Free Story

Here's a short story I wrote called 'A Light Touch on the Neck'.  Its offered here under a Creative Commons v3.0 License





A Light Touch on the Neck
By
Robert Harkess

“So, let’s go over this one more time,” he says. He tells me he is a councillor and wants me to call him Ethan. He’s short, maybe a metre fifty-five. Eye to eye with me, anyway. He’s wearing a dark blue coverall, like he is in some kind of factory. It bulges out a little around his midriff. I’m wearing one too, but bright orange. He has a card on a lariat around his neck. It has his photo on it, and the word ‘Staff’. There is no name. One of the light panels in the roof is reflecting a bright patch off his bald head.
“Not again,” I plead, rubbing the heel of my hand into my forehead. “I’ve already told you twice.”
“Humour me,” he says. “Start from the beginning. You say your name is…?”
“Julie. Julliette Keynes.”
"How old are you, Julliette?"
"I'm nineteen."
“And you say you woke up in...”
“In a rubbish skip, in an alley.”
“And you can’t remember the name of the alley, or the road it came out on?”
“No. My head hurt so bad I couldn’t think straight. Everything was blurry and as soon as I stood up I wanted to be sick.”
“And yet you didn’t think it necessary to ask a bystander for help? Or dial 123 for medical aid?”
“I wasn’t thinking. For all I knew I was just hung over.” I had put my hands flat on the table, but now they jerked up into the air in frustration.
“OK. For now. Let’s get through the story,” he says, calmly. I take a couple of deep breaths and put my hands back down on the table. It helps me hide how much they are shaking.
“Can I get a drink of some sort?” I ask.
Ethan looks at me for a moment, then reaches out and touches a button on the recorder on the desk.
“Recording suspended 19:27:02,” it announces, voice smooth and mellow. Ethan looks over my shoulder to the security guard standing behind me with the stun prod. His eyes say something, but the message isn’t to me so I don’t get it. Probably just a warning to stay behind me and shock me senseless if I move too quickly.
The room is about four metres on a side, and feels crowded with three of us. The walls are eggshell blue, and there is a mirror facing me. I can see the door in it and I can see the body of the guard, but not his face. I guess it might be for a camera, or maybe observers. You pick up things watching cop shows on the 3Vee, and this looks like some kind of interview room. The flat walls make me sound loud and shrill. At least, I think it’s the walls. I don’t smile at the mirror. I don’t even want to look in it. I look a mess. My hair is tangled, and I want a shower. They let me change when I was brought here, but that was all. I look elsewhere. There’s a strong smell of musky aftershave, stirred through the air by Ethan walking past, but I think its coming from the guard. It’s heavy and oppressive. At least if I do whiff, nobody would be able smell it over the intense cologne.
In the middle is the table, with two chairs either side. Everything is metal, and bolted to the floor. All the edges are curved. Maybe so nobody will get too badly hurt if a fight breaks out, or perhaps if somebody faints. I feel like fainting. I feel like I have been in here for hours, and I haven’t eaten for longer than that. The door behind me hisses again and Ethan walks round in front of me. He is holding some plastic cups and a few pouches; some water, some coffee.
“Help yourself,” he says, not sitting down.
I grab a cup and a coffee pouch. It’s awkward squeezing the activator with my wrists cuffed, but I manage. I also manage to pour it into the mug. I lift it, blow across it a couple of times, and sip. It’s too hot. I suck in some air with the coffee to cool it down. It tastes awful, but it’s way better than nothing.
Ethan takes his seat opposite me and touches another stud on the recorder.
“Let’s get on with it,” he says as the box announces “Recording resumed 19:40:17”
“Do you want me to start again?”
He shakes his head. “Move on from where you were: stumbling out onto the street.”
“Right. So. I must have followed the signs to the nearest subway station, because the next thing I remember is that I’m stood in the ticket hall looking through my pockets because there’s nothing there. My purse is missing; my money is gone, my phone, everything. The only thing I can find is a travel card, in one of my pockets.”
“Do you remember which pocket?”
I shake my head. “Go on,” says Ethan.
“The card still works, so I take the subway home.”
“Home being?”
“Apartment 11304, Tower 97, New Putney.”
“Thank you.”
“But I told you that twice already.”
“We need to check your story stays consistent. When you get home…?”
“I can’t even get into the lobby. My thumb won’t open the door. It says my thumb is ‘invalid’.”
“Wouldn’t the doorman let you in?”
“There isn’t one. I waited until somebody else went in, then went in behind them, before the door could shut. When I got to my apartment, same thing.”
I feel myself tremble as I remember. I had never been as scared as I was back then, even though I am feeling pretty scared now. I had nothing and the only help I could think of was on the other side of a door I could not get through. People kept looking at me. Everywhere. Pointing, looking shocked. I take a gulp of the coffee. It’s still hot and burns all the way down my throat.
“So what did you do then?”
“I left my apartment block and set off across town to a friend.”
“The name of this friend?”
I hate this bit. “John. Johnny.”
“And this friend’s family name?”
“I told you I don’t know.”
“Any yet he was enough of a friend for you to be the person you turned to for help.”
I hated his smile. It never seemed to get as far as his eyes. “We were having an affair. I never asked. We met at my place or at hotels. He never spoke much about himself. Said it was ‘too dangerous’.”
“So how did you know where to go?”
“I heard him call for a cab once. He never used the subway. I heard him say he was going to the Wilson Complex, and there’s only one of those. I figured if I got there then maybe a doorman could help me find him.”
“And still you didn’t call the emergency services for help.”
I take a sip of my coffee and glare at him over the plastic lip. I lower the cup from my face and speak very clearly as I answer.
 “No, I did not. I do not know why I did not.”
“When you get to the Wilson Complex…?”
“The doorman takes one look at me and calls the police. He even locks the doors so I can’t get out. When the cops get there, they don’t listen to a word I say and stun me. Stun me. What did I do to get treated like that? Why would they do that?”
My hands are trembling so much I have to put the cup down, and I start to cry. Not sobbing, just tears starting to leak from my eyes. Angry tears. I brush them away roughly with the back of my hand and glare at Ethan.
He settles back in his chair. He looks smug and I try not to hate him for it, but I’m having a problem with that. He laces his hands together and puts them on his little pot belly.
“Would it surprise you to know that nobody at the Wilson Complex knew you? Including the two ‘John’s’ that do live there?”
That hurts. We haven’t got this far yet. So far he’s just made me repeat the story to where I’m stunned. I feel a coldness in my gut. Did Johnny ignore me because I went rushing there like a maniac? What else could I have done? I lash out at Ethan, hiding my hurt with aggression.
“That still doesn’t explain why I was stunned. And it doesn’t explain why I am here. Where is here? I’m getting tired of asking. Have I been arrested? Are you the police?”
“Do you know what a Replicant is?” Ethan asks, his voice irritatingly calm and reasonable. I want to slap him.
“What? Of course I do,” I reply, wondering where that question came from. Perhaps he’s just trying to distract me. “They’re those creepy people-things that do all the horrible jobs.”
“Do you know anything else about them?”
“No. Why would I need to?”
“So you wouldn’t be able to identify one?”
“Of course I would. They all wear these ugly jumpsuit things. Different colours though.” I wave my hand vaguely to indicate what we are both wearing, but my voice goes quiet as I speak the last few words. I’m not sure why, but I feel like a just missed a step at the bottom of a staircase.
“That’s right. Did you know they all have a mark, as well? Each has a laser encoded tattoo, on the back of their neck. It tells the name of the model, and its serial number, both in plain and as a glyph.”
“Very interesting, but why are we talking about Reps?”
He reaches into a pocket and takes out two pieces of thin card, which he puts face down on the desk. They curl upwards slightly at the edges, like they’ve been in his pocket too long and have taken the shape of his thigh.
“This is an image from the Wilson Complex security system,” he says, and he turns over one card. “Can you see what you are wearing?”
I look at the picture. It makes me freeze for a moment. I’m not sure why, and it makes me feel afraid. I nod. I don’t have anything to say. He turns over the other card.
“This is an image taken from the headcam of the arresting officer. Can you see it clearly?”
I nod again. Slowly, I reach out. I’m surprised by how steady my hands suddenly are, then surprised I would be paying any attention to such a little thing. I pick up one picture after the other. I study each of them before I put them back on the table.
“This is a joke, right?”
Ethan shakes his head slowly, still with that insufferable fraction of a smile on his lips. I start to lose it. I can’t stop myself from shouting at him, almost screaming.
“You have got to be joking. How can you possibly think I am one of these Reps? That is what you think, isn’t it.”
“The evidence is compelling. You were wearing a Replicant suit, and…”
“Anybody could wear one of those. They used to be weird fashion not that long ago.”
My arms are waving around again, wild gesticulations and angry stabbing motions with my fingers as I try to make my point.
“True, but the one you were wearing was a real one. The substance they are made from is not something we share. Besides, there is your tattoo. It clearly says your name is Juliette. It also says that you are unit 17 of this model.”
“But my name is Julie. Juliette. Perhaps somebody put it there as a joke.”
“It wouldn’t be a very funny joke, now would it? Besides, like the jumpsuit, only we can properly code and decode the glyph. Another little trade secret. It confirms your name and serial number, and your production date. Four days ago.”
It was subtle, but I noticed Ethan’s tone changing. He was drifting from ‘hard cop’ to ‘concerned friend’. I decide I like ‘hard cop’ better. It feels more honest, and less dangerous. I did what I could to make myself at least appear more calm, and I fight to get my voice back down to a conversational level. Almost.
“Look, I can’t be a Rep. This is all some ridiculous practical joke.” I can hear my voice getting shrill again. I can’t do anything about it. “My name is Juliette Keynes, I am twenty-three years old. I was born in Coventry. I have a sister called Alice. How can I be a Replicant?”
I‘m scared. I don’t understand why somebody would be doing this to me. I already have tears on my face. They started when I began to rant. Now I just feel helpless. I cover my face with my hands as the first sob comes. I can’t stop it. I know I have to give in to them, at least for a few moments. When I stop, my nose is full of snot and I sniff hard. I put my hands back down on the table. The councillor is just looking at me, still.
“Do you have a tissue?” I ask. He shakes his head. I sniff again.
“Do you now what a Replicant is, Juliette-17?” he asks. Same question, but different inflection, different meaning. My turn to shake my head, then I hear what he called me.
“That’s not my name,” I hiss. He ignores me and keeps on talking.
 “A Replicant is a clone. A force-grown clone. When the clone is decanted, it goes though an education just enough to do whatever it has been designed to do, but no more. The Juliette model is designed to be a Maid; general housekeeping duties and basic childcare.”
I feel a little surge of triumph. “So how does that fit me? I have memories. I’m well educated.”
His face doesn’t change, except maybe to take on a hint of sadness. I don’t like that. It looks artificial. He looks behind me again.
“Officer, I want to move this individual to manufacturing, then bring her back here.”
“Not a problem, sir. Other than the link between this building and manufacturing is closed today. “
“Can we go via the lobby?”
“Yes, sir,” The guard sounded a little dubious.
Now he is looking at me. “I think we need to show you something, Juliette-17.”
“Don’t call me that,” I say, but it comes out faint and uncertain. What can he want to show me?
I stand up, and turn around when instructed to. The guard clips his stun rod to my wrist restraints.
“If you pull the rod out of my hands, it will stun you. Clear?”
I nod. Ethan goes through the door first. I follow behind the guard. We go out into a bland, cream corridor. The doors are the same colour as the wall, and the floor a dark brown. There are no markings on the doors. I am not sure if I am trembling because I feel cold, or because I am afraid. At the end of the corridor is a larger door. It’s an elevator. We go up. It seems like a long way but I can’t be sure. The doors open into a lobby. It looks nicer; carpet underfoot, plants around the wall. In the middle, three identical women are serving at a refreshment station. I smell coffee, real coffee, and donuts and muffins, and my stomach rumbles.
People stop and stare at me as we walk past. One woman looks at me strangely, directly. She is just on the wrong side of middle age; still looks good but obviously has to work at it. She is wearing a snappy business suit in red, with black tights and red shoes. Her lip gloss matches the shoes, and her eye makeup is a little heavy-handed. She is really staring at me. And smiling? Not a nice smile. She is the only one that doesn’t look curious. She is the only one that doesn’t look away. I stare back. Ethan turns, sees what I am doing and distracts me.
“Don’t stare at the Director,” he hisses.
 We cross the lobby, and into another elevator. My wrists are starting to hurt where the restraints dig into them. The guard walks a bit more quickly than I feel comfortable with. I’m not dragging back, but he keeps tugging on the rod. My legs are starting to ache too, and I feel out of breath.
Down this time. Another corridor, even more anonymously bland in white and grey. A door with writing on it that I don’t get a chance to read it before it swishes open. A breath of cold air puffs out and I shiver more vigorously for a second. Ethan motions to the guard to undo the stun rod from my restraints, then mutters something quietly to him. He nods and stands behind me, staying close. Ethan crooks a finger at me and I follow him out onto a raised platform in a room about the size of a small cinema. It’s cold in here. There are people sitting on benches, stiff and motionless, facing towards us. Five hundred of them, or maybe as many as a thousand. They all look the same. They are all the same.
They are all me.

I start to wake up. I feel very sick, and my head feels thick and muddy. Everything comes back. I heave. Black coffee and bile surge into my mouth, and I swallow it back down. I try to raise my hands to cover my face, but I’m propped against the wall of the corridor, and my wrist restraints are clipped to the stun rod again. I sob for a while. I don’t care. I look up and see Ethan standing opposite me again. I say nothing.
“Juliette-17, you are a Replicant. There is no believable way you could get the tattoos on the back of your neck if you were not. You are suffering from residual personality syndrome. When you were found, dead, the system identified you as a donor and you were rushed here. Donors bypass all the usual channels and everything is processed by us. The need for Replicants far outstrips what we can produce. We harvested as many undifferentiated cells as we could. These cells were grown into clones. You saw them. That is all there will ever be. Only so many cells can be harvested from each donor, and each can only be used once. You cannot clone a clone. That is why we need the donor program.”
“But I wasn’t a donor,” I grizzle.
“The record says you were. Sometimes a Replicant believes it has memories, personality. Believes it is, in fact, still the donor. We call it ‘residual personality syndrome’ or meme resonance. We have no idea why this happens. There are one or maybe two cases a year, usually with lower numbered units. Sometimes it resolves itself and the mind goes blank on its own. Sometimes it never resolves, and we have to keep the defective Replicant here for some time.”
“But I didn’t die.”
The councillor had a pad with him now. He tapped it. “The original Julliette Keynes was killed in a civil disturbance downtown a month ago. She was brought here as a donor. The centre dealt with all her other paperwork as usual; death certificate, release of accommodation, release of employment, closure of bank account, deletion of national insurance record. All here. All signed off. Approved by the Director.”
I’m starting to doubt my own sanity now. I know I didn’t die. Quickly. What do I remember before I woke up in that skip? Anything. I get a vague something. In my apartment. Just home from work. Open the door, inside, close and lock the door. They come out of my bedroom. Two men, wearing masks. They throw me to the floor, hold me in down. There’s a sting on my neck. Everything fades.
“Oh, God. I was kidnapped.”
“Really, Juliette-17, now you’re just fabricating things to fill in the gaps in your false memories.
“Oh please, I was. I swear I was.” I am crying again.
“Juliette-17, we need to get you back to the other building. Now either you control yourself and stop making such a scene, or I’ll simply tell the guard to stun you and we’ll take you through on a gurney.”
I gulp a few times, push the tears back. I nod. He understands and gestures for the guard to help me to my feet. My legs are wobbly, and I almost fall again. The guard grabs my upper arm, on the left, digging his fingers in hard. I look up but he shows no sign of enjoying it. We go back to the elevator, up to the lobby. We walk across. I’m wondering if I should scream for help, to try to get someone to listen to me, but I know it isn’t worth it. The guard could stun me in a split second.
The woman in the red business suit is still there. She looks at me again. An elevator opens near us. A man and a little girl – about seven or eight years old – get out. The little girl runs across to the woman in the red suit, yelling ‘Hi Mummy’. I’m watching her. She is really cute. I don’t look at the father. I try not to breath to deeply, not wanting to take in any more of the oh so well known scent coming out of the elevator. I keep my face down and turned away. I don’t even look when I hear my Johnny say “Carefull, Sweetie. Lots of people in Mummy’s office.”
“Yes, Papa,” the little girl says, ignoring him.
The woman in the red suit, the Director, goes down on one knee to greet her daughter. She looks at me over the child’s shoulder, with hard grey eyes, and smiles.





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