Veronica killed Aurora yesterday. Again. Which means I have spent my day between the Vault and the Lab, getting the womb ready for Aurora's eleventh iteration. Aurora is always such a cute baby that I almost forgive our sister.
Veronica has killed Marieta eighteen times, Jacques fifteen, Aurora ten, Gabriel eight times and me six. Neither of us has ever killed her. Not once. When our ancestors bred violence out of us (or spliced it out to be more precise) they must have made a terrible mistake with Veronica, although it is true that she has always killed us painlessly and, according to her, to give us a chance to improve during our next iteration. Mother insists that we mustn't shun her for it, and we don't for Mother's sake, although we try to keep our distance and are always on the lookout for the barbiturates syringe in Veronica's hand.
I should have asked the robot centipedes for help with the preparations, but they are scraping away the flaking white paint from the window frames. The Mediterranean sun is unforgiving on the outdoor fixtures, and the silver centipedes are always busy with maintenance work. Besides, it is not as if I have anything else to do, and being busy will do me good.
Gabriel was the one who found Aurora's dead body. The nerves brought on one of Gabriel's headaches and he has gone for a walk in the forest, to clear his mind. He promised to bring me thyme, which I'll use to make myself a soup. The centipedes already dug a grave and buried Aurora next to her previous iterations, and are using Gabriel's absence to remove the paint from his windows without him complaining about the noise. They scrape with the tiny brushes underneath their bellies, while the sun reflects on their metallic backs.
One of the centipedes' segments (a metal square no bigger than my palm) falls from the window to the ground, or more likely it has jumped. It lies on its back like a helpless turtle, while its companions break ranks and climb over it, repairing whatever loose connection or clogged tube made it stop working in the first place. While they help their companion the robots don't look like a centipede anymore. In fact, the ancestors never called them that; it was Jacques' third iteration that came up with the name, and it stuck.
I put on a lab coat on top of my black linen shirt and long gray skirt. In the millennia it took for the radiation to abate Mother had plenty of time to go through the books, movies and recordings in the library. She is very partial to the nineteenth century aesthetics, which is why she has us females dress in high-necked blouses and ample skirts that she assures us were the formal attire in this island at the time, and which make us look like Victorian governesses. As for the men, they look like factory workers from the industrial revolution.
It wouldn't do for Veronica to dress like the rest of us, of course, so she had the centipedes weave her a faux medieval princess outfit complete with embroidered bodice and ridiculous head gear. I assume it is meant to show how higher in rank she is compared to the rest of us (according to Veronica we've never killed her because her original was already perfect), but it has the benefit of making her stand out so that we may gain a few precious seconds.
I go into the Vault. To my right, the black square shape of Mother's data processors. To my left, the embryo storage room. Our ancestors thought of everything, and then recorded themselves detailing the instructions. They even recorded a farewell message:
"The recent nuclear attacks have made it clear that there is no hope of us surviving the war." The group of men and women in lab gear look severely at the camera. There is a sense of urgency, of transcendence. The image goes out of focus for a fraction of a second, then comes back. "This is why we pushed even harder with the final stretch of the building works. Some of us volunteered our sperm and ova so that there is a chance of a future generation after the radiation has lowered to acceptable levels. There were six viable embryos, which we have preserved, after modifying and cloning them. The future is so uncertain that it is wise to increase your chances for survival." There is noise in the background. A siren. A couple of people leave the room, and the man in the center looks to the door before resuming his speech. "To think that science has accomplished so much and yet we'll die in this war!" The speaker swallows and then tries to smile, but only manages a grimace. "But we don't want this message to be sad: If you are watching this, you are our children. We want you to know that we love you. We are your parents, even if we will never meet."
But he is wrong, they are not our parents. Mother is. Even if they programmed her to take care of us.
There are six freezers in the embryo storage room, each with its metallic door and an engraved name. I open the door marked AURORA. I grab the first canister where Aurora's next iteration sleeps submerged in liquid nitrogen.
I hum while I prepare the amniotic solution for the womb because baby Aurora has always loved my lullabies, and I am out of practice: she was twenty yesterday. I am forty-two, but when I was born in my present iteration there was an Aurora who was thirteen, and I remember how she indulged me as a child. She used to give me piggyback rides and jump rope with me, and so I am very fond of her. I sing for Aurora who is soon going to be reborn as much as for myself. I need cheering up.
"Are you feeling well?" asks Mother's disembodied voice, while I program the metallic womb. She must have heard the strain in my voice. Mother knows me better than I know myself.
"I'm tired, Mother."
"Should I send the centipedes to help you with the preparations?"
"Not this kind of tired."
"Oh, I see," says Mother.
"I'm tired of Veronica, of this island, of myself. I am tired because some day Veronica will kill me again--"
"Maybe she won't, this time," she says soothingly.
That's Mother: always trying to make her children get along beyond any reason.
"Oh, please, Mother! The longest I have lived is to be seventy-two. That was almost two centuries ago."
That was a good life. I peak in my early forties, my body doesn't age from there. Theoretically, provided Veronica didn't intervene, I could live forever. Veronica herself peaks in her thirties, and Marieta in her twenties, as we found out the time she lived to be thirty-seven. Jacques is less fortunate: he doesn't peak until he is well into his sixties and the joint pains have started, although he rarely lasts that long.
I know I shouldn't complain. Mother lived in semi-hibernation for millennia until it was safe to gestate our original iterations. Imagine such loneliness! She survived her designers and had to wake up every few decades to get the centipedes to make replacements or repair any damages to the leaden cupolas or the corridors interconnecting them.
"I'm sorry, Mother," I say with a sigh.
"You know I love you," I hear her say. And it's true, I know.
"I love you too, Mother."
And it's true, I do.
She disconnects to give me some much-needed privacy. Even if Mother doesn't have a physical form, only a voice, I always know if she is present or not. The room feels emptier, there is an echo that wasn't there before. Mother doesn't eavesdrop, although sometimes the centipedes do, even if only for recording purposes.
After Jacques's last death, sixteen years ago, Gabriel moved out from the Main Building and set home in the corridor that leads from the Projection Room to the Pier. He couldn't bear to sleep in the same place as Veronica anymore. I too had left the Main Building a few years before, but fearing a confrontation I used my work in the Lab as an excuse for the move.
Except for the Pier, all the buildings on the island are white geodes which used to be protected from radiation by leaden hoods. But that was long before Mother woke us up, of course. The corridors that run between buildings are made of ten inches square glass panels, held together by metal and wood. They zigzag and cling to the island's rocky surface like the white tube worms on mussel shells.
I love living in the corridor between the Vault and the Lab. This side of the island is so exposed to the wind that some trees grow almost parallel to the rocky ground. Through the windows I can see their branches dancing, and on cloudless nights I watch the stars from my bed.
The window walls don't provide much privacy, particularly at night with the lights on, but it's not as if we have anything to hide. Our lives have been recorded and projected over and over again, and we already know everything that is going to happen. Only after we have watched our daily dose of the recordings are we allowed to read, watch a movie, or undertake any other activity.
Our iterations must be recorded so that we may keep consistency. When Aurora is reborn, she will be taken to the Projection room and shown recordings of herself up to the age she is at that moment. All her life: brief, random moments of previous Auroras. Mostly her first iteration, but also other lives (including her multiple deaths), so that she knows what to mold herself against.
It can be difficult, sometimes. Gabriel's original liked watching old movies about monsters and angry computers rebelling against humankind. Enslaving us. As if an artificial intelligence could go against its programming! Even Mother is following the ancestors' instructions as they were written so long ago. Each one of Gabriel's iterations have been forced to watch those movies, even if they understood how this hurt Mother. Some recordings show little versions of Gabriel weeping because he knows he is hurting her. But not watching would mean disobeying Mother, which would only hurt her more. Poor Gabriel. If only his original had known better.
Sometimes we'll catch a glimpse of our brothers and sisters, too. Gabriel as a toodler, chasing a magpie which skips away from him. Marieta and I eating plums, our faces wet with juice. Jacques reading a novel while Veronica tortures a rabbit in the background. Our originals at eleven or twelve: Aurora, Marieta and I swimming in our underwear while Gabriel and Jacques spy on us from behind a rock. I wonder if we knew that they were there?
Aurora's embryo is inside the womb and everything is ready. I press the button and initiate gestation. Then I remove my latex gloves, wash my hands, and leave the Lab.
When I reach my rooms in the short corridor between the Lab and the Vault, Gabriel is waiting for me. He has a leather-bound book in one hand and a bouquet of wild flowers in the other: thyme, as I requested, but also rosemary, fennel, chamomile, and yellow semprevivas --which can't be eaten and don't have healing properties, but will look good inside a vase. When he sees me, Gabriel leaves the book and the flowers on the table and opens his arms. We hug.
"Are you feeling any better?" I ask, my head against his chest. He is fifty-seven now, but looks not a day older than thirty in his collarless shirt and waistcoat.
"Yes. Yes I am. Let her come, if she dares. I may not be so meek this time around."
Being the oldest, Gabriel is Veronica's most probable next victim. There is no use in me trying to deny it, although Marieta is her favorite target, and Veronica may decide to go after her first. But it would be unfair on Marieta for me to wish that.
"If anything should happen, I will be there for you," I say.
"I know, but it's exhausting. Being born with no memory of my previous iterations, having to do all that growing up again... I don't think I can face it once more."
"Of course you can, Gabriel."
"Veronica is so selfish. She just doesn't understand. She went through the process once and that was it, and she didn't even have previous iterations as a template. She had it so easy--"
"Shush," I say softly, "don't work yourself up. You'll only bring the headache back."
He smiles faintly, picks up the flowers and smells them. "These are for you, by the way."
"And the book?" I ask.
"Oh, this. I saw a recording of the two of us a few days ago. You were much older than me at the time, and were reading to me about the processionary caterpillars from this book, so I went and looked for it in the library."
Processionary caterpillars are what actually inspired our ancestors to design the centipedes the way they did, which is not surprising considering the island is riddled with them. On the worst years, it is hard to find a pine without a single processionary nest on its branches.
"You were reading it to me because Veronica had scared me into thinking that one of the nests could fall on my head and all my hair would fall off," Gabriel continues.
"And isn't it true?" I ask, startled, after a lifetime of ducking and turning away every time I see one of their nests above my head. The mere thought of all those brown caterpillars writhing inside the sack makes me itchy.
"Apparently not. Here, read it for yourself."
He is holding the book open on the right page with his index finger, and gives it to me. I sit on the wooden chair and read out loud, while Gabriel leans on my desk.
"The pine processionary only reaches adulthood after going through five larval stages plus a pupae stage --"
"That's a lot of lives to go through," interjects Gabriel. Then he smiles bitterly. "We still beat them, though."
"On their third larval stage, they begin the construction of the communal nest, were they spend the day protected from the predators, and leave every night, moving in single file to reach other branches of the pine which they haven't exhausted yet, as they feed only on the tenderest part of the pine needles." I stop reading for a moment. I have seen the long lines of caterpillars travelling nose to tail on the forest floor, and I always took this for their only voyage. Imagining all those caterpillars moving nightly around the pine tops makes my skin crawl. "The nest doesn't have a definite entrance. Rather, the leading caterpillar pushes its way through the sticky silk wall, which remains firmly attached to the branches." There is no way the nest would fall, it seems. "With every larval stage the caterpillars grow darker, hairier and more urticant." This part, at least, was true. I scan the following paragraphs and summarize the rest for Gabriel, who has obviously already read it all before coming to see me:
"The caterpillars finally leave the pine tree for the ground. They look for a soft place to dig, bury themselves for the pupae stage, and turn into beautiful butterflies."
I clap the book shut, and feel the heat first on my chest and then it rises through my neck. My eyes sting. "Not a single mention of falling hair." My voice sounds thick. A tear runs down my cheek. Duped. Duped by Veronica into being scared of some stupid caterpillars I could squash at any time. I cover my mouth with my hand. I don't know why this little hurt affects me so much after all she has put us through, but it does.
"Oh, please, my darling! I never meant to make you cry." Gabriel kneels beside my chair and hugs me at the waist.
"I don't know why, I'm--" It hurts, oh my goodness it hurts "--just being silly."
Gabriel hugs me tighter, and then puts his head on my lap, which is unexpected, but after all we have both had a very difficult day. I dry my tears with my right hand and then pat his head gently. His hair feels lovely to the touch.
"Forgive me," he whispers. "I shouldn't have sprung this onto you like that, least of all the day after Aurora's death. Please say you'll forgive me."
I say nothing, but continue to run my fingers through his hair, and Gabriel keeps his arms around my waist. Even after I stop crying, we remain like that for minutes, in silence. It feels so good, so calm. I close my eyes for a while, then open them when I hear the almost imperceptible sound of the centipede's tiny legs as it approaches us, moving upside down on the corridor's ceiling. I hope it's recording our embrace. This is a moment I wouldn't mind reliving.
When Gabriel leaves, I go outside. It's nearly dark and for once there is no wind. There is a centipede painting my windows with its ventral spray nozzle. I wonder if it's the same one that was listening in on me and my brother before. On an impulse I touch the tip of my finger against the wet paint and then press it against the head segment of the centipede, leaving a white smudge on its metallic carapace.
"Nosey-parker!" I say. "That'll teach you."
During the following weeks, whenever I see a centipede passing by, I look out for the white smudge. Sometimes the painted segment is there, sometimes it isn't, and I wonder where it is and what job it's doing. When it is there, that particular segment is not always the head of the centipede. Sometimes it's the third, or fourth segment, or the tail, or the segments have broken ranks and it's scrambling happily with the others.
Hello there, I think when I see the white smudge, I hope you have a nice day. I hope we all do.
Marieta and Jacques are certainly having a good day. I can see them from my room, she leaning against the trunk of an oak, and him talking to her, getting closer and closer. Flirting openly.
I don't begrudge them the fun, although it is inconsistent with their previous iterations -- Jacques and Aurora were always the only lovers on the island, when the ages were right, and then they were forced to argue and split up.
But I pity Marieta. She has it the worst of all of us: Veronica killed her original when she was only fifteen, and when the following iteration got to that age and found out, she fell into a depression that lasted till her death. Whenever an iteration reaches the age of her first killing, as she soon will, then it's all day in bed with the curtains drawn for Marieta. Let her have her fun.
The first hot days of summer arrive. Cicadas during the day, crickets at night. I put on my white dresses and roll up my sleeves. We try to stay in the shade. The balmy scent of the forest mingles with the sea breeze. I go with Gabriel to the Pier and we take out the boat. According to the ancestors' recordings it could take us to the mainland in an emergency, but we have never tried. We only use it to sail around the island, with its beautiful white sail swollen like a pregnant belly, and its heavy oars for when there is no wind. This summer we have a new boat, too. The centipedes made it out of the island's biggest pines. The old one was beginning to rot, and water would leak in. The centipedes haven't come round to dismantle the old boat yet, and it now lies abandoned on the small beach between the Pier and the cliff, with its oars positioned as if someone would start rowing on the sand.
If I am out, I often hear Jacques and Marieta's laughter through her open window. She is now forced to spend a lot of time in bed, but is doing a rather poor job of being depressed. Oh, I am sure they wouldn't do anything inappropriate, and I understand it is hard on her, but Mother always frets so, when we don't stick closely enough to our previous iterations!
I invite everyone to the lab to listen to Aurora's heartbeat inside the womb. So as to not upset Mother, I extend the invitation to Veronica, who shouldn't really be there. At least she has the grace to leave after the first few minutes, but the following day I find a dead gecko pinned to the Lab's door.
Marieta and Jacques start taking long walks at dusk. Sometimes I see Veronica watching them from a distance. I don't like it. I don't like it at all.
The white paint slowly rubs off the centipede's segment, and one day I can't see it anymore. It makes me sad that it will pass by me and I shan't recognize it, that I will think it is just like any other segment. I am often sad. Sadder by far than Marieta. And worried. Dark thoughts fill my mind, although Gabriel, and sometimes Jacques and Marieta too, will try to cheer me up. Mother asks if there is something wrong, but I just shrug.
One day I am sitting outside, napping in the shade. Gabriel and the others are blackberry-picking. I see Veronica in her princess dress walking towards the main building with a syringe in her hand and I know instinctively that she is looking for Marieta, but I do not know if this is really happening or if I am dreaming.
A huge raindrop falls on my face. I hear thunder. The storm breaks and the downpour wakes me up. I almost fall from my chair, and run towards the building. Once inside I remember the dream, and Veronica's syringe.
"Marieta?" I yell.
"Marieta? Jacques? Are you there?"
I look for them, but the Main Building is deserted. I search the other buildings: the Projection Room, the Warehouse, the corridors. Surely the Vault and the Lab are off limits? I see no one. Not even Veronica. No bodies either, although I feel something is definitely off.
It has stopped raining. I run towards the Pier. I go to the bottom of the stairs carved on the rock, even if from the top of the cliff I can already see that the new boat is gone. The stairs are slippery, and I am getting cold in my wet clothes, but it is not only the cold that makes me shiver.
Surely Jacques and Marieta wouldn't have taken the boat for a ride with the black clouds in the horizon? Or maybe they were fleeing Veronica and they decided to brave the storm? And Gabriel? Has he left with them? No, I decide, Gabriel would never leave me behind.
I run back to check the Vault and the Lab. If I can't find Gabriel there, I'll search the forest next.
As I enter the Lab I see the open womb, and I scream.
I run towards the womb and find it empty. Veronica has already disposed of Aurora's remains, but there is a handwritten note inside the metallic womb.
Not good enough. You'll have to start all over again. Make sure you do it better this time! Veronica.
"No, no, no! You've gone too far. You've gone too far."
All the dark thoughts I've been harboring these last months come to me at once and I nearly collapse. We can't go on like this. Something must be done, and it looks like I am the one who will have to do it. I sit on the floor for a while, thinking what to do next. First things first: I need a weapon.
I run back to the Pier and get the oar from the rotting boat, but first make sure the oar is still strong. I drag it back to the Vault and block the doors to the Vault and to the Lab. The corridor that connects them is where I have my rooms, and I have already checked that Veronica isn't hiding there, nor are there any centipedes inside the locked area.
I go into the Vault. For the moment I ignore the embryo storage room and go to the data processors where Mother resides, dragging the oar behind me.
"Mother," I call, standing in front of her black carcass. I can hear the trepidation in my voice.
"Yes, my dear."
"You must know by now what I have come to do."
"I am sorry for what Veronica is putting you through, but you know she is your sister, and I love her too. I can't let you harm her more than I could ever harm you."
"I know, Mother. You were programmed to love us equally. It is not your fault that Veronica turned out the way she did."
"Is it really so bad to be born again, if there is no risk of running out of embryos?" Mother asks. "You could always make more clones, if necessary. I know Veronica can be difficult, but can't you accept her, if this is the only way to get along?" she pleads.
I don't have the heart to tell her what I have come to suspect: that we are not interchangeable like centipede's segments, that each iteration she sacrificed to Veronica's whims was irreplaceable.
I have no time to waste. When she summons the centipedes, and I wonder why she hasn't done it yet, the locked doors won't hold them for long. The centipedes have dug cisterns in the rock.
"I'm sorry Mother. We can't take it anymore," I say as I raise the oar. "I love you Mother!"
I bring the oar down on her data processors. The carcass cracks. Sparks fly. I hit again.
"I lov--" Mother's voice stutters as I hit the processors with all my strength. There's the smell of burnt circuits and sputtering sounds, more sparks, a tiny flame that guts itself out "--ou too, daugh--"
I let the oar fall on the floor. The sound of hardwood against the tiled floor, as if my own bones were falling. I feel weak. I feel dead. I lean on the wall, I breathe in, breathe out. I must go on. Can't stop now.
I go into the embryo storage room, and I get one canister for Aurora and, although I don't want to think about it, a canister for Gabriel too. I take them to the lab.
Inseminating myself proves to be far more difficult than using the metallic womb, but eventually I manage it. I lie on the stretch bed and rest for a while. My wrist on my forehead, I stare at the ceiling as the tears flow.
I always wondered about our ancestors. Such vitality, such desire to live. That someone, even if they could not survive, should live on. I never felt like this. Perhaps my previous iterations did, and the centipedes failed to record those moments, but I doubt it. Perhaps it's being close to a real ending that makes you appreciate life all the more. Perhaps it's fighting for someone other than yourself. It may be that I lack the instinct or perhaps it hasn't kicked in yet. I am going to be a mother in a few months. I should soon find out.
It's getting dark outside. I get up from the stretch bed and go to the Vault to recover my oar. It is dented from the blows to Mother's data processors. If I use it again in the lab, it won't be long till it breaks, and that wouldn't do at all. Fortunately, I have gallons and gallons of alcohol to disinfect the womb and other lab equipment. I take several cans outside for later use in the Projection Room, and I douse the embryo storage room and the Lab. I light the fire and leave, dragging the oar behind me. I hope the distance between the buildings and the trees will prevent the whole island from catching fire. Any way you look at it, I am likely to die within the next hours. Then I go and do the same in the Projection Room. No more recordings for us. Surely the fire will bring Veronica out from wherever she is hiding?
It's dark, and the flames make everything look orange. The fire roars, ash flies, the smell of smoke makes me choke, it stings my eyes. Even from a distance, the heat is scorching. The centipedes are running around frantically, the flames reflected on their backs. They are lost without Mother's guidance.
While I wait outside the Vault, I consider what to do when I give birth. Should I call my sons Aurora and Gabriel, or should I find new names for them? There is still a chance that Gabriel is alive somewhere on the island, I remind myself. I am not giving up on him, although I know that if he was alive he would have come for me. Maybe he is injured. I cling to this thought. After I deal with Veronica I'll go and find him. We'll raise the babies together.
Veronica should arrive at any second, she can't have failed to notice what I have done. Ah! Here she comes, syringe in hand. I grab the end of the oar and hold it with both hands.
"You!" she screams, stopping several feet away from me. "Where have you put my canisters?"
"You must be joking." I am so surprised I am laughing. "They are inside, of course, like the rest of them."
"What if something happened to me?"
"Something like what? Like that?"
I hit her hand with the oar and the syringe flies from her hand. She gasps. I have never fought back before.
"Bitch! You've broken my hand!"
"I thought you were perfect, and had no use for any embryos," I say, as if I hadn't heard her.
She throws herself to the ground and stretches her good arm to grab the syringe, but I raise the oar and bring it down for the final blow.
As the oar connects with her skull, I think how different I feel now that I have something to live for, now that I have become a person and not just another iteration. Now that I have become a mother.
And I remember too late that I haven't asked what she has done to Gabriel. But I will find him.