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Seeking Nothing

Cat Rambo lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. Her work can be found in such places as Asimov's, Clarkesworld, and Weird Tales. Her short story collection, Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight, is an Endeavor Award finalist this year, and her collaboration with Jeff VanderMeer, The Surgeon's Tale and Other Stories, appeared in 2007. She is the fiction editor of the award-winning Fantasy Magazine. Her website is www.kittywumpus.net

“Remember that they’re not like you nor I, boy,” Uncle Abraham said, his voice dusty as ash. “They’re not human. Elder Samuel says the soul stays with the original body, and that’s the real reason clones are classified Subhuman.”
Sean buttoned his collar and adjusted its two ornamental pips. The uniform had come out of its package smelling of sharp chemicals and acrid plastic, cheap gear suitable to his low status occupation. The front hall mirror showed him pale and nervous, but ready to go on his first assignment. He’d hoped for better than working with clones. Jeb had made steward on a cruiser, Hank was going to be a tug pilot. He hadn’t thought to surpass them, though he’d hoped it. Instead, here he was, ready to embark to Asiu, a planet cold and dark, and ready for terraforming by the clone teams he’d be handling.
He ignored Abraham. What had the old man ever given him beside disapproval and grief? Now Sean was taking himself and his shameful activities away, leaving Abraham with nothing to disapprove of. Sean didn’t look at Abraham as he said, “They’re tools, Uncle. You don’t need to worry. I’ll be using them, not socializing with them.”
Abraham grunted deep in his chest. “Just you wait,” he said. “They were invented by the Red Hand, that’s why we’ve never used them here on God’s New Promise. How long is the trip again?”
“Three weeks.”
“Three weeks for solitude and prayer, praise be,” Abraham said.
“I’m going in cold sleep.”
“Cold sleep! Why?”
“Maybe I don’t think I have that much to pray about.”
The elderly man grabbed the younger’s shoulder, pulling him around so they stood face to face. “God sees into your heart, boy. You pray to him to keep you strong. To help you resist your foolish ways.”
"Saint Francis said when we pray to God, we must be seeking nothing," he said.
Abraham said, "He was a Catholic. Here we know what prayer is for. We ask God for everything, and he gives it to us, including strength to resist temptation."
Sean's face burned. He hoped his uncle wouldn't guess at the evidence of those foolish ways in his duffel bag. Abraham had never approved of the hobby of perfumery, calling it weak and decadent. Evidence of civilization's soft taint.
But his uncle simply released him, stepped back, and shook his hand once, a single firm clasp and pump.
As Sean left, he could hear his uncle beginning to chant. He wanted to look back at the Church Elder that had raised him. Shaped him. But men didn't live for regret or sentimental farewells. That was best left to the women.
The pilot was a woman, which gave him a thrill. Her ship was built for durability rather than speed, and its air was full of the smell of oil and long habitation. Sean had hoped for a courier transport. He must have had an awful lot of ill will stirred up before graduation. Or maybe this was what every new graduate got, to keep them in their place. He stood looking at it, duffel in hand.
Her name was Angry Rose, a space-scarred, lanky woman. Cold eyed. He came aboard and she showed him where to put his gear.
"I don't usually take a passenger," she said. "But I need to defray fuel costs this run. Bound for Asui, eh? Lots of ice there. Couple miners told me that they fish, but it means drilling tunnels down through the ice before they reach any place where they can drop a line. Said that the fish ain’t so much fish as slugs, but that the fishing’s good around the base, comes from having the sewage vents there.”
He made a face and she laughed.
“You’re funning me, aye?" Sean said. It can't be as bad as all that, he hoped. And the trip… They’d flirt all the way to the edge of the atmosphere; she’d let him kiss her, maybe even go further, up to the forbidden. His schoolmates said sin didn’t exist between the planets, that in curlspace anything, everything was permitted.
But his balls crawled at the chill in her eyes as she said, “If anything, I’m glossing over the worst.”
She gestured at him to follow her.
His quarters were broom-closet wide. Leaning in through the doorway, she showed him how to thumb the gravity button to make standing up lying down.
“Put what you don’t want wet in the box,” she said, opening and closing it by way of demonstration. “Then that button’ll sluice you off, cycles water vapor through for two minutes, followed by air. Won’t start with the door open like this. Water’s recycled, but don’t waste it. You stow in here while we’re taking off.
“Wait,” he said. “I’m supposed to be in cold sleep all the way.”
“Yeah, about that.” She rested her hand on her hip, jutting her chin out. “Coldsleeper’s broken, won’t be able to fix it till I swing by a Dockery. You’re getting the better of the bargain, though, waking passage for the cost of sleep. Don’t worry, I won’t charge you for food and air. Water maybe.”
He hadn’t reckoned on being forced into wakeful days out in the blackness of space. The vertigo of the idea caught him up and he reached out to touch the wall. She pushed him towards the sleeper, and he reeled.
“I’ll com when it’s all right to come out.”
But it was at least twenty minutes after the onset of the weightlessness of space that her voice spat from the intercom: “Out the door and follow the red line till you see yellow, and take that.”
Snaking through a crawl of tunnels punctuated by one wider lockspace, the thumbwidth yellow line led him to the main room. Boxes and netted goods pressed inward, but there was enough space for Rose to sprawl on a couch, pointing him towards a lumpy chair.
“Exercise room in there with a runner and weights,” she said, pointing. “You can fix yourself food in the galley--we’re not a pleasure liner, and I don’t cook for passengers. Stay out of the red-taped drawer, that’s my private stash.” She gave him a level look. “And here’s the thing--I don’t want to hear your life story or tell you mine or sit around bonding. If I’m exercising, you stay out. You don’t expect conversation from me and I don’t expect any from you. There’s plenty of tapevids and a shelf of printies.”
That was the longest conversation he had with her for the rest of the voyage. He thought that every once in a while he caught her looking at him, but he wasn’t sure. He hadn’t interacted with an unchaperoned woman since days of childhood parties. He felt as though half his brain had been removed when he was around her--he wasn’t sure what to say, what to do, even how to smile without it looking as though he were leering.
He would have liked to work with his hobby to pass the time. But the ship's air scrubbers were old and tottery as it was. He didn't want to bring Rose's wrath down on him for overstretching them. He went so far as to open his kit, trace his finger along the tiny bottles of fixatives and bases, the droppers, the synthesizer that had cost him three years of after school extra chores.
Abraham had never been willing to give him money. Sean had worked where he could, anything for a slim credit, whenever and wherever. He'd read the Bible to Widow Jonas, sitting in her too warm parlor feeling her fawn over him. He'd worked in the fields, and one hot summer in a communal kitchen. And worse than that, on occasion.
He had learned about the perfumes from his mother. She had distilled scents where she could, trying to break the bleakness of the planet she'd been brought to as a paid bride. But she hadn't been able to hack it, and once her contract was up--three sons for Sean's father, she'd left. Not her fault that her husband and two of those boys died soon after in a fever summer. Not her fault that her oldest son Sean was left to Abraham at five, with only memories of her, her fougere, the smell of lavender and rosemary, the merest hint of tomato leaves... He'd spent years trying to replicate it. Unsuccessful years. He folded the case's lid back down.
In Asiu, he'd have his own quarters and leisure time to blend scents. He'd create the scents that the teams knew each other by. Only a nose as delicate, as nuanced as his could create something and then verify that the replicator gave the clones the right scent.
To pass the time, he read books on clone psychology, all of which seemed to contradict each other. Use isolation as punishment, one said, while another advised, Never split clone families apart for more than a few days under any circumstances--the stress will undermine their sanity in an irreparable way. He read about the genetic twist that effectively lobotomized them, removed their sense of selfness.
The cautions seemed excessive to him. After all, he’d endured weeks of isolation as a child, sent away to Exalted. It had been worse for him there than most. He’d wet the bed each night and lain awake, shivering and cold in the stink of it. He’d prayed all through those nights. But his sanity was intact, and God had sustained him, even though he would have never admitted that to Abraham.
But did God watch over clones? The Writings said not--clones were the same as animals, and God had not granted them souls.
He put down the reader and stared at the window screen. It displayed the mist and cold of curlspace, curdled amniotic fluid. Was he being reborn, in God’s eyes? Was he being sent forth--to witness, to question, to preach?
Asui was the smell of steel and ozone, the air so cold that it bit at the inside of his nose, stiffening the sensitive tissue there. He made his way from the ship, head lowered, trying to blink away ice, in a flurry of wind and particles so thick and hard that it couldn't be called snow, rather a barrage of pea-sized hail. He followed the orange cord someone had strung along the ground and found himself in a plascrete Quonset hut where a column-shaped heater battled to put out heat, managing to keep a meter wide space livable.
A parka clad clerk checked Sean's billet. "Your shuttle's been waiting an hour," she snapped, and shoved him back out the door into the wind. He stumbled, bewildered, along another orange line until he found the shuttle and banged on the side to be allowed in. He clambered up the ladder barely in time; it folded in after him with malicious speed.
Inside the shuttle there was the smell of coffee and two men playing cards. They both looked up and grunted, almost in unison, but not quite. For a moment the similarity threw him--were clones driving the shuttle? Surely that was too much responsibility for them. Then he noted the difference in features and realized the two were not so identical--brothers, perhaps, or cousins.
They didn't say anything, just gestured him to a seat. The shuttle was mostly unoccupied seats, twenty in five rows of four, the center set facing inward as though quizzing each other, an oval window between each pair. He settled into one of those and stared at the unpersoned window across the aisle from him. Towards the front, a couple of heads sat. He couldn't tell anything about them. They bent together as though conferring, and then one rose slightly, turned in their seat to look back.
Their face was the same as the card-players, and the mirroring effect was disorienting somehow. They glanced at him, gaze skittering across his face, then flushed, slid back into their seat, leaned over to speak with their partner again.
He leaned back against the paper-thin cushions and tried to relax. His kit was tucked under his feet. He braced them against it as the shuttle jolted into motion and the snowy vista outside was replaced with more snowy vista.
The station was just an impression of more snow before he was bundled into a squat building, its walls a pistachio green intended to be soothing. He followed the shuttle crew through a green hallway into a green room.
The woman in front of him was burly and muscular, broad shoulders suggesting life in heavy gravity, hair cut short and sensible. Broken capillaries scattered her face with fretwork as she said, "Sean Marksman?"
He nodded, setting his case down and rising again. He felt an absurd desire to stoop, reduce the difference in their heights.
She didn't seem to notice. "I'm Ghira Connell. Company rep on base. I'll give you the tour, show you where to drop your gear."
At least he had his own room, twice the size of his ship berth, a cot bumping into a small metal dresser, a fold-down two-in-one desk/com unit, a window the size of his fists pressed together, cloudy glass showing more snow.
He shoved his things under the cot, followed Ghira through more hallways.
"The clone bunks." She tapped the glass window of a door. He peered through the slit to see a space barely bigger than his own, six chest-wide bunks.
"They're all working now."
"Laying the tunnels?"
"That's the section of the project we're on right now, yeah. You've done your homework, Marksman." She studied him like a specimen, then turned. "C'mon, I'll take you to the canteen."
"How many personnel on base?" he asked, following her.
"Sixteen of us, eight hundred clones. They're not really clones, per se, of course. Created beings, straight from the pump and chump machines."
He blinked. "Is that the usual ratio?"
"No. We're worker-stressed. So we want to get you up to speed as soon as possible." She paused. He almost bumped into her.
"Look," she said. "I need to warn you, no preachy stuff."
"Huh?" he managed.
"Last guy we had from one of the fundie planets, he pissed everyone off, trying to convert them. He kept printing out lists of helpful suggestions on how they could find God, pinning them up. People didn't mind too much at first, but it got tiresome when he got to talking as well."
"Oh," he said. "That's not my sort of thing at all. I don't really believe, it's why I left." Still, it was hopeful people had tolerated difference, up to a point. They'd be patient with him as he adjusted. "You said people didn't mind too much, though?"
"Course not," she said. "Always need new toilet paper, good to have extra handy."
Before the canteen, they visited the green infirmary. All of the clones there had the features he'd noticed on the shuttle.
Something odd with one on a table towards the back. He went over to it, pulled the sheet down over the face--they left their dead in the open here?--and was appalled.
"This man has four arms!"
The chest swelled unnaturally with extra muscles. The flesh around the lower limbs looked diseased, raddled. He noted that only the upper pair had patches of hair underneath them.
"Some of the handlers experiment--they call it sculpting," Ghira said. "A few of them, most of the staff don't do it. It's a complex, time-consuming process. Most often the results aren't viable, like this one."
He stared at the body, repulsed and fascinated.
Ghira went up to a cot that held a live clone.
"How are you doing?" she said to it.
The face stared up at her. "Where are the rest?" it asked. "Are we broken?"
"You will be all right," she said, and patted its shoulder. She beckoned and Sean followed her out into the green hallway.
"What did it mean, broken?" he asked.
"Teams break when they don't have a full complement. We have to add substitutes, but it's tricky. That's one of the reasons we requested you. Your doc file says you have experience with pheromones, scent alteration? That's how we get them to accept each other."
"It's only a hobby," he said.
"We're giving you a full team, just one to start with, but you can help with the other teams, fixing them. We supply two other bases with clones--new teams go out each week."
They entered the canteen. He faced a phalanx of hostile stares. Whoever he was replacing had not been liked, and they expected the same of him. So he sat in a corner and watched for now. Should he try to make friends? Ghira seemed congenial enough, but everyone seemed to like her. Perhaps she'd be his passport to acceptance.
In the days that came, though, he didn't find himself making friends. It was his background. They all assumed he'd disapprove of their words and actions, pre-emptively dismissed him. At night he tried to replicate the scents of home, cleanser and Abraham's slightly sweet, old-man smell but none of them were right.
His clones, oddly enough, were the closest he had to friends. They called him sir, and did whatever he asked, cheerfully, uncomplainingly, six identical faces. He tried to give them names, but the concept seemed unfamiliar to them. Come evening, they ate and changed, and then piled cheerfully into their tiny room. Sometimes they shared bunks, not so much for sex, as far as he could tell, but for the sake of skin against skin, like puppies in a pile. It seemed a human urge to him, but he knew they were not human. Just things, things that mimicked humanity.
After a week, he found himself slightly more accepted by the four men who called themselves Sculptors, themselves regarded as odd by the others. Social misfits together. Their leader, Pat Brig, showed him creations as though daring him to protest, things worked in flesh that were not human so much as furniture. He steeled his face, did not recoil, even when Pat showed him what he called "a sleeve." The machine could be used to create the humanoid clones or it could create beings like this: all flesh and no soul.
"Use that to satisfy yourself," Pat said. "Self lubricating. Better than a woman, doesn't talk back."
He thrust it towards Sean, who took it reluctantly, a baby sized cylinder of flesh, its surface blood warm.
"Absorbs light and a feeding mist," Pat said. "You can have that one. I'm working on a better." He patted the machine beside him. "Put in a clone and the right instructions, and you can make them into whatever you want. You don't need to worry, I took all the brain out of that one, left only the autonomous functions."
Sean searched for excuses, finally said, "I want to keep my quarters sterile, when I'm working on scents. Thanks though."
He passed it back to Pat, who stood looking at it. Sean could tell he'd failed some test.
"Man needs satisfaction some way," Pat said. "Everyone here's paired or hooked up that's going to be."
It was true that he was frustrated. At night when he was showering, he touched himself and let his fantasies play out. The spaceship pilot, yielding to him in curlspace. Ghira, showing him exactly how friendly she could be. Women back home, the few he'd known.
Sometimes, he thought about the clones that way. Their skin, vat fresh and taut. Muscular and lithe. He thought some of the others might use them that way, but if so, it was kept secret. Something everyone knew but didn't talk about. Or maybe they talked about it, but not to him. The outcast. The religious. They thought he'd disapprove.
He had weekly letters from Abraham, hand-written, although printed out on plas. They always started with a Bible passage, then related it to what had been happening at home. Crops failed because God was testing them. A girl was stoned because she was suspected of being a witch. At Exalted, a cabin of boys caught fire and they all died. More of God's tests. Always ending with an exhortation to pray, to ask God what He wanted of Sean.
He tried, he really did. He would sit down at a canteen table and make conversation, but it was always stilted. They talked about recent vids, but he had no vid unit--they were forbidden on God's New Promise, and he had never acquired the habit. He watched some in the common area, and they just bewildered him. A wealth of flesh seemed to be the only coherent theme.
He talked to Pat, not about the vid, but the sculptures. "Why do you make them into new things?"
"It's a way to pass the time," Pat said. "I make…well, you've seen the sort of things I like to make, conveniences. Vonda tries to make them beautiful. Avram wants to see if different shapes are better adapted to this place. And Lilo, he just likes to play."
So he spent time working on the scent work. It was solitary, but it was useful, and the others approved when he succeeded on fixing a team, making a clone smell right to the others, letting them accept it as part of them. He was good at it, in a way the others were not--he could smell an individual and then replicate the scent.
Pat liked it; he made two flesh sleeves that would interact with each other, drawn by the scent.
"It's as though the team bond was instinctual," he said, watching them bump into each other. "Maybe that's part of the make-up. What do you think?"
But Sean didn't reply. He was thinking about last night. He had stopped one of his clones before it went into the chamber.
"Would you like to sleep in my quarters tonight?" he had whispered, feeling shame burn along his cheekbones. When he was a boy, he'd made money doing this for older men. Abraham would have killed him if he'd known. But he'd needed components for his perfumes, and the men paid well.
And they had loved him, he thought, at least for a little while. And now the clone would love him for a little while, and he would touch it as they had him.
But it only looked at him with a pleasant, uncomprehending smile, and went into the chamber where its brothers awaited. By now he was sure they shared sex, but not in pairs. All together. It ran through his veins, the realization.
"I said, what do you think?" Pat repeated, and Sean pulled himself back.
"I don't know," he said. "They guard the tech pretty carefully."
Pat snorted. "Course the company does. Wouldn't want one of us escaping with trade secrets, taking them to some other corp."
Sean looked at the machine.
"Want to take a test spin?" Pat asked with a leer. "Works reshaping humans too. Give yourself a new package."
He chuckled nervously. "People really do that?"
"Sheila fixes her face in it all the time," Pat said cheerfully. "Watch her. One day blue eyes, the next green."
He glanced back when they left the lab. The machine sat humming to itself. The sleeves were on the floor, nuzzling each other, rippling with the pleasure of touch. That was all any of them wanted, he thought. To touch. To be touched in turn.
A company directive came around that they were supposed to refer to the clones as "units." Ghira read it aloud to them over dinner.
"Don't want us getting them confused with humans," Pat sneered.
There wasn't too much chance of that, Sean thought. But he wondered about the donors, the men or women whose genetic material had gone into developing the first units. Who were still being created, over and over again.
"What happens to the soul, when you make it over and over?" he asked Pat. "Your creatures… isn't it a kind of slavery? Even if they don't know it?"
Pat's face was angry.
"Should have figured you'd revert to form, sooner or later," he said, and spat on the floor. "Fundie planets are all the same, full of soo-perior types."
Sean gazed after Pat as he left, distressed. He hadn't meant to say anything. He looked around and all he saw were hostile eyes, even though they were doing the courtesy of pretending they hadn't heard the argument.
Even Ghira looked away.
Abraham's letter read: Elder Wilson came by to ask after you. You never told me you knew him, boy. I would have warned you off--his theology is shaky, his morals proven dubious. You remember the scandal, back when he was teaching. Even far away, you're causing me worry, Sean.
Wilson's generosity had bought the tiny synthesizer that let him make pheronomes. Without that, he might have never gotten away from God's New Freedom.
But now that he was gone, he missed it. Everything was bewildering to him. Everything was different. Someone had put one of the flesh sleeves in his quarter. Threat? Hazing ritual? Message? You're not like us, it meant, perhaps. You can't touch any of us, here's a substitute.
He put it out in the hallway, watched it slither away. It was pleasant to touch it, but he didn't want to keep it, didn't want them thinking they were right, he was an outcast who could only touch made things. Never other people.
Despite himself, he knelt in prayer beside the cot.
"I don't know what to do," he said. "Please tell me, God."
The door swung open and Pat was glaring at him. "You just threw it out in the hallway?" he shouted. "We have to account for materials, you know! It got outside, froze!"
The mound of flesh in Pat's arms dripped with melting ice.
Sean lurched to his feet.
"No, no, you stay there and pray," Pat said sarcastically. The door swung shut behind him. Sean could only imagine the stories that would circulate. They'd think he'd reverted to form, that he'd be forcing his beliefs on them like the last one, who had vanished under slightly suspicious circumstances, from all he'd been able to tell.
What was it about his faith that made them think he was sanctimonious? What was it about his faith that drove them away? He had never tried to spread the word, but he had still bowed his head in grace the first few meals until he caught them staring. It had never occurred to him that some just began eating, without thinking about the meal, where it came from, how lucky they were to have it.
He groaned aloud.
No one spoke to him anymore, except to ask him to match a scent. He was useful for the moment. But useful could still mean untouchable.
A black bordered envelope tucked in his mail slot. "We regret to inform you…" He put it down. Uncle Abraham dead. All his ties to the past broken, and no new ones to tie him down, to keep him from flying into the future.
There was a broken team that had lost a member. It was easy to program the machine. Easier yet to create the right scent. And then to enter the crowded room, not knowing if they would accept him.
Hands were on him. They drew him down into the pile. Tears rolled down his face. Someone licked them away. Someone hugged him. He put his hands out and touched them, and was touched, and something in his soul relaxed with a shudder, even as something else howled and was cast out into the darkness.
For a while Ghira wondered where Sean Marksman had gone. Speculation maintained that he had gone mad (if he wasn't already, bearing in mind his origin), gone out to freeze in the darkness, after fixing one last team. Rumor said Pat had killed him, recreated him. She didn't believe that. Pat would have known he couldn't get away with it again.
But even as Ghira was dispatching the load of clones to another base, even when she passed close enough that he could have touched her sleeve, she did not look at them, and so he left, his clone brothers and he, and he never prayed again, as long as he lived.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 10th, 2010

Author Comments

In "Seeking Nothing," I was trying to explore issues of isolation. I'm a little fascinated by fundamental Christianity, the mindset/culture that it provides its followers, and how that affects their dealings with the rest of the world, and it was thinking about that which led to the seed of this piece. "Seeking Nothing" is set in the same Universe as most of my other far future stories, such as "Kallakak's Cousin" and "Amid the Words of War" (forthcoming in Lightspeed Magazine.)

- Cat Rambo
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