We were playing a computer game the day it happened.
Genesis Alpha. It’s the greatest game ever invented, and it’s huge, a whole universe filled with thousands of people from all over the world. It’s got everything: space battles and swordfights, aliens and elves, planets and cities and underground systems. I can play for hours every day, especially when my brother Max joins me.
I play at home after school, Max from a computer lab somewhere on campus. He’s older than me, and he’s away at college, so mostly we keep in touch through the game.
We fought Kreepz that day. They had enslaved the entire population of Yartan 3. The slaves were kept in caves deep underground, mining precious metals from the earth. So there was a lot of treasure to be had, yartanite and black diamonds.
The underground cave system was huge, but apart from the big gangsters at the entrance, the Kreepz guards down below weren’t all that tough. So we split up. Alezander—that’s Max’s character name—took care of the east side while I did the west side. Alezander had his Bloodstone axe, and I had my broadsword. That’s the coolest thing about Genesis Alpha. You can fly around in a spaceship and run around cities with a machine gun, but when you go down on a primitive planet, you wear old-fashioned chain-mail armor and wield a sword or a crossbow. It’s got the best of all worlds.
I shot through the tunnels, killed a lot of Kreepz, and opened any locked doors I came across, freeing the slaves. They thanked me and rushed off, out of the caves and toward freedom. I emptied out the whole area, filling my bags with stuff. Then I went back to the entrance, still littered with the bones of the gangster Kreepz, and waited for Alezander.
We always split everything even. That’s how Max wanted it, although it really would be fair that he got the bigger half because he’s been playing Genesis Alpha longer and his character is bigger and stronger than mine. But Max always said it was too much bother, so we’d just put the loot in one big pile, pick out any good items we wanted to keep, sell the rest, and split the cash.
Alezander never returned.
He was still online, but he didn’t respond when I sent him an instant message. So I returned into the caves to search for him.
Alezander was standing still in one of the guard cells, surrounded by Kreepz bones, and one small Kreepz was hitting him but not doing any damage. I quickly finished it off and then checked out Alezander.
Alezander was there, but Max wasn’t. If you turn off your computer without logging off first, you freeze inside the game, like a statue, and if you don’t return to the game quickly, moss starts growing on you. It’s really funny. If you stay away a long time, the statue gets splattered with bird droppings and graffiti and eventually starts to crumble. No moss had started growing on Alezander yet, but his eyes had frozen; he no longer blinked. So I knew he’d been disconnected.
I wasn’t worried. It’s not like it had never happened before. Max would have friends come over and drag him away from the computer and he would just hit the off button, wouldn’t even spare the time to say good-bye. Or he’d be playing in class and suddenly have to hide what he was doing from the teacher. It’s really frustrating when he drops off without warning when we’re in the middle of something important, and this time we’d planned to use the treasure from this mission to raise some cash for more mines and ammo, then fly directly to another place, Toxic Mountain, where we had unfinished business from last weekend.
Not today. I kicked Max’s statue and went back to my spaceship for a solo mission.
A couple of hours later the phone rang. Downstairs, Mom answered.
And everything changed.
“My God, Max, what happened?” Mom yelled into the phone, loud enough to carry upstairs and into my room despite the closed door, loud enough to break through my concentration. Max hardly ever phones home and Mom hardly ever yells, so I knew right away something was wrong. I ran out of the ruined city with a horde of mad Milas shooting at me, jumped into my spaceship, and locked it up. Then I made my way out of my room to the top of the stairs, listening.
Mom was standing at the old desk by the kitchen, where they keep an old-fashioned phone, with a rotary dial and everything. She said something to Max, but I didn’t hear. Dad appeared at the door to the kitchen, holding his favorite mug. Max got it for him for Father’s Day once. It has a picture of Freud on it, and it says “Sometimes coffee is just coffee. Except when it’s tea.”
“What?” Dad asked when he saw the look on Mom’s face. A few drops sloshed over the rim of the mug as he hurried over to her. “What’s going on? What’s wrong?”
Mom shook her head at him and turned away, hunching over the phone. “Max” was the only thing I could make out. She talked urgently, but her voice was too low to carry. Then she hung up and put both hands on the desk, leaning over it as she took deep breaths.
“What? Laura, what did he say?” Dad asked. I inched toward the stairs. “Is Max okay?”
“I don’t know,” Mom said faintly.
“What did he say?”
“He’s… he’s been… arrested.”
I gasped. One time Alezander got locked up in a prison cell on the Dak colony. I nearly got killed before the militia guards surrendered, but no explosives worked on that door. I had to pay a fortune for special bioengineered lock picks.
Dad’s mug rattled as it hit the table. “Arrested? For what?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t say. He didn’t say anything. He sounded… so scared and confused. He said to get him a lawyer.” Mom clutched her head with both hands, looking wildly up at Dad. “Do we know a lawyer?”
I went with them to the police station. I didn’t ask permission, just followed them and sat in the back of the car, silent. It worked. They knew I was there, but they were too busy thinking about Max and didn’t bother telling me to stay behind.
“What could it be about?” Mom said. She was sitting in the passenger seat. Mom tends to drive too fast under normal circumstances, so when she’s upset it’s not a good idea for her to drive at all. “Drugs, Jack? Do you think he’s doing drugs?”
Max, doing drugs? I grinned at the thought, and I must have made a sound because Dad frowned at me in the rearview mirror. But it was funny. Max doesn’t even drink, he never has. He thinks it’s stupid to ingest something that makes your mind go all weird. He says he wants to be in control of his own brain, all the time.
Then we got to the jail and nothing was funny anymore.
Max has been in custody three weeks now. That’s almost a month.
A lot can happen in a month.
Like my birthday, not that anyone noticed. I’m thirteen now.
I was twelve when the girl died.
Back when it all started, I was one of ten.
Well—it might have been nine. Or seven. Or eleven. I don’t know.
But one of ten sounds good, so that’s what I’ve always imagined.
Ten embryos, three days after the gametes—my mother’s egg and my father’s sperm—had merged inside a test tube. Ten clusters of maybe eight cells in a petri dish in a sterile white laboratory, filled with people in white coats hunched over scientific equipment.
They were looking at me.
Me, and my nine sisters and brothers—only not really brothers and sisters because they were only undifferentiated cells, not people yet.
I always imagine my mother being one of the people in the white coats, because she is a biologist, and she worked at that lab. But she wasn’t. She was at home, filled with hormones and anxiety, waiting for me, hoping for me.
I know how it happened. I’ve read about it, and Mom has explained, and I see it so clearly in my head that it’s almost like I was there.
Well, I was there. I just didn’t have eyes or hands or a heart or a brain or anything yet. I was only a small bubble of DNA.
The biologists removed one cell from each of us, teased one cell away from the others. They put each tiny cell through genetic tests, examining the nucleus carefully, checking if any of us matched my brother. The scientists were my mother’s colleagues—her friends—and they knew how important this was. So they must have been excited to find me, probably smiled down at me through the electron microscope, thrilled with being able to help my mom.
So they let me grow some more and then they put me inside my mother’s womb. My cells kept multiplying, and I became more than an embryo. My heart and brain started to develop, I got elbows and toes and webbed fingers and a tail. Later I lost my tail, grew eyelids and fingerprints, I breathed water, sucked my thumb and got hiccups that made my mother laugh at Max’s bedside, his eyes wide as Mom placed his hand on her stomach and he felt me kick into his palm.
At eight months—eight instead of nine, because my brother couldn’t wait any longer—they cut my mother open, and I was born, a whole baby, a person. My brother’s savior.
I saved my brother’s life the day I was born. Minutes after I was pulled into the world, they took the blood from my umbilical cord, then they extracted the stem cells and injected them into him, to replace the cells that had already been killed by chemotherapy and radiation.
It worked. My cells cured him. It’s been thirteen years, and he’s not sick now, he doesn’t have a deadly disease, he’s alive and healthy.
Without me, he wouldn’t exist. Without him, I wouldn’t exist.
That makes us more than brothers.
© 2007 Rune Michaels