Part One: What Lies Behind Us
As I started the weekly press briefing, I had no idea that I’d soon be defending the indefensible.
“The human mining operation on Redfall,” said a groundling journalist, waving a tablet with one spindly limb. “What can you tell us about it?”
“I can tell you that’s the Kenyans,” I replied, using a vocal adjuster in my collar to make the low, rumbling groundling sounds. “This is the British embassy.”
Her antennae drooped in embarrassment. A lot of human nations were represented on Herrje and it could get confusing for locals. But she had been working the diplomatic beat for a decade and should have known better.
“Next question.” I pointed to a feathered k’kiri.
“Is it true that the British government stole k’kiri technology to kickstart its cloning program?” she asked.
Just the mention of clones made my guts knot. Without thinking, I reached for the scar on the inside of my arm.
“We don’t do cloning,” I said. “Next question?”
“But one of your previous governments-” she began.
“Next question,” I snapped.
The rest of the briefing was the soft, pointless drivel that is most PR. As it ended and I made for the door, strong fingers gripping my arm. I turned to see the k’kiri journalist.
“Mr Atticus.” With her green feathered face and slender beak, she looked almost like a parrot. A determined parrot that was going to make my life awkward. “You should talk to me.”
“And why is that?” I asked, extracting myself from her grip. The other journalists had all rushed away to find real stories.
“I have evidence,” she said. “Damning evidence, as humans say.”
“I don’t believe you.” I fought to keep my calm. This was all kinds of bad. Britain had spent thirty years trying to put the eco-eugenicist government behind us. Stir that up again, throw in interplanetary technology theft, and you had a public relations nightmare.
“Believe me or don’t,” the journalist said. “But if you won’t answer my questions, I’ll publish the story without your side.”
The communicator in my pocket buzzed, telling me that she had sent me her contact details. Then she stalked out of the room, leaving me to brood.
“Snap out of it,” I muttered to myself. “Let’s go get a drink.”
Technically, I wasn’t meant to be drinking in the embassy’s archive room. Alcohol and government records were considered a bad combination. But after six hours at a data terminal, reading about the bad old days, I was glad that I’d brought a bottle. There were only so many disturbing genetic experiments you could read about sober.
Worst of all, I couldn’t find what I was after. However the British government had developed cloning technology, the trail had been carefully hidden. Hardly surprising, given the terrible defects many clones had developed, the illegality of the work, and the stigma attached to the whole dirty business. As far as Her Majesty’s Government was concerned, the less people looked into this, the better.
But someone was looking into it, and to prove them wrong I needed to know where the tech really came from.
My level of access clearly wasn’t good enough. I needed someone else.
Ten minutes and a breath mint later, I was knocking on the door of the ambassador’s office.
“Enter,” Ambassador Canning called out.
As I stepped into the room and closed the door behind me, she peered suspiciously across the top of her glasses.
“Have you been drinking, Julian?” she asked.
“Just a little,” I admitted, peering out the window at the city beyond. Low domes, dizzying towers, sparkling buildings that seemed built out of light – all the hassles of my job were worth it for that view.
“Dammit, Julian.” She put down her tablet and stared at me. “Don’t make this a thing again.”
“Won’t,” I said. “Promise. But there’s a thing.”
I put my own tablet down on her desk, showing my formal request for more information on the cloning era.
“Ah.” Her voice softened. “Why do you want this?”
“Press thing,” I said. “Have to prove that we didn’t steal it off the k’kiri.”
“That would be difficult.” Canning ran a hand through her greying hair. “Because that’s exactly what happened.”
“Shiiiiiit.” I sank into a seat.
“I need you to cover for this. Lie, obfuscate, do whatever you must to stop this turning into a diplomatic row.”
“But the evidence…”
“Is from the past. Don’t let that bring down the present.”
An idea flashed across my brain.
“Thanks, boss.” I leapt to my feet. The room spun a little and I grabbed the back of the chair. “I’ve got this covered.”
I was sitting at a pavement cafe near the embassy when Saluc, the k’kiri journalist, found me.
“You-” She began. I only understood half the words that followed. My study of k’kiri languages focused on diplomacy, not obscenities.
“Nice to see you too,” I said, smiling.
“You gave my story to that groundling.” She held up a tablet with a news feed on it. “And you fed her some waffle about the past being the past, how you’re a new nation now, how your government will take its time to fully investigate the allegations, blah blah blah.”
I shrugged. “I brought her a story. She was happy to tell it my way.”
“People should be outraged,” Saluc said. “Instead, you’ve turned this into one more piece of bland politics.”
“I do my best.” I gestured to a seat. “Would you like to join me for a drink, Ms Saluc? I hear that you like coffee.”
“Fuck you, Atticus.” Some obscenities will translate into any language. “Those clones were abominations, and I’m going to prove that they were part of something worse.”
As she stormed away, I reached instinctively for the scar on the inside of my left arm. The one I said came from a childhood bicycle accident. The place where they’d removed my own warped souvenir of the cloning vats.
I jerked my fingers away and reached for my coffee. No sense dwelling on the secrets of the past.
Part Two: The Best Laid Plans
I sat at a bar in Herrje’s largest spaceport, watching people while I waited for my flight. They came from a hundred different planets, divided skin colour, language, and number of limbs, but united in the experience of travel. Getting flustered and lost, impatient about baggage, bumping and jostling each other. Seeing the impatient ones suffer through their own foul tempers was immensely satisfying.
And yes, I’ll admit it, I also enjoyed watching a touching reunion or too.
I was onto my second beer when the highlight of my morning came stomping out of the crowd, his ridiculous old-fashioned tie swinging as he jerked his big red face from side to side. Warren was the security officer at the embassy, a man who had ruined several of my press conferences by going off script. Seeing the humourless sod in this state was the perfect start to my holiday.
Then he caught sight of me. A look of relief crossed his face as he hurried over.
My good mood evaporated.
“Atticus!” he exclaimed, leaning in close so that he could whisper. “Thank God you’re here. I need help.”
“Sorry,” I said, pointing up at the departures board. “My flight’s just been announced.”
I rose from my stool, picked up my bag, and tried to slip past him. But he caught my wrist with a grip that could have turned bricks to dust.
“I’m couriering sensitive documents for the ambassador,” he hissed. “The bag’s gone missing. You have to help.”
“Can’t,” I said, trying to pry his fingers loose. “I might miss my flight.”
“Fine.” Warren glared daggers at me. “If you won’t help then I’ll ask someone else.” He raised his voice. “Security!”
A blue-skinned creature with six legs rushed over. Vestigial wings protruded from the back of its black uniform and a pair of clear goggles covered its bulbous eyes.
“How can I help?” it asked, the words crudely translated by a device on its collar.
Warren pulled out an ID card and presented it for the security guard to scan.
“I’m the head of security at the British Embassy,” he said. “There’s been a theft. I need you to lock down this part of the spaceport.”
I caught a glimpse of data scrolling down the inside of the goggles. The guard said something into a microphone then stood listening to the response.
“As you wish, Mister Warren,” it said, handing back the card.
Suddenly, doors hissed closed and messages flashed up on screens around the spaceport. A vast collective groan emerged from the crowds.
This time I couldn’t appreciate their displeasure. I was feeling it myself.
“You arse, Warren,” I snapped. “Now I’ll miss my flight.”
“You could have helped,” he said.
“Fine.” It was the only way to get out of this now anyway. “I’ll help.”
Warren pulled out his pocket computer and showed us a picture of the bag – a small blue satchel, inconspicuous looking but woven from near-impregnable fibres and with a genetically coded lock. Then we split up and began roaming the concourse.
The minute I saw the jouran in the red jumpsuit, I knew that her bag was ours. She was holding herself too stiffly for an invertebrate, the suckers on her tentacles clutching the strap too tight.
“There!” I called out.
The jouran turned and ran off through the crowd. Warren and I were in hot pursuit, while behind us the security guard got on his radio.
We ran the length of the hall and up a flight of stairs, barging people aside. At the end, a pair of glass doors swung open. Apparently lockdowns weren’t so tight in the first class lounge.
The room was spacious and high-ceilinged, with excellent air conditioning, huge sofas pressed up against the walls, and a better stocked bar than the one I’d been at. The few of its occupants who looked our way did so with disdain.
There was no sign of the jouran.
“Shit.” Warren punched the wall.
“How bad can it really be?” I asked.
“Documents about cloning programs,” he replied, his voice low again.
The last of my good mood evaporated. The cloning crimes of a previous generation had only just become a hot-button topic again. The wrong sort of leak could be very damaging for Britain and create endless work for me.
I reached for the scar on the inside of my arm, then stopped as a thought crossed my mind.
I hadn’t met many jourans, but I’d visited one of their circuses. Those suckers were great for climbing, and like a lot of invertebrates, they could squeeze into surprisingly small spaces.
I looked up. High on the wall to my left, an air conditioning vent hung open. A scrap of red fabric was caught on its edge.
I darted back out through the glass doors and around the corner to the left. In a dimly lit service corridor, the jouran was clambering down from a ventilation shaft, still holding the bag.
“Got you!” I said, grabbing at the fugitive.
I glanced past her down the corridor. A man stared back at me. His face was mine but younger.
I stared slack-jawed at him. This shouldn’t be possible.
The jouran writhed from my grasp, slapped me so hard I fell to the floor, and ran off down the corridor. A door at the end hissed open, letting her and the younger me through.
By the time I reached it, the door was locked shut again.
When Warren appeared a moment later, I didn’t tell him about the younger me. That could lead to questions I didn’t want to answer. But I told him the rest.
As we were heading back down to the main concourse, shared misery gave me a brief feeling of sympathy for Warren.
Our phones both buzzed at once. On my screen was a security coded message from the ambassador.
“Blackmail threat received,” it read. “Criminals threatening to release evidence that the government is still working with k’kiri cloners. Need you back at the embassy now.”
“Damn,” I muttered as we went to retrieve my luggage. “So much for the holiday.”
Part Three: Friday Night on Herrje
It was Friday night on Herrje, the most cosmopolitan planet in the galaxy. I should have been out partying with strange beings and their even stranger drinks. Instead I was stuck at work, along with all the rest of the British Embassy staff. Because with sensitive documents stolen and the reputation of our nation at stake, nobody was getting a night off.
I sat outside Ambassador Canning’s office, holding the press release I’d been preparing in case the blackmailers released the documents. It was vague, mostly because no-one had told me what was in the documents. Apparently that wasn’t something a public relations officer needed to know. After all, it was only vital to my job.
The door opened and Warren, the security chief, stormed out. He looked wretched. I could live with that, given that his balls-up had cost me my holiday and now my Friday night.
The ambassador followed him.
“Not now, Julian,” she said as I held out the draft press release. “I need to go meet with the police chief.”
“Security footage from the spaceport has arrived on our servers,” Warren said, glancing at his tablet.
“That’s the top priority,” Canning said. “Find out if that jouran met with anyone before stealing your bag.”
In all the rushing around, I’d forgotten how much might have been caught on camera. Possibly including someone who looked suspiciously like a clone of me. A clone who, as far as anyone here knew, shouldn’t exist.
“I can review the footage,” I said a little too eagerly. “Leave Warren to do the real detective work.”
Canning rolled her eyes. “You don’t need to grovel to get your holiday days back.”
“I want to help,” I protested.
“Fine,” she said, giving me a suspicious look. “But stay sober.”
I went through the security footage on a computer in my office, tagging parts that seemed important and ditching the rest in a big folder labelled “Irrelevant”.
An hour in, I found what I was afraid of. A human face in the crowds, looking almost exactly like me. He’d clearly known where the cameras were and tried to avoid them, so there wasn’t much footage. But it was enough to raise serious questions.
I pulled it all together into a single folder on my screen and sat staring at it. This was relevant material. It showed the man who had helped steal vital documents. It could lead Warren to him.
I had to hide it. Clones weren’t allowed to hold sensitive jobs, due to the risk that someone might have put controls into their coding. In the thirty years since the process was banned, there had never been a problem, but that wouldn’t allay anyone’s fears. And it wouldn’t change the fact that I’d been lying all my life.
The door burst open and Warren strode in.
“Don’t you know how to knock?” I snapped in panic.
“Sod you, Atticus,” he said. “What have you found?”
He stood behind me, peering over my shoulder at the three folders – “Important”, “Irrelevant”, and “Him”.
“I’ve sifted through it all,” I said, trying to draw his attention to “Important”. “This has all the footage of the jouran.”
“That’s it?” he asked.
“Also all the footage of you stumbling around losing your bag.” I opened my desk drawer and pulled out a bottle, looking for any way to distract him.
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing at the third folder.
I felt as though dread had grabbed me by the nuts and given a hard squeeze.
“It’s…” I was normally good at excuses. They were my job. But there and then, with my own arse on the line, I froze.
There was a beep. Warren pulled a small tablet from his pocket. He grinned and stepped away from the computer. While he was distracted, I dumped the third folder into “Irrelevant”.
“Someone saw a human meet the jouran outside,” he said. “Six feet tall, brown hair, fairly slim, casual shirt…”
His voice trailed off as he looked over at me.
“You’d never met that jouran before, had you?” he asked.
“No!” I exclaimed. “Never.”
But with a growing sense of dread, I realised who had.
The bloody clone.
“I should go.” Warren gave me a suspicious look as he headed for the door. “Send me that footage, yes?”
“Will do,” I replied, trying to sound relaxed. Instead my voice turned into a tense squeak.
As the door closed behind Warren, I poured myself a drink. No point worrying about Canning’s order to stay sober. Whatever part of the truth came out during Warren’s investigation, I was bound to get fired now.
It was Friday night on Herrje, the most cosmopolitan planet in the galaxy. I should have been out partying with strange beings and their even stranger drinks. Instead I sat in my office, having a really good mope.
Part Four: Making New Friends
I’ve had some of my best ideas while drunk. But as I stepped out into the purple light of an alien dawn, the booze wearing off and a headache kicking in, I started to suspect that this wasn’t one of them.
It had been surprisingly easy to make contact with the underground community of unregistered clones and soft-hearted sympathisers. Flashing the vat scar on my arm proved my credentials and got me through some awkward online chats.
The embassy’s security staff could have done it quicker, if they’d known that there were clones involved in stealing our data. But the only reason I knew was that one of the thieves shared my face, and that wasn’t a fact I wanted to share.
The meeting was scheduled for early morning at a human café. By the time I got there I’d had a long, tense, sleepless night. I managed a conversation with the waiter in Chinese, but the look on his face told me that I wasn’t doing well. Listening to the voices of the passing crowd, from familiar bipeds to undulating twelve-foot worm-men, I failed miserably at my usual game of spot the language.
At least I had coffee to pick me up.
An hour later, I was on my third cup, twitching like a flea-ridden dog, and increasingly certain that I’d been stood up.
Then I noticed the k’kiri sitting three tables over. His red facial feathers and slender black beak had stood out when I sat down. Now he’d been nursing a plate of fried bugs for an hour while he tried not to look my way.
So they were here after all, watching me. That meant they planned to use me, not meet with me. I wasn’t having that.
I tapped the centre of the table with a bank card, settling the bill, then got up. As casually as I could with a full bladder and flayed nerves, I strolled down the street. As I rounded the corner I looked back and saw the red k’kiri peering intently at a shop window twenty feet away.
I was no spy, but anyone working on the diplomatic staff got followed from time to time, even PR officers. I followed the training I’d been given for these situations, using short streets and junctions to make me harder to follow, forcing him to get close or risk losing me.
Then I broke from my training. Instead of speeding up and heading for safety, I ducked around a corner and waited, hidden from the world in a maze of back streets and alleys.
Seconds later, the k’kiri appeared. He squawked in alarm as I leapt out at him.
“Got you!” I exclaimed. “Now tell me what you’re up to, or else-”
I heard footsteps behind me just before the sack slid over my head. I tried to twist around then felt a jolt of pain as I was hit with something like a taser.
Someone squawked as I slid to the ground and the world went black.
The first things I noticed when I woke up were the smell of piss and the damp patch on my trousers. Next time, I’d go to the loo before anyone deprived me of control of my body.
The sack was still over my head and plastic restraints bound my hands together.
“Hello?” I called out.
My voice echoed around a cavernous space. The noise didn’t help my throbbing head.
There were footsteps. Someone hauled me upright and yanked the bag off my head.
I was in an empty warehouse. A dozen humans and k’kiri stood watching me, along with a single tentacled jouran. The man in the centre looked very familiar.
“No-one from the embassy tried to contact us about you,” my younger clone said. “Do they even know that you were trying to meet with us?”
“Nice to see that you make the best-looking guy your leader,” I said, filling the quiet while I mustered my scrambled thoughts.
“Do they even know what you are?” he asked, approaching me. He rolled up his sleeve, revealing a scar a lot like mine.
“They suspect,” I said. “That’s why my assistant keeps leaving alcoholics anonymous leaflets everywhere.”
“You’re funny.” His smile turned into an angry frown. “I’m not. Now tell me, do they even suspect that this isn’t about the money?”
I stifled my surprise, a skill I’d practised while facing journalists and other merciless predators.
“If I tell you, will you let me go?” I asked.
“The death of the embassy’s PR officer will get a lot of attention.” He slid a wickedly gleaming knife from inside his jacket. “Especially when the autopsy reveals that you’ve been a clone this whole time.”
If my bladder hadn’t been empty, I would have pissed myself all over again at the look of gleeful menace on his face.
But something else had grabbed my mind, something that might just get me out of here in one piece.
If I was very lucky.
“I’m good at attention,” I said. “That’s why I’m here. I want to help you get the coverage you’re after for your cause.”
“What do you know about our cause?” he asked sharply.
“I know that I have to hide who I am,” I said. “And I know that would be different in your world.”
It was pure speculation. But he had the gleaming eyes and sweaty palms of a revolutionary, and that made it a safe guess.
“Why should I trust you?” he asked.
“Because I have skills you want,” I replied. “And because if I fail, you can go back to plan S for stabbing.”
He brought the knife level with my guts and looked me in the eye. That mad gleam was still there.
“Alright,” he said as he severed the bonds around my wrists. “Let’s give this a try.”
Part Five: Things in Common
I’d never been a terrorist before. I’d never believed in anything that deeply. But an afternoon with my new acquaintances showed that they were true, deep believers.
“We have to make a point to the government.” Marcus, the young man cloned from the same cells as me, sat with his legs dangling off a walkway high in their warehouse base. “Sure, there were problems with the old cloning policies. All the eugenic experiments and the birth defects. But that’s no reason to treat us as second class citizens.”
I nodded along, like I’d been doing for the past hour. A career in PR had made me great at faking belief and interest. I even found some of his points convincing. After all, I’d spent a lifetime hiding who I was. The thought of change was appealing.
But I knew better than to buy into charismatic leaders.
“That’s why we stole those documents, Julian.” Marcus nodded toward a door at the back of the room.
I carefully didn’t look that way. I had one aim here and giving it away would ruin everything. Instead I just sat, letting the light from a nearby window warm my back.
“You know what’s in there?” he continued.
I shrugged with forced casualness. “Something about the cloning projects.”
“Proof,” he said. “Proof that the British government is still working with k’kiri cloners. Proof that the experiments live on. Proof of their lies and hypocrisy.”
My blood ran cold. I’d been told the documents showed that the cloning continued, but the human experiments…
“That could destroy the government,” I said. “Why sell it back?”
“That data gets released either way,” he said. “But when they pay blackmail money first, that’s more evidence that they knew and chose to cover it up.”
“I have a meeting,” he said. “You wait here.”
His footsteps echoed around the warehouse and then out, leaving me alone.
I looked around. This was my chance. I could slip out, run to the embassy, and get help. Within an hour, they’d have these idiots and their data.
But if our security people saw Marcus they’d know that I was a clone. Goodbye reputation, goodbye career, hello life as a waiter, a rent boy, or worse yet a management consultant.
No, I needed to get that data myself. Once the embassy had it back, they might stop looking for the thieves.
I double checked that no-one was around, then headed toward the door Marcus had pointed out. My footsteps echoed around the warehouse, thundering like a herd of elephants. Sweat poured from every inch of my skin, staining clothes already filthy from my kidnapping and questioning.
Somehow, no-one was alerted by the sound of my movements. I reached the door, still all alone.
I’d been expecting a number pad or even an old-fashioned physical lock. Instead, there was a receptor for a genetically key.
At last, a lucky break. If Marcus was in charge then this would respond to his DNA. DNA that I shared.
I licked my finger and pressed it against the sensor. The pad glowed green, there was a click, and the door swung open.
This had clearly once been a security vault. The walls and floor were made of reinforced metal plates. Empty lockers lined the walls.
In the centre, sitting on a table, was the blue bag Marcus’s people had stolen at the airport. It was still sealed shut.
I grabbed the bag and slung it across my shoulder, the weight of hard drives banging against my back. Closing the door behind me, I rushed out onto the walkway around the upper level of the warehouse.
Marcus and a dozen goons stood in front of me.
“You disappoint me, Mister Atticus,” he said. But if he really was disappointed then his face didn’t know it. His look was one of pure gloating pride.
“Why give me this chance?” I asked. There was no way I could fight them, but if I started a conversation, any conversation, maybe I could worm my way out. That was what I was good at.
“Every clone deserves a chance,” Marcus said. “Shame you wasted yours.”
One of the terrorists punched me in the face, sending me staggering into the arms of the next one. He grabbed the bag while two others took my arms and flung me to the ground. Heavy boots smashed into my stomach, my ribs, my face. Pain was everywhere. I tasted blood and felt a tooth come loose.
They dragged me to my feet and held me up in front of Marcus. Sunlight from the window warmed my back again.
“This is for betraying us,” he said as he pulled out a knife.
Summoning all of my strength, I twisted my arms. Slippery with sweat, I slid from the hands of the men holding me.
I flung myself backward. Old glass shattered as I burst through the window. There was a stabbing pain in both my legs.
I tumbled across a corrugated roof, fell a dozen feet, and landed with a thud in an alley. Forcing myself up off the ground, I ran.
I wasn’t surprised when, on reaching the embassy, security dragged me aside. I’d been missing for a day and looked like hell. They had to be worried.
But as they pulled glass from wounds, poured on disinfectant, and applied bandages, I realised that their expressions were stern, not sympathetic.
Warren, the head of security, came into the room.
“We’ve found out who’s behind the theft,” he said.
He slammed a picture of Marcus down on the table. It was a little blurry, clearly blown up from security footage, but there was no escaping the resemblance to me.
“Can I get my things before you kick me out?” I asked. I felt hollow inside, as if my world had collapsed and there was nothing left to hold me up.
“Oh, no.” Warren dragged me to my feet. “You don’t get out that easily. Ambassador Canning will see you now.”
Part Six: Revelation
“Take a seat, Julian.” Ambassador Canning had the steely gaze and stern demeanour of a Victorian headmistress. Unable to refuse, I did as she instructed.
Like everything else in her office, the chair was a piece of slick, high quality minimalism. I, on the other hand, was currently made of pain, sweat, and the sort of stress that crushed all coherent thought.
Someone who looked just like me had stolen government data. My attempt to get it back had got me beaten half to death. Best case scenario, I was about to be revealed as a clone and lose my job. Worst case, the word treason was heading my way.
“Tell me what you know about the theft at the spaceport,” Canning said.
“We tried to stop them,” I said. “But we were too-”
“Not that. The man who looks like you on the security footage.”
“A lot of people look like me,” I said. I couldn’t help myself. Years of PR training had taught me to obfuscate in a crisis. Even as another part of my brain screamed that it was futile, I started weaving a web of bluster. “That’s the problem with modern recognition systems. They create a bias that-”
“Enough.” I’d never seen Canning hit the table before. The sound froze me in my tracks. “Your face, Julian, caught on camera with the thief. Now talk.”
I don’t believe that people are ever truly without choices. But I respected Canning too much to keep bullshitting her. Even if I’d wanted to, I was too exhausted to make it coherent.
“I’m a clone,” I said. I rolled up my sleeve, revealing the vat scar. “I came up with an excuse for this years ago. Built a paper trail to cover my past. That’s how I got past the government checks and got this job.
“I know it’s illegal, but it was the only way I could get the life I wanted.
“The man in the pictures is a later clone from the same batch. I’ve met him. I tried to take the stolen cloning data off him, to protect British interests.”
“British interests or your own?”
“Both. And I fucked up. I’ve probably lost us the chance to get the data back. Now they’re going to release it – that was always their plan.”
“So it’s for politics, not profit?”
“I didn’t mean to betray you or the country,” I said. “But it turned out that I wasn’t as smart as I thought.”
“You admit you betrayed your country?”
“By acts of omission, yes.”
It was a relief to come clean. I could see a line of trials and jail cells in my future, but I’d brought that on myself. At least now, for one moment, I could do the right thing.
Canning opened her drawer. To my bewilderment, she pulled out a bottle of vodka and two glasses. She poured a large measure into each and slid one across her desk.
“I used to work in intelligence, Julian,” she said. “I do better background checks than anyone in the foreign office. I’ve always known that you were a clone. It’s part of why I keep you on the staff, despite your excesses and your attitude to your colleagues. Because the man who can so successfully live a lie is the man I want telling lies for me.”
She sipped her drink. I downed mine in one burning gulp and held the glass out for a refill. I was already feeling dizzy at the revelations and the beating I’d taken. What harm could the booze do?
Canning shook her head and stoppered the bottle.
“I need your head clear,” she said. “We’re about to get shafted.
“When the story about continued cloning experiments breaks, the government can’t avoid the diplomatic implications. But if they focus on the data breach, they can control the domestic response. The same people who insisted on sending me the information are going to blame us for losing it.
“You, me, Warren and his security team – we’re all in the firing line. My people are going to suffer for someone else’s fuck up, and that makes me mad as hell.”
At last, I managed to slump in my seat. It was a strange thing, but I didn’t mind the risk to my job and my freedom half as much now that I knew I wasn’t alone. Now that the person I had to fight wasn’t someone I respected.
A great weight lifted from my mind. The thoughts started to flow. One in particular caught my attention.
“You used to work in intelligence,” I said. “Have you ever brought down a government before?”
“Not my own,” Ambassador Canning said. She opened the vodka and poured a little more into my glass. “Keep talking.”
Part Seven: Meet the Press
Words define us. They empower us. And sometimes they drop us in the shit.
As I approached the embassy’s press podium, I looked out across the faces of human and alien journalists. The words I said next would shape my life and my country, for better or for worse. In thirty seconds time, there would be no going back.
The scar on my arm itched. The room was too warm, making me sweat. I almost tripped over myself on the way to the podium.
“It’s going to be alright,” I said, trying to persuade myself.
Then I realised how close I was to the microphone. I shut my mouth, pulled a serious face, and looked down at the notes on my tablet.
“Thank you for coming,” I said. “I’m going to start by reading a statement from Ambassador Canning.”
The statement was written by me, of course. Canning was smart enough to know her limitations and my strengths.
“Over the course of recent days,” I began, “we at the British embassy on Herrje have made a disturbing discovery. We have been given evidence that our own government has revived its cloning program and conducted a series of immoral experiments. In doing so, they have broken the law and ground salt into the wounds of cloned people who, for the supposed public good, have long had their rights restricted to deter exactly these sort of experiments.”
The journalists stared at me in stunned silence. They were used to embassies briefing against their own governments, but quietly, off the record, in back rooms and shadows. This was unprecedented.
“I have reached out to opposition parties and prosecutors back in Britain,” I continued. “We do not yet know how we will go about bringing the government to justice. Until we do, we will be relying upon the authorities here on Herrje to protect and support the staff of this embassy, keeping them safe from further criminal acts. I thank you for your kindness and support.”
I switched off the tablet and looked around.
“That’s the end of the ambassador’s statement,” I said. “Any questions?”
Desperate to get this over with, I pointed at the first journalist to raise their hand. It was only as she stood that I realised it was Saluc, the k’kiri who I had tricked out of her scoop a week before.
The room felt hotter than ever.
“Mister Atticus,” Saluc said, the feathers around her face splaying out indignantly. “We recently learnt that Britain stole cloning technology from the k’kiri. Would you care to comment on the connection between this and your revelation?”
I’d hoped to start with something less awkward. My first instinct was to deflect and then call on another journalist.
But if this was to work then I needed to earn the trust of journalists like Saluc, ones who would run with the story like they were picking a fight.
I had to face the awkward questions.
“Why don’t you skip the easy part and go straight to the follow up?” I asked.
Journalists stared at me in confusion. Cameras turned on Saluc.
“Alright,” she said. “You, Julian Atticus, spun the story about the tech theft to cover for your people. You’re picking a fight with your own government, and we only have your word on why. Why should anyone here believe that you’re the honest party? Why should we believe that this is about real reform?”
All the cameras turned on me. All the hostile glares of journalists who had been caught out by spin before. They might not have the courage to risk calling it out publicly, but they relished seeing someone else make me squirm.
Immediately, I could imagine the coverage. Descriptions of a war of words within the British establishment. Confused and nuanced stories that took the pressure off the government and gave them room to manoeuvre.
I couldn’t risk it.
I rolled up my sleeve, revealing my scar.
“This is a souvenir of the cloning vats,” I said, holding out my arm for the cameras. “If something doesn’t change, then I’ll be out of a job and into a prison cell for the lies I’ve told just to live a normal life. So why should you believe that the people I’m working with are about real reform?”
I raised my arm. A dozen camera flashes made the scar stand out, pale and jagged.
“You tell me.”
“Ms Saluc,” I said as the k’kiri approached my table at a pavement cafe. “Will you join me for a coffee this time?”
“Why not,” she answered, taking a seat. Her beak hung a little open and her eyes narrowed, the k’kiri equivalent of a smile.
“Thank you for your article,” I said. “It got us the help we need here while we wait for change back home.”
She tapped a button in the centre of the table, placing her order.
“You did something brave,” she said, glancing at my arm.
I’d started keeping my sleeves rolled up for the first time in years. The scar lay exposed, covered by neither cloth nor lies. It was liberating.
“Brave would have been confessing years ago,” I said. “This was just survival.”
“What about the people who stole your data?” she asked. “The ones who triggered these events?”
Across the road, a familiar face went by. For a second, I felt like I was looking in a mirror, seeing a version of myself caught midway between gratitude and rage. Then he moved on.
I shrugged and ordered myself another drink.
“Sadly, we have no way to track them down,” I lied.
* * *
This story was originally published in individual episodes here on the blog and on my mailing list. If you’d like to receive these stories straight to your inbox every Friday, and a free e-book thrown in for good measure, then just sign up to my mailing list – if you don’t like it, you can unsubscribe any time you want.
And if you’ve enjoyed spending time with Julian Atticus, you can read another of his adventures in my short story collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.