Si Wang

Story image for Nighthawks by

T he smell hit me first: a sickening aroma of slow-roasted pork with a coppery, sulfurous tinge. The iron bars to the first-floor apartment had been pried open, the window broken, and in the smokey living room a charred body sat strapped to a chair.

As a courier I got around and saw my share of death, but mostly caused by prowlers. This was probably a First Children kill. Outside, I unwrapped the package I had been paid to deliver and found half a pack of cigarettes and half a pack of matches with a note: Do you recall my memory of stealing dad’s cigarettes for the first time in middle school? Those were the days. Don’t be a stranger. Hope these will tide you over.

I’d never smoked before, but I wanted to get the taste of burnt flesh out of my mouth. My hand shook as I tried to light the match.

I made my way out of Dogpatch as fast as I could. It was almost dawn and Imogen would be getting off work soon. The streets were dotted with gloomy individuals plodding their way home, while blue and red neon lights, which crawled over the cityscape like hungry vines, winked out one by one. A large billboard loomed on 25th. The profiles of two identical women wearing construction hats faced each other. In bold text was written Bet on yourself! and in smaller print Sponsored by the Double Down Initiative. Even after the Parvovirus made it impossible to have children, people still had hope.

With the beating heart of Dogpatch behind me, the streets darkened. Although the moon was full, it appeared as a dim, brownish orb due to the clouds that had formed around it after a failed terraform attempt, and with city funding dried to a dribble the streetlamps were nonfunctional. But I didn’t need light to get around—I knew these streets well.

A gentle breeze brought the rancid smell of rotten meat and wet fur. The prowlers had become desperate lately, eating animals and hunting before dawn. I quickened my pace.

The large windows of Hopper’s Cafe wrapped around the corner, allowing warm light to permeate onto the streets, displaying its clean, well-lit interior as clearly as if I were inside. Below the windows, beggars huddled together. Hopper’s Cafe catered to loneliness as much as it did to hunger.

Inside, the smell of pastries and coffee wafted around me. The one-armed waiter measured me with a glance. A flaming sun was branded onto the back of his lone hand, a mark for those who had wronged the First Children. “We’re closing.”

“Where’s Imogen?” I asked.

“Was hoping you would know. Never showed up for work tonight. This keeps happening, and the boss’ll have no choice but to give her job to one of those sods outside.”

“What do you mean? She’s never missed work before.”

He scoffed. “Buddy, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to cover for her. But this is the first time she’s not shown at all without notice, I’ll give you that.” When he saw my expression, his face softened. “Don’t let your mind go there, buddy. She’s probably at home taking care of Lang.”

Orbit-sml ><

M y first memory of Imogen: she nibbles her fingernails while browsing books at Green Apple. I fall in love immediately.

No, that was a lie. That was Lang’s first memory of Imogen.

Imogen’s first memory of me was when I came home from the lab, wrapped in a thermal blanket. She touched my face and said, “You look exactly like him.” But I would never be the same thing to Imogen as she was to me. Like a river dividing into two, my life had diverged.

I wondered if Imogen finally decided to leave for the communities out in the Sierras. We’ve had several fights about it. Did she leave without telling me? She wouldn’t have left without Lang.

Orbit-sml ><

T he Spanish Colonial facade of the Castro Theatre emerged from the shadows. Like a god frozen in stone, it retained its grandeur and beauty but had no twinkle of life left. The doors had been destroyed and displaced by rubble so that no one could enter or leave.

I slipped inside the box office and tapped on the intercom. Expecting to hear Imogen, I was instead shaken by Lang’s distressed voice. “Castor, is that you?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Is Imogen there?”

She’s not here.”

“Can you throw down the line?”

Is it safe?”

“I’m talking to you right now, aren’t I? Throw down the line.”

Above me, a window grated open, and uneven footsteps shuffled to the edge of the marquee. The rope ladder fell with a muted thud. I climbed up and pulled myself over the edge of the marquee. Lang didn’t offer his hand—he never did.

He was the spitting image of me, but with large bags under his eyes and frazzled hair. He was thinner and had developed a nervous twitch over the years, never able to sit still, either scratching his head or biting his fingernails. I didn’t know if it was alcoholism, the cloning process, or the society crumbling around him that caused it, but he was a constant reminder of what could have happened to me—and what could still happen.

Before I could say anything, Lang crouched down and sobbed, right hand touching the ground and left hand rubbing his hair. “She’s gone.”

I bent down and placed a hand on his back. “Where did she go?”

As if a new idea suddenly entered his head, Lang’s eyes widened. He looked far off and stammered excitedly, “Where did she go? Where did she go! The Islais Motel. She goes there often.”

I felt like a rock had dropped into my stomach. “Why would she be there, Lang?”

“I don’t know. She never said. But she goes every week.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

He shrugged. “I forgot.” Lang still had moments of clarity, a calm in the middle of a hazy storm.

I sighed. “I have to find her.”

Snot dripped down Lang’s nose. “But now? You just got here, Cas. And the sun… the prowlers will be out soon.”

Orbit-sml ><

N o one went out during the day. The prowlers had made us nocturnal. I moved quickly, hugging the buildings and hiding behind cars, all the while thinking how strange it was to be out in the daylight. I only had Lang’s memories of the sun: playing basketball on a hot summer day, shielding my eyes from the glint of a windshield, watching the solar eclipse through a piece of welding glass.

Much of San Francisco’s beauty dissipated in the light, its crumbling buildings and grimy storm drains exposed like a grungy nightclub after the lights were turned on. The cars parked neatly on the sides of the pothole-covered street were rusty with broken windows and flat tires.

I passed by Dolores Park. As a child, Lang went there with his parents for picnics when the field was packed with people drinking, smoking hash, practicing yoga, and slacklining. After he met Imogen, they came here often. Now, a thick forest of giant ragweeds over a story tall feasted on its soil, covering every inch of the park. Deep inside, a pack of prowlers had made their home.

There were no people, no birds. Steel buildings groaned and water dripped in an alleyway. I came across the mangled corpse of a dog splayed out like an effigy to a sadistic god; maggots writhed all over the dead thing, sounding like hamburger meat being kneaded.

The proud twins of the Double Down Initiative billboard greeted me as I entered Dogpatch again. In the daylight, I noticed for the first time the words ALL CLONES MUST DIE spray-painted over the face of the woman on the right.

How did they decide that she was the clone and not the other?

Orbit-sml ><

A n orange No Vacancy sign pointed me to the Islais Motel, a two-story, L-shaped building. In the parking lot, behind a rusty truck, a group of Hands huddled around a trashcan fire pit, drinking and laughing raucously. They quieted as I approached and a man whose face was covered in tattoos gestured towards the front office. The motel receptionist’s weathered and cracked face had thinned to the point where she was half-skeleton.

“Can you call Imogen up and let her know that I’m here?” I asked.

The receptionist’s voice was rich and melodious. “Her room’s been empty for several days now, dearie.”

“Oh, not a problem. She told me to wait for her. Do you mind letting me into her room?”

She studied me intently. “Did you really think that would work? Come now, you can do better than that.”

After a moment, I reached into my wallet and pulled out the half pack of cigarettes.

“Ah, a man after my own heart.” She took the pack with both hands and bowed her head, then slid a key across the counter.

“Oh, and dearie?” she said, as I headed for the stairs. “Please behave. Those are my Hands out there, and they will rip your eyes out if you try anything.” She smiled pleasantly.

I walked up the stairs to the second floor and entered room twenty-two. Smells of eucalyptus wafted into my nose and calmed my nerves. Unlit candles inhabited the room like silent spectators packing a stadium. A bookshelf overflowed with tattered paperbacks, stained hardcovers, a few textbooks, and a copy, my copy, of One Hundred Years of Solitude that I had been looking for. As promised, no Imogen.

Weary from traveling during the day, I slumped onto the bed. From a pillow, I picked out a long strand of black hair that could have been Imogen’s. Lang’s memories of waking up next to Imogen—memories of nestling next to her and smelling the back of her head—flooded through my mind. I pressed my face into the pillow and breathed in her scent.

Orbit-sml ><

I snapped awake to a hard pounding at the door. It was night again, but I had no sense of how much time had passed. I got up, wiped away a line of drool trailing down my cheek, and opened the door to find a Collector standing there.

She was bald, with multiple scars on her face, and dressed in a black suit embroidered with the flaming sun of the First Children. Not trained but manufactured—cloned from the same zealot—a Collector was a punisher, the bully that took your lunch money, the last person you wanted to see at your doorstep.

She stared at me with what seemed to be pity and compassion before stepping forward and hitting me in the throat with the tips of her fingers. Before I could let out a gurgle of pain, she grabbed me by the collar and slammed me to the floor.

“I want you to know that I don’t enjoy hurting you,” she whispered in my ear. “You’ve come to a crossroads, and what you say next will determine whether you live. You will answer my questions. Do you hear me?”

I nodded, unable to speak.

She pulled out my wallet and examined my ID. “So, Castor… you are a clone. Did Imogen send you to make the donation?”

The air coming out of my lungs felt like sandpaper against my throat. “What donation?”

She calmly jabbed me in the gut. “I will ask the questions. Did you come here to kill me?” She looked me up and down, then grunted. “Of course not. What’s your relationship with Imogen?”

I coughed and sucked in a proper breath. “She’s my clone’s wife.”

The Collector arched her eyebrow and frowned. “I see… and where is she now?”

“I don’t know.”

She stood up and sighed. “Do you know that reading micro-expressions is not reliable? The most experienced readers can do little better than chance, and I’m one of the best. I have no foolproof way of knowing whether you are telling the truth.

“So, what I’m going to do next is hurt you until you have no choice but to tell the truth. I want you to know that there’s a reason for this. You are serving a greater purpose.”

With an animal howl that surprised both of us, I leapt up and lunged at her. She stepped to the side. I punched the air again and again while she pummeled me like a baker kneading dough. When I was finally on the ground again, she asked the same questions. I gave the same answers. With each answer, she dislocated one of my fingers.

I told the truth each time, but it didn’t matter.

Orbit-sml ><

T he darkness was replaced by an orange glow. Someone held my hand. Sharp pain jolted down my finger as it popped back in place. I cried out. A woman shushed me and put a towel in my mouth. I bit down hard as she reset each finger.

With my right eye—the only one I could open—I looked up and saw Imogen holding a bag of ice. She pressed it against my face.

“Where have you been?” I asked through split lips.

“I’ve been laying low.” Imogen’s voice sounded different—it was huskier and tinged with bitterness. “I only came back because I got the news that a Collector busted someone in my room, but I didn’t expect it to be you.”

I looked away. The bed had been turned over, the mattress ripped apart, its springs popping out. All the drawers had been emptied, the bookshelf toppled. A backpack, stuffed with outdoor gear was propped against the wall.

I sat up and coughed blood into my hands. With a look of concern, Imogen crouched closer over a few flickering candles. The dim glow illuminated her face just enough for me to see the crow’s feet etching the corner of her eyes and a scar running above her left eye to the bottom of her jaw.

She wasn’t Imogen. Even the way she moved—guarded and closed off—was different from Imogen. But she was Imogen’s clone.

“I’m Amaya,” she said with a sad smile.

The pieces were starting to fit together. Imogen couldn’t have been able to clone herself without real money, without help, so she’d turned to the First Children. “I told her we didn’t need this. I told her it was too dangerous.”

“We did it for you.”

My hand reached out, but I was afraid to touch her. “All this time Imogen kept you a secret. Why didn’t you come home to us?”

Amaya stiffened. “At first we did it to protect you while we paid off the debt. I wanted to come home. You don’t even know how hard I worked… you wouldn’t believe the jobs I took, the things I had to do. But the longer I stayed here, the more I realized I couldn’t go back. I’ve changed too much.” She glared at me, waiting for me to speak.

Tears trickled down my eyes, burning the cuts on my face. “We’ve all changed. We could have helped you.”

Hesitantly, I touched Amaya’s shoulder. She looked away, but her posture softened. “Where’s Imogen?” I asked.

“We’ve been having trouble making payments lately—missed our last three. Imogen told me to keep out of sight while she figured it out. She never showed up. She’d either be here or back home, and if the First Children haven’t found her yet, then who knows? I’m surprised the Collector didn’t kill you…” Then she wrapped her arms around me, and we held each other.

I wanted to stay like that forever—holding her.

“Ever thought about leaving for the communities in the Sierras?” she said into my shoulder. “People live off the land and take care of each other there.”

I pulled away. “You sound just like Imogen. You really believe all that?”

“Better than dying here.”

“You know about Lang, right? He can’t make the journey. It’s too dangerous. And I can’t leave him here in the city.”

“Does he deserve your loyalty? Do either of them deserve it?”

I frowned. “I was the one who decided to double down. Or, rather, Lang did, but you know what I mean.”

Amaya looked at her backpack. “I’m leaving tonight. Going out East and taking my chances there.” She placed a hand over mine. “You could come with me.”

“Didn’t you just hear me? I can’t leave my family behind.”

A thought surfaced: now that the First Children knew of my existence, they would go after Lang next.

“I have to go home,” I said.

She made her face blank. “Go then. With or without you, I’m leaving before dawn. If you change your mind, I’ll be crossing the bridge and making camp at Treasure Island.” She slung her backpack over her shoulder and left through the bathroom window.

Orbit-sml ><

F ewer and fewer people populated the streets the farther I got from Dogpatch. By the time I passed the billboard for the third time, limping and still coughing up blood, I was the only one on the streets… except for a figure following me, a block away.

Although it hurt to breathe and I swallowed a good amount of blood, I tried for a jog. When I turned around, the figure was still a block away, its silhouette revealing a bald head and mechanical posture. So I ran, agony or not.

I broke through the doors of the abandoned Cesar Chavez Elementary School, up a flight of stairs, down halls, down more stairs, and exited into a back alley. Behind me, I heard the shattering of a window, a grunt on landing, and then the steady breathing of the Collector. I ran through another abandoned house on Mission, a parking garage, and the Mission playground, but I couldn’t lose her.

I came upon Dolores Park. The giant ragweed forest towered over me, I had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but I didn’t pause.

Weeds smacked me in the face, occluding my view. I turned in random directions, hoping to lose the Collector, until I tripped on a large lump huddled on the ground and stumbled into a clearing. Small shapes rose from the ground and cried out in surprise, their voices childlike. They turned their heads toward me.

The Parvovirus was nature’s creation, but the prowlers were from human failure: the malformed clones of children, increasing in population over the years, though no one knew how since they never reached sexual maturity.

The Collector burst into the clearing right after me.

The prowlers’ heads turned towards her. When she saw them, she seemed to forget all about me. She smiled at the prowlers and approached them with open arms.

“My children,” she said.

The prowlers jumped onto her. One crawled up to her neck and bit down. Another grabbed her leg and mauled at her belly, ripping apart her suit jacket. She whimpered but looked towards the sky and murmured a prayer through bloodstained lips. She was quickly buried in a swarm of small bodies.

I didn’t stay long. A few of them chased me, their small figures cutting through the weeds while I awkwardly bulldozed through.

“Big man run. Run run run. We will wrung one big man run,” one sung in a nursery tune.

I stumbled out of Dolores Park and thought I was safe, that the prowlers’ fears of the night would keep them inside their forest. But they ran out after me, the pitter-patter of their feet slapping the cold concrete. I couldn’t outrun them.

Without a large numerical advantage, the three prowlers circled around me tentatively, pale, naked children with unkempt, raggedy hair. For all they looked human, their eyes were windows into a world without reason, morality, or understanding.

Two more prowlers shot out of the weeds, emboldening the other three. They charged at me. I grabbed one and threw it to the side, but the others brought me to the ground like an army of ants—bruising, biting, scratching, and reopening my wounds. They hit my head repeatedly as I shielded myself with my hands, but began to lose consciousness.

A cry of anger, but not from a prowler, shook me out of the haze. The beating stopped. I sat up, squinted through my good eye, and saw a woman wielding a claw hammer smash one prowler on the back and kick another to the ground. The three still standing scattered back into the weeds while the other two cried, tears and snot streaming down their faces, as they stumbled after their pack.

With her hair bound in a bun, Amaya looked even more like Imogen than when I first saw her. “Can you walk?” she asked.“I’m okay,” I said. “How did you find me?”

“I knew you would need my help. We better move.”

She knew the way home. As we walked down 18th, towards the Castro Theatre, I could barely keep up with her. Each step I took induced sharp pain near my ribs. Amaya looked back at me. I didn’t know if she was concerned or considering leaving me behind.

Orbit-sml ><

I could barely pull myself up the rope ladder and climb over the marquee. When Lang saw me, his eyes widened, and he touched his face as if he were tracing my bruises on his own face. “What happened?”

I sat down and leaned against the wall. “Leave the ladder. We have a guest.”

Lang peered over the edge of the marquee. He recoiled in shock and pulled at his hair with both hands as Amaya threw her backpack over the marquee and vaulted onto the deck. She looked at Lang with pity.

Lang fell to his knees. “Imogen, you’re alive! I’m so sorry.” Tears streamed from his eyes as he looked up at Amaya.

I pulled Lang to his feet. “What do you mean, ‘you’re sorry’?”

“Don’t be mad, Cas. I… Imogen wanted to come up, but there were prowlers running on the streets. They would come up here and eat me. So, I told Imogen to run.”

“And what?” I gripped his shirt, my fist clenched so tightly the white of bone showed.

“And… and they caught her.”

Amaya grimaced and turned away.

“You didn’t throw the rope for her when she needed it?” I cried.

He seemed to shrink into himself. “I was scared.”

“And you knew all along and didn’t tell me.”

Lang’s face beamed. “But she’s alive! Please don’t be mad. Why are you crying, Imogen?”

I pushed Lang away. “That’s not Imogen!”

“Look! Imogen’s alive!” Lang pointed at Amaya.

I slapped him in the face. “No, she’s not!”

“Look, Cas!”

I slapped him again. “I should leave you here.” I had never been so mad. I was mad at Lang and mad at myself. My anger and desire for self-destruction fed off each other. “I’m going out East! Leaving you.” I hit him again—this time with my fist.

Amaya pushed me aside. “Stop it!” she cried. “He’s had enough.”

Lang crawled into the corner and held his bleeding nose.

Amaya slung her backpack over her shoulder. “Are you coming or not?” she asked.

I didn’t owe Lang anything. He had brought me into the world to face the end of civilization—something he couldn’t handle. He was the barrier that had prevented any intimacy with Imogen. He had let her die. Going with Amaya meant a new beginning. We wouldn’t be tied down to our past anymore. We could find a place where birds still sang and the rivers were clear, we could learn to farm or hunt, and we could watch the sun rise over the mountains every morning instead of fearing the prowlers.

But how could I live with myself after leaving Lang to fend for himself? If Imogen was alive to see this, it would have broken her heart.

I shook my head.

“So that’s it, huh?” Amaya asked.

My mouth was dry. I couldn’t speak. I just stood there. Amaya swung one leg over the marquee and sat there. She paused before swinging her other leg.

“You can’t stay here,” she said. “You know that right?”

I nodded. “The First Children will come back for us.”

“Where are you going to go?”

“I don’t know.”

Amaya stared at Lang for a moment. “You should come with me. Both of you.”

“But we’ll weigh you down. A fool and a cripple. Sounds like a Shakespeare tragedy.” I looked down at Lang, who cowered and stared up at us, his eyes welled with tears. I reached out. Hesitantly, he took my hand.

“It’s worth trying for,” Amaya said.

“You really mean it?”

“Hurry up and get moving before I change my mind.” Amaya wore a smirk that I had never seen Imogen make before, a strange, comforting smile on a familiar face.


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Si Wang

Author image of Si Wang Si Wang is a software engineer and writer who lives in California with his wife, son, and chickens. His work has been published in Aurealis, Electric Spec, and Mythaxis. His hobbies include playing basketball, tabletop games, and rock songs on the guitar and piano. You can find him on Twitter as @siwang.

© Si Wang 2022 All Rights Reserved.

The title picture was created using Midjourney, the AI image generator.

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