Billy watched as his clone looked down into the car. It felt as if time had stopped, as if the hail had become suspended in the cold gray air. Then the soldier looked away and disappeared.
A few minutes later Jude was back in the car.
They drove in silence for twenty minutes before she pulled over and let him out of his hiding space.
“That was close, dude.” She said. She was still shaking.
“You could’ve been shot right there,” he said as he climbed into the front.
They sat in silence as she drove. Eventually the hail dissipated and she brought the car into the air again.
“I felt so… helpless,” said Billy. “Like a coward. Hiding while you took all the risk.”
“We were both taking a risk. You did what you had to do.”
“Like I’ve been doing ever since Ethiopia,” he said. “Running.”
“As opposed to what? Dying with the rest of your platoon? You did right. You couldn’t go up against the entire military.”
He didn’t feel like it was right. He felt as if he’d abandoned part of himself, left his clones behind. The silence in his head was unbearable.
Jude asked him softly: “What exactly did happen, Billy.”
He sighed. “I can’t remember it all. It was dark and I think I blacked out. All I know is that everybody went crazy. There were faces all around; my faces, lit up in the firefight. We were just shooting each other—I mean ourselves—to pieces.” He shook his head. “It was insane. We chewed each other up. I panicked and ran. I guess it was just luck that I found the mission where your people sedated me and smuggled me back to New York.”
“It sounds like you were infected by a hacker virus that imbedded a suicidal compulsion. Why would the military do that?”
Billy shrugged. “Maybe we’d been infected with something else and the suicide bombing was clean up.”
“Maybe,” Jude said uncertainly. “A viral infection can cause one bad thought to rip through the entire conglomerate. The Pentagon would look at your platoon’s destruction like they were lancing out a tumor, a sick cell. It’s horrible, but I understand the logic.”
Dread had trickled from Billy’s chest out through the veins in his arms; he flexed his fists uncomfortably. He turned to watch her drive.
“Tell me something,” he said. “What’s this to you? Why do you care?”
“I’m a clone,” she said. “The Underground saved me, too.”
Darkness had begun to settle like ink and the hills slowly sequined with lights. Jude flipped on the headlights.
“Military?” said Billy.
“Academic.” She snorted. “My original was a biophysicist at MIT who got involved in the free clone movement, a group of intellectuals who believed the technology should be shared regardless of class. Immortality for all, they said.”
“It was hardly a movement. A few utopian cranks who were silenced pretty quickly, the way I heard it. All their illicit clones were destroyed.”
She stared straight ahead, and Billy felt his face flush. “Sorry.”
“Change of subject, huh? Tell me about your girl.”
Billy closed his eyes and pictured Angelica.
“Long blonde hair down to her waist, with messy looking bangs across the front. I mean, at least that’s the way it used to be. She had huge brown eyes. She chewed her gum too loud, you know, and she wore too much make up. But she was beautiful.”
“Tell me more.”
Billy smiled. “She’s kind of mouthy, but you can’t hold it against her, not with those pouty lips.”
They lapsed into silence and Billy found himself noticing every shift of Jude’s body. And the smell of her sweat had grown sweet in the close air of the cab. It was the anticipation of being reunited with his love, he told himself; it had his nerves all jazzed up.
It took another hour and a half to get into Northern Toronto, a quilt of light below them, and then Jude followed their directions to a street in a Newmarket slum. The street lights were broken for two blocks, and Jude double parked behind a pothole wider than Billy’s shoulders.
She pointed to a brick building with broken windows on the first floor and a gated front door, its green paint almost rusted completely away. “It’s there,” she said. “Twelfth floor.”
Billy got out into the cold. He looked questioningly at Jude before shutting the door.
“Don’t worry about me. I know you want your privacy,” she said. “Wait. Take this.” She handed him a phone and told him to call if he needed her, making a face he couldn’t read.
Shoving the phone into his pocket, he crossed the street. He called the apartment on the battered intercom and a hoarse voice answered.
“It’s fucking midnight.”
“Angelica?” he said, starting to shiver.
“Nobody calls me that.”
“Angelica. It’s Billy.”
“Is this a joke?”
“Can I come up?” he said. “It’s cold.”
It took a long time. He realized he was holding his breath when the door finally unlocked.
He took the creaking elevator to her floor and started down the hall. The carpet smelled like stale cigarettes and vomit. The hall turned right at the back of the building. He stepped around the corner.
And then he saw her standing in her open doorway.
Her hair was still cut the same but it was all gray. She stood there in slippers and a pink flower print robe, sucking on a cigarette. Her breasts hung like half-full burlap sacks of flour. Her eyelids were bright green.
She blew smoke and ground the cigarette out in the carpet.
“Billy, are you kidding me?”
Billy suddenly felt the pulse in his neck. His vision started to go all brown and grainy.
“Come on in. I can’t believe it.”
“Angelica?” he said numbly as she grasped his hand and pulled him inside.
He could hardly see the little apartment around him, its garish red carpet, the uneven gold couch hulking against the one, barred window, the kitchen space around the corner that smelled like garbage. The refrigerator began to hum.
“Angelica,” he said. “Is… are you all right? Have you been sick?”
She squinted at him, then tossed her head from left to right. “Oh, yeah. Some chronic disease; the doctors are stumped. Give me a hug, you big idiot. We can’t all be immortal.” She crushed him into those big breasts, then pulled back. “Go on, sit on the couch. I’ll get something to drink.”
The only light came from the kitchen; a gray wedge spilled out across the red carpet. When she returned with two beers she handed him one, then leaned over him to light a candle on a stand beside him. It smelled like cranberries. She sat down, hip against his thigh.
“So what are you doing here?” When he didn’t answer she said, “I didn’t expect I’d ever see you again.”
He took a deep breath, his head starting to clear. “I don’t understand,” he said. “I came to take you away with me.” Only it came out like a question. “It was always you. Every night out there on the desert or some god forsaken swamp, all I had to do was think back and remember you, and I could take just about anything. I always told myself, if I ever got out alive I’d come find you.”
Angelica tilted her head. He watched something happening behind her eyes. Something alarming. “Oh,” she said. Then she tilted her head a little further and the candlelight poured a glister over her skin and for an instant he saw the girl he remembered, his love, his Angelica.
“I remembered you,” he said. “The smell of your hair, your skin, how your eyes shone, how we made love. But no matter how I tried I couldn’t remember how we’d met. Isn’t that strange?”
She took a breath and started to say something, stopped.
“I want you to help me remember,” Billy said.
Angelica shifted on the couch. “I can’t do that, Billy. I can’t pretend. It wouldn’t be fair.”
Something between panic and anger lodged in his throat. A voice screamed in the back of his head—almost as if he were still connected to his clones.
“You have no idea, do you?” She put a hand on his knee. “They mucked up your sense of time on purpose too, I bet. To keep you all fixated.”
He stared down at her wrinkled hand.
“Billy, look at me. I’m a middle-aged woman. I was pretty once, but it was a long time ago. You see? I was part of your programming, part of your tuning, because some big shot in the Pentagon read a psychologist’s report that said if a soldier had a girl back home he was more stable. And you were experimental; they needed to cover all the angles. They said the tuning was even more important for clones like you, clones made from a dead person.”
It came over him abruptly. He jumped up and the first door he opened was her bedroom. The next was the bathroom, and he stumbled in and dropped to his knees. The vomit came in acid chunks that hurt his throat.
When the sweat beading his face started to cool he realized Angelica stood in the doorway. He turned to face her, sitting back on his haunches. His eyes stung.
“So. What? They paid you to fuck me?”
Air gusted out her nostrils. “Well not you, exactly; you’re too young. But yeah. Three week’s work and I didn’t have to sell it on the street for a half a dozen years, with what they paid. Just had to leave the country, is all.”
She pulled a towel from the wall and handed it to him. He wiped his face.
“Are you okay?” She tried to take his hand and, after a moment of fumbling, he let her. She led him back to the couch.
The beer tasted like shit now, but at least it cleared the acid from his mouth.
“Honey, you’re so tense,” said Angelica, and began rubbing his neck. In spite of himself—in spite of everything—Billy liked it. The Angelica from his memory appeared again in flickered candlelight. He wrenched himself from her touch and stood, then reached into his pocket for the money his father had given him, crumpled the bills, and threw them into Angelica’s face. They hit her cheek and she blinked.
“There you go,” he said. “Have some more money. Have it all.”
She barely whispered it: “I don’t need your money, Billy. But I’ll sleep with you, if that’s what you want.”
He couldn’t keep the girl he once knew from appearing and vanishing and appearing again on the couch in front of him. Confusion and despair tingled in his belly, surprising him how much they felt like desire.
The first time was awkward, but by the second they’d found something like the old rhythm. By the third they were awash with commingled sweat, acrid in his nostrils.
It wasn’t even close to everything he’d dreamed it would be.
Lights flashed in the darkness. Billy was surrounded by himself, mirrors of flesh hung in the trees, visible and then gone as artillery burst around him. They were shooting at him—he was shooting at himself. He heard the bullets whistling by his head and it made him angry. They shouldn’t be attacking us! screamed through every one of his heads in the platoon. How can they be attacking us? A tree burst into flames. In the blaze he saw himself clearly, grinning, raising a rifle. It made no sense. He tried to enter the clone’s mind, but it was closed to him; it was like he was staring at a piece of wood and willing to hear its thoughts. Or like when you wake up in the night a little groggy and turn the bathroom light on expecting to see yourself in the medicine cabinet mirror, but the door is open and a little shock thrums through you as you don’t recognize the shelves in front of you. So many of his clones were already down, hesitating to return fire in the confusion of the attack. Billy yelled and leapt toward the tree, toward himself, his shoulder knocking the clone’s rifle up, and they tumbled in the dirt. It was sheer luck that put Billy on top, hands on his face. He looked down at himself, panting, bile rising in his throat as he pushed his thumbs into those eyes. As he killed himself.
Billy awoke in Angelica’s arms.
“Shhh, honey,” she said. “It’s okay.”
“Jude’s wrong,” he murmured. “It wasn’t suicide. We were defending ourselves. Against unconnected Billys—”
“You’re not making sense. Who’s Jude?”
“From the Weather Underground,” he said, knowing she didn’t know what he was talking about. “She said the military must have attacked us to stop a terrorist virus from infecting our conglomerate.”
She stroked his forehead. “Aren’t the Weather Underground terrorists? Maybe they had something to do with it.”
“They want to liberate clones, not kill them.”
Angelica sniffed in the dark. “That’s not what I hear,” she said.
Billy pushed her hand away. Could the Underground have something to do with the attack? No, not Jude, he told himself. She’s my friend.
But lying there in the dark against this middle-aged woman’s slack thigh, he had to admit he didn’t know anything anymore.
Field Agent Oppenheimer smiled grimly as he looked out the window at the dark apartment building. This was going to be like shooting fish in a barrel. He patted the luger against his chest and moved to open the car door.
“Sir,” said Billy as the cab light came on.
Oppenheimer rolled his eyes.
“Shouldn’t I be going with you? I don’t mean to question your authority, but regulation requires you have the deserter’s clone present at all times during the manhunt, sir. This is the second time—”
“You can’t even read his mind anymore, for Christ’s sake.”
“With all due respect, that’s not what we do. And I can be used in other ways. I can be a calming presence for the AWOL; and with telepathy no longer operational I may be used as a consultant to predict his behavior. After all, it’s me we’re talking about here.”
You have no idea, Oppenheimer thought, how close I am to shooting you right now. I just don’t give a shit. “Regulation also states that if I deem a situation to be a threat to the mental wellbeing of the military conglomerate, I have leeway to proceed without you.”
“And you’ve already used that once. I can see how you got away with it in Albany, since I believe it was my father’s mansion we were parked in front of? But we’re in fucking Canada, the fucking middle of nowhere. What the hell could possibly be a threat to me here? Sir.” Billy said that last with a ring of sarcasm.
The weight of the gun under his jacket was an unrelenting itch. “I’m not going to debate regulation with an enlisted man. Take it up with my branch office later.” Oppenheimer got out and slammed the door.
There didn’t seem to be any alarms on the front door—not that worked anyway—and he used the agency lock scanner to hack it open. He pulled out his luger and took the elevator up to Angelica’s floor. He used the lock scanner again on her door. Then he stepped softly into her apartment as the refrigerator grumbled on, dimming the kitchen light for an instant.
Oppenheimer grinned. The old whore hadn’t done very well with the government subsidy, had she? The bedroom door stood ajar and he crept toward it.
They were both asleep in the little bed. He had to lean close to Billy’s face to recognize him in the darkness among the frilly pillows. When he pressed his gun’s barrel against Billy’s temple, the kid’s eyes opened. The old woman didn’t stir.
“Don’t move,” said Oppenheimer. “Or go ahead and try, I don’t care.” Actually, he hoped the kid would resist arrest. What was one less clone?
“What’s going on?” said Billy softly. But the voice was behind him, in the doorway. “Is he in there?”
“Don’t come any closer, kid,” said Oppenheimer. “You’re not supposed to see this.”
The luger still ground into the deserter’s head, Oppenheimer shifted his weight to keep the Billy soldier from seeing anyone on the bed.
“Why haven’t you cuffed him yet?”
The Billy in bed moved and Oppenheimer ground the gun into his head even harder.
“I’m not stupid, you bastard,” said the other clone. “I know you hate us. If you shoot him, it’s murder, sir. He’s not connected.”
“Don’t come closer, Billy.” Damn it, he thought. If that kid sees his long lost love in here, this old woman who’s supposed to be some teenage princess, they might have to retire the entire model. And who would they blame for that? The fucking field agent, of course. Oppenheimer knew what he had to do. For once it was clearly justifiable. It was national security.
He swept the gun up and fired. It was a good shot, leaving a perfectly positioned third eye in Billy’s forehead. Before Oppenheimer could bring the gun around again, the other Billy had rolled off the bed. He let off another shot, missed. Billy grappled his legs and Oppenheimer went down slamming his elbow into the floor.
The old woman was awake now, screaming, lurching off the other side of the bed. Oppenheimer threw an elbow up at Billy, the same elbow that had already hit the floor. His hand was numb; it was all he could do to keep the luger in his grip. But he’d managed to hit Billy full in the face. Black liquid exploded from the kid’s nose as he fell to the side.
Oppenheimer scrambled back to his feet, switching the gun to his other hand.
“Give me one more reason to kill you,” he said. Billy sat up against the bed holding his face, blood pouring like oil between his fingers. Angelica was still screaming.
“Shut up,” said Oppenheimer. “And turn on that light.”
She did, filling the room with abrupt color; pink walls, lavender pillows, bright red blood. Oppenheimer shook his hand, trying to get some feeling into it before fumbling out his cuffs.
Another voice came from the doorway.
“You know, when you kill a man twice you should make sure he stays dead.”
It was one of Judge Robbins’ clones. And a shiny automatic pistol.
Angelica stayed on the bed where he’d left her, trembling, as Billy helped his father put the field agent face down in front of the living room couch. They forced his hands behind his back and used the man’s own cuffs on him. The old agent watched them sullenly, head turning from side to side, and didn’t say a word.
When they were finished and Billy had dressed, his father handed him a handkerchief and sat down.
“You’re still bleeding.”
Billy wiped his throbbing nose. “Thanks.”
The judge shook his head. “Don’t thank me. I almost didn’t come.”
“But you did. That’s—”
“Billy. I’m a scared old man. You have no idea how old. I sold you out a long time ago.”
“You saved my life, Dad.”
“Just now?” The judge snorted. “My son died decades ago. I thought I could save him then, and it made me rich. But I’ve watched him die so many times. It changes things.”
Billy watched his father lapse into silence. Maybe if he’d had other minds to think with, maybe then he could figure out what to feel. Now he was just empty and terrifyingly alone.
“There’s another one like you, you know; disconnected. He’s got to be pretty old now. It was part of the agreement. One of you could live a normal life, outside the diffused mind. Only all these years, I’ve never been able to bring myself to find him.” He shrugged. “Maybe he doesn’t really exist.”
“Dad,” Billy said.
The judge looked up. “You know even in this neighborhood the police will show up eventually. Do you have somewhere to go?”
Billy thought of Jude and nodded.
“They’ll want to find you more than ever, now.”
Billy nodded again. “What about you?”
“There’s more going on than an AWOL. I’ve got to question this asshole. You probably don’t want to watch.”
Billy wiped his nose again and tossed the bloody handkerchief on the arm of the couch. He thought about going into the bedroom to say goodbye to Angelica, but the prospect made him queasy.
“Thanks,” he said again. The judge was glaring at the field agent. He waved without looking.
Billy got to the front door before he heard Angelica calling from the other room.
“Billy, are you okay?”
She sounded so much like the girl of his dreams he almost stopped. Sniffing blood, he forced himself into the hall and firmly shut the door.
On the street he used the phone to call Jude. The sun had risen by then and he told her he’d be walking up the street. She pulled up beside him within an hour and he jumped into the cab. The car rose into the air.
She looked like she hadn’t slept. “How’d it go,” she said.
Then she looked at him. Freckles shifted around her eyes. “What the hell—” The air car jerked.
He smiled weakly. “It’s all right.” Feeling her concern, he realized how good it was to see her. He suddenly decided which side of his “redhead continuum” she was on.
It made him want to change his mind about what he’d decided walking up the brittle sidewalk. He let himself imagine disappearing with her, forgetting about the army and the war and his clones. But no. He couldn’t leave the other Billys, behind. They should know that everything was a lie. They should know they could be used against themselves. He reached over and grasped one of Jude’s slender hands.
“Can you undo what you did to me, Jude? Can you program me back into the diffused consciousness?”
She frowned. “There’s no going back. You’re a fugitive.”
“But can you hack my mind back into the fold? To show the others what I’ve seen?”
She made a breathy sound mostly through her nose. “Theoretically, but I’ve never done it. The retuning would be hard. Billy, what’s going on?”
He squeezed her hand. “If you’re serious about causing the military some serious harm, you’ll try it. I promise you a hell storm like no one’s ever seen.”
Reverend Patterson strode behind one of Judge Robbins’ clones, wondering nervously why he was there. Oppenheimer had sounded as if it was urgent on the phone. But why meet here, with the judge? He’d almost refused to come.
Joel pushed open a heavy oak door and led him through a vaulted library. The Reverend had never been invited into this area of the mansion, deep in its heart.
“I thought I’d give you a special treat, RP,” said the clone. They passed through another hall and finally reached their destination. The clone smiled and left the room. There was an oxygen tank, an IV pole, a softly bleeping monitor beside the bed.
“An interview with the original,” croaked the wrinkled carcass from the bed.
Reverend Patterson stared.
“I wanted you to hear what I have to say from the only me you’d respect, with all that superstitious foolishness about the original body being the seat of consciousness.”
“And what is it you have to say?”
“I know you’re responsible for Ethiopia, Reverend.”
He forced himself not to react, but it was as if he’d been punched in the gut. “What do you think you know?”
“Funny,” Joel said. “This Oppenheimer character doesn’t seem like a Born Again Christian.”
The Reverend almost sighed in relief. Oppenheimer was just a tool; he didn’t know that much. Patterson had gotten Oppenheimer assigned to the manhunt because he knew the man could be manipulated into killing the AWOL, the last witness. The agent thought his clone hunts were all the Reverend cared about. He had no idea what this was about.
“Where is the bitter old fool?” he said. “He sounded upset when he called this morning.”
“Oh, he’s here with one of me. I’m still questioning him.”
“And what do you think he’ll tell you, hmm?”
Patterson wasn’t sure, but he thought the judge winked. “Just that my son had seen your handiwork. That you wanted him dead.”
“You leaked the Billy DNA tech to Ethiopian terrorists so they could attack us with our own men,” said the judge. “Who’d you buy in the Pentagon, RP? Or did you ‘save’ him, too?”
Patterson felt his face warm. “Why in Hell would I give one of our clones to terrorists?”
“Because you want the old days. You can’t compete with conglomerates, you’re bitter and jealous and you want to stir up the old public outcry against clones. Did you really think you could avoid a congressional hearing?”
The Reverend swallowed, forcing calm. What did the judge really know? That he’d used Oppenheimer? It was all speculation after that.
“Who were you going to blame?” said the judge. “Those hippies? The Weather Underground?”
“You think you’ve figured it all out,” said the Reverend.
“You’re a two-bit thug, Reverend. Exposing this will be fun.”
Patterson fought the urge to confess the whole plan. He wanted to watch the old man’s face. Ask me why I used your son, he wanted to say. Ask me why I wanted Billy contaminated and exterminated. I’ve had to listen to your lectures, your scorn, for years. I’ve had to watch your conglomerate grow; watch you become stronger, while I just grew older, while my congregation shrank, my power waned. I can’t even remember when I started hating you. And you, for all your self-proclaimed shrewdness, couldn’t even see it! Not through one single set of those eyes.
Patterson flexed tension from his hands. Here he was, in the very center of the judge’s conglomerate. It would be easy to finish this twisted wreck of a man. Kill the head, and the rest will follow; that’s what he believed. Maybe deep down inside Joel believed it too. The man had sequestered his original self for a reason.
“Go ahead,” said Joel. “Do it.”
“What?” said Patterson, startled. For an instant he thought the judge had read his mind.
“What have you got to lose? You think I’m the center. I don’t know what you think will happen to the others when I’m gone, if they’ll be tabula rasa, or just die. But let me live and I promise I’ll see you crucified for what you did to Billy. If you’re right about the original self, your secret will die with me. If you’re wrong, all you’ve done is amputate a rotting piece of extra flesh. That’s certainly not murder.”
“According to you, Judge, there’s a clone questioning the field agent right now. According to you he’ll still be you if you… passed away.”
“What?” said the judge. “Have you no faith in your own beliefs?”
“Is that what you want? For me to kill you?”
“I want you to prove once and for all who’s been right all this time.”
Reverend Patterson said, “I hate you. All of you.”
The old judge nodded. It was more a twitch, really.
It didn’t take much. Joel was practically a corpse already. All the Reverend had to do was hold the pillow for a few minutes. And it was done.
Reverend Patterson left the mansion and no one followed him. As he got into his car and flew away, though, he kept hearing the judge’s last word as if it were being transmitted directly into his head, over and over again.
Before Patterson had clamped the pillow over Joel’s face, the old bastard had whispered it:
It began with images of his death.
Not from the outside. No, these images sprang through the conglomerate from the inside, like a torrent of stinging ice. And with them came certain knowledge: He’d been dead and resurrected. Everything he knew, every loyalty, every memory, had been a lie. The anger grew like a virobot infection, burning through entangled thoughts spread out across three continents, spanning one of the largest conglomerates in the world.
Billy opened all his eyes.
Looking for part 1? Click here to read the Part 1 of Andrew Tisbert’s novella Diffusion, available for free only on The Colored Lens.
Andrew Tisbert’s work has been nominated for a Sidewise Award and short listed for a BFA. He has also received A Mary Shelley award from Rosebud Magazine. Andrew’s work has appeared in various anthologies and magazines such as Panverse One, Paradox, Talebones, Subtle Edens, Barren Worlds, GUD, Son and Foe, L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Vol. XX, Read by Dawn, and other markets. His work has been honorably mentioned in Ellen Datlow’s Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, as well as Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction.