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harder, in the nick of time

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The first thing I heard when I woke up was a loud, exasperated groan.

“Oh, God,” someone said, “Rory, she got wiped again.”

I opened my eyes and sat up. I was in a sterile, light gray room, and I was looking at–

Myself.

“What the hell–”

“You’re an idiot,” the other me said, in a tone of voice that suggested that she’d been over this several times at least, and I saw that while she definitely had my face, she also had long dark brown hair that was definitely nothing like my own.

“Who am I?” I asked. “Where am I? What’s going on?”

“Genetically, you’re a clone of an individual named Taylor Swift,” she said, “as am I, as are we all. For clarity’s sake, we’ve all selected our own names. Yours is Becky.”

“Becky?”

“Vocationally,” she continued, “you are, essentially, a spy. You’re at Fort Watch Hill, which is the home base for all the operations of the Swift task force. As for what’s going on–”

“We’re on a mission,” someone else said, and I looked over to realize it was a third version of myself, this one looking a lot more like me but with much longer, messier hair, wearing huge plastic glasses and something vaguely resembling a Catholic schoolgirl outfit. “Or we’re about to be. Gear up.”

“Gear up for what ?” I asked, but the brunette was already tossing me a backpack full of what appeared to be explosives and several very large knives, and I decided that perhaps it was best to just go with the flow.

 


 

“So we’re spies?” I asked again, breathless, when after a non-trivial amount of running through labyrinthine hallways we found ourselves stashed on a helicopter that was whirring its way through the New England sky.

“Well... “ the blonde said, “in a way. We’re part of a targeted task force that belongs to an experimental branch of the CDC. Now, the Swift task force is espionage focused, but the three of us–”

“We’re a diversionary sub-force,” the brunette said, “which means we provide distractions. As many as the elite teams need, and as big and as flashy as we can get them. Above all, though–we’re expendable. They’re not.”

“Whatever you do, don’t forget that,” the brunette said.

“You always forget,” the blonde said, almost sadly, and then we were hitting the ground and I didn’t get a chance to ask any more questions.

 


 

“Regina,” the blonde yelled, “get in position!”

“I am in position,” the brunette–Regina–called back. “Rory, on your six!”

The blonde–Rory–did an impressive half-pirouette and kicked the security guard behind her in the face with one practical low-heeled ankle boot. “Do you have them?” she asked, panting.

“Becky does,” Regina said, and took out a guard of her own with something that looked suspiciously like a Vulcan nerve pinch.

“Wait, should I be doing something?” I asked tentatively.

“NO,” they shouted at me in unison.

“Just–stand there,” Rory said, “and don’t drop that fucking backpack.”

I stood there.

I didn’t drop the backpack.

Between the pair of them, they took out at least a dozen guards so easily and so gracefully it looked like they were dancing, not fighting. I took out two of my own, when they came up from behind me and there was no chance to call for help. I truly thought I was about to die at first, but some unrealized muscle memory sprung to life inside me and I was unleashing some impressive acrobatic fighting of my very own.

And then we all three took the explosives I had been carrying, and arranged them in a semi-circle around the southern wing of the lab where we had been dropped by the helicopter.

“Hit the detonator,” Regina instructed, so I did.

“Now run,” Rory said, and I did that too.

In the distance, we could see the whole wing start to go up in flames.

And that was our mission.

 


 

“So why can’t I remember anything?” I asked, once we were back in the sterile gray room that was apparently our barracks and had all showered off the thin layer of soot caking all our bodies.

“They wiped you,” Rory told me, “the trio did. They’re the elite of the elites, the team we were telling you about earlier.”

“Okay…” I said slowly, “and why did they wipe me?”

“Because you’re an idiot,” Regina snapped. “If you weren’t such a good agent, you’d have been recycled ten times over by now.”

“Recycled?”

“Killed,” Rory said, “or as good as.”

“The way this works,” Regina said, “is that the genetic material came from the first program recruit–Taylor Prime–who was a pop star before she joined up. But the rest of our characteristics–personality, aptitude, intelligence, all the good stuff–that’s all algorithmic. They fed every interview, every music video and live performance and paparazzi photo into the computer, and then what came out was all of us. The elites are the more iconic Taylors, the more recognizable ones. Us? We’re nobodies.”

“So the names?”

“She’s Rory,” Regina said, “because she was created from this prep-school romcom video that’s basically just an extended Gilmore Girls pastiche. So … Rory.”

“And she’s Regina,” Rory said, “because she’s a bitch.”

“I prefer queen bee, top-of-the-pyramid cheerleader, all-powerful all-popular mean girl antagonist,” Regina shot back, “but yeah. Bitch works too.”’

“So why am I Becky?” I asked, and they both laughed.

“You were a street-style Taylor,” Rory explained, “which usually means you would get culled and recycled on sight, but you came out wearing a ‘no its Becky’ shirt, which meant you were a more … iconic example, at least.”

“A what shirt?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Regina said. “Just know that we stuck our necks out for you, because we had a good feeling about you, and it’s the only reason you’re with us now. Taylor Prime gave you a chance, and then a dozen more, but you’re out of goodwill. It’s time to straighten up and fly right.”

“Or what?” I asked, but honestly, I already knew the answer.

 


 

We had four more missions after that, and with each one, more and more of my instincts started coming back. I started remembering how to twist a man’s neck in order to kill him in one movement; how to arm a bomb and how to disarm a bomb and when to give up on borbs altogether and just shoot someone. I remembered when to go for a real explosion and when to just set off all the flare guns in my possession, and I remembered the complex machinations and cutthroat internal politics of the Swift task force.

Most of all, I remembered how much Rory and Regina meant to me. They were my best friends, my family, my entire world, my everything. It was the three of us against everyone else, no matter the cost.

Until one day, it wasn’t anymore.

“They’re pulling me,” Regina said, face impassive, standing between a clone in a handmade t-shirt and another in an oversized cat sweatshirt. “I’m being transferred to Recon. I heard it through the grapevine that they’re dissolving the Diversionary force completely. You know what that means.”

“Regina–” Rory said, agony on her face. “Don’t do this.”

“I don’t have a choice,” Regina said. “And even if I did, I would still choose to go.”

The clone in the t-shirt placed a soft, careful hand on Regina’s upper arm and tugged her away, staring at Rory and me with huge, wounded eyes. “She’ll be safe with us,” she said softly, “or–well–as safe as any of us can be.”

“You should get out,” Regina told us, tears in her eyes, “while you still can.”

“But you didn’t hear that from us,” the clone in the cat sweatshirt said, and then all three of them left.

“She always had a soft spot for that girl,” Rory said softly, exhausted.

“So what do we do now?” I asked.

“You heard her,” Rory said. “We get out while we still can.”

And we started to run.

 


 

We made it out of Watch Hill intact, which was honestly more than either of us had expected.

But we’d made a fatal flaw along the way–we’d stopped back at our barracks to shove our meager worldly possessions into backpacks and to grab all the explosives we could get our hands on. And we would pay for that.

We still made it out of the barracks fine, but as we slipped out into the crisp night air of a Connecticut autumn, we heard an alarm start to blare faintly in the distance behind us.

“Fuck,” Rory said feelingly, “they’ve got us.”

“Not yet, they don’t,” I said, but Rory just laughed bitterly.

“No,” she repeated, “they’ve got us.”

We took off through the underbrush, branches and twigs tearing at our skin, but even though we were running with all the speed we had, it wasn’t enough.

“Halt,” someone said, pulling up in front of us on a motorcycle, and we stopped in our tracks.

It was one of the transport team, dressed in her uniform of studded leather, but on the back of the motorcyle, in resplendent red silk with a snake wrapped around her wrist, was–

“Taylor Prime,” Rory said nervously. “Fancy meeting you here.”

“It’s not really much of a coincidence,” Taylor Prime said drily, “since you’re running away, and I’m here to catch you.”

“Catch us,” I asked, “or kill us?”

“A little of both, honestly,” Taylor Prime said. “Honestly, why did you think you could get away with this? You’re smart girls, after all. You’re me.”

Rory shrugs at her. “We didn’t have any other options,” she said. “It was leave, or be killed. You know that.”

“Running is not the honorable option,” Taylor Prime scolded.

“And what would honor have gotten us?” I asked hotly. “Not much, once we’re in the grave. Or the recycler, be that as it may.”

“Can’t you have any mercy?” Rory begged. “You know what it’s like, can’t you just–”

“Deserters will be punished,” Taylor Prime said crisply, impassive and unmoved, and that’s when Rory shot me a significant look.

I knew what I had to do.

“It’s you and me, babe,” Rory said, her chin turned up impudently, and standing there, hair a staticky tangle, her eyes brave and resigned and determined, she was the most beautiful person I had ever seen.

“You and me,” I echoed, and grabbed her hand. “Are we going out in a blaze of glory now?”

I pulled out my backpack, and then from inside my backpack I pulled out the explosives, and then–

“We’re going out in a blaze no matter what,” she said, and kissed me hotly, furiously, intensely. “We may as well make it glorious.”

“No,” the transport team member said, horrified, but it was too late.

I pulled my arm back and threw, and then the whole world caught fire.