The Ark

The Ark

THE ARK.jpg

“Good morning, Jackson.”

My eyes felt heavy and crusted as I tried to open them. I wiped them with my hands and blinked several times to let them adjust to the slowly illuminating white lights of my room. Sitting up, I looked around at the sterile blank walls of my room before letting myself focus on the glowing red glass bubble on the wall above the door. Claire is what the glowing light is called. Computerized Learning Artificial Intelligence and Reasoning Engine.

“Good morning, Claire. Anything new happen while I slept?”

“All critical systems are operating within acceptable parameters. The door to the dining chamber won’t close properly, and the secondary air scrubber needs inspection.”

“I’ll get right on those. How’s the family?” I’m not exactly sure when I started calling the other occupants family, but it made me feel closer to them.

“All twenty-four people are healthy. All clones are growing within acceptable parameters. Are you ready for your checkpoint, Jackson?”

Over the past year I’ve become slightly weary of my job. For years I’ve worked steadily and with no thoughts other than to my mission, but over the past year I had begun to question my life. Nothing seemed to change, I don’t ever remember doing anything else, I have this growing sense of loss, and I don’t feel right. I worked while the others onboard were in hypersleep.

“How long have I been maintaining the ship, Claire?”

“Ten years, three months, two days, and fourteen hours. Would you like the minutes and seconds as well?”

“No. Thank you, Claire. Do you know why I don’t remember doing anything else?”

“Your medical records indicate you had an accident just after launch and that resulted in selective memory loss. Your training and experience skills were retained, and therefore you were capable of maintaining the Ark for its journey. You’ve asked me this question before. Would you like me to perform a complete brain scan to make sure you’re all right?”

“I’m fine, Claire. How long until we reach our destination?”

“Five years, seven months, and thirteen days.”

I groaned inwardly as I slipped into my white pants and pullover shirt.

“Are you ready for your checkpoint, Jackson?”

“Do we have to go through this again?”

“Once every seven days.”

I glared at the red glowing light, not sure why I felt it was infuriating. “You can begin, Claire.”

“What is the history of the Ark?”

“In the year 2018, the United Nations introduced a plan to preserve human life by building a space ark. The construction took forty-six years and the Ark was officially launched in the year 2064.”

“What is the mission of the Ark?”

“To save humanity by creating a settlement on Earth-Echo, a habitable planet located in the Alpha Centauri solar system. Twenty-four genetically diverse individuals were selected to establish this new settlement. Each person brings with them unique knowledge and skills to successfully create a new civilization.”

“What is your role, Jackson?”

“To maintain the Ark during the nearly seventeen-year journey to Earth-Echo.”

“In the event of systemic atmospheric failure or hull breach, what is your primary function?”

“To restore critical services and to preserve the lives of the twenty-four individuals.”

“Why do we have clones on the Ark?”

“Clones are soulless beings that are being grown to be used for harvesting if harm or illness befalls any of the twenty-four people on the Ark.”

“Why is your personal mission on the Ark important?”

“If the Ark is not properly maintained, all lives, including mine, will be at risk.”

“Very good, Jackson. Your checkpoint is complete.”

“I’m lonely, Claire.”

There was a momentary pause before Claire responded. “I’m here to talk with you at any time, Jackson.”

“You’re an artificial intelligence system, Claire. I have no memory of speaking with or even touching another human being.”

“There’s nothing I can do about that, Jackson. Your accident destroyed key portions of your memory.”

“What was Earth like?”

“You have all of the probe data for Earth-Echo available to you. Since there is no returning to Earth, you must focus on the future and your responsibilities. The Ark was created to give humanity a chance at a fresh start. All data pertaining to Earth is locked and only accessible through a vote of the majority of the twenty-four people on board. This was decided to ensure the new settlement could choose a governance model most suited to their needs of survival and to not rely upon historical and often corrupt systems.”

I sighed and moved down the hallway and into the dining area. There was always a low-level hum of the ship’s fans and environmental controls. The humming noise was broken up by the regular beeping of various machines and systems as they analyzed and processed the air and other mechanical devices. The walls were white to provide the maximum illumination with a minimum of power going to the lights. As I mechanically ate my protein cubes, I switched the monitors to view different portions of the ship. The Ark was designed with redundancy in mind. Each of the twenty-four people were isolated within twenty-four bio-containment pods. The loss of one pod would only kill a single person without risk to the others. In addition, the clones of these individuals had their own pods. Pods were strategically placed within the Ark to provide as much separation from each other and the person’s clone to ensure maximum viability.

I got up from eating and moved back down the hall to look in on Pod D2. This was the only pod I had access to see into. The other pods were in places of the ship that were inaccessible to me. Behind the heavy, airtight, locked door the small glass portal gave me a glimpse inside. As I peered in, I could see a young woman with long dark hair floating in a suspension liquid. Fiber-optic leads were connected to her head and a tube was in her throat. This was Ayelet Ivanov’s clone. The real Ayelet would be thirty-six years old, in hypersleep, and located in another section of the ship. While in hypersleep, the people will only age one year for every eight of the journey. Ayelet’s clone was initiated eleven years before the Ark launched. She was now twenty-one and would continue growing and aging normally throughout the journey. I had watched her grow over the years. Ayelet’s clone was now about the age I had been when I started this journey. My hand reached for the glass of the portal. There was something about her face...

“Jackson?”

“Yes, Claire?”

“Please report to the medical bay.”

“Is there something wrong there I need to repair?”

“I need to run some routine tests on you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me, Claire.”

“It’s necessary to make sure you maintain perfect health and well-being.”

I dutifully began walking towards the medical bay. “What happens if a clone wakes up?”

“Systems are in place to prevent such an occurrence.”

“Yes, I know about those preventative measures. What would happen if a clone did wake up?”

“It’s most important to comprehend the purpose of a clone, Jackson. They’re created for restoring health to their living and real hosts. Being identical to their hosts in every way except for their age, they can be harvested for organ or limb transplants if such a need arose. Clone brains are blank slates, devoid of memories. Through their growing stages. their brains are selectively mapped and stimulated to mirror portions of their host’s brains. Memories are stored in different areas of the brain from skills. Skills are in sections of the brain that are difficult to transfer and thus the clone’s brains are directed through their growth to mirror their host’s skill sections. If a host is near death, the memories and soul of the host can be transferred to the clone to preserve the host’s life in the body of the clone. Since only memories and core essence of a person can be transferred, having the skills portions of the clone brains already mapped allows the real person to function as before. Your question was what would happen if a clone woke up? The clone would have skills, but no life experience. No core essence. They would lie there with no self-awareness and would be incapable of functioning. It takes a soul and memories, the essence of someone to be transferred into a clone to make them fully functional.”

“What would happen if my essence were moved into a clone but without my memories?”

“You would be able to function with the skills of the clone but have little self-awareness.”

“That sounds a lot like me. I don’t remember anything before my accident. Was I transferred into a clone?”

“No. Please lie down on the bed, Jackson.”

I laid down on the examination bed and a stainless-steel device hovered and chirped over my head. I felt a needle jab into my arm before Claire told me I was good to go back to my tasks at hand.

***

The next days passed as did all the others before them, however, my experience going to the medical bay disturbed me. This had never happened before where Claire had closely monitored me or took samples. I determined that if I did my work and didn’t ask questions, then Claire believed me to be fine. Unfortunately, I continued to question who I was as if something was slowly unravelling within me. I’ve come to realize this as self-awareness. For years I had done my job without questioning my place in all of this or even pondering the larger questions of life. Every day I paused a little longer when looking through the glass portal on Ayelet’s clone. There was something about this girl that was drawing me to her, but I wasn’t sure what it was.

All these thoughts had made me concerned for my own well-being. Is there something wrong with me? I pondered this question and the growing discomfort I felt inside. I feel like this isn’t what my life… No. I should be doing something different… That’s not it either. I should be different…

Each thought seemed to take me deeper and deeper. It was as if I was made of layers and as the days progressed I would discover something new about myself or have a new revelation. However, the deeper I seemed to get, the more flawed and broken I felt I was.

My routine was simple. I woke up and Claire would tell me what tasks I must perform for the day. I ate, exercised, repaired, maintained, or monitored things, before eating and going to sleep again.

For the past few days I had been working on the atmospheric controller doing routine maintenance. When I performed any kind of maintenance, my mind was blissfully quiet. It was when I wasn’t actively doing something that my mind would wander.

Today, as I reached into the controller with a sensing tool, my hand and arm began to shake. I had no control to stop the shaking. I leaned back against the white wall and stared at my hand and arm, comparing them to my other hand and arm that were working perfectly well.

“Jackson? Are you all right?’

“Something is wrong with my arm.”

“Can you make it to the medical bay?”

“I can.” As I rushed to the medical bay, I was afraid for the first time in my life. I had never been sick before.

“Sit down, Jackson. I will begin monitoring your symptoms.”

My hand and arm continued to shake. After a few minutes, a robotic arm with a mounted syringe injected something into my thigh.

“You’ve been injected with a mild sedative, Jackson. The sedative will make you sleepy, but it will start to reduce the tremors in your arm. You should move back to your quarters.”

“Do you know what’s wrong with me?”

“Move quickly to your room, Jackson. The sedatives will begin making you sleepy very soon.”

I made it to my room just in time to fall into my bed and lapse into a deep sleep.

***

“Good morning, Jackson.”

“Good morning, Claire.” Ten days had passed since my shaking incident and all had gone back to normal. My fear that something was wrong with me however hadn’t gone away even though Claire told me there was nothing wrong. I knew there was something wrong with me. I could feel slight tremors in my muscles and my hair had begun to turn gray.

“Today there is a critical maintenance item that needs to be performed. There has been a high level of charged particulates bombarding the Ark. These particulates have thrown off the calibration of the brain sensing array.”

“What do I need to do?”

“You need to go to the medical bay. Together we will run through a diagnostic to calibrate the array.”

I got dressed and moved down the hallway when the Ark shook for a moment. I put my hand out to stabilize myself.

“What was that, Claire?”

“The Ark made a course correction to get us away from the particulates. Nothing to worry about.”

“I’ve never felt the Ark move like that.”

“It doesn’t happen very often.”

I got to the medical bay and Claire told me to lie down on the bed. A device appeared from overhead that looked like a helmet with fiber optic wires coming out of it.

“This device is part of the brain sensing array. It will position itself over your head. The Ark maintains a brain map of all people on board. Your recorded brain map will be compared to the brain sensing array data and that will allow the device to be recalibrated.”

The device came down and settled onto my head. There was a strange high-pitched sound and some beeping before straps slid over my neck, wrists, and ankles locking me in place. Being forcibly held down was frightening.

“You need to stay very still, Jackson. The calibration has begun.”

Suddenly, the room shook violently, and green gas began flooding the medical bay. Amber lights flashed, and alarms sounded. I began to cough, and my lungs were burning.

“Medical bay depressurizing. Sealing medical bay doors.”

I tried to yell out, but no sound came from my mouth. Pain erupted through my body. The flashing lights began to dim, and the sound of the alarms faded until all was dark and silent.

***

I’m floating… Something is attached to me… There are sounds of rushing bubbles... My throat… I started to gag as warm, thick liquid around me began to move. I could feel the line of liquid drop below my ears to my neck, then down further. My head is wet and cold.

I tried to breathe but I gagged again. As the warm liquid drained from around me I felt more and more of my own weight. Slowly a hard device in my throat began to move up and out of my mouth. I continued to gag until it came free. I gasped and coughed and fell forward. My eyes felt like they were glued together but slowly they released and I could see a dark metal grate. I coughed, and liquid came up from my lungs.

It was hard to move, but I slowly lifted my head.

“There has been an accident, Jackson. Don’t try to speak. Breathe deeply and slowly.”

I took a deep raspy breath and coughed up more liquid. Something heavy, wet, and cold was sticking to my back.

“There was a hull breach in the medical bay. During the brain sensor array calibration, you were strapped to the table. The depressurization of the medical bay caused a cascading failure and automatic fail safes initiated the sealing of the medical bay. I was unable to override the fail safes and free you from the confines of the calibration. Once I was able to regain some control, I initiated a transference process to save your life.”

I could feel my strength returning and I pushed up on my hands. As my head came up off the floor, dark, wet masses of hair fell in front of my eyes. My hands… they were no longer mine but of someone else.

I sat back and looked down on the tops of two breasts, bound loosely by a white cloth. I stared at my hands again before looking back towards the containment chamber. Thick drops of clear liquid dripped from the edges of the chamber. A throat tube and fiber-optic leads dangled from the top. The chamber had a label; D2.

My breathing became more rapid and I coughed again as I tried to speak. “Wha…?” I coughed up more liquid. “Claire?” My voice sounded so strange to my ears.

“Take your time, Jackson. You’ve gone through a major transition and this will be a shock to your system. You’re alive and I need your help saving the Ark.”

D2… D2… “Ayelet’s clone?”

“Yes, Jackson. Your essence been transferred into Ayelet’s clone. The damage done to the ship will require Ayelet’s structural engineering and computer science knowledge and skills. It was the most logical choice.”

I pushed myself up further onto shaking legs. The floor hurt my bare feet. Thick liquid dripped from me. “Me…? What happened to me… my body?”

“It suffocated. As the room pressure dropped due to the hull breach, air was sucked from your lungs. Your old body is dead, Jackson.”

I placed my shaking hand against a wall to help me stand better. I looked back down my body and felt the heaviness of my breasts trapped by the wet, white cloth. “Safe? Am I safe?”

“Yes. For now. The breach has been contained to the medical bay and the Ark has moved away from the particulate field. We need to seal the breach and repair the other damages.”

“Family?”

“All safe and well but we are at an elevated risk for failure.”

I held my hand out and turned it slowly over as I watched it. It felt good. Strong. Healthy. Had I been getting weaker? I’m a girl. “Couldn’t you have put me into one of the male clones?”

“This was the most logical choice, Jackson. There’s an urgency to the repairs. Any additional breaches could create hull integrity issues.”

I closed and opened my fingers several times. I was angry and frustrated. I felt violated and yet at the same time my old body was dead, and I was alive. I need time to understand my situation, but there’s no time and repairs are urgent. I need to focus on the task at hand before… Before what? What can I do?

“I need you to move to the shower, Jackson. You must remove the cloning suspension fluid from your body so that you can change into a pressurized suit. Once that’s done we can begin the repairs.”

I paused and continued to look down at myself. I felt strangely euphoric, but I was also frightened. My body is gone, and I must live like this now. My feet hurt with every step on my way to the shower.

“Why do my feet hurt, Claire?”

“They’ve never touched the floor before. I must stress the urgency of the situation, Jackson. All lives on board are at risk right now. Focus on the repairs.”

I stumbled into the shower room and dropped the wet white cloths that had clung to my body. I tried not to focus on the new parts I had and the parts I was missing. I turned on the water and stepped inside. Even the soft, gentle drops felt different to me. The water slid and flowed over my skin in new and unique ways and I had to keep reminding myself that the Ark was in danger. Every touch solicited fresh new experiences for my brain. Everything feels different but not altogether wrong.

My hair was problematic as it had never been cut in twenty-one years. While it had grown slower than normal human hair growth due to the cloning suspension fluid, it still reached down my back to my backside. Washing it took more time than anything else. With the shower completed, I stepped into an air chamber to dry off.

My mouth had a metallic taste to it and I wished I had time to clean and brush my teeth. Stepping from the air chamber, a panel opened to display a white shirt, pants, booties, underpants, and a new item of clothing I wasn’t familiar with. I lifted the item up and determined it went over my chest. My breasts seemed large to me, and this item of clothing did much to reduce their heavy swaying and the major portion of distraction that they were.

My hips felt wider than before as I pulled up the oddly cut underpants over skin that was incredibly silky and smooth. There was no need to adjust anything between my legs. My top, pants, and booties were pretty much identical to what I always wore before, although they were somewhat smaller. I glanced in a mirror and immediately regretted doing so as all thoughts to the safety of the ship vanished.

Before me stood the young woman I had become infatuated with. Her long brunette hair was full, lush, and shiny. She had deep and vibrant blue eyes; eyes I had never seen but somehow brought comfort to me. Her teeth were perfect, and her lips were plump and red. Her skin was a very light olive color; darker than mine had been before.

“Jackson. You need to move to the transition room near the airlocks. There you will find a pressure suit.”

My feet still hurt as I walked but the booties cut the pain significantly. I had never been in the transition room before and was surprised the door opened for me as it had always been locked. Inside the room was a pressure suit and another door beyond it that looked very heavy.

“Where does that door go, Claire?”

“That’s an airlock for leaving the Ark. You’ll need to bind your hair back and step into the pressure suit. You’ve read about how to seal yourself in the suit.”

“Yes.” I found a clasp and tied my hair back into a long ponytail before stepping into the heavy suit. Once I sealed the helmet, I pulled on and twisted the gloves into place which activated the oxygen and the internal pressure regulator.

“I need you to retrieve a micro-seal and head to the medical bay. Once in the hallway, I’ll close and depressurize the space. You can then enter the medical bay and seal the hull breach.”

I picked up a device that looked like a fire extinguisher but had a wide flexible mouth on it to press over a hull breach hole. It also had two cylinders bound together. I had never heard of a micro-seal before, but somehow, I knew what it was and how to use it. Moments later I was standing outside the medical bay and sealed in the hallway. There was a loud noise as the air was vacuumed out of the hallway and the door to the medical bay opened.

The room looked just like it had when I was last in there, except that my old body was lying down and strapped to a bed. There was chafing on the skin, next to the beige straps. My heart raced as I stepped towards the ghost of my old self.

“Jackson, don’t focus on your old body right now. You must release the tracing gas to find the breach.”

Did I always look so old? I turned away from my previous life and body with significant effort and opened a valve on the micro-seal. A red gas was released, and it hung in the air before me.

“Increasing medical bay air pressure.”

Instantly the red gas began to move. It began to flow towards a single point on the wall indicating the site of the breach. I pressed the micro-seal against the spot and activated the sealant. In seconds the hole was sealed, and the breach contained.

“Well done, Jackson. I’m re-pressurizing the medical bay and hallway. You should return the pressure suit and I recommend you get some rest. Tomorrow is a busy day for you.”

I took another look at my old body lying there. The lips and fingertips were blue. The hair was graying on the sides. I looked worn out. Is this what happens when you die?

I moved through the hallways and back to the transition room where I removed the pressure suit and returned the micro-seal to its place before heading back to my room. I noticed I was a little sore. Not only my feet, but my arms and legs as well.

“Why is my body sore, Claire?”

“This is to be expected. Your body has never worked before and your muscles are breaking down quickly under the load. Tomorrow you will start an exercise routine to build your strength.”

“I’m very confused.”

“This feeling will go away quickly. Your memories and essence of who you are were transferred into the body of a young woman. However, the brain of this young woman has always been female. Over the next few days, you will adjust rapidly, adopting many of the core attributes of Ayelet. You’re still you, Jackson. You’re also alive.”

“Sleeping will help?”

“Yes. Sleeping will allow your subconscious to meld into its new environment and adjust.”

“I’m this way forever?”

“I can’t guarantee that, Jackson. A situation arose that created the need to move you into another body. This is very rare and uncommon, therefore, the likelihood of you going through another transition again is very low.”

I was growing more and more tired by the moment and I climbed into bed and fell instantly asleep.

***

“Good morning, Mila.”

I growled at the voice and rolled over in bed only to feel long filaments in my mouth. My weight had also shifted abnormally. I pulled at the stuff in my mouth only to find a mass of hair in my fingers. My eyes jerked open and I stared at the handful of hair. Sitting up, I looked down at my hair, hands, and swelling of my chest.

“Good morning, Mila.” Claire repeated.

“It wasn’t a dream?”

“No, Mila.”

“Why are you calling me, Mila?”

“Because you’re no longer Jackson and I gave you a new name of the same heritage of Ayelet. Since you’re not Ayelet, you’re now Mila. You need sustenance, exercise, and I need you to take care of a problem.”

I sighed. Claire was driven. “You have no sympathy for what I’m going through, Claire?”

“Why should I have sympathy for you? I saved your life.”

“I’m female.”

“Do you think it’s any different for me as I move from system to system?”

“Yes, that’s different.”

“You still have a mission, Mila. You’re alive. Shall we perform your checkpoint?”

“I know all the answers and I know what I’m supposed to do. Can you tell me why I didn’t I have a clone of me? It seems incongruent that all the passengers on this ship have clones and I don’t. Where was the redundancy for the one person maintaining the ship?”

“Clones are very time consuming and costly to create, Mila. If you had been badly injured, I would have done the exact same thing that I did. While the clones are here for the passengers’ benefit, they are also here for your safety.”

I stood and walked towards the bathroom noting how my body moved and shifted as I walked. “Now that the danger has passed, why can’t you transfer me into one of the male clones?” I didn’t feel an urgency to be male, it was just that my mind was confused by the new signals it was receiving.

“While the danger has passed, it doesn’t mean that there will be no more dangers on this voyage. Using another clone would reduce redundancy and increase risk to the mission. Ayelet’s clone, which you now wear, would be destroyed and wasted if I transferred you again. I’m sorry, Mila. There are no other options. For your own life and the lives of others on board, you must continue your mission in the body you’re now in.”

I sat down and went to the bathroom, not even thinking about why I did that until after I got up. I moved to a mirror and stared at myself. Letting my fingers trace my flawless skin and lips, I turned away and headed to the dining hall to eat breakfast.

As I sat and ate my protein cubes, I looked around the room. I was noticing things I hadn’t noticed before. The shape of the walls and bulkheads gave me an understanding of how and why the structure was built. Could this be Ayelet’s engineering knowledge that is speaking to me?

The growing self-awareness that I had before the accident seemed to erupt within me since the transfer into this body. Something still wasn’t right, but I knew asking too many questions was what led Claire to be curious about my health and well-being. For a limited time, I felt I could get away with some questions, but soon I would have to return to my normal self if only to avoid scrutiny.

I turned my attention to the monitors and flipped through the camera views. I began doing simple math in my head. Twenty-four pods, each pod appearing to be twelve feet by twelve feet. If each pod was stationed for redundancy, there could be a variety of configurations for the ship, but a long, narrow ship was the most likely design. I’d only actually been in several thousand square feet of the ship in total. The pods with people and clones alone would be nearly seven thousand square feet. Adding up space estimation for the bridge, engine rooms, and storage, then I calculated I had seen less than one tenth of the entire craft.

“Time for your exercises, Mila.”

For the next several hours, Claire directed me to exercise every muscle group. This was to be my new routine every day. Admittedly, I felt good after the exercise. Endorphins were released, and my new muscles felt energized even if they were tired. As tired as I became, I still felt better than I ever was before.

“Mila, I lowered the temperature in the medical bay to preserve your old body from decay. I need you to dispose of Jackson.”

I didn’t even know what to say in response. I was enjoying this body, but it didn’t mean I relished destroying my old one. I sensed a need to be careful how I responded.

“Will I need protective gear, Claire?”

“No, Mila. I have regulated the temperature back to normal and the pressure is stable.”

I felt my steps getting heavier and more sluggish the closer I came to the medical bay. When the door swished open to the side I stared at my old body and approached it slowly. I let my fingers touch my old face and I was startled how cold and rough it felt. The first person I’ve ever touched, and it’s my old, dead body. I shivered. I hadn’t realized how old I had looked. At some point the straps had been removed and I could see the abrasions on the skin. I had to close my eyes to focus.

Claire interrupted me and directed me to get a rolling cart. I was to slide my old body onto the cart and wheel it into the airlock. There, I would strap down the cart, and exit the airlock. Claire would then seal the airlock and evacuate the contents of the airlock into space.

This seemed sacrilegious to me. I don’t remember my early life as Jackson, but for ten years I have memories of looking in the mirror at the face that now stared blankly at the ceiling with dull, brown eyes. A strange memory came to mind about flushing a gold-colored fish down a toilet. Is this the 2074 version of the same thing? I pondered the strange memory for a moment and decided to keep it to myself. The image of a small golden fish flickered in my mind and held me captive. I’ve never seen a fish before.

I pulled hard on my old body until it flopped unceremoniously onto the cart. I shuddered again. This isn’t normal what I’m doing. It isn’t right. I wheeled the cart down to the transition room and Claire opened the inner airlock door. I was fascinated by the small space of the airlock. Knowing that beyond the next door was the vast emptiness of space was both intriguing and frightening.

After securing the cart to the floor, I took one last look at myself and stepped back into the transition room. As the inner airlock door slid back into place, I leaned as it went to hold my gaze upon my body a little longer.

When the door sealed, there was a muffled sound of rushing wind, and then nothing. Several minutes passed and the door opened again. The cart was now empty, and I felt a sense of loss. I placed my hand on the cart and dropped my head to look down. I felt ashamed. As I momentarily stared at the floor, something caught my eye. It was small, round, and shiny. I bent down to unhook the straps from the cart and picked up the tiny object, slipping it into my bootie so I could examine it better later.

Whatever it was, it shouldn’t be there. The vacuum of space would have pulled it out. I unhooked the other tie-downs and took the cart back to the medical bay.

“I’m sure that was difficult for you, Mila, but it was necessary.”

I shifted the topic to avoid the conversation. “How is the family?”

“All twenty-four are in excellent condition. Twenty-three clones are growing acceptably and within parameters.”

“What work needs to be done?”

“The primary water flow valve needs adjustment, but that can wait until tomorrow. You’ve had a difficult few days. I recommend you shower and get some additional rest to let your muscles recuperate.”

I headed to the shower, anxious to wash off the touch of my old body. There was a finality to disposing it, and my mind was adapting to life in a female body quickly. Every movement I made seemed more fluid and gentle. There was a sensuality to this body that made the longing I had in my heart before grow even more. As Jackson, I felt something stir when I looked upon Mila’s clone, but now that I’m her, there was something inherently deeper. The loneliness was greater. The desire to be loved… Love? Where did this concept of love come from?

I had more questions than answers and feared I was flawed. I don’t want to end up like my old body. I can’t let Claire know that I’m broken.

I slipped the little object into my hand as I removed my clothing for the shower. Once inside, where it was more private from the prying camera lenses of Claire, I let the water fall over me as I scrutinized the shiny, round item. It was a small disc, about the size of my small fingernail, but it had two small holes in it. It was incredibly smooth. I’d never seen anything like it before and questioned its function and purpose.

After my shower, drying off, and changing into my clothes, I spent a few minutes in front of the mirror. My reflection was less strange to me now, but it didn’t feel wrong. I turned to the side to look closer at my shape and hair. I was shapely and symmetrical as opposed to being more square and stocky. My long hair seemed to have a slight natural set of twirls in it. The gentle curves gave it depth.

“You should consider cutting your hair, Mila.”

The thought caused me to shudder. An image of the new me in a white and flower-patterned long shirt and my long hair blowing gently in the breeze came to mind. There were strange green things around me in the image. Like the image of the golden fish, this image vanished quickly, but the residual feeling remained. There was freedom and joy. Warmth and life.

“It’s not in my way, Claire. I’ve had short hair all my life and I’m enjoying the unique difference of how it feels.”

“That would be a normal feeling after what you’ve been through. Are you experiencing any doubt, regret, or other things I should know about?”

Once again, I had to be careful on how I respond. “I have lingering sadness over seeing my old body disposed of, but my internal dichotomy is lessening. I realize your actions saved me and the lives of the family on board giving this mission that best possible chance of success.”

“Is that all, Mila?”

I looked up at the glowing red glass on the wall. “Yes, Claire.”

***

Things had gone back to normal for the next few weeks. My routine was simple. Wake up, eat, do my exercises, and perform maintenance. At least that was what I hoped it looked like to Claire. My feet hurt much less every day and my muscles were getting stronger. I felt stronger than I had before which made me wonder if I had been sick as Jackson.

I still thought about my old body, but those thoughts were becoming less and less. I found I was extremely comfortable as a female. I’d never felt quite right as Jackson and that feeling didn’t exist any longer. I also had the newfound knowledge from Ayelet’s skills and energy that I never had before. My reflection was something I looked forward to seeing and I enjoyed being Mila far more than being Jackson. I had even begun dreaming, something I don’t recall ever doing before. I felt more complete and happy.

However, my concerns over my privacy and distrust of Claire were increasing. Structurally, I noticed things about the ship that weren’t right. A space ship should be designed in such a way that support structures should be stronger front to back, not top to bottom. That design would protect the structure against the forward thrust of the engines. This design made me think that this ship was designed more like a building with vertical support systems to strengthen against the effects of gravity or top-down loads.

Additionally, I discovered incongruities in the floorplan. The maps displayed on the screens were different than the actual physical spaces. Where the map showed one room directly separated by a wall from another, my estimates were that some rooms had significant gaps between them.

I kept all my thoughts to myself as I was very concerned I was broken in some way. The mission was clearly defined. There was no reason for Claire to lie to me. I feared something wrong happened in the transition and I was mentally defective which was causing me to question my surroundings. Still, while I contemplated my own potential flaws, the feeling that something else was wrong persisted.

Over the past week, I had been secretly pacing and counting my steps. My bedroom was closest to the transition room and the airlock, but there were six steps between the wall of my room and the wall of the transition room. In addition, I thought I might have discovered a seam on my bedroom wall. For many nights I would lay awake looking at the seam illuminated by the red glow of Claire’s camera. I decided a bold step was needed and I spent the next few days considering what and how I would proceed.

When I felt I had everything figured out, I moved into my room and looked up at the glowing red glass above the door. I reached up to touch the glass.

“What are you doing, Mila?”

“Your camera apparatus appears to be loose, Claire.”

I grabbed the glass and twisted. The red glass separated from the wall and there was a camera lens looking back at me. I could see a set of wires connected to the back of the lens with a plastic coupling.

“There are more urgent things to take care of, Mila.”

“I think I found the problem, Claire. It will just take a minute to repair.”

I pulled on the coupling and the light inside the camera lens faded.

“Mila? What did you do?”

“The camera lens is loose and I’m tightening the internal connections.”

I moved quickly to the wall panel where I had spotted a seam and slipped a flat tool under the edge. With a yank and a pull, the seam came away loosening the wall panel at the same time.

“Mila? I need that camera functioning.”

“Still working on it, Claire.”

I pulled the panel into the room and looked beyond into a dark empty space. I could see the wall of the transition room not too far away. I looked down the wall to my right and the empty space continued well beyond where my bedroom wall joined and I expected the ship’s bulkhead to be.

“Mila?”

In my confusion I became agitated. Looking back at the dark camera lens, I reached up to it and cracked the glass of the lens with my tool.

“I’m sorry, Claire. I put too much pressure on the camera lens and it broke.”

“Forget the camera, Mila. I want you to go to the medical bay. There is a new problem with the water filter there. Mila? Mila?”

Claire’s voice became softer and softer as I stepped down into and then moved through the dark space between my bedroom and the transition room. Small cracks in the walls of the Ark allowed me to see just enough of my surroundings. There were pipes and tubes everywhere. The structure appeared to be resting on massive spring coils. Then there was the airlock… At the end of the transition room, another smaller room had to be the airlock, but the rear door that should have exited into the vacuum of space opened into the space where I was now standing. From here I could see a dark gray hallway.

For a moment I considered turning around, but Claire had wanted me to go to the medical bay. I was afraid of that place and believed Claire to now think something was seriously wrong with me. Instead of going back, I pushed onward and down the hallway. In the distance, I could see a red glowing light. At first, I thought it was another camera, but the glow was coming from letters. The letters read ‘EXIT’.

At the exit sign, the hallway turned ninety degrees and began moving upward at an angle. I increased my speed until I came to a landing and a door. Another red exit sign was illuminated above the door. The door looked heavy and had numerous metal pistons on it to keep the door closed into the frame, but it appeared as if I could open it from this side.

I looked back down the hallway to everything I had ever known. Nothing was right about any of this. The door didn’t appear to be an air lock. I placed my hand on the first piston. It was cold to my touch. Taking a deep breath, I slid the piston to the right. There was no whoosh of air, but an amber light began flashing above me. Taking another deep breath, I pulled the next piston over. The door cracked open and cool moist air rushed inside. Light poured in from the tiny crack and I heard a sound like millions of drops of water coming from beyond. Suddenly alarms blared. I closed my eyes, pushed the door, and stepped through the doorway only to have the door slam shut behind me. I spun back towards the door and opened my eyes. The door was sealed shut with no obvious way of getting it open again.

My breathing was short and quick, and my peripheral vision captured flashes of green. I turned my head slowly and gasped. Before me was coarse, rough ground. Not the white flooring of the Ark and not the empty void of space. Trees, or what I thought must be trees rose to incredible heights all around me. The sky was dark and gray and liquid was falling heavily from the sky all around me. Above me was a covering, but between me and the trees was ground covered in small rocks.

Frightened by everything, I turned back to the door, but it refused to budge. I frantically pulled at it and turned away in frustration. Alarms and lights were still sounding all around me. I reached out and drops of liquid hit my skin. It looked and felt like cold water. Could this be Earth-Echo? Has the space ship landed and Claire not known it?

I stepped out into the falling liquid. My white clothes instantly became wet and cool, but the feeling was exhilarating. I took a deep breath and the air smelled so strange. There was a freshness to it. I took a step, another, and another. I turned to look at the doorway once again and reached down to scoop up a handful of rocks. They glistened in the water and had so many magnificent colors in them.

I walked further across the rocks until I came to a metallic structure that separated the rocky area with the door from the trees beyond. This didn’t make sense to me. Looking back at the door, I wondered if that was part of the Ark, but slowly, I started putting things together in my mind. I was never on a space ship. The supports and structural design is wrong. I’ve been in a building underground.

I felt the pressure of the little disk in my wet bootie and it reminded me of all the things that weren’t quite right. People… The airlock was never a real airlock. Someone came and took my old body away. Did Claire know?

“Hey!”

I spun around to see a man on the other side of the metal structure. A real man. A real person. He was oddly dressed in a dark blue shiny shirt and faded blue pants. He had a strange contraption on his back.

“Are… Are you… a real person?”

He gave me a strange look. “What are you doing in there? There’s no trespassing signs all over the place. You triggered the alarms. Why aren’t you wearing a jacket?”

I rushed towards the metal structure near where he was standing. “You’re real? Where am I? Is this Earth-Echo?”

More quizzical looks. “Listen, lady. This is a highly secured area. Any minute people might be arriving.”

“People? More people? How many people are there? I thought the Ark was the first settlement.”

“Are you in trouble?”

I thought about that for a moment. “Claire might think I’m defective. She wanted me to go to the medical bay.”

“Who is Claire?”

“The artificial intelligence engine that watches me.”

The man looked over the metal structure. His eyes moved along to the corners. “The fence is electrified. How did you get in there?”

“Get in where?”

“Inside the fence.”

“This is a fence…? I understand. I didn’t get in here, I came out of that door.”

“You live here?”

I looked up and around. “Here? No. In there…” I pointed at the door. “All my life. I’ve never been outside.”

“Did someone kidnap you and put you in there?”

“I…” I suddenly realized I was shivering. “Can you turn off this liquid falling down on me? It’s cold.”

“Turn off…? Oh God… I need to get you out of there and somewhere safe.”

“I’m not safe?”

There was a noise of something large coming. I could also hear and feel a low thumping in my chest. The man looked up and quickly vanished into the trees. A strange flying machine came over the tops of the trees and hovered near me and several gray machines on wheels pulled up to the fence. People got out. They were all dressed the same with yellow symbols on their shoulders. They carried black metal sticks in their hands. I’ve never seen so many people. I’ve never seen anyone…

“Hello?” I called out to them.

A tall man with a gray beard stepped out of one of the machines and spoke into a device in his hand. “Deactivate the power to the fence and open the gate. Make sure the area is secure. Turn off these damn alarms. Over.”

A section of the fence slid to the side and two of the large gray machines rolled in on wheels into the space where I was. The flashing lights and the alarm sounds stopped. Men jumped out of the machines and pointed their sticks at me.

“Hello? Is this Earth-Echo? I didn’t think other people would be here.”

The tall man stepped up to me and looked me up and down. His face was stern looking. I reached out to touch him, but my arms were grabbed on both sides by two other men.

“Ouch! You’re hurting me!”

The tall man spoke again into the device. “We have the package. Over.”

“Get her covered up and out of the rain. Over.”

The tall man looked at the two holding me and flicked his head to the side. I was less than gently walked over to the back of one of the machines where I was lifted inside. Another man inside the machine put a blanket around me.

“Can someone please tell me what’s happening?”

The man spoke into another device. “She appears fine. What do you want me to do with her? Over.”

“The experiment must continue. Sedate her and we will wipe her memory and reinsert her. Over.”

The man turned away from me but then turned back with a needle in his hand. “Let me see you arm.”

I heard a thump outside the machine and the flap of material keeping us dry from the outside opened. The first man from outside the fence was holding a metal stick. “Drop the needle and hand me the walkie talkie. Slowly.”

The man dropped the needle and handed over the communication device as the man with the strange thing on his back climbed inside the machine with us. I watched as he grabbed the man’s back of his head and slammed him face-first into a table. The man dropped heavily to the floor and didn’t move.

“Why did you do that? He doesn’t look very good.”

He reached for my hand. “Come with me. Quickly.”

“Did you turn the liquid off?”

“I can’t explain right now. You must trust me.”

My hand slid into his. His hand was warm and strong. His eyes were steady and focused on me. “Wow… I’ve never touched anyone before. Are you going to leave him here like that?”

The man pulled me from the machine and back into the falling liquid. The blanket helped but I was still cold. He looked around and pulled me through the fence opening and into the trees beyond. From this perspective, the trees were huge and growing so close together. I paused to reach out to touch them.

“Not now!” He whispered. “We have to get away.”

He pulled me deeper into the forest as the alarms began to sound again in the distance. He pushed me down into a squatting position behind some massive fallen trees.

“I’ve just risked my life for you, lady. Who are you?”

I felt a connection to this man. “You risked your life for me?”

“Yes. Those men are highly-trained security. They obviously wanted to make sure you didn’t go anywhere. What’s going on in that facility? Who are you?”

“My name is Mila. I’m an integral part of the Ark, a mission to save mankind and to create a new settlement on Earth-Echo in the Alpha Centauri solar system.”

“Are you on drugs?”

“No.” I thought a moment and reconsidered my response. “What are drugs?”

He frowned. “What’s inside that door?”

“I… I’m not sure. I’ve spent my life in there. I thought I was on a space ship called the Ark. There were things not right about the ship and I discovered a passageway behind a wall. There are twenty-four people and twenty-three clones in there still.” My worldview and everything I knew I had to question. “At least I think there may be people down there.”

“How long have you been in there?”

“It feels like my entire life, but I have no knowledge of what I did before. I was told I was in an accident and that I couldn’t remember. That was just over ten years ago. Are all trees this big? They’re beautiful.”

“Ten years! Those men. Did they say what they were planning on doing with you?”

“He said the experiment must go on. He was to sedate me and remove my memories before re-insertion. I don’t like sedation. Can you turn the liquid off? I’m cold.”

“You’re like a child that’s never seen the outdoors. I can’t turn off the water. It’s rain. People don’t control the weather.”

His statement made me angry. “I’m thirty years old! I’m not a child! I’ve never been outside before and never seen weather or rain. Where are we?”

“Thirty? There’s no way you’re thirty years old. This is Earth. I can’t believe I’m having this conversation.”

“Yes. Thirty. I was twenty when I had the accident on the Ark just after it launched. I spent ten years maintaining the Ark for the safety of the passengers and clones on board. A few weeks ago, there was a hull breach and to save me Claire transferred me into Ayelet Ivanov’s clone so I could continue my mission of maintaining the Ark. Earth? Did the Ark return to Earth for some reason? Was it the charged particulates?”

He shook his head. “There is no Ark as far as I’m aware. I’ve hiked this forest for years and that secured area has been here for as long as I can remember. If you came out of that facility, then you’ve never been on a space ship.”

“Experiment… The man said the experiment must continue… If that’s not a space ship, and this is Earth… What am I?”

“I don’t know, but I’m going to help you find out.”

There was something genuine and kind about his eyes. I reached to touch his face. “You’re a real person. I’m not dreaming, am I? I’ve never spoken to anyone real before.”

His face turned angry. “I don’t care who these people are, they’re going to pay for what they did to you.”

“Can you show me the Earth?”

“I will if I can get you out of here without being shot. East of us is a road where I have my Jeep, but that’s the only road in here and those men will be looking for us. I suggest we circle around the facility, head southeast, and try to get some help at the Sol Duc Hot Springs.”

I looked up and around us. The trees were so tall. It was frightening to think there was so much space in the world. I shook but not from the cold. “Do you have a name?”

His intense eyes became soft. He was like two people. One seemed caring and the other driven.

“Ryan. Ryan Stone. That blanket is only going to slow us down. It’s already soaking wet. Take it off. I’ll give you my jacket.”

I slipped the blanket off my shoulders and watched Ryan put the thing from his back on the ground and pull his jacket off. Ryan was large and muscular, nothing like Jackson… I used to be.

Ryan looked up and his eyes focused on mine before moving them down my body. “Damn. You’re beautiful.”

“I am? What makes me beautiful?”

Ryan slipped the jacket over my shoulders. He helped me with the sleeves before pulling a metal tab to close the jacket in the front. I stared at the little metal teeth and pulled the metal tab up and down. “Amazing. What’s this called?”

“A zipper.”

“I like it. It has excellent design. You were going to tell me what makes me beautiful.”

“You’ll just have to believe me.” Ryan slipped his hand in mine. “Let’s go.”

We moved away from the alarms before turning back towards them. “Isn’t this the wrong way?”

Ryan whispered back to me. “We need to stay quiet. We have to get south of the facility and the men.”

There were sounds coming from our left. Ryan pulled my head down. I stared at strange green fuzzy plants and let my fingers brush across them.

“Mila. We know you’re out there! Just come back. No one will hurt you.”

I started to stand. “Hello?”

Ryan’s pulled me down and his hand covered my mouth. “Shhh…”

There was a loud crack and chunks of dark wood from the trees fell upon me. That was followed by several more sharp cracking sounds and more bits of trees.

I was yanked from our spot as Ryan half dragged me as he ran. We weaved in and around trees. There were more cracks and more debris flying all around us. There was a short break in the sounds and Ryan put his hands on my face. “Run! Run that way!” He pointed before pulling out his short black metal stick. “Go! I’ll catch up to you.”

He seemed so earnest. I wanted him to like me, so I did as he asked. I ran in the direction he pointed. Behind me I heard shouts and more cracks, but there was no more debris flying up around me. I ran and ran until the sounds were completely gone and I came to the strangest sight. The trees had parted and before me was a huge amount of water spilling over rocks. I wanted to keep running, but this looked dangerous. I put my foot in the water and it was bitterly cold.

Looking back over my shoulder and into the trees, I knew Ryan was back there. He had told me to run this direction. The water was at least twenty feet across. I took another step forward and paused as the current swirled around my ankles and tugged at me. I bit my lower lip and looked back once again towards the trees. Ryan made me feel safe. Taking a deep breath, I stepped forward. The water was getting deeper and deeper with each step and the current was getting stronger. I kept moving, but it became more difficult and harder to keep my balance. The current kept trying to knock me over.

I was halfway across when my foot slipped, and I fell face first into the frigid water. For a moment I remembered waking up as Mila. I was gagging and there was the sound of bubbles. I panicked, and my arms began flaying. I was floating down in the water and bouncing off rocks. I gasped for breath each time my head came above the water.

I heard a roaring sound and I caught a glimpse of mist. The current had pulled me closer to the far side and Ryan’s jacket got partially snagged on a branch. I grabbed for it and hung on tight. Looking down where the water was taking me, no more than fifteen feet away, the water cascaded over a brink.

In this moment, many things came to my mind. As I clung there, I thought about Jackson, my old body lying dead before me. I was afraid I’d become like Jackson. I hung on, but I was so cold. My hands were getting weaker and weaker. The pull of the water seemed to get stronger every second. I closed my eyes as my fingers slipped free.

I floated with the current only a short distance before something grabbed me. I sputtered and looked up to see Ryan with his hand tightly wrapped around my wrist and his other on the branch. I could see him straining as he pulled me towards the shore. When we got there, he dragged me into the trees and fell exhausted next to me.

“I didn’t expect you to cross the river, Mila.”

“Is that what you call all that water rushing in one direction? I didn’t want to disappoint you. You told me to run this way.”

“You don’t know how to swim?”

“The Ark doesn’t have anything like a river to learn to swim in.”

“You’re a brave young woman, Mila.”

“I get the feeling you want to say stupid instead of brave.”

“No. I meant to say brave. I don’t think you’re stupid. If I put myself in your place, having never seen the outside world, I’d question everything I saw. I’m going to take care of you, Mila. I’ll make sure you’re safe.”

Looking over at Ryan, I spotted something red oozing from his side. “You’re hurt!”

“Just a graze from a bullet. I’m fine.”

From the deep recesses of my mind I knew what to do. “I have basic medical knowledge. I can take care of it. Do you have a knife?”

Ryan reached down his leg and pulled a large, black knife with serrations on the back of it. He handed it to me and I stared at it.

“I’ve never seen a knife like this before.” Reaching under Ryan’s jacket, I cut a strip of cloth from my white top. “It’s not very sanitary, but…” Something came to my mind as I spotted some more furry green plants. Moss. I grabbed a handful of the moss and pulled up Ryan’s shirt exposing the wound. I gently pressed the moss against his side and tied it down from strips of my shirt.

Ryan was looking at me appraisingly. “Where did you learn that?”

“Clones are copies of real people and those people’s skills are mapped into the brains of the clones to give them skills. My host, Ayelet, had these skills and I have knowledge of them now.”

“Clones?”

I looked away. “Soulless beings. Copies of real people created for harvesting. That’s what I am. I’m a worthless, soulless clone.”

“No. I don’t believe it. You’re not soulless or worthless. These people lied to you and kept you captive. You can’t blindly accept anything they led you to believe.”

The rain had started to ease, but I was still soaked and freezing cold. A small creature flew near us and landed in a tree nearby. It began to chirp.

“So beautiful… What is it?”

“It’s a bird. Did you have no information or reading material in the Ark?”

“Nothing to do with Earth, only Earth-Echo. Earth-Echo doesn’t have much life, but it is habitable. Earth history and information was inaccessible to me.”

“Earth-Echo doesn’t exist, Mila.”

“Of course, it does. In 2018 the United Nations decided to build a space ark to send twenty-four passengers to Earth-Echo. The Ark took forty-six years to build and the mission to reach Earth-Echo was to last seventeen years.”

“If I do my math correct, you think this is 2074? 2018 plus forty-six, plus the ten you remember.”

“Yes. Of course.”

Ryan looked away. “The year is 2018, Mila.”

“I…” I stood and placed a hand on a tree to keep myself from collapsing. “I’m so confused.” My teeth chattered.

Ryan stood and moved his hands up and down my arms quickly. “You’re in early stages of hypothermia. I’ve got to get you someplace warm. The hot springs aren’t too far away. Can you run? It will keep your core temperature up.”

“Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”

Ryan smiled wistfully for a second. “Don’t talk or approach those men in dark uniforms. Let’s go.”

“Let me take this thing from your back. You’re injured.”

“It’s heavy. I can handle it.”

I felt anger again. “I may be a soulless clone, but I’m not an invalid. You’re hurt, and this thing is going to dig into your side.”

“It’s called a backpack.”

I reached down and strapped on the backpack. It was heavy, but I was going to help any way I could.

***

It took several hours to work our way through the forest. I tried hard to focus on the task at hand, but it was difficult. I was both exhilarated and frightened by all that I was seeing around me and the ramifications of the revelations I had received.

Ryan gently touched my arm to stop me as he moved ahead and looked out of the forest. He waved me forward and it was as if the entire world was spread out before me. The forest had been cut away and the clouds had parted leaving a gorgeous blue sky in their wake. Not too far away, I could see buildings and machines on wheels and people. Lots of people.

“What are those called?”

“The small ones are called cars, and the bigger ones with open beds in the back are called trucks.”

“Where did all these people come from?”

“Just wait until you see Seattle. There are very few people and buildings here.”

“I get the impression that those men back at the Ark don’t represent all people? Should I be afraid of anyone?”

“Most of these people are tourists and guests here. I’ll be able to make some calls and get some help. You’re still shaking. Maybe you’d like a soak in the hot springs?”

“The water is hot?”

“Very warm. It comes up from underground that way.”

“I just go down and take off my clothes and step in?”

“That would get you arrested although I think most of the men would appreciate it. We need to pay for your entrance to the pool and I’m guessing you don’t have a swim suit under your clothes.”

“Pay?”

“You were never taught about money?”

I shook my head.

“When I work, I earn money for the job that I do. I use that money to pay for things I need. Food, clothing, housing, transportation, and other things.”

“I never got money for the work I did.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it. Try not to talk to too many people.”

“Why?”

“They won’t believe you.”

“You believe me. Why wouldn’t other people? It’s the truth.”

“I was there when you came out of the Ark. I was shot at by those men. I have no reason to doubt your story but to these people, it will sound like a science-fiction novel.”

Ryan took my hand in his and we moved down the hill and into the largest building. I had so many questions. What’s a science-fiction novel? There were people everywhere. There was even a man in a dark uniform. I pulled Ryan’s hand to get us away from him. When we were back outside Ryan questioned me.

“You told me to avoid men in dark uniforms. There’s one inside.”

Ryan poked his head around the corner. “It’s all right. He’s security for this place and not the same as the other men at the facility.”

“But you said…”

“I should have been clearer. You see the colored patch on his uniform?” I nodded. “That tells us he’s not from the same security team. You’re safe but keep an eye out for the other kind of men.”

I clung to Ryan’s hand and pressed myself up against him as we headed back into the building. There was so much to look at. Ryan led me to a counter with a man standing behind it. “I need to make a phone call.”

“You can make a call using your phone on our WIFI. Otherwise you’ll need a room for a regular call.”

“This is an emergency.”

“It always is. WIFI or room. It’s your choice.”

I glanced at a shelf that had different papers with stories on them. What caught my eye was the date. May 14, 2018. “Ryan, look! Look at the date!”

Ryan leaned close to my ear. “That’s today’s date.” He turned back to the man behind the counter. “I’ll take a room. Is there any place my wife can get a swim suit?”

Wife? What’s a wife?

“There are some in the store. What’s your license plate number?”

Ryan growled a little and I saw him tense. “I told you it was an emergency. My Jeep broke down miles from here.”

I watched Ryan hand the man a plastic card and he was given back two more in a paper sleeve. “Room 127. Down the hallway and on your left.”

“Thank you.”

Ryan pulled me into a busy room with hundreds of objects on shelves. There were cute looking furry creatures, metal cans of stuff, boxes filled with things, and clothes. “Can I touch things?”

“Yes.”

There were strange items of clothing on a metal pole. I picked one up, looked it over, read the tag on it, looked back at someone who was wearing one, and put in on the same way. Ryan chuckled and pointed me to a mirror. I laughed when I saw what I looked like. I took the item off and put it back where it came from.

“Maybe you should try these on?”

Ryan was holding up two outfits. There was a white top that was very long and another outfit that looked like undergarments. Ryan clarified the undergarments were swimming clothes and the top was called a dress. I remembered an image of something like this dress that had flowers on it.

I pulled off Ryan’s jacket and began to pull off my top when Ryan’s hand stopped me. “You don’t change your clothes in public where other people can see you.”

“Claire used to watch me all the time.”

“Out here in the real world, we prefer privacy. Here’s a room you can go in to change. Let me know if they fit.”

“Why wouldn’t they fit?”

“The dress goes over what you have on under your top and pants. You see that lady over there? She’s wearing a dress.”

I nodded. “I think I can handle it.”

I stepped into the little room and the door closed behind me. I took several deep breaths to calm myself. The world outside was so different. I took off my top and pants and slipped the dress on. A mirror showed me what I looked like. I spun back and forth feeling the hem of the dress slide across my knees. It felt wonderful.

“Ryan?”

Ryan’s voice sounded from outside of the door. “Yes, Mila?”

“Can you check the fit?”

“Open the door and let me see.”

I opened the door and Ryan gasped. You look wonderful. The fit is perfect.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

Ryan backed away. “Try the swim suit on.”

He closed the door and I reluctantly took off the dress. I slipped out of my top and bottom undergarments and fought a little with the thin straps of the swim top. I was pretty sure I had it on correctly. I opened the door so Ryan could see. “Do they look right?”

“I must have done something right in a previous life… That looks beautiful on you, Mila.”

“Can I put the dress on over top of these? My other clothes are so cold and wet.”

“Yes, but we can’t leave without me paying for them. Pull the tags off them so I can take them to the cashier.”

I closed the door and pulled the little tags off, slipped into the dress, and stepped back out to be with Ryan. I handed him the tags and we moved to another person behind a counter. There he handed the lady tags and his plastic card again. She handed him a piece of paper back.

We walked back through the main building. “Is there something wrong with me, Ryan?”

“No.”

“Why are people looking at me?”

Ryan smiled. “Because you’re very beautiful.”

“I know I’m symmetrical, but how does one know if they’re beautiful?”

“A lot of it is comparison to other women. Much of it is the person’s personality.”

“How would someone know my personality if they never spoke to me?”

“They can’t truly know your personality without talking to you. However, they can surmise much by the way you stand, what you wear, the things they see you do.”

I looked around the room at the other men and then turned back to Ryan. “You’re very beautiful.”

Ryan smiled. “Men are considered handsome and women are beautiful.”

“I’m such a fool.”

“When I think just hours ago, you never stepped foot outside, you’re doing incredibly well. Here’s our room.”

Ryan took one of the plastic cards and slid it into a slot on the door. He then turned the handle and held the door open for me. The room inside was colorful and there was a very large bed. A monitor was on top of some drawers, and there was a bathroom.

“Look at the size of that bed!”

“Lie down if you like. I need to make some calls.”

I stretched out on the bed and almost moaned. It was so comfortable. I kept my eyes on Ryan as he picked up a black device and pressed his fingers on it.

“Bob. This is Ryan Stone. I need your help… I can’t elaborate… Just come out to the Sol Duc Hot Springs. I’m in room 127… You know I wouldn’t ask… See you tomorrow.”

Ryan placed the black device back down and turned to me. He picked up my hand and looked at my fingers. “You’re still cold, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll change clothes and take you to the hot springs. Because of my wound, I can’t get in the water with you, but I’ll be right there the whole time.”

Ryan stepped into the bathroom and closed the door.

“You know where I’m from. Where are you from, Ryan?”

“I grew up in Seattle, Washington.”

I frowned. How was I to get to know Ryan when I knew nothing about Earth? “You said you work to earn money. Your work is hiking?”

“I wish I could earn money hiking. I’m a security consultant.”

“Consultants are people with knowledge. Are all consultants in danger and need protection?”

Ryan laughed. “It’s a little more complicated than that. People hire me as a consultant to protect them and make sure their safe. Most of the time it’s just going to their homes and evaluating their staff and security monitoring systems, but sometimes I get a really important client and I arrange their security when they’re in town.”

Ryan stepped back into the room. His shirt was off, and he was pressing a bandage against his side. I looked at my skin to compare and he was a little darker than I was. He was fit and had several scars and pictures on his skin.

“Why do you have a picture of a fork on your skin?”

Ryan touched the bluish three-pronged image on the right side of his chest. “I got that tattoo when I was younger and drunk. It’s a trident and represents the Navy SEAL Special Forces.”

“I have so many questions just from your last statement.”

“I’d like to ask you some questions, but let’s get you warmed up first.”

Ryan pulled on his shirt and I reached for his hand. There was something incredibly special about the touch of another person. I couldn’t put into words how his hand felt in mine. Ryan led me from the room and outside to where there were large pools of water and many people all around. This was my first real chance to take my time and compare them.

I leaned into Ryan and whispered. “I didn’t realize there were so many kinds of people. There are people with very dark skin. Some have red hair. Some are tall and thin and others short and round. They are all so unique and wonderful.”

Ryan led me to an area that had fewer people. “You’ll want to take your dress and shoes off. The water isn’t very deep here. You can simply wade in. Keep your feet on the bottom if you’re scared.”

“What would I be scared of?”

“You can’t swim.”

I smiled. “Isn’t that why you’re staying close?”

“You’re safe with me, Mila.”

I pulled off my shoes and slipped out of my dress before wading into the hot, clear water. “Oh… This feels amazing!”

I leaned back while Ryan took his shoes off and dangled his feet in the water next to me. His eyes were always moving, but they also always seemed to come back and linger on me.

“I feel like I’m in a dream. Everything is incredible.”

“I’m having a hard time understanding why anyone would do this to you. It’s criminal. What was it like inside the Ark?”

“It’s hard to describe now that I see everything around me. It was white. Sterile. The walls, ceilings, and floors were all smooth, white surfaces. It was designed that way to reduce the need for energy to light it. There was my own space with a bed, a bathroom, and a dining hall. I had access to look in on one of the clone pods and there was also the medical bay. There were several systems rooms with mechanicals that I maintained. Each day Claire would wake me and tell me what needed to be done.”

“Tell me about Claire.”

“Claire stands for Computerized Learning Artificial Intelligence and Reasoning Engine. There are cameras everywhere in the Ark. Claire would watch me and perform checkpoints on me. She provided my food and clothing as needed.”

“What were your checkpoints all about?”

“Each week I was given a series of questions. “What is the history of the Ark? What is the mission of the Ark? What is your role? In the event of systemic atmospheric failure or hull breach, what is your primary function? Why do we have clones on the Ark? Why is your personal mission on the Ark important?”

Ryan frowned. “You had to provide the same answers each time?”

“Yes, any variance in my response would lead Claire to perform a brain scan of me.”

“This is a form of training reinforcement. What was your purpose on the Ark?”

“To maintain the Ark and protect the lives of the important people on board.”

“What did you eat?”

“Protein cubes.”

“There were no fresh fruits or vegetables? No variety?”

I looked at Ryan questioningly. “Is there supposed to be variety? Are you angry, Ryan? Did I do something wrong?”

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Mila. I’m angry at those that did this to you. Are you warmed up now?”

“Yes! Thank you!”

Ryan extended his hand to mine and guided me out of the hot water. He wrapped a towel around me, grabbed my dress and shoes, and led me back to the room. When he placed my shoe down, the little disc dropped out.

“Did you know you had a button in your shoe?”

“What’s a button?”

Ryan grabbed his shirt and held my disc up next to other similar objects on his shirt. I sat down on the end of the bed. The enormity of everything had begun to sink in and I felt frail and lost. The button was the final straw. A part of me wanted to go back to the Ark.

“What’s going on, Mila?”

My bottom lip quivered, and I felt wetness on my cheeks. The world outside had suddenly become overwhelmingly frightening.

“I should go back to the Ark. I don’t belong here. There, I was safe and taken care of. I knew what I needed to do. I understood the world in which I lived. Take me back, Ryan.”

Ryan sat down next to me and placed his hand gently on my face. “When I was in the military, I was given a mission to rescue hostages. They had been captured and held in captivity for years. When I found them, they didn’t want to leave. What you’re experiencing is normal. You’ve been held captive for your entire life. The world outside is confusing but going back isn’t an option. Do you really feel you could cope with live once again in the Ark, never seeing the sun or trees again; never talking or touching another person again?”

I shook my head and leaned into Ryan’s arms. They enfolded me and pulled me close.

“The button… After the accident when I was transferred into this clone, I had to dispose of my old body. Claire guided me to take my old body to the airlock. It was to be flushed out into space. When the airlock opened, and my old body was no longer there, I found the button. It made me question everything. I began looking at the Ark differently. The design of the ship was flawed, and I found discrepancies in the floor plans and the physical space. I broke a camera and used the privacy to break through a wall and into space between rooms. Instead of finding an exterior wall of a space ship, I found a hallway made of stone.”

“I can’t even imagine what you must have felt like when you stepped out of the Ark and into the rain.”

“Confusion. Exhilaration. Fear. But then you were there, and your words helped me focus my thoughts. You’re real. A real person I can touch. I never want to be alone again.”

“We’ll get to the bottom of all of this. Would you like to shower before we get something to eat?”

“I would.”

***

It felt better to be showered and my undergarments had dried which made the dress feel even better than before. I had been carefully watching what other women wore and it appeared that it was acceptable for women to wear almost anything. I never saw men wearing a dress. Although I never had a chance to wear one before I was enjoying the look and feel of this one. I had to ask Ryan how to dry my hair, but with guidance I soon figured out the hand-held contraption he called a hair dryer. I had to use my fingers to tease the knots out of my long hair, but I was pleased with how nice my hair looked.

“Are you ready for some real food, Mila?”

“Protein cubes are real food. They have everything I need.”

“Except for taste. Where I grew up, food was an important part of my family’s life.”

Ryan took my hand and led me from the room and back towards the main building.

“What’s a family? I’m not stupid, I know how real people make other people and how clones are made, but what is a family?”

Ryan paused and pointed to a man and a woman. Between them a young girl held their hands joining the three as they walked. “When a man and a woman fall in love, they typically get married. Marriage is a covenant between two people to show they want to spend the rest of their lives together. If the two have children, the couple work together to raise them. People aren’t perfect, but there’s nothing like growing up in a loving family.”

“I wonder if I had a family. I can’t remember ever being young.”

Ryan seemed to struggle to keep his composure. He stiffened and then continued to lead me into the dining room. I had to lean into Ryan to keep from being overwhelmed by all the sights, sounds, and smells. It was very busy in there and everything looked so different.

We were guided to a table and Ryan pulled out a chair for me to sit on before sitting across from me. Moments later, a woman dressed in black pants and a white shirt with buttons came and poured water into our glasses.

“I’m Abigail and I’ll be your server for the evening. Can I get you something from the bar to start?” Abigail’s eyes never left Ryan and she dropped her hand to lightly touch his shoulder. It made me feel oddly agitated.

“How about a glass of house red wine for both of us.”

“I’ll need to see her I.D.”

“What’s…?”

Ryan interrupted me. “Mila had her I.D. stolen from our car this morning. Can you make an exception?”

“You look like an honest fellow. I’ll bring you both a glass.”

I watched Abigail leave before looking back at Ryan. His eyes were glued to me. “What’s I.D.?”

“Identification. It’s a card that proves who you are, where you live, and how old you are.”

“Where do I get one and why do I need one?”

“Wine is a drink that has alcohol in it. You must be at least twenty-one years old to drink it. Your I.D. would show our waitress that you’re old enough to drink alcohol. Getting an I.D. is problematic, but I have some friends that might be able to help you.”

“Alcohol. People drink it? I used alcohol to clean components in the Ark.”

“This is different than the cleaner you used.”

“Why did you lie to her?”

“Have you always told the truth?”

“I have always said what I believed was the truth, but I’m defective as I’ve withheld information about how I was feeling from Claire.”

“I’ve seen nothing about you that is defective, Mila. I lied because I wanted you to have a chance to experience a true dinner meal. Through no fault of your own, you have no I.D. Why should you be penalized for something out of your control.”

“When I withheld information from Claire, I did so because I didn’t want to go to the medical bay. You lied because you want me to experience something good. They’re sort of the same, I guess. Are Abigail’s actions normal?”

“She’s a waitress. This is her job, her work. She takes care of us during our dinner and the restaurant owners pay her for her time to do this.”

“I meant when she touched you.”

“No. It happens sometimes, but touching a stranger isn’t normal except for when there is a formal greeting. That’s usually just a handshake. It could mean she wants me to pay her more for her service, or she is expressing interest in me.”

“What constitutes being a stranger?”

“You make me feel like I’m seeing the world fresh through your eyes, Mila. Having grown up in the world, I’ve learned the culture of how people interact without stopping to think why we do what we do. People who have never met before are strangers. Then there would be an acquaintance, someone you’ve met before and know a little about. Friends, are those people you know much more about and you care for each other, but in a non-sexual way. There are co-workers, people you get to know that work with you. Enemies, are those that wish harm on you. Then there are lovers, people that wish to spend every moment with the other and become intimate.”

Abigail returned with two glasses filled with some red liquid. “Here you go. What brings you both to Sol Duc?”

“We’re lovers.”

Ryan coughed. “We were hiking in the forest. We’ll both have the New York strip steak, medium rare, baked potato, and the house salad with ranch dressing.”

Abigail looked at me and frowned. “I’ll get the salad out to you right away.”

Once Abigail had left, Ryan laughed. “How did you conclude we were lovers?”

“According to your definition, when we first met, we were strangers. Then, when we shared our names and knew a little more about each other, we became acquaintances. We don’t work together, and you certainly don’t seem to have any desire to harm me. That leaves either friends or lovers. Since I want to be with you all the time, does that not make us lovers?”

“We become lovers if we make love.”

“You mean making a baby together for procreation and settling a new planet.”

“Uhm…” Ryan’s face became red, but he wasn’t angry. “Making love doesn’t always lead to having a baby. Sometimes the purpose is making a baby, but most of the time it is to show love to one another. It creates a strong bond between two people that are attracted to each other.”

“If you think we could have a stronger bond, then we could make love.”

Ryan paused and took a deep breath. “Mila… There are men that would take advantage of you, but I’m not one of them. I only wish to make love to another woman if I love her and I feel she loves me back.”

“You’re not attracted to me? Is it because I’m defective?”

“No! God no. You’re stunningly beautiful and I’m very attracted to you, but I want you to feel safe and comfortable around me. I’d want to be sure you truly loved me before we…”

Abigail came back and gave us each a plate filled with colorful things. She turned quietly and left us alone without saying a word.

“We’re friends then.”

“For now.”

Ryan lifted his glass of wine. “To the most interesting woman I’ve ever met.” Ryan filled me in on how I was supposed to respond since I had sat there wondering who that woman might be.

With instruction, I lifted the glass of wine and gently touched my glass to his before taking a sip. “Mmmm… I’ve never tasted anything like it. It’s cool, but warm at the same time.”

“Be careful you don’t drink it too fast as you’ll get drunk.”

“I’ll get a tattoo if I drink it too fast?”

“The alcohol can impair your judgement if you have too much too fast.”

Ryan picked up his fork and began eating his salad.

I picked up my fork and tried to mimic what he was doing. I skewered a piece of green leaf and tasted it. “Oh my! It’s an explosion of taste in my mouth.”

“Try a tomato. The red one.”

“This is what people eat every day?”

“Yes.”

“I could look forward to my meals if I knew things could taste this good. I ate because I needed sustenance, but for no other reason. I had no desire to eat.”

Before I knew it, my plate was empty, and I was feeling slightly light-headed from the wine. Abigail came back to take our plates away. I touched her arm and she paused.

“I’m sorry, Abigail. I was wrong to state Ryan and I were lovers. We’re just friends. If you want to be intimate with him, I’m sure he would pay you more for your service.”

Ryan’s eyes went wide, and Abigail tore her arm away from my touch. “You’re disgusting! Both of you!” She left very angry.

“I get the feeling I did something wrong. You and I are just friends and you said she touched you to get more money or she wanted to be intimate with you. Why are you laughing?”

***

Dinner had been exquisite, and I determined protein cubes were no longer something I ever wanted to eat again. Ryan had to lie again for me and apologized to the owner of the restaurant. He told the owner I was from the Middle-East and I was unsure of the culture and language. I felt bad to have put Ryan in that position.

Back at the room, Ryan turned on what he called a television. I was fascinated. The monitors in the Ark never had anyone moving or had people talking on them. We watched what he called the news. People spoke about traffic and cars in Seattle, weather, and something called politics which sounded a lot like people talking about nothing to me. One person would say something then another we say something completely contradictory.

Then the strangest thing happened. A picture of someone that looked like me came on the television. “Industrial Robotics, a Seattle company, has filed an FBI report stating one of their facilities was broken into by this woman. Her name is Mila Ivanov and she is twenty-one years of age, approximately five feet eight inches tall, and one hundred and twenty pounds. Industrial Robotics discovered Mila has an active social media presence and she claims to be a domestic terrorist wishing harm on military contractors. If you know the whereabouts of Mila Ivanov, please contact your local police.”

“Damn it!” Ryan was pacing back and forth. “This just got a lot more complicated.”

“I can’t believe there’s another clone out there breaking into places.”

“There isn’t. This is you they are talking about.”

I pointed at the television. “That’s not true! I broke out of a facility, not into one. What’s a domestic terrorist?”

“Industrial Robotics… At least we have a name.” Ryan looked thoughtful.

I grew fearful. “You don’t think…?”

“No, Mila. I believe you. Industrial Robotics wants to get you off the streets. You’re a liability to them. They’re hiding something bigger than keeping you locked underground as a slave. They go to the FBI and claim you’re a terrorist to get every agency in the country actively looking for you.”

Ryan picked up his phone tapped the screen with his fingers. “Bob? Things just got a lot messier. Here’s what I need you to do…”

Ryan had told Bob of a place called Ancient Groves and to be at the parking lot of the trail head at 0200 hours. He asked Bob for some clothing, hats, sunglasses, and to bring Brittany with him.

“We need to go, Mila.”

“Where are we going?”

“Back to the Ark.”

Ryan quickly packed his backpack and changed his clothes. He wore dark pants and shirt and put his dark jacket over my white dress.

“Why are we going back to the Ark?”

“We need evidence. You told me Claire had lots of cameras. Cameras suggest there might be a recording server somewhere in the facility. I can use my phone to record the environment as well. Anything we can get might be useful to help establish your innocence.”

***

Darkness had descended, and the rain began to fall once more. We stuck to the main road and ran into the bushes anytime a car came by. There were several larger cars that passed by with the words Industrial Robotics on the side.

We made good time without having to travel through the forest, but we still needed to cross a river. Luckily, there was a wooden bridge and a dirt road we found that headed to the facility. Strangely, the gate to the fence was open as was the door leading down into the Ark. There was no one around.

“Something isn’t right here but I need to get in there. Stay here.”

“No. Please. I don’t want to be alone. If you need to find something, then I’ve lived my life down there and know it better than anyone.”

“All right but stay close.”

We traversed the compacted rocky ground between the gate and the door to the Ark and paused to listen inside. My hand squeezed Ryan’s. I was afraid to go back inside.

Ryan pulled me through the door and paused again. Lights were on and it was far easier to see than when I left.

“This hallway goes down and turns towards the Ark.” I whispered.

Ryan started out slowly, but then we sped up until we neared the corner of the hallway. Ryan looked around the corner and pulled me along after him. We stopped at the outside airlock door. Still there were no sounds other than the fans and the constant hum I had become used to. To the right was a door I hadn’t seen in the dark. With the lights on, I could see many wires running into the room.

“Those wires look like the ones that connected to Claire’s cameras.”

We moved into the room. There were empty racks with cables dangling everywhere. “This would have been the DVR storage room. It’s been cleaned out. I’m getting my phone out to record what we see.”

I took Ryan’s hand and pulled him into the airlock, beyond the next open door into the transition room, and to the hallway beyond.

“Welcome to my life.” I whispered.

“They’ve clearly left the place. It looks just like a space ship in here.”

A door whooshed open to our left. “My room. You can see the camera I disabled and the panel I slipped through to get out.”

“There’s no color. No pictures. Just a small bed.”

Leading Ryan further into the Ark, I stopped at Pod D2. I shook my head in amazement as there was nothing left inside. It was an empty room. “This was where the clone capsule was located. I remember falling out of the capsule onto these black grates. The clone suspension fluid drained here. It’s all gone.”

We moved through the medical bay, into some of the machine rooms, and finally into the dining hall. The red lights of all the cameras were off. I still expected Claire’s voice to ask me to perform a checkpoint.

I found a protein cube and put it into Ryan’s backpack and gave him another one to try. “This is what I ate twice a day for ten years.”

Ryan sniffed it, bit into it, and then spit it out. “That’s horrible!”

“I don’t understand why they would leave the place open like this. What’s that sound?”

“There are lots of sounds, Mila.”

“There’s one sound that isn’t normal… It’s a quick beeping sound. I’ve never heard it before.” I turned towards a cupboard panel and opened it. Ryan pulled me back immediately. There was a clock with red numbers counting down. 1:18. 1:17. 1:16.

“That doesn’t belong in here. I wonder what it is?”

Ryan grabbed my hand and ran. I’ve never run so fast in my life and he still was dragging me and urging me onward. We burst through the outside door, into the rain, and were just to the forest when the sky lit up behind us in a large bright orange ball. I could feel intense heat on my back, and a tremendous booming sound followed by a rush of wind that threw us forward into the trees. Ryan covered my body with his.

My ears were ringing and even as the orange glow died down, Ryan pulled me deeper into the forest, carried me across the river, and set me down on a log a short distance from the main road.

“They’re covering their tracks and erasing all evidence. If anything is uncovered, they will likely only find your DNA or fingerprints. If I hadn’t seen it for myself… Your life… I’m so sorry, Mila.”

“I’m out. I have a chance at life, but I’m lost. My purpose is gone. I have no mission.”

“You do have a purpose and a mission. We need to find out what Industrial Robotics is doing, why they did this to you, and clear your name.” Ryan glanced at his watch. “We’ve ten minutes to get to the trail head parking lot. It won’t be long before people are crawling all over this place.”

Ryan pulled me to him and he hugged me. With all that was going on, I felt safe in his arms. I felt grounded. In the distance, through the trees, I could still see a faint orange glow. There’s no going back.

We made it to the parking lot with a minute to spare and just as a car pulled up. Ryan pulled out his gun and slipped it into the back of his pants. He kept one hand near it as he stepped into the lights of the car. I saw a man step out and Ryan hugged him.

“Mila. Let’s go!”

Ryan spent no time getting me inside the car before sitting down next to me. The car pulled out and back onto the road. I was captivated by all the lights in the car and how fast we seemed to be moving. There were lots of other cars, some with lights and sirens heading the opposite direction.

I felt Ryan’s hands around me and heard a click. Looking down, I saw what he had done. A beige strap had been fastened around me.

“No!” I struggled and fought Ryan. The strap looked so much like the ones when I was strapped to the table in the medical bay.

“It’s all right, Mila! Relax.”

“No!”

I hit and punched at Ryan until I heard a click and the strap released. Ryan held my hand. “You’re safe, Mila. You’re safe with me and in here. This is a seat belt to protect you in case the car crashes. You have full control over it. Just push the red button and it comes loose.”

I felt the wetness on my cheeks again as my emotions that I never knew I had ran wild. “I was strapped down… I had no control…”

“Shhh… That was when the accident occurred?”

“Yes. I was certain Claire thought I was defective and I knew something was wrong with me. Claire had me lie down on the table. That’s when the straps came over me and the hull was breached. I came to as Ayelet’s clone.”

The man controlling the car was looking back at me from a mirror and a woman sitting next to him had completely turned around to stare at me.

“Keep driving, Bob. We need to get out of the area quickly.”

“That bit of orange glow is your doing, Ryan?”

“Not mine, but it has a lot to do with why we need your help. Mila, I’d like to introduce you to Bob Glover and Brittany Johnson. Bob and I go way back into my time in the military. Brittany is Bob’s fiancé.”

Brittany leaned over her seat towards me and held out her hand. I reached for it and she clasped mine firmly. “Nice to meet you, Mila.”

“I’m sorry for all of this… The world is a very confusing place to me.”

Ryan asked if I could share with them what I could of my life in the Ark up until the moment I met Ryan. I did, and then Ryan continued from the point when we met.

Both Bob and Brittany were shocked by the story, but Brittany asked Bob to pull over, so she could sit with me as Ryan moved into the front seat to let them both discuss plans. Once Brittany was sitting next to me, she pulled me into a long hug.

When Ryan touched or hugged me, it felt different. I felt safe and my heart seemed to beat a little faster. With Brittany, I felt warmth and compassion. Ryan seemed to care for my whole being, whereas Brittany cared for my well-being. I felt an immediate bond with Brittany. For the next while, she simply held me.

As we drove, I started to relax, and the constant hum of the car began to lull me to sleep.

***

“Good morning, Mila.”

My eyes immediately shot open. Those words were the same and I recognized it wasn’t Claire’s voice, but it was still frightening. My head was in someone’s lap and I felt fingers gently sliding through my hair. The effect was very calming.

It was light outside, and I could see the tan color of the back of the seat in front of me. Ryan’s head looked down at me and smiled. I sat up and discovered I had fallen asleep in Brittany’s lap. “Good morning.”

Brittany hugged me. “You’ve been through a lot. I’m here for you. We all are.”

I looked through the windows to see my first sunrise. The sky was filled with oranges and purples. We were parked with several other cars next to a large body of water. In the distance, mountains rose up into the orange sky and the water reflected everything. I was drawn to it and stepped out of the car. I heard the car door and felt Ryan’s hand slip into mine.

I took a deep breath and the air smelled slightly salty. Birds flew back and forth overhead making squawking noises. “I’ve missed so much. Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?”

“Never.”

I turned to Ryan to find him staring at me. Brittany and Bob got out of the car and stood next to us. I watched the two of them lean into each other and touch their lips together. Brittany turned and pulled a bag from the car and took my hand.

“Let’s get you changed, Mila.”

I didn’t want to let go of Ryan’s hand, but Brittany smiled at me and Ryan said I was in good hands. I felt safe, but I still didn’t want to be away from Ryan. I looked back at him several times as we headed into a building.

“You’re on the news, sweetheart. We need to get you into different clothes and hide those beautiful eyes of yours. I’ve known Ryan a long time now and I’ve never seen him like this. You’ve made a big impression on him.”

“He makes me feel safe.”

“Ryan’s the very best at what he does. He’s a one-man army when he sets his mind to it. You couldn’t have stumbled into a nicer guy. He’s had his heart broken so many times Bob and I were worried he might not ever be his normal self again.”

“His heart is defective?”

Brittany laughed. “That’s just a phrase we use when someone is hurt by someone they love. His physical heart is fine. Emotionally, he’s had a hard time caring for anyone since his wife left him.”

“He never told me he was married.”

“Not any longer.”

“I’m confused. I thought marriage was when two people wished to stay together forever.”

“That is usually the intent of marriage, but in Ryan’s case, his wife left him for another man while he was on assignment for the military.”

“That’s not right. How could someone love another and then break their covenant?”

“It happens far too frequently.”

“I could never do that.”

“Let’s get you changed. I didn’t know your sizes, I’m sorry. I’ve got one dress, one skirt and blouse, and a pair of pants and a top depending on what fits you.”

The dress felt good, but it was too large, and the pants were too tight and short. The skirt fit well as did the blouse. I fumbled with the buttons not ever having used them before.

“Wow, Mila! You’re breathtaking. That short skirt will drive Ryan wild.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“I think so. He’s a good man. Let’s see what we can do with your hair. It’s astonishing! So long and silky. I guess this is what hair could be like if not exposed to years of sunlight and harsh chemicals. Let me pull it up a little and I’ve got some ties to hold it back.”

Brittany fiddled with my hair and used a stretchy loop to hold it in place. She then put a hat on me that she called a baseball cap, and some sunglasses.

“Not much else we can do on such short notice. This will make it harder for people to tell who you are.”

“Thank you, Brittany. Ryan introduced you as Bob’s fiancé. What’s a fiancé?”

“Bob and I are going to get married. When the marriage was announced, I became his fiancé and that and this ring on my finger tell others we’re engaged to be married.”

“How do you get to be a fiancé?”

“Bob asked me to marry him and I said yes.”

“The thing you did with Bob… When your lips touched. What’s that called?”

“That was a kiss. It’s something people romantically involved with each other do.”

“You mean lovers?”

“Yes, exactly.”

“Ryan and I are just friends.”

“Would you like to be more than just friends?”

“I think so. How would I know for certain?”

“When you’re around someone or see them, nothing else seems to matter. You want to be with them and to touch them. When you look at Bob or other men, do you feel the same way about them?”

“No. Ryan makes me feel special inside.”

“I think Ryan thinks the same way about you. He can’t take his eyes off you.”

“But I’m broken. Defective.”

“Why are you defective? You look perfect to me.”

“Claire thought there was something wrong with me. She wanted me to go to the medical bay.”

“If I understand things correctly, Mila, Industrial Robotics seemed to want you to adhere to their protocols and any deviation from that would be cause for them to correct you. I see nothing defective about you at all.”

“But I’m a clone. A clone of a real, living person. Clones are for harvesting and…”

“Listen, Mila. I can’t tell the difference between you and any person I’ve ever met. You have the same body parts I have, you have a heart and a brain. You think independently and have your own feelings. You may have been put into a clone, but that doesn’t mean you have any less value than anyone else. Let’s get back to Bob and Ryan. I can’t wait to see Ryan’s expression when he sees you.”

We walked back to the car and Ryan did indeed have an interesting expression as he looked at me. I watched Brittany jump into Bob’s arms and kiss him and I wanted that. I longed for it. I grabbed Ryan’s hand and leaned close to him. He put his arm around my shoulders.

“We’re waiting for the ferry to take us across the water. Another few hours and we’ll be at my ex’s cabin. It will be safe for us there in case they’ve linked me to you.”

“Brittany says you have a broken heart. Is there anything I can do to help it?”

Ryan lifted my hat a little and pulled off my sunglasses. “Did she now?”

“I know what it’s like to be defective. All of you are so kind to tell me I’m not, but I’ve been told all my life any variance from the norm means there’s something wrong with me. If Claire could see me now, she would float me out into space except for the fact that space was a lie.”

“I know there’s nothing wrong with you, Mila. As a matter of fact, I believe your better than most people in this world. You’ve not been tainted by politics or manipulative people that tell you they love you only to turn around and fall into someone else’s arms.”

“I may not be tainted, but I’m naïve. However, I’m not naïve enough to lie about my emotions to someone. I’ve experienced more new emotions in the past day than I have my entire life. I’ve been sad, frightened, lost, rebellious, embarrassed, confused, and torn.”

“What have you been torn about?”

“You’ll think I’m foolish.”

“No, I won’t.”

“I know I’m new to all of this stuff. This world, people, weather. I’ve seen people love each other. Brittany and Bob and families with their children. I see and feel differently about you than I do anyone else I’ve met. I’m torn between my lack of understanding and experience with how my heart hurts when I’m not near you.”

“I feel something special for you as well, but you’re right. You’re new to people and experiences. I don’t wish to take advantage of your situation. A day from now, a week perhaps, and you may see me and others differently.”

I snuggled into Ryan’s arms. “I hope not.”

“Me either.”

***

I stood back in fascination watching the ferry come into the dock. Structurally, I understood the design, function, and mechanics of how the ferry could hold cars and people and not sink in the water, but I still marveled that it worked.

Standing at the front of the ferry with Ryan, Bob, and Brittany, I would point to something new and they would tell me what it was. For a while, to give my eyes a break, I closed them and listened to the sounds of the water lapping against the hull and the seagulls as they flew overhead. I smelled the salty ocean air mingled with hints of exhaust from the ferry’s engines. I felt the cool breeze that came off the water and chilled my bare, exposed legs.

I thought about my life and being isolated for so many years. I had never felt right as Jackson. Even though for much of my life I wasn’t fully aware of myself, my final days of Jackson I had known something was wrong with me. Waking as Mila, was frightening at first, but I felt like I had arrived home. I loved everything about my new body. How I moved and how my new parts seemed right to me.

I opened my eyes and looked at Ryan and at Bob. They were both handsome, but Ryan… I looked at Brittany. She was loving and kind.

“What are you thinking about, Mila?”

“My mind is overwhelmed by every new sight and sound, but I’ve been pondering relationships. Strangers, acquaintances, friends, co-workers, lovers, and enemies. It seems like something is missing.”

“What do you mean?”

“Can you love someone without being lovers?”

“Yes. I love my mother and father. I mostly love my brother.”

“That’s it. That’s what’s missing. Family. This is going to sound strange, but I feel that Bob and Brittany are like family. For what they done for me, they seem more than friends.”

Brittany smiled and hugged me. “You can be the sister I never had. What about Ryan? Where does he fit in?”

I bit my lower lip. “More than a friend. Not quite lovers. Not family either.”

Brittany laughed. “I can see this is going to be entertaining to watch. Ryan’s like a living soap opera.”

Ryan made a show of being offended, but I could tell he wasn’t. “More like Running Wild with Bear Grylls.”

“May I ask what a soap opera is?”

Bob decided to answer while Ryan and Brittany made faces at each other. “A soap opera is a television show that’s all about relationships.”

“Then I should watch them to learn.”

It was Ryan that responded this time. “No. Soap operas are more about dysfunctional relationships.”

“And what then is Running Wild with Bears?”

“With Bear Grylls. Bear is a survivalist and takes people on adventures.”

“Let me make sure I have this clear in my own mind. Brittany thinks your relationships are dysfunctional like a soap opera and you think that life with you is a survival adventure. Neither sound too appealing to me.”

“Life with me would be an adventure. Idyllic. Blissful.”

Bob laughed. “That sounds more like Mayberry. You need to work on your wooing skills, Ryan. Watch and learn.” Bob turned to Brittany and wiggled his finger, curling it in towards himself.

Brittany put her hand to her forehead. “Oh my! My heart is pounding.” She threw herself into Bob’s arms and kissed him.

Bob stood back and smiled. “That’s proper wooing.”

Sadly, Ryan never wagged his finger at me but suggested we needed to get back to the car.

***

I had stared out the window for most of the rest of the drive. Ryan pointed out Seattle in the distance and I was shocked at the immensity of the city and the number of people it must contain. Every new sight was exciting. There was so much color and everything seemed to dazzle and sparkle. I could only catch glimpses of things and because we were moving so fast before I could ask what I had seen, it had long past.

As we drove, the city and people began to dwindle. We headed up a valley, turned off the main road, and we stopped at a building. It seemed large to me and had huge windows that looked down the valley.

“Welcome to the Rexdale family cabin.”

Ryan lifted a small brown pot with a flower growing in it and picked up a key for the door. I was led inside to a fabulous world of wooden floors, bright windows, and stainless-steel appliances.

Bob shook his head. “This is a cabin?”

“For the Rexdale’s, this is roughing it. It has all the amenities of any modern home, complete with Internet.”

Bob whistled. “Remind me why did you granted the divorce? They know we’re here, right?”

“I called Beth earlier. She’s mostly all right with it.”

“You called Beth? What’s the price you’re going to pay?

Ryan winced. “Maybe I’ll get lucky and there will be no price.”

“With Beth, there’s always a price. What will you do for food?”

“They keep the freezer and pantry stocked.”

I pulled my hat and sunglasses off and shook out my hair. Moving to the windows, I looked out and down the valley. Such scenery and views. The world is so large.

Bob and Brittany came over to give me a hug. “We’re heading into town to pick up Ryan’s second car. Brittany will gather some more clothes for you now that she’s aware of your sizes. Do you think you can survive a day here alone with Ryan?”

“I’m sure I can manage. Thank you both so much for everything.”

“Our pleasure. You’re a sweet girl, Mila. I hope we can all get this straightened out.”

Bob and Brittany left and Ryan came and stood next to me as we watched their car drive down the driveway and back to the main road.

“I took a few things out of the freezer, but it will be a while until we can eat those. I’m going to start on a little research. Did you want to get cleaned up?”

“Everything is so new to me. I can’t believe I slept in the car last night. I want to feel, see, and touch as much as I can.”

“Down the hall to the right is the master bedroom. That will be your room. There’s a shower and towels in there and everything you need.”

I hugged Ryan more on impulse than anything. I felt his arms wrap around me and hold me tight. “I’m causing you a lot of trouble, aren’t I?”

“It’s trouble I’m more than willing to accept right now. What Industrial Robotics did to you was wrong. To think they’re now trying to frame you makes it even worse. We’ll figure it all out.”

“I don’t want to be a burden. You have a life, friends, and lovers you need to return to.”

“My life wasn’t going anywhere. I’ve been lost for years. Until you came along, I had no purpose. I only have a few friends, and definitely no lovers.”

I smiled. “You’ve already done more for me than anyone in my life. I’ve noticed something though.”

“What’s that?”

“People are complicated. My emotions are ever-changing around others. There was a quiet simplicity to life in the Ark, but in the world, dealing with people, it’s tiring. It’s hard to know what people are thinking.”

“I’ve lived with people my entire life and I feel the same way. Sometimes I’ve wished to get away from the city and everyone just so that I can find myself.”

“If you can’t find yourself with those around you, I doubt you could find yourself somewhere where you’re all alone. I had ten years alone and I didn’t find myself. I think we’re designed to have relationships.”

“Designed? Doesn’t that suggest a designer?”

“As a clone, I’m designed and yet I know I was never meant to be alone.”

“Then I have to say you had a much better designer than I did. You’re an amazing woman, Mila.”

“You’re amazing too, Ryan.”

I wanted to kiss him like Brittany kissed Bob, but I headed off to the bedroom.

***

The shower was luxurious and once I was clean I grabbed a towel and dried myself up. Wrapping the towel around me so I could stay warm until my hair dried, I stepped from the bathroom and came face-to-face with a blonde-haired woman.

“So, you’re the emergency Ryan needed the cabin for?”

“I…” I looked around for Ryan but he was nowhere to be seen.

“You’re pretty. I’ll give you that.”

“Beth!” Ryan stormed into the bedroom. “What are you doing here?”

“It’s my cabin. I came up to check in on you. You sounded like this was urgent. Aren’t you going to greet me properly? It’s been so long.”

I watched Beth as she sauntered slowly over towards Ryan, wrapped her arms around his neck, and kissed him. I knew I didn’t like this woman.

Ryan pulled Beth off him. He looked a little annoyed. “It is urgent, Beth.”

“Too cheap to pay for a hotel? She’s a looker, but if you were that hard up you could have always called me.”

Beth looked at me and smiled. I didn’t like her smile as it seemed disingenuous.

She slid her fingers along Ryan’s shoulders and bit Ryan’s earlobe gently. Beth purred into Ryan’s ear and pressed herself up against him. I wanted to gouge out her eyes.

“Enough of this, Beth! You’ve got your assortment of boy-toys and you left me a long time ago.”

“Maybe I’m sorry and I want you back. You’d take me back, wouldn’t you? I know you love me still.”

I didn’t need to hear this, and clearly, I shouldn’t be here. I stepped back into the bathroom and closed the door, quickly changing back into my clothes. I could hear them through the door.

“Damn it, Beth!”

Beth laughed. “Do you think she’s as beautiful as I am? Do you think she can please you more?”

“Now isn’t the time, Beth. Mila’s in real trouble.”

“Just like you to save some girl off the streets. You’re always trying to save the world.”

“And you were always trying to get people to fall for your wiles. I fell for it once and never again. If you don’t want us here, then say so. I’ll find somewhere else.”

“Oh no. That wouldn’t be acceptable. I’m interested now. She’s obviously single as you would never cheat on anyone or date someone’s wife. She doesn’t look like a drug addict or a prostitute. Exactly what kind of trouble is she in?”

“She was held captive.”

Beth cooed. “Really? Is that what you’re into these days? Do you want to tie me up?”

I finished getting into my clothing and stepped out of the room. I couldn’t look into Ryan’s eyes. “Thank you for helping me escape, Ryan. I…”

I bolted for the bedroom door and headed out into the main living area. Beth’s laugh followed me. I put my hand on the door to the outside world and hesitated. Where will I go? What will I do? This door reminded me so much of the one at the Ark, but this time it was much more frightening. I opened the door and stepped out into the vast world.

My wet hair clung to the back of my blouse and a cool breeze came up the valley. Behind me I could hear the door to the cabin open and close, but I dared not look back.

“Mila!”

“Let her go, Ryan. I’m all you need.”

Ryan’s voice became angry. “It’s not always about you, Beth! Mila was held captive her entire life. She’s never even been outside and the company that did this to her is framing her as a terrorist! Go inside and turn on the news!”

I quickened my pace but heard heavy footsteps behind me. “Mila!”

Ryan’s arms were around me and I burst into tears as I turned and buried my face in his chest.

“Why did you leave, Mila?” Ryan’s voice was soft and gentle.

“She’s your lover. I shouldn’t be there…”

“She’s not my lover. She’s my ex-wife.”

“But she kissed you. She said you still loved her.”

“What did I promise you, Mila?”

I sniffed. “That you’d take care of me.”

“I keep my promises. Even if Beth and I were lovers, which we’re not, I could still keep my promise to you. You need to trust me, Mila. Come back inside with me.”

“I don’t like her.”

“I don’t like her either.”

“But you kissed her.”

“She kissed me. That’s different. She violated our wedding vows and I will never trust her again. I’ll be civil with her as I did love her once, but we’re not lovers and I’d say we’re not even friends.” Ryan led me back to the front steps and sat us both down. “The tricky thing about being around people is that it gets complicated sometimes. Relationships can become situational and, in this case, I messed up. I wanted to get you someplace safe where we had the right resources to establish a plan of action. This cabin is perfect for that, except that it comes with a price. That price is being indebted to Beth.”

“I don’t understand if you’re not lovers, and not friends, why she would kiss you and say that you’re lovers.”

“We were married once. There was love, at least on my part back then. She’s attractive. What drew us to each other years ago, there’s still a fragment of that connection there.”

“You find her attractive?”

“Remember when I told you about beauty?”

“Yes.”

“She has physical beauty, although much of it is fake. She’s had almost every surgery available to improve her looks, but real beauty comes from within. That’s where Beth is lacking.”

“Do you think if I had the same surgeries I would be more attractive to you?”

“I’m pretty sure your beauty is why Beth kissed me and did what she did. You don’t need anything artificial to be beautiful because you’re naturally beautiful. She misinterpreted the situation and felt I was using the cabin to have a getaway with a very pretty young woman.”

“I can understand her perspective. I would wager that deep down, she still loves you.”

“She might, but I’ve moved on.”

The door to the cabin opened and Beth looked a little angry. “You bring a terrorist into my cabin?”

“She’s not a terrorist, Beth.”

“The news is reporting that Mila bombed one of their facilities and killed a man.”

“Let me show you our video footage and recount our story. If you still feel we’re putting you or your family at risk, we’ll go.”

“I’ll give you ten minutes to explain all of this!”

***

An hour had past and I was already getting tired of telling my story. Beth seemed to greatly relax after the first few minutes and by the time we had answered all her questions, she simply sat back quietly and stared out the window.

“I’m sorry, Mila. I made a lot of assumptions and I’ve been with too many men to remember just how honorable a man like Ryan can be. He wouldn’t have asked to use the cabin if it wasn’t important.”

“Thank you for believing us.”

Beth uncrossed her legs and stood. “What are your plans, Ryan?”

“We need to research as much as we can about Industrial Robotics.”

“You two can’t just walk in there and demand justice. You need to turn the tables on them. I’m the queen of social media. You need to get your message out there. No doubt, Industrial Robotics has created social media pages for Mila and filled them with information making it look like she’s a terrorist. Any FBI agent worth their salt could see through this ruse. Fake accounts are dated, timed, and don’t have continuity like real accounts. I suggest you begin by fighting fire with fire.”

“I don’t want to bomb anywhere.”

Beth laughed. “You’re precious, Mila, but that’s not what I meant. I think you should get in front of the media to tell your story. Of course, this will make you a target to the FBI and other agencies. Your video is good, but it doesn’t prove anything. You still could have planted the bomb and used the video as a cover-up for your actions to make it look like you stumbled onto it, but the empty DVR racks are a clear indication that this was a clean-up job.”

Ryan sat forward. “You want us to go to the news?”

“I have contacts at King 5. You meet at an out of the way place and let them tell your side of the story.”

“Why help us, Beth?”

“I’ve changed over the years, Ryan. I admit I’m still self-centered, but I really have changed. For once, maybe I can do something right.”

Beth stood and wrote something down on a piece of paper before turning back to us. She handed the note to Ryan. “That’s my contact at King 5.” Turning to me, she had me stand. “Looks like you and I are close in size and shape. I have clothes in the second bedroom that might fit you. Feel free to use anything here.”

Beth started walking to the door but turned around one more time. “There’s only one reason Mila would have been so upset about my actions earlier, Ryan.”

With that, she left the cabin and we watched her drive off.

“What did she mean by that?”

Ryan pushed some stray hairs from my eyes. “Maybe you could tell me?”

I felt heat rising to my face. What are the odds that the first man I meet in my life turns out to be the one that I fall in love with? Do I even know what love is? Instead of responding, I shook my head. The fact is, I don’t know what love is because I’ve never been loved. Is what I feel somehow a distorted view of love?

Ryan paused when he responded. “Let me show you the world at your fingertips.”

Ryan was disappointed I didn’t answer. I could see it in his eyes. It didn’t change the way he looked at me though. He took my hand and showed me a computer where he performed searches. I sat behind him and watched as he brought up information about me, Ayelet, and Industrial Robotics. I was fascinated by seeing all the pictures and reading the information.

Of note, was information that Ayelet’s parents lived in the Seattle area and there was a photo of me that showed me at a protest. Reaching around Ryan, I moved as if I was on autopilot and opened the photo in an editor and zoomed in to see individual pixels. I pointed to an area on the screen. “This photo was edited. You can tell by the inconsistency of the pixels between my face and the background.”

Ryan turned towards me and smiled. “How did you learn that?”

“It must be something Ayelet knew and was copied into her clone.”

“Do you think you can do searches on your own while I fix us some dinner?”

“What can I search for?”

“Anything. What are you the most interested in?”

I thought about that for a moment. “I want to learn about everything. If I had to pick one thing, it might be people and relationships.”

“I would never have thought to start there.”

“I need to understand how society and relationships work so I can function in the world. Everything else I do will hinge on those relationships. Do you think I should start on some other topic?”

“I think you should follow your heart.” Ryan stood and guided me to sit in the chair before the computer. He squatted down next to me and brushed a few strands of my hair from my eyes. “The Internet can be a wonderful, enriching tool, however there is a lot of misinformation out there. Anyone can put information on the Internet and many times it’s simply incorrect. Don’t just take a single source as the truth. I’ll get us something to eat and will be just in the other room.”

I nodded and watched Ryan leave before turning back to the computer.

***

I had taken time to research love and relationships and at times got more than I was expecting. Some images made me flush with warmth while others made me look down past my breasts to imagine things I possibly shouldn’t be imagining.

Most of what I had seen and read was confusing as what I read about love and what images I saw about love, seemed to not represent the same thing.

After a short while, I switched from searching about relationships, to Ayelet Ivanov. Ayelet, my clone host, graduated in New York with PhD’s in Computer Science and Structural Engineering. She was top of her class. The images of her when she was near my clone’s age were remarkable. They were like looking in a mirror. I even found facial images of Ayelet that matched the photos from my fake Facebook page.

I saved those links to refer to them later and continued to dig into Ayelet’s life. Ayelet never married. Shortly after she graduated, she went to work at Industrial Robotics. After she started, the information about her rapidly dwindled except for news articles about her going missing about ten and a half years ago. There was a photo of her parents, Isaac and Devorah Ivanov. They moved from New York to Seattle to continue looking for their daughter. Devorah was from Israel while Isaac was from Russia.

My fingers brushed their image on the screen and I felt more tears on my cheeks. I yearned for them nearly as much as I yearned for Ryan. I felt a longing deep within me. Some small part of me recognized them as my parents. In a way, they were.

Ryan arrived with two bowls full of food. I had to use tissues to hastily wipe the tears from my cheeks.

“What’s wrong, Mila?”

“These people are the closest thing to family that I will ever get. They’re Ayelet’s parents.”

“You can always start your own family.”

“Not until this is straightened out, but I’d be afraid I could never be a good mother. I have no experience to fall back on.”

“I think you would be an incredible mother.”

“You have no basis for this.”

“On the contrary. You have a remarkable gift for seeing the world as it should be. There’s an immensity to your ability to love. Maybe this is because love was withheld from you all these years.”

I pondered that a moment before the smells drew me to the food. It looked like a simple brown mess, but it tasted heavenly. “What is this?”

“Oatmeal. We’ll need to get some necessities. I have taken out some ground beef from the freezer, but we need some bread, cheese, eggs, and milk before I can make anything special.”

“I could eat this every day.”

“That’s good news that my primitive cooking skills still beat those protein cubes you were eating. This makes me look good.”

“You don’t need to do anything to impress me, Ryan.”

“That could either be a good thing or bad. Either everything I do makes me look good to you, which is a good thing, or you think so highly of me that eventually you will become less impressed. That would be bad.”

“Beth chose well. She wasn’t very smart to give you up though.”

“You need to forget about Beth. What have you found so far?”

I showed Ryan the links of Ayelet’s photos and the one that was used to superimpose my face on the protest picture. Ryan suggested this was fantastic as it provided more evidence to support my innocence.

“You’re doing wonderfully, Mila. I had a call from Bob. They managed to do everything early and should be here soon. They’re bringing some extra food and my other car. I think we should schedule a time with the news anchor from King 5.”

“Not yet. Ayelet’s parents still live in Seattle. I think we should go see them.”

“I’m not sure how wise that would be. You look just like their daughter. It could cause them much grief and will put you at risk of exposure.”

“It’s the right thing to do. I don’t know why, but I need to speak with them.”

“All right. Let’s see if we can go there tomorrow and we can arrange to meet the news anchor the next day.”

“I’d like to keep researching.”

“I’ll be in the other room making sure we’re prepared for any eventuality.”

I wanted to be with Ryan, but I was consumed by having access to all this information. Like the food I could eat and eat, I felt starved and deprived of information.

The earlier research had left me flushed and excited, so I switched to researching geography, animals, food, history, and space. I then investigated politics before moving into the economy, money, and work.

I spent more time researching Industrial Robotics before looking into clothing and fashion. That led to hairstyles and makeup and I found myself looking in the mirror. I was beautiful in comparison to other images of women I had seen, but my hair needed help and my clothes were rather random. If I were to compete for Ryan, which I felt I had to do, I’d need to look better.

Moving to the closet, I rummaged through the clothes that belonged to Beth. There was a red dress and matching red flat shoes that looked like they would fit well. I found a brush in the bathroom and spent time on my hair. I didn’t dare attempt the makeup I found, but I did put on the dress and shoes and checked myself out in the mirror. Comparing myself to the images on the Internet, I felt I looked pretty. I headed into the main living area.

Ryan bolted upright when he saw me. “Wow, Mila! You look beautiful. Conservative and yet alluring.”

“I wanted to make a good impression on Ayelet’s parents tomorrow and on you.”

“You certainly made a good impression on me.”

“I’ve done some research.” I took a step closer to Ryan.

“You were in there for hours.”

“I have all the symptoms.” I took another step.

Ryan looked worried. “What symptoms?”

“Rapid heartbeat. Shortness of breath.” I closed the distance between us.

“Those could be symptoms for anything.”

They were symptoms for love. I was almost to Ryan when the door opened and Brittany and Bob came in.

“Did we interrupt anything? Mila, you look absolutely amazing.”

I blushed at my thoughts and turned to hug Brittany and Bob.

Bob gently slugged Ryan on the shoulder. “We’re gone for a few hours and Mila turns into a runway model. I hear on the news that Mila is now wanted for murder and the bombing of the facility.”

Ryan took a deep breath as he looked at me. “Beth was here.”

Bob rolled his eyes. “That would have been interesting to see.” He turned to Brittany. “I knew we left too early. I could have saved us fifty dollars on the awful movie the other night.”

“She put on a real show and thought I was just here for a vacation with Mila. When she calmed down and learned about everything, she became… nice. I never saw that coming. She even gave us a contact at King 5.”

“King 5? You want Mila on the news?”

“We have evidence that the social media sites were forged. I think Mila’s story is quite convincing and if we can get enough people believing Mila isn’t a terrorist, it might improve our odds.”

“Won’t this cause Industrial Robotics to become aggressively defensive?”

“From what we’ve learned, Industrial Robotics is large and has many lobbyists. They will have senators in their back pocket and have lots of government contacts. Even if Mila was cleared, she could still be in danger. We need to find a way to fully expose them. It will make them defensive and potentially more aggressive than they have been, but that’s when they will make mistakes.”

“It reminds me of that time you single-handedly took on the bunker in Afghanistan. We’ve investigated Industrial Robotics while we were away. They’re huge and have the resources to thwart and discredit you.”

“If we do nothing, Mila, and possibly all of us will wind up in prison.”

“How can we help?”

“Could you look into Industrial Robotics and see what companies they have? If we can get a list of active properties through tax records for all their companies and subsidiaries, we might be able to isolate where their key locations are.”

“We’ll get a start on that. We brought you extra food and some more clothes for Mila. I hope you like bacon.”

Ryan grinned. “Bacon I can use.”

Brittany walked over to me and took my hand in hers to lead me outside onto the front steps. “Let the guys talk for a bit. How are you doing?”

“Better. I’m still confused by all my emotions.”

“What about you and Ryan? I ask because I don’t want to see either of you get hurt.”

“I have all the symptoms. I read about love on the Internet.”

“You can’t trust everything on the Internet to be correct. Your own Facebook page wasn’t even created by you. I can see it in your eyes and his though. You’re both smitten with each other. I suggest you go slow.”

“Go slow with what?”

“Your relationship with Ryan. It’s very easy to get carried away and the next thing you know, you’re in bed with him. Take your time. There’s no rush and when the moment is right, you’ll know what to do.”

“You mean sex? I saw that on the Internet.”

“I hope you didn’t see too much. What you see there isn’t very real. There’s no love. What I’m saying is that you should give yourselves a chance to get to know one another. Take days, weeks, or even years before you decide to move to the next step.”

“Thank you, Brittany.”

“Do you need anything, Mila?”

“I have sustenance, a place to sleep, and Ryan. What else would I need?”

“I like how you see things.”

Bob came out and Ryan followed him. Brittany and Bob hugged me before they left. Ryan held me as we watched them drive away.

***

It felt like the moment had passed. I had every intention of kissing Ryan before Bob and Brittany came in, but now, after my conversation with Brittany, I had less urgency but that didn’t mean my feelings had changed about Ryan.

There was something incredibly satisfying by how the afternoon and evening progressed. While I was itching to get back to the Internet and learn more about the world, Ryan and I spent most of the time sitting in large comfortable couches and talking. I wanted to learn everything I could about him and likewise, he asked me about my life. My life was exceptionally dull and boring in comparison to Ryan’s.

When evening came, Ryan made hamburgers on an outdoor grill. The sun was setting, the clouds had all drifted away, and the sky was painted in the most beautiful colors. They were so vivid, that I almost wept. For years I had been kept underground, not able to see such beauty. The only thing that held back my tears was my growing anger at Industrial Robotics.

The hamburger, as with any food I had eaten since I left the Ark, was spectacular. I sat back in the couch, satisfied, full, and with my heart all but bursting from a growing sense of freedom. Ryan looked handsome in the dying light of the evening and I let my brain slowly shut down from the overload of the day.

Ryan handed me a drink in a tall narrow glass and sat down next to me. I took a sip and the fizzy amber liquid had a slightly bitter taste to it, but it seemed like a nice compliment to the end of the day.

“That’s called beer.”

“It tickles my throat.” I closed my eyes briefly. “This is what life is all about?”

“There’s more to it than what you’ve seen so far. Living in the world takes money to pay for the things we use. Oftentimes that means working in a job that’s not too interesting. But there are good moments, good people, and times like this where everything comes together.”

“Before I stumbled into your life, what were your aspirations, Ryan?”

“Honestly, I had none. After everything fell apart with Beth, I kept to myself and my work. I didn’t want to get involved with anyone. I like the isolation of the wilderness to clear my mind of things I’ve done wrong.”

“These past few hours have been like Running Wild with Bear Grylls. Idyllic.”

Ryan laughed. “You don’t miss much, do you? I’d forgotten I mentioned that. Yes, it has been. You’re an incredible woman, Mila. I find myself inexplicably drawn to you.” He leaned in close, took my beer from my hand, and placed it on a table when all hell broke loose.

That was the exact moment when the doors to the cabin exploded inward and men in dark uniforms, headgear, and guns rushed in from all directions. I was roughly grabbed and thrown face first onto the floor. A heavy knee pressed into my back and my arms were twisted around and bound. Cold metal was pressed against the back of my head.

I was screaming and afraid and watched as the men in uniforms struggled to get Ryan secured.

“Clear!”

Ryan was pulled up from the floor and pushed down into a chair. I could see him straining and his face was red with anger. “Let Mila go!”

A man wearing a dark vest but less gear than the others walked up to Ryan. “Ryan Stone… You’ve led a distinguished career in the military. What made you turn your back on the United States and choose to assist a terrorist.”

“She’s no terrorist. She’s been held captive for over ten years.”

“That’s highly unlikely. As you can see, you’re now both captives of the FBI. I’m Steven Haskell and oversee this operation. Men, take these two to our holding facility.”

I was yanked to my feet and dragged away from Ryan. “Ryan!”

“You’ll be all right, Mila. Try to stay calm. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Try to stay calm? How can I do that when I don’t understand anything that’s going on? I was put into the back of a car and Ryan was placed into another. A man with yellow FBI letters on the back of his uniform sat next to me. I kept straining to look and see glimpses of Ryan, but I lost track of him once the car started driving.

Stay calm. Stay calm. I managed to do all right until the man pulled the beige strap across me. “No!” I thrashed and tried to press the red button but my hands were bound tightly. “Please… I’m not defective…” Tears began to fall down my cheeks.

I closed my eyes to shut the world out. “What are you going to do with me? You’re not going to transfer me into another clone or wipe my memory, are you?”

The men in the car remained silent and I feared the worse. After almost an hour, we pulled up to a large gray building and I was taken inside. I was placed in a small room and two females in uniform released my hands and told me to remove my clothes. This was worse than Claire. I felt embarrassed as they probed my naked body before letting me get dressed again and placed metal bracelets on me binding my wrists together.

I tried to speak to them, but no one was responding back to me. Pictures were taken, my fingers were sprayed with water and placed and a piece of glass before I was taken into another room and shackled to a bolted down table.

I waited there almost thirty minutes before the man called Steven came in and sat down across from me.

“Do you know why you’re here, Mila?”

“Do you work for Industrial Robotics?”

“I’m with the FBI. You’re accused of terrorism, breaking into and blowing up a research facility, and killing a maintenance worker inside.”

“I never did any of those things. Where’s Ryan?”

“Ryan is being processed and in another part of the building.”

“Take me to him, please.”

“I don’t think you understand what’s at stake here, Miss Ivanov. You can go to jail for the rest of your life. You need to tell me everything. Why did you blow up the facility?”

“I told you, I didn’t do anything. Why can’t I see Ryan?” I pulled on the chains to no avail.

The door opened and an older man stepped into the room. “Good work on capturing these two, Steven. Take Miss Ivanov to interrogation room five. I’ll take over from here and will expect your full report on my desk in the morning.”

“Yes, sir.” Steven stood and unlocked me from the table, but then bound my wrists together again. I was led down the hallway and into another larger room. Ryan was there. I ran to him but was yanked back by Steven. He had me sit apart from Ryan and once again I was locked to a metal bar.

Steven left the room and the other man entered and sat down across from us.

“You’re both in serious trouble. I’m Dan Mackenzie. Perhaps you can tell me why you have no identification, driver’s license, credit cards, or residential address and yet you have a Facebook page, Mila?”

“Mila’s innocent. She’s done nothing wrong.”

“That’s to be determined, Mr. Stone. Mila? I asked you a question.”

I looked at Ryan and he nodded to me. “Go ahead, Mila. Tell him everything.”

***

“That’s quite the story, Mila. If it were true you would be accusing a highly respected company of many serious crimes. Would you submit to a DNA test?”

Ryan growled. “She’s been through enough!”

“Mr. Stone, you know how this process works. As a terrorist, Mila doesn’t have the same rights as anyone else. She also doesn’t have any evidence to show she’s even a United States citizen. A DNA test will allow us to both advocate for her release as well as potentially condemn her.”

“Her DNA will be all over that facility.”

“What’s left of it. Yes. I suspect it will be if her story is true. No one would be smart enough to break into a highly secure facility to plant a bomb, yet dumb enough to leave evidence of themselves behind.”

“Wait. Why are you interrogating us together?”

Dan made a motion with his hands and waited a few minutes.

There was a knock on the door and another man stepped inside. “Transport is ready, sir.”

“Take these two to the vehicle. I’ll join you there in a few minutes.”

The man grabbed my arm while several others came and took Ryan. We were led back through the building and out to what Ryan called a van. We were locked in the back together.

“What’s happening, Ryan? I’m scared.”

“I’m not sure. This isn’t normal.”

“What’s not normal? Industrial Robotics, being blamed for blowing up a building, being attacked by the FBI, or being put into the back of a van? If any of this is normal, then I’d happily go back to live my life in the Ark.”

“The FBI are doing their job and investigating what appears to be a terrorist act. However, it isn’t normal for them to interrogate us together. Something isn’t quite right here.”

The van began to move and for twenty minutes we rode in silence. After stopping, the rear door opened and Dan directed men to lead us into a small house. Once inside with the door closed, Dan ordered the men to remove our metal bracelets.

“On my desk I have a picture of Ayelet Ivanov. It has reminded me every day for the past ten years that I’ve been investigating her disappearance to seize any opportunity to take down Industrial Robotics whenever a chance came up. I know enough about Industrial Robotics to believe you, Mila. However, I need time to corroborate your story.”

Ryan rubbed his wrists and looked around the house. “This is a safe house?”

“Yes. You’ll be safe here, but I can’t let you go.”

“Why take us here and not keep us in custody at your building?” What’s really going on?”

“Nothing is going on. This is standard procedure.”

Ryan was about to say something when I slipped my hand into his. “As long as I’m here with you, Ryan, I prefer it here.”

Dan pulled us aside and whispered to us. “I’m leaving two agents to make sure you don’t leave. In the unlikely event that something happens, meet me at two in the afternoon tomorrow at the Space Needle.”

I could tell Ryan was processing things. He wanted to ask more but held back.

Dan left and one of the agents sat down near the front door while the other went outside. Ryan pulled me into a small kitchen and began to whisper to me.

“Something isn’t right here. Dan must truly believe you’re innocent because they would never give you this freedom as a wanted terrorist.”

“Freedom? I’ve tasted freedom briefly since I left the Ark, and this hardly feels like freedom.”

“A suspected terrorist would be in a prison cell right now, not in a home like this. My hunch is that Dan’s trying to hide you but I’m not sure who he’s trying to hide you from. It’s late. Do you think you can sleep?”

I nodded even though I was unsure. Ryan led me to the bedroom and I laid myself down on the bed. Ryan pulled a blanket over me and sat in a chair next to the bed. As I laid there, I closed my eyes and reached out with my mind to various parts of my body. Ever since my transformation I felt more connected to my body than ever before. I missed nothing of Jackson.

I opened my eyes briefly to find Ryan staring at me. He made me feel secure. Closing my eyes once again, I drifted off to sleep.

***

My mouth was being covered and I struggled until I could see what was happening.

Ryan had his hand over my mouth and whispered to me. “Get up, Mila. Don’t talk. Get your shoes on.”

It was dark and quiet except for the sound of television in the other room. I slipped on my shoes and Ryan directed me to stand in the closet. “What’s going on?” I whispered.

“Shhh…” Ryan closed the closet door most of the way. I could see him standing near the bedroom door when it flew open. The darkness was lit up by dozens of flashes and the light sounds of clicking and compressed air from a gun. The bed where I had just been exploded in bits and puffs of material. I watched in fear as Ryan grabbed the hand that held the gun. He pulled hard yanking a masked man into the room. With a single punch, Ryan had the man on the ground and he took the gun from the masked man.

Ryan spun out of the bedroom, and I could hear more of the soft snaps of air. They were happening all around. I squatted down in the closet just as holes in the wall next to me opened and rays of light from the other room filtered in.

There were several grunts and crashes that shook the house. That was followed by more snaps of air and finally all was silent. The bluish light that had been flickering from the other room had gone out with one of the crashes. I held my breath not wanting to make a sound.

“Mila?” It was Ryan’s whispered voice.

Ryan’s dark silhouette appeared, and I rushed out to hug him.

“I thought I lost you. Are you all right?”

“Yes.”

“We need to get out of here.” Taking my hand in his, he led me through significant carnage. With the bits of light filtering in from the curtained windows, I could see the FBI agent dead in his seat. Three masked men were sprawled out in various positions bleeding. There wasn’t much that wasn’t broken left in the house.

Ryan picked up a handgun and carefully opened the front door. There we found the other FBI agent face down on the steps. So much death…

Ryan helped me step gingerly around all the blood. Soon we were away from the house and slipping into the shadows of other homes in the area. After a few minutes, Ryan pulled me down behind some bushes.

“I’m guessing that was Industrial Robotics’ men that came here to kill us. I’m not sure how they found us unless they have a contact at the FBI. Are you sure you’re unhurt?”

“I’m fine. Frightened, but fine. The guns were very quiet.”

“They used suppressors to muffle the sound of the shots.”

“You saved my life again. Are you hurt?”

“Just some scrapes and bruises, but I’ll be fine. We’re not out of this mess yet. Industrial Robotics doesn’t seem like the kind of organization to walk away from a botched murder attempt. We have no money and no access to transportation. That’s all back at the cabin and a very long walk from here. Our only hope is that Dan from the FBI is one of the good guys. We’re a few hours walk from downtown Seattle. We can get down there in time to meet Dan.”

The early morning air was damp and cool as we set out at a brisk pace. I was afraid of this world, the violence, the strange weather, and temperature changes. I trusted Ryan, but I wasn’t sure who else I could trust. Realizing people were trying to kill me, I was afraid of every shadow.

By the time the sun had risen I started feeling a little better about things. The slight sway of my hips and the bounce of my breasts and hair reminded me that in the midst of everything going on, I was still a woman that was in love. My fear of everything slipped into a single strong concern that I wasn’t pretty enough, dressed properly, or simply too naïve to be of interest to Ryan.

It was nearly nine o’clock when we made it close to the Space Needle park. We had walked for hours, taking extra time to hide ourselves when Ryan felt it was necessary. By this time, I had both an urgent need to go to the bathroom as well as check to make sure I was presentable. Ryan found a public bathroom for me to use.

Stepping into the bathroom, I was immediately assaulted by the smell and how unclean it was. There were several stalls with toilets that were filled with overflowing… I did my best to ignore what I saw and closed my eyes as I hovered over a seat as I dared not touch anything.

Moving to the sink and graffiti covered mirrors, I did my best to get my hair into place. I stared a minute at my reflection when a man dressed as a woman came out of one of the other stalls.

At first, I was shocked. I hadn’t seen a man wear a dress before. He was even wearing makeup. I was a little nervous, but he looked harmless enough.

“Your hair is absolutely stunning.”

I continued to stare as my mind churned through responses and feelings. What came out of my mouth surprised me. “I like your dress.”

“Really? I got it at the thrift store.” He twisted and turned a little.

I had so many questions. “You’re a man, right?”

“I identify as female.”

My quizzical look betrayed my thoughts. “You couldn’t transfer into a female body? I was male before.”

“There’s no way you were ever a man. Girl, you look so fine and beautiful, no surgeon on earth could do that good of job. You meant to say you identified as a man.”

“No… I was a man and I had an accident. Claire transferred me into this body to save my life.”

“If it were only true… I must meet this Claire one day.”

I said goodbye and stepped back outside to find Ryan waiting patiently for me. “You took your time in there.”

“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t a mess.”

“You could be covered in mud and still be the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

We moved across the street, but we turned back when we heard yelling. At first, the man in the dress was being hit by a woman with her purse. She left, but three young men had taken notice and were shouting at the man calling him all kinds of names.

“You’re sick, you queer!” One of the men pushed the man in a dress down onto the sidewalk.

One of the others kicked him. “You’re disgusting you friggin fag!”

I felt myself moving and slipped away from Ryan’s grip. I heard Ryan behind me. “That’s none of our business.”

“Leave him alone!” I don’t know what I was doing. I was so angry. Perhaps it was the injustice of it all, or I had simply reached a breaking point with feeling vulnerable. Either way, I was pissed. I strode up to and between the man on the ground and the three young men. “I said to leave him alone!”

They laughed, but their eyes betrayed their thoughts. One stepped forward and looked me up and down. “Now that’s a real woman. I bet you’d love to be with a real man and not with this thing on the ground.”

I just snapped. Ayelet Ivanov must have had a few more skills that were copied into this clone, but I shifted my stance, brought my arm back, curled my hand into a fist, and as the young man grabbed between his legs to express his manhood, I twisted forward sending my fist into his face. My fist hurt like hell, but the young man dropped to the ground with a bleeding nose.

The two other men laughed at first, then they began backing away from me. For the first time ever, I felt strong and powerful. Their eyes went wide with fear and they took off down the street. I glanced down at my reddened knuckles with a slight feeling of satisfaction.

When I turned, I saw Ryan standing behind me. He had a large chunk of wood in his hand that he quickly tossed to the side. Looking back at the young men running away, I realized it was Ryan’s presence that caused them to flee, but it didn’t diminish my inner sense of accomplishment.

Looking down at the man dressed as a woman, he smiled warmly. Ryan offered him a hand to help him up. “There are few people in the world that would do what you did. People don’t understand what it’s like to feel like you should have been born differently. You have a friend for life. I’m Jocene.”

He extended his hand and I took it. “Mila, and this is Ryan.”

Ryan was always thinking ahead. “Jocene, do you know where we could get something to eat? It’s a long story, but we’ve lost our identification, transportation, and phones.”

“I have a place a few blocks away. You’re more than welcome to come over.”

At Jocene’s apartment, we shared a bit of the story and left out critical pieces of information but Jocene seemed to catch on right away.

“You’re that Mila from the news. The terrorist.”

“It’s not like that… I never…”

He smiled. “Girl, I don’t care what you did. How you defended me back there speaks volumes. You’re welcome here.”

“Thank you.”

“Now, I don’t have a lot of ingredients, but I can make up a mean French toast.”

“I’ve not eaten anything I haven’t liked. I’m sure it will be wonderful.”

Ryan was in another room pacing back and forth. I helped Jocene as I could. “Is he always like that?”

I followed Jocene’s eyes towards Ryan and smiled. “He’s very protective and I’m naïve about the world.”

“I’d like to be naïve about the world. The world is a harsh place, especially for someone like me.”

“Why?”

“People don’t like what’s not deemed normal. When I told my parents that I wanted to be female they kicked me out of the house. It’s hard to have a career because I have to conform, and many businesses think I would scare away customers.”

“That’s horrible. I’m so sorry.”

“The truth is, people love to deflect and put blame on others. I accept the fact that women can feel uncomfortable around me. I could be just any guy that wants to get his jollies by going into the women’s bathroom, but without knowing me for who I am I’m judged with the real crazy people. I’m not a bad person, Mila. I truly care about how I make other people feel, but I have to be me.”

“I envy you.”

Jocene laughed. “I’ve never had anyone say that to me before. Why on earth would you envy me?”

“Because you know who you are and what you want. I don’t know what I am. I do know what I want though.” I glanced back at Ryan.

“Mila, you are who you are. It doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside, it’s the inside that counts. No one can define that for you, no one can take that away from you, and no one should ever tell you who or what you are.”

I quietly pondered Jocene’s statement. It was profound and yet I could tell it wasn’t something that he had learned without much pain.

Ryan came into the eating room and took my right hand in his. He gently stroked the swollen, red knuckles. “Thank you for your hospitality, Jocene. Do you have an icepack?”

“In the freezer. Help yourself.” Jocene smiled as he turned back to me. “Now for the secret ingredients. I put cinnamon and sugar into the eggs before I dip the bread.”

I felt cold pressed against my hand as Ryan tenderly held an icepack there.

“Why don’t you both sit and relax?”

Ryan led me into a living area with a couch and we sat down. I leaned into him and wondered if this was normal for life in the world. I thought back to the moments in the cabin and wondered if there would be another moment like that. Looking at Ryan I could see he was distracted and looking out the window.

I thought again on what Jocene had said and what I knew I wanted. “Ryan?”

Ryan gave a slight acknowledgement.

“Ryan?”

When his eyes locked onto mine, I knew I had his full attention.

“Forgive me.”

“Forgive you for what?”

“For this…” I leaned forward and kissed him as I had seen Brittany kiss Bob. For me it was the most glorious feeling I ever had. My lips tingled long after I pulled back. Feeling suddenly embarrassed, I looked away from Ryan’s intense eyes. “I… This world is so confusing.”

Ryan’s hand found my cheek. For all the strength he had, he was so gentle. He guided my eyes back up to meet his. He was seeking something.

“I don’t want to take advantage of our situation. I’m afraid, Mila. I’ve come face-to-face with death many times, but I’ve never been so afraid as this moment.”

“Am I frightening to you?”

“Yes.” I stiffened at his honesty. “I’m afraid if I kiss you back I’ll give up any resolve I have. I’ve sheltered myself and my heart for too long.”

“You’re afraid for your heart…” I looked back at Jocene who was busy in the other room. “I know what I want, Ryan. I’ve seen other men and they do nothing for me. I’m naïve and more often lost than knowing where I am or what I am. I’m a clone… I’m in love…”

Ryan pulled me to him and he kissed me. He kissed me so passionately that my body responded with its own motions. My arms snaked around his neck and I felt heat and warmth spread throughout my body. Ryan slowly pulled back and I could still see some fear in his eyes.

“I’ll never leave you like Beth did. Are my lips supposed to tingle like this?”

“Girl, that’s the sign of true love. Sorry to interrupt, but breakfast is ready.”

Ryan, who had been silent, watched Jocene leave the room before he turned back to me. “I’ve been wanting to kiss you for days but had to make sure you were truly interested in me.”

“Brittany told me to go slow or I would wind up having sex with you.”

Ryan laughed and kissed me again. It felt right and the ever-present longing in my heart began to dissolve away.

***

Jocene’s breakfast had been divine. We thanked him profusely before we left to head towards the Space Needle. We were a few blocks away when Ryan confessed he had been nervous around him.

“You were amazing, Mila. You make me realize that there are times we need to get out of our comfort zone and help others. That was a great punch, by the way.”

“What those people did to Jocene was wrong. I’ve been so focused on myself that I needed something like this to change my thinking from internal to external.”

“You’re not afraid anymore?”

“I didn’t say that. The world is frightening and busy. I’m ignorant of everything. However, helping Jocene gave me confidence I can stand up for myself. Of course, it helps knowing you are right there to pick me up when I fall.”

“You make me ashamed for myself. I should have been the one to defend Jocene. I’ve become bitter and self-centered, believing people deserve what they get. I could have come up with a dozen excuses why not to intervene. It took you to remind me that I should be focusing on why I should do something rather than why I shouldn’t.”

“You give yourself too little credit. You rescued me. If you hadn’t put your life at risk, I’d be back in the Ark with my memories wiped out or worse.”

“That just goes to show how callous my heart is. It’s easy to help a beautiful woman, but not so easy to help someone else.”

“We make each other better. Isn’t that part of what being lovers is all about?”

There was no doubt I was still on sensory overload. A part of me called for the solace and silence, but I still never wanted to be alone again. The traffic and crowds of people and looking up at the tall buildings filled with people was simply overwhelming. That and the space. Huge, vast open vistas were hard to grasp. I found my gauge of distances lacking.

While I felt more confident, I was also still frightened by the world and worried I might never truly feel comfortable. Jocene’s words about being who you are continued to roll around in my brain. I could come to terms with what I am, and perhaps even who I want to be, but as to who I am, I’m lost.

“You’re wearing lipstick and eyeshadow.”

I was lost in my thoughts. “Huh?”

“I like how your lipstick and eyeshadow are subtle. Did Jocene show you how to do that?”

“Yes. I told him I wanted to make myself look good for you, but not be too crazy like Beth’s makeup.”

“It makes your lips even more kissable.”

We had paused under the Space Needle and Ryan reached for me. I was fully prepared for a knee shaking kiss when Dan Mackenzie came around the corner.

“Quickly, step inside the building.”

Ryan was quick to confront the FBI agent. “What’s going on, Dan? I want the truth.”

“That was quite a mess back at the safe house. The FBI is compromised but I’m not sure at what level. I’ve not been able to clear Mila yet, but evidence suggests your story might be true and I’ve been waiting years for Industrial Robotics to slip. They’re getting bold. I believe Mila represents a real threat to them.”

“In the meantime, the FBI have taken away our access to money, identification, and transportation.”

“We tracked you to the cabin after watching your friends Bob and Brittany. No doubt Industrial Robotics would also have found you if they have someone inside the FBI working for them. I can offer you keys to a car with enough resources for you to get out of the area.”

“We appreciate it.”

“Good luck to you both.”

Dan quickly departed after telling us where to find the car.

“I still find this very strange, Mila. The FBI wouldn’t normally just let us go.”

“If we don’t trust Dan, what do we do?”

“We have to trust him for now as my feet are aching from all the walking.”

“Try walking this far with brand new feet.”

We found the car and some money stashed in the glove compartment. As we drove off, I stared up at the buildings and I thought a little more our situation.

“Where are we going?”

“We can’t go to my house, the cabin, or Bob and Brittany’s place. Dan was right. I think we should leave the area. I have friends in New Mexico that live off the grid.”

“Can we make one stop first?”

“I’m not sure it’s a wise thing, Mila.”

“I memorized the address of Ayelet’s parent’s house in Sammamish. It may be our only chance to see them. It may be my only chance to connect with family.”

“All right. It’s a huge risk, but we’ll scout the area and get there right after dark.”

***

We drove around the block at least six times and parked down the street from the single-story modest home. Isaac and Devorah Ivanov’s home had a small two-car garage, some nicely trimmed landscaping, and a for sale sign out front.

I was still enamored by every little thing I saw, but meeting Ayelet’s parents kept me from being distracted. Ryan pressed a button and I could hear various tones ringing inside. That was followed by some soft steps coming towards the door.

As the door opened, I recognized the face of Devorah. She had aged a lot from the photos on the Internet. Once she saw me, she put her hands to her mouth to stifle the sounds of her crying. Isaac came to the door quickly and in his eyes, I could see a mixture of confusion, anger, and hurt.

It was Ryan that spoke as we all stood at the door together. “Please excuse us. We don’t mean to intrude, and we know seeing Mila is shocking for you.”

Isaac pointed to me. “You’re a wanted criminal.”

“I’ve done nothing wrong. I think you might want to hear my story.”

Devorah couldn’t hold herself back and pushed open the screen door separating us and hugged me. “My Ayelet! You’ve come back to us. Come in. Come in.”

Isaac frowned and glanced both ways before letting us in the house. I stepped inside to a lovely but quaint home. There were pictures everywhere. Many of Ayelet.

Devorah got us all some water and had us sit down in the living room.

Isaac stood and paced. “I should call the police. You’re wanted for bombing a facility and killing a man in the explosion.”

“Please…”

Isaac paced even faster. “All these years… This is like the last straw. Industrial Robotic stole our daughter from us and now they put you out there to rub salt in our ever-festering wounds. We just listed our house to get away from all of this. Now you come to our door…”

“Give her a chance, Isaac.”

Isaac paused and sat down next to his wife. She clasped his hand with hers and nodded to me.

I took a deep breath and began. “Almost ten and a half years ago, I woke up on a space ship called the Ark…”

***

“You’re Ayelet’s clone. She told us they were doing this sort of thing.”

“Ayelet started working for Industrial Robotics twenty-one years ago. Given my age, I would assume they began growing this clone body near the time she started working there.”

Isaac looked a little lost and confused. “We were living in New York at the time she accepted the job with Industrial Robotics and moved across the country. We called her frequently, but she could never share a lot. Her work consumed her. She believed in what she was doing.”

“What was she working on?”

“For years, she said she couldn’t say. Then about twelve years ago, she flew home for a weekend. We hadn’t seen her in a long time. She was distraught, saying that she was getting concerned about the project and the company she worked for. She told us she had to share with someone, but she feared for her life and swore us to secrecy.”

Ryan stood and stretched. “What did she think was happening?”

“She told us things that seemed very strange. The day she started, they took a DNA sample from her. She said they did this to all new employees for security reasons. She explained she was designing a secret underground facility to test robots for long-term missions in space. Partway through the build, she was told to reconfigure the facility to work with humans. At first, she thought nothing of it. They told her they were having trouble with robots, but the same facility could be used to test real people for extended durations.”

“There were no robots on the Ark when I first woke up there ten years ago.”

Devorah leaned over to me and stroked my hair. “You’re so much like our daughter. Even your mannerisms and the way you carry yourself are similar. I can’t believe anyone would do something like this.”

Isaac continued. “Just before Ayelet vanished, she sent us an envelope inside a FedEx box. There was a letter with it stating that she was very concerned about something she had seen, but to protect her and us she requested we not open the envelope unless something happened to her. It was a hectic time when she disappeared. We came out here to do what we could, then we moved here. It was almost a year later that I came across the envelope and opened it. I have it here.”

Isaac handed me an envelope and I reached inside. I pulled out a long letter, a DVD, and a small shell. I closed my eyes as I rolled the small, smooth shell around in my hand.

I was on a beach in Bar Harbor. I was wearing a red bikini and my parents were there. We had brought a picnic basket of food and relaxed in the sunshine. Mom and dad took me here to congratulate me for finishing high school. Mom handed me a sea shell. It was small, but perfectly formed. There were yellow and brown spots on it. It was beautiful. ‘This shell reminds me of you, Ayelet. It’s perfect and beautiful. Maya Angelou said…

I gasped, and these words trickled from my lips. “in all the world, there is no heart for me like yours. In all the world, there is no love for you like mine.”

I looked up into Devorah and Isaac’s stunned faces. “You gave this shell to Ayelet in Bar Harbor after she graduated from high school. You wanted Ayelet to know that while her path would likely separate you, she would always have a home no matter where you were.”

“How…?”

“I have fragments of memories in my mind of things I’ve never seen. Why is it I feel like I just came home?”

Devorah began to cry as she reached to hug me. “Do you remember anything else?”

“I’m sorry. I’m nothing more than a clone of your daughter. I wish I was something more for you.”

It took a moment for everyone to settle back down. Isaac picked up the letter and looked it over thoughtfully. “I’m sorry I wasn’t kinder to you when you first arrived, Mila. It seems like everything Industrial Robotics touches they destroy and it felt like after ten years they decided to reemerge and cram salt into our wounds. There are things you’re saying that line up and make sense. You need to understand more of who you are going up against or, perhaps even more, who you should be running away from.”

Ryan sat down next to me and took my hand in his. “Is it that bad?”

“Worse than you think. Ayelet sent us two DVDs. One was this one which was her final message to us, the second one was video footage and documents she uncovered. That was confiscated during the investigation and deemed proprietary and confidential information from Industrial Robotics. After Ayelet was asked to reconfigure the Ark for people, she started to come across pieces of information that didn’t feel right to her. The more she dug, the more frightened she became.”

“Why didn’t she just leave the company?”

“At first, she was strongly connected to her mission. She felt what she was doing would truly benefit mankind. Later, she couldn’t believe the company was acting nefariously and she convinced herself she must be wrong. Finally, people began disappearing and she was afraid for her life. She thought the only way to secure her life was to gather as much evidence on Industrial Robotics as she could.”

“What did she uncover?”

“Industrial Robotics profits the most from lucrative military funding contracts. They build autonomous robots to do specialized work within the military. Ayelet discovered that their profit margins had been declining. Maintenance and repairs, poor robotic designs, and lack of parts and materials caused the company’s investors to question the return on their investments. This is when Chival Kalesnikoff, a biologist from Russia joined their team. He sold Industrial Robotics the idea that the cost of making robotics like humans would be wasted time and money. Clone slaves were the wave of the future. In his words, why try to build something like a human, when you can start with a human to begin with.”

I stared down at my hands. “That’s what I am? A clone slave?”

Ryan was quick to point out I wasn’t a mindless slave, but it didn’t make me feel much better.

Isaac continued. “Ayelet told us she found evidence to suggest Industrial Robotics was working on methods to dominate the clone slave market. With Chival’s help, they were years ahead of any rival companies, but they were running into problems. Clones grow just like normal humans and people would not accept child clones. The clones needed to be older to be more widely accepted. By allowing the clones to be awake and grown in a real-world environment, they became too real; too much like real people with real desires. They were forced to grow the clones in a dormant, unaware state. This caused additional problems.”

I could see where this was going. “Let me guess. When a clone was awakened, they were pretty much brainless and incapable of functioning. Without life experience, they were little more than babies fresh from the womb.”

“Exactly. As Ayelet dug deeper, she discovered that Industrial Robotics had learned a new technique of brain mapping. Chival hypothesized that the brain developed in stages, like concentric circles or layers of an onion. The lower functions, or the core, was the essence of who you are. The middle layer is what made you self-aware. This was where your life experiences allowed you to determine you were an individual with individual needs. Finally, there was the upper function layer, where accumulated knowledge and skills were stored. This layer didn’t affect self-awareness, it was simply accessible knowledge. To make a viable clone slave, the upper brain function of the clone’s hosts skills and knowledge were stimulated in the clones so that when the clone became viable, there was a set of knowledge and skills available to them. Then, at the moment of animation, the lower function maps were written to the clone’s brain. This was just enough of a real person’s core to allow the clone to function. The clones would become dedicated workers in the fields where their skills were. They would never be self-aware.”

“That was me then… I was a slave clone. I was never a real person. There was no accident that removed my memories.” All the confidence I had in myself began to falter.

“I wouldn’t be so quick to suggest that, Mila. Remember I said that the essence of a real person needed to be overwritten into the lower brain function of the clone?” I nodded. “Ayelet found a correlation between Industrial Robotic’s key locations and increased numbers of missing persons. Although she couldn’t prove it, Ayelet believed they weren’t merely overwriting the clone’s lower function brain maps, they were transferring them, killing the host in the process.”

“Claire suggested something like this me. The clones could be used to transfer the real person’s essence into it so that the real person could live longer. It’s what she did to me when I was dying during the breach. She transferred my essence into this clone. You’re saying you think I might have been a real person before all of this?”

“I believe this to be true.”

“I could have had a real life before. A family. Industrial Robotics took my essence to animate a clone to turn me into a slave. A robot that needed no maintenance or parts. A robot that would never question their own reality… But, I did. It took years, but slowly I became aware of myself and my surroundings. That’s why Claire was worried about me. That’s why they moved my essence again, but I’m more aware now than ever before.”

Ryan leaned forward. “It all seems to fit, but there’s so much left unknown. Why did Mila become self-aware in the first place? Why didn’t the authorities accept the evidence Ayelet had found?”

“Industrial Robotics discredited the DVD. They opened their facilities to the authorities. The places Ayelet recorded had long been cleared out. They produced hundreds of pages of information to suggest Ayelet was stealing information and selling it. They sold the idea that the videos were manufactured and fake. In the end, Ayelet became a scapegoat, we were sued by Industrial Robotics for defamation, and things went back to normal for everyone except us.”

“And what of Ayelet?”

“Their claim was that Ayelet had offshore accounts and had fled the country. We believe they found out about her and used her essence to animate and test a clone.”

I shuddered. “That’s horrible. The videos Ayelet took. What were they of?”

“Warehouses of thousands of clones in suspension liquid.”

I reached for them both. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

I stood, and Ryan stood with me. I had no more words. My heart was heavy and burdened for them, but even more so for myself. Perhaps I had been defective and that caused me to become self-aware. Who was I before? Who am I now?

We walked to the door and Devorah took my hand in hers. Her hands were so warm. I paused as she turned me to face her. She stared long into my eyes and her hands cupped my face.

“There’s something about you, Mila. Of course, you look just like Ayelet did, but there’s more to it than that. I see her in your eyes, in how you phrase your words, and in how you stand and sit. I swear you’re Ayelet. Be safe.”

Ryan took me from their house and in silence we headed onto the dark streets and away from everything.

***

We had been driving for some time and were on quiet roads. Ryan reached for my hand and I pulled away. All my bravado and self-confidence had gone. I glanced at myself in the visor mirror. The red dress that made me look pretty, now was nothing more than a fabric shell. I looked out the windows and watched the twinkling stars and considered myself a fool. To think I believed I was on a space ship…

“Talk to me, Mila. Tell me what’s going on.”

“Perhaps I should learn how to make your breakfast and clean things. I could be your little slave clone.”

“Don’t talk like that.”

“It’s what I am, Ryan. A barely self-aware slave clone.”

“That’s not what you are.”

I turned away from him once again and stared out the window.

“Look at me, Mila.”

I shook my head. I felt so apathetic. I’m nothing more than an experiment gone wrong. “I have nothing. I’m not a real person. I have no purpose.”

Ryan pulled the car over to the side of the road and stopped. He got out and closed the car door behind him. I was alone now, and my tears flowed. My thoughts were bleak. Should I go to Industrial Robotics and turn myself in?

I saw something move in front of the headlights as Ryan strode purposefully towards my car door. He opened it and gently took my hand in his. He pulled it to try to get me up out of the seat. I remained where I was.

“Get up, Mila. Come out of the car.”

I shook my head and looked away. That’s when he grabbed me around my waist and threw me up on his shoulder. I screamed and thrashed, hitting his backside with my fists. He ignored me and set me down on the ground. He wrapped his arms around me in a hug.

“You’re not a slave clone, Mila. You’re everything to me. I love you and don’t care where you came from. You complete me like no one ever has. Do you remember Jocene?”

I nodded.

“What did you tell me about helping her? How did it help you?”

“Jocene made me look outside of myself.”

“You say you don’t feel like you have a mission or purpose anymore. You do. We do. Do you know that there are hundreds, if not thousands of people that are reported missing in the Seattle area each year? There are little girls and boys, some adults, but mostly young children. They have families missing them just like Devorah and Isaac missed Ayelet. Of all those people missing, one of them might have been you, Mila. You’re not a slave clone. That’s just what Industrial Robotics wanted to use you for. It’s not who you are.”

“Don’t you understand, Ryan? I’m not a real human being. I’ve been reduced to a spark of essence without memories, without family, without anything. There’s nothing to me.”

“Do you care about these missing people and their families?”

“Of course, I care.”

“That’s a start. You’re a person that cares about other people. Are you angry that Industrial Robotics might be responsible for this; for taking your life and doing what they did to you and others?”

“Yes. I’m angry.”

“What about love, Mila? Do you love me?”

“Yes. I love you, Ryan. But that doesn’t mean I’m truly capable…”

Ryan cupped my face in his hands and forced me to look into his eyes. “You care. You’re angry. You love. Tell me what makes you any different than any other person in this world.”

“I’m a clone with no memories. I wasn’t born. I have no knowledge of the world.”

“What if I told you I was a clone?”

“You’re not.”

“How do you know?”

“You said you had parents and a brother.”

“What if I lied?”

“You didn’t lie.”

“Mila, I’m trying to point out that you’re a real person, with real feelings. No one would ever know you’re in a clone’s body.”

“But I’m less than I used to be.”

“We all are.”

I frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“Kevin Plaisance.”

I shrugged as it meant nothing to me.

“Kevin and I were in the same military unit together. We were in Afghanistan on a mission when a rocket propelled grenade was launched at us. He lost both his legs in that attack. It took a long time for him to recover, but he learned to walk again with prosthetic legs and has since gone on to assist hundreds of wounded military people in their recoveries. Is he less than he used to be?”

“He lost his legs and he’s still helping others?”

“He’s the most courageous person I’ve ever known.”

I stared down past my breasts and to my hands. I turned them over back and forth as I thought about what Ryan was saying.

“You can do this, Mila. Don’t let the enemy win. Don’t let what they’ve done to you stop you from doing what you know is right. In the military, as a Navy SEAL, we have a motto. Never leave anyone behind. We may be the only people that can stop Industrial Robotics from doing what they did to you to more people.”

“I’m not a Navy SEAL. I lack understanding about the world.”

“You crossed a river without knowing how to swim and I’m envious of your perspective about the world. You see the world from untainted eyes. You can do things because it’s the right thing to do and not hold back because someone says you shouldn’t.”

“What can I do to stop them, Ryan?”

“It’s not what you can do alone, it’s what we can do together. We’re not leaving town. It’s time for us to tackle Industrial Robotics head on.”

I thought a lot about things while I stood there. Ryan was right. There’s no visible difference between me and anyone else that people would think I’m a clone. Even if I am, does that mean I’m less than or can’t contribute? Industrial Robotics enslaved me and possibly others. What they’re doing is wrong and maybe I could make a difference.

“I’m sorry for how I was acting, Ryan. You’re right. I need to focus on what I can do and not what I am. Will you forgive me?”

“Not only will I forgive you, but I think you deserve to sample one of the best breakfast foods on earth.”

I leaned into Ryan before kissing him. “In a world where every food I taste is like a piece of heaven, what could be better than I’ve already had?”

Ryan smiled and kissed me back seemingly very appeased. “Bacon.”

***

We turned the car around and found an out of the way dirt road to park and rest for the remainder of the night. As the sun rose, we drove back into town close to where the cabin had been and stopped at a restaurant for breakfast. Ryan ordered for us both and when the plates of food arrived, my mouth watered at the smell alone.

“Bacon, eggs, hashed-browned potatoes, toast, and coffee. The breakfast of the gods. Be prepared to be amazed, Mila.”

I took my bites slowly and deliberately, holding each item up to my nose and smelling deeply before eating it. The potatoes were crispy and satisfying, the eggs, smooth and delicate, but the bacon was unbelievably sweet, smoky, and salty at the same time. “This is so delicious!”

“Try the coffee.”

I sniffed at the dark black hot liquid and winced at the bitter scent. I took a careful sip and almost spit it out. “That’s awful! I expected everything to taste so wonderful, but that’s worse than the protein cubes.”

Ryan smiled as he lifted his cup and took a long sip. “Most people can’t wake up without coffee. I guess it’s an acquired taste.”

“I obviously didn’t acquire it then.” I scrunched my face as I pushed the cup away from me. “I did acquire the taste for bacon though.”

“I was able to borrow a phone and reached the King 5 contact Beth had given me. We can meet Samantha Evans a few miles from here at a park that’s not highly used. We thought it might be safer there.”

“If I’ve supposedly blown up a facility and murdered someone, won’t they call the authorities to have them take me away?”

“They have a chance at an exclusive news report. While it’s possible, most likely they would at least hear what we have to say first.”

We finished breakfast and cleaned up before Ryan drove us to Al Borlin park. Ryan backed into a parking spot and we waited a few minutes before a King 5 van pulled up next to us. An older man stepped from the van along with a very pretty woman. I watched as they told the cameramen to stay in the van.

Ryan and I got out and we all walked a short distance to a table before we were introduced to each other.

It was Samantha that took the lead and began asking questions. “Mila Ivanov, you’re in a lot of trouble. If you did what is being said you did I doubt you would have agreed to meet us.”

I glanced at Ryan before responding. “We were both at the facility when it blew up. We had video to prove we were there, but the FBI has that now. We were looking for evidence to prove my innocence.”

“I don’t understand. You say you had video from inside the facility? Why would you need that to prove your innocence?”

“I was an experiment, locked inside that facility for over ten years.”

“Now that’s a story I’d like to hear.”

***

We explained everything, went over some of the details we learned at Ayelet’s parents, showed them the edited social media photos, and added a few details as to what we felt was really going on. The news people were practically salivating at the prospect of such a story.

“Your story is quite convincing, Mila. Why not just go to the FBI? If you’re telling the truth, they would protect you.”

Ryan answered for me. “Mila’s been branded as a terrorist. Do you think she would be properly treated or listened to? We were already captured once by the FBI, placed in a safe house, and were there when we believe Industrial Robotics sent an assassination team to murder the FBI agents protecting us and tried to murder us as well. We barely escaped with our lives. The FBI is compromised with someone from Industrial Robotics on their payroll.”

“We covered a story of multiple deaths at a house in Seattle. You were there?”

“We were. Listen, I know how the media loves to twist and spin these events. No offense, but we need the narrative changed.”

“We’ve been running the stock story for a few days now. There’s incredible pressure from our senator. He’s been speaking with all the news agencies in town. I can tell you we’ll have a battle on our hands if we try to publish any of this.”

“You don’t believe us then. We’ve wasted our time and put ourselves at risk.”

Ryan stood, and I stood with him as we prepared to leave.

“Wait up. I said we’d have a fight on our hand, not that we wouldn’t do it. I can’t guarantee we can get anything on tonight’s broadcast, but we’ll start digging into Industrial Robotics. We have to make a strong case to air something.”

Ryan laughed. “Sorry, I’m having a hard time believing any news agency these days wants to put forth the truth or do real journalism. The only things not reduced to fly-by-night news broadcasts are the weather, traffic, and sports scores.”

“I can’t say I disagree with you. If we publish something against the approved dialog, we’ll be fired unless we’ve done that journalism you say is so lacking. Give us until tomorrow night. In the meantime, keep your head’s down.”

They got up and left leaving Ryan and me alone. “What do we do now?”

***

Ryan drove me to Walmart and introduced me to all things made in China. It was a quick, but chaotic shopping spree to purchase what Ryan called a burn phone and it gave me an opportunity to see a wide variety of people.

Once back at the car, Ryan called Bob and spoke in rather unintelligible English. We then drove to another remote park where Bob and Brittany met us.

It was great to see them both and we filled them in on everything. That included my kissing Ryan, much to my embarrassment.

“What have you discovered about Industrial Robotics, Bob?”

“We’ve been under pretty close scrutiny, but I have managed to dig around using public library computers. I reviewed Industrial Robotics’ tax records, generated a list of subsidiary companies, and cross-referenced this to their property taxes. In the Seattle area, they own twenty-three buildings.”

Ryan was pleased. “Please tell me you have their addresses.”

“I might have more than that. What specifically are you looking for?”

“A large building with plenty of power draw and cooling. Possibly one that took out permits for fiber optics. A lot of companies keep their secondary data centers local and those usually have much less security than their primary data centers. If we can get in, we might be able to find their video libraries and documents that could prove Mila’s innocence.”

“I have power and heat signatures for all the buildings. Are you certain this is what you want to do?”

“What I do for a living is test security systems. If it looks too bad, we’ll head for the Mexican border. Did you bring what I asked?”

Bob hesitated. “I still don’t like it, Ryan. Industrial Robotics already tried to kill you both multiple times.”

“We’ll be cautious. I don’t like it either, but we need to get hard evidence to clear our names.”

Bob handed Ryan a box and a set of documents. We hugged them both before driving away in opposite directions.

***

Ryan pulled me down into the bushes of the forest as we looked down across the paved trucking lane onto a large warehouse. It was the middle of the night, cool, and I picked at the long sleeve black top and black pants I now wore.

“You couldn’t have found me a dress?”

Ryan whispered to me. “I love seeing you in a dress, but a dress just isn’t the right clothing for this job.”

“I’m having a hard time understanding how this will help me. I’ve not broken into anyplace, not blown anything up, and not killed anyone. I’m accused of these things, but to prove I’m innocent, I must sneak into a building? Isn’t this exactly what they said I did?”

“Technically.”

“I’m about to commit a terrorist act to prove I’m not a terrorist. This just isn’t right.”

“Breaking and entry is not really a terrorist act. It’s a crime though. We have few options right now. The FBI is compromised, the police would lock you in jail, and the news media may or may not put your story on the news. It’s possible if we obtained video or documentation proving your innocence we can use it a multitude of ways. The alternative is to run away but we would be fugitives and possibly face extradition wherever we wound up.” Ryan pointed to a door. “Every thirty minutes a guard steps outside for a cigarette. That’s how we’re getting in.”

I sighed as I picked once again at the restrictive pants. “I see a concentration of cooling systems on the northwest corner of the building. That’s also where the generator is. I would assume a data center would be best located near those. How do we plan on using that door to get in?”

“You position yourself near the door but out of sight behind the piles of wooden shipping pallets. When the guard exits the building he props open the door so he can easily get back inside once he’s finished his cigarette. I’ll make a distraction in the bushes and lead him away, circling back in time for us both to get inside.”

“Why don’t we just both wait down there for when the guard exits? You can then do your manly hit the fellow on the head thing, we take his badge, and enter. That way he won’t alert others to a disturbance in the bushes. There’s not even any cameras pointing at that door.”

“Now I’m starting to wonder if you really are a domestic terrorist. That was my first plan, but I didn’t think you would approve of the hitting the guy on the head. He’s an innocent bystander in all of this.”

“He works for Industrial Robotics. How innocent can he be? I’m not a fan of the whole head hitting thing and maybe he is just like Ayelet was. How about we just use this?” I held up a roll of thick gray tape I had found in the box Bob had given us.

“Duct tape? How do you know about duct tape?”

“I used something similar on the Ark for temporary repairs.”

“All right, Mila Ivanov, agent 007, we’ll do it your way.”

Before I could ask what agent 007 was, Ryan grabbed my hand and we snuck down to the door, slipping just out of sight behind the stacked wooden pallets. We waited there about fifteen minutes until the door opened and the guard stepped outside.

Ryan waited until the guard propped open the door and moved to light his cigarette before pouncing on him from behind. I thought I was good with tape, but Ryan moved so quickly he had the guard’s mouth, hands, and legs bound in seconds.

Ryan pulled the struggling guard behind the pallets, pulled off the man’s utility belt, took his badge, laid him on his side and taped his hands and feet to a large pipe attached to the warehouse wall to keep him from rolling out into the truck lane.

I stepped over the man and paused. His eyes were fearful, angry, and surprised. “Sorry about this. At least it’s better than hitting you on the head. That was my first option.” He grunted an unintelligible response.

Ryan took my hand and we slipped inside the warehouse and into a hallway lined with glass windows on either side. While the hallway was lit, the cavernous spaces on the other sides of the glass were dark. Ryan pulled out a camera and passed it back to me.

“It’s recording. Keep an eye out for security cameras.”

We moved quickly and quietly down the hallway until we came to a door on our right. It had a badge reader that Ryan waived the guards badge across and a red light flickered to green. I held the camera at chest height with one hand and Ryan held my other to lead me into the dark space beyond the door. The only thing we could see were thousands of tiny red lights on either side of us.

I could tell the area we entered was vast by how our steps echoed. After we took a few steps, overhead lights began to turn on near us and as the lights lit up the warehouse I nearly dropped the camera. I gasped and shook as the lights revealed row upon row of clone pods filled with clones in suspension fluid.

“My God, Mila.” Ryan whispered.

I moved to pod with a young girl’s body floating inside and placed my hand on the glass. “This is how I was made…” Looking up as the lights continued to turn on, I saw thousands of clones in various stages of development, but most were mature and appeared between the ages of late teens to early twenties.

“Come on, Mila. Let’s get to the data center.”

We angled our way through the pods to the northwest corner of the building to find a huge section walled off from the rest of the warehouse. There were security cameras everywhere around it.

“Stay here, Mila, and stay out of the sight lines of cameras. I’m going around the side.”

“No. Let’s go, Ryan. I don’t feel right about this.”

“It will be just fine. Stay here.”

I bit my lower lip as Ryan slipped away and disappeared in the pods. I waited at least five anxious minutes when I heard shouting coming from the direction Ryan had gone. “Down on the floor! Get down!” There were more shouts and sounds of fighting.

“Run, Mila! Run!”

I hesitated unsure if I should leave Ryan but decided Ryan knew what was best for me and I ran for all I was worth. I ran through the pods and dodged back and forth as the sounds of many feet seemed to close in on me. I burst through the door that led back into the hallway and turned left to head for the exterior door. The steps behind me were getting closer and several times I heard snapping sounds and small metal darts attached to thin wires bounced off the glass windows next to me.

I threw my weight against the external door, ran passed the struggling guard on the ground, pulled over a stack of wooden pallets, and rushed straight into the bushes. I turned briefly to glimpse guards kicking at the crates to get the door open. I wasted no time in running deeper into the forest, turning north and east several times as I headed for the car.

***

I was close to the car when I stopped hearing any pursuit. Leaning against a tree to catch my breath, reality hit me full force. Ryan, the man I love, was either captured by Industrial Robotics or dead. I’m all alone in a world that I know little about. I don’t even know how to drive a car.

I started panicking and the vast world around me had become frightening once again. Ryan…

Hoping against hope, I stepped out of the forest and into the small parking lot where the car was parked. Perhaps Ryan made it out and would be waiting there for me. When I reached the car, three vehicles screeched to a halt and half a dozen men in FBI uniforms surrounded me with rifles.

“Turn around, put your hands on the car, and spread your feet apart.”

A female agent approached me and ran her hands up and down my body. She took the camera and handed it to another agent.

Dan Mackenzie was there, and he approached me. “Did you think we would give you a car without tracking your whereabouts? Where is Ryan Stone?”

“We… I don’t know. I think Industrial Robotics might have him.”

Someone handed Dan the camera and he scrolled through the footage. “I thought you told me you didn’t break into any of Industrial Robotics’ facilities.”

“I didn’t… hadn’t… We think we know what they’re doing and needed more evidence. Ryan felt getting hard evidence on them was the only way I could live a real life.”

Turning to the other agents, Dan gave out his orders. “Take her downtown.”

As before my wrists were bound and I was put into the back seat of a car. This time I didn’t scream when I was strapped in. I counted that as growth in my personal awareness and self-confidence, but I think it was more likely that I was distracted and worried about Ryan.

It took nearly an hour to get downtown Seattle and once there I was led under guard into a square, brick building. As before, I was locked to a table and kept in isolation for at least an hour before Dan Mackenzie came into the room. He looked tired.

“We had people watching the warehouse. Ryan was taken under force by Industrial Robotics security team to their headquarters. He was beaten, but on his feet. I thought you might want to know that he was alive.”

“Thank you. What will they do to him?”

“It’s best not to postulate. If they wanted him dead, he wouldn’t have left the warehouse alive. What were you trying to accomplish? You should have been long gone from here by now.”

“We believed that warehouse might be the secondary data center for Industrial Robotics. If so, then that data center might have recordings of video of my life in the Ark or even information as to how I came to be.”

“You’ve spoken to Isaac and Devorah.”

“How did you know…?” Of course, they know. “Yes. It’s all coming together. I think I was a real person and Industrial Robotics transferred my soul into another clone and inserted me into the Ark. Without transferring my memories, I was nothing but a slave; unaware of who or what I was. I was an experiment. Nothing more. I still don’t understand everything. Why put me in the Ark? Why lie to me about the mission to Earth-Echo?”

“I have my theories about that, Mila. They needed a controlled space to test their new invention. That invention being you, a living replacement for their problematic robots. Every task and every input fed their experiment to test how you would function and deal with different stimuli. They would introduce changes into the environment to see how you would react. The footage of the warehouse… This is what Ayelet had described to her parents. By my estimate, Industrial Robotics could have ten thousand clones stored in warehouses just like that one. Each clone could become a tool to be sold.”

“The FBI appears to be adept at capturing me. Why not go down and do the same to Industrial Robotics?”

Dan sighed. “It’s complicated, Mila. I must have evidence to demonstrate they are breaking the law. I take that evidence to a judge who issues a warrant and allows me to go in and find more evidence.”

“You have the video. That’s evidence.”

“It’s not legal evidence as it was gathered in a non-legal way. Money and politics also play a role. Industrial Robotics is well funded, and they have many supporters in Congress. I would lose my job for suggesting they’re doing something illegal without substantial evidence.”

“If you can’t use my video, then you have nothing. Industrial Robotics will continue to do what they’ve been doing. They have Ryan. Can’t you do anything?”

“Although I can’t use your video, I can use you. While processing the crime scenes at the safe house and the Ark, as you call it, we got samples of your DNA. You have identical DNA to Ayelet Ivanov.”

“That would be expected since I’m her clone.”

“Cloning humans is, in itself, not illegal in the United States, but there is a prohibition on using federal money to create human clones. There is sufficient evidence to suggest your story is true and that would implicate Industrial Robotics in using federal money to create a human clone. Enough evidence for me to get a warrant.”

“If you have enough evidence to suggest I’m innocent, then why am I here locked to this table? Why are we not doing something to get Ryan back?”

“I want your help in taking Industrial Robotics down.”

“My help? Up until a few days ago, my world was an underground building. I was all alone. I thought I was flying through space on a mission to save humanity. I’d never seen a bird or a tree. How can I possibly help you?”

“You’re the perfect person for the job.”

***

The car pulled away behind me leaving me standing in front of the glass and steel building that was Industrial Robotics’ headquarters. As suggested, I was wearing light, loose pants and a white blouse which reminded me a little of my clothes in the Ark. Everything except for the buttons. I scratched absentmindedly at the itchy tape holding the FBI’s wire to my chest.

Ryan is in there. I was frightened about going anywhere near Industrial Robotics, but if there was a chance I could free Ryan I would happily give up my freedom. I lifted my chin a little in defiance. I’m not the same frightened girl anymore that stepped from the Ark into the world. I lowered my chin slightly as I walked forward, reminding myself that my anger could send the wrong signals. I’m to appear frightened, demure, and anxious to get back to what I know; the isolation of the Ark.

Stepping up to the front door, I was perplexed as to how to enter the building. I’m sure any number of cameras pointing at me would make people laugh at the brunette girl standing out front looking for a doorway. It wasn’t until someone exited the rotating glass doors that I saw the pivot points and realized the door was right in front of me all along and not a simple piece of art.

I got no more than five paces inside the building when Industrial Robotics’ guards surrounded me.

“Please… take me back to the Ark.”

One guard tapped his ear and commanded the group. “We’re being directed to take her upstairs.”

The world still fascinated me, including the elevator that lifted us off the ground taking us high into the structure. When the doors opened, I was led into a large room with glass windows looking out into the world. Aside from the two guards that stayed with me, there were three people waiting for us in the room. I recognized one of them. Steven Haskell from the FBI.

I stepped forward but was held back by the guards. “I want to be put back into the Ark. The world… It’s too much. It’s not safe… Ryan kept me safe and without him… Let Ryan go and I will willingly go back to the Ark.”

A blonde-haired lady in a crisp blue skirt, white blouse, and blue jacket had been leaning against a desk. “The Ark that you…”

Steven put his hand up as he walked over towards me. I cringed as he began unbuttoning my blouse. Finding the microphone taped below my bra, he ripped it off with no slight pain before smashing it on the ground and buttoning my blouse up again.

“That was an FBI microphone. I’m not surprised.”

The blonde lady stepped forward. “You’re the spitting image of Ayelet. Just a little younger than when she started working here. You’ve caused us much trouble, Mila. You even went to King 5 News. Their story on you last night made you sound like such a victim and Industrial Robotics like the villain of the ages. You destroyed our Ark and killed poor Jackson in the process.”

“You know that’s not true. Who am I?”

“You don’t know, Mila?”

I shook my head.

“You’re Jackson.”

I struggled with that. “No… That’s not right. I never felt right as Jackson. I was someone else before Jackson.”

“Hmmm.”

An older gentleman was sitting in the corner. “It won’t matter. Tell her, Judith. This is all part of the experiment. I want to see how she responds.”

Judith began speaking again. “Ayelet was always such a pain. She questioned the design of the Ark and went snooping into places she didn’t belong. When we found out she was stealing information from us, we decided to use her core essence, her soul, for our first long-term experiment. That’s who you were, Mila. You were Ayelet. We transferred you into one of our earliest clones and inserted you into the Ark. We even placed Ayelet’s clone in there as a checkpoint to see if you would eventually recognize your own face. As long as you failed to recognize yourself, it proved to us you were not becoming self-aware.”

“I was Ayelet?” I stared down at my hands. “That’s why I feel so in tune with this clone’s body… Why I have some memories…”

Judith continued with a chuckle. “That’s amusing to think you feel at home in that body. For nine years you knew nothing other than your mission as Jackson. You were the perfect replacement for our high-maintenance robots; that was until your flawed clone body began to fail. Our transfer process wasn’t what it is today, and you started developing memories in the core layers of your brain. This gradually made you become self-aware, but it was Jackson’s genetically flawed and diseased clone body that ultimately caused us to transfer you into Ayelet’s clone. The disease began to damage the brain making your awareness grow. We wanted to see how you would respond to your real, if not cloned, body. When your memories came with you, we realized this was something we had missed. The brain is resilient and will find a way to function even if it means using new places to store information. However, it was your self-awareness that was the most shocking. Instead of going away completely, it erupted.”

“Why would you do such a thing? You turned me into a slave. A robot that wouldn’t break down. You isolated me for ten years. You lied to me.”

The older gentleman laughed. “She’ll not remember anything after reinsertion?”

“We’ll use a selective brain wipe to remove all vestiges of her memory. Using our new techniques, she won’t have a single thought of her own. Once that’s complete, we’ll reinsert her into one of the other Arks. We’re going to have a new experiment. Ryan will be transferred into a male clone and we will see how two clones, one male, one female respond to one another. This will be especially interesting if they loved each other before.”

“No! Let Ryan go. Do what you want with me. Don’t do that to him!”

The older man stood. “Who would have thought a clone would be so capable of love and deceit? She’s practically human in her responses. You lied to us, Mila. If you truly wanted to go back to the safety of the Ark why wouldn’t you want that for Ryan as well? Your sacrifice is touching. How much time do we have, Steven?”

“We’ve already wasted enough time. You need to get her and Ryan out of here and into one of the other Arks before the FBI comes in looking for their only evidence against this organization.”

“You were the one that killed those FBI agents at the safe house! You led Industrial Robotics’ there.”

Steven Haskell just shrugged as he walked over to me. He disrobed me with his eyes before turning back to Judith. “I’ve taken some serious risks for you. Why don’t you send little Mila to my office after you turn her into a dutiful slave?”

No one was holding me and as Steven turned back, I slugged him. He staggered back while holding his left eye.

Judith laughed. “She’s a feisty one. Take her to the transfer room.”

My arms were grabbed, and I was pulled back into the elevator. We descended several floors below ground where I was dragged through hallways and into a room that reminded me vaguely of the medical bay in the Ark.

“Mila!”

Ryan strained against the beige straps holding him down on the table. He had a black eye and some crusted blood on his lips.

Dan Mackenzie told me not to worry, but things were looking bleak. The two guards were holding me tightly and there were two other people in the room. On monitors above Ryan’s bed was a status indicator and a live image of a male clone in a pod.

“I’m sorry, Ryan. I tried to exchange myself for you.”

Ryan struggled, and I overheard someone ordered to sedate him. Seeing the needle gave me an idea. I fake fainted.

The two guards struggled to drag me over to another table. They loosened their grip and one of them lifted me up. With my hands free, I reached down and grabbed the gun from his hip. I had seen Ryan use his and as I pulled the gun from the holster I pulled back the metal bar on top and squeezed the trigger.

It was all so sudden. There was a loud bang and my wrist wrenched, but I hung onto the gun. The man holding me dropped me to the floor as he held his side where the bullet had entered. Rolling over, I rolled right into the other guard as I squeezed the trigger again. The second guard fell away from me holding his bleeding foot.

Moving quickly to my feet, I pointed the shaking gun at a woman holding the needle. “Inject yourself. Now!”

I was shocked when she did as I asked. Moments later the woman slumped to the floor. The last man standing hit a red button and dove through the doors just before they slammed shut and alarms started blaring.

“Mila! Behind you!”

The guard with the bleeding foot was reaching for me. I spun away from him and kicked up hitting the man in the face with my foot. This sent him sprawling. I rushed to Ryan and struggled with releasing the straps. It seemed to take forever, but once I got one free Ryan was able to help and the others came free just in time for Ryan to slam his fist into the guard that had recovered from my kick.

“Mila? Hand me the gun. Point it away as you do so.”

I was grateful to get that thing away from me and once Ryan had it in his hands, he kissed me, and the world was right again. Crazy and chaotic, but right. That was until the door burst open with half a dozen armed guards pouring into the room.

Ryan pulled me behind him and did his Ryan thing. The guards didn’t know what hit them. Before they could even aim their guns at us, Ryan slammed into them hard from the side. Several guns went flying across the floor as Ryan took them down one by. He was a machine. This was the driven Ryan that turned on when we were in trouble.

I grabbed one of the guns on the floor, but I didn’t want to use it. I did leverage Ayelet’s… my skills of self-defense and slammed the gun into the face of one of the guards that had slipped away from the intense battle near the doors. He dropped heavily to the ground and I felt that confidence and satisfaction once more.

Other than moaning of guards on the floor, the room had become quiet with the last of the guards down. Ryan grabbed my hand as we rushed out into the hallway and towards the stairs. We had several flights to go up to get out of the building and more guards were coming.

We were halfway to the stairs when guards appeared in the hallway on both sides of us effectively cutting off all escape. With a swift -thinking move, Ryan pulled us into a small room to our right, but it was just a closet. Ryan held up his gun and pointed it at the closed door. I followed suit. We waited a few moments expecting the door to swing open when we heard multitudes of gunshots. Whatever was happening beyond the door must be pure chaos.

“Mila!”

Ryan went to cover my mouth, but I gently pulled his hand away. Slowly I turned the knob on the door and pushed it open. I reached for Ryan’s gun to guide it away as Dan Mackenzie was standing outside the door. His arm was bleeding, but he looked fine otherwise.

“Sorry for the delay, Mila. We got a little hung up with Industrial Robotics security. Ryan, good to see you’re safe and sound. You’ve got yourself one special lady.”

“I’m fully aware of that. What’s the status?”

“We’ve taken control of the building. I need to take you both in as we wrap this up.”

Ryan stared at Dan. “I’m not handing over this weapon until I know Mila is safe.”

“She’s safe. I personally guarantee it. Steven Haskell has been taken into custody. He had quite the swollen eye. Do you know anything about that, Mila?”

“He must have slipped and fallen.”

“You did great, Mila. We have the entire conversation recorded.”

“How is that possible? Steven Haskell found the microphone and destroyed it.”

“That was a fake to throw them off guard. We used a long-distance laser window listening device.”

Ryan was hesitant, but he relinquished his gun and made Dan wait as Ryan pulled me into his arms and kissed me. “You were amazing, Mila! I’ll need to teach you how to shoot properly though.”

Once again, our hands were bound as we were led outside. Dan told us this was merely a formality as they needed to officially clear us. In his words, wherever we had gone there seemed to be a crime scene and we needed to be cleared of each crime.

At least this time we could stay together during transport, but once at the FBI offices we were separated for the next day as we gave our individual testimonies. Once this was finished, Dan told us would need to stay in the area in case additional questions arose, but we were free to go. He recommended I stay away from the media as well.

Dan gave Ryan back his identification and offered to drive us anywhere in the area. Ryan’s Jeep had been impounded, but his second car was still at Beth’s cabin. For now, Ryan asked to have us dropped off there.

As we drove, I kept my hand in Ryan’s, but I stared out the window to the world I had never known. As if sensing my innermost needs, Ryan wrapped his arms around me and held me tight.

Once back at Beth’s cabin, Dan came inside with us. He clearly had something on his mind he wanted to discuss. We sat down on the couches as Dan handed me a picture of Ayelet.

“I don’t even know what to call you. Mila, or Ayelet?”

Ryan had a confused look on his face. He still didn’t know what conversations were had at Industrial Robotics.

Looking down at the picture, I traced the woman’s hair with my fingers as I pondered my reply. “Mila. In some ways it’s nice to know the core of who I am is Ayelet. I have her soul. It’s why I feel at home in this body. I thought that learning who I was and where I came from would be more grounding. I felt this knowledge would somehow make me whole; make me a real person. It didn’t. I’ve realized without memories of everything that made Ayelet who she was, I’ll never be her.”

“I’m so sorry for everything you’ve been through.”

“Don’t be. It’s not your fault what happened to Ayelet. On one hand, I feel tied to her and her life. On the other, I must come to terms with who I am. I can choose to be a clone slave. I can choose to yield to my experiences and be afraid of the world. I can do all these things or become that which I want to be. I’m not a hostage to my past. I choose to be Mila, not out of defiance but to honor the differences between Ayelet and myself.”

Ryan needed some clarification. “You’re saying you were Ayelet?”

“I learned this when I went to Industrial Robotics. Judith, and I’m not sure her last name, told me that Ayelet was caught stealing information. They decided to use her soul to transfer into a clone for their first long-term experiment. My first memory is of waking up on the Ark. All but the smallest fragments of Ayelet’s memories were removed from me.”

“So, Devorah was right about you. You’re their daughter.”

“They gave birth to Ayelet and my DNA is from them. I’m not sure I would go so far as calling myself their daughter.”

“The only difference is that you’re now in a younger clone’s body. If parents have a child, and that child has an accident in which they lose their memories, would the parents see them as anything but their child still?”

“As much as I yearn for them, I can’t impose myself upon them. Isaac and Devorah must know everything before deciding for themselves if they want me to be a part of their life.”

“You’ll never cease to amaze me, Mila. You’ve grown so much since I met you.”

Dan stood and turned to leave. “Mila, I recommend you get yourself a very good lawyer.”

“What’s a lawyer?”

“Someone that can fight for your rights.”

Ryan stood. I could see he was angry. “You can’t possibly suggest Mila will be punished for any of this.”

Dan put up his hand. “Absolutely not. However, Mila has a real case against Industrial Robotics. Not only was she stripped of her identity, but she was turned into a slave for ten years and held captive. A case like this would be worth many millions of dollars.”

Ryan softened his stance. “Thank you. You really put yourself out there for us both.”

“It was an honor. Do you have any idea what you might do, Mila?”

“You mean with my life?”

Dan nodded.

“I’d like to taste a little freedom and life first. Before I can be of any real use in this world, I need to learn about it. Judith stated that there were more Arks. Do you think there are more people like me in them?”

“It’s possible. When we raided Industrial Robotics, they began a data purge. We may never know for certain, but we will continue digging.”

I stood and hugged Dan. “Thank you.”

Dan left, and Ryan got on his phone to track down Bob and Brittany. While he was doing that, my first order of business as a ‘free’ woman was to clean up and change. In the second bedroom I found a white dress with a flower pattern on it that reminded me a little of the one from my memory. It felt good to be back in a dress again.

As I brushed out my hair, I stared at myself in the mirror and recognized myself for the first time. I’m Mila Ivanov. There was a certain satisfaction and confidence having this finally resolved.

When I moved back into the living room, Ryan was just putting down his phone.

“You look wonderful as always, Mila. I’ve reached Bob and Brittany. They’re thrilled things have worked out and will be at my place tomorrow night for dinner with us. Isaac and Devorah would love to see you tomorrow for lunch. Oh… Beth is coming over again.”

Putting my arms around Ryan’s neck, I kissed him. “Can I get you anything?”

Ryan frowned. “You’re not a clone slave, Mila.”

I smiled. “I’m a young woman that needs to learn a lot about the world. I hope to learn the things everyone takes for granted like how to cook, drive, and shoot.”

Ryan laughed. “Not everyone knows how to shoot.”

“It seems like practically everyone I’ve met had a gun.”

“What do you want to do now that you’re a free woman?”

“I want to taste everything. I want to see the world. I want to go up in a plane and look down on the ground. I want to make love when the time is right. I want to find the other Arks and make sure others like me are freed as well.”

“I can help with all of those things, especially the making love one.”

I blushed. “I wasn’t thinking about doing that right away. I want to be with you, Ryan, but I also don’t want to be a burden on you. It’s unfair that you need to teach me about the world.”

“About the making love thing, I’ve already told you I love you. I understand about needing time and after my last experience with Beth, I’m happy to wait for when we’re both ready. About you being a burden on me, you never will be. I enjoy seeing the world from your point of view. You teach me more than I will ever explain to you.”

“That doesn’t make sense. I know so little.”

“You take time to notice the things that I had long taken for granted; the beauty of a sunset or a bird. I love seeing your face when you taste something new. You teach me to pause and consider my life, what I’m eating, and what I see. Remember how I told you that sometimes I just want to get away from everything to find myself?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t ever feel that need when I’m around you. You complete me, you restore my faith in people, and you give me purpose. You’re not a burden, you’re a blessing.”

I had been watching Ryan as he spoke his words. He had changed since I first met him in the woods. There was an edge to him before, a sharpness. That had vanished. I liked what I saw. Ryan was driven and purposeful, but softer. I wondered how much I have changed.

“If I’m not a burden on you, I’d like to stay with you.”

“I would love that.”

My lips pressed once again against Ryan’s just as the door opened and Beth entered the cabin.

“Seriously, Ryan? You need to tie a sock on the door handle or something.”

“Hello, Beth.” Ryan became a little stiff and guarded.

Beth moved to one of the couches and sat down. “I heard Industrial Robotics was raided by the FBI. King 5 News ran a story on it, tying together their earlier story about Mila and how she was held captive by them.”

Ryan took me over to the other couch and we sat down. “Why did you come, Beth?”

“I’m sorry I hurt you, Ryan. You deserved better and I think you’ve finally found that in Mila. I came to apologize and see if you were both all right, nothing more.”

I could see the love she still had for Ryan, but there was also resignation in her eyes.

Ryan was unprepared for her words. “Thank you. Your words mean a lot to me. We came back here to pick up my car and I wanted to give Mila a chance to freshen up. We were about to leave.”

“Mila?”

“Yes, Beth?”

“Do you have any clothes?”

“Ryan bought me a white dress, but it’s a little dirty and torn.” I realized I had taken advantage of Beth’s clothing and suddenly felt bad. “I’ll change back into it. Thank you for letting me use your clothes.”

“Heaven’s no. Please, take anything you can use. I have closets full of clothes and don’t need anything here. A beautiful woman like you deserves some equally beautiful clothing. It’s my gift to you.”

“You’re too generous. How can I repay you?”

Beth glanced at my hand that was held protectively in Ryan’s. “He’s a good man, Mila. All I ask is that you take good care of him.”

“I will.”

Beth stood. “Stay as long as you like.”

***

Ryan and I picked out some clothes from the closet, packed up a few things, and drove to Ryan’s house. I chose a modest set of three outfits, never believing I would ever need more than that. Even three seemed like too much.

As Ryan opened the door to his home and led me inside, I was fascinated by everything. There were photos of Ryan with his friends, pictures of stunning vistas, and the furniture was simple and well-built. It was far more elaborate and colorful than the Ark, but it spoke volumes to me about what Ryan thought was important.

“You care about these people.”

Ryan moved to a photo and pulled it from the shelf. “Remember I told you about Kevin? This is him before the accident.”

“He’s the one that lost both legs? I’d like to meet him one day.” I turned to another photo of a man and a woman. “Your parents?”

“Yes.”

I lifted the picture and looked back and forth between it and Ryan before setting it gently back down. “You look like your father.”

“You have a look of wistfulness about you, Mila.”

“Hours ago, I felt more confident. I’m reminding myself of my own words to give me strength, but I’ve lost so much…”

Ryan’s strong hands held my shoulders. “You may need to continually remind yourself, but things will work out for you. Take each day as it comes.”

I leaned my head on his shoulder and wrapped my arms around him.

“Let me show you your room. It’s late.” Ryan led me to a bedroom. “There’s a bathroom through that door. I’ll sleep on the couch.” With a quick kiss, he turned to leave.

I grabbed his hand. “Stay with me tonight.”

***

I woke slowly and without Claire telling me it was time to get up. The bedroom was bathed in warm, orange light; not the harsh white light of the Ark. For a moment, I was worried as I had no purpose, no mission, but as my eyes focused on the man lying next to me with his hand protectively resting on my hip, I smiled. Never had I slept with another person. There was great comfort in being so close to someone. I felt so secure.

My hand reached out and gently touched Ryan’s stubbled beard before sliding my fingers through his hair. Ryan stirred and before opening his eyes, he pressed my wrist against his lips.

“You’re still here.” His eyes focused on mine as he smiled. “I feared I would wake up and it had all been a dream. That I had never met you.”

Leaning in to him, I pressed my lips against his. “Where would I go when the man I love is lying next to me in bed?”

“Shopping.”

The thought made me slightly irritated. “Why should I go shopping?”

“If you’re going to sleep with me in the same bed and only wear your bra and panties, we need to find something that covers you up more. I’m a man of resolve, but even my willpower was severely tested last night.”

“I used to sleep naked in the Ark…”

Ryan’s face went red as he kissed me, grabbed a pillow and held it in front of his waist as he moved towards the bathroom.

I called after him. “Are you feeling all right? You’re looking a bit distressed.”

“I’m fine… You might want to get dressed.”

I slipped back into my dress and moved back through the house and into the kitchen. I smiled as I thought about the heated rush I got when I saw Ryan or kissed him. I wanted to do something special for Ryan and as I looked around the room, I spotted a pot with black liquid in it. A sniff of it brought a shudder to my body as I recalled the horrible, bitter taste of the coffee I had tried.

Finding a mug, I held the pot away from me as I poured the cold, dark liquid into it. Ryan entered the kitchen and I handed him the mug.

“What’s this?”

“Coffee.”

Ryan’s eyes were focused on me as he brought the mug to his lips and took a sip. His eyes bulged as he looked left and right, before rushing to the sink to spit it out.

“That’s awful, Mila!” He was laughing.

“Yes… I don’t know why anyone likes coffee.”

“It’s cold… where did you get it?”

“From the pot over there.”

“Oh God… That’s got to be a week old.”

I was worried I had done something wrong and felt like I should just crawl away somewhere. However, Ryan turned to me with a smile on his face. He took my hand to keep me from running from the room.

“You’re precious, Mila. Let me show you how I make my coffee.”

For the next fifteen minutes Ryan stepped me through making coffee and when he took his first sip and sighed in satisfaction, I felt a great sense of accomplishment. “Can you show me how to make bacon now?”

“You’re a woman after my own heart, Mila.”

***

The morning had been so much fun as I insisted on doing everything. Ryan kept telling me he could cook for us, but I would have none of it. My desire to learn was as insatiable as my desire to touch and kiss Ryan. Without the fear of being killed, threatened, or my memory wiped, I thrived on the experiences I was having, and I felt my love growing for Ryan minute by minute.

After breakfast and taking care of some necessities at the house, Ryan drove us to Isaac and Devorah’s home. We now stood on their front porch and I was more nervous this time than I was the last time.

Isaac opened the door for us. He looked far less stern than our last meeting. “Welcome, both of you. Please come in.”

Devorah came in from the kitchen and gave me a hug. “I was just putting the finishing touches on lunch. It will be ready in a few minutes. Please, sit down.”

“Thank you.”

Devorah held onto Isaac’s hand as they sat. She couldn’t take her eyes off me. It was Isaac that spoke first.

“We’ve seen the news. Industrial Robotics was finally taken down. Can you tell us much about what happened?”

I looked at Ryan and he squeezed my hand. “Go ahead, Mila. They need to know.”

I took a moment to compose myself. “I have no expectations from either of you.”

Devorah looked worried. “I don’t understand, Mila.”

I took a deep breath. “In all that transpired, I learned what happened to Ayelet.”

Devorah’s hand went to her mouth. Isaac spoke for them both. “Anything you can provide will help us. Please, Mila. Continue.”

“Industrial Robotics discovered Ayelet had been spying on them. They used Ayelet’s soul to animate a clone, turning her into an experiment. That experiment was me… When I woke for the first time in the Ark, I had no memories… No knowledge of who I had been before… I only had a single purpose, and that was to maintain the Ark. I’m Ayelet… and yet without anything that made me who she was.”

I couldn’t speak any more as Isaac and Devorah’s tears caused my own to flow. The short gap between us seemed to grow into an immense void. I had told them their daughter was dead and now I felt like I was violating their space to mourn.

I squeezed Ryan’s hand and stood up on my shaking legs. “I’m sorry for your loss…”

Ryan stood with me and I buried my head in his shoulder and cried. I wept out of loss. Loss for Isaac and Devorah, and loss for myself. I was a life, snuffed out, torn from everything I had known and loved.

A gentle, frail, hand touched my shoulder. Another, larger hand cupped my cheek and turned my face away from the comfort of Ryan’s body.

“Our daughter! You have returned to us!”

As I turned, I was immediately enveloped in Devorah and Isaac’s arms. For many minutes we held each other and wept. When we finally stepped apart, Devorah held my hands and looked into my eyes.

“I knew it. I could see you and feel your presence all along.”

“I have so few memories. It’s as if I was born ten years ago.”

“It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters but that you’re back with us.”

“Isaac, Devorah, it’s been my hope that we… It’s too much to ask…”

“Please… If it is not too difficult, can you call us mother and father?”

***

I had entered the home as Mila, a clone with a thread of life from Ayelet, but left as Mila, beloved daughter to Isaac and Devorah Ivanov. What had been a house with two people, was now offered to me as a home with loving parents.

Emotions had run high all around. Even Ryan was crying at times. Eventually things settled enough that we could sit and eat lunch, share our lives more, become angry at Industrial Robotics afresh, but put that anger aside the next moment with a tender touch or embrace.

We promised to stay close and to visit each other often. It was with some reluctance that we left my parents and went shopping for some food for dinner and a nightgown for me. Ryan insisted on the nightgown but secretly I was hoping I wouldn’t need it for too long.

When evening came, and Bob and Brittany came over, it was such a joyous occasion. We ate barbecued chicken, mashed potatoes, and asparagus, and had apple pie for desert. That was my favorite. There was music playing and we had wine which made me a little tipsy. We laughed a lot and I listened to each person share their stories.

As the evening wound down and Bob and Brittany said their goodbyes, Ryan insisted I relax while he cleaned up. I stepped out onto the back deck and stared up into the endless starry night sky. The vastness of space in the world made me feel small and insignificant. I reminded myself to take things one day at a time.

I looked back through the window to see Ryan at the sink. Just looking at him made me smile. I knew it wouldn’t be long before my body gave in to my internal desires. Days maybe. A week perhaps.

I finished my drink of water and poured an ice cube into my hand. I marveled at the coldness of it and how it melted in my hand. I was still a child in the world and I hoped I would never lose my fascination of things.

Ryan came out and held me close. “How are you feeling, Mila?”

“Happy and content. Perhaps even a little mischievous.”

“Mischievous?”

I nodded and smiled as I slipped the ice cube into the back of Ryan’s shirt.

“Hey! Why you…”

I giggled and laughed so hard as Ryan chased me around the back yard. Everything was going to be all right.

***

***

As I write these stories, I sometimes must get up and walk away to avoid getting caught up in the emotion of the moment. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a magical pill, a soul transference device, a gender-changing virus, or anything that could allow us to wake up as we always thought we were intended to be? How would it truly feel? My stories are my own imagination run wild.

Please take a moment to write a review or send me a message. I love to hear from you.

Casey



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