Escape Pod 879: Triptych
by Avi Burton
Delaney didn’t have time to change before the men in suits came and bundled her into the car. Her dress fell crooked against her knees, and her makeup was half-applied. The sting of cold air brushed against her bare shoulders. They hadn’t let her grab a jacket, either.
The hasty exit and lack of preparation made her think this semi-willing kidnapping couldn’t be for a public appearance. Security always made her change back into men’s clothes for that, no matter how nauseous the suit and tie made her. She knew the Senator’s people didn’t approve of her aesthetic, or her, period, but they gave her the brief grace of dressing how she liked—as long as she stayed hidden. If she ever left the house, it was as Senator Marcus Delaney. She’d never been allowed out before as this disheveled, in-between creature.
Delaney sat rumpled in the back seat of the van—Janus Delivery Services, read the logo imprinted on the side—and twisted her hands in her lap. There was a guard on either side of her, and one in the driver’s seat, who was wearing sunglasses. They were all white, male, and had a military look. Maybe Marines, definitely bodyguards, and not her usual handlers.
None of them made eye contact with her. Lines of tension dragged down the shoulders and frowns of the security guards. Something unspoken fizzled in the air, like a live wire, or a fuse burning down.
“What’s going on? What do you need me for?” Delaney asked. Usually, she was allowed a briefing before they came to take her, but she’d been ordered to get in the car without any other information.
“Quiet,” said the guard on the left.
“Did something happen?”
“Look.” Sunglasses in the front sighed, twisting the wheel. The windows of the van were tinted, and Delaney couldn’t make out more than faint road passing by. “You’ll find out when you get there. Don’t panic.”
“Didn’t have a reason to, until just now,” Delaney answered, slumping back in her seat. She smoothed out a fold in the fabric of her dress, running her suddenly sweaty palms over her knees.
Sunglasses did not reassure her—he didn’t speak again for the rest of the ride. A tense, ticking silence fell, broken only by the occasional thud of the car hitting a pothole. The world outside rolled past, hazy sunset shifting into blurred twilight, and Delaney’s nerves did not abate.
The car pulled into the driveway of a plain rickety farmhouse, overgrown wheat crawling up to its front windows. A safe house, Delaney thought, tasting metal in her mouth. Sunglasses put a firm hand on her shoulder, as if she would try to bolt, but she had no intention of running—whatever awaited her inside was better than the prey animal sensation she got from standing exposed in the wheat field. She half-expected a sniper to take a shot at her head, but all was silent.
The interior of the house was a blur. Delaney was pushed past it before she could see much more than empty picture frames and dusty shelves. The guards led her down a set of chipped concrete stairs to the basement.
“Stay here,” said Sunglasses. “We’ll tell you when it’s safe.”
“Can you please tell me what’s going on?” Delaney was shoved inside and the door shut behind her before she could even manage the inflection on her question.
A fluorescent light flared overhead, illuminating the room in fuzzy yellow. Delaney blinked into the sudden light, and found herself staring at—herself.
She’d known, theoretically, that there were other clones. She’d never thought she’d be allowed to meet them. She found herself unable to tear her gaze away from the faces that mirrored her own—the square jaw, the aquiline nose, the burgeoning lines around the eyes. A man’s face. Her stomach churned.
It’s not my face, she reassured herself. It never belonged to me. It’s the face of the Original. When people look at me, they’re seeing Senator Marcus Delaney, man’s man, family man. They’re not seeing Delaney-the-woman. Delaney-the-woman is safe.
The Original wasn’t in the room now; Delaney was certain she’d know him on sight. From what she’d gleaned from the news, the Original had aged more quickly than his genetically engineered counterparts, and wore the wrinkles and added weight with a dour frown. The people staring her down were undeniably clones. Her nerves picked up.
The man immediately in front of her could have been the senator’s younger brother, or even son, if Delaney squinted. He’d made an effort to look different from the Original: he leaned slightly on one foot, wore his auburn hair slicked back instead of combed to the side, and was dressed in jeans and a pressed white t-shirt.
The second clone, sulking farther back, was nearly identical to the Original— slightly skinnier and sallower, with fewer wrinkles, but the bearing was the same, as was the suit.
“Whoa,” quipped the first clone, “I’m seeing double.”
“Triple.” Delaney gestured between the three of them, and made a triangle with her fingers. She couldn’t look the other clones—she supposed they were her brothers—in the eyes without the deja vu of dysphoria rolling in.
“No, you’re seeing double,” corrected the suited clone, without any affect in his voice. “You’re not looking at yourself.”
“Fair enough.” The first clone stuck out his hand towards Delaney. “I’m Mark. Uncreative, I know. Did you pick a name for yourself?”
“Delaney. I don’t normally dress like this.” She shook his hand, chewed the decision over for a moment, and added, “Pronouns are she/her. If you don’t mind.”
“Don’t mind at all,” Mark said lightly. Delaney breathed a sigh of relief. “He/him for me.” He turned to the suited clone. “What about you?”
The third clone looked at them with baleful eyes. “Senator Marcus Delaney.”
“You can drop the act,” Mark said. “We all know the deal.”
“We were made to be him. We are him. We have no other names.”
Mark shifted uneasily.
“We were made to pretend to be him,” Delaney countered. “To be distractions when things got dangerous, and to take the hit if things came to bullets. It’s no different than being a stunt double or bodyguard. But we’re not him.”
I’m not him, she reassured herself, stomach squeezing. I’m Delaney. I’m a woman. He may have molded me to be one way, but he has no control over who I actually am.
“We have his DNA,” the unnamed clone countered stiffly. “His memories are implanted in our minds. We are him. It’s our job to be him.”
“You both forgot one part of our job, though,” Mark interjected, clearly trying to cut the tension. “We also give speeches when the old man is too tired or too lazy. Sometimes they even let me shake hands and kiss babies.”
Delaney turned to him in surprise. “When?”
“Most recently? The environmental rally in March.”
“I didn’t know that was you.”
Mark winked at her. “Well, that’s the point, isn’t it?”
Clone Three rolled his eyes. “Do you two know why we’re here? It’s against protocol for more than one of us to be in the same place at the same time.”
“Something’s gone wrong,” Delaney answered, thinking of the scorching tension during the car ride, the anxious tap tap tap of Sunglasses’ fingers on the wheel. Mark signaled his agreement.
“The question is,” Mark said, “how bad is it?”
In answer, Clone Three pulled a pack of Pall Malls from his pocket and lit one up.
Mark said, with a hint of reproval in his voice: “Just because you’re his clone doesn’t mean you have to pick up his bad habits.”
“I am him,” Clone Three said in answer, and lit the cigarette. “I can’t help it.” Mark grimaced into the smoke.
“Did you know,” Mark began, conversationally, “the old man started to ask me to do public appearances just because he didn’t feel up to it? When he had a sore throat, or a hangover, or any minor excuse to get out of doing his actual job?”
“Why didn’t you say no? Tell him to do his own dirty work?” Delaney asked. A strange envy rose within her, mixed with grief; the Original had never asked her to do any of that. There was no doubt who was his favorite—or why. She wondered if Mark saw the preference as a blessing or a curse.
“I tried,” Mark shrugged. “I’m sure we all tried to resist him, at one point.”
Delaney looked at Clone Three, but he was nodding in recognition. She’d never spoken up against the Original. She’d been too terrified of what he could do to her.
Carefully, Delaney asked, “What happened when you told him no?”
“He told me to follow protocol, or else,” said Clone Three with a shrug.
Delaney frowned. “He didn’t threaten to sell your organs on the black market, to cut up your parts and use them to make a better clone?” That had been one of the Original’s favorite threats, used liberally, even when she’d only made a minor blunder or mispronounced a word.
“Oh, he did,” Mark chimed in. “I just never believed he’d go through with it.”
Delaney smiled. There was bitterness to it. “Prodigal son.” Mark never had to think about the danger he was in. She did, every time she looked in the mirror.
“Something like that,” Mark acknowledged. He tilted his head, an unerringly familiar gesture—mirrored in Clone Three, mirrored in herself. They were a triptych of each other, all part of the same whole. “You never saw him as much of a father figure, did you?”
Delaney’s hands itched for a cigarette. “Well, he never saw me as much of a daughter figure.”
Clone Three scoffed in the corner. Both of them turned to him.
“You don’t get it, do you?” Clone Three said. “He’s not a father figure. He is us—we are all an extension of each other, or we’re pale reflections of him, light fractured through a prism. We are not people. We don’t get to have selves.”
Delaney drew herself up. “I—”
Mark hushed her, flashed up a palm. “Wait. I hear something.”
The three of them went quiet. At the top of the stairs, there came the sound of footsteps, then voices.
“When do you want to tell them?” Sunglasses was speaking, his voice faint. Delaney pressed herself against the bunker door to hear better.
“Not yet,” came a second voice—rough, like scratched wool, and unfamiliar. “Not until the coroner can determine the cause of death.” Delaney sucked in a breath.
“A heart attack, most likely.”
“Most likely,” agreed the second voice, “but we can’t rule out assassination. Have to follow procedure and all.”
“And then?” asked Sunglasses. “We’re going to continue, right? We have to continue. He was going to run for President when his term was up next year. We can’t let all our work go to waste.”
“We’re not going to give up.” The second voice was cool, reassuring. “It won’t be hard to replace him. Hell, we’ve got three of him hunkered down in the basement right now.”
“How will we choose, then? Which one of them is going to be next?”
A long stretch of silence.
“I don’t know,” came the final reply. “We pick one, I suppose.”
The conversation died, and the two men retreated, footsteps fading into the dark.
The clones exchanged a glance.
“We’re free,” Delaney said, at the same time Clone Three whispered, “We’re dead.”
“Shit,” said Mark.
A hiccup rose in Delaney’s chest. She wasn’t sure if it was a laugh or a sob. She sat down heavily on the steps. “Shit is right. He’s dead. Oh my God, he’s really dead.”
It didn’t feel real. The Original was gone, and his people were picking a replacement. If she wasn’t chosen, would they let her go? She doubted it. She’d been built for this, and her makers wouldn’t give up such a valuable asset so easily.
“Fuck it,” Mark said, and pulled out his own pack of Pall Malls. He offered one to Delaney, who accepted. The lull of nicotine was a comfort against her skin. Mark let the tip of his own Pall Mall flare cherry-red. He lifted the burning end into the air like a torch.
“To the old man,” Mark said.
“To Marcus,” Delaney agreed. Good riddance.
Clone Three raised his cigarette in silent solidarity. A heavy silence fell. The lone lightbulb flickered. Delaney breathed in the acrid tinge of cigarette.
“So,” Mark said, blowing smoke out in a neat circle, “Elephant in the room. Which one of us is gonna get picked?”
“Toss-up.” Delaney spilled ash on the hem of her dress and brushed it away. “I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I am a convincing actor. I make a good man. Whenever I’m pretending to be the Original, my numbers are always high with women and minorities.” She was rambling, nervous. Her voice squeaked high, then dipped low, fluctuating with anxiety.
“You’re too much your own person,” Clone Three said, pointed, almost angry. “It will never be you. It has to be me. All my life, I’ve made sure it will be me.”
Delaney frowned. “You knew this was going to happen?”
“I guessed.” Clone Three’s voice was flat. “If an emergency were to occur, I wanted to survive.”
“Survive to do what?” Delaney snapped. “Keep pretending to be someone else? Of course you’re desperate to get picked—you’ve got nothing else to live for!”
The dead-ash cigarette trembled in Clone Three’s hand. “I live to continue the legacy of Marcus Delaney. To be Marcus Delaney.”
“It won’t be you.” Mark, who had fallen quiet, spoke up. Delaney turned to look at him.
“What?” asked Clone Three.
“It won’t be you,” Mark answered, with growing certainty, as if a riddle were resolving before his eyes. “You’re too much like him, and he was failing at the polls. He only got decent numbers across the board when I was in front of crowds. This is a campaign, not a memorial. They don’t want Marcus Delaney. They want someone who will win.”
Mark’s words made sense, and they all knew it. Clone Three fell into a stricken silence. For a brief, awful moment, Delaney wondered if the Original’s death was an accident at all.
Her voice broke the silence. “Do you want to be him?”
“What do you mean?”
“He wasn’t exactly a paragon of virtue. You can be better.”
“Maybe,” Mark said. “I have his DNA. I have his childhood memories embedded in the back of my brain. For all intents and purposes, I am Marcus Delaney.”
“You’re Mark,” Delaney said. “There’s a difference.”
“Then Mark will do better—as Marcus,” Mark said. “There’s policy reform I’ve been thinking about implementing—could never get him to listen to me about it—”
“But you’ll always be held back by him,” Delaney argued. “You won’t be able to ever escape who he was. Do you think his team will let you get away with changing things? Do you think you’ll ever get a chance to be original?”
Mark dropped his cigarette, crushed it with the heel of his shoe. “What’s the alternative? What else am I supposed to do?”
“Leave,” Delaney said. “Run and escape. Let them build new people in our stead. If you stay as him, you’ll always be replaceable.”
“If I let go of him,” Mark said softly, “I’ll be no one.”
“You’ll be you.”
Mark shrugged, as if her answer was insufficient.
“You should go,” Clone Three said. “Less clones means less competition.”
“Yes. Let’s leave,” Delaney pleaded to Mark. “We’ll have a better chance as the two of us. Let him”—she jerked her thumb at Clone Three—“be the Original. He wants it more than either of us, anyway.”
“I… I don’t know.” Mark shifted on his feet. “I want it, too.”
“Aren’t you?” Mark’s eyes—her eyes, the Original’s eyes—were crystalline blue, round and desperate.
“Terrified,” Delaney admitted, conviction dying like a weak flame in the wind. She sighed. “You’re right. It’s probably not worth the risk.”
“We’ll be safer if we stay,” Mark agreed. Uncertainty shifted through the room, ghostlike. Delaney picked at the hem of her dress.
“You really should leave. It’s for the best.” This time, it was Clone Three who broke the quiet. His hand was in his back pocket, fingers curled around something concealed.
“And let you be our future President? No, thanks,” Mark quipped. He’d clearly intended it to be a joke, but the words landed with jagged edges. The tension in the room sharpened.
“Why not? Why the hell not?” Clone Three snapped. “If the Original hadn’t died, you would have let him be the President. Well, I am him, from his DNA to his words to his clothes. What’s the difference?”
Mark’s eyes gleamed in the low light. “The difference is that the Original had opinions. He was a leader. You’re a meat puppet.”
“And you’re a fool,” Clone Three snarled, pulling a gun from his pocket.
Everyone froze. Clone Three’s hand shook, cigarette jittering from the corner of his mouth. Delaney’s gaze was fixed on how small and snub-nosed the gun was, how perfectly it fit against Clone Three’s palm. The Original’s pistol—or a copy of it.
“Don’t,” Delaney began. Clone Three laughed.
“You wanted opinions? You get opinions.” He swung the gun between Delaney and Mark, pointing it at each of them in turn. “There will be no choosing, no choice. You two die. I become Senator Marcus Delaney.”
“Oh, but I thought you already were him.” Mark smiled—acrid, sharp. Dangerous.
“Shut up!” cried Clone Three, and fired. Delaney dove to the dirt floor. Mark cried out. The bullet embedded itself into the wall, causing an explosion of concrete. Shouts of surprise echoed from the upper rooms of the house.
Clone Three stumbled back from the recoil. Delaney lunged for the gun.
Clone Three jerked away from her, but not fast enough. She grabbed his arm, wrenched it downwards. He cried out. She pulled at the gun. He spat in her face. She kneed him in the stomach, and they both tumbled to the floor.
Delaney’s breath choked her chest. Clone Three was wrestling on top of her, then she on top of him. Their faces were identical expressions of rage. In a mirrored moment, she was fighting the Original. She was fighting Mark. She was fighting herself.
Adrenaline sang in her veins, and she was not afraid.
She pinned Clone Three to the floor, yanked the gun from his sweaty palm. She pressed the barrel under his chin. A vein throbbed in his neck, and his eyes flickered with fear.
“We all make choices,” Delaney said softly. “This was a bad one.” Her finger curled around the trigger.
“Don’t,” wheezed Clone Three. “Please, don’t—”
And it was her voice, though she hated it. This was her blood-brother, her kin. She had a choice to make here, too. Her pulse pounded in her ears.
Delaney slammed Clone Three’s head against the floor, knocking him unconscious. She got up, prodded his body to make sure he was fully out. An ugly welt oozed from his temple.
She glanced over to where Mark sat, propped up against the wall and clutching his shoulder. “You alright?”
“Yeah,” Mark said, panting. “I’ll be fine. He only grazed me.” He kicked the limp body of Clone Three. “The senator was a terrible shot, too. Guess this fucker really committed to the bit.”
“He went too far. Now it’s just us.” She tilted her head upwards, listening to the creak of restless footsteps from above. “Hey!” She called upwards. “Are you going to help, or what? We almost died!”
No response from the men in suits. Delaney started to go towards the door, but Mark shook his head.
“They’re not going to intervene until they’re ready. Natural selection,” he told her, then sighed. Blood trickled out from between his clamped fingers. “Fuck. You’re Darwin’s favorite, I guess.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he’s unhinged, so they won’t choose him.” Mark gestured with his chin towards Clone Three. “I’m injured—this could screw up my mobility for life. At the very least, they can’t afford to wait six weeks while I heal. You’re the obvious choice. The only one left.”
“But—” Her voice trailed off. She sat down next to him. Leftover adrenaline made her hands shake. “I don’t know what to do.”
She could be powerful, as Senator—President—Marcus Delaney. She could rule the world. She might even be able to do some good with it. But she’d never be allowed to wear a dress again. Never get the surgeries she’d been saving up for. Never feel the euphoric thrill of being called “miss.” She’d sacrifice herself, and for what? For whom?
Delaney never tried to run before, never even talked back. Her only small rebellion had been dressing as herself, in the dark where no one else could see. She turned her head towards the stairs, towards the uncertainty that awaited behind the door. Three choices, one painting: Senator Marcus Delaney. His clone. Or her.
Another decision, another difference. The Original never made this choice. She wondered what he would choose, would want her to choose.
Then Delaney realized she didn’t care. She wasn’t him. That was the difference.
Delaney put a hand on Mark’s uninjured shoulder. “When you’re in charge,” she said. “Do me a favor, alright? Pass a bill protecting trans people. Name it after me.”
“As soon as they come down here, I’m going to run,” Delaney said, and slipped the pistol into her pocket. “And I won’t stop running until I’ve escaped. You’ll be President. I’ll be me.”
Above her, the door creaked open.
Once again, that was Triptych, by Avi Burton.
There are many kinds of denial of self that manifest in fiction as in life, and gender suppression is a particularly brutal one currently in the midst of an ugly political and social struggle. As law after law is proposed to legislate trans people out of existence, I enjoyed this story in which a woman was not only able to find freedom to fully be herself after years of hiding, but could also hopefully be a catalyst for positive change. And as in the story, the burden of that work can’t fall on the shoulders of trans people alone. If we want the arc of the universe to bend toward justice, sometimes we have to help shift it with a lever.
Escape Pod is part of the Escape Artists Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and this episode is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Please do share it.
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And our closing quotation this week is from Julia Serano, who said, “Being intimidated into silence is like being suffocated–in both cases someone else is taking your last breath.”
Thanks for joining us, and may your escape pod be fully stocked with stories.
About the Author
Avi Burton (he/they) is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, where they’re studying creative writing and theater. When not writing, he can be found fencing, obsessing over classic literature, or talking to his cat.