Just for a minute, John allowed himself a quick moment of escape. He took a long deep breath in and out through his pressurized suit. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine the breeze of pure oxygen that was hitting his suit was really brushing past his face. The bittersweet thought made his heart ache. With the planet deteriorating and all the failed experiments that he was currently engaged in to try and prolong the inevitable, he knew he’d never feel a real pure breeze on his face again. As an angelic hand brushed past the side of his suit, John opened his eyes and remembered where he was. He looked at the monitor broadcasted inside his suit. The test had finished.
“Your vitals are great today, A352.” John brought one gloved hand to the camera affixed around his mask. He zoomed in the lens to get a clearer shot of the subject standing before him. The beautiful body, a carbon copy, of some sort of angelic being that they only wished to further understand. John let out a sigh. Earth’s only hope, and there were so few of them left.
“Thank you, Spaceman.” The response was soft and sweet. Said with a slight smile and a pat on the top of his suit.
John laughed. Spaceman? He supposed the suit was a little other-worldly. He took another gaze at the being in front of him and saw her face become serious for a moment. It was something that John had noticed over the last few months from studying her. No matter the situation, no matter how content or sad the Institute expected the clones to be, they always had a certain glimmer in their eyes that could be seen if one looked close enough. The other clones’ eyes had shown signs of melancholy sadness. A352 though, she was different. At times John figured it was the reason he had always been drawn to her. No matter the experiments, tests, or tragedies that befell her species, there was always a bit of shine in her eyes, a sparkle of hope.
“My name is John, you know that.”
“I know,” A352 spoke with a smile, her voice light and soothing like a soft melody. “Hi, John.”
And just like that, he found himself looking at her the way he knew he couldn’t. John lowered his head. He wished time could stop. He wished he could stay here longer and forget about the state of the world for more than just a minute, but... he knew he couldn’t. They couldn’t afford to. There were only three left, after all. Three beautiful creatures. Three angel-like beings sustaining the planet with their energy. All the others had perished and it was his job to figure out why. It had been the greatest mystery of their time – why her species had died out and why all of the clones were unsuccessful besides A352, A318 and A220. As John looked around the chrome-plated room, he supposed he should get back to work and quit fantasizing of a life he knew he couldn’t have. Reluctantly, he turned away from her.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, A352.”
“See you tomorrow, Spaceman.”
John lifted his head as he turned back around. He couldn’t fight the smile forming across his face. “Come on,” he smirked, “just call me John.”
She paused for a moment and then spoke with wide eyes, “then I need a name as well.”
It was a simple request, John thought. And, it was more than fair. He checked the illuminated time on his helmet. He had a few more minutes before Fen was sure to yell at him. He surveyed the familiar milky white skin and long wavy auburn hair of the magical woman smiling back at him. John felt at an instant loss. What name could you give someone so precious, so special? Surely, there was no name good enough.
“What name would you like me to call you?”
The woman shrugged causing John to smile wider. For a clone of something, not Earthborn, he was often surprised by the human mannerisms.
“Will you think of one and let me know?”
John nodded, “I will.”
With that, he bent down and turned the wheel lock counterclockwise. As he opened the latch the familiar golden ladder was revealed. He began to climb down but stopped once to wave goodbye to the beautiful creature looking intently at him. With a pull, he closed the latch and finished his descent down the shoot.
At the bottom, John entered a vacuum sealed tube where he removed his cobalt blue hazmat suit, revealing his jeans and white lab coat. He wondered briefly if the magical woman would ever see him like this. After all, in his thick suit equipped with goggles and face camera, he was virtually indistinguishable from any other researcher. He didn’t even know what his own voice sounded like as it came out through his mask. Speaking of masks – John grabbed his camera before throwing the rest of his suit into a bin to be sterilized. He then made his way down the long hallway to his research lab, all the while thinking of a name that could suit the woman who was, in every sense of the phrase, the center of his life.
“Johnny, boy!” A voice called out as he entered the lab. “Give me some good news.”
John raised the camera mask in the air as he walked over and sat on one of the red stools Fen had set up in front of the paneled screen walls. “Vitals are stable, Fen. No change from yesterday.”
“Thank the Universe,” Fen said as he took the camera and plugged it into the computer in front of them. “Once this data uploads, I’ll compare it to yesterday’s footage.”
John nodded, half listening. He was busy watching the giant screen that monitored A352 and her chrome room filled with the purest air. It had only been a few minutes, but he missed it already.
Fen nudged his arm, bringing him back to reality. “So, what’d you talk about today? You propose marriage yet?”
John rolled his eyes as Fen chuckled beside him. Fen had joined his team a couple years ago and during that time, had become a great asset and a great friend. When the clones began dying, most of the crew had abandoned John and his project, but Fen had chosen to stay and help operate the lab equipment. No matter how much his friend had teased him, John was grateful that he was here.
“Actually... she asked me for a name.”
“A name?” Fen paused as he thought that over, “that’s curious, isn’t it?”
“I think it’s fair,” John turned to face him, “I mean how would you like being called by a number all day?”
“The numbers...” Fen looked at him steadily, “keep us from getting attached.”
John looked away, placing his hands on his lap, he spoke to the ground. “I’m just doing my job.”
Fen smiled that faint smile someone might give a child who didn’t know any better. John sighed. He didn’t know what Fen was about to say, but he already knew that he didn’t want to hear any of it... not today.
“I don’t know, John. Each day it seems like you spend more and more time up there. You know I don’t mind, but... I think we both know you’re a little too close to this.”
John nodded, albeit reluctantly. That was something he knew he couldn’t dispute.
“I mean...” Fen continued, “no clone has lasted more than a year.”
With that, John perked up. He looked at the screen to the left that monitored the other clones. There was only one in there - A318. “A220 will be one-year next week,” John said as he took a closer at the screen. “Where is she?” He looked over at Fen who was shaking his head, a look of inexplicable disappointment on his face. John’s heart sank. He knew that look. He knew that look a little too well.
“She didn’t make it, John.”
Fen took a deep breath and let it out. He took a step away from the computer and sat down on the red stool next to him. “This morning. Her timer ran out.”
John brought his hands over his face as he tried to hide the sadness and frustration that was overtaking him. Her timer had run out. That was the phrase of death that had plagued their experiments and haunted his dreams. Removing his hands, John looked up at A352 and focused in on the hourglass timer that was woven into her back. How much time did she have left? She was coming up on 8 months. After A220, that was the second longest record they had.
“How are the other timers?”
Fen sighed as he crossed his arms and sunk deeper into his seat. “A318’s levels have been dropping... we don’t know how much time she has left. And A352... well, we’ll know more once your data finishes uploading.”
John slammed his fists on the table. Papers fell to the ground. “I can’t take this,” he said as he stood up.
“John, we knew the hourglasses were inaccurate.”
John started pacing back and forth. He knew that. He knew that despite being clones, each of their hourglass timers seemed to work differently. At first, it was thought to be just a part of their skin with no meaning. But then it seemed to indicate the remaining life that they had left. It had been a tragic discovery, figured out a little too late.
“What does this mean for us, Fen.”
“I don’t know.” Fen paused as he leaned forward and checked the computer. “Three of them was barely enough to sustain us. The Earth’s toxicity levels have been stable but who knows how long that will last. With only two now... it’s got to be just a matter of time before it starts to drop again.”
“How can you say that?” John looked at him incredulously. “We can’t give up on this!”
“John,” Fen was now looking directly at him, “the purifying aura this species brought with them once upon a time... it’s fading. I don’t like it any more than you do, but I think we both know that this is it. We can’t save Earth like we thought we could.”
“Don’t say that, Fen!” He was shouting now.
“John,” Fen repeated his voice calm. “These beings... they were it. They were our last hope... and there’s just two now.”
Hope. John thought back to A352 and the glimmer in her eyes. He couldn’t give in to that way of thinking. There had to be another way forward. He looked up at A352 and suddenly found himself wanting to tear up. Lowering his voice, he simply repeated, “we can’t give up on this.”
Fen looked sympathetic as he walked over to him. “Captain is going to hold a press conference at noon. We’ll alert anyone still left. And then... I don’t know. We might begin the evacuation and head back to the space station.”
John’s eyes were still transfixed on A352. “And what will happen to them?”
“That... that I don’t know, John.” Fen reached out and placed his hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
John shook his head vigorously. All their hard work. All the years put into this project trying to clone the creatures that had given life to an Earth that man was thought to have damaged beyond repair. Their experiments had been working. With the help of these beings, the Earth’s atmosphere was becoming increasingly more livable. Sure, there were just be a couple beings left, but that didn’t mean they should give up. The Earth was worth saving.
John took a step forward and began walking to the door. Fen’s hand fell to his side.
“Where are you going?” Fen called out.
“Out...” John stopped in front of the exit, “I’ll be back before the conference.” Without saying another word, he exited the lab.
Fen took a deep breath in and let it out slowly as he watched his comrade leave the room. He felt bad for John, he truly and whole-heartedly did. But, there was no way that this project could go on. There had been far too many mistakes. The Earth hadn’t been livable for a long time now. Mankind had moved up to space and set their sights on other planets. It was time to let this one go.
As Fen looked around at his empty lab, he couldn’t help but think of a time when it wasn’t empty. A time when the lab was full of hard-working researchers and scientists working together to study and extract the purifying aura that this unnamed A-species had brought with them when they descended upon Earth all those years ago.
Fen hadn’t been around when the original A-species still existed. He had only heard tales of the angel-like creatures and their magical presence that seemed to clean the air and make crops grow. Fen had been born aboard one of the space stations so he truly didn’t feel an allegiance to this planet. But, once he heard the story of the extraordinary beings, he wanted to know more. Joining John and his team two years ago had been a high point in his life. This lab had been full of energy and hope. They really thought they could do it. They really thought they could save the planet that mankind had first called home.
Fen lowered his head as he walked over to his main computer and sat down. He looked up at A352 and A318. Two years ago, there were 150 clones. The original A-species had been long gone and all that was left were the clones that the Institute had managed to complete. Even with the original species extinct, the clone project had been a success. The Earth’s high toxicity levels had been dropping. The team had even been close to growing food in the outside wasteland. It had been a great day, but that joy was short lived. Without warning, the clones’ timers began running out at rapid speed. One by one, they perished... taking their purifying properties with them.
He knew John had blamed himself, but it had been a collaborative mess-up. Not one member of their crew had considered the possibility that the hourglasses on their backs indicated their lifelines. Looking back on it now, it seemed rather obvious to Fen. Regardless, they had all missed it and ever since that day, John no longer relied on the monitored screens. John had insisted on going up once, twice, sometimes three times a day to get close-up footage of the hourglasses on the remaining clones’ backs. He wanted to analyze every detail so that they could be prepared. In theory, it wasn’t a bad idea. But however better it might’ve been, it was still far from perfect. An analysis of the close-up footage showed that A220 would have two weeks left and well... she didn’t. She only had two hours that ran out this morning. Those hourglasses were the biggest mystery and any analysis had ultimately proved inaccurate.
Fen sighed, deeper this time. There were only two researchers left on the team and now only two clones. The atmosphere in the lab was no longer one of hope. Fen had felt discouraged and John... well, John was in denial. Everyone could see that it was time to end this project: Fen could see it; their captain and remaining crew aboard the space station could see it. There was only one person who couldn’t see it and that was John.
Looking up at A352, Fen briefly wondered what made her so special. It was this clone that John had spent most of his time with. Despite looking the exact same as any of the others, it was this one that had drawn John in and held some inexplicable hold over him. Fen looked back and forth between A318 and A352. They had the same white pale glistening skin, the same length wavy auburn hair, the same lean physique, and the same hourglass corset contraption on their lower backs. The only difference he knew of was the inner workings of the hourglass. The amount of fine sand-like substance inside and the speed at which it dropped had been the only difference in each of the clones.
Curiosity getting the better of him, Fen decided to pull up A352’s data on one monitor and A318’s on the other. He compared their vitals and the closeup footage John had shot of their hourglasses. He knew that A318’s timer was lower but seeing it side by side like this really highlighted just how low it was. The decline was noticeable and alarming on how it seemed to get lower each and every day. In contrast, A352’s levels had appeared to stay the same. There was movement in her hourglass, but it was so slight that Fen could barely make out a dip over the last month. He scratched his head.
Suddenly, the computer beeped, alerting Fen that today’s footage had been uploaded. Immediately, Fen opened the file and added it to the comparison chart now in front of him. He gaped at the screen as he zoomed in on A352’s hourglass. The sand-like substance... it wasn’t moving.
Fen felt puzzled. He looked back at A318’s footage from this morning. Her sand was moving. “This is odd,” Fen muttered under his breath. Minimizing his chart, he looked up at the monitors of the clones. He zoomed in on both chrome plated rooms. A352’s timer was moving now. What the hell? Fen took a seat back as he pondered this. He started pulling up each day’s footage over the last month. He watched video after video of John talking to A352, reading to A352, even singing to A352. And then it hit him. He knew what the difference was. It had been right there in front of him the whole time. Fen stood up at once. He could feel the excitement rising within him. He had to call John.
John moved about the Institute aimlessly. As he walked through the double-plated glass hallways, he looked at the Earth around him. Violent winds of toxic gas, acid rain, and lightning had been the norm. It was the weather one would expect from constant changes in air pressure. But today, today there was none of that. Today the Earth seemed still like it was contemplating how it wanted to feel. Or maybe, maybe it was mourning the loss of another fallen angel.
John was, and he knew exactly how he felt. He was angry, sad, and frustrated. Three left. Well... now it was only two. John felt a pang in his heart. These beings were supposed to be their salvation. Was this his fault? After the onslaught of sudden clone deaths, they had stopped the cloning process entirely. Had that been a mistake? The Captain had thought that making clones out of clones had been to blame, but they had never been able to confirm it. John looked out into the desolate hazy Earth sky. He thought of A352 and her hopeful eyes. Could she be next? Like A220, was she also on her way out?
John clenched his fists. He would do everything in his power to not let that happen. He groaned as he continued looking out through the glass. He had to concentrate on something else – something more positive. Something like... a name.
Stepping away from the glass, John looked around the hall. Coming up on his right was a room full of artifacts and miscellaneous objects from Earth’s past. It was perfect, John thought. He would start there.
John walked inside the room and shut the door behind him. As the lights came on, his eyes danced around the old objects and pictures kept inside. On the far-right corner of the room, he eyed an informational graph of flowers and plants. John’s eyes lit up as he read a few of the flower’s names. Daisy, rose, lilac, tulip; they were all beautiful names, but... the last known flower had bloomed in the year 3002. John couldn’t give A352 a name of something that no longer existed. He took a step back and continued searching.
In the middle of the room sat a piece of the spaceship that had carried the first angel-like being to Earth. He moved the artifact aside and held up a picture of that first woman. He gazed upon her milky white skin that glistened in the light; her auburn wavy hair that fell slightly in front of her face and that tight hourglass corset weaved into the small of her back. The year was 3100 and she was the most beautiful woman that anyone had ever seen. Before they began referring to her as A1, man had named her Colesha for it meant ‘beauty of the world.’ But Colesha, a beautiful name as it was, wouldn’t do either. Despite being a direct clone, A352 was not Colesha. She was her own being and so she needed her own name. He set down Colesha’s picture and moved towards the left side of the room that was full of books.
He pushed all the old science texts aside until he found what he was looking for – The Book of Legends. John opened the text and proceeded to scan the pages. Egyptian goddess of love, Hathor. Greek god of beauty, Aphrodite. John kept reading. No... No... wait. He put his finger on a name that seemed interesting. Elpis, the personification and spirit of hope. John closed his eyes to think.
Next to the Book of Legends were several romantic fantasy novels. John used to roll his eyes at the inclusion of these, but one book, in particular, had described a planet full of angels and demons who were so powerful that they could create new worlds. This was an older novel and clearly labeled ‘fiction’ but given the alien visitors that Earth received, a few scientists had considered it actual research. John flipped the book open and hovered over the first sentence with a name in it. The sentence read: Queen Elayna, the shining light. John pondered for a moment if a fantasy name could be a good choice.
Names were something that you carried with you. John thought of his own name and how ordinary it had seemed in comparison to the other members of his crew. He had been named after his father’s favorite movie star. It was a man John didn’t know and a man whose life John didn’t emulate. But, it was a name that John had made his own. It was a name he identified with; a name his friends and colleagues spoke to get his attention, and the name a beautiful angelic woman had called him and would continue to call him if he could only find a name that would suit her in return.
All of a sudden, the intercom in the room came on, interrupting John’s thoughts.
“John, are you there?” Fen’s voice was loud and shaky as it echoed through the room.
“Yeah, I’m here,” John spoke up, “how did you know which room I...”
“It’s A352. You need to see this.”
John felt his heart stop at once. “What happened?”
“It’s her timer. You need to get here.”
The intercom fell silent and John felt a wave of panic rush over him. He slammed the book shut, threw it on the table and ran out of the room. As he ran down the corridor with his heart beating out of his chest he could only think of one thing – A352 and her hopeful eyes.
When he entered the lab, he was out of breath. John could feel a thin veil of sweat across his forehead. He hurried over to Fen who was pointing up at one of the screened walls. John looked up and saw the footage he took earlier of A352 displayed in front of them.
Fen must’ve sensed his confusion as he nudged him and pointed up at the screen, “look at her timer.”
John blinked a few times and wiped his forehead. He looked intently on her hourglass. He still didn’t understand. “Is this a picture?”
Fen shook his head and John could see that his eyes were glistening. “It’s a video, John. I went through each tape from the last month. Despite reporting a lower timer level at the end of each day, whenever you’re in the room with her... for that entire length of time... her timer stops. It doesn’t move.”
John looked back and forth between Fen and the video playing in front of him. “It... stops?”
Fen nodded and placed a hand on his shoulder. “The difference between the clones... the reason why this one has been healthier than all the others... is you, John.”
John brought his hands over his mouth as comprehension finally dawned on him. Fen was now patting him on the back.
“The difference is you, John!” Fen repeated, “This is remarkable! I can’t believe we didn’t see it earlier! It’s relationships, it has to be! Relationships and connections.” Fen was smiling and walking around the room. He appeared happier than John had seen him in months, but John couldn’t pull his eyes away from the screen. “We’ll have to tell Captain to postpone the press conference. Wait until he hears this, John! We can re-organize things... maybe bring another researcher on board...”
“I’m going back up there,” John interrupted him.
Fen stopped talking and looked at him. After a few moments, he nodded exuberantly. “Good thinking, John! I’ll video it from here and send it to the Captain so he can see for himself.”
“Right.” John took a deep breath in and let it out slowly. He closed his eyes and tried to calm his mind, but he couldn’t fight the warmth that was spreading through his chest. An undeniable joy was building within him. He had always wished that time would stop whenever he was with her, and she seemed to have granted him that. As John looked at the lab door in front of him, he felt a rush of emotions. The feelings he had buried within his heart were now clawing their way to the forefront of his mind. Seeing A352 was the highlight of his day, every day. He had never considered the possibility that it might’ve been hers too.
Possibilities, John thought. What kind of new possibilities awaited them? What could they do with this information? Better yet, what was he going to do about it? John gulped as he looked up at A352. Whatever it was, they would figure it out. Right now, he had somewhere he needed to be. With one last nod to Fen, he took a step forward and walked through the door out into the sterilized hallway.
Fen stood eagerly in front of A352’s monitor. He found he had too much energy to sit down. All this time the answer had been love. What a story, Fen thought. He wasn’t sure if they should feel embarrassed or relieved by this discovery. Either way, there were two clones left, the toxicity levels were still stable, and now they had a clue that could keep this going. He stood patiently awaiting John’s picture to appear on the monitor in front of him.
When John came into view a few moments later, Fen zoomed in on A352. Sure enough, her timer stopped. Fen smiled wide as he flipped on the speaker inside John’s suit. Usually, he didn’t care to listen in on John’s sessions, but this one felt monumental.
“I have a name for you,” he heard John say.
Fen perked up and moved to the edge of his seat. He had completely forgotten that A352 had asked for one earlier.
“What is it?” A352 answered and Fen couldn’t help but notice a slight blush that seemed to cross her face.
John reached out and took both her hands in his. “Hope.”
How fitting, Fen thought. He started to sit back but stopped when he noticed something that caught his eye. He zoomed in on the hourglass timer woven on A352’s back. His mouth fell open as he saw the sand-like substance start to reverse and climb upwards.
Fen couldn’t believe it. He stood up and threw his hands in the air. He felt a surge of energy come through as he looked around at all the empty chairs in the lab. A shift was coming. He could feel it and it was long overdue. Their lab was finally going to be full of excitement... and hope, again.