Glad You're Born
"Be glad you’re born, and not grown in the lab."
The cane whistled through air and smashed the clone across the shoulder. The blue clone whimpered as he fell to a knee, his mouth a grim, closed line.
I whimpered with him, my game on the veranda forgotten.
The cane drew back.
I began to cry and put my arm out as if to block the blow, as the cane came down again.
Thud! and the clone grunted at the pain.
My wet-nurse put her arm around my waist to stop me from running to him. My hands out, I pushed against her with all my strength to keep the cane from striking again.
Thud! and the clone gasped aloud.
I gasped with him and found myself in the air. My wet-nurse was taking me into the house. I climbed halfway over her shoulder as the cane descended again.
Thud! and the clone cried out at the pain.
She caught me before I fell and cradled me, trying to soothe me. She got me through the door and into the house as I squirmed to escape her grasp.
Thud, but duller this time, the clone's yelp muted.
She took me farther into the house, calling for my mother and trying to comfort me.
Thud, but now remote, the wail like that of a distant, wounded animal.
Mother took me from the wet-nurse clone and folded me into her arms, murmuring over and over that generations-old admonition:
"Be glad you're born, and not grown in the lab."
Labgrown. Savior. Symbiont. Martyr.
I hadn't wanted any of those roles, and soon, I'd be rid of them all.
They laid me on a gurney, the steel hard and cold against my back.
To one side stood Lozano Lisbon, my nemesis, sneering in triumph. To the other stood James Thompson, my ally, his brow drawn together.
But the person most important to me, my father, Governor Constantine Strange, hadn't come. How could he be absent at his daughter's execution? In truth, given what I'd put him through, how could he be present? His only daughter, Allison Strange, betraying everything he stood for.
Only Lisbon and Thompson had been allowed into the recycling chamber with me.
Ignoring Lisbon, I looked at Lord James.
"Any requests, Lady Allison?" he asked.
"Get this cretin out of here," I said, indicating Lisbon with a flick of my eyes. "And give Karen my love."
James August Thompson nodded, a tear trickling down his cheek.
"Lords, clear the floor, please," the recycling technician said, stepping from a door.
"I want to witness!" Lisbon said.
"Lord, may I ask your name?"
"Lozano Lisbon, the Sixth, Esquire, Minister of the Economy, Mayor of Seville," he drawled.
"Gladborn be, Lord Minister Lisbon. My name is Timothy Poindexter. I'm the lead reclamation technician. You see that donut?"
None of us could've missed it. The gigantic half-donut of reflective steel dominated the dome-shaped room. My head was pointed toward the donut hole.
"This gurney will be rolled into the center of the donut. Under that housing are the generators for the forty lasers that will cut through the body at the same time." Poindexter turned and pointed up at the second level. "Do you see those windows, Lord Lisbon?"
The bank of windows above and behind us was less noticeable. Our group had entered from underneath the windows. I'd seen them only when they'd laid me upon the gurney. If I looked toward my feet, I could see the upper edge of the tinted glass.
"Heavily-tinted, so the observers aren't blinded by what seeps from the sealed tunnel."
"You mean I won't see the clone being cut up by the lasers?" Lisbon asked. "How will I know the clone's been recycled? I demand proof!"
"The body can be wheeled back out after the procedure is over, Lord Minister. That's all the proof I can offer, short of your joining the clone in the tunnel."
Lord James smirked. "He can bring you another gurney if you like, Lisbon."
"Thompson needs one, if I'm not mistaken," Lisbon said, striding toward the stairs.
I pulled Lord James close, wishing Father were here. "Tell Father I love him," I whispered, "and tell him this is how it needs to be."
Lord James nodded and kissed my forehead. "Bless you, Lady Allison Strange, for all your courage."
I gave him a brief smile. "Thank you, Lord James."
He followed the other man, leaving me to my executioners.
Two orderlies began to strap me down.
"That's not necessary, Lords," I said.
They looked at each other and then to Poindexter.
He looked at me over the hypojector in his hand. "No straps, Lady Allison? How about this sedative?"
I shook my head. "Thank you, no, Lord Poindexter. And I'm not a lady—not anymore."
Poindexter frowned and sighed. "Very well—no sedative. The straps and sedatives are used when subjects are less cooperative. Few go willingly, as you're doing. Few have that kind of courage, Lady. Are you sure?"
"I'm sure, and please don't call me 'Lady.'"
"Yes, Lady, I won't. There's a small slot on the table just under your neck. Once you're in the tunnel, a laser will move into place under the table and aim right at that spot, and it will fire shortly before the other lasers do. You deserve better than this, Lady Allison."
I thought about what the clone Mona had said, a few days after I had been told my true origins. I repeated it for him. "All clones deserve a life as privileged and full as the one I've led."
Poindexter blinked rapidly. "Perhaps, Lady, perhaps."
A disembodied voice called, "Clear for sequence one."
He looked toward the tinted glass. "Sequence one, commence!"
A low hum started up under the donut, and the gurney under me began to vibrate.
"Gladborn bless, Lady."
"Gladborn bless, Lord," I replied, "and thank you for treating me with dignity."
"I could do no less, Lady." He stepped from my range of vision, leaving only the ceiling above me.
Alone to face my fate, I wondered how I could've affected so many people in so short a lifetime. Twenty years wasn't enough for what I'd been brought into this universe to accomplish. At least I'd called into question the fundamental assumption that formed the basis of Catalonia identity, and of all galactic peoples who called themselves gladborn.
I'd freed a handful of clones, and the people of Catalonia would live with the memory of how a beloved young woman had died fighting a political, social, and economic system that exploited two-thirds of the populace. Perhaps the Strange Family Dynasty would end soon, my father its Governor overthrown in outrage at its callous killing of her to preserve that exploitive system. My curiosity was piqued by what would happen after I died. Alongside that curiosity was a tinge of regret that I wouldn't be there to see it.
"Clear for sequence two."
"Sequence two, commence!"
The gurney trembled and started toward the tunnel.
I watched the ceiling go past, knowing this was my time.
I felt tremendously sad, and tears ran down my cheeks. But the tears ran without any hindrance from me. The sadness flowed from me like a river that never knew a dam, a confluence that hadn't yet carved a channel. Pure sadness, without sentiment.
Because my death also meant my freedom.
The tunnel engulfed me as the gurney drew me all the way inside. The door snicked shut, and I felt rather than saw the interior panels draw back, revealing the glowing points of lasers.
A distant, muffled voice called, "Clear for sequence three."
I hoped for two things: that I found happiness in the great beyond, and that the clones found their freedom.
Labgrown. Savior. Symbiont. Martyr.
I was glad to be rid of them all.
I closed my eyes, my peace complete.
I thought back to how it all started, the day I became an adult.
It should've been a crowning moment.
Festooned with streamers and banners, the gravrail procession was taking me from the Strange Mansion on the outskirts of Montalban to my debutante ball. Thousands of spectators lined the route on both sides to honor me—the next Governor of Catalonia and the next Chief of Strange Corporation. Close by, the crowd was thick with gladborn, while labgrown watched from farther away.
From my perch on the gravrail roof, I threw the crowd a kiss and a grin. They responded with a roar, and bouquets of flowers arched toward me, a few landing in the open-top gravrail car. Glancing ahead, I saw but two more stations to the Central Square of Montalban. My feet ached, my arms were tired, and my lips were chapped from the two-hour parade.
Below me in the car, my governess Ember got my attention. "More water, Lady Allison?"
I held up the cup to the crowd as if in toast and tossed back the water. While the crowd roared, Ember caught the empty cup and handed it off to Salts, my bathclone. Also aboard the gravrail were my coiffeuse, Bonnet, and the gladborn gravrail driver. My language instructor Ling, who would translate for me at the ball, waited to board at the next stop.
I turned to the crowd on the right, smelling the faint scent of strawberries on the wind, redolent of blue moss, the dominant indigenous flora of Catalonia. A tingle touched my cheek and fingertip. The distant sound of surf reached my ears, and a sparkle twinkled at the edge of my vision.
A touch dizzy, I waved and blew a kiss to the crowd. Bouquets were thrown my way, but fewer this time. Gladborn in the crowd were looking around, as if puzzled.
How strange, I thought, and I glanced at my clones below me.
In unison, they folded their arms and sat.
My knees going weak, I almost fell. Overripe strawberries flooded my nostrils. My cheeks and fingertips buzzed electric. Surf roared in my ears and sparkle threatened to cloud out my sight.
The crowd gasped and I looked up.
All the clones had sat, arms crossed.
All of them, all the way into central Montalban.
My heart thundered and my throat grew tight.
Toward the Central Square, the rail leveled out. A group of clones was sitting on the metal rail at the next stop. On the rail!
I tried to call out, but the gravrail car braked under me, and I tumbled onto Salts and Ember, helpless in my torpor to stop myself from falling. We all three landed in a heap. The sparkle faded and the roar diminished. The tingle left my cheeks and fingers, and the smell of fruit was replaced by flowers.
The two clones stirring behind me, I clambered through the narrow doorway to the cockpit.
The driver stared at the clones sitting on the track. "Get down, Lady Allison! I'll get you to safety if I have to plow through them." He reached for the accelerator bar.
"Wait!" I said. "Look at them."
The driver squinted. "They're chanting."
I counted ten, fifteen clones among them, their lips moving in unison.
The driver flipped a switch.
"…Us now. Free the clones now. Free us now. Free the clones now."
The driver glanced at me over his shoulder, his face going pale.
Behind me, Salts, Ember, and Bonnet chanted softly.
Ahead, the clones were making no move toward me. "Call Constable Howland to clear the track. I'll be all right, other than the tumble I took."
"Yes, Lady," he said, picking up the com. "Uh, sorry about that."
I shrugged it off. At worst, I would bruise.
The driver peered forward. "Lady Allison, isn't that Ling?"
I followed his outstretched arm and caught my breath. "What the labgrown…?"
In the center of the clones, Ling was sitting on the rail, wearing his neck brace, his arms folded in front of him. The language centers of his brain had been grown to five times the size of a gladborn's, and he wore a brace, his head too heavy for his neck to support. And he was unowned—he didn't belong to any gladborn.
"Free us now. Free the clones now," the intercom repeated, my own labgrowns echoing behind me.
"He has all the freedom he'll ever want or need."
"Ungrateful brutes!" the driver said, setting down the com. "Just say the word, Lady." His knuckles were white on the accelerator bar.
"Didn't you hear me? I said, 'No!'"
The crowd was getting restless. A few gladborn had mounted the boarding platform and were pointing at the clones blocking the gravrail.
Sensing a riot in the making, I scurried onto the gravrail roof. "You!" I called, pointing at a beefy gladborn near the top of the platform steps.
The surprised gentleman pointed at himself. "Me?"
"Pick seven others and escort these labgrown from the track. Hold them safely until Constable Howland arrives. I'll hold you responsible if they come to harm. Thank you, Lord. Gladborn bless."
"Yes, Lady Allison." He grinned and turned to those around him.
By the time I returned to the driver's cab, the track was clear, the clones being held safely on the platform.
"Non-stop to the Central Montalban Station, please. Quickly."
The driver nodded and pushed the bar all the way forward.
Stepping back through the doorway, I balanced myself against the acceleration, my euphoria evaporated, the procession forgotten. My clones were just rousing themselves, looking bewildered.
I shivered and reached for a sweater.
Ember stepped to me, pulling my head to her shoulder as she had done so often in years past.
One image returned again and again unbidden. Hundreds of thousands of labgrown folding their arms and sitting in unison.
Feeling cold, I looked out the gravrail window, wondering what had just happened.
In the distance, a blue moss flourish stood etched against the sky. The last giant stand on this side of the planet, at over three hundred meters tall, this single flourish had been preserved in Central Montalban as a testament to the challenge the moss had posed to our ancestors.
I could have sworn it was watching me.
An escort ushered me and my labgrown into the Governor's office.
"Allison!" Mother turned from the window, ran to me, and pulled my head to her shoulder as she had done so rarely in years past. "Oh, Allison, gladborn bless, you're all right! I was so afraid when all the clones froze."
Father strode over from his desk. "What the labgrown happened out there, Allison?!"
I stepped into Father's embrace. Mother hugged me so rarely I was uncomfortable when she did. She colored slightly, as though also uneasy at her display of affection.
Father's chin above my head, I felt his arms tremble around me. My own shaking began to subside. "I'm still not sure what happened. One minute, everything was fine, and the next, they all sat down." I shivered at the memory and looked up at Father, searching his face. "Was anyone hurt?"
"Twenty injured in a hovercraft wreck." Constantine Strange was tall, much taller than Mother—when he stood up straight. His face was sharp and thin, like a blade, and he was known to slash an enemy to pieces with his gaze. "No gladborn deaths." Now his eyes were hollow, his gaze distant.