Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Freedom!

by Ché Frances Monro


The little woman marched up the steps of the First Bank of Freedom and scrubbed her boots on the mat. She went inside, took a piece of paper from her purse, and placed it on the counter.

She wore an elegant up-to the minute navy blue suit in the latest style of feminine frills and ruffles. A red silk rose decorated the lapel of her jacket, more roses adorned her hat. She attracted envious glances from the ladies present. What was a well to do city woman doing in Freedom?

"Such a cute, pretty little thing!" she overheard one woman whisper to another.

Rose was just under five feet tall. She was conventionally pretty, peaches and cream complexion, golden curls and china blue eyes. Her full figure lent a slightly comical air to such a small person, like a child dressed up in her Momma's clothing. Rose had to look up to meet the gazes of the onlookers.

"Yes, Miss?" The attendant asked.

She handed over the paper. After much reading and consulting and stamping with rubber stamps, files were opened, consulted, then a set of title deeds and some keys were produced.

"Miss Rose?"

"Rose CY-4413-0335188577."

There were gasps and titters from the audience, and a whisper, "She's a clone!"

The old man behind the counter just smiled, enjoying a little theatre in his day. "Sign here, please, Miss. And if I may sight your ID card? Yes, yes, perfectly in order. Thank you. Here are the deeds to the saloon. Here are your keys. Is there anything else I can help you with today?"

"No thank you, that will be all." As she left the bank the whispers followed her. "Bought the old saloon..." "...a clone..." "...Well I never!"

####

Rose trotted down the street, skipping to avoid mud puddles and horse manure. She nodded to acknowledge those who smiled or touched caps but otherwise maintained her reserve.

A small crowd of women awaited her in the street, twenty or thirty of them. They were identical to Rose, although variously dressed.

"Sisters!" she called. "I have the deeds to our new home. Come now, gather everything up, leave nothing behind. Let's go. Lily! You can't carry that in your condition! Let Daisy take it."

"Yes, Supervisor," the pregnant woman replied, her tone meek, her eyes downcast. She wore a clone's plain black jumpsuit, much patched and mended. At her breast there was an enamel badge: A single Calla Lily.

Rose led her sisters down the street to a dilapidated old barn of a building. The core was pre-war, a great pre-stressed concrete arch. Perhaps it had once housed aircraft or machinery. Then in the war years the price of copper soared and the town boomed. Wooden extensions and lean-tos sprang up around the central hanger culminating in the wide verandas along the street. When the economy slumped after the war the saloon had fallen into disuse and been claimed by the bank.

Rose frowned up at the sign over the veranda. Last Chance Saloon. "That will have to go," she said. "This will be... Oh. Something something Private Hotel. Um, Bentham? Bentick? No. Oxford? No, no... Oh, of course! La Fleur Private Hotel and Laundry."

Her sisters oohed and aahed over the choice of name. "Fleur. That's one of our names."

"We don't have a Fleur."

"No, but it means The Flower. It's a flower name. It's clever."

"My Master used to call me his little flower before he went away to the war."

"Sunflower," Rose called from the veranda. "Fetch me a pry-bar. It's boarded up."

"Yes, ma'am!" The woman wore a dress printed with vivid impressionist sunflowers, and bright sunflower earrings. She consulted with her sisters, luggage was opened and a pry-bar produced.

Rose and a couple of her sisters leant on it to crack open the boards that covered the front door. "Save those boards," she commanded. "They'll come in handy for something."

Rose inserted the key and persuaded the stubborn lock to turn. The door swung open, revealing the dark, dusty interior of the abandoned saloon. The sisters picked up their luggage and, one by one, they disappeared into the depths of their strange new home.

####

Crash! Whoosh! Splash! The little steam train they called "Lizzie" hit the bumpers at the end of the line, the hopper tipped, and another load of red hot slag cascaded down the slope. The Freedom smelter was building a causeway to nowhere, one hopper load at a time. Every week or so they would extend the tracks and the causeway of slag and cinders would advance another few meters across the plain.

Miles hauled on the handle and opened the firebox, threw in a couple of shovels of coal and slammed the door shut. He yanked the reverser with a practised violence, and pulled hard on the throttle. His face was black with grease, soot and coal dust.

Lizzie's wheels squealed as she skidded on the rails, then with a groan and a crash the hopper came upright and they chuffed off back up the track to the smelter. Thick black smoke poured from her funnel and smuts rained down on Miles.

He grimaced and ignored them. He couldn't possibly get any dirtier than he was already. He'd removed his shirt because of the heat from the fire. A tattoo decorated the centre of his back, a barcode and serial number. Miles was a clone. He had fallen a long way from the proud soldier he had been, lieutenant's bars gleaming on the shoulders of his black uniform jumpsuit. Would anyone from the old days even recognise him now?

Lizzie was a misfit too, the bastard child of a broken tech-base. A monstrosity beaten together out of garbage trucks and washing machines. She was a steam engine. She had a boiler. She had pistons. With much chuffing and extraneous motion at right angles she converted heat into motion. She was black. If she hadn't been painted black she was black anyway from oil, soot, coal dust and dirt.

Lizzie never rolled off any production line. The mine engineers put her together from whatever they could find. She was stronger and lasted longer than the horses they'd tried before. They were desperate for any kind of power to keep the mine going after the cities burned. They needed copper to make bronze, and bronze to make cannon.

But now the war had been over for a decade. They were making real locomotives in the workshops back west. Rigs with spare parts you could order when something broke, rather than having to find or make something yourself. The writing was on the wall. Lizzie's days were numbered. She was headed for the scrap-heap.

"You and me both, girl," Miles muttered. "You and me both."

They chugged back up the track, puffs of filthy black coal smoke rising from Lizzie's funnel to mingle with the plume that rose from the towering chimneys of the smelter, high above.

####

As night fell, Miles washed as best he could in the stream behind his shack. Nothing could remove the soot ground into wrinkles and pores in his skin. He ate quickly, refuelling his body, then took out the case that contained his most valued possession.

The silver fittings of the syringe glowed in the candle light, and a point of light danced on surface of the drug in the bottle. Not much left, just enough to dissolve his consciousness and take him away. Just enough to help him sleep. Just enough to let him forget his pain and loneliness for another day. Just enough.

He swabbed his arm with methylated spirits and sterilised the needle over the candle flame. There was the slightest tremor in his hand as he drew the liquid up into the syringe, his body eager. He held the needle up to the light and expelled any trapped air, the drug squirted into the dark air.

Then he found his vein and pushed the needle home, felt the slight pop as he found the vein, relishing the familiar sting. A faint, worn out horror thrilled through him. Clones must never dose themselves! Report to your Supervisor immediately!

"Supervisor's dead," he chuckled, withdrawing the needle and setting it aside. "Everybody's dead. They're all dead." A familiar giddiness seized him, and he went and lay down on the bed. The candlelight blurred and he dreamed.

####

"That's it," Beth said. "I can't raise Command. I can't even bring up a menu. All of the communicators are dead. I don't know what's going on."

"Could it be a virus, Captain? Some kind of cyber-war attack?"

"Maybe. Or and EMP weapon. Whatever it is knocked out our grid like... Shit!" The horizon lit up with a flash, like dawn had come early. In the trees birds began to sing.

"What is it? What is it, Supervisor?"

Beth shaded her eyes and looked at the sky, her face lit up by that strange light. "Shit," she whispered. The glow faded back to a sullen red fringe along the horizon. "Concordia. They've hit Concordia. The whole city must be burning. Concordia's on fire." She stared at the red glow along the southern horizon. Concordia was thirty five miles away. If they could see the fire from this distance the burning must be immense.

"Supervisor?" There were tears in her eyes. Miles felt shocked, she was such a strong woman. She was his rock. Not only his Captain, she was also his Supervisor. To see her cry was like a punch in the gut.

Miles stood in his trench and sprayed fire from his rifle across the advancing figures. "Get some!" he yelled. "Get some, you bastards! Get some! This is for Concordia! This is for Bridgeport and New Albuquerque!" Cannon fire roared overhead and he threw himself flat and "Gene, come on Gene, wake up, we've got to go." Miles shook the big soldier, his hands were covered in blood. "Shit." He tried to wrap the bandage tighter. There was so much blood. Gene's legs were pinned beneath the trunk of a tree the artillery had brought down on him.

"Miles," Beth said. "We've got to go. Now."

"No. I can't leave Gene. I won't."

"Miles, listen to me, he's had it. There's nothing we can do. We've got to go now."

"No!"

She grabbed his fatigues and shook him, hard. "Listen to me! Listen to me, soldier. Get up and get moving! Now!"

"Yes, Supervisor," he stumbled to his feet and they were staggering along a muddy road. "I can't go on," he gasped. "Supervisor, I can't go on."

"Lean on me, soldier. One more step. One more. Come on, you can do it."

"Give me tape," he whispered. "I need tape. I can't go on."

"No more tape, soldier." He could hear the pain in her voice. She was his Supervisor. He was asking her for help, for programming, and she couldn't give it to him. "Pull it up from inside," she said. "Must. Go. On. One foot after the other."

In the middle of a muddy field he knelt beneath leaden skies and wailed to an uncaring world. He held her emaciated body in his arms. She was dead. She was dead. "No! Beth! No! No!" He huddled over her cold form and wept. Blackness closed in.

####

Miles jerked awake at the sound of the work siren. He was late for work! He ran up the hill to the smelter and the door of the foreman's office. There were still a couple of men waiting in line to sign on. He wasn't too late.

"Watch it," the foreman growled as Miles scrawled his name in the book.

"Yes, sir." He jogged to the engine shop.

"She's ready for you," his opposite number on the graveyard shift reported. "I filled up the tank and stoked up the firebox. She's ready to go."

"Thanks." Miles vaulted into the cab and shoved the throttle home, sending steam screaming into the pistons. Chuff... Chuff... Chuff Chuff ChuffChuffChuffChuff... Lizzie inched forward and slowly picked up speed. She moved around the track to the smelter.

When the buzzer sounds you have three minutes to assemble your rifle. Begin now. BZZZZZT!

Damn. Tape flash. His head felt full of stale memories and his attention just wouldn't snap into gear and focus on here and now. The hopper overshot and he jammed on the brakes and Lizzie screamed to a stop. He had to reverse back into place under the spout.

"Get your head on the job!" the man on the spout called. Easy for him to say.

Miles, take a horse and scout towards Hill 19. I need to know what's out there.

He blinked away confusion and tried to focus. Tape flashbacks were an occupational hazard whenever you messed around with programming drugs. He just worked through them. He needed the drug to get through the nights, and he needed the work to pay for the drug.

Miles shoved the throttle forward and Lizzie chuffed down the line with a steaming hopper full of red hot slag in front. Fumes filled the cab and Beth held him and touched his cheek. "You're going to be all right, Soldier. Listen to your Supervisor. We've got no tape, but I'm going to give you a shot and I want you to listen very carefully..." and the spade bit into the muddy earth with a bright clean sound and a clod flew onto the pile. He swung the borrowed spade so he could dig a grave for... to dig a grave for... He couldn't bear to think about it and they were hurtling down the track towards the bumper, too fast!

He lunged for the brake lever and he watched the survivors of Concordia walking down the road, more and more of them, hundreds. Their clothes were in rags. Many of them were terribly burned, their bodies and limbs blackened, their faces like black masks, cracked, oozing. The smell was nauseating. As he watched one of them fell and did not get up again. The others shuffled on and "They're flanking us to the east! We've got to pull back now!" There was a concussion like a shell exploding and then blackness.

####

They pulled him from the shattered cab and laid him on the slag.

"Is he alive?"

"He's alive, good God. Not even injured, just a couple of cuts."

"God protects fools and drunkards."

Everything was ringing. Blood leaked into his eye. They put a bandage around his head.

"Was he drunk?"

"He didn't even try to stop. He hit the bumpers at full speed. That old junker flew..."

Miles sat up blinking away the ringing and the concussion. Lizzie lay in a crumpled heap of metal on the slag, leaking steam and water.

The Chief engineer of the mine was an old man. He'd been old when the cities burned, and he was old now. He stood looking at the engine. "She'll never run again."

The foreman came running up and stood looking at the wreck, swearing. "You're through here," he told Miles. "Get out. Don't come back. You're through."

"W-What about my wages?"

The foreman's reply blistered the air, telling what he could do for his wages.

####

Miles returned home, sat down and held his head in his hands. His whole body hurt. He hurt from the accident. His stomach felt hollow with the realisation of how badly he'd messed up. Someone could have been killed. He could have been killed.

Report to your Supervisor! An inner voice wailed. Impossible, of course. Beth was dead, his birth-lab ashes, and there was no more programming tape. Who'd have thought a world could be so fragile?

He took up the syringe and cleaned it.

Even now the work made him feel better. He was a clone, made for work; it still gave him pleasure. He packed the needle in the case and slipped it into his pocket.

Miles went to the hearth and slipped the end of the fire iron into a hole in the hearth stone. The heavy stone shifted. Morning light glinted on the barrel of the rifle, but it was the cash box Miles took. At the table he counted the money, enough for him to live on for weeks if he spent carefully. He'd been mining the town dump, digging up old terminals and communicators. Although they were fried the contacts inside were gold. He melted the parts down, recovered the gold and sold it. Miles slipped the money into his pocket.

He longed for the oblivion of the drug. If only he could finish the job. He wished he could cast himself into a blackness so deep that he'd never have to return.

####

A sunbeam shone across the floorboards in the apothecary shop. The shop was crowded today. Miles's stomach rumbled and he realised he hadn't eaten anything since last night. He would fix himself something when he got home, before he took the drug. He felt hollow, floating. The cut on his forehead hurt.

Conversation swirled around the crowded shop. The company that made Miles designed him to be the perfect soldier. He had excellent hearing.

"...taken over the old saloon. Twenty or thirty clone women, all as like as peas in a pod."

"Some of them are pregnant. And not a man to be seen!"

"Maybe they don't need them!" Laughter.

"I heard tell they are starting a cat-house with thirty identical women."

"That's just what this town needs!"

"Where's the fun in girls that are all the same? You want variety in that kind of thing."

"I could see myself snuggled up in bed, cuddling with three or four clone women like some kind of Old Northern Lord."

"Hah! I gotta work for a living. I got no money for whores."

"Well, I for one don't think it's a cat-house." The new voice was quiet but authoritative. Miles looked over; it was Mr Samuels, the owner of the General Store and bona fide town character. A tall, thin, elderly man with silver hair and whiskers, he held his trademark floppy hat in his hand. From his drawl he could have been one of the lords of the Old North himself. Perhaps he was. You didn't ask a man about his past in Freedom.

"I took a look at their sign, and it says Private Hotel and Laundry. Now, speaking as a bachelor, I can tell you that a good laundry is something this town has needed for a long time!"

"I heard the owner," Samuels continued, having hooked the attention of his audience, "has ordered a patent hot water system that delivers hot and cold running water on demand. Been a long time since I enjoyed a long hot bath, or had my clothes properly laundered. I'd pay money for that."

Miles turned away and handed over his money for a bottle of the drug. As he left the shop he heard the whispers following him.

"Clone... drugger. He smashed up some equipment up at the mine..."

"...old programming drug. Steady demand for it. Mostly old stocks but a new company has started making it again now."

He stumbled out of the shop and turned towards home. A voice called out to him. "Boy, I want to talk to you." It was Samuels.

Miles stopped. "Yes, sir?"

"I saw this new group started up at the church. I don't normally trouble myself with God botherers, but this crowd promises not to try to save your soul, which is big of them. It's one of those talky-talky healing circles, aiming to help people troubled by gambling or the demon drink. Anyhow I thought of you and took one of their fliers."

Miles accepted the crumpled piece of paper. "Thank you, sir."

Samuels shrugged and touched his hat. "I was at Bridgeport. Just got out in time. My sister and her family weren't as lucky. Guess I went kind of crazy there for a while." He turned and walked away.

Miles looked down at the flier. Hand lettered on speckled grey paper it read, "There Is Help!" Miles frowned. He crumpled up the paper and threw it away. There was no ghost in the sky looking after things and making sure everything came out all right. He knew that as a certainty. And he wasn't going to let some lord like Samuels tell him what to do. Otherwise, what had it all been for?

Tears stung his eyes; his body cried out for the drug. He entered an alley. He would inject here and go home and sleep. He took the needle out of its case and soon there was the familiar sting in his arm. Slipping the needle-case back in his pocket, he turned to walk home.

The drug sang in his veins. The world lit up with a sudden crystal brightness. He felt good. He felt wonderful. The drug he'd been given was stronger than he was used to. The crystal brightness started receding up a long dark tunnel. He wasn't going to make it home, but he didn't give up. Miles kept trying, walking towards the light, one step at a time. He could feel Beth walking beside him, holding him up.

####

Rose dreamed as she mopped the floor of the central hanger. The previous owners had used the hanger for storage. Rose and her girls had removed piles of junk, sorted it, and carried most of it to the dump. The big, dark, echoing room revealed by the cleanup was an impractical space without electric lights. But Rose could dream. Perhaps one day they would hold grand balls in here, like in the old days. Or maybe they could throw open the big outside doors, contrive some skylights, and put the laundry in here.

They'd already spent a solid week cleaning and patching and painting and repairing. They were nearly ready to open their hotel. It wasn't as ritzy as Rose's dreams, but they would get there.

Two women shrieked and there was the sound of a commotion from the Saloon bar. Rose threw down her mop and ran.

"What is going on?" She stopped, staring at the man on the floor.

"He came through the door," Lily explained. "I-I asked what he wanted but he didn't listen. I, um, I don't think he could see me, if you know what I mean? He walked right past me and collapsed."

"I thought I told you to rest?"

Lily looked down at the cleaning cloth in her hands. "I prefer to work, ma'am. It relaxes me. I'm sure it doesn't hurt the baby?"

"Well all right, but don't overdo it. Sunflower, watch her, don't let her do anything stupid." Lily dealt with, she knelt to examine the man on the floor.

He was dirty, and injured, bandaged, cut and bruised, a wreck. She could hear him breathing, though, and there nothing obvious wrong with him. So why was he unconscious? He seemed familiar. She'd seen him before.

"Is he drunk, ma'am?"

"Drunk?" She considered. "No. Don't be silly, Sunflower. He's a clone. Soldier-boy by the look of him. He could no more get drunk than you or I." It did give her an idea, though, and she searched his pockets until she came up with syringe case and a familiar bottle. Tape study drug. He was a drugger.

"What should we do with him?"

"Yes, that is the question, Daisy. Hmm. Now I want you to listen to me very carefully. Daisy, get five or six of your sisters and carry him upstairs. There is to be no chatter, no talk, understand me? He needs quiet. Work in silence."

Daisy nodded.

"Good girl. Take him to the far end bedroom and put him to bed. Draw the drapes and close the door. He needs dark and silence; he's under tape-drug. Tell all your sisters."

She watched as they carried him off. There was none of the usual chatter. They trusted her to solve this problem, and any other problem that walked through the door. She was their Supervisor, responsible for them. That's what it meant. Rose looked down at the drug and syringe in her hands. What was she going to do with him?

####

"Miss Rose, he's awake!"

Rose was stocking the pantry when Daisy burst in to deliver this news. "I see." The nano-technology in a clone's bloodstream attacked alcohol and other recreational drugs and metabolised them. Even a deliberate overdose with the programming drug would be mopped up. Sooner or later Rose's uninvited guest had to wake up, but she wasn't going to run at his beck and call. She continued her work.

"He's worried about his clothes!" Daisy reported breathlessly. She wore a deep blue dress printed with daises, and a necklace of the same flowers. "He's asking about his things. The things he had.. in his pocket."

"Oh, is he?" Rose sighed and shook her head. Daisy was made to run and fetch and carry. She was pleased to be of service. Rose had been like that once. "Petunia, Peony, finish this up please and then start on the bar supplies. Good girls. Daisy, go to the cash box in the office and fetch the gentleman's things. Here's the key. Bring them straight to me in the end bedroom."

"Yes ma'am." Daisy dashed off to fulfil her commission.

Rose followed at a more dignified pace, thinking about what she would say to her guest. She wiped her hands on her apron and headed upstairs. Her visitor was a soldier-boy, but what class? She wished now that she had sneaked a look at his bar code when she had a chance. A soldier could be very useful if he could fit in. Eastern frontier towns like Freedom were practically lawless places, and it never hurt to have an ace up your sleeve.

Besides, as a clone his genetics would be first rate, free of recessives and defects, enhanced for speed, endurance, strength and stamina. Rose was now committed to bringing another generation of her family into the world, and the only way to do it was the old fashioned way.

It all depended on how badly he'd screwed up his mind with that drug.

Rose knocked at the door.

"Come in, Daisy, Have you got them?"

"My name is Rose, sir. Rose CY-4413-0335188577."

"Uh, um, right. I'm Miles. Have you got the things?"

Daisy arrived, out of breath. Rose took the case and bottle, showed them to Miles and placed them on the bedside table. She slipped the key in her pocket. "Thank you, Daisy, you may go."

"Yes, ma'am!"

Rose pulled a chair up to the bedside and sat. "My girl said you were awake. Perhaps we should have a talk."

"Your... girl?"

"My sister. Daisy. This house belongs to me, I hold it in trust for my sisters. I'm their Supervisor."

"I see."

"May I start by asking your name?"

"Miles."

"Your full name, please, Miles."

"Oh. Miles BA-1719-00117556."

"Thank you. A Beta? That's impressive. You must have had a position of some responsibility."

"I was a lieutenant. In the infantry. I led a platoon."

Rose nodded. "My sisters and I are Gammas. CY-4413s. We were maids, in the old world. Little toy maids."

"And now you own this saloon? You've done very well."

"Thank you. It hasn't been easy. I went to the General Store today and asked about you. This town is full of gossip."

"Uh, what did they say?"

"Despite your... flagrant abuse of yourself with programming drugs, and the resultant destruction you've caused, most people here have a good opinion of you. Nobody I spoke to thought you were likely to hurt a defenceless woman, for example."

"Oh, No, ma'am, I wouldn't do that!"

"I'm glad. I wouldn't have you in my house for an instant if I thought you would."

"Never have and never will."

"As a platoon leader you would understand responsibility. Were you a Supervisor?"

"Yes ma'am." He hung his head and wouldn't meet her gaze.

"I am the Supervisor of my girls. I am responsible for them. They trust me to keep them safe."

"I know you're worthy of their trust, ma'am."

"Hmmm. I hope so. Would you like to know how I became a Supervisor?"

"Yes, please."

"My makers never intended me for a position of authority. I'm a maid, grown and raised and trained and programmed to serve. Growing up I had ninety nine sisters. In the birth lab they were always with me, waking, sleeping, training, we marched in lines..."

Miles smiled a little and nodded.

"Then came my assignment, the transfer of my contract. Let's not mince words: I was sold."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I was sold to a nice old-fashioned family, well off, of course. I was their maid, and a good one. Master and Mistress were pleased with me. They were nice people. They had two children, a boy and a girl. Then the war came.

"Master went away to fight. The communicators stopped working. The power failed. People said the Southerners had burnt the cities, nobody knew what was going on. Still the war went on. We made do. We burnt coal and wood for heat. We learned to repair clothes, and shoes. Food became scarce. We survived. Still the war went on and on, for years.

"Then word came that the Southerners were coming, raping and burning and looting. We fled, became refugees, living in tents on the road. There wasn't enough food. I told Mistress she should leave me behind, but she said no.

"A real Northern lady?"

"A dying breed."

"Yeah."

"The war ended, and we went home. The house was just ashes. We put up tents. Mistress told me I was free now. The Southerners had freed all the clones. I didn't know what to do. She said I could stay. There was more food, we grew our own. Things got better for a while, but Master never came home."

"I'm sorry."

Rose shrugged. "It's a common story. Ask any of my girls and you'll hear something similar."

Miles nodded and waited for her to go on.

"Things were better, but order had broken down. Gangs were looting and robbing and there was nobody left to stop them. One day I was stolen."

"Stolen?"

"Kidnapped? Abducted? A man grabbed me from my tent in the night, tied me up and took me away. I don't know what happened to Mistress and the children. I never saw them again. The men kept me in a cellar. They raped me, and tortured me, and broke me..." She took out her handkerchief and blew her nose. "I'm sorry."

"Oh, God, no." Miles whispered. "I'm sorry."

"It's all right. I'm afraid it's a common story too, that's what happens in war. Anyway. They did it again, and again and again. I would have submitted to them, but they didn't want that. They fed off the suffering, I think. Eventually I just... broke. I went away. There was nobody there, so they couldn't hurt me. That's when they stopped. They threw me away. It was no fun for them any more."

"Oh God..."

Rose nodded and smiled a little and wiped her eyes. "Yes. God. Well, I... I don't know what happened then. For a long time, I wandered, I guess. I don't know. My sisters found me and they nursed me back to health. Only... I wasn't me any more. I was someone else."

"I.. kind of understand, I think."

"I wasn't a maid. I didn't want to work, or obey. I wasn't anything. I felt... blank. Numb. I couldn't even speak, to begin with. That came back, gradually. I started watching my sisters, and I noticed something. They were happiest when they had something to do. Nursing me made them happy. Doing things for me made them happy. They were happiest when I told them what to do. They started to bring their problems to me, and I solved them."

Miles nodded.

"Eventually they asked me to become their Supervisor, and look after them. I couldn't say no. So... Here we are."

"Yeah."

She nodded to the syringe and case on the table. "Some of my girls went down that road, for a while. It hurt them, and it hurt their sisters. I put a stop to it. I won't have it under my roof. In this house you only take drugs if your Supervisor gives them to you."

"OK."

"So look. We could use you. You're a soldier, and most of my girls are so strongly conditioned they can't even touch a gun, let alone hurt anyone."

"I.. I could help you?"

"Yes Miles, you could. There's a place here for you, if you want it. You could be our brother, if you're prepared to accept me as your Supervisor."

"I, I don't know, the codes?"

"The codes don't actually mean a damn thing any more. The programming is still there, but we can use it, now, instead of it using us. You're free, Miles. You can choose to serve, or not serve. You can take that damn drug and walk out the door. Or you can give yourself to me and I will look after you, if you want that. It's your choice."

"I, I, I want it."

"Then I am Rose CY-4413-0335188577. I am your Supervisor. Confirm, please."

"Yes, Rose, you are my Supervisor."

"Very well, Miles. Well done, I'm proud of you." She got up and gave him a hug. He squeezed her tight.

Rose held him until he was ready to let go. He was so strong, his arms felt like tree trunks around her, like iron. When he let her go she stepped away and smiled. She nodded at the things on the table. "I'm going to lock these away. It's going to be tough on you, but I know you can do it."

She could see him looking at the bottle on the table. His muscles tense. She could tell he wanted to reach out for them.

"Yes... ma'am."

"Get up and get one of your sisters to heat you a bath. You're filthy. And ask Chamomile to look at your cuts. Those dressings are disgusting. Then I want you to work."

"Yes, ma'am."

She reached out and took the case and bottle. His eyes watched every movement, his body tense, like a cat. She stuffed the things into her pocket. "Work is the best thing for you now. Ask Lily if you don't believe me; she refuses to stop! Later I want to talk to you about organising self-defence classes. I've got a few guns, but only a couple of girls can bear to touch them. The conditioning against violence is very strong in our type."

"What about you, ma'am. Can you touch them?" His eyes still seemed to be focussed somewhere around her pocket.

Rose had sudden misgivings. What if she was doing the wrong thing? She looked up at him and tried to project a fearlessness she didn't feel. "Of course. That old programming doesn't have the same power over me any more. In the old days they'd have sent me straight back to the lab for reprogramming."

"You and me both, ma'am."

"I will do anything to protect my sisters. I'll shoot. I'll kill. I'll do whatever it takes."

"Yes ma'am. I think I can work with that."

"Good. Now get up and get to work."

"Yes, Supervisor."

####

"Miles how are you doing?"

Miles put his brush aside and mopped his brow. "I'm doing all right, Supervisor. I'm functioning." His hands trembled.

"Hmm. Come and sit down with me for a minute. I'm sorry I've been neglecting you." She'd told her sisters they had a new brother to care for and left it at that for a couple of days.

"You've been busy."

"Yes I have, but I'm sorry for neglecting you. Sometimes it seems like there's only one me, and an infinite number of things to do. Good work on the painting."

"Thank you." He gave her a wan smile.

The long, high ceilinged barroom was filled with light. Brick, wood and stone gave the room an old fashioned look. It looked and smelled clean, and freshly painted. The tall windows were a crazy mosaic of different sized panes of glass. None of the tables and chairs matched. The antique wooden bar had been salvaged from somewhere, a typical post-war mend and make do arrangement.

"Peony, bring us a pot of tea, please." She studied his face. Miles looked pale and clammy. She pondered sending him to bed.

"I'm actually feeling a bit better today, ma'am. Yesterday threw up a couple of times. Daisy and Lily looked after me."

"They're good girls. They care. They give their hearts easily, I've found."

"Yeah."

She reached across the table and put her hand on his. "Hang in there, Miles. You're doing well. I'm proud of you."

He gave her a sickly smile, then went blank for a moment, and suddenly laughed.

"Miles?"

"Sorry, tape flash. My old Supervisor. She said: You can do it. Pull it up from inside. One step at a time."

"Good advice."

"Yeah." He laughed again and mopped his brow. "Feel like I've got two Supervisors on my case now."

"Maybe that's not a bad thing. We've all got our ghosts, I guess."

Peony arrived with their tea. She was a gentle, smiling version of Rose, dressed in a simple white blouse, slacks and apron, on her it looked elegant. Her hair was held back by a headband decorated by a single floppy pink flower, a peony.

"Sit and take tea with us, Peony. You've been on your feet all morning -- don't think I didn't notice. Sit!"

Shy smile and downcast eyes. "Thank you, ma'am."

"Have you met your new brother, Miles?"

"Seen him about, ma'am."

"Peony is shy and likes to hide in the crowd, or in the kitchen. She has the sweetest nature, and she's always doing things for her sisters in secret."

"Pleased to meet you, Miss Peony."

The girl blushed and looked down at her feet.

Rose poured tea. "Did Chamomile take a look at those cuts?"

"Yes ma'am. She said I'd live. She changed the dressings, but I took them off today. I don't need them any more."

"They look OK to me, but ask her to check them again. She was an orderly in a field hospital during the war. She's seen a lot."

"Yeah, I bet. I spent some time in some of those hospitals myself."

They sipped their tea silently for a moment.

"I went and got my stuff from my old place," Miles said, "With Daisy, like you said." He got to his feet. "I thought I should ask you about my gun. I'll get it; it's behind the bar." Miles produced the weapon, wrapped in a sack.

Rose got up and went over to have a look. A plain, black military assault rifle with couple of clips of ammo. Rose suppressed a shudder. Weapons like this had caused an incredible amount of suffering, and despite her bravado she honestly didn't like to touch them.

She forced herself to reach out and lay a hand on the gun. Nothing. The old programming was gone.

"This needs to go in the gun cabinet in my office." She sorted through the keys on her keyring, took one off and handed it to Miles. "We're going to have children here before much longer, and customers. We need to practice gun safety."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Keep the key. Go to the blacksmith and get a copy made on my account. Return the original to me. You keep the copy. Keep it safe."

"A-Are you sure?"

"You're our protection, Miles. What if someone came in here and put a gun to my head and you didn't have the key to the gun cabinet?"

"I'd take them out with my bare hands."

"Hmm. I guess you would. But if there's trouble I'll feel safer knowing you have a key, brother."

"Yes, ma'am."

####

Rose decided against a big opening party. It was too much work. Although they would never admit it her girls needed a rest. So they threw the doors open without any fuss, and put a sign on the veranda announcing that they were open for business. The party, Rose thought, could wait till her water heater arrived and started supplying hot water for the laundry.

Now the barroom was standing empty, Lily, Daisy, Peony and Petunia waiting to serve the customers who hadn't come. Rose was beginning to regret her decision.

Still, this was their home. Rose could call on all the willing workers she needed. Peony was the heart of the kitchen, Chamomile did doctoring and prepared herbs, and Lavender liked to do laundry and mend clothes.

Before they came to Freedom they had run a cleaning agency, made clothes and jewellery, and done any odd jobs they could find to keep themselves afloat. But Rose had a dream of running a hotel. With so many girls wanting to serve why not open a public house?

A couple of customers came in and ordered drinks, but found the emptiness intimidating and left again.

"Sunflower, mind the bar!" Rose decided. "Daisy, you're with me. We're going down the general store to gossip about our new hotel and drum up some business. Put your outside coat and boots on." She stepped into her office and put on her coat and checked the contents of her bag and fussed at her appearance in the mirror.

Raised voices sounded outside. Rose turned and stomped back into the room, muttering, "I swear I can't turn my back for an instant!"

A man had grabbed Peony from behind, his arms around her, trapping her. The girl looked terrified. Miles was approaching from behind the pair, but Rose held up her hand. Stop. "Sir, let Peony go, please."

"Me and this girl is going upstairs to do a little business. You can come too, sweetheart."

"My name is Rose, not sweetheart. I run a respectable hotel. Let the girl go, now."

The man threw Peony aside. She hit the bar and squeaked, clutching her side. The customer drew himself up to his full height, towering over Rose. "Who the hell do you think you are?"

"This is my house. You do was I say, or you get out."

"You're the Madam, eh? Seems to me you could use a little protection. Me and the boys, we could make sure nothing bad happens to you... For a price."

"You're mistaken. This is not a brothel. Get out."

"Nobody tells Bart to get out!" Bart spat on the floor. "Get down on your knees and kiss my boots, whore. You can call me Master."

"You're banned. Miles, throw him out."

Miles was moving in a blur before she finished speaking. Head down, he slammed into Bart below the chest. The tackle sent both men flying through the open doorway, across the veranda to land in the street, tumbling in the dirt.

Rose ran out and stood on the veranda, clutching a post. Miles got up and stood over the stranger in a fighting stance.

Bart jumped to his feet, spitting dirt, fists clenched, fighting mad. He faced off with Miles, but saw something in the clone's eyes that stopped him from swinging. He backed off.

"I'm coming back!" he yelled. "Bart's coming back with the boys! You watch out, you whores. And you, clone boy. Bart's going to fix you but good. You watch out." He turned and stomped off down the street.

Rose stepped out onto the street. "Do you think he'll be back?"

"Unlikely," Miles replied. "His type is mostly talk. Still, I'll get my rifle and keep watch."

"A man with a rifle on the veranda may not be quite the welcoming image we're looking for. Get a pistol and keep watch from inside."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"I wonder what his name is?"

"Name? Bart, I thought."

"No, his gang name. Gangsters always have names. Mad Bart. Bad Bart, something like that."

"Antisocial personality disorder Bart," Miles suggested.

Rose laughed. "Bipolar Bart! Borderline Personality Bart!" Still laughing, she took his hand and led him back towards the bar. "Come on, we'd better go and check the guns and instruct the girls on what to do, just in case there is trouble."

Inside a dozen sisters offered Peony hugs and caresses to help her overcome her ordeal. "You're a good girl," Rose called as she bustled past. "I'm proud of you."

They went into the office, opened the cabinet and inspected the guns. In addition to Miles' rifle there was a machine pistol with a few of hundred rounds, a pre-war automatic pistol, and two bulky post war revolvers.

"Quite an arsenal," Miles said.

"The problem isn't guns; it's people to fire them. A couple of my girls are able to fire a gun, but the conditioning against hurting people is very strong. I don't think they'd actually shoot anybody."

"Perhaps they could lay down some covering fire and make the enemy keep their heads down."

"Perhaps."

"What about this machine pistol? Can you use it?" Miles asked.

"Yes."

Miles interrogated her on the function of the weapon. "Can you show me the safety? Good. Fire selector switch? OK. How do you eject the clip? And load it... OK. If there's trouble you come and get this gun, Ma'am. Fire on single shot, it will make the ammo last a lot longer. It's not very powerful though, so if you do have to shoot someone pump three or four rounds into them to make sure they stay down."

"Yes, Miles." Rose smiled.

####

Sunset light slanted into the barroom staining it red. Men's voices from outside broke the afternoon quiet. A pistol shot cracked through the still air.

"Come out here!" Bart's rough voice slurred. "Come out here, whore, I wanna talk to you!"

Miles went and got his rifle from the cabinet, leaving the key in the lock. He checked the gun automatically: fully loaded clip, three-shot selected, safety off. He went to the window and drew the curtain and looked out. Bart and six men in plain view, with two others hiding behind barrels. They were armed with pistols. Miles returned to the barroom.

Rose went to the door, preparing to go out.

"Don't do it, ma'am. They're armed."

"I've got to, Miles. If I can end this without a fight I owe it to my girls. I've got to protect them."

Miles held up his hand for her to stop. He went to the door, opened it a crack and stared out, squinting against the sunlight.

"Come out, whore! Come out here!"

Miles ducked back. "I still say don't do it. But if you must, then go no further than the edge of the veranda. Get back inside at the first sign of trouble, or the first shot. If any of them make the least threatening move towards you, I'll drop him."

Rose looked at him and nodded, blue eyes wide. Trembling, she opened the door and went outside.

Bart clapped sardonically. "So here she is, the head whore. Not so brave now, are you? Where's your, your bodyguard now? Nobody tells Bart what to do! So now I'm gonna happen to tell you what to do. That's what's gonna happen.

“First you is gonna get down on your knees and beg for forgiveness an' call me Master. Second, you's gonna do me an' every one of my men to show what a sorry little whore you are, and third, third..." He blinked and stood there, swaying.

"The money, Boss!"

Bart swung suddenly, with surprising quickness for such a big man, and knocked the speaker to the ground with his fist. "Shuddup!" he snarled. "I'm talking!" He turned back to Rose. "You's gonna pay us all protection money and lots of it, cos otherwise real bad things is gonna happen."

"No way in Hell, Bart," Rose snapped. "Go home before you get hurt."

Bart blinked and turned to the man beside him. "What did she say?"

"She said 'No,' Boss."

Bart growled, raised his pistol, and swung it in Rose's direction. Three shots rang out. His body flew backwards to land in the dirt. A pool of blood spread out around him.

Rose ran back inside and the door shut.

"They shot Bart!" a man said. "They shot Wild Bart Hastings!"

Inside, Rose grabbed the machine pistol. She trembled badly, but forced herself to stop and take a couple of deep breaths. Come on, girl, she told herself. You've been through worse.

She returned to the main room and gave orders. "Daisy, Sunflower, go and get your guns. Use them like Miles showed you. If anyone comes through that door he's a bad man who wants to hurt your sisters, so shoot him."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Petunia, get everyone together in the hanger. Look after Lily and the other pregnant girls. Take a head count. Make sure everyone is in there. Nobody is to wander off or go to the loo or return to their rooms for anything. That's an order. Now go!"

Bullets thudded into the wall. The tall glass windows shattered. Miles swung his rifle butt, smashing out the remaining panes and completing the destruction. He crouched at the windowsill and returned fire.

"No!" Rose wailed. "Not my windows! It's impossible to find replacement glass, and it'll cost a fortune!"

"They're just things, ma'am. They don't matter. Let them go."

Rose got down on her hands and knees and crawled across the room to the window, sweeping aside broken glass with her handkerchief. She raised her pistol and began blazing away at the figures in the growing darkness outside. "You're going to pay for my windows!" she screamed. "You're going to pay for my bloody windows!"

Miles had switched to single shot and was methodically working away at the men outside. One enemy had sheltered behind a crate. Miles demolished the crate with his fire and, when the man emerged, Miles dropped him, killed him. The man was the enemy. It was a soldier's job to kill the enemy.

There was a lull when the remaining enemy realised that a frontal assault just wasn't going to work.

"Burn them out!" came a shout from outside. "Burn the whores out!"

There was a movement in the twilight. Miles fired, but missed. Kerosene fumes filled the air. Whomph! The veranda was ablaze.

"This does not look good, Ma'am. I want you and Daisy and Sunflower to go back into the hanger and evacuate the sisters through the rear door. I'll stay here and cover the retreat."

Rose paused for a second, and looked as though she wanted to argue. But all she said was, "All right, brother. Good luck..."

A fusillade of shots sounded from outside, in a different direction from before. Men shouted. Confusion reigned.

"Wait, something's going on." One of the enemy emerged from hiding and tried to run away. Miles killed him with a single shot. The others melted away into the night.

There were hisses as buckets of water drenched the burning veranda. Men beat at the flames with sacks. Soon the blaze was out. Miles held his fire.

"You can come out," a familiar voice called. "They're gone." It was Samuels.

Holding up his hand to forestall Rose, Miles stepped through the door, rifle at the ready. He scanned the street: bodies, debris, and about twenty men with guns. Respectable born-men from the town, business owners, he recognised most of them, including the foreman from the mine.

"You can come out now. It's over," Samuels said.

"It's all right, ma'am." He safed his weapon. "They're gone. You can come out."

"Thank you, Miles."

"Ma'am."

Samuels bowed and doffed his hat with a flourish. "Ma'am, my name is Samuels. May I present the men of the Freedom Neighbourhood Watch? I have the honour to be the newly elected President? We heard you were in trouble and came to lend a hand."

"Thank you. My sisters and I -- and Miles -- are deeply indebted to you. I am Rose CY-4413-0335188577."

"At your service, ma'am. May I wish you a belated 'Welcome to Freedom' and invite you to join the Neighbourhood Watch?"

"It seems like a very beneficial organisation. I accept. Thank you, Mr Samuels."

"Please, call me Clement." He bowed again to the small huddle of clone sisters who had appeared on the veranda. "Ladies."

Rose poked Bart's body gingerly with her boot. "Will there be any come back from this?"

"Well, I expect you'll need to explain yourself to the Magistrate."

"Who's that?"

"Happens that would be me."

"I see. So, what do you need to know, Sir?"

Samuels looked down at the body and grimaced. "Well, for some time I've been hearing rumours of a protection racket being run in my town, but nobody would come forward and testify. Did this man threaten you, my dear?"

"Yes."

"Did he demand money with threats?"

"Yes."

"Did he attack you?"

"Yes."

"Did he fire the first shot?"

"Yes."

"Open and shut case of self-defence. No case to answer."

Rose let out a huge sigh. "Oh, thank you, Sir! Thank you!"

"My pleasure to be of service."

"Well," one of the other men growled. "Are we going to stand around all night jawing? This is supposed to be a tavern, isn't it? How about a drink?"

"Why of course, where are my manners? Girls! Drinks for our gallant rescuers! Drinks for everyone, on the house! Oh, do watch out for that broken glass."

"Not for me, thanks," Samuels said softly. "I don't drink."

Rose turned to speak to him, but at that moment Daisy burst from the crowd around the door, still holding a pistol, and exclaimed, "Lily's waters have broke! The baby's coming!"

"Oh great gods and little fishes! I swear she's done this on purpose!" Rose drew a breath. "Somebody fetch Chamomile! Daisy, run and get the midwife! Run! Petunia, heat some water! Peony, make a pot of tea! All right, all right, I'm coming. Dear God it never ends!"

THE END


© 2010 Ché Frances Monro

Bio: Ché Monro is an unpublished 40 year old dreamer from Melbourne, Australia. She writes Space Opera and Fantasy. Her stories frequently deal with themes of power, identity and gender and how technology may empower and dis-empower the individual. For two years she has been writing about clones and mental programming. For more by and about Ché, visit Ché Monro.

E-mail: Ché Frances Monro

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