Later that evening, after ensuring there are no other experiments or visits scheduled, the gruff man gathers his thoughts. The gentle cadences of a Gregorian chant issue from the mp3 docking station and soften the sepulchral quiet of the warehouse. During his first visits the sound of worship had seemed appropriate to him in this purgatory of silent flesh and he had continued the practice, building an unexpectedly wide library in the process. If he was honest with himself this had become his favourite part of the day. Now he is tense, uncertain what success or failure would mean, wondering even more if he would recognise the difference between the two states.
“Now then.” A long pause. Struan was acutely aware of how awkward it had been for two adults to talk about the situation. He’d never had to do the father/son chat, what to say to someone who had never even spoken? A silent prayer to a deity he had long since lost any faith in, please let this be the right sign, let this one be the one. “Now then. We need to talk … all this lying around playing dumb can’t last much longer, we know you must be in there and we really need to find out what is going on with you.” Another long pause, the old doctor grasps a cool unmoving hand and concentrates on the pale face below him. “Dave, let me know you’re in there. Please, give me some sign that you are conscious, answer me.”
“What would you like me to say?” The words are calm and clearly enunciated but said in a low voice as if the owner is not certain what sound would be produced. Struan stares down into dark eyes. It is the first time he has seen them open voluntarily and he finds the effect of them unsettling in the shadows and half light. The voice continues on – every word a breakthrough, every intonation a shock. “You know, you’ve never really asked me a direct question Dr McDonald. How can I be your answerer when your questions have all been rhetorical?”
A long minutes stretches between them.
“But you sound like me? Why do you sound like me?” He is aware of his grip being returned by the long bony fingers for the first time but can’t look away from the direct gaze. Why was his own accent being thrown back at him, was this some kind of mocking?
Jens Struan McDonald, a man who has spilled many thousands of words in months of one sided communication, is speechless. His test subject bares his teeth in an approximation of a smile. His perfect white teeth. His perfect white and rather intimidating teeth.
“Why shouldn’t I sound like you? Yours is the voice I have dreamed to, the only voice I have known for most of my … consciousness. I have tried to remember and think about everything you have said to me. And, you know, you have talked at me for so long I think I am become a reflection of you so who else could I sound like? No matter now, carry on, we can come back to that later. I was expecting to hear more about planarian worms and telomerase degradation and then maybe more views on the budget deficit before a segue into the politics of muscle cars. You are not your usual self. What is so urgent for you that decided you needed to take a direct approach now?” The uncanny eyes close briefly and there is a hint of a frown on the unlined forehead. Talking seems to be an effort. “I feel I am so close to being finished I hope this distraction is worthwhile.”
“I need to get you out of here, get you somewhere more private. This isn’t what I expected for our first conversation. Frankly the fact that you seem to be so aware has me dumbfounded. I wasn’t expecting more than a blink or a twitch … nothing like you are. Do … do you mind if I call someone?” Feeling out of his depth the doctor fumbles for his phone and dials the number saved earlier in the day. No introduction, the person at the other end clearly recognises where the call is coming from. “I need your help back here, get to me as soon as you can. Yes, it’s him.” Struan finally gets to show his discovery what a smile looks like, “Trust me. You have to see him before anyone else, oh, and see if you can bring something to dress him in, we’re moving him tonight.”
He ends the call with no goodbyes. Knowing that Helena is on her way back to the warehouse, he has to push on with what he needs to say. “Right. Yes. Talk. The person on the way in to help me – to help you – is the person who has been looking after you. You’ve heard me talk about different people, different names. I don’t know if I’ve made it clear that there are physical differences between people. I’ve probably rambled on for hours and I have no idea what basic information I might have missed. Let’s say, to start, do you know the difference between men and women?”
A puzzled look in return, Dave is clearly trying to process an appropriate response now he has a question to work on. “I could repeat what you have told me about the definitions of how people organise themselves but I suspect you want something closer to home. I remember you saying I’m a man, there are only males generated by the program, right?”
“OK, if I’m a man then am I correct in assuming you are also a man …?”
“I’m guessing that this is to do with the person coming here, a friend as neither of you identified yourselves … a friend who makes you ask if I understand gender difference. The friend is a woman?” A nod in reply, this creation was just one sudden rush of surprises, not only able to respond at will but giving all the appearance of reasoning. A slight smile as the eyes close, he seems to have worked out the smiling thing very quickly. Of course he has to close his eyes, thinks the astonished scientist, none of his stimuli have included sight. “Let me think. I noticed the difference between hands first. She has warm hands, they are soft and smooth. She does not always smell the same, sometimes I thought there was someone else there but she has the same hands. You always smell vaguely like that drink you have, the one you think no one notices when you drink it at night … and you have a rough patch of skin on you left thumb where you chew at it when you are tense. You would be doing that now but I have hold of you.”
To Struan ‘Dave’ seems much too prosaic a name for this miracle.
“There have been other hands, but not recently – they were not always gentle so I was glad when you sent them away. Many of the hands have had metal rings on them so that does not tell me much about the sexes but I think it might tell me about your age. Again your left hand, you wear one ring, it is thin, almost worn away but there is no gap between it and your finger. Those other hands, the casual hands, often wore big rings with squared edges like they were new or fashions have changed over time. She also wears just one ring. It’s on her left hand, the same finger as you … so perhaps a similar age or experience. Married then? Maybe, but I think not to each other as your clothes are laundered differently. She has had experience looking after helpless things like me. She is very gentle when she washes me. She touches me and I think the feeling is nice. The last few times she touched me and it was different …”
The eyes open again; an ‘O’ of surprise replacing the dreamy smile. “Is that not meant to happen? Have I caused offence?” Truly amazing, his conversation had changed from awareness to guilt in a matter of minutes. Even Struan, with a strict Catholic upbringing in tatters behind him, has to concede that that is an impressive feat.
“Well, some might call me old fashioned but I would say its proper to get to know a person, or at the very least ask their name first before something like that happens. Don’t worry, I think you’ll be just fine, my fault for not being prepared for that eventuality. OK? OK. Right, now give me my hand back. I need to get you disconnected from all these drips and bloody useless monitors before we get you out of here.”