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I fold my arms and legs, arranging myself into the glass coffin in which I was born.
The small tank, once filled with a translucent gel, was used to store a fetus. I have to pull my thighs to my chest and tuck my knees under my chin in order to fit. I reach outside the coffin and weave my fingers through the tangled mess of silicone tubes lying outside it. They were once connected to the large, blinking machine at the center of the room, carrying nutrients to the tank to nurture the unborn child.
Shaking the jet-black hair from my eyes, I lift my gaze to the labyrinth of coffins surrounding my own. Most of them are activated, glowing a faint and eerie cobalt, the silhouette of an infant curled inside. Ugly creatures, they are. Shriveled little beings with heads larger than their bodies, curled like shrimps in a sea of blue gel. Some tanks seem empty; the jelly and pipes supporting only a handful of cells, invisible to the naked eye, one day blossoming into a baby.
Besides the glow of the tanks and the occasional red or green light flashing from the central feeder, the room is dark. Silent but for the soft hum emitting from the machine.
And then footsteps. Voices outside the room. I strain my ears to hear past the white noise of the feeder. Two scientists, a man and a woman whose voices I don’t recognize, are speaking.
“Where the hell is she?” exclaims the male. “I told Rosa to bring her in for testing an hour ago!”
“Probably locked herself in the Prenatal Room again. I don’t know why she likes the place so much. It’s like a dungeon.” The woman’s voice, steady against her companion’s, is tinged with disdain.
“How does she get in? You give her the key?” The masculine voice turns accusing.
“Oh, no. She just has a gift for swiping them from us. Not like she messes with the little ones or anything.
Always just curls up in one of those tanks like a child. You’d think she’d have better places to go if she had access to the keys, but nooo…”
I twist the lanyard around my neck, fidgeting with the plastic card secured to its end. I’d found it hanging over a doorknob this morning, left by that olive-skinned scientist with a scarlet streak in her hair.
The door to the lab creaks open, letting a beam of light over my face. I squint and duck my head, allowing my silky dark hair to spill over my shoulders.
“Ah, there she is. Get outta there, girl,” the woman calls to me.
I don’t budge.
“Twelve-eighty three, get out!” The man’s voice rings through the chamber, harsh and urgent. She turns to her coworker and speaks in a sharp hiss, “What do you think she’s doing? You say she normally hides in here? How do you usually get her out?”
“Don’t have to. We call, she comes. What’s gotten into her today?”
“You don’t think she knows about - about the Cybertrial?”
The scientists’ whispers turn hushed. I shiver and turn away, remembering the latest subject of their current experiment, the one they called the Cybertrial.
Before bed I had lifted a lanyard from the shoulders of our caretaker, Rosa, and tucked it underneath my cotton nightclothes, the plastic card cool and smooth against my skin. In her exhaustion, she hadn’t noticed it missing until later, and at that point I was already crouching in a Prenatal Room coffin, crying for my best friend. Clone twelve-sixty three, the one the scientists had just taken away for testing. I could still see her smile, her sparkling, sky-blue eyes, her long, white blonde hair that seemed to glow as it cascaded down her spine.
Rosa had called me outside, delivered a sharp slap and a scolding, and I was on my way back to the Clone Residency. The halls were dark, dimly lit with faint fluorescent lights on the ceiling. As we passed the labs, scientists spoke in hushed voices. They’d escorted a girl out of the room.
She was struggling to walk, moving in slow, staggering steps. The lab technician laid a hand on her shoulder to steady her. As we approached, the girl noticed us and turned her head to face me.
Except she was not a girl. She was not even human.
I gasped and drew back. Rosa turned around, frowning, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the monstrosity before me. I’d never seen such a creature before - but yet, there was something familiar about her.
Her white-blonde hair, silvery in the lighting of the corridor, was the only thing about her that remained unchanged.
For the next week, I kept track of the clones being taken. Twelve-sixty nine, male. Twelve seventy-six, also male. Twelve-eighty two was taken yesterday. She and I, both members of Set 128, share the same DNA spiraling through our cells.
Please skip me, I prayed. Twelve-eighty four. Twelve-eighty five. Please not me.
The morning Rosa arrived with her tablet, buzzing with a notification instructing her to bring me in, I’d fled to the Prenatal Room. I couldn’t read the text, but I could recognize my number in bold on the center of the screen. 1283. The number tattooed across my wrists, the one I see every day when I look down to wash my hands, to pick up food, to retrieve a fallen item on the floor.
Here I sit, paralyzed with fear and dread for what’s to come, consumed by one raging, determined thought:
They would not make me into a monster.
I tilt my head ever so slightly towards the scientists, taking in their appearances for the first time They are conversing in whispers and shooting impatient glances in my direction. The woman has short, choppy black hair, similar to mine. Maybe it was her genes that were reproduced to create me. The man has fiery red hair and a furious expression to match it. Finally the female stalks over to me with a piercing glare. “Twelve-eighty three, get up. You’re coming with us.”
I gaze defiantly into her amber eyes and give a small shake of my head.
Nails dig into my arm and I bite my lip to hold in my yelp. I am hauled to my feet. The scientist loosens her grip on me and drags me, gently this time, to the door. The male shuts it behind him as we exit.
“Good,” the woman nods. She smiles now, though she doesn’t relinquish her hold on my arm. “I’m not sure you understand what’s going on. I’m Dr. Marie, this is Dr. Andrew.” She gestures to the man, who lifts a hand in a failed attempt to appear friendly. “You’re going to be part of an experiment we call the Cyber -”
I taste blood in my mouth. Dr. Marie reels back in shock and stares at her wrist where I bit her. Her fingers release me and I run, spitting the taste of iron from my tongue. It’s not long, though, before they’ve caught up to me. Dr. Andrew grabs my wrists, scowling darkly, and Dr. Marie appears behind him, wiping blood off on her lab coat.
Her voice is colder when she speaks again. “The Cybertrials. Actually, it’s more of a project than an experiment - we’ve already finalized and mastered the operation procedures. Numerous lives will be saved when we’ve completed it on enough clones.”
My eyes widen at the word “operation.”
No. They can’t make me into one of them.
My breathing becomes ragged, my legs struggling to propel me forth, but Dr. Andrew’s grip on me is too strong. “It’s an honor to be selected for this operation, girl,” he whispers, his tone tinged with irritation. “You’ll help us win the war against the world and prove to them the value of cloning. You’ll save thousands - millions - of human lives.”
Human, not clone.
I was created in a Petri dish. I was born in a coffin. I was raised in a lab to be tested like an animal. And though our caretakers might care for us, coddle us, treat us like normal human children, they’ll never let us forget that we’re not one of them.
I stop struggling.
We’re moving forwards, turning corners, passing through hallways that I see none of. My eyes blur with unshed tears. Rosa. All she’s done for us - feed us, entertain us - she acted so kind.
But were we even human in her eyes?
After minutes of silence but for the footsteps on the tiled floor, we arrive at a lab. Its ceilings are alight with bulbs of electricity, its white walls covered in screens. A technician sits at a surgical table, arranging gadgets and tools before him.
Chips. Wires. Screws. Four bionic limbs, complete with fingers and joints composed of plastic and metal, like a skeleton, completely devoid of skin or flesh.
I take a last look at my hands, turn them over to reveal the number inked over my veins. I curl my fingers, flex them into a fist.
“Twelve-eighty three.” The technician speaks, sliding goggles and a mask over his face. “Do lie down.”
He helps me onto the table, his hands gentle. My legs tremble. I inhale, exhale, press my back against the cold steel. The technician slides on a pair of rubber gloves, as do Marie and Andrew. Behind Marie’s glove, I see a recently-applied bandage where I’d bitten her. Looking up at the scientists, I see my own eyes glowing with terror reflected on their glass goggles.
I can’t prevent a sob from escaping my throat when the technician lifts a syringe. “Don’t worry - you won’t feel a thing during the operation,” he assures me, recognizing my rising fear. “Just a pinch - and it won’t hurt a bit, after that.”
Just a pinch.
That’s all I feel before the effects of the sedative sink in. My eyelids droop, my rapid breaths calming, and the world dissolves into blackness.
When I come to, the smell of cleansing chemicals is the first thing to hit me. Its scent, however, does nothing to mask the sour tinge of blood in the air.
The scientists have moved me to a soft, comfortable bed. They’ve changed me into a new gown, identical to my old cotton nightshirt but cleaner and lighter in color. I reach out to pull the blanket over my nose and freeze.
The hand - my hand - stands out in stark contrast to the blindingly white duvet. I bend the glossy, obsidian fingers, watching them slide along the silver balls forming my knuckles. My entire arm is like that - a dark plastic casing protecting the who-knows-what underneath. Gears? Wires? Springs? All I know is that what I once had before is gone. The veins, muscles, bone and blood, all of which I fueled the hope I’d held on to that I was human, just the slightest bit human -
Gone, gone, gone, and gone.
I hold up my left hand. It, too, is gone. Replaced by this monstrous mechanism.
I don’t bother to check the status of my legs, whether they are still whole and human or cyborg and counterfeit. But then again, I’ve never been truly human.
What difference does it make?
I let out a moan, shocked that my voice still works, and bury my face in my hands. The pads at my fingerprints pick up the texture on my forehead. They’ve taken away my human senses and replaced them with gadgets to gather data from my environment.
I detect motion to my left. The sensation is unfamiliar, unlike anything else I’ve ever perceived - not a sight, sound, or scent. Not a texture or taste. It’s like a sixth sense. My fingers reach to my ear and I feel an indentation - perhaps a speaker of some sort? A motion sensor?
I turn my head towards the movement and see her.
Strange characters and symbols fill up my vision. A jumble of letters and numbers I don’t understand, never learned to understand. But there’s no need to comprehend the gibberish; the statistics displayed in my view seem to flow into my mind. Broadcasted by whatever programming they’ve put inside me. The girl’s height and weight, her age and date of birth, stream into my knowledge.
And her name.
No longer is she called Clone Twelve-sixty three.
She’s Soldier One Eighty-nine.
Soldier one eighty-nine gently lowers herself onto my bed, kneeling before me. I look up as she pushes the dark hair from my eyes, and gaze into hers.
The soldier’s face is covered in speakers and sensors. I see wiring underneath her artificial skin. And her eyes - not eyes, but synthetic orbs with flashing lights and irises glowing silver. Her pupil is a camera lens boring into me. I can imagine my own image mirroring hers.
The soldier lifts her prosthetic hand to my cheek. The gesture of a friend, not a monster. But I still flinch. The soldier recoils.
Sitting back, she sighs. “We’re still the same, you know.”
And it’s true. No matter what they’ve done to her, to both of us, I can tell that who she is underneath the machinery has not changed.
“I know,” I breathe.
“I can show you.”
Soldier one-eighty nine takes my hand in hers, metal against metal, and sets it on my chest. Through the pads of my fingerprints, I sense a pulse. Thump. Thump. The one thing, that one vital organ that reminds me that no matter what they’ve done to me, they haven’t turned me into a robot or a monster.
With a palm over my chest, I close my eyes and listen to the ever-steady pounding of my beating heart.