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Look, what you’ve got to understand about industry – and I’m talking about the food industry in particular – is that the pursuit of money always trumps common sense. It’s been this way since Year Dot. For instance, there’s only one type of banana across the whole planet, the Cavendish, but here’s the kicker: each piece of fruit is a clone. I’m not bullshitting you. They’re grown from suckers. So, every banana is genetically identical. If a pathogen comes along that can wipe out just one banana, it’ll wipe out the crop worldwide.

And this isn’t a theory, mind you. It happened already.

Prior to the Cavendish, the only commercial banana was another cloned variety, the Gros Michel, and that crop got destroyed by a kind of soil fungus in the 1960s. The Cavendish was its replacement. But did the food industry learn anything from putting all its eggs – or Gros Michel bananas – into the one basket? No, except to do it all over again because of economics. Even when the smallest possible risk is complete and utter catastrophe. You see where I’m coming from? Money trumps common sense. Every. Single. Time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against food cloning. That’s my trade, after all. Cloning is a great idea. Finding a way to computerise, mechanise and standardise the process solved a lot of problems like overfishing, deforestation, famines, and suchlike and et cetera, but hey, I don’t need to make a speech. Anybody with half a brain knows that food cloning factories are a boon to mankind. I’m only stating my point of view for the record.

Also, for the record, my name is Charles Pomeroy but everyone calls me Charlie. I’m thirty-four years old, single, no kids, Aussie by birth, and a factory runner for Carbon Copy Consumables. For the past eight years, I’ve worked at their Antarctica plant servicing the research stations, hotels, resorts, casinos, theme park, restaurants, private homes and what have you. The busiest time of year is summer when the tourist ships come by the dozen and every business is running at full capacity. With about nine thousand mouths to feed, I have to run the factory twenty-four seven. Yeah, all by my lonesome.

The company website explains their setup if you’re interested, but in a nutshell, the Antarctica factory is about a kilometre long, three storeys high, covered in gantries and stuffed to the gills with machines. Carbon Copy Consumables is ‘lights-out’ manufacturing with everything controlled by a bunch of computers. Even the trucks that pick up the supplies are automated and self-driven, and each truck is packed by robot arms.

So, the four reasons I’m needed there…

One: feed the machines. Our base material looks like bouillon powder. It’s actually a combination of elements including carbon, nitrogen, sulphur – I forget the others – but ninety-seven percent of every living thing on Earth is made up of just six elements. Amazing, right? At full storage capacity, I’ve got six vats and each one’s about the size of a wheat silo.

Two: keep the joint hygienic. The machines have self-cleaning cycles; I top up detergents.

Three: equipment maintenance. Our machines are so smart they’re almost self-sufficient, the emphasis on ‘almost’. Nothing beats the human mind. Training to be a factory runner takes four years because you need to learn how to service every part of every machine. Yeah, there’s manuals to jog your memory, but it’s a specialised field with lifelong job security. Why would Carbon Copy Consumables sack a factory runner after investing four years into them? And you get paid top dollar while you train. Sweet gig. If you ever want a career change, look into it. Just be aware the competition is stiff. For every opening, there’s a thousand applications. You’ve got to be the best of the best.

And four: stock control. The machines can’t make informed decisions about which foods need to be cloned. I take orders from all over Antarctica. You’ve got no idea of the vast amounts of produce I churn out to allow three meals and snacks for nine thousand people in peak season. Hold onto your little cotton socks because I’m about to blow your mind. Ready?

Five tonnes of vegetables. That’s metric tonnes, mind you, per day. Two tonnes of beef, every cut from chuck to eye fillet. One tonne of chicken. Ten thousand eggs. All. Per. Day. And so on, and so forth. Can you grasp the scale of this operation? Can you imagine trying to fly this amount of naturally-sourced food into Antarctica? Well, that’s how they used to do it in the old days. That’s why the population was capped at about one thousand; the logistics of supply were too difficult.

Oh yeah, and another reason: a bunch of Antarctic Treaties about keeping the continent pristine. Those treaties were overturned for the sake of money. Capitalism is great, don’t get me wrong – it’s dragged most of the world out of poverty – but there’s a few drawbacks here. Did you know that one-third of Antarctica is now a giant tip covered in garbage? Anyhow, that’s progress. Two steps forward, one step back. Don’t worry, a company will come up with a way to turn rubbish into something useful, like gold, if there’s money in it.

Sure, I’m on good terms with the freight runners, ship captains, pilots, et cetera. You know what? Cards on the table? I’ll come straight out and tell you that my partner in the botany scheme was a pilot named Jenny. I’m guessing you’re interrogating her anyway, so there’s no point me trying to be discreet. The whole sideline about the plants was her idea, with a forty-sixty split. She promised me bucketloads of cash, and boy, was she right on the money.

There are two flowering plants native to Antarctica: the hair grass and the pearlwort. You find them mainly on the western peninsula and on a couple of islands. One time Jenny told me, while she was waiting on her plane to be refuelled and loaded, that some knob-ends from Sydney’s North Shore were scouting for unusual plants for their daughter’s bridal bouquet and table arrangements, and would I be interested in some quick dough?

Now, these Antarctic plants look pretty dull, but that’s not the point. Rarity symbolises wealth. Even if the plants happened to look like busted arseholes covered in fly-blown crap, it wouldn’t matter. Do you know what happened in the seventeenth century when the pineapple was first brought over to Britain from Barbados? Well, the pineapple was such a rare fruit, and so expensive, that super-rich people would bung one in the middle of their ballroom and host a party to flex on their high-society friends. The not-so-rich rented pineapples for the sole purpose of bragging. Even a rotting pineapple had prestige.

And hundreds of years later, rich people are exactly the same.

Long story short, yeah, I cloned the plants, and Jenny sold them to this family. Within months, Jenny and me had an enterprise. Strictly under the table, of course. It’s not like we took out ads. Word of mouth only. Just like the trade in stolen art works, right? Inner circle stuff. People want to show off to their mates, not get arrested by Interpol.

Oh, we made money for jam. And we never worried about us double-crossing each other. Jenny couldn’t run the plants through the machines herself because cloning is locked down tighter than the diamond industry. I couldn’t get plants out of Antarctica without a pilot’s licence, and besides that, didn’t have any contacts with buyers. Jenny and I were partners in crime. Both of us faced jail. We had reasons to be faithful to our handshake.

But word gets around in the upper echelons of the filthy rich.

And soon, Jenny came to me with another request, this time from Asia. Some billionaire wanted to throw a dinner party with penguin on the menu.

Look, I’m not going to debate which animals are okay to eat and which ones aren’t. As far as I’m concerned, once you’ve eaten meat, you’ve crossed a line and can’t wag the finger at anybody for their choices. Still, I had to think about this offer for a long, long while. Could I really offer up cloned penguins knowing they were destined for someone’s cooking pot?

Jenny had convincing arguments, namely… I provided beef, lamb, pork and chicken as food, didn’t I, so what’s the difference? The penguin destined for the table wouldn’t be the original or ‘real’ penguin, just a clone, while the real penguin would be released back into the wild, unharmed, free to live its life, swim and raise babies. Penguins get eaten by seals and orcas every day, so why not by people? Et cetera. Bottom line: the money was jaw-dropping.

Antarctica has lots of different penguins like king, adelie, chinstrap, gentoo. Penguins are fast in water; on land they’re bumbling idiots. My first penguin was a chinstrap, so-called because it has this little banding of black feathers under its beak. It’s an aggro species but small and real clumsy on the ice. It took five minutes to stuff one in my backpack. Hey, there’s about eight million of the buggers; it wasn’t like taking one for a couple of hours would upset the balance of anything important.


And yet…I’d never put a live animal through the machines. For some reason, I imagined the cloned penguin would be turned inside-out. Crazy, huh? I had to keep reminding myself that fruits and vegetables are alive when they’re cloned. Oh yes, of course they are – if they were dead, they’d be withered and black.

Even so, I had a big problem. The machines can’t read anything that’s moving because they work on similar principles to 3D food printers. I had to find a way to keep the penguin as still as possible. I chose sleeping pills. My working hours are all over the place. Naturally, I’ve got stashes. I figured the medication would stay in the bird’s guts and blood, and not migrate into its muscles. Therefore, anyone who ate its meat wouldn’t get dosed.

I cloned the drugged bird.

The process takes seventeen minutes for the first replication. After that, once the sequencing is worked out, the replication rate is lightning fast: pow, pow, pow. The cloned penguins were asleep, which made packaging and transportation much easier. Since we use automated systems to load trucks and planes, only me and Jenny knew what was going on.

Good God, over the next year…

Money, money, money.

So much money…

Occasionally, there were ‘exposés’ on blogs and threads about illegal penguin meat, but the mainstream media figured it was an urban myth. Hah! I supplied every kind of penguin that exists in Antarctica. Yet each specimen I kidnapped was returned, unharmed, to the ice shelf where I found it. I never penned any of them to save time. That would’ve been cruel. And remember, the clones exported for eating purposes weren’t ‘real’ in the same way the original penguins were real. Manufactured clones don’t count. That’s law, right?

Soon we got other requests. Antarctic seabirds became popular: blue-eyed shag, giant petrel, snowy sheathbill, cape pigeon. But these birds can fly! Trapping them required ingenuity on my part; luckily, I’m very intelligent. The price per kilo had to be higher than for penguins. Astronomically higher. That said, Antarctic seabirds are stringy. You’ve got to braise them low and slow. Even if you’re a pro chef who does everything perfectly, the meat still comes out dry, chaffy, tasteless. Look, it’s not about flavour. Remember the pineapple? If dog shit was rare, the one-percenters would serve it at dinner parties with silver spoons.

Did I eat any of these meats? No. Beef, chicken, lamb, pork: that’ll do fine. Occasionally I eat fish and seafood but don’t come at me with weird shit like eel, oysters or sea urchin. Novelty doesn’t interest me. I won’t try a food just for the ‘experience’. Not that I’m shaming anyone who’s into that kind of thing. Live and let live, I always say.

So, dealing in cloned plants, penguins, seabirds…as you can imagine, I was busy.

Busy enough that I swapped sleeping pills for amphetamines. The factory ran twenty-four seven and I had a side business that was essentially a full-time job in itself – when could I sleep? And the money was another time-sink. Do you know how difficult it is to launder and hide cash? You can’t use bank accounts without explaining why, how, when, and the tax department always sticks in its beak. From necessity, I stayed awake for three, sometimes four days at a stretch. Ah, crazy times... But after a few years, I was going to retire and cruise the world on a five-hundred-foot yacht.

It was exhaustion, I guess. Desperation. Amphetamines don’t create energy; they stop you from sleeping, and the sleep debt adds up. Then you start making dumb decisions. That’s the only way I can explain it. One day, when I was popping another pill and staring in the mirror at the black bags under my eyes, I thought, “Why the hell am I killing myself, burning the candle at both ends – and in the middle too – when there’s such an easy solution?”

Sure, the idea gave me pause. Each of us likes to think of ourselves as unique. But I got to pondering about identical twins, triplets, quadruplets, quintuplets. I’m an only child. Would it be so bad to have a ‘brother’? We could split the chores. Perhaps share some of my money. I was the mastermind, so any divvying of funds would be at my discretion since the clone would be my employee, right? I know how it sounds, but it made perfect sense at the time.

Putting myself into the machine was like taking a seat in an untested rollercoaster. You’re doing something that should be perfectly safe, at least in theory, but feels terrifying. The machine clicked, hummed, buzzed, whirred, knocked, whistled, tapped, and each sound scared the absolute shit out of me as I lay on the table, motionless, because I’d never heard those sounds before and I began to panic, wondering if something had gone wrong, if I would die. Get turned inside-out.

Let me tell you, that was an excruciating seventeen-minute wait.

The alarm went off: the sequencing and first replication had finished. I laughed and cried in relief. I’d only keyed in one clone. Just one. I got off the table and ran to the other end of the factory, which took about five minutes. The Other Charlie was standing there in my uniform. You know what surprised me? It turns out I’m bow-legged. I had no idea. The other thing that bothered me was his posture. His shoulders were tilted one way and his hips the other, as if there was a sideways bend in his spine, but subtle, very mild. I guess I was critical because I was seeing myself in the flesh for the first time. I looked old. Maybe that was on account of how tired I was, so empty and rundown.

“Charlie?” I said. “Do you understand what’s going on?”

“Perfectly,” he said. “Let’s get started.”

“Sweet,” I said. “Run the shift while I get some shut-eye. I’ll be back later with a chinstrap penguin.”

“No worries,” he said, and went about his – our – business.

I had the most restful sleep I’ve enjoyed in ages. Then I took a snowmobile and headed to an ice shelf. Have you ever visited Antarctica? It’s beautiful. Light-blue ice mountains, clear sky, snow in all shades and textures. Anyway, I spotted a crowd of chinstrap penguins – they stick out like dog’s balls against the white landscape – and parked my snowmobile about half a kilometre distant so the engine noise wouldn’t spook them. I walked the rest of the way. And as I trudged over the last little rise, damned if I didn’t find the Other Charlie squatting there, wrestling a penguin into his backpack while a horde of angry penguins shrieked at him.

“What the hell’s going on?” I said, pissed off. “Why aren’t you at the factory?”

“What are you talking about?” he said. “You’re the one supposed to be running the shift.”

“Bullshit,” I said. “So, who’s running the shift?”

“I guess nobody is now,” he said, and looked annoyed, pouting, as if I was the one who’d done the wrong thing. “We’d better get back. I’ve got a penguin already, so let’s go.”

We rode to town on our respective snowmobiles. I was fuming the whole journey. Clearly, the Other Charlie was throwing his weight around. He wanted to be equal partners, not my employee. But as the original Charlie Pomeroy I had first dibs. As we neared civilisation, I wracked my brains, trying to figure how to rein in this cheeky bastard.

Back at the factory, we both got a surprise.

Some Other Charlie was there and he looked just as shocked to see us.

“How come there’s two of you?” he said. “What the hell’s going on?”

“You’re asking me what’s going on?” I said. “I’m the one who deserves answers.”

“Why do you deserve answers?” the Other Charlie said, hands on hips.

The three of us got to arguing. My theory: Other Charlie had the same bright idea and had cloned himself while I’d slept. However, Other Charlie and Some Other Charlie were both now insisting they were the original, which was ludicrous, considering it was me who first went through the replication process. Meanwhile, the penguin thrashed inside the backpack, squawking its head off, and I started to worry the little bugger was going to hurt himself. When the three of us headed to the backpack at the same time, we halted, stunned.

“What the hell’s going on?” said a voice, and blow me if there wasn’t a fourth Charlie walking over, his face pale and shocked. “How come there’s three of you?”

And the four of us yelled at the same time, “What the hell’s going on?”, which made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. But it scared my clones in the exact same way and when I saw the identical expressions of fear on their faces, I started to shake. They started shaking too in perfect mimicry. I was caught in a hall of mirrors. My heart banged hard enough to explode. Meanwhile, the trapped penguin screeched over and over. We turned to the backpack as one. And then—

“What the hell’s going on?” said a voice.

Christ, it was another Charlie. I can’t explain the horror!

Then another Charlie appeared. And another...and another…

God, the way I figure it, each clone must have cloned himself, unaware.

After some fraught arguing, the bunch and I ended up cooperating to scour the kilometre of factory from one end to the other in order to flush out any other Charlies. Meanwhile, more Charlies kept arriving at intervals with kidnapped penguins. Each time, we’d have to stop and have another pow-wow.

God, if it wasn’t so terrifying, maybe it’d be funny.

We walked together in a line, shoulder to shoulder. Each of us ignored the distressed penguins without discussion. We found about a dozen more Charlies at various points, who joined our search, while others kept coming in from outside, bearing penguins. The birds wouldn’t stop calling to each other, distressed and frantic. The chinstrap sounds a lot like a seagull, did you know that? I kept closing my eyes against their cries, trying to imagine that I was on a beach somewhere and only dreaming this nightmare, until I noticed my clones doing the same thing and felt a heart-seizing panic attack coming on.

When the alarm sounded, we froze and stared at each other in terror. The alarm meant that yet another Charlie had been created, and would soon be jogging towards us from the far end of the factory, shouting, “What the hell’s going on?” I’d forgotten to turn off the machines. We all had. How many clones in total? Oh God, I don’t know. I couldn’t even guess…

Getting sprung by the authorities was my fault.

Whenever I cloned a plant, penguin or seabird, I deleted the history from the logs. For some reason – probably because I was sleep-deprived – I forgot to do that after making the Other Charlie. And because he’s me, he forgot to delete the history when he created his own clone, and so on. That tripped a red flag at Carbon Copy Consumables, and then military police came, and well…you know the rest.

Listen, I understand that clones aren’t protected under any laws or Geneva conventions. Fair enough. Unauthorised clones have to be put down. No complaint from me on that score. My only issue is that you destroy the clones and not me by mistake. I’m happy to go to jail if that’s my punishment, or pay a fine or whatever. Surely, there’s some way to tell us apart? A medical test. Isn’t there? There has to be. The clones might be telling you the exact same story, but my statement is the truth, I swear to God, because I’m the real deal. Okay? Hand on heart. I am the original Charlie Pomeroy.

Feature image via JSTOR