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‘David? Are you awake?’
David turned in bed and opened his eyes. Katherine, his wife, stood in the doorway of the bedroom, silhouetted by the light that hung over the spiral staircase.
‘I am now,’ he said.
‘It’s back,’ said Katherine.
David groaned and rolled onto his side. Katherine turned the bedroom light on. He shielded his eyes.
‘David,’ she said, urgently, ‘I heard it.’
[private]David got out of bed and put on his dressing gown. He stumbled groggily towards the door. He felt thirsty and the headache was starting again, the one that began with a sharp, stabbing sensation in the centre of his forehead and gradually spread until his whole head felt full and painful. An after-effect of the transportation, although the amount he was drinking probably didn’t help.
Katherine was poised over the bannister, listening.
‘Where?’ he asked.
‘Shh!’ she said, raising her finger to her lips.
She nodded. He shrugged and began to descend the stairs. Katherine leaned forward and put her hand on his shoulder.
‘Careful,’ she said.
David shook his head. The headache tightened around his temples.
‘I don’t need to be,’ he said, ‘there’s nothing there.’
David had been chosen from innumerable volunteers because he was in every way an average man. His height, his weight, his physical health were all quite unremarkable. The psychological tests demonstrated that he was a man of reasonable intelligence, with no particular issues likely to cause trouble in the aftermath of the transportation.
Of course, they pointed out to him as he signed the consent form, that did not mean that the period following the experiment would be problem-free. All it meant was that there was nothing adverse that they could predict, no particular reason for him not to undergo the process.
David didn’t make any attempt to be quiet as he went downstairs. The ground floor of the cottage was a large, open-plan room with a kitchen sink and stove at one end. The other held a seating area and an old oak dining table, surrounded by wickerwork chairs.
The cottage was a barn conversion, and the gaps in the wall had been filled with floor-to-ceiling glass. A set of French windows opened out onto the garden. He switched the light on, and went around pulling the curtains back one by one. Sure enough, there was nothing outside but the darkness, the insects, and acres and acres of the flat, featureless countryside of northern France beyond.
He was half way along when he heard it.
It was the faintest noise, coming from the French windows. He tiptoed closer to listen. There it was – a brushing, crackling sound, like footsteps on gravel, or radio static.
The module was a plain, upright box made of polished black glass. It was about the size of a telephone booth. The floor inside was brushed steel, and an array of wires and lenses hung from the ceiling. A set of skeletal metal fixtures came out from the sides to hold David perfectly in position.
He spent many hours in the module in the weeks leading up to the experiment, acclimatising to the sensation of being held motionless, of keeping still whilst the engineers ran the various equipment tests and checked and re-checked the coordinates.
They explained that he would have to be completely naked when the transportation occurred. All items of clothing and jewellery must be removed. Even a small degree of inaccuracy when the receiving module across the Atlantic was activated could lead to cloth, metal and skin being painfully welded together.
On the morning of the experiment, they would shave all the hair from his body.
David stood listening at the French windows, debating with himself whether he should part the curtains narrowly and peer outside, or pull them back suddenly. His headache fired warning shots of pain behind his eyes.
On balance, he decided it was best to do it quickly. David grabbed the curtains with both hands and flung them open.
The night before the transportation, they held a press conference.
The Chief gave a speech. He was a stout, untidy man with long grey hair, who spoke rapidly and enthusiastically about how tomorrow they would see the first significant advance of the twenty-first century. He told them that if they had attempted such a thing before quantum computers, they would have needed a hard drive hundreds of thousands of miles high simply to store all of the necessary information.
David had trouble concentrating. He had been purged and then starved, allowed only intravenous hydration and nutrition for the forty-eight hours leading up to the test, and he was beginning to feel a little woozy.
He snapped to attention when he heard someone say his name.
‘So is it true that David – this David – isn’t going to survive the process?’
The Chief glanced at the reporter sharply.
‘It’s a common misconception, and I hope you’re not going to repeat it. David’s body will be broken down when the process begins. The particles will be analysed, and the information will be transmitted to New York, where the new David, exactly the same as the old David, will be assembled.’
‘So the answer is yes?’
The Chief rolled his eyes.
‘You didn’t listen to the answer. Are any of us the same people we were five, ten years ago? Every atom in your body gets replaced over time. The principle is the same here, even if the process is different. David’s memories, his personality, will be completely preserved.’
‘David!’ another reporter shouted, ‘how do you feel about it?’
The Chief smiled encouragingly.
‘I feel honoured,’ said David. ‘All my life I have wanted to do something special. In the past, the pioneers were the elite, the richest, the strongest. I’m not like that. I’m ordinary, like you. It’s our future.’
He had rehearsed the statement hundreds of times, and almost managed to make it sound spontaneous.
‘And what about your wife?’
‘She agrees,’ he lied.
There was nothing in the window but his own reflection: a pale, thin man, who looked utterly exhausted.
David switched the main light off. The pain in his head eased, and his eyes adjusted to the darkness. There was a distant, reddish glow in the sky from the barn fire a mile or so down the road. He and Katherine had driven past it when they returned from a tense and silent dinner in the nearby village earlier that evening. It had, he remembered, given them something to talk about for a couple of minutes.
He could hear Katherine pacing, the boards creaking under her bare feet. He made his way back upstairs.
The double doors swung open, and David emerged in his white towelling dressing gown, like a fighter entering the ring. He could see Katherine standing at the front of the crowd, looking anxious. He smiled and blew a kiss; she still looked disconcerted, so he patted his bald head ruefully, and got a brief smile out of her.
Then he was standing next to the machine, flanked by security guards and technicians. There was a general hum of excitement around him, the sort he imagined there had been with the astronauts of the sixties. He wasn’t unaware of the flip side of this. Part of the frisson was that people expected him to experience something no human had before. The other part of it was that they expected him to die.
There were a couple more photographs, a bit of chat over the line with the receiving team in New York, and then David shed his robe and stepped into the machine, putting his feet into the custom-moulded slots. The jointed metal arms swung out and clamped hold of him firmly. He held the position for what seemed like hours whilst the last adjustments were made, and then he heard the power building up.
The capsule began to vibrate, almost imperceptibly at first, and then loudly, angrily, like the buzz of a hornet. David stayed perfectly still as the first bolts of electricity shot from the apparatus and through his body. Although there was no pain, he knew he was being split apart, piece by piece, the constituents of his body cut loose. He still had the sensation of standing perfectly still, but he knew that if he attempted to move, his body would fly apart like pebbles scattered by the tide.
The noise stopped suddenly, and it was then that David felt it.
He could not put the exact feeling into words afterwards, but he compared it to standing in an old-fashioned elevator with an open front as it passes between two floors, and you catch a glimpse of both simultaneously. Or it was like a dream, when your body becomes fluid and permeable, yet is somehow still your own. He saw at once the interior of two cubicles; he had four hands and four legs; he was aware of both the burning, static electricity smell of the London station and the clean, antiseptic scent of the New York station as he began to reform there.
For a moment, the sensations were equally balanced between the two parts of himself. Then one began to feel heavier, tired, painful, whilst the other one became lighter. He realised that his body in the London station was beginning to disperse, and he felt somehow that it was like an amputation.
David heard the hiss as the door seals were broken, and then the capsule door slid aside to reveal the crowd at the New York receiving station. Naked, shaking, and damp with sweat, he took his first tottering steps out into the world.
Someone asked him a question, but his ears were filled with a hissing, seething sound. He shook his head, and two medics stepped forward and took hold of him. They helped him onto a trolley, and the last thing he experienced before he lost consciousness was the same sort of feeling he had when he looked back at photographs of his childhood, or his wedding pictures. He suddenly and intensely missed the person he had been only minutes before.
Katherine was sitting on the edge of the bed. Her blonde hair fell around her shoulders in a tangle. Her eyes were raw and bloodshot.
‘Why can’t he leave us alone?’ she said.
David shifted his weight from foot to foot. She had looked at him in the same way a month ago when they were reunited after the transportation. It was as if she were searching for something in his face, as if he had a secret she needed to find out. They had embraced for the cameras, but her fingers had been light and cautious on his skin.
‘There was no one there,’ he said.
She shook her head. ‘Don’t lie. We can’t get away from him.’
‘I said there was no one there.’
‘He followed us here. Sometimes he stands so close that you’re in his shadow.’
‘Who are you talking about?’
‘David,’ she said, looking him in the eye, ‘you know exactly who I’m talking about.’
The headache erupted again with renewed force. David felt weak and nauseous, and slid to the floor, bracing himself against the doorway. He saw blue and white lights whirling and strobing; he closed his eyes, but they were still there, the pain increasing with every pulsation. Katherine was shouting something, but her voice was drowned out by the noise inside his skull. He recognised it. It was the sound of electricity hissing relentlessly through wires, leaping broken connections, spitting and crackling and splitting him apart piece by piece, until nothing whatsoever was left of the man he had once been.[/private]
Niall Boyce is a writer and editor based in London. He has previously published short stories in various magazines and with Big Finish’s Doctor Who and Bernice Summerfield ranges. He has also written several journal articles on art and medicine. He is currently working on a new series of science fiction novels.