THE SYMPHONY OF PARK MYONG LEE
Myong Lee 87 was surrounded by strangers wearing her face. Those in the row in front and those to her right were eonni, older sisters. Just as she was to those to her left and behind her. Nineteen other flawless copies faced the simple wooden table, faced the portrait of Park Myong Lee. The mixed sweet and savoury scent of the offered food made Myong Lee 87's mouth water. Dried cod; a bowl of rich beef soup with a thick sheen of oil atop; a grilled fish, sides slathered with sauce, stared open-mouthed back at her. Five rows of dishes laid out for the dead.
Her robe was stiff, dark linen. The rough weave itched and chafed. Scratching was out of the question, but if she raised her shoulder an inch and slanted her head just so—a Myong Lee from the first row tilted her head slightly. Myong Lee 87 froze and went back to drawing imaginary patterns in the wood grain at her feet.
Park Myong Lee had been somewhat older than even the eldest clone sister at the time of her death. Perfect. Almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, lips equally capable of a sensuous pout and a childish smile. A nose so fine and delicate that entire fortunes had been built around flesh sculptors filling orders for replication. Trying, but failing. A voice already stilled but living on through the twenty clone sisters at the ceremony, those before, and those waiting to be decanted. Prior to her death, she had already ascended to the pinnacle of Seoul’s entertainment industry. After her death, the sisters had become the industry itself.
Introspection had dulled Myong Lee 87’s senses and the sisters were already halfway into their bow of respect when she caught up. Face burning, Myong Lee 87 made sure that her bow was deeper than the rest, so deep that the arc of her vision swept all the way round to the back of the room. She caught herself before she could squeak in shock.
Someone wasn’t bowing.
Servers flitted through the crowd of sisters, ghostlike in their white aprons. Breakfast started before the sun was up. Not all of the sisters were in attendance; some had already left for even earlier starts to the day—flights, morning interviews. The room was heavy with chatter, small groups of sisters spontaneously coalescing to gossip. Even amongst the sisters there were cliques. Myong Lee 87 sat alone.
Light wisps of steam curled from a bowl of hot soup, translucent twists of noodle lurking beneath the heap of beansprouts and slivers of beef. Myong Lee 87 twirled the noodles around her chopsticks, drawing them up and letting them splash back into the broth. The sight of Eomma with her back straight at the ceremony lurked at the edges of her mind, mocking her. Eomma, Mommy, the one constant in the upbringing of the sisters, other than the Company. Eomma who taught them how to move, how to behave, the ins and outs of etiquette, guilty of the grossest disrespect.
“87 eonni, may I sit here?”
Even the sisters had trouble telling each other apart, making honorifics a minefield. Outbursts were common; the sisters were quick to anger and sharp tongued. 102 had always been particularly observant. It was a gift.
“Of course,” answered Myong Lee 87. 102 was good company, bright and fresh in the way all of them had been after they emerged from their crèches. The other sister put her own plate down and set about stuffing her face.
“The food out here is so much better,” gushed 102, spraying half-chewed grains of rice across the table. Myong Lee 87 tutted and leaned over to dab at 102’s mouth with a napkin.
“You shouldn’t talk with your mouth full. It’s rude.”
“I can’t help it; I have my debut concert next week!” 43 was near to shaking with excitement, gesturing with one hand while raising a lump of rice to her mouth with a pair of chopsticks. She missed, smearing sauce and rice across her recently cleaned cheek.
Myong Lee 87 sighed and pressed 102’s chopstick-bearing hand to the table. Those fresh from the crèches were as gangly and awkward as newborn giraffes, all swinging joints. Not on stage, though, the Company saw to that. Singing and dancing lessons took up almost all the time in their accelerated childhoods, building on their prodigious inbuilt talents. Eomma taught them the rest, but it was never enough. Debutantes like 102 had a long way before they could meet fans, give interviews or even get hooked up for full sense recordings.
“Tell me about the concert,” Myong Lee 87 said, turning again to the task of cleaning 102’s face. The younger sister nattered on, delving into the minutiae of the show she would be on. Nothing special, really. Myong Lee 87 herself had appeared on such shows so many times that she'd lost count, nor could she remember her first show. Reviewing videos on the net gave her a peculiar sense of dislocation, not knowing if it were her or one of her sisters performing.
“Yes, so I’ve never been this happy in forever. Not since I got my puppy.” 102’s face darkened, the change as sudden as stepping out into a snowstorm. Myong Lee 87 felt the loss herself. All the sisters got a puppy when they were halfway through crèche time. It was their only friend for the two years. But it died. It always did, for all of the sisters without exception. 102’s eye glimmered with unspilled tears.
“Not now, 102. Work hard. Make sure he’d be proud of you.” The same thing Eomma had told Myong Lee 87 when hers had died. She’d thrown herself into her training doubly hard, hitting her dance routines until the soles of her feet were nothing but a contiguous raw blister, until her throat was raw and ragged.
The moment was interrupted when another sister set a tray down at the table, this one with a heavy stone bowl of sizzling rice topped off with kaleidoscopic assortment of shredded carrot, zucchini and bean sprouts slathered in hot pepper paste. “You nearly broke protocol at the ceremony yesterday, dreamer,” the sister said.
43. The same one from the day before. The third most senior sister, cruel and callous as the seniors tended to be. Shooting stars at the end of their trajectories, they burned the brightest, working themselves to the point of collapse. Myong Lee 87 nodded at 102 and said to 43, “We’re done here.” She got up.
A perfectly manicured hand flashed across the table, latching on to the alabaster skin of a forearm. Myong Lee 87 was always ready for 43 to do something like this, which was why it was 102 that was squirming in pain. “It would be rude for you to leave your elders lonely at the table, 87. You may be already lost, but it is not fair to lead the young ones astray.” 43 tightened her grip, sharp little nails digging into flesh. 102’s eyes were wide with a raw, animal terror; little mewling noises escaped her throat when she breathed.
“Of course, 43.” Myong Lee 87 favoured her older sibling with a smile she’d practiced for the gossip broadcasts, a rigid half smile that froze the rest of her face into a calm mask. She made as if to place her tray back on the table but lowered one hand at the last, sending the bowl of noodles careening off the tray and onto the floor.
The clatter silenced the room for a breath and a half, before the collective decided it was only the work of another clumsy sister and resumed their din. The effect of the attention was immediate. 43 released her grip on 102. Circling servers swarmed around her like sharks homing in on blood, nimbly stepping over the mess and deploying a variety of cleaning implements. Before the spill had been removed, Myong Lee 87 and 102 had left.
Myong Lee 87 drew the blubbering 102 down the featureless, white corridors of Company headquarters. She slapped a wall, hard enough that the sound bounced down the path like a rifle shot. “Room,” she snapped. A series of pale green dots, each as large as her fist, appeared on the floor. There were no signs here, not thirty stories down in the depths where the sisters stayed. The place was a maze for those without access rights or directions. Getting lost was not a problem; the walls called for security if you wandered for too long.
Her room was as she left it, bed still unmade, the outfit from her last appearance in a heap on the floor. It was her favourite one, an asymmetric long sleeved top in the creamiest off-white and a hip hugging skirt to match. If she had let the laundry robots scoop it up, she might not have seen it again for months. Her desk was not in a better state, a pile of unopened fan mail wobbled under a draft from a vent. The view through the full length window was of a balcony overlooking a surf-pounded beach of pure white sand. Fake, of course. The balcony doors would never open; the sun would never set unless she told it to.
102 had settled into a steady rhythm of soft hiccups but at least the tears had stopped, leaving her eyes red rimmed and puffy.
“The makeup department will complain if you go in looking like that,” she said to the younger sister, punching in an order for a soothing gel from her own makeup unit. The unit hummed and spat out a curl of thick colourless paste onto a slab of plastic. Myong Lee 87 started dabbing it under 102’s eyes with the tip of her little finger. “This will help, so long as you stop crying.”
Job done, she returned the slab to the makeup unit and cleaned her fingers on a piece of tissue, which she tossed to the ground. “Manager Kim asked to see me after my concert,” said 102. Myong Lee 87 froze. Manager Kim was the single most important decision maker that the sisters interacted with. Interactions were few. When he called one of the sisters, it was only for one thing.
Even then, he favoured some sisters over others, Myong Lee 87 had only been called once herself. Unlike 102, she’d already been of moderate seniority when it happened. There was something perfunctory about it all, as though Manager Kim were simply verifying something he already knew. It was only the second time Myong Lee 87 had seen the Manager in the flesh. He was a study in inconsistency up close. Close to seventy but wearing the face of a fifty year old passing for a forty year old. The treatments, no matter how expensive, no matter how delicate, couldn’t unwind the slow march of time across his body. And so Myong Lee 87 catalogued his imperfections as he wheezed and flopped away on top of her. The skin at the corner of his eyes that folded in just the wrong way; the contrast between the silky black hair atop his head and the wiry grey hair above his groin; the pinch and sag of the skin where his muscles had shrunken away.
“I was only called once, a long time ago. I don’t remember anything. Here. A gift for good luck, before your concert.”
She rummaged through the mess at her table, managing to scatter the fan mail across the floor but unearthing a small plastic package. Myong Lee 87 pressed the collection of small gel pads onto the fingernails of her sister. The shakes had stopped. Good. The fake fingernails were at their default setting, a loud pink.
“Clap your hands,” Myong Lee 87 said. 102 complied. The nails were electric blue now. The younger girl smiled. So easily pleased, these young ones.
“Here’s something else, do this.” She touched the edges of her thumbnails and fingertips together, forming a heart with her hands. 102 followed suit, giggling when her nails now showed tiny red hearts above the blue background.
Crisis resolved. She tousled her sister’s hair. “You’ll be fine at the concert. Be the best Park Myong Lee you can.”
Sweat dripped down Myong Lee 87’s face and neck, spattering the console in front of her as her legs pumped in circles. A drill instructor vocaloid screamed at her from the headset, telling her that she had shamed her ancestors, that she was letting the Company down, that she was a failure in life.
The perfect life of Park Myong Lee played out before her, spread into dates, news vids, fan tribute sites, concert footage. A mirror of the person she was made to be, shattered into a million glittering shards. Myong Lee 87 had been through this all before. Each sister dedicated part of their crèche years to reliving Park Myong Lee’s life in a thousand stolen pieces. Not all of the sisters emerged from the crèches. There had always been gaps in the numbers. Myong Lee 87 never thought of them till now. Imperfect sisters, poor copies.
She thought back to 43’s eyes that morning, slitted with calculated malice, sharp nails about to tear through 102’s skin. If they were all copies, why were they cruel and silly? If Park Myong Lee had faults, why hadn’t they been splayed across the net?
The drill instructor was becoming increasingly apoplectic. Myong Lee 87 tore the headset from her brow and set it back on panel of the exercise machine. She blinked as the empty gym came back into focus, the electronic paint on the walls showing an endless road in an autumn forest. Empty save for one person. Eomma was there with her. She bowed her head to greet the older woman.
“Good afternoon, 87.”
“Good afternoon, Eomma.” Eomma didn’t have business with the sisters after they emerged from their crèches. Something else had brought her to the gym. Eomma stepped forward. She looked a little older than Myong Lee 87 remembered. Face still broad and lined; lips uncolored and stretched thin in permanent disapproval; hair tightly drawn back in a bun, shot through with slightly more grey now. Eomma placed a bottle of water on the panel of the exercise machine and crossed her thick forearms under her bosom.
“Shouldn’t you have learned all about Myong Lee by now?” asked Eomma.
“There is more. There must be. All I get from the net is another mask. It’s what the public expects her to be. I am no closer to knowing who she was.” Myong Lee 87 didn’t ask how Eomma knew what she’d been looking at through her headset.
“Clever girl. Too clever to be a good Myong Lee, I think. You were the one who looked behind at the ceremony, when everybody else was looking forward.” Eomma circled around the exercise machines to the walls.
“Did you know her? The real Park Myong Lee?”
“Yes, but not very well.”
“Are we sisters like her?”
The other woman paused her circuit around the room. She slapped the wall hard, resetting it to default black. “We thought we would build upwards to the sky, like birds. Instead we dug into the ground like worms. Our hands were always too dirty to craft the dreams we had.” Eomma finished her round by the door to the gym. “You all remind me of her. Everything the company does is to remake you in her image. The crèche, the puppy, even your lifespan, engineered to give you girls the same purpose in life as Park Myong Lee. The corporate network is a dark mirror. It shows you the parts of her they want you to be, the parts of her that the Company can sell. There are ways to see through, if you search hard enough.” The older woman left the gym without saying goodbye.
Myong Lee 87 stroked the headset. The net was the only freedom the sisters had from the Company, and even that was another cage. She thought to hurl the thing across the room into the lying walls, but that would serve no purpose other than to flag her for scrutiny. Instead, she reached for the bottle of water. It gave a strange clink when she picked it up. A gift from Eomma, a chip card for a phone.
The crowd screamed for the person Myong Lee 87 would never be. She blew a kiss to the VIP drones that hovered and flitted over the edge of the stage, watching them crowd each other for the best feed of her performance. She’d thrown herself into live performances and interviews with an energy that puzzled the Company, enduring a schedule so punishing that her body weight skirted the lower percentiles of acceptability.
The time outside of headquarters gave her something else. Time with Eomma’s chip and the opportunity to swim in the vast sea of the net instead of the Company’s sheltered lagoon. And so, in moments stolen in dressing rooms, waiting rooms, and bathrooms, she discovered Park Myong Lee.
Manager Kim was there, always present, wearing the face he’d been born with rather than the caricature he’d installed by parts. The meteoric rise of the Company. At the centre of it all, Park Myong Lee. Myong Lee 87 studied the way the idol walked, the way she ate, the way she looked in interviews, a thousand different imperfections. Not just the perfect icon the sisters aspired to, but someone who tripped up in concerts (two million likes), who got flustered in interviews (downvoted to a net score of zero) and who, at the apogee of her ascent, retreated from public view.
A terse release from the Company put it down to a particularly aggressive illness, a patiently waiting snake coiled around her genome, poised to strike. The same thing that the sisters had inherited, perhaps. Now each of them, like mayflies, emerged for a decade of adoration before burning out.
Instead of having the corridors take her to her bedroom, she asked for Eomma. Coaches had taught her to sing and dance, but someone else had taught her to move like Park Myong Lee. The door hissed open before she knocked. Eomma’s room was simple and austere: dark wood underfoot with whitewashed walls. Windows of oiled paper looked out on snow covered mountains. But when Myong Lee 87 placed her hand on the window for support while she pulled off her shoes, she only felt the dull warmth of the electronic paint.
Eomma sat on the ground, knees up to her chest, stirring an earthen pot with a long handled ladle. She gestured for Myong Lee 87 to join her.
“Have you learned enough?”
“Not yet. I want to know why.”
Eomma lifted the ladle. A frond of dark green seaweed trailed the scoop as it made its way to her mouth and back to the steaming pot. A frown split her forehead. The ladle went back in, followed by a dark stream of soya sauce.
“Park Myong Lee had to go so a legend could be born. A legend that you sisters add to,” said Eomma.
“She didn’t go very far, did she?” Myong Lee 87 watched Eomma, Eomma watched the pot. The two of them sat, knees bent, feet to the left of their hips, posture perfectly mirrored.
“If you were never sick, then why do we die?”
“You didn’t inherit that from me. Your cells age faster; your childhood is only as long as the Company can afford and your lives only last as long as you are useful. The Company found that the pressing weight of death gives the sisters a certain desperation that the public loves.”
Head spinning, Myong Lee 87 pressed both palms on the ground to keep her balance. The next ladleful of soup met with Eomma’s approval and she scooped out a bowl, pushing it across the ground to Myong Lee 87.
“The soup is good for you.”
Myong Lee 87 picked up a spoon and gently blew on the soup before she put it in her mouth. She tasted the sea. “Why did you come back?”
“Manager Kim called me when they started the project. How else were you sisters to be made perfect? We all loved Park Myong Lee in our own ways. Him. The world. You. Me. You are all my children after all.”
“No children of your own?”
“Something was wrong. I thought to go to one of those fertility banks, buy an embryo. I never did. You can’t have children either. None of the sisters can. They can’t keep on making copies of copies.” Eomma stretched out to Myong Lee 87 and laid a palm on her belly. She felt the roughness of the old woman’s hand through the sheer material of her top.
“The next generation of Park Myong Lee is already here. They learnt this from the insects. You already carry your daughters before you are born. The Company will take them when your life runs out.”
Her legs came close to betraying her when she stood up, a shudder of weakness running a piano flourish down the length of her thighs. “Thank you for the soup, Eomma. I have to go.”
“How far has any of the sisters gotten?”
“Some get caught. The rest come back.”
Myong Lee 87 bowed without answering and turned to leave the room. By the time she was halfway down the corridor, she was running.
Reviews were already coming in for Park Myong Lee’s latest performance. Someone noticed her tiredness. A VIP drone managed to catch an angle where the makeup hadn’t quite masked the dark under her eyes. Her voice sounded flat. Someone else ran a recording of the concert against a previous one and tabulated the number of notes she didn’t hit. Myong Lee 87 noted with some irony that it was 102’s concert she was being compared to. All of this wouldn’t matter for long. A performance like that would get her both a thorough physical and psychological evaluation. If she were heading back to the Company.
Her minder hurried her on through the arteries and veins of the entertainment megaplex, away from her clutching fans. Myong Lee 87 liked this particular megaplex; it went all the way to the surface and then eighty stories skywards after that. Connected both above and below ground, a determined person could leave the complex from any of a hundred different transit options. On a busy day, like today, you could get no less than half a dozen of the sisters running through the complex at some time or another.
Myong Lee 87 knew this complex better than she did the featureless white corridors of headquarters. She knew, for example, where the major studios were and just the right time to ask her minder to point her towards a washroom. There was another minder already outside, distractedly swiping through a series of colourful jewels projected on the wall.
The washroom was empty, the first minder would have seen to that. Two open stalls and one locked. “102?” she whispered. They only had a matter of moments to do this. There was a click and the door swung open.
“87 eonni. You’re finally here. I’ve been in for five minutes. We don’t have much time. Are you sure about this?”
“Yes. I’m not going back. I’m not Park Myong Lee. I’m done trying.”
“We need to change quickly. Get out of your clothes.”
“Wait a minute, let me see your nails.”
“I don’t see how...” Before 102 had completed her sentence, Myong Lee 87 seized her wrist and twisted. Blue. With a flick of her own wrist, she flipped 102’s palm around and brought her other hand to meet it with a slap that stung them both.
Myong Lee 87 slammed both her palms on the other woman’s shoulders, sending her careening into the tiled wall. A stolen dinner knife was out before the sister recovered. Myong Lee 87 pressed it in under a cheekbone, just hard enough to dimple flesh.
“This isn’t that sharp. It doesn’t have to be. Where’s 102?”
“Back at headquarters, on evaluation. I swapped with sessions with her. How could you tell?”
“Nails. Hers were a gift.”
“Clever.” With the knife still against her cheek, 43 stepped out of the skirt she was wearing, kicked off her shoes and slid them both over to Myong Lee 87. “You’ve wasted enough time. If one of us doesn’t appear outside in a minute, the minders will come in.”
Myong Lee 87 shrugged off her own clothes, accepting 43’s tank top and a loose jacket. 43 tugged at the sleeve. “Reversible. Turn it inside out. I wore the white coming in. Use the blue instead. It’ll buy you some time.”
“Why are you doing this, eonni?”
“Because it isn’t fair for 102 to bear this. Because I had to see for myself, if you were strong enough.” She touched her cheek where Myong Lee 87 had held the edge of the knife. “I guess you are.”
With the exchange of clothing complete, the elder sister pulled Myong Lee 87 in for a close embrace. It was the first time she’d been hugged. 43 whispered into Myong Lee 87’s ear. “Because I went back.”
43 pressed a small black card into Myong Lee 87’s palm. “You’ll need money. This is from Eomma. DNA passcode, but I don’t think that will be a problem for you. Don’t give me that look, you think you’re the first one that figured things out?”
Myong Lee 87 swung the door to the toilet stall open. The minders hadn’t come in yet. She clambered up onto the toilet, pushing at the false ceiling above. 43 was outside washing her hands. “Don’t try the ceiling. Mesh grid every fifty metres, keeps the rats out. 37 found out the hard way. I’ll take your minder off and say that 43 needs a drink or she’ll throw a tantrum. It’ll buy you five, maybe ten minutes. I’ve trained my minder well.”
When 43 turned around, her eyes were red, the tears leaving twin trails of eyeshadow down her cheeks. “These aren’t for you. They’re for the terrible concert you put on. You wouldn’t have made a good Park Myong Lee anyway. Two minutes and then run for it. Good luck.”
New Hongdae was winding down, the crowds bleeding out from the sprawling underground interchange between several megaplexes. Some of the buskers were packing up, or sipping cool tea to soothe strained throats. A plain-looking woman strummed a chord on a guitar and launched into one of Park Myong Lee’s lesser known songs, something seldom tackled by the sisters.
A patron swiped his phone over a string of symbols painted onto the guitar case and the busker was slightly richer. She thanked the passer-by in between verses and launched into another song for the empty plaza.
“How much for you to sing that one again?” asked a voice the busker knew.
“For you, Eomma, it would cost nothing.”
“Are you keeping well?”
“I have a small apartment; I play gigs. This just passes the time. I’d cover more of Park Myong Lee, but people say I’m not very good at that. I guess I didn’t get as far as I wanted.” Myong Lee 87 smiled, still awkward in the movement of her new face after two years. Eommma held out her hand for the guitar. Myong Lee 87 handed it over; stretching the muscles in her back after the strap went over her head.
“They still run a scan for you, every week. Face. Net patterns,” said Eomma, picking up the song where Myong Lee 87 had left off. The older woman’s fingers were every bit as nimble as Myong Lee 87’s, the tune trilling at the hands of its true mistress.
“There is no Company without Park Myong Lee. There is no Park Myong Lee without the Company. I thought that was the secret. Death was the only way out. I just stopped, stopped being Park Myong Lee.”
Eomma nodded, ending the song prematurely, raising a hand to a face that she hadn’t been born with, stroking scars that went far deeper than skin.
“That is why all the others never got away. 102 is doing well. She’ll make a better Park Myong Lee than either of us,” Eomma said eventually.
Myong Lee 87 let out a snort, something most unbecoming for a pop superstar but acceptable here on the streets of New Hongdae. “What of 43?” she asked.
Eomma hesitated. “43 has moved on. The Company has taken her back. Maybe in a year or two, I will raise her daughters.”
“And nothing changes, another hundred Park Myong Lees always singing the same tired songs. We never got away, did we?”
“The Company goes on and so does she.”
“If 43 is already gone, then I don’t have that many years left. Certainly not enough to see my daughters grow up.”
Eomma made a clucking noise with her tongue, a sound of admonishment Myong Lee 87 hadn’t heard in years. She handed the guitar back. “You can’t have children, 87. It’s the way you were made.”
“I can’t. I know that.”
“What did you do?” Eomma’s fingers, dancing on the strings a moment ago, were balled into shivering fists.
“I will have no daughters, but others will have mine. I took them out, you see. There are some very clever people here, black market medical tech is very good. A hundred Park Myong Lees, waiting in a few dozen fertility banks for the right mothers. A hundred different little girls; who knows what music they will bring?”
Eomma’s broad face had gone as pale as that of the death portrait Myong Lee 87 had bowed to years ago. She spun around and left without saying goodbye. Myong Lee 87 lifted her guitar and continued the chords where Eomma had stopped. No, she thought, sliding rough fingertips down the neck of the instrument, time for something new. She couldn’t be any different—a thousand clone sisters singing the same note didn’t make a song. But out all over Seoul, in the fullness of time, she would have a symphony.