Versions of Me
The madman is out there somewhere. From deep within the shadows of the room, I crane my neck to peer out of the window. It's not even my sitting room. Nothing is mine anymore. He has it all now.
The panes of the buildings opposite stare back like blank eyes, while down on the street only litter moves, driven in harried arcs as if chased by something invisible.
"Come on, give it up, Julian, there's nobody there. I told you so when I looked five minutes ago."
"You don't know him, sis," I reply, though that is not entirely true. She would recognise him, though they have never met.
"Here's your coffee," she says coming up behind me and laying what she means as a reassuring hand on my shoulder.
Natasha is being a rock, putting up with me after what I've done. She's not really at risk being with me. She only very recently moved to this house, so few people know she's here -- including my nemesis I hope.
"What are you going to do, Julian?"
It's not the first time she has asked this. Despite everything, I wish she weren't here, that I had time and space to think things through.
"I've got a plan," I say lightly, with a forced smile, knowing she doesn't believe me.
"Well," she sighs, "you know you can stay here as long as you need to." But this won't solve anything. She doesn't say the last, but I'm certain she's thinking it.
"It won't be for long," I say. "Natasha, I know you've only just got back, but you couldn't go and get me a magazine from the newsagents could you? It would help take my mind off things. I would go myself, but…"
"I wish you'd thought of that earlier," she replies.
"No, don't worry," she interrupts, "it won't take me five minutes."
Five minutes will be enough, I think, as she dons her coat and shuts the door behind her. Footfalls echo down the stairwell. It's hard to believe it's the last time I'll ever see her, but I am resolved to do this. Wrapped up against the cold, I wait until she is out of sight, then leave the house.
On the street I pull my collar up, and walk briskly to the hire car. Even if I had access to my own, I wouldn't dare to drive it now for fear of booby-traps. As I turn the ignition, bitterness wells up in me. Why did I have to be so bloody arrogant? Always a talented geneticist, the research centre was proud of its cloning expert. Perhaps they made that too obvious, and maybe I believed my own publicity too much. Looking back now, it was unfortunate that no-one was in the laboratory late that night when I made my breakthrough, though it didn't seem that way at the time.
We had already learnt the secrets of programming individual cells so they would differentiate and multiply to create a complete organ or tissue. But that night, I went one step further. I perfected the technique for meshing these body parts together. Suddenly, transplant therapy became something else. A building plan for human clones. I dubbed it 'morphing'. Of course, I kept my find to myself. This was way beyond any research brief, and discovery could easily result in my sacking, and a disgraced reputation. Besides I had my own plans.
The lights of the hire car pick out the research centre looming up ahead, glowing in the twilight of the short day. Few offices are lit, most people having gone home by now. But my dreaded foe will be in there. I know how he works, where he works, and sure enough there is my lab, activity obvious behind the drawn blinds.
I wish I had stopped to consider what might go wrong with my illicit science, bit I never did, caught up in the fever of discovery. I just scraped out a few cheek cells and launched into it. Over the next few days they split and divided, responding to the chemicals added, and functioning as I hoped. Here a heart, there a liver, and before I knew it, an entire human being was arrayed before me, awaiting only my unique 'morphing' procedure developed those weeks before.
Getting the order right was crucial and I laboriously slaved over the bench, placing the delicate organs carefully into a vat of undifferentiated cells. All they then needed was a short, sharp stimulus and there -- the morphing began, everything knitting together. Recognising a heart nearby, dormant cells became chest muscles, while those close to the brain developed into a spinal cord. As the night wore on, a recognisable adult slowly took shape. Its features were startlingly familiar. It was me.
I make my way around the perimeter of the building as dusk begins to settle.
"Evening, Professor." It's Liz, one of the technicians, passing me on her way home. She looks puzzled, and well she might.
Not because of my unexplained absence of recent weeks, she wouldn't even have noticed that. As far as she is aware I am still working away on my projects. She is confused because she thinks she has only just seen me inside the building. And of course she has. She has seen my clone.
On the day I created my twin, I had been exceptionally busy. A long meeting in the morning meant I had to rush my routine chores in the afternoon, and only after that could I attend to my secret experiment. The only mistake I had made had been an elementary one. I'd forgotten to lock the door after myself on leaving.
Naturally, everything was well concealed and hidden away so the community release prisoner who did the cleaning didn't see any of what I was doing. All I can guess is that some of his skin cells sloughed off while he was in the room and drifted onto my creation. He'd only been convicted of a minor crime anyway. Who would have suspected his psychopathic tendencies?
After passing Liz, I don't go directly into the main building, but instead slip off around the side to a little, long-neglected outbuilding. As I pass beneath the office where my clone is working, I see movement of the blinds, and instantly freeze up against the wall, heart hammering.
It had been beating hard those few weeks earlier when I had opened the tank to release my 'morphed' creation, only then it had been with anticipation and not fear. As the dead tissue fell away, blue eyes had swiveled to meet mine, sending a jolt through me.
"Julian, I presume," he had half-smiled.
I could only nod, breath caught in my throat.
"Good to be…connected," he said, stretching and testing muscle and sinew as I marvelled at him. "God, I'm thirsty. You couldn't fetch me a glass of water could you?"
"O-of course," I stammered and turned for the sink. Lucky for me there's a mirror above it or I would never have seen his hand go down for the scalpel, and then raise it high above my exposed neck.
Scrabbling to one side, I just about avoided the blade as it descended, point shattering on the enamel basin. Collecting my wits I turned to run, but he tripped me and I sprawled again a bench leg.
"Time for a new persona of Professor Julian Vinson," he sneered.
My weak right ankle was throbbing where I had fallen. A thought struck me. Would he have the same weakness? With my left leg I swung at him and connected hard. Success! He crumpled only briefly, but enough for me to be up and hobbling. I still had the lab key, and once outside hastily turned it in the lock as my double slammed into the door from the other side.
His eyes peered balefully through the glass, and I recognised nothing of what lurked in there. What had gone wrong? It was only later that I worked out about the contamination.
"You're a dead man," he mouthed at me. "Don't forget I know where you live, where you go, everything about you."
Cold with shock, I had numbly turned and left.
Coming out of my reverie, I check the outbuilding thoroughly. All is as it should be. Satisfied, I telephone the office where my doppelganger is at work.
"I'm waiting for you outside the building," I say to him, voice shaking. "We need to settle this -- now."
He is naturally surprised to hear from me and suspicion is heavy in his reply.
"Why not come up to the office?" he suggests. "We can have a cozy chat in private then."
I am expecting this, and only pretend to hesitate. "All right, as you wish," I concede.
He must be expecting me to try something, but in fact I walk up the stairs unconcerned and unarmed. It is only when I open the door and a hand fastens over my mouth that bewilderment and horror passes across my face. The knife is sharp and there is little pain as I slump to the floor.
My double wipes the blade clean, and locks the door while he cleans up. As I suspected he has killed me.
Quietly, I now leave the outbuilding, and walk away, abandoning the car. I am Julian no longer.
My evil twin couldn't have known that I already had cells stored even before he came into being. Enough to produce another clone, one unaware of his existence. One I could safely send like a lamb to slaughter. And now he thinks me dead.
And I suppose I am. He is Julian now, he has my world and everything in it. I have nothing except one thing. My life, a new life. A chance to create a whole new version of me.
© 2006 by Graeme Down
Bio: Graeme Down is 32 years old, and lives in Bristol, England. "Once a research scientist, now training to teach science. Writing in spare time, mainly travel and natural history with the odd short story thrown in." His work has appeared in Fygleaves (2005 story winner: 'The Jump'), Word Market ('Clinging On', Spring, 2006), and the Summer 2006 edition of 'Scribble' ('Pandemonia') (published by Park Publications U.K.).
E-mail: Graeme Down
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