The next forty-eight hours were a nightmare. Quite literally. Cylee found herself swimming in and out of consciousness, her head foggy and her body screamingly painful. She would awake to see Kim, or Mitzi, or Tamara, but they all had the same expression when she looked at them. They had all, always, been crying.
In her dreams she saw Wes. Sometimes he was shooting at her. Sometimes he was shooting at a child. Sometimes he was killing Shaun or Kim, or the Child Army. Occasionally Wes was shooting himself; there were two of him. One the honorable and uptight Wes she remembered, the other the child-killing monster. Awake or asleep her head ached, her torso ached, and her throat was parched and dry.
After two days her dreams changed. They were less visceral, less brutal. She started dreaming in patterns. Shapes floated across her field of vision. Some were intensely familiar, although she couldn’t have told you why they were familiar. Some were unfamiliar but friendly. Some were her enemies. Her job, she knew, was to capture and hold the enemy shapes and examine them. It was hard work. There were too many of them, but as she captured one she would start to explore it, to understand its depth and structure. And some of the friendly shapes would explore the captive as well, caressing its surface, learning its pattern and its taste. The large shapes moved away, and impressed the pattern on others of their kind.
After that she was in a city. The walls and houses and shops were all damaged, riddled with small holes. She would patiently move from one to another, filling the holes, repairing the surfaces. When she could she would replace the broken things inside the houses as well. Small, bright, glowing blue ovals that radiated warmth and strength, many of the houses were missing them entirely.
And then, six days after, she was awake. Her throat still hurt, but now it was the dull ache of healing, not the sharp urgent pain of injury. Her muscles throughout her body felt frail and hollow, weakened and nearly unresponsive. She looked down at herself. Someone had removed her clothes, leaving her in just a hospital gown that was gathered up on her chest, leaving her abdomen exposed. A sinuous line of angry red welts wound across her from the bottom of her ribs to just below her navel. There was in IV line in her left hand, and she couldn’t quite focus on the words on the two bags hanging on the drip stand, nor could she remember the command to make her Third Eye focus on them and read them for her. The sheets of her bed were gathered around her waist, and there was something on her legs and feet that she couldn’t quite identify. When she had the strength to look around she found that she was alone.
Something beeped, and something else buzzed, and suddenly there was pressure and warmth along her calves and feet. The pressure rolled down her shins and calves, then managed her feet. Apparently that was what was on her. A warm leg massage thingy. Okay. Good.
Cylee turned her head to the other side. There was a small vase with two rather wilted flowers in it.
Cylee: How long have I been out? Agent (Cylee): Welcome back! A long time. I’ve let Kelly know you’re awake, and she’s already told Tamara. Kelly: CYLEE!
The door to her room burst open and Kelly came running in. “CYLEE!” She screamed and ran over to hug the injured woman. Kelly leaned over the bed rail and console and put her head next to Cylee’s, her arm on Cylee’s far shoulder. Tamara came in behind Kelly and gently pulled her off of Cylee.
“How are you feeling today?” Tamara asked, her voice all business and concern. This was clearly her “bedside manner” voice.
“Weak…tired…my throat hurts…but I feel like it’s been worse and is getting better,” Cylee said. Her voice was hoarse and barely more than a whisper.
“Well, I’m not surprised. Most people in your condition are more…dead. Thirteen shots of a poison I can barely pronounce. We figured you were a goner for the first two days, although even that was a good sign because you should have been dead within an hour. Your heart almost stopped twice, or possibly did stop, it was hard to tell, your pulse was so weak. But we knew you were alive because you were still thrashing around.
“After that you settled into a more restful state, which you’ve been in for the past four days. Your vitals look better and your body seems to be functioning. I’m not surprised you feel weak, that poison breaks down cell membranes, your muscles must be a wreck. Not to mention your heart, stomach, liver, kidneys…well, all of you. Whatever’s going on with you…it’s quite literally a lifesaver.”
Cylee: Thank you. Agent (Cylee): That’s what we’re here for. It was quite a fight, and we had to use both your Spine and your subconscious to plan. Cylee: I noticed. The dreams were very interesting. How are my muscles doing? Agent (Cylee): We estimate you’ve lost at least five percent of your muscle mass and we’re not entirely sure how long your heart will hold out without a lot of rest. Your organs seem to be mostly fine, the poison seems to have been mostly designed to damage muscle fibers.
“How safe are we?” Cylee asked.
“Well, Mitzi has put us up in this 'hidey hole' as she calls it, and it seems pretty secure. I don’t know how many rooms are in this complex, and that’s by design. The walls are thick and the door opens only if you have a key. It’s possible the owners of this place could sell us out, but so far so good. The room is Faraday-shielded, and we’ve established a VPN connection that bounces out of here and through three other countries before emerging somewhere in either Canada or Texicali, it changes on a semi-random basis. So we have network access but it’s slow. Mitzi has loaded the kitchenette with plenty of ingredients and some ready-to-eat stuff. I don’t think she cooks much herself, so the food is eclectic to say the least. Last night we had Italian pasta with a teriyaki chicken sauce. It was fine.”
“I made it!” Kelly said.
“Is Mitzi here?” Cylee asked.
“No, she’s out shopping again—with a grocery list this time—and said she’d drop by later this evening. Since Wes never saw here we hope she’ll be less tracked than any of us, although that’s probably a fool’s hope. Still, we need food.
“I’m tired,” Cylee said and closed her eyes. “I’m still listening, if you need to tell me anything else.”
“No, that’s fine, Cylee. Go back to sleep. It’s good to hear your voice again.” Tamara said and turned off the main overhead light. “We’ll talk more when you wake up again.”
Cylee closed her eyes as Tamara and Kelly filed out. She found that she was indeed physically exhausted, but mentally quite awake.
Cylee: I need some answers, and if possible I need you to not alert Kelly or her agent to the questions I’m asking. At least, not right away. Agent (Cylee): Okay. Cylee: Wow, no backtalk. Either you’re as tired as I am, or you’re just trying not to upset me. Not sure which is worse. Agent (Cylee): Some of column A, some of column B. What are your questions? Cylee: First: do you know what this deadline is that Kelly and Tamara were talking about? Agent (Cylee): Yes. And to save you some time: no we won't tell you. That’s Kelly’s job. Cylee: I’m terribly disappointed. Whose side are you on? Agent (Cylee): Yours. Both of yours. Trust us. Cylee: Ugh. Fine okay. Next: how far out is the deadline? Agent (Cylee): A month…more or less. Probably a month. Cylee: How long until I’m up and around again? Agent (Cylee): Two weeks, give or take, until you’re fully operational again. Cylee: I doubt we have that much time to waste. Agent (Cylee): We thought you might say that. There is another possible solution: If we can put you into a medically-induced coma for three more days you’ll be back to about 85% of what you were before being poisoned. Cylee: That’s a long time and a scarily low number. Agent (Cylee): Understandable. But we think it’s the best we can do. Also, ask if they can add a fine mixture of gold to your IV. Cylee: What? Agent (Cylee): We could really use some gold. Cylee: How much did you get paid at your last job? Agent (Cylee): That doesn’t make sense. But the gold isn’t for money, it’s just really useful stuff and there’s barely any of it in this environment. We think we can make you better faster if we have access to a stream of gold. Cylee: Doctors always say that. I’ll see what we can do. Kelly: Hi Cylee! You called? Cylee: Kelly, we think I can get better soon…ugh, you know what, I’m too tired to explain. Agent, tell them. Can you do that while I’m asleep? Agent (Cylee): Yes. Cylee: Good. Good night. Wake me up when the coma is over.
And then there was the dream. For two days Cylee dreamed of repairs. But on the third day she opened her eyes—metaphorically, she was still in a coma—and Kelly was there, floating in the void.
“Ew, this is not good. Here, can I help?” Kelly asked and they were standing in a movie theater, the kind that people went to when they wanted to pretend it was the old days.
“Much better. Listen, Cylee, I need to explain something to you. The deadline is a real DEAD line. And you need to know why. The Agent and I have decided that you’ll probably process it better if you experience it in here, instead of out there. So I’m going to share a memory with you. This isn’t one of yours, but it is one that got 'laminated' into my mind. I think it might be given to every clone, or at least some version of it. It’s not pleasant, but I think you need to experience it. This is what the clones go through. Can you handle it?”
“I…I suspect I can, Kelly. I’m already in a coma, how much worse can I get?”
“You could decide not to wake up. But It’s a risk we have to take. Okay, sit down. Well, you’re still laying in your bed, you look so fragile! But sit down in here. When the movie starts it’ll just be a full sensory experience, but try to remember that it’s not yours, and it’s probably not entirely real. But you need to understand this.”
“O…okay.” Cylee sat down. The screen lit up and suddenly she was somewhere else.
here she was, doing the Aleutian Swim all over again. Of course she remembered it. She had been brought here with the other three Ghosts, the final day of their physical training before they went into armed combat training. They had each been told to strip down to their underwear and swim to the next island south. They weren’t told how far it was, or given any other instructions. Just swim south.
And now she was doing it again, without the other four, but this time her Augments told her that the nearest island south of her was 1.7 kilometers away and placed a subtle green arrow over her vision, pointing her along the fastest course, adjusting for the turning tide. Her encounter suit kept her warm, and somehow also managed to keep her dry, whisking her sweat away even while she swam in the salty sea. And, of course, now she had the Agent.
Agent: We have no memory of this Cylee: What do you mean? Agent: According to your memory, the last time you were here was after you had the first round of Augments, and therefore after we were injected Into your bloodstream. We should remember this. Cylee: Maybe it was before you started developing a memory. It happened pretty soon after those first Augments. I remember the salt water stung in the incisions where the Augments had been placed. Agent: We know you remember that, but we do not. And we do remember the day we were injected into you. We did not have a mindless period like human babies, or at least, we didn’t think we did. This gap in our memory is disturbing.
Gaps in the memory…
The Agent seemed chatty, if that’s a word that applies to a symbiotic swarm inside you.
Agent: Does this feel like home to you?
Cylee would have laughed if she weren’t swimming.
Cylee: I’m not a fish! So no, being out in the middle of the ocean isn’t particularly homely. Agent: We meant the environment. The gray skies and gray sea are similar to views around Kenai. The birds here are similar to the ones that live there. We wondered if these elements felt more familiar to you because of your nativity. Cylee: I…guess? Not really. I…I don’t really know what ‘home’ means.
The Agent didn’t seem to have a response to this.
Presently the other island came into view through the fog. She remembered last time she had been here. Wes had been pacing her the entire way, Kim had been trailing the entire time, Shaun trying to bridge the gap between the two leaders and Kim. When they came into visual range Wes gasped out “race you,” and started swimming even faster.
She kept her steady pace. He would tire himself out before they got to the island and she would catch up with him. And if not, well, she would have more energy to do whatever came next.
Although…looking back…she had a hard time remembering what had come next.
Back then her muscles had been burning, aching, her lungs desperate for every molecule of oxygen. She gasped and panted, her extremities freezing cold but her face pouring sweat even in these arctic waters. This time she was working hard…but not dying. The Augments were doing a lot of the work for her.
She reached the shore and stood up, looking around. There had better be a point to all this.
Cylee: I don’t really know what I’m looking for, I guess. Agent: Walk around, and look around. We can use data from your eyes and from your third eye to scan for anomalies.” Cylee: I can do that too. Agent: Then we will find what we are looking for twice as quickly.
She hated it when the Agent was reasonable.
She walked around, remembering the four of them standing on that shore in the rain and wind, shivering and almost naked, forming a ring around Kim as the cold seemed to be affecting her the worst. Vague flickers of something else teased at her memory…a box…no, a booth. Anger…fear? But those were background emotions for the entirety of her training.
Agent: There is an anomalous depression five yards to the west.
She walked west and looked around. There was indeed a place where the ground formed a shallow bowl, roughly five feet by twenty feet, and only a few inches deep.
Agent: Also, there is a shovel in the small stand of trees to your right. Cylee: How did you see that? Agent: You saw it, but you were busy thinking about the Ghosts. We were not.
She went into the trees and found the old, rusty shovel. It looked exactly like a shovel should look if it had been abandoned on a small island in the arctic years ago. Not at all sure what she was looking for she went back to the depression and started digging.
She didn’t have to dig far. Less than a foot below the surface she pulled up a skeletal arm.
“No…” Cylee said aloud.
More carefully, she dug out the entire area. An hour later four skeletons lay bare.
She sat down heavily in the sand. Propping her arms on her knees she sat and refused to look up again at the unmarked grave. The wind blew a few errant drops of rain against the back of her neck and set her long black hair flying. She tried to push all of this, all this betrayal, all this….loss into the wind. It didn’t change anything. It didn’t matter. Let the wind have this pain. The past was all a lie anyway. Now it was a slightly bigger lie.
After an hour or so she stood up. Her muscles ached, and she could feel the Agent shifting her hormonal balances to compensate.
Agent: We have done dental matches of the bodies.” Cylee(?): Which one is me? Agent: Second from the right. Not-Cylee: So I’m not Cylee. I didn’t grow up in Kenai. I’m not…me. None of the Ghosts…oh.
Cylee sat down and thought, brushing the dirt off of her own skull.
Not-Cylee: So, I’m not a Ghost, I’m not an original. Are these them? Agent: We do not know. We cannot do a detailed enough analysis of these remains to find tags of cloning. These may be the Ghosts, or they may be previous clones.
Cylee reached down and picked up her skull.
“Alas poor Cylee, I knew me, Horatio.” She said aloud.
Agent: This seems an odd time for Shakespearian humor, but who are we to judge? Not-Cylee: So, all those clones, the whole PEF, they’re not my daughters. They’re my sisters. Agent: The genealogy of cloning doesn’t really have standardized nomenclature yet.
Gently Cylee laid her skull back at the top of her skeleton, and looked sadly along the rest.
Not-Cylee: That’s Sagittarius at the end, right? All the way to the left? Agent: Yes. Cylee walked back to the shore. The wind whipped around her. Sea spray mixed with the rain and stung her eyes.
And then Cylee was sitting back in the theater. She still felt the salt water in her eyes.
“What…what does this mean? Did they kill me? Or kill Cylee? Am I a clone?”
“Aunty Tammy doesn’t think so. The Aleutian Swim has been a….culling process for generations of clones. It’s possible that the weakest ones just drown. It’s possible that this memory is only implanted to make us clones realize we’re not human without having to go through it in person. But we’ve found that the nineteen current clones are each scheduled to be taken out to the starting island in a month, one at a time. I doubt all—or even any—of them will come back.
Cylee sat in the pseudo-theater. This wasn’t fair. This was asking her to put herself between a murderer and its victims. But what else could she do?
“How long until I have to wake up?”
“We think about twelve hours. If you want you can just…sleep. Regular sleep. It’s nighttime in the real world. I’m sleeping with my head on your bed and will probably have a sore neck in the morning.
“Okay. Sounds…well, less bad than any other option. I’ll see you when I wake up.”
“I’m sorry. But thank you for paying attention, Cylee. What do you think we should do now?”
“Sleep. But later, let’s go get our sisters out of that base and take them home.”