I'm lying here on a table. Nothing but the sweet hum of machinery, both around and within me. They'd mentioned something beforehand about my hearing. Something about sensitivity that wouldn't hurt in higher decibel ranges.
My hand twitches to touch my new ear, but it remains limp by my side, paralyzed. I think they'd mentioned something about the risk of muscle atrophy in low-gravity environments. Something like that.
I'm hearing my heartbeat now. It's strange to hear such an organic sound in this sterile environment. If I cut myself, would I still bleed red? Or had they replaced my blood with a substitute? Was it still red, or another, foreign color?
With a slight click, a bright light switches itself on from overhead, illuminating the capillaries in my eyelids. Still red...
Squinting, I try to turn my head, but my neck won't obey me. As if reading my thoughts, the light dims to a bearable level.
"Open your eyes, Seri."
So I do. And instead of the enhanced color spectrum I've been promised, I'm looking at the same white ceiling that stretched above me before I was first anesthetized. Only now it's even blurrier.
"Good, good. Are you able to speak yet?"
"Not sure," I breathe, effectively answering the question. My voice sounds different: deeper, clearer somehow. Or maybe it's just my new hearing.
I'm closing my eyes now. I'm trying to feel the world around me, because somehow I...can't. I can feel myself, to be sure: the flesh of my thigh against my hand, the bristles of my hair against my neck. But everything else is numb.
"How do you feel, Seri?"
"Sssleepy," I mumble, sibilants turning to mush in my mouth. My speech is barely above a whisper, but its amplification makes my ears throb. "Sssleep, pleasse..."
"I'm sorry, but I can't let you do that. You've already been asleep for three months."
I'm speaking in slow motion. I can't understand what I'm saying, but I think the voice does.
"It's okay, Seri." Something warm rests against my bare chest, and I recognize it as a human hand. "This isn't a dream. You're awake now."
I'm awake now. My hand traverses the length of my torso with involuntary shivers. It doesn't take long for me to realize that I'm completely naked, completely exposed.
"Are you cold, Seri?"
Yes. Yes, I'm freezing. My head bobs up and down. The hand on my chest disappears, replaced by a thin blanket. I roll to the side and curl into the fetal position, reveling in the newfound warmth.
"Don't fall asleep, Seri. Not yet."
I pull the blanket over my face to shield my eyes from the light. Mechanical clunks resound from my left, and I flinch, drawing the blanket closer.
"Calm down." Metal touches the back of my neck, and I tense. "This will hurt if you don't stay completely limp."
I'm forcing myself to relax now. But I don't think it's working. Electricity buzzes against my neck, the charge spreading to my extremities. It hurts.
"Shh." The disembodied hand strokes my hair. "You'll feel better after it's over, I promise."
I wonder why the voice is shushing me, until I notice the soft, low moans emanating from the back of my throat.
"There. All done." The metal against my neck stops buzzing. "Try sitting up now."
I roll onto my back. I try to sit up, but I can barely lift my head from the table, much less my entire torso.
An arm slips beneath my back, assisting me. I crumple forward as I'm pushed upright. My elbows sustain most of my weight, but hands steady me on both sides.
"Dunno." I open my eyes again and look towards the voice, but all I see are distant blotches of color. "Vision's fuzzy."
"Oh?" The color blotches shift. A bright light shines in one eye, then the other. "Odd. Your eyes look fine to me." The light disappears. "Give it some time, it'll probably wear off."
I nod. Makes sense. My tactile senses are already returning, erasing the prior numbness. Hopefully my vision will return as well.
"Do you think you can stand yet?"
I rotate my body ninety degrees towards the voice, dangling my legs over the side of the table. I shift my weight to the ground, and for a moment, I am steady. But then my balance wavers, and I collapse onto the woman before me. I know she is a woman because my face lands in her silky hair, and her scent is clearly female. Female, in her twenties or thirties, on the verge of finishing her menstrual period. Stressed, but willfully patient.
"Okay, maybe that was a little too much to ask." She lifts my limp form from against herself, leaning me back against the table. My knees buckle into a sitting position.
"Let's work on fine motor skills instead. Can you touch your thumb to each of your fingers?"
I can, so I do. She asks me to repeat the motion with my opposite hand. I comply, staring at my hands all the while. There's something odd about the coloration, but it might just be my faulty vision.
"Good. So other than the vision problems, you feel fine?"
"Just a bit sore, is all."
"That's not too bad, all things considered. I'll be right back."
Footsteps patter away from my table, and--as promised--return within a few minutes. Now there's another noise in addition to the footsteps: a squeaky pair of wheels.
"Come here, Seri."
I scoot to the edge of the table, legs dangling. She slides me forward onto the seat of a wheelchair, carting me to a new location.
"These old things are still around?" I wonder aloud. "I thought you guys were state-of-the-art."
"Budget cuts," she sighs. "All the extra money went into ensuring your success."
"Did it work?"
She doesn't answer. This concerns me.
We stop inside a damp chamber, where she slides me onto a plastic bench.
"Let me know if anything stings."
Before I can ask her to clarify, rivulets of water stream down the remnants of my hair, dripping into my face. I sit perfectly still as the water moves across the entirety of my body. It's odd how something as common as water feels alien to me now, as if too complex to be fully captured in a memory.
The water shuts off, snapping me out of my self-induced trance. A towel drapes itself across my shoulders, while a smaller one drops onto my head, ruffling my hair. I'm stretching my memory now, trying to remember what color my own hair is.
"Wasn't my head supposed to be shaved at the beginning of the project?" I ask.
"It was," she answers, guiding me back to the wheelchair. "Three months, remember?"
"Induced coma." We're moving again. "There were...complications."
I don't like that last word. "Like what?"
"I'm not entirely sure. And what I do know, I'm not supposed to tell you."
"Protocol. Besides, I'm only an intern. They don't bother telling me anything."
For the first time since I've woken up, I realize that I'm in the presence of another human being. Not just another doctor who's going to fix me and then walk away. I twist around and reach towards the wheelchair handle, my hand touching hers. I think this startles her, because she lets out a small gasp.
"What's wrong, Seri?"
"You know my name, but I don't know yours. Do I know you?"
"You probably don't remember me, considering you were unconscious at the time." She faces me forwards, placing both my hands atop the proper armrests. "My name's Nate."
"Nate? Isn't that a male"
"You can call me Natalie, if you'd prefer. Or if you want to be extra formal, Doctor Hall."
"Doctor Natalie Hall," I repeat under my breath. "Natalie Hall, Natalie Hall, Natalie--"
"Nate would be easier to remember, you know."
"My memory's fine, thanks."
"Suit yourself." She helps me back onto the examining table. "Here, let's get some clothes on you."
Natalie leaves, and I hear a series of cabinets open and close before she returns, plopping a clump of thin fabric into my hands.
"Sorry, but it's the only thing I could find."
Confused, I shake out the fabric and perform a tactile examination, identifying it as a hospital gown. Figures. I slip it over my head, flailing my hands around in an attempt to find the armholes. Natalie finds them for me.
"There you go. Has your vision improved at all?"
I shake my head.
"Alright, then. Lie down and relax for a few minutes. I'll go find someone who might be able to fix your eyesight."
Although my heart sinks at the thought of being alone again, I am appreciative of the relative silence. I lie down on the table, eyes closed. I hear a door slide open and shut, but the sound is distant.
"Seri." It's her voice again. "Quick memory test. What's my name?"
I roll over, covering my face with one hand. "Oh, that's easy," I murmur. "It's...um..." I'm drawing a complete blank. Something that started with an 'n'? "I want to say 'Nate', but that's a boy's na--"
"Told you it'd be easier to remember," she says, patting my hand. "The surgeon's on his way over."
"S-Surgeon?" I jerk myself upright, adrenaline coursing through my system. I'm terrified, and I have no idea why.
I don't think so. My eyes are shut, but I'm still seeing things. Clear, vivid things. The world around me is red and white, and I'm surrounded by at least a dozen people. Their clothes are the same color as the walls, making their heads and hands appear to float of their own accord. There's silver, too, plenty of silver...
"Is he alright?"
"I'm not sure. I think he just had a panic attack."
I open my eyes. Warm fabric presses against my face, and I recognize the scent as Natalie's. I pull away from her shirt. I'm shaking.
"Is this a bad time?"
"No, just give him a minute to recover. You alright, Seri?"
"Don't know." Is it me, or are the lights flickering? "Can we just hurry and get this over with?"
"Right. Doctor Finch?"
The doctors shuffle around, then I hear a male voice: "So, let's take a look at your eyes."
There's a bright light, and I flinch away, but Natalie places her hand on the back of my neck to prevent me from moving.
"Seems like your eyes can detect light well enough," says Doctor Finch. "But there's some sort of clarity issue..." His finger traces a line from the corner of my left eye to the nape of my neck. "Ah."
He gives my skin a sharp tap, and my vision blacks out completely. A series of white text scrolls upwards--too quickly for me to read--and my sight flickers back to life, clearer than ever. There's a face hovering before me, her long, dark hair pinned up in a bun. She's younger than I had expected, maybe even around my age. Her blue eyes hide behind the sleek frames of her eyeglasses, but by no means does her gaze waver. She's staring right at me.
"Nate," she insists, waving her hand in front of my face. "Any improvement?"
"Yeah." I look down at my hands. They don't feel any different, but there's a thin line dividing each hand in half, swooping around my wrists like bracelets. The outside halves appear perfectly normal, but the inside halves--along with my first three fingers--are silver.
"Um, why are my--"
"Look up here, Seri," Doctor Finch says, but I can't look away. My hands shimmer when they move, as if they've been dipped in chrome. I don't understand. I'm pretty sure they said I wouldn't look any different after the procedure.
Natalie places her hands on mine, blocking them from my view.
"We'll talk later, but for now, just do as you're told, okay?"
"Okay," I mumble, turning towards Doctor Finch. His short, brown hair is mottled with grey, but he doesn't seem too old. Probably middle-aged. He's standing before a typical Snellan chart, those posters with letters all over them designed to test visual acuity.
"Read the whole chart, starting at the top."
I hesitate. "Errm...E?"
So I do. By the time I reach the last line, I realize that it's almost too easy. Isn't 20/20 vision right above the red line? Maybe they improved my eyesight after all.
"Very good. Any other issues that I might be able to fix?"
"Not that I know of." My hand wanders towards my neck. "How did you fix--"
"Don't touch it," he warns. "Loose wire. It's only a temporary fix."
"Oh." The mention of loose wires makes me want to touch it even more, but I resist, lowering my hand. "Okay."
"Well, if that's it, I suppose I'll be going, then."
Doctor Finch leaves the room, a room I am now free to examine. It's an oversized hospital room, complete with white medicine cabinets and bright fluorescent lights. There's a machine directly across from me that looks like a giant, cylindrical fishtank, but there doesn't seem to be anything inside. Contrast the sterile environment with a few homey touches, such as a pair of couches facing each other, with a coffee table in between. There's even a bed in one corner, leaving me to wonder exactly how long I'll be staying here.
I jump, forgetting that Natalie's still here. "Yes'm?"
"You wanna talk first or sleep first?"
"Sleep," I answer, no hesitation necessary. Curious as I am to understand what's happening to me, I know that I'll probably fall asleep in the middle of her explanation if I don't rest beforehand.
"Alright. Back into the wheelchair you go."
She carts me towards the bed, and I slip beneath the sheets, grateful for the reprieve. By the time Natalie flips the lightswitch, I'm already asleep.