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art by Cheryl L Owen-Wilson

The Whipping Boy

Conor Powers-Smith has appeared several times in the pixels of Daily Science Fiction. Head to the website and search for his other stories there.

Usually Tyler allowed himself twenty or thirty pages of reading before considering the day truly begun, but he'd had time for no more than three pages when Marta knocked on the library door, took two steps into the room, and said, in the ringing voice she used in the house's larger spaces, "Someone at the door for you."
"Okay," he said. "Coming." He'd never been able to make his voice carry the way Marta could; it was either speak normally, or shout. He could almost see his words fade and vanish somewhere in the forty-odd feet between Marta and himself.
"Sandra Kay?" she said. "From Proxy?"
"I said I'm coming." But he wasn't. He was sitting motionless in his favorite armchair--not the one nearest the tall window in the south wall, nor the one nearest the fireplace in the east wall, but the only one close enough to both to receive their distinct variations of light and heat simultaneously. It was too far into spring to justify a fire, and Marta hadn't bothered to open the heavy velvet drapes, so it must have been no more than habit that had drawn him to the chair that day; which meant habit must be just as powerful, in its own realm, as were light and heat, in theirs.
"Sandra Kay?" said Marta again. "From Proxy?"
Tyler marked his place and laid the book aside, rose and started across the room, annoyed at the interruption, at his own weak voice, at Marta's strong one and her laziness regarding the drapes; all the little irritants, but mainly the day's one big anxiety, which hung over him like a low gray sky.
Marta turned and began to move off before he'd made it halfway across the room, and he said, or shouted, "Marta." She stopped, obviously against her inclination. When he was close enough to speak normally and be understood, he asked, "Where is everybody today?" He hadn't seen his mother or Uncle Rob or Aunt Penny all morning.
"They're out." Marta was watching him with a quizzical, almost apprehensive expression, as if she were wondering not what he was thinking, or what he was going to do, but who he even was. He'd known her his entire life--she'd been the family's only full-time servant, cook and nanny and housekeeper and factotum all, since before he was born--and he'd seen that look of mingled curiosity and caution only for a brief period seven or eight years before, after a drunken seventeen-year-old version of himself had made what amounted to a pass at her while she'd been spending her day off sunbathing by the pool.
"Where are they out?"
"I don't know," she said, the small burst of non-information, and the ordeal of remaining in his presence, seeming to take an inexplicable amount of effort. He must be making her nervous with his own anxiety, which he could almost smell leaking out through his pores. So it was his fault, which shouldn't have come as a surprise.
He left Marta there and walked alone through the east wing, and into the main part of the house. As soon as he entered the front hall, he was aware of being the subject of scrutiny. She was polite in her scrutiny--she smiled while she scrutinized--but that didn't make it any more comfortable. She didn't look away at all, though there was plenty in the front hall to pretend to be interested in, if she'd wanted to: two small paintings, of ships at sea, and one large one, a portrait of his grandmother; several small abstract sculptures which his mother had made, and which Tyler had always assumed were very good; any number of little knickknacks on bookshelves and end tables, and of course the furniture itself was old and solid and highly polished. But Tyler had to do all the glancing-away necessary to prevent continuous eye contact.
"Mr. Stutz?" she said. "How are you? Sandra Kay, from Proxy." She looked about fifty, with straight, bottle-blonde hair framing a tan, once-pretty, still-pleasant face. "Thanks for meeting me. I hope I wasn't too pushy on the phone, but we really do need a decision today." Each time she stopped speaking, even for an instant, her wide, practiced smile reformed, like still water calming after a transient series of ripples. "I'm sure your lawyers told you the same thing?"
"They've been saying that since-- They've been saying that the whole time. 'This is the last chance to do this, or that. File this, file that. Decide.'"
She didn't point out what he already knew, that the delays entailed by his waverings and changes of mind had cost his family quite a bit in added legal fees, court costs, and of course the exorbitant storage rates charged by her own company. She only smiled, and said, "I thought we could talk out in the garden. I saw it driving up. It looks beautiful. Have you ever walked around out there?"
"What do you mean? I've lived here my whole life."
"Right. I meant, do you ever? Often?"
"Not really."
Tyler followed her out onto the portico, and from there down the front steps, past the dark-blue sedan--hers, no doubt--parked in the circular driveway, and across the gently sloping lawn, toward the garden. It was what people called a beautiful day, the sky a shining blue, the few small clouds so brightly and purely white that they seemed to be lit from within, the sun hanging fixed and patient, as if the passage of time were an optional feature of the scene, to be switched on or off at will. There was no breeze, and the sunlight was warm enough to be noticeable, but not so warm that the shade was markedly cooler. Birds chirped.
Sandra waited until they'd passed through the opening in the long row of red-speckled rose bushes which marked the perimeter of the garden, then said, "As soon as we have your go-ahead, we can make the final arrangements. The state's usually very quick when we get to this stage, so we can probably do the execution in less than a week."
"I think I've decided not to do it." Tyler sounded anything but decisive to himself.
"I see." Sandra wasn't looking at him, but at the beds of tulips, pink and white and yellow, lining both sides of the wide stone path. "These are gorgeous."
"Thanks," Tyler said, though he had nothing to do with the garden. His mother was inordinately proud of it, though all she did was tell the landscaping company what to put where; and pay for it all, of course.
"I guess you've talked to your lawyers about it?" asked Sandra.
Tyler shook his head. He'd been using this meeting as the deadline, and had only reached his final decision--if that was what it was--that morning.
"They'd know better than me," Sandra said. "But I've worked on a few of these. Driving under the influence, vehicular manslaughter. It'll probably work out to, what... seven years? Eight? More with leaving the scene."
"I didn't run. I'm the one who called nine-one-one."
"Oh. Well, more if there were any priors." This he could hardly object to, since his license had been suspended twice in the past, once for a negligent operation which had been pled down from DUI, once for a DUI on which they'd refused to budge.
"Do you mind if I ask why?" she said. "Only, I hope it's not for financial reasons."
"It's not the money."
"That's good, because you wouldn't be saving much, at this point. Harvesting and storing your genetic material accounts for a significant portion of the final price tag, and the neural mapping's another big chunk."
"You'd think the thing itself would be the big-ticket item."
"The thing?"
"The thing. The clone."
"The duplicate." The correction was polite, but firm. "A clone's no more than an artificial twin. A duplicate's an exact copy: genetically indistinguishable, yes, but mentally and emotionally so, too, since he or she shares the original's exact neural structure: personality, memories, everything. And he or she is a person, Mr. Stutz. You can't buy or sell a person."
"But you can execute them." The bitterness in his voice surprised him. "For something they didn't do."
"The question of guilt's a tricky one," she said, as professionally amiable as ever. His reproach seemed to have swept past her unnoticed, not like water, nor even wind, but like the illusion of wind produced by movement. "He or she--we'll just say he, for convenience--is identical to the original--the one who committed the act in question--the guilty one--in every way. Sort of like original sin. He is the original, and the original is him. In that light, how can one be guilty, and the other innocent?"
"Because one did it, and one didn't. One didn't even exist when it was done."
"One committed the act. But both are the person capable of committing it, and both are the person who did commit it. Both experienced everything leading up to it, and everything after it, and the act itself. Retroactively, in one case, but no less intensely for that."
"If they're the same person, how can one have rights, and the other not?"
"How do you mean? A duplicate has all the rights of any other individual."
"Rights? What, the right to be executed without trial?"
The lilies had given way to high, thick hydrangea bushes, their clusters of flowers hovering like pink and blue and purple galaxies suspended in deep-green space. Sandra smiled back and forth as she said, "True, these cases don't go to trial. But that's incidental. The duplicate receives the same due process anyone else would, in the form of the plea agreement that precludes the trial."
"But he has no say in that. That's all done before he even exists. I mean, that's what we're talking about now, right?"
"The preliminaries are in place before we create the duplicate. But of course nothing's final until all the papers are signed. The execution can't go forward until we have the duplicate's consent."
Tyler nearly stopped short. "Consent?" He didn't sound bitter now, but incredulous, and close to despairing; he hadn't realized how much he'd been hoping to be convinced, until Sandra's glib bombshell mooted the question, or seemed to. "Then why are we even talking about this? You can't make someone consent to his own execution."
"It's not a matter of making him do anything. I promise you, Mr. Stutz, there are ways."
They passed through the wide, ivy-covered trellis leading into the inner garden. Here the path was walled by high, thick bushes flowering yellow and orange, purple and blue. "You can't," Tyler said. "Even if you could, it's... slimy. Sending someone else to die, so I can get out of going to jail?"
"It's not the going that gets you. It's the not being able to leave. But why slimy? Everyone's happy with the arrangement. The state gets quick closure, without clogging up the courts, or the prisons, both of which are clogged up just about to bursting already. The DA gets a no-hassle conviction for the back of his baseball card. And the victim's family gets justice, and a whole lot more of it than they could otherwise hope for. The cliché's true, but it misses the point: 'It won't bring back their little girl.' But--"
"She wasn't a little girl. She was twenty-six, and her blood-alcohol was higher than mine, and she was in the middle of the street at three o'clock in the fucking morning."
"Okay. Well, 'It won't bring back their daughter, sister, niece, granddaughter. Mother?'" She didn't turn, so she couldn't have seen his short, tight nod, but she went on as if she had: "It won't bring her back, but that's not the point. Instead of picturing you in prison, with your cable TV and your high-speed internet and all the rest, they get--no offense, all right?--they get to watch you die. That may not be civilized, and it may not be Christian, but it sure as shit is satisfying. You can give them that."
They'd reached the heart of the garden, a wide circle of flowerbeds surrounding a three-tiered stone fountain. Water rose in a short, lazy spout from the fountain's highest level, and filled and flowed across the bowl below, spilling over the lip in what looked at first like a solid skirt, until the glinting sunlight picked it apart into the separate slender threads which were its true constituents. The lowest bowl was wide, and deep, and, except for the small furor in its center where it received the water from above, still.
She followed the path--and he followed her--to the rim of the fountain. "Something else?" she asked.
"Yeah. I just can't do that to myself. Not myself, but someone exactly like me. It's just too easy to picture it happening to me, not a clone of me, me. I can't not picture it." He didn't know if it was empathy, or egocentrism, or some unnatural amalgam of the two.
"You have to remember," she said, "it's not going to be pleasant either way. Eight years in prison is... about eighty anywhere else. And that's--I shouldn't say this, I'm not trying to scare you--that's if you make it eight years. Or ten, or twelve, or whatever it is."
Scaring him was exactly what she was trying to do, he thought. At the moment, he was more irritated than anything else, though he didn't know if that came more from her attempt to manipulate him, or from the clumsiness of that attempt. "Why would anyone want to... kill me?"
"I didn't mean that. I'm thinking of a former client, about your age, maybe even a little younger. Got into a fight with his buddy one night, not long after last call. The kind of thing where you pick up a few picturesque bruises, a little shot of testosterone as a nightcap, and everybody's friends again the next day. Or, it would've been, if it hadn't spilled out onto the hotel balcony. This was spring break in Daytona. Nobody wanted it to happen, but nobody got to vote. In the end, one of the buddies was standing on the balcony, wondering what'd just happened, and the other was lying on the concrete three stories down, with a broken back, paralyzed for life.
"He--Buddy Number One--was all set to have a duplicate created. We weren't quite at this stage, but we were pretty far along in the process. Then he backed out. Maybe he told himself he could beat it at trial, or that Buddy Number Two would suddenly decide to forgive and forget. I don't think the reality of what he was doing sank in until after the trial, at the sentencing. Seven years. He was crying when they took him away. Sobbing, I guess. He cried like he was innocent, which is the only way anyone ever does, or can. He cried just exactly as if he hadn't had months to see it coming, hadn't had the chance to stop it, with nothing more than a few hundred thousand dollars, and his signature on a dotted line."
Her scorn for this balcony back-breaker--who, Tyler was aware, may have been a complete fabrication--had a strange effect. Tyler's tense and harried mind naturally accepted, and gratefully, the ancient comfort of deriding one who was absent, though it was obvious that whatever Sandra thought or said about this particular rich young fool could be applied to the set in general, which certainly included--in her mind, at least, and, truthfully, in his, too--Tyler himself. But even this implicit disdain fit snugly and satisfyingly into a preexisting slot in his mind. He was used to viewing himself with disdain, and wasn't averse, under the proper circumstances, and with the proper degree of circumspection, to having this opinion confirmed by another.
"It was maybe a month before he started calling," Sandra said. "Second thoughts. It was explained--many and many a time, by many and many a polite but firm representative of Proxy Solutions, LLC--that the time for second thoughts had come and gone. As had our involvement in his case. I talked to him once myself. For maybe the darkest half-hour of my life. I won't go into it--it'd feel like a violation, to repeat some of the things he told me--but I'll say this: some people do just fine in prison. And some people don't.
"Finally, maybe three months after the trial, the calls stopped. Sudden silence, like all four engines on a jumbo jet conking out at once, mid-flight. Less than a week later, he did it. He was working in the prison laundry, and he threw himself into one of the big industrial steam presses. You'd think that would kill a person. I mean, right away. But it took him three days to die. Third-degree burns all over his body, punctured lung, crushed spleen and kidneys and liver. Broken everything. Everything. There aren't enough painkillers on the planet. But finally he died, and everybody was very relieved."
She stared into the fountain for a few seconds, then said, "The really sad part's that it was all so unnecessary. I wish I'd had more experience at the time. I know I could've convinced him. Knowing what I know now, I would've approached it completely differently."
She fell silent again, staring into the fountain. Tyler was aware that she was ready to deliver her final pitch, aware, also, that she was waiting for a word of consent from him, a signal that he was willing to listen. All he said was, "Oh?" But that was enough.
"Yes. I would've addressed his real reason for backing out. He might've told himself he could beat it at trial, or that he couldn't stand to see his duplicate suffer, but those were just rationalizations. Deep down, he wanted to be the one to suffer. He didn't like himself much, Mr. Stutz. Hated himself, really. Whether he was justified in that opinion is... not my place to say. And it doesn't matter. He was locked into that way of thinking, and I could've used that.
"A lot of people don't particularly care for themselves. But very few take that last logical step. Fewer still make the kind of radical changes in their lives that might convince them they're not so bad after all. Most are more circumspect. They find all sorts of ways to punish themselves for being what they are. They cut themselves with razor blades or pull out their own hair, they go from one abusive relationship to the next, they drink or drug to excess, and then maybe up the stakes by getting behind the wheel. Gestures, mainly, though, of course, accidents happen.
"Well, through the miracle of modern technology, we now have a method of self-destruction that puts all those nasty habits to shame. There are twelve seats in the gallery adjacent to the execution chamber, and, did you know, Mr. Stutz, that, in these cases, a seat's reserved for the actual perpetrator? In fact, the state usually requires him to be present, as a condition of the plea agreement. They think it helps deter future incidents, but we know better, don't we, Mr. Stutz? Can you imagine a more satisfying act of self-destruction than watching your own execution?
"Apropos of all this, I've always thought the gurney they use for lethal injections looks very much like a cross. Like a crucifix, once the condemned is strapped in. Legs spread, arms outstretched. I definitely would've mentioned that to Buddy Number One."
Tyler had forgotten the existence, real or mythic, of the other rich young fool, and he forgot again in the time it took him to wonder, decide not to ask, and ask anyway, "It's not standing up, though, right? It's probably flat, like a table."
"The gurney?" She knew goddamn well, the gurney. "It depends on the state. In some, you're right, it's horizontal, like a table. In some, it stands, and, really, I defy you not to see it as a cross. Then a crucifix. In this state... it stands."
She turned abruptly from the fountain, and said, "Shall we head back?"
She didn't go through the farce of reiterating her arguments, or asking him if he'd changed his mind. The whole way back through the garden, all she said was, "I have the papers in my car." All he gave in answer was a single grunted syllable, inarticulate and low, but unequivocally affirmative.
She had the papers, and he signed them, standing in the driveway beside her car, squinting slightly in the sunlight, listening to the chirping of birds, and the low but rising hum of engines.
When the Cadillac breasted the swell of the land, like a ship appearing suddenly atop a nearby wave, Sandra was already walking briskly toward it, her hands empty, the papers Tyler had just signed tucked safely away somewhere, beyond the possibility of reconsideration. Through the sheet of glare at the car's windshield, Tyler saw Uncle Rob behind the wheel, his mother in the front passenger seat, two figures in the back, one certainly Aunt Penny, the other probably one of his mother's friends they'd met somewhere and brought back for dinner.
The Cadillac had barely come to rest before Sandra called, in a peevish tone Tyler wouldn't have thought her capable of, "That was pretty goddamn close." He didn't know what she meant; the Cadillac hadn't come near hitting her, and Uncle Rob had parked it a good fifteen feet from her car.
He heard his mother's voice through the open passenger-side window, but couldn't make out the words. Sandra answered, "I said about eleven. I also said I'd call you when I was done."
One after another, the Cadillac's doors swung open, his mother emerging first. This time he caught what she said, which was: "But you did get it?"
"Not two minutes ago," Sandra said. "You could've fucked it all up. I said I'd call."
Tyler started toward them, but stopped short as his mother drifted a few feet from the Cadillac, far enough to reveal the figure standing behind her, who was staring at Tyler with hard disdain. Tyler stared back at himself, into eyes his own had met countless times in the mirror, now lent a hideous strangeness by their owner's impossible, undeniable independence.
His first thought was, They let it wear my pants. That was unmistakably his favorite pair of jeans. The shirt was his, too, a plain black polo disturbingly similar to the dark-blue one he currently wore. And that was one of his better pairs of sneakers; under those, he realized, the thing must be wearing his socks, and, under the jeans, his boxer shorts. Melodramatic as it might have been, he decided to have the clothes burned, once they'd taken the thing away and dressed it in a prison jumpsuit, or whatever it would wear until the execution.
He'd just begun to wonder how that would work--whether Sandra would take the thing away with her, or Uncle Rob, or what--when a police cruiser rose slowly into view, slunk past the Cadillac, and came to rest on the far side of the drive, nearer Sandra's car--and Tyler--than the other group. That answered that, though he still didn't know why they'd brought the thing back to the house at all. Was this part of Sandra's vague, vaunted method of securing consent? Had his mother and Uncle Rob and Aunt Penny spent all day pleading with the thing to lay down its life for the real Tyler? Was he now expected to do the same, or to convince it, or command it, through the moral force of his precedence?
Apparently, thankfully, not; among Sandra's admonitions was, "Why did you have to bring him back now? There's no reason for them to see each other. Don't you understand what a shock that is?"
"I'm not shocked," Tyler heard his other self say. Though they were only ten feet apart, he could barely understand the thing's words, so soft and weak was its voice.
"I didn't mean you," Sandra said. She hadn't looked back at Tyler since joining the group, and didn't now, only swept an arm out to indicate him.
"Then why don't you take it away?" the other him answered. Tyler thought he might have misheard, due to the softness of the thing's voice. The words made no sense in themselves. Mercifully, perhaps, he didn't grasp the true situation all at once, as he might have done. It took some moments, and several unambiguous indicators, for it to even begin to sink in.
"You wanted to come back," Sandra said. "You wanted to rub his face in it, just for your--"
"Enough, enough," the other Tyler interrupted. "Enough of this whole fucking masquerade ball. You let it sleep in my bed, dress itself up in my clothes. You can keep those, by the way, or give them to charity, or burn them, for all I care. You make the poor stupid thing think it's me, and then you--"
"We don't make him think anything. We let him."
"Okay. Congratulations. You want to lecture me on the etiquette of this, maybe you should--"
"We only do what's necessary to secure consent. We're not cruel. Seeing him executed isn't enough? You had to rub it in his face, too? In your own face?" Sandra turned, and started toward her car, leaving the other Tyler to glare silently at her back. She nodded at the two uniformed cops who were by now standing beside the cruiser, the back passenger-side door of which gaped ominously open.
Despite an obvious effort, Sandra's eyes met Tyler's for an instant. He couldn't begin to decipher her expression. Then she was past. An impossibly short moment later, a door slapped shut, an engine came to life, and a car began its slow escape.
Tyler didn't turn to watch Sandra leave, nor to look at the cops, not even as they grasped his arms, gently but firmly, and drew him, slowly and patiently but irresistibly, toward the cruiser. He watched Uncle Rob and Aunt Penny and his mother climb the front steps, cross the portico, and disappear into the house, all without looking at him. When they were gone, he watched himself, who stood staring back at him with disdain, and pity, and satisfaction.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 31st, 2014

Author Comments

This was a satisfying story to write, because there was more to it than I first thought. I sat down with the plot already worked out, but the theme of self-loathing and its consequences only emerged during the actual writing.

- Conor Powers-Smith
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