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About the Author

Randy D. Ashburn tells us: "This is my first professional sale, although I have only been writing fiction for about six months. So far, I have been a finalist in several contests, but no victories as of yet. The characters in "A Predatory Nature" are twisted versions of people from my real life. Like the protagonist, I am a 35 year old attorney. Since I spent five years of my career representing inmates on Death Row, I have also gotten to know people rather similar to other characters in this tale. That chapter of my life has given me quite a few ideas that could show up in future stories. For now, I'm living a very quite life as a small town administrative law judge along with my wife and two wonderful sons."

Deep Outside SFFH 1998-2002 pioneering online professional SFFH magazine - we made history!

A Predatory Nature

by Randy D. Ashburn

Thomas Alexander's mind was a bubble rising slowly through a maple syrup sea. When it finally surfaced, he found that his body was all rubber bands and bee stings. Pin-pricks of light exploded silently in the darkness. It tasted like his mouth was crammed with pennies.
     All-in-all, regaining consciousness was almost as bad as being knocked out.
     Random noise settled into something that sounded like words over a slow connection to the net. It might have been a woman's voice.
     "... see for yourself! He's waking up."
     A door slammed. Heavy footsteps echoed nearer. Thomas was hauled off the floor by the lapels of his pin-striped Amadeo Gaccetta suit. His eyes couldn't focus well enough to make out more than a pink blob swimming in the grayness. The hot breath on his face reeked of peanut butter and cheap vodka.
     The man threw him back to the floor. "See? I told you the taser wasn't juiced enough to kill him."
     Thomas tried to move, but his muscles weren't quite ready to start taking orders from his brain yet.
     "Be sure he don't make a nuisance of his-self while I finish breakfast."
     The woman slipped the tie from Thomas's neck and strapped his hands to something behind him.
     Thomas's tongue felt too big for his mouth, but he managed to speak anyway. "Good choice. Italian silk is very durable." He tried to smile, but, judging from the drool rolling down his chin, he doubted that it looked as nonchalant as he'd intended.
     She pulled the tie tighter. Thomas winced. She loosened it slightly; not enough for him to get free, but at least the blood could still circulate.
     A good sign. She could be manipulated.
     "Okay, Jeff. He's not going anywhere now."
     Not a good sign. Kidnappers who used their names didn't plan to let you go.
     As Thomas's vision slowly returned, he saw a small room, almost bare of furniture. Wallpaper tumbled down in big swaths, revealing the stained plaster underneath. Pizza boxes, hamburger bags, and liquor bottles were everywhere. He didn't want to even try to guess why the mouse-eaten carpet was so sticky.
     He was tied to a big three-way mirror, the kind they used to have in clothes stores before holoes, so you could see yourself from the front and both sides at once.
     All the reflections looked like hell.
     The woman was next to him, sitting cross-legged on a couch beside a very nasty gun. It looked like some kind of military weapon—the kind with a magnetic pulse that insured the flechettes would be lethal, even if they weren't tipped with explosives or neurotoxins, which they probably were.
     Her brown eyes never left Thomas, and an almost playful grin curled one side of her mouth. She was attractive, in a plain sort of way, and looked vaguely familiar. Probably someone who'd been on the wrong side of a lawsuit against him.
     Thomas returned her half-smile. "Look, you should realize that it was nothing personal. I was only doing my job. I'm sure we can work something.."
     Jeff kicked open the kitchen door and plowed into the room. "She ain't nobody you screwed-over in court, Tommy-boy. She's with me!" He stabbed a callused thumb at his chest as if his mere presence was supposed to mean something.
     Thomas committed the details to memory, in case he ever had a chance to share them with the cops: Male; Caucasian; no obvious cyberware; muscular build; short-side of average height; lots of black leather; mirrorshades wrapped around his slick-shaved head.
     Pretty ordinary.
     The only half-way distinguishing feature was an ugly stump where the left little finger used to be. He must've pissed-off the Yakuza once upon a time. That wasn't all that unusual, either.
     Thomas raised an eyebrow. "Sorry, but I have a lousy memory for faces."
     The woman laughed. "See, I told you he wouldn't recognize you. My profile was dead on: classic narcissistic personality disorder."
     "Cut the shrink crap, Dale!" Jeff gritted his yellow teeth and bent close to Thomas. "Maybe this'll help your sorry-assed memory."
     Jeff tore off the mirrorshades, revealing a right eye that was brown and a left one that was blue.
     Just like Thomas's eyes.
     Thomas blinked twice and felt his stomach drop through the floor. Get rid of the stubble, add some hair up top and decent clothes—they'd be doubles.
     Jeff spat in his face. "Get a load of the other side of the looking glass, jerk-off!"
     A hundred explanations raced through Thomas's head, but none of them made any sense. "Funny, mom and dad never mentioned a twin brother."
     Jeff's knuckles slammed into his lip hard enough to draw blood. Thomas took note; just one more thing to get even for.
     Dale was laughing again. No doubt Jeff's actions fit her psychological profile of him, too.
     "You really are twins, you know. Identical twins, in fact." Her half-smile returned. "Only, you had different mothers."
     "What the hell are you talking about?"
     Jeff bleated like a sheep.
     "Are you trying to tell me that's some kind of ... clone of me?"
     "Actually, you're both clones—of a psychiatrist named Alan D. Randall."
     Thomas rolled his eyes.
     Dale tossed a five inch stack of papers onto the floor. "Dr. Randall's notes. I got them while doing my residency with him."
     Jeff ran his tongue into her ear. "And while doing the doc, too, huh, sweet-thing?"
     She pointed at the research. "Thirty years ago, just after the Scots went public with Dolly the cloned sheep, Dr. Randall used a modification of their procedure on himself. He took cells from his own skin and fused them with egg cells that had had their original insides sucked out. When the fused cells began to divide, he took those cells and inserted them into different hollowed-out eggs so that they'd be tricked into acting like normal zygotes. Then he implanted the fertilized eggs into some of his patients."
     "You're telling me that my real father was my mother's psychiatrist?" He arched his eyebrow again. "You expect me to believe this?"
     Jeff chuckled. "Sucks to find out mama was a whore, don't it?"
     There was a glint of annoyance in Dale's dusky eyes. "Technically, she wasn't your 'mother.' All of the genetic material came from Dr. Randall. She was more like ... an incubator."
     "My parents never would have agreed to anything like this."
     "They never knew."
     Thomas shook his head. "How the hell do you impregnate someone without her knowledge?"
     "Dr. Randall was big on hypnotherapy, sometimes supplementing the procedure with drugs. It was really no problem at all. I have the video tapes if you'd like to watch."
     Jeff hooted and stroked his hand in front of his crotch.
     Thomas sucked on his bleeding lip. "Why?"
     "Textbook experiment on nature vs. nurture. Two subjects with identical genetic material; one placed in the best possible environment; the other.. not."
     Jeff was in his face again. "Just think: If only the petri dishes got mixed up, you'd had the pleasure of being born in a crackhouse."
     "So, what do you want with me? Why don't you go after this Randall guy?"
     Jeff glanced at his feet. "Somebody ... beat me to him."
     Dale smiled. "He really was a bastard for what he did to the two of you, don't you think? Besides, those May-December romances always turn out badly in the end."
     Jeff grabbed a handful of hair and yanked Thomas as high off the floor as his bound hands would allow. "Now it's your turn, Tommy-boy."
     A razor snicked open. Jeff turned it slowly in his hand so Thomas could see the way the polished blade disappeared when it faced him edge-on. It was a mono—regular steel nanofactured to be just one molecule thick. It would slice through his throat as easily as it did air.
     Thomas screamed as the monorazor hacked again and again.
     Jeff cackled.
     When it was over, Thomas was a trembling pile on the floor.
     "Buy some testosterone, neut! I only whacked off a little hair." Jeff's mismatched eyes sparkled as he preened in the three-way mirror. "We gotta get you looking gorgeous, just like me."
     Dale stood off to one side, her eyes darting excitedly between the two of them.
     "You got the Prime-Time life long enough, Tommy-boy." He grinned like a jackal. "It's my turn."
     "You're crazy."
     "Now, is that any way to talk to a blood relative?" Jeff sauntered towards him. "Oh, there is one more thing before I go scan my new apartment."
     The monorazor flashed again and a fat, pink worm suddenly appeared on the floor.
     Just before he passed out from the searing pain, Thomas realized that it used to be his left little finger.

     Thomas awoke to the throbbing in his hand. Swollen, purple flesh peeked between bright, white bandages.
     Dale frowned at the wound. "Infection. I took care of it, though. Should be okay in a few days."
     Thomas glared at her.
     One corner of her mouth turned up. "Here's where you say, 'Thank you, Doctor.'"
     "Yes, I'm ever so grateful."
     Dale smirked and sat down on a crate of pornware. Thomas looked around. He was on the threadbare couch now, feet and good hand strapped down tight with micro-fiber cable. The flechette rifle was propped up in a corner, safely out of his reach.
     "Where's the surgeon? I'd like to 'thank' him, too."
     "He's still out playing with his new toys. You know: your old toys."
     "Maybe he had trouble getting in. Maybe he's been arrested, and the cops will be here any minute."
     Dale smirked. "Good try. But I'm certain your locks had no trouble recognizing his retinas."
     "Do you really think people will believe that lunatic is me?"
     She laughed. "Of course not!"
     "Then why the hell are you helping him?"
     "Call it ... scientific curiosity. Sure, Jeff can't pass himself off as you indefinitely. But the interesting question is: How long can he make it work?"
     "You're as crazy as Randall."
     Dale pouted. "I know it's hard for laymen to appreciate the sacrifices required by science ..."
     "Bull! It doesn't take 'science' to figure out that if you dump a baby into a toilet it's going to turn into a piece of crap. Randall—and you—are nothing more than sadists!"
     She brushed his hair back. Thomas tried very hard not to reflect upon how comforting that felt. "The ways you and Jeff differ are irrelevant. The point of the experiment was to find out how many ways you'd be similar."
     "Similar? Me and that sociopath?"
     "You'd be surprised." She laid her hand on his chest. Its warm weight rose and fell to the rhythm of his breath. "Lawyers and criminals score almost identically on personality tests. You share a certain ... predatory nature. It just manifests differently, depending upon the environment."
     Thomas rolled his eyes again.
     "Think about it. You, Jeff, and yes, Randall, too; none of you ever hesitated to take advantage of others to get what you wanted."
     Thomas ran his tongue over the cut on his lower lip. It stung. "Great. So not only is my whole existence just some science fair project, but I'm a ruthless bastard as well."
     Dale scraped her nails slowly down his chest. "Some of us have a thing for ruthless bastards."
     Attraction and revulsion raced through him, driven by the quickening beat of his heart. "First the original, then one clone, now the other ..."
     "There's nothing like collecting a complete set."
     "You're really twisted."
     She raised an eyebrow and grinned. "You have no idea."
     Her mouth was on his neck; teeth teasing tender flesh as she slid on top of him. His thighs tightened as her hands prowled along his bound legs. And beneath her warm, heavy breath, Thomas could almost swear that he heard purring.
     He closed his eyes, arched his back, and stretched his wounded hand out of her way.
     The mutilated hand barely brushed against the big mirror beside the couch, but it felt like an ice pick had shot through the core of his arm bones right into his brain.
     Dale's tongue traced the outlines of his face. She ground her hips against his.
     He reached out again for the mirror, the puffy fingers that remained scrambling for a hold on the oak frame. When he finally grabbed on, it was like squeezing a hornets' nest.
     Dale must have thought that she was the cause of his writhing. Thomas tried to convince himself that she wasn't.
     He screamed as he brought the mirror crashing down on Dale. He could feel the sting of a dozen tiny cuts, but she had taken the brunt of it.
     She rolled onto the floor, blood from the back of her head smearing the filthy carpet. She was hurt, but still on the brink of consciousness. Nothing in real life ever worked like it did in the endless stream of sims coming out of Hollywood.
     Thomas clutched a big shard of broken mirror, and pain drenched his injured hand again. Dale was too far away to use it on her, so he set to work on his bonds instead.
     The glass bit deep into what was left of his hand. Thomas sawed frantically, but by the time he'd cut his other hand loose, Dale was trying to sit up.
     The rifle leaned indifferently against the wall, a million kilometers away.
     Thomas slashed at the cables around his feet. Strand after microscopic strand snapped, until finally he was free.
     Then the click of a lock, so quiet that any other time he wouldn't have heard it, froze him in place. Jeff was standing in the open door, his brown eye blazing while the blue one smoldered.
     "You got no idea how much I was hoping for something like this, Tommy-boy."
     Thomas glanced desperately at the rifle in the corner.
     "What's wrong? The big bad lawyer need a gun?"
     Thomas was panting, and his mouth was so dry that it ached.
     "Think you're so much better than me, don't you?"
     Jeff strutted towards the corner.
     "Think you're it, just because you got born with money ..."
     He leisurely reached for the gun.
     "... and a big house ..."
     He grasped it.
     "... and a mama who didn't rent you out to the neighborhood pervs so she could score drugs."
     Jeff rubbed the gleaming metal shaft tenderly across his cheek.
     "Ain't it funny how in the end none of that matters?"
     Jeff took one step towards him.
     "Ain't it funny how right about now you wish maybe you'd been born in the sprawl?"
     Two steps.
     "Wish you knew how to fight to stay alive."
     Three steps.
     "I think maybe old Randall did me a favor, dropping me off where I'd become a man ..."
     Thomas tried to swallow as the barrel slowly rose.
     "... not a neut like you."
     The muzzle was a dark and empty cavern.
     "Let's find out which one Randall did a better job on." Jeff dropped the rifle onto the floor between them. Thomas blinked and tried to speak, but for the first time in his life, nothing came out.
     "I'm betting you don't even know how to get the safety off." The monorazor was suddenly in Jeff's hand again.
     Thomas stared at the gun. He could see terror in the eyes of his reflection, wrapped around the shiny black barrel. But the worst part was knowing that Jeff was right.
     He lunged for the weapon anyway. Jeff smiled and leapt after him.
     Instead of fumbling for the safety, Thomas clutched the muzzle and swung the gun like a baseball bat. The stock smacked solidly against Jeff's jaw, sending a tooth sailing through the air.
     It was Thomas's turn to smile now, as Jeff staggered backwards. He pulled the gun back and swung again. But this time Jeff was ready. He ducked under the arc of the weapon and planted his foot squarely into Thomas's stomach, splattering him against the wall where he slumped to the floor, desperately trying to breathe.
     There was a flash of silver as the monorazor slashed towards him. Thomas tried to block it with the rifle, but the razor glided through the metal like it wasn't there.
     Suddenly, the world drowned in light and noise.
     Thomas was hanging half-way through a gaping hole where only a second before there had been a wall. His chest was seared crispy black, and sizzled like an overdone steak.
     The monorazor must have sliced into one of the explosive flechettes.
     He glanced down. Jeff was just a nasty stain in front of the photocopy shop eleven stories below.
     Thomas tried to pull himself up with his wounded hand, but as soon as it grazed against jagged brick, pain shimmered up his arm. He screamed, and slid farther through the hole until he was dangling from the ledge by his good hand.
     Dale stood above him, her dark eyes filled with curiosity, but completely empty of interest.
     "Help me."
     She shook her head. "Once an experiment has begun, you can only observe the results, not influence them."
     "You ruthless bitch!"
     "I can't help it. Guess it's in my blood."
     Thomas squeezed his mismatched eyes closed. "Why?"
     Dale must have thought he was talking to her. "Pretty much for the same reason Jeff gave. I wanted to find out which version of Dr. Randall was optimal. You know, 'survival of the fittest,' and all that."
     His fingers were growing numb, and his shoulder was on fire where the arm was slowly pulling away from its socket. "What's the point if all the versions die?"
     "One last shot at manipulating me, huh?"
     Thomas felt his clenched fingers beginning to uncurl as gravity tugged at him.
     She casually sat down. "Do you know that one of the easiest genetic manipulations is to slice off the Y chromosome and replace it with another X from the same donor? That way, a male can make a female clone of himself."
     She slipped the brown-tinted contact lens from her left eye. It was cold and blue, like the sky rushing past him as Thomas plummeted towards the concrete.

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