I was approached by a smartly dressed woman in a pantsuit. She was young, late twenties. She had beautiful bone structure, but a thick scar along her jaw line gave her face an asymmetrical look. The girl waited quietly in the corner while I signed my life away. It was brief. I didn’t bother to look the contract over. My options were limited. I just needed to go through the process to give myself any hope of survival.
When I was done, I offered my hand to the lawyer behind the desk. He shook it loosely and Pantsuit hurried me into an elevator. “When I left the house this morning, I never expected I would be taking this ride. I honestly didn’t think I would make it. You never know what the future holds.”
“I agree, Lieutenant Arden.”
“Tim,” I interjected.
“Tim,” she said.
We stared in silence at the elevator doors until they opened on a sparse room clad in white. Pantsuit walked ahead of me. She had a nice body, but she moved with a limp that exaggerated the swivel of her hips.
“Tim, this is a quick procedure, but we will have to administer anesthesia.”
“I understand. You need to scrape what’s left of my vital organs…I would hate to be awake for that.”
“You may experience some mild discomfort immediately afterward. It is temporary…it will not affect your performance tonight.”
“That’s good.” A moment of uncomfortable silence passed between us before I forced the small talk. “So, have you been with the network long?”
“About four years.”
“This must be a nice gig, steady at least.”
She ignored my comment and directed me to a chair. I took a seat. Pantsuit turned her head to the side. I had a closer view of her scar. It was a hideous belt of flesh that writhed on the side of her face when she spoke. She felt the weight of my gaze and quickly turned away. She hobbled across the room and disappeared beyond a solitary door.
A moment later, she reemerged. I was led through a corridor alive with the sound of hospital machinery. A device that appeared more medieval torture instrument than medical equipment, waited at the end of the hall.
“What the hell is that?” I asked.
“That is where we grow your clone, Mr. Arden.”
Its purpose seemed obvious after that. It had a recessed area in the shape of a person. A doctor, with two days of gray stubble on a small chin, greeted me and instructed me to disrobe and lay in the cloning machine. He inserted an IV with a gentle touch and fitted a mask over my nose and mouth. The anesthetic had a medicinal taste. The doctor asked me to count backwards from ten. I was out before I could comprehend his request.
I awoke from a dreamless sleep to the echo of voices around me. My vision was slow to focus on a room partitioned by vinyl drapes. When I rolled out of bed, my legs were weak and uncoordinated. I grabbed the metal railing to steady myself. I stretched out my right leg, then my left. I began to feel more connected to my body.
I was dressed in a surgical robe. It was short and opened to the rear, typical of a hospital garment. I stepped through the partition into a sea of empty hospital beds. A technician took notice and began to head my way. As she drew closer, I noticed something abnormal about her face. It was unnaturally taught and her eyes were deep set. The skin around them was discolored, like a mask of flesh. Her mouth was a thin line across her face. She spoke with a kind voice, divorced from her odd appearance.
“It looks like someone is up,” she said.
“I don’t know, was I supposed to wait in bed?” I replied.
“Its okay, Honey. Is everything alright?”
Her voice was saccharin sweet, and her obsequious manner instantly bothered me. I assumed she developed this way of speaking to compensate for her obvious deformity.
“Everything is fine,” I said in a broken voice.
“Well, that’s great. We have a big night ahead of us.”
I searched for a nametag but found only the ubiquitous network insignia emblazed on her white coat.
“How long was I out? How much time do I have before I go on?”
“Oh don’t you worry about that, Hon. A big strong man like you…you’ll be ready.”
The technician handed me an orange suit and pointed to a small room to change. I deposited the surgical gown into a recessed chute and dressed quickly. The fabric was light and elastic. It was very comfortable and hugged every contour of my body. It left little to the imagination, but the absence of slack meant less to grab onto in the fray.
Pantsuit was waiting when I reentered the hall.
“Very nice,” she said.
Suited up, it became more real, I had made the cut. I was a combatant on Fight for Your Life, the networks most popular program. A chance to replace my diseased organs was moments away.
“How much time do I have?” I asked Pantsuit.
“Not long, I would say about seventy five minutes.”
“Holy Shit! How long was I in recovery?”
“A while, but don’t worry, you will be ready.”
“I need some time to prepare!” a flash of anger passed through me, “I need time to train, to loosen up.”
“Your military conditioning and survival instinct will assert itself once the match begins.”
“Can I notify my family? I need to speak to them before I go on.”
“Your immediate family has been notified,” Pantsuit spoke in a cool, even tone. The lyrical aspects of her voice seemed dulled by the nature of our conversation. “Trust me, everyone has been informed of what is about to transpire, the network has taken care of it…you don’t need to worry. Just focus on the match. Don’t let your attention be divided by trivial matters.”
We continued down the hallway. A row of identical doors lined one side.
“We have prepared a room for you,” She said, stopping near one of them.
“Seventy five minutes?” I asked.
“Maybe less,” she replied, “we have another match scheduled before yours…It may be brief if the chairman selects weaponry. Blade matches don’t usually last long.”
“I go on in the middle, right?”
“Yours will be the second match…Please,” she said, placing her hand on the door handle.
I nodded, and she pushed it ajar.
The room was Spartan. It had a chair, a vanity and an illuminated mirror. A chronological progression of “Fight for Your Life” posters hung neatly on the wall.
Pantsuit closed the door quietly behind her as she left the room. I was alone with my thoughts and a monitor streaming local news. “Fight for your life” had yet to begin but anchorman, Kant Walters, was signing off with his usual rhetoric, and making way for the prefight coverage.
The network prefaced each bout with a maudlin piece about the contestants and the lives they plan to lead if they persist. My wish was simple. I want to live a normal life, free of disease. That is all I ever wanted.
The theme music began. They plunged immediately into a story about a schoolteacher, Abe Mitchell, suffering from a kidney disorder. It was filled with slow close-ups of family photographs and pandering images of Abe with his Maltese. It was a disturbing juxtaposition to the programming to follow. Soon, this mild mannered schoolteacher would attempt to mutilate his clone for a chance to harvest its kidney.
I stared defiantly at the chair, I couldn’t rest now. I imagined my clone sitting in a similar room performing the same tasks. Would we share the same approach, mimicking each other’s movements, like some violent choreography? If I ignored my initial instinct would I gain advantage? I didn’t want to fight a man like me. I knew my capabilities. A trickle of doubt began to set in. In the solitude of the greenroom, I shadow boxed to keep my reflexes sharp.
The first match was underway…I couldn’t watch. It made me nervous. I was always apprehensive in dangerous situations. It was human nature, but I was trained to perform in spite of my fears.
The roar of the crowd signaled the end of the battle. A tight shot of a man’s face covered in blood filled the screen and the words “Mitchell Victorious” scrolled along the bottom. The camera panned back to show the man’s doppelganger impaled on a serrated metal spike protruding from the wall of the arena, a pole arm still clutched in its right hand.
“Oh God…I hope I didn’t damage that kidney,” he said to himself as Milagro Mendez, the girl at ringside, approached with her microphone.
I turned my back to the screen and ignored the live feed. Milagro prattled on about the details of the fight. The victor burst into tears as he expressed his overwhelming gratitude to the network and “Fight for Your Life” for his second chance. A small knock at the door disrupted my focus.
“Tim?” spoke a muted voice.
“Yeah, come in.”
The door opened and Pantsuit stood in the doorway.
“It’s time,” she said.
I exhaled and gave myself a final review in the mirror. I followed pantsuit into an elevator a short distance from the greenroom. I was surprised when we headed upwards. I assumed the dome would be at a lower level.
“Did they let you know about the draw, is it straight up or do we use melee weapons?”
“It’s a surprise, Tim…It’s always a surprise.”
“I’m a little nervous.”
“Just stay sharp and be aggressive…you have to want it, it’s not just a clever title, you know…You really do have to fight for your life.”
The elevator came to a halt and the doors opened. We had arrived on set. A control room, filled with monitors displayed various camera angles of the arena. A director commanded board operators as grips meandered behind the scenes. It all seemed routine. It didn’t have the heavy atmosphere appropriate for an impending death.
A man in headphones beckoned me to follow. Pantsuit gave me a tap on the shoulder.
“Go with him, Tim, he will take you to the arena…be fierce out there.”
I ignored her words of encouragement and followed the thin man who insisted I call him Zero or Nero, it was hard to hear. The roar of the crowd grew louder as we approached a dark corridor.
“Alright, this is it…Just wait for the red light to flash and charge out of the tunnel…And try to ham it up, the crowd loves that kind of shit,” he said, never diverting his attention from a monitor above the entrance.
The tunnel was dark but I noticed a round light attached to the roof. Zero Nero slapped on the back. I anxiously awaited the light to signal my entrance.
I jumped in place, swinging my arms across my body and taking short staccato breaths. I looked around and found myself alone. The light flashed. I ran down the tunnel to the grated metal floor of the arena.
Within the dome, the crowd above appeared distorted. It was a unique perspective afforded only to combatants and crew. A cloche was suspended above a rectangular table that divided the arena. Beyond the table, my clone stood, mirroring my intensity. Muffled sounds of music droned overhead as the crowd began to chant in unison. A horn sounded and the cloche was removed, revealing two large blades. A brass knuckle incorporated in the hilt made it a formidable weapon.
The clone was the first to move. I hurried to meet it at the center. We each grabbed a blade and began to circle the table.
It backed away, goading me to follow. It positioned itself in an area of strategic advantage. There were serrated spikes to its left and right. It could easily redirect the momentum of a charging attack and impale me; I would have done the same. I retreated to the opposite portion of the arena. The table recessed into the ground and cleared the space between us.
I walked cautiously into the center of the arena. Crouched, in a ready position, the clone followed suit. We danced around one another. I feinted with a jab and dropped low with a spinning kick to its ankles. The clone leaped over the kick and landed to my left. I rose to my feet in a guard.
The clone attacked with blinding speed. I managed to parry its blade as it slashed at my eyes. I threw a left hook which connected with the side of its face. I felt the loose flesh slide beneath the contour of its cheekbone. The clone’s head snapped and it staggered back.
The clone was quick to retaliate with a painful kick to my thigh. I tried to carve at its torso, but it leaned away, narrowly escaping a deep gash to its gut. I evaded a lunging counter to my throat. The celerity of its movements was impressive. It would be difficult to gain advantage. I landed a hard kick to the leg.
“Damn you,” it said and expelled a breath of warm air on my cheek.
It delivered a staggering blow to my temple. A trickle of blood seeped into my right eye. I stepped backward, reversing the grip on my blade. I attempted an overhead strike to the valley of flesh between its neck and shoulder. The clone dodged and buried a knee deep into my side. The pain was immediate. It came down on my scapula with the hilt of its blade, fracturing the bone and rendering my left arm useless.
I fell to my knee, and with my right, punched the clone solidly in the groin. It let out a rattling grunt.
“You Muh…,” was all it could muster as it doubled over.
The clone glowered at me with teary eyes as I returned to my feet. I drug the blade upward and left a chasm across its left breast. Blood began to spill out in long ribbons. I saw the clone loosen its grip on the blade. I thought it would drop it. I was unprepared for an underhanded throw. The blade covered the distance between us too quick to react. It ripped through my abdominal wall and buried itself to the hilt.
“You sonofabitch!” I screamed as I reached for it with my wounded arm.
It stood and approached cautiously. The hilt of the blade protruded from my stomach. It didn’t seem real. I surveyed the injury. It was not a kill strike. The knife was lodged in the intestines, away from major arteries.
I made a futile attempt to stab at the clone, but the pain was unbearable. It grabbed the hilt of its blade and pulled the knife from my body. I fell onto my back. Vulnerable, I knew the clone would come to finish me on the ground.
I went limp and seized my opportunity when it came in for the kill. I tucked my arm into my body and shot it upward into its thigh. A look of surprise crossed its face when I severed the femoral artery. The clone fell to the hard metal. A geyser of blood spurted from between its fingers as it grasped the wound. The clone collapsed on its side. It turned its head to the distorted images beyond the dome’s layers of accumulated gore. It grew weak, drawing shallow breaths, slower and slower until its chest stopped moving. The clone was dead. I had won.
I stood, clutching my side, and raised my blade to the jeers of the crowd. Throngs of angry spectators spewed torrents of acrimony. I looked to the clone’s lifeless body. Blood dripped through the metal grates below. A stunned expression was frozen on its face. A wave of guilt passed through me, as I dropped the blade at my side. I turned and headed back through the tunnel.
I expected Milagro Mendez to come bounding through at any moment for her post fight interview but found Pantsuit was waiting backstage. She didn’t appear concerned with the copious amount of blood spilling from my side.
“You didn’t see that? I won…a clean kill…no organ damage to the clone, I can harvest them all.”
Pantsuit did not respond.
“Where is Milagro?” I asked.
“Ms. Mendez only interviews the originals…You won, but it was Tim Arden who died in that arena,” she said.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I laughed.
Over her shoulder, a monitor replayed key moments from the battle. The words Clone Victorious scrolled along the bottom of the screen. It settled on me with a heaviness that brought me to my knees.
“I know just how you feel,” Pantsuit said. “It wasn’t easy for me either; when I found out I had killed my original…The memories, right? They are so vivid…so real. How could I be a clone? I know what you are thinking Tim. I’ve been there.” She traced her scar with the back of her middle finger.
The recovery room came to mind. The way I felt so disconnected. It all began in that hospital bed. “It was all a lie,” I muttered.
“That depends on your perspective. You inherited Tim’s experiences, those are very real. But he didn’t pass on his damaged organs. Apart from the hole in your gut, you are healthier than he ever was. I had liver disease…or my original did at least. But now I have a second chance. You can too.”
“What’s going to happen to me?”
“The choice is simple. You can bleed out on the floor or you can work with us.”
In the background, I became acutely aware of the crew. Many carried themselves in an unnatural fashion. Some limped, some trembled, and some had missing limbs or other disfigurements. “You’re all clones?” I asked.
“Not all of us, but most of us. A clone can’t go back home. It’s just not the way it works.”
“So what… I stay here?”
“I am afraid so. You are network property. If you chose to die we will just harvest the organs, there are plenty of people willing to pay for them. Or the network can take advantage of your military training. You can help to prepare future contestants for their matches.”
My limbs felt heavy. The pool of blood was thick, dark and growing incrementally around my limp body. “Is it worth it?” I asked.
Pantsuits face registered a look of surprise. “It’s life. You remember how important it was to Tim. But life only has the value you assign it.”
I cupped one hand over the wound and let the blood spill over my fingers in a warm rush. I rested my head on the cool concrete and pondered the value of life.
Author’s Bio: John Dougherty works odd jobs to support his writing habit. His fiction has appeared in various Ezines from Aphelion to The Zodiac Review. He dedicates his free time to pursuing his passion, writing short stories from his home in Santa Barbara, California.