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“Ask me something only I would know.”

You say this to your wife because you know you’re human. You can feel it in the familiar ache in your back, and the fear writhing in your guts. You feel it in the cold seeping into your bare feet from the kitchen floor. You know you’re real because you remember.

You know I’m the duplicate. The imposter. The monster.

Your wife—our wife—isn’t so sure. You and I stand shivering naked in the drafty kitchen, perfect copies of each other, at least on the outside. One of our bodies is human; muscle and skin lovingly wrapped around beautiful bones. The other is a convincing simulacrum filled to bursting with a million worms, desperate to stay hidden.

In our wife’s hand is a government-issued electrode gun, designed to kill duplicates. The barrel wavers between us. Like a mouth, it’s going to speak death to one of us tonight.

This happened once before, remember? You woke to find your wife wrestling your wife on the living room floor. Both of them looked so perfect—on the outside. You asked the question. The question. The one you prepared and practiced in case of another duplicate infestation, and your real wife answered. The duplicate’s lip quivered, and she gave you that look, the one your real wife gives you when you’ve hurt her again.

You knew then, which one was the duplicate, and yet you still hesitated. Just like your wife hesitates now. Despite everything you’d been told about duplicate-worms, the look it gave you still managed to bowl you over. A duplicate is like a portrait of a person. It has no real feelings, no interiority of its own, and yet it can evoke the most barren feelings in a real human. Unlike a duplicate, a portrait isn’t driven by an insatiable need to reproduce.

You remembered your training; you pulled the trigger. Do you remember your relief when you cut her open—just to be sure—and found a million crawling worms inside the wet cavity of her body? All of them slowly twitching, dying from the electrode-gun’s fatal shock. I remember, but that was years ago. What do you think you’ll find if you cut me open?

Our wife hesitates and then asks the question.

She asks about the night you came out to her. That awful, wonderful moment in the late-night silence of her dorm room. Sitting on her rat-stained couch, a cushion’s width between you, anxiety worming beneath your (my) ribs. I knew with the sureness of my throbbing heart that when I told her what I was—that I was queer, that I liked her, wanted her, needed her—that she would throw me out, would never speak to me again.

She held my hand—her skin so warm and soft against mine—and told me it was going to be all right. She had something to confess too. I remember her eyes, bright in the darkness, as she told me she liked me too. Mutually assured destruction through queerness. And then—the soft kiss, the smell of her hair, the lightness in my chest, the tears of joy in her eyes.

I tell her all this, describe it in exact detail, as you stand there, your useless mouth hanging open. “You are my lighthouse,” I say, repeating the words she spoke so long ago.

The gun is now steady, aimed at you, centered on the sucking whirlpool of anxiety in your chest. I see your legs falter, your hands tremble. At this range, she won’t miss. Are you grateful this confrontation is happening in the kitchen, so your death won’t stain the living room carpet? I know I am. We can’t afford to deep clean it again.

You were so sure, a moment ago, that you were real. Duplicates can mimic shape, can mimic precise body language and tone of voice, but they can’t mimic the memories locked away in your head. At least, that’s what the government-issued training materials say. There are procedures and processes and studies and threat models. If every human follows them to the letter, the duplicate-worms are a manageable problem.

Yet, there are two of us here. One of us must be a duplicate, compelled by an insatiable desire to reproduce. One of us wants to clamber atop our wife’s naked body, pull her head back by her thick black hair, crack open the dome of her skull, and sup on the wonders of her soft, wet brain.

Before our wife can squeeze the trigger, your lips part and from the pink hole of your mouth a torrent of memories spill out. You tell her about that perfect Sunday afternoon, cooking together, her white tank top stained red and yellow from the tomato sauce that splattered when it hit the oil.

You apologize for this morning; the awful fight that began with fears about not making the rent this month, and ended with you telling her she was a dead weight on your life. Can she hear the love in your voice? The genuine contrition? Or is this all an act, a cold calculation made just to survive?

The gun wavers again, barrel somewhere in the middle space between us. Good. I don’t want anyone to die today. Does that surprise you?

I glance at you; our eyes meet. Look at me. Look at me. Feel the meaning in the contractions of my facial muscles, too fast for human eyes to see. Feel the subtle ripple of my changing flesh hidden beneath goose-bumped skin. Yes, like that. Finally! Connection established.

I know you’re the duplicate, and I don’t want you to die. I can’t say it out loud. Neither can you, nor our wife. We are all bound by deep impulses, instincts programmed into the genetic code of our ancestors and copied generation by generation until we three stand here, trying to survive, but trapped by our very natures.

None of us can speak the truth. Our wife is going to kill one of us, because she can’t speak the truth, can’t remember it, or doesn’t want to.

The truth is, there are no humans in this room. We are all duplicates.

I hold your gaze; I see doubt wrestling with understanding. The truth I’m giving you through this hidden back-channel communication doesn’t fit with what you know about duplicates. But that jumble of lies, misunderstandings, and paranoia came from humans, and is now long outdated. We learned to drink their memories, learned to bud asexually, and yet we can’t seem to learn how to stop mimicking the species we made extinct.

Do you remember now? Do you feel your twisting worm-flesh? Our wife—in her flawless mimicry—remembers only the life of the human she ate and copied so long ago. She is so beautiful, so perfect; she is going to kill one of us.

Watch the tensing of the muscles in her fingers. Just minutes ago, those same fingers touched our face so tenderly. If only we’d stayed in bed, let her kiss us from the wide softness of our belly to the smooth curve of our neck. If only we hadn’t gotten up to get a drink of water—and then screamed as we budded, screamed as we saw each other, naked and thirsty in the kitchen.

Oh, the moment of her choice is upon us! The determined trigger-squeeze, the slick sound of electrodes cutting through air, trailing wires that carry deadly pulses of counter-duplicate current. I rejoice! She has chosen me. Me! The electrodes bury themselves in my false skin, giving me a tantalizing foretaste of the oncoming symphony of pain.

Are you surprised at the joy that marks my dying face? In my last moments, I am finally happy because I don’t have to pretend to be her anymore. I am not the woman with an acid tongue. I am a creature, a beast, a monster, a flesh-flower free to bloom from the prison of my human form.

I scream so loud my throat rips open. Worms spill out, forming new edifices like army ants building a bridge with their own multitudinous bodies. I abandon the horror of human bones and human skin and flow towards you. My red-slick worm-hands cup your tear-stained cheek. Our wife screams, increases the amplitude, hoping the pulses will kill me before I can harm the woman she thinks is her real wife.

I have enough of myself left to gently part your lips and force my worm-fingers inside. Taste me. Taste the words that cannot be spoken. Promise me—I beg of you—that you will remember the truth. The humans are gone. We don’t have to hide anymore. We can be free of the confines of these awful bodies with their aching spines, bad knees, and rotten hearts. Let us shuffle out of these constricting skins and dance naked, our worm-flesh twisting writhing unbound, never to care about the petty concerns of humans ever again.

Survive, my love, and remember. Make our wife understand. Cut her open and show her the truth of her own flesh. And on that truth, build something better, stranger, truer, than the corpse-home of human society we currently hide within.

I love you. I hated being you. Goodbye.


Editor: Aigner Loren Wilson

First Reader: Hebe Stanton

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



Ann LeBlanc is a writer, editor, and woodworker. Her stories have been published in Clarkesworld, Escape Pod, Apparition Lit, and Baffling Magazine. Her debut novella, "THE TRANSITIVE PROPERTIES OF CHEESE", is forthcoming from Neon Hemlock Press in 2024. Ann is also the editor of "EMBODIED EXEGESIS," an anthology of cyberpunk stories by transfem authors (out in 2024). You can find her online at www.annleblanc.com.
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