Winner of six Nebula and five Hugo awards, Connie Willis is one of the most acclaimed and imaginative authors of our time. Her startling and powerful works have redefined the boundaries of contemporary science fiction. Here in one volume are twelve of her greatest stories, including double award-winner "Fire Watch," set in the universe of Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, in which a time-traveling student learns one of history's hardest lessons. In "A Letter from the Clearys," a routine message from distant friends shatters the fragile world of a beleaguered family. In "The Sidon in the Mirror," a mutant with the unconscious urge to become other people finds himself becoming both killer and victim. Disturbing, revealing, and provocative, this remarkable collection of short fiction brings together some of the best work of an incomparable writer whose ability to amaze, confound, and enlighten never fails.
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January 13, 2010
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Excerpt from Fire Watch by Connie Willis
Introduction: "Mail-Order Clone"
I used to write confessions stories with titles like "I Called for Help on My CB . . . and Got a Rapist Instead." I have made various pronouncements about this tawdry part of my past, calling the confessions a "quaint apprenticeship" and declaring that "I did them for the money," but the sordid truth is that I loved writing confessions, and whenever I can get away with it, I still do.
What throwed me off about this guy was the way he looked. I mean, I ain't no Burt Reynolds, but this guy was just plain ugly. And little. He was wearing some of them fancy high-heeled boots, and he still didn't hardly come up to my armpit. He had on a fancy East Coast suit and one of them little bitty black mustaches that look like they been painted on.
"Hello," he says, like I should know who he is.
He kind of laughs to himself, and then he says, "You don't recognize me, do you?"
I shake my head, wondering if now they are hiring midgets at Welfare, which would be a switch. Most of those guys are twice as big as me ever since the Mafia took over the department. If he is one of the Welfare guys I am sure as hell not going to let him in. Last time they grabbed a six-pack of Coors and docked our check fifty bucks. They was looking at Marjean's love magazines, too. Hell, what good is all that money if they won't let you have no fun with it? Anyway, he can just stand outside till I figure out who he is.
"Don't you remember'?" he says, still kind of laughing. "Twelve ninety-five postpaid. Delivery guaranteed in three weeks?"
I was right. They're on to Marjean's love books. Only how'd they find out about this deal? "I don't know nothing," I says.
He smiles real wide. "I'm your clone," he says.
Well, what do you know? "Marjean." I calls out, pretty cockylike, "Marjean Ramona, you come on out here. I got something for you to see."
She comes sauntering out in her Indian nightgown which don't have no sides, just strings to hold it together, and which is open in the front just about down to kingdom come. She's got her hair up in braids, too. That means she's in one of her Indian moods, prancing around not letting me touch her 'cause she's got royal Kiowa blood.
I figure she'll be pretty mad when I tell her who this guy is, since she was the one who kept saying the ad was a fake, but she don't act mad at all. She just sort of smiles at the guy and pulls her nightgown together in the front. That don't do no good. She ends up showing more than ever. She flips them black braids at him and says, real breathy. "Hi. What's your name?"
"Marjean." I says before he can answer. "His name's the same as mine. He's my clone."
She's not even listening to me. "Come on in," she says, and the guy sort of scrapes past her into the house.
She starts right after him, but I got ahold of her arm. "That's the clone I sent for that you said was a fake."
"I know," she says in that dreamylike voice. "I wonder what his name is."
"I told you, Marjean. Same as mine. He's just like me."
"Maybe," she says. She licks her lips with her tongue.
"You gotta be nice to him, Marjean," I says, wishing she would show some enthusiasm. "Get him one of them beers we got hid out back. And take off that nightgown. We got company."
She looks up at me with them big black eyes of hers and says, "Why, that's just what I had in mind."
Now I am not so dumb. Even though Marjean is hiding it pretty good, pretending she likes this guy and all, I can tell she is mad. She was dead sent against my sending for a clone.
"It's a fake," she says.
"How do you know that? You ain't even read the ad."
"The Kiowa know many things," she says real mysteriouslike. She pulls that Kiowa stuff whenever she don't have a good answer. She's no more Indian than them old hippies out on the edge of town. They got long hair and live in tepees, smoking mushrooms and talking a lot of gibberish, but they ain't Indians, and the Welfare guys know it. They don't get no Indian checks and neither does Marjean Ramona. So I don't put no faith in this Kiowa stuff.
"They can't make clones," Marjean says, "not for twelve ninety-five."
"Sure they can. You send in a piece of your hair or a fingernail, something that's got cells in it. And they put it in a test tube and there you are. One genuine clone."
I showed her the story that give me the idea in the first place, seens as how she is so crazy for them stories. "Mail-Order Family," it was called, all about this poor orphan girl who didn't have no family till she got a clone and then how they was just like twins and they both married brothers and everything, but it didn't do no good. She just never wants to send for nothing out of her love magazines. I tried to get her to send for one of them holographic nighties in the Frederick's of Hollywood ad, the ones that promise to show you all sides of the merchandise at once, but she wouldn't do it. She wouldn't even let me send for a box of lubricated bionic ripples, and they was only a dollar.
"I don't care what you say, Marjean," I says. "I am sending for this clone."
"You're wasting your money," she says, "and even if you had a clone, what would you do with it? What good is a clone anyway?"
"What about 'Mail-Order Family'? What about that, huh? A clone's good for lots of stuff, Marjean. Lots of stuff."
So now I got me a clone and I can tell you it is a good feeling to prove old high-and-mighty Marjean wrong for once. But after about two weeks of this guy, I figured Marjean was right about one thing. Clones may be good for lots of stuff, like I said, but I sure as hell couldn't figure out what. When I asked him about getting a job, he just laughed. He said if he started working it would be like I started working and I'd be off the Welfare rolls like a shot. I figured at least he could go cash my check seens as how we both had the same signature and all. He seemed real willing, especially after he seen how big the check was. But then Marjean real fastlike grabs up both checks and says she wants to go. "You have to cash them at the post office," she says to him real seriouslike, and he turns kind of green. After that I can't hardly even get him to go get us Coors at the Indian camp.
All he wanted to do was set at the kitchen table, talking to Marjean in her nightgown and eating and drinking up every damn thing in the house through that froggy mustache of his. He still didn't look nothing like me. I spent about an hour looking in the mirror trying to imagine what I'd look like with one of them little black mustaches, but it didn't do no good. Marjean come and stood behind me. "I can see a big resemblance," she said, smiling sort of slylike, and sauntered off to the bedroom.
"Well, I sure as hell can't." I said that pretty loud and I guess my clone heard me, 'cause he come and put his arm around me, pal-like, and says, "The lack of resemblance perplexes you, doesn't it?"
"That we look so different. Clones are identical. That's what you've always heard, isn't it?"
That made me feel sort of ashamed. The poor guy can't help it he's so little and scrawny. But he didn't act upset. He just kind of laughed and motioned to me to set down at the table. Then he pulled out a pen and a piece of paper. I see the paper is one of them copy sheets and on it is the very same ad I sent in. Right there is my own name and address I wrote myself. This made me even more ashamed. To tell the truth, once or twice I have started to think things are not quite on the up-and-up, if you know what I mean.
He flipped the ad over and started drawing and talking real fast, a whole bunch of stuff about cells and chromosomes. I listened real hard, but it didn't make much sense. Just a bunch of lines and squiggles.
Then he pulls out a quarter and holds it up in front of me. "What do you see?" he says.
"No. I mean, what do you see on the quarter?"
There's some little words and a guy that looks kind of like Nixon only his hair is in a ponytail. "Some president," I say, figuring I am safe that way.
He turns it over. "Now what do you see?"
I recognize this one right off. "A bird," I say.
"George Washington," he says, and flips the quarter over. "An American eagle." Boy, am I glad I didn't go with Nixon. "They're nothing alike, are they?"
I am getting pretty nervous with all these questions. "No," I say, only kind of hesitantlike.
"Oh, but they are. They're two different sides of a quarter. Just as you and I are two different sides of a person." He flips the quarter over again. The bird is still there.
Well, that made a whole lot more sense than them squiggly chromosomes. I felt real relieved. I was going to ask him about the job thing again while he was in an explaining mood, but just then Marjean come out dressed up fit to kill and said they was going over to the Indian camp, so I didn't get to.
They was gone a long time. I did the quarter thing a couple more times, and it always worked, so I figured he must be telling the truth. Long about four I went out on the porch where I could see them coming. Not that I was worried or anything. We were two sides of a quarter, he said, and if you can't trust your flip side, you are in pretty bad shape.
They wasn't coming yet, but what was scared the pants off me. These two big government cars pulled up in front of the house and four guys got out and come over to the porch. Four guys! Welfare has never sent four before. They only do that when they're gonna beat the hell out of you for violations.
They already seen me so there was no use pretending nobody was home, and anyway, they were wearing suits and didn't look nearly as big as the Welfare guys usually look, so I stayed on the porch. But I kept a sharp eye peeled for Marjean and my clone. I sure as hell wished they would get home.
Two of the guys stand back with their arms folded and the other two come up on the porch. One of them hands me a piece of paper and says, "Have you seen this ad before?"
Well, hell, it's that ad my clone had the copy of scribbling on not two hours ago. It is probably still setting there on the kitchen table. Anyway. there is my name and address in my own writing, which is on file down at Welfare. They have got me dead to rights. "Marjean made me send for it," I says, "but she didn't know it was against the rules. It ain't listed in the Welfare book. Honest. Anyway, she don't read too good."
The two guys in the back whisper to the other two and the two on the porch reach into their pockets. I practically have a heart attack before I see it's just little cards they're reaching for. They hold them out to me. "United States Post Office," one of them says. "Mail fraud division. Did you send for the clone advertised in this ad?"
I read the card to make sure, but I knew they wasn't Welfare guys all along. "Sure," I says, "I sent for one of them clones."
"You sent in twelve ninety-five with your order?"
"Yeah. And a lock of my hair so's they could make it."
"How long ago was that?"
I think about how long it took to get him and how long he's been setting at that kitchen table. "Two months about."
"This mail-order clone scheme you invested in is one several mail frauds currently under investigation by our department. Indictments have been issued against Clones, Inc., president Conrad C. Conrad, whereabouts unknown. Claims against Clone, Inc., for the return of your money can be filed by the individual with our department."
"Well, I don't know," I say. I mean, sure, I have lots of reasons to complain about the guy, but it don't seem right getting my money back. I did get my clone and everything.
They hand me a form to fill out about eight pages long. "Just take the completed form to the local post office. You will be informed by mail of the priority of your claim. Our toll-free number is at the top. We'd like you to call it in case Conrad C. Conrad tries to get in touch with you."
So far they are real businesslike. But then one of the guys who hasn't said nothing so far comes up to me, flashes a badge that sure don't say United States Post Office on it, and starts asking questions real fastlike.
"Did you send for a clone as per this ad? Is this your handwriting? Is this the money order you enclosed with your order?"
I just say yeah to all of it till he gets to this real funny question.
"Do you know Conrad C. Conrad?"
Now, how would I know the president of a big company? "Nope," I say.
"Have you seen anyone of the following description: five foot four, brown eyes, black hair, black mustache."
I don't pay much attention to this part 'cause just then I think I see Marjean and my clone coming. Anyway, I ain't seen nobody but them two in two months. "Nope," I say.
"We have reason to believe Conrad is in this area, probably under an assumed name."
The first mail guy turns to the other one, and says, whisperinglike, "Another assumed name. The guy's as slippery as an eel. They don't even have a picture of him. He's such a smooth talker he's probably convinced one of his dumb-bunny customers he's a clone and moved in with them." The cop shoots him a dirty look.
"Are you sure you've had no communication with Mr. Conrad or with Clones, Inc.?"
"Nope. All I got was my clone."
All four guys lean forward. "You received the doll advertised in the magazine?"
"Doll?" I said. I was gonna say, Hell, no, I wish it hadda been a doll and not some big good-for-nothing guy. Only just then I saw for sure it was Marjean and the big good-for-nothing. They was both bombed out of their minds. I could tell 'cause they was sort of weaving down the road, but that ain't what gets me. Right in the middle of the road my clone stops and plants a big old kiss on Marjean. He's got his hands where they got no business being either. And old Marjean is eating it up.
"Did you or did you not receive a clone as ordered?" the cop guy says, annoyedlike.
"I want to file a complaint," I says, real mad.
They give me a number to call if I see that Conrad guy, and then they go off in their big cars. They drive right past Marjean and the clone guy, who are still feeling each other up. They don't pay no attention, and that makes me know for sure they are not Welfare guys. Those guys don't let you do nothing.
I stand there on the porch, just watching them and thinking. I think about the post office guys and the cop. And then I think about Marjean and how that guy don't look nothing like me even when he's feeling up my wife and pretty soon I get an idea. I am not so dumb.
Marjean knows it, too. When she comes in, smelling like beer and pot, she is pretty sassy, but she ain't sassy now. I heard them talking at the kitchen table yesterday and she says, "He's figured it out," and the clone guy kind of laughs, but not too loud, and says, "Him? He couldn't figure his way out of a paper bag." But he don't sound real convinced.
I been pretty busy. First thing I done I read