Aurelia glanced around the small café. She hadn't really wanted to leave the hospital grounds, and she remembered that Jonathon had told her not to. But Nicholas had been persuasive, and the café was only a short walk from the hospital gates. It was in a narrow side street, though, and Aurelia clearly saw that many of the people around her were Clones. She took a table towards the back, feeling uncomfortable. People were looking at her, wondering what she was doing here, she could tell.
She pulled out her screen, wanting to look busy, and when Nicholas arrived five minutes later he apologised profusely.
“I meant to be here when you arrived. I'm sorry,” he said, taking a seat. “You must feel pretty weird here.”
Aurelia nodded. “A little. I don't understand why you couldn't come to the hospital.”
“Because I don't want us to be overheard. Besides, it's probably not your best career move to be seen hanging out with a Clone, is it?”
“Okay, but you could have come up to my room. We'd have been safe there,” she said.
Nicholas blushed. “I, well, I mean, it's your room, isn't it?”
She smiled at his naivety. He was so young, inexperienced. In that way, he was nothing like Jonathon at all. “Alright,” she said, putting him out of his misery. “So I'm here now; what about that coffee?”
He grinned and got up to order coffees from the counter. When he came back, carrying the hot cups carefully, he sat down and sighed. “It's difficult to know where to begin.”
“I suggest you start at the beginning,” said Aurelia, coolly. She stirred her drink and took a sip.
“It's not really that simple,” said Nicholas. “I sort of wish that it were. It's difficult to start at the beginning because there really isn't one. Well, maybe there is. What do you know about Clone history?”
Aurelia shrugged. “Pretty much the same as anyone else, I guess.”
Nicholas put his cup down and leant on the table with his elbows. Then he began to give her the potted version of the story of the Clones.
Cloning technology, he said, had been around for a long time before the great War began. For a century or so, cloning had been used in food and animal technology, as well as on a smaller scale to clone Medically needed organs, proteins and even blood. Old Earth law had forbidden the cloning of full humans, so it was only when Lunar City became a scientific hub that full-body cloning really took off. Even then, though, it was strictly controlled. Eventually a compromise came about. Because it was considered dangerous to let Clones breed (and possibly pass along mutated genes) it was agreed that Clones would be used only for military purposes. This meant that they could be kept under close watch, banned from breeding, and, most importantly for the Empire at that time, serve as a military force that was both disposable and renewable. It had, after all, been the Private Military Company, Lunar's cloned soldiers, who had rescued the Earth from World War 3.
Aurelia was sketchy on the details, but she had a basic understanding of the role of Clones in the Empire. What she didn't understand, and what Nicholas now told her about, was the lives of Clones themselves.
“Essentially,” Nicholas said, frowning, “Clones are tools. We are made, used and then disposed of when the time comes. The life cycle of a Clone is short. We're constantly tracked by our numbers, and once we've outlived our usefulness, which is at around thirty or so, we're injected. End of story. We have no families, no children, and no free will. If I were to be found disobeying a direct order, I'd be injected immediately. No hearing, nothing.”
She had known nothing of this. Her coffee was slowly growing cold in front of her.
“We're tools,” said Nicholas. “Just tools. There to be ordered around and to obey unquestioningly.”
Aurelia shook her head, not in disagreement with him but in disbelief of what she was hearing. To breed an army of men and treat them as robots?
“I think there's something that you should see.” Nicholas drank up and put his coffee cup down. “Come with me - it's not far.”
Silently, Aurelia pushed away her cold coffee and got up, following Nicholas out of the café. They walked down the narrow street and turned onto a broad thoroughfare bright with neon lights. Dodging squawking packs of Elite youths, Nicholas led her through Lunar. After ten minutes, they arrived at the back of a large, rounded building.
“It's the Arena,” explained Nicholas, ushering her in through an open door.
He showed his number to a Sec Worker and then took her up several flights of stairs and out onto a glass-enclosed deck. Checking his time reader, he nodded.
“Take a seat.” There were benches by the large windows. “They'll start any minute.”
Aurelia was about to ask who and what and why she was here, but a harsh whistle broke the silence instead.
Within Seconds, rivers of men were flowing through archways that led onto a circular piece of sandy ground. The Arena was the largest thing that Aurelia had ever seen, easily as big as the Earth Shuttle Bay. But as the long columns of running men wove into the open space, they quickly swallowed up its emptiness. The very deck under her was vibrating with the stamping feet of thousands and thousands of soldiers. And then the Arena was full, a glistening ocean of men, line after line after line of them, their faces turned to watch something that she couldn't see, something over her head.
There was a moment of complete stillness and quiet, as though the soldiers were statues, standing in ranks arranged by a child. Then the whistle blew again, and the men moved. As the whistle patterns became more complex, so too did the manoeuvres of the soldiers, but all moved in complete and perfect unison. The deep thud of thousands of boots striking the earth made Aurelia's insides vibrate.
“Clones, all Clones,” she whispered after a while, transfixed by the mosaic of men moving below her. “I had no idea there were this many.”
Nicholas laughed harshly. “This is a fraction of us,” he said. “There are many, many more.”
They looked down at the men swarming around.
“Aurelia, I need you to understand something.”
She tore her eyes away from the spectacle before her and looked at Nicholas.
“Do you think I am less than you?” he asked her.
She shook her head dumbly.
“I bleed when I'm hurt, just like you,” said Nicholas, his finger tracing a small scar on the back of his hand. “I get hungry when I don't eat, thirsty for water, cold in the winter. Sometimes I'm sad, and sometimes, when the light is right and work is finished, I'm happy. I fall in love. I get confused and learn things, I read and listen to beautiful music.”
Aurelia reached out and took his hand, squeezing it gently.
“What makes someone human?” he asked.
She gave a small smile. “All those things.”
He shook his head. “All those things and more. The ability to procreate, to have families, to choose what you love to do and do it well. These are all things that I am capable of but not allowed to do.”
He turned again to look through the window below him. “And all those men out there are just like me. Identical. They are all people with feelings and hurts and hates and loves.”
“I understand,” said Aurelia.
“Do you? Do you really understand what it is to have complete reasoning and intelligence, the ability to weigh risks and make decisions, but still have to do exactly what someone else tells you to do all the time? It's like having your brain handcuffed.”
“Maybe I didn't mean to say that I understood.” Aurelia backtracked. “I mean, I agree with you. I understand what you're trying to say. But...”
“But you're a Worker, and what the hell are you supposed to do?” Nicholas's colour was rising. “You wouldn't want to lose your privileges because of Clones, right?”
Aurelia stood. “No,” she said, coldly and very calmly. “Not at all. What I was going to say is that I don't know how to help. But I completely agree with you that something needs to be done.”
Nicholas stood now too. He looked around him; there was no one else there, but he still looked wary.
“I'm sorry,” he said. “I get...passionate. There's something that I very much need to tell you and a way that I think you might be able to help. But we need somewhere very private.”
“Come to my quarters,” Aurelia told him, remembering that Elza had said it was safe to speak in her living space. “We'll go now, and if we go through the hospital itself, you won't need to give your number; you'll be with me. No records. Come on.”
They hurried back through the city. The dome was starting to dim, and the air was getting cooler. As they arrived at the hospital, Aurelia slowed her speed. Walk with authority and look like you know where you're going, and no one will stop you, she thought. It took only a few minutes before they were safe in her living pod. Nicholas sat on the couch. Aurelia put some light music on through the vid screen, just in case anyone could hear them from the corridor outside, and then sat beside him.
“Okay, I'm going to tell you something, but I need you to hear me out. You've got to hear the whole story, alright?”
“Alright,” said Aurelia.
“Let's start with Jonathon Hansen, then.” He held up his hand to stop her from talking. “See, you're already trying to interrupt! Bear with me.
“Hansen is different. I don't know why. Hell, I don't even really like the guy that much, but he's different.” Nicholas ran his hands through his hair, trying to think of the words to explain himself. “Yes, he's brilliant, but he's also got something, a sort of connection with people, an empathy maybe, that many others don't have. You could call it charm, but that's too superficial. It's something deeper, like he really, truly cares and wants to help. That's why he's going to be the next president, and I suspect that's also why he's about to get killed.”
Aurelia gasped, and again Nicholas held up his hand.
“Lunar politics are, well, special. The Ruling Class are no different from anyone else. They have their positions on things, and traditionally you can count on one family to bring one characteristic to the table and another family, something different. But Jonathon is an all-rounder; he's not abiding by the unspoken rules. There's an evil rumour going around that he might want...Change.” He actually pronounced the word with a capital letter.
“So why would the Ruling Class elect him into power?” asked Aurelia.
“Because he was the Golden Boy, everyone thought he was going to be president, and he's basically been brought up to be a leader. And no one wants to be the first to publicly say that they might have made a mistake, that Jonathon might not be the one they've been looking for. So instead, in good Lunar fashion, they sneak around behind each other’s backs trying to get rid of him.”
“How do you know all this?”
Nicholas grinned at her. “Er, were you not there when the shuttle was attacked? And I suspect that whatever it is that I walked into last night might have been another assassination attempt. Which you still have to explain, by the way.”
Gods, she'd almost forgotten about that. She briefly outlined what had happened with Ellis, thanked Nicholas for his help and apologised for not explaining before.
Nicholas shrugged. “I'm used to following orders, remember? Anyway, with Jonathon there and the head of the hospital around, it seeMed pretty obvious that I wasn't helping your everyday murderer, so I did what had to be done.”
“I'm trying not to think about it,” said Aurelia. “I killed that man. I know it had to be done, but I killed him.”
“That I can understand,” said Nicholas. “I know the feeling. And I still haven't answered your question. How do I know about all this? It's simple.” He looked her directly in the eyes. “I was sent to kill Jonathon Hansen.”
The background music hopped rhythmically in the silence that followed his statement. Aurelia saw honesty in his blue eyes. Sincerity.
“No gasps of shock this time?” Nicholas asked after a few Seconds.
“I...” She sighed. “I think I'd already sort of guessed that.”
His eyebrows went up, but he merely nodded and then proceeded to fill her in on the details. The plan had been that cargo shuttles Secretly equipped by the military would attack the shuttle. In the ensuing panic, one of two things would happen. Either Hansen would be killed in the attack, or Nicholas would make it look like he had been killed in the attack. Simple.
“But you didn't,” said Aurelia.
“No, I didn't,” agreed Nicholas. “Instead, I left my deck minutes before I knew the attack was going to happen and waited until the first shots hit, then dragged Jonathon out of his deck and into the stairwell, where I thought he'd be safe.”
“Yeah, that concussion? That was me, I'm afraid. I couldn't let him see me, so I hit him over the head. Not too hard, though.”
Aurelia thought about all this. Things were beginning to come together slowly, but she was still missing pieces.
“But you allowed the shuttle to be attacked?” she said.
“There was nothing that I could do about that. There were too many other people involved. The only part that I could vaguely control was whether or not Jonathon himself survived the attack.”
“Sacrificing many to save one,” said Aurelia. “That's what you said on the viewing deck at the shuttle bay.”
“Exactly. I did what I could; I got him out. I disobeyed a direct order.”
“And you haven't been injected?”
“Rather obviously not. It was a risk, but I was fairly sure that I was going to get away with it,” he said.
“Really? That's a big risk for something that you're only pretty sure about.”
“There were only a few who knew about what I had been told to do, and I was very, very careful to make sure that as many people on the shuttle as possible knew that I'd saved Jonathon Hansen's life. I counted on the fact that first, I could persuade my bosses that I'd tried and failed, and Second that eventually I would be congratulated for saving the future president. At least in my argument, that meant that whilst I hadn't accomplished my mission, it would mean at some point in the future I would be personally congratulated by Hansen and have the perfect chance to assassinate him then.”
“Gods, you put thought into that one.”
“Okay, it was a little flimsy, but it worked. I have a solid record, and missions occasionally fail. Plus, it meant that no one else needed to know about the assassination plans. Why bother killing me off and arranging something complicated all over again when in a matter of days, I'd probably be in the best position to try again? There isn't long to go until the elections; we're getting a little pushed for time.”
“Fair enough, I guess,” said Aurelia. “But there's still one thing that I don't understand. Why did you save him?”
“Because I think Jonathon can help us,” said Nicholas.
“Help the Clones to achieve full rights,” he explained.
“But I heard in the way that he spoke to you at the hospital, he treats Clones in the same way as everyone else does. Why would he want to help you?”
“Because he has a sense of what's right,” Nicholas said, slowly. “Because right now he doesn't understand anything, but he needs to see what you saw, to hear what you've heard. I think then he'll understand.”
“You're relying on him being a good person, is what you're basically saying?” Aurelia said. She knew that Nicholas was a little naïve around girls, but this seeMed to be stretching things a bit.
Nicholas smiled. “Oh, no,” he said. “I've lived in Lunar for a long, long time, Aurelia. I have no intention of relying on Jonathon's good side - though to be honest, I think that might work. I'm going to play the game of politics. I've got a position to negotiate from.”
“If Jonathon agrees to back the Clone Rights Movement, then he'll have the political backing, support and protection of every Clone on Lunar, and more.”
Gods. Yes. That made perfect sense. “And where do I come into this?” she asked.
“I want you to make Jonathon understand. I want you to talk to him.” The Clone again ran his fingers through his hair. “Until now, my only problem was getting close enough to him to speak privately and have him hear me out. But you can do that for me. Can't you?”
Could she? Intuitively, she knew that Jonathon would listen to her. She even thought that Nicholas was probably right, that Hansen would do the right thing in the end. But did she really want to get involved in all of this?
She leaned her head back on the couch, thinking. She was already somewhat involved, and she was slowly starting to get the explanations that she'd asked for. But she hadn't wanted all this. All she wanted was to do her job and live her life. And of course, that was sort of the point, wasn't it? She had to do this because all those Clones she had seen didn't get to do the jobs or live the lives they wanted. Jonathon had warned her about this, told her that power was given to those who didn't want it, because they were the only ones who deserved to have it. She didn't want to get involved, but she had to.
“I will try,” she said quietly, her eyes closed. “I'll try.”
She felt Nicholas's hand on her leg.
“Thank you,” he said.
“How long do I have?” she asked, opening her eyes.
“Not long - a few days, maybe. You'll need to explain things to him.”
“Okay. And can I contact you?”
Nicholas nodded. “But be careful what you say over the intercom, okay?”
She nodded and stood. “I'm supposed to be meeting Jonathon tonight for dinner, so you'd better get going so I can get ready.”
Nicholas stood too, slightly awkwardly. He turned to face her and took both her hands in his own. “Thank you, Aurelia,” he said. Then he bent his head and lightly let his lips brush her own. Without saying a word, he let her hands go and left, the door sliding shut behind him before Aurelia could say anything.
Her Second kiss in as many days. Both equally light, both equally loving, but not really equal at all; Aurelia could see that now. She sighed. She really did have to get ready to meet Jonathon.
She was about to step into the sonic shower when her intercom buzzed.
“Package for Ms. Cole,” said a voice.
“By the door,” she responded, knowing that the delivery Worker would leave whatever it was outside. Probably a new uniform to replace the one half destroyed on the shuttle, she mused.
When her shower was over, she stepped out feeling refreshed and wrapped herself in a nightshift to grab the package. It was a plain white box, not at all like the normal uniform packaging. Puzzled, Aurelia opened it.
Inside there was something soft covered in a light paper with a disposable vid screen on top. Aurelia picked up the screen and switched it on, finding a message.
A transport pod will pick you up at the back gate of the hospital. Please wear this (permission has been arranged).
Taking away the wrapping paper, she saw deep purple material and, picking the fabric up, found a beautiful dress. A dress. Aurelia had never worn one. Like most Workers she'd worn uniforms her entire life. A dress. She felt that Jonathon was trying hard to impress her, and she disliked the way he'd chosen what she was to wear, but the thought of a dress was just too much temptation to resist. She lifted her arms and slid the garment over her head.
The silky material caressed her skin, and she felt almost naked. Turning to the main vid screen, she caught sight of herself and thought she looked, well, amazing. Her hair was loose around her shoulders, and the hem brushed her knees; she had never looked or felt like this in her life. At the bottom of the box she found shoes and slipped them on, completing the outfit.
“Permission has been arranged.” It meant that someone, probably Jonathon himself, had obtained the appropriate authorisation for her to be out of uniform. This was something that most people never experienced. Aurelia couldn't help herself and pranced around the living pod in her outfit. She felt incredible and beautiful. Screw being mad about this. She couldn't turn down the chance to wear a dress just once in her life.
But when it was time for her to leave her quarters, she found that she felt weird going outside without her uniform. She glanced up and down the corridor and saw no one there, so she hurried down the elevator and towards the back gate of the hospital, praying that she wouldn't see anyone she knew.
A personal transport pod was waiting for her, and it unlocked when she keyed in her number. After a quick panic over how the hell to get into the pod in a skirt without flashing anyone who might be able to see her (which made her feel grateful that she wore a uniform every day), Aurelia settled herself in the seat and saw that the pod had a pre-programmed destination. Buckling her belt, she waited for the hum, and then the pod turned towards wherever it was that it was taking her.
What now? She had no idea. What she did know was that she was in everything up to her ears, and she had no choice but to live up to her responsibilities. She kept telling herself to take things one step at a time; otherwise, everything would overwhelm her. Nicholas and her personal feelings would wait. Right now she had to concentrate on Jonathon.
Whatever he was going to say to her tonight would influence how she broached the Clone subject to him - if, in fact, she did. She'd thought things through in the shower and decided that her best plan of action was to sound him out on the subject first. There was no point in blurting everything out and putting Nicholas in danger. As much as she liked Jonathon, she remembered Michael's words in the hospital about being careful whom she trusted. And as time went on, she realised more and more that he'd been right. She still had little idea of what she was dealing with, but she knew that there was a lot on the line. Not least her life, should she be caught not fulfilling her Worker responsibilities.
The pod turned onto one of Lunar's main streets, flying on a high level, so Aurelia could see vid screens and lights and little people scurrying below. She wondered where she was going and what her parents would think of all of this.
Her parents had made her strong. They had brought her up well, she knew, and she also knew that deep in their hearts they would approve of what she was doing. Okay, her father probably wouldn't approve of the dress, but the whole helping people thing, certainly. She felt sure that if they knew more about the Clone situation, they'd support her.
Now the pod was ascending to an even higher level, skirting the tops of buildings and flying close to the dome. But it was slowing. Ahead, Aurelia saw a building that had a viewing deck. A shuttle bay? No, there wasn't enough space. It definitely wasn't the Arena, either. She was still wondering what it was when the pod turned, slid to a halt and docked.
With a deep breath, Aurelia unbuckled her belt, undid the door and was surprised when a large hand came in.
“Let me help you,” said Jonathon.
Grinning, she took his hand and let him pull her out of the pod. “Getting in and out of these things in a dress is a bit of a nightmare,” she said when she was standing next to him.
“Er, yes, I should imagine that it is.” He scanned her with his eyes. “You look beautiful, Aurelia.”
“Thank you. It was a nice present,” she said, being gracious.
“A present with an ulterior motive, I'm afraid.” He took her by the hand and began to lead her towards a large door. “This is one of the best restaurants in Lunar.”
“Restaurant?” The word seemed familiar, but she wasn't sure from where.
“Like a cafeteria, kind of, but fancier,” he explained. “And it's also Ruling Class only, so no uniforms in here. I've got us a private dining room, but even so, I didn't want you to be too noticeable, and in a uniform you would have been.”
Hmmm. Okay. He really was trying desperately to impress her, wasn't he? A private dining room in a restaurant. He wanted to wow her with his power and influence, right? Well, that wasn't going to work. Aurelia found herself looking forward to the dinner even less than before.
“What is it?” Jonathon stopped and turned to ask her.
“You suddenly seemed to sort of lose speed, become reluctant.”
Aurelia sighed. “Jonathon, look, you don't have to do all this stuff. The dress, the restaurant, the dining room. I'm not that kind of girl. I don't need impressing.”
To her surprise, he started laughing. “Aurelia, I never thought you were. And as much as I like you, none of this is really for you.” He looked around him and saw they were alone. “This is one of the few places in the City where I absolutely know that we are safe to talk, and where meeting a woman is normal. Far more normal than if you had come to my home, for example. No one will remark on the fact that I met you here; it will simply look like I'm trying to seduce you.”
“Which you're not?” asked Aurelia, not sure whether that disappointed or relieved her.
“Well, I wouldn't say that I'm not.” Jonathon grinned. “But there are some things that we need to take care of, and this is the best place to do that.”
“So try to relax and look like my seduction is working.”
Aurelia smiled. “Fine,” she said.
He took her hand again, and together they went through the main doors. There was a Worker there in a hospitality uniform who deferentially greeted Jonathon and then showed them to their private dining room. Jonathon had been right. The few people they passed along the way barely gave her a Second glance. Idly, Aurelia wondered just how many women Jonathon had brought here before.
The dining room had large windows overlooking the city, and a table with four chairs. The hospitality Worker placed a small paper booklet on two of the place settings and left. Jonathon pulled out a chair and told Aurelia to sit, before taking a place opposite her.
He looked at the booklet and said, “If it's alright with you, I'll order for both of us?”
Aurelia had no idea what was going on and didn't understand half the words in the booklet, so she agreed.
Jonathon tapped a few icons on the screen he took from his pocket, then nodded and put the screen away again.
“Okay,” he said, leaning forward in his chair and looking at Aurelia. “It's about time we had a talk. About the Resistance.”