A couple of years ago I sat in a room in which I lost everything. I was there for less than two hours but when I walked out of it I had lost my child, my identity and the life I thought was mine. Also set in train were those circumstances which would end my marriage, twelve months later.
I had accepted an invitation to address a symposium at UNICEF’s global headquarters in Paris on the theme of Citizenship in the 21st Century. The letter—yes, the invitation came by way of a letter—made it clear the organisers would like me to recapitulate some of the ideas I had explored over the years. These people were familiar with my work, and a good part of the letter brought me on a lightning tour of those pieces which they said touched on the theme of their gathering. Some of these pieces I had not thought of in years—the whole Self-shooter with Botox series is so long ago now I can hardly remember it: the same also with the Neurocloud cycle. I was flattered by the invitation and pleased to accept an opportunity to vent some of my ideas before a learned and influential audience. As if cued in by these happy thoughts my phone went off as I was reading the letter; Nathan was checking in.
‘Hi Nathan, everything okay?’
‘Everything’s fine, just coming off shift so I said I would give you a call.’
‘I hear birds in the background.’
‘Seagulls: I’m throwing them the last of my sandwich before I get a few hours’ sleep.’
‘You back on later today?’
‘Yes, back on at midnight.’
‘What’s the weather like, it’s nice here.’
‘Nice here too, blue skies and clear seas, forecast says it will hold up till the end of the week. I’ll scope it for you.’
And he turned the vid-phone away from him to sweep a broad arc over the sea which stretched towards the horizon. In the distance I could see the six other platforms which marked out the Corrib gas-field.
‘Nice and peaceful,’ I said.
‘Yes, for as long as it lasts; what are you doing today?’
Our phone calls were always like that: chit-chat and small questions. It was something to be thankful for—my son in his mid-twenties calling home every day for no reason other than to hear his mother’s voice. Today I was glad to have something to tell him.
‘I got a letter this morning.’
‘A letter, Jesus, that’s a blast from the past.’
‘That’s what I thought too. Anyway, UNICEF have invited me to give a talk in Paris on the expanding idea of citizenship.’
‘Sounds good: are you going to take it up?’
‘Yes, public speaking is not my thing, but this is important. Especially as it concerns my baby boy.’
‘Aaww thank you, Mum,’ he mugged.
‘But is that all you’re going to do, make a speech?’
‘That’s all I’m asked to do; all they want is a speech.’
Nathan was suddenly impatient. ‘For god’s sake mum, with all due respect there are any number of theoreticians they could have asked to do the same job—there must be a queue of political philosophers champing at the bit for a prestigious gig like that. If you think you can get up and make a speech and then walk away from the lectern, job done, you’re mistaken. You will leave a whole lot of disappointed people in your wake.’
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Mum, they’ve invited you, Agnes Conway, to address the issue—Agnes the Unhinged for God’s sake—you won’t be thanked for a fucking lecture or a moving plea. I’m surprised you’re so dim on this, you’re usually a better gauge of the moment. Me and my tribe should send someone better out to bat for us if that is the best you can come up with.’
He was seldom so worked up. ‘Don’t tell me you’re too old for this shit now,’ he charged.
‘No,’ I bristled, ‘and this shit as you call it is my life’s work—as you well know. So what do you suggest, one of my greatest hits.’
‘I don’t know about that, but you have to remember that you are fronting for a small, vulnerable tribe.’
‘Okay, don’t go telling me my job. I may be looking down the barrel of a free travel pass but this is my work you’re dissing. So have you any ideas?’
‘You could go all old school. Standing there at the lectern, and start pissing yourself, as a protest against my exclusion…’
‘No, I’m definitely too old for that. What about my tattoos—hologram one of my tats over the auditorium.’
‘No, too gimmicky, not pointed enough. Do you have a date for this conference?’
‘It says the seventh of May here.’
‘That’s good, it gives you two months to think about it, plus I will be rotated out of here the following week.’
‘Are you coming home?’
‘Where else would I go?’
‘I don’t know. Young men have things to do, they don’t always have to return home to their mother.’
‘No, but some of us like to. Okay, I’m going to go now to get some sleep. Kick ass in Paris.’
‘I’ll do my best, take care.’
‘One moment, what about a song? You could sing a song, an ould come-all-ye. Come all ye droids and clone-boys… you could take it from there surely. You’re still worth listening to, one of the few singers in the world who can sing chords. You have to make that vocal chord splicing pay its way.’
‘Okay, I’ll give that some thought. Bye.’
I threw the letter on the table. Later that evening I replied to the email address on the masthead.
Two months later I set out before dawn to get a mid-morning flight to Paris from Dublin airport. I was in a good mood and driving along the M6, I was already thinking forward to the speech I would make the following day. What questions would I face, what objections would I have to contend with. Researching the other speakers had warned me there would most likely be strong objections from the mittle-European and African delegates.
I drove in silence, avoiding my usual habit of listening to the radio. The far side of Athlone my good mood was suddenly cut across by a bolt of panic which forced me to pull over onto the hard shoulder and rifle through my shoulder bag. There it was, thank god! My inhaler plus a spare canister, nestling safely in the depths of the bag. The incident boosted my confidence—I took it as evidence that I was fully prepared and I drove on.
The early morning crowd in Terminal One was thin and listless. Check-in had not yet opened so I decided to have coffee and a scone. It seemed ages since I had last eaten a scone and I do not know why I thought it was a good idea to start eating one now. The coffee dock was quiet, only two other travellers sitting with their hand luggage dropped beside them. A table near the windows gave me a clear view over the runway where ground staff were going about their work in green hi-vis vests; some of them wore noise protectors on their heads.
By the time I had finished my coffee the notice board was telling me it was time to go.
There were only a couple of people ahead of me in the passport control channel. I dropped my watch and mobile and shoulder bag into the bins and pushed them through the X-ray machine. Stepping up to the metal detector I handed my passport to the officer who sat behind the desk. A few quick waves of his detector up and down my body and I walked on. The bin with my bag and stuff had already passed through and I was about to retrieve my passport from the officer when he looked up and waved his arm ahead of me.
‘You need to go with these two gentlemen.’
‘What is this about.’
Two airport security police had positioned themselves on either side of me and they had already begun to usher me towards a corridor which led away from the control area. From the corner of my eye I caught sight of a guard handing my passport to a man who appeared to be the ranking officer. I lost sight of them as I was led down the small corridor and shown into a small room with just a table and two chairs.
After a quick search through it one of the guards handed me my bag and left the room, pulling the door shut behind him.
The uniformed man on the other side of the table had a name tag which identified him as another member of airport security. He did not inspire confidence. The whole thing seemed to have caught him off guard. He arrived into the room shuffling a wad of papers which he had obviously picked up in a hurry. After a bit more shuffling and straightening he pushed one of them towards me and told me to fill it out.
This form ran to three pages with plenty of open fields waiting to be filled in. It was a demand for the usual information—personal details followed by a statement of destination and the purpose of my visit. My wish to be helpful and to move things along bent me to the task of filling it out. Ten minutes later, when I pushed it across the table to the officer he seemed relieved to get it. He looked me full in the face for the first time. Then followed a comedy routine with such a smooth series of exchanges it belied the fact that we had never before set eyes on each other.
‘Can you tell me what this is about?’
‘I have been here over an hour, I think I deserve some sort of explanation.’
‘So you’re going to tell me.’
And while his gaze was unblinking there was something to it beyond professional scrutiny, something soft which put me at ease.
‘An anomaly has occurred,’ he offered.
‘What sort of anomaly?’
‘It’s hard to say,’ he ventured cautiously.
‘That might not be wise.’
‘For me or for you?’
‘For both of us I would say.’
‘But it concerns me.’
‘I’m being held here in this room, so it either concerns me or it does not.’
‘It’s not that simple.’
‘It is from my side of the table, it either concerns me or it does not.’
‘I see how you could think that.’
‘What does that mean?
‘It means that if I were on your side of the table I would have exactly the same kind of reaction.’
‘So you understand.’
‘I’m not on your side of the table.’
‘This is not getting us anywhere.’
‘So it would appear.’
He seemed dismayed by these exchanges—more put out by them than I was. And I wanted to help him; the sooner this was cleared up the sooner I would get out of this room and be on my way. He rose to his feet, picking up the document I had just completed.
‘A moment,’ he said, ‘I will be back.’ My mouth was open to protest when, at that precise moment, the phone rang in my pocket. James, my husband, sounded surprised to hear me.
‘Oh, I thought you’d be in the air.’
‘So why did you ring me.’
‘Where are you?’
‘My flight got delayed,’ I lied, ‘what’s wrong?’
A long pause followed in which it was possible to sense James’s confusion and anxiety on the other end. Finally, he blurted out.
‘There’s been an incident.’
‘What sort of an incident.’
‘News stations are reporting that Red Star has been captured by the Norwegians. It happened overnight, the incident is now over twelve hours old. They’re holding hostages, Nathan is among them.’
The details are well known by now—how Norwegian marines breached the security cordon around the gas field during the night and took control of Red Star, the largest of the seven platforms, the very one on which Nathan was working out a twelve-month contract. We know now that they had already informed the government of their demands: the networking codes for the seven platforms which would give them control of the whole gas-field.
‘And have you heard from Nathan?’
‘No, there’s been no official news from anyone, I’m just watching it on television and hearing things on social media.’
My thoughts were scrambled now and my confusion must have communicated itself to James.
‘There’s nothing you can do for the moment,’ he assured. ‘Just keep your phone on and I will call you as soon as I get word. God knows how long this might go on—days or hours or weeks or it might be over in the next few minutes.’
‘Okay, keep me up to date if you hear anything.’
There must have been a time lag between the end of that call and the moment the airport guard returned to the room. During that interval, I relapsed to an old habit of recording messages to myself on the phone. Nothing more than a few short sentences, more words of assurance than anything else. My message was complete and the phone was on the desk when the guard re-entered.
‘This passport,’ he began.
‘This passport is legitimate?’
‘Of course it is.’
‘I have never come across one like it.’
A wave of relief passed through me; this would now be easily cleared up.
‘It’s a special issue one. A full biometric one with a retinal scan and full genetic signature sweep on it. It’s very rare, it was issued to commemorate the mapping of the human genome back in 2006. There are only 100 of them world-wide… scanning it should have unlocked a verifying database.’
He nodded. ‘That’s all true. We’ve checked and everything you’ve just said has been verified.’
‘But there’s still a problem.’ ‘I’m afraid there is. According to our security network this passport has cleared Charles De Gaulle two hours ago.’
‘It might be crazy but it is also a fact—look at this.’
This new document was the copy of a passenger manifest for an Air France flight which had flown out at eight-thirty the same morning. And it did indeed have an Agnes Conway listed among its passengers. Like myself she had pre- booked a window seat in the left aisle. Her passport number was identical to my own.
‘This is crazy,’ I repeated, aware that I was repeating myself to no affect. Trying to gather my thoughts into a coherent next step. ‘The chances of my passport being successfully forged are way out on the margins of disbelief. The degree of accuracy needed to render so many different signatures is astronomical.’ And then, in a desperate inspiration, I declared, ‘It would be easier to forge me than my passport.’
My outburst seemed to have focused the guard. He pointed to the document. ‘This speech you’re making in Paris. It says here that your son is…’
I let him dangle on the word; the moment and circumstances had made me cruel.
‘Say it,’ I urged finally. It was as much as he could do to choke it out. ‘A clone.’
‘Yes, my son is a clone.’ And I leaned toward him to deliver the coup de grâce. ‘Not only is he a clone and my son but, he is also my brother.’
‘I don’t want to…’
‘Yes you do, of course you do.’
I was snarling now, leaning across the table with my teeth bared. ‘You will torment yourself with this tonight so I am going to fill you in on the details. We can start with my twin brother; strangled by his own umbilical cord and dead shortly after birth: my twin brother whose various organs were stored without consent in the same hospital we were born in. Then the long judicial process we went through to reclaim them followed by the even longer process by which Nathan was cloned from them. How about that for a story? And you can rest easy knowing all that and talking about it because Nathan knows every word of it. His very own creation myth, and he’s fiercely proud of it.’
Only when I’d finished did I notice how I had so completely demolished him, driven him back in his chair, slumped and pale. He was a good twenty years younger than me and I felt sorry for him. Christ knows, I would not have liked to have got into a fight with me at that moment. I put a hand out to comfort him.
‘My speech in Paris is part of the ongoing campaign to get full citizenship for clones and the broader family of synths. Ireland is one of those countries withholding citizenship for these people—a hangover from the immigration experience earlier in the century. And with me it is personal, this is about my son.’
I don’t know how I expected him to react to my speech—as a bid for sympathy it was totally undermined by my harsh tone. He straightened himself up in the chair, looking dazed and bruised.
‘I don’t know,’ he swallowed, ‘nothing about this day makes any sense.’
‘Tell me about it. You’re too young to remember this but I’m of a generation which would never have envisaged us going to war with Norway. You’ve grown up with that conflict but my generation still wonders what sort of fucking country goes to war with Norwegians.’
My phone went off on the table. It was James. For some reason I stood up to take the call.
‘Okay,’ he choked, ‘things have escalated in the last hour or so. The Norwegians are now using Nathan as a bargaining chip. They have made their demands and the whole thing is time-sensitive. They have said they will kill him if the government do not turn over the network codes to all platforms.’
‘And has there been a response from the government.’
‘Yes, a government spokesman has repeated their position. They will not negotiate with terrorists.’
A strangled squawk resounded through the room. It took me a moment to catch hold of myself and realise that I had sobbed. I tried to hold my voice steady. ‘Why Nathan, he’s just a technician on that platform, he knows nothing.’
‘That’s the point—the Norwegians start small. They open the bidding with the life of one technician and ratchet it up from there.’
James’s voice did not sound assured. Nor did he sound as if he had finished.
‘They also know that Nathan is not an Irish citizen so he is a perfect opening bid in this exchange. If he is killed it will not provoke the diplomatic outrage that would follow from the death of a passport holder. But it will focus the government’s attention.’
‘So they know Nathan’s a clone?’
‘Yes, they know it from your work—all the pieces in which you have referenced him and all your campaigning on his behalf. They have already released onto social media chapter and verse of your work which shows how much they know, your history of his life. Right now they have him suspended by the ankles over a gas vent. If they flare that gas our son will be carbonised in seconds.’
The phone flicked up out of my hand and skidded across the table to the floor. My breath flittered in my throat and I sank to my knees. A few moments scrabbling in my bag brought up my inhaler and I pressed it to my mouth for two swift shots. My breathing levelled out after a few moments. The guard was looking down on me with a terrified look in his face.
‘Did you hear that,’ I implored, ‘did you hear any of that?’
He helped me up, grasped me under the arms and lowered me to my chair. ‘You’re in shock,’ he said, ‘we can get you to a hospital.’
‘No. I have work to do.’
The guard touched the side of his head with the tips of his fingers, as if to make a small adjustment there. ‘I’m afraid you’re not going anywhere,’ he said, ‘your case is now a national security issue. Very soon now you will be taken away for questioning.’
‘My son,’ I said, ‘he needs my help.’
‘I know. There’s nothing you can do for him at the moment.’
I broke down then. My head tipped forward and I started to cry uncontrollably. I gave myself over to it completely, head down in my arms across the table. Time slid away from me but at some point the guard placed a cup of water and a box of tissues by my hand. I was grateful for his kindness. I called James two or three times but he wasn’t picking up.
Two plain clothes-officers led me from the room. My guard fell into step behind us and I was glad of his presence. They escorted me back through passport control and out into the public concourse which was now thronged with the mid-day crowd. No one noticed the four of us moving towards the exit. I halted suddenly and turned around to my guard.
‘Give me two minutes here,’ I said, ‘please.’
‘Two minutes, that’s all I need. I’ve been scanned and searched, you will be right here, just two minutes.’
My appeal got through to him. He turned to the two detectives. ‘What does she want to do?’ one of them asked impatiently.
‘I’m going to sing,’ I replied. I had already taken a step away from the guards and started my throat clearing exercise. The extended, ullulating chords turned several heads towards me. Within moments some of them were already holding up their phones towards me. When I was sure I had my audience I started to sing…
Come all ye droids and clone boys
A tale to you I’ll tell…
The crowd gathered and my voice rose out over them. The song took hold of me and I could feel myself stepping into a confident performance. But I did not finish. In the third verse I made the mistake of turning towards those people who stood behind me. That left me facing a television screen that was broadcasting one of the twenty-four-hour news channels.
What happened next has been captured from several angles by those who uploaded the clip to various social media sites. You hear the cry go up from the people watching the television. Their hands fly to their heads, their faces.
Some recoil from the screen; all are shocked. You can see the precise moment when the song locks in my throat. I turn my face into the fireball which blooms towards me from the TV screen. I understand immediately; my son, hung upside down, wrapt in flame, turned to shadow in the space between two heartbeats. You see my face engulfed in terror, a split second before I twist to the floor in a faint.
Yesterday was a proud day: proud and sad and joyous and a bit weird
Yesterday I was one of a crowd of people who stood in an aircraft hangar on the edge of Dublin airport to witness the state confer full citizenship on a gathering of clones and droids and various AI constructs. All told, their numbers swelled the census by eight hundred souls: eight hundred new citizens. It was a happy gathering. Droids with their shiny faces and graceful on their polycarbonate frames, stood shoulder to shoulder with clones whose varied age and appearance emphasised just how long they have been among us and how unobtrusively they have gone about their lives. Many of them appeared shy in the sudden light of the occasion. Shy but very happy one of them assured me. Also in attendance were several proxies standing in for all those incorporeal souls who manage our health service and our legal system. Everyone stood to speak their names and declare their fidelity to the nation, their loyalty to the state and its democratic values. ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ was sung and everyone applauded at the end.
The minister’s speech was thoughtful. He reminded us that these souls had freely chosen to take out citizenship in this state and they would now bring their unique energies and imaginations to our common endeavour. Our country was more open, more generous and pluralist for their presence.
It was nice to hear my son being remembered, the part his death played in bringing forward this day. I will remember forever the cheer and round of applause which greeted the mention of his name. Nathan was a gregarious young man, he would have enjoyed the whole thing. He would have felt at home among ‘my fellow synths’ as he called them—they were his tribe and he was pleased to call them all his brothers and sisters.
Before the ceremony closed I was asked to step forward and sing my song one final time: to put it to bed once and for all. So I did; I sang the version I never completed in the airport, the version which had its first full airing over the phone to Nathan the night before he died. My voice held and I managed it, just about. It was kind of so many people afterwards to come and thank me for my efforts and to express their sorrow at his death. On the journey homewards I pulled onto the hard shoulder and cried for his loss and mine. It is not the first time I have done that this last two years; it will not be the last.
I live alone now, the house is bigger and colder these days. My marriage ended shortly after we buried Nathan. It foundered on the part my work played in his death. James and I may come to a reconciliation sometime in the future but at the moment that does not seem likely. Too much grief, too much anger between us.
New rituals fill the emptiness. After the late news—the war with the Norwegians continues to claim lives—I sit with a whisky and watch a twenty second piece of CCT footage from Charles De Gaulle airport. The low-res footage shows a crowd of people streaming through from baggage reclaim into arrivals. The woman is heavy but she moves with a roll of her shoulders which suggests she is younger than me. Her walk is not my walk and her clothes are not my clothes. But her face is the sort of face I might have if I had lived a life which had taken no risks; the face of a woman who had held onto her marriage; the face of a woman who had kept her son alive. The footage holds her till she disappears through the exit. Twenty seconds, that is all I know of her before she disappears out of shot and dissolves into the world beyond.
I have watched the clip a thousand times now and I see we are nothing alike. But apparently we are identical.