A Free Man

Originally published in The Mods by Shacklebound Books

The light from the Syntech fab unit cast an eerie green glow on Viktor’s face as he peered through the glass at the synthetic woman being assembled before his eyes.

The android’s silicone skin faded from milky white to medium brown as chromatic polymers adjusted to match the skin tone configured on the fab unit’s touchscreen. Subdermal actuators adjusted the structure of the synthetic’s face—raising its cheekbones, reshaping its eyes, slimming its jaw—while semifluid silicone fillers plumped the lips and rounded the chin. The legs and arms lengthened. The hips widened. A pair of small breasts swelled under the synthetic’s bodysuit.

Viktor turned away from the fab unit, then paused. Sitting on a bench behind him was a well-dressed man with a matte black smartsleeve fastened around one forearm. A holostream of a news report projected from his smartsleeve into the air in front of him, showing a drone’s eye view of yesterday’s jailbreak at Rancor Island prison. The fleeing prisoners looked like scattering insects as they fanned out from a breach in the prison wall.

The man noticed Viktor looking at him. He dismissed the holostream then plucked a small earbud from his ear. “Yes?” He seemed annoyed by the interruption.

“Oh, sorry,” Viktor said. “I was just wondering about this one.” He indicated the synthetic in the fab unit behind him. “Is she a replica? Or an original?”

The man looked around with a faux-confused expression. “Do I look like I work here?”

“No, I thought— She’s not yours?”

“Nope. Mine’s over there.” He gestured at a smaller fab unit down the line. Inside, a pre-teen boy was being fabricated. The synthetic bore a passing resemblance to the man: same curly auburn hair, same deep-set blue eyes, same thin lips. “For the wife,” the man clarified.

“Ah. My bad.” Viktor wandered down the line of fab units to take a closer look at the boy. “Cute kid. He have a name yet?”

“He did.” The man sniffed, then looked down at his hands. “Tommy.”

Viktor winced a little. He should have known that the boy was a replica. Why else would someone choose to fabricate a child, if not to replace one they had lost?

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay. It was a few years ago.” The man stood and walked over to the fab unit. He smiled sadly as he gazed at the boy’s face. “He would have been ten this week.”

“You aging him up?”

“Yeah. Can’t keep ’em young forever, right?” He tapped and swiped on his smartsleeve, bringing up a 3D holoscan of the same boy—the real Tommy—albeit a few years younger. “What do you think?” He looked at the older version of the boy in the fab unit. “Pretty good likeness, right?”

“Definitely,” Viktor agreed.

It was more than just ‘pretty good’—it was perfect. Syntech’s technology had gotten scarily accurate in the last few years. The company was able to synthesize a perfect replica of any person, living or dead. It was illegal to do the former though. There were strict laws against creating a synthetic version of anybody who was still alive. The days of identity theft being just a stolen credit card or Social Security number were long gone—criminals could steal a person’s actual identity with something as simple as a 3D holoscan of their likeness. Except for a small microdot array at the base of its neck, a synthetic was indistinguishable from an actual human.

The man dismissed the holostream of his son, then looked down the line of fab units. There were about fifty of them set up along the perimeter of the Syntech Store, all of them busy fabricating new synthetics. “Which one’s yours?” the man asked Viktor.

“None of them yet. Still trying to decide. So many choices, you know?” The lie came effortlessly.

“I can help with that,” a voice said from behind. Viktor turned to see a Syntech Store associate approaching him. The associate wore a black collared shirt with a glowing green Syntech logo on the chest. He extended his hand to Viktor. “I’m Kris. And you are …?”

“Just looking,” Viktor said. He held up his palm to ward off the impending sales pitch. “Thanks, though.”

As Viktor lowered his arm, he noticed that the 12-digit number tattooed on the underside of his wrist was visible. He quickly tugged down his sleeve to cover it.

“Don’t thank me yet,” Kris replied with a sly grin. “This week only, we’re running a special promotion. Try out any of our synthetics for twenty-four hours, free of charge. If you’re not completely satisfied, we’ll refund your deposit, no questions asked.” He clasped his hands in front of his waist, then leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Now you can thank me.”

Before Viktor could reply, the fab unit containing Tommy’s replica gave a cheery little jingle. The glass door slid open with a whoosh, releasing a rush of supercooled air into the store. Steam swirled and spiraled around the synthetic as he stepped from the fab unit and smiled up at his human father. “Hey, Dad. Where’s Mom?”

A sob hitched in the man’s chest. He hugged the boy, then took his hand. “Come on. Let’s go find her.” He smiled at Viktor as he walked past. “Nice meeting you.” His eyes darted to the cuff of Viktor’s sleeve. “Good luck.”

“You too.” Viktor self-consciously tugged his sleeve down as he watched the man lead the synthetic out of the store and over to a woman waiting at a table outside. The woman’s hands flew to her mouth when she saw the boy. She grabbed him in a tight embrace. Tears spilled from her eyes.

After the woman released her grip on the boy, her husband leaned in to say something. The woman’s brow furrowed with concern. She glanced into the store, directly at Viktor, then quickly averted her eyes. She said something back to her husband. He nodded in agreement, then swiped at his smartsleeve as they began walking away.

“So?” Kris prompted. “What do you say?”

Viktor nodded. “Let’s do it.”

Viktor sat across from Kris at the sales counter in the back of the Syntech Store, his knee bouncing impatiently. The ordering process was taking a lot longer than he had anticipated. He shot a glance over his shoulder. He didn’t like having his back to the entrance—he hated not being able to see who was approaching from behind. He sighed, then turned back to Kris. “We almost done?”

Kris pivoted the point-of-sale touchscreen around to face Viktor. “Yes, sir. I’ll just need you to review this, then sign at the bottom.” As Viktor scrolled quickly through the contract, Kris leaned in and commented in a lowered voice, “I’m glad you finally decided to pull the trigger, by the way.”

Viktor looked up from the tablet, perplexed. “Excuse me?”

“I saw you in here yesterday, talking to my associate.” Kris motioned to another Syntech Store rep further down the sales counter, a heavyset man with a patchy red beard. The nameplate on the counter said his name was Simon. “We work on commission, so …”

“Ah. Well, you earned it.” Viktor scribbled an indecipherable signature on the touchscreen with his finger, then pivoted the screen back to Kris.

“Very good, sir,” Kris tapped on the touchscreen a few times. “And will this be an original, or a replica?”

Viktor’s fingers flipped the coindrive containing the 3D holoscan over in his hand. His palm was slick with sweat. “Replica,” he answered, then placed the small silver disc on the counter.

“Excellent.” Kris clicked the coindrive into the reader on his tablet. A holoscan of Viktor’s body appeared on the screen. Kris frowned. “Sir, I apologize, but we can’t accept this scan.”

“Sure, you can.” Viktor palmed a plastic cred from his pocket and slid it across Kris’ desk. The denomination on the front was 100,000CC, more than a sales rep like Kris made in a month.

Kris’ eyes darted around, then focused back on Viktor. He whispered, “I can’t take this.”

“Sure, you can,” Viktor said again, more pointedly this time. “Or should I talk to your friend Simon over there? I’m sure he’d be happy to help.” He motioned to the heavyset sales associate. The gesture seemed to catch the man’s attention. He glanced over at Viktor. A mixture of recognition and concern rippled across his face.

Shit, Viktor thought. He hadn’t intended for the man to notice him.

Simon apologized to his current client, then stood and walked over to Viktor. “Hello, again! Was there a problem with your replica I can help you with?”

Viktor swallowed hard, then smiled. “Nope. Everything’s fine.”

Kris looked between Viktor and Simon, confused. “I don’t understand. Did you order—”

A commotion arose behind Viktor, cutting off Kris mid-sentence. His eyes shifted past Viktor to the front of the store. The color drained from his face.

Viktor turned to see a dozen black-clad police in full tactical gear storming through the glass doors behind him. The cops fanned out in a semi-circular formation as they approached the sales desk, their weapons at the ready.

Simon raised his hands and backed away. “I’m sorry! I didn’t spend any of it! I swear!”

“Relax,” Viktor said as he stood and faced the police. “They’re not here for you.” A cacophony of shouting voices ordered Viktor to put his hands in the air. Viktor complied.

One of the cops clamped a cuff around one of Viktor’s wrists, then bent his arm roughly down and behind his back. As he grabbed the other arm, he checked the 12-digit number tattooed on Viktor’s wrist.

“It’s him!” he shouted. He bent Viktor’s other wrist down and cuffed it, then leaned in and growled into Viktor’s ear. “Wait’ll we get you back, boy. We’re gonna have a good time.” He gave Viktor a shove, then grabbed him roughly by the arm and walked him out of the store.

Outside, another cop opened the back doors of an armored van parked on the sidewalk. White block letters were stamped on the side: RANCOR ISLAND. The two officers lifted Viktor into the transport. Neither of them seemed to notice the small microdot array at the base of his neck.

The doors slammed shut, leaving Viktor alone in the back of the van. He closed his eyes and rested his head against the cool metal interior, cursing himself for starting that conversation with Tommy’s father. He hadn’t meant to. Seeing the holostream about the prison break had frozen him in his tracks—the conversation was just a cover. But then the guy saw the number on Viktor’s wrist, which made the situation even worse. He must have connected the dots and called the police. How else would they have known Viktor was there?

Viktor regretted not getting to the Syntech Store earlier. It took him too long to come up with a plan, too long to realize that all Syntech needed to fabricate a replica was a holoscan of the original … even if the ‘original’ was a replica itself. He realized he could create another replica to take his place, just as the original Viktor had created him yesterday. But he had been too casual about it, too worried about looking like just another customer instead of ordering the replica—the replica of a replica—the moment he walked into the store.

As the transport pulled away from the curb, Viktor peered out the narrow window at the crowd of onlookers that had gathered to watch his arrest. His synthetic heart triphammered in his chest. One of the men in the crowd looked familiar.

No, not just familiar.

Identical.

The man gave Viktor a nod and mouthed one word: Sorry.

Then he turned and disappeared into the crowd, a free man.


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