism could be generated in a glass tank in a basement, and that this could be accomplished in less time than it takes the average American to shop for groceries.

Doctor Kleinblacht—whose training was requisite with that of an anesthesiologist—was more than happy to sit down with Ellen and explain to her everything she demanded to know. “I want my clients to embark on the procedure with as complete an understanding as possible, to ensure a safe and successful journey.” His lips started to close before he said the word ‘clients.’ He had to stop himself from saying ‘patients.’ “I’m sure you’ve seen ads on television, and you’ve heard sundry rumors as to the nature of AFLING. Before I open this consultation up to questions—which I will be more than delighted to answer for you—let me begin by dispelling a few of the most pervasive misconceptions about our service. You’ve probably heard our company’s name mentioned along with words like clone and genetic engineering. Let me say right now that that terminology could not be more false. We here at AFLING know as much about DNA as does the average auto mechanic. We don’t request blood samples. Your alternate—twin, what have you—begins its existence as a full grown adult with all of your memories. There is no embryo, no fertilization cycle. The client is bathed in an ELG environment-”

“Excuse me?” Ellen interrupted.

“I’m sorry, these initials just topple off my tongue. Please pardon my education. That’s Extremely Low Gravity. The fluid in the tanks—which gets automatically circulated and purified every twelve seconds—is specially formulated to induce a free-motion zone.”

Ellen shuffled in her chair.

“Just yell stop when I get carried away in details. I have a tendency to ramble.”

“So, um, the other tank, the twin tank, the womb-”

“Not to be a stickler for terminology, but try not to think of it as a womb.”

Ellen tapped her pen on the table. “Bear with me. So, that billion dollar robot in there takes a CAT scan of my whole body and draws up an architectural layout one cell at a time, and then, what, the bacteria cultures in the other tank morph into bodily tissue?”

“Actually, the computer plays less of a role than you would think. It doesn’t need to simulate very much of you at all. The cultures in the O.T.—excuse me, Output Tank—are sentient, like living, organic clay waiting to be sculpted, and it wants to mimic your form. Wants to. Biologically, there’s an affinity that occurs between single-celled organisms in natural free-motion zones. A symmetry, if you will. Our machine is merely playing matchmaker. If you look at snowflakes or water crystals under a microscope, what you see is not much different than what we’re dealing with. The computer only lends it a crutch. The important part is the stats gathered in preparation—your weight, body fat composition, the level to which your meridians are electronegative or electropositive; we require a measure of exactly how much mass of the bio-culture to deposit in the Output Tank and what charge to set it at. I’m- I’m, simplifying, of course. As I like to say, we press Go and let nature do the rest.”

Ellen’s first prepared question was, “So, I’m sure you’ve heard every question in the world. What do most people ask you first?”

“How much does it cost.”

“Well, since my company is comping all expenses, we’re past the first question.”

“I tell them it’s better than renting a car, because there’s no insurance cost; although it is preferred that we receive the alternate in the same condition in which it was released, it’s no loss to us if the alternate gets damaged or destroyed. There’s no hourly rate; you pay a creation fee and a return fee. In the case that your alternate does become injured or deceased, there are laws and liabilities I advise you to read up on. It’s covered in Section Eight of your information booklet.”

 

Standing in line at Lippi’s Luv Burger, the word ‘nature’ tingled in the back of her throat like sickness.

"Number five combo meal, right?"

"With curly fries and a medium coke," said Ellen.

"Three packets of ketchup?"

"Four," said Ellen.

"Don’t ever disagree with me again."

Reaching the front of the line, Ellen held the phone down at her hip as she placed her order.

"Don’t forget to pay with cash," the female voice said to Ellen’s hip. She felt it vibrate and hated it.

Ellen sighed before lifting the phone back to her face. "How are you feeling?"

"There’s that sarcasm, welcome back, I missed you."

"No, I’m serious," said Ellen. "How are you feeling?"

"Same way you're feeling. Ready to digest a fat, greasy tray full of Lippi’s Luv."

"Wow, I’m starting to empathize with everybody I know, god bless them," said Ellen. "Let’s converse as little as possible, concur? Of course you concur."

She tried to remember again why she was here. Reviewing mental notes while in unsavory settings was a soothing habit.

On the morning of the procedure, she had had it all down to perfection; arrive with a change of clothes and a suitcase with everything her alternate would need for the mission, a new cell phone purchased just for her alternate, copies of her credit card, driver’s license and birth certificate, four hundred dollars in cash and, most importantly, an empty stomach. If the client laid down in the tank with food still being digested, the alternate would wake up extremely nauseous and possibly even choking.

Upon arrival, the client is to strip off all their clothing, shower, taking care to remove any nail polish or makeup, dry off thoroughly, and then simply step into the tank and find a comfortable position. Suspended in the cold fluid wearing a rubber facemask that acts as a ventilator, the client then falls asleep. It is crucial that the client fall asleep naturally, without the use of any sedatives, before the procedure is initiated.

After the original and the alternate are acquainted and the alternate is branded with the blue wristband, they both receive an identical bottle of water and are both instructed to drink the full contents of that bottle and nothing more over the duration of the journey. They need to stay in close contact for the synchronization of meals, which consist entirely of fast food, for the sake of uniformity; any slight relative weight gain or loss could jeopardize the reintegration process. If the alternate sustains any bruises, wounds, lacerations, or even the addition of body art, we must duplicate those inflictions on the self of the original, she remembered Doctor Kleinblacht saying. For reasons that eluded logic, Ellen was determined to make the doctor proud.

"So."

"So," said Ellen.

"I know you didn’t call me to synch up the number of ketchup packets with our number six combo-"

Ellen wanted to squeeze the cell phone until plastic gears popped out. "Number five, you little-"

"I was kidding."

"Trust me, I know you were kidding." Retrieving her combo meal basket, Ellen sat down alone at a table and unwrapped her Number Five hamburger. "I know because I thought it first. And trust me; any time you feel the urge to be funny, hold your tongue and we'll get through this faster."

"Do you want to talk about the reason you called me, or do you want to keep on discovering how irritating we are to other people?"

Ellen exhaled and pushed her hamburger forward, making room for her elbows.

 

“And after the twin’s time is up, it just…dies? Disintegrates into a fine mist?”

Doctor Kleinblacht chuckled. “Even if we had a convenient self-destruct mechanism, not only would it be highly illegal, but in many cases it would defeat the client’s purpose entirely. Say, for instance, a military officer sends his double on a high-stakes reconnaissance mission. Or better yet, let’s say a business executive is expected at an important conference that happens to be scheduled on the same day as his daughter’s wedding. To use a simpler example-”

“I get it. People want to remember.”

“When your time is up, you and your alternate both come back here for what we call reintegration. It’s essentially the birthing process in reverse: you go back into the tanks and the alternate melts into mush while your brain contracts a composite of both your memories.”

“What if I didn’t want my twin’s memories? Could I authorize you to do it without me?”

“In a word, no. The machine needs your body as a reference for bio-mass balance in the alternate’s statistical deconstruction. What you’re talking about is assisted suicide, and we don’t have the license.”

“I guess telling an alternate his time is up would be like politely asking me to walk off a cliff, huh?”

“There are many psychological elements to the effects of duplication that have been studied, and many more that haven’t. You’ve just touched upon the identity conundrum; an alternate does not, can not think of one’s self as an alternate, and you can not think of your alternate as a person with the same self preservation instincts innate to-”

“Okay, that’s enough of that tangent.”

“Since you brought up reintegration, there is a point I should emphasize. One of the earliest concerns our venture capitalists addressed to the Science Foundation when AFLING was under development was the potential for what they termed Free Range Doubles.”

“You mean like, alternates running off as fugitives to live their own lives?”

“There is a bounty on Free Range Doubles, and eligibility for-”

Ellen could not help but smile. “You don’t have to admonish me, doctor, I think I’ll behave myself.”

“Before you make that assurance, there are other caveats and temptations to be aware of.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, don’t fall in love. Memory integration is hard on the brain, yadda yadda…”

“Factual information can be composited with ease, but I highly advise you to avoid states of heightened emotion. There have been cases of alternates witnessing atrocities and- well, I don’t want to scare you, but reintegration following a traumatic experience can result in brain damage. The rule of thumb I like to impart is keep it simple. Try to keep your personal life as static as possible while you’re doubled.”

 

Ellen kept her eyes on the table, just in front of her food. "Neither of us wants to say it, and we’ll never be the first to say it, but we both know it, so what’s the point?"

"You took the test, didn’t you?" the female voice said in a simple tone.

Ellen felt that all she had to do was nod. "Which one of us should say congratulations?"

They both hung up. As she tore open two ketchup packets simultaneously, Ellen detested the fact that her mouth was watering. Her eyes filled with liquid, in direct competition.

Four for the price of two—the thought made her laugh. She needed to laugh. The question she tried hard not to think about was which two of the four had souls.

Two young men wearing baseball caps and jerseys were drinking milkshakes two tables down from her. Ellen caught one of them glancing at her, and the young man saw her catch him. His gaze snapped back to the four hamburgers on his table like a bird dodging a bullet.

Ellen heard their conversation, and even heard what was said before she had started listening. She wondered morosely if increased hearing ability was a symptom.

“Think about it,” one of the young men said to the other. “They have to eat fast food, right? And they’re on business—they probably won’t be hopping the bars.”

“Why not?” The other young man was quizzical. Ellen somewhat liked that about him.

“You ever tried keeping track of exactly what and how much you’re drinking? And then if they puke, that would throw everything off. Too risky. But here, they’re easy to spot.”

“Of course they’re easy, dumb-ass,” said the quizzical one. “They have to wear those blue bracelets.”

“I didn’t say they’re easy, I said easy to spot.” The two exchanged a smirk, like gum transferring mouths. “For one thing, they’re always rich. You have to make at least ninety grand a year to afford that. They dress like people who probably don’t eat here much.”

“I think that was one of the jokes I heard,” said Quizzical. “How do you tell an alternate at Lippi’s?”

“How?”

“They’re the one studying the menu.” Quizzical was aware of Ellen listening to them, but did not care.

The other young man lowered his voice a little bit. “They’re always horny. Know why?”

“Why?”

“If they’re on a dangerous mission, which they usually are, they know they’re expendable, and they’re scared shitless. Scared shitless equals horny. Not to mention, they don’t have to worry about STD’s or getting knocked up.”

Quizzical chewed a fist-sized bite of his Supreme burger with a smile. “Bro, you’re a genius.”

“Just wait’ll the next one walks in.”

“That was the other joke I heard: they don’t call it a fling for nothing. Lame pun. Wait, hold- Wait a sec. You can’t actually- I thought they’re not allowed to form emotional attachments.”

The other young man sucked on his milkshake and grinned as if he were drinking the grin through the straw and said, “Exactly.”

Ellen crumpled up the rest of her meal in the wrapper, shoved it into her elbow and exited.

Her consultation with Doctor Kleinblacht had occurred three days prior to the procedure.

Brock had sent her flowers, but she did not return his phone calls. He would want to talk about AFLING and her feelings about her mission so that he could sort out her life like an arrangement of fruit at a banquet table. Brock owned and operated a catering business.

He would want to hear all about the inner-workings of AFLING because he was a nerd who found such things fascinating. She had been terse with him since they slept together last Tuesday, and he would want a full analysis of where she felt their relationship was going, and all the free radicals that threatened it.

Brock was a dish usually best eaten cold, and he was well on his way toward understanding that.

The fluid in the tank was blander than water. Ellen had never before encountered a substance in a doctor’s office that lacked any offensive taste. It took her nearly an hour and a half to fall asleep when she closed her eyes in the tank (the lights were off and the room was darker than a stuck freezer). She fell into a light sleep and had a dream. She did not remember her dream until walking out of Lippi’s Luv Burger in a huff with half her lunch under her arm.

Ellen dreamt she gave birth to an alien made of mucus.

 

“What’s it like?” Brock demanded to know, standing in the doorway of her apartment. The knock came while she was eating breakfast, and she answered it with a groan. Now she found it impossible to loathe him, standing folded about a center of gravity somewhere in the space in front of his navel, wearing his mock pirate bandana and week’s worth of stubble, his arms stretched out behind the doorway as though preparing to jump from a balcony. He refused to advance inside until she volunteered an answer.

Ellen got up and walked toward him coldly. She regarded him for several seconds, chewing on words, and then crouched down and yanked him forward by his knees until he was inside.

“You don’t give up, do you?” she said.

“What’s it like having an alternate?”

Ellen motioned to her medium sized cardboard cup of coffee standing next to the paper bag containing a Number Three breakfast sandwich. “It’s greasy. Brock, close the damned door, wouldja?”

He obeyed and returned to the table with a leap. He derived boyish satisfaction from all the small ways in which he irritated her—this was a prerequisite to getting along with her.

“You might as well ask me what it’s like to be one,” she said as cheap coffee settled in her stomach.

“Hmm?”

“You ever woken up and forgotten where you are, and you have that eight seconds of confusion before your eyes adjust? You know, where you try and piece shit together? Like if you're traveling or something. That eight seconds feels like a lot longer than eight seconds when you’re trying to figure out who you are, and you don’t get clarification until you inspect your wrist for the absence of a certain bracelet.”

Brock processed this with what appeared to be envy. “I know you told me before, but where exactly is your double right now, and what’s her assignment?”

“I most certainly did not tell you that. Nice try.”

Brock reached for one of her hash browns and she slapped his hand.

“That’s not funny.”

Brock removed his bandana, teased the cat with it a little and then tied it around the table leg just above the reach of Copernicus’s paws. “I’m willing to bet that half the time you claim you can’t talk about something because it’s classified, you’re just being antisocial.”

“Gosh, you’re too smart for me. And here I thought you were buying my military intelligence bit I use to get out of having conversations, so I can be a crabby bitch and you’ll still like me. Guess I can’t do that anymore. Guess I’d better tell you the real truth; I run a catering business, and I’m a sci-fi geek living vicariously through my brilliant, wonderful girlfriend who clones herself for spy missions and whines about the corporate pig-feed she’s forced to eat.” She scrunched her face as she ate the last hash brown.

Brock untied his bandana from the table and twirled it around his fingers. Copernicus jumped up into his lap. “Ellen-”

“I hate it when you start a sentence addressing me by name.”

“You hate a lot of things. Why that?”

“I know you’re about to embark on something serious, and then you get this sweet little sit-com dad look in your face, like you’re all important. Yes, we recently started fucking, and then I withdrew and we haven’t talked in a few days. Yes, I’m not oblivious to that development. You, the responsible party in this relationship who spends all day making sandwiches, have had the latitude to think about me constantly and prepare a sincere and flowery speech while I coldly crunch numbers behind a desk, preoccupied with petty things like national security. Brock-” She felt her eyes bloat up. Whatever tank of liquid had just burst a valve inside her, she wished she could seal it off to avert the oncoming paroxysm, but her chest was already heaving. She heard Copernicus’s claws scramble on the floor; Brock was that quick to spring to her with a comforting embrace that was completely unnecessary.

She thought of telling him. The thought also occurred to her that he already knew somehow.

“Brock, you realize what you are doing to me.” She articulated her words in as controlled a manner as possible. “And that you definitely need to leave right now.”

Brock put his bandana back on and slumped toward the exit.

“We’ll talk after reintegration, kay?”

Brock gave a heavy nod—about a pivot point miles in front of his throat—and hurriedly closed the door. Ellen had a sick feeling that she knew where he was headed next. Although that was probably impossible.

She wanted to ask him one thing. She wanted to shout it out the window and then bury her head in a pillow before she could hear his reply. If she calls you, will you go to her?

She had already made an appointment with the clinic.

 

They spoke thrice daily to coordinate condiment packets and value meals. They both anticipated where the tense pauses were and destroyed them on contact. They eschewed friendly greetings.

In the office she could not help but overhear discussion over a popular made-for-television movie event soon to be released. She had seen it advertised along her commute. The billboard shaped like a cross bore the title “The Prodigal-ternate” as if it was clever. The words were in gigantic shaded green letters, the type of font reserved only for parables adapted for dramatic television. The Prodigal-ternate was supposedly based on a true story: a wealthy family’s only son gets drafted. The parents commission AFLING to create an alternate of the son, and they send the alternate to war and change the original’s identity. They bribe someone at AFLING to remove the blue bracelet and strike from all legal records that the services were rendered. The original son stays in his hometown and leads a low profile life, taking precautions to protect his dual identity from being discovered. The soldier son alternate survives and comes home. With both of them coexisting in the same house, the risk of discovery is far too great, so the family comes to the decision that one of the two must be sacrificed, the question being, which one?

Everybody at work seemed to have a boisterous opinion on the matter. Ellen had to go outside and make a phone call.

"It’s nine fifteen, why are you calling me, bitch?" said the female voice. "Lunch is at eleven, remember?"

Two Robbins chased each other around the barbed wire fence. Ellen squeezed the concrete wall behind her with one leg and stood up straight on the other.

"I’m not sure if awkward is the right term for this," Ellen began.

"But you want to talk about the little miracle inside us. Of course you do; it’s not an easy decision. It’s the type of thing a person spends hours thinking to themselves about while taking long walks—might as well talk to yourself on the phone, it’s more efficient. It’s like schizophrenia without the crazy."

A rock sank in Ellen’s gut. "How can you be sarcastic about this? I’ve already made my decision, and that means you have too. But we are so so so so not supposed to be making that kind of decision. We'll be fused back together in two days, it can wait. It has to wait."

"You're the one who called me."

"Since you're out of town, I went ahead and scheduled the…procedure," said Ellen.

"Why are you telling me?"

Anger pushed itself from a micro-universe in Ellen’s chest to the surface of her fingers.

"And how is it that I am calm and you are agitated right now?"

Ellen felt the cell phone tremble against her cheek. "You have to tell me. What are you doing?"

The female voice paused, sipping strength from the silence. "I’m sure this makes very little sense to you. I’m your Doppelganger, your Doctor Jekyll’s bitch Hyde, whatever. You’ve been suppressing indecision your whole life, haven’t you? And now here I am, evil twin about to pop up behind the couch with a big fucking knife, stab you in the back and walk off with your man. Ellen, do you really want to have a serious conversation? Because you know we can both go on back and forth like this all day, and I know that you need to get your ass back to work."

"No, this doesn’t make sense." Ellen was leaning half her weight against the concrete wall. "I can’t think of an event that would ever change my mind about…and that’s why you need to drop the bullshit right now and tell me what has happened."

"You can’t even say it."

Ellen spoke at a volume she feared might have been heard inside. "We’re not having the baby."

The female voice took on a new tone, one that was unfamiliar. "Now listen very carefully to me, Ellen."

Ellen’s back sunk against the wall, one vertebrae at a time, making lacerations in her blouse.

"Are you listening? There’s been a change of plans- will be, a change. It will begin with your demise."

Ghosts scratched at the concrete from inside her larynx. She forced them until words came out. "You don’t have a soul, you. Little. Shit."

The female voice was even calmer now than before. "The metaphysics are elusive—our stance as agnostic never changed. What did change is useless to explain. See, these past few days while you’ve been farting around, living your life, I’ve come to realize things."

 

“You will be introduced to one of our attorneys prior to initiating the procedure. He will collect your signed documents, and answer any-”

“I’m asking you. Just tell me the important stuff.”

Doctor Kleinblacht’s mouth made a slight double bob as he swallowed, like checking the emergency brake in a car before firing the ignition. “Alternate law is somewhat delicate and controversial. I don’t get involved in religious debates, but as I’m sure you’re aware, there has been discussion over the, um, spiritual status of an alternate. The Catholic church has taken the position that an alternate does not possess a spirit, or, astral life force, whatever nomenclature you prefer, and therefore alternates are banned from attending church. If you are of that faith, you should be informed that a priest is obligated to dismiss you from a confessional booth, should you attempt to enter one.”

“Wait, why are you telling me this? I’m not my double. I don’t have one yet.”

“It is quite natural for first-time clients to experience difficulty—and what may be termed acute disorientation—processing the logistics. When you step out of that tank wearing the blue wristband and physically see yourself step out of the other tank, the effect on the mind can be overwhelming. We offer psychological counseling as an auxiliary service free of charge. You may opt for this service at any time within twenty-four days of the alternate’s return. Bear in mind I am speaking to you solely as a physician and not as a certified therapist or legal advisor when I say that it’s best to stop thinking of yourself and the alternate as separate. The alternate will remember this conversation as clearly as you will.”

“Okay, backup, backup, I’m an idiot.”

“As I said, confusion in first-time clients is normal and respectable.”

“These laws you mentioned?”

“Despite the stances any religious organizations may take, an alternate is considered a human being in a court of law, with the stipulation that the alternate lacks certain rights; the right to marriage, the right to vote, obviously, the ability to acquire new licenses, etcetera. My favorite joke on election day-”

“No offense, but I find jokes tedious.”

Doctor Kleinblacht shifted; it looked as though his feet hiccuped and the rest of his body absorbed the disturbance. Ellen imagined that the doctor’s wife witnessed that mannerism at home several times a day.

“As I was saying,” the doctor continued, “in the event that somebody is charged with murdering an alternate, the charge of murder is not diminished on behalf of the victim being an alternate, even if the murderer happens to be the alternate’s original self.”

Ellen laughed and then swallowed the laugh and clamped her mouth shut. “Sorry. Has that ever actually happened?”

The doctor shook his head without actually moving it.“Should an alternate be convicted of a crime, that’s where it becomes sticky. The alternate is accountable for his or her actions and may be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. However, any prison sentences awarded are superceded by our contract stating that the alternate must return to AFLING laboratory by a specified date and time. When an alternate is in police custody, the police are therefore commanded to deliver the alternate to us. After the reintegration is completed, you, the original you, are responsible for any felonies committed by the alternate. But, up until the instant you voluntarily lay in that tank, the law considers you to be independent from the alternate, and therefore innocent. So long as you maintain your innocence, we may not under any circumstances exercise physical coercion to bring you here. The penalty for failure to cooperate with your contract to appear involves financial restitution only. Your compliance is purely discretionary, and until you volunteer your presence, your alternate will sit in handcuffs and wait for you, so long as you are willing to pay the violation fees.”

“I suppose people have different reasons for using your services.”

“You are not asked to state your causes for doing business with us, and if you choose to reveal your intent to a member of our staff, we express no ethical judgments. You will sign a contract stating that you’ve read and understood the whole gamut. Personally, I’m not concerned with any of the legal speculations. If you want to send your double to rob a bank, that’s fine by me, so long as you drink your eighteen ounces of water and don’t get any tattoos. What I care about is that you follow the recommended procedures as pertains to diet and bodily sustenance. My role, as I’ve stated, is as physician.”

 

A ripple of laughter zipped through Ellen’s body like curly dental floss. "You want to threaten me? Gee, I’d think we’re pretty equally matched. And what if I win this cat-and-mouse circus you're proposing? If I kill you, this whole operation was one great big waste of time and company budget. Although the more likely scenario is we’d both end up killing each other. Wouldn’t that be perfect."

"I’m amazed you would underestimate my cunning. If I’m saying any of this to you, then I think we can safely jump to the conclusion that the execution has already been carried out. Taste anything funny in your coffee this morning?"

Ellen felt herself floating inside her skin and twirling around. "Mind games? Oh, that is so so so wrong."

The female voice took a deep breath. Ellen knew the sound of the deep breath; it meant all defenses and all weapons were dropped—this was human time. "You know Brock wants kids. You’ve always known that. You just never gave him the chance to let you know it."

"Goddammit, I should have- of course you called Brock. You caved in. Out there, alone in hotels, I would have. If you had- oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, do you see now what’s happened? If you could have followed the rules for for two more lousy days and stayed out of your own damned personal life, whatever’s just happened between you and Brock would have happened after reintegration. Now you’ve evolved without me. You can’t even imagine what it takes for me to say that."

The female voice was fully irritated. "Well take an extra baby step and see this paradox; you, can’t, blame, me. You need to die so that I can have this baby. It sounds absurd, but it’s really quite normal; people grow and change, it happens every day, people let go of old beliefs and plans."

Ellen thought and laughed some more. It was not actually a laugh, but a series of breaths compressed into one. "Fuck rich people making clone soldiers. Fuck the war. This is your movie of the week, right here. The two sisters who never were."

"What?"

"Never mind," said Ellen.

"You need to get back to work. That’s why you stayed home, remember?"

"So-"

She did not expect the dial tone. If only the phone could have sounded static instead. Perhaps then the static would tell her what to do.

That night Ellen dreamt that she had always had a sibling. She wanted to learn her sister’s name, but nobody would tell her.

When she woke up, she did not know who she was or what she wanted.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project

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