Tuesday Short Story: “Painting Angels” by M. Hulme

Today’s Tuesday Short Story is by Martin Hulme. Martin was disappointed to discover that writing wasn’t actually all about drinking large amounts of booze, locking yourself away in the attic with an old typewriter and letting your enigmatic thoughts spill out on to the page. For one thing, his two children, wife, day time job as a Podiatrist, two cats, five fish and two chickens (Beth and Suzie) won’t let him.

So from time to time, as an idea strikes, he wrestles it down on to the page for others to endure.

Martin has been playing table top RPGs for over thirty years and still hosts a weekly gaming group to this day. The idea of Mendes, or at least her plight, didn’t come from any one game, but was inspired by several. Games like Mindjammer, GURPS Transhuman Space and Eclipse Phase all deal with what might become of humanity in the future.

Perhaps it would be more honest to say that he has been influenced by some of the so-called “indie press” titles that have appeared over the last decade or so. Ron Edward’s Sorcerer in particular deals with the question: What will you do to get what you want?

This story is Mendes’ answer to that question.

This is the story’s first publication.

Painting Angels

by M. Hulme

Mendes guessed it was maybe four hours since she’d felt her baby move. She tried to tell herself it would be sluggish because she hadn’t eaten in two days, but worry made her stomach clench. She tried to focus on the picture of an angel she was scratching into the aged plaster of the wall. Next to her was a small cardboard box filled with blankets that would be the baby’s cot.

Four hours, maybe a bit longer. It had been so active up until now, its small kicks becoming nauseating waves as the child grew inside her. Mendes placed one hand on her swollen abdomen and used the other to begin colouring in the picture with the stub of blue crayon she’d found lodged between the bare floorboards of her decrepit apartment.

She carefully shaded its wings, squinting hard in the dim light of a battery lantern. It made Mendes feel like an ancient cave-dweller, covering the walls with images of the Gods, so that they might protect her child when it came. If it came.

The dead weight of the baby was pressing heavily on her bladder, making kneeling too painful to continue. She slid across the floor and heaved herself up onto the head so she could pee. The dead weight. God, why had she thought that? Her panic began to rise again.

Mendes reached into the pocket of her great coat and pulled out a metal food token and held it in front of her face while she emptied her bladder. She needed to make it to the food queues today, or neither of them would have the energy to survive the birth.

Johnny should have been there to get them food, but he’d given up, left her and the baby to fend for themselves. He’d turned out to be just another Norm. They weren’t fighters, weren’t born to it. Worry gave way to the bitter anger which had been her basic state since she’d been dumped in the ghetto four months ago.

Her unit would have looked after her. Sergeant Mendes would have had a squad to protect her. The Army didn’t give a shit if you were a Clone, it wasn’t their fault they’d lost. They’d fought and died. She was still fighting, but she’d never felt so helpless.

With a grunt, Mendes stood. No blood in the bowl as she rinsed it out with a pail of water. A wave of dizziness caused her to lean against the wall until the world refocussed. Then she grabbed a battered knapsack, pushed a length of steel piping inside the sleeve of her coat, and made for the door.

She’d set out as early as she dared, choosing that small interval of early morning where the gangs of Norms and Clones had finished fighting, and the other inhabitants of the ghetto still slept in whatever hovel they called home. She moved as quickly as she could, through the dark frost-covered streets, not wanting to fall and hurt her unborn child.

Down to the food station, where she waited on the red line, stamping her feet and crossing her arms over her belly. Her back ached and her ankles had begun to swell.

Maybe twenty people were ahead of her in the queue, mostly Norms, but she could see the bar-coded bald heads of four or five Clones up ahead. The Norms eyed her resentfully, but said nothing. She was banking on her Clone heritage, and the violence it implied, to protect her long enough to get her food and go.

The electric servos of the trucks whined as they backed up, ready to make their deliveries. The soldiers, snug in their nanofibre ponchos, eyed the queue carefully. Something was different today. Police cars flanked the delivery trucks, and a sergeant, holding his automatic rifle casually, was talking to plain-clothes cop. As a Clone approached to receive a food ration, the guards scanned the bar-code tattoo at the nape of his neck. One soldier nodded and the Clone was escorted out of the line towards a waiting VTOL. He tried to resist, but there were far too many soldiers. The other Clones shouted and jostled, but all of them were scanned, and most of them were taken.

Shit, they’re harvesting straight from the food line. The realisation caused a pulse of adrenaline to course down Mendes’ spine. The baby sensed her agitation and gave a violent kick that made her double over. Harvested, stripped for parts, like a worn-out appliance that had served its purpose. She breathed deeply and straightened up, at least the baby was moving. She pulled a length of blanket out of her pocket and wrapped it around her head; if she could sneak away, maybe she could get some food from one of the gangs.

“Your kind shouldn’t even have children,” a straggle-bearded man shouted at her, grabbing her arm. “There ain’t enough food for us decent folk, never mind you Clones breeding.” His other hand shot out and tried to grab the blanket off her head. Mendes acted on instinct; sliding the length of steel pipe from her sleeve, she smashed it down hard on his outstretched arm. The man screamed and fell to his knees, the queue scattered, people yelling and pointing in her direction. Her pelvis ached horribly as she tried to force her legs into a run.

Soldiers shouted for her to halt, and somebody grabbed both her arms from behind. They tried to slap cuffs on her, she fought free and broke the nose of the guy trying to hold her. He whipped out a nightstick and beat her across the shoulder-blades. She fell to her knees, desperately trying not to land on the baby.

A pair of dust-covered brogues filled her vision. “Ok, take it easy, Mendes. We’re not here to –”

She knew that voice. Bruce, the Fuck who had sold her and Johnny out. She sank her teeth into his leg and didn’t let go.

A satisfying scream sounded from above her. “Fucking taser the bitch! Get her off me! Jesus Chr…”

* * *

Her baby was gone.

Mendes knew it instinctively as she woke. That other presence within her, the constant feedback of its weight, its movements inside her womb, that sense of being physically, emotionally and utterly linked to another living being had been ripped out of her. Now there was just an emptiness and a bone-deep sense of loss. A low moan rose from somewhere deep inside her and increased in pitch until it became a scream.

A hassled looking medic rushed in to sedate Mendes before she could trash the hospital room. She turned to her equally hassled nurse. “Her vitals are OK. Let her sleep this off then get her up, give her the Cred stick and get her out of here. We need the bed.”

“Why did they save her?” asked the nurse as he righted an overturned lamp.

The doctor was already leaving the room. “No idea. But somebody wanted it that way.” She nodded towards the comatose figure of Mendes. “I think she’s wishing they hadn’t bothered.”

Mendes could see the wary look on the nurse’s face as she came to. She caught sight of the sleeve of a security guard waiting just outside the room.

“I won’t make trouble, I promise.” Her throat felt like she’d swallowed bleach. She had to ask, though knowing would only increase her pain. “Was it a boy or a girl?”

“I’m not supposed to say anything, I’m sorry. They left this for you though.” He palmed the small plastic Cred stick onto the top of the trolley next to her bed.

Mendes swallowed to clear the back of her throat. “Please. I just need to know and I’ll go, I promise.”

He lowered his gaze and turned to leave. “A girl.”

She was surprised to find they allowed her to leave unescorted from the front entrance of the hospital. No VTOL waiting to take her back to the ghetto, just a fresh set of clothes and the Cred stick.

A green cursor winked in the bottom left corner of her vision. Her AI was activated, and trying to reset. No wireless signal within the ghetto, no way of connecting to the net. Its inhabitants were lost, exiled from civilisation. Their AIs and all that went with them crawled away into a corner of their owner’s subconscious and hid there. Mendes thumbed the DNA sensor on the stick, causing a bar-code to illuminate its surface. Her AI read it and a voice, her voice, spoke inside her head. “A bank account has been opened in your name. The current balance stands at eighty thousand dollars.”

They’ve harvested my baby and bought me off. The thought made her want to puke.

* * *

The money rented Mendes a furnished apartment and a few months breathing space to find a job. America still stood by the principal of free enterprise; as long as you were willing to work and could sustain yourself, you were considered a member of society, Clone or not.

Someone had given Mendes a second chance, but with her baby harvested, it felt like a death sentence. She tried to find purpose in the life she’d been given. Old habits, formed long ago during her Army days, kicked in. She got herself back to fitness, performed boot camp routines, but she was training for a mission that never came.

“Hey, Cloner, I asked for a JD straight up and a Budweiser.”

The shout brought her back to the here and now. She busied herself behind the bar, and ignored the “Fucking Clone” comment when she put the guy’s order down in front of him.

Mendes yelled over the pulsing dance music. “Hey, Steve, I’m taking five, ok?” The bar manager nodded at her and Mendes slipped away under blue neon light.

She glanced at the topless dancers as she made her way towards the fire exit. Those girls could make damn good money from the tips and private dances. She’d done that work herself, back in the day, back when she’d met Johnny. Not now, though; carrying the baby under such extreme circumstances had taken its toll on her once firm body. Now she had stretch marks around her stomach and her pelvis still ached when she stood a full shift behind the bar. Nobody was going to pay her to dance around a pole.

Mendes recognised the guy in the hooded combat jacket and altered course to intercept him. He caught her eye and gave the vaguest of nods, acknowledging a regular customer. As they passed she slipped a Cred stick into his pocket and he palmed her three Stim tabs.

She made it outside and took a deep pull on a cigarette, her right hand unconsciously rubbing her abdomen. There had been times when she was sure she could feel the baby kicking inside her again. Those were the worst, the evenings when the nightmares came; they were the nights when she wanted to end it all. But something inside her wouldn’t let her do that; Clones survive, Clones overcome.

Mendes flicked the cigarette away. She had her life back, didn’t she? She was right back where she had started, before Johnny, before the ghetto. Before the baby.

She pushed herself away from the wall and headed back into the bar. A whimper came from somewhere down the rain-slicked alley. She saw a few cardboard boxes moving and heard someone singing a hushed lull-a-bye. She followed the sound.

A black woman, her head shrouded in a scarf and a Yankees baseball cap pulled low over her eyes, cradled a bundle of old blankets. Mendes eventually recognised it as a tiny baby. The woman looked up, then returned to patting the baby back to sleep. “You got any smokes?” Her voice was rasping and rough, nothing like the hushed tones she’d sung to the baby.

Mendes patted her pockets, then crouched to hand her pack to the woman. She nodded, and knocked one out with her free hand and stuck it in her mouth. Mendes held out her lighter, then tossed it to the woman. “Keep it,” she said.

The woman nodded again, and exhaled a long stream of smoke. “Shit, that’s better. Clone, huh? Damn, you got yer own problems, girl.” She gave a low chuckle. “Still, you seem like you doin’ ok.”

“How old’s your baby?” Mendes asked.

“This little man here is four months old. I got two older kids—eleven and fo’teen. The eldest, he out workin’ the all night shift at a bakery down town. He’ll be back by mornin’.”

Mendes gave a slight smile. “What about the other one?”

She shrugged. “Don’t know. Caught him turnin’ tricks a few months ago. We had a big argument ‘bout it. He said he was worried, yer know—me with the young ‘un comin’? Said it was the only thing he could do to help get money. I says, if that’s the only thing, then I’d rather starve then see you doin’ that ever ’gain. But he went back the followin’ day, I know he did—haven’t seen him in three months.” She looked into the distance, as if she could see her missing son. “He could be dead. Or livin’ some place else. I don’t think so, though—Louis wouldn’t leave us like that. Maybe they picked him up, stuck him in that hellhole over south side. And once you end up in the Ghetto, there ain’t no chance of findin’ nothin’ in there. Nothin’ good come outta that place.”

The woman’s eyes were tearing up. The baby murmured and she hugged him harder.

Another girl from the bar wandered out into the alley. “Hey, Sarah? Steve wants you back in, pronto. Clearing tables.”

“I got to go.” Mendes stuck her hand in her pocket again and came out with some notes she’d taken as tips. “It’s all I’ve got, sorry.”

The woman thanked her. “You got kids, girl?”

People like you shouldn’t have kids. “Had a little girl. She’s dead.” Saying it out loud for the first time, Mendes was surprised; it wasn’t sorrow that rose within her, but a cold anger at those that had taken her baby.

The black woman gave Mendes a look filled with sympathy. “Hurts, don’t it?” she said quietly.

“They took her. I— Will you be here tomorrow?”

The woman shrugged. “Dunno, depends if we have to dodge the cops or such.” She started singing the lull-a-bye once more, and looked away from Mendes as if she’d never seen her in the first place.

* * *

Somewhere, her baby was crying for her. Mendes was back on that first combat shuttle, strapped in and ready to make a hot landing. She could see the grim faces of her squad mates sat opposite her, bathed red by the emergency lighting.

Sergeant Quirk was yelling into their earpieces. “Thank your lucky stars Congress passed the blessed Substitution Act so your betters could protect their spoilt kids from fighting for their country! Instead, they cloned you badass motherfuckers to take their place! Them rich kids might live to a ripe old age, but they’ll never be part of brotherhood like you guys. Yeah, you got handed the shit stick, but that don’t mean you can’t glory in the chance you was given. Now watch out for your brothers and sisters, strap on those fucking guns, and let’s go kill us some Chinks!”

The squad whooped and high-fived each other. Over in the corner of the shuttle Mendes made out the woman from the alley, still wrapped in her rags, holding a child in her arms. She extended it towards Mendes.

“It’s a girl,” the woman said.

Mendes reached out to take her baby, tried to unbuckle her harness to reach them, but the sirens blared and the shuttle doors swung open, sending the woman and the child tumbling into space. Mendes screamed and leapt after them.

She awoke, gasping for air, clutching at her barren stomach. Mendes curled up sobbing in to the creased sheets of her bed. The nightmares were getting worse. She’d tried to stay awake, empty Stim patches littered the apartment, but exhaustion eventually overtook her. And there the woman from the alley would be waiting, looking at her accusingly for not saving her own child.

When no more tears would come, Mendes stumbled to the bathroom to vomit. A grey sweat-slicked ghost stared at her from the bathroom mirror, hollow-eyed and gaunt. She couldn’t live like this any longer. She hadn’t been able to go back to work after meeting the woman in the alley, and had no idea if that was two days or two weeks ago.

The same desperation that had made her struggle out to find food back in the ghetto now drove her to shower, dress, and head out for revenge.

* * *

Bruce Claver stood across the street, shoving a burrito into his fat, middle-aged face, laughing with a couple of uniformed officers. He waved to the cops before jaywalking over to her side of the road. Mendes followed him along streets containing the last few evening commuters to an underground car-park. He belched loudly, and thumbed the door sensor on a red Samsung. As he bent down to enter, Mendes quickly ran up behind him and shoved him forwards, smacking his head against the doorframe, then bundled him into the car and closed the door behind her.

He landed heavily in the seat, one hand on his injured forehead, the other clumsily trying to unholster his side-arm. Mendes punched low, crushing his balls, and making him double over. She took his gun and waited for him to recover.

“You fuckin– you’re assaulting a police officer? For Christ’s sake!”

“Shut up. Tell the car to get onto the highway and keep driving.”

Bruce stared from the gun to the look in her eye and issued instructions to the car.

“I see it’s Captain Claver now,” Mendes said. “Ratting your friends out seems to pay pretty well.”

He looked at her, indignant. “Johnny was my best friend, we were family. Then he gets himself mixed up with you. I mean, a fucking Clone? Screwing you is one thing, but moving in with you?”

“What the hell did we ever do to you? Why would you do that to us?”

Bruce looked at her like she was an idiot. “Have you got any idea how much police time is spent cleaning up after your kind?”

He ignored the gun and glared at Mendes. “We’re police officers, we’re not trained to deal with a pack of psychos. Twenty-five officer deaths in the first year alone from Clone-related crimes. The goddamned Ghetto was a good thing, a good thing. Get you off the streets along with the rest of the junk, leave the rest of us alone.” Mendes watched a look of disgust cross his face. “And then my partner decides to get one knocked up? Shit, do you know what would have happened to him? Everything gone—career, respect. His own men would have strung him up if they’d have found out. I didn’t know he’d do what he did.”

“And that’s your excuse for ratting us out, huh? Pull in here.” The area that Mendes pointed to was an abandoned brownfield site, just off the main road. The car slowed to a halt. “Get out,” she said, waving the gun at him.

She marched him over to stand before an empty drainage ditch. Bruce looked nervous for the first time. “D’you know how I found out Johnny had shot himself, Bruce? Some cop in the VTOL that shipped me to the ghetto. He thinks it’s funny as all hell to tell me how Johnny had to shoot himself twice to finish the job properly. What a mess our apartment was. You couldn’t even come and tell me yourself.”

“For Christ’s sake—don’t you think I’ve been blaming myself for all that? I thought Johnny would have custody of the kid. I mean, it wouldn’t be a Clone, right?” Sweat stood out on his forehead.

“So, you had her harvested instead. If he wasn’t going to get her nobody was, was that it? You son of a bitch!” Mendes’ anger boiled over. She pistol whipped the pudgy cop across the back of his head and he fell forward into the dirt. Bruce grunted, tried to cover his face with his arm, but she was on him, screaming, punching as hard as she could, all the anger and loss of the last six months pounding into his face. It was only when she heard the sound of his sobs over her own that she stopped. He lay there weeping, a high-pitched, feminine sound. His left eye swollen shut, broken nose mashed across his face. His tears made clean tracks through the blood and the dirt that covered what was left of his face.

He tried to speak, but his broken jaw made it come out as a mumbled mess. Mendes ignored him and chambered a round into the pistol. The sound made the cop try desperately to be understood. “She’s alive.”

Mendes grabbed the detective by his collar and pulled him close. “You fucking piece of shit. You’re lying.”

He shook his head. “No.”

Mendes tried not to burst into tears at the news. The gun trembled in her hand and her pulse hammered in her ears. “Where is she? Where?”

Bruce just shook his head again.

“Johnny’s family? Did they take her?”

“Can’t… say.” Blood bubbled from his ruined mouth.

She pushed the barrel of his gun painfully hard against his temple. “Just tell me.”

“Whit….aker,” he sobbed.

* * *

Mendes could feel high cheek-bones as she put her hand over the sleeping man’s mouth; he came awake immediately.

“Don’t struggle, Colonel,” she whispered, moving the stolen pistol into his field of vision. “Probably best not to wake Mrs Whitaker, don’t you think?” She beckoned him to get up.

The kitchen they entered was all glass and chrome. It reminded Mendes of the ward she’d woken up in after they had stolen her baby. The Colonel perched on a stool by the breakfast bar and pulled his dressing-gown tighter around him.

He examined her with calm, blue eyes. My eyes, she realised. My father. Mendes guessed he was in his late sixties, but his jaw-line remained firm, his grey hair still regulation length.

“I thought it would be more of a shock—seeing my daughter again.” His voice was calm, with the timbre of someone who is used to being obeyed. “But, frankly, you look nothing like her. You look… harder.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint you. Where’s my baby?”

“Put the gun down, Sergeant Mendes, there’s no need to threaten me. May I make us some coffee?”

That voice and the use of her rank almost made Mendes comply. “If you’re trying to waste enough time for the house AI to alert the police, it won’t work. I spent the rest of the money you tried to pay me off with buying a subroutine that took care of that before I ever pulled up outside the house.”

Whitaker shook his head. “I assumed that the second you woke me. No, Sergeant, I’m not trying to stall you. And yes, I promise, I will take you to Jayne. But first will you listen to what I have to say?” He rose slowly and walked over to the coffee percolator.

“Stop calling me Sergeant. I left all that bullshit behind when they shipped us home.”

“No, you didn’t, none of us did. You earned that title and I use it with respect.”

Did he really believe that crap, or was he trying to win her over? “Ah, we’re brothers in arms, huh? Tell me, Colonel Whitaker, when did you serve on the front line? When did you last watch your mess mates get blown in half standing two feet in front of you?”

“I served. I commanded the 102nd in Pakistan. So, no, I didn’t see my friends get killed in front of me, but I have to live with the fact that it was my orders that sent you in there in the first place.”

“Well, defeat seems to have worked out a lot better for you than it did for me, Colonel.”

Whitaker looked genuinely distressed for the first time. “It’s a damn disgrace, the way they’ve treated you since we were sent home. The Harvester Amendment was vile. It’s as bad as anything the Chinese did during the war.”

Mendes’ knuckles, still scabbed and swollen from the beating she’d given Bruce, whitened on the grip of the gun. “You didn’t seem to mind using a Clone to save your own daughter.”

“I would do anything to protect my family from the war. Wouldn’t you? Aren’t you doing it right now—protecting your daughter? We’re all a product of our upbringing, Sergeant.” He gave her a loaded stare as he put a mug of coffee on the work top. “I never wanted Charlie to be exposed to what you and I had to live through, and I used every means at my disposal, but it didn’t work, did it? You were meant to be the sacrifice that saved her, yet she died and you lived.” He let out a bitter sigh. “There’s irony for you.”

“What happened?”

“Pancreatic cancer. Aggressive. It metastasised so quickly they couldn’t grow new organs fast enough to keep up with the spread. The Harvester Amendment didn’t exist then, and, frankly, I wouldn’t have invoked it anyway. She died two years ago.”

Mendes felt a glimmer of pity rise within her and she crushed it immediately. “So you stole my baby to replace her.”

“Sergeant, you have to understand, my wife couldn’t cope. Charlie’s loss, it was killing her. Anti-depressants, alcohol. I was going to lose her, too. And on top of that, the defeat we’d suffered in Pakistan. We were falling apart. So, I had them put a trace on you. When we found out about your pregnancy my first idea was to bring you both here, have you act as an au pair or some such. After all, who would make a better protector for little Jayne?”

“So, why didn’t you?”

Whitaker sighed again. “Because, as I said, we are all a product of our up-bringing. You’re a trained killer, an unknown quantity. Your daughter is an innocent, she would never know that we weren’t her real grandparents. How could I know how you would react?”

“Better just to take her and pay me blood money, I guess.”

“I tried to rescue you, too. I got you out of that hellhole, didn’t I? And before you decide to start handing out the moral judgments, ask yourself why it’s taken you six months to come and find us.”

Mendes didn’t answer for a while. She stared at the gun in her hand, then around at the kitchen, then out into the darkness beyond the windows. “It’s so quiet here, peaceful. It was never quiet inside the ghetto. There was always something happening—the scrabbling in the food queues during the day, the gangs fighting at night.

“I thought they’d harvested her, I thought she was dead. Coming back to the city, I just fell into business as usual, drinking, clubbing, trying to forget about Johnny, forget about the baby, and move on.” Her vision of Whitaker blurred. “Only, it didn’t work. I was so frightened about what would happen to the baby, how we would survive in the ghetto. She was all I had left of Johnny and me.” She couldn’t stop the tears coming. “You’re right, I am a killer—but what was all that killing for, why did I survive when so many didn’t? I want to think it was so I could be there to protect my baby. I don’t want it to be because of random chance. I don’t want my baby to grow up in a world that works that way. I need her, Colonel, I need my baby.”

The Colonel shook his head. “I’m sorry I’ve caused you pain, Sergeant, truly I am, but I can protect Jayne here.”

Mendes tried hard not to laugh in his face. She wiped her forearm across her face to stop the tears. “Really? You think so? The Clones are fighting back. Seriously, how long did you think you could subjugate them for? They’ll take over the ghetto. The only thing that’s stopping them right now is a lack of firearms, but that won’t stop them for much longer. What d’you think will happen then, Colonel? They aren’t going to stay cooped up there and behave. And it won’t just be here, it’s happening in every city in the country. There’s a civil war coming, and you Norms are going to be on the losing side.”

Whitaker put down his coffee mug and stood. “Follow me,” he said, and walked back out into the hall.

Dawn was beginning to break beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows that made up the wall of the hallway they entered. Mendes got her first look at the countryside surrounding the house. It was stark and beautiful, bare-limbed trees silhouetted against the pink glow of the sky, mist rising from the frost-laden grass. How could they only be less than an hour’s drive from the ghetto? They climbed a staircase and opened a cream-coloured door onto a darkened bedroom. Mendes nearly walked straight into something hanging from the ceiling: a child’s mobile, small, squashy farm animals slowly rotating. A small night light provided the only illumination. Whitaker stopped at the side of a cot, and motioned Mendes to come forward. Her heart was pounding so heavily, she was sure the sound of it would wake the child. A small tuft of blonde hair poked out above a coverlet. Mendes tried hard not to burst into tears again, and rush to grab the sleeping form. Little Jayne gave a big sigh and rolled onto her back, arms flat on either side of her head.

“She snores,” Whitaker smiled as he whispered. “I can hear her when my wife sings her to sleep, even out on the hallway.”

Mendes couldn’t help but laugh through her tears. She covered her mouth. “She’s so beautiful.”

Whitaker turned to look at her. “Sergeant—Sarah. The war you think is coming—it will never happen. The Chinese have been in talks with the Government for some time. They’re going to draft all ex-service Clones back into the army. You’re a cheap ready-made mop-up squad for the Chinese.”

Mendes couldn’t take her eyes off the sleeping child. She felt a fresh wave of the most intense sensation. It’s love, she realised. She turned suddenly and left the room.

Whitaker followed her back out into the hall. The sun had risen, painting the sky pink. “What is it?”

Mendes covered her face with both hands. “Is that true, what you said about the Clones going back?”

Whitaker only nodded. “I can protect you here, if you’d like.”

“But what if you can’t? What will they do to Jayne when they discover she’s born from a Clone? If I’m not here, they have no reason to come looking, do they? I can’t stay here.” She stretched her arms out and took his hands into hers. “I came here to kill you, Colonel. You took my child, you can’t replace your daughter by stealing mine.” He made to reply, but Mendes spoke again. “You can’t steal her, but you can protect her. You can love her for me, be the parents they won’t allow me to be. That’s the price you’ll pay. You’ll give your life for my daughter.”

Her father gently folded Mendes into his embrace. “That’s no price at all.”

* * *

Mendes finished her dinner tray and slid it onto the floor beneath her bunk. She had four hours sack time before her next shift began on the freighter.

Eighteen months travel time to Mars, then maybe a new start. It didn’t matter if you were a Clone out there, they said. Millions of acres of newly terraformed Martian earth offering a chance to try again, build something new.

She tried not to scratch at the new tattoo on her forearm. She didn’t want to spoil the image of an angel she’d had drawn there.