Fourth Time by Jake Troxell

Katrina pressed the tip of the gun firmly against her temple. She’d never lifted a firearm before that morning and was surprised how light the steel canon felt in her steady hand. For so many years, it just sat collecting dust in the family safe next to their passports, Repeater documents, and a stack of emergency money. Every few months she’d need to open the safe to retrieve something. The dial would click back and forth and back one more time before the mechanism inside released. Every time the door swung open, a cold panic would race through her bones as if the gun were sitting on the other side waiting for the chance to fire at her. It was a silly fear, guns don’t typically shoot without being touched, but unfamiliar things often breed strange fears. With surgical caution, her hand would slide in, making sure never to even graze the grey weapon. When her business was finished, she would quickly seal the door as if the gun were going to hop out after her.

By the time she turned fifty, she no longer feared the firearm; no longer respected its power. She’d shift it from side to side as she looked deeper into the safe for what she was looking for.  Now, Katrina adjusted her wrinkled fingers around the grip. She liked the wrinkles, they were new. She’d never been so old before; her hands were always so silky smooth and soft. Her husband, Allen, occasionally joked she should be a hand model and it always made her blush. Going through life with a face like hers, Katrina learned to cherish any real compliment she received. In her mother’s later years, after the Alzheimer’s made honesty cruel, she described her daughter as potato-like with features as jagged and miserable as a ruffled potato chip. She had grown up in Idaho and had an intense dislike for potatoes.

Allen never called her beautiful. She never called him handsome. It was just an unspoken truth between the two. They were not a pretty pair and felt no need to lie about it. Their smiles didn’t shine, but their eyes did glimmer for one another, past the physical exterior and into the mind. Not to say there was no sexual attraction between the pair. They made love quite frequently. Even in their freshly wrinkled forms, the two could not keep their hands off one another for more than a few days.

The previous evening, after the two had climaxed, they laid out in the silent night. Their legs tangled together, while their torsos looked for sanctuary in the cool evening air. Chests rising and falling as their hearts and lungs searched for more agreeable rhythm. In the summer months, they enjoyed being intimate on the lawn. What was the point in owning fifty acres of land if you weren’t going to use them?

Allen caught his breath first. He brought his head onto her shoulder and whispered, “I’ll never be tired of you, Katrina.”

The words carried with them a great wave of warmth. It flooded Katrina from ears to toes. She nuzzled closer as her lips pulled into a smile. He traced his thumb across the smile lines on her cheeks. Those lines had several lifetimes worth of laughter hidden deep inside them. Katrina closed her eyes. They were floating in the starlight like she and Allen were no longer on Earth. They had been together for a long time but, at that moment, all those years became fleeting and meaningless. A tear ran down her cheek and traced across the valleys Allen had explored. She kept her eyes shut and drifted off.

When she opened the safe door the next morning, she casually reached inside and retrieved the handgun. She’d never removed it from the safe before, only moved it within, and was disappointed to find that holding the object she once feared so greatly in her hands didn’t send any chills down her spine.

Hours later, when she pulled the gun out and placed it to her own temple, she felt immortal, and she hated it. Katrina leaned forward and kissed herself tenderly on the back of the head. She lingered for a moment, taking in how soft and brown her hair was, before ending her life. Blood splashed across her face. It shot into her open mouth with such force that she choked. She didn’t consider closing it before firing. Katrina’s ears rang as she spat fresh blood onto her dead body. Her young clone lay motionless on the floor in front of her. A pool of gore forming around her freshly shattered head. The monitors connected to her arms were buzzing and screaming. The colorful screens on the wall blinked bright in a digital panic.

Through the chaos, a smile crept across Katrina’s face. It wasn’t sinister, not how you’d expect someone smiling over a dead body. It was a wholesome expression of pure happiness; a wrongfully convicted man being released from prison after serving so many years. Katrina was unaware of her prison until last night, unaware of the cages she purchased and had been living in for almost a century and a half.

She tilted her head back slightly to soak up light from an imaginary sun. Though she was only met by the yellowing beams of the lab’s overhead lights, it felt like sunrise on a hot August day, and the warmth tickled her.

An alarmed technician rushed into the room and was greeted by a blood-soaked woman standing above a crumpled body. He halted just in the doorway as Katrina’s gun gained his attention. The wide-eyed man, already on high alert from the alarms, tried to back out of the room before another technician rushed through the doorway and sent him tripping into a puddle of Katrina’s blood and brain matter. It took the first man a moment to gain his balance. It was then that he realized that the woman with the gun and the woman on the floor were one and the same.

“You—you shot your clone?” asked the bewildered employee of the Lifesource Foundation.

She didn’t really feel the need to answer his question. She was in the middle of reshaping the remaining years of her life. She was no longer immortal, yet she felt more invincible than she ever had in the past fourteen decades. She was human again. Not as human as she once was but human, nonetheless. She stared down at the lump on the floor, almost envious of its innocence born without a thought in its mind. No wants. No desires. An angelic child who lived and died before being caught up in all those nasty complications of being immortal.

The lifeless eyes of two dozen other clones watched her from their inclined beds. The alerts sirens and the gunshot did nothing to stir them from their mindless slumber. There was no cognitive function to note, just empty vessels waiting for old age, disease, or accident to tag them into the game.

The second technician spoke, “I’m…I’m calling the cops. You can’t shoot a clone—that’s got to be illegal, right?”

“She was just a clone. She was my fourth one. Why would any of us want or need a fourth clone?” Katrina finally spoke.

At the Lifesource Foundation, old age, death, accident, diseases all became problems of the past. The innovative process offered temporary immortality to all those who walk through their doors, rich or poor. Using their patented genome duplication process, technicians were able to create a perfect clone of their clients at the ideal age. The clone’s DNA structures were altered at the clients request to do things like remove diseases, switch genders, alter physical appearance, and countless other improvements for their next life.

It was always an important part of the process that the clone be created with limited cognition and it took some time to prove this to the world. Initially, the public was nervous that the clone would just be a better, younger version of themselves and it would escape the lab and kill their original. Public fears were eased once it was understood that it was much easier to warehouse the non-functioning specimens until the customer was ready to vacate his or her current body rather than hold another person in prison all their life. Mindless clones exercised and nourished in a sterile environment until their owner was ready to make the leap. That final commitment was when the company perform the full temporal transference. A client’s consciousness was moved into the fresh clone. It was temporary immortality so long as they continued to repeat the process.

Katrina was done looking at her clone’s limp body. The Lifesource Foundation always made sure that when you made the transference, you never saw your old body. It was supposedly psychologically unsettling to throw away your body, though Katrina now found it quite cathartic. Her three previous forms, her original body, and two clones were all cremated and handled as medical waste after she made the switch.

She moved towards the door and out towards the rest of her life. The technicians weren’t foolish enough to try and stop a bloody woman with a gun from leaving the office. Katrina smiled politely at the horrified receptionist as she exited. Voices followed her from behind into the parking lot.

“Oh god, the woman just came out and she pointed her gun right at me. I swore she was going to kill me. She was covered in blood….” The conversation trailed off as the big glass doors slowly sealed shut.

Warm, she felt it all over her body. Her insides burned red hot with the excitement of her newfound mortality. Her wrinkled skin glowed beneath the sunshine. She wondered if her face would fill with liver spots as her body finally entered its golden years. She had a few wrinkles already. Her breasts were beginning to sag and her chicken legs rounding out with fat. Her physician told her she was entering the early stages of menopause now. What would life be like without menstruation?

The first cloning process had manipulated the genes for Alzheimer and breast cancer which she’d watched annihilate her mother and grandmother respectively, she looked forward to never dealing with those horrors again. She’d never lived past forty before this body. In her first body, the one her mother had given birth to, she had developed the same breast cancer as her grandmother. It was hard to beat and had spread to her nodes and, even with an early diagnosis, it was impossible to beat.

She and Allen chose to fix the disease through cloning within a week of diagnosis. She fought the disease for four months and made the leap from her deathbed at forty to a healthy twenty-year-old looking body. Some people struggle with the transition as muscles need to be strengthened and the first few weeks are spent in physical therapy relearning a lifetime of movements.  Katrina had grown accustomed to the weakness of her illness and welcomed the opportunity to rebuild herself from scratch.

There had been so many options in the cloning process for improvements to her form, and she could afford all of them, but the couple had simply chosen to remove their genetic diseases. She only had an afternoon to decide in order to be able to fast-track her clone within her expected lifespan. Her potato face was hers, and she had no desire to look at a stranger in the mirror. Allen had considered softening his rat-like features by reducing his nose and brightening his sunken eyes, but Katrina had urged him away. He secretly made his ears smaller—a detail she never noticed, but he reveled in.

Katrina’s body felt stronger than it ever had before but it was missing something: Allen, the reason she did all of this. She was going home. She was going to sleep with Allen. She was going to do that every day until her body wouldn’t cooperate anymore. Then she would just lay with him and hold him close. She’d do that until arthritis set in and became too painful to closer her hands. Then she’d just stare at him from across the room, then from a hospital bed, and then she’d die. The thought made her smile. A full life lived with love.

There was the possibility that they’d come together again in the afterlife, but she didn’t put a lot of weight into religion. Did she even have a soul after cheating death so many times? Some of the zealots on the radio claimed you couldn’t carry your soul from body to body. Once you died that first time, it went to heaven or hell. The idea never cost her much sleep, but there had been moments in the past century that she allowed herself to consider this.

Allen would be upset by her actions when he found out. He’d undoubtedly call the Lifesource Foundation in the morning and demand a new clone be prepared for her. It was a relatively quick growth process, much shorter than the first time they ordered clones, it used to take around 4 months, but now you could grow a younger, healthier you in just four weeks. She’d refuse though and so would the company. That was why she used the gun. She wanted to make a stink, to burn the bridge, to get herself blacklisted. She would explain to Allen why she did it. Why she didn’t want to live forever. Why all she wanted was to breathe her last breath knowing that she had loved and had been loved.

“We planned to spend eternity together,” she would say to him, “but the shortest moment can become eternity. I want to live in those pockets of life – like last night on the lawn. I can only feel that way so many times before it becomes meaningless. I don’t want to stretch them out over another hundred years. I want the next forty or fifty years to be the only one’s worth living. I want to die knowing I lived a true life.”

She had lived this life with Allen for so long. They had been everywhere and seen everything: safaris in Africa, dinners at the finest restaurants in France, tours of the most spiritual sites in Tibet, and they’d even planted a tree in the Antarctic green zone. They’d seen so many movies and read so many books that new ones just seemed like sloppy retellings of older ones. They both had multiple degrees from the finest universities. They built a lovely house, drove beautiful cars, and hadn’t worked in decades. Katrina and Allen had everything someone daydreams about while driving home from work, but all those things were so irrelevant to her now.

In the distance, Katrina could hear the sirens screaming as they raced towards the building.

She realized it last night on the grass. Love was the most important thing in the universe. The strongest, most undeniable feeling that you can feel. “I’ll never get tired of you, never,” he once said, but he would one day. She knew he would eventually grow weary of their love and, one day, she would grow sick of him too. Just in the same way they had grown tired of French cuisine, vacations in the desert, and so many things that once made their hearts race. How long before seeing her smile was like watching one of those poorly rebooted movies?

Most of the Extenders they knew didn’t stay married to the same person from life to life. They’d experiment with everything in the cloning process from altering their physical appearance to increasing their athleticism to changing their gender and living life from a completely different perspective. They’d search every single nook and cranny of life for some greater feeling of happiness. Though Katrina and Allen never experimented quite so drastically, she recognized they were caught in this same rat race. All the vacations and fancy things were just distractions to keep her from realizing how bored they really were.

“We can cheat death, but we’re only cheating ourselves,” she would say to him. She daydreamed through the parking lot towards her car. All she needed, all she longed for, was the familiarity of Allen’s arms. The fleetingness of those opportunities was what made life worth living.

“Drop the gun!” A woman’s voice cried out from behind her.

She released the steel chunk from her hand and heard it clatter against the pavement. Katrina turned to face two police officers shielding themselves behind the doors of their cruiser, their guns were drawn on her from over car’s side mirrors.

Cold terror raced up her spine as the possibility occurred to her that she could be gunned down right there and, if that happened, she might never see Allen again. She wouldn’t be carted or airlifted back to a Lifesource Foundation building to have her mind transferred within six hours of death like all the others. She would simply bleed out and disappear forever. This would be the body that would finally be buried in their family mausoleum.

“Oh, how exciting,” she thought as she smiled at the officers.