As a child I hated playing hide-and-seek. I would make excuses to avoid the game. When I couldn’t avoid it and was forced to play, I would always jump out from my hiding spot as soon as I heard the seeker approaching, rather than wait to be found. I never knew why. Crouched in fear behind an old tree trunk in the dark on Rory’s fortieth birthday, I finally figured it out: I hated hide-and-seek because of the suspense.
I knew I just had to stay down and stay quiet. That was all I had to do. But as the footsteps through the trees came closer, it was astonishing the amount of self-control it took to keep myself from jumping out from my hiding spot and shouting, “Here I am!”
The soft scrunches of leaves underfoot slowed almost to a halt as they came by the tree trunk. And then, thank God, they moved on.
“Squeeee-ooooh-wheeel–eep,”gurgled my stomach, louder than I thought possible for a noise made inside me.
The footsteps stopped. LaShawn looked at me; I gave an apologetic wince. He gently turned on his haunches, pointing his shotgun barrel to where we last heard the footsteps. We listened intently for the slightest hint of another footstep, but not a little toe stirred. A whipbird whistled nearby. LaShawn looked at me with a smile I think he expected me to understand, then pursed his lips and attempted to mimic the bird call. He wasn’t very good at it.
What are you doing? I mouthed at him, wide-eyed and horrified.
He removed his right hand from the gun and motioned for me to wait. My hands tightened around the Uzi.
“LaShawn?” came a whisper.
It was Rory. My body almost liquified in relief, and I slumped down against the tree trunk.
LaShawn stood and lowered his weapon.
“Over here,” he whispered back.
A moment later Rory popped his head over the tree trunk and looked down at me.
“Hey Miles, how are you holding up?” he said.
I didn’t answer.
“What’s going on?” asked LaShawn.
“Budgie needs your help,” said Rory. “He’s having trouble with the tyre.”
“Okay, I’ll go get it sorted.”
LaShawn gave me a thumbs up then ran off through the trees and up the hill.
Rory climbed over the tree trunk and stood next to me. He looked around, and then knelt and rested the barrel of his weapon (a short machine gun with a massive ammunition clip) on the trunk.
“This is a good spot,” he said.
I picked myself up from the ground and knelt next to him. I tried to sneak a look at his forearm. He noticed and held his arm out for me to see. Optimus Prime’s legs were blue—this was the real Rory.
“You know about the clones then?” he said.
“Pretty wild, huh? I never thought I’d be cloned.” He turned his gun toward a clearing halfway down the hill and peered through the scope (I think it was one of those night vision ones). He looked up from the scope and took a deep breath through his nose. “And it’s pretty easy to do, you don’t even need a special lab. LaShawn set up the machine in Budgie’s shed—oh yeah, you saw it, didn’t you?”
“The machine in the shed? That was how he made the clones? He told me it was a meat smoker, for the brisket.”
Rory chuckled. “Nah, no brisket in there. Just a bunch of high-tech ingredients and a pinch of my DNA.”
“High-tech ingredients?” I said. “I was there with him yesterday—he crammed eighty kilos of Swiss cheese into the top of that machine.”
“Ah, okay. That makes sense.”
A little way down the hill, a fruitbat nattered and flew from a tree. Rory checked his rifle scope again.
“That must have been the failsafe ingredient,” he said.
“Yeah, something to make the clones deteriorate.”
“Deteriorate? What do you mean?”
“Well,” said Rory, “from what Old Nils told me, clones are highly volatile—psychologically. They could be a perfect imitation of their subject one minute, then stark raving mad the next. You can’t clone what’s in here, see?” Rory tapped his chest. “Clones are just advanced mimics, but they don’t have a conscience, they don’t love or hate, they don’t consider consequences. Apparently, if they live for more than a few days they go nuts. So, you have to add something to the mix that ensures they die quickly.”
I thought for a moment.
“And so… Swiss cheese is like a time bomb for a clone?”
“I guess so,” said Rory. “I’ve never seen it in action.”
After a quiet minute, shouting sounded down in the yard. A small but vicious brawl had broken out among the stage debris. Though my vantage point was a fair distance away, I’m certain the fistfight was comprised of three Rory clones. And it was just the clones—they weren’t attacking any of Jimmy O’Shea’s men, they were just punching the living cheese out of each other. It was brutal. And surreal.
“Have a look at that,” said Rory. “You don’t see that every day.”
“You sure don’t,” I said. “Maybe the clones are already going mad.”
“Huh? What? No, not the clones. Here.”
Rory pointed straight up. Shimmering in a ray of moonlight through the trees, a spindly spider the size of my hand descended from a high branch above us on a silky thread. Slowly and gracefully it twirled, catching the light with each turn to reveal a yellow streak across its back. We watched as it pirouetted down between us, touched down and then crept under a patch of fallen leaves. The single strand of web remained.
Gunshots rang out down the hill; one of Jimmy O’Shea’s goons had put an end to the clones’ bareknuckle boxing by shooting them all. Rory sighed.
“Hey Miles, I want you to do something for me.”
“Yeah, of course,” I said.
Rory nodded. “You see, tonight is not going to be a standoff, or a siege—it’s going to be a blitzkrieg. An hour from now this will all be over, one way or the other. But for the next hour, we are going to be in the mother of all sh**storms. You understand?”
I felt sick and instantly sweaty, but I managed to nod. Rory put his hand on my shoulder.
“Just one hour,” he said, “and it’s done. So I want you to do something for me. For the next hour, I want you to fight like a madman. Okay?”
I swallowed the small amount of vomit that had risen to the back of my throat.
“Yeah, okay,” I said meekly.
“Hey,” said Rory, “I want you to be a f**king maniac, all right? That will be your birthday present to me.”
I straightened myself and tucked the Uzi close to my body. I nodded. Rory smiled. He stood up and pointed a little way down the hill.
“See those two big rocks over there?”
I turned and looked. “Yeah.”
“If any of Biscuits’ men make it past there, shoot them.”
I studied the big rocks. If Jimmy O’Shea’s men did come up that way, it would be a good spot to attack them.
When I turned back, Rory was gone.
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