She started as a concept. Something scratched lovingly into the corners of textbooks, whispered in the darkening twilight among a maze of books. She was something traded in the backs of classrooms and in dimly lit dorm rooms, something guarded and cherished and reared; brought gently into adulthood with a shout of ‘Eureka’.
She started as a concept.
And here, in the shiny catacombs of DYAD, Rachel Duncan was reborn.
Her laughter peeled off into the cool morning air as she spun, the fallen leaves dancing around her. Her pulse thrummed steadily, lungs pumping in perfect time to the shiver of her rib cage. Her organs ticked and whirred like the finest machinery: gears of smooth bone and springs fashioned from sinew, tendon as smooth as silk. Steady. Predictable. No signs of illness no signs of anything wrong, she ran and skipped and spun in the leaves like a delicate automaton, and laughed.
She never saw the fire. Never felt the heat never smelled the smoke, the memories of summer barbecues and picnics too fresh in her mind. Her legs kicked up the leaves and she watched them flutter and fall, dancing in air that might have smelled like burning. (If she was paying any mind to it which she wasn’t, and that’s the point.)
She didn’t see the man come up to her house, enter-exit come ‘round the back. She didn't notice until the leaves rustled behind her and she turned, curious. His black coat trailed deep grooves across the autumn yard and she stood stock-still, let the air fall flat around her.
He came up to her and kneeled, and she could see two more men standing by the car parked beside her house. He stretched out a hand to her. He spoke.
'Rachel. Will you come inside, please?'
She pulled herself away, trained instinct zipping through her body.
'Daddy told me not to talk to strangers.'
She felt it click into place, another input into a foolproof program. She moved to run. The man’s hands shot out, long spider-fingers hooking around her shoulders.
‘I’m you father’s colleague. Aldous Leekie, I’m sure he’s mentioned me?’
Another bit of data filtered into her program that her mind took, analysed, the result spat out like two loose teeth.
She beamed and her smile caught at the corners, two even rows of teeth winking at him from between two rounded lips.
'Come inside, Rachel.'
He smiled. Sadly. She may have noticed the sadness had she stopped for a moment, might have seen the sadness and the fakery behind it. Her heart faltered, and she grinned and laughed and ran, tugging on the old man's coat sleeve.
Unnoticeable as it was, the sharp tickticktickticktick sputtered, a rough cough in the midst of a smooth crescendo. A single mallet dropped at the start of a symphony. She ran to the house all the same, unaware of the rough scratch of her skeleton. His eyes creased at the corners and his smile turned down at the corners, so slight that she didn’t even notice it. A glitch. A mistake.
One could blame it on the loss, as unknown it was to her at this time—the maker gone the machine dwindles, a pile of fine material with no purpose. Or so it might have been.
(Or maybe it was the human element, the fact that her heart beat and pumped and pulsed not because of wound wires and steel supports but because of blood—for it was indeed blood and not oil that ran through her veins, her bones springing with the strength and purpose of childhood.)
Aldous Leekie’s voice was slow and low, heavy. She looked at him and saw a small flicker, her eyes stabbing into the small folds at the corners of his eyes. The machine's program surged back to life (just a momentary glitch then, just one misstep nothing to worry about dear, it'll run it'll run) and she backed away—something wrong tick-ticking in the back of her mind.
It sat with her and stewed, rising in her throat like bile. Her perfect smile fell like a wall with no support, crumbling.
'Rachel. You father is dead.'
She was born in a white hospital room to one mother and uprooted, taken to another as soon as she cried. Their arms enveloped her as she cried: a child, just a child unlike any other. Or so they may have wished. But she wasn't a child, really; she was already born, years ago, between the pages of a college notebook.
Her father died in a fire, and in that same fire Rachel Duncan was reborn again; a phoenix rising from another’s ashes.
She didn't like the room. She didn't like the frills or the dresser or the bed or how it didn't feel like home.
Aldous Leekie told her all was open to her, told her DYAD could give her the world and more.
So she screamed in his face, the harsh shriek of gears-gone-wrong, the scrape of steel on steel.
She said: 'You aren't my Daddy.’
Said: 'Where is my Daddy'
Said: 'Why did he go.'
So he knelt beside her (like always like a child, like she was-is lesser, always) and offered secrets like sacrifice. He held up a promise too, names, data splintered on a thousand screens. Told her it was her father’s dream. She hated the way he said was, the way it meant that they were gone.
And accepting it meant loss. She: didn't, her fingers coiled into her fists like wires, her chest heaving in a boiling crescendo. She bellowed, hated herself for it, stared at herself in the mirror until her eyes cleared and her cheeks softened once more.
Her bones clicked against each other as she lay in the dark, felt her breathing, imagined not breathing. Imagined how it would feel to have her hair curl with smoke and her skin turned to ash. Decided against it. She rolled on her side and felt the way the mattress curved under her, felt her chest shake with sobs.
(Above her, three red lights beeped steadily, three computer monitors gathered her movements. Behind the mirror Aldous Leekie stood, one hand to the glass, wishing he could reach out and comfort her shaking form—the perfect mockery of affection. He could have entered, pulled her close and rubbed circles into her back, could have told her stories of the heavens or stories of the past, spun tales of gold silk until she laughed once more.
But he: didn't, he stood and stared and wished, his hand moving in sharp stuttering jolts as he wrote notes in a careful script. His hands rasped against paper as he flipped through a doctor's notebook, trailed one finger down a line of checked boxes. Watched her breathe and shake and sob and saw only a miracle, his eyes skipping like blind rats over the child in front of him.)
She woke to a ceiling she didn't remember and bed sheets that smelled like death.
Aldous Leekie came into her room and offered names and she looked at him, her eyes still dry and aching. He asked again, brought with him papers to show her a world of his own creation. Well. His and Ethan’s and Susan’s and countless other miracle workers, gods in their own right. He offered it to her like a gift, payment for her obedience.
Her mind clicked and clattered, gears lighting back to life. She saw the lines at his eyes, the shadows creasing under them and the way his hands moved; the way they always seemed to want to reach for her, those spider-fingers. The way they held her shoulders like a prize.
Like a key turned in ignition she was anger, rage, all childish power. He smiled at her (smiled at her he was always smiling, a shark-tooth-grin) and stood, left one folder on her duvet before exiting the room.
The doorknob twisted violently under her hands and slammed with a ringing and she leaned against it, imagined it locking.
The folder called to her with a serpent’s hiss and her hand slid toward it, curiosity and anger melding in her mind. At it’s touch she recoiled as if burned, the papers falling and scattering on the ground. Her hands itched as she reached down, turned over one photograph and found herself reflected. Eyes that were not hers stared out from the paper cage as she traced the smile, the curve of another’s lip, the curls of another’s hair. She raised one hand to her own and wrapped it ‘round her finger and pulled until her finger tingled and bloated, purple, all human in it’s weakness.
All human. And Rachel Duncan breathed, felt something like a slip as her rib cage began to thrum without a motor, as she worked her fingers through her hair and felt them bend and twist; all flesh, all hers.
Not the other’s and she turned the photograph over, read a name that felt as fake as the copy’s smile.
She summoned a storm at her fingertips, fingers tearing at the scattered documents, eyes scanning the names, dates, details written there. So. Not a copy, then. She let the fact settle, rolled the word clone in her mind until it lost it’s meaning.
The next time Aldous Leekie approached her room she waited, one ear pressed to the door. She opened it for him, smiling back at his crinkled eyes. She didn’t wait for him to ask.
Said: ‘I want to see them.’
Watched his eyes light with joy as his miracle obeyed, lips folded neatly over fangs. She saw his eyes begin to sparkle, remembered her Daddy’s twinkle as he tucked her in to bed, said he lov—
She cut off the thought like a guillotine, the word turning bitter on her tongue as she saw Mister Leekie smile, her pulse point burning. The fire spread through her body and she felt it melting, felt the metal supports and titanium bolts within her begin to wither, give way to something more akin to molecules twisted into DNA, patterns dictating every curve of her form.
He led her—no, Rachel let him lead her—out of the room and into a stone cold hallway, darkness creeping across the floor like a swirling tide. He brought her to a room, traced his finger over projections like they were stars, not people(never people), gave her a plastic box filled with neatly sorted files, as promised.
She bit back welling disdain as he spoke, ground her nails into her palms to feel the pulse, to feel the life. Sat on her perfectly made bed and stared at faces that weren't hers, consumed every detail like starving, like hungry.
They said she needed a mother. She rifled through files and lived lives she could only see and they said she needed a mother, said that this was not enough for a growing girl. Made her mouth taste bitter, poison packaged as pity.
She watched them grow and let herself wither, saw herself a shadow. She saw Katja dye her hair once, twice, saw the way her hair streaked red as blood and anger, the way Katja laughed at it. Ran a hand through her own hair and wanted to claw at it, make herself more than jenniferalisondaniellearyannaelizabethjanikacosima.
Marion braided it for her, at first, told her how to stand straight, hands cold and dry and lacking in affection. Marion braided it for her until Rachel learned how to do it herself, smiled with thin lips that sent shivers over Rachel's spine.
The day Rachel turned ten years old, she could not ride a bike, but her legs moved without shaking, her nails digging into the flesh of her palms. Janika could ride a bike. Rode it every day that summer, her exploits captured in gritty photographs and sent to Rachel who ran her hands over every crease, every curve and bend in Janika's form before tearing the pictures apart and letting them fall to the floor.
DYAD had copies. She knew that and she tore them all the same, satisfaction filling her as the face that was not hers fell to pieces, unrecognizable.
At night, she dreamed about destroying their files. In the day, she smiled and smiled and smiled, her fingers curving slightly around Marion's teacups and running over textbooks left by Aldous, letting her head fill with knowledge. She could not ride a bike, but by the age of fifteen they whispered behind her back, said she could rule an empire.
She hid her smile then, let it warm inside of her, the joy of it hers alone.
Danielle kissed a boy for the first time and Rachel Duncan watched, flipped the remote back and forth in her hands, her nails clean and clipped, tipped with silver.
(Rachel Duncan kissed a boy and when she fell onto the sheets with him her only thoughts were of the others: is this what they felt is this what they thought is this what they—
His eyes gleamed when he looked at her—he insisted on buying her dinner, gave her flowers that smelled like poison—and her spine tingled, is this what they felt is this good is this—he had been told, of course, of her status(her prestige, Marion corrects, her uniqueness, says Aldous) and she hated the way his eyes reminded her of them, of: marionethanaldous, everyone.
And he grinned at her afterwards, ran a slow hand over her flank and whispered baby in a voice that was much too full of marvel and ownership, dripping with delight at his conquest. Her skin crawled as she thought of how Aldous looked at her and saw something, how his eyes were so similar to her Da—
Rachel cut her lip on her teeth as she turned on him, hands gripping his as she whispered in his ear, bit the flesh there and drew blood.
‘What-,’ he gasped, breathless as Rachel Duncan leaned down and kissed him, rolled his bottom lip between her teeth. ‘Babe, I—’
‘Shut up,’ she hissed, snapping her teeth and tasting copper.
The next time she saw him he tapped his spit-shiny shoes on the polished floor, eyes snapping everywhere but her. He called her ‘Miss. Duncan’ and she curved her smile inward, dismissing him with a flick of her wrist.)
Jennifer cut through the water like she was made to swim in it, Rachel Duncan walked among the empty hallways of DYAD and wished for a lock.
(She could have also wished for a door—unlocked—an unlocked door and a ticket to nowhere-elsewhere-anywhere. It didn't matter anyhow because she had: none of these things and so she paced, a trapped thing.)
Beth was valedictorian and Rachel Duncan watched through clear screens, the darkness around her suffocating. Her hand traced medical files and tangled in her long dark tresses, her eyes searched through X-rays and school records and tracked herself in her mirror, traced her edges. Her hands lifted to the mirror before her and she imagined herself as them, imagined her hair turning red like blood, Katja, or braided behind her, Jennifer. Or curled, as Danielle wore it, or Alison's steep bangs.
(She could be any of them)
She had long ago refused to let Marion touch her hair, and in the darkness of her room she wound it into patterns and imagined herself living another's life. In the light, she stood in front of the mirror and rubbed concealer onto her cheeks, drew her eyes in soft lines and stared, stared, didn't take her eyes off the glass before her. If she looked hard enough, she thought she could see them standing there, her room a glorified cage.
Beth was valedictorian and Rachel Duncan put a knife to her neck and thought about bleeding. She slit her hair instead, cutting it sharp, letting it hang down in her face like a wolf's fang. In the sink she dyed it bleach-blonde and ran her fingers through it, felt joy twist in her gut at the way it fell straight and ragged. She looked in the mirror and marveled, Rachel Duncan looked in a mirror and saw herself: at a glance, she could be none of them.
Later, when Marion threaded her fingers through it it didn't feel the same, and when she narrowed her eyes Rachel felt her stomach knot as she gripped the seat of the chair tightly, Marion’s disapproving words set upon her like hunting dogs. Rachel wished she could shed those words like water off a duck’s back but, well. She was never good at that so she bit her lip to bleed and wished again for a knife.
That afternoon Marion dragged her to the nearest salon and made her sit for hours while the hairdressers whirled about her head like frenzied birds. Rachel Duncan dug her nails into the leather seat and closed her eyes, tried to imagine herself a world away.
On her eighteenth birthday she stood in front of her mirror and painted her nails to shine, held them up to her neck like they were anything like a blade. In a mirror she remade herself, emerging to stand next to AldousandMarion; she brushed back one flyaway wisp of air, tightened her smile and nodded, left a curve at her lip.
‘It’s a prestigious position, for one of your age,’ Aldous said proudly, and Rachel Duncan imagined his skin burning in a fire.
‘You’ll do well, I’m sure of it,’ Marion said, and her voice was sweet honey, an ache. Rachel Duncan’s brain whispered trap, whispered soft and quiet and with the whirr and crunch of old machinery. She pushed it down with a hiss of disgust, creaking her hands into fists before her.
She smiled, kept smiling, forced her face into compliance. Survival really, that was all, that was all, adapt or die the saying went and Rachel Duncan did not(could not) die. She remade herself—a different kind of death maybe, she thought as she heard the last grind of forgotten motor, but that didn't matter—like a god creating from clay Rachel Duncan created herself in her own image, and that was enough.
(Had to be. Had to be. Had to be.)
The remote lay cool in her hands as she flicked it back and forth, her other hand grasping a martini glass lightly between two fingers. She tried again(again) (again) (again) to remember the feeling of those words on her lips: I love you I love you, I love you. She drained the last drop of alcohol and shook herself, switching off the television.
'Hello, Daniel,’ she said, tasting disdain on her tongue. He emerged from the bathroom, towel still wrapped around his waist, hair dripping. She heard him pad through the apartment, heard the rustle of clothes and the shift of the bed as he sat down on it. ‘You have the reports?’
Silence. He emerged from the bedroom and pulled his tie tight, walked over to where his briefcase sat on the kitchen counter. “Here.” He approached Rachel and held the files out to her. ‘They’re all here—except 324B21, we’re still waiting.’
The folder was heavy in Rachel’s fingers as she set it down on her lap, opening it carefully. 'And why is that?'
'The subject is currently overseas, an exchange program. The testing was scheduled for last week but, ah, some food poisoning combined with extreme intoxication prevented it from being done safely.'
Rachel bit her tongue sharply, felt a retort spark on her lips. The subject. She ran a finger down the papers before her, flipped through the folder carefully. Alison Hendrix. Her smile curved as she read through the data, sneering at the normalcy, the mundane. She flipped it closed fast before holding it out to Daniel. 'Return this to me when Ms. Niehaus’ data has been collected.’
'As you wish.'
She heard the door slam as he left, flicked the television back on.
I love you too Daddy I love you too Daddy I love you too D— Had she said those words? The tapes were a gift, another one of Aldous’ charity projects, another way for him to feel better about his hand in this. Rachel didn't—couldn't—know if those were real, or if they were simply fabrications as fake as the lives of her clones.
The folder. She wanted to hiss at the memory, knew that Daniel had placed her data at the end, buried under the others. As if that could ever ease the blow. She knew what numbers trace the paper, like the feel of her physician’s cool dry hands. Daniel knew that she did not wish to see her own file, saw it in the stiffness of her shoulder, the jerk of her fingers.
Once, she had looked through it all; on her twenty first birthday Aldous had asked what she wanted, and Rachel replied: everything. Everything. And so it was delivered to her. Boxes and boxes of dusty files, videotapes and X-rays, voice recordings, photographs. All in chronological order, all neat and sorted.
She started at the beginning. Her eyes had flicked through her most recent medical examinations, her marks from school. The reports written by her monitors. Then, her doctors, the psychologist they had had her meet with weekly when she first came to DYAD, and Aldous’s messy scrawl. And then.
Her Father’s smooth voice narrating her development, his careful penmanship on paper that, if she held close enough, still smelled like smoke. Her Mother’s looping script. Photographs of her babysitter displayed next to a neatly sorted report. Everything.
DYAD had… copies, she knew. Aldous could have given her a flash drive, an empty room with a screen that smelled only of cold steel and plastic. He could have given her transcripts, photocopies, only the monitors that came after.
But he: didn’t, he gave her papers that still smelled of her parents burning flesh and their recorded voices weaving in and out with words like subject, like presenting; voices she knew possessed by faceless white coats and gloved hands.
(Would it have helped is the question here, one Rachel Duncan did not wish to consider; for it is easier to blame the missteps of others, twist charity into pity and kindness and condescension.
Just as easy to twist them back, though, mask fascination with a mockery of love, excuse ignorance with good intentions.)
She felt herself like a pot in the kiln, waiting, waiting, she itched to move and push and rage but she: didn't.
And like the firebird she heats to the bursting, exploding in a swirl of haze and cinder.
Yet unlike the firebird her death is slow, her rebirth even slower.
Her Father comes again; like the turn of the earth he rises once more and she is, and he—was—is as well.
(As in: to be.
As in: to continue.
As in: Rachel Duncan continues to be and Ethan, her father—her Daddy, her Maker— rises from cold abandoned ash.
She wakes to a nightmare. Some childhood daydream twisted, grotesque; Ethan Duncan left her a saint and came back a demon)
He didn’t recognize her. At first, he did not recognize her. Rachel Duncan doesn't know if she should take pride in that, that she has made herself so unlike the little girl he once had.
No matter then that he chokes on his own tea, no matter that his eyes skirt over her and his hands shake, bones rattling inside skin. No matter, because Rachel Duncan is—
"Run, and you might survive," she said, hands laying cool on the desk—Aldous' desk—and head cocked. She was the picture of benevolence, devotion maybe but her words were like steel grating against stone. He kissed her forehead and she felt her body tense, a surge of exclamations rising and dying within her, moths to a flame. His kiss was tender, loving, brought the feeling of warmth and safety, one of which Rachel Duncan knew and one which she no longer remembered.
She saw the tail of his coat whip 'round the door and he was gone, a coldness settling in her chest.
"Nurture prevails," she whispered, feeling again the beat-beat of her pulse, wondering again what it would feel like for that beat to stop cold, how it would feel to become nothing. But she is not nothing, she is Rachel Duncan and she has proved their experiment, hasn't she? With this severance she proved the hypothesis of their grand design—or refuted it, same thing.
Because Rachel Duncan was-is alone, and she has never felt more free in her life. And Rachel Duncan is alone, was alone, has been alone so long that she may have forgotten the feeling of. What?
And if she hadn't well, not like she could name the feeling, replicate the shreds of memory still left—
She watches her Father die and wonders again how that feels, wonders how it would feel to end.
Or: that is what she will remember later, when the fog has cleared and she is whole again. He dies in her arms and she remembers how it feels to cry—not tears but racking sobs that shake her core. She feel's his hands go limp around her and wishes, foolishly, that she could trade, keep his heart beating at the expense of hers.
She can't, obviously, and when Ethan Duncan dies Rachel Duncan stands and exits the room, dials a number and calls for a disposal crew.
(Because she can't remember the feeling, of warmth and safety because she has forgotten one of those and she was-is broken, must make herself whole again.
Adapt or die and Rachel Duncan cannot die, will not die, they will not let her die; and so she walks away, picking up the shattered pieces of her soul and stitching them together. A frankenstein thing, abomination.)
And Rachel Duncan looses a part of herself there, she forgot it or it let it go no matter, what matters is she takes the cure—her cure, her's—and smashes it, sees the blood splatter on her heel and inhales the sting of iron.
He died in her arms. Later, she will remember it differently but now it is harsh and raw, an open wound.
She loses herself there, for a time, loses sight and loses sight, falls to the ground with an unholy shriek.
And Rachel Duncan does not loose but Rachel Duncan has just lost; and so she remakes herself, the one who lost was not her, never her, and she forges herself from pain and iron.
Or perhaps: steel.
At first, it is only pain. Rachel Duncan forgets if she has ever felt anything but pain, it surrounds her, a suffocating cloud.
Later, she will step up to the mirror and run one finger along her eyelid, watch as the pupil twists, contracts and expands to the changing light. She will feel the steel hesitate, the titanium bearings shift under her skin. She will breathe and feel her heart beat in time, a hollow sound, like the ticking of a long abandoned watch.
Later, she will smile; ignore the new stiffness of her face and bare her teeth in warning.
Later, she will return to an empty apartment. She will switch on the television and watch, with one empty eye, some childhood fantasy.
And then one by one she will grind those tapes to dust.