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Daniel Lloyd Smith

Vetting  Progenitors


     Typically, as far as labor clones are concerned—parts clones excluded—when a unit goes haywire and willfully stops carrying out its duties, an owner is expected to act in a proactive manner to correct the problem: either punish the defective worker until it conforms, or kill it if punishment won‘t do the trick.  Otherwise, the unit might be sold “as is” to someone else—a fraud now proscribed by Northern Region Criminal Code, Title Thirteen, “Regulations for Safe, Responsible and Humane Clone Ownership.”  Progressive society doesn’t need defective clones running around monkey-wrenching the system and menacing citizens.  

     Ten years ago, in the fall of 2044, a labor clone, a master’s valet named Tanner, ALH Serial # 0232775M, after numerous promptings to obey, he refused to follow a company manager’s direct order.  The manager worked for a corporation owned by the prominent conservator and agriculturist, Clement Lofton.  Within minutes of his insubordination, the defective clone was marched to the hanging tree in front of the mansion on Lofton’s palatial estate.  

     This sort of thing still occurs on occasion, taken with a grain of salt.  Hanging is the common prescription for adversarial clone behavior, good order in the workplace the inevitable result.  

     As the rope was thrown over the designated tree branch, Tanner began preaching like a drunken politician, shouting about being as human as any owner, with the same rights as any other citizen for that matter.  Said the owners would burn in hell for treating clones like subhuman beasts.

     Blasphemy, sacrilege, and worst of all, sedition.  

     Because he wouldn‘t go quietly, Tanner was made a special example for Lofton’s other clones.  Then and there, Lofton’s brain trust took the rope off the clone’s neck.  They logged onto “Pommade Face Page” and invited everyone in the county to “a live clone disposal and picnic.”  A week later, in the middle of Lofton’s rolling green expanse of meadow behind his mansion, with a government-authorized broadcast news crew for documentation, two hundred of the local gentry and maybe thirty dutiful clones in attendance, they stood the valet in front of the corporate incinerator and smoke house, broke his legs with a sledge hammer, cut off his thumbs and ears with a hunting knife, and threw him screaming into the flaming furnace.

     I’m sure this strikes you as brutal savagery.  I agree.  But believe me, had a region-wide vote been cast on that very day those ten long years ago, no doubt Clement Lofton would have been elected President of the Northern Region of the Confederation of Pacifica.  The old bastard’s rugged display of backbone contrasted against the faltering bleeding-heart softness displayed in those days by the almighty President Slanton Pommade the First, well, let’s just say the voters wanted leadership that would stand tall, leadership that would not bow to the effeminate notions propounded by the clone-loving abolitionists.  And a vast majority of the citizenry believed the decrepit old president was not only bowing to them, the abolitionists, but bending over for them, like he was worried that heaven’s gates would be locked when he got there if he didn’t set free every clone in the Northern Region.  Pommade’s capitulation to the rosy-do-gooder mentality had driven the shaky government-administered Central Stock Market to historical lows.

     Ah, history.  How things change.  Less than a decade later, Slanton the First’s son and successor, Slanton Pommade the Second, he eliminated all doubt as to the social, economic and political course for which the Northern Region was bound.  When his father finally died from brain cancer less than a year ago, and young Slanton assumed the highest office in the land—after a perfunctory casting and tallying of electronic ballets—he proved his worth in his first week as President.  He rounded up every clone that had been papered by its owner as free; around four thousand of them.  He herded those uppity test-tube mutants into a force-field-secured gravel pit on the outskirts of New Savanna, and blew them to kingdom come with a fuel-air bomb that fried one and all to a crisp.  

     That is why Pommade II’s regime is wildly popular at present, and his presidency will likely endure well into the future, barring some cataclysmic event.

     It is a historical fact that Clement Lofton’s handling of his renegade valet that day on his estate was a watershed moment for the ideological direction of the new nation, a signpost for young Slanton Jr. and a Munich Pact for his father.  Ironically, the elder Pommade’s self-defeating Lord-Chamberlain-like appeasement of the abolitionists cut a steep slide chute straight to the authoritarian democracy the citizens of the Northern Region enjoy today.  

     History aside, if you have a scientific bent, you’re probably wondering why that labor clone, the master’s valet clone, Tanner, went haywire in the first place.  In my opinion, the problem was a glitch in the clone-DNA vetting protocol which remains unchanged to this day, unchanged since the Treaty of Borders was signed into international law twenty-five years ago.  Like so many administrative details plaguing our nascent country, still dappled with the smoldering ruins of the old democratic republic, it will take a few more years for all the wrinkles to be ironed out.  There is a plethora of social tinkering yet to be figured.  This in mind, I suppose any harsh judgment of our system as it presently stands would be premature, perhaps even petulant.

     As a humble Bureaucrat Third-Grade, it is not my place to judge such things anyway.  Mine is but to do or die, as they say; to trudge ever on in the service of my motherland.  But I thought you might like to have the inside scoop, the view from a fly on the wall, so to tritely speak, regarding our festering little vetting problem.  

     Not to brag, but I am an administrator in the Health, Labor and Commerce Department (HDLC) after all; not some mealy-mouth intellectual muckraker judging his government from a detached ivory tower or a news editor’s chaotic short-shrift cubical.  My view of this thing is up close and intimate.

     That said, back to the defective vetting protocol.  In our defense, we here at the Bio-Engineering Desk of the HLCD are sorely overworked and grossly underpaid, not to mention understaffed.  “Doctor” Benjamin Pettybone is the sole “geneticist” employed by the Region.  We’re lucky to have him.  He won’t admit it even to me, but I think, before the Great Revolution, he was actually an actor who played a doctor on stage somewhere, as opposed to a genuine physician practicing his healing arts.  Times of political upheaval being what they are, I thank God for men like Pettybone; heroes who step bravely into the breach when no other will make the sacrifice.  

     Of course, whether or not credentialed—or even trained—playing well the administrative shepherd’s role in the public eye, giving a strict yet nurturing face to the required office, this selfless act is essential for civic stability; and Pettybone plays the role of HLCD Doctor-in-Charge-of-Genetics flawlessly, that is as long as I write his most critical lines for him, and well in advance of their presentation to the public, so he has the necessary rehearsal time to polish his sincerity of delivery.  

     No complaints regarding the writing task, considering my job before the war was night clerk at a Motel Seven on the outskirts of Atlanta.  The war was a blessing, in my case, raising me from the mundane to the sublime—from night clerk to imperial bureaucrat in the king’s court.  

     Writing for Doc Pettybone requires a little research of previous barn-burner speeches and a couple of quick turns of phrase to sync up with relevant topical issues; not at all onerous in view of the job security a few sporadic bits of creative melodrama provide me.

     But, again, all these loose fittings don’t help our DNA vetting.     Compounding our bureaucratic qualification problems, the Bio-Engineering Desk is staffed, thanks to the august Pommade Executive Branch, with three sow labor clones as administrative assistants, and you know how that goes—contrary as mules, daft as meth junkies, and gullible as toddlers.  Their only saving grace: They don’t require pay, being legally manufactured labor-properties.  So we muddle through as best we can.

     When an order comes into Amalgamated Labor and Health for say five sow and two boar labor clones, Amalgamated has to come to us, to the HLCD, for their viable zygotes, their certified embryos, ready for implantation into a surrogate, an artificial host womb, or whatever.  The implantation and everything beyond, right up to the delivery of a healthy clone to its new owner, that’s Amalgamated’s bailiwick.  No picnic I’m sure.

     So the name of the game here at the HLCD is keeping a fresh and well-inventoried batch of qualified stem-cell zygotes at the ready.  Well, as you can imagine, stem cells don’t just walk into our office by themselves.  They have to be donated by volunteers willing to live with the idea of their clones—their identical twins only younger—running around in someone’s factory or retail business or household or fields, running around looking just like them, the donors, and wondering where the hell they, the labor clones, came from and why they are there, and why they have to work to exhaustion in the hope of avoiding the exotic punishments inflicted by their owners.

     Needless to say, scruples about this situation crop up in the consciences of many potential donors.  So the ones who decide to contribute their DNA are, for the most part, unscrupulous, that is to say, they often numb themselves out with intoxicants to conquer their moral issues, and stagger in off the street for the cash—fifty Northern Region ducats per donation.  

     If you’re looking to provide reliable labor to a struggling, decimated economy, junkies make dubious progenitors.  Pardon my opinion, again, but examples like the valet Tanner seem to be coming out of the woodwork at an ever increasing rate these days.

     Another facet of our tarnished diamond of a system here is purely economic.  As goes Amalgamated Labor and Health, so goes the economy; and ALH’s bottom line last quarter was in the red, the infrared.  This is due to two factors: first, the spate of customer lawsuits against them for damages suffered at the hands of rogue clones, and second, the dearth of ideas to alleviate production of the defective embryos.  

     I hope I am sufficiently imparting to you the crux of the problem. We need better DNA in our product.

     There are only two administrators here at the Bio-Engineering Desk of the HLCD, me and Hugo.  It’s me, Hugo and our resident, Doc Pettybone, vetting all those desperate, glassy-eyed, grubby examples of a failed society that stumble through our donor door. And we have to meet demand or, quoting the words of the venerable Slanton Pommade II himself, “Hell will descend upon us and a paycheck will be the least of our worries.”  I would bet that young Slanton gets a fat kickback from Amalgamated, but you never heard it from me.

     So anyhow, along the winding way toward providing the citizenry with what it requires, another complication began to emerge, to sprout from its subterranean seed: litigation.  Redress of grievance is a noble ideal.  The consumer damaged by a defective clone should have every right to sue those responsible.  However, individual needs should never outweigh the collective good, should they?  I’m sure I heard that from the mouth of one mental giant or another.  Thus, sovereign immunity should stand forth to preserve the greater good.  So far, though, Slanton II has not drawn up the necessary legislative proposal.  He is, of course, a very busy leader, no doubt.  

     Now, I admit this question is probably well above my pay grade. However, I cannot help but feel, in the unfortunate context I have just outlined, that redress through litigation needs to be at least greatly limited somehow, or at least temporarily throttled down to a manageable tidal wave, otherwise the torrent of failing business systems here in the Northern Region will accelerate forthwith to epic proportions.

     And yes, certainly, the other side of the coin also holds true.  If we could come up with a way to “bio-engineer” perfect laborers from the dregs we have to work with—without a centrifuge or a microscope or an accredited degree between us—the problem would be resolved.  

     Right.  Let’s see you try to get three immature sow labor clones to snap out of their juvenile giggling jags long enough to accurately run system-defect-and-cure software on the DUP-50s, the automated cloning machines, much less monitor with alacrity “The Stove,” our stem cell incubator.  It’s like herding cats. . . .

     Damn.  The entrance-door alarm just went off at my terminal. Hugo’s left his post again.  How many times do I have to . . .?  

     Hurrying down to the reception area, I’m phoning Hugo and he’s not answering.  The first class flibbertigibbet, probably off fornicating with one of the sow clones.  He says he was a rodeo clown before the nuclear conflagration.  I doubt it—too soft and sedentary.

     Running into the waiting room to man the reception counter, out of breath, I am met by the thorny gaze of a green-haired, disheveled and unfamiliar female customer off the sidewalk.  She’s a hefty one, maybe pregnant under her large zipped-up hoodie; but her face and legs are nearly skeletal.  With professional indifference, I snap off the obligatory utilitarian cliché: “May I help you?”  

     “Is this where they, you know, buy tissue to make clones?  For money, I mean?” she queries, fidgeting with her shiny black-plastic purse strap.”

     Before I can hand her the donor application forms, Hugo comes busting in from the stairwell.  “Caught me using the lavatory, Edgar.  Sorry,” he says.  “I’ll take it from here.”

     Without a word, I’m heading back upstairs, back to my office, my coffee, my computer.  If he was in the bathroom, why couldn’t he answer his cell phone?  For that matter, if he was in flagrante delicto, why couldn’t he answer the phone?  Scatterbrain derelict. God forbid he should ever donate any DNA.  His clones wouldn’t be able to tie their master’s shoelaces.  

     The black coffee on my desk is tepid, but I’m having a drink anyway.  No creamer because I’m on an eternal diet, right?  Making an effort to ward off disease and old age so I can behold, I guess, what the future brings for the Northern Region experiment.  

     So getting back to the litigation problem at Amalgamated Labor and Health, back to the question of how to improve the quality of our product, I was brainstorming with Doc Pettybone yesterday, and . . . damn.  My phone is ringing.  It’s Hugo.  Can’t he manage anything?  

     “Yeah, Hugo.  What now?”

     He’s panicked and shouting, “I need you and Doc down here right away, in the waiting room!”  

     “Calm down.  What’s the matter?”

     “Right now.  Both of you!”

     “For crying out loud, Hugo.  Decorum, man; composure.  Have you lost your—”

     “A bomb!” he bellows.  “She’s got a bomb!”

     The call goes dead.  I shoot down the hall for Doc’s office like the world is on fire.  The girl I’d glimpsed did have a furtive nervousness in her expression.  Barely looked me in the eye, come to think of it.  And that huge hoodie . . . Pettybone’s door is open.  “Doc.”  Emotions in check.  “There seems to be a bomber in the reception area.”

     Sitting behind his desk, a small makeup mirror set up in front of his monitor, he’s tweezing his eyebrows, pancake foundation, rouge, and eyeliner arrayed within reach.  He looks up with a smirk, like I’m having fun with him.  “Now Edgar,” he says, with a patronizing shake of his head.  “Bombers go for crowds.  You know that.  Nice try though.  Convincing inflection . . . perhaps a little more feeling.”

     I have to raise my voice to an angry pitch.  “Off your butt, now!  No joke!  She hid the explosives under an oversized sweatshirt.  Check out camera three.  Hurry up.”

     He taps a few keys on his keyboard and his face shifts from cavalier to severe.  On the monitor, she’s holding a pistol, pointing it at Hugo who’s holding both hands up like in the movies.  “She’s got a gun!” shouts Doc.

     “She’s got a bomb!”  I touch the screen with my finger.  “Look here, at her belly.”  Under her now unzipped hoodie, a tangled web of red wires hangs loosely across the front of her khaki-green vest. The vest is thick, with symmetrical bulges across her abdomen. Doc turns up the volume.

     “You get that skunk in here, now,” the bomber demands, her voice low, her words measured, and her gun steady in Hugo’s face.  Hugo begins to thumb his phone.

     My phone rings.  

     “I can’t move,” he whimpers.  “You guys hurry up.  She’s serious.”

     “Give me the phone,” the bomber orders.  On the screen, she shoves the gun right up to Hugo’s forehead, pushes him with the muzzle and takes the phone from his hand.  

     “Who is this?” she demands, belligerent, spoiling for a fight.

     “Just take it easy, young lady,” I say, measured.  “We can work this out, no problem.”

     “Who the hell is this?  I’m not asking again, Dudecake.”

     “I’m Administrator Edgar Crumbly, Bureaucrat Third-Grade,” I tell her, managing to sound fairly dignified and professional.

     “Where’s the doctor?” she asks.  “Doctor Pettybone.”

     “He’s right here, in his office that is, Miss . . .”

     “You and him, get your rotten asses down here.  Now!  Or I shoot this fool.  Feel me?”   

     On Doc’s monitor, she pulls back the hammer on her revolver, the muzzle still in contact with Hugo’s skull.  “And after I put a bullet in this cabbage head, I’ll blow up the whole joint; make brick dust out of it.  This is Semtex, man!” she emphasizes, pinching her vest and tugging on it.

     Doc gives me a look and says, “Oh, my god, another brain-washed martyr threatening to bomb a government office.”  

     There’ve been quite a few lately, at various gov’t offices.  But this is HLCD’s first.

     Doc says, “I’ve got the force-field activator in my pocket.  We need to get Hugo away from her, out of the room.”

     “Let’s go,” I tell him.  “We’ll talk sense to her.  She doesn’t want to die.  She’s after something.  We’ll figure it out.  Probably money, yeah, she’s after a pile of ducats is all.”  

     I’m out of Doc’s office, down the stairs and pushing through the door into the reception area, Doc right there on my heels.  First thing I see, because it’s pointed straight at me, is the train-tunnel bore at the business end of the demon lady’s revolver.

     Like goose down falling on powdery snow, I breathily intone to her, “Easy does it, right?  You can have whatever you want.”

     “What I want?” she shrieks.  “I want you and the punk Doctor to speak into the microphone.  That’s what I want.”  Her free hand slips into her little plastic purse and out comes a mini digital video recorder.  Now she’s got both the pistol and the camera aimed at me and, over my shoulder, Doc Pettybone.

     Performance anxiety on crack.  

     I try to appease.  “What do you want us to do, mam?  You name it.”

     “Shut up!” she yowls.  “Just shut up and answer my questions.”

Try that, try shutting up and answering someone’s questions simultaneously.  I need a dose of designer drugs, designed for facing down a muddled psychotic with a gun.  No one is moving, anticipation thick and dark as cold crude oil.

     She seems to relax a little, a sneering smile twisting up dimples, a sprite’s confident twinkle popping in her eyes.  She pulls back from poor, quaking Hugo, drops her pistol aim to knee level and keeps her video recorder on our faces.  “Question number one,     “She says.  “Is a clone a human being?”

     I catch Doc’s Chihuahua eyes, bulging wide.  He nods at me, gives me the stage.  I begin, “According to Northern Region Criminal Code, Title 13, Section 1, subsection 9a, paragraph—”

     Her gun hand shoots out and up and boom!  Thunder.  She puts a monster bullet hole in the hung ceiling three feet over our heads, the bullet lodging somewhere in my office.  “Wrong!” she shouts.  

     Hard to hear her words with my ringing ears.  I can taste the sulfur smell of gunpowder.  

     “I didn’t ask what the law says, Mister Roboto.  You . . . I want you to do something alien to your nature as a government functionary: I want you to tell me the truth.  Is a clone a human being?”

     Truth is a funny thing.  I mean, it seems clear most of the time, at least when I believe what I’m thinking.  But truth be told, not having given this particular question a lot of serious cogitation, relying generally on my perception of society’s opinion as expressed in its written laws, I’m a tad ambivalent on the subject.  They say the truth will set you free.  Not always.  In this case, telling her what she wants to hear holds the better chance for a positive outcome.

     “Yes, of course, a clone is obviously a human being.  It’s sure not a frog,” I quip, forcing a small, tight-lipped grin.

     “Word,” she says in confirmation.  “So you confess, then.  You admit your part in the oligarchic conspiracy to enslave and murder and commit genocide on your fellow humans.  Redemption is had through confession, Sir.  Be careful with the truth.”

     Sounds like a way out.  “Yes,” I agree.  “I confess.  But I don’t make the rules, I just—”

     Boom!  She shoots the ceiling again.  “That bullshit didn’t work for the war criminals at Nuremburg; it didn’t save them from hanging by the neck until dead.  ‘I was just following orders’ is a lame cop-out, Dude.”  She moves further back and shoves the pistol into her pocket and whips out a little black box.  “You see this,” she says, holding the box like she’s still aiming the gun, holds it so we can see the green plastic button on its face.

     “Yes, Miss,” I say, all propriety and caring.  She’s too far away to rush, and I’m no hero anyway.  Hugo hasn’t moved an inch, quivering in place.  Doc, he’s staying silent behind me.  

     “I push this button, the bomb is armed.  Understand?” she threatens.

     “Yes, Miss,” I acknowledge.

     She pushes the button.  It starts flashing.  Green light . . . green light . . . green light.  “The truth,” she says.  “No cop-outs.  No lies. No excuses.”  She is holding the video camera strong, taking down my testimony like a court recorder.  “I push the button one more time, we all kiss the sky.  It’s bye-bye, cruel world.”  Her finger is hovering over the flashing light; twitchy.  “Next question: What can a small group of humble sinners do?  An honest collection of right thinkers, a cadre of decent people, what can we do to stop this holocaust?”

     I am ruminating with all I’ve got—considering the flood of adrenaline cascading through my brain—searching for a green sprig of hope in this dry, shifting sand dune of doom, looking for a positive answer where none exists, straining for air at the bottom of a boiling ocean.  “I don’t know,” I say, surrendering to the awful reality.

     “Finally, apparatchik Dude, an honest answer; but ignorant to the extreme,” she laughs.  “No surprise.”  She keeps facing us as she sidesteps to the street door, pushes it open, and waves the video camera around, signaling someone outside.

     Another hooded figure appears on the sidewalk, grabs the camera from her hand, shouts: “John Brown lives,” and runs off down the street.  

     Our guest closes the door and waves the button box over her head.  “I am flying now,” she says, a tinge of hysterical elation possessing her voice, rapture resonating from deep in her throat.  “I’m flying in the face of history, in the face of Briggs and King and their frogs, in the face of Wilmut and his ewe, Dolly.  I am soaring with the papal edict that forbade the cloning of humans and the creation of Frankenstein and the objectification of living souls.  In the name of the abolitionist hero John Brown, I spit in the eyes of Antinori and Panayiotis.”

     “You could go south,” I interject, hoping to break her reverie. “Go to the Southern Region, where clones are free, where they’re equal citizens.”

     She glares at me with pure, uncompromising hatred.  “Run away and hide from the horror Satan himself has wrought?  Not today.”  

     As she swings the detonator overhead and opens her jaws to take her last deep breath of life, a hand grips my collar and jerks me backward.  Doc Pettybone yanks me through the stairwell door, his body cushioning my fall as we sprawl on the tiled staircase landing.

     “Hugo,” I shout, as Doc points his remote activator, a thumb-size devise issued to all satellite offices of the new regime.  He aims it at a receiver above the door casing through which we just tumbled.  Bless Slanton Pommade II; he has a plan for all conceivable contingencies.  Doc squeezes the remote and the emergency bomb-containment field snaps into place with a static crackle. Force field technology is light years beyond my understanding.  All I know is, when it’s activated, the lights in the whole city go dim.

     The horrific explosion is muffled, but shakes the entire building like King Kong stomping the ground just outside the foundation.

     “Poor Hugo,” I lament.  “He never had a chance.”

     “Unavoidable, Edgar,” says Pettybone, his confident tone uncharacteristically austere.  He is rehearsing for the news cameras.  “The terrorist was bent on killing him, on killing all of us.  Such a shame, the tragic misguided soul; probably turned from civilized recourse by some insidious and subversive foolery.”  He bows his head for a brief moment of silence in contemplation of every botched soul who is produced by this harsh world.  

     “Then he looks up, beaming with hope reborn, and says, “She would have surely succeeded at her bloody business had it not been for our defenses at the ready, provided for us thanks to our brilliant leader, Slanton the Great.”  

     His soliloquy is shaping up, albeit a little windy.  I’ll help him hone it for mass consumption.  His eyeliner is a tad crooked along one puffy eyelid.

     “When will the malcontents ever learn?  Violence solves nothing,” Doc wanders on.  “We must come together and throw away the rancorous hatred that divides us.”

     “Poor Hugo,” I accompany from the amen corner.  

     The last bomber of a government office—four or five weeks ago; a licensing bureau as I recall—that rebel had killed several administrative assistants and one titled official.  I wonder if it was the same insurgency.

     “His death will not be in vain,” soars Doc, an uplifting tinge of nobility spicing his elocution, his composition trite for the most part, but pleasingly commercial for this evening’s newscast.  “Our Hugo is a hero, and his superior DNA will find rebirth as a battalion of gifted soldiers in President Pommade’s new warrior-clone militia. Hugo’s family will have great cause for pride as they mourn their loss.”

     “Yeah, that’s the stuff, Doc,” I compliment.  Doc has the heart of a born leader, I have to admit.  Of course, as per Rule 37 of the appended (and unpublished to the unwashed masses) Code of Regional Security, the bomber’s DNA will be the genetic architecture for the next militia battalion—aggression and commitment-to-cause being prized by military planners; that is if I can get those silly administrative assistant clones to properly collect it from the gruesome mess in the waiting room.  They have got to take every pain to glean only the bomber’s DNA.  All due respect, the last thing this country needs is an armed battalion of Hugos.

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