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Two of a Kind
In the heart of the city, glittering in the night like a circus of fireflies, there was a small bookstore. It opened at eight o’clock am and closed at eight o’ clock pm. Nobody went to buy books there. The old woman who ran the store was annoyingly deaf and all the books were ridiculously overpriced. Besides, there was another bookstore across the street with a better selection of books set with a handsome male bookkeeper.
The lights were all dead since it was well over eight hours after noon. Yet there was movement in the old building, underneath the old building in fact. There were troops of security guards and even more figures in white lab coats walking around holding thick files.
The bookstore was merely a cover shrouding the source of every illegal deal in South East Asia from the government. Though curiously the orders were usually from powerful influential men who worked in the government.
This source of South East Asian black markets was a laboratory, rather small in size compared to its reputation. There operations were done, body parts taken away – regrettably by force - for implants, drugs and all the latest technology forbidden by law. However, the most important and dangerous experiments were held in one particular room: Special Orders Commission. But most simply called it the Soc.
But only one of the white robed people was permitted inside the Soc. She was a young lady with striking black eyes, blood red lips and a soft brown waterfall of shoulder-length hair. Her low silver heels went clack-clack-clack as she quickly walked to the Soc.
The lady pressed her hand on a glass screen and at the same time scanned her iris on front of a black hole on the wall. A blue light flashed on the glass screen. The door, flat against the wall that it was a steel rectangle on the wall, made a hole small enough for the lady to barely pass through. This was for security reasons in case someone tried to follow her behind.
The room would’ve been pitch black if not for the eerie green glow emanated by the glass cylindrical containers filled with clear emerald liquid. The containers were lined up against the wall because the room, really, was only a very big corridor. None of the containers contained anything, except for the one on the left side of the lady and fifth from the door.
It had a young boy inside.
She could hear his heart beating steadily through the special microphones plugged at the base of the glass container. Although he was underwater and wasn’t breathing, his heart beat as shown in the pointed hills on the single line running through the screen of the machine next to the container. He was curled up in a ball. His head was tucked underneath his arms, the black hair curling like seaweed in the ocean bed.
It’s like a baby inside its mother’s womb, the lady mused. She was extremely pleased with her work. Cloning a human had been no easy work as a human had an infinitely more complicated system than an animal’s. But it was worth it. Tomorrow a million Yuan would be sent to her Swiss bank at home. And her client had already paid fifty thousand Yuan in prior. She placed her gloved hand, which looked ghostly pale in the green light, on the curved surface of the container.
Perhaps, she thought, it could sense me right now. Suppose it would hear my voice like a baby would hear its mother’s lullaby inside her womb.
The lady smiled at the thought. She never had a child nor did she plan to have one. But to think that the boy floating inside the liquid was, in a way, her son was amusing.
There was a name she had always named her child when playing family with her pet rabbits. If it was a female rabbit, she had called it Alison. If it was a male rabbit, she had called it….
“Alan,” she whispered.
James Hale knocked into people as he walked hurriedly across the corridor. His eyes bored into the floor. He tried to avoid looking at people because every time he did, a long stream of data flowed past his eyes and memories flooded his mind.
He bumped into a boy shorter than him. James’ books fell on the floor loudly. People turned to see what had happened and snickered at him.
Dammit, James thought miserably. His orders had specifically told him not to attract attention.
The boy he had bumped into wasn’t helping James at all. He was laughing out loud and patting James on the back saying things like “Hey, what’s the rush?” and “A girl chasing you?”
James grimaced as he accidentally looked at the boy’s pockmarked face. Captions with pointing arrows began to gather around the boy in James’ computerized eyes.
Name: Al Fonso Cheung
Height: 156cm, small for age
Above average EQ
The pockmarked face is due to a small incident with a gang that sliced his face up. Do not remark upon his face.
Athletic. Small and slight build. Good at short distance running.
Calloused hands. Plays the guitar well.
The rush of memories was the strangest of all. In that one second when James blinked, he remembered all the afternoons when he and Al had played in the streets, the back alleys they had explored and the shops they had mugged. But the boy who was running with Thomas was Al and wasn’t the same person as James.
No doubt Al was a friend of West’s. James stepped back warily. Someone like this boy with all these memories with James might sense a difference. But Al pulled him back playfully. He was munching on several sweets in his mouth. Every time Al Fonso moved his jaw to speak, there was a loud crunch of the hard round candies crushed into powder.
“Hey, Jay,” Al chirped. “Want to see what I got in my mouth?”
Flecks of spit flew out of his mouth. For once, James was glad for his helmet as drops of saliva landed and slid onto the glass surface. “Uh… It’s okay…”
Al began wiping the spit off James’ helmet with his pocket-handkerchief. According to James’ memories, it was mainly used for wiping Al’s shiny black shoes. It left black streaks on the glass.
“Sorry about that,” said Al nonchalantly. “But really, you have to see this, just once. Please?”
James hesitated. He didn’t want to throw up inside his helmet. “All right then.”
A pair of deep dimples blossomed on Al’s cheeks like flowers. He opened his mouth wide. “Da ya shee?” he yelled. His tongue was waggling wildly to pronounce the words.
His tongue. James felt faintly disgusted. It was changing color rapidly, from hot pink to acid green, bright blue to deep magenta, and pitch black to bone-white. It was like some mutation of a slimy hairless caterpillar and a chameleon in a fit.
“Oh,” was all he could say.
“Cool, isn’t it?” Al closed his mouth into a proud grin and swallowed. “It’s the new candies. They’re selling the rainbow series. There’s another one where your skin changes color. But I thought it was a bit too much. Don’t you think?”
James didn’t reply.
Al laughed cheerfully and walked way. He hadn’t noticed anything at all. James felt a rush of relief. If Al couldn’t tell, nor would the others be able to. But the relief released the tension in James’ stomach. The world spun as he fell to his knees and threw up. Luckily, his helmet had opened automatically before he even opened his mouth. There must be sensors in the suit sensing discomforts in James’ body.
People had just finally given up staring at James. This time they groaned and moved away. At least he was alone in the hallway now.
The tiles on the floor covered with James’ breakfast and stomach acid suddenly fell. Underneath the floor was a space. Although it was too dark to tell there must’ve been hydraulic motors down there. White pristine tiles suddenly levitated from the darkness and stayed in the empty places. They shone brightly and were slightly damp as if someone had wiped them using a wet towel. They even smelled like freesia and roses now.
James crawled to the wall and leaned against it. He tilted his head upwards. His chest rose as he breathed in deeply. He kept his helmet open for fresh air. It was ironic how the helmet had only made breathing more uncomfortable when it was designed to do otherwise. All that fuss about contaminated air harming him. James shook his head. The helmet and suit were only for the wealthy and influential. The health precautions were only an excuse to wear the suit so that people could point and whisper, ‘He is rich. He is powerful. He can do anything to you. He can hurt you.’
His first day at work, at school and he was already drained. James put his thumb and index finger to his temple.
On front of James, there was a glass wall. It was dark outside because of an incoming typhoon. So it was far brighter indoors. The light bounced off the dark glass and reflected James’ face. He saw a teenage boy wearing a white suit covering his whole body. The boy had black spiky hair and black Chinese eyes. But his features were Western, American specifically speaking.
James blinked. The boy in the glass blinked too, as if challenging by asking who was the real one. Whoever it was, it wasn’t James.
“Mr. Hale?” a woman’s voice rang in the empty hallway. “Are you all right?”
He turned. Instantly, writing in small black font and narrow arrows surrounded the woman.
Name: Ms. Johnson
Age: Unknown, seemingly in thirties
Thin. Weak. Effected with bulimia.
“Uh….” James mumbled a few incoherent words. He remembered being held after school by her and being handed his end of year reports set with a grimace by Ms. Johnson. Again, he somehow knew that the boy Ms. Johnson had known was gone.
“A bit late for class, no?” Ms. Johnson spoke with a clipped British accent. But everyone knew that it was merely all for show. The exaggerated vowels were clearly brought from her home country. “You do know that your essay on the Muslim empire was due today?”
“Err…. Yeah,” he stood up awkwardly. James stumbled past Ms. Johnson who held his shoulder, stopping him.
James froze. Could she have known that he was -
“And your father will be down on us by today if he finds you not wearing your helmet, Saint James.” She pressed the button on James’ plastic collar and immediately his head was encased in what looked like a glass fish bowl. “It’s for your safety.”
Another mistake. James groaned inside and walked quicker. He glanced behind. Ms. Johnson was walking towards the opposite direction. Her cruelly short and neat yellow hair bobbed up and down.
James tried to sneak inside the classroom unnoticed. But his damned suit and helmet always made him so conspicuous, both in status and looks. He was, after all, Saint James.
Mr. Karle had been in the middle of writing a mathematical equation on the hologram of a board. His hands, gloved with the special black gloves that allowed him to make contact with the hologram, stopped in mid-air.
Name: Mr. Karle
Weight: Unknown, but obese
Above average IQ
Above average EQ
Problems in domestic life
These labels were beginning to get annoying. But James knew that they would always be there until he had fully gotten used to his new life. Maybe he could ask Jay if he could instead have a pile of papers with the information.
“You’re late!” Mr. Karle exclaimed. He waggled his finger. “Naughty.” The way he said ‘naughty’ was so exaggerated that it sounded like ‘no-o-o-ty’. That was Mr. Karle’s signature phrase.
Several people in the classroom snickered. Suddenly the inside of James’ helmet felt far too stuffy. Hell to the Saint nonsense and health precautions, James punched the button at his collar. Mr. Karle repeated his ‘no-o-o-ty’ as the glass helmet slid behind. James ignored him and went to his seat, next to an Asian girl hunched over her desk.
He hardly listened to a word of Mr. Karle. He was talking about how beautiful parabolas were and how you could manipulate the equation to change the shape. The maths teacher was attempting draw a heart as it was his wedding anniversary today.
Suddenly James realized at what page he was supposed to be at. He took out his textbook slowly and tried to guess what page they were at. The girl next to him had her face turned away from him. Perhaps she didn’t want to look at him. A black curtain of glossy hair was between James and the girl.
James mustered what little nerve he had left. He used his index finger to push away that curtain of hair. The girl twitched. Immediately James felt bad. He didn’t want to frighten her, or annoy her.
“What page are we at?” James whispered.
The girl turned towards James. He could see her face fully now. Her eyes were large and black as a raven’s feather. They even seemed as soft as one too, like they were holding back tears. Her mouth was full and very pink but the lack of gloss made her look sickly. The blood, which had risen to her face, contrasted greatly with her pale nearly translucent skin.
Name: Elspeth Wong
Weight: Unknown, but slightly chubby
Below average EQ
Nearly no relation to James
Elspeth looked at James, devoid of all expression. It was strange because otherwise, her features were bursting with emotions. Her eyes shone, her mouth looked as if it couldn’t wait to smile, the shape of her fine eyebrows was characteristic and her soft round cheeks were scarlet.
She replied steadily, “One hundred and thirty two.” Her voice was flat. It could be that she was very bored. James considered his reasoning.
“Thanks.” Then James noticed her staring at him. But unlike so many other people that day, Elspeth didn’t stare at him like he was a freak. Her look was calculating.
James blushed. Then he realized that he hadn’t been acting like Jay. Jay wouldn’t be so polite, especially to this strange fat girl. James forced a sneer on his face and said, “Took you long enough, didn’t it?”
For one splitting moment, anger flashed in Elspeth’s eyes like summer lightning. Abruptly, she pushed herself away from the table. There was a painful crash and she moaned as the chair pushed into her skin.
“What on earth is the matter over there?” Mr. Karle looked nervous. His finished heart made from a maths equation hovered in mid-air on the hologram. “Elspeth? Are you all right?”
What emotion Elspeth’s face had lacked was now overflowing with grief and anger. Though James thought he could see a touch of spite there. She cried, “James pushed me.”
There was an angry muttering like the buzz of a swarm of bees. For a man to harm a lady, it was unforgivable. Everyone knew how sweet Elspeth was.
“But,” James began to protest. But someone behind him muttered, “Thinks he’s so special. Saint James.”
James twisted his body and lunged for that snob. It was a wiry boy with thick-rimmed glasses. James didn’t even have time for his computerized brain to interpret the boy’s face and label him. The boy yelped and punched wildly. As soon as James felt the pain of the punch, his helmet automatically encased his head. His opponent screamed as his hand hit the hard glass surface.
Mr. Karle had had enough. He had already called for security and that word alone should’ve stopped those two. He yelled, “That is enough! Saint James Hale! Out of the room! Now!”
Metal arms wrapped themselves around James’ arms. He was dragged outside to the corridor. There he was meant to wait outside the door quietly. If he moved so much as an inch, the security guards would deal with him.
The rest of the school day went smoother than the first class. Through the next three lessons, James looked for the girl who had pushed herself and blamed him. He was still furious about it. But Elspeth somehow managed to walk away from his view every time James glimpsed her long black hair.
James kept thinking, ‘What would Jay have done?’
The bright garish light blinded him. He felt heavy. He felt numb. He felt stupid. One swing of his arm would break something nearby. The light continued to burn. All that he could think of was how pretty the dust motes looked in the light. They were fairies with silver wings dancing to some slow waltz. They entranced him.
There was a sigh. A voice, distant and slightly tinny, spoke, “Hey! Speak to me.”
The small gust of air from the sigh had interrupted the dance. Still the fairies continued to prance around in mid-air, fluttering their wings as they sparkled in the light.
There was no reply. There was a pause and he felt a slap across his cheek. It hurt. The same voice repeated, this time slower, “Speak. To. Me.”
He turned. He saw a boy with dark hair and eyes that were distinctively Asian yet strangely placed upon a Western face. The boy grinned smugly.
Still he said nothing.
The boy decided that it was no use. He cleared his throat. “My name is Saint James Hale. You are my clone. From now own, you will follow my orders. They’ve done a great job on you, I admit. But you look kind of pathetic in my opinion, even though it’s my face.”
He had spoken very quickly with a matter-of-fact tone. The clone stared at James. He thought his name was James. But somehow he knew that James was, strictly speaking, his master.
“You can call me Jay,” James added helpfully.
“Jay,” the clone croaked. The word brought a dizzying rush of memories. Yet they were unclear and the name left a bad taste in his mouth. Like speaking in a foreign language, almost alien. His tongue immediately felt dry and sandy.
Jay laughed. It was a something like a delighted gurgle, the sound a five year old would make on Christmas. “Nearly there, nearly there. Just a bit rusty.”
The clone coughed. “Who am I, Jay?”
For a moment, Jay’s eyes became chipped pieces of onyx, hard and shiny. “I told you. You’re my clone, James. I’ll allow you to call yourself James. None of the people I like call me that anyway. They call me Jay. I like you. And I need you. I need someone to cover for me while I’m away.”
“Okay.” James nodded. Some feeling was coming back to his body. He shivered. “I’m cold.”
Jay slapped his forehead. “Dammit, I forgot to dress you up when you were delivered. Well, I didn’t want to touch you. That’s my body after all. Wait a sec.”
He stood up from his stool. It fell behind and Jay kicked it out of his way. James couldn’t turn his head just yet. After Jay left his peripheral vision, he took in his surroundings.
The ceiling was littered with tiny light bulbs in the shape of stars. Unlike most bulbs, they were on the same surface on the ceiling. In the dark, it would give the illusion of a night sky. James could tell that the bed he was in was round, like an egg. The blanket on him was the egg yolk. It was yellow and thick and soft. Still James shivered. There wasn’t a stitch of clothing on him as a cool breeze brushed his shoulders and neck.
Jay came back with an armful of blue fabric. He dropped it right on James. “Here, dress yourself. They said that you’d still know the basics and stuff. They already put some sort of computer chip inside your brain and all that scientific whatnot.”
James began to slip a dark blue t-shirt over his head. He breathed in the fabric, felt it, and sensed it, memorizing the details.
“Anyway, while I’m gone, you have to speak like me, eat like me, and act like me, whatever. Just be me. You are Saint James Hale. But remember, I am the real one.” Jay pointed to himself self-importantly. “You are a copy. You were ordered from the Uni-net and you are expensive. It’s important to know what you are.”
Jay’s mouth, which had been a thin line of a grimace, curled up at the corners. “You don’t need to worry. You’re part cyborg so I there’s probably this machine thing that tells you what to do. You’re not a perfect clone. They had to put a few gigs inside you so you function like a real human.”
“Where are you going?” James liked the feeling of how his tongue and mouth moved to make different sounds. He repeated, “Where are you going?”
Then his face turned to the left as he felt a force on his left cheek. Jay had punched him in the face. James looked at him.
“No questions,” Jay said coldly. “That was my first warning.”
James’ hand moved to his cheek. It felt hot. And it stung. He realized that this was called pain. James marveled at this new sensation.
“I want you to know,” Jay began slowly, “that you are a robot with human parts. You have no emotions. If you were a real person, then you’d be angry. If you ever feel, well, weird or unclear, let me know.”
Jay turned away, his back to me. “Because emotions make you weak. And that’s the last thing you want happening to you.”
“I understand,” James lied.
The real Saint James Hale clapped once dramatically. He rubbed his hands together. “Now wear your pants. And I’ll you everything you need to know.”