I didn’t know what to say. I recognized the visuals in front of me, but they seemed foreign as well, flatter maybe. His movements seemed off, like they were happening too quickly and then the vision slowed like a video to real time, with the images skipping ever so slightly.
“Can you hear me?” He asked, a light accent adding a Hindi lilt his words. I hadn’t heard that when we’d spoken before, in the other place.
I was confused for a moment. It registered that my voice had not come from me, but from a small speaker behind me. Don’t ask me how this registered. I mean, when you think you hear something behind you, how are you really aware it’s behind you? Just the brain, interpreting the sounds of the room… sounds you don’t even notice consciously… well, that’s what I’m going with.
I tried to look around but found that I could not move my neck. I couldn’t tell if I had a neck. I realized I couldn’t move my eyes either, my vision fixed dead ahead.
Hassan glanced at something behind me.
“Now Richard, I’m going to need you to keep calm this time. You’re okay. You just can’t move your body right now and it’s making you feel claustrophobic. You’re not trapped, Richard. I’m going to teach you how to use your new body.”
My new body, as he put it, was nothing you or I would have recognized. Instead of two eyes, I had one, a single camera which I could turn on and off at will. That sensation of opening my eyes had been the device warming up. Instead of looking around, I learned how to focus my attention on different objects in my view, different fields and depths of the lab.
Did I mention we were in a lab? Computers and robotic limbs and wiry guts strewn about everywhere. For a scientist, Hassan always seemed to me very disorganized and hoarder-like. Fortunately, it was very well lit, with industrial fluorescents embedded in the ceiling.
I had no limbs at first. Hassan didn’t seem to think I needed them. So, my “new body” was this camera, my speaker and the stereo microphone I heard the room through. It took some convincing before he would place the speaker beneath my eye.
“I don’t understand, Richard. Is it that you can’t hear yourself?”
“My voice should be coming from me.”
“But it is.”
“No, it is coming from behind me.”
He got a glimmer in his eye that I would come to recognize, and loathe, and he jotted something with his finger on a nearby notebook screen. “Interesting; and does that bother you?”
It took some maneuvering with all the chords and junk, and after the speaker was below my eye he looked at me expectantly.
“Try it now.”
“H-hello?” The voice now seemed to come from a phantom throat, and something in me calmed a bit. “Yes, that’s better.”
“Good, now I’d like to continue on with the questions.”
A sigh. “Yes, Richard.”
“Why do you keep asking me these questions over and over?”
Hassan had picked up the notebook but let it rest on his knee as he sat before my view.
“It’s a fair question. I’m… trying to determine how stable you are.”
“Stable. Am I crazy?”
Hassan breathed a short laugh, “Ha! No, no. You… what do you know… about you? What’s the last thing you remember?”
“The white space. Not having a body.”
“No, before that. Before… when you had a body.”
“Volunteering for an experiment. An experimental brain scan of some sort.”
Hassan nodded encouragingly. “Yes!”
“For historical records and for… science.”
Hassan smiled and nodded more emphatically. “Yes! And…”
“And did something go wrong? Did I have a seizure or… get paralyzed?”
Hassan deflated a touch. “No… Richard. You… you are the result of that scan.”
His words flowed through me again without making any impact. I’m sure if I’d had a head to shake, I would have been denying it.
“Richard? The man who volunteered for that scan was not you. You are that snapshot of him. A picture of his DNA, a sculpture of his neural network. A… video of his last moments, as he was at the time of the scan. I am the… science he volunteered the results of that scan to.”
I couldn’t reply. I couldn’t think. What he was telling me was clearly wrong. There had been some mistake. The claustrophobia had begun setting in again.
“Richard, come on. Not again.” Hassan had some urgency in his voice, but also defeat.
“This has all happened before.” I managed to say. “This talk. We’ve gone through this before. Why can’t I remember?”
“Try not to think of anything. Imagine yourself taking a deep breath.”
I heard myself bark out a staticky, ironic laugh.
“I know, I know, you have no lungs, but pretend you do. Imagine, just like your voice is coming from you now, and not from some speaker behind you, you also have lungs. Use those lungs. Fill them up, slowly. Deep breath in. Let me hear it, Richard. Deep. Breath. In.”
With that Hassan took his own deep breath, his chest swelling under his lab coat, his posture straightening as he sat on the stool before me.
I watched him, enviously; hating him; terrified. I tried to imagine a chest extending below my phantom throat. I imagined my chest swelling, and air passing through my throat. I imagined that his chest was my own chest. To my surprise, I heard myself breath a heavy sigh through the speaker.
Relief spread across Hassan’s face. “Good. Now again.”
Again, he took in a long, deep breath, and I heard myself do the same. It worked. I felt myself begin to calm down, somehow.
Once I felt more in control, I repeated, “This wasn’t the first time this has happened.”
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