Against Protocol

Traffic glided by the window and the soft glow of headlights passed over her shut eyelids, again and again, making them quiver and flutter like butterfly’s wings. It reminded Twelve of a time before, when her home was a pod and the full-spectrum lights would sweep over her at intervals to prevent jaundice. In a way, it was as if the world had changed, shifted, and maneuvered itself, so she had a clear view of it all, of everything past, present, and future. The plates shifted, causing bodies of water to flow between them, Pangaea breaking to form the modern world, and in the crevices, she saw faces; an ancient history lesson born in her deep subconscious and a future so bright and stark-white it’s brilliance blinded her. She woke up from the dream she shouldn’t be having wondering if everyone’s thoughts were this way. Wondering too why there was so much traffic passing noiselessly down Macapa Drive. Her bedroom window overlooked the long drive way, and the winding mountainside road where fancy automobiles sailed silently toward Mulholland Drive.

The medicinal apparatus, which was liquid housed in a silicone covered box with hoses coming from the supply into a filter which turned it into gas and pushed it through a secondary hose which flowed into an even smaller, cable-wire-thin, hose which affixed just inside her right nostril, had become twisted in the night. Or, she thought, that’s the story she would tell them if they found out she’d skipped breathing in her nightly supply of medicine-infused oxygen; which, was only a small act of rebellion. At first, she thought it was keeping her alive and she’d wanted to die. After weeks of skipping it, her paranoia that they’d discover her faded, and so did her hopes to peaceably escape a life that felt like an abomination. As far as she could tell, the only thing the medicine stopped was the vivid dreams and the strange way she sometimes felt like she was being pulled apart, into a million pieces. She felt everywhere and yet whole and in her bed at the same time.

She gently pulled the tiny attachment from her nose, and it fell easy. She did not dislodge the knot tied into the larger hose. If ever they discovered it, she’d shrug her shoulders and play dumb, and hope they couldn’t tell she was lying.

Something was different. She licked her lips, which were dry and cracking. Her mouth tasted like metal and chalk, two things she’d never tasted but from their smell could derive what it would taste like; one was like dry paste and the other sharp and just a tad acidic. She knew the smart thing to do would be to disentangle. She would be asleep in minutes and the taste in her mouth would be a memory for the morning, but she wanted a drink right then. She didn’t want to wake up from a dreamless sleep as if no time had passed at all, and that’s what the medicinal apparatus promised. The third option was something unbearable, and that was to suffer the terrible taste in her mouth and what had become a terrible thirst that could not be ignored.

Hydrate: to chemically combine with water. Without refreshing water on a regular basis your body’s joints will seize, you’ll experience muscle cramps, you’ll become dizzy, and you won’t be capable to perform at your highest levels. At your size and age, you should drink 2.7 liters of water every day. To ensure you’re getting enough water, drink water with every meal. Tell your superiors water is your drink of choice.

“Hydrate or suffer?” Twelve whispered to herself, her dry voice cracking.

She could hear the SAs, although it had been a year since she’d heard them gleefully shouting from the speaker boxes in the corners of every room and hallway. “Tell your superiors it’s your drink of choice,” the voice would exuberantly command. And, that word choice would stick out to her, and she’d chew on it all day while scientists chose her meals, her clothes, and her thoughts. She slipped out of bed hoping they would not hear her in the hallways, which were nothing like the unoccupied expanse of the factory’s hallways. Perhaps that’s why Amelia’s and Darren’s home felt so wrong to her, why she felt like a visiting acquaintance scurrying in muted light to dark rooms, hoping not to disturb the slumber of people she only vaguely knew. Instead of crisp lighting, there were soft circular bulbs that sprang to life at her ankles and illuminated a path to the kitchen. They were triggered by an invisible sensor ingrained in the maple flooring. In the factory, there was no art, only motivational posters suggesting that she keep busy, that she grab a mop or a rag and clean something. Later Amelia would tell her that she was their slave, and Twelve would contemplate stabbing herself in the neck with the dull edge of a butter knife she stole at breakfast. Amelia’s walls weren’t so uniformly decorated as the factory’s; no, standing in the dim lighting, Twelve’s heart beat a bit faster as she was held captive by the 11-foot-high abstract that sat above a small buffet table at the end of the hall. The hard-edged woman held an instrument, a lute, but it did not conceal her nakedness which was beautifully rendered and made up of many sharp turns. Amelia had told her the name of it, Synchromy in Orange: To Form; the name still did not make sense to Twelve, whose education had lacked any mention of art and what art would be and how it would make little stirrings inside her. As she tiptoed down the hall, their photographs sprang to life. Darren and Amelia smiled in their wedding attire, surrounded by their friends and family on a ballroom floor, and he dipped her, and they rose together and people silently clapped, and then the whole thing started over again, a beautifully captured motion picture, which they called photograph, but was a graphics interchange format, a GIF. In another, they are kissing for a moment that could feasibly play on an endless loop should Twelve chosen to have stood in that place and never moved forever, and never closed her eyes for more than ten seconds, as it was activated by a retina scanner. And, this was a fate she considered as she felt her lips and stared at their kiss. In her favorite photo, the young couple stood at the edge of a massive cliff which overlooked crashing waves and the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Their smiles and bright shining eyes, the wind in their hair, and the way their hands intertwined were a testament to happier times, newlyweds not buckling under the pressure of a decade-long marriage. As she passed them, the images stilled and the frames went dark.

She could have made it in the dark; somehow, she knew she had an instinct for it. She didn’t have to because the kitchen silently burst to life the moment she stepped into it. The fridge hummed, the clock’s face read the time, the lights were dim, but she could make out everything perfectly and it had been dead, lifeless only a moment before. It was luxury she’d not expected leaving the factory where everything was harshly bright. In Darren and Amelia’s home, the house catered to its inhabitants. Along the cupboards and appliances were small touchscreens with indicators and brightly-colored icons. She pressed for a cup and a cabinet opened. She took a small glass, but not one of the old-fashioned highball glasses Amelia preferred even though she was quite curious to see if she would prefer those too. The kitchen’s phosphorescent, liquid cooling LEDs caused spectrums of rainbow colors to glint on the glass. Twelve marveled at the cup, completely aware that this was the first time she’d ever found herself anywhere (other than her bedroom) after bedtime. She’d worried for some time that they spied on her, or that somehow the factory’s scientists could monitor her with the medicinal apparatus, but now it seemed they’d only know if they caught her out of bed afterhours because they too had awoken in the night. This caused her to forget the pretty colors and conquer the simple task at hand. She pressed the picture of the tap with water, and the tap shot water which disrupted the serenity of the quiet room. She prayed the drumming of water into the stainless-steel basin wouldn’t wake them. She’d mostly gotten over the urges to kill herself, but would not survive being returned to the factory. Disobeying protocol came at a price they said, and they made sure it was understood that punishment was guaranteed. It was hard for Twelve who did not lack imagination, but who had never been seriously physically harmed, to envision a fate worse than what she’d experienced before, the great loneliness and the monotonous, repetitive lessons that challenged her will in every way. But, they’d promised it would be worse, and she believed them, so she choked the water down fast as she could, barely taking a moment’s pause to breathe, but still she was thirsty.

Before she could fill her glass for a second time, the memory of her dream came rushing back. It sliced through reality and dimmed the room, and she felt herself pulling apart in every direction. It occurred to her then that maybe the medicinal apparatus was keeping her alive, and that she’d put herself on a path toward a slow death. Something about the kitchen, its surgical cleanliness, was causing her to remember her dream. The birth of the world and the accelerated rate to which it changed, technology advancing at a rate beyond what Moore himself had predicted with a synergy between technology and market forces so remarkable it frightened her, and the people who were not actually people, they would inherit it all after Darren and Amelia’s hillside West Hollywood Hills home crumbled to dust. Twelve, the spirit of herself, had found a way to step in and out of time, but felt she needed to roll herself back to one single moment, a moment that felt not so distant and featured Amelia, the imperfect version of Twelve; rather, Twelve was the more perfect version of her, made just for her, in her likeness, but not at all like outmoded gods intended, but who cares because few people believe in God anymore. She felt something like love envisioning Amelia falling to the ground, but she was also horrified by the grotesqueness of her mind to imagine something so despicable. It was one thing to fantasize about your own death, and another thing entirely to fantasize about the death of someone else.

Daydream: a visual creation of the imagination. It is not something you should indulge in. If you are losing yourself in daydreams, it is important to alert your superior at once. Pesky thoughts can be dangerous to one’s health. Additional medications or therapies will be prescribed as needed.

Twelve had no plans to tell Amelia, Darren, or anyone else about her daydreams. She rather liked being swept in and out of reality, but had no basis for what was normal imagination and what was one run completely out of control. She only knew she wished she could keep the darker thoughts at bay, and only focus on the good stuff, the ones that took her on adventures where she ran barefoot through the forest. She gulped down a second glass of water, and meditated a moment to clear her mind. How human she was being. She’d had a nightmare of sorts and then participated in the mundane act of getting a drink in the middle of the night. If she headed to the fridge for a snack, she’d be like any other Jane or Audrey or Amelia of the house, but she wouldn’t press her luck. She placed the cup under the tap again, it started while the cup was there and stopped when it was pulled away. No button needed. Darren and Amelia called it smart, which Twelve felt was not the right adjective to describe something that is not smart at all, but rather quite the simple sensor.

Before she could escape the kitchen, she could hear Darren coming from the other hallway. There was no time to return unseen. Her brain fought for the appropriate response, but none would come because lying was forbidden unless it was to protect her superiors or the factory. He was graceless when he entered, and nearly stumbled over the small step up into the room from which one could look down on the formal dining room if they were standing at the sink. He was naked from the waist up and his hair was uncharacteristically tussled. His eyes were two swollen slits.

“Good evening, Darren.” She said with confidence. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“Baby.” He reached for her, fumbled with her body. “What are you doing out of bed so late?”

The room was only dimly light, but not so dark he couldn’t see the woman he groped was not his wife. In fact, she looked about ten years younger. He pulled Twelve closer, and she had no choice but to disallow the invasion of her personal space.

“Conditional response.” She muttered. “Category: inappropriate contact. Code e68 of the Responsible Clone Ownership Guide clearly states that any personal touching between clone and superiors is prohibited. These acts include hugging, kissing, caressing, and…”

Darren jumped backward leaving a cold space between them. Twelve felt empty where his warm hands had held her hips and caressed her buttocks. Her senses were heightened, she could smell his aftershave; she could feel the individual hairs on her arms standing at end and her skin prickling. He was disoriented. He grunted, “huh?” Human beings experience fatigue and distress, especially when they suddenly wake up in the middle of the night, and find themselves fondling a woman that looks like a much younger version of their wives. She was empathetic and wanted desperately to console him, but held herself against her will to remain composed. The moment was powerful, the most powerful Twelve had ever experienced, and the awkwardness so palpable, she would spend countless nights regretting the shortness with which she’d reprimanded him.

“Twelve?”

She rather liked the way her name rolled off his tongue.

“Yes, Darren.” She did her best not to appear guilty of anything.

“I thought you were Amelia,” he said. “I’m tired.”

They’d asked that she call them by their first names the very same day she arrived. She’d come finely packaged in a knitted purple jumpsuit and long hair that was cut short the following day, so she wouldn’t be confused for Amelia who could not walk and who was considerably older. Twelve appreciated being on a first name basis with them. She liked the way names sounded, the way they drifted so informally in the space between two beings, the way they were cordial, but not cold, the way they were friendly and indicated an acquaintance, a budding relationship. It was not like her relationship with most of the doctors and scientists at the factory who all insisted on being called the same thing, their labels, not even including their last names. “Doctor,” “nurse,” “professor…”

“Is there anything I can assist you with, Darren?”

“No, I just need to relax.”

“May I help you relax?”

“What are you doing up?”

As he glared at her, she read his face and discovered that beyond his furrowed brows and wrinkled mock-consternated expression was a deeper body language that could only be described as lustful confusion. He tried to mask it, and perhaps on someone else his thin veiling of underlying emotions would have gone unnoticed, but not on Twelve whose recently un-medicated mind and body had begun to pick up on every nuance, every facial tick. Her suspicions were confirmed when his eyes rode her body like a slow elevator, lingering on the parts she’d been taught were meaningless, but felt far from meaningless under his investigative glance. The medicine had suppressed urges to mate, but her hardened nipples and swollen clitoris were further proof that the medicine had all but worked itself out of her system. Such things were illegal; yet her body felt them, and she fought to resist her primal urge to tear away his clothing and push him to the ground and climb atop him like a dominant primate. She should tell him. He’s a doctor after all, and he cared for her no doubt, and he wasn’t likely to return her to the factory. He’d probably reset the apparatus. But, she liked the feeling. She wouldn’t risk being returned to the factory, wouldn’t risk placing herself in harm’s way, and she dared not risk losing the freedom of feeling. It seemed that self-preservation was yet another post-medicinal side-effect.

Darren’s dark eyes, though they were tired and sagging a bit at the corners, attracted her because they appeared hungry for her. She was also attracted to his pouted lips and broad shoulders. There was a consistency to his body. He was consistently well-proportioned; perhaps, and Twelve considered it quite likely, Amelia had passed on her attraction to him onto Twelve. It was simple genetics. Was it science that motivated her to breathe deep through her nose, careful to do so quietly, simply to smell him and hold that smell, sandalwood and cedar, in her nose for as long as possible?

“Well?”

She studied him thoughtfully, for just a moment before responding.

“I needed a drink.”

He searched her face, perhaps concerned that she was lying. Sometimes, on rare occasions, the hoses for medicinal apparatuses could become tangled, which could wake a clone. It would require time to drain; thus, there would be a short period before the medicine would begin dispensing again. This was exactly the circumstance that had caused Twelve to stop taking the medicine to begin with. (Although, she’d never dared slide out of bed before.) She’d not felt such instant regret as she had the moment she heard the unmistakable sound of a floorboard creaking under the weight of his foot. She promised she would not be so careless again, should she escape his analytical stare.

To prove she was telling the truth, she placed her cup into the sink basin and pressed a button on the small screen. A moment later, the cup disappeared into a pressurized silicon tube that appeared in the basin’s side. It would end up in the dishwasher that existed somewhere below the countertop, and once that was full, it would run itself. The silent, baffling inner-workings of the kitchen. She could sense the vibrations, but truly felt nothing. It was all so still and quiet, designed for their comfort, but Twelve could feel the hum of movement, unheard or ignored by ears that have lived with these soft vibrations for decades longer than she had.

As is typical of men who are organized or dutiful to organizations, Darren (a factory man after all), asked how she felt in a tone reserved for scientists and doctors.

“I feel fine.” And, she did.

“Curious.” He said.

She could feel him eyeballing her, but it wasn’t the titillating, smoldering considerations of before. She kept her eyes trained on the counter. Electronics have it so easy. They can effortlessly assist people in their activities, at any hour day or night, and not be interrogated. They operate beyond suspicion.

“With your permission, Darren; I’ll return to bed?”

She offered him the politest, most timid smile she could muster. He was dressed only in boxer briefs, his socks pulled half up his shins. It wasn’t the first time she’d felt awkward in his presence.

“You got it.” He said. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, sir.”

“Twelve.” He called. Her back turned away. “Wait, just a moment.”

She turned. Her brown bob danced on her shoulders, sashaying in rhythm to the hum of the kitchen that only she could sense.

“Yes, Darren?”

She was sure he was compelled to kiss her. His hand twitched. It wanted to reach for her, to pull her into an embrace. She longed to let him. There was something softened about his gaze just then, and if he’d taken her into his arms, she wouldn’t have stopped him. The moment defied her conditioning and slowed her response time. However slowed it was, she responded by stiffening her body and cautioning herself. Conditional response, category avoiding conflict. Any illicit affairs are strictly forbidden and a broken rule could result in her being returned to the factory, a fate far worse than any else she could imagine and enough to stop her from crossing firm boundaries.

“Never mind.” He said. “Good night.”

There was a feeling, although, she was certain the feelings, the synapses and impulses in her brain were somehow different than those in Darren’s and Amelia’s. She couldn’t explain it, only what it wasn’t. Her toxic moroseness couldn’t be compared to the oft-violent outbursts manic-depressive Amelia was prone to or her random bouts of crying. Twelve retreated to her bedroom and collapsed into bed.

Under the soft spillage of moonlight from the window, her bromeliad had unfolded to reveal soft and lovely petals, a turnaround from its daytime bitterness. It twisted and leaned toward the window to drink up the moonlight. It enjoyed the moon glow and bowed slightly at the middle in a nod to her. It always bloomed overnight, so she’d only seen it bloomed a handful of times. In the daytime, its broad green leaves would fold around the resilient red petals that extended up around bunches of skinny, lighter colored petals. She lay awake for as long as possible. She’d hoped to witness its leaves hug the petals, safely cocooning them, protecting the buds with leaves and flashy bracts, but she was overtaken by sleep and her slumber was dreamless.

Next Chapter: The Straw That Stirs The Drink