By Natalia Theodoridou
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
"Now flex your arm," the controller said. Her
voice sounded dry and mechanical through the speakers.
"The real one or the other one?" I asked and immediately received a neuro-ping: You are real.
"Both your arms are real, soldier," she said.
I always thought of her as a woman, but really it was just a voice. There was no way to tell gender.
"Right. Which one do you want me to flex?"
"The left one."
I flexed my left arm. It's one of the limbs they rebuilt after the accident. The Neuropage pinged me again, just in case: You are real. All this is real. I wondered if they figured out I had found the glitch. Was that what prompted this ping? But it couldn't be; the pager was supposed to be entirely incorporated into the nervous system. No outside access available.
Unless that was a lie, too.
"Now the other one," the voice said.
"How much longer is this going to take?" I asked, flexing my right arm. I could feel my legs getting fidgety. They always did that when I was strapped down for long chunks of time. Ever since the accident. Fidget fidget fidget. Even while I slept, the legs fidgeted. I would much rather sleep floating around, but that set off the security alarm. I had found that out the hard way, on my second day at the space station.
"The muscle-tone examination is complete," the controller said. "Now on to the neural routine."
"The neural routine. Of course."
If she caught the irony in my voice, she didn't show it.
"Attach the red electrode to your left arm. Good. Now let me know if you experience any pain."
A moment passed, but nothing happened. "I don't feel anything," I said.
"OK. How about now?"
I waited. My eyes started to tear up. I felt the moisture form into little beads around my eyeballs.
"I don't feel anything in my arm, but my eyes sting like hell. It's that tear problem again," I said.
Tears, apparently, don't flow in microgravity. The little fuckers just stick to your eyes like liquid balls, refusing to let go before they get to be the size of small nuts. Bottom line is, you can't cry in space. They always get that one wrong in the movies. Who would have known?
"You are reacting to an imaginary stimulus," the voice said. "Your brain thinks you should be hurting, so your eyes tear up. Hold still. You can wipe them in a minute."
Maybe the controller was a man, after all. Maybe it wasn't a person at all at the other end, just a machine.
I waited for a ping, but got nothing.
"All done. You can unstrap yourself, soldier," the voice said. "Same time tomorrow. Do not be late."
"The Neuropage will make sure of that," I muttered, but she had already signed off. She, it, whatever.
The first thing I did was dry my eyes. Then I freed my legs and stretched.
Time to eat, the Neuropage said. One of the scheduled pings. I ignored it and propelled myself towards my compartment. It would ping me again every few minutes. I knew it would get on my nerves--a pun? really?--and I'd have to eat, eventually, but it felt good to ignore it for a while. It was my small fuck you very much to the system. Harry would have tut-tutted at my attempt to play the rebel, he always did, but I think he secretly liked it.
I had to do this. I had to test the glitch.
I floated to the main compartment of the Philoctetes and switched on the communications monitor. I called Harry and waited for the connection to get approved. The Neuropage pinged me again. Time to eat. Dutiful little prick. I ignored it, busy mulling over what I had to say. I wondered whether I would be able to actually say the words. On purpose this time. I already had, of course, in a way, but the first time didn't really count, it was just a mistake. "Are you deaf, Harry?" I had wanted to ask, but my tongue slipped and said that other word, the one I dreaded so much to utter now. And then the glitch happened.
Why did my tongue slip? Maybe I already knew, on some level. Maybe the Neuropage already knew. Can it put words in my mouth?
Is there an "it" at all?
Blue skies, the Neuropage said in response. A problem ping. I had to note these so they could fix them in the upgrade, but I thought it was a shame. Who doesn't want a little insanity installed in their brains?
The connection went through and the monitor doused me in its Earth-originating light.
"Hey, buddy," Harry's face said, his features known to me better than my own, his smile familiar, perfect as if rehearsed. Just as I remembered him. Too much as I remembered him, in fact. Like we had never even had the accident.
Harry, the unchanging man.
"Hi, Harry," I said. I suddenly felt as if I hadn't slept for days. Drained. I rubbed my eyes. Focus. "I missed talking to you these last few days. Sorry I didn't call. How are you?"
"You know, same old same old," he said. Then he smiled again and waited.
Familiar Harry, pulled out of my memories intact. Harry, the man whom time can't touch. Maybe that should have been a clue.
"That's all? Same old same old?"
"Yeah. What could be new? I mean, it's a hospital, buddy. Life's not exactly teeming with excitement here."
"I'm calling from freaking space, man. You never tell me anything new. Tell me something new. Please."
"What do you mean? You're not making sense, Steve. What's the matter?" The worry lines on his forehead grew deeper.
I wanted to see through his reactions. They were all generic replies, platitudes. Like a set of master keys, fit for any and all conversations. Where was the person I used to know so well I would--and did--trust him with my life on any given day?
Let me be wrong. Please, let me be wrong.
"I really need to talk to you, Harry. I mean, really talk to you, the way we used to, you know?" It was the truest thing I could say without actually saying what I needed to say. Do you remember? Do you remember everything we went through, Harry? Are you, you? Am I?
"Okay. I'm listening," he said. And waited. Like standing by for his turn to speak.
"If you knew this was the last time we talked, that we would never ever talk again, what would you say to me?" I asked the face in the monitor.
"What? What are you talking about? Steve. You are not thinking about doing anything stupid, are you?"
Textbook. Textbook answers and half-thought cliches.
Blue skies, the Neuropage insisted, and I almost responded: blue like the color, or the mood? The image of a body being blown up flickered before my eyes. Torn limb for limb. I'd always thought that body was mine, that I had somehow dissociated and experienced the whole thing from the outside. But maybe it wasn't mine. Maybe it was his, Harry's, all along.
Love your country, the Neuropage tried again. Was that a problem ping or not?
The moisture threatened to drown my eyesight. I wiped my eyes before the liquid had a chance to form into the nasty little balls. Now was the time. Please, let me be wrong.
"I know you're dead, Harry." I said it. Dead. Dread. I said it.
Harry's eyes widened a bit, and then the image froze, like last time. A glitch. They hadn't planned for this. There was no response for this.
Had I known already? Maybe deep down I knew, and that's why my tongue slipped. You are not you after all, right, Harry? That leaves only me.
I floated away from the monitor but did not turn it off. Harry's face was still there looking at me, frozen in time.
The tears wouldn't flow.
Time to wake up.
I woke up with the sense that I had fallen asleep in the middle of a sentence. I could still feel its bitter, unspoken residue in my mouth. I found my reclaimed body strapped down and secured inside the sleeping bag in my compartment, as it should be, but I couldn't remember going through the process of getting ready for sleep at all. I had probably gone into autopilot for a while after my conversation with Harry--"Harry" rather--and allowed the Neuropage to take over. Because the rest of my mind was numb and terrified--and busy. Why would they go to such lengths as to devise a fake Harry for me? Why not tell me he was dead to begin with? Did they think I'd flip?
Unless he's not. Unless I'm wrong.
Harry--dead. How am I doing? Am I flipping?
And if they could make up a person like that, what else could they have fabricated?
But it is all so real, the Neuropage protested. Yes. It's all so real.
Did it sound doubtful this time? Had it done that before? Maybe it was a pseudo-ping. That, or I couldn't tell the difference anymore.
I tried to unstrap myself from the bed with jerky, unsteady hands. This new flesh didn't handle stress well. The limbs revolted, the muscles demanded my attention, as if to declare they were now more than mere instruments of my will. It took some effort, but I finally managed to free myself and propelled my body towards the main shaft of the station. I moved as fast as I could, grasping at handles and cords I shouldn't be messing with. But I had to get to the Cupola.
The shutters were open. The Philoctetes was cruising peacefully on its invariable course; slow and silent and alone. The Earth's familiar blue exaggerated the nothingness that divided us. All this darkness around the space station, marking the distance between myself and the old discarded flesh, threatening to invade whenever I lost sight of this blue beacon that I called home. Home. Silly concept. Where is home? When is home? It was where Harry used to be, once.
I might have been able to ignore the clues, if I'd tried really hard. But the synapse had been made, and it couldn't be unmade. Maybe that was a mark of our new version of evolution. Natural evolution worked on a good-enough principle. We work on a perfecting principle. I couldn't just let it go. I had to find out. It could be a coincidence. Or it wasn't.
I felt my brain leap forward. Actually felt it. I think that's how paradigm shifts happen and insane ideas start making sense. What if this was never a test for my upcycled body? If the Neuropage was all that was being tested? Perhaps it was really just my mind that got blown up that day. Had they put me back together at all?
I pondered whether I should just step out and see what happened. If it was all a mind-test, that would be the way to solve it.
The Neuropage was silent, but there was that distinct sense of desperation; it filled my brain for a moment, then it was gone. I wondered if it could ping feelings now. If it could replace my thoughts and my feelings and I could no longer tell the difference, what would be left of me?
I looked at Earth, so far away, so long ago. Was it real? I recalled the Neuropage's insistence. All this is real, it had said. Blue skies. Another clue, maybe. The thought seemed plausible. Granted, solo-manning a station has been common for decades, but who would send an ex-paraplegic alone to the fucking geostationary orbit? They wanted to test the new body under the actual stress levels associated with living in an one-man station like the Philoctetes. But why fake Harry, if not to test my mind's ability to solve this riddle? I hadn't really talked to an actual person since I got here; just the controller, and "Harry." A self-contained simulation. I could try contacting someone else. But who would I call? There was no-one else. There was Harry, once. Not anymore, though. Harry was dead in the ground somewhere. Where was home now?
I floated to the door that led to the airlock. I peeked inside the main compartment on the way, hoping Harry's face was still on the monitor. To get that final glimpse.
The monitor was dark, the room empty. I moved on.
I was about to unlock the inside door when the Neuropage finally decided to intervene.
What if you are wrong, Steve?
It'd never asked questions before. Nor had it ever called me by my name. Was it getting desperate? Was I?
I am not wrong, I replied. It will all disappear as soon as I open the outside door. They will have to stop the test. If I cannot untie the knot, I can bloody well cut through it. Either way, I will have won.
But what if you're wrong?
Then I guess I will have majorly fucked up a very expensive project.
At least put on your gear.
Put on your gear. You'll die.
Did I believe it? I'm not sure, but I wore the space suit anyway. Yeah.
I locked the inside door and pumped the air out. Then I unlocked the external hatch and stepped out of the Philoctetes and into the vast, dark emptiness; certain that it--it, I, this whole thing--would disappear any moment now, hoping that it would, scared out of my mind that it wouldn't. The Neuropage was furiously pinging me.
Go back, it said.
Go back. There is still time.
You were wrong. You are killing yourself. Go back. Go back.
I let go of the craft and propelled myself with a slight push. There was nothing connecting me to the space station anymore. I had enough oxygen for about six hours. Or eight. Maybe eight hours.
I let myself drift away. Nothing happened.
The view was spectacular, though.
Love your country, the Neuropage said. Love Earth.
Love yourself, blue skies.
That was the last ping I got.
I've spent the past several minutes racking my brain for answers, about truth, about coincidence. Had I somehow caused the glitch myself? Was it just randomness, a defect in the fabric of the universe? Was someone listening in, messing with my brain, experimenting, what?
Are you watching me from afar, busting your ass to get to me in time?
The Neuropage remains stubbornly silent.
I wait until the Philoctetes becomes a distant speck. The only familiar sight is now the blueness of Earth in the background. The old flesh longs for it. It longs for it so hard it hurts. The new flesh doesn't care; it's calm, mute. Can I really tell the difference, or am I just making things up? Who knows. Who cares. The emptiness envelops me. It pushes against the suit, counting the moments to take over, to reclaim this body that has been mine for the briefest of times. I flex my arms. My real arms.
The moisture starts forming into little beads against my eyes. They sting. No way to wipe them away now.
The Neuropage is still silent. Gave up too, I guess. My vision is getting so blurred I can no longer see anything but blue--the color, the mood, same difference. And all I have been able to think about this whole time is this: we can put people's bodies back together from scratch. Discard the unwanted, recycle the rest, make it better, stronger. Perfect, even. We can fix folks' brains and arms and legs and hearts and send them to space, even if only to break them all over again. And we still haven't solved that bloody tear problem? I mean, come on, man.