Eternal Hospital

Hokyoung Kim for Noema Magazine
Credits

Hao Jingfang is an author, researcher and 2019-20 Berggruen Institute China Center fellow. Her short story “Folding Beijing” won the 2016 Hugo Award for best novelette.

Translated by Thomas Garbarini.

Critical Condition

Qian Rui never imagined he’d ever feel so remorseful. He thought his attitude toward his mother all these years had been completely reasonable, the result of careful consideration that caused no shame. It was only when he saw his mother on her sickbed — stiff and sallow, unmoving — that he realized how shallow this conviction was, and how closely it approached some kind of self-deceptive reassurance.

Over the past few hectic years, he hadn’t done enough for his mother. He always had an excuse to justify each time he stayed at the office instead of going home, but he was actually just avoiding responsibility. He often said he was so busy because he was caring for the world, but when he saw his mother barely clinging to life, he realized how insubstantial this claim was when he had to reconcile it with an actual person.

He recalled one time in particular when he was out for dinner and drinks with some friends. He had originally agreed to visit his mother’s house that evening, but by the time they finished eating it was already 9:00 p.m., and then he had to get a car, so he didn’t arrive at his mother’s house until nearly 10:00 p.m.

As he was making his way up to his parents’ apartment, he was worried that they’d be getting ready for bed and that his mother would accuse him of gallivanting around town, so he fearfully thought up a whole speech defending himself. When he entered the apartment and saw that look on his mother’s face, he raced to get the first word in. Before his mother could even open her mouth, he went off about how busy he’d been, how difficult and stressful his work was, how he wished his family wouldn’t hinder his career development.

As he spoke, his mother’s expression grew dim. In defending himself from the imagined rebuke, he hadn’t stopped to consider how deeply this false rebuttal would hurt his mother. She simply told him that in the future he didn’t have to come if he was so busy; there wasn’t any need for insincere gestures.

That stung. Qian Rui felt a dull ache in his heart, but he’d already erected this clumsy bulwark of excuses — and he’d built it in the desolate night that offered no place to hide.

Thinking back to this — and then thinking of his wax-yellow mother on her sickbed — the pain was almost unbearable. He’d always thought in the back of his mind that there was plenty of time left, that he’d be able to make it up to his mother once he wrapped up this busy period at work.

Little did he realize that time waits for no man.

He wanted to be at the hospital every day. He wanted to bring lots of tasty fruit for his mother and wait by her side so that he’d be the first thing she saw when she woke up. He thought about this constantly, almost to the point of obsession.

But the hospital wouldn’t let him in. The door’s identification system was exceptionally sensitive, and while the two glass doors looked weak and transparent, they were impregnable. There weren’t even any security guards at the door who he could beg or bribe; there was just Qian Rui pressed against the glass door, pounding on it futilely.

Occasionally a nurse would come out to see somebody off and he’d plead with them, but the nurse would brush him aside with a curt “That’s against regulation.” Faced with the hospital’s coldness, Qian Rui’s heart became impatiently hot.

“Qian Rui never imagined he’d ever feel so remorseful.”

Miracle Hospital. It was an expensive hospital known for effecting miraculous cures — so many patients with seemingly incurable illnesses had all gradually gotten better after going there. Word spread over time so that, eventually, everybody knew where to go if you got seriously ill. But this reputation came at a cost for the family members of terminal patients — knowing this place existed, if you didn’t send your loved one there for treatment, it was like you were killing them yourself, which was a painful burden to endure.

It was hard to know how many people had lined up at the hospital’s entrance looking to admit sick family members. One could imagine the hospital’s hardline response in situations like this — “There are regulations. If you cannot accept them, then you can leave.” The hospital’s interior was indeed immaculate. Qian Rui had been inside once when he brought his mother there. Its beige walls exuded tranquility, and there wasn’t any of the clamor and confusion of people coming and going that you’d see at a normal hospital. It was expensive for a reason.

The hospital’s “no visitors” policy had Qian Rui as agitated as an ant on a burning pan. Unlike his father, he wasn’t content to just sit at home and wait for news. He was anxious to hear any updates about his mother’s condition. He yearned to be by her side. Aside from his actual concern for her, he also didn’t want to face his guilt. Any time he was at home, he’d start to remember how neglectful and insincere he’d been to her over the years.

Qian Rui had been lingering outside the hospital for nearly two weeks when his opportunity finally came. One evening, he’d gotten off work and went to search for a way to sneak in, but the intelligent facial recognition system at the main entrance was too formidable, thwarting his attempts each time. But then he spotted a driverless supply truck at the hospital’s back door transporting medical equipment. It stopped at the entrance to the hospital’s warehouse for just a moment before it was identified by the system and drove inside.

Qian Rui knew this was his ticket. At the same time the next day, he clung to the door of the supply truck and got into the warehouse. After all, there was no driver, and nobody there to stop him either. And it just so happened that he only had to go through two more doors to reach the inpatient wing of the hospital.

Going off of memory, he found his mother’s room and, making sure there was nobody around, slipped inside.

His mother’s waxen face was sapped of life. She was shriveled, her skin bunched up in wrinkles like a deflated balloon. Her hair had been shaved off and her forehead was covered with electrodes, while tubes ran into her nose and other parts of her body. Qian Rui’s tears came instantly. He never knew he was such a coward that he’d be this appalled by the sight of his mother’s body. And yet he couldn’t help but tremble before the imperious glare of death.

He walked quietly to his mother’s side and reached out his hand, brushing against hers for just a moment before pulling quickly back. He wasn’t sure if he was afraid of waking her, or if he was afraid that any reaction she might have would catch him off guard.

After waiting for a few seconds, however, and seeing that his mother remained still, he relaxed. The room was deathly quiet. He touched her hand again. What followed was a torrent of grief as, for the first time, he became keenly aware of exactly what kind of loss he was facing. He observed his mother’s ashen complexion as though he was watching a sandcastle being swallowed up by ceaseless waves, eroded by the great ocean of death. He found himself drowning in that ocean. He grasped his mother’s hand and began to sob loudly.

He was watching life slip away from the body in front of him, breath by breath.

Qian Rui arrived at the hospital at precisely 10:00 p.m. each day for the next couple of days, getting in by clinging to the door of an autonomous supply truck. He’d then sneak into his mother’s room and stay there the entire night so that he didn’t draw any attention. He didn’t tell his father, who was in bad health and overly conservative; Qian Rui was worried his father would chew him out for this type of illicit behavior.

At first, Qian Rui’s mother would occasionally move a bit, but later she entered a wholly unconscious vegetative state. Her condition deteriorated and she was moved to a critical care room. There, Qian Rui would tend to her each night — wiping her brow, repositioning her, giving her water. He became increasingly despondent, tortured by remorse and love. He wanted to swim against the current of time, but his efforts were in vain.

Discovery

Two weeks later, Qian Rui was dragging himself back to his father’s house one night to discuss his mother’s funeral arrangements. He didn’t take the elevator; instead, he dallied in the stairwell so that he had some space to calm himself down. His mind was racing. He wasn’t sure how to broach the subject to his father. His father had been in high spirits, getting ready for his wife’s return from the hospital, when Qian Rui had seen him a few days ago. The pull of reputation was strong on Qian Rui’s father, who believed that since the hospital was so prestigious, it was a given that they’d be able to cure his mother.

How should Qian Rui tell him? His father didn’t have a great constitution; he’d had hypertension before, and his doctor warned him to avoid any emotional turbulence in light of his bad heart. Qian Rui wondered how — without getting him riled up — he could help his father accept that, despite the hospital’s reputation for miracle work, sometimes it was just impossible to prevent a soul from departing into the ether.

What could he say to make his father accept that his mother was just hanging on by a thread?

He hesitated at the door to his father’s apartment for a long time. The auspicious calligraphy decorations hanging outside the door trembled in the hallway breeze, mirroring the unrest in Qian Rui’s heart. He wondered how to explain his mother’s condition — and how to explain how he knew about her condition, too. He put his hand on the door handle several times, but he couldn’t bring himself to turn it.

Just then, however, the door suddenly opened up into the hallway. The metal door bashed Qian Rui on the forehead, making him see stars.

“Ow!” Qian Rui groaned.

“Xiao Rui,” his father said, surprised, after recognizing who it was. “What are you doing standing out here?”

“I was just coming back to check on you,” Qian Rui replied, still grimacing in pain. “Why are you tearing the door open like that?”

“Well why didn’t you knock?” his father asked in an accusatory tone.

Qian Rui wanted to retort, but what he suddenly saw then through the open doorway struck him mute with shock.

He rubbed his eyes in disbelief, but the scene in the apartment stayed the same. He stood there stupefied, vibrating with energy but frozen to the ground like an electron in a magnetic field. His heart dropped and, for the first time, a shiver of horror ran up his spine.

It was sheer absurdity — there was his mother, in perfectly good condition, eating dinner right there on the sofa.

He took a while to stop gaping. Not heeding his father’s question, he kept his eyes glued to the ruddy-faced figure on the sofa. She looked healthy and relaxed. There was plenty of color in her cheeks. She was focused on picking up some food with her chopsticks, and then she took a few bites and continued watching TV. She was wearing his mother’s long-sleeve cotton shirt that she wore around the house with his mother’s black and white polka-dotted apron, and even his mother’s sleeve covers that she made herself. She would occasionally glance toward the front door, and seeing that shift, from profile to front view, convinced Qian Rui even more that it was his mother.

Qian Rui was so astonished that he drew back a step. His father, noticing how strange Qian Rui was acting, frowned and yanked him inside, regardless of whatever it was Qian Rui had been going to say. Qian Rui bumped against the shoe cabinet, and this disturbance caught his mother’s attention.

“What is it, dear?” the mother asked. “Oh, it’s Xiao Rui,” she added after seeing Qian Rui.

“Dear” was what his mother usually called Qian Rui’s father, so that made sense. Qian Rui watched her intently as she came toward him. His mind was racing and his eyes darted around. He observed everything vigilantly with a taut, uncomfortable expression.

“Where have you been?” she asked, just as she would normally. “I haven’t seen you since I got out of the hospital a few days ago.”

“Sometimes it’s just impossible to prevent a soul from departing into the ether.”

Qian Rui swallowed before croaking: “Dad didn’t tell me.”

“That’s on you, dear. Why didn’t you tell Xiao Rui?” As she spoke, she took a pair of slippers out of the right side of the second level of the shoe cabinet. Yep — those were Qian Rui’s.

“Hey, he’s always too busy,” his father said. “I was going to wait till the weekend.”

Qian Rui was distracted the entire night. He kept staring at this “mother.” Every detail was the same — the laugh lines on her face, her moles and the things she did all made her seem like Qian Rui’s mother. And none of her answers to his questions revealed any cracks in her facade.

There was a moment where he even doubted himself: This had to be her, right? She’d actually returned from the hospital? Maybe his sickly mother had made a miraculous turnaround since he had seen her the previous night? Or perhaps he’d been mistaken, and the woman in the hospital was not his mother?

His thoughts were becoming convoluted, and the more he tried to make sense of them, the more they coiled together into one incomprehensible knot. He looked at this mother walking back and forth in front of him. He felt something was off, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. She asked about how his job had been recently, and even lovingly nagged him about skipping meals and not getting enough sleep.

Qian Rui managed to survive until 9:30 p.m., at which point he grabbed his bag and made a quick exit. He went back to the hospital and, making use of the warehouse door as usual, went to his mother’s room. She was still there.

He finally felt himself relax and realized he was covered in a cold sweat. He let himself breathe. At the very least, this proved his memory was real and he hadn’t gone crazy. The next second, however, he began having second thoughts again. He got close to the body in front of him and checked if there was any possibility he had the wrong person.

His mother’s ashen complexion was quite different from how it usually was: her eyes shut tight, skin loose, half of her head shaved. Only her moles — two on her cheek and one on her neck — showed it was really her, because there was no mistaking those moles.

This put him at ease once more. He remembered those three moles each time his mother held him while he was growing up. This woman, on the brink of death, was his mom. He was right in coming here this whole time. He looked at her there, alone and miserable, and tears rushed to his eyes.

But if this woman was his mother, then who was the other woman having a grand old time at his parents’ house?

Qian Rui was suddenly engulfed by a surge of indignation. She was an imposter!

He guessed it had to be the hospital’s doing. He wasn’t sure how exactly they pulled it off, but he conjectured that while the hospital didn’t ever actually cure anybody, they had access to some kind of technology for making clones who they passed off as cured patients. That would explain how the hospital had been able to claim so many miraculous cures, and why they wouldn’t let anybody in to see the patients. They weren’t miracle workers, they were fraudsters!

Qian Rui was overwhelmed by anger and anguish, bitterness and agitation. His world was spinning. He wanted to vomit. He paced frantically in the narrow hospital room. He felt the urge to start smashing things, but when he lifted a chair, his last remaining bit of reason told him that now was not the time for rashness. He knew that if he wanted to fight back against the hospital, he’d have to find another way.

That imposter had taken over his home and his father. Qian Rui resolved to expose the hospital’s lies for all to see, to restore justice for his dying mother.

Disappearance

The next day, Qian Rui went to his parents’ house for dinner after getting off work.

When his mother was in the kitchen, he quietly asked his father to go back to the hospital with him. His father asked why. After all, they’d already handled all the procedures. Qian Rui told him he’d know when they got there. His father thought Qian Rui was being too abstruse, and insisted there was no reason to go back.

Qian Rui tried again later while they were eating. Qian Rui told his father there were still some papers that needed to be signed at the hospital, and he had to go there in person. He observed his mother’s reaction while he spoke, but she was totally composed, with no hint of unease on her face.

Qian Rui said there was something at the hospital that would shock his father. His father asked what, but Qian Rui didn’t say. His father was becoming vexed. Qian Rui hadn’t visited them for so long that he didn’t even know his mother had returned from the hospital, and now he was here talking cryptic nonsense. What nerve.

Qian Rui watched as his mother put food on his plate. It had been his favorite food as a kid, but he purposefully furrowed his brow and moved the food to the communal trash plate. This upset his father, but his mother didn’t mind; she just asked him what he’d like to eat instead.

Qian Rui also brought up two pieces of recent tech news. He said some company was passing their cyborgs off as real people, and they would become a real danger in the future. Despite his veiled implication, his mother didn’t react in any way.

Qian Rui could tell something was off with this “mother,” but he couldn’t find any proof. He wanted to tell his father that she was an imposter, but he never got a chance because she stayed by his father’s side at all times.

“Mom, did I leave my favorite green shirt here last time?” Qian Rui asked deceptively at one point.

But his mother didn’t fall for it. “You hate green. What shirt are you talking about?”

Qian Rui was stumped. He couldn’t get anything out of her, and it was starting to drive him nuts.

Running out of options, Qian Rui decided to drag his father to the hospital. That night, he got his father out of the house by saying that he had to intercede on Qian Rui’s behalf to the security guard downstairs who always gave Qian Rui trouble about entering the complex. Then, with some more cajoling, he got his father into his car and drove straight to the hospital. His father was furious, asking where they were going, but Qian Rui refused to answer and just kept driving.

“Qian Rui could tell something was off with this ‘mother,’ but he couldn’t find any proof.”

Once at the hospital, Qian Rui brought his father to the cargo passage. Such furtive behavior enraged his father, who tried to leave. But Qian Rui pushed his father through the space in between the supply truck and the hospital’s warehouse door, and then they took the stairs to the third floor.

Even though it was nighttime and most of the hospital’s staff had left, they still nearly ran into two nurses checking rooms. Qian Rui, hoping to avoid detection, brought his father to a dark corner so they could hide while the two nurses moved on. His father had never done something so shameful in his life. He wanted to shout out in protest, but Qian Rui put a hand over his mouth. His father struggled so hard his face turned purple.

Qian Rui and his father were drenched in sweat by the time they finally made it to Qian Rui’s mother’s room. His father was on the verge of losing it, but Qian Rui knew that as soon as he saw the truth, everything would be fine.

When he opened the door to that familiar room, however, Qian Rui’s blood ran cold. The bed was empty. The sheets were clean, without a wrinkle to be seen on them, and all of the apparatuses at the head of the bed were shut off. All of the electrodes and intubation equipment were gone too. The night air coming in through the slightly opened window made the whole room smell fresh.

Where was his mother?

Qian Rui quickly checked to make sure they had the right room number, and then he checked for any patient information by the side of the bed. There was nothing.

The only possibility was that his mother had been taken to another room. Qian Rui tried to calm himself down and contemplate what this might mean. Had the hospital picked up on his actions and suspicions? If it wasn’t to conceal the truth, why else would they move a critically ill patient to another room? Had they killed his mother after sending her copy back home so nobody would reveal their secret?

At this last thought, Qian Rui felt like he’d been plunged into ice water and couldn’t stop himself from trembling. His father, meanwhile, totally unaware of the turmoil in Qian Rui’s heart, simply felt that he’d put up with a whole night of sneaking around only to be brought to see an empty bed.

This kind of behavior from his son was simply unacceptable. Without asking for an explanation, he simply turned around and left the room with a humph. Qian Rui hurried after him, tripping over his own words to try to explain the situation. He swore he’d seen his mother in critical condition there, but his father, gripping at his chest like he might soon pass out as he hastened toward the exit, wouldn’t have it. Qian Rui followed close behind, not wanting to exacerbate his father’s bad heart.

Before leaving the room, however, Qian Rui turned back for a second. The floor, bathed in moonlight, looked abnormally cold.

He began doubting his memory. Had it all just been a dream? But that pain he’d felt sitting by his mother’s sickbed every night holding her hand had certainly been real. He chased after his father, his heart pounding with grief.

Hokyoung Kim for Noema Magazine
Investigation

After waking up the next day, Qian Rui thought back carefully about everything that had happened recently. Why did everything seem so suspicious? He was so upset that he skipped breakfast and phoned a friend who worked as a private investigator. His friend went by the nickname “White Crane.” Qian Rui had met him by chance during a commercial fraud investigation, and on two other occasions afterward he had helped Qian Rui look into some shady business. Qian Rui didn’t know his real name, but he was well-connected and efficient at his work.

White Crane didn’t get out of bed until nine, so Qian Rui was pacing outside his building, his impatience building like a static charge. When White Crane arrived, Qian Rui’s furrowed brow looked like the lines on sheet music.

“What’s up? Wake up on the wrong side of the bed?” White Crane said before dragging Qian Rui over to a breakfast spot. White Crane took his time enjoying his food, but Qian Rui had no appetite.

“Do you know anything about hacking?” Qian Rui asked.

“A little. Why?” White Crane replied, leisurely grabbing a fried dough stick.

“Can you hack into Miracle Hospital and check recent security camera footage from room 3208 in building number two?”

“What for?”

“Can you do it or not?”

“Tell me why first,” White Crane insisted.

“Well, I don’t know if you’ll believe me,” Qian Rui began, clearing his throat. “But I think … I think my mom’s been replaced by an imposter.” Qian Rui watched White Crane’s shocked expression before moving on in a low voice. “My mom was at Miracle Hospital the past couple of days. I snuck in every night to see her. It was obvious she wasn’t going to hold on much longer. I was crying and everything. And then out of nowhere, my mom is back at home, perfectly healthy — and there’s nobody in her hospital room. It all seems wrong, but I don’t have any proof.”

White Crane ruminated for a while. He appeared shocked, but it also seemed like he had thought of something. Qian Rui waited patiently.

“I think my mom’s been replaced by an imposter.”

“Now that you say it,” White Crane began after a long while, “this reminds me of something. I had this client three years ago. He was real sick. Terminal cancer. I was bummed out about that because he still owed me a ton of cash, so he couldn’t just die like that. I went to talk to him about it a few times, but he sent me away. I guess he wasn’t feeling well and he was in a bad mood. So I figured he’d just renege on the payment. I was out of options, so I just dropped it and chalked it up as a loss. After a few days, though, I heard he was strutting out of Miracle Hospital healthy as ever. He even had me come over and paid his debt in full. I was flabbergasted. The hospital didn’t just cure his cancer; they made him a better person too! Now that I think about it, though, it’d all make more sense if he’d been replaced.”

“Exactly, that’s what I’m saying,” Qian Rui said. “Finally, somebody believes me.”

“If it’s true, though, this is huge.” White Crane was also getting excited. As a private investigator, more often than not, he just spied on cheating husbands; here was a case that actually meant something.

“Damn right it is!” Qian Rui said. “Think about how big Miracle Hospital is. There are at least 10 of them throughout the country. And they’re so expensive. They’re raking it in. If all they’re doing is making these imposters, that’s all dirty money!”

“Alright then … what do you need me to look into?” White Crane asked.

“Start with the recordings of my mom’s room,” Qian Rui whispered. “Especially during the day on the 11th. I was there on the night of the 10th. She was still in room 3208, and then on the 11th she was gone. Find out what happened that day. And then also check if there are any secret locations inside the hospital. If they are making body doubles, we have to find out how they’re doing it — how they’ve been able to pull the wool over everybody’s eyes.”

“Based on what you’ve seen, just what is this imposter they sent home? A cyborg?” White Crane asked, trying to fathom what might be going on.

“Doesn’t seem like it,” Qian Rui said. “It’s too real.”

“Then it’s a clone? Those are illegal.”

“It doesn’t seem like a clone, either …” Qian Rui said, shaking his head. “A clone wouldn’t have the original’s memories, right?”

“That’s real fishy then,” White Crane mumbled, but then a second later he was patting Qian Rui on the shoulder affably. “Don’t worry. With me on the case, I guarantee we’ll get to the bottom of this.”

After White Crane left, Qian Rui wasn’t relieved like he thought he would be. Instead, he felt shaken for having disclosed this secret since he didn’t know what the consequences were going to be. Would his suspicions fizzle out due to a lack of evidence, or would they reveal a huge conspiracy and he would have to confront the dark forces behind everything?

If they really did end up unraveling the world’s greatest mystery, did Qian Rui have the strength to go toe to toe with such a large corporation? What would his life be like then? Would his name be plastered all over the internet? Or perhaps this conspiracy would lead to even more secrets. The more he thought about it, the more apprehensive he felt.

What was waiting behind this door they were about to open?

Traces

Qian Rui didn’t tell his father he hired an investigator.

His heart was still recovering after the antics at the hospital. Qian Rui worried if he told his father he’d hired somebody to expose the hospital’s dark secrets, his father would probably have a conniption. He didn’t want to tell him without any concrete proof for fear of seeming too unreasonable.

Aside from that, Qian Rui had also discovered his father had gradually become quite attached to the imposter. Perhaps his father’s affection for his wife had grown stronger after she’d seemingly been brought back from the dead. This made Qian Rui want to tell him even less, because he feared his father might alert the imposter.

Something happened later on, however, that made Qian Rui fret. His fake mother stayed inside all day convalescing, but she was already fully cured, so she had tons of energy. She kept the house sparkling clean, made three meals a day and got along perfectly with Qian Rui’s father. His father had a short fuse, so had always been irascible toward his wife. Her brush with death, however, must have made him feel guilty, so he started treating her much more gently. And now, enough time had passed that this had become his father’s new way of life.

Qian Rui went to his parents’ house often to see how his father and fake mother were getting along. “Junsheng,” his fake mother would say to his father every time they watched TV. “Get up and exercise a bit. Don’t sit for too long.” And his father would, surprisingly, heed her advice and get up and walk around.

Qian Rui’s parents had always been quite cold toward one another. They’d never been so affectionate, which made this new behavior appear both tender and bizarre. Qian Rui was increasingly conflicted. When he realized he was growing hesitant, he made a decision to carry out the investigation as quickly as possible to avoid his father becoming hopelessly wrapped up with this imposter. He was worried that his father wouldn’t be able to handle the truth and his heart problems would flare up again.

“Mom, do you remember that teacher I absolutely hated when I was little?” Qian Rui probed one day.

“Which one? Ms. Wang? Mr. Xu? Or Ms. Gu?”

“You know. The one I hated the most.”

“Ms. Gu, right?” his mother replied casually. “What about her?”

“The idea of telling his father the truth was becoming less and less appealing.”

Qian Rui awkwardly thought of something: “She invited me to a student reunion last week. I don’t want to go.”

“Well then, you don’t have to,” his mother said with a placid smile.

That was suspicious too. If it had been before, his mother probably would have gotten upset and nagged him to go see his old teacher. Qian Rui’s fake mother was much more equanimous, and he had caught on to this difference in temper from the very beginning.  His mother used to act bitter and unhappy when he hadn’t come to visit in a few days, complaining that he was neglectful. But his fake mother was graciously understanding of how busy he was, and she’d urge him to take it easy. This unusual level of leniency seemed warmhearted, but it belied the artificial alienation underneath.

There were a lot of things Qian Rui found abnormal, but they were all very subtle. He couldn’t quite pin them down, and they wouldn’t count as proof if he told anybody. He had yet to catch her with anything substantial.

His fake mother remembered everything, but she seemed emotionally deficient. Qian Rui was perplexed at just what kind of replica she was.

He ended up avoiding his parents’ house. Sometimes he’d walk in the door and his mother would be rubbing his father’s feet on the sofa, which was a display of affection he hadn’t seen in years. Sometimes he’d recall the household squabbles they used to have back when his real mother was alive, and those memories brought about an anguished tightness in his chest.

Qian Rui was feeling increasingly conflicted. If the truth came out, should his father know? Was it really so wrong that his father was enjoying life again? The idea of telling his father the truth was becoming less and less appealing.

It was only as he was leaving one day, when he turned one of the hallway’s dark corners, that he suddenly remembered that lonely sickroom he’d visited on those nights. Just like this hallway, it was haunted by abandonment. And his mother then, so old, so pitiful — nobody knew she was there, and nobody cared that she even existed. Her breath then was but a whisper, but she was still holding on, struggling, as though there was some wish she hadn’t yet fulfilled. He had been the only one by his mother’s side on those desolate nights, each tear a symbol of remorse. And while he was there, perhaps his father already had his arms wrapped around the rosy-cheeked woman at home.

His heart hardened at that thought. The imposter had invaded their home; he had to expose the truth so his mother could rest peacefully!

Steeling himself, Qian Rui left the building in a cloud of anger.

A Turn Of Events

White Crane arranged to meet with Qian Rui only a few days later.

Qian Rui arrived at the agreed-upon cafe and found a seat in a tucked-away corner. For some reason, his stomach felt heavy, as though he’d swallowed a block of gold. He had no taste for coffee. White Crane finally strolled in after about a half-hour. Qian Rui was itching to ask him what he discovered.

White Crane turned on his laptop and opened a few clips of security camera footage.

The first one was from the 11th at around 4 p.m. in his mother’s hospital room. The device monitoring his mother’s heart suddenly started ringing. With that, the cardiogram and EEG scanner flatlined. They became as sharp and level as a well-made sword, filling the lonely room with a cold glow. The loud sound must’ve signaled in a control room somewhere else in the hospital. Shortly after, there were footsteps outside the door to his mother’s room.

The door opened and a single nurse walked in. He commanded the medical cart to load Qian Rui’s mother’s body, and then the automated cart noiselessly left the room. Qian Rui felt a sudden stab in his heart as he realized that his mother was about to permanently pass on. Though he’d known for a long time that this was how things would end, the feeling was absolutely crushing, like the panic that spreads through a besieged town during war.

The view switched to a camera out in the hallway. The automated medical cart glided along, following the nurse around two corners toward a door at the end of the corridor. The nurse and cart disappeared behind the door. White Crane paused the video and enlarged the frame. It was a plain door, and with the low resolution of the image, Qian Rui could only make out two callous words on it: “Low-temperature Crematorium.”

There was no need to imagine; his mother’s entire existence had ended behind that door.

Tears welled up in Qian Rui’s eyes again.

White Crane, unaware of the anguish Qian Rui was going through, was eager to plan their next move. They had enough to file an investigation of the hospital just with this footage and the imposter in Qian Rui’s home, and they might even be able to prosecute, but White Crane wanted more; he wanted to use these clues to unveil an even bigger conspiracy. The thought of riding this case to fame made him shiver with excitement. Back when he first gave up his steady career to take on this shadowy role, it wasn’t because he wanted to bust adulterers; he had been waiting for just this kind of opportunity.

“White Crane wanted more. He wanted to use these clues to unveil an even bigger conspiracy.”

White Crane had covered his tracks. He had done nothing to arouse the hospital’s suspicion. He first hacked into the hospital’s monitoring system and checked all of the videos around that date, and then he hung around the hospital’s entrance and stuck a bugging device on the collar of a doctor walking inside. He even had a couple of miniature camera drones fly over the hospital’s back wall and take pictures outside each window. He had collected about a week’s worth of information on the hospital.

“I’m telling you, it’s insane,” White Crane said. “I got everything we need. I didn’t even expect to uncover so many details. I checked the footage from the crematorium first. You have no idea — they have a ton of cremation equipment. Rows of rooms where they secretly do cremations. They’re very secretive about it, but you can tell from how they move things around that they’re burning bodies. What does this mean? It means they’re doing cremations all the time. There are way more deaths at that hospital than they’re reporting!”

“Of course,” Qian Rui said, nodding.

“But that’s not all!” White Crane said suspensefully. “What do you think I found in the science building behind the hospital?”

“What?”

“I got photos of them cultivating human organs! There are dozens of people working there every day, which means they’re really busy making these bodies. You know, cloning organs is illegal now. We can bring charges against the hospital with these pictures alone,” White Crane said. “It’s just a shame we don’t have enough evidence to prove they’re creating these full imposters.”

White Crane’s excitement was starting to rub off on Qian Rui. It was the evidence Qian Rui had been hoping for, but, surprisingly, it didn’t bring him the joy or catharsis he’d expected. Instead, all he felt was a vague seriousness and sense of unease.

“What’s wrong?” White Crane asked, nudging him with his elbow. “Any questions?”

“Oh, heh, no,” Qian Rui replied, laughing insipidly. “No problem. Great job.”


Qian Rui walked back to his parents’ house, dragging all of his mental baggage with him. White Crane told him to get ready for war, but Qian Rui was reluctant and worried. When he walked in the door, his fake mother, unexpectedly, was not there; she was out getting groceries. He made up his mind to tell his father right then.

“Dad,” he began uncertainly, “have you heard that … Miracle Hospital might be defrauding people?”

“What are you talking about?” his father asked incredulously, removing his reading glasses.

“Like … they’re not curing anybody. They’re just pretending they are.” Qian Rui wasn’t sure how to tell him.

“How’s that possible? Anybody with two eyes could tell you that’s not true. You’ve seen your mother, haven’t you? She’s been cured,” his father said, furrowing his brow. He couldn’t understand why his son would say such a thing. “They’ve been operating for so many years now without any issues.”

Qian Rui wasn’t sure how to proceed. He wanted to tell him that that woman wasn’t his real wife, but for some reason, he couldn’t get it out. The words got all twisted up in his mouth so that when he finally spoke next, he said, “Dad, have you ever thought about what it would have been like if mother died in the hospital?”

“Don’t talk nonsense,” his father said. “It wasn’t easy for your mom to recover. Don’t curse her like that.”

“I’m not,” Qian Rui explained desperately. “I just mean … hypothetically.”

“I don’t even want to entertain the thought,” his father said, massaging his chest. “My heart almost acted up twice while your mother was in the hospital. It’s better now, but the doctor said the most important thing is not to worry too much. I really thought I was being punished by the heavens then for having such a bad temper. Thank god they spared me.”

Without another word, his father habitually reached for his left shirt pocket — he smoked whenever he got upset — but he grasped at air. His pocket was empty. His father looked down in confusion for a few seconds before remembering why, and this made Qian Rui feel even worse. He knew his father had quit smoking and started taking his health more seriously as a way of thanking the heavens for sparing his wife.

His reluctance grew as he watched his father. If believing in a lie made somebody happy, should you really tell them the truth?

Hokyoung Kim for Noema Magazine
Going To Battle

White Crane had Qian Rui meet him again three days later, this time at a hot pot restaurant. White Crane apparently wanted to take advantage of the clamor of the busy restaurant to mask the secret intel he was going to reveal. The steamy white vapors from the hot pot seemed to wrap around him like a veil.

White Crane had critical information. A secret informer had helped him get an internship at the hospital. He’d been uncovering the hospital’s secrets as a spy for the last three days.

“Anything about the imposters?” Qian Rui asked.

“Yep,” White Crane said, flashing his eyebrows. “Just as we expected, they’ve figured out how to grow human cells with incredible speed. They can make them age and they use the patient’s DNA to create a duplicate of the body. I saw the body parts of these fast-aging duplicates. They replicated like cancer, creating a new body through the growth medium. You have no idea, man. It’s freaky as hell.”

Qian Rui shivered.

“I looked into what you said about their memories, too, and I found something even more shocking,” White Crane continued. “All of the bodies they make have the same functions as real human bodies. The development of the brains, however, stops at a very primitive level because the duplicates don’t have any time for learning. So the hospital uses smart technology to deal with this. They do scans of the patient’s neural connections, recording the entire connectome, and then convert the neural connection model into a sequence that is implanted into the new body’s brain. Going off of this sequence, the new cranial nerves grow based on the past model, which has the effect of allowing the new body to quickly emulate the brain of the original patient. This preserves that person’s genes and cerebral memory, but in a different body.”

“How did you find out about all this?” Qian Rui asked, somewhat in awe, but mostly terrified.

“It wasn’t easy!” White Crane said. “I used a micro-camera to capture all of the critical evidence. The hospital has been denying access to families of patients and keeping their treatment methods under wraps all these years. Why? Because they’re hiding these secrets. They’re extremely protective. If I wasn’t such a veteran gumshoe, it would’ve been impossible to break through their security measures. There were two times I nearly blew it!”

White Crane showed Qian Rui some videos that he risked his neck recording. He talked about how dangerous it had been getting evidence out of the lab. He appeared very pleased with himself.

These revelations had gotten White Crane exceptionally worked up. He had already contacted a lawyer friend of his to deliver the coup de grace to the hospital. This caught Qian Rui off guard; he didn’t think his personal case would go public so quickly. White Crane had put together a team, though. They were all connections he’d made on the job over the years, including the partner of a well-known law firm, a popular news editor, two online influencers who covered current events, two competing hospitals and the inspector-general of the ministry of health management. White Crane was extremely well-connected from having helped so many different people with their touchy problems over the years.

Qian Rui was feeling uncertain, but he didn’t want to step on White Crane’s toes. “Isn’t it a little early for all that? It seems a little reckless to be contacting people already. Maybe we should just do some more investigating first?”

“You have no idea, man. It’s freaky as hell.”

“We’ve done enough investigating!” White Crane said confidently. “The concrete evidence we have now proves they’re conducting illegal experiments, and they’re doing them with the hospital’s patients. That’s enough to take them to court and fine them out the wazoo. And if we can stir the pot a little more, all the cracks in their armor will start to show.”

“What other cracks are there?” Qian Rui asked, somewhat stupefied.

“I don’t have enough evidence to prove it yet, but all of their previous patients they claimed to have cured were actually imposters too,” White Crane said, moving closer. “I don’t have those records, though, so I still can’t prove it. If I can’t get that evidence, then the most we can do is charge them with conducting illegal experiments. But if we have enough proof, we can charge them with murder and fraud. That’s not just violating medical research regulations; those are serious criminal charges. We can take down their entire group.”

“You really want to go after them like that?” Qian Rui asked tentatively.

“You’ve gotta be vicious,” White Crane said. He lowered his voice and explained what the person he hired to investigate the hospital’s finances found: “This hospital is known for curing terminal illnesses. All the money they collect is from people about to die, people whose families don’t care about cost, so they can charge an astronomical amount. Their profits are ridiculous. I’m telling you, they move a lot of money around, and they’ve made extensive investments in related sectors, including buying tech companies and treatment centers up and down the entire supply network, so that nobody ever finds out their secrets. They’ve become this huge, convoluted medical empire. The hospital’s chairman is this super-mysterious, ultra-rich dude. He’s gone through a lot of trouble to make himself hard to find, probably because he knows how disgraceful the stuff he’s involved with is. Nobody’s ever really seen him all these years. I bet they won’t expect him to fall right into my net this time.” White Crane had a prideful smile on his face like he’d just caught the biggest bass in the ocean.

“This doesn’t seem like it’s going to be easy,” Qian Rui murmured.

“It’s not. That’s why I need your help again,” White Crane said, snaking his arm over Qian Rui’s shoulders like they were close pals. “Help me check your mom’s record. She was discharged not too long ago, so they should still be able to check it. Take pictures of all of her daily tests for me. If they replaced her with an imposter, there should be some kind of discrepancy between them that will show up on the tests. If it really is an imposter, there’ll definitely be a trace of it there.”

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that,” Qian Rui said. “They wouldn’t even let me in to see her before. Now she’s not even a patient and you want me to get access to her record?”

“How will you know without trying?” White Crane said, egging him on.

Qian Rui tried to refuse a bit more, but in the end, even though he wasn’t very willing, he agreed to give it a shot.

A few days later, Qian Rui met the crew that White Crane had put together. They were all sharp characters unafraid of twisting the lion’s tail, and they were now united against a common enemy. They vowed to expose the hospital and put its leaders to shame. They put together an action plan: First, they’d report the hospital’s murders to the prosecutor’s office, and then, once the trial began, the media and influential people would start focusing on the story to draw in public interest. Then they’d expose the finances of the hospital’s grand medical empire, and finally, they’d get the government involved to ensure that the hospital was brought to its knees. Throughout their small meetings, Qian Rui began to feel increasingly uneasy.

Memories

Qian Rui couldn’t sleep that night. He lay on his bed staring up at the ceiling. He realized that the most entrenched memories he had of his mother were starting to fade along with his resentment of the imposter. He hadn’t dreamt of his mother in many days. Around the time she had just passed, he would see her withered face every time he closed his eyes, which prevented him from falling asleep. Now, however, that pain was diminishing.

He rolled around in bed, racked by sorrowful thoughts. Why did memories have to fade? Why did memories that once seemed more important than anything disappear after a while? A part of him could tell that forgetting was a form of self-deception and self-protection. If one could forget all of one’s guilt, perhaps one would find it easier to start a new life.

But could he allow himself to forget all of his guilt?

He went to his parents’ house the next morning and went straight to his old room from when he was a child. He wanted to look through his old pictures to find records of his youth, to find every memory he had involving his mother.

He scrolled through the images on his old hard drive. Even though they were digital, they looked so old, as though they’d faded over time. The more he looked, the more he felt that he’d let his mother down over the years. Some pictures reminded him of the time he had a falling out with her over some girl he liked. He had said a lot of hurtful things to her then, but the way things played out proved that that girl wasn’t nearly as perfect as he had perceived; she fawned over some other guy who started flirting with her, and Qian Rui broke things off with her quickly. But he couldn’t take back those hurtful things he’d said to his mother.

Another group of photos reminded him of his first birthday party after he had started working. He held a little dinner party with his colleagues and his mother came, but he was too busy drinking and hobnobbing in an attempt to build his professional network that he forgot all about his mother. By the time he remembered, she had already gone.

Another picture was from when his mom booked a table at a restaurant for her own birthday and invited Qian Rui and his father. Qian Rui had been trying to avoid going because he was swamped with writing a report for a project at work, and his father was in a terrible mood because he had just quit smoking, so he showed up really late. When Qian Rui arrived at the restaurant, his mother was crying. When his father finally came, his mother complained plaintively for a bit, but then she wiped away her tears and they all took a family photo. The forced smiles on their faces looked especially unpleasant now.

All these memories were starting to make him feel anguished again, and he was overcome with remorse that his mother passed before he had been able to make things up to her.

These feelings provided him with some encouragement to help White Crane.


He called up the hospital for his mother’s medical records. He was told that he could schedule a time to come to the hospital and look at them, but because of patient privacy concerns, he couldn’t take them out. Qian Rui pleaded to no avail, so he just scheduled a time to go to the hospital.

As he was leaving his room, he ran into his fake mother who was preparing to go grocery shopping. She had a big shopping list and she wasn’t sure if she should walk or take public transport, so Qian Rui’s father told him to go with her. Seeing no way to refuse, Qian Rui accompanied his fake mother out the door.

He walked a short distance behind his fake mother. Neither of them made contact with each other, and his mother didn’t turn around either. Qian Rui felt as though he was following something he’d never catch up to, like time slipping away.

After they turned a corner, his fake mother suddenly turned and said, “This was the road you used to take to school every day.”

Qian Rui froze for a moment, trying to decipher what his mother meant by this. It sparked something from the past, and Qian Rui saw himself as a child in his school uniform swerving through the narrow lane on his bike, eyebrows knit. His lunchbox hung from his handlebars and his face was solemn as he watched a girl brushing her ponytail from afar. That was a long time ago.

Next, they came to a corner near his old middle school, which prompted another scene from the past. He was 14 then, but his mother still worried about him. If he tarried coming home after school, his mother would always wait for him at this intersection, sometimes carrying snacks for him. He used to think she looked so lame standing there with her canvas bag and red sweater, and he’d be anxious for her to leave so his classmates wouldn’t make fun of him.

He stood there, frozen in place, as though he could see his grim-faced, arrogant, obstinate self from 20 years ago in front of him. Qian Rui in the present had somehow taken on the role of his mother then, looking at her son from far away, wanting to go to him but unable to move, and simultaneously too worried to leave. Just stuck there, skewered by the disdainful glare coming down the lane.

These memories brought on an intense feeling of melancholy again. Why was it only now that he understood the significance of those scenes? It was all too late …

Just then, the fake mother to his side turned to him and said, “I used to come here to pick you up from school, but you didn’t want to see me. I know it’s because you didn’t like how I looked. You even said so, but I still came. Were you thinking of that too? It’s okay. You don’t have to worry about it.”

Qian Rui looked at his fake mother in shock as she calmly recounted these memories. When she said “It’s okay,” it was like a balloon had been popped inside Qian Rui’s head, like something burst inside his heart, and he felt tears threatening to come out. Who was this person before him? Why did she have the same exact memories as his real mother, and yet everything else about them seemed somehow different? Was it really okay? Had he really been forgiven for treating his mother poorly for so long?

His fake mother moved closer and patted him on the shoulder warmly. He didn’t shrink away.

Qian Rui helped his fake mother buy groceries, and later they had a peaceful family supper. After dinner, they had a video call with Qian Rui’s sister, who was studying for her Ph.D. in the U.S. She was eight years his junior, beaming with youthful exuberance, and didn’t keep up too much with family matters. It was morning where she was, and even though they could tell from her eyes that she’d just gotten out of bed, she was cheerful and animated as she shared stories about university life with them. Qian Rui’s parents made sure his sister was taking care of herself, and then his sister talked privately with his fake mother, probably about her new boyfriend. His fake mother didn’t say much; she just nodded and smiled.

Qian Rui came out of the bathroom just in time to see from afar his sister saying good night to his fake mother on the iPad. At that instant, Qian Rui suddenly thought how great it would be if his family could be this happy all the time.

He closed his eyes, recalling again those final days in the hospital room, and he felt that dull throbbing ache in his chest.

Hokyoung Kim for Noema Magazine
The Meeting

The next time Qian Rui and White Crane met, White Crane wanted to raise charges against the hospital in advance. Qian Rui was taken aback. He wasn’t fully ready for the battle ahead.

“Why so soon?” Qian Rui asked. “I haven’t gotten my mother’s medical records yet.” He was trying to appear as calm as possible because he didn’t want to give away how reluctant he was inside.

“We can’t wait,” White Crane said. “The hospital knows what we’re up to. They keep pausing their work and destroying evidence. They even sent people to steal the evidence we had. Two of our team’s computers got hacked into. They erased everything. Luckily it wasn’t anything too critical, and there are backups of most of the evidence.”

They had met outside a McDonald’s. At first, Qian Rui thought White Crane was going to talk about sensitive information in a public place again, but instead he brought Qian Rui through a series of twisting roads and lanes to an old apartment complex. There, they groped about in the dark, brick building until they finally reached a door on the fourth floor. The building was a relic from the last century with few inhabitants left, as everybody who could move had already done so. It was cold, dismal and deserted, but they certainly didn’t have to worry about security cameras here, as there weren’t many places in the city as primitive as this.

White Crane pushed the door open and Qian Rui discovered the apartment inside was actually well furnished. Everything from the wallpaper to the bar was kept in good order, making it obvious that there was somebody managing the place. There were already several people sitting inside having a spirited discussion about something. Stifling cigarette smoke coiled around the room.

Qian Rui sat down on the sofa. In front of the sofa was a coffee table, on top of which were glasses of beer and liquor drunk down to the bottom. He was about to reach out to grab a clean glass for some water, but a newspaper on the coffee table caught his attention. The newspaper had a sensational headline: “Area Hospital Murdering Patients and Running Schemes: Are the Shocking Rumors True?”

His heart skipped a beat. So the battle was already underway?

He anxiously picked up the newspaper and read it carefully. He could tell the article had been crafted to be provocative and probing. It included plenty of sweeping conjecture and ambiguous suspicion, but not much in the way of credible evidence or concrete accusations. It reeked of yellow journalism, but it fell short of outright rumormongering too.

Qian Rui guessed this was an attempt to rattle the hospital into revealing something. Judging from the way the article was written, it was clear they were waiting for an appropriate time to expose more. This was the prelude to the main assault. He had already met the people sitting in the room once or twice before, but he didn’t really know them. This was clearly his case; why were these people more excited about it than he was?

“Qian Rui, we still need you to be the one to present the case,” White Crane said, pulling Qian Rui out of his own head.

“But …” Qian Rui began diffidently, “I haven’t gotten my mother’s medical records yet …”

“That’s fine. We’ve had a breakthrough hacking into the hospital’s systems recently,” White Crane said. “Remember when you had me check the hospital’s security camera footage last time? I only pulled footage from the night of the 11th like you asked, but the next day I realized I should have copied all of the footage from around that time. But when I hacked into their systems the next day, they’d deleted all of the recordings from that time. I thought it was just routine maintenance, but the hospital’s firewall was upgraded shortly after. It wasn’t until recently, when we got into their systems again, that we found backups of the footage from those days in a different drive. This footage is enough to prove your testimony is true, and enough to take down the hospital in one shot.”

“Do they really count as two different people?”

“So … since you have concrete evidence, why don’t you guys just present the charges?” Qian Rui said. “Don’t have me lead the charge.”

A middle-aged man with a square face sitting nearby spoke up. Qian Rui recognized him as an influential lawyer. “You don’t have to worry. We wouldn’t have decided to strike without being able to ensure your safety,” he said in a soothing voice. “No matter how powerful the hospital is, they wouldn’t dare do anything to you under our watch.”

Qian Rui shook his head. He wasn’t sure how to explain his complicated headspace. “It’s not them seeking revenge I’m worried about …”

“Then what is it?” White Crane asked impatiently.

“It’s just …” Qian Rui began, thinking about what he wanted to say. “I’m thinking, can we be sure the hospital is really evil? Why don’t we talk about it with the hospital’s chairman first?”

“You want to settle this out of court? Ask for a settlement?” the lawyer asked. “I would advise against that. Now is the time to strike, not go against them lightly. Nothing good would come of trying to negotiate something with their chairman. The operation they’re running is so huge, there’s no way they’d be willing to let you coerce them into something. And if we show them our trump cards too early, it will give them time to prepare. If you coordinate with our attack, we’ll be able to take them out in one move, and you’ll receive more than enough compensation then.”

“It’s not about the compensation,” Qian Rui said. He knew they were all getting annoyed with his perplexing attitude, so he reorganized his thoughts before speaking again. “My point is, is what they’re doing really that wrong? Is it really a crime to create an imposter and send it home as the patient? Isn’t it a little extreme to go ahead and sue them?”

“How is that not a crime?” White Crane fumed. “The patient and the imposter are two different people. Killing one and sending the other home is, first of all, deceiving the consumer and, second, a horrible murder and disrespect for human life. The imposter goes home good as new while the sick patient dies all alone — is that not murder? You can’t waver on this now.”

Qian Rui sighed. He still had misgivings. “I’m just thinking, do they really count as two different people? Their genes and memories are the same; they’ve just swapped bodies. Couldn’t they still be seen as the same person?”

“Now’s not the time to get all philosophical,” said the veteran reporter sitting at the other end of the room. “That won’t get you anywhere. The imposters are not humans. They’re robots. They are bodies controlled by computer chips and programs, right? That’s a robot.”

“You should think about something more practical instead of worrying about the philosophical implications of whether it’s one person or two,” added the lawyer. “Do you know how much the chairman of Miracle Hospital is worth? It’s an appalling number. He’s a multi-billionaire. How did a small-time businessman like him do it? He started with the very first Miracle Hospital, and now he controls the entire medical industry, including a few media entities that he uses to keep everything under wraps. You tell me; can we really let a guy like this, who profits off the suffering of others, go free?

“Exactly!” White Crane chimed in. “This is a crucial moment. We can’t get cold feet now. Think about your mom. If you accept that imposter as your new mom and don’t speak up now, what would your mom think of you? Wherever she is now, she knows what’s going on. Don’t you want her to rest with a smile on her face? And think about all the other families like yours. You can’t show the hospital any mercy.”

Qian Rui listened and nodded, his heart heavy. He didn’t try to say anything else.

The Conversation

The day before the first court session, the detective called Qian Rui to go over some essential matters regarding his court appearance.

Qian Rui was in his own apartment, feeling a little out of sorts, his mind wandering throughout the call. His eyes were twitching and his heart was weirdly starting to race. When he finished the call, he saw a news alert on his phone and was shocked to see the name “Miracle Hospital” in the headline. It was the heavyweight cover story that predicted things to come. 

Reading the article, he saw that while they hadn’t officially dropped the bomb yet, they were broaching the subject. His own name appeared in the article too, as the first victim brave enough to speak out and initiate the criminal lawsuit. He was painted as standing up for all the other victims. Qian Rui’s throat turned dry as he wondered just when he had been propped up in this perilous role.

He went out onto his balcony for some air. He hoped the coolness would soothe his agitated mind. Out of nowhere, his phone rang, making his heart skip a beat. It was his fake mother. His father had had a sudden heart attack at home. They were on their way to the hospital now. His dad had requested to go to Miracle Hospital. Feeling his heart jump up into his mouth, Qian Rui hung up his phone and rushed to the hospital.

What had happened? Why would his father’s heart act up all of a sudden? Why Miracle Hospital again?

Qian Rui’s thoughts were all over the place.

When he got to the hospital, he saw his fake mother sitting in the waiting room outside the inpatient area. He hurried over to ask her what was going on. His fake mother said that his father had seen some news on his phone and suddenly became agitated. At first, his face turned pale, and then he started fuming, but before he could explain why, he had a heart attack. All he managed to tell her was that he wanted to go to Miracle Hospital.

Qian Rui guessed what news his father had seen. He stood there in the waiting room. No matter how much he swallowed, his throat burned with painful anxiety; his heart even more so. This was making him even more indecisive. He wondered if he was doing something cruel to his father.

He kept asking the nurse at the door if he could go into the inpatient area, but he was denied each time. Dejected, he sat with his fake mother. He put his arms on his knees and buried his head between his hands. When he looked up again, he found that his fake mother was sitting there totally unperturbed, and this made his growing affection for her wane. He started rejecting her in his mind again. How could she be so tranquil? She was a fake wife, after all. She had no real emotions. Qian Rui felt like his head was about to split open from pain.

“Don’t worry,” his fake mother said when she noticed him staring at her.

“What did the doctor say?” Qian Rui asked.

His mother smiled and said, “The doctor said it’s about time for a heart transplant. They have quite advanced organ generation technology now. It’s quite simple to do surgery and switch hearts.”

“Switch hearts?” This stirred something inside Qian Rui, prompting him to ask, “If you switch out every part of someone’s body, are they still the original person?”

His fake mother remained composed. “Of course they are,” she said. “I heard that every cell in our bodies gets replaced after a while. The matter in your body now is already different from the matter in your body a year ago, but nobody feels like they aren’t themselves. People’s minds and memories are continuous.”

“So the brain always stays the same?” Qian Rui asked, his eyes fixed on her.

“Well, no,” his mother said, shaking her head. “Your brain changes every day too. Memories are continuous, but all of our thoughts are changing. The brain can change too.”

“If you switch out every part of someone’s body, are they still the original person?”

Qian Rui pondered her words carefully. He didn’t know why, but he felt like she was implying something, so he questioned her further: “So is there anything in us that never changes?”

“If you’re talking about any specific elements or ideas, then … no,” she said. “But don’t get too caught up in these kinds of questions, since there might not be any answers. The parts change, but the whole remains the same. You will always be you.”

“But how do I know I am me?” Qian Rui was staring at her intently, as though he wanted to drill a hole through her face and see inside her brain.

“That’s not what’s important,” his mother said, seemingly willing to answer his riddle with one of her own. “What’s important is that the people in your life know you’re you.”

“What do you mean?” he pressed.

“Just what I said.” He felt like his mother was trying to tell him something through the expression in her eyes. “As long as the people in your life know you’re you.”

Qian Rui’s heart was beating quickly in his chest. He didn’t know why she would say this. Was she just responding to his questions, or did she fully understand what he was getting at? Did she know what she was?

Qian Rui realized he couldn’t get a read on her. She was identical to his mother in every way, even the way she’d stop in the middle of what she was saying as though she was hesitating. But she was far more placid than his mother; it seemed nothing could faze her, perhaps because she hadn’t had time, as a newly created person, to fully develop her emotions.

But her mind and memories were obviously his mother’s, and he realized that he had never been able to get a read on his mother before either. He desperately wanted to remember all of the little things his mother had garrulously said to him over the years, but he couldn’t.

When he really thought about it, he realized that he didn’t understand the people around him nearly as much as he thought he did. It was an exceptionally painful realization.

What did she mean? Was it a plea for acceptance? The barrier held up between Qian Rui and his fake mother was starting to come down, but for some reason, he didn’t feel like stopping that from happening; on the contrary, there actually seemed to be some good in its removal.

“As long as the people in your life can accept you, right?” Qian Rui asked, following his mother’s logic.

Just then his phone rang. It was an unknown number. He stood up, walked a few feet away, and answered. It was Miracle Hospital notifying him it was time for his scheduled look at his mother’s medical records and that a staff member would receive him at the hospital’s archives at 5 p.m. Before the end of the call, the sweet-sounding woman on the other end told Qian Rui that after he looked at the records, the hospital’s chairman would like to meet with him in his office.

Qian Rui felt like his throat was choked with weeds. He couldn’t get any words out. The chairman’s office? So he knew about their plan? Why did he want to meet with Qian Rui? What was he going to say? A dull anxiety grew in Qian Rui the more he thought about it.

Back in the waiting room, his fake mother wanted to talk with him more, but his mind was too scattered and he couldn’t focus. They sat there quietly on the bench, looking at the door to the operating room Qian Rui’s father had been wheeled into, nervous and tense.

Qian Rui felt something in the shadows was waiting to be revealed.

Preparing For Battle

That afternoon, Qian Rui received a text from White Crane telling him to hurry to Miracle Hospital to take part in their rally. White Crane didn’t know that Qian Rui was already inside the hospital.

Standing at the waiting room’s window, Qian Rui saw people starting to gather outside the hospital’s entrance. They arrived in groups — he wasn’t sure from where, pouring in from all directions. Some of them had protest signs, but it was obvious they were hired demonstrators — they lacked even the slightest bit of passionate indignation. There was all manner of accusations written on their signs, some decrying the hospital’s exorbitant fees, others accusing the hospital of concealing patients’ conditions; only a handful of signs mentioned the hospital’s deceptive false cures.

Qian Rui knew this was the work of White Crane’s crew to make it seem like the hospital had already ignited the anger of the masses. It was clear they were still holding back the most damning secrets though. The protestors didn’t press forward, either; they just gathered a few yards outside the hospital, where they mostly waved their signs and chanted at passersby. They weren’t trying to get anything out of the hospital — they were putting on a show for the media.

White Crane called Qian Rui on the phone again. “Where are you?” he demanded. “Get down here!”

Looking out, Qian Rui could see White Crane outside talking to him on the phone, but he didn’t let him know he was inside the hospital.

“What are you guys doing?” he asked White Crane.

“We’re demonstrating. Putting some pressure on the hospital and heating things up for the trial tomorrow,” White Crane said. “The court is going to consider both sides’ influence when they make their verdict. They want to know who they shouldn’t mess with, so we need to let them know we have the support of the people on our side.”

“Then carry on. Why do you need me there?”

“Oh, come on!” White Crane said. “You’re the man of the hour; how could you not show up? The protestors will look up to you.”

“Where did you get all those people anyway?” Qian Rui asked.

“It wasn’t hard. Did you think we’re the only ones pissed off at the hospital? I found them online. They volunteered.”

“This is the only hospital in the world that can pull off these miracles, and it just so happens to only serve the rich — how could it not be hated?”

“What do they know?”

“There are some things they know, and some things they don’t,” White Crane said. He had also started speaking in riddles. “What they know is the rich are living longer than the poor. They know this hospital has a penchant for miracles and that they can cure the terminal illness of any moneybags that comes in, sending them home to live a long, healthy life. Without money, you can’t even get a consultation, making any disease a possible death sentence. So this is the only hospital in the world that can pull off these miracles, and it just so happens to only serve the rich — how could it not be hated? We’re shining a spotlight on wealth disparity. I didn’t have to trick anybody into coming here; there were plenty itching to protest. But they probably don’t know about the whole imposter thing.”

White Crane was pacing around. Qian Rui understood that even though White Crane had hired people to help his cause, it’s not like there wasn’t any actual support. If you could put a price on human life, plenty of people would find themselves in dire straits. It had even become a privilege to be replaced by an imposter. Considering this, Qian Rui wasn’t sure if he should be grateful or aggrieved.

“Where the hell are you anyway?” White Crane asked impatiently again.

“I’m at Miracle Hospital,” Qian Rui replied, finally telling the truth. “My dad got sick.”

Qian Rui quickly explained how his father had asked to come to Miracle Hospital after he saw the news this morning and the shock gave him a heart attack. He muttered through his reservations — how his father was old and couldn’t take much stress; how they’d just barely gotten his mother back, and if his father knew she was a fake, that might be the final nail in the coffin for him. Maybe it was better to keep the truth from him so he and his fake mother could enjoy their twilight years together.

“You’re losing it, man!” White Crane raged on the other end of the line. “You can worry about telling him the truth after he gets out of the hospital, but things are dire now. If we don’t step in and bring the hospital down now, it might not be your dad coming home, but an imposter.”

His words came like a bucket of ice water dumped on Qian Rui’s head, chilling him to the bone. He shivered involuntarily. He thought about how he had accompanied his mother on those final, gloomy nights, and watched her body be discarded in the end. He didn’t want to relive that, and this thought helped him recompose. He remembered what White Crane had said to him during their last meeting: Think about your mother’s final days. If you accept this imposter, how would your mom feel?

“Okay. I’ll come,” he said to White Crane.

He balled up his hand into a fist and pressed it tightly against the window, hoping to draw courage from the cold, unyielding glass. The protestors’ numbers were growing outside. He walked toward the exit to join his comrades declaring war against the hospital system. He refused to look toward his fake mother in the waiting room, however, because he was afraid he would waver again if he saw her face.

The Meeting

Qian Rui was feeling sapped after the afternoon demonstration. He had stood amid the crowd of protesters who had gathered together, and their indignation had rubbed off on him. When their protest was over, that indignation had not dissipated, but only grown stronger. It was only then that he realized this resentment could not be released through protest. He needed an outlet, a release, an eruption — or an amends.

He arrived at the hospital’s archives on the third floor at 5 p.m. After his face and fingerprint scans were verified at the glass door in the middle of the hallway, he entered, the doors closing softly behind him.

Qian Rui swiveled his head to glance at the tightly shut glass doors, but he didn’t stop. He continued alone toward the open door that led to a small room at the end of the hallway. The metal walls were devoid of decoration. The white light in the small room was the only light source as the day slowly dimmed outside.

The only things inside the small room were an empty table, a steel armchair and a small, grey, leather sofa. There was a neat folder on the table. Nobody else was in the room.

Qian Rui walked over, sat down on the hard armchair, and picked up the folder. His heart was beating intensely. He fumbled around with the folder for a while without opening it, and then he rubbed his hands together and placed them flat on the table so he could compose himself. He took a deep breath.

The first two pages of the report were filled with typical personal information. The middle three pages were diagnostic details; the type of cancer, symptom history, treatment history and initial pathology. All standard. Qian Rui looked through it carefully and couldn’t find anything out of place. A word written on the final diagnosis — “malignant” — stuck out. Had her cancer been diagnosed as malignant? Had his mother been doomed all along?

He flipped forward in the report. The last few pages were all pathology information that he couldn’t understand. Judging by the scattered numbers, however, his mother’s cancer had metastasized quickly. At the end of June, it was located around her stomach only, but by the beginning of July it had spread to all of her internal organs. The CT scans showed terrifying splotches of creeping blackness. After this came countless forms recording her vitals for each day. Some of the figures were falling, and it showed a decline in heart function too. All of this data looked reliable, and it seemed to be reflecting the obvious truth. It was all in front of him.

This made Qian Rui apprehensive. It was clear as day that the numbers inside this report detailed the terminal progression of his mother’s illness. Why were they showing him this so openly? Did they not fear that he would piece everything together and use it as evidence in court? Or perhaps they knew full well his reason for coming, and something emboldened them to not fear it?

He continued flipping through the pages suspiciously, working his way to the end. When he turned to the last page, the first thing that caught his eye was his mother’s signature. A shiver of realization ran through him. Nothing else on the page concerned him; he just stared transfixed at his mother’s signature and the handwritten date. There was no doubt it was hers. June 23. That was the day after her cancer was diagnosed as malignant. What did that mean? A storm of possibilities brewed in his head before he gathered himself and looked at the text above his mother’s signature.

It was an authorization agreement. Qian Rui read through it intently before finally understanding: His mother had allowed Miracle Hospital to conduct a full scan of her brain and implant the scan data into an artificial body. In other words, his mother knew about everything that had happened; she had even agreed to it.

His mother knew everything?

She authorized the brain scan and the duplication? How could that be?

Had she given up? Was she unwilling to fight, and instead agreed to give her family over to an artificial person? Why had she done this? Was it to comfort Qian Rui and his father?

Qian Rui’s chest tightened, his breath quickening. Everything had suddenly become clear, and yet nothing made sense. The report crumpled as he clutched at it in anxious bewilderment.

Just then, the door slid open. Qian Rui looked toward the doorway in surprise, but there was nobody there. A woman’s voice came in from the ceiling via a PA system: “Mr. Qian, it is time for your meeting with the hospital’s chairman, Mr. Lu. Please follow the arrows to your destination.” Qian Rui saw there were green arrows on the floor heading out of the room. He reluctantly followed them, turned the corner, and came to a concealed elevator.

Hokyoung Kim for Noema Magazine

The elevator came to a stop on the eighth floor, the hospital’s highest. There was only one room here: the chairman’s office.

Qian Rui stepped forward in a state of confusion, entering into an abnormally spacious, rectangular office, three sides of which were covered in floor-to-ceiling windows that wrapped around the room, affording an extensive vista of the city. The office was dimly lit by spotlights near the walls, a standing lamp near the sofa and a table lamp on the desk, which allowed one to appreciate the bustling glow of the city lights outside. Qian Rui stood at the entranceway, hesitating.

There was only one person in the room sitting on the sofa next to the coffee table under the standing lamp. He was brewing tea with a fine tea set. Qian Rui supposed this was Mr. Lu, the hospital’s chairman. He lifted the kettle and carefully poured steaming hot water into the teapot, letting it rinse the leaves inside before pouring it out over a ceramic tea pet and returning the teapot to the tray. Then he brewed the tea again, letting it infuse the leaves longer this time, before pouring the tea into two small, green cups.

It was only then that he looked up at Qian Rui, standing in the doorway. He motioned for Qian Rui to sit in the nearby armchair. He pushed one of the porcelain cups of tea toward Qian Rui. Qian Rui sat and watched, but did not drink. He was on high alert.

Mr. Lu was a short, skinny man with a crew cut. He wore an ordinary shirt with the sleeves rolled up. There was nothing ostentatious about his appearance. One would likely pass over him in a crowd, and certainly nobody would guess he was the head of a mighty medical empire.

Qian Rui waited for Mr. Lu. It was a long while before he spoke: “I know what you all are doing.”

“Oh yeah?” Qian Rui asked. “Then you know what we’re investigating too, right?”

“Yes,” Mr. Lu replied calmly.

“So everything we’ve found is true?” White Crane had basically confirmed the answer to this already, but Qian Rui wanted to hear Mr. Lu admit it himself. “You’re sending imposters home to act as recovered patients?”

The chairman neither denied this, nor did he directly answer Qian Rui’s question. Instead, he had a question of his own: “Are you going to appear in court tomorrow?”

“Of course,” Qian Rui nodded. Qian Rui felt he saw through the chairman’s attitude, so he asked him another question: “Is there anything you want to explain to me about tomorrow’s court hearing?”

“In theory, you are the accuser, and I am the defendant,” Mr. Lu said. “There is no need for me to explain myself to you right now, nor would it be appropriate. However, I would like to tell you my own story.”

Qian Rui nodded, not thinking it odd. He knew Mr. Lu didn’t just invite him here for tea; he certainly had some things to say as well. Given that Qian Rui knew the truth, he expected Mr. Lu would try to appeal to his emotions and arrange an out-of-court settlement. Qian Rui waited silently for Mr. Lu to begin his story.

Mr. Lu brewed some more tea. This was the third infusion. The tea’s color was becoming slightly richer, and its flavor had reached its peak. Qian Rui was not optimistic about the story Mr. Lu was about to tell. He was expecting Mr. Lu to try to sway him, and so he was already on guard.

“I was once a very ambitious investment manager in my youth …” Mr. Lu began.

The chairman shared his story with Qian Rui. There was a period of time when he worked day and night at a new company. He was always going on business trips to try to get involved with more projects and to leave a good impression on his bosses. Eventually, he became a partner at the company, just like he’d wanted.

His daughter became very sick at that time, though, and he had to care for her while managing the company. During one especially hectic period when he was responsible for taking a client public, he stayed at the client’s office for three days straight to help organize their financial reports. He would call his daughter, and she sounded extremely tired over the phone. Once the IPO was settled, Mr. Lu dragged himself home, only to find his house empty.

He felt like he’d just been torn from a dream and broke into a sweat immediately. While he was working, his daughter’s illness had taken an abrupt turn for the worse. Her immune system started failing and an ambulance took her to the ICU the night before. He rushed to the hospital. His daughter was on the verge of passing out when he arrived, but she was obviously happy to see him. A steady stream of tears rolled down her cheeks.

Her condition quickly became critical. Mr. Lu cared for her during her final week. He was desperate to do whatever he could for her, as though if he were dedicated enough he could make up for the reality of things and assuage his guilt.

But it was all for naught. He watched his daughter’s life slip away before his very eyes.

“Even now, I would be willing to sacrifice anything for another chance.”

Mr. Lu was grief-stricken and inconsolably remorseful after that. He quit his job, sold his shares and sequestered himself. He kept thinking about the last week he spent with his daughter, watching her life slip through his fingers. He cursed himself for not being with her during the most crucial time before she got sick. He was racked by guilt and had frequent nightmares. It was a struggle to keep going.

“Even now, I would be willing to sacrifice anything for another chance …” The chairman stopped there, his eyes gleaming at Qian Rui. “Afterwards, I yearned to do something that could let me save lives. A way of absolving my guilt. Can you understand that feeling?”

Qian Rui felt like he’d been fixed in a tractor beam. It was a little uncomfortable. If he had to be honest, Qian Rui was certainly familiar with that feeling. It was strikingly similar to his own experiences. For a moment, his nose tingled like he was about to cry, but he couldn’t let himself appear weak. After all, the man sitting across from him was who he was bringing charges against in court tomorrow. He avoided Mr. Lu’s glare and asked him, “So you started making artificial people to extend your patients’ lives?”

“Not artificial people, new people — neogens,” the chairman said.

“What?” Qian Rui asked, wanting to understand more. “How does a neogen relate to the original person?”

“A neogen is a living person. A continuation of the patient,” the chairman explained. “Neogens are humans generated through genetic duplication; there is no difference between one and a normal person. A computer chip directs the growth of the neogen’s brain, bringing them to a semi-intelligent state, but the chip is made of carbon nanomaterial capable of growing together with the organic brain. Most of the chip dissolves as the neural network is formed, allowing the neogen’s brain to operate independently so that they become truly human. Though there will still be traces of the chip in there, it is the new brain that does most of the work. In my view, the neogen is the patient — the patient brought back to life.”

“So you’re saying … the neogens aren’t cyborgs?” Qian Rui asked.

“Of course not. Their bodies are the same as humans’, as are their brains. They experience the full breadth of human emotion, just like people,” the chairman said. “You could say they are ordinary in every single way, only their brains’ connectomes are intelligently guided.”

Qian Rui ruminated on this distinction, and then said, “But no matter how you put it, they are still two different people! Would you be willing to accept that while your daughter is suffering in one room, a superficial imposter in another room gets up and takes her place? Because I can’t.”

“But the patients can accept it,” Mr. Lu said. “You saw your mother’s signature just now yourself.”

Qian Rui’s chest tightened when he thought of his mother signing the authorization form; how hopeless she must have been to agree to something like that. “My mother … did she really agree to this?” he asked.

“Of course,” Mr. Lu said. “The most important step in making a neogen is the full brain scan. If the patient isn’t willing, it’s impossible for any duplication to take place. Not only do they have to accept the scan, they also have to cooperate by recalling a large number of memories. Thus, everything we do is carried out with consent from the patient. We weren’t sure if patients would agree to this at first either, but our attempts over the years have shown us that all patients who are certain they don’t have much time left agree to sign off on the procedure.”

“… Why?”

“That’s something you have to ask yourself. Think. Why would your mother sign the agreement?”

Qian Rui thought of his mother’s final days, knowing her life was about to end, willing to let a new person take her spot in the family for her. It must have been out of reluctance, a reluctance to leave Qian Rui and his father. And it must have been her way of consoling them. The thought saddened Qian Rui. He held back tears.

“So,” Mr. Lu said, turning to him, “I had you come here because I want to ask you to drop the lawsuit. You are the primary litigant. If you withdraw, the case will be dismissed.”

“So you’ve just been playing on my heartstrings, is that it?” Qian Rui asked with a frown.

Mr. Lu gave a quiet sigh and then gestured toward the window. “Look at this city. Thirty million people. Do you know how many of them have agreed to be replaced? For the past 20 years, in this city, 328,600 people have agreed. If you take into account other cities, we have dragged several million people back from the gates of hell. No matter if they were once real or artificial, soon enough they all became genuine people. They have new lives, and they’re living healthily. Countless families have accepted these new family members. Or rather, they have accepted the chance at a fresh start. Do you see, then? If you expose everything, the victim will not be my company, but the happiness that all those families believe in.”

Qian Rui was at a loss for words.

“And most importantly of all,” the chairman said, glaring at Qian Rui, his voice now cold and penetrating, “you will destroy those neogens that have already become human. If you would accuse me of murder, are you not doing the same yourself?”

The question knocked the wind out of Qian Rui, rendering him speechless for a moment before he finally retorted: “But you’re tricking people, claiming you can cure the incurable. That’s fraud at the least.”

“Oftentimes,” Mr. Lu began, letting out a slow sigh as he returned to a state of unhurried calmness, “the things we do are not for the benefit of the patient, but for their families. Have you seen those who constantly buy meals for their sick family members? They’ll never feel like they’ve done enough for their loved one. It is because of this need that our hospital exists. They need solace, not truth. Do you understand this?”

“I …” Qian Rui stammered.

Qian Rui had already been largely convinced. He accepted his new mother because he believed that was his mother’s will; she was a continuation of his mother’s soul. Yet still he hesitated; he didn’t want to be won over just like that. He had an open-and-shut case, and here he was about to withdraw after just a brief talk with the hospital’s chairman.

As he was struggling with this in his mind, the chairman stood up and activated something near the wall. A digital archive appeared there. The chairman turned and said to Qian Rui, “Have you ever wondered why you weren’t caught coming into our hospital so many times, even though we have such thorough security?”

Qian Rui froze. It was true; he had asked himself this question. When he had White Crane check the security footage, he was suspicious; if the cameras had recorded him with his mother in her room, why didn’t anybody stop him? Why did they let him come and go freely? At the time he thought it must have been because their security footage each day was too much for them to check it all carefully. But thinking about it now, that was a reaching explanation.

“W — why?”

“Our hospital is monitored by a real-time scanning system,” Mr. Lu explained. “Aside from the security cameras, we scan electronic cores; all staff and patients have electronic cores in their clothing. And all neogens have electronic cores in their brains. The hospital’s alarms will sound if the system detects an intruder without one of these cores.”

He stopped there so Qian Rui could process. Qian Rui felt there was something ominous in his words, like they concealed a dagger waiting to be revealed. Qian Rui seemed to have grasped something, but his mind was frozen blank, leaving him without the ability to think. He was so anxious his breathing had all but stopped.

When he saw Qian Rui wasn’t picking up the thread, Mr. Lu continued: “There is only one possibility that explains how you were able to enter the hospital without setting off the alarms, which is that you have one of the electronic cores on you — an employee core, or a neogen core. Can you guess which one it is?” He paused, observing Qian Rui’s reaction. “You know the answer, don’t you? Don’t believe me? Think about your parents then. Why was your father so determined to stop you from exposing our hospital? What your mother said to you today — did you understand her?”

“You’re saying … I’m … ?” Qian Rui was thunderstruck.

“Yes. You were treated here when you were eight. A serious car accident.” Each word the chairman spoke was like an anvil crashing to the floor, and Qian Rui felt lacerated by the scattered debris they kicked up.

“All minors under 16 need their parents to sign for them,” the chairman continued. “Neogens never know they’re neogens. Under normal circumstances, their family doesn’t know either and everybody carries on in perfect harmony. The parents of underage neogens are the only ones who know everything.”

“So I’m … ?” Qian Rui still couldn’t get it out.

“Yes. That is correct. You are one of our children. But you’ve grown up quite well. You don’t even know it yourself — but your mother did, and she passed that memory on to your new mother. And though she doesn’t know she herself is a neogen, she knows you are. Understand?”

Qian Rui felt like the whole world was crumbling around him, smashed into jagged bits by the tremendous weight of Mr. Lu’s words. He understood each word Mr. Lu spoke, but no matter what, he couldn’t comprehend the totality of what he was saying.

“I don’t believe you. I’m me. I’m not one of your children. I don’t believe it!” Qian Rui shouted desperately.

“Furthermore, did you know that I was sent the security camera footage of the second day you snuck in? When I saw that the alarms didn’t go off, I understood, and so I told security not to bother you. You are one of our children. You have the right to come back. So I didn’t stop you.”

“I don’t believe you! I don’t …” Qian Rui said, shaking his throbbing head.

“I will be leaving shortly,” the chairman said, lowering his voice so that it was deep and soothing. “Then you can check your records here. There’s a core authenticator on the table over there. It will identify your core when you press the green button. Though most of it dissolved after being embedded in your brain, its crucial authentication portion is still there.”

With that, the chairman poured Qian Rui another cup of tea, and then got up and left.

Qian Rui shook his head furiously. He felt like he was going to have a mental breakdown. His mind reeling, he recoiled instinctively, rejecting it all. He wished he hadn’t heard any of this; he wanted to go back in time to before he knew.

He couldn’t comprehend what he had been told. How was it that in just an instant he had become the very thing he was trying to expose? Changing bodies; unchanging brains. His mother’s awareness. Refusal. Acceptance. Pain. Love.

He struck at the sofa furiously and then somehow fell into a slumber.

Epilogue

Qian Rui was awoken the next morning by a string of calls on his phone.

Qian Rui looked at his phone. It was White Crane. His voice erupted from the phone’s speaker. Where was Qian Rui? Why wasn’t he at the courthouse? They’d already adjusted the schedule so Qian Rui could testify in the afternoon — he was a key witness, he needed to be there. White Crane streamed a video of the courthouse for Qian Rui; many people were congregated outside amidst the flash of reporters’ cameras.

Qian Rui hung up the call and sat there on the sofa, his mind blank. His memory slowly returned. The things he had learned the day before came back bit by bit, and the color drained from his face once again.

He stared at his phone, at the crowd of people clamoring and clashing outside the courthouse. He felt a sudden sting of pain and shut off his phone. This would allow him to escape the day.

Qian Rui was still in the chairman’s office, but the chairman was gone. After standing up and stretching his legs, he found that the digital archive the chairman activated yesterday was still open. He walked over to the terminal and logged in. He sorted through the old records and arranged them phonetically, his breathing stifled by his anxiety.

After a long while he found the records for patients surnamed “Qian,” and then, after another lengthy bit of scrolling, found “Qian Rui.” He opened the file. Inside there was a gruesome photo of a mangled boy. That was 20 years ago. A steel beam had fallen from a skyscraper and pierced the boy’s chest, causing massive internal hemorrhaging and putting him in critical condition.

And then he saw that authorization form, identical to the one in his mother’s file from yesterday. This one had his mother’s signature on it too, only it had been signed 20 years ago.

Qian Rui looked around. There was a tiny apparatus on the chairman’s desk. It was inconspicuous, but a glow was being emitted from it somewhere. He stood before the apparatus, hesitated for a moment, and then placed his finger on the switch.

If he pressed down, he would know immediately whether or not there was one of those so-called “electronic cores” inside his brain.

To press, or not to press?

He recalled what the chairman said to him last night: “If you’re accusing me of murder, then you’re murdering all of the neogens, are you not?”

Qian Rui closed his eyes. He didn’t press the button — he turned on his phone instead.

“White Crane,” he said, speaking into the phone, “I’m sorry. I won’t be coming today.”