I move my gaze from the ceiling to look over at the door, where the slight shadow of Dr Zaki lingers, waiting for me to reply to his knock.
‘I suppose you want my blood again?’ I ask, turning my head left so that the sensors on my bed register the movement. The top end rises up so that I’m in a sitting position.
Zaki takes this as a welcome and comes into my sparse room, a smile on his face. ‘You make me sound like some kind of vampire,’ he says, checking my drip and preparing a syringe to take my blood.
I sniff. ‘A vampire would have put me out of my misery long before now.’
He raises an eyebrow at me. ‘You’ve got the same self pity in your voice as my daughter has,’ he replies, inserting the needle.
‘I don’t know why. She isn’t paralysed from the neck down.’
‘No, but she’s a teenager too. All teenagers have problems, you know. True, yours are far worse than most, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be positive. You’ve still got your wits, after all.’
I open my mouth to protest, but he holds up his hand. ‘What would you say if I told you that you might be able to walk again; to sculpt, even?’
‘I’d say you were a lying git who’s toying with my hopes. I know that there’s no way any kind of surgery can help me,’ I spit back, noticing with annoyance that my colostomy bag is full. Zaki sees it too, and rings for a nurse to come and empty it.
‘I’m not talking about having surgery,’ he continues, once the nurse has finished, fleeing from the room as though I might shout profanities again, like the time she made a complete mess of my bed sheets.
‘There’s a new kind of technology that I believe will help you. We call it Second Body, and if you agree to try it, you will be the first person to do so in the world.’
It’s my turn to raise an eyebrow. ‘So, what does it do, then?’
‘Before I answer that, may I ask if you’ve ever played any virtual reality games that have come out in the last five years?’
‘Don’t be stupid. My parents never let me play any kind of games; especially after I became known as some silly child prodigy.’
‘But do you know how they work?’ he presses.
‘I know they involve putting on some kind of helmet. One of my friends used to play them. She said that when you were inside the game, you had your own virtual body that responded just like your real one. You can even smell and taste things.’ I look at him and notice that he’s grinning. ‘What does this have to do with anything, anyway?’
‘Well, Second Body technology is based heavily off of the one used for those games. However, instead of allowing you to move around in a virtual world, Second Body lets you move around in this one. The idea is that you put on a helmet and then your consciousness is transferred into an artificial body.’
‘Like a robot?’
‘Yes…but it wouldn’t look like one. It will look very similar to how you look now, so in theory you would be able to go anywhere you want with it and no-one would know. Of course, your real body would have to stay here in the hospital so we can monitor you, and make sure you health doesn’t suffer, but—‘
‘I’ll do it. It’s a weird concept, but if I can get out of this loathsome bed for even a day, then it’ll be worth it. What do I have to do?’
Zaki looks awkward. ‘I do need your parents’ approval before we can actually go forward with any of the major preparations…’
I laugh; somewhere between sorrow and rage. ‘If you think they’ll bother coming to see you, then you’re an idiot. You know they abandoned me here as soon as they found out I’d never be able to sculpt again.’
‘If you really want this as much as you say; then I promise I’ll convince them for you.’ He looks sincere, but I say nothing. If he really believes that, then he is an idiot. ‘Just trust me, okay? Now, as to what we can do in the mean time, I’ll have the designer of your Second Body come in and talk to you. We can start your training, too.’
‘Training? What kind of training?’
He doesn’t reply, but irritatingly taps his finger to the side of his nose instead.
I hardly see Zaki over the next few days, despite asking everyone who comes in what’s going on. Finally, after the seventh time that I’ve spat out my food when nobody answers, he comes in with what looks like a strange biker helmet.
‘This is for your training,’ he says, holding it up so I can get a closer look. ‘It’s synced up to an online virtual reality game. It’s the latest one out and uses the closest technology publicly available to the Second Body tech. Hopefully by playing it, you’ll get used to using this headgear and using your mind to control a body other than your real one.’
‘So my training consists of playing games?’ I say. ‘That doesn’t sound very professional.’
‘I suppose it’s unusual, but this is the only way to get you used to the technology that we’ll be using. Play it. Have fun.’
I roll my eyes. Playing a game sounds like a waste of time, but then all I’ve been able to do since the accident is waste time. If it helps me with the Second Body tech, then maybe I shouldn’t complain.
I allow Zaki to fit the headgear over my hair and face. It feels surprisingly warm. I can also hear a slight buzzing, presumably from all the gadgetry inside it.
‘Just relax,’ he begins, but then I can no longer hear him, or see the ceiling of my room. Even the smell of disinfectant that usually clogs my nostrils has been replaced with the scent of damp pine needles.
I open my eyes, without knowing I’d closed them, and see that I’m in a large forest clearing, with a single glass mirror floating upright just above the ground in front of me. I can tell what I’m seeing isn’t real, because everything has a definite stylistic touch to it, and when I peer into the mirror, I see that my virtual body is some kind of elf.
There are buttons on the mirror for adjusting not only my body, but also the game settings. I look down at my hands. It’s been so long since I’ve been able to move them…does my brain even still have the connections to do it?
Slowly, I think about wriggling my fingers, but the virtual body was obviously designed to feel much lighter than my real one, and I end up hitting myself hard in the thigh. I find tears on my cheeks, unsure if they are from mirth or joy.
I can move again, even if it is in a game.
After a month of ‘training’, Zaki introduces me to the chief designer in charge of the team that will be making my Second Body, a woman in her thirties called Elis. She has purple hair and a Celtic knot tattooed on her wrist, just like the ones I used to use on my sculptures and pottery.
The scent of clay and slip comes to me as I stare at it; all the hours I’ve spent shaping and moulding coming sharply back to me. I can even feel the wetness of the clay on my fingertips.
She coughs uncomfortably. ‘Dr Zaki tells me that you’re quite the sculpting prodigy.’
I snort. ‘I was…before this.’ I nod at my pathetic body.
‘You’d like to sculpt again?’
‘Of course I would,’ I snap.
‘Then I’ll help you. For the Second Body to work for you, I need to know everything. Your passion for sculpting means that the arms and hands of your Second Body need to be the same weight as your real ones, if you want to be able to use your skills straight away.’
She continues, telling me that once my parents give their permission, she will come back and take photos and plaster casts of my arms.
I’ve completely forgotten about needing their permission. Zaki hasn’t said a word about them, so I’d presumed he hadn’t gotten anywhere with them. But now that I’ve spoken with Elis, I know that this really is what I want. Getting them to sign the paperwork is vital.
Three months pass without a word, but then Zaki appears again grinning like some idiot school kid. He doesn’t say anything, but simply holds out his computer tablet. I can just make out the permission documents; signed digitally with both of my parents’ signatures.
‘How did you…?’
‘I mentioned that the Second Body project would let you sculpt again. Couldn’t sign it quick enough.’
‘Huh. Of course not,’ I sniff. ‘If I can sculpt again, then they can sell my work for extortionate prices, just like they used to. I should have known they’d sign it for that.’
Zaki shrugs. ‘No-one has perfect parents. Besides, until we get past the prototype stages, I don’t think making sculptures for sale is an option. Maybe you can keep them as a keepsake of your rehabilitation.’
For once, I smile.
The next year is busy. Zaki and Elis come in regularly to take measurements and update me on their progress. In total, it takes about thirteen months from getting permission to the first prototype run.
They wheel me into a room similar to a morgue, except that there is only one body laid out, covered in a sheet. It takes me a moment to realise that this is it. My Second Body.
As I get closer, Zaki raises my head so I can see properly as he pulls back the sheet. If I wasn’t half expecting it, I would faint. My Second Body is almost identical to me, even having the same scar on my nose from where I had chicken pox as a kid.
‘What do you think?’ Elis asks, coming into the room holding the same type of headgear I’ve been using to play the game, except slightly smaller.
‘I feel like I’ve been cloned,’ I say, still staring at it.
She laughs. ‘I suppose you would. So… are you ready?’
I look at her, then at Zaki, who nods, and finally back to my Second Body, grinning. ‘I might give it a go.’
Zaki lowers my head again so that I’m lying flat, and Elis fits the headgear onto me. ‘It’s no different to when you play the game. Just relax and let the headgear do the work.’
I nod and rest my head against the pillow, but then she’s leaning over me, asking if I’m alright.
‘Of course I’m alright,’ I say. ‘Why didn’t it work?’
Then I realise I’m sitting up. She and Zaki gape at me.
I look down at my stomach, feeling cold. I’m only in my underwear, and my colostomy bag is gone. Hardly daring to, I turn my head to the side and see myself lying down on a bed opposite, with the headgear still covering my face.
‘No. No way,’ I say. ‘This can’t be real. It…it feels just like my real body. I don’t…’
Zaki manages to close his mouth and hands me some clothes. ‘We never expected you to have such control so quickly…a twitch of the fingers, maybe, or a nod…’ he coughs. ‘There’s a, er, ceramics studio in our rehabilitation centre, if you—’
Before he can finish speaking, I jump off the table and rush from the room, pulling the clothes on as I go.