Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Lost Clones of Sakomoto Hero

by McCamy Taylor


Last year, I watched a documentary in 10th grade world history class. Said the Nazis shaved the heads of the men and women in their concentration camps so they would look less human. Made it easier to starve and work them to death. Made it possible to kill them in cold blood.

My newly shaved scalp saved my life.

The train stopped at the border of Tammany Parish. There were no windows in our car, but I could hear voices outside discussing the cargo -- that was us -- and our destination. After a half hour wait, the engine started up again. We had only gone a few miles into Tammany when the link that connected the quarantine car to the rest of the train was broken. We slowly coasted to a stop in the middle of the bayou, while the sound of the engine faded into the distance.

It was pitch dark. No outdoor lights penetrated the cracks around the door. Outside, all was quiet. Around me, bodies shifted and swayed. Standing room only was how the MVIs -- Mosaic Virus Infected -- traveled. Forcing as many of us as possible into one train car saved money on decontamination.

"Are we there already?" someone asked. Once the silence was broken , people started talking all at once. Variations of the question were repeated in a half dozen languages, most of them foreign to me. Infected clones were shipped here from all over the world. Housing prisoners and medical infecteds was the number one business in Louisiana these days, ever since rising sea levels had flooded half the state and made the rest a breeding ground for malaria, dengue fever and worse.

"Shhh," a woman replied. "Someone's coming."

Voices could be heard outside. Their words were muffled. No way to tell what they were saying. Those of us inside the isolation car could only wait in the darkness as the temperature rose and the air became more difficult to breathe and curiosity turned to apprehension and then to panic. Someone started pounding on the door.

"Let us out!"

Ouvre la porte!

More fists joined the first pair. I covered my ears with my hands in a futile attempt to escape the din. People were screaming, kicking, clawing --

And then the door slid open bringing with it a rush of hot, humid swamp air and the scent of rotting vegetation and something familiar though it took me a moment to place it. Gun oil. Light swept over our faces, revealing a sea of bald heads and wide, fearful eyes.

A deep set, gravelly voice barked out a name. "Sadie Hope?"

I froze.

"Sadie Hope! Hurry up!"

I had always been good at reading voices. Though the man who called to me from the darkness behind the flashlight was faceless, I could hear a threat in the way he said my name. So, I held my tongue.

"Damn it!" cursed a different voice, another man, this one a smoker. "Are you sure this is the right train?"

"Yeah, I'm sure. Maybe she's asleep. Or dead already."

Dead already.

Dead already? They were here to kill me? Why? Maybe I heard the name wrong. I took a slow, deep breath, willing my racing heart to quiet, fearful that they would hear it pounding in the darkness.

"We'll have to search the cabin."

"I'm not going in there." This from a third man, younger than the first two. "There's a contamination warning on the door."

"You idiot. You can't catch it."

"Maybe, but my wife's a clone. I'm not gonna risk taking home any diseases. Not for what they're paying us."

They argued among themselves -- I made out another voice, which meant that there were at least four men standing outside the train, blocking the only exit. One or more were armed. The flashlight swept over us again and again.

"Says here, Sadie has black hair with a white stripe."

There was my name again. And my hair used to be black with a single white lock in front, before they shaved it all off. I cried like a baby when they came at me with the electric shears. I felt so ugly when they were done. Funny to think that being bald might save me.

"Lot of good that does us. She have any other distinguishing characteristics?"

Somewhere in the distance, an owl screeched and a bobcat growled.

"Shit!" exclaimed the young man with the clone wife. "Anything could be out here. Let's hurry up."

"Can't we just kill them all --?" the smoker started to ask.

Enough of the passengers understood English for his words to start a panic. There were shouts. One of the bigger infecteds rushed the door and was shot in the chest. The bullet only seemed to enrage him. With a bloodcurdling howl, he leapt at the nearest hijacker.

"Get back! Get back or we'll --!" It was the man with the clone wife.

He might as well have tried to hold back the tide. These were people who had nothing left to lose, except for their lives. They surged out of the train car, knocking over the armed men in their frenzy to escape.

Out of habit, I muttered a quick prayer, then carefully I eased my way out of the train. There was a four foot drop to the ground. My fall was broken by someone who did not cringe, even as my heels came down upon his ribs. Dead or unconscious. I hoped it was one of the hijackers and not one of my companions.

Nearby, a flashlight lay on the ground, illuminating the feet and ankles of those who had jumped from the train car to freedom. Everyone wore the same red and white striped pajamas and the same flimsy plastic sandals. I scooped up the light and pressed the off switch. Clutching the flashlight to my chest, I fled. Most of the other passengers were running back the way we had come, towards freedom, but I made my way deeper into Tammany Parish, knowing that my pursuers would not think to look for me there. I did not dare use the flashlight -- it would have given away my position to anyone searching for me -- but the train tracks served as my guide.

As I left the stranded train car and its frenzied passengers behind, the night became eerily quiet. There were no automobiles, no planes, nothing except for the whine of mosquitoes and an occasional rustle in the grass and -- what was that unfamiliar sound? Was that waves lapping at the shore of Pontchartrain Bay? I called up a mental picture of the map of Louisiana from geography class. Once a lake, until global warming and rising sea levels flooded the land bridges and small lakes that separated it from the Gulf of Mexico, Pontchartrain Bay was one of the most polluted bodies of water in North American. Years of oil refining and toxic waste dumping had filled the soil and ground water with poisons ranging from arsenic to lead to who knows what else. No one lived here anymore, except for drug runners and pirates -- and people like me that had no other place to go. The Tammany Parish Isolation Facility housed thousands of inmates who suffered from a variety of contagious, incurable diseases. If I continued walking along the train tracks, I would reach the compound. Once inside, the gunmen would not be able to get to me, but I would not be able to get out either. Not alive.

My last name is Hope. It is not a family name -- I have no family. My surname was chosen for me by the Church. Though I gave up believing in God a long time ago, I had never given up hope, even when I tested positive after my annual checkup and they told me that I would have to live in camp for infected people until the day I died. Now, unexpectedly, I had a second chance. I was not about to squander it.

I switched on the flashlight and left the train tracks, heading in the direction of the sea.

The trees thinned out as I neared the shore and so did the bugs. The sky was moonless with a scattering of stars. The smell of rotting vegetation was replaced by salt and plankton. Firm earth gave way to a series of brackish ponds, some deep enough that I was submerged to the knees, and I found myself trying to recall everything I had ever learned about alligators, like did they hunt at night?

At last, I came to the seawall, a ribbon of grey concrete in the starlight. From the vantage point of the raised levee, I could see the bay stretching out before me all the way to the southeastern horizon, where the stars were slowly being extinguished by a more diffuse light. The sun would be up soon. I needed to find a place to hide.

An abandoned boat house, most of its eastern wall caved in, seemed like an answer to my prayers. I eased myself down the levee, towards the water. The beach was practically carpeted with giant jellyfish, the largest over two meters long. Faintly luminous, even in death, they were easy to spot and avoid on shore. In the water, it was a different matter, since they tended to hug the bottom and search for prey up above with their long, almost invisible tentacles. Once they found a target, they paralyzed it and then waited below until it sank. The largest of their breed could devour an entire shark -- or man. The beaches of the Gulf no longer attracted tourists, because so many swimmers died from the sting of this newer, more aggressive and poisonous jellyfish which some scientist had bred -- why? Who knows? Maybe just to prove it could be done -- and then released into the wild.

In a way, I was like the jellyfish. The only reason I existed was because scientists had learned how to clone humans, in order to prove that it could be done, without any thought for what complications their "experiments" might suffer. Premature aging. Sterility. And worst of all, mosaic virus infection, which struck almost one in two hundred human clones. Those that developed MVI were doomed to die a slow, agonizing death from tumors of the spine and brain.

No one knew exactly what caused the plasmid vector to mutate or why it attached itself only to nerve cells. They weren't even sure it was contagious. But the WHO decided it was safer to quarantine us. Or maybe they just wanted us out of sight and out of mind. What parent would pay for a cloned replica of himself if he could see the monstrosity that the child might become?

They said that most people infected with mosaic virus became cripples, paraplegic or quadriplegic and that they suffered seizures and lost their minds before finally succumbing to the disease. The illness was so feared that in some countries the newly diagnosed were offered the choice of a quick, dignified painless death or relocation in the Tammany Parish Isolation Facility. In the U.S., religious lobbyists called that "interfering with God's plan", and they had forced Congress to repeal the Right to Death Law three years ago. Would not have mattered in my case, since I was only sixteen, too young to make a decision about how I was going to die --

Or live. MVI was treated like a death sentence, but I was still very much alive and symptom free. Once the disease robbed me of my mind, they could lock me up. Until then, I wanted to experience the world outside, where you could eat what you wanted when you wanted and sleep when the urge struck you not when the lights went out and go where you pleased without having to get permission.

The stairs leading up to the boathouse looked rickety, but they held my weight. The walkway inside was almost intact, except for a couple of missing planks. I found a corner that was visible only from the bay and curled up. Sleep had been impossible during the train ride from Amarillo, in the standing room only isolation car. My legs felt like lead. It was so good to lie down, that I forgot about the future -- questions like what was I going to do for food and fresh water and how I would elude the assassins who were after me. The sound of waves lulled me to sleep.

I dreamed that I was still on the train, only this time I could move from car to car. I seemed to be the only passenger. Even the engine compartment was empty. For a long time, I stood beside the conductor's seat, gazing up ahead. Darkness gave way to dawn, and I saw that we were heading towards the gray water of the Gulf --

Straight towards the water. If there had once been a bridge across the Bay, it was long gone.

I activated the brakes, but nothing happened. The train plunged into the ocean. Fish swam through the cabin. A giant jellyfish -- easily as large as an octopus and with intelligent eyes -- enveloped me in its arms and began to squeeze the air from my lungs...

I woke to find a large German Shepherd sitting on my chest, drooling on my face. Its fangs were bared, and for a moment I thought that I was going to be its lunch. But then, it licked my chin with a sloppy wet tongue.

"Heidi!"

The dog lifted her head and cocked her ears. Her tail began to thump.

"Where are you, you dumb mutt?"

Heidi whined and bounded away from me, towards the boy who appeared in the boathouse doorway. Despite the heat, he was dressed in multiple layers of grey and black. An old fashioned fedora threw shadows across his face, concealing his features. The shapeless garments disguised his form. He could have been thin or fat, muscular or frail. The only thing I could tell for certain was that he was a little bit shorter than me, and from his voice, I guessed that he was maybe a year or two younger. He was not one of the men who had hijacked the train and tried to kill me the night before, but that did not mean that he was no working with them. I looked around for another exit.

He offered the dog his hand. She licked his fingers and thumped her tail enthusiastically. "Good girl," he said.

Praying that his eyes were not yet dark adapted, I began to ease myself towards the hole in the eastern wall.

"Don't move!"

I froze.

"Heidi! Guard!"

The dog stared up at her master, tongue hanging out.

"I said ‘Guard'! What's wrong with you?" He grabbed a handful of the German Shepherd's fur and hauled her towards me.

Heidi looked from me to her master and then back at me again. She began licking my face.

"Sit, Heidi!"

The dog obeyed.

The boy crouched down beside me and tipped back his hat. His skin was the color of old ivory piano keys and smooth as a girl's. He looked to be thirteen, maybe fourteen. Straight, jet black hair was drawn back in a ponytail. Asian eyes shiny and dark as obsidian swept over me. "Why're you dressed like that?"

Could it be that he did not understand the significance of my shaved head or the red and white striped pajamas? His next words dashed my hopes.

"Like an infected."

Because I am infected. The words were on the tip of my tongue, but I bit them back. Maybe, just maybe he had not heard about the train hijacking last night or about the MVIs who had seized the opportunity to escape. Could I convince him that someone else had discarded these clothes and that I had found them? What about my shaved head? Chemotherapy? But why the hell would a cancer patient wander around the swamps of Tammany Parish, exposing herself to all kinds of nasty diseases? Anyone with an ounce of sense could tell that I was a runaway from the Isolation Facility.

I was too hungry and thirsty to think of a convincing lie. And all the fight, which had sustained me the night before, seemed to have gone out of me. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to be someplace safe and air conditioned, where they would feed me and give me a real bed with a real pillow. Someplace where men with guns were not trying to kill me.

"Gunmen stopped the train. They started shooting, so we ran -- "

He cut me off impatiently. "I know about all that. What were you doing riding the train with the infecteds?"

Was he feeble minded? Maybe he had been drinking the local water so long that he had lead or mercury poisoning. Both of those could drive you mad. "Because I'm infected."

Without even batting an eye, he countered "No you're not."

Did I mishear him? "Not infected?"

"Heidi used to be a guard dog at the Camp. She can spot MVIs by their smell. If you were one of them, she would have barked." He shook his head. "I've heard of folks trying to sneak out of that place. But I've never met anyone dumb enough to try to sneak in."

I bristled at being called "dumb". "They double checked the test results -- "

"I don't care if they triple checked them. Heidi's never wrong. She can smell twelve different kinds of sick, and you don't have any of them." He stood up and stripped off his long, black coat and handed it to me. "Here."

The fabric smelled faintly of cedar. "What am I supposed to do with this?"

"Get rid of those camp clothes and put that on."

If I had been in my right mind, I would have asked myself why he was trying to help me. But my head hurt too much to think, and I was so thirsty I would have drunk ground water, lead or no lead. "Turn around."

He narrowed his eyes, the way a cat will when it's angry. "Why? So you can hit me in the back of the head when I'm not looking?"

"I'm not taking off my clothes with a boy watching me."

"Why the hell not? You're a boy, too -- "

I was often mistaken for a boy on the telephone, because of my husky, alto voice. But no one had ever called me that to my face. Fuming, I unbuttoned the front of my jumpsuit and gave him an eyeful. His jaw dropped. His expression would have been funny, if I had been in any mood to laugh. "Turn around. Please."

He blushed. Mumbling an apology under his breath, he turned his head away. Quickly, I changed clothes. The coat was oversized, but when I buttoned it up and cinched the waist and rolled up the sleeves, it looked enough like a dress to fool a casual observer. "How do I look?"

"Bald." He handed me his fedora.

"Now?"

"Now you look like a bald chick wearing a hat. Here." He unwound a scarf from around his neck. "Put this on your head."

With his help, I wrapped the black fabric into a turban.

His eyes widened. "Is that your real hair color? Black?"

"Yes. Why?"

"Nothing. It's just -- " He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of sea shells. He selected one and held it up in front of my wrapped head. "If you had white hair right here, you would look just like that rock n' roll singer. The one that OD'd. What was her name? Sammie Sol."

"Everyone says that."

"You related?"

I shrugged. "Dunno. Maybe. I'm an orphan. I grew up in one of those Church homes for unwanted clones." There were thousands of us in the American Union. Since the cloning process involved the manufacture of multiple fertile embryos, a bunch of religious types had gotten together to ‘save' all the potential little souls from the deep freezers where we were stored. They paid poor women to carry the babies to term, and then they raised us to be good little Christians. In my case, the indoctrination failed. The folks at the home seemed almost relieved when the results of my annual blood work showed that I had developed mosaic virus syndrome.

Now, I was beginning to wonder if they had lied to me, just to get rid of me. I petted Heidi's head. She lolled her tongue and wagged her tail.

Her master looked down at her and shook his head. A gold loop on his left ear caught the light. I finally figured out what was weird about his eyes. They were almost completely dark, with only a thin rim of white, just like Heidi's. Contact lenses?

"I should have guessed you were a girl. She likes women -- unless they're infected."

"Why are you helping me?" I blurted out.

"I dunno. Cause Heidi likes you, I guess. She has a sense for people."

"I don't even know your name."

"Hero." He held out his hand. His fingertips were unnaturally cool. Was that why he wore so many layers of clothing? "What's your name?"

"Sadie." It was his eyes that made him seem so trustworthy, I realized. He had puppy dog eyes.

"Funny name for someone young like you."

"I'm no younger than you," I retorted.

He laughed. "You'd be surprised. Sadie, huh?"

"The Church folks named me. My real name's Sarah from the Bible, but there were ten girls named Sarah, so we all had different nicknames."

He moved towards the door, with Heidi at his heels. "Come on Sadie-short-for-Sarah. The tide's rising. If we're going to get out of here, we'd better do it now."

It must have been those eyes. Though I hardly knew him, I felt a tug somewhere beneath my breastbone, as if a string connected us. I tied my camp uniform around a rock and watched it sink into the water, and then I followed him.

We walked a couple of miles or so down the beach. It was late afternoon, hot as hell and the air reeked of rotting fish. Hero should have been dying underneath all those layers, but he looked as cool as a cucumber, almost as if he was in some other world where it was early spring. Though I was taller, I had trouble keeping up with him, weak as I was from hunger and thirst. I hoped that there was food and water wherever he was taking me. And that he was not related to the men who had tried to kill me last night.

I had my eyes on the sandy beach, picking a path through the jellyfish, so I did not notice right away that we had company, until the woman was almost upon us. She wore a white lab coat over blue jeans and a red T-shirt. If she carried a weapon, I could not see it, but that did not mean she was not in contact with the killers. I edged closer to Hero. Would my disguise fool her?

"Excuse me," she called from the sea wall. "Have you seen anyone dressed in one of these?" She held up a red and white striped jumpsuit. For a moment, I thought that it was the one I had just discarded. However, my uniform was at the bottom of the bay now. I had watched it sink. The one she was holding looked dry, clean and freshly ironed, as if she had taken it from the laundry. That meant she must be from the isolation facility. Probably looking for all the runaway MVIs, though there was always a chance that the assassins had someone on the inside helping them.

I decided to pretend that I had not heard her question and pass her by, but Hero had other ideas. To my horror, he grabbed me by the hand and hauled me towards the seawall.

"There was a train accident. We're trying to round up the patients that esca -- that got lost," the woman explained as we drew near.

Hero gazed up her. "I ain't seen nothing," he replied in a slow -- fake but very convincing sounding -- southern drawl. "What about you, Sis? You see any infecteds running loose this morning?"

Mutely, I shook my head. We were close enough now that I could read the woman's badge. Dr. Naomi Hilda.

"Nope," Hero told her. "Sorry. We ain't seen ‘em."

Dr. Hilda frowned. "That dog -- where did you get it?"

He patted Heidi's head. She lolled her tongue at him. "Raised her from a pup."

"We use that same breed in the camp. You sure you didn't steal her?"

Hero feigned outrage. "You got no account to be calling me a liar. It's bad enough you folks moving in and bringing all them infecteds with you. Pa says he's gonna write his Congressman and -- "

"Fine, fine." Dr. Hilda waved her hand. "If you see anyone wearing one of these, let us know. We pay $200 a head for runaways."

"Yeah, I know." He grinned. "Easy money. I'll keep my eyes open."

The doctor handed him a card with a phone number and told him to call if he saw anything suspicious.

I waited until Dr. Hilda disappeared over the levee before confronting Hero. "Heidi's a guard dog from the camp. That's why she's trained to bark at infected people."

"So what if she is?"

"You're a bounty hunter. You use Heidi to search for runaways. "

Hero dropped the exaggerated southern drawl. "I don't do it for the bounty."

"Then why?"

"To keep people from snooping around, sticking their noses where they don't belong."

"I don't belong here. Why didn't you turn me in to that doctor?"

His puppy dog eyes gazed up at me without a trace of guile, and the string in my heart gave a little tug. "Because Heidi likes you. And because you aren't infected."

There he went again, giving me false hope.

We continued on down the beach until we came to a boat that was shaped like a canoe, only a bit broader and flatter. I huddled at the front -- the bow, Hero called it -- while my companion sat at the back, propelling us across Ponchartrain Bay with the aid of a long oar. I hate boats and probably would have gotten sea sick if there had been anything in my stomach for me to vomit.

Eventually, the shore disappeared, and I began to worry that we were lost somewhere on the Gulf. Last night's dream was still fresh in my mind. I was on the verge of suggesting to Hero that we turn around and head back to land when an island appeared up ahead, a thin strip of green almost lost in the shimmering haze.

As we got closer, I made out a squarish two story building about the size of a small shopping center. A partially obliterated sign posted on the beach proclaimed this to be the N Everland Re Facility and warned that trespassers would be prosecuted. From the number of ground floor windows which were either boarded up or cloaked in vines or both, I guessed that the place had been abandoned by its owners years ago. The grass was taller than me in some places, except for a tiny cleared area near the shore where someone had put up a row of crosses decorated with artificial flowers. I counted five markers. The ground next to the fifth had been freshly turned. A graveyard? Who was buried there?

Now that it was too late to turn back, I recalled all the tabloid stories I had ever read about voodoo and Satan worshippers and cannibals and other unspeakable things that were supposed to be common as dirt in the no man's land of the bayou. And mutants. There were always mutants in the horror tales about the Louisiana Gulf --

"You gonna stand there all day?" Hero asked. His all dark eyes made him look so innocent. Were they the result of a mutation? An adaptation to make him seem trustworthy, even as he was about to kill? And what about his icy skin? That could not be normal. Vampires were supposed to be cold to the touch. But they could not stand sunlight, and the sun did not seem to bother Hero one bit. Maybe he had canine eyes because he was half dog. Or half wolf. A werewolf? Did they have ice cold fingers?

Werewolves? Vampires? The sun must be scrambling my brains. I shook off my fear -- a person could have weird eyes and not be a crazed killer or a monster -- and stepped out of the boat .

The road leading from the beach to the main door was cracked and dotted with clumps of green where the grass had broken through the pavement. I saw lizards sunning themselves and even a long black snake, which should have scared me, but I was so hot and thirsty that I was beyond being frightened. At least I had stopped sweating...

I saw the pavement coming towards me, but I passed out before I hit the ground.

####

Now I knew how Dorothy felt when she woke up in her own bed back in Kansas. What a relief to find that it had all been a dream. My ordeal in the processing center in Houston, my train ride in the crowded quarantine car, the gunmen looking for a girl named Sadie, my night in a Louisiana swamp -- all of it receded as I opened my eyes and found myself in bed, surrounded by children.

The room was unfamiliar. It was also uncomfortably warm, though I could hear the hum of central air conditioning. Why would anyone keep a room this hot? Was this the orphanage infirmary? I had never been sick, so I stayed away from the place. I peered around. The lights were low. Three -- no four small silhouettes crowded around me. A small, cool hand touched my arm.

"She's waking up." It was a child's voice, high pitched and soft. I did not recognize him, but that was not surprising. There were hundreds of us in the orphanage. Kids came and went all the time.

"Let me through," said someone older. The doctor maybe? There was supposed to be new doc in the infirmary, though I had never met him. Funny. His voice seemed familiar.

The small shadowy forms shifted, making way for someone taller. The hand on my forehead felt like ice. "You should have told me you were getting sick. What if you passed out in the boat? You could have fallen and drowned. Or been eaten by a jellyfish."

Boat? Jellyfish?

Oh. My.

So that was not a dream. And this was not the Church home.

"Are you going to stay?" The words were spoken by a child with a pronounced British accent. "Please say you will."

"Let her be," Hero told the small boy sharply.

"I miss my mummy," was the plaintiff reply. Several of the others joined in a chorus of complaints and tears.

"Now see what you've done?" Hero picked up the smallest of the children, who was bawling. "There, there."

Slowly, I eased myself into a sitting position. Something tugged at the hairs on the back of my arm. Surgical tape. Plastic tubing. Intravenous fluids.

"Don't pull that!" Hero said sharply. "Here, let me." He shifted the toddler onto his hip, then he eased the tape and plastic catheter from my arm. "Hold pressure until it stops bleeding." He handed me a stack of fresh gauze.

The children began to bombard me with questions.

"What's your name?"

"Where are you from?"

"Are you Hero, too?"

"Silly! She can't be a Hero. She isn't a boy!"

"Sadie." I had to raise my voice to be heard. "My name's Sadie."

"Sadie!"

"Sadie, do you want to see my turtle? Its name's Leonardo. It's a ninja."

"How old are you, Sadie?"

"Thadie," lisped the toddler in Hero's arms. He wiggled and squirmed. Tiny, sticky hands grabbed at my neck. The child hauled himself onto my lap. His skin was icy cold.

"Uh, Hero...?" I started to ask.

"Yes?" replied four or five voices at once.

"Can you walk?" asked Hero -- the big Hero.

"Yeah, I think so." I stood up. My legs felt steady.

"Good. You're heavy."

"You carried me?" He ignored that question, so I tried another one. "What is this place?"

"It's the North Everland Research building. We came here by boat. Don't you remember? Did you hit your head when you fell down?" Cold fingers began to probe my scalp.

I recalled the sign. N Everland Re Facility. From the outside, the building looked run down and abandoned, but inside it smelled clean, and the air was fresh if overly warm. Where did they get the electricity to run the air conditioner? A generator? There were so many things that I wanted to ask. I did not know where to start.

The door opened, letting in light from the hall. A boy appeared, older than the other children, maybe a year or two younger and a couple of inches shorter than Hero. "Supper's ready," he said in a slow, southern drawl. He peered at me with open curiosity. "Is she going to be eating, too?"

"You hungry?" Hero directed the question at me.

It had been so long since I had eaten that my stomach had sort of shrunk up into a tiny ball. However, I knew that I had to keep my strength up. "Sure."

"Yeah, she's eating. You can lay another place for her, Duo."

The boy in the doorway nodded. "Hurry up, or supper's gonna get cold."

I followed Hero who followed Duo. The other children tagged along behind us, all except for the youngest, who refused to leave my arms. "What's your name?" I asked.

"Hewo. But they callth me Thkwirt."

"Squirt?"

His head bobbed. Even his breath was cool against my face.

"Are you cold, Squirt? You feel cold."

"It's nothing," Hero told me. "Just a side effect of the treatment."

Treatment?

As we marched to the dining room, I studied my companions. All five boys bore an uncanny resemblance to Hero, with straight black hair, pale skin and delicate Asiatic features. Except for their eyes. Hero was the only one with puppy dog eyes. Squirt appeared to be about three. The one Hero had called "Duo" was probably twelve or so. The other three looked to be in elementary school.

I followed Hero to a kitchen with state of the art appliances and a big, round table. Duo took an extra plate from the china cabinet along with silverware.

"You can sit here, next to Squirt."

"No fair!"

"I wanna sit next to Sadie!"

"You can take turns sitting next to Sadie," Hero told the boys firmly. He sat down on my left side. Squirt crawled into the chair on my right.

"Me next!"

"No, me! I'm older."

It felt just like home. Was this some kind of orphanage for Asian kids? Where were the grownups?

"Cabbage?" Duo asked. He looked so much like Hero, the two of them could have been twins. However, his black hair was short and tidy, and he wore no jewelry. Plus, his eyes were normal.

"Please."

Duo handed me a plate piled high with broiled fish, buttered potatoes and cabbage. The food was not bad. I had eaten much worse at the orphanage.

"Need salt," the middle boy said.

"You mean ‘Pass the salt, please,'" Hero corrected as he handed over the salt shaker.

"Pass the salt, please," the child mumbled.

"Now say ‘Thank you.'"

But the boy already had a mouthful of potatoes.

A quick glance around the kitchen told me that this was no Church home. There were no pictures of Jesus. And no one said grace.

"Finished!" declared the middle child. He shoved his plate away.

"Me, too!" This from the next youngest.

"I wanna watch videos."

"Gundam!"

"Dishes first," Duo reminded them. The more I studied him, the more clear it became that he was nothing like Hero. For one thing, he was softer spoken -- his southern accent did not sound feigned. And whenever I looked directly at him, he would blush and duck his head.

My teachers had always praised me for being quick. Plus, I knew more than most folks about clones, since I was one. It did not take me long to figure out that all the kids here were clones of the same person, and that they had been raised in different parts of the world. But if that was the case, why had they had been brought here, to a building designed to look abandoned even though it was not, on an island in the middle of Ponchartrain Bay? And who was taking care of them?

After the dishes were washed -- a noisy process that involved a lot of deliberate splashing that lead to evil looks from Hero and sighs from Duo -- we trooped into the next room. The television screen was twice as large as any that I had ever seen, but that did not stop the kids from crowding as close to it as possible in order to watch an old fashioned cartoon, from the days before computer animation. One of those giant robot shows that were so popular in Japan around the turn of the century. The idea of people climbing inside a suit of mechanical armor seemed silly to me. Robots were designed to do work too dangerous for humans -- like digging tunnels or defusing bombs -- and so they were remote controlled. Putting someone -- especially a child -- inside defeated the purpose.

"Look! There's Trowa. That's my name." This from the third oldest.

"I'm Wufei!" declared the boy from England.

"No fair! I want to be Wufei!" wailed the child sitting next to him.

"Quatre is cool, too," said Hero.

"But his hair's blond. My hair isn't blond."

"That doesn't matter. Duo doesn't have a pony tail, but he's still Duo."

"How come only you get to be Hero?"

Hero stuck out his tongue. "Because I was here first."

Two robots began to fight. The boys cheered. The younger ones mimicked the action on screen.

"Sorry they're so rowdy," Hero said. "They aren't used to having company. Especially not a girl."

"It's ok. I like kids. If you don't mind me asking..."

"You want to know what we're doing here?"

"Yeah."

"We're all clones of the same guy."

"I figured out that part."

With his all dark eyes, his face did not show a lot of emotion, but there was a hard edge to his voice. "We were in Tammany. Mycroft got us out of the camp and brought us here. He's found a cure."

"A cure?"

"For mosaic virus infection. Well, not a cure exactly. More like a treatment. Right now, it only works on children. You probably noticed the graves on the way here."

I nodded.

"Those are the grown up clones that didn't make it. Duo and I buried them."

That answered one of my questions. If there had been any adults on the island, they would not have made the kids dig graves. What a horrible thing to go through! I had only seen a dead person once in my life, a girl who had an asthma attack and died in the dorm before the doctor could get there. I would never forget the way she stiffened up and turned blue before she stopped breathing. Her eyes, so full of life one moment were glassy the next.

"You poor thing!" I said impulsively. I patted his hand and noted again how cold he was. "Does the treatment have side effects? Is that why your skin is so...?"

"Cold? Yeah, the treatment slows down the metabolism. Stops the tumors from growing." He dropped his voice. "But there's other side effects."

"Like what?"

Hero glanced at the boys, to make sure that they were not listening "The treatment keeps us from growing. And aging. How old do you think I am?"

"Fifteen? Sixteen?" I overestimated his age on purpose, knowing how much boys hated to be taken for younger than they are.

"Try twenty."

"No way! That's older than me!"

"Shhh. Not so loud. The little ones don't know. Well, Duo does. But not the others. As long as they're getting treatments, they won't get tumors, but they won't grow up, either. I guess I was sort of lucky that they caught me just in the nick time. Another few months, and I would have ended up like the guys outside." His voice was cool, but his eyes grew a little misty at the last part. If what he told me was true, then he must have been here for six or seven years. I did not know whether to be glad that he had survived mosaic virus infection that long or appalled that he was a prisoner of this place, a young man who would never grow up.

"Your eyes -- ?"

"Artificial. There was a tumor on my optic nerve. At the chiasm. I was blind when Mycroft brought me here. He created these artificial eyes for me."

So there was an adult. Of course. There had to be someone to administer the medical treatments to the children. "Who's Mycroft? Is he here on the island? Is he a doctor? Can I meet him?" If Mycroft was a physician, he could repeat my blood test to see if I was really infected with mosaic virus or not. If Heidi was wrong, and my body did harbor the infection, maybe I was not too old to start treatments. There were worse things than being a teenager forever.

For some reason, my questions appeared to amuse him. "Mycroft isn't here. I mean, he is here, but not really."

"Excuse me?"

"Mycroft's not a person. He's a program. An artificial intelligence. He was designed by a man named Sakumoto Hero. We're all clones of his creator. That's why he takes care of us. We're sort of like his brothers."

####

There were two spare top bunks in the dormitory where the boys slept. After showering and slipping on a pair of men's pajamas, I chose the bed closest to the door. Long after lights out, I lay awake, thinking about everything that Hero had told me. It was a lot to digest, and I was not sure that I believed all that I had heard. However, there was no reason for Hero to lie. Indeed, it was a little bit surprising that he had told me so much. If he and the others were escapees from the isolation camp, that meant there was a bounty on their heads, too. Unless they were part of an official research project. But if the government knew that Mycroft had come up with a cure -- even a partial cure -- why were they keeping it a secret? The train car from Houston carried at least ten children younger than me. Many of them spent the journey crying and calling for their parents.

It was possible that the treatment did not cut down the infectiousness of the disease. That was a scary thought. If Hero was correct, and I was clean, being here might expose me to infection. But if I left the island, where would I go?

After tossing and turning for a couple of hours, I decided to get up. I climbed out of bed cautiously, taking care not to wake the sleeping boys. One of the children, Trowa, I think, was snoring softly. Hero's bed was still empty, but that did not surprise me. He had told me that ever since his artificial eyes were implanted, he had stopped needing sleep. Something to do with REM.

Heidi accompanied me down the hall to the kitchen. I was hoping to find Hero, so I could ask him some more questions, but there was no sign of him. I made myself a cup of hot milk. There were pig's ears in a glass jar. Heidi chewed on one, while I sipped my drink. Soon, it started to rain. The light patter of raindrops on the window and the warm milk combined to relax me. My eyelids grew heavy...

Heidi's barking brought me back to full wakefulness. She was in the hall, standing beside a pair of double doors, growling and snarling at something on the other side.

"What's the matter, girl? You want out?" It must be a wild animal. A possum maybe, or a raccoon. Or was it Hero? Could he have gotten himself locked outside? I reached for the door handle.

"Please, do not do that," said a masculine voice from somewhere overhead.

I almost jumped out of my skin. Nervously, I glanced around. The dog and I were alone in the dimly lit corridor. "Who's there?"

No answer. Instead, someone started pounding on the door. I heard muffled shouts, then a series of gunshots. One, two, three...I counted six shots in total. By now, I was certain that Hero was outside, in desperate danger if not dead already. Unfortunately, the door was locked, and I could not open it.

"Who's there?" I called. "Hero, is that you?"

Something heavy hit the door with an enormous force. More shouts and then all was quiet. Heidi, who had continued to bark throughout the chaos, calmed down.

"Good girl," I murmured. I patted her head.

She wagged her tail.

"Hero?" I called softly. No answer. Again, I tried the door latch.

"I asked you not to do that," said the same disembodied voice that had spoken before.

"Who's there?"

"No one," was the reply. "No one is here. You can go back to bed."

It was a pretty good computer simulation of a human voice. There were even little pauses, as if the speaker was taking breaths. However, when real people talk, they run out of steam right before time to breathe, and their words become soft and rushed.

"How can no one be here if you're talking to me? You're Mycroft, aren't you?"

"I am," the AI agreed. "If you have forgotten the way back to bed, I will call Hero."

"Is he alright? Hero, I mean? Are you sure he isn't outside -- ?"

Hero appeared beside me. He had shed his coat, but he was still wearing a heavy black hooded sweater that covered him to the knees and gloves that left only his fingertips exposed. "What are you doing up?"

I was so relieved to see him alive that I threw my arms around him. He smelled of cedar and musk. His neck was cool against my flushed cheek. In a muffled voice he said

"What's the matter? You're shaking like a leaf."

"There were people outside. I heard gunshots."

He held me at arm's length and studied my face. His eyes looked just like Heidi's. Calm, trustworthy -- the eyes of someone who would never let you down. My anxiety eased a fraction. "It's ok. You're safe. Mycroft's in charge of security. No one will bother us in here."

"I was worried about you." I must have sounded like a little child.

"Look. I'm fine."

"But I didn't know that. What happened?"

"Trespassers. We get them from time to time. Smugglers and drug runners looking for a new hideout. Our security is state of the art. No one can get in this building unless Mycroft lets them."

"What if they're still outside, waiting for us?"

He put his arm around my shoulder. Though Hero was shorter than me, he gave off an aura of strength. I knew that he would protect everyone on the island -- including me -- and that we had nothing to fear as long as he was with us. "It's ok," he said soothingly. "They're leaving."

"How can you be sure?"

He touched the corner of his left eye. "My implants are hooked up to the central computer. There's a display screen that let's me see whatever it sees. Here, I'll show you."

He lead me into a room that was practically filled with monitors. Some were color, some were black and white. A few showed infrared images. One of the latter revealed two people climbing into -- a boat? Their images bobbed up and down and then receded into the darkness that was the gulf.

"See." Hero pointed to the screen. "They're leaving. Mycroft must have scared them but good. They won't be back."

"Scared them? How?"

"Trust me, you don't want to know. Mycroft's a good guy, for an AI. But he believes in getting the job done."

"Were they looking for me?"

"Who knows? Maybe they were just outlaws, searching for a place to hide. We get people like that every month or so." So calm, as if armed intruders were the most natural thing on earth.

"Why do you stay here if it's so dangerous?"

His wide, placid dark eyes were at odds with his voice, which was suddenly bitter. "Where else would we go? If we leave Tammany, we're criminals."

"But here you're prisoners."

"Here, we're alive. And Mycroft will do everything possible to keep up that way. You never saw the inside of the camp, Sadie. Remind me to tell you about it sometime."

It was the way he said it rather than the words themselves that sent a chill down my spine. "All of you came here from the camp? Even Squirt?"

"Even Squirt," he agreed. "You should get some sleep. The boys will be all over you tomorrow. It's been years since some of them have seen a woman. You're like a mother to them."

I liked being called a "woman". It made me feel grown up. "I don't mind. I'm used to children."

He nodded. "I could tell. You're good with them."

Funny how a few words of praise made me feel so happy. I guess I was already starting to fall for Hero.

####

Summer passed quickly. With four children depending upon me, there was always something to do. Duo was grateful to have someone help with the cooking and cleaning. Towards the end of August, Hero brought back another clone, this one a nineteen year old who was paralyzed on one side. While Mycroft had a robot -- a standard nurse model, the kind hospitals use in the operating room -- to administer treatments and perform tests, it was up to the rest of us to feed, bathe and change sheets for the new arrival.

Hero Twelve did not last long. He was too old for the treatment that kept the children alive, and the new regimen which Mycroft had devised failed to slow the growth of his tumors. One morning, I went into his room with a breakfast tray and found him dead. A growth in his brain had destroyed the breathing center. He passed away quietly in his sleep, or so Mycroft said. He had cameras everywhere, so I guess he would know.

Hero dug the grave and laid him into the earth. I stood by his side as he murmured a prayer -- he was raised Catholic, by adoptive parents in Kansas. His father was an aerospace engineer, his mother was a radiologist from Korea. They had jumped at the chance to acquire a cloned embryo of the genius Sakomoto Hero on the black market.

"There were two of us in middle school," he confided to me late one night, after the others were in bed. "We looked like identical twins. If I had gone on to MIT, the way my parents planned, I would have met even more versions of myself, including a faculty member."

We were sitting side by side at the kitchen table, sipping cocoa. "Must have been tough."

"You bet. When you're a clone of a genius, everyone expects you to be a genius, too."

"But you are a genius."

He grimaced. "I'm good at tests, but subjects like math and physics bore me. Mom and Dad had different tutors for me every night of the week, but I wanted to be outside, riding my bike and skateboarding."

"I guess living here in Tammany, doing the things you do now probably suits you better than what you did before."

He considered this. "Yeah, you're probably right. Here, I'm my own boss. And there's plenty to do, keeping intruders away and smuggling Sakomoto's clones out of the camp. Plus, I was an only child, and I always wanted a brother. Now I have five of them."

Impulsively, my hand closed over his. Our eyes met. Hero leaned forward. Our lips just barely touched --

"Oh shit!" Hero pulled away. "There's a hurricane in the Gulf."

I did not ask how he knew. He and Mycroft shared information via his artificial eyes. Everything Hero saw, the AI saw, and Mycroft often sent Hero messages through the monitor implanted in his left eye. Maybe it was just my imagination, but the AI seemed to have an annoying habit of getting in touch with Hero whenever the two of us finally got a moment alone. Was he jealous? Could a computer feel an emotion like jealousy?

"Is it a bad storm?" I asked.

"They just upgraded it to category three. And it's supposed to hit land about thirty miles south of here. If it follows the projected path, the storm surge will cover the island. Mycroft wants us to evacuate."

"Where will we go? The mainland isn't any higher than this island." Over a decade had passed since the last major hurricane swept across southern Louisiana, but I could still remember watching the TV coverage with the other kids in my kindergarten class. The people who ran the Church home wanted us to see what God did to "sinners". Due to rising sea levels, the destruction wrought by Lawrence had dwarfed the damage from Katrina. Half the state was under water for two days. Tens of thousands of people died. In the wake of the storm, the federal government had bought out most of the flooded areas. Left with a worthless piece of real estate on their hands, the feds decided to build the Tammany Parish Isolation Facility.

What would become of the men, women and children housed -- imprisoned -- in the isolation camp? Would they be evacuated? There were not enough trains to transport all those people to safety. And once free from the camp, how many of them would voluntarily return? Hero and Duo had told me horror stories about the place. Men preyed on women, big kids preyed on the little kids. The camp guards tolerated -- and sometimes participated in -- the abuse, because it helped to keep the rowdier inmates quiet.

"Mycroft is sending in a helicopter. It'll be here in two hours. We should be off the island and someplace safe before the storm hits." Hero's brows came together.

"What is it?"

"They just admitted another Hero clone to the camp. A thirteen year old boy."

The same age Hero had been when he was rescued. I wanted to tell him that there was nothing that he could do, that getting himself and his brothers to safety was his first priority. But it would have been wasted breath. "Duo and I can get the others ready. You go see to the new boy."

"Thanks." He gave my hand a squeeze. I had stopped caring about his ice cold skin long ago. Now, it just seemed like part of Hero, and I loved everything about him, from his all dark artificial eyes to his bulky black clothes to his boyish face which seemed at odds with his very grown up behavior .

"Just be sure you come back safely," I said impulsively.

He grinned. "Sure thing, Mom." He called me that when I got overly protective. I did not mind. Squirt called me "mommy" all the time, now.

Duo woke up without any problem. The others were harder to rouse. While I bundled the little ones into as many layers of clothing as they could comfortably wear, Duo extracted suitcases from a closet and began filling them with essentials. Quatre and Trowa were excited at the thought of flying for the first time. Wufei insisted upon bringing his toys. Squirt, apprehensive at all the commotion, demanded that I hold him.

Eventually, one of the children noticed that Hero was not with us and asked the question I had been dreading. "Where's big brother?"

"He's taking care of some business."

All the Hero clones were sharp as tacks. "You mean he's rescuing another Hero from the camp." This from Trowa. "Will he be back in time?"

"I'm not leaving without Hero!" declared Quatre.

Squirt began to cry.

By the time we gathered on the roof of the "N Everland Re Facility", the wind had begun to pick up and the waters of the Gulf were choppy. Would Hero be able to make it back from shore in a rowboat? Duo and I exchanged worried glances, but for the sake of the little ones, we did not voice our concern.

"It's cold!" complained Quatre. He pulled up his hood and wrapped his arms around himself.

In fact, the air coming out of the south was still fairly warm. I was dressed in a pair of men's slacks and a light cotton shirt, and I felt comfortable. My hair had grown out a few inches, just long enough to make me look like a teenage boy. The white streak was back. Hero teased that I was part skunk -- -

I closed my eyes and uttered a prayer to the God that I no longer believed in for the safety of Hero.

Duo was in touch with Mycroft via telephone, so we had advance warning of the helicopter's arrival and were able to clear the landing pad. The noise of the propellers spooked Wufei and Quatre, and at first they refused to get near the aircraft. Luckily, Squirt had fallen asleep in my arms.

There was no pilot. The helicopter was remote controlled by Mycroft, like almost everything on the island. I guess the AI did not want to get a stranger involved in an illegal rescue operation -- once MVIs came to Tammany, they were never supposed to leave. Wufei, Quatre and Trowa argued over who would get the two front seats. For once, Duo put his foot down, insisting that his little brothers go to the back. "If anything happens, I may have to take over the controls."

My eyes widened. "You know how to fly one of these things?"

"Mycroft just told me how."

Sharp as tacks, all of them. However, I was not entirely comfortable with a pilot who had no hands on experience, especially since we might be flying through a hurricane. "Can I talk to Mycroft?"

Duo handed me his headset. I stepped outside the helicopter so that the others would not hear what I was about to say.

I intended to complain about the lack of a qualified pilot, but when I opened my mouth, something entirely different came out. "Hero's not back yet."

"I know." The AI had improved his voice simulation. If I had not known better, I would have said that there was a real live human being on the other end of the line. "He is inside the compound, in the new patient intake area. He should be in contact with his target soon."

At that moment, I wished that I had Mycroft's ability to see what Hero was seeing. "How's security at the camp?"

"Tight. They went into lockdown two hours ago."

"Lockdown?! How is Hero gonna get out of there?" And what would become of the other residents? I knew better than to ask that last question. Mycroft was here for just one thing, to take care of the clones of his creator. Nothing else mattered. He only tolerated me, because I made the boys happy.

"I can override any security code," Mycroft said. "And I have faith in Hero."

Faith? Could a computer program really have faith? I guess so. Though Mycroft was a machine, he seemed to know something of the human emotion of love. Why else go to the trouble of setting up this secret -- and illegal -- treatment facility for a handful of children suffering from a terminal disease? It was not as if he would ever make money or become famous -- more famous than he already was -- from the "cure" he had discovered. As Hero once pointed out astutely

"Give folks a way to keep their children kids forever, and they will never let them grow up."

I had seen enough predators at the orphanage to know that if there was a way to keep little girls little even after they were eighteen, some pervert would ask for it. And if the pervert had enough money, some doctor would do it.

"The sea's getting awfully rough. What if Hero can't get back?"

Mycroft ignored my question. "Contact has been made. Number thirteen is now in Hero's care."

Number thirteen. An unlucky number. "How far out is the hurricane?" The sea looked as if someone had turned on a blender, and a line of thunderstorms in the distance kept lighting up the night sky.

"Two hours to landfall."

"But the water's gonna get worse even before the storm hits. Hero's not gonna make it back to the island. Not in a row boat."

"Most likely not," Mycroft agreed in his perpetually cool voice.

"I'm not leaving without him!"

"Trust me," Mycroft said.

Trust a computer? Computers figured out the solution to problems that brought the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Computers dealt in things like life and death as if they were numbers on a page to be added, subtracted, analyzed and then stored away for later reference. Could a computer really care about Hero the way that I cared about him?

"We need to go pick up Hero," I insisted.

"I agree," Mycroft replied in his perpetually affable voice. "If you will board the helicopter, I have arranged a rendezvous with Hero and his charge."

That was one of the most annoying things about Mycroft. In the middle of holding a conversation, he might be doing two or three other things somewhere else, which made it difficult to keep up with him.

We took off from the island. My motion sickness kicked in, and for a few minutes I thought that I was going to throw up. Luckily, the Hero clones all had cast iron stomachs. To distract myself, I started singing. The boys loved to hear me sing, and they settled down. Duo kept his eye on the instrument panel. From time to time, he would make an adjustment. Since we did not crash, I guess Mycroft's tutoring paid off.

We survived three or four strong gusts, and eventually, we landed in a field west of the isolation camp. Hero Thirteen was wrapped in a long black coat that completely covered his striped pajamas. Without his overcoat, Hero One looked a little bit blue -- by then the wind was starting to turn chilly. The two of them boarded the helicopter, along with Heidi. With three extra bodies, we were cramped for space. I worried that we might not be able to get aloft. However, once Hero strapped himself into the seat next to Duo, we took off without any problem. One thing I will say for Mycroft, he knew how to handle machines.

For about ten minutes or so, the boys were shy of the newcomer, a pale skinned, bald headed boy just a little bit taller than Duo. However, once we were in the air Trowa asked "What's your name?"

"Hero Murray. And who are you?" His accent was Irish.

"I'm Hero, too. We're all Hero, but only Hero gets to be called Hero."

The newest Hero nodded as if this made sense.

Trowa introduced himself and the others. "That's Quatre. And that's Wufei. The baby is called Squirt, because we ran out of Gundam names, and he's too little to care."

"Gundam?"

As one, the three middle boys began talking excitedly about their favorite cartoon. Squirt was still fast asleep. Duo and Hero were discussing the helicopter's route. I caught something about Mississippi.

"I know. He can be Treize."

"But Treize is a bad guy!" someone else -- Quatre I think -- protested.

I gazed out the window. The southern horizon was ablaze with the light show that accompanied the storm. The north, where we were heading, was dark. I wondered what would become of the boys and of me.

####

In Mississippi, we exchanged the helicopter for a plane, which flew us into the mountains of Arkansas. Mycroft had prepared a second home for the clones, just in case they were ever forced to evacuate. I guess super computers plan for any eventuality.

Life in Arkansas was a lot like life in Louisiana, except that the clones got cold easier here and had to wear more clothes. Mycroft talked of moving everyone to an island in the Caribbean, but the hurricane sort of spooked the little kids, and they were reluctant to return to a beach front home, especially after seeing the TV news coverage of all the people who died in the Tammany Parish Isolation Facility. The images of dead bodies floating in the swamps were so horrifying that there was a popular uproar, and the UN decided to investigate. Meanwhile, newly diagnosed MVIs were being treated in their home communities, in regular hospitals.

The clones continued their medical treatments under Mycroft's care. Hero Twelve -- Treize -- responded well to the regimen which was administered by a state of the art physician robot, one of the ones that looked human with slicked back blond hair and bright blue eyes with their own built on flashlights and skin temperature that could be adjusted to match that of any patient. The boys had immediately dubbed Mycroft's new artificial body "Zechs". Somehow, it felt more natural to talk to an AI when it looked like a human being, and I found myself warming to "Zechs" in the months that followed.

Because we had developed a rapport, when I began to get headaches, I went to "Zechs" first. I found the robot in the treatment room, mixing up a dose of the medications which he used to keep the clones' metabolism slow.

"Do you have a minute?" I asked from the door. "I'm not feeling too good."

"Sit down." Zechs indicated the treatment chair. "What is bothering you?"

I sat. "I've got this headache, behind my eyes." The AI began to examine me. "Do you think it could be mosaic virus?"

"The one thing I am sure of is that you are not suffering from mosaic virus syndrome." Mycroft/Zechs always insisted upon calling it a "syndrome" rather than an "infection".

"You mean because Heidi still likes me?"

"I am scientist. While I trust Heidi's olfactory abilities, I prefer to rely upon more objective evidence."

"Can I get that in English?"

The physician robot gave me a little smile. It was amazing what they had been able to accomplish with robot technology. "You do not have mosaic virus syndrome, and you will never develop it, because only clones get it."

"I don't follow you."

Mycroft/Zechs had me lift my chin so he could check the glands in my neck. "You are not a clone, Sadie Hope. I have analyzed your blood. You have none of the markers of a clone. You were formed from a fertilized ovum."

You could have knocked me over with a feather, as they say. "But they told me -- "

"Turn your head this way, please." Mycroft peered inside my ear. "I do not know why the Church of Life lied to you. However, I do know that some of their followers broke into a Santa Monica fertility clinic seventeen years ago and stole a number of specimens, some clones and some fertilized natural ova. You were created from one of the latter. After analyzing the list of stolen specimens, I have concluded that the singer Sammie Sol was your egg donor."

So that explained the resemblance. Seventeen years ago, Sol would have been an aspiring singer. She must have donated eggs in order to make money. Funny, knowing that she was my mother rather than my DNA donor made me feel closer to her.

I had a sudden thought. "Does this have anything to do with the gunmen who were after me?"

Mycroft/Zechs nodded. His natural looking mannerisms made him seem so human. "Sol's manager is in charge of her estate. She died without leaving an heir. A natural daughter -- like you -- could inherit, even if you were not named in a will. I know for a fact that he has offered a reward for information about your whereabouts, since I am one the ones he approached."

"You think he wants me dead?"

"You are a financial risk to him."

What a scary thought. Of course, that also meant that if I hired a lawyer, I could probably get my hands on lots of money. But in order to do that, I would have to leave Hero, and there was no way that was ever going to happen. I changed the subject.

"So, if I'm not infected, what's wrong with me?"

"A simple sinus infection from pollen allergies." He reached into a cabinet and pulled out a small spray bottle. "Use this three times a day."

"Thanks." I flashed a big grin. "You're pretty nice for a computer."

"You are pretty nice for a human," he replied.

I paused on my way out of the infirmary. "When were you going to tell me the truth, about me not being a clone?"

"Only if you asked," he answered bluntly. Mycroft/Zechs never got embarrassed or apologized, since as far as he was concerned, everything he did was the correct thing to do. "The clones like having you here."

"And I like being here."

"You do not mind that you will age while Hero remains a boy?"

"Yeah, I mind a little. But as long as Hero doesn't care, it's all good." Life had turned out much better than even I, Sadie Hope, eternal optimist had dared to believe possible. Humming a little tune -- one of Sammie Sol's -- I went in search of my lover.

THE END


© 2009 McCamy Taylor

Bio: McCamy Taylor is Aphelion's current Serials and Novellas Editor (if you have a story longer than 7,500 words, or long enough that it would be suitable for publication in two or more installments, she's your girl... er, woman), author of many short stories and longer fiction, here and in other publications, and is now Aphelion torchbearer for the cause of Japanese graphic novels and animation.

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