The Terminal Experiment

by Robert J. Sawyer

In the last analysis, it is our conception of death which decides our answers to all the questions life puts to us.

— Dag Hammarskjold (1905-1961) United Nations Secretary General



“What room is Detective Philo in?” asked Peter Hobson, a tall, thin man of forty-two, with hair an equal mixture of black and gray.

The squat nurse behind the desk had been absorbed in whatever she’d been reading. She looked up. “Pardon?”

“Detective Sandra Philo,” said Peter. “What room is she in?”

“Four-twelve,” said the nurse. “But her doctor has ordered that only immediate family members should visit.”

Peter began down the corridor. The nurse came around from behind the desk and gave chase. “You can’t go in there,” she said firmly.

Peter turned briefly to look at her. “I have to see her.”

The nurse maneuvered in front of him. “She’s in critical condition.”

“I’m Peter Hobson. I’m a doctor.”

“I know who you are, Mr. Hobson. I also know you’re not a medical doctor.”

“I’m on the Board of Directors of North York General.”

“Fine. Go over there and bully someone, then. You’re not raising havoc on my ward.”

Peter exhaled noisily. “Look, it’s a matter of life and death that I see Ms. Philo.”

“Everything in the ICU is a matter of life and death, Mr. Hobson. Ms. Philo is sleeping, and I’ll not have her disturbed.”

Peter pushed ahead.

“I’ll call security,” said the nurse, trying to keep her voice low so as not to alarm the patients.

Peter didn’t look back. “Fine,” he snapped, his long legs carrying him quickly down the corridor. The nurse waddled toward her desk and picked up the phone.

Peter found 412 and entered without knocking. Sandra was hooked up to an EKG; it wasn’t a Hobson unit, but Peter had no trouble reading its display. A drip bag of saline was on a pole beside her bed.

Sandra opened her eyes. It seemed to take a moment for them to focus. “You!” she exclaimed at last, her voice raw and thin — the effects of the beamer.

Peter closed the door. “I’ve only got a few moments. They’ve already called security to come and take me away.”

Every word was a struggle for Sandra. “You tried … to have me … killed,” she said.

“No,” said Peter. “I swear to you that wasn’t my doing.”

Sandra managed a weak shout, too faint to be heard through the closed door. “Nurse!”

Peter looked at the woman. When he’d first met her, only a few weeks ago, she’d been a healthy thirty-six- year-old, with flaming red hair. Now her hair was falling out in clumps, her complexion was sallow, and she could barely move. “I don’t want to be rude, Sandra,” Peter said, “but please shut up and listen.”


“Listen, damn it! I had nothing to do with the murders. But I know who did. And I can give you a chance at getting him.”

At that moment the door burst open. The squat nurse entered, flanked on either side by a burly security guard.

“Remove him,” said the nurse.

The guards moved forward.

“Dammit, Sandra,” said Peter. “This is your only chance. Give me five minutes.” One guard grabbed Peter’s upper arm. “Five minutes, for God’s sake! That’s all I ask.”

“Let’s go,” said the guard.

Peter’s tone was imploring. “Sandra, tell them you want me to stay!” He hated himself for what he said next, but he couldn’t think of anything more effective: “If you don’t, you’ll die never having solved the crimes.”

“Come along now, buddy,” said the other guard gruffly.

“No — wait! Sandra, please!”

“Come along…”


Finally, a voice weak and wan: “Let … him … stay.”

“We can’t do that, ma’am,” said one of the guards.

Sandra rallied a little strength. “Police business … let him stay.”

Peter twisted free of the guard’s grip. “Thank you,” he said to Sandra. “Thank you.”

The nurse scowled at him. “I won’t stay long,” Peter said to her. “I promise.”

Sandra managed to roll her head slightly in the nurse’s direction. “It’s … okay,” she said, faintly.

The nurse was seething. The tableau held for several seconds, then the woman nodded. “All right,” she said, perhaps the talk of police business and unsolved crimes convincing her she was out of her depth.

“Thank you,” Peter said to the nurse, relieved. “Thank you very much.”

The nurse scowled, turned on her heel, and left, followed immediately by one of the guards. The other guard backed out, his face an angry mask, all the time pointing a warning finger at Peter.

When they were alone again, Sandra said, “Tell … me.”

Peter found a chair and sat down beside her bed. “First, let me say I’m terribly, terribly sorry about what’s happened. Believe me, I never wanted you or anyone else to come to harm. This — this is all out of control.”

Sandra said nothing.

“Do you have any family? Any children?”

“Daughter,” said Sandra, surprised.

“I didn’t know that.”

“With my ex now,” she said.

“I want you to know, I’m going to take care of her financially. Everything she needs — clothes, cars, university, vacations in Europe, whatever. I will pay for it all. I’ll set up a trust fund.” Sandra’s eyes were wide.

“I never intended any of this, and I swear to you that I’ve tried repeatedly to stop it all.”

Peter paused, thinking back to how the whole damned thing had started. Another hospital room, trying to comfort another brave woman who was dying. It comes full circle.

“Sarkar Muhammed was right — I should have come to you before. I need your help, Sandra. This has to end.” Peter exhaled, wondering where to begin. So much had happened. “Did you know,” he said at last, “that it’s possible to scan every neural net in a human brain and produce an exact duplicate of the subject’s mind inside a computer?” Sandra shook her head slightly. “'Well, it is. It’s a new technique. Sarkar Muhammed is one of its pioneers. What would you say if I told you that my brain had been scanned and duplicated?”

Sandra lifted her eyebrows. “Two heads … better than one.”

Peter acknowledged the comment with a wry smile. “Perhaps. Although, actually, a total of three simulations of me were made.”

“And one of these … committed … murders?”

Peter was surprised by how quickly Sandra grasped it. “Yes.”

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