“Who is your Original?” asks the doctor, shining a bright light in your eyes. You blink, glancing left and right. Either side of you are others, blank, damp and hairless like you. Doctors take their temperatures, their blood, their heart-rates.
“…I — ” Your tongue feels thick and clumsy in your mouth, like you’ve never used it before.
“Who is your Original?” he asks again, lowering his flashlight and peering intensely into your face instead. You feel ashamed for some reason, aware of your paper gown and scrawny forearms. You avert your eyes and shake your head, taking furtive glances in his direction to see his response.
He nods and gestures to the door, already looking towards the next one in line. You try to rise, but your legs shiver and give out and you go sprawling. The doctor sighs and waves over an orderly with a wheelchair. He scoops you in, gently but without compassion, and wheels you out into the corridor.
There are more hairless people out here, but their appearance is slightly more varied. Different skin tones and heights and builds, although all are lean. What little muscle they have lacks definition. All have that strange, waxy look to their skin, like they could use a good soak to melt away the top layer and be fresh and clean underneath.
“Can you get in the chair by yourself?” the orderly asks and you nod, dragging yourself across. He disappears back into the other room with the wheelchair.
You study the palms of your hands. Your fingertips are wrinkled as if you’ve spent a long time submerged in water, but you can’t shake that feeling that you need to scrub your skin clean.
“This is a travesty,” says the person alongside you. They have a long face, and smooth skin, high brows and round cheeks. They are better at speaking than you, seem generally stronger and more together than you. You can only look at them helplessly.
The person tenderly takes your hand, and you are certain this is the first skin to skin contact you’ve ever felt.
“Did the Education not take?” they ask you gently. “Can you understand me at all?”
“I…” you manage, then nod, hoping this person will get your meaning.
“Talking difficult?” they say, and you nod again, grateful this time. “Don’t worry. It’s different for everyone. I’m quick to adapt, I guess.”
A nurse comes over with a clipboard, pulls off two sheets and hands one to each of you.
“You can switch with the others if you want. Switch as many times as you like, but once you sign the bottom, that’s you.”
The sheet is some kind of registration form. It’s full of someone’s details, their name, their address, their national insurance number. This sheet says Aja Sawyer. The person next to you, their sheet says Wren Aster.
“I think I’m more of an Aja, don’t you?” says the person.
You shrug. You’re unsure what any of this means.
The person takes the sheet from your unresisting hands and gives you theirs.
“Now I’m Aja,” they say, “and you’re Wren. Do you like that, or should I try to trade it for you?”
“Wren?” you ask. At least you can say that.
“Yes,” says Aja. “That’s us now, I guess. Wren and Aja. Understand?”
You nod. You’re being named. Assigned an identity at a time when you can’t possibly know if it’s you or not. Wren’s ok, you suppose.
The nurse returns with two ziploc bags filled with folded yellow fabric. You and Aja are given one each. Aja throws off their paper gown and takes the yellow overalls out of the bag, stepping into them one leg at a time, like everybody else.
“What are you, shy?” asks the nurse with a smirk. You realise that you are. You also realise that it’s silly. Aja’s body is smooth and genderless all the way down and you know yours will be too. It still feels weird, but Aja and the nurse are looking at you expectantly so you wriggle out of the gown, still sitting, and then struggle into the overalls, accepting every bit of help Aja offers.
“You sure you don’t want me to pick up a wig for you?” asks Aja, checking this latest one in the mirror. It’s long and ash blonde with a chunky fringe. You shake your head. It’s easier for Aja. Aja knows she is female. She may not have the breasts and hips of her Original, but she’s positive that her Original was female and she is too. She’s not permitted to look into it of course. No Blank will ever know their Original, that’s the law. You’re not sure whether the Originals get to know their Blanks. That part’s not stressed every five minutes on the Info Channel.
You don’t think it’d matter to Aja if she found her Original anyway. He could be a seventeen stone rugby player with cauliflower ears and a smile like a busted piano and Aja would still be Aja. She would still apply her fake lashes each day and look longingly at dresses in the online catalogues. She would still slip lip glosses into the sleeves of her overall when the chemist’s security guard was otherwise occupied. Even though theft, any crime, carried ‘serious consequences’ for a Blank, because their very existence was a privilege.
Your very existence.
The little cement block you and Aja share, just big enough for your sleeping sacks and the info screen, that’s a privilege. The colourless, odourless, tasteless, but nutritionally balanced noodles you’re fed for every meal, they are a privilege. The Education you receive each day via headphones while you stitch yellow overalls and seal sleeping sacks into zip-lock bags, that’s a privilege. So are the steam showers that clean you after each day’s productivity, so too is the chain-link fence around the enclave keeping the protestors out. You’re not really sure what privilege means, or protestors, or what they are protesting. Perhaps you’ll learn it in tomorrow’s Education.
They’re just people. Protesters are actual people, not Blanks. They’re holding printed signs and their clothes are all different, like you heard about from Aja. She said it’s early days yet, and some day soon, Blanks won’t have to wear the yellow overalls, they’ll be able to wear whatever they want. You ask if she means like real people and she narrows her eyes and says “We’re real” all angry and you apologise automatically without knowing what got her so cross.
These people seem cross too. You get a little closer, trying to read their signs. Your reading is coming along, but it’s hard. You don’t pick things up quickly like Aja. She’s flying through a book the chemist security guard gave her, and she doesn’t even move her lips when she reads it.
One of them spits at you. The globule of saliva hits your thigh, soaking in, warm and wet. You look from it to the man who did it and back again. They’re so hairy, people. He has a beard and a hairy neck and huge savage eyebrows. Even Aja’s crossest face doesn’t look so cross as that.
“Freak!” he shouts. “Abomination!”
Others take up the chant, favouring ‘freak’ over the longer word. They press against the chain-link fence and it bows towards you alarmingly, yet you can’t tear yourself away. One of these could be your Original. Your Original has hair and eyebrows and maybe even a penis or a vagina. It’s a funny thought. You can’t imagine it. The biological stuff in your Education, your first Education, the one with all the visuals, that’s very clear in your mind, just because they looked so weird.
The yelling reaches a crescendo and you realise one of them has you by the collar of your overall. She’s a woman, middle-aged, but strong. She has her foot braced against the fence, and seems intent on pulling you through it, even though the gaps are far too small. But as she holds you close, the cold metal links bite into your skin, and the protesters surge forward, tearing at your clothes, scratching at your hands and face.
You’re reminded of the blood tests, but this is prolonged and worsening and you can’t help but cry out. Everything happens very quickly then. A shot disperses them, and Aja is there with the chemist security guard and they help you to your feet and carry you between them to the med hangar. You keep glancing back, and they think that it’s to see the crowd and tell you not to, but really it’s to see if you left any bits of you behind, any scraps of skin flapping on the fence, because if feels like some of you is missing.
You’re warm. It’s an unusual feeling. Even when you snuggle close to Aja, the concrete is cold, and the thin sleeping sack does little. But here you are warm, and the air smells of something, something rich and sweet. You lift your head, look down at your forearms. They are covered in soft downy hair. You try to stroke it, but you’re weak. Your breath gurgles in your throat.
You become aware of the tube then, and you panic, gagging. Your lungs feel soggy and heavy, struggling to draw in air. You gasp and cry and Bonnie hurries into the room.
Day Twelve (later)
“Mother!” you sit up, choking.
Aja and the chemist security guard are standing over you. Aja looks confused. The security guard looks perturbed. He pulls Aja away from your bedside and they whisper to each other.
You check your arms. Smooth as ever. No hair, no tube in your throat, no crushing moisture in your lungs, no sweet-rich smell.
And no mother.
Aja is shaking you awake. The info screen hasn’t lit up yet – it isn’t time to work. You prop yourself onto your elbows and look at her. You can’t sit up any higher in the concrete confines of your block, and neither can she. It’s not time for the shutter to unlock yet. You say so to Aja.
“I know, but I can open it.” She slips a small metal rod out of her sleeve, not much larger than one of her tubes of lip-gloss. She puts it in the corner of the shutter.
“The shutter’s for our safety,” you tell Aja, frightened. “We shouldn’t leave the block without a human escort.”
“We’ll have an escort.” She presses her thumb into an indentation in the top of the rod and a light comes out of it, like a laser pointer, only hot. You can feel the heat from here.
“Is this about my dreams?” you ask.
“They’re not dreams,” says Aja, grimacing. Perhaps the rod is uncomfortably warm to hold. It looks like it could be. Eventually the shutter clicks, beeps three times and then slides open. The cold dawn air rushes in and you shiver.
Outside, everything looks grey, even your skin. Aja reaches back inside the block and pulls down the sleeping sacks, her spare wig and her book. There’s nothing more to take. Everything else is in the communal areas of the complex. Blanks aren’t really supposed to own anything.
“Not dreams?” you say. The chemist security guard is waiting. His name is Rick, you know that now. He looks sick with worry. His chin is stubbled and his eyes are bloodshot.
Aja shushes you. You are the same biological age and yet she always makes you feel like a child. Although you suppose it’s justified. You did wander up to the fence and get scratched by protestors. Which meant you had to spend some time in the infirmary. Which meant Rick had to make up a lie about how you got there so you didn’t get mulched. Mulching is what happens to disobedient Blanks. It’s something to do with reclaiming genetic material. You’re not sure of the specifics. Rick looked sick when you asked about it, even sicker than he looks now.
Rick’s van is parked by the gate, big and black.
“Cameras are off,” he tells Aja. “We’ve got maybe five minutes before they notice, tops.” He hands her a sheaf of paper held together with a bulldog clip. “If I stop the van again once we’re through the gate, just get out and run. And whatever you do, don’t lose these.”
Aja nods, and as he helps her up into the back of the van, they hold each others’ hands a little longer than necessary, and you look away, hoping it’ll give them room to kiss goodbye, but they don’t. He lifts you in and closes the van doors.
“Where are we going?” you ask.
“Put these on,” says Aja, pushing a cardboard box towards you. There’s a pile of musty old clothes inside, varying sizes. As the van pulls away, you try to choose between dungarees that smell of mould and a pair of leggings imbued with stale farts.
You’re living among the people now, so you get to wear people clothes all the time. It’s not so great. You can’t afford good ones anyway. You’re staying in an abandoned church with Herve and Manny, two old homeless guys. They both have big unkempt beards. You wish you could grow a beard. They look like they would keep your face warm. You ask Herve about it and he scratches and tells you it’s a time-saver, but that’s about it.
Aja has spent the last few days going to and from the newspaper office. The first day, you didn’t go with her, because Manny found a tiny kitten mewling in the graveyard’s undergrowth and you helped him feed it with milk from an old syringe. Now she won’t let you go, because she says people might recognise you. Apparently your Original is some big deal. She says she’s seen photos of them, but she won’t even tell you if they’re a boy or a girl.
“You’re too impressionable,” she explains one night, as the four of you huddle round a fire Herve started in a big weird gold pot shaped like an eagle. “Like a little baby goose. If you saw them, you’d start trying to be like them.”
“So? I am them.”
“No. You’re you.”
She doesn’t get cross any more, she just looks tired.
“Don’t know how I’d feel about a load of other mes walking about doing their own thing,” says Herve, thoughtfully. “But I got no money anyway, so it’s not something I’d ever have to worry about.”
“Money?” you ask.
“Sure,” says Manny, stroking the kitten still nestled in his coat. “Didn’t you know you guys were expensive?”
There’s a tree, a big glittering tree like you’ve never seen before, and you’re sitting under it. Your hands are pudgy and marked with felt-tip pen. Your artwork is above the mantle piece. You’ve drawn a big fat reindeer with a red nose, pulling a huge sleigh stacked high with presents.
You’re sitting cross legged, holding onto your ankles, and you’re so excited, you’re worried you might pee. You’re rocking back and forth slightly to help keep that from happening. Your mum has gone out to the garage and she’s bringing you your main present and you already have a bike, so…
The living room door opens, and the puppy races in. She jumps all over you, licking your face, her tail wagging. She’s a labradoodle with fuzzy black fur and a wide pink grin. You yell to your mum that she’s wonderful and her name is Lily and you have to go and pee now so you don’t have an accident.
You awake to the sound of Manny crying in the vestibule. Herve is with him, has his arm around him and is whispering soft, reassuring sounds. You get up and tiptoe over to them. Better not wake Aja. She needs her beauty sleep, she’s always saying.
“Kitten’s dead,” says Herve flatly.
Manny’s holding it in his big hairy hands, trying to massage life back into the tiny limp body. It’s grey and white like paw-prints in the snow.
“We should give him a proper burial,” you say. “My mum used to do it with my little pets, before I got Lily.”
“You guys don’t have mums,” says Herve, frowning. Manny’s only half-listening, but he sniffles and nods.
“What can we put him in?” he asks.
You thought you’d seen Aja mad before, but it turns out you hadn’t. Right now she’s yelling in your face. Then she strides away, kicks over the big gold eagle pot, sending ashes spilling everywhere, hops around holding her toes and swearing fit to burst. You’re crying, but you don’t really know why. You realise now that the box and the papers you shredded to give the kitten a comfy coffin to sleep in for ever, that box and those papers were Aja’s. Or yours. Or the complex’s. Point is, they were important and official and now they’re all shredded up and buried out in the graveyard between the human plots.
Aja is crouching down now, still holding her foot, but she’s stopped shouting and instead she’s crying, huge wracking sobs with snot and tears that’ll wreck her perfect make-up. Manny goes over and awkwardly tries to put an arm around her. She shrugs him off at first, then changes her mind and buries her face in his dirty overcoat, adding to its layer of filth with her tears and her snot and her runny make-up. Manny doesn’t seem to mind though. He just strokes her hair and tells her we’ll work something out.
She shakes her head.
“It’s over now. Press man needs proof, and we don’t have any anymore.”
“Y’still got Wren,” says Herve.
Everyone goes quiet then, and there’s just the sound of you and Aja sniffing in tandem.
It’s strange being out in the world again. This place is busier than any you’ve seen. You know from your Education that it’s a city. Sort of like the complex, only bigger and the people can go wherever they want, whenever they want. You’re in a big shiny office building, sitting in their big shiny reception.
Aja has you all dressed up like a wazzock. You learned that word from Herve. Anyone vaguely silly is a daft wazzock in Herve’s eyes. Politicians. Manny. You. But it’s never been truer than now. Aja’s put you in a long blond wig, and a big floppy hat and oversized sunglasses. She bought your things from a charity shop. There’s a shapeless pale lemon dress and lots of bangles and a horrible fur scarf thing made from a dead fox. Aja says people will focus on how crazy you’re dressed and not bother to look at your face.
The receptionist certainly looked at you for a long time. You wonder if you should have dressed all smart like Aja, because the receptionist barely gave her a second glance. She looks immaculate as usual in a skirt suit and high heels and a new wig, jet black with a streak of white in the fringe. You’re pretty sure she got them the same way she used to get her lip glosses and it worries you because if mulching was a risk at the complex, then that risk is double out here. Blanks aren’t even supposed to be out here, mixing with people.
A man approaches and Aja drops the magazine she was nervously leafing through and stands up, smoothing her skirt.
“Is this…?” asks the man, nodding at you. “She doesn’t look-“
“They,” says Aja firmly.
“Sorry,” says the man, looking like he means it. “Sorry, I should’ve thought. Come with me.”
He leads you down a corridor lined with image boards and you recognise some of the people in them from the Info Channel. Human celebrities. Singers and chefs and actors and musicians. The Info Channel said you could never be like them, because Blanks don’t have souls and you need a soul to sing or cook or act or play an instrument. You tried singing once, on your own in the steam room, and you could, so you guess Aja’s right about the Info Channel lying about things.
He leads you into a room, and it’s large for just the three of you with a big long table and six comfy leather chairs. He sits on the far side of the table and you and Aja sit opposite. There’s a comms box in the centre of the table and you look at it and imagine being important enough to take calls on it.
“So,” says the man, after he’s introduced himself as Simon Trent and shaken hands with you. He doesn’t say anything more, but Aja seems to understand, because she gently removes your over-sized sunglasses from your face, folds them carefully and tucks them away in her shoulder bag. She takes your wig and your hat next, both together, and then unwinds the horrid old fox scarf from around your neck. Simon Trent gawps at you the whole time.
“Wow,” he says. “The likeness is uncanny.”
Aja rolls her eyes. “Of course it is. What did you expect?”
Simon Trent blushes. “Yeah, yeah, I know, but… It’s not like we get to see you guys often. Cloistered away in the compound-“
Aja and Simon talk for a while and your mind wanders. You think about your dreams, the shiny tree and Lily the dog. They seemed so real. You can smell that front room, the fresh piney scent of the tree, cooking smells drifting from the kitchen, and Lily’s distinctive earthy odour. You remember her sitting in front of the fire, tongue lolling, dripping onto the carpet like a freshly cooked rasher of bacon. Bacon. You’ve never even had bacon.
The comms box beeps and Simon presses an indentation on its glossy black surface. The receptionist’s voice comes through, as clear as if she was in the room. You look round to make sure she isn’t.
“Ms Donovan is on the phone,” she says, sounding almost frightened. “She knows.”
“Oh.” Simon doesn’t look frightened, just tired. His shoulders sag. He glances at you and then at Aja. “I guess that’s made our decision for us. Tell her we’ll arrange a meeting.”
There’s an intake of breath like the receptionist wants to say something else, but Simon presses the indentation again and cuts her off.
“What?” asks Aja, her voice icy. “You think we’re just going to go over there?”
Simon’s eyes are sad, like Manny when he thinks about the kitten, only not so wet.
“She’s got resources like you wouldn’t believe,” he says, rubbing the surface of the comms box with his sleeve like it’s dirty, although you can’t see any dirt. “If she knows… they’re here, it’s only a matter of time before she tracks them down.”
Aja’s fury is different this time, all cold and tight, like she doesn’t quite know what to do with it.
“You realise this could be as good as mulching them?”
He looks pained at that, closes his eyes, shakes his head. “No, no surely not. She wouldn’t-“
“Why do you think she made us?” Aja says every word very clear, like she used to speak to you when you first woke up, only not so kind.
Aja keeps apologising to you. Won’t stop, even though you’ve said it’s fine. You don’t even know what she’s so sorry about. She hasn’t eaten or slept hardly at all since you got back from the press office. Herve and Manny were on at her to sit down, to eat something, but she just kept pacing the church and went crazy every time you tried to go outside.
Now you’re on the doorstep of some big house and Manny and Herve and Aja and Simon stayed at the bottom of the drive, outside the tall electric gates and it feels like the first day of school. That was another one of your dreams, and not as nice as the others. You were wearing a blazer a few sizes too big and all hot and itchy and another bigger girl pulled your pigtails and said you were a stuck up or something like that.
Aja let you choose your own clothes today, so you have wide calf-length shorts and a bright orange v-neck sweater. No wig, just the sun on your scalp, although Herve made you wear his hat for the walk there in case anyone realised you were a Blank.
A light breeze tickles your calves and you wonder about activating the entry system, but the voice from the electric gate said someone would be down in a moment. They are, and it’s a broad shouldered lady who looks a little like Aja, but Aja if she’d lived her whole life on steak and chips and cakes instead of nutritionally balanced noodles. And of course she’s hairy like they all are.
She ushers you inside and you can’t take your eyes off the downy hairs surrounding her shiny peach-painted lips. The house has that smell, that warm rich smell from your dreams and you notice the woman’s arms and apron are dusted with flour and you realise she’s been baking. That’s the smell, those melt in the mouth flapjacks she makes, this woman, Bonnie.
The hallway is dominated by a huge broad staircase with a sweeping banister rail and a carpet the colour of one of Aja’s lipglosses. Dusky Rose or Evening Petunia, something like that. A quavering voice calls down from upstairs: “Bonnie! Is that her, Bonnie?”
The woman looks you up and down, her thick dark brows drawing together.
“I think so. You want her up there?”
There’s a big bed in the middle of the room. It’s surrounded by strange bags of liquid and tubes making sucking and shushing noises and machines with flashing lights on them. You stand and stare at them until Bonnie pushes you nearer to the bed and then you see her. You feel mean flinching at a person, but you can’t help it. She looks like you, but thin, so, so thin, it hurts you to look at her spindly arms. They’re stuck through with tubes, clear liquid going in and brownish-red liquid going out. She has eyelashes and they’re gummed together so her eyes are just crusted slits, but they’re the same colour as yours, the exact same. She smiles weakly at you and you don’t know what to do.
“Bring us some tea, please Bonnie,” says the spindly woman in the bed, before breaking into a coughing fit, wet and wracking. Aja warned you about this. Not to eat or drink anything they offer in case its drugged. Herve said something about waking up in a bathtub of ice, although in this Summer heat, you think that might not be so bad. Then you remember what Aja said, sounding sadder and angrier than ever: “That’s for people, Herve. Blanks don’t get to wake up at all.”
You shake your head to protest against tea, but Bonnie’s already bustled out of the room, and the spindly woman’s staring at you with those crusted up eyes.
“So,” she says, just like Simon, only you don’t have Aja here and you don’t know what’s expected of you. You don’t have any layers to take off this time, so you just sit down awkwardly in the silky, frilly armchair by the side of the bed.
The machines make a whole lot of competing noises. Sucking and shushing, beeping and blipping. You watch lights flash and liquids make their way along tubes, wondering what they are and where they’re going to. You’re no longer sure which ones are going in and which ones are going out, so you occupy yourself trying to trace them to their source.
Bonnie returns with a tray and a teapot with swirling gold and pink patterns all over it and little matching china cups. The tea is fragrant and you can’t imagine drugs would smell like that, but you still shake your head and tuck your hands into your lap so you’re not tempted to take a cup. Bonnie gives you a long look, but the spindly lady just laughs and waves her away.
“It’s not what you think,” she says. “I understand why you’d be frightened, but…” Coughing overtakes her again, and you reach out, wanting to comfort her somehow, because you know how that coughing feels, you’ve been there and done it. “I never realised,” she says when the coughing eases, and her eyes are still dry but there are tears in her voice. “I never thought that you’d be people. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” Her voice is wet, like she’s speaking through swamp water. It makes you want to clear your throat in sympathy. “I harvested so many of you trying to buy a few more years, a few more months, a few more days. And you know what? Some of the technicians at the complex raised concerns. Unexpected brain waves. Impossible REM sleep indicators. And I ignored them. Even though I felt you, even though I dreamed your dreams. I put it down to coincidence, the illness, the drugs. I just wanted to live, can you understand that?”
“Of course,” you say. “Everyone wants to live. And even if they don’t, other people want them to.”
And then she cries and cries and tells you everything and you struggle to follow, and Bonnie comes in and strokes the lady’s hair and tells her to calm herself.
You miss the lady. She laughed every time you called her that, begged for you to call her Alex, or at least Ms Donovan, but you couldn’t, because that would mean accepting she was separate from you, and you didn’t want that. Whatever weird quirk linked the two of you, you didn’t want it to ever be severed, not even after she died.
It wasn’t a one way thing, you know that now. She felt you, just like you felt her. She realised the Blanks weren’t blank at all and that’s why she woke them, started the education and the complex, stopped making new ones. But as she saw that world through your eyes, through your dreams, she realised it wasn’t enough. She wanted you all to have lives, real lives, the lives you deserved. She didn’t want Blanks to be judged for her actions, or the actions of their Originals. But people are slow to react, even slower to learn than you. She complained every day about red tape, ranted to Bonnie about how she’d come up with the damn technique, why couldn’t she be the one to end it? And hurry as she might, she ran out of time.
And now she’s dead and it’s worse than the kitten, worse even than Lily. Bonnie stands by you at the graveside. You’re wearing a black dress and a tie and brogues even though Aja said you couldn’t wear things like that together. You watch them cover the lady’s beautiful box with soil and hope that Lily and the kitten will find her and play with her, even though they were buried miles away. It’s down to you now, to get everything finished. A big responsibility for one small Blank.
Simon’s at the funeral too, and lots of other press men and they take a thousand pictures of you, their cameras flashing over and over until you feel you’ll go blind. An old, old lady comes up to you, and squeezes your hand, smiling up at you. Aja opens her mouth, looking worried, like she wants to stop what’s about to happen, but you recognise the old lady and shoulder Aja aside. When the old lady speaks, you finally know that the lady was right, that everything will be okay.
“Alex told me about the arrangement,” the old lady says, in a voice that dictated the number of cookies you could have, a voice that defined bedtime and soothed boo boos. “I thought she was crazy at first, but now I’ve seen you, I understand. You’re different to the others.”
Different but the same, you think, smiling at your mother. Just like all the other Blanks. Just like everyone.
by Lynda Clark