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Copy Error
A short story by Cheeseburger Brown
Copy Error, a short story by Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming

The second Kaama and Hylas would become great and enthusiastic friends; the first Kaama and Hylas were more circumspect in their mutual appreciation.

It began with the port at Praxiteles Star: the port was crowded, and the crowd surly.

A spell of galactic inclemency had turned the local interstellar medium turbulent. The resulting eddy had twisted open a void, and through this void briefly streamed a storm of hot breath directly from the galaxy's core. For days the system was bathed in brilliant radiation. The star itself, Praxiteles, wore a double crown of aurora the likes of which had never before been recorded.

As a further consequence the hyperspatial travel network went on the blink, cutting the entire star system off from the surrounding neighbourhood. Crack teams of service crew had been dispatched upwell to the Praxitelean heliopause to expedite repairs via personal presence; pressed to the limits of human-tolerable acceleration their estimated time of arrival remained days in the future.

Travellers were stymied. The hotels near every planet's starports filled, then the starports themselves became impromptu displaced persons camps.

"We are pleased to be able to offer you complimentary servings of yogurt," announced a calm voice through the public address speakers at the system's largest port, "and we continue to regret any ongoing inconvenience."

Kaama Manas was clutching a free yogurt, luggage balanced atop her head as she wove her way through the throng in Terminal 8. She stepped over children, dodged adolescents, nodded to elders to open passage between parties. She kept her chin up to intimidate the merely meddlesome but eyes down to avoid the gaze of the truly troublesome. Lips pursed, brow running with sweat. All she wanted was a place to change her clothes.

She chased a holographic lavatory icon to the end of the terminal pavilion. At its source were smaller signs appropriately segregating the facilities for each species and its sexes. Beneath these signs was a miasma of long queues. Kaama bit her lip and resignedly joined the line for female hominids.

The line advanced two shuffling steps. Kaama wiped sweaty hair out of her face and switched to lean on the opposite hip. The luggage shifted precariously on her head. She tried the yogurt. It was bland and runny.

An oily man with tattoos around his lips melted out of the crowd beside her. He leaned his face in too close to Kaama's and whispered, "My people control this line. I can arrange for you to be jumped ahead. Does that interest you? It'll be easy."

She wouldn't consent to look at him. "No thank you."

"I'm telling you, my people own this line. We're deciding who goes in and for how long."

"How industrious your people are."

"Look: I can see you're a fine lady, so I'm offering you a deal." The oily man stepped even closer, his breath coloured by recent food. "This is just for you," he promised. "My people are arranging buckets to squat over -- I'm giving you a chance for a turn in a stall."

"I ask you to leave me alone this instant or I shall call terminal security."

He grinned, the ink around his lips stretching into new patterns. "Terminal security is very, very busy today. My people have stepped in to keep things moving along." He hooked his fingers into his belt and leveled his gaze at her sternum. "Anywhere you want to get begins and ends with me."

Kaama brought her luggage down upon his head and her knee up into his pelvis. She mashed her yogurt into the right ear while smacking her cupped hand against the left. He dropped to his knees. She scooped up her bags and fled.

On the far side of Terminal 8 Hylas Alloy -- indeed, yes, of the famous Tenigrecian Alloys -- had taken a table at the nearest restaurant the moment it became apparent the gates would close. He reasoned that if he didn't stop ordering food they wouldn't have any grounds to force him out, thus securing for himself a reasonable base of operations for the duration. Really, it was his only choice: Hylas was far too fat and far too soft to tolerate anything so taxing as an overly long bout of standing. Thus, he had held his booth at the restaurant for over thirty hours.

The waiter was squeaky, his seams corroded. "Sir, I am obliged to remind sir that sir must place an order in order to remain a patron, sir."

"Sea fruits in garlic butter. And another glass of water."

"Very good, sir."

Hylas' faithful butler was quite a fine model -- burnished brass carapace with leather trim, shin spoilers and padded elbows -- but currently suffering from a bad case of depleted batteries. The butler slouched. His head lolled. When he spoke his words were slurred and error-prone. "Sir, our sources indicate an end to the closure remains uncertain," the butler said, then added as inexplicable afterthought: "Forensic cucumber."

When his sea fruits arrived Hylas took one look at the plate, frowned and shoved it aside. "Keep me apprised," he snapped at his butler, then curled up on the booth's curved seat and covered himself with his overcoat. He knocked his knees against the wall, winced, then wormed his way into a new position, huffing and puffing and muttering effete Tenegrecian profanity. He turned over and scrunched around in search of comfort, then realized that someone else's face was peering out at him from the gloom beneath the tablecloth. He straightened with a gasp, pulling his chunky legs up onto the seat beside him. "Who's that?"

"Pretend I'm not here."

Hylas frowned. "What are you doing under my table? This is my table. Do you know how many hors d'oevres this table has cost me? Stop freeloading under my table!"

"I'm hiding. Please don't give me up."

"Hiding from whom?"

"Hoodlums."

"Pardon?"

"Hoodlums with tattooed lips. They own the washroom queue. I threw my luggage on one of them."

"You sound like a volatile person. Please stay away from me. Waiter!"

The waitstaff was busy. Patrons whose credit had run out were being evicted from their tables, forced bodily but gingerly out of the restaurant and into the wide, choked corridors where the air had turned hazy and thick with stale communications pollens and damp halitosis. Hylas next tried to induce his butler to pull the woman out from beneath his table, but the butler had gone limp.

"Meretrisham," muttered the butler. "Prepared meats?"

Hylas squeezed his considerable bulk into the furthest corner of the booth. "I'll have you know you don't have permission to touch my person," he called under the tablecloth in what he hoped was a suitably menacing voice. "It's called trespassing, what you're doing down there."

"You're loitering."

"I've paid for the privilege. This table is mine."

"It isn't."

"Well, nearly so. As long as I keep ordering appetizers my claim won't be contested."

"Appetizers are not a valid basis for real estate."

"I'll have to check that with my barrister complex."

This tête-à-tête was cut short as a line of commotion neared the table. It was precipitating around a thuggish-looking fellow with a ring of tattooing around his lips. He was shouting at people and casting dishes on the floor, bellowing that he knew "she" was in the restaurant. He advanced on a terrified Rouleighian fop, demanding intelligence. The fop dropped his lenses and fainted. The brute stepped over him. His sweaty brow beetled as his gaze settled on Hylas Alloy's table.

A snarl: "Where's the girl, fatty?"

Hylas blinked in fluttering indignation. "My condition is glandular!"

"I saw her run in here. Stop fornicating with me. My people run this terminal's facilities now. You understand? Somebody's going to talk or you're all going to regret it." He cast a long look down at Hylas' glass of water. "Sooner or later."

"Young man, are you threatening my right to expel?"

"Now you're getting the picture, boss."

Hylas snorted. "This restaurant has its own facilities."

The man's inked face twitched. "What?"

"Your threats have no power over me, unless you are prepared to resort to physicality. Which would be amusing, given your abject lack of robots."

"You're a classist, you smug Tenegrecian anus. It's your kind that keep the common man down."

Hylas smirked. "It's politics now, is it? Go back to guarding your toilet, young man. Don't make me wake my butler. He's been known to touch quite hard." He raised one brow menacingly. "There've been contusions."

The hoodlum narrowed his eyes, backing away from the table. "I just want the girl," he said, holding up his hands. His palms were tattooed with images of eyes. As he flexed his fingers they seemed to blink. "No physicality with you or nothing. But she assaulted me and I can't let that stand, boss. Not in front of my cousins."

"Waiter," called Hylas. "This hominid is not my guest."

The waitstaff cleared the obstruction then fetched a basket of rolls with butter. Kaama emerged from beneath the table. "Thank you," she said, face flushed. She tried to keep her gaze off the rolls and butter but the strain was obvious.

Hylas rolled his eyes. "Oh, go on then. There's little point in standing on ceremony with someone who's crawled in from under the furniture. Eat."

"You're a poor flatterer," said Kaama tartly. "But generous."

"I'm full," he said, looking away with a childishly affected air of indifference. His attention was turned back, however, by the noise of her gorging. Hylas found himself repulsed but then strangely transfixed by the sight of a proper young lady falling over herself to cram wads of food into her gullet.

"I've had nothing but runny yogurt for two days..." she started to explain, full cheeks puffed out like a hibernating rodent. She paused as she spotted the sea fruits. She mumbled through the bread, "Are you finished with those?"

Hylas pushed the dish toward her.

Kaama fell upon it, and when the fork dropped she pressed her fingers into service to scoop out the last dollops of sauce, then licked them. Hylas shifted uncomfortably and dabbed perspiration from his forehead. He wasn't sure how he was supposed to feel. He felt weird. His skin tingled and he had butterflies in his stomach. He felt dizzy without nausea and giddy without a punchline, but the sensation dwindled as Kaama straightened self-consciously and dabbed her face clean with a napkin.

His hand shot up, fingers snapping. "Waiter!"

"I couldn't impose on you further," said Kaama, tucking stray hair behind her ears. She shook her head. "Thank you. Let me find my purse. We can exchange contact pollen. I'll blow you, then my insurance subscription will cover --"

"Nonsense," said Hylas. "You're still hungry."

"I've spilled on myself," she sighed, frowning at a sauce stain over one breast.

"I'll buy you a new dress," he said sharply. "Eat."

She looked up and narrowed her eyes. "I am not your doll, Tenegrecian."

"Forgive me."

"I'll go," declared Kaama, sliding out from the booth and standing. "Thank you again for your kindness." She offered Hylas a cursory bow of the head without making eye contact, then ducked down to pull her battered luggage free from the tablecloth.

"Please. You don't have to go. I didn't mean to seem --"

"Thank you very much," she said as she went.

Hylas sighed. The waiter stepped up beside him. "Sir, your order, sir?" And then again a moment later, "Sir?"

"Chocolate ice cream," mumbled Hylas, eyes distant.

The stellar aurorae dimmed and Praxiteles shined clear as it ever had, girdled by a bullet-shaped cocoon of glowing gas belts the tourists flocked to see. Far out at the heliopause the transmission beads were realigned, plying signal from the static; the hyperspatial network was reawakening. Connectivity reached the outer moons first, then made its way downwell to Allatu and the lesser terrestrial globes.

The hyperspace gates were opened.

"We regret to inform you that we have run out of complimentary servings of yogurt," announced a calm voice through the public address speakers; "please walk and speak with patience and resist any urge to physicality."

In order to clear the glut of passengers the portmasters elected to make use of every possible avenue of transmission through hyperspace, from first class pods and steerage to industrial shunts and cargo cubes. The people stood in lines with new weary optimism even as their depleted robots sagged at their sides. The floors were littered with discarded items too heavy to lug using personal physicality. The line snaked around them. In the corners were collected little glowing golden shrines -- accumulations of urine bottles backlit by the baseboard lighting strips.

The halls echoed with calls assigning tickets to new departure points: "Passenger Oakrail W. Chang 1851, Passenger Lithia Calendar-Clerkson 5630, Passenger Outmet Niece-of-Bolligrot Clan-of-Fishers 9778: please report to the cargo cube loading array in the orange zone. We regret any inconvenience represented by this transmission modality, and invite your barrister complex to blow us."

There was so much contact pollen in the air it became hard to breathe. Improvised local networks sprang up in the fog, projecting diagrams and destination ascentions in soothing pink letters overhead. Kaama coughed and rubbed her eyes, flapping her ticket to force it to refresh.

She was directed to a dingy, ill-lit corridor with panels of yellow and black diagonal caution stripes as décor. Pipes ran overhead, sweating swill. The floor was clammy and stained. She stood in line there for a day and a night.

In fits the line shambled forward. Up ahead the dingy corridor fed into two others like it, and at the junction smartly uniformed transmission attendants and jumpsuited cargo workers were calling out tickets and sorting the throng into trios. "Passenger Kaama Hamas 6472!"

"Here I am!"

"Cube eleven, exchanging with Nsomeka Star; Cube eleven."

She squeezed her way through the sorting area and was steered by a smiling transmission attendant past a clutter of robotic armatures and toward a greasy little aperture near the floor. "I'm afraid you'll have to crawl in," she said with a singsong lilt.

"On my hands on knees?" said Kaama with a forlorn look at her ruined sari.

"We regret any inconvenience," nodded the attendant. "We know you have a choice in hyperways, and we thank you for taking a Spatial."

Kaama glowered. "I should have a prime coupon for my trouble. Very prime! Maybe two."

"Yes, ma'am. Pollinate the customer service pistil at the far end, and we'll take care of the rest."

Kaama pushed her luggage ahead of her as she wormed her way through the hatch into the cargo cube. The interior was a compact, grooved metal cell meant for stacking cargo bricks, the floor oil-speckled and filthy, the light feeble and red -- suitable only for robots. Awkwardly, Kaama squeezed past her bags and straightened up, knocking her head against the low ceiling. Her face fell.

"You!" exclaimed three at once.

Hylas Alloy was pressed in like a sausage between his furry matched luggage, his limp robot butler, and the oily man with the tattooed lips. Hylas rolled his doughy little eyes theatrically. "And the freeloader makes three. There's no coupon generous enough to account for such recursive indignities."

"I told you I'd repay," hissed Kaama. "How dare you call me a freeloader? The way you looked at me! You are a strange and dirty-minded man."

"So she was there all along!" cried the hooligan.

Kaama wheeled on him. "A passenger all of a sudden? I thought your people ran this port."

"I was visiting cousins," he explained. "I'm Ninurtan, you hysterical cow."

"Can't you tell from his deplorable accent?" groaned Hylas.

"I will not tolerate crude speaking," warned Kaama acidly. "Or do your cousins run this closet, as well?"

"Fornicate yourself."

The three passengers fell silent as the hatch banged shut with a wheeze of compressed air. The cell dipped and shook, slinging them against one side as it was oriented out of its loading position and parked into a stack of a dozen similar units. The stack rumbled as it was manoeuvred into a great spherical bead, matching in every detail an identical bead at the distant destination star. Via hyperspace, the two containers would be traded timelessly.

A tinny voice through an unseen speaker: "Passengers prepare for travel."

As the transmission apparatus spun up to speed the walls of the cell began to vibrate and clatter. Hylas winced against the noise, dabbing at his brow. "Are they sure this thing is safe for human exchanges?" he cried at his butler.

"Poppies," replied the robot. "Hair cut. Bifurcation."

Unlike the instantaneous and undetectable transition of a passenger transport, the cargo cube bucked violently during the swap. Hylas, Kaama and the oily man were knocked to the floor. Everything settled with a metallic squawk, then the lights guttered out.

Kaama pulled herself upright in the dark, rubbing her temple. "Hello?" she called.

Her voice echoed back to her, startlingly close and clear.

"What's happened?"

This time there was no echo.

Hylas rolled over onto his back and moaned. "Was there a geometry mismatch?" In a panic he began patting himself all over in search of deformities. "Am I intact? Oh, mother! Oh, Zoran! Am I intact?"

"I'll sue," he said back to himself.

"Faeces, I hurt everywhere," said the hooligan from somewhere in the gloom. "Did we travel or what?"

He then asked, "Who said that?"

"Pardon?" said Kaama and her echo said, "You did."

"I didn't say nothing," said the oily man. And then, "I said it."

Hylas froze. All his giblets and appendages seemed to be in place, but there was still something very wrong. He licked his lips nervously. "Something very wrong has happened, I think."

They were all startled as the voice of a new transmission attendant crackled in over unseen speakers: "Please remain calm. You have arrived at Nsomeka Star, but your transport envelope has been damaged. We are assessing your situation."

"There's no light!" Kaama yelled at the walls.

"Please remain calm," said the disembodied voice on a bed of static. "Coupons will be distributed presently. We are assessing your situation."

Kaama took a deep, shuddering breath. "Well, at least we're all alive."

The floor lurched slightly, then swayed as they felt the cube lifted and reparked. The dull bang and clank of tools could be heard working outside. Robots walked across the ceiling, causing little rains of rust.

The red lamps in the corners flickered on. Kaama furrowed her brow, mouth agog. Hylas shrieked. The hooligan turned pale beneath his lines.

Between each of the three passengers was a copy of themselves. Two inked thugs, two Tenigrecian barons, two startled ladies who had just wanted nothing more than a simple trip to see the famous space clouds at Praxiteles, to go to an Allat spa for a skin treatment and maybe do a little duty-free shopping.

"Unbelievable..." breathed a Hylas, voice trembling. "We've been duplicated!"

"Oh my," said both of the Kaamas in nearly perfect unison.

"But I'm the real me," said one of the hooligans.

"No, I am," said the other.

"This is fornicated," they both agreed.

"Will everyone stop talking at once?" begged Hylas and Hylas.

"Am I not the real me?" a Kaama asked, touching her own face with shaking fingers. "How could that be?"

"If you're the real me, who am I?" asked the second Kaama.

"I've got my memories," claimed one of the hooligans. "I lived that life."

"Me too," said his twin. "You've just got it cloned out of my head. You're a copy -- just a motherfornicating copy. I own you. I'm the first one."

A Hylas shook his head urgently, chins swaying. "No no no, you don't understand. Neither of our iterations has priority -- we've both been forked from the same source. There are no copies, there are no originals...there are simply two of us."

The other Hylas nodded. "He's right. We're both equally Hylas Alloy, and you're both equally...well, whoever you might be. People or whatnot."

"I don't tell my name to nobody outside my tribe, boss. That's disgusting."

Hylas rolled his eyes again. "And I suppose that goes double for you," he said to the other, whose tattoos smeared around his grimace.

The Kaamas both sagged, then one cocked her head. She pointed at the pile of tossed belongings between them. "There's only one set of luggage."

The oily men nodded. "She's right. So what does that mean, fatty? You seem to know an awful lot about this faeces."

"It doesn't mean anything," snapped a Hylas. "My family has been in the hyperspace business for centuries, and I can assure you that each class of object is patterned independently. Luggage isn't even in the same layer as passengers...or their clothing."

"But it still reminds us of something important," argued one Kaama.

"What?"

The second Kaama replied, "It reminds us that though there may be two of each us, there is only a single identity. You're now exactly half as rich as you were ten minutes ago, Mr. Alloy."

Hylas blinked. "Where did the other half go?"

"It's his," said Kaama, pointing to his Doppelganger. "And rightfully so: he is Hylas Alloy after all."

Both men paled. "The legal repercussions...the complexities of inheritance. My goodness -- this is an impossible situation." They looked at one another, expressions sallow and stunned. "If our stake is halved we'll have to cede voting control of the Nsomeka affiliates to our sister." Their eyes bulged in lockstep. "She'll ruin us."

The Kaamas both nodded pertly. "My dowry will be divided," they said with a slight echo. "Everything my parents worked for -- diminished by half."

The Hylas on the left raised his hand, chewing at his lower lip. "I think," he said quietly, "I think we must agree with our partners whether we wish to split the bounty of our established lives, or to give it up in a selfless act of selfishness."

"We cannot yield to Sister," said the Hylas on the right. "We know her agenda, and it is corrupt."

The first nodded gravely. "Only one of us can go on as Hylas Alloy."

The second pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes, then sighed and nodded in turn. He looked to the nearest Kaama. "Madam, would you be so good as to imagine a random number between one and ten?"

She hesitated, frowning. "Why?"

"So that myself or myself might find himself lucky," explained Hylas.

Hylas added, "Winner take all. There's an empire at stake."

"We'll do the same for you," Hylas assured her. "If that's what you both want."

Her breath caught in her throat. She turned to see her twin. It made her dizzy and queasy, like looking into a sentient mirror. Herself nodded. She nodded back. "Agreed. We cannot divide our life, either." She wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand and sniffed. "So be it, gentlemen. Let's have your guesses."

Hylas cleared his throat. "Six."

"Five," said his twin.

Kaama dropped her eyes from the loser's gaze. "The number is two," she said softly, then added, "I don't want to play this game. I don't want to do that to somebody else...to myself -- whatever." She thrust out her chin. "So I volunteer."

The other Kaama's eyes welled up with tears. "I don't know what to say."

"You would've done it for me."

"I was about to."

"But now you don't have to. You're Kaama Manas, and I'm not. It's your dowry, your reputation, your career, your contact pollen." She paused as the screech of a power saw sounded from outside, then faded. "When those robots get this cell open, you should never turn back. Forget me. I'll bear this."

"But you'll be all alone."

"She won't," interjected non-Hylas non-Alloy. "We'll have each other. I shall see to this woman's safety and security as if it were my very own. She's...nobler than I, and I find myself moved." He turned to face non-Kaama non-Manas. "Please, let's pool our efforts."

She felt herself smile. "Charmed, sir. It is agreed. We'll go forth together, without pollen or subscriptions. Like the grand hobos of old, unplugged and beholden to none."

They held hands.

"This is fornicated," shouted one of the oily men suddenly. "You dogs are crazy. I'm not giving away my life to this duplicate. Fornicate that! Fornicate him!"

"Oh yeah?" bellowed the other. "Fornicate you, anus."

In a heartbeat each man's hands were around the other's throat. They struggled and foamed and moaned and spat, rolling over one another across the littered floor. Hylas and non-Hylas fell backward over each other. Kaama and non-Kaama squeezed into the safety of a corner, red beacons shining through their hair. "Stop it!" they cried, voices overlapping. "Stop, you men -- stop!"

They did stop, but by the time they did each corpse was a murderer. The mirror images drooped apart, throats discoloured and eyes glazing.

"Well," said Hylas philosophically. "To each his own."

It wasn't all bad, in the end. While Hylas Alloy and Kaama Manas went their separate ways and returned to their lives at Nsomeka Star, non-Hylas non-Alloy and non-Kaama non-Manas were able to claim their compensation from Spatial Hyperways for what amounted to identity annihilation crossed with fiscal assault. The sophistication of the case was such that it forced the panstellar barrister complex to evolve almost three darwins. Identity activists of all stripes rallied around the pair.

For the duration of the court proceedings they lived together at a Mahuean hotel where the robots had feathers and blue roses grew in the corridors. They slept in. They had pillow fights. They drank wine and agreed not to talk about the past, only the future.

"I want to start a starship company," said non-Hylas.

"I want genetically modified eyes with super vision," said non-Kaama.

He lost a lot of weight and became quite thin, and she gained a lot of weight and became quite fat. They honeymooned on Tenigretta, and never ate yogurt again.


Fin.


CONNECTED STORIES
Simon of Space | The Salt Moon Robots | Idiot's Mask

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