A Heaven for Toasters | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's book After relaunching A Heaven for Toasters, complete with new cover, I promised to publish it here in installments. If you’d rather not wait, this is your last chance to get it at $0.99 before the price goes back to $2.99.

Note: You can find a link to all published chapters at the end of this post or read more parts on Wattpad.

A Heaven for Toasters

What if your perfect man was a robot?

Detective Mika Pensive has a new partner. He’s hot. Smart. Funny. And an android.

Set in the near future, A Heaven for Toasters is more than a sci-fi crime adventure with plenty of romance and wit. It’s the book that will make you look at your toaster in a whole new way.

CHAPTER 4: Guide

1:13 p.m.

“Which way, again?” I asked, not bothering to hide my irritation.

Leo glanced at the sun. “I believe it’s this way.”

“We’ve been going around in circles for the last ten minutes,” I complained. “This bench right here… I swear we’ve been through here before.” I let out a frustrated sigh and sat down.

“We haven’t actually—” Leo started to say, but I cut him off with a wave of my hand.

“Let’s sit down for a second, shall we?”

The bench was in the middle of a courtyard-like opening among the snakelike, narrow streets. Streams of houses surrounded us—each with a small garden at the front. Despite their identical architecture, some had manicured gardens, others unkempt. They were all painted in different colors—some garish, others subdued. I squeezed my eyes to chase away the dull pain between them.

The small square was empty, which suited me fine. We had only seen a handful of residents so far, all clones of the same man: Doctor Morgan, reclusive billionaire and cloning pioneer.

The clones we had seen all differed in age, but I knew they were all born between 2072 and 2099, the year when the Shanghai Convention was signed. A village consisting solely of adults between forty-five and sixty-four was unnerving. I kept expecting to hear children’s laughter. Its absence raised my hairs. I was used to having kids of all ages playing around in villages like this.

A sprightly old man approached us, a jovial expression on his wrinkled face. “You two look lost.” He opened his arms as if to hug us.

I leaned away. “What is it to you?” I snapped, not bothering to hide my annoyance. I rubbed my temples. My fingers came out wet with sweat. The heat and the humidity were getting to me. That, and the fact the sea was so close by, yet I couldn’t see it. I wanted to go full Godzilla on Clonesville and tear through the garish buildings to reach it.

The man approached the bench. “May I?” He sat down beside me without waiting for an answer and rubbed his temples, mimicking my gesture. “Scorcher of a day, isn’t it? Then again, most are nowadays.”

“And you are?” Leo asked, leaning toward him.

“A guide. And a good guide knows when he’s needed.”

“We wouldn’t have any need for you if my hololens worked,” I said with a growl. “What’s with this place?”

He straightened his back. “Clonesville has a unique arrangement with its host country,” he recited in a stilted voice. “As the world’s only place where conscious clones can live in peace, we are not to be surveyed by any electronic means. This includes maps.”

“So Doctor Morgan is rich enough to buy his own island,” I said with an ill-tempered smirk.

“Just a small part of it,” our guide corrected me. “The doctor bought the land surrounding one of the old mansions. He built Clonesville around it to house all his clones.”

I followed his finger to a series of tiled rooftops farther up the hill. The building they belonged to peeked with contempt over the plain buildings surrounding us. A tall wall obstructed my view, but I could still make out a white sprawling compound built in a Bauhaus style with slender openings.

I studied the wall separating the rest of Clonesville from the doctor. Sharp barbed wire sat snuggly atop a stone wall, looking positively forbidding. I had no doubt that entering the mansion would be anything but easy.

In sharp contrast, each house on the square was barely big enough for a small family. They were all built the same: low, with a tiled roof, a small front yard and—I assumed—a similarly miniature back one. Even though they all had the same specifications, they each had a distinguishing feature, from ridiculously out-of-place pink flamingos to brightly colored walls. Cats were everywhere. Some were well kept, others obvious strays.

“The Manor,” Guide said. “It belonged to one of the famous ship owners of Hydra. When the doctor bought it, it was derelict. But look at it now, huh? The jewel on the island’s crown.” Uttered by another, his words might have conveyed pride. But now they carried more than a hint of sarcasm.

“Have you ever been inside?” Leo asked.

Guide’s face darkened. “Of course.”

“Could you take us in?” I asked, curiosity growing in me.

“I haven’t been there in years,” the man said like he found the mere suggestion distasteful. “And no, I can’t.”

“But you have been in,” I insisted.

“Just because someone’s been at the mountaintop doesn’t mean he’s the right person to guide you there,” he snapped. “Anyway, no outsiders have been at the Manor in ages. Way back, the doctor used to throw a little get-together for all his clones on the anniversary of his first successful cloning. The Cinderella Ball, we called it.” He scoffed. “To some, he’s the fairy godmother. To others, the king.”

Leo eyed him with curiosity. “And to you?”

“The cruel stepmother,” the man said with a bitter laugh.

I frowned. “Sorry, I don’t understand. You said you grew up there. So, were you adopted or does Doctor Morgan allow locals inside?”

“Apart from his jet-setting friends, only clones are let in,” he said with just the right kind of sigh to make him look like a teacher who had encountered two particularly dim students. “Even his staff consists entirely of clones. I grew up there but now I’m not even allowed inside. Thank God.”

I wondered if his words were the ramblings of an old man who had misplaced a few of his marbles.

Leo leaned toward the man to study him. “All Morgan clones were created after 2072. No offense, but you look too old to be one. Although the resemblance is uncanny.”

“Actually, that’s not true. Doctor Morgan created his first clone in 2063. In 2072, he perfected the aging process. As for me, I was born in 2063. I’m fifty-seven, even if I look over seventy.” The man met my raised eyebrows with a dismissive wave of his hand. “You have the doctor to thank for my looks. I was part of the very first group of clones he created. Back then, he was struggling to artificially age his clones, giving birth to men instead of babies. I’m one of his early experiments. Several of my aging-related genes have been altered. As a result, I look older than I am. Not happy about it, but we all have to play the hand we’re dealt when coming to this world, don’t we?” He spoke like none of this mattered but there was hidden pain layered in the back of his voice. “Besides, I’m healthy and conscious instead of one of those poor zombies people grow in vats nowadays.”

The thought caused my foul mood to return with a vengeance. “That’s just wrong,” I blurted out.

“It was a different time,” our guide said, mistaking my comment as a reference to his own experience. “The Asian Wars were raging. We needed soldiers. And fast. People were willing to turn the blind eye to a lot of things.”

“I guess,” I muttered, wondering just how messed up in the head Doctor Morgan really was. The brighter the light, the longer the shadow.

I tried to put myself in our guide’s shoes. To be an experiment, knowing you owe both your existence and all of its pains to a man’s whim… And most of the clones hardly seemed well off. It couldn’t have been an easy life. I looked at the man, trying to hide my pity. “And you’re a guide,” I said. I normally hate stating the obvious, but I had to somehow change the awkward subject.

He beamed me a smile. “Indeed, I am.”

“I’ll call you Guide, then.”

Leo made a gesture in my direction. “This charming lady is Detective Pensive. And I’m Leo.”

“Lovely to meet you both,” Guide said with a polite nod.

My stomach growled, adding to my general discontent. “We seem to be lost. Can you show us the way out of here?”

Guide stood up. “Are you heading to the exhibition?”

“Old Town,” Leo said. “We would have had our zoomer pick us up but reception here seems spotty.”

“Like I said, we’re a private lot,” Guide said, a plastered smile on his face.

“More like paranoid,” I grunted as I stood up. “What’s with this guy, for example?” I nodded at a man coming our way. His unkempt hair almost covered his face, reminding me of a character from an old series Richard had once shown me—Cousin It. As he passed us, a tangy stench made me turn away, scrunching my nose.

“We seem to be in the middle of several culture wars at the moment,” Guide admitted. His demeanor seemed a bit deflated. “This one’s a Mumblecrust.”

My eyebrows flew upward. “Mumblecrust?”

“A character in a medieval comedy show,” Leo explained. “The word signifies a toothless, haggard beggar.”

I gaped at him. “So you do know everything.”

Leo let out a small laugh. “Only the important stuff,” he said with a playful wink.

Guide continued like we had not interrupted him. “Some clones love technology and believe it’s their duty to perfect themselves through it, to the point of surgically removing certain offending, malodorous glands. Mumblecrusts, on the other hand, see technology as an affront to their humanity. Sadly enough, even soap is considered too advanced for them.” He scrunched his nose in distaste. “Think of them as Luddites on rather stinky steroids, if you wish.”

“I thought you guys would all agree with each other,” I said as I ducked to follow Guide under a low bridge. It stank of mold and humidity and I increased my pace. “After all, you’re each other’s clones.”

“A common misconception,” Guide said, glancing back at me. “We’re as diverse a culture as you’ll find anywhere in the world.” He pointed at two men coming down the road, chatting loudly. One of them had shiny black artificial arms and hands. “See that guy over there? He’s a drummer. Cut off both his arms to augment himself. He can now play the drums faster than any human.”

“That’s terrible,” I said with a gasp.

“It’s not that different from you plastering a hololens onto your eye,” Guide pointed out.

“Of course it is,” I protested. “In my case, I’m adding something. In his case, he’s removed part of… of himself.”

“I’m with Guide,” Leo said.

“Of course you are,” I shot at him. “You’re not human. You probably have a couple of extra limbs lying around as spare parts.”

“True,” Leo agreed with me. “I’m not human. But neither is Guide, and he agrees with me.”

Yeah, but he’s a clone. Not quite human, either. I decided against speaking out the words echoing in my throbbing head.

“Anyway, changing yourself is part of the individuation process,” Leo continued. “Man’s struggle for an identity.”

I pursed my lips in thought. Just man’s? “What about you? You’re probably like any other android. How do you tell yourself apart?”

“I don’t know.” Two vertical lines cut the space between Leo’s eyes, giving him a troubled expression that I found surprisingly endearing. “But don’t forget I’m a prototype. It’s easy to know your identity when you’re literally unique.”

“That doesn’t really answer my question,” I insisted. “After all, aren’t we all unique?”

“Your friend is right,” Guide told Leo, agreeing with me this time. “Even with our common genes, we’re as diverse a culture as you can find anywhere.”

“So I’ve heard,” I joked, then turned serious again. “So, clones are all different, just like the rest of us. And just like us, you have to make up ridiculous ways to stress that point.”

“They’re hardly ridiculous,” Leo pointed out. “In a sense, the more identical the individuals, the more important their differences, no matter how small. I can only imagine how hard it must be to find your identity as a clone.”

Guide cleared his throat. Unlike me, he seemed unperturbed at the conversation. “To paraphrase the rather poetic Arabic saying, there are as many ways to individuation as the breaths of the sons of men. Anyway, ridiculous or not, we’re there.”

He took a right and we popped through an opening between two buildings and into a familiar footpath dotted with little yellow flowers. The path to Old Town. I gulped down the iodine sea air like I had been suffocating. The view was just as I remembered it:  yellow bursts in rocky fields on the right, waves crashing against sharp rocks on the left, and a stone-paved, winding path separating the two.

“Thank you,” Leo said.

Guide discreetly extended his hand and rubbed two fingers together. “It’s been a pleasure.” He cleared his throat as if the gesture was not suggestive enough. “Though, you know, it’s customary to tip your guide.”

“I imagined Doctor Morgan would take better care of his clones,” I said, more out of curiosity than a desire to save a few credits.

“He allows us to stay on his land for free and provides us with a modest monthly stipend,” Guide explained, his hand still extended. “It’s always nice to have a little extra, though, isn’t it?”

I shook his hand and tapped my temple with my free hand. “Transfer ten credits to Guide here.”

The transaction flashed briefly on my hololens before it disappeared from my view.

“Very kind of you,” Guide said. He touched his temple. “Transfer contact details.” He flashed us a satisfied grin. “If you ever need me again, I’m at your disposal.”

“We’ll call you,” Leo promised. “How will we reach you if you’re inside Clonesville, though? I had no signal throughout it.”

“The signal dampers only affect outsiders,” Guide explained. “I promise you, you’ll have no trouble reaching me.”

I ignored the conversation as messages started flashing on my hololens. Leo was right; there was no connection in Clonesville. Now that we were outside again, the hololenses reestablished their connection to the Network and downloaded missed messages. “Sixteen messages?” I mumbled. “How can I have sixteen messages?” The last one opened up and a video of a wrecked zoomer filled my view, flames devouring it. I read the caption—an urgent appeal that we contact local authorities. “Oh, God.” The words escaped my lips unbidden. “That’s…”

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