by Claude Ecken
It did him no good to run away to Boston, Brussels, Madrid, London or Paris, they inevitably picked up his trail. What had started out as a nice trip around the world ended up as a nightmare on the old continent.
The ravishing Balkan girl who was traveling with him was surprised to see him scamper off like a rabbit while they were window-shopping for some biological gadgets on a street in Neo-Nîmes. The girl was scandalized and sputtered when, at the other end of the crowded street, she saw the hunter who had caused the sudden flight (desertion, really!) of professor Spartezar, whose double pushed her aside without even looking at her as he shoved his way through the crowd.
“Jerk!” she yelled, still scandalized to see that she had got hooked up with a Crud. She was especially angry because the qualities of sensitivity and generosity that Leon Spartezar possessed were obviously not present in the Oaf on the heels of his image. He did not even seem to recognize her, even though after fifteen days together some mental recalibrations had most likely taken place. She watched the dazzling middle-aged man pursue his prey and she decided to forget him, despite his prestige.
Leon Spartezar took one turn after another and ended up in a dead-end alley. He did not know the city very well and his hesitations gave his pursuer time to eat up some of the distance that separated them. He turned around and stared with horror at his image, his own face, hell-bent and hard as nails, with a frightening glimmer in his eyes. He had never seen himself look so hideous.
Sweating and suffocating, Leon Spartezar entered a dive bar where the heavy odor of fried foods blended with the stinging tobacco smoke in the small room. Nobody saw him go into the restroom. He did not even have time to close the door when his double pushed him back against the wet, flaky wall. Leon Spartezar knew that he was not there to bring him back but kill him. Thus, he could measure the psychological distance that separated them from now on. He would never have been able to commit murder … except in legitimate self-defense. He was already aiming his knife at the belly of the clone as it rushed him …
Later, only one Leon Spartezar left the smoky bar, casually so as not to attract attention.
“ … the clone that was found yesterday in the restroom of a bar in Neo-Nîmes. Let’s remember that in terms of the law, we can’t really talk about a crime since a clone is still not considered a human being, seeing that the entire physical and psychological make up of the individual is still concentrated in the original person. There is, however, moral damage for Professor Leon Spartezar, who has lost the recent personal experiences of part of himself. The investigation has not yet determined the identity of the murderer. In a strange twist of fate, it is the famous biogenetician himself who might be the object of legal proceedings. Indeed, everybody who has the means to clone themselves is responsible for the activities of their double, since it is the same mind and the same thought that is at work in each of their extensions. Provided, of course, that they go regularly to the recalibration sessions in any authorized center where the original and his copies can share their experiences. Now, the investigation would seem to show that Professor Spartezar might be guilty of neglect in losing one of his clones and especially in not informing the police within the authorized time. If, in the meantime, his clone had committed any unlawful acts, which might have led to a settling of scores, he would be held responsible. But there are other dark areas that investigators are pursuing. Leon Spartezar has still not shown up at home. The wide distribution of these images should compel him to get in touch with the police as soon as possible.”
Spartezar cut the power to the plasma screen just when the macabre image appeared. He could not stand to see himself dead, lying in a pool of blood.
He sighed, stretched, and lay down on the bed of the small hotel where he had found refuge. For a minute, the vision of his face, deformed by astonishment and pain, came back to haunt him. He thought about it and made a quick review of his conscience. It was really him, the O, the Original, the first Occupant. Or maybe, as they liked to say, the Oaf, and with respect to the clones, the Cruds, supposed to be given the hard jobs since only the well off had enough money on hand to be cloned, which exempted them from thankless jobs.
But if it was in good taste to let others believe that you were the original exemplar, if it was common to think that the Oaf was the first individual, none of the doubles were so sure of the matter. The clones could, if they did not have mental recalibrations every fifteen days or sooner, develop differently, with a new psychology, cut off from the original in creating a divergent personality and thus become a new individual with independent thoughts. Identical minds could also differ in physical details, over time or experience. Personally, Spartezar knew that one of his clones had a scar on his left shoulder.
The professor heard a click that made him sit up in bed. Someone was trying to force the door with a master key. Sweat started streaming down his forehead. It could only be one of the clones on his trail. For a week he had been given no respite. Leon Spartezar turned off the light and hid behind the door. He shuddered at the idea of fighting himself.
He had run away to make the most of life. He had abandoned everything, the recalibration sessions and the control of his doubles, in order to finally live alone, alone with himself, without tormenting himself all the time about what he did somewhere else, the projects that were so dear to him and that he delegated to his copies, and especially the orders that he had to give, the psychological flaws that he had to detect, the constant surveillance that he had to keep to avoid losing his place and status. He had come to live like those tyrants who are unable to enjoy their position because they are too preoccupied with foiling attempted uprisings.
The one who was turning the doorknob right now was probably thinking the same thing. Every mental recalibration communicated the same torments to the clones. He, too, had enough of his doubles.
When Leon Spartezar entered the hotel room, the professor shoved him to the ground and ran down the hallway. He had time to see that his double was holding a biological micro-laser: a domestic appliance to sterilize a room by destroying the microorganisms without ruining the furniture that had been rigged to be one hundred times more powerful. The energy contained in the casing could disintegrate him down to his last cell.
“He who is gone too long cuts himself off from the others!” the clone shouted. “You’re no longer Leon Spartezar!”
The professor rushed up the stairs to the upper floors, avoiding the elevator that he figured was being watched.
Of course he was still Professor Spartezar! It was the clones that had stopped being him because he had deliberately pushed them aside. But how could he prove it? His doubles must have thought that they were running after an uncooperative copy.
Sometimes, he wondered if he were really himself, like it happened to his doubles to not know if they were Leon Spartezar the first or simply Cruds. The only time the ambiguity vanished was during the recalibration when the clones were motionless. Only the original could get up first after sharing his memories with all the bodies lying down. It was only during this crucial phase that he had time to delegate their next responsibilities and assign the role of each clone.
But once the session was finished, each copy was sure that he was free to do as he pleased. Each copy believed that he was the original. What a headache!
“You’ll never measure up!” his double yelled. “Your nervous system had to strong and resistant to become a cloned!”
Leon Spartezar refused to hear these painful words. He was thinking of nothing but escape. His double was always catching up to him, as if he had more physical energy than him. Impossible, he thought, or else they they’re a lot farther from me than I imagined. At least if someone would show up, hearing all this racket. But no, if someone did hear, the doors would stay closed on purpose.
Spartezar ran into a metal door that led to the roof of the building. It was locked. He took out his knife, hoping for once to “measure up”.
As a youth, Leon Spartezar could do nothing but congratulate himself for having parents who were rich enough to clone him five times, which allowed him to go to several schools at the same time while having fun with his friends and having love affairs and taking time to relax. Back then he really had the impression of being one, everywhere he was, and of taking full advantage of the twenty-four hours in a day by multiplying the number of copies of himself that he put to work.
Then came the split: with adulthood and the difficulty of absorbing too many memories and the heap of problems he had to face. Spartezar had made the mistake of using his clones full-time and becoming overwhelmed.
When he found his job tedious, he wondered why he did not give it to one of his doubles. And his doubles asked themselves the same question.
When he remembered something nice, he wondered if he had really lived it. And his doubles wondered whether they had, for a single minute, ever been with beautiful Mary, laughed or cried with her, if all those wonderful moments had just been incorporated into their memory, imprinted there in exchange for some well-done job.
A real headache. A mental gap that grew bigger by five other minds meditating on the same problem. A psychological break multiplied by six. Suspicions passed on, amplified, sources of intolerable anguish. Schizophrenia projected out of body.
The problems had started a long time before, when he was around twenty, and had developed insidiously ever since, like a cancer.
The knife blade broke. The tip was stuck in the lock. Leon saw his double come up. Something in his manner disturbed him, made him feel more and more uneasy.
“We’ll continue being ourselves without being burdened with a freak like you. You have to amputate sick limbs, oafs or not.” So, the Leon Spartezar who was slowly climbing the last steps knew that he was the original. Was that a comfort? “Besides, too much time has gone by for a recalibration.”
“But you can’t!” the professor screamed, his whole body trembling. “How can you continue without the Original? Without me? Without recalibrations, you’ll stop being a team. And if you show up at a center, they’ll see right away that no individual is giving orders after the memory share!”
He jumped to the side just as a beam of energy hit the door. His double stepped into the roof light. Spartezar looked at his clone in amazement, seeing how different they were. His face was still his, but thirty years younger! He had before him a rejuvenated version of himself.
“Now do you get it?” the young Spartezar asked. “Being a biogenetician perfectly capable of producing a clone, I had no problem replicating myself and making the necessary corrections to become a double capable of doing the recalibrations. I have waited patiently for the moment to come out of hiding. You’ve done us enough harm with your twisted ideas, your desire to split your personality. Now, I’m taking control!”
Leon Spartezar looked for an escape, but by simply pressing a button, the clone of a clone cut him in two. He swept the disintegrator over the body until there was nothing left but a few fumes, which quickly evaporated into the atmosphere.
“Starting right now,” he said, “we’re forming a new team.”
Science fiction writer Claude Ecken is also an occasional comic book scriptwriter, regular literary critic, sometimes anthologist, animator, reader, depending on the opportunities and cravings. He is twice winner of the Rosny aîné prize for short stories (2001 & 2004) and twice winner of the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (2006 & 2021), especially noteable for his books Le monde tous droits réservés and Au réveil il était midi. He has also won the Masterton Price 2013 and received the Cyrano Prize in 2021, awarded to science fiction personalities for their lifework.