I replay that last moment in my mind, over and over again.
I am driving, far too fast as usual. My wife is beside me, not happy with my driving, but having been through the experience enough times that she’s almost inured to it.
The moment of realization that the pickup coming to the intersection in front of us is not slowing down, and will run the stop sign in front of us.
Then the crash, the scream of the tires as I try to stop almost drowning out my wife’s screams for me to stop. The side of the truck and the front of my car crumpling together. The airbag a white wall in front of my face.
I wonder if I am dead, if this is some sort of purgatory, some sort of punishment for my arrogance for thinking I could speed without consequences.
But I am not dead.
I feel nothing…most of the time. Sometimes, I feel a pain in my neck, like a blunt knife being driven through my skin. But what these fleeting feelings mean I do not know.
Then the day came when all that changed.
There was a sudden burst of light, light so intense my head felt as though it would explode from the sensory overload. Then darkness again, and my mind screamed for the light, no matter how painful. Then sound, someone breathing deeply, almost as if they were next to my ear. The breathing was replaced by a voice, loud enough to seem as though God were shouting in my ear.
“Can you hear me, Mr. Sanchez?”
I try to speak, to nod, but nothing happens. After a pause, the voice speaks again, now little more than a mere mortal shouting.
“No, that’s not working…let’s try this.”
A moment of silence, then….
I am surrounded by light. A diffuse light that I seem to float in. But I feel nothing, it is as if my mind is suspended in the light. Then I see a white plain that stretches away forever, but still I have no sense but sight. The voice returns, the disembodied speaker continuing it’s disconnected and nonsensical monologue.
“That seems to be working. He should be getting input now, but…the mic’s open? I thought I told you to…oh, never mind, I’ll need it active to address him and see if any of this is working. Mr. Sanchez…can you hear me? Are you seeing anything?”
I try, but no matter how hard I try, I am silent. The voice speaks again, but it still makes no sense.
“I’m seeing a response… He hears me! Why can’t he respond? Check the vocal codec…yes, of course I want you to activate it. How else do you expect him to respond?”
I feel something, like there is something caught in my windpipe. My reflexes take over, and I hear myself cough. I try to cough again and do. The voice is silent, so I try to form words of my own.
“Hello, can you hear me?”
I hear a voice, but it is not mine, it sounds like a little girl’s voice.
“Why do I sound like this? What’s wrong with my voice? What’s happening to…”
“He’s right, why does he sound like that? ‘Default profile setting’? Why did you pick a young girl as the default for a grown man?”
There is a moment of silence, then the voice returns, now sounding like a teacher addressing a slow student. The change grates at my nerves, but I remain silent to listen to what it has to say to me.
“Mr Sanchez, I’m Doctor Allen, head of the research department at the Sloan Institute for Advanced Neural Trauma Treatment, and, well, you were in a traffic accident. Do you remember that?”
How can I tell this fool that I have relieved that accident for what seems like forever?
“Yes, I remember that. But you didn’t answer my question. What’s going on?”
Another silent pause. Perhaps this Doctor Allen had remembered to mute his mic. Then…
“Mr. Sanchez, your body barely survived, but your brain…suffered extensive damage. Your medulla oblongata almost detached from the rest of your brain because of the g-forces your head was subjected to. It kept your body alive, but with the rest of your brain is effectively disconnected from your body. The damage has shut you off from the world. That happened five years ago, but we…I have come up with a way to connect you to the outside world.”
Five years? How was it even possible that I could have survived like that? The very concept stunned me, but as I struggled to come to terms with what I’d just heard, the voice kept talking.
“Game designers have become far more sophisticated in their ability to generate realistic virtual environments. I had the idea to connect your brain to a VR system that would allow you to exist in a virtual environment, one where you could interact with people. Now if you’ll give me just a moment more…yes, I want you to use profile X3. Just get it up and running! Good. Now, let’s see if I can initiate the rest of the connection…”
The white plain disappears, and I am standing in what looks like a ruined city…I am standing! I feel the pavement under my feet, a slight breeze blowing past me. I feel my body! I raise my hand…and it looks odd. The fingers move as I command them to, but the skin looks as if it were made of plastic. Then I notice the color of the skin on the hand. It is not the slightly-brown skin I inherited from my Argentinian grandfather, but an almost comical pinkish tone, like a caricature of an Anglo’s skin. I hear a crunching sound, like someone walking on gravel, the first sound I have heard since I became aware of this body. It is behind me, and old caution makes me spin around.
A short, pudgy man dressed comically in a scientist’s long white lab coat stands in front of me. His bald head shines as if he finds the surroundings hot, and the smile on his face looks more forced than real. Unlike me, he seems much more textured, more real, and I wonder about this until he speaks.
“I guess the scanning room is working, you can clearly see me. Mr. Sanchez, I’m Doctor Allen, and I’m glad to finally meet you. How does your virtual body feel?”
“Fake. I can feel everything just fine…but I can’t smell anything, and my mouth has no sense in it, none of the lingering taste you get in your mouth. It’s like it’s there to do nothing more than let me speak. Are you going to deal with those next?”
Allen shook his head. “I’m afraid simulating the senses of smell and taste are beyond our abilities for the moment. Maybe in another few years…”
“You expect me to wander around this…what is it? Recycled scenery from some ‘shoot-em-up’ game? You want me to stay here, doing what? Being your lab rat? You didn’t tell me what happened to my wife…did she die in the crash?” Allen’s eyes shifted away from mine, and I knew without thinking that he was going to lie to me. I stopped him. “She did, didn’t she? Then who do I have to ‘see’? We had no children, my parents died years ago, so why should I be a part of your experiment? Go find someone else to play your games with.”
Allen met my eyes now, and he no longer had the look of a man trying to be friendly. “I can’t do that. You are the ideal test subject, and I need you to help me perfect the interface.”
“I refuse. Now, if I remember correctly, you can only use a person in a medical experiment with their consent, and seeing as how I’ve just indicated I do not want to be part of this experiment, you can’t legally experiment on me. So disconnect me, now!”
Allen’s smile came back, but now it wasn’t friendly at all. No, it was the smile of a man who knew they held all the cards. “And who heard you deny me permission to experiment on you? Look around. We’re alone, and there’s no connection from here to the rest of the lab, so none of my assistants heard you. Besides, they work for me, not you! They’ll do as they’re told, because they know they won’t have their positions if they interfere with my work. Face, it, Mr. Sanchez, I own you! Now, let’s start finding out what you’re capable of….”
And that was the start of my life in hell.