Hollis had been awake for forty-two hours when the machine first worked. He stood near the console, watching as the field built into a whorl around Rhea. She screamed, the noise lost in the tearing of particles, voice quashed by the spread of space-time, her face painted gaunt by the light shining beneath her. Hollis reached for the power dial, heart straining in his chest. He couldn’t do this to her, they could have gotten another volunteer –
Then everything went quiet.
Before he could touch the dial, the violet glow faded into the dull orange lights of the basement lab. For a moment Rhea stood still in the middle of the machine, body limp like she was strung up by the shoulders. Her eyelids seemed pried apart, her mouth hanging open with the ghost of a scream, but she did not speak. Another second passed and her knees buckled and Rhea pitched forward, catching herself on the steel arch next to her.
“Rhea?” Hollis said, voice shivering. “Rhea, you all right?”
Rhea still said nothing. She stepped forward off the platform and fell, missing the gap between the machine and the floor.
“Rhea!” Hollis pushed around the console and rushed to her, kneeling and putting his hands on her shoulders. “Did it work? Where are you?”
He rolled her over, her head and shoulders in his lap. She gaped up at him, eyes focused, breath coming short. Hollis watched as her gray eyes whipped back and forth, clearly looking at something he couldn’t see. Rhea was far away, disjointed – and then she looked right into his face.
“Hollis,” she said, voice hollow, “Holl, it worked, you… I can hear things, I can see them…”
Hollis couldn’t help himself. He hugged Rhea tightly, their cheeks touching. Her skin was warm, like she’d been standing in the sun, though they’d been in the basement for hours – but she was in the sun in that moment, too.
They’d been trying for months to get this machine to work. Rhea fiddled with the theoretical physics and quantum equations, spending hours in front of the whiteboard along the back wall of the basement. Hollis built and rebuilt the machine to her specifications, taking every new discovery and test into account until the machine’s current configuration in no way resembled the steel box he’d put together at first. Until now they’d had nothing but small-scale success on geckos and mice. Their funding was running out. If this wasn’t viable and safe for humans, they’d lose their contract, years of theory and engineering and fine-tuning all for naught.
The machine had gathered together enough subatomic particles to make up a living being from somewhere else, and then quantum entangled those particles to the originals of whatever being was standing on the platform when the machine switched on. Whatever happened to one particle happened to its entangled partner – changes in relative position, charge, state of matter, or temperature all affected both particles. Even as Rhea lay in Hollis’ lap, she lay somewhere else – in the Pampas of Argentina, if all had gone well – the Argentine sun on her skin warming her there and now warming her here as well. It had worked. She was okay.
“I can feel the grass on my palm,” Rhea said, smiling at him and looking down at her open hand. “And I can hear you, but… but the wind, Holl, I can hear it at the same time, and they both seem so far away…”
“Wait,” Hollis said, helping her stand, “just wait and I’ll join you.” Of course he would join her; who wouldn’t want to experience this, the feeling of duality, the sensation of existing as two joined beings at once? The machine needed more testing, more human-sized objects sent through to make sure this wasn’t a glitch – once the machine was out of their hands even one accident would be too many. She’d been so eager to be the first human to do this, convinced by her own math that it would all be fine. He should have trusted her.
He rushed over to the console, adjusting the metrics for someone larger – he was almost a head taller than Rhea and fifty pounds heavier. “Just make sure you’re out of the way,” he said to her, dialing up the machine’s power. “I’m not adjusting the destination.”
Rhea nodded but hardly seemed to be listening, gaping at the ceiling of the basement as if it opened into the universe above her. She stepped away from the machine, arms spreading. Hollis smiled.
The machine glowed violet again, electricity sparking around the arch over the platform. Hollis tripped over his own feet, caught himself on the console, and then dove for the platform. The machine hummed as he straightened up, trying to breathe normally even as butterflies went wild in his stomach.
The hair on his arms stood up. He looked over at Rhea, who’d turned to watch him make the trip, and saw her in duplicate, a second Rhea standing behind the first. Hollis blinked, wondering if something was wrong, but there she was, one Rhea standing beside the console and another knee-deep in dry, waving grass.
Electricity arced up the backs of Hollis’ legs. He tried to move but found his feet pulled down into the platform as if by magnets. The hum of the machine grew louder, jarring as a tearing sheet of fabric, woven strands snapping one by one. Something slammed Hollis in the gut, winding him, and he doubled over, shouting his pain. As the noise left him, the air rushing back into his lungs was fresh and hot and dusty. He squeezed his eyes shut, forcing himself to straighten up. The tearing of the world seemed to vibrate in his very atoms, a trembling so profound he might shake through the world –
And then nothing. All the force and pain left him at once. Hollis fell forward, reaching out to grab the arch just as Rhea had – but there was nothing there except sky and grass and the air of a continent he’d never seen. His brain ached as he tried to make sense of every new sensation flooding into him. The prairie stretched away from him in every direction, grass waving in the sweet breeze, a tiny house and a single tree maybe a mile away. The arch was nowhere in sight.
He blinked and shuddered. It was too much at once; Hollis tried to relax, to let everything come to him, but he could not process the information he was being given. His consciousness was stretched between two places – he understood the science of entangled bodies, but not how his mind was still one. He forced himself to straighten up, and as he focused on movement his vision came clearer, his ears could make sense of the vibrations of four ear drums separated by seven thousand miles. He could not see the machine’s arch, and yet he could, because it was right there, his hand resting on it, the metal hot beneath his palm.
“Hollis,” Rhea said. Her voice echoed, tinny and sonorous because he heard it with two sets of ears. He turned to her and saw her smiling, tears shining on her face.
Two of her. “We did it,” Hollis said, voice dulled by the concrete walls and lost in the wilderness. “Rhea, we did it.” He reached toward her, hand shaking, desperate to feel her – the whole of her, both worlds connected at once.
Rhea flew toward him, feet scuffing across concrete and shuffling through grass, her body lit by the half-hearted glow of fluorescent bulbs and the heavy heat of the summer sun. Her arms wrapped around Hollis’ shoulders and she kissed him hard and that he felt as one, a singular expression of a split world. He’d waited for this – for the machine and for this kiss – and for the first time in months Hollis’ chest flared with success. They’d won. They could pay off their debts now, get jobs with NASA if the committee was impressed enough. Never mind the places they’d earned in history books – the people who built the machine that could make traveling the universe fast and safe. The future was wide open now, and Hollis took his first uncertain steps into it with his arms around Rhea’s waist.
When Rhea stepped away from him again, she brushed a curled lock of hair behind her ear and turned, looking out across the Pampas and straight into a cinderblock wall. A dog barked in the distance and a flock of dark birds lifted off from the tree, circling up into the sky. A trickle of sweat ran down the curve of Hollis’ back and he wasn’t sure if he should remove his hoodie, the summer sun baking his shoulders but the winter basement cool and soggy.
“I can’t believe this,” Rhea said. He followed her gaze toward the house, and then they both spun on the spot to look at the low mountains miles behind where they’d appeared. “Look at this, Holl. I’ve never been to Argentina, but here it is.” She turned to him, eyes glittering, the only solid thing in the world. Hollis reached out and took her hand, and she smiled so hard she trembled. “I wish we could explore,” she said.
Hollis blinked. In the basement they stood beside the machine platform, the walls at most twelve feet from their faces. He felt something deep behind his ribs, pulling him through the grassland – he’d never been out of the States, either, crippled by student debt and parents that died too young, and seeing this country with Rhea would be the perfect way to celebrate – but the bit of him rooted in his brain resisted.
“We can’t,” he said, focusing in on Rhea’s thin face again. “The basement’s still here. We’ve only got four meters in any direction unless we go upstairs…” He scratched his face and looked up into the sky-ceiling. “We don’t know how we’ll adjust for a difference in altitude if we go up in one spot and can’t in the other.”
Rhea chewed her lower lip and turned to the house again. He loved that look of hers, the same careful concentration she’d given the enormous differential equations and matrices that powered the machine. Hollis had spent so long building the machine to her specifications, watching her puzzle out the next piece, that he could not help but thrill at her company, her trust, this triumph that was hers and hers alone. He already knew so much about her, her little gestures, the ladders of her thought, but now that they had kissed, they were they, a pairing, an unfamiliar being.
“You’re right,” Rhea said, glancing back at Hollis, her hand slipping from his. Over the house, the sun dipped, reddening and swelling on the horizon. Rhea grimaced and laced her fingers together behind her head, looking out across the double landscape and sighing. “We should do more testing before we go wild.”
“Soon,” Hollis said, and Rhea nodded.
Hollis walked over to the console and began fiddling with the dials, setting it to reverse the entanglement and diffuse the atoms of the Pampas versions of themselves into the air. It was so strange to adjust the console in one experience and gesture wildly through the world in another. He wondered what someone would think if they stumbled upon these two exhausted Americans playing charades in a field. His stomach fluttered, not because he was nervous about the disentanglement, but because he didn’t know what he and Rhea would be when they returned. A kiss was one thing; a future was another.
Hollis set the machine and stepped back, walking slowly up to the platform as it emanated red light. Rhea looked at him, lit with the sun’s haze and the machine’s glow. “So, uh, Ree,” Hollis said, flushing as the machine hummed around them, arcs of electricity buzzing between them. “About the, uh… that kiss.”
“I know,” Rhea said, the smile soft on her face. “We’ve got a lot to figure out, don’t we?”
Hollis nodded and looked down at his shoes. Another moment passed and the air pressed down against him, his bones trembling. His lungs couldn’t expand and he struggled for breath. Rhea clenched her jaw, eyes screwed up against the pain. Hollis expected the existential tearing of the entanglement and instead was greeted by a silence so profound he felt it in his gut, a lack of sound heavy enough to make him stagger, knees buckling.
He felt for Rhea’s hand and she reached out for him at the same time. The struggle to cross the six inches between them was harder than anything he’d ever done before. Hollis’ first two fingers curled around Rhea’s thumb and as they touched he felt her surge into him, every part of both of them connecting at once. He saw her call his name though the words never left her mouth and something like the hand of God pushed them together –
A blink and a rush like a water slide and Hollis collapsed facedown on the platform. Sound returned in shards. The gurgling of pipes upstairs, the whir of the machine as it cooled down. But underneath all that, Hollis could still hear the rustling grass of the Pampas. His hand was on the smooth platform and curled in dusty summer earth. Hollis opened his eyes and there was the ceiling of the basement, but again the open sky towered above him.
He tried to murmur Rhea’s name but nothing came out. His whole body ached, his chest tight and his wrists and ankles stiff, his head squashed like someone had parked a car on it. Strange, but not surprising, exactly – there was bound to be some mild physical trauma associated with the disentangling process, the elimination of one version of himself from the world. But the double-world did not fade with time. If anything, the sun was warmer on his face, the noise of the Argentine dog barking in the distance deeper inside him. As Hollis tried to roll over and look for Rhea, he found he could not move his body.
Hollis had fallen near the middle of the platform, but he felt Rhea’s presence nearby, just far enough away that he could not touch her. He tried to close his eyes and could not, although he still blinked and breathed, his heart still pumping in his split world. As he lay there, the urge to roll over flitted through his mind and, without any other thought of how to proceed, he twisted around until he lay on his stomach, looking down at the platform-grass, at his hand and – in the same spot his hand occupied in his field of vision – Rhea’s.
“Oh, shit,” Hollis said. He heard Rhea’s voice say the same thing in Argentina, bubbling up through what felt like his throat, the sound soft in what he thought were his ears – but they were and weren’t. Instead of disentangling them, somehow, he and Rhea had been entangled, strung together just as the two versions of each of them had been moments before. The ache rippling through him was all his extra mass felt crying out, crushed into her tiny frame.
Hollis tried to speak again and nothing happened. Their minds were separate but their bodies were entangled. The bodies would only act when both of them wanted to do that same thing. He wanted to lift their hands but Rhea wanted to climb onto their knees, and in the end their bodies did neither.
Their heartbeats quickened as one. At least they were both panicking.
Rhea’s mind pushed for calm. Together they closed their eyes, breathing deeply. As Hollis focused more, he could sense Rhea’s thoughts with more nuance, the trickle of her search for a way to fix this, the roll of her emotions like waves on shore. She could sense the same of him, he was sure – but without any way to easily speak, Hollis forced himself to probe deeper into her thoughts, completing the connection between their minds that had started in their bodies.
He felt her surprise before she could communicate it, and when she did it was rudimentary, laid out in misty flashes. Their hands touching as the electricity arced around them, the sudden thunder in their bodies as they connected, as the machine forced them together –
Rhea’s despair weighed on Hollis’ back as if the weight of the Pampas sky were focused on their shoulders. Any progress he tried to make in discerning the specifics of her thoughts felt like the dreams he’d had where he’d been walking on the moon – taking a single step and shooting off into the air, untethered by gravity, until he came down far beyond where he intended to be. He could tell she thought something was wrong, something more than their entanglement, but he could not settle in her mind with enough precision to know what it was.
He felt her fumbling through him, her mathematic mind clumsy with empathy, occupied with calculus and the settings on the machine that might split them apart. He tried to move their arms and felt nothing happen, but then, slowly, Rhea’s attention turned to their bodies and their wrists twitched. They could move together; they just had to learn. They were one now, a single unit, unfamiliar, flowing into each other’s senses.
Rhea bubbled to the surface, sluggish but confident, communicating with pictures how she wanted him to move. He saw their bodies straightening up. Another set of flashes, faster, of the dials on the console, the settings that would disentangle them.
Left hand first, Hollis thought. He wasn’t sure at first that she got the message, but then their left hands rose from the ground and their bodies began to wriggle to life.
It was like trying to learn every movement over again while drunk. Their arms swung uselessly until they consciously bent their elbows and wrists. They had to move each muscle in their shoulders and lower backs in unison. Their steel-girder limbs were heavy, reluctant to bend. But finally they stood, trembling with the effort of balance, days without sleep and subatomic exhaustion sapping their strength.
He could see out across the Pampas again, felt the sweat running down Rhea’s forehead in the heat. Her mind buzzed beside his, focused, pointed straight at the console, and she willed them to take a step. Hollis followed along, right leg swinging forward, thudding against the platform, and his mind flowed to fill the gaps hers left in their entangled bodies. He could feel her frustration and guilt and prickling fear about what would happen when the machine would split them apart.
But deeper inside her, he sensed her nervousness, memories of nights spent watching him across the basement as he wrenched pieces of the machine together, the soaring of her heart when he laughed as they ate breakfast together in the basement, the coffee-bitter taste of his own lips just now when she’d kissed him –
Don’t do that, Hollis, Rhea thought, and he pulled back, a frown crossing both their faces. They stumbled, reflexively reaching out for support. She trembled, and he caught the briefest sense that she was resisting those thoughts, that every moment she spent lingering on their kiss made her heart seize and her muscles turn to putty. He caught the arch of the machine and they stayed upright, but her presence in his head calmed, coalescing again.
There it was again, so much more weighted than it’d been in the calm before their entanglement. They had never left anything entangled this long, and given their entanglement, her death would be his as well. Anxiety needled Hollis’ shoulders, but he had no idea if it was his anxiety or Rhea’s or if they even counted as separate people anymore.
They tottered forward, bodies made of popsicle sticks, but the sheer force of Rhea’s will kept them upright. The basement was cool and the Pampas warm and somehow the two scientists met in the middle, Rhea’s mind boiling with the heat of will while Hollis could only think of their kiss, of thrill turned into horror.
It seemed to take hours to reach the console. Once they were there Hollis realized the impasse they’d come to. Rhea didn’t know the controls of the machine as well as he did, but she would need to collaborate precisely with his movements if they were to split apart without being ripped into protons and neutrons. I know, Rhea thought in response, without him communicating anything further about their predicament.
The sun had begun to set on the pampas by the time they set the machine to Rhea’s specifications. He felt her worry, their imagined deaths by the shivering tension of their atoms. As Rhea’s will crumbled, Hollis pictured himself holding her and pushed that future towards her.
He felt her smile, but there was no relief in it.
Ahead of them the machine began to glow, red light filling the corners of the basement. Hurry, Hollis thought. They walked toward it, through the dark night, shambling forward as the sun finally dropped behind the mountains. The basement was still orange, safe, familiar, and he could feel Rhea long for home, desperate to breathe the humid air. Forks of electricity spread between the two sides of the arch as they staggered up onto the platform.
Hollis. I’m sorry.
Bewildered, Hollis turned his attention to Rhea’s mind and found what she’d been hiding from him, the knowledge he could not quite settle on – the red light, the pressure, the disentanglement. The machine would take apart the target in Argentina as it had before, but this time there was no duplicate – only Rhea, who would be disassembled atomically as if she was just another clone created by the machine. Hollis would live, safe and whole in the basement, and Rhea would be scattered to the winds. She’d known the whole time, known that the machine could not work any other way, and willed him up to the machine anyway.
The sadness of her smile seeped into him, his heart thudding as the pressure and silence overtook him. He could feel the chill of the cloudless Pampas already creeping in, the daytime warmth swallowed into the void of night. He thought ahead to the future he wanted, the future that they could have had – famous, their faces in books, the Nobel prize, and each other – crumbling like so many electrons before them.
Despite the crushing strength of the air, of the world pressing them apart, Hollis kept his eyes open, watching her. His knees bent beneath him, the pampas flickering in and out of his vision, the cold of night replaced with the damp of shoddy housing. They were still entangled. He could still sense her thoughts. Something warm blossomed inside her. Somehow, resisting the machine’s energy, resisting Hollis’ unmoving limbs, Rhea lifted her hand and pressed two fingertips to her lips. He felt her soft mouth and the heat of her breath for a fleeting moment before the pressure crushed him and Rhea was torn apart.
TJ Heffers is a Pennsylvania-born, Rhode Island-based writer with two cats and too much debt. His work has previously appeared in Blunderbuss, Jenny, and the Blue Lake Review, among others.