Viviana Fuentes waited on a bench in the cemetery, staring out at the tidy rows of tombstones. A chill wind brushed her, sending shivers along her arms. Leaves skittered by, brown and dry with the advent of fall. She was waiting for death.
It wouldn’t be the quick death her original had. According to what she’d read during the flight home, her own would take a few days, the body lingering on as her nervous system slowly collapsed.
Her hands felt icy. Viviana slapped them against her wool-covered thighs, trying to warm them.
“It’s the first thing to go,” a voice said behind her.
She turned and saw that someone had come up the pathway, a man in his mid-thirties, blond-haired and handsome. “What do you mean?”
“The sense of touch,” he said in a northern accent she couldn’t quite place. “It fails first.” He came around the stone bench and gestured as if asking her permission to sit.
Viviana moved over as far as the stone seat would allow. He joined her on it, and she could feel the warmth of his body. He wore a dark overcoat and scarf over casual attire, navy slacks and a sweater. Not the same quality as hers, but clean. She had on the same charcoal business suit she’d worn for the last two days. Her hair felt sticky. She had it twisted up in a knot at the nape of her neck just as her original would have. “How do you know that?” she asked.
“It’s my job. I have to be aware of these things.”
“Who are you?” The wind caught a dark strand of her hair and blew it across her eyes. Viviana tucked it behind one ear with shaking fingers.
“My name is . . . Daniel, Daniel Hunter. I manage the Chicago station.” His head tilted, a self-deprecating motion. “Sort of.”
“Oh.” She should have known that the Rand Company would send someone after her. Legally, her body was their property. “Have you come to take me in?”
“That’s why they sent me. May I call you Viviana?”
No harm in that familiarity now, she thought. “Yes.”
He took her nearer hand and massaged her fingers. “I think you’re more cold and tired than anything else.”
“I didn’t have anywhere else to go.” She glanced down at her carefully manicured fingers in his paler hand. The warmth of his skin seeped into her, almost like life returning. “How long do I have?”
“Every avatar is unique. These things happen at slightly different rates.”
“They told me ten days when they made my avatar. I mean they told her that.” She’d spent the last few days trying to adjust to that truth—that she wasn’t the real Viviana Fuentes. She was only a copy.
“Most avatars have their memories uploaded within two or three,” he said, “so it’s rarely an issue. Twenty days is generally considered the outside maximum life span.”
She felt a surge of hope, as if ten extra days of life would be enough, but then it flowed away. “When I got to the station in Sydney, they refused to upload me.”
“So I would expect. How did you get back to Texas without any access codes?”
With the death of her original, she’d become a non-person. Her credit access had disappeared. “I always . . .” she paused, recalling that she hadn’t always done anything.
“She,” he corrected.
“She always carried cash,” Viviana said. “In case of emergency. It was wired along with me.” In truth, she’d had it in case she’d needed to bribe any of the Australian partners. Fortunately, she hadn’t. “I don’t know why Customs let me through, but then the airline wouldn’t release my luggage. They said it had to go to her next of kin.”
“They probably had no idea what to do with you.” He rose, took off his coat and draped it around her shoulders. The fabric felt synthetic, man-made like her body. It warmed her just as well as real wool, though.
“I’d like to try to get you somewhere safe,” he said, sitting down again.
“Back to the station? What’s the point?” she asked. “They can’t upload me. I’m going to die. Why not just leave me here?” She gestured at the headstones around them, stained pink and rose in the sunset’s glow.
“People find it distressing when an avatar senesces in public,” Daniel said in a reasonable tone.
She gave a short laugh. “Senesces. What a civilized way to say I’ll crumble to pieces.”
A light came on near the bench, triggered by the deepening shadows. “Does it hurt?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said with a half-shrug.
Pale irritation swept through her, a remembered taste of emotion. “I thought you said it was your job.”
“How can I really know if it’s never happened to me?”
“Have you ever seen one of my kind die . . . I mean, senesce?”
“No.” He smiled sheepishly then. “I’m only a day old.”
She surveyed his face again. “You’re a fax like me?”
He lifted the hair at the nape of his neck to show her the upload implant there. “My original is back in Chicago.”
“Why didn’t he just fly here?”
“This was faster. He works for the station, so he doesn’t have to pay.”
In the ten years since the Rand Company had produced their first avatar, no other similar patent had been granted, giving them a monopoly on the trade. Industry analysts claimed that the uploading process, avatar construction, and raw materials didn’t warrant what the Company charged, but Rand countered that the prices stemmed from research and development costs. Her firm had been willing to pay that price.
“Have you . . . has he done this before?”
“Faxing? Yes. I’m his thirty-second avatar. Sort of.”
“I’m the first,” Viviana said. “And the last, I suppose. I . . . she didn’t want to do it, but the partners insisted that she was the only one who could close the deal, so they sent me.”
“Did they not notify you when your original died?”
“I found out four days later,” she told him, “after I closed the contract.”
He sighed, and said, “I’ll bet that wasn’t . . . pleasant.”
“I’d been so busy. I’d hardly slept in days. I really thought I was her until I found out I was dead.”
“We are never them,” Daniel said.
Viviana motioned with her chin. “I wanted to see it for myself. She’s over there.”
The derailment on the intra-city light rail had killed several people, but none of the others had left copies of themselves behind to view their graves. Among the rows of newer tombstones, one bore her name. “Beloved daughter,” she pointed out. “I thought about going to see my . . . her parents.”
“It would be hard on them,” Daniel said.
“How often does this happen?” She wondered if she was the first.
“It’s rare,” he said, “but it has happened before.”
“And what did the Company do with the others like me?”
“They were retrieved.” Daniel rose and held out his hand to her. “I have a car outside the cemetery. You need rest more than anything else. How long since you’ve eaten?”
Viviana took a deep breath and let him help her up. She swayed, and he slipped a hand under her elbow. Not death—she had days to go—but exhaustion. “I don’t remember.”
She didn’t look at her grave as they passed it. He opened the door for her, and she settled into the passenger seat of a rented sedan, waiting while he went around to the driver’s side. He turned the heater up, started the car and pulled out of the cemetery’s drive.
“Do you know where you’re going?” she asked.
“No.” He took the highway, the rental’s drive control switching on automatically. “Do you care?”
“I thought you had to take me back to the station.”
“Not right away,” he said with a shrug. “Let’s find something to eat.”
It seemed a trivial thing when she was just waiting to die. Then again, she didn’t have anything better to do. “Why not?”
“It’ll make you feel better,” he said. “That is one of the things I do know. Avatars need to eat.”
The original Viviana Fuentes would never have ordered a stack of pancakes with a side of chorizo. It would have been yogurt and fresh fruit. She didn’t have to worry about her figure, though, a strangely liberating fact.
“I haven’t been entirely truthful with you,” Daniel said as he toyed with his eggs.
No one had been entirely truthful with her, not in this incarnation, at least. “How?”
“I didn’t come here to take you back to the station.” He looked regretful. “If I took you there, they wouldn’t do anything other than keep you in a holding cell until you senesce—preferably far away from any paying customer.”
“What other option do I have? They can’t upload me.”
“They can, into storage in the Austin station’s mainframe: the physical pattern, the consciousness, and memories . . . the whole package.” His jaw clenched as if he remembered something unpleasant. “They’d tell you they can store you until they can download you into a new avatar.”
“Can they do that?”
“They can do it now,” he said with a shrug.
“But it’s against the law,” she guessed.
He nodded. “Your original specified a one-time avatar. It’s actually standard on the contract.”
“Oh.” Legally, an avatar had no recourse against any decision their original made. It didn’t matter what she wanted.
The chorizo tasted spicy and greasy, the real thing, not soy. Viviana dabbed the corner of her mouth with her napkin. It came away orange, reminding her of childhood breakfasts on Saturdays when Papa cooked. “So what are you going to do with me?”
“It won’t take Danny long to figure out that I’m not bringing you in. He wants to find out what I’ll do.”
“My original. I prefer not to use his name.”
It struck her as odd that he would choose a different name. She had always been Viviana, too reserved for Vivi or Bibi even as a child. Her middle name, Alma, seemed too mature. She toyed with the notion, wondering what it would be like to wear a different name. “You think of him as someone else?”
“Easier than you think. You were created with every intention of merging your consciousness back into your original. She never thought of you as truly separate, so you don’t either. I was fabricated already knowing that. I’m not even actually a copy of Danny,” Daniel added with a wry smile. “I’m a copy of Number Ten.”
She put down her fork. “You’re not a copy of your original?”
“Danny had a psychotic episode after he uploaded his ninth avatar, got to spend a couple of weeks in one of Cook County’s fine mental health facilities.” He waved his fork as he spoke, his expression not one of sympathy.
“He’d uploaded three avatars in a two-day period. It’s difficult enough for a human mind to reconcile two sets of memories that occurred simultaneously. He thought he could handle more, but he found out he isn’t as all-powerful as he believes. After that, he decided not to upload us any longer. Ten’s physical pattern and consciousness were stored in the Chicago mainframe, and with those avatars he does manage to drag back, Danny uploads the memories directly to Ten’s file. I think of him as my original, not Danny Hunter. If Danny hauls you in, be sure to tell him that.”
He didn’t even like his original, Viviana decided, an impossible idea. “Will he come after me? Or you?”
“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “As I said, Danny would certainly like to know what Ten has in mind. I expect Danny will put a watch on me and try to figure out where I’m going, what I’m doing and with whom.”
“Because you’re Ten’s avatar, not his?”
“Therefore he can’t predict my movements. In the last six years, Ten’s personality has diverged markedly from Danny’s. The Company can’t just read the code that represents Ten’s consciousness and understand what Ten is thinking. He’s like a big fish deep under the water. They can only observe the ripples that spread out from Ten’s movements and make inferences from that. By studying me, by watching me, Danny thinks he’s studying Ten.”
“So he’s given you an inch of rope, so to speak, to see what you’ll do.”
Daniel nodded. “And if I can, I’m going to take a mile.”
The shower felt wonderful, hot water pouring over her skin and chasing away the last vestiges of the cold. It was good to have her hair clean. Viviana shut off the spray and watched the last of the water drain away, taking skin cells with it, each a tiny bit of her shortened, made-up life.
She toweled off and dressed in clean clothing Daniel had purchased for her. Not the kind of clothes Viviana Fuentes would normally buy, the pants and shirt felt more like loungewear, loose and comfortable. They weren’t made to last, though.
Viviana gazed in the mirror, hunting for signs that senescence was imminent, but didn’t know what to expect. She looked more tired than anything else.
The hotel room had two queen beds, not the finest of anything. Viviana didn’t complain; she hadn’t paid for it. She didn’t really want to be alone anyway. Fully dressed, she laid down on one of the beds and closed her eyes.
Across the room, Daniel spoke to someone on a wireless, his voice low. Viviana wondered sleepily whom an avatar might know to share secrets with. She slid into slumber, the question unanswered.
Viviana woke into darkness, her internal reckoning completely undone by her travels over the last few days. She spotted a clock glowing on the nightstand and decided she had a few hours until dawn.
The other bed was empty. After her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she spotted Daniel sitting in the leather wing chair. He’d backed it up against the door and slept with his head leaning against one of the sides.
Rising, she padded to the restroom. The face in the mirror looked less tired now. She struggled not to see Viviana Fuentes in the mirror. Even so, she knew that the woman staring back at her wasn’t the original.
She had nothing: no rights, no property and no identity. The Pope hadn’t even decided if she had a soul. He’d denounced the creation of avatars—too morally ambiguous for the Holy See. Her parents, good Catholics both, wouldn’t have wanted their daughter to do this. In the end, she’d chosen not to tell them.
Daniel rapped his knuckles against the doorframe to get her attention. “My turn. If someone knocks on the door, tell them to wait outside, all right?”
She relinquished the bathroom and went out into the dark room, wondering who might show up this early in the morning. She settled in Daniel’s abandoned chair and ran her fingers along the still-warm leather. He came back a moment later and turned up the light next to the computer screen he’d left rolled out on the desk.
“Do you have a soul?” she asked, looking up at him.
“Yes.” He spoke as if he knew the answer, as if it were more than conjecture.
“You’re a copy of a copy,” she pointed out.
He shrugged and then sat on the edge of the desk facing her. “It doesn’t matter if Danny thinks I have a soul or not. I know that I do, and that’s what’s important.”
“We aren’t human,” she said. That had been forcibly imprinted on her in the last few days.
“Legally, no.” He gazed at her, his skin looking gold in the light reflected under the amber-colored shade. “Do you think that’s fair?”
Viviana stared at her hand where it lay on the arm of the chair. “No,” she whispered in answer. “Not anymore.”
“There’s someone coming. If you come with us, you might have some alternatives.”
Viviana Fuentes’ life was over. Time for her to live her own, however short that might be. “What do you want me to do?”
Daniel left everything on the table when the young man showed up: his wireless clip, his key cards, his credit pass. Viviana watched him empty his pockets.
The young man approached her and held out a dog collar fitted with a metallic device on the back. “It should, in theory, block the telemetry transmitters,” he said. “If you’ll put it on, I can test it.”
He stood a few inches shorter than either of them, his tangled hair pulled back in a pony tail. He hadn’t supplied a name—an intentional oversight, Viviana decided.
She slid on the leather collar, buckling it in front like a bizarre fashion statement her original would never have made. Daniel had donned one as well, looking even more out of place in black leather than she suspected she did.
The young man ran something resembling a lint brush around her head and behind her. “Wow, not bad. They really do work. We are definitely going to win.”
Viviana decided he must be even younger than she’d thought, perhaps twenty-five. “Win what?”
“You don’t know?” he asked.
“We should go soon,” Daniel hinted.
“Oh, yeah.” The young man pocketed the lint-brush device and pulled out a ring of keys. “I’ve got a van.”
“Do you have a name?” Viviana asked.
He appeared to consider before answering. “I’m supposed to be your go-between for the department, but I’m not supposed to fraternize too much—corrupting the contest and all that.” He shrugged. “You can call me Migo.”
He headed out the door and they followed, Daniel putting one hand to her elbow. “Ten set it up as a contest between two universities,” he said as he drew her down the hall. “First engineering department to build a fabrication terminal—developed independently from the Company’s design, of course.”
She shot Daniel a horrified look. “Do they work?”
“Never tested, from what I understand.” He tugged at his dog collar.
They reached the elevator and went inside. “Daniel,” she said, whispering in his ear, “are you crazy?”
He glanced down at the carpeted floor of the elevator. The corners of his eyes crinkled as if he were about to laugh. “It’ll work,” he said. “Ten trusts them.”
Migo pretended not to listen, but Viviana suspected he overheard most of their conversation. “He’s a copy in a terminal,” she said softly, “in Chicago.”
“It’s like a prison,” Daniel said, “and Danny will never let him out. He doesn’t have to; Ten’s consciousness is his personal property. That shouldn’t happen to any of us.”
The elevator doors opened, light from the foyer of the hotel spreading across his face as they did so, revealing a gleam in his eyes she hadn’t noticed before.
Daniel Hunter Number Thirty-two, with his meager ten- to twenty-day life span, was on a quest.
“Where is he taking us?” she asked, once inside the van. The young man drove through the city as if he knew it well, along the CTTS and north to the suburbs.
Seated in the back seat next to her, Daniel kept a nervous eye on the road, as if he expected someone from the Company to pull up alongside them in the predawn light. The sky went from gray to orange to pink as he explained, slowly illuminating his features with a brightness that matched the fervor within. It was an audacious plan, likely invisible to the Company only because no one had ever seen it as a serious threat.
“Since the US Patent Office granted Rand’s application for a patent, we’re legally property. The only thing that can change that now is Congress or the courts,” Daniel said. “So we have to have an avatar who isn’t Rand property—fabricated by someone other than the Company—to make a case.”
“Twelve managed to get some design cues out to both universities,” Daniel added. “That was about five years ago. I don’t know if all the others in between have contributed, because several were never uploaded. Whatever they did was lost with them when they died. It’s not just a contest any longer.”
Migo half-turned in his seat to grin at Viviana. “Yeah, Aggies for Human Rights is funding us now.”
She wished he would concentrate on the road. “Really?”
“Yeah, and they have a lot of pull.” He waved his free hand as he talked. “AHR is working with Senator Cerna—he’s one of our alums—trying to get an injunction passed while the senate . . .”
“The road,” Daniel interrupted.
“Oh, sorry, man.” The young man turned his eyes back toward the road and maneuvered them back into their proper lane. He turned on the van’s drive control and then swiveled around to grin at her again. “He’s trying to get an injunction. ‘Cause avatars should have rights like other people, I mean. That’ll shut down all five of the Company’s terminals in the state until the supreme court can rule on it.”
And that would cost the Company a fortune, she realized, possibly enough to make them rethink the entire program.
A doctor attached to AHR removed the transceiver on the neural upload implant in her brain, eliminating the need for the leather collar. The surgery left her with a headache and a small dermal patch, but her hair covered the second. She hadn’t expected the relief she felt after having the Company cut out of her head. She felt hopeful now, which she hadn’t since she’d learned of Viviana’s death.
Daniel looked ill after the doctor finished with him, though. “They’ll need to move us again,” he told her, trying to sound brisk. “The Company is going to follow the transceivers for a while. I’m sure they already suspect that I’d get mine cut out. The telemetry probably cued them as to when.”
Migo drove them across town to wait, while someone else took the excised transceivers in a different direction. Viviana suspected that the Company might have another way to trace its property and, when asked, Daniel admitted he considered it likely.
They waited at a guest house behind a mansion in a private neighborhood. It belonged to someone important, she decided. She’d seen guards when they came through the gates at the edge of the subdivision.
“You don’t think Danny has any idea?” she asked Daniel as the morning sun began to warm the day.
Daniel pinched the bridge of his nose. “Between him and Ten, there’s a pretty big gulf. Danny might try to get a competitor to build a terminal, but never a university.”
“So what happens now?”
“If everything goes according to plan, they upload your memories and then download you into a new body.”
“With equipment that’s never been tested,” she said.
Daniel gave her a frank look. “Not a chance you’re willing to take?”
“If I don’t let them try it, I’ll die anyway.”
“I don’t want you to die,” he said.
“I don’t want me to die, either.”
The house had a lovely garden. She stared out the window, wishing she could walk through the faded rosebushes, but Viviana Fuentes’ face had appeared on the news. The Company had grown frantic enough to find her that they’d publicly admitted she’d outlived her original. Worried that she might be seen and reported, Migo had asked that they remain inside the house.
“What will I do afterwards?” she asked Daniel, the question she should have asked some time ago.
He’d been resting in the bedroom across the hall, but came to join her at the window. He settled on the wide leather couch and gazed at the garden, his face strained. “Good question.”
“Won’t I just die again in a month?”
“No, the bodies are capable of lasting much longer. Senescence is programmed to occur at a predetermined time. It can also be triggered remotely through the transceiver, but it isn’t necessary.”
“So we don’t have to die.”
“That’s one thing the public doesn’t know. It’s just become accepted fact—avatars don’t last. The Company specifically designed you to die.”
An appalling revelation, she thought it sounded close to murder.
He went on. “Ten altered your physical pattern code to remove the lines that trigger senescence, so that shouldn’t be a problem once you’re reloaded.”
“I still won’t have any rights.”
“Well, that’s where our political friends come in. If you’re willing, you could stand as the test case for the state supreme court. Whether or not we have the right to live our own lives—and to have bodies not programmed to fall apart.”
It would be a life of captivity, looking out at things but never going out among them for fear that the Company would try to kill her. But it would be a life, and that was more than her original had. “So I’ll go through the same upload procedure she did.”
“Not exactly. The funds were limited, you understand,” he said, shifting in the chair again. “Senator Cerna has managed to funnel some money into this, but the contest specified that they had to build a terminal that could fabricate a functioning avatar, not upload one.”
“Wait, you said they could upload me.”
“The memories of the last few days—that’s comparatively simple. That software’s been around for some time.” He shook his head. “The physical pattern and your consciousness files, those are far more complex.”
“Then how . . . ?”
“As soon as Ten found out your original had died, he transferred your physical pattern and your consciousness files to a remote terminal and isolated them from the system. He anticipated that I would be created to retrieve you. The university has those original patterns now. They can upload your memories into that.”
“What about you?”
He sighed and shifted in the chair. “Ten could only separate your files out because they were being purged from the system after your original’s death.”
She stared at him—his strained motions and his clenched jaw. The pieces clicked together. “You’re dying.”
He sighed. “My senescence was triggered before they got the transceiver removed. I felt it.”
She understood now how Daniel could despise his original.
“It would have happened eventually,” Daniel said. “I’m just sorry I won’t be able to stay around and help you. Besides, I’m just property. You, on the other hand, can’t be tied to Viviana Fuentes anymore.”
“But I am a copy,” she reminded him.
He reached across and took her hands. “No, you’re distinct. Your memories make you different. They change you. Never forget that, no matter what. You’ve done things and met people that she never did.”
He had talked around the issue, she noted, preferring for this not to be about him. She squeezed his fingers. “Can you feel your hands?”
“No,” he said, rising. “I think I’ll go lie down until the senator gets here.”
She followed him to the door of the bedroom.
“You should probably get some rest as well,” he suggested.
“I don’t really want to be alone,” she admitted. “And I don’t want to watch any more of Migo’s old movies.”
Daniel grinned. “A bit strange for you?”
She couldn’t help rolling her eyes.
“I’m just going to lie down,” he said again.
She didn’t pretend to misunderstand what he meant. “I don’t want to be alone. That’s all.”
He closed the door behind her after she came in. When he lay down, she followed, pulling the heavy blankets over both of them. She touched his cheek. “Can you feel that?”
“It’s just my hands and feet that have gone numb,” he said.
His skin felt icy under her fingers. “Are you in pain?”
His jaw clenched. “A bit.”
She kept her hand against his cheek so he would know she was there when he slept. She didn’t want him to be alone.
A rapping on the door warned her that someone had come for them. Daniel’s eyes opened, but he still looked exhausted, so she rose and went to answer. Light from the hallway spilled into the room when she opened the door.
Migo stood there, looking nervous. “Ms. Fuentes?”
“What is it, Migo? Do we need to move again?”
“No, ma’am.” His dark eyes made a quick motion toward the rumpled bed. He held one hand close to his side in an awkward position, with index finger and pinkie extended.
Under duress, she realized. He wouldn’t make that particular hand signal—the sign of his university’s rivals—unless something dire compelled him to.
She locked the door, stepped outside and closed it firmly behind her. Three men stood at the end of the hallway. They hadn’t been in her line of vision from the room. Two of them held back their sport coats in an old-fashioned TV bad guy posture, showing handguns in underarm holsters.
The third man didn’t have a gun, but held a stunner in his hand. A stunner wouldn’t leave much of a visible injury for the media to see, she knew. They ensured compliance instead.
“It’s all right, Migo,” she said, putting herself between him and the men. “I believe this gentleman has come to see me.”
“Is he . . . ?” the young man asked from behind her.
“I don’t know.” The man in front of her might be Danny Hunter, or he might be yet another copy. She suspected the former. “Get out of here,” she whispered to Migo. “They don’t want you.”
“I can’t just leave,” Migo said.
“Yes, you can.” She walked toward the men and into the elegant sitting room where she and Daniel had talked only a couple of hours before. She gestured at Migo, who’d followed her. “You aren’t after him, gentlemen. He’s only our driver. You don’t want to have to explain his disappearance, do you? Or his body?”
Danny Hunter shook his head, his expression amused. “He’s not leaving, Ms. Fuentes. Can I call you Viviana?”
“I’d prefer Ms. Fuentes,” she said. She gestured toward the couch. “Shall we sit down and discuss this?”
“Where is he?” Hunter asked, coming toward her. One of the thugs followed and took Migo by the arm, gun pointed discreetly into the young man’s side.
She understood that threat. “Where is who?”
“Did he tell you I was stupid, Viviana?” Hunter asked.
He stood only a few feet away from her. Daniel hadn’t aged in the last six years, she realized. Every incarnation had Ten’s physical pattern, not Danny Hunter’s. The man in front of her looked to be over forty. Lines marred the original’s face that didn’t show on Daniel’s, and a hint of a double chin crept over the tight collar of Danny Hunter’s dress shirt.
“He didn’t talk about you much,” she said with a shrug.
“You’re a good liar, Viviana,” he said, “but they always talk about me.”
She didn’t recall Daniel saying the man was an egomaniac. “How did you find us?”
“I knew he would get that transceiver cut out. He always does. We started implanting a second, more discreet one, a few years ago.”
“How clever,” she said.
Hunter grabbed her arm and shook her. “Don’t waste my time. Where is he?”
“I thought you wanted me back.”
He pushed her away and one of the thugs took over the task of bruising her arm. Hunter shook his head. “What did he tell you? That he could find someone who would help you? That he could get you uploaded?” He fixed a pitying smile on her. “You don’t understand what’s going on, Viviana. Too bad you got caught in the middle. Now, where is he?”
She didn’t think she could stall any longer. “In his bedroom. He went to lie down a while ago. He felt ill.”
“I’ll bet,” Hunter said.
Just as the original moved to search the bedrooms, Daniel stepped out into the hallway. “I assume you’re looking for me?”
Hunter scowled at his younger-looking twin. “You didn’t even try to run.”
“You can’t get away with hurting our driver, you know,” Daniel said. “He’s human.”
“But you’re not, are you?” Hunter pointed the stun gun in Daniel’s direction.
“Legally, no.” Daniel walked past his original and into the sitting room where the two thugs held their hostages. “Are you all right?” he asked her.
“I’d hoped you would have the sense to climb out the window,” she said. “I thought I could keep him talking for a while.”
“Well, he’s stupid enough to fall for that,” Daniel said.
Daniel didn’t try to defend himself when his original cracked him across the back of the head with the stun gun. He hissed and went to his knees, one hand to his scalp. It came away bloody; the dermal patch had torn. She reached out to help him, only to be jerked back by the man who held her arm.
“Let’s get this over with,” Hunter said. He dug a hand into Daniel’s shirt collar, hauled him to the middle of the floor, and then pushed him back to his knees. “What are you planning?”
A faint smile crossed Daniel’s face. “Do you actually think I’m going to tell you?”
Hunter circled around and crouched in front of his double.
“I wish you could remember that we go through this charade every damn time. Same questions, same answers.”
The other rose and walked behind him. For a second, Daniel’s eyes met hers. Then he looked away, almost as if searching for help in that small room. His roving eyes stopped, focusing on one corner. “How many of Ten’s avatars have you questioned and not learned anything?”
“Where did he send her files?” Hunter asked, ignoring the question. “That’s a new question, by the way.”
Daniel’s jaw clenched. “Why don’t you ask Ten?”
Viviana saw it coming. Hunter applied the stun gun to Daniel’s shoulder. The popping sound of arcing current was drowned out by Daniel’s cry. He doubled over, one hand clasped to his shoulder.
She flinched, unable to help herself. The thug holding her arm shook her, as if to force her to watch. They weren’t going to let her see this and escape alive, she reckoned. They would simply wait until they had her in a holding cell, preferably far from any paying customer. Then they could do whatever they wanted to her.
Hunter waited until Daniel managed to push himself back up. “Number Ten has been deleted,” Hunter said. “Now, what was it planning?”
“He’s far too valuable to the Company to delete,” Daniel said. His voice had gone hoarse, but he managed to make his words clear. He glanced in that one corner of the sitting room again. “Do you tell that lie to every one of his avatars?”
Hunter grabbed Daniel’s shirt collar and pulled it tight. “Where did it transfer the dead woman’s pattern? Why?”
Daniel had suspected the second transceiver, she recalled. He had let Danny Hunter find them. “He can’t answer you if you kill him,” she said, drawing the original’s attention.
Hunter let go Daniel’s collar and glanced up at her. “No, he can’t. Bring her.”
The thug dragged her over to the center of the rug, passing her off to Hunter’s grasp. Then the man jerked a still-gasping Daniel to his feet to make him watch.
Hunter gave her a slow appraisal that would have, in a different situation, provoked her to slap him. “Well, Viviana, let’s find out how much this one talked.”
She met Daniel’s strained eyes and then looked away. He had to keep her alive, she knew, or everything he had worked for would be lost, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t help stall the Company’s men. “He sent the files to a remote location,” she said. “He didn’t tell me where, though.”
“What was he going to do when he downloaded them, Viviana?” Hunter asked.
“He said something about one of Rand’s competitors and trying to get around the patent,” she said. “I don’t know patent law, so I don’t know if that’s possible. But if the terminal they built works, they should be able to remake me.”
Hunter watched her with narrowed eyes. “In Texas? Which company?”
She kept her face blank. A lie was best told, she knew, by telling the absolute truth. “He never named a specific company. I don’t know where I’m being taken.”
Hunter’s grip on her arm tightened. He glanced over at Daniel. “Well, Thirty-two?”
“That’s all nonsense,” Daniel said wearily.
“You always tell me things are nonsense, Thirty-two.”
“I’ve never spoken to you before today,” Daniel said.
With Hunter’s hand holding her so close, she couldn’t see him move the stun gun. It touched her side and pain seared through her. She screamed.
Hunter’s hand on her elbow turned her loose. She sank to her knees and wrapped her arms around her stomach. Her hair had ripped loose from its knot and swung across her face. She could hear them, Daniel and Migo both yelling, but her mind only listened to the pain in her side. Her breath came in short gasps.
“She really doesn’t know anything,” Daniel insisted, now audible over her body’s internal din.
“Do you remember what happens when this kind of voltage hits a neural interface?” Hunter said from behind where she crouched on the ground. His hand landed on her shoulder, and the gun’s hot prongs pressed against the back of her neck. “Or do the amps do the damage?” Hunter asked. “I never can remember.”
She couldn’t shake her hair out of her face. Her stomach still quivered from the gun’s first hit.
“What do you want to know?” Daniel asked in a quiet voice.
“Where are they taking her?” Hunter pushed the stun gun harder against her neck.
“They haven’t actually told me,” Daniel said.
“Engineering building,” Migo supplied. “The basement of the bio-chem engineering building.”
Evidently Migo had determined that his contest would be lost if Daniel’s original fried her neural interface. She could feel Hunter move, his attention switching to the younger man. “Whose engineering building?” Hunter asked.
She heard flesh hitting flesh and Migo yelped. “Ow, man. The school’s.”
“What school?” Hunter asked.
“What, you didn’t see the university when you drove by it?”
She flinched, expecting Migo would get hit harder for that quip.
“You don’t have any legal right to hurt him.” Daniel’s voice sounded exhausted. “He’s not your property.”
“But she is,” Hunter reminded him. “What’s your name?”
She tried to turn her head enough to see Migo. His denim-clad legs were all she could make out.
“Inigo,” the young man said. “Inigo Montoya.”
“Well, Inigo, what are you doing here? More than just a driver, I think.”
“Hey, I just do what I’m told, man. I get a phone call; they tell me where to go. I was supposed to take them there tonight. That’s all I know.” Inigo/Migo yelped again at the end of his speech.
“Get up,” Hunter said to her.
She stumbled to her feet, very aware of the gun to her head, and pushed her hair back from her face. Migo had a bloody nose. Daniel’s face seemed even paler than before.
“Do you enjoy doing this?” she asked.
Hunter ignored her question and shoved her toward the outside door. “Move. We’re going to the car now. We can handle this in a more secure location. Either of you fights or tries to run, your driver gets hit again.” He glanced over at Daniel, who nodded. Then Hunter gave her a snide look. “After you, Viviana.”
She could take a beating, she knew, but if they got her into that car, her life was over. She yanked her arm away. “I really prefer Ms. Fuentes.”
“I don’t care,” he snapped.
They had gotten nearly to the door when a crash sounded, startling them all.
“Police,” someone shouted from outside.
“I’m being held hostage, man,” Inigo yelled back.
Hunter shoved her and she fell onto the floor again. She scrambled onto her back in time to see Hunter holding his hand out. Time seemed to slow as one of the thugs handed over his gun. Apparently, Hunter intended to end the problem she represented once and for all.
Her life, brief as it was, was supposed to flash before her eyes—but she could only recall the taste of chorizo and the feel of Daniel’s cheek under her fingers.
She saw Daniel move, putting himself between her and his original. There were gunshots, and the impact as Daniel’s body landed atop hers on the floor, and the smell of blood. Then the police entered the room with shouting and a flurry of feet.
Frantic, she shifted herself out from under Daniel’s weight. She turned him onto his back, ignoring the police.
Daniel hissed and then groaned. His hand touched his right side, coming away dark with blood. His eyes met hers. “Are you all right?” he whispered.
“I think so.”
The police had come in force, dark clad legs moving all about them. Nothing seemed real to her beyond Daniel’s face. “Hang on,” she said, “they can get an ambulance.”
Daniel shook his head. “No, no point to that.”
He meant to die here on this cold floor, she realized. Dark blood seeped around her knees, spreading quickly. A police officer knelt on the other side of Daniel’s body, but she ignored the man. “Daniel, you still have more time.”
“No.” He grasped her hand, his blood sticky on her fingers. “Just don’t forget me, all right? Don’t forget me.”
She understood what he meant. “Not as long as I live. I’m sorry you won’t be there.”
The police officer’s fingers touched Daniel’s throat. A pair of dark legs in Italian-made trousers came to stand over them. “Is he still alive?” a voice asked from above.
Daniel’s grip on her fingers loosened.
“No, Senator.” The police officer sat back. “He’s gone.”
“Damn,” the other voice said.
She knelt there in Daniel’s blood and cried.
“Ms. Fuentes,” a policewoman said, patting her on the back with an awkward hand, “let’s get you out of here.”
“My name is Michael Ruiz,” Migo was saying to a police officer across the room. “Hell, yes, I do intend to file charges. They held me hostage, they assaulted me . . .”
“This way, Senator . . .” someone said to the man in expensive pants.
“. . . the right to an attorney . . .”
The room spun around her, the myriad voices faded, and she toppled to the floor.
She woke in a brightly-lit place with the unmistakable smell of a hospital room. She raised one hand to rub at her eyes, only to find it entangled in the tubes of an IV. When she turned over to locate that, she caught sight of Migo sitting in a chair by the window, grinning at something on the flexi-screen he held. He looked like he’d had a chance to get cleaned up, so she must have been here a while. Fingers of dawn showed through the blinds.
He jerked as if startled. “Hey, you’re awake.”
“I know that. Where are we?”
“Hospital.” He rose and rolled up his screen. “You were shot in the leg. Do you remember that?”
She had a recollection of the room spinning around her when she stood, but if she’d been shot she didn’t recall that particular pain. “No,” she whispered, her throat tightening.
He came over to the bed and stood over her. “You’re going to be fine. Senator Cerna smoothed everything over with the police, you know. They got everything on the security cams. It’s been on the news, even. They wanna do the upload in the morning—if you’re still willing to try it.”
The security cams, on which the Company’s representatives had been recorded beating and then shooting two avatars. Daniel had set himself up, creating a scenario that would be played over and over on news feeds worldwide. The police’s timing had been too convenient, she thought, for it to be anything other than a trap.
Daniel had sacrificed himself for his quest. And she had to stay alive, if only so that someone would remember him. She was the one who would take the mile. She wiped her cheeks with her free hand. “Yes, I’ll do it.”
Migo nodded and crammed his screen in a back pocket. “Hey, is there anything I can get you? You hungry?”
“How about some coffee?” she asked, and then added, “Could you ask if there’s a priest here? At the hospital, I mean?”
“You bet,” he said, heading for the door.
“Did I hear you say your name was Michael?” she asked before he got away.
He turned back, “Yeah. Everyone calls me Migo anyway.”
“I thought you told those men it was Inigo.”
“Yeah. They didn’t get it either.” He rolled his eyes and strolled out of the room, leaving her confused again.
With a nurse’s help, she dressed in a blue shirt and loose trousers that fit over her heavily bandaged thigh. She was settled in a chair by the window, gazing out at the grounds by the time the priest arrived. A kind-looking elderly man, he sat down across from her next to the window. The sun shone brightly outside now, despite the chill clinging to the glass.
“Father O’Herlihy,” he introduced himself. “How can I help you, Ms. Fuentes?”
“Do you . . . do you know who I am?”
“Yes, I do,” he said. “The church is very interested in the outcome of this process as well, child.”
Of course, they would be. “Do you think I have a soul, Father? That Daniel Hunter did?”
The priest reached over and patted her hand. “Yes, I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
“Father, it’s been a long time since . . .” She trailed off, recalling that she’d never been to confession at all. She’d never been to mass. Viviana Fuentes had done those things. For a second she couldn’t speak through the tightness in her throat.
Father O’Herlihy pressed a handkerchief into her chilly fingers. “May I call you Viviana?”
“I . . .” She took a deep breath. “I think I’d prefer to be called Alma, Father. It was her middle name. I’m not Viviana. I never was.”
“It suits you,” he said, patting her hand. “So, how can I help you, Alma?”
“I’m scared, Father,” she whispered.
“That you might die? Or that you might live?”
She could sense her hands. It was the first thing Alma Fuentes noticed when she woke. They’d placed a robe around her new body, a soft terrycloth that she could feel against every inch of her bare skin. Her injured leg didn’t hurt any longer.
She opened her eyes and gazed at the watching crowd. She spotted Migo’s grinning face from across the room, and felt relieved to see someone she knew. Father O’Herlihy stood in the back, too, there by her request.
She had no way to tell if this body would last more than twenty days, if the far-removed Ten had successfully managed to remove every line of senescence code. That didn’t matter, she’d decided. No one had the guarantee of time.
Originally printed in Writers of the Future XXIV, August 2008