First published in Writers’ Forum (September 2014)
Content Note: Science Fiction / Horror
The doctor looked at me as if I was just a corpse. There was a pity in his eyes which had long since penetrated his voice. I doubted he truly respected my wishes anymore but, for the time being, he would do as I instructed. After all, I was paying for this treatment. So I waited.
I couldn’t do anything but wait. During my earlier visits, I could sometimes sense my foot tapping even though I knew it wasn’t. But not today. Instead, I just felt the pressure of the breathing tube in my throat, and the incessant swallow-
“The synapse mapping exercise has been successful,” the doctor said. He’d moved his chair so that his knees were nearly touching mine. Somehow, I would have preferred it if he’d stayed behind his desk. His attempt at empathy wasn’t quite natural, and I’d felt my scalp prickle as soon as he’d pushed into my personal space. Then again, he was probably more at home in a lab than a hospital ward. His experience with living patients was likely limited.
I flicked my eyes downward, avoiding his stare. He had my papers in the hollow of his lap. He sorted through them to find his place. Likely checking his work. “...so we don’t think we have to do another scan.”
I took a breath. Swallowed. “Good,” I said.
In truth, it was more than good. They’d put me inside the mapping machine three times. On each occasion, I’d been left to wait just long enough to wonder if they’d forgotten about me. But, in the end, they’d always come back.
“What...” Breathe. “Percentage?” Swallow.
I’d long since learned to be economical with language. My sentences were those of a child; short and to the point. If I made them too long, it felt like I was drowning. No, I just needed to speak and then get back to breathing.
“Enough,” replied the doctor. Compared to me, he was a young man. Not just out of college, but old enough for the first hints of grey to be developing at his temple. Somehow, that provided me with some re-
I opened my mouth, but didn’t speak. Instead, I just took another breath. Tried to swallow. Succeeded again, and felt nothing at that smallest of victories.
“We provoked all the key memories during your scans,” the doctor continued. “The experiences that make you who you are have all been captured.”
I nodded. I could remember all too well what they’d done to me inside that machine. Photos of my parents, friends, wife, children. Images of former girlfriends, people I barely knew, and those I truly detested. All of them used to trigger emotions and memories. But all of it had been punctured by the detail of the accident that had put me here. Two bright headlights; burning out of the gloom.
“So we’re ready to proceed. On your approval.”
I waited. For a second, I thought the doctor would say something else. I could see some sort of mild panic in his eyes – perhaps fearing that, after all his effort, I was going to change my mind. But then the need to breathe again overcame me. I flexed my throat to drain some saliva, and he relaxed. He probably knew that, deep down, I had no real choice and the moment of madness wouldn’t come. So I flicked my eyes across the room and took in its third occupant.
The Cadaver. That neutral, medical term for what amounted to another human tragedy. Another corpse. Another young man, who’d made a simple mistake and no longer existed. I realised at once I’d been trying not to look at it. But now I couldn’t take my eyes away.
He’d been a fine young man. His body trim; his arms and chest muscled. I couldn’t see his face but, however he looked; it would no doubt be an improvement. Except I knew the top of his skull had been removed, and what remained of his brains scooped out. A little machine sat a matter of inches from the cranial opening – a robotic arm and probe already positioned inside ready to do their work.
“Explain again,” I said, still looking at the cadaver. I swallowed. “Please...”
The doctor sighed. He took the papers from his lap, twisted so easily, and dropped them onto his desk behind him. “We will finish by building up a copy of your brain inside the cadaver’s skull, and then we’ll complete the transfer procedure.”
I nodded. Swallowed. Breathed. Biological 3D printing. That’s what the doctor had called it. All using the synaptic map supplied by the scans. The doctor turned again back to his desk – and took from it a thin, cream envelope. “Once your consciousness has been transferred, we will ask you what is inside this envelope. The correct answer will imply success. An incorrect answer means you will, unfortunately, remain inside your current body.”
I nodded. Swallowed. Breathed. “I don’t want you to lock my jaw.”
The doctor didn’t reply at first. Instead, he issued another long, deep sigh. As if I’d volunteered for a sky dive, and then didn’t want to jump alone. “Then we can’t continue. You need to surrender complete control for the process to work.”
I waited. This was something I didn’t want to negotiate. But all the time I could see the cadaver and what it represented to me. To walk again. To hold my wife, to pick up my children. And yet, I had an image in the back of my mind. One that had been provoked – perhaps accidentally – by the doctor during my second synaptic scan.
It had been just a short piece of footage from the Great War. I’d first seen it back when I was just a child, but somehow that piece of film still haunted me. A soldier sitting in a hospital camp. His arms and legs and jaw all blown away from the trunk of his body. Deafened by the explosion, his eyes just whirled around in his skull – full of panic and horror – as he remained unable to take in what had happened to him. Or how he would be able to continue living after the fighting had stopped.
I swallowed. The only difference between his and my own situation was that my jawbone remained intact. I could still communicate. Tell people what I wanted and not have them treat me like a newborn baby.
In front of me, the doctor remained composed. He probably already knew I had no choice. But, in the end, he decided to push me the final few centimetres. “It will only be for a matter of minutes...”
I still didn’t answer him. That soldier’s eyeballs continued to preoccupy me. Bulging in their sockets. Whirling about as his body was lifted by a nurse and taken to God only knew where. That’s when the footage had ended.
I breathed. Swallowed. “Go ahead.”
The doctor didn’t wait. He stepped behind me. I could hear him taking the scold’s bridle from a nearby unit. I knew he’d been keeping it hidden, but I’d been trying not to think about it. Now though, I could feel the leather pushing onto the top of my skull and the metal frame coming under my chin to lock my jaw into position. A series of sensors latched onto my temples. Finally, the doctor inserted the pincers that took hold of my tongue. I ignored the ongoing assault and allowed myself to surrender to it. Just trying to take one last look at the cluster of wires and connectors which trailed away from the bridle and towards the cadaver. If the doctor was right, my consciousness would soon be travelling along them and into its new home.
The probe danced into life. Moving freely inside the cadaver’s empty skull. Except, it would soon be no longer empty. I knew that brain matter was already being injected and moulded into position. Just like any other printer in the world.
I watched it, and felt my head shake. The bridle was making it difficult to swallow. A pool of saliva had formed, and I couldn’t quite clear it. But then the tubes in my throat kicked in, and the liquid drained. My eyes flicked back to the doctor.
He was holding the envelope. I watched him slide his thumb under the flap and take out my letter. He read it with some detachment and then stepped across to the cadaver.
But it was no longer a corpse. The arm was moving slightly. I concentrated on him. He appeared half-
Had the process been completed so quickly?
I wanted to say something, but couldn’t. The bridle wouldn’t let my tongue move and, as I tried to make myself heard, one of the sensors slipped away from my temple. I immediately felt a sense of panic. Felt my nervous system try to move my arms and legs but knew they couldn’t.
I needed to ask the doctor what was going on. To ask him what he was whispering into the cadaver’s – the young man’s – my own – ears. But I heard the response all too well even though I didn’t recognise the voice.
Cleves Nightclub, Scarborough.
The correct answer. The place I’d first met my wife, all those years ago. And despite everything, I started to shake in my chair. Because the wires from the bridle had moved out of position – pulled away from the cadaver’s bed – and I could now see they didn’t lead anywhere. They just lay disconnected. And the young man was sitting up – the top of his pink, new brain exposed for only a few seconds before the doctor glued the cap of his skull into position.
I started to scream. From deep in my throat. Only then did the doctor notice me. He left the cadaver’s side and stepped across to my chair. Leant down, with a final look of sympathy on his face. “The procedure was successful,” he said.
I’m not in my new body!
I’m still in my chair!
My tongue was pulling hard against the pincers. I thought it might rip. But the doctor just put a hand on my shoulder, and let the other take a firm hold of the tube pumping oxygen directly into my throat. “We have made an almost perfect copy of you...and so when he comes around, he’ll remember sitting in your chair. Just like you remembered during your last memory scan. We now just need to finish the transfer procedure.”
I could feel my eyes bulging. Whirling in their sockets. The cadaver looked across at me; clearly confused but not upset.
And then the doctor pulled.