Lauren cracked her knuckles anxiously, the sound obscenely loud in the subdued quiet of the room.
Relax, she told herself. You’re perfectly ready for this—within the hour it’ll all be over and done with. Breathe.
Thus reassured, she sat up a little straighter, her spine parallel to the rigid metal chair back rising up behind her. The room around her was white—almost glaringly so—and carried with it an aspect of cold sterility such as might be found in the labs of a hospital. Before her was a metal table, also white, and beyond that a vacant chair; both were crafted with a sort of undecorated precision that furthered the formal austerity of the place.
Other than that, the room was perfectly empty and featureless—not even so much as a door or window. Running a hand over the collar of her form-fitting grey uniform, Lauren looked around for the umpteenth time, still trying to find some kind of camera or communications system. She could see nothing, but she knew she must be under some form of surveillance already. She breathed evenly, hoping she looked level-headed and well disciplined. The wait was part of the experience, no doubt; designed to expound on a cadet’s natural anxieties—she would have to endure it as best she could.
“Lauren Hemsley,” a woman’s voice filled the room, calm and detached as the colorless walls. “Cadet 4178. Logic and deduction test 4b. There will be two choices in this exam.” The table buzzed softly, a small portion of its surface sliding away to reveal a panel with two small buttons: one red, one blue. “A subject will be sent in,” the voice continued. “Around his neck is an electricity cuff that has been wired to his nervous system. The blue button will unlock the cuff, the red will activate its sequencing and discontinue his life. The subject is either A) an innocent human being, in which case subject must be freed before time runs out, or B) a carefully replicated clone, sent with the intention to deceive, in which case subject must be discontinued before time runs out. It is up to the cadet to discern which.”
This announcement was followed by a faint hum as a sort of wall flickered to life across the room, dividing the table into two halves. The wall was transparent, discernable only by a faint blue haze running along its edges: a force field, Lauren realized—enacted for her protection.
“If the subject is human and the cadet chooses the red button, the shock will only stun, not kill. Subject, however, is unaware of this so as to best simulate a life-or-death situation.
“Failure will not be tolerated—the wrong decision will result in the cadet’s elimination from the program. Prepare for subject’s entrance.”
Lauren chewed nervously on her bottom lip. She’d always heard this exam was difficult, but even so, she couldn’t help but be a little surprised at such extreme seriousness.
A panel opened up on the far side of the room, disrupting the seamless wall. A man entered through it; Lauren had no chance to see what was beyond the door before it closed up again, solid as the rest of the room.
Instead she turned her attention immediately upon the man. He had a tall, thin sort of build, emphasized all the more by his long, narrow face and prominent cheekbones. His hair was a nondescript brown, but his eyes were an attesting shade of blue, very light and fixed unblinkingly on Lauren’s face. He was dressed in a grey uniform similar to Lauren’s—but around his neck was a slender white collar, the blue light on its side blinking placidly, indicating its readiness to end his life at a moment’s notice.
After a pause of several seconds, the man walked across the room with a careful, athletic stride and took a seat in the vacant chair, resting his forearms lightly on the table’s edge.
“You have exactly fifteen minutes.” The test administrator’s disembodied voice amended. “Good luck, cadet.”
The voice winked out, leaving the two to stare at each other, silent, motionless.
“You’re surprisingly quiet for someone who has an electric cuff strapped around their neck.” Lauren volunteered at last. She didn’t have much time to begin with and didn’t feel like wasting any more in a staring contest.
The man blinked in a slow, purposeful fashion, as though he had lost the ability to do so involuntarily. “Whether I’m human or clone, an assurance of my innocence would be completely expected and tell you nothing. Considering the useless, pointless, uninformative nature of this exercise, I’ve chosen to dispense with it.” He formed his words with deliberate precision, as though he didn’t want her to miss a single letter of his reply.
Lauren raised an eyebrow. “It seems to me that a human would be showing more emotion under the circumstances.”
“As would a clone trying to deceive you—thus another impasse.” He drummed his knuckles sharply against the tabletop. “Next.”
Lauren paused for a moment, drawing on the silence. Subjects for this test were no doubt carefully screened and selected specifically for their nerve…but still, this man was unreal. It was of the utmost importance then, that she project a similar image of confidence, to let him know she meant business.
She cleared her throat. “What’s your name?”
“Odysseus?” She smirked. “I read a very old story once that had a character by that name—Odysseus, the crafty one. As I recall he was one’s friend as long as it suited him, but he moment it stopped suiting him…”
The man stared, unresponsive.
“Are you trying to play games with me?” Lauren demanded. “This seems like a risky place for games.”
Odysseus shifted the collar around his neck, grimacing very slightly. “For all you know, I might’ve been chosen for this expressly because of my name. Perhaps one of your professors has an eccentric sense of humor.”
“No, I think not.” Lauren folded her hands primly on the table. “I know because clones don’t even have names and you, sir, are a clone.”
Odysseus gave her a contemptuous look. “Oh really?”
“Yes.” Lauren tried to keep the excitement from making her voice tremble. “You’ve worn an electricity cuff many times before: when you moved it just now I could see the scars on your neck. In addition, your eyes give off a faint reflection when you look in certain directions—this, combined with the fact that you’ve only blinked once this entire time tells me that you have disc implants in your corneas, a surgery often performed on the clones who work in the electronics factory to aid them in close-up work. Since it’s illegal to perform that surgery on anyone but clones, I now know that you’re an insubordinate and very dangerous clone who’s been frequently subjected to an electricity cuff to keep you under control. Test solved.” Her hand moved for the red button.
“You don’t want to do that.”
His voice was so dry, so utterly unafraid that Lauren couldn’t quite help but pause.
“Why not?” she asked smugly. She had won, after all, but he was a startlingly amusing adversary and it seemed a pity to waste him.
His eyes watched her, a hint of metal flickering in their depths. “I see a fatal flaw in your argument.”
She bristled. “My logic was perfectly valid.”
“Yes it was. The problem lies not with your reasoning, but with the proposition you based that reasoning upon. My eyes have been operated on—but how do you know that such a surgery is only conducted on clones?”
Lauren sighed. “Article 3 of the Constitution, section 4—All surgeries done for the increased productivity of the labor force are to be performed solely on clones, to further illustrate the difference between the living, organic human and the inorganic clone.”
“Where did you read that?”
Lauren opened her mouth to answer, then stopped. Where had she read that? She scrolled through her mind, trying to recall a time and place where she had memorized that phrase, but it was useless. The information was there in her brain, but any attempt to put it in context was instantly rebuffed, as though her memory had had its own force field erected inside it and was bouncing her inquiries back in her face.
Her eyes darted back up to Odysseus, whose lips had curved upwards in a small, satisfied smile.
“Who are you, exactly?” he asked her, his voice low and dry.
“Lauren Hemsley, cadet 4178 in the United Air Force of the Republic, taking logic and deduction test 4b so as to—”
“What were you doing before you came into this room?”
Lauren leaned back in her chair, her heart beating a little faster.
What had she been doing? An hour ago? Two hours ago? Yesterday? Last week? She had known before she had begun this test, she was sure of it, and yet… A solution struck and she glanced quickly around the room even though she knew it was, for all appearances, empty. No matter—somewhere inside those placid white walls a time-splicing device must be rigged up, blocking out the past and keeping her locked in the present.
Odysseus’ smile widened at her distress. “Confusion. Fright. The computer has entered ‘search’ only to find her records empty.”
Lauren pressed her hands together, palm to palm, finger to finger, trying to dispel the jolt of anxious terror that had momentarily encompassed her.
“I’m not frightened,” her tone was icier than she’d meant it to be. “I’ve been under the influence of a time-splicer before as part of my training. Being subjected to it is obviously part of the test.”
“Do you know that?”
“Of course. The test administrators—”
“Oh, yes.” Odysseus smirked. “Please—tell me more about them.” He folded his hands in a scholarly manner, mocking her.
“I…I can’t tell you anything about them right now,” she felt herself reddening under Odysseus’ amused stare. “But that’s the point of a time-splicer; to see if I can maintain my conviction in the face of doubt.”
“Or perhaps it’s there to instil a false conviction.” The blue eyes were fixed ruthlessly on her, keeping her pinned to her chair.
“That is not part of a time-splicer’s function.”
“Miss Hemsley,” Odysseus’ voice was low, rife with reproachful mockery. “How do you know what a time-splicer does and does not do? Without your memory, how are you to ever know if you are being deceived?”
Alarm sliced through her at the thought, white-hot and wickedly sharp. No—it was he who was trying to deceive her, it was he who was the liar. And yet the initial thought remained, filling her mind with images of malevolent scientists lurking on the other side of the white-walled room, ready to slip the electricity cuff around her neck should she fail.
She swallowed hard, her throat unendurably dry.
“You are a clone,” she bleated at last, her own voice sounding weak to her ears.
Odysseus slammed his hands down on the table, leaning closer to the force field. “Yes I am, but what does it matter? Until you know who they are—the entities refereeing our little sport, I mean—you cannot form a proposition because you don’t know if the information implanted in your brain is to be trusted.”
“The republic is always to be trusted, the republic is—”
“Shut up!” Odysseus’ face contorted with the shout, the muscles in his neck straining against the confines of the collar. “This is a bloody logic test, isn’t it? So tell me, logically—what are the differences between, as you term them, humans and clones?”
She closed her eyes tightly, distracted by the roaring of her pulse.
“Answer me.” his voice was both calm and enraged, refusing to be ignored.
“H-Humans are organic, clones inorganic.”
“And what does that mean, exactly?”
“Humans are formed by organic means, enabling them to experience empathy, love, and other emotions. Clones are inorganically formulated from a sliver of organic material.” The words were familiar, at least; helping to rein in her scattered thoughts. “They are superior to machines but have not attained the status of life forms and are therefore expendable.”
“Rhetoric!” he hissed, his eyes narrowed. “I asked you for logic and all you can do is spout rhetoric. I’d rather you vomited all over—at least that indicates that the poison has been expelled.” He paused for a moment as though to let the words sink in before calmly resuming his seat. “Now tell me: what does it matter if a human being is formed in a womb or a test tube? Is there really some sort of flawed portion of my DNA compared to the man I was duplicated from, or is it all merely a mental game you and your counterparts have been playing with yourselves, furthering it with your propaganda and continual shouting of your own superiority?”
Lauren stared mutely at him, her hands shaking as they lay on the table, inches from the blue and red buttons. How had this happened? She was supposed to be in control and he the one in terror, not vice versa. She had to think…
Odysseus leaned in close again, his eyes glinting in a confidential way. “Maybe this test is much more complex than you realize, Lauren.”
Something flickered—Lauren struggled to recover herself, grabbing onto this statement with the franticness of a drowning victim.
“Maybe.” She sat up straighter, her voice regaining some of its steadiness. “After all, a good liar can make even the most profound truths seem absurd, if one is to let him. Have we not all experienced it before, in dreams? Nonsense suddenly seems to be inspired; things that would strike us strange in the waking world we accept with placid content.” Odysseus closed his eyes as though in frustration, and Lauren felt her confidence returning, swelling through her in a wild, frantic hope that would set this all right. “But when we wake…oh, when we wake all is restored, and we laugh at ourselves for ever believing the gibberish of our sleeping minds.” Relief began to surge through her, so potent she thought she might cry. “Yes! This is the true test of it—not in discovering your deception but resisting it! I have done it! I have solved the puzzle!”
Her hand resumed its hovering over the red button.
Odysseus opened his eyes again; when he spoke, his voice was almost inaudibly quiet, the words unbearably sharp. “Or perhaps this is not a test of my humanity, but a test of yours.” He paused, his gaze moving to the button and back again. “What does it mean for your humanity, Lauren, if you push that? If, when under the full weight of definite uncertainty, you send me to my death because the voices told you to?” his voice grew louder, more intense. “Even now, you don’t know the intentions of the beings who placed you here: they could be evil. Everything they have told you is right could in reality be wrong, and everything wrong be right.”
“The same could be said of you.”
“Ah, but it isn’t I who’s asked you to electrocute someone…is it?”
Lauren jerked her hand back, slumping in her chair.
“What do you want me to do?” she snapped. “Intentionally fail my test? I will be expelled—do you understand? It is too late to get into any other programs…my chances in life will be ruined!!”
Odysseus unblinking eyes never left her face. “Intentional failure might be the only way to pass.”
“I wish I’d just pressed the red button the moment I figured out what you were!” Lauren’s voice was a snarl. “I shouldn’t have allowed you to speak!”
Odysseus pursed his lips reproachfully. “You’re formed by organic means, aren’t you? I thought that automatically guaranteed love and empathy, etc.”
“Stop it! Stop talking, you’re confusing me!”
“Good.” His features sharpened. “You deserve to be confused, you need to be confused. It’s the first step towards clarity. You must dismantle the nonsense that has been built around you before you can construct anything new.”
Lauren laid her head down on the table, trying not to think about the time draining away, her own destiny balanced precariously on the depleting minutes.
“I won’t choose a button.” She said at last.
“Then you will certainly fail.”
“No I won’t,” she sat up, wearily. “The test will be declared void and unscored. I’ll be allowed to retake it next year—when you won’t be here. A setback, for sure, but one I can live with.”
Odysseus’ eyes seemed to increase in intensity. “Waiting will not make this go away, Lauren. To make no choice is to choose the red button; those who stand back and allow evil are on the same side as those who perpetrate it.”
Lauren clasped her hands to her head, her teeth clenched tightly. “I need more time to think, okay?”
“There is no time! You must decide now! You must—”
The cuff beeped and Odysseus slide limply from his chair, his body jerking rigidly as hazy currents of electricity darted and danced over his limbs.
“Stop!” Lauren leapt out of her chair, panicked. “Stop, I didn’t press a button!”
“Time is almost up,” the disembodied voice of the test administrator drifted through the room, bland and unconcerned. “The subject will now be subjected to five series of shocks, each one with an increased amount of voltage. The final will prove fatal. If subject is human, press the blue button; if clone, allow the test to proceed to a close, or press the red button.”
The first shock had stopped; Odysseus lay on the floor, gasping for breath, his blue eyes fixed rigidly up at the ceiling.
“You see?” he choked out, struggling to sit up. “They have changed the rules. Action is no longer required…only…apathy.”
“I declare the test void!” Lauren screamed, trying to reach the unknown world beyond the room. “I have the option of pulling out, do you hear me? I DECLARE THE TEST VOID!!!”
“Second shock,” intoned the voice.
The current was brighter this time, Odysseus’ movements more spastic. His head smacked hollowly against the floor with every contortion, and Lauren dropped to her knees, banging on the force field with her fists.
The shocking stopped.
His teeth gritted with stubborn determination, Odysseus rolled onto his chest and began dragging himself over to the force field as well.
“Who’s more human?” he grated out, his voice raw. “Me or that bloodless, inorganic voice? Can you not see that you and I are of the same make, Lauren? Can you still not see it?!”
Lauren was crying now. “What happens if I fail? What’ll they do to me?!”
“Stop it!” Lauren shrieked. “Somebody stop this!”
Odysseus’ body continued twitching even after the shock ended, his face tight with pain.
“The question,” he continued doggedly, “is not ‘what will they do to me if I fail’, but ‘what is failure’?” his voice was a whisper now, the words fading. “We all…have…a choice to make…”
Odysseus’ eyes rolled back into his head, showing all white. Even when the shocking stopped, his eyes remained in the same condition, his mouth agape and his breathing erratic.
Lauren lunged back to the table, staring manically at the two buttons that refused all attempts to dodge them, refused to accept a bystander…
With a scream, she brought her hand down.
The three white-clad men stood huddled in the corner of the room, staring at the television screen mounted on the wall with a silent, fascinated horror. Behind them, in the center of the room, stood two reclining chairs: one holding the still form of a man, the other of a young woman. They were unconscious; wires snacked from their chest and arms, connecting them to a large, complex machine that whined softly in the background.
The comas of both were restive—they jerked and twitched, their eyes darting about beneath closed eyelids. Up on the television screen, the imaginary interactions of the two were being played out like a movie, a physical manifestation of the illusionary world the machine had created in their minds.
The said apparatus beeped loudly, and all at once the man began to thrash wildly, cursing and screaming with alarming force.
The three men quickly surrounded him, pressing him back down into the chair as they talked over one another like alarmed parakeets.
“By God, Odysseus—are you all right?”
“Is he still breathing? Check his pulse! Check his pulse!”
“D—n, I knew we shouldn’t have let him try it…”
The man’s eyes flew open; he quickly pushed his friends aside, shaking his head in an attempt to reorient himself.
“I’m fine,” he sputtered, “Get off me, all of you!” Still gasping hard, he sat upright, his bare chest gleaming with sweat. He pressed both hands to his face, groaning softly. “’But when we wake, all is restored, and we laugh at ourselves for ever believing the gibberish of our sleeping minds’…”
“Nothing, sorry…” he kept a hand pressed over his eyes a moment longer, his fingers shaking. “It’s just—that was so surreal.”
“But you were right!” His colleague’s voice cracked with excitement, his features lighting up with something like awe. “You were right—she chose the blue button!”
The man glanced back at the girl’s still sleeping form, his eyes harboring a sort of fierce pride. “Hand me the recorder, will you?”
One of the white-clad men eagerly pressed a small, silver object into the man’s outstretched hand.
Ignoring the wires still connected to his body, the man pressed a button on the object’s side and began to speak.
“Date: January 8th, 2408. Is as I thought…the experiment has shown that clone 4178, duplicate of air force cadet Lauren Hemsley, is indeed capable of rational thought, compassion, and empathy. At potential risk to herself, she violated programmed orders to intervene and save my life. It is quite clear that she is not, after all, a machine, but human—in every capacity of the word.” He paused to draw a deep breath, his blue eyes made brilliant with satisfaction. “Entry completed by Odysseus S. Flynn, leading scientist and head of the Republic’s cloning department.”