Danielle is fifteen and a half, her sweet tooth still untamed. When she heaps three spoonfuls of sugar into her peppermint tea, Wendy rolls her eyes: “That’s her, you know.”
Danielle drops the teaspoon clattering to the table. “Aah! Don’t say that! I’m switching to honey, as of right now.”
Sitting across from her in the harsh light of the hall is a girl with the name tag “Amanda,” who says darkly, “You know we’re allergic to honey. And cilantro tastes soapy. They’re both genetically linked traits.”
Danielle sets her mug down with a jolt. She surveys the drinks table, where cans of soda are nestled in a plastic tub of ice. The crowd of girls has cut into the supply of orange sodas and colas while a dozen cans of lemon-lime lie untouched. Danielle snatches up a lemon-lime and opens it, takes too big a gulp, and almost chokes. It tastes dreadful. She glowers at the 50 girls milling sullenly around the hall. Every one of them is also fifteen and a half years old, brown-eyed and lean and well-muscled, five-foot-five or -six, brimming with good health and sporting a stick-on name tag. But at least none of them is drinking a lemon-lime. Danielle takes another defiant swig.
And at least none of them has the same hair—though all dark and curly, their hair is styled with wild variation in the teenage spirit of continual experimentation. Danielle can pretend she is looking at an Internet hairstyling magazine, or [a wall of pictures at?] one of those customized beauty programs at the mall. She sees her own hair short and velvety, or in a huge cloud of ringlets, or tied back in a sheaf of sleek braids. The neat topknot over there on Lora looks the best—she’ll have to try that when she gets home. But every nose around her is narrow and aquiline, every mouth under the different lip glosses or glazes firm and dimpled. Mortification creeps down her spine.
“I hate you all,” she announces.
Nods of agreement. “You’d feel better if you drank cola instead of that disgusting lemon-lime,” Olga remarks. This girl looks around, nerving herself to mention the taboo subject. “Do any of you do—sports?”
“Soccer.” “Soccer.” “Soccer.”
“Softball!” Danielle announces. The other girls glare at her with undisguised envy, each scowl an exact replica of the other.
“But you’re good,” Tia predicts in flat tones.
Danielle’s well-toned shoulders slump. “I’m only a sophomore, and I’m already on the varsity team. It wasn’t like Mom and Dad pushed me into it, or anything. It just happened.”
“Does any one of us do anything of our own?” Bev asks. “Drama, or cooking, or build miniature railroads?”
Danielle can’t bear to drink any more lemon-lime. Meeting for the first time like this sickens her stomach, the eerie revulsion in the unnatural act of meeting yourself 49 times over. Mom has tried to help, comparing her with Sleeping Beauty—the beloved daughter, highly prized and sought after for her natural endowments, farmed out to nice folks who would raise her as their own until she was old enough to meet her destiny. Until, Danielle says to herself, the wicked witch came knocking at the door. That day has come. Only times 50.
No one replies to Bev’s question because the hall’s large oak door has swung open. One man holds the door while another pushes the wheelchair-bound woman through, and a third—tall and imposing in his navy blue suit—follows behind. They push the woman in the wheelchair up the ramp leading to a little stage so everyone can see her.
Danielle has been told that Tanya Haynes is only 45. How many other girls get to see what they’ll look like in 30 years? A frizz of gray on the temples, those deep curving lines around the mouth—the wicked witch, Danielle thinks. As she studies the wrinkles around the older woman’s eyes she resolves to start moisturizing and using sunblock.
Earl, the formidable executive presence, beams down at the assembly, his giant hands clasped across his stomach. “Now don’t they look great, Tan? We got here the makings of three or four of the most dynamite soccer teams in history. You ever see such a beautiful crop of girlhood in your entire life? Girls, you are bee-you-teeful.”
A hostile silence, broken by Tanya saying, “I’ve been trying to think what to call you, dears. You’re not my daughters you have parents, all your wonderful adoptive parents around the country. Not my sisters. My twins? Not exactly.”
Earl grins. “They’re your clones, hon.”
“I won’t call you that,” she says to the girls. “Let’s just say I’m your aunt, your Aunt Tanya. And when a niece comes to visit, auntie has a present for you. Earl, take your boys and go up to my room. Get those big bags down.”
“Bill and Ricky can handle it,” Earl says, dismissing the flunkies with a wave of his hand.
“No, you go too, Earl. There’s three bags, heavy ones. I’ll be fine right here.”
Muttering under his breath, Earl takes his boys and goes. Tanya waits until the door shuts behind them and then rolls her wheelchair to the edge of the little stage. “You, dear,” she says, pointing at Danielle, who is nearest. “Come a little closer, would you please? My eyes aren’t good enough to read name tags any more.”
Back in South Carolina, Danielle's parents raised her to be polite to elders. She hops up onto the stage and sees the metal braces on the older woman’s knees. A car crash when Tanya Haynes was 29—Danielle’s parents have shown her all the newspaper files and sports videos last month, when they broke the news to her about the cloning. The great athlete, the most stupendous female soccer star ever, was never to walk again.
“Danielle,” Tanya says, reading the name tag. “I can’t hold 50 hands, so I’m going to hold yours, alright? As a representative. The rest of you, listen to me, please.”
The hands clutching Danielle’s are lighter than hers, and the skin is looser and rougher. But the fingernails are exactly the same, the distance between the joints, even the little bump on the outside of the wrist bone. She has no words for how strange it is, looking down at two pairs of identical hands of different ages. Silently Danielle measures her palm and fingers against them. Exactly the same length.
Tanya’s voice is harsh. “My dears, this wasn’t my idea. I would never have consented, if I had known what it meant. Earl thought that—he just couldn’t stand the idea of the U.S. women’s soccer team without me. And the soccer federation had their hearts set on another Olympic gold. They filled up my head with all this stuff about the legacy of the sport and the future generations of soccer players, and then when Earl offered to pay all the medical bills if I’d contribute the tissue cultures . . . ” For a moment she falters. Then she says, simply, “I’m sorry, girls.”
We’re slaves, Danielle thinks—not even that, we’re photocopies of an original. Danielle’s entire future has been laid out for her in sports, and there is nothing she can do about it, in this chain gang with 50 sister-selves. She wants to cry. Instead she says, “Do we apologize for being alive, then?” Then she wants to stuff the angry words back into her mouth. But several of her—sisters? twins?—nod their approval. With sullen, hard faces.
“Don’t you ever do that.” Tanya’s older mouth purses instead of dimpling when she sets her teeth, but otherwise the expression is one that Danielle has seen in her own mirror. “They cloned me to make all 50 of you. The plan is for you to dominate sports for the rest of the century. But you are your own women, do you hear? They wanted to give you my legs, my lungs, my muscles. But I’m giving you my heart. Don’t you let these sports moguls run you. They made you in petri dishes and paid for your births, but they don’t own you. Seize your lives, and make them yours. You can do it, because you are champions, girls. It takes one to know one.”
The strength that won Tanya Haynes the gold medal in 2008 radiates out of her as she leans forward in her wheelchair, not the long-gone strength of the broken body, but deeper, hotter—the strength of her spirit. Danielle can feel the heat of it in the bony hand clasping her own, and it is like a burning match touching an unlit new one. Tanya—Aunt Tanya—isn’t the wicked witch. She is the Sleeping Beauty, trapped in a tower shaped like a wheelchair and guarded by creepy fat cats, and she is never going to escape now. But she has given them—her twinned progeny—the key.
The will and power flare up in Danielle’s middle. She is a champion too—of her life. She can be whatever she wants to be. They could make her, but they cannot not mold her. “And don’t forget,” she says, “we’re teens—rebellious by nature.”
Tanya grins at her, at them all. “You go right ahead and rebel, dears. Explore the world. Find your place.”
Then the door opens again and it is as if a curtain falls over Tanya’s countenance. Earl staggers in hauling a large canvas duffel bag, the other two following behind with more. Tanya smiles at him as he drags the bag up the ramp. “Now aren’t you sweet. You know I can’t do very much these days, girls, but I’ve taken up lace knitting. And luckily I didn’t have to worry about the colors that would suit you! Danielle dear, try this one.”
She takes a vivid blue scarf from the bag, neatly folded and tied with a ribbon. Danielle carefully slips off the ribbon and shakes the scarf out. Absolutely beautiful, she thinks, as the blue and the triangled patterns seem perfect for her alone. Danielle wraps the scarf around her neck; it feels light and warm as a hug. She looks up and meets Tanya’s eyes, exactly the brown of her own. The older woman winks at her.
Beside her Amanda unfolds her green scarf, awed: “And look at that,” she says, “mine has hearts.” She looks around and says, “They’re different—every one is different!”
Danielle grins back. All 50 of them must be looking just as dangerous and beautiful.
This award-winning story by SF writer, fan and SFWA member Brenda Clough was originally commissioned for a special science issue of Christianity Today.