Tomorrow, I launch the first book in a new series. Replacement, The Lost Clone Book 1, is a YA dystopian science fiction mystery about a leftover clone named Jane. It’s my 22nd novel but my first attempt writing in first person, and the book flowed like nothing I’ve ever written before. It has been pure fun to write. I hope you’ll have a blast reading it too!
Launch Day is October 15th. You can preorder the ebook here or order the paperback now. You can also read it for free in Kindle Unlimited starting tomorrow. In the meantime, here is the first chapter!
When the alarm rang, I was sneaking through the wrong dorm tower. The siren blared through the hallway, shattering the late-night quiet. I spun around, expecting a squad of uniforms to march toward me with bio-Tasers and zip ties.
My pulse raced as I scanned the corridor for hiding places and readied my best excuses. I hoped none of the security guards with special grudges against me were on duty that night. I’d caught trouble for sneaking out of my dorm pod before—and for snooping where I didn’t belong and asking too many questions. That night, I’d planned to do all three.
Commotion filled the corridor as the girls who actually belonged there filed out of their pods, moving in a quick, orderly fashion. Factory units occupied most of this hall, and the girls were designed to be efficient and obedient. No wasted movements. No hesitation. Just because they were clones being raised to work in factories didn’t mean they weren’t people, though. They talked and laughed as they followed their designated fire-escape routes, assuming it was yet another drill.
The siren wailed on, as loud as an airstrike warning, but no one charged up the corridor to drag me off to the detention pod. Maybe the alarm wasn’t about me at all. Security wouldn’t wake the whole dorm for some leftover clone going out past curfew. They had bigger problems.
I turned for the exit, trying to calm my racing heart. I still didn’t want to get caught in this tower.
A dozen factory units clad in standard Cloneworks pajamas marched past, their steps matching the rhythm of the alarm. They came from the same batch, so their features were identical—snub noses, pale skin, strawberry-blond hair. Pairs of watery blue eyes slid over me one after another, not showing any curiosity about what I was doing there. Factories didn’t pay for their clone workers to be curious.
I fell in behind the factory girls, trying to match the perfect coordination of their identical bodies. My legs were a little too long and gawky, and my arms swung a little too much.
A pair of future security units overtook us at the end of the hall, wearing their school uniforms despite the late hour. I ducked my head, wishing I’d brought something to cover my hair. My brunette ponytail didn’t belong in this line-up, and security clones had strong suspicious streaks. Fortunately, they didn’t notice me, too focused on getting to their designated rendezvous point.
The factory girls and I headed down the stairwell, joining a flood of factory and corporate units from half a dozen different batches. The worn-out steps vibrated under the weight of hundreds of teenagers evacuating at once. This was one of Stillman campus’s original buildings, long past its prime. I hoped it wouldn’t pick tonight to finally collapse.
As we turned a corner, a group of corporate units trooping down the stairs ahead of us caught my eye. I inhaled sharply. I hadn’t seen their type before. Batches of clones occasionally got shuffled from one Cloneworks campus to another at the whims of their sponsors. Those could be the very newcomers I’d risked detention to seek out that night.
The stairwell was too crowded for me to catch them before reaching the ground floor. When we exited the tower, I left the factory girls and jogged after the new corporate units, hoping they’d have answers for me. They looked a little lost, hesitating beside the winding paths filling with clones.
Stillman Cloneworks was built on a grid, with the towers divided into neat quadrants. Shrubs, aspen trees, and meandering pathways on the grounds helped to soften the edges. The glowing lights of the dorm towers cast an electric-blue tinge over everything. The corporate girls gaped at the dorms, the blocky structures of the nearby classroom quadrant, and the endless parade of matching faces. It’s disorienting to see large groups of identical people wandering around if you’re not used to it or if they’re different models from what you normally see. It’s probably difficult to find your way around a new place, too, though I wouldn’t know. I’d lived at Stillman for as long as I could remember.
Struggling to hide my eagerness, I tapped one of corporate girls on the shoulder. “Hey, are you lost?”
“I think so.” She rubbed her eyes blearily. “We’re new here.”
“Where’s your meetup point?”
The girl scanned a list of orientation instructions on her standard-issue gridwatch. She and her companions had brown skin and tight curls, and half of them had already changed into their Cloneworks pajamas. They looked about fourteen, three years younger than me.
“Sports Field Three,” said the girl with the gridwatch.
“I’m heading to the sports quadrant too,” I said. “I’ll take you. I’m Jane, by the way.”
“Isabelle.” She pointed at her batchmates. “And that’s Bella, Issy, and Isabela.”
I smiled, watching for any sign they recognized me, but the girls were too busy taking in the commotion to pay attention.
“Come on, then. I’ll show you a shortcut.”
We started across campus, the four identical girls falling in behind me. When we reached a straight stretch, I walked backward for a few paces to give them an extra-good look at my face. I needed to know if they’d ever seen anyone who looked exactly like me.
I’m what they call a leftover clone. Like thousands of clones before me, I was produced to fulfill a particular function. The trouble is I don’t know what that function was. Someone paid Cloneworks to replicate my specific genetic sequence and grow me in an artificial womb, but before I was old enough to walk, they abandoned me to be raised by the facility. Somewhere along the line, my records got corrupted too. I don’t know who made me or why.
There are other leftover clones at this campus, single units or small batches whose sponsors defaulted on their payments, leaving them in the corporation’s custody. But I’m the only one of my type. I don’t know if there are any other Janes out there.
“What campus did you come from?” I asked Isabelle as we left the dorm quadrant and cut between the tennis courts and the old gymnasium.
“Bernstein, way on the other side of Grid City. They’re renovating and needed to relocate us for a while.”
“What are you for?”
“We’re in the management program for Harbor, Inc.”
“Nice.” I leaned a little closer so I could hear her over the chatter of her batchmates. “That’s a college track, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” She sighed, rubbing her eyes. “We’re going to be in school forever.”
“It’s only two years after high school,” put in one of the other girls, maybe Bella, who seemed more upbeat than her batchmate. “We’ll finish faster than a typical nonclone student.”
“I’m sure you will.” The girls already possessed the exact combination of genetic factors that made them ideal candidates for management roles at Harbor, Inc. Either their code was heavily edited, or they were exact copies of an existing model employee—hopefully one with a good memory for faces.
I took a deep breath. “Have any of you ever met someone who looked like me? Or even a batch?”
The girls studied me, their mouths quirked in the same pensive expression, though some twisted their lips to the right and some to the left.
“Don’t think so,” Isabelle said at last. “Do you have batchmates at Bernstein?”
“I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to find out.”
“Oh. I get it. Sorry.” Isabelle gave me a pitying look and moved closer to her batchmates, identical hands touching. No one envied leftover clones. It’s tough when you don’t belong to anyone in particular. I’d spent my whole life trying to find out why it had happened to me.
We reached Sports Field Three, where the floodlights lit up the grass like it was daytime. Long lines of clones were already forming. My podmates probably wondered where I was, though they might not be surprised I’d picked the night of a fire drill to break curfew. My friend Sine says I’m always in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“This is your meetup spot,” I told the corporate girls. “Your dormkeeper will find you. I’d better join my podmates.”
“Thanks, Jane,” said two of them at once. “And good luck!”
I left the Isabelles near the soccer goal and headed across the field. Surprisingly, smoke rose from the research quadrant to the south, lit from beneath by the floodlights. It wasn’t a drill after all.
My heart rate kicked up a notch. I’d been so focused on my mission that it hadn’t occurred to me we might be in real danger.
The assembled clones stared at the billowing white plume, murmuring agitatedly. Most wore their pajamas with sandals or shower slippers, in no condition to escape to safety.
“Any idea what’s happening?” I asked a couple of hospitality units. They’re usually helpful.
“Some anticloning radicals got through the shock fence,” said a pretty girl with her red hair twisted up in curlers. “They tried to torch the birthing facility.”
“I heard it was the cafeteria,” said another hospitality unit, a different model from the first.
“Why would they do that?” asked the redhead. “They object to the creation of clones, not the fact that they feed us once we’re here.”
The smoke undulated against the sky, blotting out what little we could see of the stars so close to Grid City. I couldn’t tell which building was burning. Would they need to evacuate us from campus? Part of me hoped so. It had been ages since our last field trip.
“How do you know it was anticlone radicals?” I asked.
“Who else would it be? They think we’re being harvested for our organs, you know.” The hospitality unit laughed, reaching up to fix her curlers. “As if we can’t grow all the organs we need in vats. It’s not medieval times.”
“I don’t think they did organ transplants in medieval times.”
She arched an eyebrow, giving me a look of disdain so effective that she must have practiced it in a mirror.
“I heard it was an equipment malfunction,” someone else put in, another copy of the redhead. “Not an attack at all.”
“That makes more sense.” I gestured toward the shock fence at the edge of the field, its silver mesh reflecting the floodlights. “Radicals couldn’t get in here. Security is too tight.” I should know. I’d had more than my share of run-ins with the campus’s keepers. “Have any of you seen—”
A voice blared through a loudspeaker. A dormkeeper wearing a tattered bathrobe had climbed onto the bleachers, and she was telling her colleagues to take attendance. I needed to get moving.
Brittle grass crunched beneath my sandals as I crossed the field. It had been a dry summer, and I imagined the fire spreading from the research quadrant and consuming the campus’s landscaping shrub by shrub. The structures were supposed to be a hundred percent fireproof. But then the shock fence was supposed to be impenetrable too.
On the bright side, if the campus was destroyed, I probably wouldn’t catch trouble for being out past curfew.
I jogged the last few paces to my dorm pod’s line and slipped into place just in time. Our dormkeeper, Ms. Rigney, shuffled down the line, noting our presences on an electronic tablet—the old, flat kind, not one made from tech fabric.
“Where’ve you been?” Sine hissed as I adopted my best I’ve-been-here-the-whole-time pose behind her. Her black hair stood out in all directions, her pixie cut looking like an electrocuted cat.
“Checking out the newcomers over in Dorm C.”
“Well?” She turned to face me, craning her neck because she was a lot shorter. “Were they you?”
“No. The ones I talked to didn’t recognize me either.”
Sine patted my shoulder, though she didn’t look surprised. This wasn’t my first disappointment. “I keep telling you you’re an original, Jane. Enjoy it.”
“There has to be more to it than that.” No one would go to the trouble of genetically engineering an original design only to abandon them on some third-rate campus on the outskirts of Grid City. I gritted my teeth. There had to be more girls like me. We must have gotten separated in whatever kerfuffle had damaged my records—an unusual incident on its own. Most leftovers knew what they were supposed to be, even if their sponsors abandoned them. But not me.
Sine and I fell silent as Ms. Rigney drew near, ticking off Sine’s batchmates on her tablet. “Are you Cos or Tan?” she asked the girl in front of us. “I’ve been confused ever since you all got haircuts.”
“Cos,” said a girl I was pretty sure was Tan. She jabbed a finger at Sine. “She’s Tan.”
Ms. Rigney narrowed her eyes. But she counted the identical faces then ticked off their entire batch on her tablet.
People like Sine have it easy. She’s a copy of three other girls. Or rather, all four of them are copies of a girl with extraordinary mathematical abilities and a healthy dose of creativity and intuition. They’re bound for roles at one of their corporate sponsor’s investment companies. Sine knows exactly what her life will look like after she finishes her education.
Her personality is a little different from her batchmates’. Natural variations develop in people with the same genetic code, even when they’re raised alongside each other. I’m not close friends with Sine’s batchmates, and my influence alone might set her on a different path from theirs, probably one that involves catching trouble a little too often. But her sponsor, Bluestone International, knows how she’s likely to turn out. No surprises or expensive risks.
Speaking of risks… The smoke hanging over the research quadrant glowed ominously in the lights, occasionally flashing red or blue. As the wind shifted, the smell of scorched plastic drifted across the sports field. What had happened over there? The campus was run-down, yes, but it shouldn’t be susceptible to such a huge fire.
I was tempted to sneak over to the research quadrant for a closer look at the damage. No one had said anything about evacuating, so the situation couldn’t be that dangerous. I made sure Ms. Rigney was facing away from me and stepped out of line.
Sine seized my arm, halting me in my tracks. “Don’t push your luck, Jane.”
“I want to know if there are really anticloners over there.”
“I’m sure they’re gone by now.”
“You should be thankful you didn’t get caught breaking curfew.” Sine gave me a severe look. “You’re already on thin ice with the keepers.”
I snorted. “What else is new?”
“Seriously.” Sine kept a firm grip on my arm. “It’ll be no fun if you spend our last year together in the detention pod. I’ll be leaving for my advanced training before you know it.”
“Fine.” I returned to my place, figuring the research quadrant would be crawling with security units anyway. Probably drones and dogbots too. They took the anticlone threat seriously around here.
During the Great Automation, which began a century ago, vast numbers of human workers were replaced by robots and automated systems. The big corporations that could afford the investment swallowed their competitors and consolidated the entire world economy into a handful of giant conglomerates. But many jobs still needed to be done by human beings—management, hospitality, creative design.
The trouble was the corporations had gotten used to the risk-reduction involved in working with machines. Self-driving railcars never crashed, fully automated factories didn’t cut off people’s fingers, and so on. Corporations wanted the efficiency and reliability of robots for all their roles, even the ones that couldn’t be completed by a box of wires and code.
Enter: clones. All the benefits of authentic humanity without the pesky baggage that came with random gene selection and varied backgrounds. We’re easier to control than regular workers, too, though we don’t talk about that.
These days, corporations raise their own employees for key roles, from robot maintenance to legal counsel. Some franchises guarantee the same friendly faces will greet their customers in every store, as much a part of their corporate branding as their interior design. By using dependable genetic models and uniform training programs, they ensure their companies run like well-oiled machines. Apparently, it’s worth the cost.
Not everyone is happy about the proliferation of specialist clones, even though we make up less than ten percent of the population. Some extremists would rather go back to the old, risky ways. Sometimes, they take their discomfort out on us.
The smoke was dissipating over the research quadrant. Whatever fire the radicals had managed to set must have been quenched. There would be no dramatic evacuations that night. Too bad.
The nervous excitement hovering over the assembly gave way to restlessness as it edged past midnight, and people started to complain about needing the bathroom. Tan and Cos argued over a pair of shoes one had borrowed from the other, while their fourth batchmate, Trig’s, eyelids drooped. Sine poked her so that she wouldn’t fall asleep on her feet.
At last, the bathrobe-clad dormkeeper climbed back up the bleachers with the loudspeaker. “The danger is past. Return to your dorms. Classes will proceed on schedule in the morning.”
Sine groaned. “I was afraid of that.”
“They never let us off easily.” We headed back to our dorm tower, the chatter of a thousand clones surrounding us. The late-summer air was warm, and insects buzzed in the floodlights. “I’ve heard regular kids get two months off school in the summer.”
“Two months would be a serious waste of resources.” Sine flung her hands wide, taking in the run-down campus and sleepy children. “Think of how much it costs to house and train us already. They have to be efficient with our time in order to maximize…”
I let Sine patter on about numbers, classroom hours, and efficiency, scanning the faces around me for more newcomers. There must be others from Bernstein. I needed to find them before they got shuttled back to their renovated facility. The Isabelles hadn’t recognized me, but another batch might. I was getting desperate.
I’d always hoped I would develop skills that would reveal who I was supposed to be, like invisible ink under a black light. I took an eclectic mix of classes, hoping to uncover hidden talents. That hadn’t worked so far. I had more curiosity than was strictly healthy, less artistic ability than I wanted, and a gangly body that refused to put on muscle no matter how hard I tried. I was never at the top of my classes, though I had no idea how my intelligence stacked up against the nonclone population. I wasn’t agreeable enough to be a hospitality unit or docile enough to be a factory unit. I wasn’t a genius of any flavor. I was just me: Jane the leftover, Jane of the lost records, Jane who would graduate in a year with no batchmates to keep her company and no idea what to do with her life.
Only one facet of my personality might help—stubbornness. No matter how many times I’d been disappointed, I couldn’t give up hope that I would one day learn where I’d come from. I’d been manufactured for a reason. My records had been lost for a reason. I just had to figure out what it was.