“Welcome to life. Now get up.”
The voice was cold. The air was cold. The surface below was cold. Why was everything like this?
Opening her eyes answered no questions, only produced more. There was a room with walls covered floor-to-ceiling in light-up pictures (computer screens, a small part of her mind supplied) interspersed with large glass tubes (incubators). Someone tapped their foot irritably in the center of the tiled floor.
“You can understand me, right?” the Someone snapped. “I programmed all the necessary information into you.”
“Where am I?” The words were rasped out, but clear enough.
“You’re in my laboratory. Do you know who I am?” The tapping grew more rapid.
(Pinched eyes, constant scowl. So painfully familiar.)
“You’re Doctor Moroe, aren’t you?”
“That’s correct.” The Doctor in question inclined her head.
“Who am I?”
“You are Number Six. And when I address you, you obey me. Now, get up.”
Number Six sat upright and swung her legs off the edge of the medical table. Then she let herself carefully slide down until she was standing.
Doctor Moroe gave her a slow, critical once-over. “A bit of a slouch, but it’ll do.” She turned around and strode towards the door. “Follow me. Try not to lag behind.”
They walked down a narrow hallway brightly lit by fluorescent lights. Doctor Moroe only paused to point out a steel door just like the others around it, save for a keypad at eye level.
“This room is off limits,” she said before continuing on without looking back. “Lights on, you report to me until you are dismissed, at which time you will return to your quarters. You’ll find all the amenities you need there and have an hour before lights out to use them.
“I’ve downloaded all the basic skills you need to complete your tasks; these will be properly compartmentalized in a few hours. Take this chance to recharge because I don’t have time to deal with your confusion tomorrow.”
The Doctor opened yet another door and Number Six stepped past obediently. It shut abruptly, leaving her alone in her room.
It was furnished, albeit impersonal. There was a steel-frame bed and an entrance to bathroom facilities. A bookshelf filled with medical texts and scientific journals sat in the corner. Next to it was a desk with a single sheet of paper.
Six took a closer look to see the page covered in different handwritings:
“Read up on Campbell and Wilmut to better understand project 5.7.96.”
“Who are you? I’m Number Three.”
“This is Number Four. I guess I’m not the first to stay here.”
“I am Number 5. I don’t think I’ll be the last one here.”
Before long, the lights went out.
When they came back on, they force-started the rest of Six’s life. It was like clockwork, being reliably—painfully—predictable, and was spent obsessively counting every second of every day.
Ninety-eight seconds until Doctor Moroe finished her morning maintenance check on Six.
Five thousand and two since the current experiment began, with an unknown amount to go.
Seven seconds until she could go back to her room and read the notes her predecessors left behind.
She lived for those notes. She spent what little free time she had before Lights Out scouring her room for their writings. And there were plenty to find, scribbled on slips of paper, scrawled in marker on the walls, or scratched into the furniture.
“Doctor Moroe likes her coffee brought without asking, with sugar.” That was penned into the doorframe, along with the replies:
“I don’t know where your brain went, Two, but she was furious when I tried that.—Three”
“This is Four. She got mad at me, too.”
“Made coffee, drank it myself. Tasted gross and wasn’t worth the shock.—5”
Six learned what a shock was early on, while pulling some files on the Doctor’s main computer.
“Why am I Number Six?” she asked.
“Because that’s what I decided to call you.” Doctor Moroe didn’t bother to look up from her device. “Pull up last week’s sequencing journal.” Her tone didn’t leave any room for argument.
“I’d just like to know,” Six argued, “why not Five or Four, or even One?”
Moroe crossed her fingers and a sharp jolt instantly shot from a point at Six’s jugular through her body.
“You are not here to ask questions.” The chilled reply came through the pain. “You are her to download the files, then copy the sequencing. Understand?”
She nodded, not that she could do much else past the growing darkness at the edges at her vision.
“Good.” And just like that the pain fizzled away. “Pull up last week’s file on brain emulation.”
Using a finger to drag the minimized window from the corner of the large touch screen, Six flicked it up to display full-screen. Her hand trembled for the rest of the day.
“I got to take some equipment outside today. Everything was green and the birds were singing again. Did you like going outside, Two?—Three.”
“The flowers are still blooming. Doctor Moroe yelled at me for dawdling, but when she wasn’t looking I took one and placed it in Whole Brain Emulation. I hope I can show it to you someday.—Three.”
“I’m not allowed outside. Got shocked for asking about it.—5”
Those notes were on the side of the bookshelf. Six found the flower in the text Three mentioned. It was flattened and dry and oh so delicate; when she held it to the light she could see that it was white with violet streaks. She gently put it back, wondering how many times someone else marveled at the little splash of color between their fingers.
“How are the vitals?” Doctor Moroe asked for the umpteenth time.
Six glanced between the Labrador retriever on the table—unconcious, attached to a dozen sensors and tubes and IV lines—and the tablet.
“Everything is stable,” she said. Almost unconsciously, she reached out to rub its ear, feeling the soft fur between her fingers.
“Stop that,” the Doctor said sharply, pulling Six’s hand away. Then she flipped a half-dozen switches on her DQI machine, which whirred to life.
The table slid, humming mechanically, until the dog’s head was under the concave scanner. A single beam of light shot down and slowly roved across it in a jerky pattern. On the largest monitor a 3-D rendering of a brain slowly constructed itself, cell by cell. Six watched in awe as the electrical impulses flashed and connected to each other to map out their own miniature galaxy.
A high-pitched beep sounded from the tablet. Six checked it and did a double-take.
“Doctor,” she said, fighting back the waver of panic that threatened to take over her voice, “the vitals are dropping!”
Doctor Moroe waved a dismissive hand, never tearing her gaze away from the brain on the screen. “That’s expected. Let me know when they’ve stopped.”
And they did, eventually. Six gripped the edges of her tablet as the pulse slowed down to a flat line.
“The upload took,” Doctor Moroe tapped the screen. “We’ll continue tomorrow. You’re dismissed.”
“Do you need me to dispose of the remains?” Maybe this was her chance to see outside?
Doctor Moroe crossed her fingers briefly, making Six jump at the quick shock. “I have no further use for you today. Go to your room before you irritate me even more.”
“This is Four. I’ve been looking for the others. Good thing the Doctor doesn’t notice how long I take to run errands. Still, the fact that I haven’t found any sign of them is disconcerting, for both their fates and mine. If anyone reads this, be careful.”
“It’s been four minutes and thirteen seconds. That’s thirteen seconds too long.” The Doctor rubbed at her temple as she spoke, stopping the timer on her tablet.
Six winced. “Sorry, but he didn’t want to come with.” She gestured to the German shepherd at the end of the leash she held. He’d pulled back the entire way down the hall, ears back and tail between his legs. He happily nibbled at the treats she offered and leaned into her touch when she dug her fingers deep into his thick coat, but the moment she took him towards the test room he froze up.
“Fine. I expect better performance next time, though,” the Doctor spat, holding out her hand. When Six gave her the leash, she pointed to the laptop at her desk. “Go through my messages. I’m waiting for a reply from the Saisei Corporation.”
Six scrolled through the inbox. “Nothing from them.”
Meanwhile, Doctor Moroe had pulled out a clicker and used it once, nodding curtly when the dog sat down. “Taking their time as usual. Anything else?”
“Dassault would like an update on your current project.”
Two clicks, the dog stood up. “Attach the photographs from yesterday and let them know it’ll be done by the end of the week.”
“There’s an invoice for your latest supply order.”
Three clicks, only this time the dog didn’t respond. “Take the payment out of account 9353.”
Just as Six confirmed the money transfer, another message popped up. “Oh, one last thing. From a Doctor William Hunter.”
“Delete it.” Three more clicks, still no response.
“It seems official, though—“
“Delete it! He know full well I’m done putting up with him.” She was furiously abusing the clicker now, in sets of three bursts at a time fast and slow and fast again. Not that the dog did anything but cock his head.
The cursor hovered over the trashcan icon.
Suddenly, Doctor Moroe cuffed the dog on the muzzle, making him yelp, and Six could only watch though it made her chest hurt.
Did it count as disobeying if Six deleted the message after reading it?
The notes you have provided me seem to be missing some key points, along with the schematics of your laboratory. I understand your repeatedly voiced concerns about plagiarism, but the International Independent Ethics Committee is becoming increasingly concerned about your lack of cooperation throughout this inspection. Further failure to provide information about your projects will give us just cause to seek a search warrant through the courts.
Liv, I also want to reach out to you as your friend. Just send over the information and put the Committee at ease. Maybe come outside and get some fresh air while you’re at it.
Dr. William Hunter.
The poor thing was panting nervously by the time Doctor Moroe was finished with him. Six made sure to give him plenty of scratches behind his ears.
“The Doctor always counts her medical tools after I use them. I wonder if you would ever get bored waiting for her to finish—Three”
“This is Four. Yeah, it gets really annoying.”
“They’re made of this material that sharpens easily but is very brittle. If you break one, she doesn’t bother to make sure you throw out the pieces.—5”
It only took a few minutes for the German shepherd to go still. There were no wires or scans, just a well-placed needle.
“Get the scalpel. I want a look at the brain.”
Fingers trembling, Six gently handed it over. “Why did he have to die?”
“The experiment was a failure. It had no purpose unless I could terminate and dissect it for more information,” the Doctor replied distantly. She was paying more attention to the deep incisions she made along the base of the dog’s skull. When she finished, she handed the scalpel back. “Clean this and fetch me the Stryker saw.”
Six clenched the tool, felt the bite of it in her hand, as she headed for the sink. “But he was so sweet.”
“That doesn’t do me any good.”
“And that’s the only thing that matters to you?” And then there was a soft crack and a bright pain across her palm that made her look down to see the scalpel broken in two and a long cut that was just starting to leak blood. It took her a moment to actually register what happened; she almost felt like she was watching someone else in her place. “Oh. I’m sorry, Doctor. I’ll go throw this away.”
“Wait.” The Doctor came over and plucked the pieces out. “Show me your other hand, too.” Once Six showed her it was empty, she threw the scalpel out herself.
Later, after the Doctor cleaned and disinfected Six’s wound, while she was wrapping her hand, she said, “My work used to be so exciting.” Her voice was soft, and gentler than it ever had been.
Six, who had been biting her lip to keep from crying, took a deep breath before asking, “What do you mean?”
“Back when I was just entering my field, years ago, I used to love discovering everything I could. There was no endgame beyond my own curiosity.” The Doctor smiled ruefully. “Now I have an actual goal in mind, results that I’m trying to find the steps to, and I discover nothing but my latest failure.”
“I’m sorry,” Six said simply. Those two words were the only ones she could think of that summed up that sudden swell of sympathy in her chest, along with some desire she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
Apparently Doctor Moroe didn’t get the message. “I doubt that.” Like a flip had been switched, she stiffened up and schooled her face back into her severe scowl. Once she was done wrapping Six’s hand, she dismissed her and went back to the dog.
In that moment, Six made up her mind.
“I’m leaving tonight. I don’t know if I can make it back or if I’ll even survive, so I just wanted to say this: I love you. I love everybody who was here before me, and I send my love to whoever comes after to read what the rest of us have left behind.
Best of Luck,
She went barefoot, padding silently along with shoes in one hand and a bag with a single change of clothes in the other. She tried to keep her breathing low, but she could barely tell if she was quiet enough with her heartbeat thudding in her ears.
The halls were dark save for low emergency light running along the floor that she followed like her own personal path to the exit. Each step—one hundred thirty-seven, one hundred thirty-eight—took her farther into the twists and turns of the lab that she’d spent so long committing to memory.
Six froze and flattened herself against the wall. Slowly, carefully she peered around the corner to find Doctor Moroe coming out of her off-limits room.
The Doctor closed the door and leaned over to lock the key pad. Ducking back, Six held as still as she could.
Don’t look here, she mentally pleaded to her. Just close the door and walk the other way.
Her heartbeat’s pounding grew even louder.
The doctor’s heavy footsteps echoed through the hall.
Six’s hands trembled against the wall.
There weren’t any nooks, or any corners to quickly hide behind. Perhaps she could slip through a door quietly enough?
But before Six could try, the steps grew more distant. Soon enough, there was nothing.
She let out herself breathe again.
Turning the corner, she paused at the door, glanced at the electronic lock. The Doctor used the same code on so many electronics. This one was probably no different. Surely a little peek wouldn’t hurt, just to see what the big deal was?
She typed in the key code, 1028. The door opened with the tiniest click.
In and out, not even a minute, she told herself. She opened the door and shivered at the rush of cold air that swept over her.
The room was small, downright cramped with floor-to-ceiling incubators crowding the walls. Six stepped up to one and wiped away the frost on the glass to peer inside.
It was her.
At least, it looked like her. Granted the Doctor never provided any mirrors; however there were plenty of reflective surfaces and Six was curious enough to learn about the slope of her nose, the shape of her lips, the way her hair curled around her face, to recognize herself.
But this wasn’t a reflection—not quite. The eyes were closed, ice crystals clung to parted lips, and there was a close-but-not-really look to the whole face.
Six studied Not Her for a few seconds before she noticed a note taped to the side written in the Doctor’s scrawl:
“Number Two—No sense of internal motivation. Must tweak amygdala.”
With a growing weight nestled in her stomach, she moved on to the others. She found more frozen versions of herself, and more notes to go with them.
“Number Three—Dawdled and was constantly distracted.”
“Number Four—Asked too many questions.”
“Number Five—DO NOT REVIVE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.”
Five was intriguing. Small, puckered puncture wounds dotted over her bare chest, just below the ragged slice across her throat. Six tried to imagine how she must have held her pen—just like Six would, maybe—as she signed her letters with a jaunty “5.” How she must have smirked with the satisfaction of setting herself apart from the others.
Nothing to do for her now.
Six turned around to look at the last thing there, a nightstand that was worn and painted a pastel pink as if someone had stolen it from a little girl’s room. On top of it sat a vase with fresh flowers and framed photographs of Doctor Moroe and yet another woman who wore Six’s face.
They were smiling, even laughing in some pictures, almost identical in their shared joy.
A plaque in the middle read “Prima Moroe Born October 28, 2172 Died July 5, 2196.”
“What is going on here?” Six whispered to herself.
“I was about to ask the same question.” She whipped her head up to find Doctor Moroe leaning against the doorframe.
“You’re out of your quarters after hours, in a room I explicitly forbade you to enter, using a code you no doubt stole from me. Am I missing anything?” The Doctor slowly advanced, making Six back up until she was pressed against a wall. There was no anger in her eyes, or any emotion for that matter.
Six straightened her back and held her head high. “Is this why I’m the only one?”
The Doctor paused and gave scrubbed at her face with a low sigh.
Then she laughed.
“That’s it?” she gasped. “That’s all you have to say? No apologies, no explanations?”
“Those haven’t kept you from shocking me before.” Six’s spine prickled at the thought. She hoped the Doctor didn’t notice the slight quiver in her voice. The laughter died down to a slight chuckle. “What’s so funny?”
“Everything.” The Doctor waved a hand at the incubators. “You. Me. My constant attempts to do the same thing, but no matter what I do it goes wrong. Isn’t that supposed to be the definition of insanity?”
“The same thing…” Six trailed off, looking at the others. “You mean me? Us?”
“No!” The laughter vanished, leaving the Doctor looking downright manic. She jabbed a finger at the nightstand, at the photograph. “Her! When I lost her, I thought it would be fine. I have the resources, I can fix this. Hell, she was a constant thorn in my side, and this could be my chance to do things the right way.
The Doctor started pacing, her unfocused gaze falling on nothing in particular as she continued in a flat tone. “Make her follow in my footsteps, like I’d always dreamed of. Turn her into the perfect assistant, give her all the experience to continue my work after I’m gone. No distractions, this time, no wrong choices.”
Little bits and pieces in Six’s memories came together. An odd comment here, a few notes from lab work there. The way two people could look so similar when standing side-by-side.
“She was your daughter,” Six said carefully, “and you made me and the others from her.”
“Every time, I tell myself, ‘This will be the one. Every misstep, every failure will be worth my while because I’ll finally get it right.’ And it never is.”
“You never will get it right.” The epiphany fell from Six’s lips before she could properly register it. And once she started, she let all of her thoughts pour out. “You keep throwing together human DNA, giving them human brains, and then expect us to not act human. Did you think your real daughter sat in her room, waiting to serve you, too?”
“That’s enough!” Doctor Moroe snapped. “Don’t you dare act like you know what you’re talking about!”
Now it was Six’s turn to laugh, in a short, hysterical burst. “Or what? You’ll end me, stick me in a frozen tube?”
She shouldn’t have challenged the Doctor like that. At least she could enjoy the wide-eyed look of dumbfounded surprise the Doctor had before she collected herself and crossed her fingers on both hands.
This time the shock was at the base of her skull, and so all-encompassing her knees buckled and she seized up on the floor.
She could have sworn she heard Doctor Moroe, worlds away, say, “So close. You sounded just like her.”
But that didn’t matter, because Six got the last laugh. She spent her last moments taking comfort in the e-mail sent from the Doctor’s computer to Doctor Hunter. The one that told him to look for a woman trapped in the laboratory.
Number Seven will be the last, she swore to herself.