Free Short Story – Dilemma

They say words have power.

I don’t know who ‘they’ are, but I believe them.

‘Your chip is missing.’ My doctor says it again like I didn’t hear.

Four simple words, but so powerful. Powerful enough to change my life in an instant.

‘Are you sure? Let me see.’ I slide off the exam bed and walk around behind him to look at his monitor. But I’m not interested in what’s on the monitor.

I bend down and slip my arm around his neck, wedge his throat in the crook of my elbow and squeeze, just like I was taught. I am surprised how easy it is, but then I am a fit man of 35, and Dr Charlton is a thin man in his 60’s. His hands claw against my forearm, his gasps a soft wheeze in my ear.

But I can’t do it. I’m an accountant, not a murderer. I let go, and he slumps in his chair. A training drill is one thing. Trying to kill someone who I’ve known for 20 years is another. I touch his neck and check his pulse, maybe detecting a faint push against my fingertips. No time to be sure.

I step out into reception and close Dr Charlton’s door with a light click. I force myself to walk, despite every shred of my body screaming at me to run.

The receptionist gives me a bored smile as I pay my bill, ‘Will you be needing to make another appointment Mr Allen?’ She asks.

‘No thank you.’ The ball of terror in my throat softens my voice to a rasp.

‘You OK?’

I clear my throat. ‘Sure,’ I say and return her smile. It feels like a grimace.

I walk down the stairs to the foyer and force myself to walk until I reach the park. I sit on an empty bench deep in the shade of a giant fig tree.

I look at my right forearm, wrapped in the soft bandage covering the scald burn I received three hours ago. The reason why I went to Dr Charlton. The man who had supported Emily and me for five years while we tried to have a family. The man I just tried to murder.

How was this possible?

When Dr Charlton scanned my arm, my ID chip should have identified me to the computer. Chips get damaged, which is why Dr Charlton would have checked, but they don’t go missing.

I know it was there a month ago because I wouldn’t have been able to get through the shuttle port without it.

Two explanations, one impossible. So, someone has removed it. But who?

My employer is one of the most dangerous and unforgiving men in the city – I could have done something to warrant my death. But wouldn’t sending one of his men – the ones who taught me how to strangle a man – be simpler?

I hear sirens blare as police and emergency vehicles blast past the park. No time to sit wondering. I get up from the bench and walk in the opposite direction, back towards our apartment. I force myself to continue to amble along, despite feeling every eye in the city on my back.

~~

Emily is at the apartment, standing in the kitchen when I get home. ‘Why are you home?’ I ask.

‘Could ask you the same thing.’

 ‘I was at the doctor’s.’

‘Why?’

‘I burned my arm,’ I hold my bandaged arm out to her.

She makes no move, unwilling to close the distance that has grown between us in the last few months, ‘Doesn’t look that bad,’ she says.

‘Emily… I –’

‘You could have gone back to work,’ she looks worried now. ‘Mr. Zhao won’t suffer your absence for long.’

‘I know. Emily listen,’ I raise my voice a little. ‘My chip is missing.’

She looks at me. Stunned. ‘What?’ Her voice is a whisper. She cries, sweeping her head from side to side and chanting no over and over again.

I walk into the kitchen and hold her shoulders in my palms, ‘Emily, please. I –’

‘NO,’ she shrieks and flings my arms away from her. ‘Stay away from me.’

The sudden violence of her reaction shocking me off balance and I stumble backwards.

She’s shouting at me now, ‘Get out. Go away. Get out. GET OUT!’

Fifteen years of marriage and we’ve come to this. I can feel her anger. I feel my anger rising but despite the distance that has grown between us, I love her, and I can’t refuse her. So I leave, scrubbing away my tears as I stumble down the stairs.

I walk. My mind wanders. Too many impossibilities in one morning to focus. Too many questions I am sure that I won’t find answers to before it’s too late.

I sit on a low bench, ignoring the people passing in front of me. After some time, my phone buzzes. I tap my implant, ‘Hello?’ ID BLOCKED flashes before my eye. ‘Who is this?’.

‘Now’s not the time, David,’ a man’s voice. Familiar, but hard to identify on the lo-fi audio connection.

‘What the hell is going on?’

‘I can’t tell you over the phone. You must meet with me.’

‘Where?’

‘Low Side. You know where.’

‘What?’ Several passers-by give me startled glances as I growl into the air, ‘How the hell am I supposed to get to Low Side without a …’ I stopped, aware of the many sets of ears around me.

‘You’ll find a way,’ he says. And hangs up.

As the sea rose over the years, the city built a concrete wall to stop seawater inundating the upper city. The seaward side of the wall has been pejoratively called Low Side for at least two generations.

A diverse community inhabits Low Side, common only in their inability to afford accommodation in the city. Various criminal gangs are the undisputed masters of Low Side, waging bloody warfare with arms more often than not supplied by my employer.

My employer maintains a storage warehouse in one of the few places in Low Side high enough to escape the storm surges. I know this is where the caller wants me to go, but the one official access point between Low Side and the city is also the most fortified and patrolled entry into the city. It would be impossible for me to get to Low Side through there.

But there are other ways to get in.

~~

The warehouse sits a few meters from the giant concrete wall separating Low Side from the city. The late afternoon sun throws deep shadows across the base of the wall and the warehouse. I run along the wall, more worried about someone smelling the filth of the sewers on me than seeing me. Halfway along the side of the warehouse is a small door leading into a men’s urinal and change room. The door is unlocked.

I walk through the change room and out into the warehouse, my eyes adjusting to the dark. Ahead of me, rows of steel columns stretch out and up into the darkness. A man steps out from behind a column to my right.

It’s me.

I can’t find any words. I look at him, look at my arm. Look at him again.

Two explanations, one I thought impossible.

I find my voice, ‘I’m a clone?’

He nods; sadness in his eyes.

‘But why?’

‘It’s the only way we could get away. To escape Zhao.’

‘We?’

Emily steps out from behind him. My Emily. She wraps her arms around him and tries to smile.

‘I don’t understand.’ I say.

‘I have been skimming cash from the casino and the brothel for months, He says. ‘The only way I could do that without Zhao suspecting me was to keep turning up every day.’

My head is spinning. Too many impossibilities, ‘Months you say? But I can’t have been without a chip for more than a month. I …’

The truth hits me. He confirms my horror by looking away and then at his feet like a chastened schoolboy. ‘How many clones?’ I ask.

‘You’re the fourth.’ His voice is a whisper.

‘Four clones? Where did you get that sort of money?’

He shrugs a backpack off his shoulders and takes out a thick, leather book. I recognise it immediately – Zhao’s ledger book. Every major contract, contact, distributor and client is in that book. ‘Zhao’s competitors will pay handsomely for this,’ he says.

‘How could you?’

‘It wasn’t supposed to work out this way,’ he looks up at me, his eyes glistening, pleading. ‘If you hadn’t burned your arm you would never have known. The others we euthanized in their sleep the night before I had to travel. They knew nothing.’

I feel sick. I wish I could be like the others and know nothing of this. You can load clones with whatever memory set the buyer wanted. I have a lifetime of memories – my childhood, school and graduation. Memories of earning my accounting degree, and my delight at being recruited by one of the city’s most successful businessmen. It was only later I would learn that Mr Zhao was also a criminal tyrant to whom disloyalty meant death.

Memories of Emily, of our first date, of our deep and shared love. Of the highs and lows of trying and failing to have a family together. Of the deep love I still hold for her.

But they’re all lies. I have no memory of my duplicity. No memory of turning into a thief. Of committing murder in the middle of the night. Of becoming a monster to escape a monster.

I look at him. He says nothing. In the silence, I hear a cacophony of sirens, growing in volume and urgency as they approach.

He reaches into the backpack and pulls out a neat white microchip gun and an ugly black submachine gun.

I understand why he called me here. I shake my head as tears fill my eyes, ‘I don’t want to die.’

‘Please David, you must do this,’ Emily steps towards me. ‘We have to leave, but if Zhao or the police think we’ve escaped, there’s nowhere safe for us.’ She turns and takes the guns from the other David and holds them out to me, ‘Please.’

I take the guns, my hands shaking, ‘But I Iove you.’

‘No, he loves me. They’re not your memories. If you don’t do this, we all die.’

I look at the guns in my hands. I look her in the eyes. I do love her, so I can’t refuse her.

I push the microchip gun against my wrist, firing the chip through the bandage and into the skin below. I hand her the microchip gun and take the submachine gun in both hands.

Emily mouths a silent thank you, a single tear sliding down her cheek as she turns away.

I walk towards the front doors of the warehouse. The noise outside has grown to a roar of sirens, helicopters, drones, and demands for my compliance.

My phone buzzes in my skull. A message from Zhao flashes across my vision. I am disappointed with you, David.

I click off the safety on the machine gun and pull the bolt back. It’s an effective weapon, but no match for the firepower gathered outside. I’m not planning on shooting anyone with it anyway.

Emily won’t be disappointed.

I look back into the warehouse. ‘I love you,’ I call into the darkness. There’s no answer.

I turn back to the door, take a deep breath, pull the door bolt, and step out into the dusk.

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