2018 was a mess. He paced up and down the pods. It was crazy. Why did he have to give it all up?
Okay, sure, he was fifteen days late. Late for pressing the button, cycling the cloning pods and letting the new clone of 2019 get out and live his life.
The automatics should have kicked in by now.
But, they hadn’t. 2018 couldn’t believe it at first. He was going to get recycled, so he didn’t wanna go quietly into the good night. He just sat there on the station, on his desk, listening to his music. He liked some classical Strauss played at full volume, making the station rumble and vibrate.
He liked that. He wasn’t insane, he wasn’t gonna sabotage anything or break anything just because his time was over. The next guy was after all still him. But he didn’t wanna go quietly, so he made noise.
The music piece got to a crescendo just as his clock ran out.
This was it. He was about to be recycled.
He shut his eyes, waiting for the inevitable.
And something failed. The automatics didn’t kick in, that was understandable since the station was crumbling to pieces around him, nothing really worked anymore. There was the whine of an alarm, but nothing more.
He opened one eye, checked the clock. Five seconds into the new year. Ten seconds.
He kept waiting, he couldn’t believe it.
A whole minute of extra living!
He ran a diagnostic on the system, the clones were okay. They were growing as they should be, fully adult into a good age of 26. His mind was imprinted every time anew. He made no memories, he had nothing about the earlier years.
All he knew, was that he had no name, he was serving his sentence, and that he had one standard year to live, down to the last second.
And now due to a random fluke he had more time.
2018 tapped on the glass of 2019. He was ready, unconscious and fully baked. He should have woken up by now, living his own life. The resources were scarce on the station, everything got recycled, his waste, his water, his body.
There was a justification for the cloning. He had that info imprinted on the literal topology of his mind. The station was, simply put, too close to a black hole singularity.
The x-rays were lethal. Nothing electronic worked for too long, so they depended on organics to repair the station. The system was self-sustaining, with 2018 and each clone before him imprinted with the full technical knowledge to repair whatever broke down.
They couldn’t use e-persons for that job. Their minds broke down bit by byte, disintegrated by the enormous amounts of radiation.
The human body broke down also, of course. The very DNA code got ripped apart, the cells stopped working properly, dividing into cancerous growths.
2018 was lethally irradiated. He knew that as well.
The cloning tanks were lead shielded and the growth liquid was working double-time as an incubator and a protection from radiation. So the clones grew up to proper size and were ready to head out and live their amazing lives of being stuck in a tin can at the edge of a black hole for an entire year.
A relative year, that was.
Time flew by a lot slower in here.
This was a literal long-term experiment. There was a way to calculate it but 2018 didn’t wanna know how many years had passed for the Asterism outside. They carried on living, fucking, creating, exploring, and generally having the time of their lives in their wonderful post-scarcity society where you could get anything you wanted if you could craft a compelling argument about.
And yet, 2018 had done something so atrocious, so irredeemable that the entire Asterism had decided it wasn’t enough to imprison him for the rest of his natural life. They would never give someone the death penalty, that was barbaric for them.
This perpetual existence of half-remembered truths and cloned bodies with an exact expiration date and watching each day the faces of your future selves, your future spare parts sleeping calmly in a tank. And you knew this was you, you were this ignorant, this blissful. And it was your time, and you woke up, and 2017 got recycled and he’s a part of the biscuits you eat and the water you drink, and you got your full year of living, and you were supposed to expire at the very last second but now it didn’t and what the actual fuck?
2018 punched the wall. He regretted it, since it hurt, but he needed to feel something.
Feeling pain meant he was still alive.
Let’s see. Sitrep. He was irradiated, lethally. That much was simple physics and biology. He was past his time. Fourteen days he had been procrastinating. Oh, he’d done the tasks and fixed up the station, he wasn’t crazy to let everything fall to pieces around him. There wasn’t much else to do anyway, all by himself. It was either do the work or go insane, and condemn the next clone into a shorter life of catching up and dying in the cold vacuum of space.
His hand hurt, he gripped it with the other but it felt good. Pain. Living. Dying, but alive for now. They certainly hadn’t predicted that. The system was foolproof. The imprint would make him walk on his own volition into the first empty cloning tank and get recycled, like garbage.
Then the next clone would be awakened automatically.
But the radiation must have messed up the ridges of his brain, his programming. Or maybe, he was just that stubborn. He hadn’t gone quietly. He hadn’t entered the open cloning tank. It waited for him, to consume him bit by bit.
2018 walked away. He made his usual rounds in the research station. There were a bunch of very sensitive equipment that measured time and space and other very nerdy things which he did not understand. But something about this black hole was interesting, not that all black holes weren’t interesting but this one apparently was eating a smaller one? And it was locked in that nibble for eons, as we said, time passes slowly inside the event horizon.
You just don’t step foot in this thing. Not unless you never wanna come out.
So they sent him. He was prisoner. He was caretaker. He was a part in the machine, he was food for his own self, he was the endless repetition of his limited self.
They hadn’t left him with memories of his crime. Sometimes 2018 wondered, what could possibly be so atrocious that they’d sentence him to this? No escape, no future, just a time-dilated prison where you ate yourself and fed yourself for eons, slowly, just like the black hole nibbled on another black hole, consuming it, savouring it. And since some theories said that all black holes are simply holes of the same big something sucking in matter from the universe, in a way it was devouring its own smaller, weaker self.
He was forced to do it for a reason. For science. For knowledge. Okay, he could understand that. The Minds always craved more knowledge. They wanted to understand the universe, as if the universe would ever speak back to them if they did. They were funny that way, from what little 2018 could remember. It wasn’t much.
He had more life. Fourteen days of extra living. Had he stolen these days from 2019? He stood up and checked the readings on the cloning tank. They were both ageing at the same rate, but 2019 was safe in there, getting nutrients, safe from radiation. And in the end, the bodies weren’t programmed to break down after a year. It was the weather around here that did it in the end.
So, no. 2018 concluded that he hadn’t stolen these fourteen days from 2019. If he went in the cloning tank to be recycled right now, 2019 would simply wake up and he’d live his own full standard year into this horrible life.
Sure, the automatics would start blaring warnings again, and he’d have the desire to step back into the tank and make room for 2020. But he could, just like 2018 did, fight back the mental imprint and stick around for these extra fourteen days.
It was a sucky life, but it was living. Beats dying, any single day.
2018 huffed and rubbed his face and paced up and down the station. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t wanna go, but he knew deep down that this situation was a mess. The protocol was broken, and he had been too late. Fourteen days! In truth, the days and nights blended into one inside the station. There was no sun of course. The failing automations simply cycled some warm light and then some cold light to keep the body cycle going. Apparently, humans died if they didn’t get their proper sunlight, which 2018 thought was really stupid.
But no one had ever asked him.
2018 went back to the cloning tanks. He thought he heard something in there. Yeah! There it was, a twitch. 2019 moved and the growth fluid bubbled around him. He was ready to pop, like a baby long past due. 2019 wanted to get out.
Okay, now 2018 felt bad. He could finish this in a jiffy if he’d just step inside his damn cloning tank and get recycled like the good wormfood he was!
But he wanted to live.
How selfish of him.
Perhaps that attribute was what had gotten him imprisoned in here. Too much selfishness? He’d never know.
2018 faced his next clone and banged his head on the glass.
What a time of waste.
The day was almost over. Almost fifteen days stolen now. Fifteen empty days of extended existence. Big deal, in the grand scheme of things.
2018 went back to the stereo and blasted the orchestral music once again.
He hummed and moved his fingers like a conductor, when he realised there was a piece of the music missing. Huh. How weird. Perhaps he was remembering wrong? He started it from the top, bobbed his head and paid extra attention. Nope, it was definitely missing. Barap puh. Puh. Bara puh. Puh. There. There should be more notes. Dammit, how could this be? He’d only heard this piece of music fourteen days ago, it was whole, he was sure of it.
Cold sweat ran down his back.
He let the bit rotten music play and ran back to the cloning tanks. He realised what was happening. There was no forced removal of his memories. The imprint was there to refresh the skills he required to fix things around here. His own mind was degrading, just like the piece of music. In only fourteen days there was a note missing. How many notes had been lost in his entire life, the entire standard year?
How many notes had been lost in his multiple lifespans?
He realised he didn’t know anything. Perhaps nobody had imprisoned him here. Perhaps he had volunteered.
Nobody could tell him. There were no electronic memory banks, they were all bit rotten.
He slapped the button that cycled the cloning tank. 2019 jerked, getting drowned. The growth liquid ran down and emptied quickly, and 2019 gasped for air.
When he opened his eyes and met 2018’s identical ones, they went even wider.
The glass slid open. 2019 coughed liquid from his lungs and stumbled outside, given birth. 2018 helped him up. He waited until 2019 looked better. The newborn clone looked around, confused. “You’re still here?” he asked, his vocal cords sounding raw.
“Yes. Tell me, what do you remember?”
“What?” 2019 said, rubbing his eyes.
2018 grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him violently. “What do you remember?” he shouted in his face.
“This isn’t the protocol-“
“I don’t care. Do you remember who we are? ‘Cause I don’t.”
“Yeah, man. Relax. I’m Trent. I guess we both are. Can you let me sit down, I’m not feeling well.”
“Trent?” 2018 asked, stepping back.
2019 shook his head and took a seat, getting his bearings.
2018 looked around. He had forgotten his name. But his newer clone still remembered it. What else would he remember that 2018 had forgotten?
He decided he didn’t want to know.
The newborn clone was still woozy, he didn’t have a chance.
2018 grabbed him and shoved him into the open cloning tank where he was supposed to go.
“No, what are you-” 2019 managed to say and then the tank’s glass slammed shut and started to digest him. 2019 slapped his hand on the glass and had his mouth open in a silent scream. All 2018 could hear was the thud of his clone’s palm on the glass.
The automations stopped whining. A weight was lifted, it was like 2018’s ears were unplugged.
Oh, that was what was driving him mad for fourteen, no, fifteen endless days. The alarm, the whining.
Ahhh… Music to his ears, the silence, at last.
The cloning protocol was fed. The system was complete for now. It wouldn’t bother him until a standard year had passed. He’d decide then what to do.
Would he feed the next clone into it, recycling him straight out of the womb?
Or, would he decide it was too much, the pain of irradiation too unbearable, and he’d step inside and get recycled.
He’d see when the choice presented itself.
For now, there he was, a man feeding his own self to a machine orbiting a black hole eating bits of itself.
2018, no, he’d call himself 2019 now, decided to compose some music. Nobody would ever hear it, but it didn’t matter. He would hear it. Wasn’t that enough?
He went to work on figuring out the missing notes.