by Adriana Kantcheva
I have her body. If I’d also had her life, would I have lived it in the same way?
I make the mistake of voicing my thoughts to Seven, who promptly activates what I call his melancholy setting. I can tell from how the blue signal lights in his communication subunit start blinking in a slow, hypnotic rhythm.
“Why are you thinking about her again?” he says. “You’ll never encounter her circumstances.”
I walk over to my porthole. The Salvagers’ wing of the space station blocks part of the view, but I see enough of Earth—all brown and beige and rust. “I also won’t encounter any answers if I can’t get around the firewall in your memory.” I wave at the wires I have so carefully rearranged in his data storage subunit, which is splayed open on my cabin table. But I’ve stepped back from my work, my ribcage tight with unease.
Humanity killed Earth. The Salvagers revealed to me that bit of history, at least. How and why, my alien benefactors won’t tell. I’m allowed to delve into Terran science and technology, but they’ve put a digital gag on Seven about history, culture, politics, or society. For my protection, they say. For the sake of a clean slate.
“What if the Salvagers are right?” I ask. “What if learning about humanity’s mistakes brings about a cycle of repetition?” I look up at Seven’s mournful blue lights. “Do you think she would have liked to know?”
“Yes,” he says with utmost certainty. He’s human-built and sometimes almost human-like. He’s composed of seven autonomous subunits, which can reassemble in any order, but he usually defaults to humanoid form. His emotional algorithms and ego construct are intertwined with the information in his databank. Even though he has no longer access to his memory, my progenitor’s imprint is stored in his personality. At times, it feels like I’m talking to her and not to Seven.
Still, knowing what she would have done doesn’t make unlocking Seven’s firewall wise.
“Seven, check on the video feed, will you?”
“Still looping. The Salvagers see you reading your book.”
Her book, I correct him in my mind. I’ve inherited “Snow White” from her, along with Seven.
My alien benefactors think humans are reckless. I believe that’s why they’re watching me. In case I turn out to be like my progenitor and her contemporaries.
“She must’ve felt terrible.” I say. “The communication lines going dead as the others went into hibernation, the lack of a future…”
“She felt like you feel.” Seven’s blue lights dim. “Alone. Mind filled with questions.”
A density gathers at the pit of my stomach. I’m compelled to tease. “Be kind to yourself, Seven. How can I feel alone when I’ve been granted your stimulating company? Besides, I’m not the last, but the first. The prototype.” I tap my fingers against the white wall of my cabin. “Show me the recording again, please.”
“I don’t see the purpose in this,” Seven protests, but I know he’ll oblige. He seems to miss her as much as I’m curious about her. He continues with his objections even as the projector on his comm subunit activates. “Avoiding humanity’s mistakes will take more than getting to know a single individual. I rather think you’re searching for something else here. For an identity that…”
I tune out his psychological analysis when he starts the projection on the wall. Seven has over twenty thousand of my progenitor’s personal video logs stored behind his firewall, some dated as far back as her childhood. The only reason the Salvagers pulled one out for me was because I was becoming unstable not knowing my origin. That’s why I’ve also been allowed to view a few old documentaries featuring humans.
But mostly, I end up re-watching the video log. Once again, I stare at my progenitor’s hunched figure outlined against a wall of thick plexiglass as if seeing her for the first time. The speakers on Seven’s comm subunit fill my cabin with the recorded sound of the soil percussing against her expansive window. Her aged hand presses to the dust-flecked pane, as she looks out at the carcasses of barren hills. The thumb of her other hand is at her lips, where a faint pop betrays a bit of nail chewed off. Her white ringlets spill over her nightgown from beneath a black scarf. She clutches a teddy bear in the crook of her elbow.
Seven interrupts the projection of his own accord, trying, I guess, to spare me the emotional discomfort. But I know what comes next. A few seconds later, she moves away from the window to slink through a minimalist sitting room, a tiny kitchen, and sparse bathing facilities, which are so cramped that they form a part of the kitchenette. In fact, her entire protective habitat was hardly larger than my current living quarters, which are adapted from an abandoned human space station the Salvagers fixed up for me. I needed human context for a normal development, the aliens once explained. That’s why they also gave me my progenitor’s book and Seven—not a human, but he’s better than no company at all. That is, until the other clones grow.
At the end of the video log, my progenitor enters a small room the size of a wardrobe, containing her cryo-stasis box. Seven continues recording while helping her in and stops only after he has initiated the hibernation sequence. For a hundred years, he took care of her rubber tree while she wilted away in her chamber. Until, one day, the Salvagers barged in on him with their tentacles and good intentions.
I stare at the now empty wall and then at the asynchronous darting of Seven’s four utility subunits, which are busy tidying my cabin. I smile despite my belly having constricted to a heavy pellet. “Yeah, you were right. I prefer those funny cat videos.”
“Wouldn’t they also make you sad?” Seven replies in the gentle timbre of his current emotional setting. “There are no more cats.”
“You just made me feel so much better.”
“I’m pleased.” Sarcasm is not his forte.
I come back to the table and pick up the soldering iron, its tip still hot. I hover with it over the disconnected wires in Seven’s memory subunit, but I still can’t proceed.
“Seven, why don’t you read to me from her book? The passage about the coffin and the prince.”
“That is my favorite part, too,” he says.
Which means it was also hers.
“I’m not in any way attached to the particular passage,” I say. “It’s merely the most telling one about her.”
Seven settles for the robot version of a sigh, a sort of a digital whirr, and begins to read.
Only after seeing the illustration of Snow White in her glass coffin, could I understand why my progenitor modified her hibernation chamber to resemble a display cabinet. I recall the last second of the video log: my progenitor in her own coffin, hair wrapped in a black shawl, lips a glaring red. But unlike Snow White, she never woke up. She entered stasis too old. Age, the evil stepmother, tricked her in her sleep. The Salvagers found her perfectly displayed, perfectly preserved, and perfectly dead. But the DNA in her bone marrow was in prime condition. The Salvagers fixed the frayed ends of her telomeres so I’m to expect a normal life span. Here I am, leading her body through a different life.
Seven finishes reading the passage, and I thank him.
“I was made to serve you,” he says.
Does he mean me or her? He sometimes seems to forget the difference. This is fuzzy territory. How different am I from her? Are humanity’s mistakes inherent in me?
“Did you help her modify her cryo-chamber?” I ask.
One of Seven’s utility subunits wheels over. “Yes,” his communication subunit says on my other side. “I’m an excellent mechanic. I can finish reconfiguring my memory if you’d like.”
“No. If I’m going to open a can of worms, I’d rather do it myself.”
“I assure you my databank contains no live organisms.”
He taught me the idiom, but he’s still too much of a robot. He reassembles into a six-moduled entity and reaches the pincers for me. He has laid Snow White on my bunk, its pages fluttering in the current from the ventilation vent above it.
The Salvagers say that second chances only work after a clean break. They say they know this from example. Humans are not the first near-to-extinction species they have encountered, and our planet won’t be the last they restore to life. But they won’t reawaken any of the survivors. I’m only to expect the company of other clones, free from the preconditioning of a lost world’s trauma.
I glance at the book on my bunk. Again, this feeling of a focused load behind my navel, like a miniature black hole.
A clean break sounds like a way to repeat old mistakes in ignorance. In the book, Snow White didn’t learn. She had all this evidence not to trust the old crone who kept selling her dangerous goodies—first the lace and then the comb—but still she bit into the poisoned apple.
Not me. I won’t be repeating anybody’s mistakes.
I solder the wires back in place, then type the necessary commands on the keyboard. All the signal lights on Seven’s memory subunit light up.
“Bingo!” Another human expression he’s taught me.
I scroll through the avalanche of files rolling on the portable screen, the knot of emotions inside me tightening from excitement. First, I’ll go through my progenitor’s personal logs. Then, history and geopolitics. I glimpse a folder catalogued as Fairytales and open it. So many! Are all the heroines in them as naive as Snow White?
Seven interrupts my frantic thoughts with a high pitched “Oh!”
A video log projects all by itself from Seven’s comm subunit. But it doesn’t show my progenitor milling about.
It shows me.
In this same living space in orbit. Same straight black hair, same black eyes, same cramped cabin. But I instantly know she isn’t me. I check the log’s date stamp.
Disguised! The rogue recording was made to look like one of the early personal logs.
“Congratulations.” Same voice as mine, different melody. “You passed the test. Or failed it, depending on who’s judging. If you’re viewing this, it means we’ve inherited the same robot companion. Seven is being monitored, of course. You figured that out, right?”
Cold sweat bursts through my pores. No, I hadn’t figured that out. I had thought the video feed was all the monitoring the Salvagers did on me.
“You must leave,” she in the recording continues. “Now. You have less than ten minutes. They’re weeding out the ones who prove to be…reckless. I’ve planted this video in case you—any of you—have made an omission in your insubordination.”
Sweat trickles down the sides of my torso in chilling trails.
“The big hatch doesn’t lead to the Salvager’s part of the station,” she says. “It leads to the cells of other clones, who all think they are the first. Knock on as many doors as you like. There are enough escape pods. The Salvagers keep them around for emergencies, but they are deactivated. I’ve installed a hidden subroutine onto a chip in Seven’s second utility subunit that will unlock all doors and activate the pods.”
She pauses, then says, her voice lower. “My apologies for holding you up if you’ve figured all that out. Maybe, we’ll meet. Maybe, there are other escapees on the surface, and the Salvagers haven’t caught them all. Maybe, they won’t catch me.” She leans into the camera. “Maybe, they won’t catch you.”
The recording cuts off. I look up at Seven, my eyes so wide the skin around them hurts. “Seven?”
“I have no memory of these events. The Salvagers must have deleted all records of previous clones I have interacted with. Except for the hidden recording.”
He sounds so calm. So mechanical. He’s blocked all his emo codes, his signal lights now lifeless. I envy him this ability, even if he must’ve stunted his emotions for my benefit and not his. In contrast, I’m trembling like a taught string.
Seven opens a flap on one of his utility subunits, pulling out a wire and connecting it to the console next to the sealed exit.
“Ready? You must leave, or you will die.”
My legs are about to buckle from underneath me. “You were the poisoned apple,” I stammer.
“Your observation is incorrect. I am not an apple.” His impersonal voice, his level logic—I’m jarred back into action. I refuse to be an unwitting ratchet wheel in someone else’s clockwork. Snow White has taught me this much. Whatever other answers I crave, I must seek them on the surface.
“I’m ready,” I say even as panic fights my resolve, threatening to burst my heart. “I must chew the bite I’ve taken.”
Seven looks at my mouth, uncomprehending. He unlocks the door but makes no other move.
“What are you waiting for?” I ask.
“I must remain for the next one. Pass my regards to any earlier owners of mine you meet.” A blue light flares before he switches himself off.
For a split second, I can’t move. I spent all this time obsessing about my progenitor, who provided my starter stem cells, but Seven has defined me in far more integral way than that.
He wouldn’t want me dead. I touch his limb in a brief good-bye, then stumble through the hatch. Alone.
I hope, not for long.
Once again, that was Salvaged, by Adriana Kantcheva.
Adriana has this to say about the story: “This retelling of Snow White is very loosely based on the original (and not Disney) version of the fairy tale, where the evil witch stepmother has several tries at killing Snow White. The witch tries a poisoned comb and strangling Snow White with new lace in her corset before resorting to the poisoned apple. Since the very first time I read this fairy tale, I have been wondering why Snow White didn’t use her wits and see through the trickery after the witch’s first attempt. Recurring appearances of kindly crones at my doorstep in the middle of the forest would trigger my warning bells any time, especially after surviving a first assassination attempt. So why, oh, why, are women so often clueless in fairy tales? (One can also ask why, oh, why are aged women always evil in fairy tales, or why are mothers often dead — I’m not the first to ask these questions, but they keep coming back to my mind).
Another theme I wanted to explore with this story is the concept of the “”I””. What makes us uniquely us? I have identical twin daughters, so, genetically speaking, they are the same just like the clones in my story. Yet, my daughters have completely different personalities, abilities, inclinations. And though some of these differences are because of epigenetics, there is more to it than this. The main character in my story devotes a lot of mental energy on figuring out how she is different from her progenitor. I wonder if, when they grow up, my daughters would go through the same with respect to their twin sibling. In fact, every human being I know (including myself) spends a lot of time looking at other people and drawing parallels (for the good or evil that this brings). We constatly take note of our parents, our friends, our siblings, the people we envy, the people we admire. In some ways, we are all collective beings made up of traits we encounter or inherit or create through own experiences, and convert all this input to make something wholly unique. I find this fascinating.”
I’m a sucker for retold fairy tales, and this story is no exception. It plays with the conventions of the original tale and adds new angles and complications. This Snow White doesn’t wait for her prince to come along and save her; she takes matters into her own hands. And while the ending is ambiguous, the character’s fate uncertain, it still retains the possibility of a happily ever after for those brave enough to escape the confines of their glass coffins.
And our closing quotation this week is from Seanan McGuire, who said this about fairy tales: “Everyone thinks of them in terms of poisoned apples and glass coffins, and forgets that they represent girls who walked into dark forests and remade them into their own reflections.”
Thanks for joining us, and may your escape pod be fully stocked with stories.
About the Author
Adriana Kantcheva is a Bulgarian writer of speculative fiction with an idealistic bend. She lived in six countries before settling in southern Germany with her husband and their three children. Earlier, she earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology and worked as a science editor, but she prefers to research stories. Her fiction has appeared in Short Circuit, Stupefying Stories, Shoreline of Infinity, and elsewhere. She’s also made a home at catchingwords.com and can be found on Twitter as @Akantcheva or Instagram as adriana.kantcheva.