Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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The China Doll

by Rachel Eliason



"Ladies and gentlemen," Dr. Eric Armstrong announced to the lab full of onlookers, "Science is years of hard work and tedium punctuated by solitary moments of pure excitement, nay, terror." Eric liked to think he had a knack for showmanship and had been rehearsing this short speech for some time. "There comes a point in every scientist's life when he or she --" he gave a slight nod to Dr. Devi Gupta, who was in fact the senior physicist on this project -- "must stake their careers or even their very lives on the outcome of one experiment. Though rarely as literally as I do today."

There was a nervous titter around the room.

"But I have a great faith in my work and even more in my colleagues. So without further ado..."

He stepped up on the platform.

Kim Sung, his senior engineer, gave him a small nod. He looked pale.

"To paraphrase another great milestone in the history of the human race..." Eric returned Kim's nod. "...today I stand perfectly still, while humanity takes one great leap forward."

Whatever private doubts might be assailing Kim, he hit the switch on cue.

Eric felt a rush, as though the entire world were rushing at him, or perhaps he was rushing at it. Then there was a moment of disorientation. That was it. Suddenly he was standing on the platform again, only it wasn't the same platform. The lab was full of people, but they weren't the same people.

The medical team rushed him. Paul Russil, Kim's counterpart in lab two, was jumping up and down yelling. Everyone was cheering, clapping and making noise, but Paul's voice cut through them all, "The first human teleportation has been achieved!"

####

"Well, you appear to be in the peak of good health," Dr. Harner said as she took her seat opposite Eric. They were in the medical bay, far from the celebration and noise of the lab. "Everything looks fine for now. Of course protocol demands we keep you under observation for seventy-two hours, but it looks like your confidence was well placed."

"Of course," Eric agreed, "I knew it would work." Something tugged at his subconscious, something out of place. He could not identify what it was so he shrugged it off. "Now, I would like to call my wife. I know she was watching, but I would still like to let her know I am okay in person."

Eric called his wife and then insisted on sitting in on the debriefing. He was as eager to see the final data as any on the team.

They looked at him nervously, as though he were sick.

He scowled at their concern. He felt fine.

But he did not feel fine, not entirely. Physically he felt good. His vital signs were all perfect. Results from the numerous lab tests they had done were rapidly filtering back and they were all within normal limits. He had not one physical complaint to speak of. Every atom in his body had been separated, its patterns traced; those patterns had been sent from a lab in San Bernardino California to a lab in Sacramento California. There, every atom making up Eric Armstrong had been perfectly reformed, all in the space of a nanosecond, all without a single measurable ill effect on him.

But he still felt a vague sense of disquiet and uncertainty that he could not seem to shake. It bothered him in large part because he was not used to emotions like disquiet. People who knew him and liked him used words like 'confident' and 'optimistic' to describe him. Those that maybe didn't like him so well used 'arrogant' or 'cocky'. But no one used 'uncertain'.

Again he shook it off and tried to concentrate on the debriefing. It was short and sweet. Everything had gone according to plan. The data confirmed almost every aspect of the theoretical basis for the process. As a scientific endeavor this was going to go down in history as one of the most successful ever.

After the debriefing they had a long celebratory meal. No one was eager to go home after such a monumental day. Slowly, however, spouses, family and tomorrow's obligations sent everyone heading for home, leaving Eric and the medical crew that would observe him for the next three days.

It was pitch black when Eric woke in a cold sweat. He sat up, straining his eyes for a clock. He tried to piece together what had woken him. It had to do with a memory, a tiny conversation that had gone on during the day, something about confidence.

He had felt confident that the experiment would succeed. Why did that bother him now? He turned the thought over and over in his mind, trying to see what was out of place. Then it hit him: he remembered he had felt confident the experiment would succeed, but did he feel confident now? It was a strange distinction, but it felt suddenly important. He had the thought; he had the memory that he had been confident, but he could no longer remember the feeling. It wasn't that he had doubts now; that would be ridiculous in the face of the evidence. It was just that he remembered it as though he had been told that "this guy named Eric was confident" rather than having the visceral feeling of confidence he was sure he must have felt at the time.

He shook his head to clear it. The last few weeks of his life had been the culmination of years of work. To say he had been under stress would be an understatement. No doubt after a few days of rest and recuperation he would be back to himself.

####

"Welcome home, honey," Eric's wife Malinda greeted him as he walked through the front door. He saw her bounding out of the kitchen, looking exactly like he remembered her, short, lithe with dark blond hair. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever met. He opened his arms to catch her as she almost ran into his embrace. His hands ran down the muscles of her back, finding everything exactly as it should be.

"I made your favorite," she said with her head buried in his shoulder. "Steak."

Her words brought the aroma flowing out of the kitchen to his attention. His stomach growled appreciatively and she giggled. His mouth watered on cue.

"Daddy! Daddy!" His son Jimmy screamed as he too ran into the room. Malinda let Eric go and disappeared back into the kitchen while he greeted his son. Once their greetings were finished they were commanded to sit while Malinda served up a feast of steak, mashed potatoes, and corn and green bean casserole. All of Eric's favorite foods.

No sooner had Eric cut the first bite away from the steak and raised it halfway to his mouth when the thought stopped him: was this really his favorite food? He paused and considered. His stomach lurched at the aroma, his mouth watered in anticipation. His mind obliged him by bringing up numerous memories of tucking into a steak dinner, with his parents at his high school graduation, on his wedding night, the night he had proposed, and many less meaningful meals. He knew that he ranked this meal as his favorite and had for years.

But he remembered other meals he had enjoyed as well. He remembered the Chinese buffet his son loved so much. He remembered the fish he and his Dad had caught and cooked over a camp fire when he was a boy.

He remembered the meals, and he recalled how much he had enjoyed them. But somehow he could not recapture the feeling of enjoying these meals. It was like there was a plate glass partition in his mind. He had memories like text on a computer but no sensation. He had no idea what feeling went with "steak is my favorite meal".

His stomach protested hungrily at his delay. He shrugged and began to eat. It was a great meal.

Eric woke at eleven thirty seven PM. Next to him in the bed lay a total stranger that he knew so well. They had tucked Jimmy into bed by eight and Malinda had coaxed him to bed shortly after with the promise of a reunion neither would forget.

He remembered all the times they had been together. He remembered the spots he had kissed, the places he had caressed softly, the noises she had made. There had been passion, he remembered that. He could not however, conjure up that passion now. He merely remembered that it had been there.

It had not been there tonight. Their lovemaking that night had been okay, not great, but okay. "It happens" she had muttered, "what with all the stress you've been under." They had drifted off shortly afterwards, for Eric only to be wakened a couple of hours later.

"It's okay, I just can't sleep," he said to her murmur, "You go on." He watched her snuggled down while he climbed out of the bed and slid his pants back on.

Downstairs in the kitchen he stared into the depths of the fridge. There were several Tupperware containers of leftovers, the usual collection of ketchup and sauces on the door but not the one thing he was searching for, a beer. He sighed. There was a gas station just down the road and they didn't stop selling until two am. He padded back upstairs to retrieve a shirt, his wallet and car keys.

####

He passed a display of porcelain dolls on the way back to the beer cooler. He snorted. When they had first moved into their house he had wondered why a gas station would sell dolls or the toys that lined the opposite side of that aisle. Jimmy had been just a baby then but as soon as he learned to walk the mystery had been solved. They couldn't so much as stop for gas or a drink without the boy discovering some new toy he absolutely had to have.

He reached the back and opened the nearest cooler, reaching for a case of Budweiser. He froze. The sense of disquiet filled him once again. It's my favorite beer, he thought. But was it? It had been his favorite, ever since his first kegger in college. But was it still? Maybe now he was a Coors fan. Maybe, like the more status-conscious academicians, a wine connoisseur.

He wasn't about to go that far. He did, however, let go of the Budweiser and chose instead a six pack of Sam Adams. On his way to the front to pay he wondered, what does it matter anyway? So I used to favor Bud, now I like something different. People change, that's all.

He stopped and stared at the porcelain dolls. The beer nearly slipped through his fingers. He caught it quickly. Then he grabbed two dolls off the rack.

####

"Eric," Devi Gupta was saying in a placating voice, "Let's try to remain calm here."

"I am calm," Eric replied, though he knew he was not. He was close to losing it. But he had to make her understand, and she was not listening. "Just listen, please."

"I am listening."

"These two dolls," He said gesturing at the porcelain china dolls he had purchased the night before, which now sat on Dr. Gupta's desk, "They are identical right? Because they were made from the same pattern, right? But they are two separate dolls."

She stared at him cautiously but blankly. He stared back. "Don't you get it?" he almost shouted.

"What do two dolls have to do with our experiment?" she asked.

He sighed. They had been over this twice already. He started in again. "Look. Eric Armstrong stepped on a platform in your lab four days ago."

"You are Eric Armstrong," she said forcefully.

He ignored her comment. "He was disintegrated and his pattern stored in a machine. That pattern was sent to another lab and a new Eric Armstrong was created." He looked at her meaningfully, "Like these two china dolls, the two Erics are exactly identical, because they were based on the same pattern, but they are two separate Erics."

"But you are the same Eric," she said. "You look the same to me."

"Because we were based on the same pattern."

"Medical tests were all identical."

"Again, same pattern." He said.

"Memories, cognitive function," she said. "We tested all that, it's the same."

"I have the same neurological loops, the same synaptic pathways," he retorted. "Of course I have the same memories, the same thoughts. My mouth salivates at the same foods. Images conjure the same responses and memories. But something is different."

"And you know this because..." She paused to show how crazy he was being, then continued, "...you like a different beer?"

He lay his head down on her desk in frustration. "It's lot of stuff, little stuff, but important things. I can remember what it's like to be Eric Armstrong but I can't feel what it's like."

"What's Malinda think of all this?"

In a quiet voice he said, "I don't love her." Guilt tore at him as the words left his mouth. She was so good, so faithful and he had just betrayed her.

Dr. Gupta stared at him coldly. He knew how much she liked his wife. She had said she felt like Malinda was her own daughter.

"She's a good woman," he went on. "I think I could come to love her in time, perhaps even as much as I did before. But right now that feeling isn't there."

"Because of the experiment?"

He nodded.

She paused for a long time, considering. Finally she spoke. "I think you need to take some time off, away from the project. You and Malinda can spend some time together, work on your issues."

"We don't have any issues."

"You just said..."

"I know what I said. We don't have any issues, I just don't know her."

"You've been married for eight years."

"The old Eric was married to her for eight years," he said. "I just met her."

Dr. Gupta sighed. "You need to take some time off, Eric," she commanded. "And I think you need to talk to Dr. Holloway, too." Dr. Holloway was the psychiatrist that had administered the cognitive function tests.

"It's not a psych issue," he said, "It's a physics issue."

She met his gaze and he deflated.

"Fine, I'll go. I'll take some time off. And the project?"

"Goes ahead."

He closed his eyes. "Who's volunteered to go next."

"Kim."

Kim Sung, the engineer and Eric's right hand man. It made sense. He felt sick. He had the image suddenly of Dead Man's salon, the bar just off campus that he and Kim frequented. He saw himself and the new Kim sitting together toasting their old selves.

####

Eric Armstrong stared out the attic window without seeing. He had taken to spending more and more time up here. Mostly he was hiding from Malinda. He wasn't sure what irritated him more, the assumption of intimacy -- her need to believe that they were still the loving couple they had been only a few weeks ago -- or her concern. She was no different than Dr. Gupta, Dr. Holloway or any of the others. They were all concerned about him, but not one would stop and consider what he was actually telling them.

Tomorrow one of his best friends and longest running co-workers, Kim Sung would step onto a platform in San Bernardino and cease to exist. That an exact replica of this Kim Sung would almost instantly appear in Sacramento was small comfort. He had tried to warn Kim, but news of his "nervous breakdown" had beaten him to the lab.

Now his calls went unanswered. His emails were shifted through a spam filter, or worse still forwarded to Dr. Holloway as further proof of his instability. The one time he tried to go in person, campus security had been called and he had been escorted out of the lab.

He kicked an empty Sam Adams bottle across the floor and stared at the rope in his hands. He had to make them see. He had to prove to them that this was serious. Lives were at stake. His best friend's life first and foremost.

He climbed up on the wooden chair and wrapped the rope around a rafter. He kept telling himself I have no choice. This is the only way I can tell them how serious this is. If nothing else, it will force the University to review the entire project, make them look at all the implications again. Acting quickly, so he couldn't lose his nerve, he wrapped the rope around his own neck and kicked savagely at the chair's back.

THE END


© 2012 Rachel Eliason

Bio: Rachel Eliason has been having her way with words for most of her life. She wrote her first story at eight. She did not develop the discipline to write seriously until 2001. Since then she has written many science fiction, fantasy and literary pieces. Her first collection of short stories can be found at: CreateSpace:"Tales The Wind Told Me". Her story The Troll and the Maiden appeared in the December 2011 / January 2012 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: Rachel Eliason

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