27 Jennifers by Josh Roseman
For twenty years I had no one to talk to except the computer, and the robots, and myself. The computer had no personality, the robots were mindless little drones, and I wasn’t much of a conversationalist.
Then she showed up.
I must have been asleep when it happened — the sky never got lighter or darker here, just the same starlit twilight, so I’d taken to going to bed and waking up when I felt like it.
I didn’t feel like waking up only four hours after telling the computer to darken the windows and dim the lights. I needed a good nine hours of sleep to be functional these days. But I felt her, and she jolted me out of a dream that melted away instantly.
“Computer, interrogative: who’s there?”
The androgynous voice, which had resisted two decades of me trying to reprogram it into something a little more pleasant, said, “there is another human present on the island.”
I practically jumped out of bed and pulled on yesterday’s clothes; they were still in a heap on the floor. The computer lit the way for me as I pelted through the house, snatched up my handheld, and left the small, domed building behind. I turned to the port — the only entrance to the island, so it only made sense that, whoever the human was, she had to be there.
“Computer,” I said as I slowed to a lope — I wasn’t as young as I’d been when Michael dumped me here, and try as I might to stay in shape, two blocks at a flat-out run was about my limit, “interrogative: who’s the human?”
“The human is a female, twenty-four standard years of age,” it said through my handheld. “She is in excellent physical health. No other information is available.”
I heard a lot of that. I hadn’t at first, but I’d stopped caring about the proper way to talk to computers. I had been a doctor once, but now I was just a lonely, middle-aged woman, living in what amounted to solitary confinement on an abandoned, man-made island city.
I rounded the last corner and nearly ran the woman down. As it was, I had to jump to the side, catching myself a good scrape along my left hand as I dragged it on the plascrete wall in an attempt to slow down.
“Where exactly am I?” Her voice was suspicious. Familiar, too. “And who the hell are you?”
I took a good look at her. She was my height, slender, with dark hair in what they used to call a pageboy. But it was the eyes that caught me.
“Who are you?” she said again.
I tried to shake some of the pain out of my hand. “My name,” I said, “is Jennifer.”
Now she looked critically. I watched as she measured me, bright blue eyes flicking up and down. “My name’s Jennifer Davalos,” she said, even more suspicious now. “Where the hell am I?”
Even under normal circumstances I didn’t care for the deserted streets. “Come with me. We can talk at my house.”
She didn’t follow, and when I didn’t hear her shoes on the plascrete pavement, I turned back. “What is it?”
“Your scar.” She’d gone pale. “The one on your left arm.”
It had happened so long ago I’d nearly forgotten it; fifteen years old, low-gravity fencing, a high arc jump, but my opponent was too fast and her sword had whipped along the back of my left arm. If I’d worn a jacket or even a longer shirt, Jennifer would never have seen it. The new Jennifer, that is. The other Jennifer.
The other Jennifer who was showing me the back of her left arm.
The other Jennifer who had an identical scar.
The other Jennifer who was me.
Jennifer — Jennifer Two, we’d decided after a couple of days — had been the first to join me, but she wasn’t the last. There were ten of us now — five Jennifers, one Jenn, and four Jennies, the most recent of whom showed up just yesterday. Jennifer Two and I had had the place to ourselves for two years before Jennifer Three; the first two Jennies arrived only six months after Jennifer Three, and within days of each other.
By now we’d figured out what was happening.
The story was the same for Jennie Four as it had been for Jenn One three weeks previously: her husband had gotten upset about something and stormed off to his lab. Jennie, or Jenn, or Jennifer; whoever it was went to sleep alone and angry in her bed on the science station that hung in orbit, but woke up on the plascrete ground at the port.
Days on Ongkanon VI were thirty standard hours long. Once there were five of us, we started sleeping in shifts, trying to catch the next arrival and figure out exactly how we’d gotten here, but it was as if our brains just stopped. Well, everyone’s except mine. I was always well and truly asleep when one of them arrived.
And Jennie Four arrived furious, snarling, pacing my living room, glaring at the four of us — myself, Jennifer Two, Jenn One, and Jennie One; as the first of each name, we decided it made sense for one of each to be here, and Jennifer Two I insisted upon including because she’d been my first companion. “That ungrateful bastard!”
“I know,” said Jenn One. “We all know.”
“How did… what did he do? How come… I mean…” She stared at us, getting a good look for the first time, and had to sit down. But she was back on her feet again in an instant. “You… and you, and you, you’re…” She took a deep breath. “You’re me!”
“Not exactly,” I said. “Yes, we’re all Jennifer Davalos, and if you ask the computer in the medical center to scan us, our DNA will be the same, but we’re not the same person. Not anymore.”
“And why are you so much older?” she asked, just as suspicious as Jennifer Two had been.
I shrugged. “I think we’re clones. That is, you’re clones of me. I was the first Jennifer Davalos. From what we can tell, you’re the tenth.”
She sniffed. “I go by Jennie,” she said. “Michael hated it, but he had this look in his eye that made me want to fight him on it.”
“You’re one of mine, then,” said Jennie One. She’d let her hair grow out; my hair — our hair, I supposed — tended to get wavy if I let it go without a cut for too long.
“What do you mean, one of yours?”
Jennie One got to her feet. “I’m Jennie. The first Jennie, that is.”
Jennie Four gave her the same once-over every new arrival had given those of us already here, all the way back to Jennifer Two. “What if I want to be in her group?” she asked, pointing to Jenn One.
“It’s not like that,” I said. “We just thought it would be easier–”
“The hell with that. I’m not going to be a part of this!”
The four of us let her storm out. Jennie One gave me an apologetic look. “Was I really that bad?”
“You got over it.”
Jennifer Two was shaking my shoulder. “Wake up, One,” she was saying softly. It had been our little joke for our three years alone together — I was One, she was Two. Now that there were twenty-one of us, the humor was gone, but old habits died hard. “Come on, One. You have to get up!”
I blinked sleep out of my eyes. “What is it?”
“It’s Jenn Two. She’s here!”
Now I was awake. For the past six years, there’d only been one Jenn — we were up to twelve Jennifers and seven Jennies, but only one Jenn, and Jenn One had been wondering when there would be another of her.
I got dressed and followed Two — still slender as the day she’d arrived, still with the same pageboy-cut dark hair, still sticking with me even though I was twenty years older than her and looked it — out to the street. We met up with Jennie One and rounded the corner to the port, moving quickly.
My hand went to my mouth and I distinctly heard myself gasp. Jenn One had been on greeter duty for the week, even though no one new had arrived for four standard months. Now Jenn One had a black eye, nearly swollen shut, and was bleeding from her mouth. Jenn Two had her in a choke hold, and when she saw the three of us, she tightened her arm. “What the hell is this?” she screamed. “Where am I?”
I was frozen. Powerless. I hadn’t seen violence like this since…
…oh. Of course. Since Jenn One. But Jennie One had knocked her on her ass with one good roundhouse kick — most of the Jennies were athletic, and Jennie One in particular; she ran the exercise classes we all forced ourselves to attend. When Jenn One had come to in the medical center — restrained at first — we’d made her see reason.
But that had been years ago. Jenn One had calmed down, channeled her anger, and was the source of most of the new artwork in the house I shared with Two. I hoped that Jenn Two would someday find a healthy outlet.
First, though, we had to keep her from hurting Jenn One anymore.
“Jenn,” Two said, stepping forward, “please. Let her go.”
“No!” As Two got closer, Jenn Two backed up until her shoulders were against the port itself. I could see Jenn One’s face getting redder, but she trusted us. She trusted us to save her.
“Jenn, please,” Two repeated. “You’re hurting her!”
“Who is she?” Jenn Two’s eyes darted around, and when she saw the rest of the Jennies moving to flank her position, she yanked Jenn One’s arm up and behind her back. Jenn One couldn’t stop the cry of pain.
“Put her down, Jenn,” Two said. “Put her down and we’ll talk. We’ll explain everything, I promise, but stop hurting her.”
“Explain now!” Jenn Two twisted and Jenn One howled.
And that was that. The Jennies moved in and, although I saw Jenn One’s face go white as Jenn Two dislocated her shoulder, that was the worst of it. Jennie Six pressed an injector to Jenn Two’s neck and she went limp.
Jennie Four and Jennie Seven carried the mercifully-unconscious body of Jenn One to the medical center, and Jennifer Nine set her shoulder and fixed her eye. Jennifer Four restrained Jenn Two, but Jennie Two and Four remained on either side of the newcomer’s bed.
I nodded — as the first and oldest, I was the unspoken leader, though we didn’t need much leading, when it came right down to it — and Jennifer Four brought Jenn Two around.
When Jenn Two saw all of us glaring down at her, she stopped struggling. It was Jennie One who did the talking.
And Jenn Two, just like with her predecessor, listened.
We learned from Jenn Two. Seven more Jenns showed up over the next year, along with four Jennifers and an eighth Jennie. Four Jennies were always called in when someone new arrived, and although Two nearly got her leg broken when Jenn Five came to the island, for the most part things were uneventful.
What worried Two and the other Ones was the frequency they were arriving. Michael seemed to be more and more touchy; Jennifer Sixteen was in tears as she sat on my couch, Two’s arm over her shoulders. “It was horrible!” she said, wiping her eyes with a piece of tissue. “Ever since we arrived, Michael’s been on edge. It’s like his experiments are all going wrong and he can’t figure it out and he t-takes it… he…”
She broke down and Two cradled her in her arms. Jennie inclined her head toward the kitchen doorway; Two nodded, and the other two Ones and I left the living room. I told the computer to close the kitchen door; I don’t think Jennifer Sixteen noticed.
“It’s getting worse,” Jennie said. She was the decision maker among the four of us these days. “Remember what Jenn Eight told us.”
I nodded, more to myself than to the others. Michael had backhanded her in a fit of frustration; she’d hit him back, and that had been the end of her. That had been three weeks ago, and Jennifer Three was still counseling her, trying to convince her that it wasn’t her fault.
“So what do we do?” asked Jenn.
“We can’t leave,” Jennie said. “We’ve tried. All of us — the Jennies — and I know both of you have had your people try too.”
“What about the port?” I asked. “Can we break through?”
“To what?” Jennie asked, almost snarling, though she shook her head and murmured an apology a second later. I could see this was bothering her more than any of us. “There’s nothing out there but argon air and acid seas. We’re only here because Michael thinks he can remake this hellhole into something more people can live on.”
“It’s been almost ten years. There’s thirty-three of us now.” Jenn drummed her fingers on my kitchen island; I noticed that she was painting her nails pale-pink again, and letting them grow long enough to click on the decorative blue-and-white tiles. “We create.” She obviously meant herself and the other Jenns. “Maybe we can create something to get us back to Michael.”
“But to where, exactly?” I hated being the devil’s advocate, but someone had to be, and Jennie had that gleam in her eye that said she was about to start organizing things. “It’s a huge planet. This was the only settlement. We can cross the sea, find another landmass, but what would be the point? We know Michael’s still in orbit.” His work was done from a geosynchronous satellite, and each time a new arrival showed up, she confirmed that he was still up there. “Can you build a liftship?” I asked, and Jenn shook her head.
“We can’t just sit here and let him keep making more of us!” Jennie’s fingers were on the edge of the island, gripping tightly, the skin almost white at the tips. “We have to do something!”
The kitchen door opened. Two stood behind Jennifer Sixteen, whose eyes were swollen and red, nose still running a bit. “I’m ready,” she said, her voice hoarse and thick. “I think.”
I was closest. I opened my arms and let Jennifer Sixteen hug me. I kissed her forehead and smiled. “Welcome to the island.”
She smiled back, ever so slightly. It was enough, for now.
Another twelve showed up in what was, I realized one day, my thirtieth year of exile. They all came within days — a week at the outside between each — until forty-five of us populated the small island settlement. There was plenty of room, enough houses for each of us to have our own, even though the Jennies had commandeered one large home and lived together in it. There were nine of them now, plus fourteen Jenns and twenty-two Jennifers — I found it helped if I didn’t think of them as me.
None of the Jenns could come up with anything on the island — or create anything in the fabricator — that we could use to build a liftship. The Jennies wanted to find a way to take over the liftship that brought the others to us, but we had no idea why everyone just shut down when it arrived.
Then Jennie Ten came.
I went to visit her in the medical center. Jennifers Three and Nine were standing near her, monitoring her brain; Jenn One was sitting at her bedside, holding her hand, explaining where she was and what was going on. She told Jennie Ten she’d be right back and, while Jennifer Three took over hand-holding duty, Jenn and I went to the small office Jennifer Nine had been using since she’d taken over as head of the medical center. I took the guest chair; Jenn hitched her hip up onto the desk. “She’s a blank,” she told me. “Nothing in there. Just her name: Jennie.”
“Nothing at all?”
Jenn shook her head. “Doesn’t know her last name, where she’s from, even why she’s got that scar.”
“It doesn’t look like he did anything physical,” Jenn said. “But it was definitely intentional.”
“How so?” I didn’t know a whole lot about cloning, and I had to think about what was the right question to ask. “Is it the imprint? I mean, my mind? Did something go wrong?”
“I don’t think so.” Jenn looked at the wall screen. “Computer, declarative: display brain scans of patient currently in main exam chamber.” The screen lit up. “Display brain scans of patients Jennifer Fifteen, Jennie Nine, and Jenn Three. Comparative view.” I watched as the scans appeared. “Discontinue command interface.” A beep told us that the computer was no longer listening.
“What am I looking at, Jenn?”
Jenn slid off the desk and pointed at Jennie Ten’s scan. “I’m not a scientist anymore, not like Jennifer Nine, but from what she told me, parts of the imprint were blocked through what she calls primitive methods.”
Jenn’s finger traced dark spots on Jennie Ten’s scan, then indicated the same areas on the other three. “Blocks,” she said. “Jennifer Nine believes something went wrong right after the imprint — if you look at the size of the blue area, compared to the others, Jennie Ten hasn’t had very much time to form new memories. Almost everything that was in there was from your original imprint.”
I cursed softly, under my breath. “Michael so insisted on the damned imprint. I wish I’d resisted.”
“If you had,” Jenn said, smiling, “would you and Two be celebrating ten years together?”
“Probably not.” The thought of Two never having existed hurt more than I’d thought; I’d loved Michael once, but now there was no room for anyone in my heart except Two. And my… what were they, anyway? Sisters? Daughters? Except for Two, who was my lover — and Jenn One, who had become my confidant and closest friend — they were just copies of me. Or, at least, I tried to think of them that way; it was easier than thinking about how many times Michael had replaced me.
I sighed. “Can Jennifer Nine do anything?”
“Jennifer Three’s going to try hypnotherapy first, but if not, Jennifer Nine thinks there’s enough in the computers to guide her through imprinting a newly-grown clone.”
“But Jennie Ten’s not newly-grown.”
Jenn shrugged. “Jennifer Nine thinks she’s only been out of the tank for a day. Two at the most. She can clear Jennie Ten’s mind altogether with drugs and electrotherapy, then re-imprint her.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “That sounds like an awful lot of maybes.”
“It is.” Jenn looked up again. “Computer, declarative: clear wall screen.” It went dark. “Discontinue command interface.” Then she waved toward the door. “Jennifer Nine wants the four of us to talk about it, and put it to a vote. We can rehabilitate Jennie Ten as she is, but if this doesn’t work…”
“If it doesn’t work,” I said, following Jenn into the corridor, “then we’ve basically killed her.”
Jennie Ten had been the key, and it had taken two months, with four more Jennifers and two more Jenns showing up in the meantime, to prepare.
“Remember,” Jennifer Nine said, leaning down over my bed in the medical center, “you won’t be able to move. If the sedative wears off, try not to panic. It shouldn’t, but just in case.”
“That’s reassuring.” My hands clenched into fists, and I forced them to open. I had to relax. If I was too keyed-up — if there was too much alpha-wave activity coming from my brain — then whoever was controlling the liftship would know I was awake and might turn back.
That was how Michael did it: each clone was imprinted with sensitivity to a certain range of sound that put her into a catatonic state until it was shut off. Only I was immune, so I had to be awake to start our countermeasures. Every one of the others had a program on her handheld that emitted a canceling sound, but I had to start it, and when the disabling sound stopped, I would have to shut off the countermeasures — the sound coming from the handhelds would make the others’ ears start to bleed and, shortly thereafter, their imprints would start to scramble. Without both sounds working in concert, the others wouldn’t survive.
Jennie Four had been our volunteer during that phase of the testing. Her body was in a stasis drawer in the morgue. The only one of us in thirty years to die.
Michael would pay for that. For exiling us, and for killing… well, when it came right down to it, for killing me. He’d nearly killed Jennie Ten as well, but he didn’t have it in him to do that kind of violence. He’d just blanked her and shipped her down to the island after that first night.
Jennie Ten had told us about it the moment she’d woken up from surgery. She hadn’t been able to sleep that first night after Michael had had his way with her — and oh how I remembered our first night on the station and how good the sex had been — had gone to the medical bay for a sedative, had seen a robot cleaning the cloning room, and then her natural inquisitiveness — my natural inquisitiveness, I supposed — had taken over. Michael had caught her, but not before she’d learned the truth: she was the forty-fifth version of me that Michael had grown in the past ten years.
“Jennifer?” Except for Two, they all called me Jennifer. Just Jennifer. A sign of respect, I supposed, acknowledging that I was the first. “Are you ready?”
“Ready or not,” I said, “here I go.”
We were gambling, and I knew it. I could remain under for five days; one of the clones held a dead-woman’s switch, keyed to her brainwaves, and if she went catatonic, I would be brought back. But it was our best chance. Jennifer Nine smoothed my hair back from my forehead and, still smiling my most tender smile, pressed the injector to my neck…
…and I was awake. The clock one of the Jennifers had mounted to the ceiling told me that two days had passed. I remembered my instructions and took three deep, slow breaths, then sat up.
Jennifer Twenty-One was sitting beside my bed, eyes open and unfocused. I reached down and cupped her cheek, but she was catatonic, just as we knew she would be.
As they all undoubtedly were.
All I had to do was tell my handheld to activate countermeasures and they’d all wake up, but one thing we couldn’t know in advance was how much time we had between the catatonic state and the arrival of the next clone. Jenn One had suggested a four-hour window; one of my REM cycles was four-and-a-half, which would give them — whoever they were; we still didn’t know — enough time to drop off whoever had displeased Michael and get away before I woke up.
I left the medical center and walked briskly along the streets. I passed the fabrication center that, after the automation had failed, Jennifers Five and Twenty had been maintaining tirelessly to ensure we had food and raw materials. I passed the garden plot tended by the robots left behind when the island settlement had been evacuated fifty years ago. I passed the houses of my friends.
I passed my friends, standing in the street, unmoving, captured like the finest statues, and fought the urge to wake them early. I felt lonely even as I passed Jenns, Jennifers, and Jennies, and I hadn’t been lonely in ten years.
Finally the port came into view. I sat on the ground, just out of sight, and told the computer, via my handheld, to display the feed from the camera we’d set up back when it was just Two and me.
It took an hour before anything happened. I saw the liftship slowly glide into position, its thrusters glowing white-hot, the acid sea burning red below them. It backed up, closer and closer, but I waited. We’d planned this. The Jennies had planned this. The Jennies, and the Jenns and the Jennifers; every single one of us working together to escape.
The ground vibrated slightly. The port began to cycle.
“Computer, declarative,” I said. “Activate countermeasures.”
Everyone woke up in an instant. I couldn’t hear either the countermeasure or the signal, but I knew it was working. I could hear them all converging on the port. I got to my feet and joined Two as she passed, pulling her into a quick, fierce kiss before catching up with Jenn Eight and Jennifers Fifteen and Sixteen.
The port opened and an anti-gravity pallet floated out, piloted by a large, blocky robot. Someone was on it, asleep or unconscious, and as the Jennies advanced, it lowered her to the ground, far more gently than I’d expected.
I also hadn’t expected Michael’s voice to boom out of the robot’s mouth-speaker. “Step back!”
“No chance!” shouted Jennie One, who was at the vanguard. “Let us onto the ship, let us get off this island and move on with our lives, or we’ll take the ship by force and do it anyway!”
“No.” Michael’s voice sounded sad. Sad, and something else. Something that made me pull Two against the plascrete wall of what had once been a sundry shop, back when this had been more than just a home for exiled versions of myself. I whispered to my handheld the command to open the door; Two followed me inside, looking confused.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Something’s not right,” I said. “I can’t put my finger on it, but something–” I heard Jennie call out the order to charge the ship, and then the horrifying sound of blasters.
“Oh, no,” Two whispered.
I stepped around her and stared out the window.
The robot was firing bright beams of light at the advancing women — at my sisters, my daughters, my friends — and they were being cut down where they stood. Some turned and ran, and a few managed to get out of the way, but I couldn’t keep count. I couldn’t watch. I turned to Two and we collapsed to the floor together. I held Two, and she held me, and we waited for it to end.
And Then There Was Her
Two was still as beautiful as ever — maybe she wasn’t as young as when my husband and I had come to Ongkanon VI, but she was still slender and her hair was as dark as her eyes were bright. I was sixty-four; ten years had passed since the massacre. All that remained, including me, were eight Jennifers, three Jenns, and one Jennie. No one new had arrived in all that time, and Jenn Two guessed it was because he’d finally gotten one of us to be the perfect woman for him.
I didn’t care. Not anymore. My dear, darling Jenn One was gone; her screams had been clear to me above all the others. Maybe we were all the same on some level, but Jenn One had been different, had been my best friend, and I missed her more than any of the other forty-one who’d died that day. Jenn Two was… well, she wasn’t Jenn One, and I still got a pain in my chest and a lump in my throat when I thought of her.
I was in the garden with Two — I’d banished the robots years ago — when I felt the gentle vibration of the ground that told me the liftship was back. We’d agreed, those of us who’d survived, that if it ever came back, we’d get the hell away from the port. I hoped the others remembered.
I met Two’s eyes and held out my hand; she took it and squeezed gently. “It’ll be okay, One. I won’t let anything happen to you.” Two — my lovely, loving Two — had become so much stronger. She was our leader now; I was just an old woman who lived in a colony of clones, exiled for some imagined slight.
We knelt in the dirt and waited until the liftship uncoupled.
And then we heard the voice.
“It’s not me,” I said. “It’s not me, Two.”
“I know.” She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Let’s go see who it is.”
Jennie Four was already there, talking to the newcomer. I pushed my way past the others, Two by my side. “Who are you?”
The woman was shorter than us, with flowing blond hair and pale green eyes and curves almost voluptuous enough to be called exaggerated. She gave me a nervous smile. “My name’s Mary,” she said. “Mary Davalos.” She looked from Two to Jennie Four, then at the others, clustered farther back. “I don’t mean to be rude, but where exactly am I?”