Asunder

By Rob Francis


I’ve covered some seminal events in my time, no doubt about it. Remember the Tokyo earthquake, the one that finished the city off for good and ended the Indo-pacific cold war? I was there for that, streaming a lot of it through my ocular cameras to the TransGlobal nebula for millions to watch in the comfort of their homes. I got buried by rubble, only just survived. Streamed the whole thing. It made me a household name, known for my experimental implants and for taking risks: Hiro Mirumachi, reporter extraordinaire. All the action, all the drama you could want from a major catastrophe that’s happening to other people. It was hell, but it was worth it in the end.

This isn’t like that at all. This is two identical young women lying side by side in their hospital beds. So why is it so much worse?

“We’re getting to it now.”

I focus on Dr. Petrov’s face as he makes the pronouncement so that the audience can see the solemnity engraved there before panning back to the dying woman. Kate’s breathing is shallow, irregular. The oxygen mask clasps her face like a hungry parasite. I’m abstractly aware that fluid is slowly filling her lungs and there is nothing to be done but watch her slowly drown.

In the other bed, Kate’s sister Clara lies with her head to one side, watching her twin intently through tired, bloodshot eyes.

“What do you see now?” says Professor Sun softly.

Clara’s eyes shift to her for a moment.

“She’s dreaming,” the young woman whispers. “A childhood memory. Dad took us to see the mammoth in Central Park. She loved it. But there are flashes of light and colour, the memory isn’t clean.”

Professor Sun taps the observations into her slate, then puts it aside to stare at her hands, clearly trying to get her emotions under control. This is my chance.

“Professor, perhaps at this point, as we approach the end, you might wish to say a little about the dual mind technology you developed and how it is possible for us to know what this young lady, nineteen year old Clara Shaw, is seeing and feeling?”

Zoom in on the professor’s face at high resolution to show the tears in her eyes. Yes, good. Poignant. Her awkward swallow is audible to my implants, even at a distance.

“Hyper-interaction. Yes. Well. Biomimetic neurofibres were implanted into the brains of—” She stops, eyes wide, then takes a deep breath and speaks as if from rote; a speech rehearsed a thousand times.

“Tiny strands of synthetic material with quantum computing technology were developed in the late forties, of course. They can communicate with each other across space instantly, and can be taught to manufacture cell-like structures. The Shaw twins – Kate and Clara – had the fibres implanted shortly after birth. As their brains developed, the fibres constructed supporting structures that could receive synaptic transmissions from neurons and pass that information between each other instantaneously.”

“Meaning?”

“Well, it meant that each girl could experience what the other was experiencing, know what they were thinking, communicate with each other, constantly and in real time.”

 I nod slightly in encouragement. The world will be watching. Is she going to hold it together? Either way is good.

“It has been described as one of the greatest scientific advances of the mid twenty-first century, and of course earned you the Nobel. Has it been the success you thought it was?”

“They were just babies. It was a trial. They were premature, there were complications after their mother died, the doctors thought they wouldn’t live beyond the first five years. Long enough to determine if hyper-interaction was taking place, how effective it was. Some early work had suggested that the substantial difficulties of brain-to-brain communication were reduced in twins. They were biologically and psychologically so similar.”

She turns back to the emaciated woman in the bed, and I pan across too. I pause the footage momentarily. It’s a sobering image, a picture-perfect memento mori.

“But they lived. For decades. Living almost as one person in two bodies. Can you imagine what that must be like? I can’t, despite all the interviews, the tests, the years of data.”

Beautiful. And that’s my cue for setting up the final act, the seminal moment. I’m desperate for it to go well, yet I am also unaccountably afraid. My shirt is sticking to my back. Bile burns the back of my throat.

“And even now, we are still learning,” I say in what I intend to be a reassuring tone, but which comes out tinged with uncertainty. “The link between these two brave women will allow us to see what the moment of death is like, to actually have someone experience it vicariously. A glimpse behind that final veil.” I carefully raise a hand to wipe sweat from my brow before it can fall on the ocular lens.

“Colours now,” whispers Clara. “Iridescence. A sensation of falling, but it is not unpleasant. Words and images from long ago. I see myself. She is thinking of me. The sensation is of love. There is no fear.”

Tears run down her cheeks and I make sure to focus on her face, her features intensely set, her head held proud against her grief. I remember that although Clara had no cancer herself, she will have experienced everything that Kate did during her long illness. Years of suffering, of treatment. The thought makes me shudder. I give silent thanks to any supreme beings who might be listening that it is not me lying there.  

“A wall of white, so bright that there is nothing else. Now stars, pinpricks of light. Flickering. Moving. I can see…” Clara goes silent, staring into nothing, mouth closed, body tense.

On the bed, Kate is still.

“She’s gone,” says Dr. Petrov, the old man gently squeezing Kate’s fingers as if in farewell. A touching moment.

The silence extends. Professor Suns speaks softly to Clara. “What do you see now? Anything?”

Clara’s gaze shifts to the professor and she smiles, teeth red with blood from where she has bitten her tongue.

And the silence continues.

I am wary of moving the camera from Clara’s face in case I miss the golden moment of pronouncement, though the urge to document the professor’s reaction is strong. The viewers will be curious.

“Clara?” Professor Sun sounds close to panic. Her hand waves in front of Clara’s eyes, which do not respond. Dr. Petrov shines a light, checks her pulse, listens to her breathing. She doesn’t move.

I imagine all the people watching in their homes, waiting for a revelation that may not be coming after all. They will blame me. This could be the end of my career.

After a few moments, Dr. Petrov shakes his head.

“She seems fine. Just… not there. Not responding to stimuli.” He adjusts her head on the pillow, making sure she is comfortable.

“What now?” I am careful to keep the irritation out of my voice, as far as I can.

“We wait,” says Professor Sun.

I kill the feed and step into the corridor to do a little voiceover wrap up for the audience. The story will continue! Don’t go far!


The three of us wait and watch. Kate’s body has been taken away by a pair of orderlies, and Clara is hooked up to machines to monitor her heart rate, pulse, brain activity. It’s as if she’s asleep, except that her eyes are wide open and staring into space. Does she see whatever Kate is seeing now, if anything? Is she gazing on the mysteries of the cosmos? Or just in shock? If she’s as good as dead, I’ll never get my story. It’ll be the anti-climax of the year.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that.

Dr. Petrov occupies himself by fussing over the machines, making notes, mumbling suggestions to himself. Professor Sun holds Clara’s hand, stroking it with her thumb, talking softly to her. The two doctors don’t look at each other.

I sit on a sterile armchair in the corner. It’s been over two hours now. Most of the audience will have switched off. They’ll be back when they get a notification from the network that there’s something worth seeing, but for now my camera is idle.

I cross to the window and look down on the highway five storeys below, watch the transporters thundering past the hospital on their way to the nearby industrial zone. Each one following a pre-programmed route, its onboard computer perhaps now more self-aware than the subject of my documentary.

The professor gets a call on her earphone and excuses herself, mouthing ‘my wife’ as she heads to the door.

No-one’s trying to call me. I expect someone from TransGlobal will if things go south, but that’s about it.

I’m tired. Perhaps a short nap would help. I would surely wake if Clara showed any sign of improvement or deterioration. I study her again for a moment, lying back, that red grin still splayed across her face, eyes staring at the savannah landscape painted on the ward ceiling to cheer patients as they recover. Can she see it?

Is that her little finger twitching, or is it my imagination? I switch the camera on and focus, though I don’t record just yet. It might be nothing.

There is a tap at the door. Professor Sun is back. Dr. Petrov crosses the room to open it.

Yes. Clara’s little finger is twitching. I start to record.

“Dr. Petrov—”

The door slides open and there is a gasp. I turn as the doctor steps back into the room, his hand clasped to his throat. Blood is thick between his fingers.

Kate follows him in, her hands bloodied, a scalpel gripped between her fingers. Her flesh, which was so pale just a few hours before, is now a shocking indigo across her arms and legs, her veins and arteries standing stark white beneath the skin as if some dreadful contamination creeps through them. The smile on her face mirrors Clara’s.

The notification pings out, its chime ringing in my ear. Around the world, people are switching to TransGlobal to watch the livestream.

Kate turns to Clara. I should just watch, and record. Shrink into the corner and hope that I am overlooked. But there is no-one else left to ask; no-one else to seek the truth that humanity has craved for millennia. It must fall to me.

“Kate,” I say, hoping that I sound more confident than I feel, knowing that these could be the last words I ever speak. “What did you see? You’re still together, aren’t you? You and Clara.”

She turns to me and stares as if enraptured.

“We are all together, Hiro. In the great singularity beyond. It is only here we imagine that we are things apart from each other.”

And that is when I realise that Kate hasn’t taken Clara with her into the mysteries of death. Instead, Clara has anchored Kate in the living world. I can tell, from her ecstatic smile and pain-filled eyes, that she longs for whatever is beyond, this singularity. While Clara lives, she cannot join it.

I back into a corner, putting distance between myself and Kate, keeping the camera focused on the blade in her hand. In doing so I leave the path open to Clara, though I tell myself that is not my intention. If I had the chance, I would stop her. Most certainly.

Though perhaps it would be better for them both to end their suffering now. Maybe letting it happen would be the right thing to do.

“Kate.”

Professor Sun leans heavily on the doorframe, the front of her lab coat ripped and soaked with blood.

Zoom to the rent and bloodied cloth, almost certainly made by the scalpel in Kate’s hand; then to the professor’s ashen face.

“Clara’s your sister, Kate. It’s not her time. Don’t do it.”

“She’s me. She’s always been me, and I her. You made sure of that.” Kate speaks calmly, almost cheerfully. The incongruous tone of her accusation makes the whole thing even more surreal.

My implants pick up voices outside the room, the tramp of feet approaching. The click of a gun being armed. Security.

Kate points the blade at Professor Sun. At the professor’s feet, Dr. Petrov is still choking on his own blood. Kate turns to Clara and raises the blade.

Zoom. Focus.

The taste of bile again.

Clara’s hand lifts, her arm straight, palm towards the ceiling. The meaning is clear.

Stop.

Kate hesitates. Clara’s eyes are still open, still unfocused. But now she speaks, mouthing words that even I can’t hear. Whatever they are, they are enough to make Kate drop the scalpel to the ward floor. She nods to Clara, once, and steps away from the bed to stand in front of the window.

 Something moves behind Professor Sun, black shapes pushing her out of the way.

“No!” I shout, but it is too late.

Two guards appear in the doorway, one crouched, one standing. Both armed.

I switch to slow motion streaming on instinct.

Kate twists as they unload their automatic pistols, jerking as at least one round hits her, then turns to the window, crazed now with a web of fractures between bullet holes. She puts one foot on the windowsill and springs up and through the glass, dropping instantly from sight.

Slow motion ends.

I run to the window.

Kate lies on the pavement in a pool of purplish blood. I zoom in. Slowly she begins to move, lifting her head a little from the ground, then reaching out her arms and pushing with her legs to crawl, agonisingly slowly, towards the lane of traffic.

Footsteps ring behind me as a guard approaches, but I must see, must bear witness to what happens. He tries to pull me away but I keep watching, keep filming.

Kate reaches the highway and lays her head on the tarmac. The next transporter is going too fast to stop. A squeal of brakes suggests that its self-drive computer has registered the human obstacle in its path, but it is all too little, too late.

For an absurd moment, just as I am dragged away from the window, I wonder how Kate has managed to scream so loud from so far away; how she can even scream at all without a head. Until I realise it is Clara, howling at the ceiling as if striving to make the entire world hear her pain.

Which they can, though me.

I survey the ward. Clara whimpers while nurses rush to sedate her. Dr. Petrov has bled out, the floor slick with the old man’s blood. On Kate’s bed, another nurse tends to Professor Sun, trying to stop her bleeding from at least a dozen stab wounds.

The bloodied scalpel lies at my feet, kicked across the room in the chaos. I pick it up and fold it in a wad of tissues before slipping it into my pocket. Perhaps it will be valuable in the future. The only murder weapon used by a dead woman.

A hand falls on my shoulder and a guard shoves me into the corridor. The door closes behind me.

I stop filming.

All is silent, until my earphone announces a call coming through. I shut it off.

I don’t want to talk to anyone.

I consider what I’ve just seen. What the world has seen, thanks to me.

What have I given them? Some hope that death may not be the absolute end? Or yet another nightmare to occupy them while they wait for the inevitable, however far away it might be?

And who’ll be willing to hire me, after this shitshow?

It doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s the adrenaline talking but I don’t want to do this anymore. I need to do something different with my life. My filming days are over. Time to throw the camera away.

Of course, I may feel different in the morning. That’s why some decisive action is needed.

I take the bloody tissues from my pocket. My fingers trace the shape of the blade within.

Somewhere along the corridor is a bathroom I used earlier today. I recall that it has a large mirror.

I’ll be needing that.


AUTHOR BIO

Rob Francis is an academic and writer with around fifty stories published in various magazines and anthologies. Recent stories appear in The Arcanist, Apparition Lit, Weird Horror Magazine, Kaleidotrope and Love Letters to Poe. He is an affiliate member of the HWA and is on Twitter @RAFurbaneco.


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