This Brian has blue eyes. It’s too bad, because everything else is the same—the dark wavy hair and high cheekbones, the slight wrinkle under his right eye. Even his beard is combed in the same neat, identical rows.
He was so close. So, so close.
For a moment, I fantasize about choosing this Brian. He’s almost perfect. Hell, I even prefer blue eyes over brown ones. But no, he’s not the Brian I remember, the Brian I love. He’s not my Brian.
This is just another clone, I tell myself, just another clone.
I close my eyes as I press the button on the Sleeper. The needleless injector hisses as microscopic streams of anesthetic penetrate his pores. My cheeks are wet as I turn away from the slackened body. A part of me knows it’s just a copy, a shadow cast off the source, an arrangement of flesh made similar. The other part sees my lost husband.
My hands fumble through my purse before I remember that my phone is in my jacket. I touch the numbers without needing to think.
Three rings then a soft click.
“Report, Dr. Bellman.” Rook’s voice is like the touch of an ice cube.
I take a breath. The air reeks of linen and lemon freshener. “The sixth subject is deemed invalid. Send the team, Rook.”
“Confirmed. A team will be dispatched, ETA ten. You are free to leave.”
I shake my head, a gesture that my handler can’t see. “I’ll stay here.”
“As you wish, Dr. Bellman.”
I toss my phone back into my purse. Bumps rise all over my skin. They don’t disappear even after I pull my jacket back on, so I walk over to the thermometer and change it to the highest setting.
By the time the team arrives, I’m shaking.
• • • •
There was once only one Brian in my life.
We met during my master’s program in genetics. My first glimpse was of his hand, carrying a textbook like a paperback.
I can’t qualify why my mouth went dry, or how twenty minutes of memorization became a blur. I only remember hiding my wristwatch under my notes as he passed by.
“Excuse me,” I asked. “Do you have the time?”
He looked around and, seeing no one paying attention, asked me if my watch was broken. My cheeks never felt hotter. I stammered some excuse, thinking he’d walk away. But then he sat down.
Our first date was at a local pizzeria. Because Italian was romantic, he said. I pointed out that pizza had origins in Greece. His chuckle, deep and gentle, made me blush. I don’t remember how anything tasted that night, only that everything grew cold by the time our conversation faded.
We lingered outside my apartment door. I searched through my clutch and joked about its contents, trying to spin yarn from straw, before I found my key. Eventually I ran out of delays.
“Good night,” I said.
Not yet, he said with a grin.
He took my hand and we walked around campus until we found a bench. There, with my head against his shoulder and a bottle of cheap Merlot between us, we gave the pizzeria a five star review and compared Facebook profiles. Then his lips found mine.
Two nights later, I discovered his warm skin and clever hands. Afterwards, wearing one of his thin shirts, sweat cooling under a half-formed moon, I traced the lines of his palm.
A deep line for love, a long line for life.
Years later, at our wedding, surrounded by friends and family, he told the story of our first meeting and my pickup attempt. As the laughter settled, he admitted that was the only time he’d gotten the best of me. He went on to confess his fear of how brilliant I was and he wasn’t, how he’d bored me, that I wouldn’t see him as an equal, and that I wouldn’t love him.
None of that was true. He was the one, the love of my life, my soul mate.
It took me twenty-two years to find him the first time. I will find him again.
• • • •
The eighth Brian is an inch shorter than my Brian. I’m sure of it as we sit across from each other in my hotel room, a comfortable silence settling between us.
He smiles, and the wrinkle under his right eye deepens. He reaches across and cups my hands in his. They’re as large as my Brian’s, and their warmth is familiar. I want to tell him that it’s unnecessary, that I’m not cold, and to ignore my shivering.
Instead, I smile and hope he doesn’t see through my facade. If he does, he gives no hint as he smiles back. I stand and pull him close to me. The top of his dark hair reaches below my chin, and I’m struck by how fragile he feels in my arms. A part of me resists pulling the Sleeper from my pocket.
A clone, I make myself still think. Not the real Brian but a simulacrum.
“Tell me,” I begin, “what you’d be doing if we hadn’t met tonight.”
I try to study how he talks, not what he says. The mannerisms aren’t identical, but there’s a similarity that makes the hair on my neck stand up. Then he laughs. His chuckle is indistinguishable from my Brian’s, and I can take it no longer. The Sleeper’s hiss and the slump of his body are a relief. I push him back into his seat, making sure to tuck a pillow between his head and shoulder before stepping away.
I’m appalled by how steady my hands are. I wait for myself to tremble, but it no longer comes. I’m more exhausted than during my first years at EpiGen, when I started the Facsimile project.
I dial Rook. He picks up after three rings.
“Report, Dr. Bellman.”
I take the empty chair. “The subject is invalid. Send the team.”
“Confirmed. A team will be dispatched, ETA thirteen. You are free to leave, Dr. Bellman.”
I don’t disagree tonight. I shut off my phone and let it fall from my fingers and into my bag. I watch the sleeping form for a moment before heading to the door.
• • • •
My Facsimile project was going to change the world.
Exact, accelerated human cloning in a machine the size of a car. A solution to infertility, birth defects, organ and blood shortages, perhaps even mortality. It could be adapted to preserve—or resurrect—animal species. The sky was the limit, I believe that still.
I had the dream, EpiGen the resources.
When the corporation first expressed interest, I thought they were kidding. Then they sent me the contract. The numbers alone made me dizzy. Unlimited funding, unrestricted supervision, and the freedom to build my own team. I was so excited. I thought I knew what to expect.
I fulfilled my part. We built thirty of them to start. They sat empty for years as we searched for the perfect trial subject.
When Brian volunteered, I should have said no. I didn’t. I knew everything about him, making him the ideal candidate in my quest for an exact copy. The two of us were to be the axis that changed the course of human history.
I was too consumed by if I could to wonder if I should.
Twenty different Brians were in the Facsimile machines when the Descendants of Eden attacked the facility.
One of them was mine.
• • • •
Some choices are made for me. That doesn’t make them easy.
• • • •
Sterility fills my nose. The thirteenth Brian lies in the center of a large hospital bed. His eyes and his skin are a spectrum of yellow. Straps run across his hollow biceps and forearms, with a thicker one across his chest. Tubes snake from the straps to the machines against the far wall. A monitor displays three oscillating green lines.
The clicking, chirping rhythm of the machine symphony is soft, but to me it’s deafening. The artificial respirator keeps beat with the heart pump. The monitor conducts the assembly, ready to warn of any deviation in the score.
The pacing of the song increases as this Brian sees me. A new spark lights his eyes as he recognizes my face. I hear the dull scratch of nylon rubbing nylon as he tries to lift his hands.
“Try not to excite him too much,” says his nurse. “Remember, you’ve got five minutes.”
She closes the door behind her as she leaves.
I’m alone with the thirteenth Brian. His nightgown hangs loose on his shriveled body. His sunken eyes are bright though, and they track me as I walk to his bedside. I wonder if it’s improper to keep smiling as I place my hand on his.
His once clever hand feels fleshy and cold. The bones underneath are as delicate as twigs. I turn his hand over. A deep line for love, a long line for life. It seems like a cruel joke now.
I pick up his chart with my free hand and read it. This Brian watches me while I blink away the tears. He squeezes my hand as I replace the chart.
Rook picks up after three rings. “Report, Dr. Bellman.”
My voice sounds steadier than I feel. “The thirteenth subject is invalid. There’s no need to send a team this time.”
There’s no hesitation. “Confirmed. A team will be dispatched, ETA eight. You are free to leave, Dr. Bellman.”
This Brian squeezes my hand tighter as I grit my teeth. “Liver failure. Heart failure. Immune system failure. Two localized cancers, one regional. Don’t bother sending a team when you should be sending flowers.”
“I’ll prepare an autopsy team for his arrival.” The cadence of Rook’s voice is unchanged. “Or are you verifying that subject thirteen is the real Brian? If not, then the subject is EpiGen property and subject to retrieval and possession.”
When I don’t respond, he says “Team ETA six.”
“Leave him alone!” I yell. It’s too late though. The phone’s already dead in my hand.
There’s a squeeze on my hand again. I look down at this Brian and marvel. He’s the one trying to comfort me. I think about dialing Rook again. I think about validating this Brian. But I don’t.
The real Brian’s still waiting for me somewhere.
I kiss the subject’s forehead before I walk out the door. I force myself not to look back.
• • • •
Each and every Brian recognizes me. It’s clear to see in their bodies—the minor shift in posture, a change in breath, the sharpening of their pupils as they focus on me.
I don’t know how, I only know that it’s true. Genetic memory, biomorphic resonance, monozygotic telepathy—they’re all myth or fringe science. While the Brians share identical DNA, the variance in their genetic manifestations is far too great for them to be considered replicas. They’re closer to brothers or even cousins.
It was a result I initially refused to accept. I thought I could tame nature. But little can be predicted from the various factors comprising heritability. Just because we replicate the DNA doesn’t mean the same genes get expressed. Genetic, environmental, social, luck—countless factors spin and crash together to form the soil in which each new seed is planted. Sow just an inch away and the results will be different. Nature inserted enough chaos to ensure we cannot program it to our specifics.
My Facsimile project failed to create replications of their subject. Except that, somehow, all the Brians recognize me.
Do I still recognize him though? Sometimes I wonder.
• • • •
The seventeenth Brian’s shoulders are broader, his arms well-defined. His stomach is deliciously flat where it should protrude, and his nose is strikingly proud. His skin is effused with so much heat that his embrace burns.
I settle into his arms, drifting in and out of sleep, as I listen to the rain beat against the windows. What started as a gentle patter is now an insistent drumming. I run my fingers along his supple body, enjoying the hard lines of his arms and chest as he slumbers.
I can’t help it. It’d been so long, and he looks so much like my Brian. I know he’s not—his beauty marks him as artificial—but that doesn’t keep my pulse from racing or my hands from exploring his body.
Could this be my Brian though? The thought slips through before I can stop it. There were only three subjects left now. If I just made the call to Rook, if I just said yes, could this Brian become my Brian? Then my part would be over. Rook could capture the rest without me. I could go on with my life.
Except I know that the real Brian—my Brian—is still out there. He’s one of the last three. He’s waiting for me.
I kiss the proud nose and subject seventeen wakes with a sigh. His exhalation brushes by my ear with a warm tingle. I rest my head on his chest and listen to the slow beating of his heart. With my eyes closed, I count them.
“Thank you for the wonderful night,” I whisper. “I really needed it.”
His chuckle vibrates his rib cage. It’s a pleasant rumble against my cheek.
I’m so tired. Too tired for three more.
I kiss him again, this time on the lips, and extract myself from his arms. He turns over and I take a moment to admire his back. I slip out of bed and throw my clothes on, phone in hand. I walk downstairs and lock myself in a bathroom.
Three rings. Rook’s voice. “Report, Dr. Bellman.”
“Subject seventeen. He could be the one.”
The pause stretches. “Are you confirming validity?”
I hesitate. “No. Maybe. I don’t know anymore.”
Rook’s pause is longer now. A part of me wonders if I’ve actually surprised him. “A team will be dispatched. ETA nine. You are free to leave.”
My stomach sinks. My free hand tightens into a fist. “Rook? I think I need more time. With this subject.”
“You’ll receive the next target shortly,” he says.
“Wait,” I reply. “We’ve been doing this for so long. I need a break.”
Silence, save the rain. “As you wish, Dr. Bellman.”
• • • •
I miss him so much. Which one, sometimes I’m not sure.
• • • •
They called themselves the Descendants of Eden.
From the name, I guessed they were religious. From their attack, I learned they were organized.
It was a two-prong effort. As their agents infiltrated our facility and stole the Facsimile machines, others hacked our systems and deleted or corrupted decades worth of research.
Their parting words were sprayed across the walls of our ruined facility in red, white, and gold: Only God Creates.
We thought they killed the clones. I thought they killed Brian. Then, years later, EpiGen located the first one.
I agreed to help find my husband among his clones. It’d be easy, I knew everything about him.
Seventeen iterations later, I’m not so sure.
• • • •
I hate coming to Rook’s office. Not a single decoration hangs on the black lacquered walls. There’s his ironwood desk and no chairs for visitors.
My steps echo off the hard floors as I approach his desk. Rook’s seated, staring at the flat screen of his computer with a grimace. His gray eyes never move as he addresses me.
“Good morning, Dr. Bellman.”
“It’s been more than three years since you lost Brian,” I say. “I’ve been through seventeen subjects. Isn’t my part in this over?”
“There are still three more,” he replies.
I slam the Sleeper down on his desk. “Why didn’t you let me validate subject seventeen? Then we’d have Brian back.”
Rook lifts his gaze from the computer screen. “Because I want you to find my best friend, Dr. Bellman. Not an imitation, however beautiful, but my actual best friend.”
I lift my hand from his desk. “It’s not easy seeing them, spending time with them, validating them. I try so hard to think of them as subjects, as things, but I can’t. If you think it’s so easy, you go out there.”
“You think I haven’t tried?” The grimace on Rook’s face turns into something familiar and haunted. “I found the first ones. They didn’t recognize me. They didn’t care. They only responded to photos of you. Why did you think I called you back into this mess?”
I can’t think of a reply. I stare at the desk top, avoiding the reflection on its glossy surface. “I can’t keep doing this. They’re each so different, but they all remind me of him.”
Rook’s hands tighten into fists. “None of them were Brian.”
Only then do I begin to understand Rook’s burden. “Were? What happens to the ones we capture?”
“That’s not for you to know.” His fists loosen. The friend Brian and I once shared retreats back to a mask of ruthless efficiency. “Only three left, Dr. Bellman. One of them is our Brian.”
I’m shivering again. “I still love him.”
Rook’s eyes narrow. “Who?”
“You know who.”
“I do. Make sure you do too.” He returns to his computer screen. “EpiGen will shift its resources to hunting the Descendants of Eden as soon as all the clones are processed.”
They’re covering up the evidence first. But I can’t blame them. I’m one of the guilty too. I pick up the Sleeper and my finger slides to the button. “I haven’t forgiven you for subject thirteen, you know.”
Rook doesn’t look up. “I’ll never forgive you for seventeen.”
“It hasn’t been easy for either of us.” I turn to leave the office. I stop at the door. “Three more subjects, Rook, and then we’ll have him back.”
“Yes, Dr. Bellman.” Rook pauses. “And thank you.”
• • • •
I try not to think about the other possibility.
Perhaps my Brian is dead. Maybe EpiGen is just using me to validate if the Facsimile project succeeded. They want to see if we made a perfect counterfeit, one that would fool even its maker.
There were over 300 attempts before the first successful sheep cloning. I don’t think I got it right in twenty.
A part of me wishes I had though. It’s the same part that takes out my old wristwatch every night and lies in my bed watching the seconds tick by. That part of me wishes for a lie so real, I can’t tell the difference.
• • • •
The bell chimes four times before the door opens.
My breath catches in my throat as I see the last subject. He’s got the same dark wavy hair, high cheekbones, brown eyes, the same height and build.
“Brian?” I say.
My legs feel weak when he smiles with recognition and the slight wrinkle appears under his right eye.
“I finally found you.”
The world spins as I take his large hand into mine. Their familiar warmth feels so good. My tears make everything blurry as I pull him close. He brushes the tears from my cheek, and I’m about to tell him how much I love him, how much I missed him, when my vision clears and I see his palm.
A deep line for love, short line for life.
My mind races through all twenty subjects. How did I miss him?
Did I miss him?
The real Brian. My Brian. Sometimes I wonder if they’re one and the same.