They're having lunch in the cafeteria when Cartman approaches them about their Books. Stan continues with his tuna salad sandwich, assuming that Cartman is lying, but Kyle puts his caffeinated pumpkin protein shake down and frowns.
"How?" Kyle asks.
"Oh, Kyle," Cartman says. "Wouldn't you like to know? Doesn't matter how I got them. They're authentic, and they're for sale."
"What did yours say?" Stan asks. Cartman won't be able to make anything up; he's not creative. "About your original?"
"He was a world-renowned plastic surgeon," Cartman says. Kyle snorts.
"What does that even mean?" he asks.
"Cosmetic mods," Cartman says, waving his hand in front of his face. "That's what they used to call them. Plastic surgery — look it up, Kyle. Like what you'd do to that nose if you could."
"Fuck off," Stan says. "We don't want your fake Books."
"Fake, are they?" Cartman says. He pulls a handheld from the satchel he's always wearing, used to tote black market goods. It looks like one of the Books the technicians make notes in during sessions, the USS PARK COUNTY logo etched into the back cover, but Cartman probably just swiped a blank one. "Allow me to quote from yours, Stanley," he says, tapping the screen. "Would you like to know about your original, or the last copy before you?"
"Go bother someone else," Stan says.
"Original, his original," Kyle says. "If it's — supposed to be real," he says, glancing at Stan to acknowledge the look he's giving him.
"Alright," Cartman says, paging through data. "Stanley Norman Marsh."
"Norman?" Kyle says. "What does that mean?"
"Uh, it was part of his name, dumb ass. They used to have an extra one in the middle. Mine, for example, was Theodore. Anyway, let's see, that Stan — he had asthma like wheezy here, he studied musical theater at his university, broke his right arm in a car accident when he was seventeen—"
"How are we supposed to know any of that's true?" Stan asks. His heart is beating fast, his skin beginning to get hot under his collar. "And why are we supposed to care if it is?"
"How much are you charging for the Books?" Kyle asks. "Mine and Stan's."
"Kyle!" Stan says.
"What? Maybe you don't want to learn about yourself, but I do."
"It's not — myself, it's not me, it's some other guy, it's just DNA."
"Shh," Kyle says, waving his hand at Stan to shut him up. "Well?" he says to Cartman. "How much?"
"Hmm, let's see." Cartman sits back again, pretending to consider the price. He's never come to the table without a firm one in mind. Stan eyes the open screen on the Book, which Cartman has set down on the table. "These are very valuable, obviously," Cartman says, "And I took care to make copies and replace the originals so that the techs won't know we've got them. That in and of itself is a huge value for you—"
"Just tell us your price!" Kyle says.
"Alright." Cartman leans onto the table, leering at Kyle. "I'll give you both books if you kiss my ass, Kyle."
"Oh, God," Stan says, and he gets up from the table. "Can we go now?"
"Very funny," Kyle says to Cartman. "What do you really want for them?"
"Um, that is what I really want, Kyle. What do you have that's of value to me? Nothing but your potential for humiliation, I'm afraid."
"Ugh," Kyle says, and he stands. "Fuck you."
"That's fine, gentlemen!" Cartman says, sweeping Stan's Book back into his satchel. "Go on living blindly like good little experiments. I'll find some more enlightened customers to sell to."
Stan starts to ask, sarcastically, how knowing about his original and his previous copies has enlightened Cartman, but he thinks better of it. He takes Kyle's arm and guides him away from the table.
"Metenrich told me that my original hated Cartman, too," Kyle says as they leave the lunch room, the crusts of Stan's sandwich and Kyle's half-finished shake left behind.
"Okay, so," Stan says, "You hated him and loved me. What more do you need to know?"
At night in their room, after duties and dinner, Stan can see that Kyle is still preoccupied with the Books that Cartman offered and how he might get them. They've spent so much time together that they can basically read each other's thoughts. Kyle might suggest that it's because they've spent so many lives together, but Stan doesn't buy into that. It makes him happy to know that all of their previous versions have gravitated together, but those were still other people, and while the techs have told them a few basic details as they've aged, the clones have never shared memories. Stan doesn't want to see a catalog of his circumstantial resemblances to his previous versions. He's afraid it would cheapen things somehow.
"What?" Stan says when they're in bed together, Kyle reading from his handheld and Stan giving limited attention to a historical program on the wall mount.
"Nothing," Kyle says. "Just — Stan!" He lets the handheld flop against his stomach and scoots over to tug at Stan's arm. "How can you not wonder? Especially about the originals?"
"They've told us about the originals," Stan says. "They lived in Park County on Earth, they were legally bound to each other in voluntary marital partnership—"
"But we don't know the details. We don't even know how they died!"
"What difference would it make if we did?"
"You have that Stan's DNA," Kyle says. "I'd know how much longer I have with you."
"Not necessarily. I could slip in the shower tomorrow, fall and break my neck—"
"Stan! No, you couldn't." Kyle clings, pulling Stan's arm against his chest. "The shower is too narrow, the angle wouldn't be right, and you're not clumsy, it's very unlikely—"
"Well, you know what I mean! We didn't necessarily die of unpreventable genetic defects, and even if we did, so? If you knew exactly when I was going to die, would that make you treat me differently?"
Kyle rolls his eyes. "Yes, probably," he says. "I'd appreciate you more. Or, no — I'd try to save you! I would save you. Wouldn't you want the same chance to save me, if you found out about some genetic defect that was creeping up on me?"
"What could I do if I did find something out? I'm not a geneticist. I'd just spend all my time weeping and dreading what would happen to you."
"Would you bind yourself to me in voluntary martial partnership?" Kyle asks, lowering his voice, his leg sliding across Stan's lap. "If it were allowed?"
"Of course." Stan tucks his arm around Kyle, hoping that this means the conversation about their Books is over. "I consider myself — bound, you know."
"Yes." Kyle smiles and presses his face to Stan's, not quite kissing him. "Doesn't it make your toes curl up when you think about it, though? All the others just like us who did this, too? For two thousand years some Kyle has been rubbing himself on some Stan." Kyle tilts his hips in demonstration, caressing Stan's thigh with his erection.
"That was the happiest day of my life," Stan says, "When they told us, um, that we'd always been, or, that they had — that the other copies felt like this, too." He leans in to kiss Kyle, but Kyle rears back a little.
"So don't you want to confirm that it's true?" he asks.
"I — ah, I feel that it's true! I've never doubted it."
"Ha!" Kyle sits up on his knees and points at Stan, touching his finger to the tip of Stan's nose. "See, it does mean something to you, the other copies! You admit that their lives have significance for ours."
"Well — fuck, Kyle, of course they do! But not, not enough to—"
"I'm going to get those Books," Kyle says. He drops down and clasps his hands together. "One way or another."
"Kyle, please let it go." Stan drapes himself onto Kyle and reaches for his cock, hoping to distract him. Kyle allows Stan to stroke him but still seems as though he's plotting. He opens his legs and rolls his head toward Stan's on the pillow.
"I can't have him knowing more about me than I do," Kyle says.
"Oh, Jesus, Kyle, just let it go."
He doesn't, of course. Two days later, Stan returns from his evening duties and finds Kyle on the floor with his back to their bed, pouring over one of their Books. He's still wearing his work clothes, even his boots.
"What is that?" Stan asks, though he recognizes Cartman's wares right away.
"Hmm?" Kyle doesn't look up. "Oh, well. You might as well know—"
"What did you give him?" Stan asks. "You didn't — Kyle, please tell me you didn't kiss that idiot's ass."
"Well!" Kyle turns red very quickly. "You'll be glad that I did when you get a look at these Books! They're fucking fascinating, Stan. There are pictures."
"I can't believe you went through with it," Stan says. "And keep that to yourself, okay? I don't know want to know about some other Stans. Their lives are — were, whatever — that was their business, not mine."
"Oh, please." Kyle tosses the Book he'd been pursuing onto the bed. "Fine, if you're not curious, just leave them both untouched while I have a shower."
"Can't I shower with you?"
"No, I don't want it to be sexual," Kyle says. He stands and begins unbuttoning his shirt front. "I mean, Cartman farted on me. I felt it on my face. I meant to get in the shower as soon as I walked in here, but the Books - I couldn't resist looking, and then an hour had passed, I guess, because here you are—"
"He — on your face?" Stan says. "Right, well. I'll kill him."
"Yes, you should!" Kyle says. He gets his uniform undone quickly and peels it down to his ankles. "In the meantime, you'll never guess how we died."
"Well, you know what I mean. The originals. It's super romantic. But hey, if you don't care, I won't tell you."
"I don't care," Stan says, though that's not accurate. He's afraid to know, horrified by the thought of anyone who resembles his Kyle perishing.
"We disappeared at sea!" Kyle says, throwing his arms out. He's naked except for his briefs and the coveralls that are pooled at his feet, bunched over his boots.
"Excuse me?" Stan says.
"Me and you, our originals. They took out a boat, alone, on vacation, to celebrate my retirement — well, that Kyle's — and were never seen again. How do you like that?"
"I don't," Stan says. He's never been near a real ocean, but he tends to find large bodies of water upsetting during virtual retreats. It's the same reason he's never volunteered for remote duties on the ship's exterior, and why he hates it when Kyle does. He doesn't like vastness, infinity, or dark places.
"We weren't young or anything," Kyle says. He sort of trips out of his boots, and, having foreseen this, Stan walks forward to steady him. "We were sixty-one. It was three days after my sixty-first birthday, in fact. Can you even imagine being that old? We sailed off gracefully into the sunset. I find it fantastic."
"Don't tell me any more," Stan says. It's true that they're a long way from sixty-one, barely into their twenties, but he can't imagine any amount of years with Kyle feeling like enough.
"I thought you were just bluffing," Kyle says, and his face falls a little. "You really don't want to know? All of our forty-two love stories?"
"This is the only one that matters to me," Stan says.
They met as infants in the nursery, like all of the members of the 43rd generation. Stan's first memory of Kyle is that his hands were always sticky and that his hair had a sympathetic quality, because no one else on the Park County had hair like that. Kyle was often sick, and Stan would ask permission to sit with him in the Quiet Room while he napped. They both became very good students because of their time spent reading together, and they had their first kiss when they were sixteen, during kitchen duty. Kyle was frustrated because Cartman had gotten out of helping somehow, and his hair was all frizzed up from the steam that rose from the sink. They had recently found out that other kids had access to much better technology, but theirs was limited in an attempt to replicate the time their originals had lived in.
"It's not right," Kyle had said, ripping off a dish glove. "We didn't ask to be part of this never ending cycle of mediocre existence. Why can't they just let us go?"
Stan had been horrified by the thought of Kyle trying to leave. He leaned over to press his mouth to Kyle's, desperate to convince him that he was badly needed here. Kyle gaped at him for a moment when he pulled back. He was still wearing one dish glove.
"I'm sorry," Stan said. "I just, I know, it's not fair, but I don't hate it here. You're here, so. Most days I love it."
Kyle stood on his tiptoes to kiss Stan again, and as they pulled each other closer Kyle's wet, gloved hand came to rest on Stan's cheek.
"I think they must have picked a lot of extremes," Kyle said when the kiss broke, the sink beginning to overflow because a plate had blocked the drain. "Like, they cloned Butters because he's the biggest pushover in the history of humankind, and Cartman because he's the most ruthless sociopath, and me and you because we have the most perfect connection in recorded history. You're, like, wedged into my vertebrae, you know? I wouldn't even be upright without you."
Stan's eyes got wet, and he nodded. He was overwhelmed by Kyle's estimation of their closeness and was sure that Kyle was right, that they were famous for their scientifically provable perfection as a pair.
A few years later they learned that the Park County Group was one of twenty populations that had been recreated. Particularly average communities had been chosen. It was the policy of the current technicians to expose the clones to the realities of their existence gradually over time. In previous generations it had all been kept secret, which had proved disastrous when something inevitably leaked out. The incidence of deep depression, suicide, and violent revolt were all greatly reduced by a policy of honesty. Technicians are instructed to show respect for the clones, despite the fact that the clones are designated Class C Limited Rights specimens.
Kyle's shower lasts for a long time, and Stan doesn't suffer even the slightest pang of temptation as he moves the Books that Kyle bought with his dignity over to the bedside table. He takes his uniform off and stretches out on the bed in his underwear, trying to strike an alluring pose as Kyle comes back into the room with a towel wrapped around his waist. It's a nice, over-sized, particularly fluffy green towel that Stan stole from the technicians' laundry room. Kyle has never liked the standard issue towels. He has very sensitive skin.
"Well?" Kyle says.
"Did you look? It's okay if you did. I mean, it's not Pandora's fucking box, okay, it's just data about our copies."
"And our originals," Stan says. That's the part that bothers him most, though he's not sure why. "Can we have sex before dinner? I'm really — I feel kind of weird."
"You feel weird," Kyle says. "In a way that sex will cure?"
"Yes. We could cuddle if you prefer." He just needs to feel close to Kyle, and to remind him of the importance what's immediate, the irreplaceable present that only they will actually experience. Kyle is already eying the Books. "I'll lick your butt," Stan says.
Kyle grins. "Asshole," he says.
"Yes, I'll lick that, too."
"Oh, God, you know what I meant!" Kyle pounces on him and Stan receives the damp, naked weight of him with relief, sinking down beneath Kyle's kisses. He still believes that they have the most perfect connection in recorded history, secretly. He's not sure how literally Kyle meant that, but it feels like absolute fact when Stan slips his fingers into Kyle, watching his eyes change as he opens up for Stan, wanting him inside there, pressing down for more.
"You know, in a way," Kyle says as Stan is looming over him, making sure everything is slick enough before he pushes in, "I was made for you." Kyle is flushed and sheepish when Stan looks up at him. "In a way," Kyle says again, softly. "Sort of. You know?"
"Yes," Stan says, wishing he could come up with something better to affirm that. Kyle is more eloquent about their relationship; Stan tends to cry when he tries to vocalize how much it means to him. "Can you feel it?" Stan asks as he pushes into Kyle, whispering. He's better at sex talk than Kyle, anyway. "You were made for me, okay, for this. You can feel it, can't you?"
"Stan," Kyle says, and he pulls Stan closer, deeper, throwing his head back. "Yeah, I can, I know."
They are a perfect thing when they do this. Stan thinks they must be better at it than even their originals. Kyle is heartwrenchingly unguarded beneath him, his breath choppy and warm against Stan's face, everything so warm. Stan has always felt like they're creating a unique sort of precious energy during sex, and it was true even during the first few awkward years. The way Kyle's noises change as he gets closer and Stan fucks him harder is like a conversion of light into sound, something Stan can uniquely do for them with this body that sometimes feels borrowed, a recreation of ancient data. This is what makes him real, even if the rumors that they're monitored in their private quarters are true. The techs can look down and say, Here's another PCSM clone fucking another PCKB, but they can't feel what Stan does when Kyle cries out and comes, shuddering around Stan's cock and clawing him close so that Stan will hold him until he's spilled out completely. It can't be measured.
"I was made for you, too," Stan says when they're lying together afterward, Kyle so dozy in his arms that Stan wonders if he'll want sleep instead of dinner.
"I know," Kyle says. He gives Stan a kiss and rolls onto his back, groping for something on the bedside table: his Book.
"Do you have to read from that thing while I'm here?" Stan asks as Kyle props up a pillow, settling in.
"Of course," Kyle says. He slides an arm across Stan's shoulders and tries to pull him closer. "Don't leave me alone with this, Stan. I want to share this with you."
"Even though you know it makes my skin crawl."
"You're just afraid of the potential for bad news," Kyle says. "But this is all quite lovely, as I suspected. Now that I've found out how we died, I'm going back and reading the beginning. Apparently we're in this mess because our originals sold our DNA to some local geneticist named Mephesto. I guess it was a common way to make money in our town, and—"
"This mess, Kyle?"
"Well, you know, being part of an experiment and so forth. Hush, let me tell you this. If you're on the verge of hysteria we can stop. I just think — it's like you're afraid of your own shadow! See, look, it says you used the money from the sale of your DNA to buy a car. And I — oh."
"What?" Stan glances at the screen. It's a text-based interface, a written history. He's relieved not to spot any pictures.
Kyle touches his nose. "Well, I guess I used mine for cosmetic mods, um. Plastic surgery."
"Well, that settles it," Stan says, and he snatches the Book out of Kyle's hand. "This is a fake, written by Cartman to make you feel like a fool."
"No — Stan! Give it back." Kyle reclaims it easily. Stan hates to upset him when they're in bed together, especially after sex. "It's not inaccurate to imagine that I might have wanted one more like yours."
"A face — a nose, specifically." Kyle scowls at him. "Mine's so sort of — odd. Like my goddamn hair."
"I love your hair, and your nose, and that come that's leaking out of your ass has a lot to do with how attractive I find you, okay, so let's just chalk this up to Cartman trying to upset you and cut our losses before this hurts you in some way that you can't get rid of with a shower."
"I don't need your protection from him, thank you," Kyle says. He slides out of bed and walks across the room with his book, naked. The slick on his thighs makes Stan want to hide him under the blankets, just in case the techs are watching. It seems even more personal than their actual fucking.
"It just seems like an awful coincidence," Stan says. "That joke he made—"
"Well, clearly he'd already read my Book!" Kyle says. "At least about my original. It doesn't mean this isn't all true." He stops pacing and reads, his frown deepening.
"What?" Stan says.
"Cartman said you broke your arm — it's here, it says, um. You crashed that car a few months after you bought it, and I was there. I guess that's why I got my cosmetic mods, afterward, because it says I broke my — wait, but. That was the new nose that got broken, I guess—"
"Kyle, this sounds like exactly the kind of garbage Cartman would invent to torment you. Put that thing away. Let's get something to eat, aren't you hungry?"
"It says I took care of you," Kyle says. "When your arm — when you couldn't use your right hand. That's when we began a romantic relationship. I wrote a diary entry about it, apparently. Do you want me to read it?"
"No, and I'd like you to stop saying 'I' and 'you,' because that wasn't us—"
"March 17," Kyle says, pacing again. "Very strange development. We still haven't kissed, but I offered to help him jerk off, jokingly, and he got this look on his face like an injured baby animal, so I felt I had to go through with it. Have wasted many long nights thinking about kissing and/or fucking, but never really about dryly massaging his cock in an effort to get him off, and I think I was no better than his left hand would have been. This whole past month or so has been so awful and strange, and in the end I ducked down and took him in my mouth like I knew what I was doing or something. Tweaked horribly against the nose, but I'm so angry at it for being ugly again that I think I had some kind of masochist moment and that the pain added to my sexual gratification or something. Of course he ended up shooting all over my face as soon as I pulled off to try to get my breath, and that was so humiliating that I made some excuses and left shortly afterward. He was weeping, but that's mostly the drugs, I think, and his guilt and continuing melancholy about the crash. What a mess, approaching unsalvagable. But I have now sucked dick, and he was so sweet afterward, reaching for me and crying like that. It's possible that I've never loved him more than I did in that moment, fleeing his latest breakdown, my eyebrows crusty from his come. I'm getting giddy just thinking about it, as if this is GOOD or something."
Kyle stops reading, and Stan stares at him, astounded. This is not the sort of thing Cartman is capable of inventing.
"So you cried a lot," Kyle says. He seems shaken, his back to Stan. "Your original, I mean."
"Are there more like that?" Stan asks, and he eyes his own Book, still sitting on the bedside table. "Diary entries?"
"What, you want to know what happens next?" Kyle turns to him, looking peeved. "That voice, that — doesn't sound like me, does it?"
"Well, of course not," Stan says. It resembles Kyle quite a lot, actually, when he's pretending to be disaffected and cynical in order to protect himself from some disappointment. "It wasn't you, after all, so why should it sound like you?"
"I suppose you're right that it's all irrelevant," Kyle says. He walks to the bedside table and drops the Book there, letting it clatter against Stan's. "God — now I've got to take another shower. I feel positively coated in come." He frowns and hurries away when Stan reaches for him, shutting the bathroom door behind him.
Kyle is quiet during dinner, so Stan is surprised that he wants to go to Dock 7 afterward. The 43rd generation discovered Dock 7 as teenagers, and they once believed it to be their illicit meeting place, outside of technicians' gaze, where they drank the fermented juice provided by Clyde and made out in dark corners. Eventually Craig, sleeping with one of the oldest technicians for several years now, informed them that they were being watched in this space, too. It was intended that they would discover it and that they would feel, for a while, like it was a place where they could be truly free. Knowing this, Stan now finds Dock 7 very depressing, but Kyle still enjoys going when he wants to be social or get high, usually the latter.
"I guess you two bought what Cartman's selling, too?" Clyde says when they come to him for cups of the thick fermented cranberry that he's doling out to the usual crowd.
"How can you tell?" Stan asks when Kyle says nothing, just drinks.
"Cartman said he sold one to everyone except Butters," Clyde says. "My original was a girl. I fucking knew it."
"Wait, what?" Kyle squinted and held his already empty cup out for more. "The technicians altered your gender?"
"No." Clyde was burly and odoriferous. Stan could not picture him as a woman. "He got a sex change, the original Clyde. A reassignment. That's how come he sold his DNA in the first place, to get the money for it. And now they still won't let me get reassigned, even though they know I've always wanted it just as bad as I do now. All the copies, too. Some of them actually got it, back when it was cheaper."
"Back when the project had better funding, you mean," Kyle says. "Well, that's very sad, Clyde, and you know we're sorry for your struggles. I had a surgery once, too, and I think they'd just laugh at me if I asked for it again."
"Kyle," Stan says, not comfortable with that comparison, or with the thought of Kyle's nose being reshaped.
"Well, I was telling Craig," Clyde says, "Between this and the fixed end dates, I've had enough. I was thinking I might just have to do something about all this."
"Like what?" Stan asks, imagining Clyde trying to stage a revolution.
"End dates?" Kyle says.
Clyde shakes his head. "You haven't read very far yet, have you?"
"I just bought them off Cartman this afternoon," Kyle says. "What end dates?"
"Like I'm going to say here," Clyde says. According to Craig, the audio in Dock 7 is not routinely monitored, but it is recorded and the techs do random audits. "Craig knows a place where we can really talk. Just look at your Books when you get back to your room, at the ages that all your copies lived to. There's an upper limit, if you know what I mean." He glances at Kyle's cup when he holds it out again. "You've had your ration."
"He can have my next one," Stan says. Clyde rolls his eyes and pours.
"What was he talking about?" Kyle asks as they head across the room. It's a small storage facility with a short-range pod dock that's not currently in use. Music is playing, and a few people are dancing, but most are talking in whispers, probably about their Books. "Is he trying to say - what? That we've always gone off sailing into the sunset, so to speak? At the same age?"
"Kyle," Stan says. "I really don't want to think about it. Do you want to go back to the room?"
"No, God, we just got here," Kyle says. He throws back the rest of the drink and licks his lips. "That's a good batch, tonight. Really ferment-y. What's he on about with that ration business? Since when does he cut me off after two drinks? Look, there's Craig, let's talk to him."
"Why?" Stan asks, his steps growing heavier. Though he hasn't heard so from Metenrich, Stan is sure that his original must have loathed Craig as much as he does, and that all of his copies have, too. Craig is an opportunistic little shit who thinks he's some kind of Class B hybrid just because he does sexual favors in exchange for inside information about the project. "I bet he's how Cartman got access to the books," Stan says.
"Oh, certainly," Kyle says. "Craig!"
"What?" Craig says. He's standing with Bebe, doing his best to look bored by the usual crowd.
"We were just talking about what we've bought from Cartman," Kyle says, and Stan is impressed that he's still sober enough to remember to censor himself.
"Great," Craig says, and Bebe snickers. She is the only person on the ship, other than perhaps Triton, the senior tech Craig fellates, who finds his impoliteness charming.
"Clyde is up in arms," Kyle says. "I'm sure you've heard."
"Yep," Craig says.
"Well," Kyle says, and he glances at Stan. "We haven't gotten very deep into our histories yet. Just the originals, really. I never realized we'd sold our DNA. Or that — they had. I suppose your original sold his, too?"
"Yeah," Craig says.
"Do you know what your original needed the money for?" Kyle asks, his voice sharpening. He always comes away from conversations ranting about how insufferable Craig is, and Stan doesn't know why he needs such frequent reminders.
"Mine just wanted to leave South Park," Craig says. "The town where they all lived."
"And did he?" Kyle asks.
"Well, that once, yeah." Craig stares at Kyle as if he's expecting that to resonate. "But now I'm stuck here indefinitely."
"Until the project loses funding, anyway," Bebe says. "Craig says it's only funded for fifty generations. And they're already making all kinds of cuts to our quality of life. You should read about your copies — we used to get voluntary mods, houses on real planets, whatever we wanted."
"I doubt it was whatever we wanted," Stan says. "And for fuck's sake, it wasn't us. Am the only one who can accept that?"
"You know what she means, Stanley," Kyle says, and he threads his arm through Stan's. "I don't know what we're doing here, actually. We should get back to our reading."
Before they can leave they're accosted by Butters, and Stan is almost relieved, wanting to avoid the Books. His heart has been pounding since Kyle read that diary entry.
"Come to talk about your original with the rest of us?" Kyle asks Butters, who is still wearing his work uniform, probably tricked into taking an extra shift by Cartman. "I guess that's what everyone is doing."
"Oh, are they?" Butters stuffs his hands into his pockets and looks around warily. "Well, maybe I should go, then. I don't want to get caught with contraband material."
"Don't you think we have a right to know?" Kyle asks. "Why would they keep our own data from us? Shouldn't they be trying to help us learn from our, you know, mistakes?"
"What mistakes?" Stan asks, hurt.
"Well, geez, I don't know," Butters says. "All this knowing about things seems kinda unnatural to me. Seems like if you know too much, you won't be able to live your life the regular way."
"The regular way is what all the ones before us have done!" Kyle says. "What's so great about it? What have the techs learned, how has this project served humanity? We'll never know, because we're stuck here in a floating, simulated ancient city, kept away from all the important advancements!"
"That's just what you think, Kyle," Butters says, shoulders lifting. "M-maybe we're being protected from what's out there! That's how I like to think of it, anyhow."
"Kyle, you're upsetting him," Stan says, and he guides Kyle away, expecting him to lash out and try to insist that he's not, or that Butters ought to be upset. Kyle leaves without a fuss, though he's clearly still fuming. "I think you're a little drunk," Stan says, rubbing Kyle's back as they head toward their room.
"Perhaps," Kyle says. "But you're not fooling me with this embrace of obliviousness. Part of you knows I'm right, even if you try to bury it."
"Right about what, Kyle? That our lives are pointless and miserable? I'm sorry that I've let you down. Maybe every Stan has failed every Kyle, maybe that's what you'll see if you read more—"
"Stop, no, hey." Kyle takes Stan's shoulders and pulls him over to an alcove near one of the windows on space. There are no planets visible in the distance, no moons. The USS Park County can't afford most docking fees on developed planets, so they just move from government space station to government space station, the techs leading the clones on supervised excursions before they're reloaded onto the ship. Stan stares out at the stars while Kyle attempts to diffuse this argument by nuzzling at him drunkenly. "You know I don't feel that way," Kyle says, whispering. "I'm happy with you."
"You're clearly not."
"It's not you that's the problem! It's this place, and the sense that we're going through the motions of someone else's life. I want to know more about the past so I can break free from it, if that's even possible. But you're the one thing I want to keep. Please don't doubt that. Look at me, Stan."
Stan looks at him. He always does everything Kyle asks, and he knows that it's hard-wired into him, built into his DNA.
"When you were reading before, in the room," Stan says, "I felt like I loved that Kyle, too. The one who wrote that diary entry."
"I know," Kyle says. "The thought of you crying with your dick out and your arm in a cast. Stan, oh."
"Just don't go doing anything rash once you know more," Stan says.
"Kyle. I've always been afraid that you'll leave."
"Well, I want to," Kyle says, whispering this, his lips close to Stan's ear. "But I'd never leave without you."
Stan finds this a very meager comfort as they head back to the room, holding hands. He has a bad feeling about the Books that are waiting for them, though he's curious to read more, too. He's too exhausted to reach for them after he's dressed for bed, and he's glad when Kyle follows his lead, curling up against Stan's chest under the blankets and leaving the Books where they are. Stan strokes Kyle's back and wonders how many previous Kyles have worn something similar for pajamas: one of Stan's very old shirts, short enough to leave his bare ass exposed. Stan falls asleep hoping that only the Kyle who is currently sleeping in his arms has ever developed this particular habit.
Of course, Kyle is only pretending to be asleep, something Stan realizes when he wakes several hours later and finds Kyle sitting on the floor near the bed, reading his Book and crying softly.
"We had a baby," he says when Stan touches his shoulder. "The 22nd copies, I mean, they had one, when the techs used to pay for our mods. I asked for a male pregnancy mod and they gave me one, and we had a baby, Stan, his name was Quail."
Stan joins Kyle on the floor, surprised by his own stoicism as Kyle flips through the details of the other copies' lives, reading portions aloud. The 22nd, 24th, and 25th PCSM and PCKB clones all had children together via the male pregnancy mod, until it was determined that allowing them to do so was scientifically irrelevant and therefore an unjustifiable expense. Almost all of their clones reached a Fixed End at 61, though five Stans and three Kyles died early. In the eighth generation Stan died at seventeen, electrocuted during an accident while on standard repair duty, and the techs chose to regenerate him early to gauge the grieving Kyle's response to a second, younger Stan.
"This can't be right," Kyle says. He hardly ever cries, but tonight he's sobbing almost without pause, wrapped in Stan's arms while he continues reading, the hour they're due to report for morning task assignments rapidly approaching. Stan is nodding off at moments, his head dropping back onto the mattress, and he wakes when Kyle gets particularly worked up and tugs on his collar.
"What can't be right?" Stan asks. He puts his face in Kyle's hair. He feels like he's lived at least 43 lifetimes over the course of the night.
"They — I would never do this," Kyle says.
"Do what, Kyle? Don't you want to sleep?"
"Well, this Kyle, the eighth one, I guess he just — he had a sort of — he took care of this little Stan, which of course I would do, but then they ended up, you know."
"This says they later had a romantic relationship," Kyle says. He's growing warmer in Stan's arms, blushing. "When the Stan was nineteen and the Kyle was thirty-six."
"Well, at least you're saying 'the Stan' and 'the Kyle' instead of 'you' and 'me,' so."
"Stanley! This is not — this is disturbing for me, okay? You were a kid and I took — God, advantage, I guess. Do you suppose I let you top me?"
"Mhm, probably. Didn't they make a note about that? A sexual positions graph or something?"
"You're not taking this seriously!"
"Kyle, I'm barely awake. Let's sleep for a few hours, please?"
"Well, you know — I'm only obsessing over the details to distract myself from the inherent horror here, Stan. They're going to kill us when we're sixty-one, you realize. Because there's no data on the originals after that point. So they restart, which means we die."
"You don't know that," Stan says. Everything feels surreal and far away, including mortality. He needs to rest, and he increasingly wants to fuck Kyle, too, to bring them both back to reality.
"Excuse me? Yes, I do know that! You don't exactly have to read between the lines! How can you want to sleep when you know we'll be executed in thirty-nine years?"
"You're the one who was saying dying at sixty-one was romantic. Kyle, c'mere, c'mon, I'm putting you in bed."
"Wait, hang on, I have to see how this ends," Kyle says. He allows Stan to pull him up into the bed, but will not relinquish the Book. "Listen, here we go," he says when Stan spoons him, his eyes closed and his chin on Kyle's shoulder. "So that Kyle was dead at sixty-one, and his little boy toy Stan was forty-four at that point. Then they made a ninth Kyle to go with the ninth Stan, and apparently you weren't as lecherous. You took care of me, though, it says. I was, like, your baby. Then they offed you at sixty-one and I was only seventeen, oh, fuck, Stan. They left me alone so the process wouldn't overlap again. I died, though, when I was twenty-three, of kidney failure. Do you think it was suicidal loneliness? Like, I sabotaged my health?"
"I don't know, honey, shhh." Stan eases the Book from Kyle's hands. Kyle is clearly drained by this, too, and he flops down to the mattress with a whine, allowing Stan to curl around him. "That wasn't you," Stan says, and he holds Kyle tighter, inhaling the smell of him: fermented cranberry, soap, tears. "You're not dead, you didn't die. You're right here, and I'm here with you, it's okay."
"I'm not upset," Kyle says, but his voice wavers again. "Not about that, anyway. We have to get away from here, Stan. This is sick. I don't want them killing you when you're sixty-one, or ever."
"Let's think about it in the morning," Stan says.
"What if they're listening, what if we're already considered compromised specimens, what if they come for us in the night? Whose idea do you think it was to take that boat out, do you think? Your original's or mine? Oh, fuck, I bet it was mine."
"Mhm, no, I don't know. Anyway, mine wrecked that car. Go to sleep, alright?"
"I don't think we should," Kyle says, but he sounds like he's halfway there, mumbling. "We're in danger, Stan. We're just Class C's to them. Property."
He's technically right, and Stan feels something primal hardening in his bones at the thought of anyone else having a claim on his Kyle, the one who was made specifically for him. He rubs himself on Kyle, not sure if he's got enough energy to harden more literally.
"Nnh," Kyle says. "I feel like I'm dreaming."
"Maybe we're a dream the originals had," Stan says. "Maybe they made a wish to be together forever."
"But we're not them! You always say we're not."
"I know we're not them, but maybe we're their wish."
Their alarm goes off too soon, and they shower together in delirious silence. The shower in their room was designed to hold one person at a time, but this has always been their morning ritual, though they both get a little bigger every year. It's uncomfortable bordering on impossible, but Stan finds showering without the clumsy press of Kyle's body very disconcerting.
"Are we going to talk about last night?" Stan asks as they dress for their shifts. He keeps thinking of Quail, and wants to know the names of their other children, and if they had families of their own after they left the Park County. He wants to know if they were allowed to leave.
"Later," Kyle says, and that's all. Stan knows better than to press him when he's tired.
Stan's shift passes slowly, a routine maintenance job in the gym on the fourth deck. He finds Kyle in the hallway on the way to lunch and smiles when Kyle reaches out to take his hand. Kyle isn't smiling.
"I need you to trust me," Kyle says as he pulls Stan down the hallway.
"What's going on?" Stan asks. "Lunch room's that way." He's hungry, and they're serving his favorite noodle casserole today.
"Please don't ask questions," Kyle says. He's walking quickly, avoiding Stan's eyes.
"Kyle," Stan says, but it's pointless to protest. Of course he'll do whatever Kyle asks.
Which leads him to Dock 7, which is actually unmonitored. Craig lied to everyone about that so that he could have access to the attached shuttle when he decided to make his escape. Kyle explains this as he's helping Stan into a remote suit, pulling the sleeves on while Stan watches, dumbfounded. Craig is already in his suit, the helmet tucked under his arm as he punches coordinates into the wall module. Clyde is sitting in the shuttle like a kid waiting for ice cream, fully suited, hands on his knees.
"Wait," Stan says when Kyle loops an oxygen tank onto his back.
"We can't," Kyle says. "There's no time. They found out that we have the Books. They might scrap the whole 43rd generation, Stan, they could terminate us any second!"
"What the hell is going on?" Stan asks, addressing Craig, who ignores him. "Clyde?" Stan says. "What is this?"
"We're leaving," Clyde says. "Getting the hell out of here."
"Stan, hold still," Kyle says, zipping him into the suit.
"I don't understand," Stan says. "Where will we go?"
"There are cultures that are opposed to Class C designation," Craig says, still punching coordinates into the shuttle's module. "They would treat us as refugees."
"Craig is an excellent navigator!" Clyde says. "He's sacrificed so much to learn all this from that fucking Triton." Clyde looks like he might cry. Stan understands suddenly that Craig has been fellating Clyde, too, and for no discernible personal advantage.
"Kyle," Stan says, wanting to pick him up and run. "This is crazy. We can't just—"
"Look at me," Kyle says, and he grabs Stan's face. He's wearing his remote suit gloves, and the material feels metallic against Stan's cheeks, cool and slick. "I love you," Kyle says. "We're going to be together forever. For as long as we both live, anyway. Me and you, us, this version. That's all you should think about. Don't be scared."
"What about the Books?" Stan asks. If he can just get Kyle back to their room, he could calm him down there, make him remember that their life here is worth too much to be thrown away in a confused panic because suddenly Craig has a shuttle. "Don't you want to bring them with us?"
"No!" Kyle says. "Stan, I'm done with that. I want us to have our own future somewhere far away from these ghosts, and our own babies, if, if we want that — they've got no right to tell us we can't have things like that!"
"Fuck," Clyde says before Stan can protest again. Clyde is looking toward the doorway to Dock 7, where Butters is standing, his eyes blown wide.
"Guys?" Butters says.
"Alright, well," Craig says, and he pulls out a blaster. "Get in, I guess," he says, pointing it at Butters.
"Huh?" Butters says. "What's going on?"
"Craig, just let him go," Kyle says. "The shuttle can't hold more than four."
"Can't," Craig says. "He'll tell on us. I can get us to Manthandile before the air runs out, four people or five. Butters, get in the goddamn shuttle or I'll shoot."
This is how they end up making their grand escape: Butters sitting between Kyle and Stan in the back, sobbing as Craig steers them away from the Park County. Stan has never seen his home ship from the outside like this. The further they get from it, the more surprisingly small it seems.
"This is not right," Stan says. "I don't think — Kyle—"
"I want to go back!" Butters cries. "Please, I hate it out here, I don't want to live on some planet full of smugglers and criminals—"
"Everybody shut up," Craig says. "Fuck."
"What?" Kyle says. He's squeezing Stan's thigh, reaching over Butters to do so.
"We were followed," Craig says.
The whole thing ends up feeling more like something Stan is reading from his Book than something that's actually happening to him. They use the emergency warp and detour to an unidentified planet, but the craft from the Park County follows them. Craig isn't much of a pilot after all, though the shuttle is still operational after they crash on the surface, only the right auxiliary thruster misfiring. Craig kills the power on the shuttle so that the craft that's tracking them won't pick up a signal, and they breathe from their tanks in the darkness, waiting. The suits are all online, and Stan has to shut off Butters' audio channel before his whimpering can drive him out of his mind. He wants to move Butters over, to sit next to Kyle, but he's afraid to move.
"Are they gone?" Clyde asks, whispering.
"I don't know," Craig says. "We should wait."
"We're draining our tanks, sitting here like this," Kyle says. "And there's only, what? Twenty-four hours worth of oxygen in the shuttle supply? And that's for four passengers, not five."
"Fuck," Craig says. "I knew I'd regret bringing you."
"Why, because I'm not ignoring reality? We need to move, Craig!"
Craig tries to get the shuttle airborne again, but the damage to the right thruster is too bad. Stan has worked on thrusters during his cargo hold duties, doing basic repairs.
"I could look at it," he says, though his stomach is folded in half, his ears buzzing with the kind of built in alarms that are supposed to send people running.
"I'll help you," Kyle says.
Stan has never been on the surface of a planet before. This one is craggy and gray, and he doesn't want to look at it too clearly, wants all of this to remain a blur. He kneels down to examine the busted thruster, listening to the sound of his own ragged breathing.
"Can you actually do this?" Kyle asks, and the thruster roars to life.
Stan isn't sure if he blacked out properly, but he doesn't really feel anything until he refocuses on Kyle's face and sees that he's screaming, crying.
"Don't touch it," Stan says. He's not sure why he's given this instruction, but Kyle ignores it anyway, gasping for breath as he tries to tie up the wound. Stan can feel the blood soaking down inside his suit, coating his side, sliding down over his thigh, soaking his underwear. Something like adrenaline is keeping him from processing all but the rawest shock, and if he wasn't trying to hold Kyle with both arms he might not even know that he's only got a left arm now, the other one floating off behind him like all the bodies his DNA has burned through the past two thousand years.
"Shut up!" Kyle shouts, talking to Craig on the audio channel. Butters is crying hysterically, Clyde is cursing in a panicked string of non-words, and Craig is saying that they have to go.
"Did you not hear me, you fuck?" Craig says. "That thing blew the oxygen hold open. I don't even know where we are, how long it will take to — every second counts. Get the fuck in here before the thruster burns out again!"
"Go," Stan says.
"What do you mean, go?" Kyle has his hands on Stan's chest, leaving bloody prints there. "Come on, get in the shuttle—"
"Make sure you can get someplace and come back for me," Stan says, knowing Kyle won't buy this, that he won't get off that easy. "It's my fault the oxygen tank blew, and—"
"Your fault? Craig turned the engines on and blew off your arm! Get in the shuttle, Stanley, fuck!"
"Kyle," Stan said, already starting to feel light-headed. He can't lose consciousness; Kyle will put him in the shuttle if he does. "Take my pack, okay?"
"Take — what are you talking about? Stan, move!"
Stan can see in the way Kyle is crying that he knows it's useless. They might not share a body, but they've got this connection, and it's like Kyle is losing Stan's blood, too. Stan knows he can feel it.
"Please," Stan says. "Take my pack, you might need it. Share it with them if you can, but if you can't — don't."
"Fuck that!" Kyle hits Stan's chest with both hands, sobbing. "No, no, okay, no, this is not — happening, Stan, I won't have it—"
"I'm leaving in thirty seconds," Craig says. "This is not worth our lives." He's already got the shuttle in the air; Stan is so dizzy that he didn't notice it lifting off, his vision tunneled onto Kyle's face.
"Fucking shut up, shut up!" Kyle says, pinching his eyes shut.
"Hey, look," Stan says. He's crying, too, but it's happening in his eyes more than his chest. His voice is weirdly steady. "Go back to the Park County, okay? So you can take care of the next Stan. He'll need you."
"Don't be disgusting," Kyle says. Butters has exited the shuttle; he has a rope. "They'll make some other Kyle. Let the next Stan have him, I'll just, I'll — if you won't come with us I'll die here with you."
"No," Stan says. "No other Kyle will do. I want it to be you."
"But it won't be you!"
"I know," Stan says. "But I know him, even though he doesn't exist yet. I know he'll need you, love you. Kyle, it's okay."
"It's not fucking okay! Stan, quit — stop looking at me like you know what's going to happen! You don't!"
"It's already happened, Kyle, it's just— it's okay." Stan presses his helmet to Kyle's, wanting to kiss his wet cheeks. Staying upright isn't easy, but he doesn't want Kyle to see him collapse. "Take the tank, please."
"Ten seconds," Craig says. "I'm not fucking around here. I'll leave without you both."
Butters reaches them and yanks Kyle up to the shuttle, maybe worried that Craig will leave without him, too. Kyle has his arms outstretched, and Stan passes the tank into his hands, though he knows that wasn't what Kyle was reaching for.
They're gone so quickly that Stan thinks the blood loss has made him hallucinate, but that's the emergency warp. Craig will have used it to return to their last coordinates; he's too smart to try anything else with the shuttle low on fuel and only tanks to breathe from. If they can get back to the ship, the techs won't terminate the wayward clones. They've never been cruel, and they would give every Class C on the ship unlimited mods if they could still afford it. Stan finds a rock outcropping to huddle against and drops down to his knees. He uses his clumsy left arm to turn off the alarms inside his helmet that are telling him his suit has only a few minutes of oxygen left without the tank. He's pretty sure the blood loss will take him first. Either way, it doesn't hurt anymore.
He feels almost comfortable as his eyes fall shut, and then very much so. In his mind or in his next life he's a baby in Kyle's arms, recognizing the tears that drop down onto his cheeks when Kyle kisses them, some part of him remembering the way they fogged his helmet on an unnamed planet. He's a child who can't make it through a nightmare without sneaking into Kyle's room, crawling into his bed, wrapping himself in the smell of his one familiar thing. Stan will have Kyle again: he can feel it now. He might already be back in Kyle's arms.
If you enjoyed this story, remember to check out the original artwork that inspired it!