25 Short Stories and Novellas Part 29

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They emerged from the building into a bleak, deserted rear yard where empty baggage carts were strewn around like the fossil carca.s.ses of ancient beasts, a perfect place for a quiet execution. The dry cool wind of early winter was sweeping a dark line of dust across the bare pavement. But to Mondschein's astonishment an immense sleek black limousine materialized from somewhere almost at once and two more Guardia men hopped out, saluting madly. Aristegui beckoned him into the rear of the vast car. "Your villa has been prepared for you, Dr. Mondschein. You are the guest of the nation, you understand. When you are refreshed the Minister of Scientific Development requests your attendance at the Palace of Government, perhaps this afternoon." He flicked a finger and a mahogany panel swung open, revealing a well-stocked bar. "You will have a cognac? It is the rare old. Or champagne, perhaps? A whiskey? Everything imported, the best quality."

"I don't drink," said Mondschein.

"Ah," said Aristegui uncertainly, as though that were a fact that should have been on his prep-sheet and unaccountably hadn't been. Or perhaps he had simply been looking forward to nipping into the rare old himself, which now would be inappropriate. "Well, then. You are comfortable? Not too warm, not too cool?" Mondschein nodded and peered out the window. They were on an imposing-looking highway now, with a city of pastel-hued high-rise buildings visible off to the side. He didn't recognize a thing. Alvarado had built this city from scratch in the empty highland plains midway between the coast and the lake and it had been only a few years old when Mondschein had last seen it, a place of raw gouged hillsides and open culverts and half-paved avenues with stacks of girders and sewer pipes and cable reels piled up everywhere. From a distance, at least, it looked quite splendid now. But as they left the beautifully landscaped road that had carried them from the airport to the city and turned off into the urban residential district he saw that the splendor was, unsurprisingly, a fraud of the usual Alvarado kind: the avenues had been paved, all right, but they were reverting to nature again, cracking and upheaving as the swelling roots of the bombacho trees and the candelero palms that had been planted down the central dividers ripped them apart. The grand houses of pink and green and azure stucco were weather-stained and crumbling, and Mondschein observed ugly random outcroppings of tin-roofed squatter-shacks sprouting like mushrooms in the open fields behind them, where elegant gardens briefly had been. And this was the place he had longed so desperately to behold one last time before he died. He thought of his comfortable little apartment in Bern and felt a pang.

But then the car swung off onto a different road, into the hills to the east which even in the city's earliest days had been the magnificently appointed enclave of the privileged and powerful. Here there was no sign of decay. The gardens were impeccable, the villas s.p.a.cious and well kept. Mondschein remembered this district well. He had lived in it himself before Alvarado had found it expedient to give him a one-way ticket abroad. Names he hadn't thought of in decades came to the surface of his mind: this was the Avenida de las Flores, this was Calle del Sol, this was Camino de los Toros, this was Calle de los Indios, and this -- this -- He gasped. "Your villa has been prepared for you," Aristegui had told him at the airport. Guest of the nation, yes. But Mondschein hadn't thought to interpret Aristegui's words literally. They'd be giving him a villa, some villa. But the handsome two-story building with the white facade and the red tile roof in front of which the limousine had halted was in fact his villa, the actual and literal and much-beloved one he had lived in long ago, until the night when the swarthy little frog-faced officer of the Guardia had come to him to tell him that he was expelled from the country. He had had to leave everything behind then, his books, his collection of ancient scientific instruments, his pre-Columbian ceramics, his rack of Italian-made suits and fine vicuna coats, his pipes, his cello, his family alb.u.ms, his greenhouse full of orchids, even his dogs. One small suitcase was all they had let him take with him on the morning flight to Madrid, and from that day on he had never permitted himself to acquire possessions, but had lived in a simple way, staying easily within the very modest allowance that the Maximum Leader in his great kindness sent him each month wherever he might be. And now they had given him back his actual villa. Mondschein wondered who had been evicted, on how much notice and for what trumped-up cause, to make this building available to him again after all this time.

All that he had wanted, certainly all that he had expected, was some ordinary little flat in the center of the city. The thought of returning to the old villa sickened him. There would be too many ghosts roaming in it. For the first time he wondered whether his impulsive decision to accept Alvarado's astonishing invitation to return to the country had been a mistake.

"You recognize this house?" Aristegui asked. "You are surprised, are you not? You are amazed with joy?"

They had made no attempt to restore his lost possessions or to undo the changes that had come to the house since he had lived there. Perhaps such a refinement of cruelty was beyond the Maximum Leader's imagination, or, more probably, no one had any recollection of what had become of his things after so many years. It was just as well. He had long since managed to put his collections of antiquities out of his mind and he had no interest in playing the cello any more, or in smoking pipes. The villa now was furnished in standard upper-cla.s.s Peruvian-style comfort of the early years of the century, everything very safe, very unexceptionable, very familiar, very dull. He was provided with a staff of four, a housekeeper, a cook, a driver, a gardener. Wandering through the airy rambling house, he felt less pain than he had antic.i.p.ated. His spirit was long gone from it; it was just a house. There were caged parrots in the garden and a white-and-gray cat was slinking about outside as if it belonged there; perhaps it was the cat of the former resident and had found its way back in the night.

He bathed and rested and had a light lunch. In the afternoon the driver came to him and said, "May I take you to the Palace of Government now, Senor Dr. Mondschein? The Minister is eager." The driver must be a Guardia man also, Mondschein realized. But that was all right. All of it was all right, whatever they did now.

The Palace of Government hadn't been finished in Mondschein's time. It was a huge sprawling thing made of blocks of black stone, fitted together dry-wall fashion to give it a ma.s.sive pseudo-Inca look, and it was big enough to have housed the entire bureaucracy of the Roman Empire at its peak. Relays of functionaries, some in Guardia uniform, some not, led him through gloomy high-vaulted corridors, across walled courtyards, and up grand and ponderous stone staircases until at last an officious florid-faced aide-de-camp conducted him into the wing that was the domain of the Ministry of Scientific Development. Here he pa.s.sed through a procession of outer offices and finally was admitted to a brightly lit reception hall lined with somber portraits in oils. He recognized Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci and guessed that the others were Aristotle, Darwin, Galileo, perhaps Isaac Newton. And in the place of honor, of course, a grand representation of the Maximum Leader himself, looking down with brooding intensity.

"His Excellency the Minister," said the florid aide-de-camp, waving him into an office paneled with dark exotic woods at the far end of the reception hall. A tall man in an ornately brocaded costume worthy of a bullfighter rose from a glistening desk to greet him. And unexpectedly Mondschein found himself staring yet again at the unforgettable face of Diego Alvarado.

One of the clones, Mondschein thought. It had to be.

All the same it felt like being clubbed in the teeth. The Minister of Scientific Development had Alvarado's hard icy blue eyes, his thin lips, his broad brow, his jutting cleft chin. His smile was Alvarado's cold smile, his teeth were Alvarado's perfect glistening teeth. He had the coa.r.s.e curling bangs -- graying now -- that gave the Maximum Leader the look of a youthful indomitable Caesar. His lanky body was lean and gaunt, a dancer's body, and his movements were a dancer's movements, graceful and precise. Seeing him awoke long-forgotten terrors in Mondschein. And yet he knew that this must be one of the clones. After that first shock of recognition, something told Mondschein subliminally that he was looking at an example of his own fine handiwork.

"President Alvarado asks me to convey his warmest greetings," the clone said. It was Alvarado's voice, cool and dry. "He will welcome you personally when his schedule permits, but he wishes you to know that he is honored in the deepest way by your decision to accept his hospitality."

The aging had worked very well, Mondschein thought. Alvarado would be about seventy now, still vigorous, still in his prime. There were lines on this man's face in the right places, changes in the lines of his cheekbones and jaw, exactly as should have happened in twenty-five years.

"It wasn't any decision at all," Mondschein said. He tried to sound casual. "I was ready and eager to come back. Your homeland, your native soil, the place where your ancestors lived and died for three hundred years -- as you get older you realize that nothing can ever take its place."

"I quite understand," said the clone.

Do you? Mondschein wondered. Your only ancestor is a sc.r.a.p of cellular material. You were born in a tissue-culture vat. And yet you quite understand.

I made you, Mondschein thought. I made you.

He said, "Of course the invitation to return came as an immense surprise."

"Yes. No doubt it did. But the Maximum Leader is a man of great compa.s.sion. He felt you had suffered in exile long enough. One day he said, We have done a great injustice to that man, and now it must be remedied. So long as Rafael Mondschein y Gonzalez dwells in foreign lands, our soul can never rest. And so the word went forth to you that all is forgiven, that you were pardoned."

"Only a man of true greatness could have done such a thing," said Mondschein.

"Indeed. Indeed."

Mondschein's crime had been the crime of overachievement. He had built Alvarado's cloning laboratories to such a level of technical skill that they were the envy of all the world; and when eventually the anti-cloning zealots in North America and Europe had grown so strident that there was talk of trade sanctions and the laboratories had to be shut down, Mondschein had become the scapegoat. Alvarado had proposed to find him guilty of creating vile unnatural abominations, but Mondschein had not been willing to let them hang such an absurdity around his neck, and in the end he had allowed them to manufacture supposed embezzlements in his name instead. In return for a waiver of trial he accepted exile for life. Of course the laboratories had reopened after a while, this time secretly and illicitly, and before long ten or eleven other countries had started to turn out A and even AA Cla.s.s clones also and the industry had become too important to the world economy to allow zealotry to interfere with it any longer; but Mondschein remained overseas, rotting in oblivion, purposelessly wandering like a wraith from Madrid to Prague, from Prague to Stockholm, from Stockholm to Ma.r.s.eilles. And now at last the Maximum Leader in his great compa.s.sion had relented.

The Minister said, "You know we have made vast strides in the biological sciences since you last were here. Once you have had some time to settle in, we will want you to visit our laboratories, which as you may be aware are once again in legal operation."

Mondschein was aware of that, yes. Throughout the world Tierra Alvarado was known informally as the Clone Zone, the place where anyone could go to have a reasonable facsimile manufactured at a reasonable price. But that was no longer any concern of his.

"I'm afraid that I have very little interest in cloning technology these days," he said.

The Minister's chilly Alvarado-eyes blazed with sudden heat. "A visit to our laboratories may serve to reawaken that interest, Dr. Mondschein."

"I doubt that very much."

The Minister looked unhappy. "We had hoped quite strongly that you would be willing to share the benefits of your scientific wisdom with us, doctor. Your response greatly disappoints us."

Ah. It was all very clear, now, and very obvious. Strange that he hadn't foreseen it.

"I have no scientific wisdom, really," said Mondschein evenly. "None that would be of any use. I haven't kept up with the state of the art."

"There are those who would be pleased to refresh your -- "

"I'd much rather prefer to remain in retirement. I'm too old to make any worthwhile contributions."

Now the thin lips were quirking. "The national interest is in jeopardy, Dr. Mondschein. For the first time we are challenged by compet.i.tion from other countries. Genetic technology, you understand, is our primary source of hard currency. We are not a prosperous land, doctor. Our cloning industry is our one great a.s.set, which you created for us virtually singlehandedly. Now that it faces these new threats, surely we may speak to your sense of patriotism, if not your one-time pa.s.sion for scientific achievement, in asking you -- " The Minister broke off abruptly, as though seeing his answer in Mondschein's expression. In a different tone he said, "No doubt you are tired after your long journey, doctor. I should have allowed you more time to rest. We'll continue these discussions at a later date, perhaps."

He turned away. The florid aide-de-camp appeared as though from the air and showed Mondschein out. His driver was waiting in the courtyard.

Mondschein spent most of the night trying to sleep, but it was difficult for him, as it usually was. And there was a special problem this night, for his mind was still on Swiss time, and what was the night in Tierra Alvarado was in Switzerland the beginning of a new day. His thoughts went ticking ceaselessly on, hour after hour. Sleep finally took him toward dawn, like a curtain falling, like the blade of a guillotine.

Colonel Aristegui of the Guardia de la Patria came to him, phoning first for an appointment, saying the matter was urgent. Mondschein a.s.sumed that this would be the next attempt to put pressure on him to take charge of the cloning labs, but that did not appear to be what was on Aristegui's mind. The wide-shouldered little man looked remarkably ill at ease; he paced, he fidgeted, he mopped his sweating forehead with a lace handkerchief. Then he said, as if forcing the words out, "This is extremely delicate."

"Is it?"

Aristegui studied him with care. "You control yourself extremely well, doctor. In particular I mark your restraint in regard to the President. You speak of your grat.i.tude to him for allowing you to return. But inwardly you must hate him very much."

"No," Mondschein said. "It's all ancient history. I'm an old man now. What does any of it matter any more?"

"He took away the scientific work that was your life. He forced you to leave the land of your birth."

"If you think you're going to get me to launch into an attack on him, you're totally mistaken. What's past is past and I'm happy to be home again and that's all there is to it."

Aristegui stared at his brilliantly gleaming patent-leather shoes. Then he sighed and raised his head like a diver coming up to the surface and said, "The country is dying, doctor."

"Is it?"

"Of the Latin American disease. The strong man comes, he sees the evils and injustices and remedies them, and then he stays and stays and stays until he is the evils and the injustices. President Alvarado has ruled here for thirty-five years. He drains the treasury for his palaces; he ignores what must be done to preserve and sustain. He is our great burden, our great curse. It is time for him to step aside. Or else be thrust aside."

Mondschein's eyes widened. "You're trying to draw me into some sort of conspiracy? You must be out of your mind."

"I risk my life telling you this."

"Yes. You do. And I risk my life listening."

"You are essential to our success. Essential. You must help us."

"Look," said Mondschein, "if Alvarado simply wants to do away with me, he doesn't have to bother with anything as elaborate as this. n.o.body in the world cares whether I live or die. It isn't necessary to inveigle me into a fantastic nonexistent plot on his life. He can just have me shot. All right? All right?"

"This is not a trap. As G.o.d is my witness, I am not here as part of a scheme to ensnare you. I beg for your a.s.sistance. If you wish, report me to the authorities, and I will be tortured and the truth will come out and I will be executed, and then you will know that I was honest with you."

Wearily Mondschein said, "What is all this about?"

"You possess the ability to distinguish between the brothers of Alvarado and Alvarado himself."

"The brothers?"

"The clones. There is a secret method, known only to you, that allows you to tell the true Alvarado from the false."

"Don't be silly."

"It is so. You need not pretend. I have access to very high sources."

Mondschein shrugged. "For the sake of argument let's say that it's so. What then?"

"When we aim our blow at Alvarado, we want to be certain we are a.s.sa.s.sinating the real one."

"Yes. Of course you do."

"You can guide our hand. He often appears in public, but no one knows whether it is really he, or one of the brothers. And if we strike down one of the brothers, thinking we have killed the true Alvarado -- "

"Yes," Mondschein said. "I see the problem. But a.s.suming that I'm able to tell the difference, and I'm not conceding that I can, what makes you think I'd want to get mixed up in your plot? What do I stand to gain from it, other than useless revenge on a man who did me harm a very long time ago? Will his death give me back my life? No, I simply want to live out my last few years in peace. Kill Alvarado without me, if you want to kill him. If you're not sure whether you're killing the right one, kill them all. Kill them one by one until there are none at all left."

"I could kill you," Aristegui said. "Right now. I should. After what I have told you, you own my life."

Again Mondschein shrugged. "Then kill me. For whatever good it'll do you. I'm not going to inform on you."

"Nor cooperate with me."

"Neither one nor the other."

"All you want is to live in peace," said Aristegui savagely. "But how do you know you will? Alvarado has asked you to work for him again, and you have refused." He held up a hand. "Yes, yes, I know that. I will not kill you, though I should. But he might, though he has no reason to. Think about that, Senor Doctor."

He rose and glared at Mondschein a moment, and left without another word.

Mondschein's body clock had caught up with Tierra Alvarado time by this time. But that night, once again, he lay until dawn in utterly lucid wakefulness before exhaustion at last brought him some rest. It was as though sleep were a concept he had never quite managed to understand.

The next summons came from Alvarado himself.

The Presidential Palace, which Mondschein remembered as a compact, somewhat austere building in vaguely Roman style, had expanded in the course of a quarter of a century into an incomprehensible mazelike edifice that seemed consciously intended to rival Versailles in ostentatious grandeur. The Hall of Audience was a good sixty meters long, with rich burgundy draperies along the walls and thick blood-red carpeting. There was a marble dais at the far end where the Maximum Leader sat enthroned like an emperor. Dazzling sunlight flooded down on him through a dome of shimmering gla.s.s set in the ceiling. Mondschein wondered if he was supposed to offer a genuflection.

There were no guards in the room, only the two of them. But security screens in the floor created an invisible air-wall around the dais. Mondschein found himself forced to halt by subtle pressure when he was still at least fifteen meters short of the throne. Alvarado came stiffly to his feet and they stood facing each other in silence for a long moment.

It seemed anticlimactic, this confrontation at last. Mondschein was surprised to discover that he felt none of the teeth-on-edge uneasiness that the man had always been able to engender in him. Perhaps having seen the clone-Alvarado earlier had taken the edge off the impact.

Alvarado said, "You have found all the arrangements satisfactory so far, I hope, doctor?"

"In the old days you called me Rafael."

"Rafael, yes. It was so long ago. How good it is to see you again, Rafael. You look well."

"As do you."

"Yes. Thank you. Your villa is satisfactory, Rafael?"

"Quite satisfactory," said Mondschein. "I look forward to a few last years of quiet retirement in my native country."

"So I am told," Alvarado said.

He seemed overly formal, weirdly remote, hardly even human. In the huge hall his crisp, cool voice had a buzzing androidal undertone that Mondschein found unfamiliar. Possibly that was an atmospheric diffraction effect caused by the security screens. But then it occurred to Mondschein that this too might be one of the clones. He stared hard, trying to tell, trying to call on the intuitive sense that once had made it possible for him to tell quite easily, even without running the alpha-wave test. The AAA Cla.s.s clones had been intended to be indistinguishable from the original to nine decimal places, but nevertheless when you collapsed the first twenty or thirty years of a man's life into the three-year accelerated-development period of the cloning process you inevitably lost something, and Mondschein had always been able to detect the difference purely subjectively, at a single glance. Now, though, he wasn't sure. It had been simple enough to see that the Alvarado who had greeted him in the Ministry of Scientific Development was a replica, but here, at this distance, in this room that resonated with the presence of the Maximum Leader, there were too many ambiguities and uncertainties.

He said, "The Minister explained to me that the national genetic laboratories are facing heavy compet.i.tion from abroad, that you want me to step in and pull things together. But I can't do it. My technical knowledge is hopelessly out of date. I'm simply not familiar with current work in the field. If I had known ahead of time that the reason you had decided to let me come home was to that you wanted me to go back into the labs, I never would have -- "

"Forget about the labs," Alvarado said. "That isn't why I invited you to return."

"But the Minister of Scientific Development said -- "

"Let the Minister of Scientific Development say anything he wishes. The Minister has his agenda and I have mine, doctor." He had dropped the first-name talk, Mondschein noticed. "Is it true that there is a method of determining whether a given individual is an authentic human or merely a highly accurate clone?"

Mondschein hesitated. Something was definitely wrong here.

"Yes," he said finally. "There is. You know that there is."

"You are too certain of what I know and what I do not know. Tell me about this method, doctor."

He was more and more certain that he was talking to one of the clones. Alvarado must be staging one of his elaborate charades.

"It involves matching brain rhythms. When I created the AAA Cla.s.s Alvarado clones, I built a recognition key into them that would enable me, using a simple EEG hookup, to distinguish their brain-wave patterns from yours. I did this at your request, so that in the case of a possible coup d-'etat attempt by one of the clones you'd be able to unmask the pretender. The method uses my own brain waves as the baseline. If you jack my EEG output into a comparator circuit and overlay it with yours, the two patterns will conflict, the way any two patterns from different human beings will. But if my EEG gets matched against one of your clones, the pattern will drop immediately into alpha rhythms, as if we're both under deep hypnosis. It amazes me that you've forgotten this." He paused. "Unless, of course, you're not Alvarado at all, but simply one of his -- what's the word? -- one of his brothers."

"Very good, doctor."

"Am I right?"

"Come closer and see for yourself."

"I can't. The security screens -- "

"I have switched them off."

Mondschein approached. There was no air resistance. When he was five meters away he felt the unmistakable click of recognition.

"Yes, I am right. Even without an EEG test. You're a clone, aren't you?"

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25 Short Stories and Novellas Part 29 summary

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