End of Line

Benzoate was the eight clone of an eighth clone. That is to say he had a proud and fine genetic heritage but those fabulous chromosomes were creaking quite badly by the time they took yet another piece and tossed it in his birthing dish. DNA is a tough little devil. It can take a lot, but it likes to mix and match. It doesn’t like being stamped out with a cookie cutter. The edges get worn and what should be a hand looks more like an ear. The natural copying and pasting process that takes place during sexual reproduction, for all of its faults and messiness does do the job. Sometimes though, that’s not an option.

Benzoate was the lucky recipient of those eighth hand genes. He couldn’t really complain though – it was either these genes or nothing. There wasn’t much diversity to go around these days. He stumbled up the road. His left foot dragged reluctantly, twisted in as it was, and sent a wake across the puddles. The streets would have been busier had the local industry not crashed and burned ten years ago. The decade-long depression that followed had chased anyone of real worth off-world and only the losers and defects were left.

The streets were filled with dust and disappointment. His footsteps stirred them only a little. Benzoate hadn’t worked for more than a week for two years and survived on the same repro-handout as everyone else. Food was bland but free, housing was free – no one could sell it so no one got kicked out. He coughed up a little more blood and spat it into the dust.

With little to do but hope for work Benzoate chose the only alternative. He ambled into The Pig of Nine Tails and was greeted by a boisterous chorus of “Benzie!” Benzoate nodded to the barman (a big Six named Mack, like all barmen) and walked the length of the room to the gang’s booth in the ill-lit murk. He slumped into a rickety chair. The booth was already tightly filled so he sat with his back to the bar.

“Benzie!” the bellower was penned in by the other eleven men and women who clutched their drinks and raised them in mocking salute. Mamalex, the bellower continued, ”Benzie. Bad news dude – I hear they’ve retired your stock.” Benzoate wasn’t sure how he felt about this, so he poured a glass from the pitcher of deathly-looking ale in the middle of the table.

“Probably just as well Mam, they don’t make us like they used to.”

The ancient gag cracked up the gang and Benzoate received a flurry of slaps on the back which did nothing for his loosening cough. Mamalex continued to shout at his default volume, even though they were the bar’s only customers:

“End of the line Mack – another pitcher for end of the line.”

“And who’s paying for this one?” came the even response.

“I’ll pay,” volunteered Benzoate, “man should pay for his own funeral right?”

“Aw, don’t take it so hard Benzie,” squealed Saratogen, her huge eyes almost lighting up the back of the alcove, “they never worked no line like yours.”

“Yeah, who ever heard of an Eight? Even Caromex only went to Seven.”

“And that twice!” chipped in Hyparomine.

“I heard the repro docs got drunk and forgot which tube went in which centrifuge.” Loradatune broke down in a fit of giggles and snorts.

“No, no. I heard of one other eight,” said Mamalex, “long time ago.”

“Ah, hush your nonsense,” laughed Hyparomine. Mamalex ignored him and with expansive arms reached out and drew in his audience.

“Way back when, in the early years – back when folks forgot how to breed and started cloning their kids, there was another man: end of line. They’d pushed his genes, copied ‘em, spliced ‘em for as long as they could. Them genes didn’t want to live no more; couldn’t take it. But they did it again. One last time. They needed him you see – there was something special about him, in his blood was magic.”

“Magic? Geez Mamalex, pull the other one.”

“Not magic-wizard-magic. Magic. Whose blood you think you got?”

“What?”

“This guy’s blood – this Eight. They’d bred him for the secret of his blood. He had the type to beat all the other bloods. The ultimate neutral, taken by anyone. So they pushed the line till they got what they needed – got what we all needed. Because sometimes, when you get to the end of the strands… something special happens.”

“And that’s why they’ve pushed Benzie?” asked Saratogen, her eyes lighting on Benzoate as he twitched gently.

“Sure – along with the intensified genetic illnesses, predisposition to muscular weakness, joint pain and early death. They get through us faster these days,“ continued Mamalex, “there’s miracles in the genome waiting to be seen – super-powers, if you like.”

The table was crowded round, intent on the possibilities in Mamalex’s tale.

“Psychic powers”

“Flying”

“The secrets of immortality,” breathed Mamalex.

There was a thud as Benzoate’s head hit the table, and he slid off his stool.

“Well, maybe not for Benzie. End of line Mack! Another pitcher!”

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