Taraji paused with his hand on the cubicle curtain. Every time he entered the space created by it was more difficult than the last. By the staff’s accounts, this time his brother’s injury had been grim. Sonaji had lost two limb: he left leg, and his right arm. He would be waking up, soon, and since their parents refused to come, it was up to Taraji to greet him.
With a deep breath, and with the clipboard held against his chest like a shield, Taraji pushed the curtain aside and entered his brother’s space. He closed the curtain behind him, turning with the motion so that he could spend another moment looking away from his brother. When he had taken as much time as he dared, he turned around.
Sonaji’s eyes had yet to open. A heavy blanket covered his body all the way up to his shoulders, warming him, for sometimes after the procedure, the body’s temperature would drop. He looked peaceful, even angelic, with this long, delicate lashes and the faint curl of his hair, which had taken on a touch of gold.
As children, people had frequently mistaken Taraji and Sonaji as twins. They’d both had the same straight black hair, the same dark eyes, the same angled line to their jaw and nose. Now, after Sonaji’s years of service, Taraji wouldn’t even expect someone to guess they were brothers.
Taraji took his place in a stiff wooden chair at the head of Sonaji’s bed. Here he could observe his brother’s face, which was scarcely different from the last time he had seen him, but vastly different from the face he had known in childhood. Their parents wouldn’t be able to identify Sonaji at all, Taraji thought, as it had been over two years since they’d decided not to see him anymore.
If Taraji didn’t have his own face to remind him, he might have forgotten what Sonaji had once looked like. But no, that was just a dramatic thought. He also had the portrait of his brother from the week before Taraji entered the service of the Lord. With that, he could never forget.
Sonaji’s nose had taken on an even rounder shape, after the last Synching, in contrast to the sharp, straight line of Taraji’s. Taraji began recording the differences he could observe since the last time he’d seen Sonaji. It was a great help to the medicians, who would contribute their own observations afterward, but who could never be as accurate as a caring family member. Taraji made note of the golden tint to Sonaji’s dark brown hair, and of the increased fullness of his lips. He noted that the faint, puckered scars that had been on Sonaji’s earlobes, the last remnants of his old ear piercings, had finally been smoothed away.
With a sigh, Taraji pulled back the sheet covering Sonaji’s body. He would replace it soon, and quickly, for this part was uncomfortable for both of them, and if he couldn’t spare himself the discomfort, Taraji would like to spare Sonaji. Sonaji’s right arm was there, perfectly formed, perfectly intact; but the doctors would know that. He simply wrote that his fingers seemed longer and narrower than they had been.Taraji noted that it seemed as though Sonaji’s body hair had disappeared almost completely, that the shape of his hips had shifted slightly, and — perhaps they could joke about this later — a certain part of Sonaji’s anatomy seemed to be a bit fuller.
Taraji brought the blanket back up to his brother’s shoulders, then rolled it up from the opposite end, exposing his feet. As he was noting that he thought Sonaji’s toes might be a bit longer, they curled and flexed. Taraji brought the sheet back over them.
“Greetings,” Taraji said. His emotions had churned beneath the surface, until now, but now they threatened to storm outward. He fought to keep them from pushing tears into his eyes.
Sonaji’s eyes fluttered open. He blinked, looking upward at the ceiling. After a Synching, a period of extreme fatigue always followed both parties, and often the one who had been Synched felt some form of disorientation.
Taraji took his place once more in the chair near the head of the bed. “Greetings, Sonaji,” he said. He placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “I’m here with you.”
Sonaji shifted his head from side to side, his eyes closed once more. He forced them open, too wide, to look at Taraji. “Who…?” he said, his voice little more than a whisper.
“Your brother,” Taraji said, struggling not to choke upon the words. “It is I, your brother Taraji.”
“Brother,” Sonaji said, but his word held more question than greeting. “You’re my brother.”
This part got a little bit worse every time Sonaji woke up after a Synching. Taraji wished they would remove Sonaji from duty, but they wouldn’t, not for this. It didn’t matter how much of who he once was got washed away, so long as somebody remained.
“I’m your brother,” Taraji said. “My name is Taraji. Your name is Sonaji.”
“I am Sonaji,” he said. This time, at least, it sounded as though he agreed. “We are in hospital.”
“Yes, brother,” Taraji said, reinforcing the connection. “You were injured badly.”
“Badly?” Sonaji asked. “How badly?” Taraji noted, with a pang of sadness, that Sonaji spoke with more of a Northern accent now. That marked one more thing lost, one of the few things that had persisted from Sonaji’s first iteration. He had never lost his accent.
“Let’s not dwell on that, brother,” Taraji said. “It is better to focus on the fact that you’re well, now, and you’re here with me.”
“Maybe,” Sonaji said. He reached up, with his right hand, to rub his face. That was the hand he had lost, and before, it had not been his dominant hand. “I’m so tired, Taraji.”
“I know,” Taraji said. “But you have to answer some questions now, okay? Before you can think about them too much.”
“Alright,” Sonaji said.
This part made Taraji nervous. Normally, it was not much worse than the physical examination, though he had always found it a bit more meaningful. Today, however, he felt as though Sonaji’s Synchronizer had been of a lower skill. The physical changes, though not drastic, seemed greater than normal after a single Synch, and then there was the fact that Sonaji’s accent had shifted.
A good Synchronizer could control how the similarities manifested between himself and the one whose injuries he was attempting to erase. Every Synchronizer, even the most skilled, wound up changing their target in unintended ways; but a less-skilled Synchronizer made it worse. A Synchronizer got rid of injuries by making their Synch target more similar to themself in a targeted fashion, but, as Taraji understood, it was very difficult.
“What are your parent’s names?” Taraji asked.
Sonaji rubbed his forehead. “Saneha and… Rujon.”
Close. Saneha was indeed their mother’s name, but their father’s name was Rujani. “What is your favorite color?”
“You have to answer quickly, brother,” Taraji said. “Say what first comes to your mind, so that the medicians can have accurate information.”
“It’s green,” Sonaji said. He sounded like a small child admitting something that made him feel guilty. Taraji’s heart felt heavy. Sonaji knew that the answer wasn’t right — or at least, that it had changed — but he couldn’t remember the answer he was supposed to give. Last time, his favorite color had been red.
“Alright,” Taraji said. “Your favorite fruit?”
“I don’t like fruit,” Sonaji said.
Taraji tried to hide his frown. The Sonaji of their childhood had loved fruit. “That’s fine, but if you had to pick a favorite?”
“Melons, I guess,” Sonaji said. Well, that was an odd circle. Sonaji had indeed loved melons as a child, but after his second Synching, he’d begun hating them.
“I like melons, too,” Taraji said. He was supposed to keep the questions as impersonal as possible, but the medicians also encouraged him to find connections with his brother when he could. Their advice often conflicted, which frustrated Taraji, because it showed just how much Synchronization needed to be studied. “Your favorite dinner?”
“Baked redfish, with yam gravy,” Sonaji answered.
A very Northern dish, that. Taraji would have bet money that Sonaji’s Synchronizer had been northern. “I don’t much care for yams, myself,” Taraji said.
“No?” Sonaji asked. “Didn’t mom used to make them all the time?”
Taraji’s breath caught. He wasn’t supposed to contradict Sonaji’s memories. Yet he could see that Sonaji already knew that was wrong, just from reading Taraji’s face. “Maybe I’ve misremembered,” Taraji said weakly.
“Maybe,” Sonaji said, his voice lacking even more vigor than it had previously. “This was a bad Synch, wasn’t it?”
“No,” Taraji said firmly. “You have your health and your life. You survived.”
“Does it matter?” Sonaji demanded. “What do those things matter, if I’m not even me anymore?”
“You are you,” Taraji said. “You’re still my brother.”
“Am I, though?” Sonaji said. “It’s like that old question about repairing a desk. If you replace every piece of the desk, bit-by-bit over time, and eventually nothing remains of the original, is it even still the same desk?”
“Yes.” Taraji didn’t even believe his own words, but he wanted to, and he thought his brother needed to. “As long as people look upon that desk and said, ‘This is the same desk,’ it’s the same.”
“But what if the desk doesn’t feel like it’s who it used to be?” Sonaji asked. “What if the desk knows all those parts that got stuck into it to fix it back up don’t belong? What if the desk — what if I don’t feel like a whole person anymore, because I know I’m just this collection of bits and pieces of other people, all squished together to make a healthy whole?”
“That’s not really how it works, Sonaji,” Taraji said. “I still see you in there. I still think of you as my brother.”
Sonaji scoffed. “So it’s like the desk, where it doesn’t matter what it actually is, or how it might see itself, so long as someone outside is there to tell it that it’s something else? That it’s someone else who it can’t even remember?”
“I don’t know, Sonaji,” Taraji said. “I just… This isn’t easy, okay? It’s not easy for me either.”
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” Sonaji said. “Just finish your questions so that we can be done with this.”
Taraji wanted to keep arguing. He wanted to convince Sonaji that he was still his brother, that they still shared a connection and always would. He wanted to convince himself of the same thing, though, and he didn’t know how to argue a point when he wasn’t assured of whether or not it was true.
When Taraji left his brother’s cubicle, a medician nodded to him as pushed aside a curtain to speak to another patient. Taraji looked around as he left. He saw only the medicians and the patients. He saw no other family members. And why would he?
Taraji and Sonaji’s parents had stopped coming for a reason. Most family members stopped coming, after enough Synchronizations. Already Sonaji’s face was unrecognizable. With time, his personality would be as well. He would be an entirely different person, and at that point, at least to his family, Sonaji might as well have died, erased as he would be by the constant process of injury and recovery brought on by his part in the war.