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Substituting Fluffy

Sarah Bartsch writes science fiction, fantasy, and romance and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Ceri slammed the door, shaking the authentic antique wood frame, which meant the situation was worse than Ash had thought. He cringed, worried about making Dad angry, but Dad wouldn't care much about the stupid expensive door once he found out about Fluffy.
Their parents were on holiday at the Mariana Trench resort, the current fashionable destination for the scientific elite. It was a boring place where pretentious jerks sat around hmming and oohing at each other, competing for the most expensive room in the place and pretending dehydrated food didn't taste awful. There was nothing else to do because it was a bunch of cramped, claustrophobic pods thousands of feet underwater. Dark and boring and a fad, and he hadn't wanted to go at all. Not even a little bit. Ceri was happy to be left behind, too, and it was her idea to have the party even though they'd been "expressly forbidden" from inviting friends over, what with the feline flu outbreak.
"How is she?" Ash asked.
Ceri shook her head and sat on the edge of the sofa, pale, shaking. Silent.
"Well... You're not sick, too, are you? It's so unfair that we can catch this from house cats."
"No. I'm okay."
"Then everything'll be fine. Fluffy will be better by the time they get back. It's a little different, but Ormando had it last week, and he only missed three days of school. I'm pretty sure he woulda been back after two, but we had a test in astral thermodynamics, and the teacher is a total pushover. He got to take the test a whole week later, and I'm sure he cheated off of--"
"Fluffy's dead."
The party was Ceri's first stupid idea, and Ash should have stopped her then. It was fun for a few hours when only a handful of close friends showed up--once Ash stopped worrying their parents would return any second--but then Ceri pushed further and overrode Doorman's programming to let in anyone under the age of twenty-five. Anyone. Just scan subdermal ID and, boop, the entrance unlocked.
She'd been planning this for weeks before their parents left. She arranged for rare Martian cuisine and traditional booze and spread the word far and wide about the wild party at Ceri Hannigan's building. Classmates and their older siblings and their crazy friends all showed up. They broke stuff, and Ash thought it couldn't get worse.
Fluffy's dead.
What were they going to do?
"I have an idea," Ceri said.
Not another one. But Ash kept his mouth shut to keep both the words and the crying in, no matter how much he wanted to break down. If he'd had his way, he would have spent the whole weekend watching monster movies and eating handmade spicy calamari pizza from the little shop by the beach. He might have overdone it and snuck a beer. Instead, like always, Ceri got her way and ruined everything.
Maybe she noticed his eyes brimming with tears, or maybe she momentarily remembered she was his big sister rather than his enemy. Whatever, she tapped into her atrophied sense of empathy and tried reassuring him. "I'll fix it, Ash, don't worry. We have just enough time."
"For what?"
She breathed deep, smiling solemnly. "Mom and Dad come back in three days, but it'll only take forty eight hours to grow a clone."
The thing was, his parents could afford the trip to the Mariana Trench resort because they were both genius geneticists. The entire building was theirs, all seven stories of it with five levels of experimental labs and two levels for home. They were the leading researchers on the controversial bottle cloning technologies, and while they hadn't gone public, they'd worked out most of the kinks.
"We can't do that."
"You know we can't not do it, Ash. If we screw up, we just incinerate the failure and that's that... But we have to try. I'm not ready to get blamed for this."
"So that's what it's about, huh?" Ash stared into the closed door, but he refused to go through before Ceri took care of the body, and then he imagined a future with Clone Fluffy walking around. Even if the procedure worked flawlessly--and how astronomically tiny were those chances?--the commitment Ceri wanted stretched far beyond this weekend. He'd have to lie to everyone for the rest of Clone Fluffy's life.
"I can't," he whispered. "I'm not..." Ash had trouble catching his breath, and he couldn't tear his eyes from the door. "C'mon, let's just tell."
Ceri stepped closer, crowding him. "We're not telling anyone. I'll do this on my own if I have to, but you have to keep your mouth shut. If you don't?" She leaned in, blocking his view. Close enough for him to smell the beer on her breath. "If you make trouble, maybe I'll replace you, next."
Ash shook his head, fighting the tears and then running to his bedroom, slamming the door shut, hard. How could she say that? Did she actually threaten him? How could she say that? When did she change so much? They used to be close, and it wasn't so long ago she'd saved him from bug-eyed Sergio Garza. And now she'd gone crazy.
He got his breathing under control and sneaked downstairs to Dad's computer. Using the security program, Ash tapped into the camera feeds and checked the apartment, not finding Ceri anywhere. He flipped through the cameras one more time before searching the vast laboratories. Not in the lower levels with the cell-regenerating foundation makeup (designed specifically to match a customer's mitochondrial line of descent) or the second-level baby factory where all sorts of fetal chromosomal changes could be arranged to order.
No, Ceri was on her phone on level four. Ash switched cameras to see the phone's viewscreen over Ceri's shoulder.
Frankie Shaw. Ex-boyfriend, designer son, future CEO of North America, Inc.
Ash activated the sound so he could hear Ceri's award-winning act, including some artfully placed sobs.
"...smarter than I am, Frankie. I can't do it without you."
"I wish you'd say what--"
"Not over the phone. Please?"
He nodded, and Ceri hung up. Then she kept crying, without knowing she had an audience, like she was actually upset. But Ash couldn't let Shaw in the building. To secure the entrance, he had to reprogram the Doorman, only possible from Mom's office on level five. But soon Ceri would be headed there to manipulate the security recordings for this weekend, which meant Ash had to go now.
Getting to Mom's office was the easy part. He ran down the back stairs, two or three at a time, crashing through doors on his way down the hall and between workspaces. He beat Ceri there, and all he had to do was slide his fingertips over the interface... But his coding skills were substandard, at least as compared to Ceri's. Languages just weren't his thing while Ceri seemed to float around communing with the spirits of the machines. Or speaking French like a Parisian or pidgin Hindi like she'd grown up in Mumbai.
He expected to hear her any second, and the hairs on the nape of his neck tingled. The touchscreen was in the corner, putting Ash where he couldn't see anyone coming, and he was so tense he kept jumping at nothing.
"Okay, okay. Focus."
According to the system, Ceri hadn't reprogrammed Doorman; instead she'd written a whole new application that layered over Doorman like a squid, reaching tentacles throughout the script which restricted or redirected its functions. It was elegant, sleek... easy to toggle on and off. She never expected anyone to see it running, but with that taken care of, Ash used Doorman's existing features to lockdown the building.
The smile gracing his face was probably smug, but it faltered fast. He had no more excuses to put off calling Aunt George. He knew Ceri wouldn't take care of Fluffy, Ash was too young, and someone had to do it. He'd tell the truth--he mostly didn't do anything wrong--but the whole situation felt icky and wrong. And unreal. There was no going back once Aunt George showed up.
"What are you doing?" Ceri was right there, eyes puffy red, and fists set to pound Ash into ash.
"You're such a loser." She pushed him aside and tapped Mom's password into the prompt, which didn't work because Ash had changed it. "This won't stop me, stupid. I'm still gonna do it."
"Oh, yeah? How? 'Cause I locked you out of security, and I locked your boyfriend out of the building."
"You were spying on me?" Ceri poked at the system, trying Ash's usual passwords, even the one he thought she didn't know. Good thing he made up a new-new one, but it made her glare at him. "You are going to let me in."
"Am not, and you can't make me."
"Maybe I can't, but Frankie can, and he's--"
"He's not going to get in the building, so just give up, and let's call Aunt George because cloning Fluffy just isn't gonna happen." Ash's heart raced, pounding as he watched and waited for Ceri to concede. He liked that word, concede. It was in a history book he read recently, one Ceri'd read too, about the end of the Station Wars where the Chinese finally forced the Eastern Bloc Federation to give over control of their last stronghold in orbit. It was a long, tough siege, and Ash felt he'd fought a hard-won battle, himself. "No one can help, and time's running out, Ceri. Give up."
She ignored him--why was she always ignoring him?--and went to the viewing terminal. "There he is," she whispered. Then she pointed to the screen. "See, stupid? You wasted your time."
He saw. He was stupid. Frankie had climbed up the rose trellis in the courtyard, and someone had given him the key to the balcony door. Unlike the rest of the entrances which were controlled by Doorman's program with sub dermal ID scans and electronic locks, the balcony door was fifteen feet up and only had a manual lock. There was a security alarm on it that never got activated. Mom liked to go have a smoke, and sometimes Ash did his homework out there, and the false alarms kept frustrating Dad enough to just shut the thing off. No one would climb up there, anyway, he said.
What now?
Ceri grabbed Ash's wrist in an iron grip, so strong thanks to her Kung Fu classes and personal trainer, and they met Frankie in the lobby.
"Hey, kid," Frankie greeted. Then he gave Ash hope with his weary sigh. "Ceri, I've come all this way. Convince me you're worth it."
"She's not, Frankie. She's crazy."
"Shut it." Ceri twisted Ash's wrist, well, the skin, then with a tighter grip she ground his bones together.
Frankie flinched in sympathy. "You do realize you're making his point?"
Ceri flung Ash's arm in release. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. It's just that I'm upset, and I'm not thinking straight, and you forgive me, don't you, Ash?"
"It doesn't hurt that bad, not really," Ash admitted. She was afraid, and he understood that. He was afraid, too. "But we can't--"
"Frankie, what I need--"
"You're not cloning Fluffy!"
"Cloning... What?" Frankie started shaking his head. "Are you drunk?"
"How could you ask that?"
"I heard about your party."
"I sent everyone home hours ago."
Frankie turned to leave, and he was back out on the balcony before Ceri found the words to stop him.
"I still have that video," she shouted, and he froze. "You stay and help me or I make sure you're the newest viral sensation."
"Frankie," Ash pleaded, "don't. Whatever she has, it can't be that bad. She can't mean it."
Ceri chuckled, dry and lonely. "Oh, it is. And I do."
"You promised to erase it."
"I promise all sorts of things, but in the end I always get what I want."
Frankie was smarter than Ceri, at least when it came to chemistry and biology. They met when he won the Hannigan Labs internship, and Dad was so impressed he invited Frankie to dinner. Had Dad hoped Frankie would be a good influence on Ceri?
Instead, she dragged Frankie down to her level.
The clone was cooked up and ready to show by the time Mom and Dad came back. Ash never asked what Ceri did with the real Fluffy, and over and over for the whole forty-eight hours, Ash wondered, Why don't I just call Aunt George?
But he never did. Maybe it was guilt; maybe he'd caught the feline flu himself. He felt bad enough. Instead, he helped Ceri. Frankie did most of the lab work, but it was Ash who finally let Ceri access the security camera archives.
The main door chimed open.
"We're home!" Dad filled the room, pale and rejuvenated, bearing gifts. Mom dropped her bags and sighed while Dad grabbed blind and pulled out a small display box. "In here, Ash, is a barbled dragonfish. See those sharp chompers? Carnivore. And this thing sticking out glowed red and green in the dark way down deep, which is how it got its prey. It looked pretty and lured them close, then BAM!"
The stuffed fish had disproportionate teeth and jaws completely overshadowing its dysmorphic, boneless lumpy body. Why did Dad get him this? Oh, sure, a few days ago he had wanted some misshapen gross specimen to put on his desk and freak out his friends. Now, he suspected it would play lead in his next nightmare, especially when Ceri leaned forward to pet it, studying the vicious little thing, and Ash swore her eyes glowed red and green, luring in the unsuspecting victims.
"And Ceri, don't worry, we didn't forget you." Mom handed her a framed photo of a pretty glowing squiggly thing. "For your bedroom wall, right?"
Ceri smiled, accepting the gift. Luring Mom in. "I love it!"
Then came the dreaded: "So what happened while we were gone?"
Ash almost lost it, but he wasn't the good son anymore. Fluffy's death was bad enough, but the lengths Ceri went? The rules of law and nature Ash helped her break? Mom and Dad needed the lie more than ever. So he lied. "Nothing."
"Yeah, sure. I'll be checking Doorman's logs, you kids. Now where's our little Fluffy Bunny? Cause I've got a gift for her too! She wasn't trouble, was she? It's the first time we've been away, so much responsibility for you."
"She was a dream," Ceri said.
"Good, good," Mom said. "I knew you were mature enough to take care of your little sister, too."
Three-year-old Florence--or rather, Fluffy the Clone--came toddling into the room, and Ash had to bite his lip to stop from shouting the truth. He fought down the nausea, fought his conscience, pretended nothing was wrong, and Ceri looked very pleased.
Dad lifted Fluffy up, getting a delighted squeal. "That's my baby girl!"
From now on, yes it was.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 5th, 2014

Author Comments

I'm fascinated at the speed people adapt to new gadgets and ways of living--like I can hop a plane to be in China tomorrow and then video chat back home to the opposite side of the world while checking friends' personal up-to-date news feeds on my touch-sensitive phone. Yet the basic fears and desires that drive us don't change, and one day I finally embraced my anthropological social sciences background and focused less on writing a story about some fancy new hard science itself and more on writing a story about a normal person's daily life under the influence of advanced technology. This story comes from the space where science and humanity overlap.

- Sarah Bartsch
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