Today feels wrong when I wake up. Sticky, hot, the same as every morning. Hands, everywhere, the same as every morning. Still, I manage to push it all down and feel nothing, exactly the same as every other morning. Still, it's there. The déjà vu of a reread page, a reoccurring nightmare fluttering in the back of my head while I bite my lip until I taste blood.
Today’s a lab day.
I don’t have to stay in the crowded room long, with the fingers digging in my skin and the searing breath on my neck, my chest, my thigh. I stare at the ceiling with glazed eyes and wait. It’s a lab day. They’ll come for me soon.
The time between the grip on my hips, shoulders, ankles, wrists waking me up and the door opening to tell my visitors that I’m needed elsewhere is liminal. I know there are tracks of tears down the sides of my face, the liquid pooled in the shells of my ears. My eyes sting with the rest of me when I’m allowed to rise to my feet and follow the escort out of the room.
The feeling that something is wrong follows me out.
Distant shouts that I recognize ring in the halls. The compound is never quiet. Yells I can’t understand, a tune I swear I’ve heard before. It’s distracting, at least, from the imprints I still feel on my throat.
I stop noticing these things when we reach the lab.
Tchaikovsky lounges against a counter—
—my workspace he’s waiting for me—
—with his son standing ramrod straight beside him. The young boy looks at me once, then averts his eyes. If it was just him, I would say something. I know better than to do that with his father around. As it is, Tchaikovsky pushes off from the counter to meet me and my escort in the center of the room. I turn my eyes down, noting the coat—
—gripped in his fist.
Something pings in the back of my head, this also feels familiar, but I have to push it away. I can’t let his voice turn into the garbled mess everything becomes when I stop listening. I can’t risk that.
But he’s not talking to me. Not yet.
“Has she eaten?”
“No,” the escort answers, clinical. “We have her working a few hours before feeding, it’s a good motivator.”
“Well?” Tchaikovsky’s voice shifts, and I lift my chin slightly with eyes still downcast. “Today’s your deadline. Are you confident that you were motivated enough?”
I breathe in through my nose, and when I speak my voice is soft.
“I am. It should—”
—too uncertain course correct—
“—it will work. We tested it, Sir. It works.”
He makes a sound, one I recognize as approval. Pride fills my chest, but I resist the smile threatening the corners of my lips and keep my gaze trained on that lab coat. I know, I know from the books, that it’s an endorphin response. It’s not real, none of it is real, but the pride still sits like a warm stone in my chest. The machine works. Tchaikovsky’s pleased. The others in white coats that I work with will put me on a new project and the cycle will start again.
I see the hand an instant before my chin is jerked up, eyes flashing up to see Tchaikovsky’s pale eyes boring into me. He’s too close for me to read his expression, his body language, and my throat closes up. I feel his chuckle, dark and syrupy. I want to step back but I know better than that . His eyes flick away from me, to the escort, and back.
“Bring her back to my office after second feeding,” he purrs, narrowed eyes in conflict with his tone. “Special reward for the hard work.”
He releases me and brushes past, letting my coat fall to the floor. I don’t move. I find myself staring into the middle distance until I know he’s gone. Before I can even think about kneeling to retrieve the coat—
— my coat—
—Dominic holds it out for me.
I blink at it, then at him. I meet the child’s eyes, and the ghost of his father’s face throws my eyes directly down to the floor. I take the coat, mouthing a grateful platitude before moving to my work station.
And I still can’t shake the feeling that something about this is familiar.
I listen for the boy’s footsteps to leave, but they don’t. I hear nothing from him while I pull my clothes from a drawer. Nothing while I struggle through the stiffness to get dressed. Nothing when I shrug my coat on.
I turn back, eyes narrowed and back straight. Dominic doesn’t look at me, eyes trained on the floor. The escort has moved on. I sweep my gaze through the lab to see him checking on one of the children on the opposite end of the room.
“Did you really make a time machine?”
I jump, looking back to regard Dominic, who looks now looks at me. I force something I think is close to a smile, focusing over his head rather than on his face. “Yes, Dominic. We did.”
It’s wrong. Those words, I’ve heard them before.
I’ve seen this day before. I’ve watched it. Watched the scary man wait in the white room. Watched the sad lady walk in with another man. All of it, I’ve seen it all before.
Dominic asks if I’m okay, I think, but I can’t hear him right.
I turn my head to see a young girl, aged eight, staring at me from a cot. Her lank hair nearly covers her eyes—
—and she looks like all of the other clones. She stares at me rather than the book held in one hand. One of many, scattered across the bed.
The book in her hand, it’s a text on the applications of cloning complicated organisms. It’s one of the books sent back from whoever has the machine we made in a distant someday. The eyes on the cover have always made me uncomfortable, even after they moved me out of the lab at night.
Before I can move, one of the men in coats matching mine stops by her bed, and she looks away. I don’t dare move, not wanting to be reprimanded for doing nothing.
“Put the books in here. You’ll get them back.” He drops a cardboard box on a bedside table. “It won’t take very long.”
“It’s today,” I murmur.
I look back to where Dominic was, but he’s gone. That’s just as well. A thirteen year-old likely shouldn’t be here. Especially not today. The girl and I make eye contact again, most of her books already packed away, and I remember what happens next. I know what I have to do.
I make a break for the door, ignoring the shouts following me. Pounding steps follow, but they change focus when the first explosion rocks the compound. I don’t know where I’m going. I only know that the third explosion will hit the lab, and that the girl will be shunted into the machine before she can see what comes of it all.
I round a corner and bounce off of a black shape as the second explosion hits.
I land on my back, immediately staring into a black circle. A circle, a circle, a gun pointing at my head. A voice behind the gun screams something I don’t understand. I don’t know if it’s an unknown language or if my ears have decided to stop working and I don’t care .
I don’t know what to do, so I slam my hands over my face on instinct.
And I wait. I know what happens when we run. We run and we get caught and we get shot.
Escape artists ain't worth the effort
Nothing happens. There's no flash, no deafening shot, nothing. I peek between my fingers. The gun still points at me, but it’s further away. A woman I’ve never seen kneels in front of me, wrapped in a bulky black vest. She looks back at the one holding the gun. I try to focus on her voice—
—it shouldn’t be this hard idiot —
—and I’m relieved when it starts making sense.
“… much older than the rest, but she’s not acting like this ring’s goons. They’d sooner take a bullet than risk being taken in alive.”
The third explosion sends dust drifting through the air from the direction of the lab, dusting the woman’s helmet. The one with the gun lowers it a fraction.
“I’ll keep going. You take her back to the others.”
The woman nods and pulls me to my feet. The instant the other one troops past us, she wraps her fingers around my wrist and drags me down the hall. My skin screams where she touches it, bruised and tender as it always is, but I don’t say anything.
Behind us, gunshots ring, and I try not to think about it.
We stop when we enter a room full of children.
Children with gray eyes and blonde hair. Most look more-or-less average for young clones in the compound. Frail, bruised, and clustered into a few groups scattered throughout the room.
“What are you—oh, you found another one.” A man with scars over his eye looks up from a stretcher to peer at us when we enter. He stares at me for several beats, then shakes his head and returns his gaze to the girl in the bed.
The woman looks at me and releases my hand. She says something, but I’m not listening anymore. Too busy watching the girl in the stretcher. Her glazed eyes stare at the ceiling, and her mouth moves in subtle patterns. Muttering. A common habit here, one I still haven’t broken.
But I recognize her. It’s Alpha. She has a room on her own and we draw her blood on every lab day. Her head lolls to the side and her eyes focus on me with a delirius smile.
“ Had. Drew. You should get used to past tense.”