Author’s note: I’ve changed the title to my current working title, which is far easier to remember.
New writing project. Inspiration hit me, and I was off and running. Long as I have the muse, I’m going to run with this one. Chapter 1 below.
The man startled awake, thrashing around as he tried to get his surroundings. Or rather, he would have started thrashing around, had his arms and legs not been both firmly bound.
The world around him was red-tinted. He blinked, trying to clear the haze from his vision, before he realized he was surrounded by fluid. The man almost panicked then, but oxygen continued to flow steadily through the mask strapped over his nose and mouth.
Where am I? What’s going on? He tried to think, to analyze the situation, but his brain seemed to be fogged over. He squinted and tried to peer through the liquid. I’m in a tank. Oh.
I’m in a tank.
He glanced up and saw the level of fluid already beginning to drop. His thoughts were still crawling along at a torpid pace, but the sights around him were beginning to coalesce into a picture he recognized. Oh, shit. I’m in a cloning tank. If I’m here, that means my life insurance policy was invoked, which means I’m dead somewhere.
As the sticky fluid dropped past eye level, he saw a man in a med coat standing outside the tank. He raised his eyebrows in an unspoken question. The man in the tank nodded in understanding. Yes, I’m under control. A moment later the restraints around his arms and legs snapped open, allowing him to begin moving. He reached up with unsteady hands and pulled the mask from his face, then let it dangle from the connecting tube running out of the cloning cylinder.
Mind is fuzzy because of the mind-flash, he thought. I’m…who am I? Rake. That’s my name. Rake.
The fluid finished draining out the bottom of the tube with a gurgle. He rolled his shoulders experimentally, feeling strength start to flow into his muscles. The tube itself began to shake, and a moment later it was lifted away into the ceiling, leaving him standing—well, leaning—against the platform where he had been strapped.
The man in the white lab coat approached him with an outstretched hand. “Mr. Earthstepper, I’m Doctor Valance.”
“How long?” Rake asked hoarsely.
“It’s been two weeks since you last re-flashed your memory,” the doctor said, requiring no further clarification. “We received the end-of-life signal this morning and began the wake-up process. We’ll need to run you through the mental and physical tests to ensure the memory flash is holding. After all,” Doctor Valance added with a smile, “I’m sure you wouldn’t be happy if your insurance policy wasn’t fulfilled to the letter of the contract.”
“Of course.” Rake tried to swallow and struggled to find enough saliva. “Do I get to shower first?”
The doctor nodded. “The shower is right over there,” he indicated, “and the change of clothes you left is in the locker.”
“Great, thanks,” the cloned man managed to rasp.
“Disorientation is common following the memory flash process,” the doctor said. “I’ll give you a few minutes to get your bearings before we begin the quality assurance process.”
Rake stumbled his way to the shower and, as the water began pouring over him, realized for the first time he was completely naked. As he tried to wash the sticky red nutrient fluid from his body, he found his hair was longer than he preferred, and the stubble of a beard roughened his cheeks. What do you expect, that they’re giving you regular shaves and haircuts? he chided himself. When I get out of here, I’ll need to find a razor.
He steadfastly ignored the most important question, the query that kept nagging at him as his mind steadily cleared. How did I get here? What mess did I get myself into?
The steaming hot shower was a luxury he hadn’t had in quite a while—water was scarce and jealously hoarded aboard starships, and he seldom set foot planet side for long. While he wouldn’t normally spend much time bathing, the hot water seemed to help his mind clear. And, after all, I paid a lot of money for this insurance policy. I might as well make sure I get every pence worth.
When he at last shut the water off, Rake felt nearly normal again. It wasn’t the first time he had been forced to use an insurance policy—in fact, this was the third time—but the man never felt overly comfortable with it. Probably because the first time was in a backwater facility run by pirates after they had tortured me to death, and wanted a second shot at it, he decided.
The change of clothes he left was standard fare—dark trousers, soft mid-calf leather boots, a light shirt, and a dark brown leather jacket. Concealed within the jacket was the handgun he kept as a backup: heavy enough to be easy to shoot without being too heavy to aim, and completely illegal inside the cloning facility. He looked it over and decided not to push his luck, slipping it back into concealment in the jacket’s lining rather than attaching it to his hip.
Harder to get at, but if I want to renew my policy here, I’d rather they don’t throw me out for breaking the rules.
It was one of the few universally-accepted rules at life insurance facilities across the Colonies—no weapons inside. When life insurance was first implemented, it had been an early liability problem. Growing clones and flashing memories, not to mention the necessary storage for both, were delicate and expensive processes. A freshly-decanted clone getting shot as it stepped out of its tube raised serious liability questions: was the company responsible for another clone, or had it done due diligence? Rather than debate the issue in court, life insurance companies as a whole had declared their facilities weapons-free, even on backwater worlds where concepts like “murder” were legally murky.
Carrying the pistol in his jacket lining made it harder to draw in an emergency, so Rake made a mental note to ensure the weapon was at-hand before he stepped out of the facility. Once I’m on the street, all bets are off.
Fully dressed and far more comfortable now that he was armed, he stepped out of the bathing facility and walked back toward where Doctor Valance was hunched over a display, no doubt with Rake’s personal records and the information for his physical and mental tests.
“As you should be well aware, Mr. Earthstepper,” the doctor said without looking up, “we take quality assurance very seriously. Should this body fail to meet the necessary standards, we will need to eliminate it and grow you a new body from scratch. It will, of course, delay your departure by approximately a month, but it’s a necessary precaution.”
Rake tried to suppress his shudder. So, if I fail, they kill me and start again. He resisted the urge to flee the facility. Then again, dead and alive again would be better than trapped in a defective body. And the general quality of life insurance has gone way, way up in the last ten years.
“If you’ll step over here, Mr. Earthstepper, we’ll begin,” the doctor said with a gesture. “We’ll start with reflexes, followed by a memory test, and finish with a stress test to ensure all bodily functions are working as expected.”
The man reluctantly stepped over to the simulation pod for his reflexes test. With an uneasy sigh, he slipped into the seat and reached out to grasp the flight yoke for the simulator and waited for the screens to light up. The pod slid shut around him, consuming him in darkness for long moments before the displays began to cast light.
Quality assurance was a simple process for life insurance. Three tests were run on the cloned body—memory, reflex, and stress. Each time a policy-holder updated his stored memories—or “memory flashes”—the tests were run on the holder’s body at that time to ensure the comparison results were current. To pass quality assurance, he had to pass each of the tests with 98% of his “baseline” from the most recent flashing. Anything less, and his current body would be eliminated and a new one would be grown for the next attempt.
Rake had no particular desire to die again—plenty of motivation to put his best effort into the test.
The simulator flared to life, and he was at the controls of a starship navigating the junk fields in orbit around Earth. It was a classic reflexes simulation, designed to ensure a pilot’s reflexes were up to the task of quickly responding to changing flight conditions. This is old hat after earning my wings the first time, and then training as a Terran pilot during the Great War, he told himself.
The simulated ship was a small, one-man craft designed for tight and quick maneuvers. Rake remembered, very briefly, his last run in the simulation—nearly nine minutes of precision maneuvers before he had been clipped by a centuries-old satellite that ripped a wing off the ship and sent it spiraling into atmosphere.
This time, as he plunged into the debris field, he didn’t feel his usual ease at the controls of a ship. Sweat began to bead on his forehead and run down into his eyes as he struggled to keep the little ship from crashing. He wove in and out of wrecked starships, shattered orbital bases, old satellites, and unidentifiable junk. Instead of relaxing, as he normally found the simulation, he found himself growing more and more distressed.
And then, as he ducked around a battered freighter, he saw it coming toward him like a missile: an old airlock door, three-inch alloy designed to take a military-grade explosive. He tried to shove the yoke forward and dive out of the way, but his muscles seemed to fight him. The little ship’s nose pushed down, but far too slowly—the door ripped across the top of the vessel, splitting it open as neatly as a knife slicing flesh.
The simulation screens immediately went black, leaving only his time on the screen: four minutes, four seconds.
The canopy hissed open, and Rake swallowed hard before forcing himself to look up at Doctor Valance. The man’s expression was grim. “I’m sorry, Mr. Earthstepper.”
“Give me another shot at the sim,” Rake said immediately. “It was bad luck, and I got blindsided. Let me have another run.”
“Mr. Earthstepper, we monitor more than just your flight time,” the doctor said gently. “Your reflex time to object within line-of-sight and your reaction time to it indicate you were responding at approximately 96% of baseline.”
“Give me another chance,” Rake demanded through gritted teeth.
“I apologize, Mr. Earthstepper,” the doctor said as he leveled a small, handheld device at Rake—a neurostunner, useful only at ranges of a half-meter or less. “We’ll have to revisit our records and see what went wrong with the first attempt. I assure you we will get the next body right, or you’ll receive fifty percent of your insurance fee back.”
Rake reached into his jacket, fumbling for his gun. I don’t want to die! he thought irrationally, knowing full well the company wouldn’t just leave him dead. I’ll deal with this body!
The doctor froze as a quiet “crack” split the air. Rake tried to draw back, knowing there was no avoiding the neurostunner.
Then the man in the white coat collapsed.
Rake stared wide-eyed at the body of the doctor as he finally withdrew his sidearm from his jacket lining. What? What happened to…?
“Nice and easy, Earthstepper,” a mechanically-filtered voice said coldly. “Just step out of the simulator so we can have a nice talk. Try anything stupid and, well, I doubt you’ve got another insurance policy ready to go.”