MY MIND IS AWAKE before my body. Memories flicker like lights on a switchboard. No context, just images. A woman with soft hands. We’re on a rooftop... A tunnel — not with wet earth all around, but concrete walls and florescent lighting... A file in my hands that reads REBOOT in blood red. My head starts to ache. That’s a good sign. It means I have a head. I feel warm, I think… comfortable at least. I’m not frightened. It’s as if I’ve been reduced to a stream of thought, flowing — no — dripping into being. I can’t see anything. My eyelids are non-responsive. But I can hear a metallic click. First it is faint and otherworldly, but with each tink, tink, tink, it becomes more distinct. It’s close, maybe just on the other side of a glass… what? Enclosure? No…tank is more like it. Now it’s coming back. I remember this nothingness, this reawakening. But I don’t remember ever being alone. I try to reach out into three-dimensional space. Maybe someone is behind an EEG right now, watching for me. Come on… light up the night! My incorporeal efforts must have done something because I hear a sort of mechanical schroom, which I recognize. “Welcome back.” I don’t recognize that voice. It’s authentic sounding. Either they’ve upgraded the life support coach, or that’s an actual woman coaxing me back into existence. “I hope you have enjoyed your lapse in consciousness. You will be pleased to find that your new body is fully operational.” Her honeyed voice fills the void. For a moment I think I might have just woken up from cryogenics on some pleasure craft, but then she requests my military ID. I try to think out the twelve digit sequence I’ve come to be known as, and my first fully formed memory flashes through the static… FD 4509 PR-0389. That must be my grinning face on the Personnel card. But which me? I’ve been so many different people. I’d like to think this is the real me, you know? Numero Uno. Those are my gapped teeth, my sunburnt cheeks, and my smudged glasses, which I readjust on my face after clipping the card to my uniform. I grasp the hand extended to me. The man takes command of the handshake and leaves an imprint on my skin from his grip. Looking from myself to him, I notice his uniform has twelve or more decorations. I have none. His silver hair is buzzed short and stands at attention. He welcomes me to the team, but he isn’t smiling. There’s something strange about his eyes, the colour of glacial water. He leads me into the tunnel… “Wiggle your toes.” The life coach is cooing me. I try to comply, but I suppose my efforts only come across as feeble electric impulses because after a while, she says, “If you cannot perform the activation sequence then I can assist you manually. Please try again.” I try. I try as hard as a disembodied awareness can, to wiggle whatever toes I may or may not possess. I remember what she means by manual reactivation and it’s not pleasant. Just as this thought strikes me, so do 450 volts of electricity. The pain brings me back. Oh baby. You don’t forget the feeling of falling into a pit of jelly fish. Suddenly I can feel every nerve in my body and they’re under fire. When the current stops, the pain keeps throbbing through me. “Do you require a second sequence?” asks that sickly sweet darkness. No, I think piteously. Maybe she heard me because she doesn’t shock me again. But then as the pain dies down, there is some sensation. Yes, I can feel the form of my body tingling, twitching. I have four limbs which is nice. There’s even a smaller appendage between my legs. This comes as a relief, because in all my renaissances, I don’t remember being a woman. I wiggle every single finger and every toe. There’s a plasmic resistance around me. I stretch out and find I’m floating in a sort of amniotic fluid. It tastes salty — like chicken broth. Inside my nose is a plastic tube. I venture to open my eyes. Everything’s blurry in pink. The life coach detects my movements. She says, “You are now fully synchronized. Beginning drainage process.” Another tube, one I hadn’t noticed before, dislodges itself from my rectum at a speed which startles me. A slurping noise erupts as a drain is opened in the floor and the fluid level depletes past my eyes, then my chin. “Please remove your breathing conduit.” The CPU instructs me. My hands break the surface of the fluid with a burp. It is difficult to actually control them above the surface. I pull at the tubing ever so gently with the palms of my hands because my fingers won’t close around it. The shear length of the hose shocks me. I start coughing once it is past my throat and have to tug the rest out quickly so I don’t inhale it again. My body settles to the ground with the retreating gelatin. The floor drain gulps closed again. “Now performing hypoallergenic rinse.” “Ah!” The water is icy. It’s too cold to actually dissolve the goo that remains on my skin. It takes a lot of effort to scrub it away with shaking hands. The water turns off once it’s at my waist. I shiver to no relief. “Can’t you — ” I cough up more jellied phlegm and spit into my bath. “Can’t you turn on the heat?” “Emptying amni-chamber. Prepare for physical extraction.” True to her word, she drains the icy, sludgy water. But that final instruction is new. “What do you mean ‘physical extraction’? Can’t you just lift the lid?” My voice is the meek, breathy voice of a teenager. The computer either couldn’t hear me or is dead set on waiting for some lab rat to fish me out. As the water leaves, some heat returns to my enclosure. Soon my tank is empty and I have to sit down and rest my tender legs. Looking around, I see that my fishbowl is lit up with infrared bulbs, but this seems to be the only light source in the whole roo— more coughing. Once my lungs clear a bit, I try to focus my eyes outside the enclosure. Everything is dark. I can’t even place which laboratory I’m in. The source of that clicking sound is a dark metal… thing… swinging against my aquarium. “Computer, lift the lid of my enclosure, please.” There is no response, just that constant tink, tink, tink. Cupping my hands over my eyes against the glass, I can’t make out any humans, only outlines of machines. I bang on the glass to try and get someone’s attention. “Computer, what’s going on?” Only the tapping to reply. Maybe she meant I have to get myself out of this thing. I check for a button or handle. All that break up the smooth dome ceiling are some air holes at the top. Just above my head is a spout where the water comes from. On the floor there is the three-inch drain which is currently covered. My tubes are curled up at my feet like sleeping snakes. I rerun my hands over the seal around the floor to see if I missed an opening — nothing. This short burst of effort exhausts me. I sit back down. Funny, I have a memory of being 6’7” with a body like a boulder. I had shoulders that could’ve busted this glass apart. I don’t dare try to break it now. Looking down, I see my body is lean and not well muscled. Even if I managed to break this glass, I’d definitely need medical attention. I might even fracture a bone before I got through. I’m hungry. “Computer, remove the lid of the amni-chamber,” I say with what I hope sounds like authority. Still nothing. Even the clacking sound has slowed to a dull thud. I keep flipping through my memories, trying to search for some answer to why everything is delayed. All I recall is the day with that general. The one who brought me onto the REBOOT experiment twenty— or is it thirty — cycles ago. Hosier was his name-o. I remember him telling me what an honor I was receiving. Anyone on Earth would give their puny lives for the chance to be reborn. Well technically he was right, I guess. I wonder if he’s in the system. If not, then he’d be about a thousand years dead… What was the idea? Create a perfect body in the lab and install one’s knowledge from the centuries into it. It sounded great in theory, except I’ve always lost most of my memory in the transfer. The vacuum of space-time really — wait for it — sucks it right out of ya. Without neurons to hold them in, memories dissolve like sparks thrown off a live wire. As Hosier once told me, “The quicker you’re into a new body, the better. No telling if you’ll have a full-fledged human psyche, or an infant’s brain.” “How will I remember who I am?” “Won’t matter. Anything you forget, we can just implant later.” It wasn’t always a clean scene getting from one body to another either. Depending on how you died, it could be difficult making the switch before you’re totally kaput. Once, I was shot through by a laser, literally. I had a hole right through my belly, all circular and cauterized. I thought that was the most pain a person could experience, but then another time I was run over by a tank. My commander always had to come and shoot me full of adrenaline to save whatever neural function was left before the helicopters could secure my body. I begged for morphine every time, and I was denied a painless death every time. No one ever brought me to a clinic. I always wound up back at the lab. Ah yes, the lab. I recollect the process as if it were happening before my eyes. First I’m strapped to my death bed, hooked into all sorts of wiring. I can still feel them working the drill into my skull. The sound is the worst. I don’t remember my mother’s name, but I remember getting a chunk of my own cranium thrown into my mouth one time. Then they go in with electrodes. They say I have to be awake in order to send the electrical imprint of my cognizance into the computer. Sometimes the new host is nearby, in a tank like this one. Or else, they tell me, it’s on a whole other planet. I never remember their final instructions. I’m too focused on the person digging into the sweet spots of my grey matter. There is a special concoction that the scientists inject into the back of my neck. It feels magical, jam-packed with all the chemicals of the rainbow. The countdown begins while it seeps into my brain stem. Within fifteen seconds, it’s like I’m already out of my mind. Colours flash and a pulse of energy rushes through me. I always have to close my eyes. My breathing speeds up and it feels like I’m propelled out of my body through my nose. Once I’m synced up with the computer there’s a final blast of pain, like someone microwaving my brain. Then nothing. For what feels like forever. Then I wake up like a fetus: naked, slimy and still in the womb. Only usually there’s a whole team of gawking lab rats waiting to catch me. They begin their probing, prodding, poking with little acupuncture needles. They won’t leave me alone until they’ve run every test, and pressed all of my buttons. I never thought I’d miss those guys. You could call them the only family I ever thought I knew (even if they were different every time), they’re as related to me as any of my surrogate families were. Wait — the woman from my flashback. She’s my sister. Which one? The TV audience shouts. I want to believe she’s my real sister, my bona fide twin in fact. There she is with the same cute gap between her front teeth. Her glasses have slid down and she’s peering through me. Her hands are in mine, she’s begging me not to go — not to leave her. What can I do? I’m resolute. I can’t even tell her where the hell I’m going. All I say is that I won’t be back. She knows. Schroom That’s the life coach kicking back in. I stand so quickly that I see black. “Computer!” my voice cracks. “Yes,” she replies, as if no time has elapsed since she deserted me. “What the hell is going on here? Why won’t you let me out?” For a moment she is gone and I fear she may never return, but then she says, “I cannot process your first question. My mainframe has been disconnected from the station’s motherboard.” Her voice is syrupy. She doesn’t seem the least bit uneasy when she informs me, “I cannot release you from the anmi-chamber because the pulley system was damaged by a missile.” “A missile!? Where is everyone?” Another interval elapses. She must be racking her processor… “At this time I cannot define the term everyone. I can tell you the whereabouts of the seven officers and technicians assigned to this project.” “Okay.” I figure I’m going to need to sit down for this. I have a feeling I’m about to get sucked down the drain… “Officers O’ Hara, Schmitt and Meldrum are deceased. Doctors Bourdon, Riley, Rey and Michaels are deceased.” My stomach takes a nose dive. Suddenly I’m the one who can’t process. “Wha—” “You are distraught. I can offer soothing music while you await physical extraction.” My fists clench. I scream at her, “How can there be an extraction if everyone is dead!?” “Officer Meldrum sent a distress signal to the nearest starship before he died of blood loss. Help could arrive in less than a month’s time. But I must conserve power, as the generator was destroyed in the attack. Please enjoy this smooth jazz until your heart rate lowers.” A piano line keys in and I try to swallow my panic. Could arrive? No power? The information settles into the pit of my stomach. Okay… a month without food… that’s been done before. I’ll be asleep for half the time anyway. It’s not like I’ll expend much energy. Maybe I can get her to turn on the water once in a while. I’d rather be cold than die of thirst. Don’t say that, nobody is going to die here. But that’s what I feel like. I am nobody. I don’t even know my own name. I could die in here and it would be as if I was never here. Maybe I’m not… this could be another memory… maybe I’m still out in the void. All this is just a bunch of electric signals converted by my mind into one horrifying hallucination. I have to pee. I think I’ve had to pee this whole time… What’s worse, I’m getting claustrophobic. Get a hold of yourself. Right. You know, I wasn’t always this squishy. I used to be a sixty year old general, arrogant and mean from twelve tours on Mars. A total hard ass. When I shook your hand, you knew who was boss... I still need to pee. There’s no point holding it in. Even if the computer does turn back on, I might as well not waste any possible nutrients down the drain. People do that? Drink piss to survive? Man it’s been so long since I’ve had to survive. I feel weak. Do I catch it and drink it now? Or save it for when I get dehydrated? Well I figure if there’s anything grosser than drinking piss, it’s drinking piss that you’ve been sitting in… so I cup my hands and try to aim into them. It’s a hot mess. Without thinking about the liquid running down my arms and into my lap, I just pour what I can down my throat. I’ve had worse. Actually the aftertaste is kind of sweet. Wait — isn’t sugary urine a sign of diabetes? Can laboratory grown humans get diabetes? You’d figure they’d give me some sort of indefatigable DNA. Mind you, you’d also figure they’d have a backup life support generator in case the first one was obliterated… or at least an eject button. I’m tired. I push the tubing up into one corner and use it as a pillow. It’s not comfy, but I’m grateful that this place is at least room temperature. It doesn’t take me long to fade out of consciousness once again. I dream my sister and I are talking on the porch. We’re in our dad’s old swing, the one we used to fight over when we were kids. I’ve got one toe on the ground pushing us back and forth. There is lightning in the sky. We think we can see the source of it, so we climb the roof to get a better look. The space ship flies so close I can feel the heat from its engine. There are people beneath us, waving us down. I can barely pick out their features. They look human, but they are taller and their skin is the same silver colour as their hair. I can hear their voices in my head. “Don’t run,” they say. “Stay with us.” They surround the house. One climbs up and moves slowly towards us. He must be seven feet tall. He has broad shoulders, and his metallic uniform reads BETORO. His turquoise eyes stare into me. “Stay with us, and become immortal.” I look back at my brother. He’s screaming, but he doesn’t move. He grabs my hands and just keeps begging me not to go — not to leave him. I don’t even know why the hell I’m going, but I’m resolute. Lightning surrounds us and then I’m rising up, past my house with my twin crying out to me. I tell him I won’t be back. He knows… Light encapsulates me, and his face remains bleached into my vision. How long have I been sleeping this time? My lights are out. The darkness of the room weighs down on my little bubble. It’s silent too. Every once in a while a little tink, tink, tink reminds me I’m trapped inside this fish tank. Yet the sound makes me think there must be a wind coming through. So there is a world outside this gloom. “Computer! Water!” This is the longest she’s been nonoperational. I guess she must’ve died when my lights did. I’m starving. It’s just an expression, I try to convince myself. Man, if only I could know how long it’s been. In all my lives, I’ve only wanted to know something concrete like that. Nothing philosophical or complex. Just the date, the time, my real name. There is some gratification in not knowing who you are. This way there is nothing to hold onto. No standards to maintain. No principles to live up to. I know I’ve given up more virtues than I ever held to. I’ve sacrificed more of my values than I care to count. There is some small comfort in the fact that finally, in this moment, I am fully myself. Not this body with all the flesh stripped away. Not these broken memories and half-baked dreams. In fact, I feel more like myself than ever before, now that death is an actual possibility. And hell, I’m luckier than most. I was given another shot at life, and another, and another. Still, when you’re haunted by phantoms and treated like a science project, you start to really question what makes a life worth living. I was never a star pupil yet my malleable mind and all the technology in the worlds kept me breathing... kept me killing... kept me aiming towards the next enemy and the next. Maybe somewhere in my cortex is the knowledge of the universe, but I’ll never access it. I don’t even remember learning it, though I’m certain I’ve been in hundreds of classrooms, staring out the window through so many different eyes. I close these tired eyes; it doesn’t make a difference. The void is here. Feels like it’s for real this time. Am I to pay for all I’ve done in a single detachment, a final release? I realize I’m completely calm. Even my heart rate is steady, though it’s slow. The ache in my stomach has numbed and I feel a sort of trickle through my medulla oblongata. Ah, Dimethyltryptamine, the forever chemical. Warmth encapsulates my lungs. Red and gold and green spike my vision. Fantastic shapes and patterns guide me forward, up and out. Not through my nose, but through the top of my head. Where to next? “Earth,” I request. Good one. We laugh.
Kassandra Dick grew up in Southern Alberta, but now calls Grand Forks, British Columbia her home. She is the author of a psych thriller called Habit, which is available on Amazon, and her poetry collection Songs From the Mountaintop comes out in 2023. As an avid adventurer, her stories involve elements of nature, but also sci-fi, as she envisions a future where humans continue to flourish and improve the world around them.